Building Successful Walls

Although the days of the great walled gardens have largely gone, walls still have an important role to play in even the most modern outdoor space. Low walls – less than a metre high – in particular lend themselves to the DIY enthusiast and few things can be used quite so effectively to partition off sections of the garden to add interest and invite the visitor to discover “hidden” areas. Walls this size can be made cheaply and require relatively little in the way of foundations or piers to support them – and with the addition of planting pockets or attached containers they can be every bit as attractive as they are functional.

Making the Footings

Although there is nothing like the amount of work involved in making the footings of a little wall as there is on taller structures, getting the foundations right is still important. For a typical wall, a single brick in width – know as “half-brick” wall, however much of a contradiction that sounds! – the footings should be two or three times the width of the wall. You need to dig a trench this wide and around 15 inches deep (38cm), placing 5 inches (12.5cm) of well compacted hardcore at the bottom and then pour a 4 inch (10cm) layer of a good, strong concrete mix on top. Make sure it is level and leave to dry.

The key to getting this stage right is being patient – so leave the concrete at least 2 or 3 days to make sure it dries thoroughly, covering the trench with plastic or wood if it unexpectedly comes on to rain.

Building the Wall

With the footings dry, lay out two parallel strings to mark the sides of the wall and lay out the first course of bricks, allowing a half inch gap (12mm) between each to accommodate the mortar. Once you are satisfied that everything is straight, mark their positions on the outside of the concrete footings so you will have something to refer to later. Begin by layering a bed of mortar on the footings and then lay each brick – remembering to add a dollop of mortar to the end to join it to its neighbour. When the first course is all in place, carefully fill the central gap.

Add a “stretcher” brick on the second row – a single brick laid at 90 degrees to the rest, which sits over the two rows below and makes each brick in the next course overlap the joins in the one below. Lay this second row, remembering to check to make sure your wall stays level and adding or subtracting mortar from your “bed” as necessary. Lay another stretcher at the far end too.

Continue alternating stretchers and straight rows until you reach the fourth course, when you’ll need to add a half-brick, split lengthways, next to the stretcher – to avoid creating a seam in the wall which would make it weak. Finally, at the top of the wall, cap the whole thing off by laying the last course on their edges, lying at right-angles to the line of the wall and then point them with mortar to help shed the rain.

There are many ways to lay bricks, but the method described here – known as the simple running bond – is probably the easiest for the novice “brickie” and requires the least number of cut bricks. More experienced brick-layers can, of course, afford to be more adventurous and some very striking walls can be made with the different patterns of bricks, making the wall an attractive feature in itself.

Legal and Practical

Generally speaking, walls of 1 metre or less can be built without any permissions, but some developers, for example, stipulate that front gardens must remain open, while in conservation areas, there may be restrictions on the types of materials you can use. It is always as well to check with the planning department of the local council and see if there are any restrictions on the deeds or rental agreement before you start.

For taller walls or those which are being built to retain a bank, the services of a good professional are a must – structures this big need to be very strong, not least because of the potential for damage or injury if they should fall unexpectedly.

While brick-laying is certainly not a quick job for the amateur, with care and patience it is possible to build a wall which – if done properly and given a little routine maintenance – should be gracing your garden for years.