Decking out the garden…

Apologies to anyone who has been missing the regular fix of my barn building woes. Truth is, just as I’ve got to the happy state of being able to relax in front of the fire with a glass of wine without feeling too guilty about the ‘snagging list’, my job has taken me off to foreign climes. I’ve been stuck out in India for a few weeks. On the plus side, it’s a lot warmer than Scotland, and when I look at some of the wonky fittings, careless finishes and dodgy wiring that is endemic in India, it makes me feel slightly better about my marginally-less-than-completely-straight-walls! On the downside, it’s 5000 miles away from home, and even by my standards that feels a bit too far to commute just to get on with a bit of DIY….

So that’s why it’s been a couple of months since the last post.

When I finally managed to escape for a couple of weeks holiday I suppose I should really have headed straight up to the frozen North to make the most of my time off at the barn. Instead I took myself off to Italy to a pole camp for a week.

A fantastic week with some fantastic people. But also 4 hours of training a day. Every day for a week. By the time I got back up to Scotland my bruises had bruises, and my muscles were on strike. So I planned for a peaceful week in the remote middle of nowhere with aforementioned log fire and glass or two of wine.

I’d forgotten that last time I was home I’d decided to start work on the garden in front of the house, so had ordered a load of decking.


And due to a minor misunderstanding about where exactly Scotland was, it hadn’t been delivered until the day after I left the country. So it has been sitting in the garage soaking up the Scottish weather for nearly a month. Just waiting for me to come home….

So much for a lazy week.

Still, it’s not like I haven’t tackled a bit of decking before. I’m a pro at this stuff, right? It won’t take more than a day, will it? Especially as this time I actually measured it properly, so the deck boards were the exact length I needed. No cutting required.

So. How hard can it be? Lay out the timber. Make the frame. Dig the holes. Fix frame to posts. Drop it into the holes. Throw in a bit of Postfix. Screw deck boards in place. Have a G&T. Job done!

Of course, this is my barn. I should know by now that nothing ever goes to plan…..

First challenge: Well I decided to build the frame in one piece. Much quicker that way. But the eminent voice of common sense (aka My Mum) stepped in as I was laying it all out, and pointed out that it would be far too heavy to lift as one piece. She was right of course, but that didn’t stop me arguing, muttering and grumbling about the fact that would mean I’d have to cut up some of the timbers to size. Which brings me on to challenge number two…

I hate sawing wood; I cannot for the life of me saw in a straight line (probably because I haven’t got the patience to mark it properly all round) and I get bored witless after about five minutes. That’s why I invested in a bench saw. Unfortunately the timber for the posts was too big to fit under the blade, so handsawing was the only option.

Luckily expert help was at hand. AKA My Dad. He may claim to be the self-acknowledged avoider of all things DIY, but he cuts a much better straight line than I do, so he got the job of chief master woodcutter for the week.

Challenge number 3: The local farmer once told me he’d considered buying the barn but decided not to in the end because it had no foundations and it was built on ‘rotten rock’.  At the time I’d not taken much notice, but turns out he was right. I’d forgotten that I don’t get to dig holes in garden. I mostly have to chisel them. So the process of creating 24 holes involved quite a lot of cursing, throwing of hammer/chisel/shovel/trowel, declarations of how much I hate my barn, etc. And of course took a whole lot longer than I had planned for.

Challenge number four? Well the weather of course. Nobody can blog about anything that happens in Scotland in Summer without mentioning ‘rain’ at least once. Although the forecasts kept insisting we were all set for a sunny days, somehow it didn’t quite work out that way. Rain kept interrupting play.

And the final challenge? Well I hadn’t really appreciated how much the land slopes away. If I keep the decking straight, by the time I get to the far corner, anybody stepping off the end would risks breaking their neck, or at the very least falling over and spilling their G&T. And since I’d rather not be sued by my guest in the future, I decided to change the layout a bit and create a split-level deck. A whole lot more work!

So no, it isn’t finished. But it is three-quarters done.

The rest will just have to wait until the next time I’m home!

Decking out the garden….

So far, other than the the blog about keeping the cows out, I haven’t mentioned much about my outside space. Having so much to focus on inside, I’ve been taking a bit of a ‘head in sand’ approach to the outside – if I pretend it doesn’t exist, maybe it will sort itself out. With the inevitable result that I now have 2½ acres of total wilderness, mostly consisting of 6ft high weeds, nettles and thistles. A haven for all that wildlife I mentioned in my last blog!

But with the second conservatory finally installed, (the saga of which which requires a whole blog to itself), I decided I would make the effort to tidy up the little square of ground that sits outside the kitchen and the cottage.

It’s South-West facing, and a lovely sun-trap in the evenings. So, my plan was to build a decking, with some strategically placed raised herb beds at either end; the perfect place to sit out in the long summer evenings with a G&T, the scents of mint, rosemary, thyme, wafting around in the breeze – (though obviously, this being Scotland, still well wrapped up in jumpers, scarves and gloves and being eaten alive by midges). You get the idea…

So I found a website where you just put your garden measurements in and it works out everything you need. And duly placed my order for 16m² of decking. For once there were no delivery issues, so it was all there waiting to be built the following weekend. Excellent. An afternoon’s work and it’ll be G&T all round!

Well how hard can it be? I mean, I’m probably showing my age here, but I watched that ‘Groundforce’ programme on telly in the 90’s. That chap Tommy could apparently knock up a garden decking area in a couple of hours.

Huh. He’s either a builder genius, or that was TV trickery. Or, more likely, he had a whole team of willing workers to call upon.

As with everything else at the barn, building my decking was never going to be that straight-forward.

Problem number 1: Size matters

Well to be honest, this one was entirely self-inflicted. What’s that DIY mantra – “Measure twice, cut once”.

Right. Well I did measure, more than twice. But kept forgetting to write the measurements down. Or wrote them down on random scraps of paper that I couldn’t find later. Or wrote them down in a very vague way that didn’t really take account of where the fence and the gate were….

So I had to redesign the whole thing after all the supplies had been delivered.

Two areas of decking of 3.6m x 2.4m and 3m x 2.4m became two areas of decking of 3m x 1.8m and 4.8m x 2.4m with an overlapping step. Lots more work involved than originally intended!

Problem number 2: rotten rock

I recall a conversation with the local farmer in the early days of the build. He told me he’d considered buying the place himself, but had decided against it because “it’s all built on rotten rock”. Not having a clue what he was talking about I just nodded, smiled and agreed in a vague non-committing way.

I found out what he meant the first time I tried to dig a hole in the ground to put my fence posts up – I don’t dig holes in my ground. I have to chisel them.

I needed 26 post holes for my decking. It took forever to dig/chisel them out.

If I was lucky, I could get down about 20cm before I hit rock. Sometimes boulders or bits of rock small enough to dig out; sometimes large areas of soft rock that could be broken up with a chisel. But occasionally a large piece of granite too hard to break and too big to dig out. Which meant starting all over again and moving the hole, or making an executive decision that it was deep enough to safely secure the post.

(A word to the wise here – don’t try this at the end of a long day, when you’re tired, cold, damp and the light is failing. You will inevitably miss the chisel and bring a 4lb club hammer down on your hands; I didn’t actually break my finger, but it was unusable for a few days!)

Problem number 3: building on a hill

The other major problem I had (which I bet Tommy never did) was trying to construct the frame halfway up a hill single-handedly. In an ideal world you should construct the frame on flat ground so you can keep it all nice and square as you build. But just like inside the barn, there is nothing flat or even about my land, so my frame was twisting about in every direction as I tried to put it together.

At times it felt like I was wrestling with a giant wooden octopus

I also made the mistake of constructing the frame before I dug the holes. With the result that I ended up have to saw one or two of the legs off to accommodate the ‘impossible to move rocks’ in the bottom of some of the holes.

Fortunately, once it was all concreted in place, it was all nice and square and so the rest was relatively easy. The decking planks I’d ordered were pre-cut to the correct length, so even with all my last  minute redesigning, there wasn’t too much cutting involved.

Now all I need is a bit of summer and a G&T. Oh, and some way of keeping the midges at bay…