Garden School:


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

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Moving orchids

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, Laurence, now!  *laughs*

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here's some I grew earlier (left).

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 27 July 2019

How to reduce a Standard Bay tree

Firstly, what is a standard Bay tree?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which plants are used in this way, then?

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

And Bay, obviously.

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

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

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

How do you make something into a standard?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

This is what it looked like last week:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This should leave you with something like this:

 There we go!

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

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

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

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

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

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

And you can have a really aromatic bonfire!!

Saturday, 20 July 2019

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

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

And yet, this is the best I can do:

OK, to be fair, I am

a) taking photos with my phone, and

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

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

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

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


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

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

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




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

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



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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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



"Meh!" , huh?

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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


Well, it's nicer without the blurry blossoms!

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

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

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






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



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

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Organic pest control... meh!

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

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

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

This is a great example - aphids on Lupins. This year - 2019 - has been an exceptionally good (or bad!) year for aphids of all colours...


...as you can see, the flowering spike of this Lupin is completely swamped with aphids.

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

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

Hmmmm, not so much!

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

What do I do about it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 12 July 2019

How much Bay can any one person actually use?

A question I frequently ask myself!

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

Here's a good example:

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

Or so you would think, wouldn't you? 

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

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

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

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

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

And this is what it looked like ten minutes later:

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

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

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

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

*laughs*




Thursday, 11 July 2019

Snow in Summer

I always thought that Snow in Summer was a plant.

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

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

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

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


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

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

So what is the "real" Snow in Summer?

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

As you can see, the name is well deserved!