Garden School:

Garden School:
Teaching this week: Cutting back herbaceous material before winter. "Putting the garden to bed" as Clients frequently say. "Autumn Slaughter" as I call it.

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

How To: Grow Your Own Avocado

Having just read that title again, I'm not sure if avocado has a plural... avocadoes? Avocadi? Avocadia?

Anyway, you know those avocado things: lots of firm flesh, enormous great solid seed in the middle. technically a fruit, but usually eaten in salads, so we think of it more as a vegetable.

If you've ever fancied growing your own, you might have searched for "how to germinate avocado" and seen lots of pictures of the gigantic seeds, pierced by toothpicks, hovering over a glass of water.

Seems like a bit of a faff, doesn't it?

The easy way to do it, is to simply throw them out onto your compost heap.

A year later, your gardener will spot the 18" high seedlings in the old, set-aside compost pen, and will gleefully seize upon a training opportunity.

Me, to Trainee:  "What do you think those are, then?"

Trainee looks at them, then looks back at me with big piteous eyes. I smirk, and take pity: "Here's a clue, they are tree seedlings."

Trainee:  "Um, are they Sweet Chestnut?"

Me: "No - but that was a very good guess," (We have a nursery bed, containing a dozen Sweet Chestnuts, and the leaves are indeed somewhat similar. Never wanting to miss a chance at some botany, I dragged my Trainee off to the nursery bed to compare and contrast the two leaves. We agreed that they were similar, and noted that the Sweet Chestnut leaves are longer, have very obvious sharply toothed margins, and are somewhat narrower than those of our mystery seedlings. End of botany lesson.)

Trainee: "Well, what are they, then?"

Me: "I had assumed that they were Laurel seedlings (Cherry Laurel, Prunus laurocerasus), as the compost pens are overhung with Laurel, but looking more closely, I can see that they aren't."

Trainee:  "How do you know that they aren't Laurel?"

Me: "Because Laurel leaves are thick, very glossy, kinda waxy-looking, and they have a lot of very small, regular teeth along their margins, whereas the leaves on these seedlings *points* have virtually no teeth, and the margin is somewhat wavy. Plus, they are nowhere near as glossy, or stout."

Trainee: "I see. So what are they, then?"

Me: "When faced with a tree seedling, and having ruled out the obvious candidates, sometimes we can get another clue by digging them up: a lot of seedlings will still have the seed attached - hazel, for example, horse chestnut for another - and you can often identify the seed, even if you don't recognise the leaf."

So we gently dug up the clump of four seedlings, and as I shook off the compost, we could see the remains of the seeds around the base of the seedling.

Me: "Look! Avocado!"

Trainee: *staring at me in total admiration* (no, not really, just looking mildly impressed) "Avocado! Really?"

Me:  "Yup!  We find them all the time on compost heaps, people throw out the skin and the seed into their veg waste bucket, and fling the lot on the compost. And as far as the seed is concerned, being plopped onto the compost heap is much like being planted, so they grow."

Here, left, you can see that the seedling is still firmly stuck to one half of the large seed.

One of the others had both halves of the seed in situ, but broke apart as we lifted it, but it was clear to see how the huge seed splits down the middle as it germinates, and how eventually both halves drop off, as they are no longer needed.

So what shall we do with our four Avocado seedlings, then?  Well, we decided to make it into a challenge: we would each take two of them home, pot them up, and see who could get one or more through the winter.

This - right - is my standard way of transporting seedlings: I re-use plastic bags (preferably ones without holes in them...) and put the seedlings into the bag, sometimes with some soil, sometimes not: add a wee drop of water to ensure they will stay moist for a couple of hours, then tie the bag gently around the stems, to keep the soil/water in, and to make them easier to handle.

Here we are at home, in my porch (where I do all my potting up), with a potting tray already containing compost.

All I have to do, then, is carefully undo the tie, tip out the two seedlings, carefully separate them, untangling the roots without breaking them, and then pot up each one in a small pot: here, I used 9cm pots (which is 3½" in old money), as they were just big enough for the roots, but not too much bigger.

Why such a small pot? Because we are approaching winter, so the seedlings will be going dormant very soon, which means they won't need lots of room for root development in the near future.

And if you pot up into too large a pot, there's a risk that the compost will go "stale", which is not good for the plant. It's not like being planted in the ground, where there are worms, bugs, beetles, you name it, all burrowing around and churning over the soil: in a pot, the soil (or compost) just sits there, undisturbed, so unless the roots are actively growing, the soil can become stale.

That's why we have to "pot on" every so often: it might seem like a waste of time ("can't we just shove it into a big pot to begin with?") but plants will grow better if regularly potted on, not least because at each potting on, they get a dose of fresh nutrients from the new compost, and we get a chance to check that the roots are growing nicely, and that there aren't any unwanted livestock in the pot.

Right! The seedlings are potted up, they are labelled, all I have to do now is water them, then put them out in the garden, and leave them, to see if they make it through the winter.

And if they do? Will we just plant them, somewhere?  Well, they are not exactly common in the UK, because our climate isn't usually warm enough to produce a crop, but it is not unknown for avocado trees in sheltered locations to actually produce some edible offspring. So yes, if they make it through the winter, they will either be given to someone with a conservatory or orangery (posh word for "conservatory with plants growing in it"), or planted in sheltered spots, in the hopes that - one day - they might produce something edible!

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Shasta daisy propagation - the natural way

I'd never seen this before - the Shasta daisies (Leucanthemum × superbum) are so sodden, with all the rain we've had this month, that they are actually sprouting!!

Due to a combination of the recent wet weather, and me having a ton of other stuff to do in this particular garden, they didn't get dead-headed, something I normally do with alacrity (and secateurs) in order to prevent excessive self-seeding.

These garden plants are, of course, related to that well-know "wildflower" thug, Leucanthemum vulgare, famous for taking over many attempted wildflower meadows by smothering all the dainty little wildflowers with their tough, coarse basal rosettes... not that I'm biased of course, I just don't like them.

And like the "wildflower" thug relation, they seed everywhere.

So normally, I dead-head at the first sign of a browning flower: and occasionally, you do actually get a second flush of smaller flowers.

Not this year!

I didn't do the dead-heading, and now the flower-heads are dead, blackened, and absolutely sodden.

And as you can see, they appear to be sprouting...

So they are definitely not going on the compost heap!

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.