I had to come in from the garden at a quarter to four. It was just too cold, with a brisk wind that went straight through my fleece and smock and cotton shirt and thermal polo neck, and through me. Tomorrow is forecast to feel even colder, with showers. Give it a week or so of colder weather and I suppose my metabolism will crank up to meet the challenge, but winter finally starting is a shock to the system.
I spent the morning trying to level the sunken paving slabs that cross the back lawn. I laid them originally so that on frosty mornings I would be able to walk down to the bottom part of the garden to see the winter flowers without leaving black footprints on the frozen grass. They make a visual connection between the two decks, and line up with the steps down from the front garden. As a design feature I'm quite happy with them, in a low key, 1960s inspired, vaguely modernist sort of way that echoes the aesthetic of the 1960s, vaguely modernist but ramshackle house.
Unfortunately that sort of thing depends on precise geometry, and the slab path across the lawn has never been the same since the drain to the septic tank collapsed and the Systems Administrator had to hire a digger and excavate the back lawn. The drain was buried a good six feet deep at the point where it fractured, and the mound of excavated spoil was enormous. Of course it did not all fit back in the hole. Excavated soil never does. After we had filled the hole as best we could and relaid the turf the area of the erstwhile hole began to sink, and went on sinking. I would top dress the depression with any leftover or discarded compost every now and then, but that didn't address the issue of the paving slabs, which had begun to tilt and sink as well.
So today I lifted half of them, added a fresh layer of sand to their holes, and relaid them. Before lifting them I cut back the encroaching grass to neat straight lines with a half moon edger. As I threw the offcuts of scrappy turf away I was disgusted to see that some of them were infested with root aphid. If it is endemic in the lawn then what hope my pot plants? Then I had to work out how to prise the slabs out of the lawn, since prudence told me that if I used the half moon edger as a lever then it would probably break. In the end I hit upon the idea of using my old small hand fork, which is already broken since I snapped the central tine catching it on a root.
Fortunately I had a supply of builders' sand left over from a previous paving job, all bagged up in old compost bags outside the workshop. It took a remarkable number of trips down to the back garden with buckets of sand to level all the slabs, as far as they would level. The lawn is not entirely flat, but the path looked a great deal worse with a dip in the middle, and rather better once I'd adjusted the height and angle of the central slabs. By then some of them stood proud of the surface of the lawn, which will be no good when lawn mowing recommences next year, and I top dressed between them and the sunken patch of lawn with old potting compost. I have held off putting the compost from some of the pots of cosmos and zinnia on the compost heap especially for this purpose.
I rumpled the surface of the lawn vigorously, running my hand back and forth to get the blades of grass to stick up above the compost. The middle of the lawn looked very brown when I'd finished, and I worried that my ministrations would kill the grass, before applying the reality check that's often useful in such situations, which is to ask myself whether if the plant concerned was a weed and I wanted to get rid of it, did I think that my proposed course of action would do the trick. The answer is generally 'no' and was in this case. The grass, which barely deserves the title of 'lawn', is definitely of the utility type with coarse leaved and some running grasses. Fine turf it ain't, and while at the moment it looks very raw and unfinished, still I am sure that the grass will make its way up through the compost given time. Ideally I'd have done the whole project six weeks ago when the grass would have had longer to recover before it got cold, but I didn't. I must have been busy doing something else.
Smarter versions of the vaguely modernist look, made out of machine cut stone instead of Marshalls Heritage concrete stone-effect ready-made slabs, have been the default choice at Chelsea for about the past fifteen years, and are popular with garden designers doing private gardens, to judge from the ones featured in Gardens Illustrated. Apart from the fact that it is going to date as surely as an avocado bathroom suite, it is an unforgiving style in terms of construction standard and finish, and we must hope that the customers shelling out well into five figures for their garden redesign do not have too many dodgy drains underneath, since the slightest dip or deviation shows up badly and looks dreadful. From that point of view the cottage garden style is far more forgiving.