Garden School:


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

Saturday, 17 August 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wish me luck in the search!

Friday, 16 August 2019

Gardening with wet knickers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what CAN we do when it rains?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






Friday, 2 August 2019

Lavender: time to cut it back

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

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

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

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

Right, let's get on to Lavender.

Why do we cut it down at all?

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

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

So we cut them back, every year.

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

Quite grey.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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