One step at a time: How to create a stairway to heaven in your garden

 

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The Independent Online

There's a 20 metre drop from the top of our garden to the bottom, and each year we've been here, we've built more steps. "We" I say, as if I had anything to do with it. I know where we need these steps and how I want them to look. After that, it's all down to Kevin. Kevin comes to us one day a week, and he has just finished making what may be the last step of steps in the garden. I celebrated by falling down them. Entirely my own fault. I was carrying a load of hay so big, I couldn't see what my feet were doing.

The new steps provide a different way of getting up from the yard into the garden. Previously, there was only one way to go, up the stone path (also made by Kevin – it took more than a year) with borders on either side. So on that score alone, it was a breakthrough. But the new

steps also finally made sense of the layout above, bringing us up into the wide path that runs between the double hedges we planted on the bank. Previously, the circuit had this broken bit in it. You got to the end of the hedged path and looked down onto a precipitous rough bank.

I knew when we started laying out the garden that we'd need these steps, but we couldn't get on with them until the greenhouse was made. The steps start alongside the greenhouse, before climbing up the bank. The problem, as always, was the amount of height we needed to gain, within a tight space. I like steps that rise as gradually as possible. If you use railway sleepers flat, you only have to step up 14cm (5.5in) at a time, which is very comfortable. Here, we hadn't room for that luxury and used sleepers edge on, which gives a rise of 25cm (10in) with each step.

Kevin has built eight sets of steps since we moved here and five of them have been made from sleepers. I like the way they look. They are comfortable, soft in colour and rich in texture. But sleepers are fixed in terms of their width and depth and you have to work within that constraint.

Somewhere, in a little used part of my mind, I can see that if you divide the thickness of the sleeper into the height to be gained you end up with the number of steps you need. The land survey we had done when we first arrived suggested we'd have to climb more than three metres to get from the yard to the top of the bank.

Fortunately, we didn't have to do it head on. The journey starts with a single step onto a landing dug out of the bank. The path then turns at a right angle to run for four metres along the back of the greenhouse. That allowed us to fit in two more steps at the beginning of this path and three at the end of it, climbing to a platform, roughly 120cm (4ft) square. From this platform you turn towards the bank again and face the final assault, eight steps, too steep for comfort with no room for generous treads between. It is not ideal, but it's all the ground allows. The steps are 160cm (5ft) wide here and the extra width helps to disguise the steepness. If we had taken the slope at a more comfortable angle, the flight would not have finished until it was halfway along the hedges above.

None of this was worked out in detail before Kevin started digging. We'd talked about how the steps might work, set the width of the first part of the path at 120cm (4ft) and established that we needed to gain as much height as possible before tackling the final flight. That last point was important. What I had not considered was the extraordinary amount of soil that had to be dug out of the bank to make the first, crucial landing that allowed us to turn along the back of the greenhouse.

Kevin did all the work by hand, barrowing the soil to the bottom corner of the garden where the slope disappears in a tangle of ivy, holly and hazel. Spread about, when work was finished, you'd never guess what a vast amount of earth had been dumped there. And at least it was a downhill journey with the full barrows, empty coming back up. Here, it's usually the other way around.

Of course, the earth walls of that first box that Kevin dug out from the bank had to be retained. We did it in the simplest way possible. Sleepers stacked on top of each other shored up the bank along the back and Kevin turned the corner of the dry-stone wall in the yard to retain the side. The hart's tongue ferns displaced during his excavations were planted in the crevices as the new wall was built up. They've settled in beautifully.

This is the kind of luxury you can indulge in if you are an amateur. If we'd employed contractors to do this work, their specification would have included a breeze-block wall to be built behind the stone wall. It makes the construction stronger and cuts down the possibility of complaints. But we inherited old walls here that were built in the old way, with no breeze-block backing and we continue in the same style. With decent footings and drainage, they stand up pretty well. And it means you can plant stuff in the walls as you are building them up because the plant roots reach into proper soil.

This new access means we've had to clean up the bank that stretches back behind the path and steps. It's shady ground, with big stands of hazel, so I've put in ferns, crinkly-edged hart's tongues (Asplenium scolopendrium 'Crispum') and Gymnocarpium oyamense, which was given to me by the head gardener at Attadale in Wester Ross, a fern fanatic.

This autumn, I've been filling in spare ground with cyclamen (C. hederifolium), choosing plants with dark pink flowers. There is always room for more cyclamen and at £1.95 a pot, you can't feel guilty about buying them. £1.95? For a plant that starts to flower in July and continues till the beginning of November? That never misbehaves? That grows lustily, even among the roots of trees? It's a miracle.

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