Garden wall repair is an opportunity to study old methods

Garden wall repair is an opportunity to study old methods

I am fortunate enough to have a walled orchard dating back to the 19th century.

The walls, of course, are exposed to the elements and some have survived in better condition than others.

For a long time, I’d watched the East Wall deteriorate, knowing I had to do something about it, but being held back by other priorities. Finally, I was able to fix it.

Trial and error

Like all the walls in our district, this one is made of round river stones held in place by copious backfilling of raw lime mortar.

The walls are made of different materials in other parts of France but there are two universal lessons to be learned here.

One lesson is that to make a true renovation, you have to understand the old methods in action, not just in theory.

This requires looking at and thinking through examples, but it’s mostly a matter of physical trial and error.

The second lesson is that if you are going to learn by experience, by making mistakes, you must practice in something that is not of vital importance.

My orchard wall was perfect: it had no roof to bear, nothing to depend on, and I was the only one who cared what it looked like.

Read more: French DIY: My mission is to build a cost-effective garden pergola

‘Hard’ gardening

The first job was to do some tough gardening: carefully pulling the ivy out, scraping and removing the moss, and cutting down any garden plants that would prevent me from getting to the stonework.

Next, inspect and decide on the outcome I was aiming for.

The wall had lost its top layer and I had to mark where my repairs would end by extending a long straight line from one end to the other.


Now to the demolition.

I didn’t want to lose too much of the existing structure but had to restore it to solid work that hadn’t been damaged by the weather.

This was my chance to study how the wall was originally built.

As I carefully removed the stones, I began to appreciate the effort that went into selecting them.

They were all about the same size. The builder chose the largest stones that could be manipulated with one hand (leaving the other free to use mortar). If I needed new stones, I would have to follow this model.

Mortar reproduction

The mortar was not as straightforward as it seemed. It may have sounded rushed but it was mixed and applied in a certain way that I should try to replicate.

It would be difficult to make identical mortar because in order to do so I would have to find the same aggregate.

I imagine this came from somewhere nearby to save on transportation costs – perhaps the river – but you can’t just drill holes wherever you want these days.

Bought sand should do, but I didn’t want it to be too soft. The original slurry was chunky, containing pebbles up to 2 cm long.

To match it up, I started with grit and sifted it until it was fine enough to use but still had large particles in it.

Build the wall back up

To build the wall back up I decided to start with the deepest holes first and get the top more or less level before I finished it.

The unknown original mason managed to make neat rows of evenly spaced stones, but I’m sure he did an apprenticeship, whereas this was my first attempt.

I did my best and hope the wall will stand for another 150 years.

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