Structures and siting

Rudyard Kipling's poem The Glory of the Garden reflected on "the potting sheds and planks, the dung pits and the tanks that are the heart of all". In gardening books from his time the recommendation was to chose the site for your garden carefully. On the right soil, slope and aspect. Fat chance now; we take what we can get! More modern books have at least dropped such pointless platitudes. And although some suggest readers put various main components of the garden in the best places few go further. The vegetables needing an open site fully exposed to the sun, the herbs and trained fruit likewise, and occasionally suggesting the better sites for a greenhouse or fruit cage. But most of the time books avoid more detailed planning of this the 'hidden garden', the less sightly unglamorous parts.

In our kitchen gardens we even more tend to concentrate on planning for our plants, their treatment and soil conditions and tend to ignore the more physical parts -especially in their siting. -Quite rightly so when compared to the opposite which has taken place in the 'ornamental' garden; where the physical structure has been intruded to the detriment of the planting. But back to the point- I suspect we tend to accept the existing structure of the garden we took on and are reluctant to make changes, and secondly that we do not thoroughly plan those things we do construct.

I've made the same mistake myself. I put a shed up in the wrong place to only have to move it soon after. A best friend did much the same; he bought a greenhouse, then had to move it to build an extension on his house, and then had to move the greenhouse yet again the summer after as now it was in the shade of the new extension! A little planning and it would have been in the right place the first time. Likewise I have watched a man unload a truck full of bags of compost stacking them neatly besides. Then he moved them to another spot, and later to their final destination -why did he not take them there to start with and save all that lifting and putting down...

In a similar way have you noticed how when any new building such as a school or supermarket is built the paths are laid geometrically and often take long ways around for no apparent reason. Then have you noticed how the people made pathways wearing bits of muddy path across short cuts and right angled bends. Of course 'the management' try to discourage such 'abuse' by interposing a low wall or thorny planting. I even saw a doctor's surgery where the patients had worn a short cut path through an old gappy hedge to save them a very long walk around to the car park- so the 'man-age-ment' blocked this 'unsightly' gap with wire and tape -let's be generous minded and assume it was to help patients exercise their legs more!

Don't do the same to yourself. Plan to move things only the once. Think carefully before starting any new construction and lay or even re-lay paths to make their use comfortable and without detours. If you have to duck and weave to get about your garden maybe the path really does need moving or more likely the time has come for some serious pruning. Where you are forced to make the path follow detours consider also making legitimate short cuts through beds with stepping stones. These act as miniature mulches as well; shedding rain onto the surrounding soil and preventing weeds and evaporation from underneath.

Even the humble path has considerable effects on the surrounding garden and one should consider this when planning your plantings- a solid path will shed water, offer a cool root run underneath, conduct air and throw up heat from the sun altering the micro-climate considerably for crops immediately on either side. This can make all the difference bringing crops forward by weeks and ensuring heavier yields. (Believe me, if you are ever so rash as to go grape picking do not get stuck with a row next to an alley as it carries twice the normal crop!)

And if you are about to make any substantial structures do think about their effects on your micro-climate which can be quite profound. A new shed not only needs to be convenient and close to where it is needed but also throws a lot of shade and breaks the wind. A shed may simultaneously be used to block an eyesore or 'peephole' and is one of the only garden denizens to be well situated in dry shade! It may be used as part of the 'wall' of a fruit cage and may well have a sunny wall useful for training fruit on. The roof will collect water and needs guttering and butts and these need siting so they can be easily accessed (or connected by syphons to the delivery point; see KG Feb.01). Before it is even set up the site can have the topsoil robbed and then a hedgehog den and a toad house made under the floor to be.

Then there is the area to be hidden behind a shed. One of the most useful areas in the garden this; somewhere for all the bric a brac to be stored. Every garden accumulates spare posts and wires, pots and tubs, and all sorts of 'useful' items to good to be thrown away and of no immediate use. If these are tough and water resistant then do not clutter the shed but plan to secrete them away behind it. This may become a veritable glory hole where everything is just flung or a well organised place but it is essential as all this clutter gets in the way otherwise.

A greenhouse obviously needs to be in full sun, it therefore sits conveniently at the northern end of a UK vegetable plot where it will not be shaded by the low growing crops and will reflect some extra light back on to them as well as acting as a windbreak. Do buy one bigger than you intend or can afford as it will always turn out to be too small! A polytunnel is bigger, uglier and much cheaper for covering an area for crops. Like a greenhouse they get the most light if aligned East West and unlike guttered greenhouses tunnels throw off considerable water making a damper wetter site on either side especially useful for such as leeks, celery and even some fruit.

However although it is convenient to have a greenhouse or tunnel next to the vegetable bed this may be inconvenient for hooking up water and electricity. Without these the cover is only half as valuable so perhaps it better be sited nearer the house connections. Best of all is if it is immediately adjacent then heat can be provided from the household heating system much cheaper and more reliably than with a separate free standing system.

On the smaller scale a cold frame is a very useful adjunct to any garden but especially a vegetable one as many of our small plants are more comfortable in a well ventilated cold frame than in the hotter drier conditions of a greenhouse. The siting is crucial as it must not be heavily shaded or in the drip of trees or roof. But it must also be accessible or it will not get tended as it must and water must be very near by. And it ought to lie betwixt the sowing and potting area and the vegetable beds proper or the plants will be carried further than necessary.

Likewise a compost heap or more rightly compost bin should be very carefully sited. Well away from the house, and neighbours, if yours tends to smell -which it should not; add stuff in thinner layers and sprinkle with soil regularly. It can go under a tree or in a shady spot and make use of such a somewhat 'dead' area but do not put it too far away. And, this may seem obvious but remember you take half a dozen loads to it for each brought away so it is probably less work to have it low down a sloping garden and not up near the top!

Also it really is no good having just one bin, ideally two or three are side by side so one is being filled, one is cooking and maturing after re-mixing and one is being sifted and used. In the smallest gardens other methods such as worm or pit composting may be most sensible (see KG July 2002). But as soon as any quantity of compost material becomes available there is no better or easier container than four wooden pallets tied at the corners with a heat retaining waterproof lid. As it will inevitably leach goodness out from underneath it makes sense to place hungry plants such as stone fruits or blackcurrants close by.

The latter are one of the few soft fruits you may ripen without the birds stealing them all. However for the rest a fruit cage is almost essential. A wonderful and productive space this is in need of very careful planning. Just like a greenhouse it will never be big enough. It will certainly not be tall enough unless you build your own.

Indeed it is hard to fit a ready made fruit cage into a small garden but it may be simpler especially if starting from scratch to convert a corner. Rather than go to the expense of constructing a free standing or commercial cage see if a wall or two of a shed or building, any fences and or the greenhouse can all be positioned so as to form a barricaded area. Then you only need provide the door, roof and finish off the sides to complete the job. Advantageously the majority of fruit cage plants such as raspberries will tolerate some shade and still crop -especially the currants so these can be planted in the more difficult corners. The gooseberries need good air circulation and must have the most open position and grapes need the sunniest warmest spots. You need good headroom to grow sweet cherries which do not stay compact even on the modern stocks-and without a cage you will never eat one! Believe me!

In fact, just like greenhouses, almost all cages soon become too small to hold all our ideas. In a large garden a larger cage can be made, or bought. I converted my redundant walk in polythene tunnel into a roomy cage. The old plastic cover was cut off -leaving the bit in the ground as a weed excluding barrier rising to a few inches above ground level. This was proofed with three quarter inch galvanised chicken netting all round and the rest of the roof and sides with the much cheaper plastic mesh netting in several runs sewn together with fishing line. This gave a cage with real head height -eight to nine feet and plenty of room for all sorts of fruits -currently I have two dozen varieties of strawberry on trial along with a half dozen cherries and all the rest.

Any way back to the importance of siting structures- not only was this tunnel originally constructed with one end abutting a pond but the lower two foot of that end wall was made of a log pile so that newts and frogs could easily move from one to another although the wind and draughts were stopped. This could have been a disaster as there were also slugs and snals coming in as well. However I was able to selectively trap those with slug pubs and traps. Under the stepping stones used as paths in the tunnel I made hollows and these get inhabited by newts, beetles and slugs which can be removed whenever inspected.

These pests were controlled but it is a salient point that such as ponds, wild life zones and log piles, produce both friends and foes. Fortunately predators and parasites are by their nature more oftener freer roaming than plant feeders. Thus we ought to plan to have such useful but double edged places as ponds, compost bins, junk heaps and log piles well away from the salad or strawberry bed! The hedgehog and frog athletes will easily make more than the twenty foot maximum journey I've heard quoted for your average snail.