Garden School:

Garden School:
Teaching this week: Right tool for the right job: how to grub out unwanted shrubs with a pickaxe...

Saturday, 17 August 2019

How To Be A Professional Gardener - the joy of having a Trainee

I'm having a particularly interesting time in the garden now: at one of "my" gardens, I have a Trainee, and it's been utterly fascinating to be going back over the very basics of gardening.

Why do I have a Trainee? The garden owners, a wonderful young couple, want to encourage people, especially younger people, into careers in horticulture, in animal management, in land-based activities, and to that end they are very generously providing a rolling Trainee placement.

The placement runs for roughly a year, which allows the Trainee time to experience all aspects of working as a gardener, and to see the plants in all their seasons, ie in all their different phases.

During this time, the Trainee works alongside me for one day a week, being taught every aspect of everything I do, which is fantastic experience for them, and it's actually quite fun for me as well.

In fact, it's been quite a revelation to go back over what I consider to be very basic skills, including which tool to use for what, how to find the tool which fits you best, how to use these tools without straining or hurting yourself, and so on.

Our aim is to give the Trainee a flying start into being a self-employed Gardener, by giving them all the practical training they need, along with a good dollop of the business knowledge which is required, finishing up with a helping hand towards the end of the placement, to find their own self-employed Clients, as they gain confidence in their own abilities.

I already give one-day workshops on How To Be A Self-Employed Gardener (shameless plug, you've missed them for this year, but keep looking at the WFGA website for next year's dates: there will definitely be one in Oxfordshire, probably one in Staffordshire, and quite possibly one in East Anglia as well) but that's just about the business side of things, whereas this Trainee Placement is 100% practical: and best of all, instead of having to pay for tuition, the Trainee gets basic pay while they are learning!

As it's only for one day a week, they have four other days for doing other things, such as working part-time elsewhere, or studying: we give preference to someone who is doing the RHS level 2, which dovetails perfectly with our placement.  My current trainee has just finished their Level 2 course, and all the way through it we were able to discuss what they had just learned, go into it in more detail, look at practical examples of what they had been taught, sort out any misunderstandings, discuss any moral issues raised, and generally take it a step further.

We're just coming to the end of our second Trainee Placement, so I'm starting to look around for a new one: it's always a little bit sad when a Trainee leaves us, but it is quite exciting as well, because every new Trainee brings a desire to learn, a new set of questions, and their own particular brand of enthusiasm, which inspires and enlivens us.

Wish me luck in the search!

Friday, 16 August 2019

Gardening with wet knickers

"What?!!" I hear you scream, "this blog is going downhill!"

No, this is a serious article, honest: the question is, "When it is officially too wet to work in the garden".

Now, whenever I raise this subject, on my "How to be a Self-Employed Gardener" training courses, I get the same responses: one set of people will react in horror to the idea of working in the rain at all; one set will say "Huh, no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing", and the sensible ones will say "Well, it depends on the situation: how bad is the rain, how big is the garden, how important is it to get the task done, and what tasks exactly are you doing?"

This split equates almost exactly depending on occupation: the ones who faint at the thought are not yet gardeners: the smug ones are what I call Estate gardeners: they work on those big estates, usually as part of a team. The rest are what I call Independent gardeners, like me: self-employed, working in what I think of as "domestic" or "real" gardens, ie the sort of place that you and I might live in, rather than in Something Manor or Something House.

If you've never worked outdoors, you tend to think that it's not possible to work in the rain: at home, in your own garden, you normally only go outside when it's nice, so the thought of having to work in the rain is not a very attractive one. I have to say that personally, I hate working in the rain: blobs of rain on the glasses makes it hard to see what you are looking at, your gloves get soaked, no matter how waterproof they are supposed to be (and I grew up with my grandmother saying *warning tone of voice* "If you sit around with wet gloves/socks/clothes you'll get arthritis...." and it's hard to shake off that sort of conditioning), and I don't enjoy the constant showers down the back of my neck, from soaking wet foliage.

If you are an estate gardener, you do indeed have to work all day every day, all year round, regardless of the weather.

If you are self-employed though, oh joy of joys, you are allowed to make your own decisions as to when it's too wet to work, and when it isn't: and of course the down-side is that you also have to accept the consequences, ie no work = no money, and if you are away too often, you risk losing the job.

But there are a few points to bear in mind, before wallowing in self-castigation or forcing yourself to work in the rain.

Firstly, estate workers are usually provided with full waterproof kit. Secondly, they have heated (usually!) rest rooms for their tea breaks and lunch breaks, so they come in and get warmed up every couple of hours. Thirdly, employers have to provide a drying room, so they have the chance to hang up their wet clothes to dry, and to swap them for a dry set.

Fourthly, on an estate, there are many indoor jobs which can be done on wet days:  my estate-gardener friends tell me that when it's wet, they work in the greenhouse, or tidy up the potting shed, sharpen tools, maintain machinery, and other jobs which keep them indoors. Obviously, none of these apply when you are self-employed!

And fifthly (still not sure if there is such a word) there's another aspect of working in the rain, which needs to be mentioned: it creates a muddy mess wherever you work. On a large estate, workers can be sent to a distant part of the garden, so it doesn't matter if there are muddy footmarks all over that area: by the time the owners venture that far, the rain will have washed the grass clean again.  But in a domestic garden, the owner can usually see all or most of the garden from their house, and they do not appreciate having to look at a sea of mud for a fortnight, so there are many times when I am not able to work on wet days, due to the risk of spoiling the lawn, spoiling the outlook, annoying the Client and so on.

Also (sixthly, probably, but actually part of fifthly), trampling on wet soil ruins the structure of it, so I would always try to stay off the beds when they are sodden.

Not to mention ("seventhly"?) that gardens usually contain wooden decking, stone patios, steps etc which can be lethally slippery in the rain, and the over-riding mantra for all us self-employed gardeners is to avoid injury, as no work = no pay.

So, what CAN we do when it rains?

There are certain jobs that can still be done: clipping lawn edges, for example. You stay on the grass (nice clean boots) and don't need to ruin the soil. Some topiary can be done in light rain: not my favourite time to do it, as the clippings stick to the shears, to my boots, to my gloves, to the collecting sheet, to everything. But it is possible.

Likewise maintenance of plants in pots, which are placed on patios or pathways (nice alliteration there, don't you think? Completely accidental, I assure you); you can weed, dead-head and prune them from a standing position.

Basically, any job where you don't have to go on the beds or borders, and where you are more or less upright. So with a coat to keep your top dry, and a hat to keep your head dry, you should be able to get at least a couple of hours of work done, on a wet day.

But once you start bending over, that's where the problems begin. Unless you are wearing waterproof trousers, you will quickly find that the rain will drip down onto your backside, and then will soak through, leading to - yes, we've finally arrived at Wet Knickers!!

My personal rule is, once the rain has soaked through to the knickerage department, it's time to pack up and go.

As with all garden rules, there are times when it can be broken: if the Client has a really urgent job that needs to be done - for example, if they are having a party at the weekend, or expecting visitors - then I have been known to drag out my gore-tex trousers and get on with it. And by installing stepping-stones in the beds and borders, you can sometimes make it possible to weed and dead-head without ruining the soil.

One gardening pal of mine ("Hi, Rob!") wears gore-tex waterproof trousers with shorts underneath, pretty much all through the winter. He says it gives him the freedom, coolness and comfort of wearing shorts, but keeps the legs dry. After a while, though, the rain running off the trousers gets the boots soaked, and once the socks get wet - "you'll get arthritis..." says the voice of my grandmother, in my ear.

So there you have it, in a nutshell: my personal work ethic is to stop work once the rain soaks through to the underwear. Or preferably, shortly before!

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Time alone in someone else's garden....

One of the many things I love about being a self-employed gardener, is that it gives me time to think.

Time to ponder the intricacies of life.....

Earlier this week, I was working alone in one of "my" gardens: the Clients were away, having left me a list of jobs to do, and I was struck by how nice it was, once in a way, to be alone in someone else's garden.

Generally speaking I love the interaction with my various Clients: it's one of the best parts of the job, and many of my Clients have become friends, over the years ("Hi, Katie!" *waves*).

I still drop in for a cuppa with some of them, even though I haven't worked for them for years ("Hallo Margaret! You're looking well!").

In this particular garden, I haven't been there very long, so I'm still learning about the garden - little surprises keep popping up, and new beauties keep revealing themselves.

But  it struck me, this week, that it's not until the Client is absent that you get a chance to look all round a garden, because when I am there working, I am working, if you see what I mean.. .there isn't time to stop and look around.

Also, partly, I feel that it's very rude to stand there and rubber-neck, when you have been allowed into someone's private garden, so I tend to work with my head down and my tail up.

Mind you, this has lead to some funny moments: once, I was merrily wheeling the barrow from one side of the house to the other, and as I rounded the corner I realised my Clients were having breakfast on the patio (in their pj's, I should add). It was too late to go the other way round, so I went past as quietly as is possible with a wheelbarrow - not quite tiptoeing, but certainly averting my eyes.

They were highly amused by this, not least because of the Monty Python-esque overtones of the incident ("What are you doing?" "Averting my eyes, my Lord"), but by my humble demeanour. Apparently their previous gardener used to walk into the kitchen and make himself a cup of tea, if he felt like it. (*shocked face*)

Another time, I arrived at one garden, started on the usual weeding etc, and half an hour later the Client came out into the garden and asked me if I could do something as a favour. "Certainly," I chirped, "what do you need done?"

"Could you get your bowsaw, and chop up that tree that's fallen across the lawn?"

I looked round and blow me, there was an entire (small) tree, fallen down across their main lawn.  I hadn't even seen it, as I had been concentrating, as always, on the jobs I was planning to do that morning, and hadn't taken a general look around as I walked in, because it always seems rude to do so.

As with many things in life, I guess it's all about finding the right balance between nosiness, and spotting things which need doing: so I'll have to try a little harder not to be so unassuming!

Friday, 2 August 2019

Lavender: time to cut it back

2019 has already been a weird year.... we had a cold, 'orrible spring, with no less than FOUR late frosts, interspersed with nice mild weather that prompted everything to start growing, right before the next frosty spell came along and blasted it all to death.

Then we had heat: then we had rain, rain, rain: then we had super heat and drought again, then we had flash floods of rain - it's no wonder that the gardens are confused!

Last year it was well into September before I was cutting Lavender down, but here we are, barely into August, and I'm at it already.

This, by the way, is why I never issue Gardeners' Calenders: nor do I usually write articles saying "Now, dear children, it is time to cut down those raspberries..." and so on.  Life is very variable, and never more so than in a garden.

Right, let's get on to Lavender.

Why do we cut it down at all?

Annual trimming after flowering will help to keep the plants compact: if you don't do it, then after a couple of years you find that you have untidy, leggy, woody plants which "fall open" as they start flowering, exposing the bare woody stems. After another couple of years, branches will start to break off, leaving the centre even more open and bare - and by this time, they are usually flopping all over the place, instead of standing up and looking lovely.

They'll still be loved by the bees, of course, but not so much by the owner!

So we cut them back, every year.

The next question is always "when do we cut them back?"

My answer is always the same - once the flowers have more or less finished.  If you wait for every single last flower to die, you'll never get the job done, so my rule is that once you have a haze of brown, rather than a mass of blue/purple/white, then it's time to cut them down.

There's another good reason for doing this work sooner rather than later - if you leave it too long, you'll find that the plant is growing again, and this new growth will quickly overtake the bottoms of the flowering stems, so you can't cut one without damaging the other.

Here's a photo - left -  of one of my gardens, with the lavender which is not quite ready for trimming yet: as you can see, they are still fairly colourful.

Interestingly, lavender are only "supposed" to have a life span of around five years: I used to be very friendly with Pete and Val Williams who ran The Herb Garden in Kingston Bagpuize house (now, alas, they've retired) and they astounded me with that piece of information.

I thought that lavender lived for years and years, and I am sure there is a chorus out there, right now, of readers saying "but I've had the same lavender plant for the last 20 years!", but apparently, they are short-lived plants. That's why cutting them back hard is such a good idea - quite apart from keeping them neat, it extends their lifespan by putting off the day when they start to flop open and split their stems.

Now look at this photo - right - and see the difference?

The flowers are no longer mauvey-purple, they are grey.

Quite grey.

This means it is time to cut them back, so get out your secateurs, and a bucket for the bits, and start to cut.

You will always read the same advice at this point - "do not cut back into old wood" and it's good advice, because if you cut back into bare brown woody stems, they won't grow back.

The trick is to look for where the stem is still making new growth, and cut just above that.

As no-one has the time to cut each stalk individually, the technique is to isolate each branch of the lavender plant in turn, sweep up all the long stems into one hand, and cut across with secateurs, using the other hand.

Aim to leave two or three sets of the leaves, and you have to balance this requirement with wanting to leave a fairly neat dome of cut foliage, as you will have to look at it all the way through the winter.

This is one of those things which is so much easier to demonstrate than to describe!

I find it easiest to start at the outside of the clump, especially if they are fairly old plants. Cut a few "handfuls" quite low down, then gradually taper the cuts as you work your way up to the top of the clump. I don't like ending up with GI-Joe buzz-cuts on "my" lavenders, so I aim to get rounded domes: sort of "cloud pruning", really.

If you have your lavender as a hedge, then it might be appropriate to cut it with a flat top and flat sides, although when you do this, you may have to sacrifice a "correct" cut here and there, in order to remain within the outlines of your sharp edges.

 Once done, dispose of the cuttings in your green waste bin, or on the bonfire - I don't even attempt to compost lavender, as they are usually very woody, and are always full of seeds! - sweep up the inevitable scattering of seeds, and there you are, all nice and tidy for the winter, and by cutting it back hard, it should grow back to the same size next year as it did this year, without getting larger and larger.

 Here's a photo of the job half done, to show the difference in size: the clipped ones are neat domes of fairly dense foliage, half the height they were.

And you can see in the one nearest to us, that this plant is just starting to fall open in the middle, so this one is going to be replaced next year.

In this particular garden, we like the up-and-down look of having differing heights, so I cut each one as though it were growing in isolation - with no attempt to make them look homogeneous.

This also explains why some of the plants are older than others: we don't rip them all out one year and replace the whole lot, we just take out one at a time, as they start to look a bit old and tired. 

In some gardens I would be expected to clip them so they are all soldiers in a row: but here, we prefer to do it a bit looser, and that is one of the wonderful things about gardening - there are no hard and fast rules, and we can choose to do things how we like them done!

So there you have it, how, why and when to trim your Lavender!

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Moving orchids

A while ago I wrote an article about moving Common Spotted Orchids: if you can't be arsed don't have time to read the full article, then in brief, I have a garden where part of my job is to locate any Common Spotted Orchids which are germinating in the grassy paths, dig them up, and replant them elsewhere, so that they won't get their heads chopped off mercilessly when the Client runs round on the sit-on mower.

By doing this repeatedly, I have built up three new colonies of the orchids, proper name Dactylorhiza fuchsii, as well as the original spread of them.

Here - left - is the lake-side colony, now becoming quite robust! (Photo taken in early June, while they were flowering.)

Today I had a question on this matter from Laurence, who has rescued a handful of these orchids from decapitation by imminent mowing, and has potted them up.

He says that they have done really well, but now it's time to move them to a permanent home in the soil, where they can naturalise.

He asks when would be the best time to move them to their new home, now that they have finished flowering.

Now, Laurence, now!  *laughs*

This is an excellent time: the seed pods are forming:

Here is a photo of what these Orchids look like now, in late July - right.

These are my own ones, grown from seed:  I rushed outside and took a quick snap to show you what they look like after flowering.

As you can see, the flowers are gone, all that remain are a few tatters of brown petals.

The green "ear of wheat" parts are the seed pods, and each one contains thousands and thousands of teeny tiny, dust-like fawn-coloured seeds.

So plant them out now, or move them now, while the seed pods are still green and intact.

In another couple of weeks, they will turn brown as they dry out, and will split to allow the seeds to escape.

So by moving them now, you won't waste any of the seed: once they are installed in the new location, the seeds will naturally fall to the ground around them, thus starting your new colony.

As per the other post, the tiny seedlings which will pop up next year do look rather like grass, but the following year they should start to produce broader, spotted  leaves, which makes them very easy to find.

Here's some I grew earlier (left).

This is what they look like in May - just a few sprouts of wide green leaves, held in opposite pairs.

Not all of them will have the spots, but after a while you "get your eye in" and learn to see the smallest hint of a spot, combined with the way the leaves are arranged in pairs.

This is a useful skill to master, as they will, once yours have set seed, spring up all over the place, so you may well find them popping up in quite unexpected areas.

My front yard - for example - is full of plants in pots, for sale: and any number of times I have to advertise them as coming with "free Common Spotted Orchid included".

And in my back garden, I have strawberries growing in a pierced pot, and yes, you've guessed it, there is an Orchid interloping amongst the fruit.

So there you go: once you have some Common Spotted Orchid in pots, whether you bought them, or potted them up yourself, just wait until they have finished flowering then, before the seed pods darken to brown, plant them out in your chosen location and hopefully, within a couple of years, you'll find that you, too, have them popping up all over the place!

Saturday, 27 July 2019

How to reduce a Standard Bay tree

Firstly, what is a standard Bay tree?

Answer, Bay is a woody evergreen shrub, the leaves of which are used in cooking.  A "standard" is a plant which has been trained in such a way that it has one single, central stem or trunk, with a mop-top of foliage.

Why do we do this type of training? It makes a neat shape, very decorative, and very much a part of the formal English garden. It also means we can have a tree or shrub which would otherwise be too big for the area.

Bay, in particular, is often found in the middle of a herb garden, as a centre point, giving height and shape all year round.

"Standards"  can be almost any plant, not just Bay: some plants are tough enough to support themselves, while others will need the support of a stake while they are growing, and nearly all of them - unless they are very woody-stemmed - will need to be staked once they are grown, as this design is very top-heavy, and a windy day can destroy them.

Here - left - is a variegated Euonymus which I trained as a standard, and no, it's not tied to the wall as punishment for bad behaviour, or because it can't stand up by itself, I had just repotted it and wanted to hold it stable until the roots had settled.

You can see that this one is about breast-high, and on every other month of its life, it is not staked or tied to any sort of support.  You caught it on a bad day... sorry!

Which plants are used in this way, then?

Well, pretty much anything can be made into a standard if you are determined, but the favourites have to include Roses, Fig, Wisteria (I don't like that, myself: in my opinion Wisteria are meant to be BIG, not tortured into head-high lollipops), and - these days - just about every type of conifer, suitable or not.

And Bay, obviously.

Almost any woody shrub "could" be pruned into a standard, a lot of Yew topiary is based on the standard, and of course many, many fruit trees are grown as standards.

They can be at almost any height: those "hedges on stilts" - right - which are called Pleached hedges are basically a row of standard trees (in this case Hornbeam, but almost any tree can be treated this way), where the top tuft of foliage is allowed to grow out sideways once it has reached head height, but is not allowed to grow forwards or backwards.

I've even seen Hebe pruned into waist-high standards, which was interesting.

How do you make something into a standard?

Answer, start with a young, strongly growing plant: pick the most central, strongest, most upright branch and prune off everything else.  Put in a good strong stake and tie the branch to it in several places, to keep it straight and upright.

As it grows, pinch out or rub off any buds which try to grow on the stem, and only allow a tuft of foliage at the top.

Keep it up for a year or two, and lo! and behold, you will have created a standard.

So, getting back to the problem in hand: anything which is trained in any way - any sort of topiary, any sort of climber, anything which is growing in a style other than "natural" - will need regular maintenance and a fair amount of vigilance.

They need to be trimmed and shaped every so often, and Bay is a bit of beast in this respect, as it quickly grows thick, bushy, and top-heavy.  Most people choose Bay because they say "we use it a lot in cooking" and the original idea was to have the herbs growing convenient for picking, hence the inclusion of a standard Bay as a centrepiece in a herb garden.

The idea being that every time you go out there, you pick a couple of leaves, which keeps the Bay tidy and neat, and also forces it to keep producing new, fresh, tasty, leaves.

But I have yet to find anyone who uses more than one or two leaves a year! So they tend to be allowed to just grow, willy-nilly, until they are coarse, ragged, gigantic things, looming over the rest of the garden and generally getting in the way.

Here's one belonging to a friend: it's rather oddly placed, being right next to the rotary washing line, but as it's quite an old one, we assume that the previous owners had ideas about a herb garden, and maybe changed their minds? Or they planted it as part of a herb garden, then over time the other herbs were replaced with easy-care grass, leaving just this one poor specimen all alone.

For whatever reason, here it is:  a head-high standard Bay tree as it looked a couple of Novembers ago.

Quite nice, yes? Neat shape (that was me, I pruned it earlier that summer), nice clear trunk, quite balanced in size and shape.

This is what it looked like last week:

Cries of "Oh no! Why didn't you call me sooner!"

As you can see, it is now two foot higher than the rotary drier, some of it is reaching for the sky, and the whole thing is so wide that the drier is no longer actually "rotary", and is more "stationary".

It's also lost the nice clear trunk altogether, for two reasons: firstly, the lowest branches have become so weighty that they are hanging lower, and secondly because the Bay has thrown up several shoots from the base, thus obscuring the trunk.

And, incidentally, making it impossible to mow around it, as they used to.

So, first job: get on hands and knees, and cut off all those shoots coming up from the base.

Virtually all standard-worked shrubs/trees/plants/whatever do this: it's as though they are deliberately trying to undermine our hard work by throwing up long sturdy shoots from ground level, or from half-way up the cleared trunk.

In a perfect world, the owner would check every few weeks for any signs of regrowth on the cleared stem, and would rub off any buds or leaves while they are tiny: this causes the least stress to the plant, and the least amount of re-growth.

But if you don't notice them until they are as thick as your thumb, well, no big deal, just cut them off as close to the trunk as you possibly can.  And then try to check it more frequently!

Second job, look at the lowest layer of branches, and cut off any which are hanging down below your chosen "lowest level" point.

Third job, reduce the size of the mop top.  I tend to do this by eye: I look at the whole thing and decide how big it "ought" to be, based on the height, the leaf size, the general proportions, the surroundings etc.

If you don't feel confident to do that, part the branches and look inside the bushy top: you should be able to see where the last person pruned it, because any branch which was cut will have forked out into 2, 3 or more smaller branches. Simply cut to that point again. If you want it to be a bit bigger than it was originally, cut each of the 2, 3 or more smaller branches about half an inch from the point at which they branched.

If you want to take it back to how it used to be, cut just below (or "inside") the fork.

Stand back, and assess what you have left: if there are any branches which are still too long, snip them off to about the same length as the others you have just done.

This should leave you with something like this:

 There we go!

Back to being breast height again - oh, the picture is slightly deceptive as there's a Pear tree to the rear, whose branches make it look as though I made a right pig's ear of getting the Bay back to a round shape.

But with the sun very strong, this was the only angle from which I could take the photo, so look more closely and you'll see that the shiny Bay foliage goes across the top in a rounded arc, with the duller, paler Pear foliage rising up behind it.

As mentioned in previous articles, I am so not a plant photographer!  Plus, I am normally being paid to work, not to take photos, so I am in the habit of ripping off a quick snap or two, taking bare seconds to compose the shot.

Well, to be truthful, I don't spend any time at all "composing the shot", I just point and snap!

Anyway, the Bay is now clear stemmed again, mowing is now possible: the drier is once again free to spin like a mad thing, and there were two barrow-load of Bay leaves to go on the bonfire pile.

With a well-established, planted shrub like this one, there is no need for any special after-pruning care, but if yours is in a pot or tub, then it is only kind to give it some feed - a small fistful of balanced feed, or fish-blood-and-bone, or a watering can of diluted liquid seaweed - and a good watering, as pruning will prompt it to spring into life and make a whole load of new shoots, so a bit of help with food and water will be appreciated.

And you can have a really aromatic bonfire!!

Saturday, 20 July 2019

Why is it so hard to take good photos of plants?

Yesterday, the sun shining on the Lupins (wet with rain) was stunning: they were positively glittering!

And yet, this is the best I can do:

OK, to be fair, I am

a) taking photos with my phone, and

b) being self-employed and therefore paid by the minute - as it were - I never spend more than about 0.000001 seconds in taking the photos.

But it's still a little disappointing, to be unable to record these fleeting moments of sheer beauty.

Are there, I wonder, any useful tips or hints on how to get better photos of plants with only a cameraphone?

And the answer appears to be, yes: there are a couple of things you can do to improve the quality of your quick snaps.

Tip  1: Use natural light. Don't bother using the flash on the phone, it's an LED which is harsh, and - particularly in cheaper phones like mine - is not necessarily perfectly in sync with the shutter.

Tip 2: Only take photos when you have "enough" natural light. That means, don't bother if it's so dull and overcast that you can barely see the details, but also, don't take photos in bright sunlight, as the colours are bleached, and the contrast is too great between the bits in sun, and the bits in shade.

Here's one I cocked up earlier: I thought the bright sun would make a good clear picture, but oh dear me,  no!

Tip 3:  Get in closer. It takes a professional photographer and their expensive DSLR cameras, to get a great panoramic shot which also shows detail - it's all about depth of field. Our little phone cameras do much better with close-ups, so don't waste time doing the grand panoramic shot for anything other than reference snaps.

Tip 4: Don't get TOO close! Most cameraphones don't have a macro setting, or if they do, it's not a very good one. Too close and the picture is just blurry.   Like this Alchemilla:

Tip 5: Isolate your specimen. How many times have you taken a photo of something lovely, then when you get home and download the photos, you've found that you have a crisp sharp photo of the ground below.... if you are taking photos at home or on holiday, take a piece of plain paper to put behind the flower, or other object of your desire.  If you're working, and can't take the time to do that, try to find an angle where your cameraphone isn't being distracted by something behind the object - or, try to put your hand or arm close behind it, to force the camera to focus where you want it to.  I have, btw, only JUST discovered that my current cameraphone allows me to tap the screen on the bit I want it to focus on! It doesn't always get it right, but it's a great improvement.

The photo below could well be titled "Not that one, idiot! THAT one!"  

Tip 6: Go for landscape orientation rather than portrait.  It's more natural! Again, being a bit of a thicky, I have only JUST realised that my current phone, unlike the previous one which I had for about 8 years, takes photos which are portrait in format, when I hold the phone "upright", as it were.  To get landscape photos, I have to hold it sideways, which to me, seems alien and weird.  The old phone was the other way round....

Tip 7: Use the grid.  Grid? What grid? If you open your camera facility, and look through the settings, you should find one labelled Grid. It puts up a faint grid on the screen, which allows you to use the Rule of Thirds to help you create a "nice" composition. If you don't know about the Rule of Thirds, there are plenty of articles about it.

Tip 8: Crop, and crop again.  Most photos benefit from a bit of cropping when you get home: it's amazing what a difference it can make.  Photos which may have originally been a bit unbalanced can be "forced" into accommodating the Rule of Thirds, by simply cropping them, which just means changing their size/proportion. I always keep the original, and use "save as" to create a copy which I can then play around with.

Oh, and Tip 9: take several. Don't just take one - the great thing with digital photos is that you don't have to pay to have them developed, so you can take seven or eight snaps one after the other, moving slightly closer, slightly further away, to one side or the other, in the hopes that at least one of them will turn out to be good. I learned this myself, from watching a professional photo shoot: they took hundreds of photos, then suddenly there was a cry of "That's it! That's the money shot!"  The real trick these days, and this probably ought to be Tip 10, is to discard the rubbish ones. Go on, delete them! If you've taken 15 photos of the same flower, pick the best one or two, and delete the rest.

Hmm, which leads on to Tip 10: File Your Photos!  I make it my practice to download photos from my phone every day, or every other day, then go through them on the computer and prune them: I delete anything out of focus, or totally rubbish: then I go through the "I have taken 8 photos of this one thing" sets and pick the best one, deleting the rest: then I rename the good one and put it in the relevant folder, so that I can find it again if I want it.  Obviously it's up to you to decide on a filing system that suits you: it could be by day, or by place, or by theme: it doesn't matter how you file them, as long as you are able to quickly find the one you want, months later. End of lecture.

So, armed with these Tips, I took a look back through some photos I took earlier, and indeed I am a pathetic garden photographer:  most of my photos of plants are just a mass of green, or a splodge of colour here and there. Or they are massively out of focus. Sad but true.

Here's an example: in one of "my" gardens there is a lovely Tamarisk, and in May I was apparently moved to try and capture it's fluffy pinkness:

"Meh!" , huh?

Nothing special. Actually quite messy.  And the inclusion of the wheelbarrow and bucket full of weeds hardly adds to the glamour of the shot.

The second photo showed that I'd realised this, and had moved in a bit closer:

Better, much better, but still not earth-shattering.

I remembered that a lot of plant photos are taken pointing upwards, with the sky for a background, and the sky was a particularly clear blue that day. So I took a third photo, having got even closer:

Hmm, sort of nice - the sky is a lovely clear blue, and the bright green leaves on the right make a nice contrast - a bit of a happy accident, I'm fairly certain that I didn't even notice them when I took it.

I think it's still rather messy, though, and might have been better if I could have removed or moved that one thin branch which is making an un-natural straight line across the top third.

Although now, having learned about the Rule of Thirds, it's actually a good thing? Or is it?

Well, having just done this little bit of research into improving cameraphone photography, I thought I'd implement Tip 8 as an experiment, and cropped the photo to remove the straight branch:

The act of cropping also turned it into a much more landscapey/widescreen picture, which is possibly a good thing. What do you think?

As a further experiment, let's look again at my lupin picture from the top of this article:

 This is the original, left: the flowers are out of focus and it's in portrait orientation.

So my first job is to crop out the flowers, which by happy accident, puts it back into landscape format.

Well, it's nicer without the blurry blossoms!

But now the main focus is on the one leaf, and it's almost exactly dead centre, which is a bit of a no-no according to the  Rule of Thirds.

Of course, in art, rules are made to be broken, but in most cases a "rule" has become a "rule" because it is usually correct, and worthwhile.

So I cropped it again, chopping off some of the right-hand margin, which puts the main leaf off-centre, and has the further advantage of removing most of the rather dull and discoloured leaf on the far right.

Of course, the format is now slightly "off", the proportions are slightly "wrong": I could choose to crop a bit more off the bottom to get it back to more pleasing proportions, but then I'd lose the full length of the leaf, and I rather like it like this.

So, there you have it: a few Tips on how to get more from your smartphone when taking snaps out in the garden, and a quick demonstration on how a wee bit of cropping can make quite a difference...I'm not claiming that the final picture of "Rain on Lupin Leaf" will ever win a competition, but it's certainly more interesting than the original photo was!

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Organic pest control... meh!

This is one of those difficult aspects, when it comes to working for other people: I may well have my own opinions about pretty much every aspect of gardening, from making compost, to the best time to water the plants - and a ton of other topics -  but when you work for other people, you do have to go along with their preferences.

Well, I suppose you could bully them into doing what you think is best, but I'm not "that" sort of gardener! *laughs*

When it comes to pest control, some of my Clients allow me to use chemicals, some of them positively insist that I use chemicals, and others ask me to use only organic methods, so I get a good chance to see how the various types of pest control stack up against each other.

This is a great example - aphids on Lupins. This year - 2019 - has been an exceptionally good (or bad!) year for aphids of all colours... you can see, the flowering spike of this Lupin is completely swamped with aphids.

Please note the single,  lone, brave ladybird.... 

All the books/articles/internet say things like "if you are troubled with aphids, don't rush for the chemical spray, allow nature time to take its course, and predatory insects such as ladybirds will clean up your problem for you."

Hmmmm, not so much!

I searched a stand of a dozen aphid-infested Lupins, and found a total of three ladybirds, so in my opinion, the aphids are winning.

What do I do about it?

In this garden, which is one of the "we like to be organic" ones, there's not a lot I can do other then get out the hosepipe and jet-wash all the lupins, to blast the little buggers beasts physically off the plants.

The hope is that something will eat them, or they will die of starvation, before they manage to clamber their way back up to the tender, soft, stems which they feed on, or should I say, through.

And the jet wash process would need to be repeated every other day, or so, until the infestation was cleared. Not so easy when I don't live there.

In other gardens, where chemicals are allowed, I would have sprayed the plants with a systemic bug  killer long before the aphids arrived: that way, the chemicals are contained within the plant, rather than sitting on the leaves, so they only affect anything which bites or probes into the plant, leaving flying and pollinating insects completely unharmed.

In this garden, then, presumably by the end of the week there are going to be three enormous, fat, ladybirds waddling up and down the stalks, burping gently and thinking "Wow! What a great year it's being!"

Or maybe the three of them will be relaxing in the shade of a leaf, one of them playing hot smoky saxophone while the others sing "Summertiiiiiiime, when the living is eeeeeeasyyyyyyy....."

Friday, 12 July 2019

How much Bay can any one person actually use?

A question I frequently ask myself!

So many people have Bay bushes in their garden, and so many of them are hulking great monsters, which need A Firm Hand.

Here's a good example:

This was planted as a centre-piece to a small raised bed, intended as a herb garden. Nice and convenient for the house, well drained, poor soil: perfect!

Or so you would think, wouldn't you? 

When I started working in this garden, it was in fact an enormous bushy thing, taller than it is now, bushy right down to the ground, and reaching nearly to the edges of the bed.

So I applied the Firm Hand: I cut off everything from the one main trunk, up to about waist height, and trimmed what was left into a roughly spherical shape.

The owners were delighted - suddenly, they had a herb garden!  And as you can see, we planted it up with what you might call the usual suspects, and it's turned into a nice little herb garden.

But every year I have to re-trim the Bay, using that Firm Hand again, otherwise it would grow back into a massive bushy monster, taking all the sun, water and nutrients, and casting such deep shade that the herbs below would all die.

The photo above shows it as it was this morning, at about 10am.

And this is what it looked like ten minutes later:

Annoyingly, I didn't stand in quite the same place for the second photo, which makes it less easy to see the difference: so you'll have to take my word for it that I removed at least  2' all round - yes, the pieces I cut off were all more than 2' (ok, ok, errr, 60cm) long.

In fact, you can see that the shadow of the top part is significantly less than it was, above!

And there were enough cuttings to fill the empty compost bag right to the brim, as you can just about see, on the left in this second picture.  (The brown bin being full, by 10am!!)

And yet.... and yet.... this happens every time, not just in this garden but in every garden where I apply the Firm Hand to the Bay: just as I'm clearing up the mess, the owner will come out and gleefully pounce on the cuttings, with cries of "oh, don't throw it all away, I'll just take some of that, mmm, Bay, lovely!" as though they didn't have a massive bush of it just sat there for the picking.....


Thursday, 11 July 2019

Snow in Summer

I always thought that Snow in Summer was a plant.

Until I was working  under a large Poplar the other day!

The problem is that Poplars are wind-pollinated, and they also use the wind to spread their seed, so the female trees produce masses of fluffy white fibres to support the seeds.

Just like Dandelions. Only on a rather larger scale...

This white "fluff" is produced in June, and if it's not a particularly windy day, it can pile up and look just like snow. Where I live, there are a small group of large Poplars, and it's quite an impressive sight, watching the road collect ankle-deep drifts of the stuff!

All types of Poplar do this, as do Willows: but only the female trees produce seeds, so if you want to avoid it, buy male plants - although, of course, the trick is to find trees that have been accurately labelled, as you won't know for sure if your tree is male or female until it reaches maturity... and it's a bit late, then!

Apparently it's a big problem in Russia and China, both of which used Poplars as a cheap and quick way to "green up" their cities after the second World War, not realising what a problem they were creating.

So what is the "real" Snow in Summer?

Cerastium tomentosum is the proper name, also known as Dusty Miller, Jerusalem star, Snow Plant etc, and it's actually part of the carnation family.

As you can see, the name is well deserved!

Saturday, 22 June 2019

"June drop" - what is it?

If you've ever grown fruit on trees - apples, pears, plums, that sort of thing - you might have heard the term "June drop".

Ever wondered what it means?

Nothing to do with pear drops, nothing to do with June bugs, (this one on the left is a May Bug or Cockchafer, but it's close enough), but everything to do with a natural thinning out of the fruit.

What happens is that each flower in a "bunch" gets pollinated, and if all of them are fertilised, then you get as many fruits as there were flowers.

This sounds like a good thing - ooh, lots of fruit! - but the tree can only support so many fruit, in two ways: firstly, a heavy crop of fruit is literally heavy, and can snap the branches - and secondly, if there are too many fruits in each bunch, then you get a lot of little tiny fruits, instead of a couple of nice big juicy ones.

So what do we do about it? Traditionally, we thin out the fruit: as soon as the fruits start to form, we look through the bunches every week or so, and remove some of them.

Using common sense, the first ones to be removed are any which are damaged, any which are badly mis-shapen, any which show the slightest sign of rot.

The next round of removals is for any which are markedly smaller than the others - the runts of the litter, as it were.

So far, so hoopy.

But the complication comes when we get to June, and the traditional June Drop. This is a natural phenomenon whereby the tree decides for itself whether it has too many fruits forming, and voluntarily drops a proportion of them.

Yesterday, I was merrily clipping the edges of the lawn around an apple tree when I noticed a strange texture underfoot: the grass was oddly lumpy.

Closer inspection showed a mass of teeny tiny apples, which have been "June Dropped" naturally by the tree, at a very early stage of their development.

Great, saves me some work!

The eternal question in my mind, when thinning fruits, is "are these small mis-shapen fruits which I am about to remove going to be dropped anyway during the June Drop, so am I wasting my time doing it manually?"

Actually, there's an even worse Eternal Question, which is this: does the tree drop a fixed percentage of fruits, because if it is always going to drop, say, half of them, then what if I've just removed the fruits which the tree was going to drop anyway (as I am sure the tree would agree with my selection of naff-looking fruits), in which case will it now drop half of the "good" fruits which I have left?

I have no answers to this conundrum.

If I had my own orchard, I'd do experiments with photographing, marking and recording each bunch of fruits, and I'd manually thin out some, leaving others untouched, to see what level of difference there is.

I'm certain that there is SOME difference, because I have a Client with a particular apple tree which I normally thin for them, as the fruits form: and one year I wasn't able to do it, I can't remember exactly why - I think we had several major garden projects going at once, and I just didn't get around to doing it.  And that summer, they definitely had masses of very small fruits, all strangely shaped where they were crammed up against each other, instead of our normal crop of good-sized, edible ones.

So I do know that yes, it is an important part of cultivating fruit, but I don't know the answers to my Eternal Questions.

(I'm not even going to mention biennial bearing, where trees alternate between bearing a heavy crop one year, and a pathetic feeble crop the next.)

Oh, one more thing about June Drop: I wrote recently about hoes, which are not my favourite tool (if you want to know why, read the article!), but if you have a Swoe, which is a particular type of hoe, they can also be used, during the June Drop season, for playing Swoe-Apples, a game I invented where you use the Swoe rather in the manner of a golf club (with overtones of lacrosse, as you have to hold it in front of yourself) to flick fallen apples off the lawn into the beds, where they can rot down and add organic matter to the soil. Two points for a clean flick: lose one point for an apple that poings backwards. Beats all that bending down to pick them up!

Friday, 14 June 2019

Lily Beetles - tremble in terror!

Lily Beetles - *groan*

They're a bit late this year, but look out everyone, Lily Beetles are here with a vengeance once again.

What's a Lily Beetle? I hear you say. Well, if you don't know what they are then you are either very lucky, in that you have never had them, or you don't grow lilies.

Or, possibly, you have given up growing Lilies, as they never seem to do well for you?

If your Lilies look like this - brace yourselves -

 ... then you know the pain of Lily Beetles. Disgusting mess, eh? The leaves have been shattered, shredded to nothing. and the flowering buds have been completely eaten away.

If you don't know what Lily Beetles are, here's one I found earlier (don't worry, it's dead now) - they are quite large, shiny bright scarlet, beetles, which simply drool over our beautiful Lilies, and to a lesser extent our Fritillaries.

I've had Clients in the past come running up to me, wailing about ladybirds eating their Lilies: it's an easy mistake to make, but Ladybirds are hemispherical, like half a pea, whereas Lily Beetles are longer and flatter: also, Ladybirds have spots upon their backs, whereas Lily Beetles are plain red, no spots.

The adults come flying in, usually from mid May onwards: they scoff the leaves, often leaving those squared-off holes, and then they lay their bright orange eggs on the underside of the leaves.

 Here's a string of freshly laid eggs - right - and if you find two or more of the adults doing the piggy-back thing, you know that these eggs are about to be laid, so there's an extra incentive to destroy them.

These bright orange eggs hatch very quickly into larvae, which then cover themselves in their own excrement (“charming!”) for disguise, so we can no longer easily see them.

These larvae then, under cover of the black poo, eat what is left of the leaves, and this is what leaves our plants looking like nothing on earth - tattered, ragged foliage with clumps of black icky stuff on them.

If  you are very lucky, they'll only eat the foliage and leaves the flowering buds alone, but the lack of foliage will cause the bulbs to be seriously distressed, to the point where they may well not flower at all the following year.

 So, what can we do about it?

Answer, get out there now, and start looking for them. They are ridiculously easy to spot, being bright scarlet, but they have a nasty little trick: when disturbed, they fall to the ground and lie motionless on their backs, so you can't see them.

See what I mean? (left)

Hard to spot on a concrete path, quite impossible to spot on dark earth.

This means you need two hands - cup one underneath the leaf, then gently nudge the beetle off the leaf into your hand.

Or, crease a sheet of stiff paper lengthwise, and hold it under the plant.

Either way, once you have them, crush them! Kill, maim, destroy!

As with many things in the garden, prevention is better than cure, so be vigilant now, early in the season: check your Lilies several times a day, and squish any adults that you find, before they get a chance to lay eggs. Be warned - they have hard carapaces, so when I say “squish”, I mean “crush underfoot, on a hard surface, or guillotine with a thumbnail if you are not squeamish.”

By killing every adult that you see, you can prevent them from laying eggs, thus saving your Lilies - and those of your neighbours - from an untimely demise.

After more than a decade of doing it, I am no longer squeamish, and at this time of year I am often to be found with a red-stained thumbnail.

If you don't quite fancy the search-and-destroy routine, the only alternative is to spray: most of the sprays are systemic, which means that you spray them onto the leaves, the spray is absorbed by the plant and circulates to all areas, the lily beetle eats the leaves which now contain the poison within the sap, and the beetle dies.

The downside of this regime is a) you have to do it a few days before the first beetles arrive, and of course we all forget: or possibly we're all hopeful that this year, we will be spared, b) it's using chemicals, and c) some of them will live long enough to lay their pesky eggs, so spraying is not a cure-all, but it can help to cut down infestations if you can get it on in time.

So if you plan to spray, it's a bit late now......

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Strawberry and Herb pots: how to make them better!

Someone offered me an unwanted strawberry pot the other day; what a kind thought, you might say.

But there was a catch - they were giving it to me because it "didn't work".


The problem was, they said, that every time they watered it, the water just flooded straight through the pot and out of all the holes, washing out the soil and leaving the plants hanging on precariously.

This was because it was a badly designed pot!!

Firstly, in case you're not clear on what a Strawberry pot is, it's a pot which has several openings in the sides, designed so that you can grow six or so separate plants, each with its own opening.

They are brilliant for strawberries, because strawberries like to dangle, and the design of the pot keeps them off the soil, so they don't go mushy and horrible. It is also a lot easier to protect a pot from slugs and snails, compared to having them in a bed or border: the pot can be sat on your patio, you can put copper tape around the base (which doesn't actually work, as per this article), and they are close to hand.

They are also very popular for herbs, because you can plant six or more different herbs in each pot, sit it on the patio by the kitchen door, and be able to pop outside and snip off a fragrant handful whenever you wish. And as herbs like to be well-drained, they are particularly suited for them.... oh hang on, strawberries need a lot of water, don't they? More of this later.

Here's a typical herb pot:

As you can see, nice terracotta pot, holes in the side for a variety of different plants, and space on top for a slightly larger one.

This is actually a very successful way to grow herbs: because they have a limited amount of soil, they don't get unmanageably huge.

And, because of the design shortcomings, the top one tends to get all the water, and the lower plantings tend to be rather dry, which suits most herbs.

So far, so hoopy,  However, these pots are more often used for strawberries, and this is the sort of picture they use to sell them:

There, isn't that lovely?

Bursting with fruit, as healthy as a healthy thing, and only taking up six square inches on your sunny patio.....

However, there's a bit of a conflict with the above situation - strawberries need a lot of water, and they take a lot of nutrition out of the soil.

How do we deal with these two opposing sets of conditions?

Well, first things first, decide what you are going to grow. If it's herbs, all well and good, plant it up and off you go.

But if you want strawberries, you will need to take a bit more care with your choice of pot, and with your management of it.

Right, why do some of them leak water all over the place? In a word, because they are badly designed.  The holes in the sides need to have quite extensive lips, like little cups.

Here's a perfect example of a really crap design. It's a cheaply-produced pot, most likely it was machine-made by the million, and they just stamped out the holes and presumably discarded the unwanted clay.

This sort of pot is only ever going to be any use for herbs, and even then it's going to be annoying to use: when you first fill it, the soil is going to fall out all  over your feet, and even once the plants have become established enough to hold the soil in, every time you water you are going to have a flood on the patio.

This - right - is the style of pot you should be looking at. Don't look at the overall shape of the pot, that doesn't matter, but look at the way the planting holes have cups underneath them.

"Ahhhh!" I hear you say.

Yes, that's right, it's that simple: buy pots with projecting cups, which hold the soil, and hold the water.

Right, so what do you when you've inadvertently bought (or been given) the wrong type?

Here's my personal fix - I was given a beautiful blue strawberry pot with, alas, the wrong style of hole. In my local charity shop, I found a set of six blue mugs for £2, almost exactly the same colour. Ten minutes' work with a small hammer, and I'd managed to get four half-cups, which I then cemented in place with Milliput (modelling clay).

I also added a strip of Milliput along the broken edge, so I didn't get slashed to death when tending to my plants....

Life being what it is, I broke a couple of the mugs in all the wrong places, so I didn't get six decent halves - you can see in this photo that my answer is to block up the bottom-most holes with plastic, and to do without those ones: at least I now have four good planting cups, instead of none!

You could use rigid plastic for this: short pieces cut from old guttering would do - so search the shed and see what bits and bobs you have lying around, and see if any of them can be put to use.

When you fill the pot, use shop-bought, good quality compost: this is one time when home-made compost is actually not the best, as it can have variable amounts of "goodness" in it, and that means varying from "mmm, quite a lot" to "oh dear, practically nothing" and alas, there is no quick and easy way to test your own compost for nutritional value.

Also, and more to the point, homemade compost is inevitably full of weed seeds. Which means you waste a lot of that "goodness" in growing weeds which compete with your strawberry plants, and you waste a lot of time trying to winkle them out without disturbing your precious crop.

And, don't just plant up and forget: the nutrients in shop-bought compost only last for 4-6 months, and strawberries are greedy feeders, so give them some balanced feed - such as Gromore - every couple of weeks, and a little sploosh of tomato feed in their water once every week or so.

Right, so now we've either thrown out the "wrong" pots and replaced them, or we've found a way to bodge them into being usable: we've used good compost and have lined up our feeding regime: so how do we water?

Even with the right shaped pot, the trick is to water very slowly to avoid it all spilling out of the top, and out of the top-most planting pockets. I find it helps to ensure that you don't fill the main body of the pot right up to the top - allow a couple of inches so that the water can sit on the soil and soak in.

If you find that frustrating,  my answer to this is to insert a couple of lengths of seep hose vertically into the pot when I was planting it up. So now I pour the water down the tops of the seep hose as well as on the soil: they fill up with water right down to the bottom, and release it slowly.

As an alternative, you could get a length of plastic pipe, drill a lot of small holes in it, block up the bottom, and stand it vertically in the pot when you plant it. Then you just fill up the pipe with water, and it gradually empties itself into the soil.

So, in a nutshell: buy the right design: if you have the wrong design, see if you can change it: use bought compost and be prepared to use additional feed: water slowly, add some pipes or seep hose to get the water right down to the bottom, and there you go, strawberries of your own!

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Chelsea Flower Show 2019: zombie apocalypse aftermath

Well, everything they say about Chelsea Flower Show is true. Yes, everything!

It's big, it's commercial, it's horrendously expensive: it's fantastic, there's so much to see, it's very well organised: there are too many trade stands, too many other people, not enough show gardens; there are lots of trade stands and shopping opportunities; it's all as fake as a fake thing (having to look at stands full of flowering hydrangeas - ours, locally, are barely budding  up - next to stands full of flowering daffodils is a bit of a strain on the horticultural credibility), but it was still a fabulous day out!

I haven't seen any of the TV coverage - on account of not having a TV - nor have I read any of the reviews etc, other than to have noted that "Kate" had created a garden, so this review probably won't say quite the same things as the other reviews...

After an early start, and a rather giggly journey on the luxurious Oxford Tube coach (still can't accept a coach called "The Tube" as to me, being London born and bred, the Tube is the Tube, and that's that. End of diversion, please drive on:), we arrived at Victoria, hopped on the shuttle bus and found ourselves in a steady flow of Chelsea visitors, entering the showground.

We worked our way gently through the security search ("Oy! Give me back my Hula-hoops!") then headed for the Pavilion, on the grounds that a) most people were heading straight for Kate's Garden,  and b) we weren't quite sure about the weather, and if it should chance to rain everyone would stampede for the shelter, so we thought we'd get it done first.

Good decision, as it turned out: it was sufficiently un-crowded that we could move round at a decent pace, and it hadn't yet heated up to boiling point in the sun.

So, the Pavilion: that's where the plants live. Lots and lots of plants, rather like a "Best of Village" gardening show, but on a large scale and - generally speaking - without the veg. Many of the stalls were one-hit wonders, a chance for the plant breeders to show you just how many garish colours they can breed into their specialist subject: but quite a few had made an effort to create a mini-show garden, which we all enjoyed more than just "here's our plant in red, here it is in yellow".

To give you an idea of how un-engaging the Pavilion was (to me, that is) I only took one photo:

... and that was more to remind me of the cunning positioning of a bonsai within a circle of painted wood.

Now I am looking for a garden in which to create something like this.....

After an hour or more in the Pavilion, and having narrowly avoided being part of the filming while we were - fruitlessly, as it turned out - trying to get to see the Ikea stand, we escaped and went out to see the D-Day landing memorial garden.

This is not quite a garden, it's more of a cross between an art installation and a memorial, and is quite wonderful.

On the right-hand side, you have the garden part: something like 11,000 individual Sea Thrift plants (Armeria maritima) in white and pink, all carefully grown in pots, crammed together on the forecourt of the Royal Hospital to form the illusion of a windswept, sandy beach. Among the plants are 15 stone plinths, representing the troops who fought at the D-Day landings: each engraved with a quote from an individual veteran.

At the front of the line is a life-sized statue of one particular veteran, Bill Pendell MM, who is a local man, he comes from Stanford in the Vale. The statue shows him as he was last year, age 97, and depicts him sitting, looking out to sea.

On the left is the "sea", an impressive structure of grey steel girders and chippings, representing the waves of the  landing. Among those waves are some ghostly images of young soldiers, cleverly made by welding washers together to form a chain-mail effect, but only detailing part of the soldier, giving them an ethereal, transparent quality.

(apologies for the photo, I didn't take one myself due to the excessive quantity of elbows and hats around me, so I pinched this one off the internet.)

The concept is that the 97-year-old Bill sits on the right, watching  his younger self rushing out of the waves. Of course, we all ask ourselves what he would be thinking, what he would say when he saw his younger self on the beaches: sadly, we'll never know because Mr Pendell died last December - after the sculpture was made, but before seeing the installation.

The garden was, like all the show gardens, fenced off to keep out the masses, but a special few people were allowed to go inside and walk around it.  And the lovely part is that after the show, the whole garden is being packed up and reinstalled in Normandy: not only that, but the foundation who raised the money for the garden are also paying for 75 veterans to be brought to London to see it.

After seeing this, we found somewhere moderately quiet to eat our packed lunches: we're not daft, we'd heard the rumours of huge queues and over-priced food, although to be honest, it didn't look that bad: £10 for a smallish portion of fish and chips seems quite reasonable to me, and the serving seemed to move along quite nicely.

Refreshed and renewed, we wasted 15 mins queueing for the loos - honestly, guys, come on: the briefest of brief surveys suggested that the ratio of women to men was a minimum of five to one, so how come there were so few loos for the ladies? The organisers had made a bit of an effort, with a large block of mobiles loos (nice solid ones, not those nasty blue plastic tardis things) and a team of young staff chivvying us along ("Come on ladies! Move all the way through, more round the back, chop chop!") and a very effective mass handwash arrangement.

However, by the time we'd all been processed, the queue was faintingly long, and the volume of the grumbling was getting quite worrying. Fearing a riot, we hastened off to see the show gardens.

As always, they look lovely on tv (I used to have one, I know what the presentation is like) but in real life, you can only see one side of them, and then you have to fight your way to the barrier, and if there is someone particularly tall/stout/behatted in front of you, well, it's quite tricky to get a good view. And you don't like to spend too long looking, as you are very aware of the crush of people behind.

But we managed to get a feel for the themes of the show gardens: to me, there was nothing particularly new there, it was all a bit derivative: lots and lots of rusty iron, and a strong theme of zombie apocalypse eco aftermath. You know, the zombies have eaten everyone, and nature is returning to take over.

Those show gardens which resisted the rusty iron, still went for the mock "wild" look, which - as a gardener - I find teeth-grittingly annoying. Why? Firstly because it looks lovely now, for the five minutes of the show (allowing for the fact that many of the plants at the show have been forced/held back/tortured in some way to get them perfect for that one week) but - as several astute visitors said out loud - once this plant and that plant have gone over, there'll be very little left to look at for the rest of the summer, and nothing at all left for winter interest.

And secondly because creating and maintaining a "wild" garden takes just as much time as creating and maintaining a traditional garden, which many people don't realise. I don't mind if a garden owner wants a wild garden because it's wild, because it reminds them of their childhood, because they want to be friendly to wildlife etc. I start gritting my teeth when they want a wild garden because they think it will be low maintenance.

Oh no it won't! I'll be writing about this separately, so come back later if you want to  know more on that topic!

So what did actually catch my eye?  Well, first was this very contemporary garden, mostly because one of my Clients wants to install a narrow rill in their garden, and wanted ideas:

...this isn't quite what they are looking for, but I rather liked the idea of the very narrow stream, easy to  step over. And I liked the idea of using different coloured stones for the edges, so you can see them!

Not so keen on the "concrete slab" footbridge though - it's not the concrete slab-ness that I dislike, as that is actually quite in keeping with the rest of the garden, but the fact that they've put it behind (from the point of view of the chair and table) the wall. With greenery overhanging it.

Why would you choose to do a tightrope balancing act on a narrow footbridge, then squeeze round the back of the wooden wall - actually the side of a pergola - brushing through foliage en route?

I can't help feeling there was a slight mistake in the build.

Please note, again, the "wildflower" style planting. Nice for five minutes.... not exactly lovely all year round, though.

The next thing that caught my eye was the garden produced by the Australian adventure holiday company, and not just because they were dishing out free goody bags.

(I do love free goody bags!)

Love the dear little wombat on the left (comment overheard from another visitor "Oh look, a beaver!"), and the iconic Koala. Not quite so sure about the Foxgloves, though: I would not  have considered them to be native Australian plants.

*slight pause while I go and check*

Oh! "Naturalised in some parts of south-eastern Australia"

Well, that told me.

Meanwhile we were hearing from other visitors that the queue for "Kate's Garden" was now reaching inter-galactic lengths, so we decided to give that a miss.

Instead, we hopped up into the exhibit next door, which was a treehouse, in the hopes that we'd be able to see over and down into it, but alas, "Kate's  Garden" was surrounded by trees and we could not get a single peek. Drat!

Finally, I took a photo of this stand which showcased some fantastic metal water-feature trees sculptures.

I've wanted one of these since seeing the copper weeping willow water tree at Chatsworth, and these were far, far better than that.

They had a stand full of them, so they'd built a shallow tank to house them, and the sound of the "rain" was like that of a thunderstorm!

The trees are getting more and more realistic, and as you can see, they're now making strange but colourful flowers which also spout water.


I'm not quite sure how I'm going to fit one of these into my tiny garden... in a perfect world, I'd have the whole thing installed!

Alas, the firm who make them have had a total "Fail" on the advertising front, as I can't find them on the internet: I've searched for Chelsea 2019 trade stands, artificial trees, water sculpture, water trees, copper trees, etc etc and I still can't find who makes them.

So, that was Chelsea 2019: zombie apocalypse aftermath, wildflowers and weeds, rusty iron, and well worth getting up very early in order to get there not long after opening time, in order to have a chance to see round before it got too crowded.

Best points: showground policy is "no dogs, no prams, no pushchairs, no babies, no children under 5". It's a show for grown-ups, and it was lovely. No screaming children, no perpetually being run over by buggies, no having to watch your every step for fear of treading in dog poo.

Worst points? Definitely the queueing for the loo. I have submitted feedback to the RHS. *laughs*

Will I go again? Unlikely: having now looked at photos on the internet (while searching for the metal tree people), I can  honestly say that you get a better idea of the show gardens from the tv coverage and the internet - after all, they are able to compose the shot (hahaha, I typed "compost" instead of "compose" there and had to go back to change it!) to show off the relevant/best features of the garden, and you don't get bumped into, while you are trying to see them.

However, I do think that the Chelsea Flower Show is something that everyone should go to once (everyone who is interested in gardening, that is!) and I am extremely happy that I have now ticked off that box, with grateful thanks to the kind friend who invited me to go!