Garden School:


Garden School:
Teaching this week: Rose pruning (as always!) and leaf mold.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Kiftsgate, and Terraces

Yesterday, as it was raining at home, I went out for the day to Gloucestershire, where the weather was much better - well, to start with, at least.

I wanted to go and visit Kiftsgate Court Gardens, having read about their Water Garden: during August they don't open until 2pm so I went to nearby Hidcote first, to make a day of it.

Well, I'd been to Hidcote a couple of years ago, but I have to say that this time it was a real disappointment.

You know how often you read about gardens being very "tired" in August? I hadn't experienced that myself, as the gardens in which I work just keep on going throughout the season. However, I have to say that now I have seen this phenomenon for myself.

Hidcote was Tired.

Everything was dusty-looking and scraggy: there was a lot of evidence of dead-heading with not much second flush to be seen: there was a lot of bare soil and quite a lot of weeds, which I fully allow in private gardens, but don't expect to see in National Trust properties where they have large paid teams of professional gardeners, and vast numbers of volunteers.

Worse, they were cutting the hedges, so whole areas of the garden were fenced off, and we were subjected to the never-ending whine and clatter of power tools.

Why can't they do that after hours? It's a bit much for visitors, who have travelled a substantial distance to see the famous White Garden, to find bits of plastic tape tied across the entrance.  Not to mention the teeth-gritting annoyance of the constant noise. There was no getting away from it, as they were also power-cutting the yews in the Kitchen Garden section.  Oh, and did I mention the steamroller and other heavy equipment which were re-surfacing the tennis court?

Yes, I appreciate that work of this kind has to be done, but hedge-trimming could be done after hours, and heavy construction could, you would have thought, be done much earlier in the day. Construction workers generally start at 8am or earlier, and for something as prestigious as a NT property, you'd think they'd insist that the heavy work was done over a couple of early mornings.

Strangest of all was to see a worker using electric hedgetrimmers - with a power cable, an extension lead, a wheelbarrow etc all trailed across the paths -  to trim an Irish Yew - you know, the upright ones, Taxus baccata 'Fastigiata', the ones that are traditionally not ever trimmed, as they have a nice neat upright habit and don't need it. But this one was getting the fine tooth-comb treatment, with foliage being taken off in microscopic amounts. Over and over the same area she went, clatter clatter clatter with the hedgetrimmer,  and a tiny rain of tiny bits of yew floated down around her feet. Why? Why? It was only about 12' tall, not exactly out-growing it's location, and although yes, the result was un-naturally neat, it was un-natural!

The only good thing about it was finding one elderly gardener finishing off some box hedges with proper shears. I stopped for a chat, and he told me that when he first started there, 37 years earlier, it was all done with hand-tools.  We had a lovely chat about cutting box hedges by eye, rather than by using strings or wooden frames: he told me that the only hedges for which they used any sort of formal measure were the beech hedges in the Long Walk.

This, we agreed (we were getting on like a house on fire by this time) was because with a long hedge, it's easy to lose your line and end up with bulges, which then get worse every year. So they would station one chap with a whistle at the end, and he would give directions to keep them in a straight line as they cut it. As this chap was a former sailor, I wondered if he shouted "Starboard a bit!" or "Put your helm to Port!" . We laughed.

Otherwise, all hedges are done "by eye" which, we agreed, gave a more natural line.

Personally, I find that power tools are not particularly quicker than hand shears, and there is always the horrifying moment when your wrist slips and an unexpected large hole appears.  I suppose the exception has to be if you are doing very long sweeps of tall, dead plain hedging. Which I avoid.

Anyway, the noise quite took the edge off my enjoyment, and I ended up leaving Hidcote early, and sitting outside Kiftsgate, waiting for it to open. I met a delightful elderly couple who were doing the same, and we had a very nice chat while we were waiting.

Kiftsgate - ah, that was nice, that was! I'd never been there before, and it was quite lovely. The entry ticket had a map on the back, which was economical and simple: they also have the usual lavishly illustrated book, but I don't usually bother with those, as you can't read them whilst walking round the garden. You really need to have read them before arriving. I suppose the idea is that you take them home and study them later, but then what if you see something in the book that you missed? Oh, of course, you have to go back, silly me.

If you've never been there, I do recommend it, but be warned, there are some staggeringly steep steps!

It's perched on top of the hillside, and has a wonderful half-moon bathing pool right down at the bottom. From the top, you look at this pool and think "how on earth do I get all the way down there?"

I think that this photo - not one of mine - was taken from part-way down the terraces.

Talking of terraces, I'm always interested to see how other people tackle the difficult problem of steep slopes.

The only real answer is terracing, and it's always good to see how other people have managed it. Mechanically, the best, cheapest and simplest way is to use planks going across the slope as the soil retainers, with posts of some kind to pin them in place.

Here's an example using very chunky wooden posts as the pins, and the same chunky wooden poles at the soil retainers, although it looks as though they are also using plain wooden planks behind the more decorative wooden poles.

This is not a bad idea, as it would delay the time it takes for the wood to start rotting.

This appears to be laid out like steps, but has planting on each step, which seems a bit contrary, unless you never intend to go up and down them.

Here's a variation on the same theme, this time only using thin wooden planks as the retainers, and I don't know what pinning method was used.

This was to be used for growing vegetables, and was built quite roughly to see if it would work.

The idea was that taller plants would be grown on the top levels, with shorter ones below, so that they would not shade each other.

The owner quickly found that once the planting grew, it wasn't possible to climb up on it for weeding etc, so he put a planking "lid" on one of the terraces, for access, and was planning to change it's position each year as part of a rotation system.

The main drawback with this style of terracing is that you can only do straight lines...


While looking for illustrations of this point, I found this site: Terraforce, a company who make hollow core (how can anything other than the core be hollow, I wonder?) terracing blocks. 

They do a  lot of what you might call industrial stuff, but this is their domestic version.

The big plus point is that it can make curves, which are sadly lacking in the usual plank-and-pin arrangements.

What do you think of this?

My first thought was "ugh" and it took me a while to work out why - it's the open tops, they look so much like breeze-blocks. Not pretty!  And yet, they provide a whole row of individual planting cells, and would be perfect for aubretia or any of the "softening" tumbling planting.

And they make wonderful curves possible! Perhaps if they had arranged a photo that had the tops of the cells filled with tumbling planting, I might have liked it more.

Where was I going with this? Oh yes, the Kiftsgate terracing.

They went in for massively chunky terracing, using angle iron and what appeared to be whole tree trunks cut in half.

Most of them were set with the flat side outwards, against the pinning, which made them look like planks. But one or two were the other way round, with the curved, bark side of the trunk against the pinning, and that was a great deal more attractive, not least because it made the angle irons much less visible. Sorry, I didn't think to take a photo of it.

On my way out, I stopped to buy a plant - I know, I just can't resist - and fell into conversation with the lady taking the money, who turned out to be the owner. I asked her about the terracing, and she said that she wished they had set it all with the bark side out. "It was a mistake" she said, but after 15 years they had learned to accept it. 15 years! It looked so fresh, I had assumed that it had been recently updated: apparently not.

Back to the beginning of my visit - I'd wanted to see their Water Garden,  and it was well worth the trip - you know how often you see artful photos of lovely gardens, but when you get there, you realise that they must have set up special lighting and used complicated cameras to get just that lovely effect, and it's all a bit disappointing?

Not in this case.

If you google for Kiftsgate water garden, you will get photos taken by experts - and here is my photo of it.

And it looks exactly like this!

It's situated in the old tennis court, way down at the far end of the garden, surrounded by yew hedges and accessed through a sort of three-sided barn, or rural bus stop, which makes it fully enclosed and very private in feel.

It's wonderfully minimalistic, not to everyone's taste, but is so clean and fresh-looking that it is quite irresistible.

The central lawn is accessed by large stepping slabs - I did wonder if any of them would tilt and tip me into the water, but luckily they didn't - and the entire colour scheme is just the black of the water, the white slabs,  and the green of the grass.

I was really impressed by the novel idea of making the water black: the shape of the pool makes you think that it's a swimming pool, so you expect it to be bright blue. But instead it is lined in black, and the effect is wonderful.  OK, I admit it, I did wonder if they had coloured the water, and I also wondered how deep it was, as it was quite impossible to see into it. It could have been two inches, or bottomless. So I knelt down and dipped my hand in, and I can tell you that I got as far as the elbow before chickening out. And the water was, indeed,  perfectly clear, not tinted!

About ten minutes after I arrived, the water feature suddenly sprang to life - which made me look around guiltily in case I'd been seen dipping my arm into the water.


And this was lovely again - the sculptures each had their own trickle of water, and they swayed and bobbed gently as the water started to flow.

So there you go, Kiftsgate goes right up there with Cerney House as being top of my list for gardens to visit in the Cotswolds area, so far.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Mosquitoes and Chrysanthemums

What an odd combination, you might be thinking.

Not so! Read on!

There is an increasing concern in the UK about mosquitoes - it seems that mozzie bites are on the up and up, and the number of bites reported to doctors has increased by 250% against figures from 10 years ago.

We are lucky here in the UK that malaria is not a problem, even though we have mozzies: as there is no malaria in the country, the mozzies can't spread it. And we no longer have malaria as we have pretty well drained all the marshes in which they breed, thanks to the work of Doctor Ronald Ross, who worked out - back in the late 1800s - that mozzies carried malaria, and that they bred in the marshlands. The work of draining marshlands continued for decades, and by the 1950s malaria was a thing of the past.

So to us, it's just the annoyance of itchy red bumps. I won't add pictures - if you don't know what a mozzie bite looks like ("lucky you") just Google it and look at Images.

Apparently the main reason for the rise in mozzie bites is that there has been an increase in breeding sites for them: they like standing water,  and they need 10-12 days for their eggs to hatch, go through the larval stage and turn into adults. This is why marshes and swamps are so perfect for them. However, as well as our nice convenient sewers and drains, which have any amount of small areas of still water,  we now have vast numbers of water butts, water features, bird baths etc. Perfect.

So what can we do?

1) Bird baths - keep changing the water. Daily, preferably. Just tip it out, onto a flower bed to avoid waste, and fill it up again. Don't top it up - tip out the old stuff.

2) Water butts. Cover with a lid, and make the lid as close-fitting as you possibly can. Use foam rubber to fill in any gaps around the down-pipe, if it is the old-fashioned sort. Add goldfish! As mentioned earlier, I have a couple of fish in my uncovered water tank, and they are keeping it completely clear of all larvae. They have been so successful that I have had to start feeding them!

3) Water features: run them! The point of a water feature is to bring sound and movement into the garden, so let them run. Or go for the sort that has a hidden reservoir, with pebbles or stones on top, so when you turn it off, all the water runs back down out of sight.

4) Remove standing water: clear away old paddling pools, old tyres (how many of you have old tyres lying around in your gardens? Actually, more than you would think....), buckets, pots, saucers, old planters, anything that holds water. Clear blocked gutters and down-pipes so that water can drain away. Fill in hollows in paths etc where puddles form.

Eliminating the breeding areas is cheap, simple, quick, and can make a huge improvement, if you are being pestered by mozzies.


Now, in case you are wondering if you have them or not, this is what mozzie larvae look like: and this picture is very nearly life-size, they are about the actual size of the two on the right. Or maybe a little smaller... anyway, clearly visible with the naked eye.

They "hang" under the surface of the water, breathing through their tails, and when disturbed they sink down away from the surface, then make their way back up again when they think you aren't looking.

They do this with a wriggly, double-jointed motion.

So if you are unsure, look for little wriggling things either dropping down, or coming back up to the surface.

The classic way to prevent them breeding in water butts is to add a drop of oil or detergent to the water - this forms a thin skin which prevents them from breathing. Olive oil is probably better than petrol.....

...but I have found an interesting "natural" preventative measure for mozzies. Yes, finally we get to the Chrysanthemum connection!

I read a comment saying "put a chrysanthemum stem in the water butt to prevent them breeding". This seemed a bit unlikely, so I researched it.

Apparently two types of Chrysanthemum contain Pyrethrum, which is a naturally-occurring insecticide. It appears that you collect and dry the flowers, then crush them and add to water to get the chemical out. It is fairly harmful to humans, by the way, so do it carefully - but it's extremely harmful to mozzies, and actually stops them breeding.

So, "a stem" of a random Chrysanthemum is unlikely to help, but you could try floating a flower head or two of Chrysanthemum. cinerariifolium and C. coccineum in the water butt.

Which ones are they?

C. cinerariifolium or Dalmation Chrysanthemum.

Also known as Tanacetum cinerariifolium just to confuse us further.

There is a lot of confusion over how to actually use these flowers: most sources agree that you dry the flower heads, then crush them, and they retain their potency for many years in this state.



To use them, you mix them with water and use the result as a spray.

This one, [left] is C. coccineum by the way, as you would expect from the pinkish petals. Much prettier than the white version.

Where were we? Oh, yes, confusion. I found one site recommending that you smear the flowers onto your bare skin to repel mozzies.

I found another site stating that "Prolonged contact with the dried flowers can lead to allergic dermatitis, allergic rhinitis and asthma" which is a bit worrying.

Yet another site suggested that it was the central yellow disk that contained the active ingredient.

So the moral of this story is that you can find anything on the internet, but you can't always believe what you find.

However, I think we can draw one conclusion: a  random stalk of a random chrysanthemum probably won't do the trick, but you could try a flower or two of one or other of these specific chrysanthemums.

Ideally we need someone with two water butts side by side, who would be willing to float the flowers in one but not in the other, then observe the quantities of larvae to be seen, to see if there is any reduction. Any volunteers? I would, but all my home water butts are tightly lidded.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Wisteria: flowering, pruning and other myths

I recently had a question from a lady in London about her Wisteria, which had failed to flower for the past 20 years. This is quite a common question, along with "How and when do I prune it?" so I thought I'd repeat and expand my answer to her, here, for everyone's benefit.

Firstly, there are three reasons why Wisteria refuse to flower: lack of sun, incorrect pruning, and lack of nutrition.

Well, four, if you include "Wisteria grown from seed take 20 years to flower, so don't waste time collecting the seeds, buy one in a pot, and preferably already in flower so you know what colour it will be."

Nutrition:  Starting with the easiest one first, nutrition: if the plant has been there for many years, and in particular if it is planted right hard up against a wall, it is quite possibly getting a bit low on nutrients. I would suggest giving it a small fist-full of bone meal once or twice through the summer: scatter it around the main trunk, scratch it into the soil and then water it in.

You can also give it a feed of something like Tomato Feed, diluting it down exactly as instructed on the container, in the late summer/early autumn. This will (theoretically, at least) help it to make flowering buds for the following spring.

Should you give it tomato feed every two weeks after flowering during the late spring? Personally, I don't think so, but a lot of people recommend it, so why not give it a go - again, dilute it properly, there is nothing to be gained by giving it a "double dose" (*wags finger warningly*).

Sun:  Wisteria will not flower if they do not get enough sun.  This means they really need to be on a south-facing wall, and a south-facing wall means that if you stand with your back to the wall, you are facing towards the south.

If you have planted one on a north-facing wall, it will never flower. West-facing, well, you might be lucky if it gets a lot of late afternoon sun. East-facing: you will only ever get sparse flowers.  If you realise that your non-flowering Wisteria is planted in the wrong place then you have two options: either dig it up and start again, or - if you are lucky - train it around the corner to the south-facing wall.

I have one client with exactly this problem, they planted the Wisteria hoping for flowers all across the house, but it was on a very shaded west-facing wall. As it was the corner of the house, I put up some wires on the south-facing wall, and trained the strongest long whippy shoots round the corner and onto the new wires. They are thickening up nicely, and I'm hoping for flowers maybe even next year. The roots of the plant don't need to be in the sun, but the flowering wood does.

It's worth mentioning that even if your plant is on the south-facing wall, it still won't flower if it is seriously over-shadowed by trees, other buildings etc.  If trees are the problem, you might be able to do some crown-lifting and/or thinning of their canopies to allow more light through.

Pruning: Ah yes, the question of pruning. Right. It's quite simple. Each year, from early summer onwards, your Wisteria will produce dozens of long, thin, bright green, whippy shoots. These should be pruned back, leaving just 2 or 3 leaves. I do this pruning probably three or four times during the summer, as no matter how much you cut off, they send out more! I would suggest you go out every three or four weeks with the secateurs, and chop them off.

Winter pruning - once it has finished growing and has dropped the leaves, prune it again, cutting back all those shortened new shoots - now brown and lifeless - to just one or two buds. Pull out all the spindly dead stems you can find, and shake out any clumps of dead leaves caught up in the branches. You should aim to be left with a framework of stout stems.

If you have ever seen a proper old vine, this is what your wisteria should look like. Thickish stems, with gnarly bunches of knobbles. These are the flowering buds. So, go over your plant and cut out every tiny spindly little stem.

If you get out there now and do the summer pruning, you shouldn't have all that much to do in winter. But if you just can't find the time to do it now, well, you will have more to do in winter!

I will take photos later on in the year when I do this, so I can add a step-by-step guide.

Three points about pruning:

1) If your wisteria isn't quite big enough yet, don't let all the whippy stems grow in the hope that "it will quickly cover up the pergola/trellis/building."  Choose just a few of the whippy stems, and tie them neatly to the support. These few will become your "framework of stout stems". If you can, arrange them in a neat fan shape, or on parallel wires. You may think that this is a bit of slow start, but it will repay you time and time again in the future.

2) The actual cut: to remind you, when pruning pretty much anything, aim to make a clean cut at an angle, slanted away from the bud above which you are cutting. Reasons:
a) a ragged cut will allow infection in, so keep your tools sharp and cut cleanly. If the branch is too thick for your secateurs, get the loppers!
b) if you leave a longish bit of stem above a bud, it will die back, as the energy of the plant will get to the bud and stop there. Once a stem starts to die back, it tends to continue dying back, which can be disastrous for the plant.
c) sloping the cut allows rain and dew to slide off the cut and away, thus reducing the risk of rotting. If the cut slants towards the bud, then the bud will catch all the water, and will rot.

If you are unsure, put "pruning cut" into Google and click on "images" and you will find dozens of illustrations. If you really can't get the hang of it, then you might benefit from some private tuition, click on the page button for details. Or if you are not in South Oxfordshire, ask a neighbour or a friend to show you how.

3) If it's a big wisteria..... "How do I reach up there!" you cry. The simple answer is to buy a long-handled pruning pole. I have a lovely lightweight aluminium one which allows me to reach first floor window height: several of my senior clients have wonderful old wooden versions. They are basically just a pole with a knife or a blade on the end, and a mechanism for operating the blade, either a handle to pull, or a rope. Of course, you don't get quite the finesse with these tools - for instance, you can't do an accurate sloping cut when you are working 8' above your head, but it means you can get the job done yourself,  and you don't have to go up ladders to do it.

And proves, incidentally, that although it is Best Practise to do a sloping cut just above a bud, it is better to hack wildly than to not prune at all!


Which Wisteria Do I  Have?

There are two types, Wisteria sinensis or Chinese Wisteria,  and Wisteria floribunda or Japanese Wisteria.

Sinensis or Chinese: the flowers appear before the leaves, the stems twine anticlockwise if you imagine yourself at the base of the stem, looking upwards.

Floribunda or Japanese: leaves and flowers appear at the same time, the length of the raceme (the flower mass) is much longer than in Chinese wisteria, and the stems twine clockwise.

There, now you know! Both of them, by the way, are fairly poisonous in all parts, and particularly in the seeds, which are temptingly velvety when fresh. As always,  and you will have heard me say this before, TRAIN YOUR CHILDREN NOT TO EAT ANYTHING UNLESS IT IS ON A PLATE.

Honestly, I'm not kidding, I know that modern children are allowed to graze constantly (no wonder most of them are as fat as little piggies, ha ha!) but there are a huge number of  poisonous things in the garden. I often get over-anxious parents asking for lists of plant that are not poisonous, and I have to tell them that it is almost impossible to make a garden entirely from "safe" plants.

Did you know that daffodils are poisonous? And Columbine? Crocus?  Buttercup? Box? Bindweed? Beech? Chickweed? Laurel? Delphinium? Ground Ivy? Hellebores? Holly? Ivy? Iris? Laburnum? Lily of the Valley? Larkspur? Oak? How many letters of the alphabet do you want me to go through?

It is far better to teach your children not to eat anything that is not on a plate.

I know that there is a movement to get small children interested in gardening, and to get the adults to grow herbs and veg at home, and articles on this subject always show happy little children with a tiny carrot, or a strawberry half-way to their mouths. Sometimes without an adult even within sight. This makes me cringe, as so many plants are not edible. Please, please, take the little children down to the veg garden or the allotment, but teach them to bring the edibles back to you, the adult, who can then check them, wash if necessary, and put them on a plate to be eaten.


Thursday, 18 August 2011

Wisley - at last!

Yesterday I took the day off and went to see the RHS gardens at Wisley, with a friend.

Ever been there? I hadn't, despite years of people saying how wonderful it was. But finally I've been, and I have to say that now I understand why people speak of it so highly.

The location is a bit underwhelming, being quite literally just off the M25 at Junction 10. A quick dash down the A3, follow the brown daisy signs, down the off-ramp, round the roundabout, and back onto the A3 heading back for the M25 - hang on, that can't be right? Oh, yes, it is, within 50 yards you turn off and there you are.

The car parks are somewhat reminiscent of Disneyland, or a theme park: you expect a disembodied voice to say "you have parked in car park 2, zone H, please remember this information or you will never find your car again...." Yes, the car parks are huge, and they need to be: I arrived 20 minutes after opening and car park 1 was already full!

Once inside, the place is wonderfully well organised. You buy your ticket - not cheap at £9.90, or £10.90 if you elect to go for GiftAid - and are given a nice clear map. There are four different places to eat, scattered about the site, so even in mid-August we had no delay in being served. The place itself is huge, so it rarely feels busy or overcrowded, and best of all, there are several "family" areas or play areas, so the noisiest of the visitors tend to congregate in easily-avoided zones. The serving staff were truly excellent (they appeared to all be young, all be superbly polite and helpful, and were almost exclusively of foreign extraction. Coincidence? I wonder...) and the whole place was a model of cleanliness and neatness.

As a gardener, I was very impressed with how kempt it was generally, but happy to find odd areas that were over-run with bindweed. It was reassuring to see that even with a lot of staff, there is always some weeding still to be done.


On entering, you go behind what was presumably the original house - left - which has a wonderful, huge, lily pond bearing neat clumps of clearly-labelled water lilies.

Actually, labelling throughout was pretty good: when going round most gardens, labelling is a big part of the enjoyment, as you either get confirmation that you knew it's name, or information if you didn't.

I was particularly struck by some labels which were old roof tiles - one way to stop visitors pinching them, I suppose!

After a merry morning wandering around admiring the planting, the hydrangeas, and so on, we stopped for some lunch in the cafe by the glass house, which is an impressive structure.

Inside, it was, well, how can I say, ever so slightly "I have been here before" as it was exactly like every other tropical glass house: concrete faked up (very well) to look like stone, a huge fake waterfall, enormous banana leaves reaching to the roof, the usual selection of exotics that I will never grow myself, and a feeling of "blimey, has it turned cold out here now?" when you leave.

But it's still impressive, and the sort of place you should take small children, to give them a lasting memory of something very different.

The nearness of the A3/M25 was not a particular feature until we ventured over to the Trial Beds - we were walking through a very pleasant wooded section, climbing gently, and we gradually became aware that we could hear road noise. By the time we crested the ridge, it was intrusively loud, although we couldn't see the road for the trees.

Memo to self: if you ever live within spitting distance of the M25, an earthen barrier at least 60' high is required to deflect the noise.

However, the Trail Beds - below - were well worth the noise.  This is the area where the RHS carry out the famous trials on plants: they have long, long beds ranged across a gentle slope, so the plants all get the same amount of sun, rain, wind etc.

Presumably they also get the same amount of pollution?

Selections of the plants being tested are planted out, and very clearly labelled, and at the end of the test, those that perform best are given awards. Presumably those that perform poorly are unceremoniously thrown onto the compost heaps and never mentioned again.

This is the aspect of the RHS that fascinates me: I'd love to have the space, the time, the money and the lack of interruption to be able to do proper trialling like this.

I would want to learn about germination and propagation rates, in a more organised way than my current method of writing it down in my notebook if I remember, and updating the notebook if I can find it at the right moment....  I'd also like to do trials on weedkilling methods, there are so many old wives' tales about how and when to apply them that I would like to try it out for myself, properly.

Also various slug repellents: I have some theories on that subject. Also pruning - it would be fabulous to have a row of identical plants that I could prune in various ways in order to compare the results.. it's not possible to do it properly in clients' gardens, as the conditions vary from year to year, which is the only comparison I can currently do. There are not many clients sufficiently obliging to let me prune two plants, situated close together, in radically different ways.....

It's also a great place to visit if you are thinking of, for example, buying some roses: they have so many of them there, that you can walk along the beds choosing the one that will turn out to be exactly the right height, size, colour, and perfume.

All in all, a great day out, and I will certainly be going back there at different times of the year.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Leaf Cutter Bees...

...and everything you have ever wanted to know about them.

Ever found neat oval holes in the leaves of some plants? Ever been told "ah, those are made by leaf-cutter bees, nothing to worry about, they don't hurt the plants."  Ever wondered if that was true?

Well, as I've mentioned, I have been potting on large numbers of my plants recently, ready for moving them up to the Yard where they can grow on ready to be sold next year.

And I found several with bees in them:


Can you see it? A large bee - the sort that I, not being a naturalist, would call a Bumble Bee, but of course they weren't - cosily tucked up in a hollow in the soil of my potted plant.

Fully grown, fluffy: quite immune to being dropped on the bench to the accompaniment of girlish screams: and apparently not-quite-asleep.  I found about five of these over two days - in each case they were then gently ejected onto the grass outside my garden, and in each case they buzzed back in, rather groggily, looking for flowers, so they didn't seem to be harmed by the experience.

A few days later, I was checking an odd pot of Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens' - that lovely black grass that is a big favourite of mine - which had been left at the back of a rack for, er, rather a long time.  When I turned it out to weed it and check the roots, I found this:


Or, rather, these: ringed faintly in red in the photo - a sequence of what I thought were big fat caterpillars. I carefully excavated them (with equal care for them, and for my plant!) only to realise that they were cigar-shaped wads of leaves, each sealed at the top - rounded at one end, flat across the other.

Having no idea what they were (as I'd completely forgotten about the "Bee" incidents ) I gently unwrapped one of them, to see what it was.  It came apart segment by segment, releasing a foul stench as it did so, until I got to the core of it, which was just a slimy mush of orangey stuff.

Intrigued, I took the next one and dissected that one - but this time it was fresher, and at the centre, I found a large white grub. For a moment I nearly had a "vine weevil heart attack" then  I thankfully realised that the grub was way too big, didn't have a brown head, and wasn't C-shaped: in fact, I realised I was looking at the pod of a leaf-cutter bee, with the forming bee still growing inside it.


And yes, that is the grub on the left: sorry, by the time I realised what they must be, it was too late for this one.

So if you have holes of this sort: if it looks as though a maniac with an over-large hole punch has been wandering through your rose beds (they are particularly fond of rose foliage) then there's the reason - it's a female leaf-cutter bee, stocking up on housing capsules for her off-spring.

The leaves aren't really harmed by this, although too much attention to one branch can be quite unsightly.

She takes the leaves back, tunnels into the earth - or my pots - and makes a neat pouch: then she stocks it with pollen, lays an egg, seals it up, then starts again, leaving them in the soil like a string of sausages.

Apparently - pause while I google it - the topmost one hatches first, then the rest in sequence, which makes sense. They tunnel their way out and fly off to enjoy life.

So the answer is, they don't really hurt the plant's foliage, they certainly don't harm the roots, so they don't need to be persecuted.

(Before I get emails of complaint, I carefully re-buried the rest of the capsules out of harm's way.)

So that is the story of the leaf-cutter bee!

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The Little House in the Trees

There - isn't this the best little hidey-house you've seen in a while?


It lives half-way up a one-in-one slope, completely hidden by the trees, and accessible either by clambering up the steep, twisty path through the trees (with only a slender pink rope for assistance) or by risking a broken neck by descending from what we call "the upper path" which runs above the tree-house, somewhat higher than the roof-line.

Although it looks as though it's been there for years, it only arrived last year, and it took six strong adults to get it heave-ho'd into place. Luckily I missed out on that, as apparently there was a lot of swearing involved.

Ah, I work in some lovely gardens.

So, what have I been doing since (checks back through blog guiltily) the 19th of last month? Answer, working flat out: weeding, digging, lifting, splitting, planting, weeding, watering (yes, in some gardens I actually get paid to water the flowers! ) more weeding, oh, and did I mention weeding? The botany exam came and went, my Yard now has nearly 600 plants in it, and I am running out of bench space again, and the fish are healthy and definitely getting bigger.

Now we have strange August weather to deal with. Yes, folks, sun! Yesterday it reached 32 degrees (that's 89 degrees in old money, or "jolly hot" as I would call it) with enough wind to make me feel as though I were at the seaside. Not good for plants in pots, they are wilting and gasping both in the Yard, and in my own front yard.

So this is the test for those Prairie beds: this is the first year that we haven't watered them, and I've been there six years. Mind you, every year up until now I've been lifting plants - either to get out the couch grass running all through them, or to split and replant them. This year, they've been full, not too couch-grassy, hardly any thistles: good lord, I think I'm winning!

One other point of note today: during the winter, talking of Prairie beds, a substantial willow branch fell down across the path, so I did a hasty job with my trusty bow-saw. Not a neat job, not a tree-surgeon job, just a quick hack to clear the path, and to roughly chop the fallen branch into pieces small enough for me to roll across the path and into the undergrowth, out of the way, until the owners had time to bring the tractor mower round and move them to the bonfire heap.

Needless to say, that never happened, and the pile of branches (so glad that I stacked them neatly) is now a Wildlife Hotel.

But the main branch, despite my inelegant bow-sawing, now looks like this:

"Fumes of rage!" as Molesworth used to say.

If I had had any idea that they would not be getting the tree surgeon in to neaten it, I would have made a better job of it.

But as it is, it's a tribute to the robust nature of willow, that even the worst, hastiest, untidiest cut, leaving ripped bark, etc - all the things we are told not to do when pruning - can still leave the branch perfectly able to function, and to grow!