Garden School:

Garden School:
Teaching this week: Jobs which can be done while it's pouring with rain....

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!

Monday, 27 May 2019

Product Review: Pipecleaner Plant Ties (Fail)

It seemed like such a good idea...  some time back, I bought a pack of mixed plant ties in my local cheapy shop, and one of the items was a handful of what looked for all the world like pipecleaners.

I used them, they were great: just the right strength, easy to twist, just the right length, and they were green, and kinda cute looking.

Typically, when I went back to buy some more, the shop no longer had any, which is the greatest drawback of these cheapy shops: when you see something you like, you have to grab them quick before they are gone...

Here's one I used earlier - can you see it?

Taking a logical step, I wondered if it would be cheaper to buy pipecleaners in long  lengths, and cut them to size, so I searched online for pipecleaners, and found that they are really expensive to buy, surprisingly - you don't seem to be able to buy them in bulk, just in short lengths, and then only from craft-type shops.

However, a few months later, Wilkinsons (a slightly better class of cheapy shop) were selling packs of just the pipecleaner type.

 Aha! I thought. Just the thing!

They were about a quid for a pack, so I bought a couple of packs, and started using them.

So far, so hoopy.

Oh, there was one incident where a Client screamed "Look at that! What an enormous caterpillar!" and pointed to the roses, where one of these twist ties was clearly visible against the trellis......

We laughed.

I continued to use the pipecleaner ties, or "caterpillars" as they are now known, in various  of "my" gardens.

However, after a few months, they look like this:

Pretty gruesome, huh?

They've gone rusty.


Not so much in looks - frankly, I think they are virtually invisible now - but the thought of how easy it is to scrape yourself in a garden, and how rust can be one of the routes towards contracting tetanus, which is something I really don't want.

Plus, they get brittle and snap.

So, after a year or more of trialling them, sadly, they get a "FAIL!"

Now what shall I do with the left-over pack of furry green caterpillars?  Suggestions on a postcard....

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Product Review: B&Q Hand tools set (Fail)

Last week, I managed to cleverly leave my trowel in a garden somewhere: I rather suspect that I dropped it into my yellow bucket along with the debris and weeds which were removed to make way for the planting.... and it's entirely possibly that I flung the whole lot onto the compost.


(Don't look at me like that, we've all done it!)

For some reason I have a dozen spare daisy grubbers, but not a single spare trowel, probably because I don't wear out trowels in the same way that I get through daisy grubbers. This is because the daisy grubber is in constant use, whereas the trowel tends to sit in my workbag from one end of the month to the other, only being pulled out if I have a lot of planting to do - and most Clients kindly allow me to do the preparation work for new plantings, but are quite happy to do the good bit themselves!

Also, to be honest, a  lot of the time, I use the daisy grubber as a trowel anyway, if there's only one or two plants to be planted. It's all part of being Super-Efficient: I won't waste time trogging all the way across the garden to my car to get a trowel, if I only need it for 30 seconds, and can do the job perfectly well with the daisy grubber.

Anyway, long story made short: I went to the garden centre after work to buy a new trowel, and alas, I couldn't find one. Bizarre, eh?  My preferred trowel style is this:

Short, chunky, sturdy.

The only ones I could find on sale, and there were a dozen variations on this theme, across the three garden centres and two supermarkets which I went to, were all like this: 

...which I would call "swan-necked", I suppose.

I don't like that style.

They don't fit neatly into my workbag, for a start! 

But I needed something for work the next day, so in the end I opted for the super-cheap B&Q own-brand plastic set of fork and trowel, for the grand sum of about three quid.

Now, I must point out straight away that this set is definitely full-sized, and was hanging up in the gardening section.

Not in the kiddies' play-sand area.

It was in the grown-ups' gardening area, with all the other big solid grown-up chunky gardening tools, including axes, bowsaws, and all sorts of sharp pointy things.

So I think I was right in assuming that it for grown-ups to use, in actual gardening, right?

When I got them home, I was wee but dubious about the lightweight plastic-ness of them both, but I know that great strides have been made in plastic composition, and there are a lot of recycled plastic items being made these days, which I assume is a good thing.

So I took the trowel, slid it into my workbag - where it fitted neatly, so it got a housepoint for that - and went off to work.

Did it work? I can hear you all saying. "Did it break the first time out? Did it snap in two? Was it thrown away in disgust?"

Well, it did sort of work:  I managed to plant a few things with no real problem, but it did not feel solid and confidence-inspiring in the hand.  It felt as though it would snap if I put too much pressure on it, and it absolutely would not cut through soil which had not been previously loosened.

So it's only any use if you dig the soil over first.... or use the daisy grubber to weed and loosen the soil, in which case you ("one") might just as well use the daisy grubber to dibble out the holes and plant with, as well.

As for the "fork" thing, well, that was just a joke.

The raking part is sort of ok, not the sort of tool I would use, and but believable: but the holes in the handle?

Huh? - what are they all about?

Are you supposed to sieve the soil over teeny tiny seedlings?

Are you supposed to put seeds in it and sprinkle them over your freshly-forked soil?

Or is it, in fact, a kiddies' toy play set, for use in the sand pit?

Well, I managed to unearth an old trowel in the shed, rusty and rather sad-looking but still perfectly usable, which is another reason for not throwing old tools away just because they don't "look" as nice as they did...

And in the meantime I will continue to hunt for a new "proper" trowel... and when I find them for sale, I'll buy three!

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Homing Snails

Homing Snails... is this a horror story? Will there be spine-chilling background music? (No, of course not, this is a blog, not a multi-media entertainment channel!)

I'm sorry to talk about snails, I know they're not a favourite gardeners' friend, but this is actually an amazing story.

It starts back in 2017.

I had recently been painting my fences and steps blue, and a couple of snails found themselves with stylish blue blobs on their shells.

On the 24th May, I flung them out of my garden, over the fence, and way out into the open grassy area next to my house, which is lush, grassy, and tree-edged, which I assume is something like a permanent running buffet to snails, as opposed to my fully-shingled, soil-less desert of a garden.

This is my chosen method of dealing with snails at home - I fling them out of the garden, releasing them into the wild, rather than deliberately, cold-heartedly killing them.

After all, I don't want them in my garden but they do have a job to do, in the wider scheme of things: they are part of nature's bin-men team, reducing plant waste to organic matter, and recycling our dead greenery for the benefit of all. It's just annoying when they chomp on my prize plants, instead  of eating the masses and masses of weeds which are freely available... but I am not a naturally cruel person (“no, I have to work on it!”) and, like many gardeners, I don't want to scatter chemicals around the place needlessly, nor do I want to deliberately kill a living creature just because it eats my plants.

OK, I'll make an exception to that last part for Vine Weevils, and for Lily Beetles, both of which I kill without a second thought whenever I find them.... but generally speaking, not a cruel person, blah blah, chemicals, microbacteria, blah blah, risk of poisoning to birds and hedgehogs, you know how it goes.

Now, I read on the internet that snails do indeed have a homing sense: this is based on the work of a lady called Ruth Brooks, who did an informal experiment in her own garden, followed by a proper scientific one in 2010 in which she found that snails would return to “home” if relocated 20 yards/metres or so. Her conclusion was that snails need to be moved at least 30m, preferably 100m or more, in order to prevent them just schmoozing on back, at their average rate of a yard/metre an hour.

I didn't know about this, back in May 2017, otherwise I might have flung it harder. Hmm, could this be a new Olympic sport? Snail hurling? Maybe not.

My overarm fling was probably barely 10 yards, which at the time I thought was sufficient to set this snail free.  Did it take advantage of this second chance, to go and see the world outside my garden? Did it ramble off to explore the lovely hedgerow? No - it chose to laboriously inch its way back into my garden, presumably followed by all the other snails which I have ejected from my garden.

January 2018, and look what I found in my garden - right: yes, it's the same snail!

Elegant blue paint still clearly visible, he doesn't seem to have grown in the meantime... but actually I have no idea how long snails live, or how fast they grow.

Are they like tortoises, unable to grow if their shells have been painted?

(quick break while I do some cursory internet searching: ok, they live 5-15 years on average, up to 25 years in captivity. Question: why would anyone want to have a pet snail?)  Well, I don't really care how long they live, this one was sent on another flying expedition over the side fence, this time with quite a lot of energy.

So, this is conclusive proof that snails have a homing facility.

Or was it just coincidence?

April 2018, and here it is, back in my garden, AGAIN, lurking with a bunch of others on my wood storage box. Excuse me while I huff, indignantly.

What was I to do with it? I couldn't kill it, could I? We were practically friends.

So I hurled him back over the fence, with at least twice as much vigour as the second time. Right over into the long grass.

This time, for sure, he wouldn't be back....

Time went on, no more blue-painted snails were found. The rest of 2018 came and went.

And then..... yesterday......

I was cleaning out some boxes full of plants in pots, and what did I find?

A dead snail.

An empty shell.

But look! An empty shell with blue paint on it!

May 2019, two years after this inadvertent experiment began, he's back - but dead.

So that, dear readers, proves conclusively that snails LOOOOVE my garden, and will return to it time and time again, despite being flung out into an all-day, all-you-can-eat haven of food, shelter, and - presumably - other snails with whom to converse, mate, and generally enjoy life.

They will turn their back on this paradise and painstakingly ooze their way back to my shingle-covered, open-to-the-birds back yard, where they can eat my precious plants and generally annoy me.

The moral of this tale is that, in future, snails will receive NO MERCY in my back yard!

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Box hedges: how to do a drastic recut

OK not really that drastic, not compared to some that I've done *laughs*, but here's a nice small-scale example of how to tame a Box hedge that has is getting away from you.

The hedge here goes "round the corner", so that from the outside you can't really see that there's a gate there at all, for security.

However, visitors were starting to complain that they couldn't get the gate open, especially when the hedge was wet!

The hedge has been trimmed regularly, but this demonstrates the sneaky nature of clipped hedges: unless you are really strict with them, they will gradually grow further and further out, until they take over the entire path. Yew does it, Box does it, Lonicera nitida does it (really quickly!) and the answer is always the same - every couple of years you have to be brave, and speak severely to them. Just running the hedgetrimmers over them is not enough, as most hedgetrimmers will only get through the softest, most recent growth.

This was the problem with this small hedge: the owner has a dinky little battery-powered hedgetrimmer which is simply not man enough for the job. (Another reason why I prefer to use hand shears.)

So, what do we do?

Here's what we started with: you can just see the gatepost, buried in the corner of the untrimmed hedge.

As you can see, the bit on the outside is growing a long way beyond the gate post, and furthermore it has been allowed to grow top-heavy, giving the impression that it is leaning outwards.

This is bad horticulturally: hedges should always slope the other way, getting narrower at the top, not the bottom.

This allows light to fall on the whole side of the hedge, so that all of it will grow and thrive.

By letting it loom like this one, the lower part of the hedge gets little light, and grows only very slowly, while the top section grows ever more vigorously, so the problem just gets worse and worse over time.

So, step one: chop into the over-grown section.

You can use string, or a cane, to get a straight line if you need to, or you can just do it by eye.

To cut those thicker stems, you'll need secateurs, and occasionally loppers. Cut them one at a time, and try to keep a fairly straight line if you can - but don't worry too much at this stage.

This shows the first cut about half-way done.

Here we are five minutes later, the outer edge of the hedge is now upright again, and there are three bucketfulls of cuttings in the green bin now.

(Don't compost them, they don't rot) (well, everything rots if you leave it long enough, but don't bother adding them to your normal compost pens!)

As you can see, the very bottom of the hedge is still narrower than the top, because it had been overshadowed for quite some time.

But it should grow back now, now that the light can get to it.

Here's the same thing from the side-on angle, to show how what appears to be a solid hedge is actually a framework of bare brown branches, with an outer layer of green leaves.

This is absolutely typical.  Most dense hedging looks like this, if you gently part the outer leaves: and if garden owners don't realise this, it can give them a nasty shock when they see a newly cut-back hedge!

Luckily, Box, Yew and Nitida all share a wonderful feature, in that they will "green up" if you do this to them - unlike the unlovely Leylandii hedges, which are famous for staying brown and hideous forever, if you cut them too far back.

No, these classic hedging plants will leaf up in a few weeks, which is why they are so popular for hedging.

To finish this job, I gave the rest of the hedge the usual spring clipping, to level it and neaten it: then I carefully cleared up all the mess, shaking the hedge to get all the loose bits off, and cleaning out underneath it as well.

It then receives some feed - growmore, or liquid seaweed feed - and a good watering, to give it a head start: and in no time at all, it will be green and lush again.

If you want to see what this process looks like on a bigger scale, I spent three years getting a Nitida hedge into shape, here is the article about it.

So there you have it, how to get a hedge under control - and now the visitors won't get wet hands when they open the gate!

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Willow - still time to coppice it

Yes, it's that time of year again: last chance to coppice or pollard your domestic willows, before they start growing again.

What's the difference, between pollarding and coppicing? Only a matter of height, that's all. Coppicing is generally done at ankle height, where you chop all the stems off right down low, all at the same time. This causes the plant to throw up a whole heap of nice clean new shoots, all at the same time, so they grow all together, long, thin and straight.

Perfect if you want to grow your own fencing, weaving, or burning material, as long as you have sufficient number of plants to do them on a 7-year cycle, ie cutting just one section of them each year (a different section, of course).

Pollarding is exactly the same thing but higher: these days, we mostly see it done on street trees, the ones that are savagely cut back by the council every year or two, until they are just a trunk with a bunch of knobbles on the top. That's pollarding, and it's done to keep them down to a manageable size.

Back in the day, it was done for a different reason - to prevent the new shoots from being eaten by livestock. Trees would be pollarded at one height if there were cattle in the area: somewhat higher if there were horses, with their longer necks.

In one of "my" gardens I have two rather different pollarding jobs: both on willow trees, but very different in appearance.

The first one is a medium sized multi-stemmed tree (left), next to the lake, which gets so big that it obscures the view, so every second or third year I pollard it.

Here it is in the "before" state, and you can see that the end of each trunk has a fan or bunch of branches all sprouting from the same place - this shows where I have pollarded it in previous years.

Here's a close-up of what it looks like part-way through the job: you can see that there are stems of various sizes, some are spindly little pencil-thick things from last year, some are as thick as a thumb, they'll be two years old, and the fattest ones will be three years old.

It didn't get done last year, so it's been three years.

As you can see, all I do is snip/cut/lop/saw off every single twig or stem, as close as i can to the main trunk.

It can get a bit tricky to reach all the way round: please note the watery background, which tells you that this willow is half in, half out of the water. In order to reach the branches growing out over the water, I have to shin up the trunk, cling like a monkey and lean as far as I dare.

When my bravery runs out, I go and get one of my long-handled tools and do the rest from the bank: it's not quite as "good" as doing them by hand, as it's not possible to see what you are cutting, but willow does not seem to mind...

And this is the finished job, please note the long-handled saw leaning casually against the trunk.

To give you an idea of scale, it's 8' long.

And you can see here, just how much of it leans over the water!

The other willow, the far side of the lake, is quite different: it's a small one, just a little bit more than head height, and in summer, it forms one attachment point for the lakeside hammock, so it is vitally important to keep it in good condition!

This means that I pollard it every year, to keep it small and sturdy.

It may be a lot smaller, but the treatment is exactly the same: secateurs in hand, I snip  off as many of the branches as I can reach, using a lopper for the bigger ones.

I then wriggle round the back of it to snip off the rest, taking great care not to fall in the lake.

 Here's the finished article: you can see how strange and lumpy it looks, but that's what happens when you pollard regularly.

And no, that's not a missed twig sticking out the top - it's a completely different tree, way, way in the background!

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Compost bags - you're doing it wrong!

Well, hopefully most of you are doing it "right", but some people haven't quite realised just how useful compost bags can be, if you use them "right".

I'm talking about compost bought in from the garden centre, in nice strong, brightly coloured plastic bags. Not just compost - this goes for wood chips, chipped bark, manure, organic matter, and so on: anything which comes in strong plastic bags.

The "best" way to use them is to stand them upright on their short end, shake or punch or pummel them until the compost falls down to the bottom, so that they sit up: then cut off a narrow strip right the way across the top.

Use the compost as required: after each use, fold the top over (squashing out the air inside) and put a small weight of some kind (most gardens have spare half bricks all over the place!) on the top to keep it closed.

This has several advantages: it keeps the compost inside the bag moist, so it doesn't dry out and become useless dust.  It keeps the rain out, so the compost doesn't become sodden and have all the nutrients washed out.  And it keeps the slugs and snails out!!

When you get to the bottom, turn the empty bag inside out, leave it to dry for a day or so if necessary, then stack the empties in the shed. 

Why? Because the empties are incredibly useful!

They are super-strong bags, much stronger than the bin liners which you buy on a roll.

If they are in good condition, they are even waterproof!

They can be used for temporary potting up, for lining trays, for short-term storage of lifted plants, and many other uses.

They are particularly useful if you have garden waste to be taken down to the tip: they keep the back of the car clean, and they are usefully small units, such that you can lift them without breaking your back, and you can stack them neatly in the car. Those huge builder bags are great for garden waste, but they're heavy and awkward to lift... using individual ex-compost bags is much easier.

All in all, there is much to be said for using them this way.

So, I hear you saying,  what is the "wrong" way?

The "wrong" way is to slash them across the middle. This is a daft way to do it, as the initial slash invariably means that some of the compost spills out, and for the rest of the time, it's awkward to get your hand inside the slash to pull more compost out.

Exhibit A:

A classic case of a wasted compost bag. The compost falls out all over the ground when you try to get it out: the stuff inside dries out and becomes useless, unless it rains in which case it gets soggy and horrible, and all the slug and snails get inside.

Plus, you've wasted a perfectly good, strong, black plastic bag!
Here's one which I retrieved earlier: the owner had made just a small slash, and had only used a small handful of the new compost.

So all the rest of it was now going to be - quite possibly -  spilt, spoiled, and generally wasted.

Furthermore, they'd slit it and left it on the drive, presumably straight out of the back of the car - so when it was moved (as it would have to be, being on the drive!) it would spill the contents everywhere.

Instead of remonstrating with the Client (who I love dearly), I found some gaffer tape in their garage, taped up the split, turned the bag on end, and slit the top open neatly.

As you can see, a quick shake to get the contents down to the bottom, and they stand up by themselves: the top now has a nice wide opening, so it's easy to get the compost out.

And when it's finally empty, there will be a good strong useful bag, instead of flinging it into landfill.

I didn't leave it standing like that, of course: I moved it into a convenient location, which was easy to do because now you can get hold of the top part of the bag, and just lift. This is much better than trying to lift a saggy, floppy "flat" bag.  Having folded over the top, I popped a small log on top to hold it closed.

Job done!

(I live in hope that the Client will notice how much easier it is to use the new improved bag opening style, and will do it that way in future.)

So there you go, even simple garden tasks have a "wrong" way to be done, and a "better" way!

Friday, 8 March 2019

The Physics of Gardening

It's a simple enough calculation:

(CA + BO) + E = NR

Where CA = Cold Air, BO = Bending Over, and E = Exertion.

This is guaranteed to result in NR, or Nose Running.

I don't think I need to expand on that, do I?

It's possible that there is another equation, a slightly more complex one, which involves weather which could be described as "sunny with showers", the presence or absence of a coat, and  the likelihood of it actually raining.

Obviously there's a serious sub-set in that one, where the availability of a coat reduces the possibility of rain, whereas the location of the coat being half a mile away, tends to increase the possibility.

Or is it just me?

Friday, 1 March 2019

Time to cut back the Sedum!

Yes, it's that time of year again - we're trembling on the edge of spring, I am seriously thinking about getting back into shorts for work, and the Sedum are looking brown, tatty, and no longer bring joy and uplift to the hearts of their owners.

Here's one I half-did earlier (memo to self: really must remember to take the "before" photo BEFORE starting work on the plant...), showing the lanky brown stems which are left over from last year.

Many people like to leave them up for as long as possible, for the "frost display" (excuse me while I laugh in a hollow manner, as in the UK, we rarely get strong, dry, crisp frost: we usually get a ton of damp weather beforehand, so our "frost display" is more likely to be blackened mush than anything else) but there comes a point where they have to be cut back, and NOW is that point!

As you can seem the new shoots are just starting to sprout, so if you leave it much  longer, you won't be able to cut out the old brown stems without damaging the fresh new green ones, and that would be a bad thing.

So break out the secateurs, put on your gloves, and carefully snip off all the old stems, as close to the base as you can.

Don't be tempted to pull them off: they don't snap, and you will find yourself holding a dead brown stem with a piece of Sedum sprouting from the bottom end. These scraps are invariably too small to be worth planting elsewhere, so they tend to be thrown away, so take the time to cut them off neatly.

Friday, 1 February 2019

Snow Stops Course! Tree ID in Winter... too much winter!

I was scheduled to run a one-day Tree Identification in Winter workshop tomorrow, Sat 2nd Feb, for the Field Studies Council, at their Amersham centre.

Alas, just look at the weather! 

It was snowing for much of the night, and it's snowing again now, so the FSC have very sensibly taken the decision to cancel the course tomorrow, and to postpone it for a fortnight.

This is not something that any of us does lightly: often, delegates have booked the course months beforehand, and have made plans around the day: and sometimes they are not able to switch to an alternative date at all.

But it really is not the weather to be travelling, especially as snow is forecast for the whole of today and part of the night as well, so there is no chance of it being gone overnight, and indeed it's likely to freeze overnight, leaving us with the joys of black ice. 

Personally, I have a 60-mile journey to get to the centre, but some of the delegates were coming from as far away as Brighton! Poor things, I bet they'll be glad to hear that it's been put back for a fortnight!

However, the very small silver lining to this cloud is that there might now be spaces available on the replacement date, provisionally set as Sat 9th Feb - so if you weren't able to get on the course tomorrow, and can't make the Bushy Park one on Sat 9th Feb, it might be worth contacting the Amersham centre to see if there's space on the 16th.

Meanwhile, I have a nice day indoors - no work for me today! - and no early start tomorrow.

Friday, 25 January 2019

Ants in the pants

A while ago, I had an email question from Karen ("Hi, Karen!") who was concerned about ants moving in on her Salix Kilmarnock: I answered her at that time - wouldn't want you all to think that I don't answer my emails!! - but it was a good question, so I thought I'd share it here.

My first reaction to the question, I have to admit, was "Ooh goody, this makes a change from questions about pruning the darned things!"

Karen had noticed ants congregating on the tip of each leaf, in vast quantities. She noted that none of the leaves appear to have been eaten or damaged, but obviously no-one wants to have ants all over the place.  She'd tried traditional bug spray, and she'd tried blasting them with the hose pipe but they kept coming back: so her question was in three parts:

1)  how to get rid of them
2)  will they cause any harm to the tree
3)  is it safe to use ant powder on a tree

So here are my answer, in reverse order:

3) yes, you can use ant powder on trees.
2) No, it won't cause any harm to the tree, as long as you use it in moderation.
1) see below for detailed instructions!

Right, firstly, ant killers: ant powder is the usual stuff, it comes in a flexible plastic puffer pack: it looks like talcum powder, and you puff it out where the ants are to be found. They walk through it, as they march around on their unfathomable business (where are they all going?  Aren't they supposed to have a nest in once place, then send out troops to find and bring back food? Why are they going in both directions yet not carrying anything?), then carry it back to the nest where it kills them, the others, and the queen, thus getting rid of your ant problem for good.

Ant powder is what I always recommend for ant in the lawn, and ants in patios. As a non-chemical alternative, you can use boiling water on patios, but I would not suggest doing this on plants!

However, ant powder is nasty stuff, and being a powder, it can blow around all over the place, so a better option for trees is to find the gel version. It's sold for getting rid of ants in the house:  you squeeze out a thin line of the gel along a threshold, or across a marching line, and it works in the same way as the powder, ie they get it on their feet and trample it back into the nest.

(At this point I always have a vision of the Doorman Ants fussily saying "Wipe your feet! You don't know what you've been walking though, honestly, my  nice clean nest, harruumph")

Secondly, why are there ants in our trees anyway? Generally, the ants only colonise a tree if there are aphids, or certain types of insects, in it. Ants like aphids (and those other insects: if you're that interested in knowing exactly which ones, you can look up a  list yourself!) because they produce a sweet sticky fluid called honeydew, which ants really enjoy. So if the aphids are there, the ants will move in and "farm" them: they'll guard them and look after them, and encourage them to produce more honeydew.

So having used ant powder to get rid of the ants, it's worth taking a close look at the tree to see if there are any other inhabitants that need removing. As far as I can tell from personal experience (and a quick internet search), ant powder does not kill aphids, so you'd need to address them as a separate issue.

Generally speaking, my advice about ants and all creepy crawlies on my small trees is to get the hose out, close the nozzle well down, and jet wash the plant, to blast off as many of the pesky little blighters as you can, then pouf a ring of ant powder around the main stem, fairly close to the ground, so that everything marching up or down has to go through it.

Refresh the ant powder every couple of days, particularly if it rains.  In a couple of weeks, you should be ant-free.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Hang on - I thought this was winter?

Ok, so we haven't actually had any snow to speak of, but I do remember a couple of really hard frosts, all sparkly and white: so this is definitely winter, isn't it? January? Winter?

So why, I ask myself, did I find these two items at work yesterday:

Exhibit A: autumn leaves.

I spent weeks before Christmas, raking up every fallen leaf in this particular garden.

And yet, yesterday, first day back after my short winter break, I found a barrow-load of them.


Did they all blow into "my" garden from elsewhere?

Do the birds pick them up, fly over and drop them? (and if they do, how many leaves can an African swallow carry?)

And then there was this - a Scabious, in full flower, with several more flowerheads just opening.

Did they not get the memo that they are summer flowerers?

I know that a lot of people moan on about how the seasons are changing, they're not predictable and straightforward "like they used to be". Which begs the question, have they EVER actually been neat and tidy 3-month slots?

Or is it just a fact of life that we all mis-remember the days of our youth - those long hot summer holidays, the snow at Christmas: are they all just a fake mix of inaccurate memories and fake memories from films and books?

And if so, which months do you think belong to which season?

I'm going with:

Winter =  Dec-Jan-Feb

Spring =  Mar-Apr-May

Summer = June-Jul-Aug

Autumn = Sept-Oct-Nov

What do you think?

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Hazels: what to do with an overgrown coppice

Last week, I received a question: what to do with an enormously overgrown old Hazel coppice.

Now, before we get on to what to do with it, a quick reminder about coppicing: time out of mind, it was a way of managing woodlands, in order to produce useable materials for fencing, furniture, firewood and fodder - all sorts of things. It involves repeatedly chopping a young tree down to - usually - ankle height, which prompts it to send up new shoots from the chopped base.

These new shoots will all be pretty much the same size as each other: so instead of one big central trunk with a lot of smaller, wiggly side branches, you get a whole bunch of same-sized shoots, and because they are crowded together, they fight for the light, which means they grow up vertically, nice and straight.

When they are big enough, they are all cut off at the same time, and the cycle repeats. 

This is usually seen on trees such as Hazel, Willow and Sweet Chestnut, but is also used for Oak, Lime, Alder: depending on what the trees were to be used for.

Alas, these days we don't need much coppiced wood: we don't burn faggots (bundles) of thin wood, we buy in seasoned and chopped hardwood. We don't make our own walking sticks, or fences, or hurdles: we don't make our own charcoal, either! So most of the coppiced woodlands have been left to return to the wild, over the last  50 years or more.

You can see them everywhere: next time you are out for a walk, or visiting a stately home, look at any areas of woodland that you pass, and check out the trunks: are they all one-trunk-per-tree? Or do some of the trees appear to have multiple stems, all sprouting from the ground? These are the remains of old coppicing.

In fact, the very name "copse" means an area of coppiced woodland.

You are probably also familiar with pollarded street trees: this is just coppicing at a higher point above the ground.

So, this question: John said that he has been asked to renovate a couple of very old coppiced Hazels, which were choked with holly at the base, and are very congested.

Here's a picture of one of them, half-way though the holly clearance:

"Good job!"

This is definitely the first thing to do: clear away everything other than Hazel, including ivy, brambles, and anything else growing around the base.

John asked what the best plan would be, to renovate these trees.

There are several reasons for wanting to renovate old coppices: they are part of our agricultural and social heritage, for a start.

Also, coppicing keeps the tree in a "juvenile" state, so that it does not ever grow old and die, the way that single-trunk, "normal" trees do. Honestly, that's true! There are coppiced trees which are hundreds of years old. So by allowing a coppiced tree to revert into being a "proper" tree, we are actually killing it.

And, of course, a renovated tree just looks better! Overgrown coppices such as John's ones, above, are unsightly, they are full of weedy choking growth, there is a risk of dead limbs dropping, and there will be lots of dead wood in the centre, which will be hosting pests and diseases: far better to put in a bit of work to restore the tree.

I wrote about the general principles of coppicing some time ago, when I had to restore a much smaller Hazel.  That one was more of a decorative tree than a crop tree, and the owners didn't want it coppiced, they just wanted to be able to get up and down their steps in safety.

John's trees are more historical: he thinks that they may be at least 50 years old, they may well be much, much older. They are also what you might call "public property" as they are on land which is accessed by the public, so it's important that they are both safe, and handsome to look at.

So, what would I advise?

The obvious suggestion is that it is high time they were coppiced again! Get out the bowsaw, and cut every single stem down, as low as you can.  Pull out any seedlings of other trees which you may well find lurking in the centre, and clear out any ivy etc that was hidden by the larger growth.

In seven years' time, do it again.

Drastic, but simple, and historically correct.

However, this leaves a big hole in the horizon, in which case you can do what I call a cosmetic coppice: this is where you cut out the largest, ie oldest, of the re-grown stems, leaving a thinned-out selection to give some vertical cover, while the new shoots grow.

If the tree is normally only seen from one side, you can choose to cut down one half of it - either the front, or the back, as it were.

If it can be viewed all round, then you can choose to take the time to thin it out by removing just the largest ones: but this can be time consuming, and tricky to do, as you have to get your tools in amongst the younger stems, without damaging them. It's perfectly possible, it just takes longer.

Every year thereafter, you would need to cut out a few of the oldest stems, and after a few years, you will find that you have a nice mix of thinner, younger stems.

If you are wondering why I say to cut out the older wood: well, if you cut out the youngest, thinnest, stems, then you are not renovating the tree, you are merely sending it back to being a tree instead of a coppice, which will eventually lead to its death.

And yes, it is perfectly possible to turn a coppiced tree back into a "normal" tree, by cutting out all but one or two of the stems - leaving the biggest ones - and allowing just those ones to grow. This means an annual prune of the base, to remove all competing new shoots, and you will always have a strange lumpy base to the tree: but yes, it will eventually look like a "proper" tree again.  This is kind-of what I had to do for the Client mentioned above, when I restored their Hazel

So, as John has two of these monsters to deal with, he could choose to properly coppice one of them now, and then in about three years' time, coppice the other one. Hazel, in case you are wondering, is normally coppiced on a 7-year cycle as it is a fast grower, so that's why I'd suggest about three years between working on the two of them: one will be half-grown before the other is chopped.
As an aside, Oak used to be coppiced on a 50-year cycle... we live our lives so fast these days that it's hard to comprehend an investment system that would not pay out for 50 years or more, isn't it!

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

New Year's Resolutions... and a bit of blushing.

Well, here we are at the start of another New Year - it's January, it's already dark by mid afternoon, but hey, we're past the shortest day, so it's all uphill now, until summer!

Usually you'll find gardening columns etc banging on, at this time of year, about how all gardeners do is sit indoors and drool over seed catalogues.

But not me!

Nope, instead of lounging around looking at seed catalogues, I've made a sort-of resolution to do a bit more blogging this year.

I say on my website that I have a daily blog which I update weekly, which was sort of a joke... but I can see from my postings list that I've been quite lax in the past few months, and I haven't even averaged one a week.


Why? Is there nothing going on, in the gardening world? Has nothing of note happened? The answer is that I've been concentrating on Other Things, not least of which is the super-exciting Trainee placement - more of that later - and blogging has had to take a bit of a back seat. But all that is over! Yes! I've re-discovered the exclamation mark!!

Actually, I have a somewhat embarrassing confession to make: I received an email from Australia, from a nice lady called Veronica (*waves enthusiastically*) (oh, is it the middle of the night there? Sorry... *waves somewhat more quietly*) who was kind enough to say that this blog is not only “Bloody Bonzer”, *glows with pride* but is apparently,   “Smick”.

Now, not being Australian, I wasn't quite sure about that last one - I have to take her word for it that Smick is a good thing. Over here, it's a bit of an insult;

"Smick: noun. Northern Irish. derogatory, informal. A young lower-class person typified by brash and loutish behaviour."

It's the Irish equivalent of "chav". 

Just in case I'd missed something that "the kids" are all saying, I looked it up in Urban Dictionary, and alas: 

Leaving aside the peculiar vernacular of the person contributing the entry, I think we can agree that in the UK, "smick" is not quite a compliment.

But I'm still perfectly happy to accept "Bloody Bonzer", Veronica!

(And would you believe, I typed that as "bloody bonsai" and had to correct myself... not that I have a one-track mind, noooo, not at all...)

So what's the embarrassing part? Well, Veronica was very kind,  in her praise of my skills in written communication (and that's such a good phrase that I shall probably work it into my cv) etc, and I'm kinda blushing a bit.

But I'm easily flattered, as all of my readers - yes, both of you - will know, so the embarrassing bit is that all it takes is one compliment, and here I am, determined to write for another year.

(Veronica, at this point, punches the air and shouts "Yessss!" in an Aussie accent)

So, thank you Veronica, for taking the trouble to email all the way from the place where it never snows: and I hope you continue to enjoy my articles!