Above, distant view of Transframe (with water-collecting surface) in the lower allotment. To the left, two circular fibreglass-netting structures for protection of brassicas and a path with water-collecting surface. The surfaces supply a below-ground storage container. To the right, structures for support of runner beans and raised beds, most of the beds hidden in this photograph.

Above, the composter (with nesting box.) In front, autumn-fruiting raspberries.







Introduction: composting
Obtaining compostable material and bed-extension
Disadvantages of plastic composters

Assorted techniques: composting, rainwater collecting

Disadvantages of traditional wooden composters
The PHD composter: mobile, flexible, energy saving
The 'low-level composter'
Turning the heap
Other aspects of composting

Using the right tool
Making tall raised beds
Rainwater collecting: introduction
Rainwater collecting: using paths
Rainwater collecting: a raised reservoir / pond
Making tall raised beds
A modified fruit press (to right)

See also other gardening pages:

Gardening/construction: introduction, with photos
Bed and board

Structures: plant protection and support
Structures: cloches, greenhouse, store/shelter, shed

Some design principles in gardening

Introduction: composting

I've devised a completely new composting system, which reduces the work of composting, using the PhD composter. The improved wooden composter I've designed has many advantages. Making compost involves bulk handling, if worthwhile amounts of compost are being made. This composter is designed to make transfer of materials easier. It has a further advantage - it can be moved from place to place very easily. The weeds growing in a new location are a valuable source of compostable material. They continue growing for some time, with no need to cut them and transport them. The weeds are eventually killed and when the composter is moved again, the ground left is almost weed-free and has improved fertility. Mobile composting is more efficient composting.

There are TV programmes which pretend otherwise, but fruit and vegetable gardening on any scale, for any length of time, involves disappointment as well as fulfilment. Reality quickly sorts out or  discourages for good any dilettantes who hope to carry away armfuls of beautiful fruit and vegetables in no time at all with minimal work and study of the subject. (The importance of knowledge as well as hard work should be stressed.)

The harsh realities come in many different forms: weeds, the worst of which can seem like one of nature's bad jokes, although it would be difficult to see the funny side of Japanese, giant or hybrid knotweed or some other weeds, pests - insect, bird, mammal and human (allotment vandals included here in the category of pest),  plant diseases, pests which spread plant diseases such as aphids, weeds which are the hosts of disease-causing organisms (yet another disadvantage of weeds), watering in times of drought, the time-consuming watering which isn't just a token gesture but enough to satisfy the voracious thirst of potatoes and other crops and ensure a good yield (subject to potato blight and perhaps other diseases), the difficulty of obtaining a good yield.

Even if most things go well (it's impossible for all things to go well - if temperatures are right and rainfall is just right, not too much, not too little, things are going well for the weeds as well) then there can still seem  a disproportion between effort and yield. Some crops are markedly superior to others in this regard. Runner beans give a better yield than broad beans, courgettes give a better yield than peas.

Composting gives a low yield. The  disproportion between effort and yield is very marked. A huge mass of compostable material gives not nearly as much compost as the gardener would like or the soil needs. To collect a huge mass of compostable material in the first place is very often impossible, or requires great effort. The end product is very desirable, but its contribution to soil fertility is more peripheral than central. In economics, there's a great gulf which is often cited, the gulf between infinite wants and scarce resources. In gardening, there's a gulf between the needs of the soil and the scarce resources of compost.

Every gardener should compost - it would be a breach of gardening ethics in most cases not to compost material which can be composted away, or have the material which could be composted transported to a distant site - but a gardener has to be careful not to give too much effort to composting at the expense of other gardening tasks, and non-gardening tasks and duties, for that matter.

There are many  dedicated composters, as well as fanatical composters, who devote great effort to securing diverse materials to build a well-balanced heap and who turn the heap to ensure that the heating effect continues. At the end of it all, the compost they produce is still a marginal product.  Manure, unlike compost,  is generally obtainable in large mass and makes correspondingly greater contributions to soil structure and soil fertility, despite the lower concentration of plant nutrients in manure. Composting should be viewed as a gardener's duty, an absorbing interest as well, perhaps, but no more than that, and certainly not the semi-sacred preoccupation of some organic gardeners.

My discussion here is in accordance with this thinking. I discuss ways of increasing the supply of compostable materials and ways of saving work -  the work of bulk handling, when compostable materials are available in quantity, and work once the composting process is under way.  I also discuss compost containers - plastic, traditional wooden, and the composters I use myself, designed to minimize the effort in producing compost: this valuable material, but one whose worth can easily be exaggerated.

So far as possible, composting should be integrated - unobtrusively, as I see it - into the other aspects of gardening. I discuss some gardening techniques which have a linkage with composting, such as hedge-cutting and weed clearing. Although nettles are a much finer compostable material than hedge clippings, hedge clippings may well be  obtainable in much greater masses than nettles. I advocate composters which have a larger area than most of the ones commonly used, allowing a greater area of growing weeds to be covered. The weeds continue to grow for some time as compostable material is added and the weeds contribute more compostable material, although not in substantial amounts.

Composters can have more than one function, as here. The composters on either side of the reservoir/ pond withstand the water pressure. After the compost was made, manure and soil were added and the composters became raised growing beds.

My Transframe has a great variety of uses. Here, it's used as a composter, after the addition of boarded side-panels.

Obtaining compostable material and bed-extension

To begin with, I emphasize the well-known fact that cooked food, bread, cheese, anything that omnivorous rats can eat, should never be regarded as compostable.

Even a large allotment or garden produces a very modest supply of compostable material, and even in autumn, when such plants as  runner bean, courgette and tomato are generally  available for composting.

Anyone who takes on an overgrown, neglected garden or allotment is  fortunate, although it may take time to realize this. An overgrown hedge 5 metres or more high is a great asset. Placing a composter near to a hedge like this is often a good idea, or composting near to it without using a composter.

I've made extensive use of twigs and the smaller branches from nearby hedges to extend the growing area: 'bed-extension.' This is a form of composting. The twigs and branches form an open network, allowing weeds to continue growing for some time (the weeds include grasses, and not just 'weed-grasses' such as couch grass.) The weeds contribute nitrogen, helping to offset the woody twigs and branches, which are high in carbon. I place a thick layer of manure over the twigs, preferably manure in clods or coarse pieces, which will remain on top of the twigs and branches and not fall through. Some of the nitrogen in the manure is washed away to the deeper level and helps to speed up the breakdown of woody material. In less than a year, crops can be grown in the area, although not crops such as carrots, which are harmed by manure. Soil is spread on the manure before planting. Only a thin layer is needed.

Books and articles often stress the need for a mixture of materials, giving a good balance of textures and a suitable ration of nitrogen to carbon. What they don't stress is the disproportionate effort often needed to ensure this, the difficulty of obtaining sufficient of these varied and contrasting materials. A compost heap made up almost entirely of hedge cuttings, high in carbon, with a very open texture, despite the leaves, is well worth having and certainly much better than nothing. There's no need to worry unduly, or at all, about bringing up materials with a less open texture, with a greater concentration of nitrogen, if they are unobtainable. In time, the hedge cuttings will form good compost, even if, as always, there isn't enough of it. Lawrence D Hills claims (in his classic but flawed and outdated book 'Organic Gardening') that hedge cuttings thicker than a pencil won't decay in a compost heap. This isn't true, of course - given enough time, all wood will decay, whatever the size - but it's a good rule for the short term.

A powered hedge cutter or shears can be used for mildly overgrown hedges, but for grossly overgrown hedges, I've used a different tool, a small hand-saw and loppers. I use loppers to detach many of the smaller branches, giving access to the larger branches, which I saw away. Before very  long, a grossly overgrown hedge has been reduced to a short, very bare-looking one, which will, however, revert to its previous size if allowed. A powered brush cutter or chain saw can avoid some but not all of this work.

During the season when the pictures on the page Photographs 2 were taken, I spent a very great deal of time constructing the wooden paths, designing and constructing the raised pond and composters shown on the right, designing and constructing transframe, and on all the other work of the allotments - and, amongst other things, watching the flight of swifts. There was no time to see to the privet hedges, which grew to a great height. When I did cut them to a fraction of their overgrown size, I piled up the cut material:

This is an area which, like the area occupied now by the raised pond and composters, and adjoining it, was obviously used as a dumping ground at some time in the past. Plastic, glass and metal were visible. The soil was only of an adequate depth  in one very restricted area, where I planted an apple tree, just visible, with its supporting stake, in the photograph above, taken  later in autumn.

Since the photograph was taken, I've added a thick layer of manure and a thin layer of soil and the bed is now available for planting. Without an enormous amount of effort, a large bed has been created. I've followed the same procedure to make a second, smaller growing bed.

One of the most important principles of sane composting is that composting should so far as possible be in situ, or not at a great distance from the compostable materials.  Bulky compostable materials should so far as possible be composted near to the supply of bulky compostable materials. Composting can often be carried out at the place where compost will be needed - composting on the growing bed, or the weed-infested ground which will be converted to a growing bed. A compost bin can often be placed on a particularly rampant area of weeds. They will continue growing for quite some time and well benefit the mix of compost materials, without any effort in cutting and transporting them. There are any number of other activities which can be carried out in the time saved.

Disadvantages of plastic composters

Plastic is generally the best material to use for a water butt - making a watertight wooden container isn't an easy matter - but not at all the best material to use for a compost bin, even when the plastic is recycled. There are various objections to the use of plastic compost bins:

  1. Recycling plastic uses large amounts of energy. This energy cost has to be set against the environmental benefits of breaking down kitchen or garden waste into compost in a plastic bin. The resources a plastic container wastes can be considered more significant than the ones it saves.
  2. Unlike metal or glass, which can be recycled many times, plastic in general can only be recycled once, due to contaminants. It's very probable that the plastic will end up in a landfill site sooner or later.
  3. Plastic is discordant in a garden or allotment, a synthetic material at odds with organic life. It's far better to restrict its use to things such as water butts where plastic is obviously the best material to use.
  4. Wooden bins are far more flexible than plastic bins, and can offer better insulation when they are placed next to each other. Three wooden bins can be placed in contact, giving the same benefits for heat insulation as three terraced houses in a row, which insulate each other. Three plastic bins are only available separately (although it would be quite easy to manufacture a set of three adjoining plastic bins) and have the same disadvantages for heat insulation as three detached houses. If a large amount of composting material becomes available, the volume of a plastic container can't be increased to take all the material.

I used a Rotol plastic composter for a time, many years ago. It can produce very good compost and the design has undeniable appeal - a conical shape which looks very good. For all that, the Rotol has the disadvantages of other plastic composters. The top diameter is 45cm and through this fairly small opening all the compostable material has to be inserted (after being lifted up to a height of around 75cm.) The Rotol composter is made of unrecycled plastic.

Composters, then, if at all possible, should be made from a renewable resource, wood, and if it can be obtained, reclaimed wood.

Disadvantages of traditional wooden composters

Even though wood is the best material to use for a composter, the traditional wooden bin has disadvantages:

  1. The wood of each of the four sides is in contact with the ground, absorbs water and begins to rot much earlier than the wood higher up. In gardens, appearance is usually given great weighting, but in allotments as well as gardens, appearance does matter. Many allotments have far too much rotting and collapsing wood. Habitat creation for small insects and other creatures can be taken too far!
  2. The wooden bin takes far too long to construct, and although the skill required is modest, not every user has the skill. This is primarily due to the need to construct a framework on which to attach the four sides, although many models have a very elaborate front in multiple sections which is time-consuming to construct and also completely superfluous.
  3. The bin is inflexible. At times when there is a large amount of material to compost (as at the time of the ‘autumn clear-up,' when runner bean and tomato plants and other plants have come to the end of their life) then a compost unit with a much larger volume might well be very useful.. The only option then is to use two or more units of a multi-unit composter, losing all the benefits of a single large volume. Compost heats up much more readily when the volume is greater.
  4. If the compost bin is placed against a wall, then it’s not possible to take advantage of the wall’s insulating value. Air flow between the back of the composter and the wall will increase the rate of heat loss. Ben Easey, in his very valuable but out-of-print book 'Practical Organic Gardening' writes: 'In a windy garden a windbreak (usually on the north side) is needed particularly by the slow-heating autumn-made heap, in which every degree above outside air temperature has to be fought for against the cooling effects of wind and rain.' A windbreak on any side is useful, though, and not only in windy gardens. A bin with four sides where only three are needed is also obviously uneconomical. The cost of the composter can be reduced by a quarter if the back of the composter can be omitted.
  5. The bin is very heavy. Once the composter - either bought or self-constructed - is in place, after assembling it or constructing it, there will be difficulties in moving such a heavy, unwieldy object if it's decided that it would be far better placed somewhere else, unless the bin is of the kind where the parts are slotted together.

The disadvantages of the traditional wooden composter are overcome by the 'improved wooden composter.'

The PHD composter: mobile, flexible, energy saving

This is an improved wooden composter. (PhD stands for 'Paul Hurt Designs.') The energy saved by using it is human energy. It requires less work from the gardener.  It overcomes the disadvantages of the traditional wooden composter outlined in the previous section and has  further advantages. For example,  it can be placed on sloping ground.

The composter has a PVC top, which has dual-function, for rainwater collecting and for increasing the temperature inside the composter. The greenhouse effect increases the temperature inside polytunnels and cloches as well as greenhouses, but it can also be used to increase the temperature inside a composter. The biological processes which produce compost are speeded up and the compost is made in less time. The composter is taller than average. Unlike most other designs, it makes fuller use of the vertical dimension. When the composter is empty - and when the composter is almost full - materials for composting can be grown inside the composter to make a contribution  to the common problem, lack of compostable materials, and the PVC panel enables them to be grown more quickly. One advantage of using a compost bin rather than an open heap is the fact that the compost bin is much neater, but most wooden compost bins are so low that materials (particularly long woody material such as brambles, which I compost often) tend to stick out of the top. My design hides the materials effectively.

The composter is made up of four panels, a front and rear panel and two side panels. Each panel is made up of two posts and horizontal slats and is self-supporting. The  posts have metal stakes which are pushed into the soil. This is very similar to the system of self-supporting boards which are used instead of boards permanently joined, as I explain on the page Bed and board. The separate panels can be carried to a new location and the composter reassembled very quickly. Each panel can easily be taken apart to form the separate components, boards and posts, and then reassembled.  When compost has been made in one location, the ground where the composter has stood is enriched and weeds have been suppressed. Moving the composter to a new location allows new ground to receive these benefits. Moving the traditional wooden composter to a different place is very difficult..

For hot composting to take place (I discuss this below) the minimum volume of compostable material needed is quite large, about 1.0m x 1.0m x 1.0m. A convenient size for the PhD composter is 1.2m x 1.2m x 1.35m.  Each side panel is of manageable weight and can be easily transported if the composter is this size. The composter is relatively tall but there's no need to lift the compostable material to this height to empty it into the composter, if it's at all bulky and heavy. The slats of each panel can be removed individually. The upper slats can be removed to empty compostable material into the composter using a wheelbarrow. The lower slats can be removed to take compost from the composter.  The configuration of the side panels can be altered very easily so that the composter can be placed on sloping ground, including  steep slopes.

When large quantities of material are being composted, an addition to the composter can save work. In larger gardens and other growing areas, matters of bulk handling become important.

 Instead of placing materials to be composted on the ground inside the composter, they are placed on a board raised above the ground, with strong supports. When the material has been converted into compost, one side of the board is raised, using a jack -  a botttle jack or car jack - and the compost will slide into a wheelbarrow, with a little encouragement - light work. The other side of the board is equipped with hinges.

Alternatively, the materials can be removed into the wheelbarrow before composting is complete when hot composting is being practised. The material is put back into the composter, with rearrangement of the material.

The 'low level  composter'

Low-level composters, quickly and easily constructed by using wooden edging boards. By adding boards, larger units can be made.

Edging boards, supplied in this country by Grange, provide a very quick and convenient way of making a composter. The capacity of the bin is much greater than would be expected. If the material inside is level with the top of the wood, the composter holds 315 litres, but more if the material is heaped up. The material inside will subside later. Many manufactured composters hold only about 200 litres. The cost of four edging boards is roughly 25.00, correspondingly less if two or three are bought. This compares favourably with the plastic composters in the 'Organic Gardening Catalogue' which cost 59.95 and 43.95 but have less capacity, or with the wooden compost bin which holds 600 litres but costs 85.75. This composter is put together in a matter of moments and other units can be added just as easily.

This low-level composter has the advantage that it's just the right height to allow the contents of a wheelbarrow to be tipped into the composting area, and from any available side. However, the higher sides of the standard composter can be removed so quickly that wheelbarrow loads can be added perfectly easily, until the compostable material reaches a certain height.

The Centre for Alternative Technology factsheet on Cool Composting states that in composting, 'better results are obtained with containers that are:

This low composter qualifies on all three grounds.

Turning the heap

The Centre for Alternative Technology's Factsheet is completely realistic in stating that very few people turn the compost heap, even if they have gone to the trouble of forming a heap which has heated in the first place. The heap is turned - if at all - after the temperature has reached a maximum and has then begun to fall. This is because moving such a heavy load deters almost all but physically strong and very committed people. Cold composting, which may take a year or more to make compost, is the dominant method of making compost now, and not just because, unlike cold composting, it doesn't require a large mass of material to start off the heating process. It requires far less effort than hot composting.

When the improved wooden composter is placed on a slope, then the physical effort required becomes easier. Gravity aids the process of moving the material and whilst the material is being moved, mixing and re-distribution take place. Growers who use a sloping composter will find that the system makes hot composting more practicable. Hot composting has great advantages. It can make compost in about six weeks and is far more efficient in killing  disease organisms and weed seeds. Using a sloping composter,  gardeners may well find that hot composting doesn't require enormous effort.

Other aspects of composting

I don't deal here with large-scale composting, the composting systems needed if compost is to be sold, the composting systems subject to legislation, the composting systems which require an energy input (such as the composting systems produced by Accelerated Compost Ltd) with in-vessel composting systems in general.

The advantages of the restrictions? The advantages of composting in the garden or allotment, rather than sending the material to an in-vessel composting system, are very substantial ones. Compostable materials are mainly water, and transporting heavy masses of water - along with the valuable organic matter - may make economic and environmental sense, or it may not. Not if the distance is great. Like paper recycling, organic waste recycling can have great benefits, negligible benefits or no benefits at all, and one of the most important considerations is the distance the compostable material has to travel - the 'composting miles.' The reason is to do with use of fossil fuel, of course. In situ composting, composting in the garden or allotment, has the advantage of composting distances amounting to yards not miles.

Another advantage of in situ composting is the benefit to wildlife, unless the composter is a closed vessel, such as a compost tumbler. The composter as a valuable wildlife habitat is often overlooked, but Ken Thompson's very lively, very interesting and very informative book 'No Nettles Required: the reassuring truth about wildlife gardening' outlines the advantages to wildlife. Ken Thompson is a researcher at Sheffield University and his book gives some of the findings of the 'BUGS project.' BUGS stands for 'Biodiversity in Urban Gardens in Sheffield.' The project was supported by the major government funder of environmental research, the Natural Environment Research Council.

Of compost heaps, he writes (Page 76, 77): 'Unfortunately, the BUGS project had neither the time nor the money to look at compost heaps in detail, but other research (much of it from Scandinavia) reveals that compost heaps are hugely important wildlife habitats in their own right. This is because warm, decaying plant material is a habitat that would otherwise be absent from gardens. Reptiles in particular like these conditions, and a survey in Bristol found that gardens with compost heaps were twice as likely to have resident slow worms as those without compost heaps. Given the appetite of slow worms for slugs, this has to be another good reason for starting a compost heap...compost heaps go a long way towards replacing a whole catalogue of wildlife habitats that would otherwise be rare or absent from gardens, and are increasingly rare in the wider countryside. Another interesting feature of compost heaps is that by providing a warm, insulated habitat, they allow many species to spread further north than they would otherwise do. Many native species live further north in compost than in any other habitat...' And, in a summary box: 'Compost heaps are...a uniquely valuable wildlife habitat...No gardener with any interest in wildlife should be without one, however lacking you may be in the raw materials.'

Using the right tool

Using the right tool  saves a great deal of work in compost making, as in other gardening activities. In this case, the correct tool is a manure fork. 'The Organic Gardener's Handbook' by Margaret Elphinstone and Julia Langley' is excellent, and has a very informative chapter on tools. This is their section on the manure fork:

'The manure fork is related to the pitch-fork, designed to lift material and throw it or load it somewhere else. It is the most useful tool for building compost heaps. You can use it to load seaweed into sacks on the beach, to throw muck into a trailer, to mix up your weeds and grass mowings into a good compost ... It is a pleasant tool to use properly, because when rhythm and balance are right there is very little strain involved. You can shift a ton of manure with no aches to show for it, and work comfortably all day with it at a steady pace.

'Manure forks have four or five rounded prongs which curve upward, and the prongs are set at an angle to the shaft to assist the lifting movements for which it is intended. If you cannot find a manure fork at your garden suppliers, try an agricultural store.'

Agricultural stores are well worth a visit - well worth regular visits - as a source of garden supplies.

Making tall raised beds

A photograph of some of the tall raised beds is provided to illustrate the section below on Rainwater collection, but for convenience I provide the photograph here as well:

The very tall raised beds on either side of the pond (there's another raised bed out of sight, to the left of the trellis) needed a sizeable quantity of a 'growing medium.' Obtaining sufficient soil to fill the beds would have needed a great deal of work. This is the  method I've used in this area and other areas. I've added only a small quantity of soil. I depend upon the fact that quantities of compostable material will be available later. I began by adding a thick layer of  hedge clippings, with thick stems, which are available in quantity. I aimed to preserve the open texture of this base layer. The vegetation growing here, such as nettles, could carry on growing relatively easily, for quite a time. Eventually, it would die, but the green material would fill the spaces in this layer. On top of the base layer, I added manure, in large pieces. (Large clumps dug up with a spade could have been used as well. These large pieces formed a foundation for the finer material to be added, to prevent the finer material falling into the base layer and filling the spaces. On the manure foundation, I added what compostable material I had at the time and a layer of soil. To summarize, the layers are these, from ground level up:

Hedge cuttings, with thick stems.
Large manure pieces.
Soil and compostable material.

Eventually, the soil level will sink and can be topped up with new compostable material (and manure and soil, if available). The technique allows growing to begin, without the work and delays of importing sufficient soil to fill the containers.

Rainwater collecting: introduction

Gardeners in arid areas have always had to find ways of saving water. Now, in this country, rainfall isn't taken for granted, and there's more and more interest in ways of conserving water. In this section, I discuss amongst other things ways of collecting rainwater from hard surfaces such as paths.

Techniques and equipment  which don't work or which require an  effort completely disproportionate to the results should  be abandoned or modified or at least recognized for what they are: token gestures. An example: water butts, intended to make a contribution to water collecting. Their contribution is negligible. This is for the obvious reason that the collecting area is very small. For a water butt with a diameter at the top of 0.4 m (there are many water butts with smaller diameters than this), the collecting area is only about 0.12 square metres. In general, even five water butts will collect a negligible proportion of the rainwater which falls on a growing area and will make a negligible contribution to satisfying the demand for water. Virtuous feelings of contributing to 'conservation of resources' aren't sufficient justification.

Water butts are most useful for storing water which has been supplied by a tap - if, of course, a mains water supply is available. There's a water tap near to my allotments, but the supply of water has sometimes been interrupted and this has happened in spring, during a period of extended drought, when I was planting asparagus and other crops, I used up all the water in the large tank which stores water collected from the greenhouse roof, which holds 1 000 litres (a tonne of water) and after that, my only supply of water came from the small pond in the upper allotment. Since then, I've extended the facilities for water collection and storage in the ways I describe here. If gardeners in this country can't take for granted an assured supply of mains water and adequate rainfall, gardeners in arid climates face much greater difficulties, of course. It's possible to collect only a proportion of the rainwater which falls on a growing area or an area near to the growing area. It's obviously not possible to make the whole of a growing area into a collecting area, but it's necessary to have available collecting areas much larger than the collecting area of a water butt, or a number of water butts. I use paths and reservoirs to collect water.

Rainwater collecting: using paths


In this photograph, just visible, on the left, is a black water butt in my lower allotment. The water butt collects a little water but its main use is  to store water from a much larger collecting area. (The wooden structureto the right of the water butt is a transframe, shown here with only a PVC top-panel, no side-panels. The PVC top panel can be fitted with a section of guttering and can be used for water collection too.)  The  two principal hard surfaces shown in the photograph are  the two paths constructed from wooden boards, with raised wooden edging. I've laid down heavy-duty plastic sheet material on the path on the left and covered it with netting (not clearly visible in the photograph) so that it's possible to walk on the path without slipping. The rainwater which falls on the path runs down  into a container at the bottom of the path, buried in the soil. A wooden board covers the container. Containers of very large capacity are obtainable which can be buried in the soil, but the container here is much smaller. At intervals, I pump the water from the buried container into the water butt, using a  hand pump.   The pump can be used to pump water to growing areas or other water storage containers uphill. Alternatively, a watering can can be  submerged in the water container. This is often a convenient way of using the water.

This method of collecting water wouldn't be possible in the case of a path which is on level ground, but the slope needn't be at all steep. Paths on gently sloping ground can be used for water collection.

The system shown can be regarded as a prototype, but the only  improvements needed are to do with appearance, not functionality. The system works perfectly, and the volume of water collected is substantial - given a modicum of  rainfall, of course.

More recently, I've developed techniques, not described here, for rainwater collection which don't require the conversion of paths.

Rainwater collecting: a raised reservoir / pond

The image shows  another large water collecting surface, a reservoir. 

The bulky material on either side of the reservoir withstands the pressure exerted by the water in the reservoir. There are supporting structures hidden from view but these are cheap and simple to make. Their role is to support and keep level the rectangular edging of the reservoir. The reservoir can be constructed on sloping as well as level ground - the ground here is sloping and uneven - and doesn't require a wall as the boundary on one side. It can be constructed anywhere in a growing area, in fact.

The wall here is south facing, so this is a very favourable situation for growing, but the soil in this area is very thin. Beneath it is a deep accumulation of rubbish which must have been deposited a long time ago - broken glass, rusting metal and plastic.  The  beds on either side of the pond allow crops to be grown here now.   

The reservoir is functional. A primary function is collection of rainwater which can be used to irrigate crops, using the handpump, water syphoned from the reservoir or a watering can. It would also be possible to add an overflow system which includes piping. It's intended, though, to be more than functional, a pond  So, one of the things I've planted in the pond is the native white water lily, Nymphaea alba  (dormant at this time of year, of course). The rectangles of soil and water form an effective contrast, I think.

This shows the areas of the water-collecting surfaces in my allotments in square metres.

water butt 0.4
small pond 0.7
PVC top-panel of transframe 1.5
reservoir 2.7
water-collecting path 6.3
greenhouse 36.5

The greenhouse is a comparatively large one, over 11 metres long. Growing areas are water collecting areas as well, of course, but not the growing area inside the greenhouse. The large contribution to water collecting made by the greenhouse roof is subject to this {restriction}, then: not all the water collected by the greenhouse roof can be used in other areas.

 The water collecting path is narrow. Adding a water collecting surface to the wider and longer curved path to the right would increase the water collecting surface significantly. The method used for a straight path has to be  modified for a curved path but is straightforward to implement.


Transframe is an exceptionally versatile modular system which allows the construction of many different pieces of equipment for use by gardeners - and people without a garden. Supports, panels and other attachments are bolted in place through pre-drilled holes. Most of the uses (not all) are shown in the adjoining panel in red print.

One use for Transframe is as a growing cabinet. It can be placed on the soil, but it can equally well be placed on a hard surface, such as a patio, with growing bags used for the crop. (In this case, supports are used with rectangular rather than pointed ends.) The growing cabinet is far more substantial than any of the usual 'mini-greenhouses,' even though it's inexpensive. Although it's quite heavy, its separate units can be carried very easily. Disassembling the growing cabinet and reassembling it can be carried out quickly - or units can be put together to construct another piece of equipment.

The growing cabinet will be useful to people with no land for growing at all, people with land but no greenhouse, and people who have a greenhouse but who need to rest the soil. This is my own situation at the moment. After growing tomatoes in the greenhouse for three years, there's the risk - or the certainty - of virus diseases if I continue to grow tomatoes in the greenhouse soil

. The growing cabinet with medium supports isn't tall enough for cordon (indeterminate) tomato plants grown in the usual way, vertically, but it is tall enough for bush (determinate) tomato plants and cordon varieties grown horizontally. Wild tomatoes, in their native habitat, aren't supported, of course, and grow along the ground. The growing cabinet can also be used for many other crops, to give just one example, lettuces grown in autumn and early winter.

Not shown in the photographs is the self-watering system, made up of a gutter which clips to one end of the growing cabinet (this obviously has to be slightly lower than the other end) and a tube leading to seep hose laid on the soil, or inserted into growing bags.

The adjoining diagrams give information about supports and other attachments.

Making a table with transframe is very easy. If the growing cabinet is the starting point, the PVC side panels and top panel  are removed, leaving the  frame, with medium supports. A panel with wooden boards is simply placed on the frame. There are holes at the corners and bolts are dropped into place to secure the panel, without the need to tighten nuts on the bolts.  Seen from above:

The boards can be covered with two sheets of exterior grade plywood to give a smooth surface:

Tables are very useful in gardening but generally very much underused. They can be used when harvesting potatoes and many other crops. When the potatoes are dry, they can be dropped into bags from the table very easily. When a table is needed for open-air eating and drinking, the Transform can provide one very quickly. I have a cider-press and other cider-making equipment. Without a table, the operations of quartering the apples, preliminary chopping of the apples in the scratter machine and use of the cider press itself are more difficult. A table isn't usually needed on a daily basis. When the table is no longer required,  the components can be used for other purposes.

Alternatively, when the table is not in use, it can be covered with a PVC panel. This forms the top panel of the growing cabinet, increasing the temperature inside the panel by the greenhouse effect, but now with a different function, as a water collector. A section of guttering attached to the panel collects water from the panel.  More information about the panel below.

The top panel with boards can be removed, inverted and used as a  path, a boardwalk, complete with wooden edging. Sections of boardwalk are shown in the photographs on the right. They are laid on black weed-control fabric. It's common to put wood-chips on black fabric, since the fabric on its own looks unsightly, but the wood-chips soon begin to break down and weeds grow very readily. A wooden boardwalk puts an end to the problem of weeds growing on the path, and the chore of frequently clearing weeds on a path.

If the frame alone is used with short supports, then it becomes the edging for a bed, marking the boundary of the bed. The frame is supported, rather than being laid directly on the soil surface, so that it's above the level of the soil. The wood of the frame will last much longer. The usual method of constructing timber edges for beds has the disadvantage of exposing the timber to soil water.

Transframe becomes a composter when the frame is used with medium supports, no panels - except, possibly, a PVC panel on top for water-collection (please see below) - and horizontal members. Four boards - the ones used as a table top and for constructing the boardwalk - are bolted to light horizontal supports to make the horizontal members.(The separate boards not shown in this diagram):

Water-collection has become more and more important to gardeners. The idea that water butts and other similar containers filled by rainfall (or other precipitation) can make a serious contribution to water conservation is obviously false, unless rainfall is exceptionally heavy for long periods of time. In most circumstances, in this country and others, after months of average rainfall, the water butt won't have collected very much water at all. This is obviously due to the fact that the surface area of the water butt is small. The PVC upper surface of the growing cabinet described above is considerably larger, and can make a more substantial contribution to saving water.

This collecting surface can be used for various other functions of the Transframe. The PVC surface, with gutter and tube, can be used, for example, on the table, the composter and the netting protection system. The water in this case isn't directed to the soil (or growing bags). The pipe feeds the water into a plastic container. The plastic container can be placed on a lightweight trolley, which is easily obtainable. The trolley can be wheeled to wherever the water is needed. This 'wheeled watering can' avoids the effort of carrying a heavy watering can full of water.

Transframe with boarded sides can be used for 'hiding and disguising,' with a variety of useful functions. One use is for disguising a container storing garden tools. Another use concerns water collection and storage. Old baths are often used for this purpose on allotments, a very practical way of storing water but very  unsightly.

I think that the appeararance of a garden or allotment is important - the beauty of a garden or allotment is important, if it can be attained, despite the fact that this beauty is of an impermanent kind. if the transframe supports are splayed, then transframe can effectively hide an unsightly bath. Although a PVC top-panel obviously isn't needed for water-collection - the use of a top-panel with plywood sheets underneath disguises the bath more effectively. Water is diverted from the top-panel to the path by means of the guttering attached and a tube.

Obviously, financial factors may be decisive. Anybody who gardens and has no money to spare to hide a bath has every reason to feel that this is a luxury.

I prefer netting protection for crops with structures which have curved supports. Gardeners who prefer rectilinear structures can fix long supports to transframe and easily construct a walk-in (or smaller) netting cage. In this case, the frame itself isn't bolted at the top of the structure but much lower down, nearer to the soil surface. On the right is a photograph and information about transframe used to protect carrots against the  carrot fly, the worst pest of carrots.

Transframe as a chicken run, with wire netting panels on the sides and a wire netting panel, or solid, water-resistant panel on top, is suitable for small chicken varieties ('bantams.') The chicken run is restricted in width, but not in length, if two units are placed end to end. This specialist use, as well as its use to construct a chicken house, isn't described further here. Transframe can also be used for housing some other livestock, or some pets, such as rabbits. These uses are a striking demonstration of the versatility of the system. 

I don't provide information here about how to construct the components of Transframe. This is quite a straightforward matter, and with one exception, common tools are all that's required.

Two views of Transframe as a growing cabinet, with PVC top- and side-panels.

Transframe as a table, with boarded top-panel.  The PVC
water-collecting panel can added when the table is not in use.

The boarded top-panel ...

... becomes a useful temporary or permanent path when
inverted, complete with edging: a radical transformation of this
Transframe unit. For use as a permanent  path, the unit is
laid on weed-control fabric. The reverse operation is just as
easy. When a table is needed, perhaps during harvesting of
vegetables or fruit, the path section is inverted and placed on
the transframe.

Transframe as a composter, with boarded side-panels. The boards are the dividers used in the system of edging for beds. The PVC top-panel can be put in place for water
collection and to improve heat insulation (since compost is
made more quickly at higher temperatures.)

The same system - boarded side-panels and a PVC top-panel - is used for 'hiding and disguising.'  The system can be used to disguise a tool store, with other security arrangements, such as chaining tools together, or the use of an inner tool container. Old baths are often used for water collection and storage. These too can be disguised.

Transframe for growing carrots has side-panels with fine anti-insect mesh. The carrot fly is the most serious pest of carrots but is low-flying and can be prevented from reaching the crop with protective netting 60cm high. The netting here is more than adequate. One panel only shown. No top-panel is necessary. This arrangement can also be used for protecting other crops.