The Physic Garden Build

Laura Livingstone

06 Jun 2017

Our empty plot is empty no more! We have been busy with our physic garden build this month and it is starting to take shape. Things started with the raised beds; a small but hardworking team met early on a glorious Saturday morning to begin work.


Before we started work

The first job (and one that took longer than expected) was marking out the garden. Three men debating over the exact position of a straight line drew a few raised eyebrows as the fence line and the raised beds were marked out, but at this point no one strolled over to ask what we were up to! This soon changed as we started digging out the shallow ditches that would hold the base to the raised beds, with a steady stream of visitors and local residents drifting over, intrigued by what we were doing.

The glorious weather that we had been enjoying had some downsides – it had dried out the earth, making it difficult to cut through, and the heat slowed us down as we worked. Keith, one of our volunteers, did a tremendous job removing an old tree stump, spending at least three hours digging it out of the ground.  Our next job was to put together the bases for the beds. We assembled these on a level piece of ground and then carried them over to the shallow trough that we had created. This required serious manpower and coordination as we were essentially lifting three 2.5m railway sleepers at once!


Base assembly

After our bases were set down we strengthened the next layer using wooden dowels that we made by cutting ash broom handles and drilling holes into the sleepers that we lined up and hammered down using the post rammer (ash wood is one of our strongest timbers and has been used for centuries to produce tool handles and furniture).  We finished the raised beds by screwing all the sides together and attaching the corners of the beds to posts that we had placed on the planting side.



Cutting dowels and measuring holes

Raised Bed

The finished bed


The Wattle Fence

Three days later (and still basking in sunshine) we were back to build our wattle woven fence, chosen for this part of the project as it reflects some of the building techniques from the 13th century.   The good weather was again a mixed blessing. With little to no rain in the previous two weeks the ground was solid, making it difficult to hammer in our posts before we could begin weaving. While some of our volunteers where busily hammering in the fenceposts, the rest of us were getting to grips with snedding (the process of removing side shoots from willow rods) using a billhook.  The billhook is a tool that any medieval countryman would have recognised as it has been in use since the Bronze Age.  Its heavy weight and sharp blade cut through the side shoots with ease. But the skill was in the wheedling of the billhook so it would not continue into the rod itself; removing the bark or leaving cut marks in the rod could cause it to crack when under tension in the weave.

Post Hammering


A pupil from Chartershall Secondary School using a billhook 


The fence goes up

The weave itself was surprisingly quick to construct with the team working efficiently using the continuous weave technique: this is where you move from one side of the fence and work back in the opposite direction (a little confused by this sentence!). The challenge came at the ends where you needed to “pack up” the ends of the weave to ensure that no height was lost as you waved back to the other side. This involved selecting the correct sized rods, knowing when to stop packing up, and being aware of how far round you should go – a tricky balance to get right! At the end of day three, with help from pupils from Chartershall school, we finished our weave. 

Packing before the next run


Making sure that the weave is tight

Almost finished….

The finished fence!

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