It is properly, bitterly, raw cold today, the sort of damp cold that goes through to your bones. This morning I finished pressure jetting the decking which I started yesterday and then retreated inside. When I nipped round to the Chatto gardens after lunch to get a present for somebody the woman in the shop said it had snowed tiny snowflakes in Elmstead Market this morning. Mind you, the Systems Administrator read in the newspaper that a foot of snow was forecast to fall in New York.
Decking now has much the same image as the avocado bathroom suite had by the start of the 1980s. You could still wash yourself perfectly adequately in it, but your bathroom had become a byword for the out of date and ridiculous. Decking, beloved of a multitude of Alan Titchmarsh and Groundforce inspired garden makeovers, now evokes at best a wince or a sneer from garden fashionistas. Unless it is made out of green oak or an interesting exotic wood precision machined to the last millimetre, as used as Chelsea, and then they do not use the word Decking in the handout about the garden.
All this is rather silly. Decking has its uses. It is quick, easy and cheap to build, compared to laying hard paving on proper foundations, which is one reason why it was so popular on Groundforce. This is especially true on a sloping site. If made from wood from a certified source decking is environmentally friendlier than concrete, which takes a great deal of energy to manufacture. If you change your mind about the layout of your garden for whatever reason decking is easy to take up, and the bits can be reused as new decking or for structures like compost bins, and eventually firewood.
I have just counted and we have six areas of decking in total, of which I have cleaned the four largest. We have a deck outside the conservatory, creating a flat area for a table and some pots on a fairly steep slope without going to the trouble and expense of building a retaining wall and buying in aggregate to level the ground. We have an L shaped deck on the far side of the lawn, built to cover a pile of subsoil excavated when the conservatory was built, which now houses a collection of Hamamelis in pots. It squares off that corner of the back garden rather nicely, creating a feeling of enclosure, and is a lot better than trying to grow shrubs or groundcover on the pile of subsoil. We could have hired a skip and trundled all the spoil round to the front garden in about a hundred wheelbarrow journeys, but I wasn't feeling that energetic.
We have decking along the back of the house, which is partly cosmetic to cover some not very beautiful concrete and partly structural, to bridge a large hole. The back garden slopes steeply away from the house, and so to keep construction costs down and also maintain the view from the study we ended up having the conservatory built away from the house instead of attached to it. The top of the back wall of the conservatory is at the same level as the bottom of the study windows, and there is a chasm between the house and the conservatory wall where the builders dug in to build the wall (which is on very substantial foundations). I pay particular attention to the condition of the bit of decking over the hole.
We have a tiny bit of decking outside the front door, which hides a concrete doorstep and a drain cover, and allows some of the gravel stuck to people's shoes to drop off outside instead of in the hall. There is another small bit of decking at the bottom of some wooden steps down to the lower lawn which I built myself. The Systems Administrator did all the rest but was at that point fed up with building decking and resistant to the idea of doing any more. I am rather proud of my two square yards, which took me ages. I very carefully made sure it was level using a spirit level, and then discovered it did not line up with the steps because they weren't. The steps are currently blocked by the rose 'Paul's Himalayan Musk' and several of the treads have rotted through, so I need to do some pruning and possibly order some wood so that the SA can replace them. I didn't clean that bit of decking, and I didn't clean the most recent bit of deck that the SA built right at the bottom of the garden to provide somewhere shady out of the wind to sit and listen to the cricket on hot days. It could probably do with a scrub in due course.
Decking has the reputation of being slippery. It can be, especially in shade, but I'm not sure it is worse than other hard surfaces. I have nearly gone over on real stone paving in somebody's drive and on a piece of concrete in the car park at the hospital's walk in unit (at least it wouldn't have been far to go if I'd broken anything). Look how they put up signs on the Liverpool Street station concourse when it's been raining warning passengers it is slippery. The designers must have known that the travelling public would tread water in, which makes me think it is simply difficult to find any kind of hard surface that is truly slip resistant when wet. I have compromised on aesthetics and stapled fine grade chicken wire over the way to the bird table and the conservatory door. The owners who have the kind of green oak decking photographed in the pages of Gardens Illustrated must just walk carefully.
Our current decks are made of western red cedar, except for my tiny one that is left over from the days of the previous, inferior timber. Western red cedar is a nice wood, naturally rot resistant, that can be left untreated. It is a slightly vivid orange when new or if varnished, which softens as it weathers to an agreeable soft brown. It is not quite as swanky as the grey of weathered oak, but pretty good. It doesn't look out of place in Essex, a county with no natural building stone. In fact I think it looks more in place than Indian sandstone. The Systems Administrator was originally rather unwilling to let me loose on it with a pressure jet, afraid that I would damage the grain of the wood, but once I'd explained that I really couldn't scrub that much deck by hand I was allowed to use mechanical aid, with instructions to keep the jet moving.
It isn't my favourite gardening task, but it isn't bad either. You get the immediate gratification of seeing the colour of the wood come up strip by strip under your eyes as you blast away the layer of greenish algae and dirt. On the other hand it is a bit like vacuum cleaning. It is noisy, and there are too many cables and hoses. There is the power lead from the house, and the flex that plugs into the power lead, and the big hose from the tap, and the thin hose from the compressor unit to the lance, and when I use them they all get tangled up with each other and my legs. Cleaning around the Hamamelis is particularly fiddly, since they are in fifty-five centimetre terracotta pots and there is no way I am moving them. As I squeezed between them I was very, very careful not to poke myself in the eye.