Back Garden Project Part 2: Donkey-work and Power-whacking

Building a terrace will take no more than a couple of days, if you’ll believe various online guides. I allowed double that and gave myself the four-day Easter weekend, fully anticipating cocktails on the completed terrace by sundown on Easter Monday. But I needed the weekend after that, and the one after that too, plus one or two evenings, to get the whole thing done, even after recruiting extra hands. And that’s not including the weekend it took to dig the four tree stumps out. Building a hard surface, even one of a small size, takes longer than you think (and then a bit longer). Be warned! It took days just to gather our equipment and raw materials together. It’s not easy lugging 29 bags of sharp sand, 38 bags of MOT 1 sub-base, 7 bags of cement, two tons of paving stone, and a 60kg plate compactor through a tenement building to the back garden. Just ask my poor husband.


I’d seen plenty of images on Pinterest and Google and I had a clear idea of what I wanted. I knew I wanted a round patio, paved in bricks. I wanted borders around the edge and a bistro table. But how to get from an area of plain, balding grass to my elegant little suntrap?


First I marked out the area. I found the centre point of the steps and staked a circle of 4 metres diameter using bamboo poles. I cut the turf a little wider than the intended size of the finished patio to allow the sub-base to extend an inch or two further than the bricks. Then using a fork, a rake and a shovel, I shifted the earth (and a lot of horrible roots from the now defunct trees) out of my circle and put it to one side. That makes it sound a lot easier than it actually was. Raking all that earth took me at least two days and gave me abs like Gwen Stefani’s. Next up, the base.



A patio needs a stable foundation if it is to remain in good condition for decades to come. I used a 5cm base of MOT 1 sub-base, an aggregate recommended for laying under paved areas and which is readily available to buy. It is called MOT 1 because it is a special grade of aggregate that the Ministry of Transport dictates is used as a base for road-building. I do not know what it is called in the USA but I have no doubt that something similar would be available there. A firm sub-base is especially important if vehicles will be driving over the area, and also in locations with wide extremes of temperature where the ground may be more subject to shifting. After pouring my 38 bags of sub-base onto the area and raking it smooth, it now needed compacting. Enter stage right our plate compactor or ‘whacker’, hired for the weekend at a very competitive rate. Boy, did this useful machine make a stink and a racket. Petrol-powered, it went round like the clappers with me barely hanging on to the handle. It was all I could do to stop it ploughing through the wall and compacting half our street. Steering the whacker was also a challenge, but once we’d got used to each other and were of but a single mind, we rattled round and round the area without a care in the world until the whole thing was as flat as it was going to get.


Having been warned off reclaimed bricks by the owner of a brick-yard (too prone to frost damage) I decided to order Bradstone Carpet Stones in “Rustic Red”. We are not into advertising on Edinburgh Garden Diary and my only payment for this shout-out will be in karma, but I don’t mind telling you that carpet stones are genius, and if you want to order them from somewhere reasonably-priced with helpful staff, then you couldn’t do better than to order them from Simply Paving. The carpet stones arrived on pallets last Thursday, and they had to sit in an on-street permit holder’s parking space outside the flat until we could move them on Saturday. I was terrified the council would tow them away to their fearful car compound in Leith, but they didn’t, and eventually we got them through the tenement and into the back garden without mishap. Carpet stones are so-called because each stone is joined to the next by a backing mesh meaning that you can lay several down at the same time, saving time and ensuring even spacing. You can also cut the ‘carpets’ to size with secateurs (their website says scissors, but only try this if you have hands like Mike Tyson’s). We cut them in half so they were lighter to carry, and then cut them further into single strips to allow them to curve round and make a circle. They were laid on a semi-dry mix of sand and cement, 6 parts sand to 1 part cement, with a splash of plasticiser. Once laid, we allowed the cement to dry for 24 hours and then brushed sharp sand between the joints. And we were done!

If you are considering building your own terrace, patio or hard standing I urge you to give it a try. It is easier than it might first seem, and there are so many guides out there that can help you achieve the effect you want.


16 thoughts on “Back Garden Project Part 2: Donkey-work and Power-whacking

  1. I am suitably impressed. How on earth did you get it level? This is going to look fantastic. Thanks too for the overhead shot. I think I have got the layout now, though I wouldn’t be averse to an invitation for drinks on that patio next time I am down in Edinburgh – just to make sure you understand.

    1. I’ll let you into a secret, Annette: it ain’t that level! It slopes intentionally away from the house as all good patios should, and in all sorts of other directions on the way. I think getting it totally flat would have been impossible without surveyors’ tools and a lot of practice. But anyway, I quite like the rustic look! One visitor politely described it as “very… organic”. I’m choosing to take that as a compliment…

    2. Sorry, forgot to reply to your second part… please, by all means get in touch and pay us a visit next time you are in town! You have my email address from our seed exchange. Drop me a line any time. And I would love to reciprocate with a visit to you too if I may? Your astrantias are planted out near the patio, by the way…

      1. You are more than welcome to call in if you are up this way. Do you often get up to Aberdeen? No sign of your foxgloves I’m afraid. I think I planted them too late – even the ones in the growhouse haven’t done anything. Maybe there is still time?

  2. What an achievement! It looks as though laying the paving was the easiest part of the job. My back aches just thinking of moving all that earth; the compactor doesn’t sound back-friendly either. I should think you are both mightily pleased with the results of your efforts and quite right too.
    I’m looking forward to seeing your planting plans.
    I’ll have a Pimms, lots of ice and easy with the strawberries.

  3. rustic = organic = character and you’ve added plenty with your new patio Joanna. Lucky you have the steps right out from the house. This spot will feel like an extension to your home. When we lived in a tenement in Marionville we were lucky in the respect that nobody else used the communal green so often felt like out own private garden. That area is going to look oh so pretty planted up. Is the wall sunny enough to grow fruit on it?

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