Property: Doctor on the House - It's simple, just do it

The DIY books are wrong - you don't need tons of hardcore and concrete for low walls and paving, writes Jeff Howell
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The Independent Online
WRITERS have a knack of making simple things sound hard. I suppose anything can appear complicated when it is described in prose, but some building publications use photographs and illustrations as well and still manage to over-elaborate.

For example, leafing through the DIY books and magazines you may easily get the impression that garden walls and paving slabs have to be laid on tons of hardcore and concrete. This is rarely the case, and is a typical example of the excesses of modern house building being slavishly promoted for all circumstances. The main effect of this is to make people think that such tasks are impossibly hard work, or that they can only be done by experienced builders.

Paving certainly involves a bit of healthy physical activity, but it does not have to involve large-scale excavations or loads of concrete. It is usually enough to shovel off the topsoil (saved, to be used later for raised flower beds) and to bed the stone slabs or bricks on 50mm of coarse sharp sand. Brush sand into the joints, and the rain will be able to drain away without ponding. If any areas of paving subside later on, you can always lift them up and throw a bit more sand underneath, or just leave them and let the whole thing look more ancient. This is the beauty of not using cement or concrete.

On large areas you may want to use a spirit level to guide your removal of topsoil and bedding the slabs, but even this is not essential; a length of string stretched between two sticks gives you a line to work to. And who cares if it's not dead level?

Many people will have been put off trying their hand at bricklaying by DIY books showing deep trenches and concrete foundations. A high boundary wall will need a concrete foundation for stability, but low retaining walls for garden beds can be laid straight on to the subsoil, as walls have been built for thousands of years. Use the string as a guide to level off the ground, and walk up and down it a few times to compact the subsoil. Don't worry if there are soft spots or a bit of topsoil along the line of the wall - for work like this it really doesn't matter. Then bed one brick at each end and stretch the line between them as a guide for the others. You'll soon get the hang of it.

The most important thing is to use bricks which look good and are also going to stand up to the rigours of the weather. This rules out most modern bricks, apart from expensive hand-made ones, and rules in reclaimed bricks from demolition firms. Some people are afraid of demolition men because they look rough, but most of them are pussy cats underneath. Tell them you want the bricks for garden walls, and they should sell you good hard stocks or wire-cuts that will last longer than your house. Bed them in sand and lime mortar, mixed three to one, using the same coarse sharp sand that you have used as bedding for your paving.

The next few weeks are your last chance to do building work in the garden, before the plants start getting in the way. So don't be put off by the scare stories - just do it.

q You can contact Jeff Howell at the Independent on Sunday or by e-mail: