Garden School:


Garden School:
Teaching this week: Apple crushing for juice. Very eco! All done by hand!

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Feeding the plants

*bass voice* "Feed me!"
*me, nervously* "Does it have to be blood?"
*bass voice, imperiously* "FEED ME!"
*me, querulously* "Does it have to be mine?"

OK, we're not actually talking Little Shop of Horrors here, although blood does come in to it later, but today I received a question from regular reader Corine, asking for my take on the "when to feed the plants" debate.

"Hi, Corine!"  *waves enthusiastically*

Right, feeding plants: firstly, why do we feed our plants?

Ans: because we, the garden owners, force our plants into a very unnatural life: we prune them, we dead-head them, we restrict their growth, we shape them, we force them to flower and flower and flower until they are exhausted: at the same time, we often put them in "un-natural" habitats and/or microclimates, we expect them to perform for us, so in return we are duty bound to give them a helping hand.

This applies, at least double, to Things In Pots.

What do we feed them?

Ans: we give them concentrated nutrients.  I should stress, at this point, that feeding plants is no substitute for having good, healthy soil, but often our gardens (and this goes at least quadruple for Things in Pots) could really be described as the ultimate in intensive farming, because we like a garden which is packed with competing plants, and this stresses the soil.

So, our concentrated feed can be artificial fertilisers such as Growmore, or natural products such as pelleted chicken manure, powdered feed such as Fish, Blood (see, I said there would be blood later) & Bone, or liquid feeds such as Liquid Seaweed, which is my personal favourite, because it's organic, it doesn't stink as much as the others, and it's really concentrated, so a bottle lasts for ages. Plus it turns the water brown, so you can see that you have definitely added it to the water.

I'm not forgetting the truly organic feeds, such as mulching with home-made compost or farmyard manure, but today we're talking about "artificial" feeding, ie the concentrated stuff.

When do we feed them?

Aha, this is the crux of Corine's enquiry. It depends on what the plant is: is it a perennial, which dies down every winter? An annual, popping up from seed then disappearing forever? A bulb, with an underground storage system? A rhizome, with a partially underground storage system?

Easy one first: annuals. Feed them during their short, usually summer, lives. They need all the help they can get to grow, flower, set seed and die all within a few short months. As soon as they start to die down, don't waste money on feeding them, just collect the seeds for next year, and let them die back.

Perennials: feed them as they are starting to grow each year, and from time to time through their flowering season. (They should also get a non-concentrated feed in autumn, as they are dying down, in the form of mulching.)

Bulbs - daffodils, snowdrops, anything which goes completely dormant at some stage. These are the tricky ones, they need to be fed just after flowering, while the leaves are still green, from that point until they start dying down. Why? Because these plants use their bulbs as storage organs, and it's important that they refuel before they shut down for the winter. This autumn's fading foliage is what stocks them up for next season's flowers.

When you buy bulbs, which is usually in autumn,  you can see that they look like the onions we buy in the supermarket, ie a nice plump bulb, but virtually no roots. And if you lift your tulips or daffs each year, you will know that they come out of the ground with roots, but as they dry, the roots die off. They do this every year: they don't rely on their roots to feed them through the winter, they go completely dormant, and in spring they not only have to grow new roots AND new leaves, they are also expected to produce wonder flowers for us.

That's why we have to help them stock up after flowering: and I'm sure you've all been told that we have to leave the tulip/daffodil etc leaves to die down naturally, spoiling the look of the garden right into July (*mutter mutter*), and NOT cutting them off, otherwise we won't get flowers the following year. That's why: this year's energy collection fuels next year's flowers.

And that's why you will rarely find a recommendation to feed bulbs etc in spring, just as they are starting, even though it feels like the logical thing to do: if you do, you'll get fantastic leaves, but you won't necessarily get good flowers. To be more specific, if you didn't let them build up their reserves in the autumn, feeding them next spring won't help them produce flowers next year.

Rhizomes - such as Iris, bearded or otherwise - have good strong root structures, which feed them all year round, so they don't have the same problem of needing to be fed immediately after flowering: they benefit from feeding just as they are starting to grow, partly because Iris need their rhizomes to "bake" in the sun in the previous year, in order to get good flowers the following year: they don't need the extra nutrients, they need the sun. So for them, feeding them in spring and summer is the thing to do. Oh, and because they need the sun, they are the one plant that really does not enjoy being mulched in autumn: they like to be sat there on top of the soil, and if you smother them in mulch, they don't get the sun they need, and quite often the rhizomes will rot. So a concentrated feed in spring and summer is the best way to go.

How do we feed?

Pelleted chicken manure and powdery Fish, Blood & Bone are both sprinkled on the surface, although if using the latter, you should always gently scratch it into the soil, rather than leaving it sitting on the top. Two reasons why: it doesn't release the nutrients until it gets wet, so it's better to shove it down into the moist soil before it blows away on the breeze, and it smells irresistible to dogs, cats, foxes and vermin (all of which do eat, of course, fish, blood and bones), so you are likely to find them digging up the flower beds in an attempt to find the yummy dead bodies which their noses have - erroneously - told them are in the area.

Liquid feeds are super-easy, you just shove a capful of the concentrate into the watering can, and slosh it around, it doesn't matter if you get it on the leaves as well as on the soil.

Or, you can put it into a spray bottle and do proper foliar feeding: that's where you apply the diluted feed in a fine spray, direct onto the leaves.  This is a hugely un-natural way to feed plants, as every other method is basically soil-based, but ever since the 50s, when spray bottles were invented (*laughs*), we've been foliar feeding. Leaves are very good at absorbing nutrients, and a small amount can be very efficiently absorbed.

Of course, all the research which supports this theory has been done by the chemical companies who produce the concentrated feeds.... but it does actually work, and you can try this for yourself ("... children, just get some identical plants, a spray bottle, and some sticky-back plastic...") by spraying some plants, and surface-feeding others, and you will see the difference.

The great advantage of foliar feeding is that it's easy: just splash it on all over, and any leftovers sink into the soil, where some of the "goodness" will be absorbed by the roots.

Foliar feeding is particularly good for intensive growing, such as our crowded garden beds and borders, and for plants with stressed or limited soil, ie anything in a pot.

So there you have it: why we feed, how to do it, and when.

Any more questions, anyone? *laughs*

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Auricula: How to grow them, for beginners

Have you ever wanted to have a display of Auricula? They are so lovely, so cheerful, and you often find displays of them in gardens which are open to the public: traditionally, as they are quite small plants, they are displayed in tiers, sometimes on purpose-made racking, sometimes on home-made versions.


Here's one which I found in a "yellow book" garden.

It looks as though it needs a bit of attention, not to mention a new coat of paint, but let's be tactful, maybe they were going for the rustic look.

I did rather like the blocks of stone at the front, to level it up.


This one is definitely rustic!

Using an old wooden step-ladder, it displays a large number of plants in a small floor area, which is very efficient, and also offers quite a saving to the poor gardener's back, which is no bad thing.

I didn't check, but I assume it was attached to the wall, to prevent, er, accidents...


And here's another, this time a really pretty one, with a decorative scalloped roof, and bars to prevent accidental fall-out.

As you can see, part of the display style is to have only one plant per pot, and apparently, it is considered de rigueur (pretentious phrase meaning "the correct/stylish thing to do) to use only hand-made terracotta pots, not the modern machine-made ones.


Also, if you do any research on them, you'll find a lot of scary detail about how they have to be kept under cover to avoid spoiling the "meal", how they must be protected from the sun, the rain, the wind, etc etc.

All of this - the display stands, the hand-made pots, the "ooh, fussy about rain" - can give the impression that they are not something which the average garden owner can do.

Not true!

They're actually very, very easy to grow, if you start with straightforward, fully hardy ones.

I have a lot of Auricula myself, in just three colours: none of them are the super-fancy ones, in fact only the yellow/gold ones have any degree of "meal" on the leaves, and even they don't have much: which means that these guys live in my cold, east-facing front yard outdoors, all year round, with no problems at all.

They are easy to propagate, which means that I can sell off the spares, along with words of encouragement (errr, I sell the plants, the words of encouragement are - as always - free)...

 Here are some of my current spares, in the three colours of gold, pale lilac and deep purple. All this lot started from just one of each colour.

So, what's an Auricula, then? It's a type of primrose. Primula auricula, to be exact.

The official word runs thus: *puts on plummy BBC accent* "Horticultural Group Auricula section primulas are evergreen perennials with leathery, often farinose foliage and simple umbels of salver-shaped flowers which are usually pink, purple or yellow".

Wow, way to go, RHS, make a beautiful flowering plant sound dull as ditchwater.

Let's break that down:  evergreen perennials mean that they have green leaves all year round, unless it's a really hard winter: and they come back year after year, so they are very good value.

"Leathery, often farinose foliage"  means that the leaves are thick and fleshy, and "farinose" means that in some species, the leaves are covered with a dusty coating, which is often called meal or mealy. This is the bit which needs protection from the rain: rain ruins the mealy coating.  This coating is also the reason that Auricula are often known as "Dusty Miller".

The flowers are held on single stalks, with a group of open, flat, plate-like flowers on the top.

Right, that's the botany out of the way. So, how do you start collecting them? Well, you buy one or two, making sure you buy hardy ones, and preferably ones without the "mealy" or farinose leaves.

After a while, or straight away if you buy any from me (*cheeky grin*),  you will notice that the original plant is now producing baby plants, or "pups" as they are called.

Here's one of mine, showing three good healthy pups growing on the stem.

To propagate, don't cut them off: instead you gently pull off the "pups": if you are lucky, the stalk of the pup - the brownish part - will come away from the parent stem to reveal small roots already formed, they seem to slide out of the parents' stalk.

If you can enlarge this photo, you can just see a couple of aerial roots already forming on these pups, from the base of the pair of pups on the right.

If there are roots, then pot up the pup just as you would a normal plant - ie in a small pot to start with, gradually potting on to bigger pots as they grow.

If there are no roots, that doesn't matter, just pot them up the same way: fill a small pot with damp compost, and push the pup in to about half of it's length. Then leave it to grow, potting it on as it gets bigger. In no time at all, you will have a selection of large flowering plants, and another selection of spares, to swap!

It's remarkably simple, isn't it?  Considering how beautiful the flowers are, I think these are some of the easiest plants to grow.

To display them, just build or buy any sort of tiered shelving, preferably one whose shelves are just big enough to take the small size of terracotta pot: if your shelves are too big, too deep, or too far apart, then the plants look small and insignificant. Wire shelving units are often sold for conservatory plants, and these are usually just the right scale for Auricula. Or just find an old wooden stepladder!

Annoyingly, people used to just throw these away, but now they have cottoned on that there are many ways to use old wooden steps in the garden: not for climbing up, but for growing containers of veg in layers, so now you find that you have to buy them, even if they are paintstained and/or virtually falling apart. If anything, you now have to pay more for a really decrepit set, so scour your shed, and those of all your friends and relatives, to see if you can find one for free.

Once you have acquired a display rack, and have collected a few plants, set them out neatly and enjoy them.

Winter maintenance is very simple: check them every couple of weeks or so, to make sure they are not drying out, particular if your Auricula Theatre is against a wall, as it might be in rainshadow.

Although they are mostly evergreen, they still lose their leaves, so when any leaves go yellow and flabby, just take a pair of small scissors and gently snip off the yellowing leaf, as close to the stalk as you can.

That's pretty much all there is to it! But if you do have any questions, do please feel free to ask me.

Monday, 7 October 2019

Buying plants from Supermarkets: how to avoid the dying, the diseased, and neonicotinoids

I'm often asked about where I buy plants, and of course the answer is that I very rarely buy plants, I propagate my own from seed and from cuttings.

However, when doing a planting plan for a new bed, or when a Client wants a specific plant which I don't have, then they have to be bought in.

This particularly applies to cheap summer bedding -  Clients often ask if it is really necessary to go to a proper Garden Centre: can't they just take advantage of the very cheap plants which they sell at our local supermarkets?

On the face of it, it seems like an excellent idea: they are close to home, you were going there anyway, the plants are cheap and look very cheerful, and big shops like that would not want to sell duff plants, would they? They know they need to keep their shoppers coming back.

However, I would say that "buyer beware" is the phase you need: you (“one”) can get excellent bargains, but on the other hand, supermarkets (and the “sheds” such as B&Q and Homebase) are famous for not watering the plants until they are on the verge of death. This means that often, you buy a plant that looks fine, but has been repeatedly stressed, to the point where it fails to flourish once planted out. Also, they usually import their stock, so it is not fully hardened off to our climate - if you look up, you will notice that the "garden" section is at least partially roofed. Worse, supermarkets usually have the plants actually inside the store!

This means that you will have to take care to harden off any plants which you buy, before planting them out: if you just take them home and plant them, they will probably gasp in horror at the lack of central heating, and die.

So, how do you ensure that your bargain plant is really a bargain?

Firstly, check the weight of the plant. Pick it up, does it feel proportionally heavy enough? If your hand flies up into the air with the plant, ie if it is a lot lighter than you were expecting it to be, then it has been under-watered and the compost has dried out. If the plant is not already drooping, it soon will be!

Next, look closely at the plant, and check for dead leaves in and around the base of the plant. If it's been stressed to the point of dropping leaves, then it's going to take a while to recover, even if it now looks superficially healthy.

Third, check for dead sections within the plant: if part of it is already dead, there's no point buying it, even if it's cheap!

Fourthly, check the foliage: are there any holes in, or damage to, the leaves? If they've already been munched, then there is a very good chance that you have some hitchhikers along with the plant, and that's never a good thing.

Fifthly (still not sure if that is a real word), if no-one is looking (bearing in mind that they usually have cameras all over the shop) de-pot the plant and check the roots. This means tipping the plant upside down, with the other hand ready to catch it, in order to gently get it out of the pot so that you can see the roots.

You are looking for three things:

a) is there a good strong network of roots?

b) is the compost dark and a solid mass (ie wet, which is good) or very light-coloured and crumbly (ie has not been watered properly, which is very bad)?

c) are there any vine weevils or other nasties to be seen?

d) is it pot-bound, ie are there great chunky roots circling round and round, or is there a glazed mass of fibrous roots with no soil to be seen? Either of which are bad signs.

e) does the plant refuse to be tipped out (if the plant is welded to the inside of the pot, this is a sign that it is thoroughly pot-bound and will struggle to establish itself)?

OK that was five things, I like to be thorough.

As soon as you have finished checking, ease the plant carefully back into the pot, and make sure it is pressed well down into the pot: the reason we plant growers don't like people de-potting plants is that it can be very damaging to the plant, especially if they knock some of the soil off, or push it back into the pot at an odd angle, or spill the mulch on the floor and don't bother to pick it up and replace it. So do please have the decency to make the plant comfy again, even if you decide against buying it.

If the plants passes all these points, then it's probably ok for you to buy it.

There is just one other point I would like to raise about buying plants from these outlets - and this includes garden centres - and that's the risk of neonicotinoids. If you haven't heard this name before, let me tell you that neonicotinoids are a group of insecticides which are routinely used in the production of commercially-grown plants, and which are devastating for bees.

Don't take my word for it, look it up for yourselves. They are sprayed onto the plants at commercial nurseries to prevent insect damage, making them look lovely for sale, but the chemicals saturate the plants and remain in their tissues, in their flowers, in their pollen, and they then affect the central nervous system of all pollinating insects (especially bees), resulting in their paralysis and death.

Even the RHS had to admit recently that they could not, with any degree of certainty, confirm that any plants in their range of so-called “bee friendly” plants, had not been treated with neonicotinoids, which is pretty disgraceful.

So instead of buying plants from big suppliers, it really is better to collect seed, take cuttings, and propagate your own plants: then sell or swap plants amongst friends and neighbours.

If you've never tried growing from seed before, give it a go, it's really satisfying! Taking cuttings is a  little more complicated, but there are tons of books, articles and videos on the subject, and trust me, there is a huge thrill in growing something from a tiny cutting.

Best of all, this always results in you having far more "new" plants than you actually need, so you can then get together locally to swap the spares with friends, with neighbours: you might even like to contact your local gardening club, who are always welcoming to new members, and then you can join in with their plant sales.

You can also check out nearby allotments, as there is often an unofficial club or group there, who would be most willing to have a plant swap or plant sale; look for people nearby who sell plants outside their houses; and if you have a lot of excess plants, you could consider doing something similar - you might even make a few pounds!

This reduces plant miles to pretty much zero, it reduces plastic waste - as you will be re-using plastic pots instead of buying plants and ending up with stacks of unwanted plastic pots - and you are guaranteed to get plants which will flourish in your local climate.

This can cut out the risk of neonicotinoids in your garden altogether, quite apart from saving you a lot of money, and making you a lot of new friends!

Sunday, 6 October 2019

Compost Heaps: How (not) to Water Them

The other day, I wrote about retrieving a compost pen that was not rotting, and regular commenter Mal *waves excitedly* commented as follows:

"As for watering in of each layer, I would just have run a hose over the finished pile and let gravity and capillary action take it from there."

Now, this is a really interesting point, and a very common misconception about how to manage a compost heap.

(Brace yourselves for relentless self-publicity) I do know a fair amount about composting, in fact I have actually written a book about it:


 (Two books for the price of one! Not just compost, folks, but leaf mold as well!! End of relentless self-publicity.)

... and in this book, one of my earliest points is that more compost heaps fail through being too dry, than ever fail through being too wet.

And this is a point to be made, because it is actually very difficult to re-wet a compost heap which is too dry.

There's a fairly simple reason why: generally speaking, compost heaps are "too dry" because they have too much grass in them - grass clippings from the lawn, and long grass that's been pulled up, or scythed.

Why should grass be such a problem? Cast your minds, for a moment, dear readers, towards thatching, which has been the standard roofing material for hundreds of years, and which is still perfectly serviceable today.

A thatched roof keeps out the rain. We all know this to be true (as long as the thatch is in good condition, of course).

What is "thatch" made of? Answer: grass.

OK, technically, it's straw, or reed, but basically they are all types of grass. So what conclusion can we draw from this? Grass is Waterproof.

I would now draw your attention to Exhibit A, m'lud: the photo on the earlier article about the thick layer of compressed grass clippings at the bottom of that failed compost heap. Above this layer was three planks-worth of long grass scythed material, all loose and airy.

The material in this layer of the compost pen is bone dry and pale grey in colour.

You can see there are two stripes of much darker colour: that's where I earlier emptied about five buckets of water onto the heap. That water went straight through the loose long grass, not even dampening it, then stopped dead when it hit this layer.

It has not spread out evenly through the heap.

It has not been forced by gravity to soak the entire heap: it came to an abrupt halt at this point, and most  of it went out the sides of the pen.

It has not been forced by capillary action to work its way around all the material: no, it's made two damp splodges but the rest of the heap is bone dry, and I can assure you that the "damp" layer was minimal in depth - underneath, it was all bone dry.

Here's another example, from another garden:

This one was a non-rotting heap which I'd been asked to sort out, and when I delved into it, there was a thick layer of grass clippings from a year or more earlier. They were bone dry and compressed almost into chipboard.

You can see where I've levered them apart with my daisy grubber: they de-laminated into hard "plates" of compressed grass.

(Honestly, there was a time about 15 years ago when I seriously considered creating a business to manufacture eco plant pots from compressed lawn clippings...) 

So the point is that merely bunging some water on the top of the heap does not work, if the lower levels of the heap contain thick undisturbed layers of grass.

Nor does it work at all, if the heap is indeed a "heap", and is more or less conical in shape: all my Clients and all my trainees will tell you that I am always banging on about spreading out the material within the compost pen, never leaving corners unfilled, and ensuring there is a central depression so that all water/rain which falls upon the pen, stays within the pen, and doesn't run uselessly off the top and out the sides.

So there you have it: the importance of dampening down your compost pens as you fill them, to ensure that there are no pockets of dry material at a lower level, which would prevent water getting through, and as we all know, worms don't have teeth, so they are completely uninterested in bone-dry garden waste.

Rats, on the other hand.....

Friday, 4 October 2019

Compost: how to retrieve an unrotted pen

I'm very strict with my composting: all my Clients are encouraged to build a proper 3-pen system (you can read more about it here, if you wish), but from time to time I am presented with what you might call "failed composting" and asked how to put it right.

This week, I was asked to sort out a double problem: one of the three compost pens had been used for an excess of lawn clippings back in early summer, and had then been used as a dump for the long grass from the meadow area. This, needless to say, was not rotting at all (*bites tongue to prevent the "I told you so!" escaping*), and the Client was disappointed in it.

Then, the second half of the problem: the Client had collected a huge pile of bags of horse manure from a friend, about a year and a half ago, and was confidently expecting them to be lovely rich manure. But alas, they were not. Back in April I had inspected these bags, and had pointed out that they were almost bone dry, mostly because they were good strong plastic bags with no holes in them, but partly because  the contents were far from being proper "muck heap" horse poo: they were in fact stable sweepings, meaning that they were dry wood shavings with great clods of unrotted poo in them, like a sort of deranged, disgusting, bran-tub lucky dip.

We tipped the bags out, back in April, into our leaf mold pens (which were, of course, not in use back then) and watered them well, in the hopes that they would rot down once exposed to the elements - like being in their own, rather small, muck heap.

But now it's autumn, and I want to start using the leaf mold pens, so it was time to check out the horse poo.

Well, they'd made some progress: the large clods had mostly broken up, but there was still rather too much wood shaving visible for my liking.

And that leads to a point I should make: if you start at the bottom, and build your compost heap up by adding in a bucket load of weeds and debris every day or two, then you will never have this sort of problem. Problems arrive when people add too much of any one material, all in one go. This is why grass is the "usual suspect" for failed compost heaps, because people do sometimes leave cutting the grass, for various good reasons ("too busy"  "been away"  "mower broken"  "couldn't be bothered..."), and then when they do finally do it, it generates far too much material for the brandlings to deal with.

So, what to do, with my two heaps of unrotted material? Answer - bearing in mind that I'm making this up as I go along - I decided to combine the two horrible heaps into one, layering them alternately (and wetting them as I went), as suggested by nearly all of the gardening books.

As an aside, have you ever noticed the way that gardening books, when describing how to make compost, all seem to assume that "one" has a large amount of several different types of materials, all sitting around just waiting to be neatly layered into the compost pen, alternating "greens" and "browns", of course.

Out here in the real world, we have to pile on whatever we have just weeded out, as and when it arrives!

Anyway, just for a change, I had two piles of non-rotted materials laying around doing nothing: the grass is very definitely in the "greens" category (ie soft nitrogen-rich material - nothing to do with the physical colour of it), and I'd certainly classify wood shavings as "browns" (ie not nitrogen-rich, but adding texture and minerals) so I started to clear out the grass-filled pen, ready to do some lovely layering.

*waves excitedly" "Hey, Brigid, look, I'm doing a lasagne bed!" *  (My friend Brigid is heavily into eco and organic gardening, and is always telling me about her lasagne beds! OK, this is not quite a lasagne bed, but I've always secretly thought that the whole "lasagne" principle is just a fancy name for composting....)


Here we go then: oh dear, not a pretty sight.

The top layer was the long grass and of course it was dry, black, and unrotted, despite me having thrown buckets of water on it every time I visited, for the last four months.

So I heaved it all out onto the grass.

This revealed:

Urgh, an even less pretty sight: the lawn clippings from back in early spring, which are still, to this day, bone dry.

The dark streaks are where, this morning, I emptied some buckets of water onto the heap (having not realised that I was going to be asked to dig them out....) but those dark patches are superficial, and all below it is dusty and dry.

Sometimes, grass clippings get so hot that they seem to smoulder, and they almost look like ash - but it's actually just super-dry dead grass.

So, out it all came, in great flat plates and wodges.

Having found the ground level, I then started replacing it all, layering dry-as-ash grass,  long-and-dry grass. and not-very-well-rotted stable muck, and wetting each layer as I went.

In a sneaky bid to give this pile a head start, I foraged around in the "proper" compost pen adjacent to it, and added in a few handfuls of actual rotting material, with brandlings (red wiggly compost worms) as well, inbetween various layers.

I have no idea if this will work: I'm  hoping that even if the adult brandlings die off, there will be sufficient eggs in the material surrounding them to start new colonies, once the heap warms up.


Here's the finished article: the pen is six planks high, so it is just over half full, which is pretty remarkable when you think that it was four planks full of grass when I started, and I've added at least three planks-worth of horse muck.

Which just shows how dry it all was: it's the moisture which makes compost material reduce in volume, which is why a properly-working compost pen never seems to get filled up.

Right! I shall leave it now, for a couple of months: the Client has strict instructions not to add any material to the top of it, but to leave it to get on with things, so we shall see what happens!

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Fig: Ficus carica: myths and mythstakes

Back in late February, I was asked to tackle an enormous overgrown Fig.

Bit of an untidy monster, isn't it? (I have included Secateurs For Scale, but frankly the upstairs window is probably good enough)

And this is without leaves!!

You can see why it needed attention - it had grown over the window, over the roof, over the path, over the bed, and was making a bid for freedom over the low wall, so it had to be tamed.

Now, "received wisdom" says that you can't prune Figs during the winter, as they will "bleed" , ie leak sap, to death.

I was a bit concerned about this, so I asked advice from my PGG colleagues (Professional Gardeners' Guild) and was told by at least a dozen people that it was simply impossible to prune a Fig in Feb/March. It would die.  It would bleed to death.

One voice of reason - there weren't many of those in the PGG, which is one of the three reasons why I'm not renewing my membership - suggested cutting one good-sized branch to see what happened.

Now, this seemed like a sensible suggestion: it's all very well for these estate gardeners to mindlessly repeat the old advice, but sometimes, out here in the real world, we have to do things at the "wrong" time of year, because our Clients want it done. And I have found, over the years, that there are many, many times when what "everyone says" is not actually accurate.  More of that later.

So, back to our Fig: my trainee and I tentatively sawed through a biggish branch, sat back and watched it.

Nothing happened.

No dramatic flood of sap. Actually, not even enough to drip to the ground, just a slight dampness. In case it was slow-moving sap, we went off and did other jobs for a couple of hours, then checked again: nope, no bucket-fulls of sap all over the ground.

So we pruned it. I had already told the Client that by pruning it in March, we would probably lose all the crop for this year, and they were ok with that, mostly because last year they couldn't get to any of the fruit: all the fruit was way up there, high out of reach. They wanted it reduced to chest-height and wall-trained again, so that they could just walk up to it and pick the fruit.

In case you didn't know, received wisdom - and all the books, and the internet - states that Figs fruit on last year's wood: technically, towards the end of our summer season, they produce tiny embryo fruits, which swell and grow the following year. By cutting off virtually all the "old" wood, we would end up with a lot of green leafy growth this year, but no fruit.  Sometimes, these sacrifices have to be made... the alternative is to spend the next 2-3 years gradually pruning the monster back into shape, doing one third of it each year.  This is actually the preferred method, it's kinder to the plant, but in this case the Client just wanted it over and done with, and accepted one year without a crop.

(In fact, there's always a risk when doing a massive prune, that the tree/shrub might die of shock altogether. In which case you have to buy a new one and start again, which in this case would not have been a bad thing, as we would have been able to wall-train it right from the start, which is a great deal easier than wrestling over-stout limbs into the required position.)

So we got out our pruning saws, our heavy-duty loppers, and we set to work.

First we cut off as much of the breastwood - ie the stuff sticking out at right angles to the wall - as we could.

That made quite a difference.

Then we crawled in on hands and knees, and sawed off all the big branches which were shooting out horizontally at ground level.


Next we tackled everything which was overhanging the wall to the left: all those were chopped off without mercy.

We discovered that the original plant had suckered a few times, so there were many stems arising from ground level.  This is not a bad thing: it means that, no matter how much we chop off, there's a good chance that much of it will regrow.

Having taken off those branches which we definitely did not want, we assessed what was left - on the left - and tried to work out which branches would be amenable to be being tied in to the wall.

The answer was, "not a lot!" as they were very much fixed in their positions, and were not minded to be bent.

So we chopped them all off.

Half an hour later, this is what we had reduced it to:

Drastic, huh?  *laughs*

We have half a dozen thinnish branches, arranged in roughly a fan formation.

And nothing else.

That was back in March.
This is what it looked like in July.

Recovering well, nicely covered with leaves, and in fact I had to tidy it up a bit for this photo, as some of the new growth was a bit over-enthusiastic.

Likewise, a lot of the very low branches which we cut off were trying to sprout, so they have to have their new growth rubbed out, just as you do with epicormic shoots on trees. These were mostly between  5-10' away from the wall, and we don't want more Fig growing up there! That's where we want to stand, in order to pick the fruit.

Throughout the summer it grew and grew: in fact, in late August I had to trim it back again.

And this is what it looked like today - first of October.

Quite lush, isn't it?

So, what are the "mythstakes" that have been disproven by this plant?

Firstly, Figs Can't Be Pruned In Winter. Well, technically I'd call March "early spring", but it was jolly cold this year, and I'm sure many of the heat-sensitive plants (as opposed to day-length-sensitive plants) would agree that this year, early March was still part of winter, thank you very much.

Either way, you can definitely prune a Fig on a cold east-facing wall, in late Feb/early March, as long as you accept that you won't get any usable fruit from it this year.

Secondly, Figs Only Fruit On Two-Year-Old wood. Simply not true, the above plant is covered in biggish fruits. None of them are likely to ripen this year, as they have been shielded by the lush over-growth of leaves, which I didn't bother to prune back, having assumed that there would not be any fruiting at all this year.

But they are definitely not the "embryonic fruits" which all the books mention - no, these are good-sized fruits, it's just a shame that they are mostly still green and unripe.

So there you have it - two myths about Figs disproved in one article.

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Herringbone Block Paving: who invented this, a sadist?

Not anyone who ever has to weed it, that's for sure!

In case you've missed this phenomenon, or in case you are thinking of having some laid, block paving is used when you don't want a boring concrete drive, and can afford to have something a bit posher.

It's made using paviours or pavers, which are like a slightly undersized house brick but without the "frog" or hollow on the bottom. They are laid on a bed of compacted sand (usually), and are set very close together. They are not concreted in place, so this method allows a certain amount of excess water to drain away, hip hip hooray. (Although still not a good idea if your drive slopes downwards towards the house...)

The advantage of a block paved drive over a solid concrete one, as well as the drainage, is that they can conform to changes in level, and they look nice. Very nice.

The disadvantage, from the viewpoint of the gardener or houseowner who has to maintain them, is that teeny tiny weeds can force themselves down between the blocks, so then they have to be weeded.

 This - left - is a pretty typical herringbone block paving section, very much in need of weeding.

As you can see, debris has filled up all the joints, and now the weeds are rooting themselves down. If you leave them, they get bigger and bigger to the point where they start to lift the paviours, which is disastrous!

Up until that point, it looks lovely: much, much better than a solid concrete driveway - and not just in looks, but in water drainage - and ok, it's nice to walk on.... but once it need weeding, well, is that such a big problem?

If it were all in nice straight long lines - well, it would be tedious, but not really a problem.

But who invented the herringbone pattern?

What sort of demented sadist invented that dratted herringbone pattern!!!

Why does this stir me to such vitriol?  Well, I have the joy of maintaining a biggish stretch of block paving for one of my Clients, and the other morning I noticed with horror that the section just in front of the door was all covered in weeds again, so I had to get out the long-handled wire brush and scrub it clean: moss holds the moisture and can make it very slippery, and I don't want my ladies having accidents!

And this is where the sadism comes into it: herringbone pattern has to be THE most annoying pattern to clean, because you can only ever do tiny bits at a time.

On a normal patio or path with nice big stone slabs, you go over it one way, you go over it the other way, sweep off the bits and you're done.

Not so with block paving: you can't build up a good rhythm, or getting any real vim behind it, because the most you can do is two blocks-lengths at a time. And then you have to go back and do the ones at right angles... all the while trying to avoid treading on the loose globs of mud and weed which you have already dislodged....




Here we are with the long-handled wire brush, tediously scrubbing one way, then the other.

You can see which bit I've done, can't you?!


Here we are a little while later, sweeping up all the loose debris into piles. 

It's worth doing this every so often, to avoid that business of treading it all back in again.

"But," I hear you say, "you can just spray it with weedkiller, can't you?"

Well, yes, you can: but, just as with shingle, stone slabs and most other hard surfaces, if you spray the weeds then yes, they die, but you have to look at dead and dying stuff for a fortnight: nine times out of ten the dead stuff looks so hideous that you tell your gardener to pull them out anyway, so they might as well have done it the first time: you're using heinously horrible chemicals in a not-strictly-necessary situation, and - my personal favourite - by leaving weeds etc to die, they are just rotting down and adding to the matrix of soil and debris in which the next generation of weeds will root themselves.

So no, weedkiller is not usually the answer.

Instead I have to get out there and scrub the darned stuff.


 I'm still in two minds as to whether it's best to do it old school back-breaking bend-over styley, with a daisy grubber: it does an excellent job but breaks your back, not to mention that it wears out the prongs, as you can see in this comparison photo, left.

..or to use the long-handled wire brush and do it standing up, which saves the back enormously, but kills your back muscles from all that intensive scrubbing action.




Either way, the finished result - right - is well worth the effort, not least because then everyone else in the street has to get out there and clean theirs, mwaah haa haaaa!





Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Saving water - is it really worth it?

Like all of us, I've been absorbing for years the maxims around saving water: it's a scarce resource, reduce-reuse-recycle, rainwater is better for the plants etc etc.

So I've spent a lot of time, and a fair amount of money, installing water butts and devising water-saving devices in my garden.

Indoors, I'm pretty frugal with water anyway: I only ever use the short 15-minute cycle on the washing machine (it takes 22 minutes, I've timed it, but heyho); when I ask for hot water, my combi boiler takes 25-30 seconds to get the hot water all the way down to the tap, so I catch that otherwise wasted water (easily 4 litres, shocking!) in 2-litre milk cartons with the tops cut off for easy filling, then use it to water house plants, rinse off the sink, rinse out packaging prior to putting in the recycle bin, and so on.

I did, for a while, try the practice of not flushing the loo unless there were solids involved ("if it's yellow, let it mellow: if it's brown, flush it down") but I found that, here in this hard water area, the loo would quickly start looking stained and disreputable, so I gave up on that.

But outdoors, I use a lot of water, as I have a lot of plants to look after, and small plants in small pots need to be watered.

Why am I bringing  this up now?

Well, I have a water meter, as any sensible person would do. I say that, because I pay on average £140-160 per year, split over two bills. A friend two streets away, who has the same size household as me but does not have a million plants in pots to water every day, does not have a water meter, and pays over £700 per year. That's a whopping difference. Especially considering how much water I pour onto my plants!!

My bill for the summer half-year is usually about 15 or 16 units of water, and it costs me about £70-85: the amount doesn't seem to bear any relation to the actual amount of water used, as most of the charge is the standing charge, which they make as deliberately confusing as possibly by a) splitting it up into standing charge for fresh water, and then a different standing charge for wastewater: and b) by invariably changing their prices mid-way through the billing period, so you get four or more lines of pricing...

...anyway, you get the picture, an average of 15/16 units of water, costs me £70-£80 or so.

This recent bill arrived, and I was interested to see if it showed any reduction, as I have installed water-catchers under my plant benches, so I can re-use the water that would otherwise just fall between and through the pots: and I now have six water butts, some of them with taps, some of them with hoses attached, so I can use as much rainwater as possible. I wondered if all these measures would be reflected in my water usage.

Well, hooray and cheers, this time I only used  6 units of water. Six!! Massive reduction! I'm so proud!

How much do you think the bill was, though.

I'll tell you, it was £64.08.

All that effort, all those water butts bought (and they're not cheap), all that staggering about carrying them out to the car (flaming awkward things to handle, I can tell you!): all that building of stout wooden stands to get them high enough that I can use the syphon principle to water my plants - and how much did I save? A fiver.

I more than HALVED my water usage, and saved five quid!!

No wonder most people don't bother...

Of course, I have the  pleasure of knowing that I have Done My Bit, I've massively reduced how much expensive treated water I use, and my plants are enjoying the nice fresh rainwater instead of the horrible chlorinated stuff.

So saving the planet I may be - but saving money I am not!

Saturday, 14 September 2019

How To... Clear the Meadow Path

This is not so much a "how to" article as a "hey, look at my great scythe!" sort of article.

This dates back to early June, when a Client sent me an impassioned plea - "we can't get into the meadow any more, help!" so I grabbed my scythe and went round to see what was going on.



Oh dear, I see the problem.

Yes, it's a bit hard to get in through the gate, isn't it?

And the grass is rather too long for the mower, isn't it?!

Luckily, the scythe is quite literally designed for this situation, as it loves long grass, it loves cutting wet grass, and with a bit of practise, it's easy to manoeuvre it around narrow entrances and odd corners.





And there it is, done.

OK, I didn't show you the huge piles of cut grass which I had to laboriously rake up and cart off to the compost bins (which were then somewhat overflowing, oops), nor did I mention the three times I had to stop and make conversation with neighbours, passers-by etc.

It's an odd thing, you know, but when I had a petrol strimmer, not one person ever, EVER, stopped me for a conversation while I was using it.

Not once.

Now, every time I get my scythe out, people stop to ask questions.

Which makes a mockery of the question "is a scythe faster or slower than a strimmer?"

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

When is it too wet to work? "Gardening with wet knickers" - a personal viewpoint

"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!!