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Hints and Tips / Mazes – Hedge Cutting with a difference!
« Last post by Alan Sargent on October 20, 2013, 02:01:10 pm »
Mazes – Hedge Cutting with a difference!


One of the joys of being a contractor is that one never knows what the next enquiry may bring!

Six years ago, I took on the maintenance and responsibility for a private garden comprising approximately eight acres of formal garden, with another twenty plus acres of meadow and woodland.

One of the features of the garden – designed by a good friend of mine, Robin Williams, who is one of, if not THE best garden designer and teacher of landscaping – (Robin is now retired, but for over twenty years, taught design at Merrist Wood and in his own practice. He is a very skilled artisan, who started life as a contractor, and knows his way around construction as well as design) – is this impressive Yew maze.

With hedges standing two metres high, when I took it on it had been neglected for several years, with a lot of moss cover and weeds/lichen on the floor. The paths are timber edged Breedon gravel, laid over clay soil. The ground was water logged, and over the years, I have managed to aerate the soil and given it regular feeds of nitrogen. The leaves have changed from a yellow/red/brown to a reasonable colour green.

Cutting the hedge/s is not as complicated as it seems – once you know your way through the maze. Using two step ladders, each with three steps, affording a total useable height of 75cm, with two scaffold boards cut to lengths of around 2 metres, and ‘toothed’ to fit into the step ladders, I made a step ‘ramp’ up to the boards, with a step down at the other end. By moving the steps and boards as the work progresses, and by cutting both sides i.e. two hedge tops at one pass, using a long reach (no extension) Stihl hedge cutter, the tops are quickly finished. Up the steps, walk and cut, down the other side. Move the steps and repeat.

A second person, using a 60cm double sided hedge cutter, handles the sides, where there is relatively little growth, so both move at the same speed. The arisings are pushed through the hedge trunks, towards the entrance, which mitigates the amount of effort required to clear the site. Once the majority of material is cleared, a quick blast with a blower, towards the exit or sides means that one is not obliged to go all around/through the maze configuration.

Hints and Tips / Topiary with Shears
« Last post by Alan Sargent on October 20, 2013, 01:58:44 pm »
Topiary with Shears
I thoroughly enjoy working on a wide range to topiary hedges and features, mainly Taxus and Buxus, but all in large private gardens of at least eight acres, where they may be viewed from different angles – either as focal points or main features, or stand - alone pieces of living sculpture within an area specially designed to set them off.

The only tool I use to maintain these features is my Bahco Professional set of shears. They are INCREDIBLY sharp, strong and very lightweight. They are not cheap at around £70.00 per pair, but the speed and dexterity one can apply makes them very worthwhile.

For hedges, including the intricate network of the parterre shown below, I always cut the top first, ensuring a good clean edge beyond the actual width of the hedge, then turning the shears over, with the bottom facing away from me, or  the upper side facing towards my legs, I cut the furthest side only, using the point of the shears to trim a clean and sharp side to the hedge, working my way down the full height (up to around 60cm). I find this method offers a straight and neat finish.

Once I have completed one side, I then complete the other – pretty obvious really (!), but once you get used to the system, it is really very fast and accurate.

The parterre shown, and the series of pyramids/small hedges both take me one full day to cut and clear, working on my own. It is hard work, but the client (who is rarely at home) used to pay at least twice my fixed price of £400.00 for each job. Hard work but worth it! (especially as the shears make a much better job of the finish and maintaining square, level and upright/correctly shaped features and hedges.

Hints and Tips / Garden Shed Makeover (2)
« Last post by Alan Sargent on October 20, 2013, 01:55:52 pm »
Garden Shed Makeover (2)

Whilst the photographs show a wooden bothy or folly, one of several in a large garden in the South of England, the method of laying a wooden log floor is the same for any garden shed or indoor/outdoor area. Only the choice of timber will decide the longevity of the feature.

The floor shown is made up of a number of log roundels, in this case, pine, which is suitable for an indoor room/shed or sheltered open fronted gazebo. Each log is carefully sawn to a suitable length, usually 125mm or five inches. Each log should be ‘straight’ to enable neighbour against neighbour laying, with the minimum of space  between each unit.

The logs are laid over a compacted base, which should be free draining. Sharp sand/block laying sand is used to a depth of approximately 50mm, to ‘bed’ the logs firmly into position.

Once the area is complete, a mixture of sharp sand or a course grained sand (the definition of which will depend on  your locality) is simply brushed into the gaps, and the whole area vibrated using a piece of 25mm plywood, 45cm x 45cm, and a rubber or nylon maul to ensure that the intercises are filled – much as a whacker plate over block paving, without the heavy pressure implied by a machine. Simply repeat the tamping until the gaps are filled. The sizes of the timber logs can vary in diameter, as long as they are touching each other, and of the same length.

I have used a variety of different timbers, ranging from beech, oak and acacia for open air ‘patios’ to pine, cedar and sycamore for dry, indoor areas. The photographs show an open fronted gazebo, the floor of which was laid approximately ten years ago (but it is little used). You can, of course, apply a suitable preservative or seal to add years to the life of the project.

This method is quick and easy to lay, but allow time to produce sufficient numbers of logs, as this can be the costliest part of the job. Material costs will obviously vary from timber to timber, but may of course, be free, if they are to be found on site, or available during other works. Ensure that each log is kept upright during operations, and not allowed to lean in any direction, otherwise the work will become loosened by use.

(This particular floor is due to be replaced during the winter - when we get a few wet days!)

Hints and Tips / Hedge Cutting Contracting – Science & Methodology
« Last post by Alan Sargent on October 20, 2013, 01:54:05 pm »
Hedge Cutting Contracting – Science & Methodology

One of commonest jobs we are called upon to quote for is that of hedge cutting. Recognising that hedges come in many different shapes, sizes and species, there is no easy answer to the logic of producing a meaningful and precise quotation.

To explain that which may at first appear a paradox, I have been a landscape garden contractor since 1968, but have the added experience of six years as Head Gardener to a major private Estate (Goodwood House) so if I write in the first person or address my comments in the Royal ‘we’, it is because some of the information is based on solo working, and also as Team Leader working with others.

Because of my time at Goodwood (2001 – 2007) I hold a number of ‘tickets’ including Safe Ladder Working, Working at Height, Access Platform Lorry (26m lorry mounted cherry picker) plus three of the Chain saw certificates (safe handling, cross cutting etc), and I put these to good use in my business. Part of my work today is that of ‘Head Gardener’ to a small number of very large gardens/Stately Home properties, where I visit on a regular basis and organise their own staff and carry out some training.

My approach to quoting for the cutting of hedges depends on many factors, and these are all noted in a form of Method Statement, presented as part of the tender documentation. Very few hedges are the same, and I go through a process, first of all noting the nature and condition of the site.

If the ground upon which I have to work is sloping (towards the hedge/away from the hedge/angled to one side or another/close proximity to problems (overhead cables, roadway, public footpath etc), any rabbit or mole holes in which a ladder leg may disappear, - so many factors before I even examine the actual hedge. These factors need to be noted in your tender documents.

The dimensions are also noted, together with the amount of material to be removed – one side, both sides, half the top or all the top.

The most important tool at this stage – and beyond – is the extendable pole, either a lock and click version of the Wolf range of handles, or (my favourite), a triple extender Bahco pole saw pole. These are used to examine the width of the hedge, by passing the pole through from one side to the other and measuring the distance. It is often very surprising to note the actual width, and the pole acts as a very visual aid if shown to the client. That which appears narrow from their garden can be really quite wide.

The same pole is used to measure the height, with both height and width being calculated in two measurements – the dimensions of the hedge bed, and the average size of the hedge before cutting.

Taking the square metreage of the actual area to be cut – one side, both sides etc, then calculate the cubic capacity of the material to be disposed of – allow for bulking factors for different species, holly, beech, field maple and hornbeam  being particularly difficult to crush into smaller piles (big - bags, wheelbarrows etc). This information is important when quoting, especially of you have to remove the arisings from site.

I use this pole as a height gauge, standing it against the hedge to monitor the required height during cutting works. It is also useful for levelling the top (if required). Simply attach a metre long spirit level to the pole with cable ties, and use it as a normal level – but with a much longer length.


All of these ‘tricks’ are good visual aspects of our trade, as the client can see that care is being taken to achieve the right results. It gives them the opportunity, before tendering, to agree the amount of material to be removed, so if they change their minds, the additional work is a genuine ‘extra’ subject to another quotation.

The hedge cutting machinery is a matter of personal choice, and I always recommend that each operative selects their own ‘machine of choice’, one which they are comfortable with, as this avoids any problems with complaints from workers who ‘cannot get along’ with a particular tool.

I use a Stihl electric 60cm bar machine for difficult areas, including cutting internal curves and high places, where my arms begin to ache quite quickly, and personally get along happily with a Stihl combi long reach double sided hedge cutter – even with a metre long extension bar - changing the blades (I have them professionally ground) on a regular basis. (It takes two people 15 minutes to change the blades, working on the back of a pick-up tailgate, but you do need practice!)

My quotation will include all dimensions, including the existing height and width, square metreage areas to be cut, dimensions of bed of the finished job, together with an assessment of the amount of rubbish to be disposed of. (Be careful of weight in some cases, with green or wet conifer waste being particularly heavy, and therefore problematic if your vehicle/trailer is subject to low weight carrying restrictions)

I have a variety of different methods of reaching the job, including a couple of sizes of the new generation lightweight tripod ladders with extendable legs (BRILLIANT!), a twelve foot fibreglass stepladder, a triple extender lightweight aluminium ladder, a 2m x 2m x 6m aluminium tower with full boards and safety rail. I also use a man cage on the front of a Manitou/Merlot All Terrain vehicle for a couple of very high Leylandii hedges in a field on one of my sites (use ground boards if necessary, and charge for them in your quote), plus the aforementioned cherry pickers for those jobs that permit (don’t forget the space for the outriggers, or to load some extra ground boards for the feet). I am also of the opinion that each individual should have their own safety harness, as PPE, and ensure that they use them at all times when working at height.

Ensure that your quote is time limited; if you quote in May, and the client accepts in September, the hedge has grown another six feet! If you take all of the above recommendations and include them, in one form or another, in your quotation, you should feel comfortable with your price. Do not be surprised at the final estimate – hedge cutting is one of the easiest projects to under price.

If you keep a record of the amount of waste produced on a few projects, you will quickly learn the formula for assessing the costs involved in clearing the site, in relation to the type of specie and areas involved.

The project shown here is a regular job I undertake on a price, and we now have the working practice on this particular project down to a fine art! Two people, one day’s work, with the client clearing up. Cost? Almost £1,000.00, using only step ladders and tower.

Hints and Tips / Creating an Island in a Butyl Lined Pond
« Last post by Alan Sargent on October 12, 2013, 11:05:33 am »
Creating an Island in a Butyl Lined Pond

Creating an island in any lined pond is not difficult in most cases. Simply by excavating the shape and building the various levels and shelves the line may be cut to shape, leaving a hole to the area designated as the island. The liner may then be installed in the usual manner – I will not go into detail here to avoid confusion; in any event, Tricks of the Trade involved in working with ponds, pools and liners are subjects for more in depth articles at a later date!

The site shown in these photographs presented a different sort of problem. The land was almost pure sand, and the design called for a decent sized island to be constructed and planted.

There was no possibility of any automatic top up system, and the scale of the project rendered the use of hose pipes impractical (except for the initial fill up). Therefore the sides of the scheme were designed to slope gently into the water, allowing a water level rise and fall of around 90cm, between the lowest side shelf base and top of the liner, with sandy soil placed over the liner to provide a natural effect sloping side to the pool.


The difficulty came in constructing the island. The water could rise and fall – fed naturally by rainfall draining across the sloping field site into the pond, with any overflow simply draining into the area beyond the feature. However, as there was no opportunity for such an ebb and flow to the island, another solution was required.

The pond was sculpted, with laser level precision across the whole scheme, and an area of land was left as a mound, graded to shape, not re-graded afterwards, to give maximum stability to the island. The top was taken off the mound, almost resembling a hard boiled egg with the crown removed, and the resultant plateau left as a circular (could be any shape) area, the top of which was level with the lowest part of the internal side shelves.

The island was created using sand bags filled with soil concrete (see Tricks of The Trade / Hints and Tips) secured together as a necklace around the outer edged of the island, using strong galvanised wire threaded through the sacks. A second and third  layer of sandbags was added to give greater depth.  The hessian sacks would rot after a while, and the soil concrete remain to secure the soil/planting. The resultant ‘doughnut’ of the island was infilled with good quality topsoil, with an amount of light clay content but substantially stone free. (The quality of the soil was such that an additional membrane was not deemed necessary, but beware of sharp stones which may penetrate the liner). This soil level was slightly higher than the highest part of the main pond sides, so that the island would always be visible, even when the pond was at maximum water level.

The main reasoning behind the decision to create the island in this manner was the thought that the sandy island may ‘implode’, or collapse once it was the only dry area within the precints of the pond works, causing the whole project to lose water through the island. I realise that the likelihood was probably zero, but I did not want to take the risk!

The result was very successful, with the island being planted with a variety of native species. When the project was completed, part of the hand over package was a strict instruction NOT to use forks and spades when working the island soil!

Hints and Tips / Stone Chips to Windows
« Last post by Alan Sargent on October 12, 2013, 11:03:11 am »
Stone Chips to Windows

Preventing stone chips to patio and other windows is one of the greatest problems for Contractors. Strimmers, mowers and concrete breakers all causing stones and other hard detritus large and small, spinning off in the general direction of a sheet of glass are a major headache – and a drain on one’s wallet!

Having been on the receiving end of a complaint from a client who insisted that a stone chip to a patio window MUST have been damaged during landscaping works several months before as we were the only ones who had been working in the garden - ‘It only shows up now the sun shines on the glass’ – I decided to find a high profile solution. One that not only ensured that we were trying to  prevent any possible damage, but were seen to be doing so.


Using a large, heavy duty cloth dust sheet, with two corners knotted to form  pockets, and two extending poles (triple length Barco pole saw poles, affording twelve feet of fully adjustable length) the sheet is either tucked into the corners of the brickwork to the patio doors, or covering both upstairs and downstairs (ground and first floor on most houses) windows. This operation takes only a few minutes at most, and avoids any question of liability for damage.

Rather like the chimney sweep who takes great care about cleanliness, the fact that you are seen to take preventative action during your operations, whether it be a ten minute strimming exercise or full blown sledge hammers and Kangos, your client will not only appreciate your efforts, but also comment on your duty of care to their friends.
Hints and Tips / Foundations – Forward Planning (2)
« Last post by Alan Sargent on September 24, 2013, 10:22:45 pm »
Foundations – Forward Planning (2)

Conduits to carry potential future works, including lighting and irrigation are an essential part of any Landscape project, yet are very often overlooked by the Designer, Contractor and Client, usually because they have not been considered due to costs or lack of fore thought by anyone.

It is somewhat too late to try to either take up the footpath, tunnel under the walling foundations or mole drain under the driveway without costing a lot of money and aggravation.

By installing sections of 75mm plastic pipe – downpipe is ideal – under the foundations or base material (never set the conduit into the concrete, as this will compromise the strength), from one side to the other, in as many places as you consider necessary, you will save a great deal of grief in the future!

Each pipe to be fitted with colour coded (either different colour or type of string – always use something very strong and durable, such as builder line) set of lines, usually three, with the ends secured with pieces of bamboo cane, terminating just beyond the foundation.

These draw lines may be utilised at any time to pull through pipeworks or electrical cables. 75mm is the minimum dimension to allow three such cables without snagging mid pipe.

A very simple tip, costing very little, but saving a lot of time and money.
Hints and Tips / Foundations - Forward Planning (1)
« Last post by Alan Sargent on September 24, 2013, 10:21:52 pm »
Foundations – Forward Planning (1)

Often, due to budgetary restrictions, it is necessary to construct only a part or section of a scheme, with the full plan being implemented  at a later date as funds permit. These truncated works usually involve paving or walling. As the concrete foundations for either are being constructed, it is useful to consider a method of permitting additional works to be added, whilst retaining the same strength of foundation as the initial works.

Taking paving as the first example, if the first stage of development is finished against (say) planting or turfing, simply extend the reinforcing bars (or adding new ones for this particular purpose if none were set into the original concrete) by at least 75cm into/under the bed/lawn. If, and when the works are completed, you will have a strong, semi-monolithic ‘complete’ foundation of equal strength under all the paving.

If the works do not go ahead, you have still acted in a thoughtful manner on behalf of your client.

Walling foundations will obviously vary in width and depth according to the wall under construction. However, the technique is the same no matter how large the dimensions.

At the point where the foundation for stage one is to terminate, set into place a piece of timber (preferably old scaffold board rather than plywood, as it is easier to break off at a later stage) to act as the end of the concrete footings.

Drill appropriate sized holes through the wood and insert reinforcing bars – I tend to use 18mm – into the wet concrete mix, extruding at least 90cm beyond the works, and 120cm minimum into the foundations. Once the concrete is set, the board should be removed, leaving the bars at approximately 15cm centres protruding from the foundations, preferably in a double row, top and bottom.

All of this work is below ground and has no visual effect on the scheme, but this forward planning means that the next phase can be added, with, once again, semi-monolithic foundations.
Hints and Tips / Garden Shed Makeover (1) – Internal Roofing
« Last post by Alan Sargent on September 23, 2013, 09:08:42 pm »
Garden Shed Makeover (1) – Internal Roofing

I believe that all too often, landscapers miss out on so many opportunities to gain projects that they either do not consider, or feel unqualified to undertake. Many of these opportunities may be found in the world of ‘Building’. Perhaps because I have worked on so many sites, and my passion is for the  restoration of gardens, in which I include garden buildings, as these are as much part of the ‘garden’ as are walls, paths and steps. Much of my work is in the restoration of flint walls, natural stone features and outbuildings – if you are able to build hard landscape projects, restoration is only a natural extension to that ability – and I find a great and ready market where I fill a niche between ‘Builders’ and ‘Odd Jobbers’. The first would not wish to get involved in fiddly works, and the second may not have the imagination that we have as designers and landscapers.

This particular project is only a very small part of a much larger scheme I have been working on, job at a time, two or three jobs per year, some wet weather, some all weather, over the past four years – with several years of potential work pencilled in at any one time. The property is an old farm, with several outbuildings and boundary walls, all in need of attention as time and funds permit.

The brief was to convert an old cow shed, three walls of natural sandstone with brick quoins and a clay tile roof, into an outdoor room, complete with log burning stove and reclaimed brick floor. First of all, I replaced several ‘missing’ stones and repointed the three walls, on both sides, effectively rebuilding the structure – working on the existing foundations (if there were any, the building was around two hundred years old).

The inside of the roof space was pretty grim – tiles with wooden tile pegs, with patches of roofing felt, all weather proof, but looking anything but attractive. I came up with the idea of cladding the interior spaces between the rafters with reed matting, which was cut to shape with a pair of large scissors and held in position with lengths of green hazel, simply ‘hammered’ into place. This proved to be very successful, and not one of the hazel strips – or the reed matting – has come loose since the work was completed (2011) despite some very warm weather and the log burning stove creating a fair amount of heat/drying out of materials.

All  you need is your designers eye and craftsman’s skills to create all manner of interesting works that you may consider outside your Landscapers remit. You could, of course, adapt this technique to a newer building, even a modern wooden shed!

Hints and Tips / Box Hedging – Fine Detailing Shadow Lines
« Last post by Alan Sargent on September 23, 2013, 09:06:54 pm »
Box Hedging – Fine Detailing Shadow Lines

No matter how professional you are at clipping box hedging, with clean, crisp edges and straight lines, it somehow never looks 100% ‘complete’, as in the first of these pictures.

Using a simple piece of timber – here I have used a 3m x 10cm x 10cm fence post as a guide - lay the timber on the ground (assuming an even or level site as in this example) and gently clip the underside of the hedge with the point of the shears, leaving the base looking as clean and crisp as the other sides/edges.

This technique may also be used on other ‘fine’ dwarf hedges including (for example)  lonicera nitida or ilex crenata.

This very simple Trick of The Trade never ceases to please clients, especially the first time you carry out the work – with their permission perhaps? Show them the difference and they will surely ask for that extra piece of fine detailing!

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