Garden School:

Garden School:
Suspended for now - instead we'll have C-19 Garden Questions!

Friday, 3 April 2020

How to make a Box ball into a happy smiling face!

On Wednesday, I asked what you thought I was going to do with this rather ragged Box ball:

The answers were many and varied: well, actually, I only had three.

And the prize goes to John S, for saying "you are going to trim it into something amusing".

I certainly did!

Ten minutes with the shears, and here she is:

Far from finished, but you can see where I'm going with it.

The plan is that by mid summer, the face will be distinct enough to make the children laugh, when they come round that side of the garden.

Now all we need is a name for her.. suggestions, please?

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Daffodils: why do we dead-head them?

"We can still have a virtual tête-à-tête" said Mal.   *shakes head, sadly*

Here's one of my own tête-à-tête daffs, tiny, but perfect in the frost.

Moving on from terrible puns:  This week, I have been mostly dead-heading daffodils.

Yes, it's that time of year: they are starting to "go over" as we say, which means that the flowers stop being yellow and cheerful, and start being brown and ugly.

So it's time to dead-head. This means cutting or snapping off the flowering stem, removing the dead flowers altogether.

Before we get on to the Why, let's look at:

How do we do it?

With gloves, because, as all good gardeners know, "All parts of the daffodil contain a toxic chemical, lycorine. The part of the plant that contains the highest concentration of lycorine is the bulb. However, eating any part of the plant can cause symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. "

Lovely, eh?

You might be thinking that wearing gloves won't save you from that list of wonderful symptoms, but daffs also leak a lot of sap, and any flower arranger will tell you that the sap of a daff is very bad for any other plants in the same vase, and on that basis, I don't want it all over my skin, thank you very much.

How do we do it, actually?

Run your hand down the stem, as far down as you can reasonably reach, then snap it off. Don't pull, or it will stretch, bend and deform, leaving you with mangled foliage which refuses to break, and will have to be cut. If  you find you can't get the knack of snapping, then you can use scissors.

Here's some I did earlier:

 A whole wheebarrow-full!  Can you see how long the stems are?

Why do it right down the stem, why not just pull off the flower heads?

Well, because the stem of a flower, despite being green, does not photosynthesize as efficiently as the leaves. And if  you just pull off the flowering head, you leave a broken, hollow stem, which will fill with water and rot - which might create a weak spot in the bulb, leading to the bulb rotting - and the broken tip will quickly go brown. So it's better to snap off the hollow stem as low as you can.

OK, we've got the hang of it, now tell us: Why do we deadhead?

I have at least four reasons.

Firstly, as Suzi said (*waves to Suzi*), because dead-heading prevents the plant wasting energy on producing seed.  Well done, Suzi, quite right.

Once the plant has flowered, it is using energy for two purposes: to create a whole load of seeds with which to spread: or to bulk up the bulb for next year. If we leave the dying flowers in place, then this energy is split between the two: half (roughly) to create seeds, leaving only half to bulk up the bulb for next year. But if you deadhead, then all that energy goes back into the bulb for next year, hooray, bigger flowers! More of them!  The plants will still reproduce, they will create offset bulb underground, which is why you start with single bulbs, and end up with clumps.

I can hear an objection, at this point, you are saying "ah, but I want my daffs to spread, I want a whole colony of them, so I should leave them to go to seed, shouldn't I?"  And you would be right: in the wild (which, in the UK, means on roundabouts and path verges), they are left to their own devices, they don't get dead-headed, and they gradually increase.

Mind you, sometimes on verges with no maintenance, they just die out altogether -  here's a case in point, does anyone else remember driving through Swindon about 30 years ago, and seeing this:

It's the bank beside the main through-road, the  Great Western Way, round about Toothill, and it spelled out Spring is Sprung! in daffodils, in great big letters.

Alas, all gone now: the trees have smothered them completely.

Anyway, back to our daffs.

Reason 2: they look horrible when they go brown. Yes, it's that simple! I often get Clients asking me to deadhead, just because they don't want to look at brown, dying flowers. You can see their point, especially if they are getting on a bit themselves - hints of mortality and all that.

Reason 3: There are many more daffs which are not yet fully open, so by removing the dead ones, you can get a clear view of the ones which are yet to flower:

Here - left - you can see that the ones at the back are going over, but the clump at the front are still tightly closed, so we have their glory yet to come.

And it's much nicer to able to enjoy them without having nasty brown ones nearby.

Reason 4: By removing the spent daffs, it reveals the about-to-bloom tulips!  Tulips are shorter than daffs - well, I say that, they are huge compared to my dainty favourite tête-à-têtes, but compared to the honest old-fashioned full-sized daffodil. So if you left the dying daffs, you wouldn't see the tulips until they were fully opened: and even then, see point 3, they would be degraded by having brown dead daffs next to them.

Here's a before and after:

 First the Before: a mass of dead daff flowerheads and a mass of green.

One wheelbarrow full of deadheadings later:



So there you have it, how to deadhead daffs, and four good reasons for doing so.

Today's question, then:

 ......what am I going to do with this, do you think?

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Garden centre closures

Bad news on the Beeb today: because all the garden centres have been told to close, millions of plants are going to be dumped.  Well, millions of bedding plants, anyway.

I think it's a bit premature for garden centres to say that shrubs and trees are going to be dumped, don't you? They could just be  held over for another year?

I did wonder if they mean that the plants are going to be unwatered and neglected: if the centre is closed, presumably no staff will be going in to water them, in which case yes, millions of plants are going to die.

You can see why the gov have decreed that garden centres must close: they used to be outdoor places with lots of plants, but now they are all general-purpose shops, and not exactly essential.

However, with so many people stuck at home, there is a sudden upsurge in the number of people who are finding out that "doing the garden" not only gives pleasure because finally, they've sorted out that eyesore, but also is pleasurable in the actual work.  So they are all wanting to add plants - but can't get them!

I think it's a shame that garden centres had to move away from being "plant nurseries" and had to turn into shops.

If they were still plant nurseries, they would still be able to open: they could offer click and collect in the car park,  having taken orders by phone or online.


Anyway, today's question: Why am I dead-heading daffodils?

There are three, maybe four main reasons why I do it: anyone care to make a guess? You have until 6.15am tomorrow!

Monday, 30 March 2020

"When is the last frosty night this year??"

What a good question! Thanks, Mal! *waves enthusiastically*

When it comes to veg and seedlings, all the books and articles will tell you to "plant them out once all chance of frost is over" but who knows when that will be?

Certainly, this year, it's been a blooming cold start to spring: this time last year, I'd been back in shorts for a week. But this time the year before, one of my friends reminded me that they were milking cows in the snow!

Ah, the joys of living in jolly old England, where the weather is so unpredictable. I spent some time in the Czech Republic a long, long time ago, and I was staggered that they didn't bother with weather forecasts: they knew that whatever weather they had now, it was going to be the same for weeks on end.  How dull!

So what do we do about the late frost problem?

Two things, really: keen gardeners will always keen an eye on the weather forecast, and if it looks like being frosty overnight, they rush out with lengths of horticultural fleece, and wrap up or cover any sensitive plants, or delicate seedlings.

The other way to deal with it is to do a rigorous "hardening off" process: that's where you gradually accustom your seedlings to the outdoor weather.

Here's the routine: for the first week or two, starting about now,  put your seedlings outside in the sun during the day, but bring them in every evening.

On the third week, you can stop bringing them inside at night, but you must cover them up with horticultural fleece or something similar, over night.

On the fourth week, they should be fully hardened off and can then be left outside all the time, until they are big enough to be planted out. 

Unless, of course, it turns really cold again, or you hear that frost is forecast, in which case you have to go back to covering them up at night.

Now, like all gardening advice, this has to be taken with a pinch of common sense: if you live in an area which is very windy, or which is prone to frost, then you might need to extend the hardening-off period for a few weeks more. But if the days are balmy, and the nights are merely cool, then you might be able to shorten it.

How will you know? Only by trial and error, I'm afraid.  If in doubt, follow the regime slavishly.  If feeling bold, do what you think best. 

If you are undecided, then take a half-way position: maybe leave half of your seedlings uncovered, and see if they survive!

Sunday, 29 March 2020

Grow Your Own: 1 Starting a Veg garden

Ok folks, let's all grow veg at home!

 Assuming that you have an actual garden, no matter how small, I can't do better than to point you towards my eBook on the subject, which covers everything from what to grow, how to do it, water management, etc.

You don't need a Kindle or Tablet to download it, by the way: Amazon kindly provide a free programme (or “app” for our younger readers) so that you can download it to your own pc or laptop. There's a box on the right, below the “click here to get it” boxes, titled “Read on Any Device. Get free Kindle app” just click on that and away you go.

So what are the important points of setting up a new vegetable garden? It seems to me that the main point is to make it efficient, which means making it easy: that means easy access, easy working, easy watering, and easy cropping.

This book draws together all the experiences I have of creating new vegetable gardens, of updating old ones: the good points, the bad points, the mistakes, the failures – so you can benefit from my experience, and get it right first time.

And if you have Kindle Unlimited, it's free to download! (only a fiver if you don't, and worth every penny, if I do say so myself).

If you are too mean to spend five quid not able to obtain the eBook, here are the potted headlines, based on advice from the RHS, with a few additional comments from me:

1) “A sunny site is ideal, but more shade-tolerant crops include beetroot, chard, peas, runner beans, spinach and salads.” This is very good advice.

2) “Growing your plants in soil (ie in the ground) is ideal, but if your plot doesn't even support weeds it might be unsuitable.” I can't say I have seen a garden which does not even support weeds!! If your garden is full of horrible weeds such as couch grass, ground elder and/or bindweed, however, see item 3.

3) “Growbags or containers filled with potting compost will give good crops where soil is not an option.” Be aware that they will only last for one season, but if you don't have any beds yet, starting with a couple of growbags gives you a chance to try it, for very little money. They also take up a lot less room than a “proper” veg bed, and are only temporary. So they might be the ideal choice, if you are not quite sure if growing veg is really something that you want to do. 4) “Clear an area of weeds by digging. Ideally add garden compost or rotted manure and fertiliser to improve the soil. “ If you have a weedy corner that you think would be good for veg, get out there with a garden fork, and dig it over. Lovely healthy exercise! Pull out every scrap of root that you find, as well as all the green stuff on the surface.

5) “Sow seeds of whatever you like to eat. Crops that taste best freshly gathered are many peoples favourites - salads, tomatoes, new potatoes, chard and other leaves” . This is such good advice: so often, new gardeners think they have to plant spinach, Brussels sprouts and, errr, something else unpalatable, just because “that's what Grandad always grew on his allotment”. Not so! Grow only the things you like to eat. I would also add, grow things which are expensive to buy, such as raspberries.

6) “There is no need to buy expensive seeds, bargain ones in supermarkets meet the same legal standards “. Very true: you don't need to go to an expensive online supplier: most supermarkets now have a rack of veg seeds, usually in the fresh veg section.

7) “Seeds need warmth, moisture, light and air most easily provided by sowing in pots, covering very lightly with sieved compost and watering ideally from below by standing pots in a shallow dish of water “ Again, good advice, although it misses out the essential word “indoors”. Sow your seed in pots, or in seed trays if you have them, and put them on a window ledge so that you remember to water them a little every day. Also, a lot of seeds are temperature-sensitive, so if you put the pots outside, they may not germinate until long after you have lost interest in the whole idea.

8) “Sowing outdoors is best for peas and beans, as many plants are needed for a decent serving. Leave a finger width between small seeds, two fingers between peas and a hand's width between broad beans. “ Again, very true: there is no point trying to grow peas in a growbag.

9) “Water heavily every 14 days if drought strikes and keep weeds down”   Water “heavily”? *rolls eyes*  "drought?"  There must be something lost in translation here. There are two parts to this advice:

Firstly, the seeds. You should check them every day, and water if they are drying out. How will you know? Gently dab your finger on the surface of the soil. If a few grains of soil or compost stick to your finger, it's ok. If your finger comes up perfectly clean and dry, they need watering. Their advice about watering from below is a good one: if you have done so, check that the water-filled tray still has water in it.

Once you have planted your germinated seedlings outdoors, in the soil or in growbag, then you will need to water them, but  not "heavily".

Always water gently. Don't drown the poor things, and don't pour the water on so hard or fast that it washes the soil away. Water slowly, trickle the water gently around the stems of your new seedlings, don't jet-wash them with the hose, or flatten them with a cascade from above. Where possible, water just the soil and the base of the plant, not the foliage.

As for “keep weeds down”, that means to tease out any cheeky weeds that dare to sprout in among your seedlings, because they will be competing for water and light, and being weeds, they are bound to be a great deal better at it than your delicate little veggie-lings! And how do you know if they are weeds or not? When you plant your seeds, or when you plant out the sprouting ones, plant them in neat rows, not at random. This way, you'll easily be able to spot any infiltrators.

Right, there you go, easy veg starter information: so what question will we answer tomorrow? Over to you...

Saturday, 28 March 2020

Covid-19 and Gardening

Well, it's true folks - we are now at war. With coronavirus.

“At war?” I hear you say, “bit of an exaggeration, surely?”

We have rationing, lack of supplies, curfews, isolation, neighbours telling tales on other neighbours, finger pointing and halo waving, we have actual people dying: it's a war.

On the good side, we have amazing acts of selfless bravery: not going over the line with bayonets fixed, admittedly, but we have people doing shopping for vulnerable folks, picking up prescriptions, checking on those who live alone. We are also, for the first time since it was invented, been using the internet properly: to pool resources, to ask for and offer help, to pass round food, medical items etc to those who need them, and to engender community spirit by supporting each other, and by trying to do little acts of kindness, without risking our health or breaking any restrictions.

So how does this all relate to gardening?

Well, a lot of people are, for the first time, going to realise that in a crisis, it's the fresh food which is first to be hit. Ok, ok, toilet rolls as well, but that was a moment of insanity and I still don't quite know why people went crazy to buy up vast amounts of toilet roll, rather than tinned food, flour and medical supplies....

Anyone with any sense (or who was brought up with grandparents who lived through the last War) will have a cupboard containing tinned food (I can hear my Nan saying “enough tinned food to feed a family of four for a week” even as I type), and will have a reasonable stock of the daily essentials.

But huge numbers of people don't do this: and it's hardly their fault, because we live in times of plenty, we are richer now than we have ever been before: it is fair to say that we no longer have the luxury of having women at home, bringing up the children, doing the shopping, planning the meals and keeping both garden and household running.

We've been spoilt rotten in recent decades: shops are open every hour of every day, we have grown accustomed to being able to zoom round to the shops in our cars, bringing home a load of short-use food including ready meals, so we've lost the knack of planning for a week ahead, buying things which allow us to eat up leftovers, not wasting food...

But fresh food is suddenly becoming a problem.

Between supply difficulties, and wanting to avoid going shopping, we are now realising that getting fresh veg is a problem.

And at the same time, an awful lot of people are being told to stay at home, are bored rigid, and are just realising that they have a fantastic resource right outside the back door: a garden, which has probably not been used for anything other than kicking a football about when the kids were small, and maybe sitting out in once in a blue moon.

Guess what? All three problems - lack of fresh food, boredom, and a wasted garden - can be solved in one easy step.

Grow Your Own.

Yes! Let's use those under-utilised gardens to grow some veg, help us to avoid the shops, and to retain our sanity?

Over the next few weeks - or possibly months - I shall be posting every day with information about growing veg at home, along with regular Homework: yes, my Trainee may be temporarily unable to work with me, but that's no excuse for halting the learning process! So I shall be asking a question each day, and answering it the following day.

And I invite you all to contribute comments, answers, and additional questions!

We might be feeling a bit alone at the moment, but if we can connect through a simple garden question, well, it might make some of us feel a bit less lonely.

So let's start with a question: How can I grow my own veg at home???

Let's get started...

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Primroses - who knew they were so interesting?

I find the whole subject of heterostyly (possibly my favourite botanical term) fascinating, as it's one of those things you explain to people, and then watch them run off to check it out.

First the technical bit: Heterostyly is a mechanism whereby a species produces flowers in two slightly different “types” or “morphs”.

This is designed to reduce pollen transfer between flowers of the same “morph” - either to prevent self-fertilisation, or to reduce the waste of pollen being delivered to incompatible flowers.

In Primulas, as in most flowers, the centre of the flower contains the stamens and pistils, which respectively disperse and receive the pollen. However, instead of always been in the same arrangement, Primula flowers have two "morphs" or “types” : flowers on some plants have long stamens and short pistils, while flowers on other plants have short stamens and long pistils.

In Primroses, the two morphs are called pins and thrums. Pins are where the pistil is long, looking like a large flat-headed pin – hence the name – and thrums are where the stamens are long, overtopping the pistil.

In the comparison picture below, if you look closely at the very centre of each flower, you can see that on the left-hand one, there is a bundle of anthers, and this is the "thrum".   The word “thrum” , incidentally, comes from a weaving term for a fringe or tassel of short unwoven threads, occurring when the work has been removed from the loom.

This bundle of anthers start in the centre of the flower, looking like a tiny bunched-up fist:  and then gradually open out. 

 On the right-hand flower, there is a flat-topped "pin".

Now the fascinating bit: in every naturally-evolving colony of wild primroses, there will be a roughly 50/50 split between plant whose flowers have pins, and those who have thrums.

So next time you are in the garden, or the garden centre, or out for a walk in the woods, go and have a close look at the Primroses: check out the centres of the flowers and see the pins and thrums for yourself, and make your own assessment of the 50/50 rule.

Mind you, like everything in Botany, the rules are not set in stone: this article is taken from one of my Field Guides, detailing how to identify Primrose, Cowslip and Oxlip, (because someone asked me the question, and was too tight to spend £2.67 on buying their own copy!!) and one person who bought this Field Guide wrote to tell me that, in parts of Somerset and the Chilterns, some Primula are "homostylous", which means they lack this differentiation altogether.

Thus, we live and learn.

Generally, though, you will find it to be true, and it certainly livens up a walk in the woodland!

Saturday, 29 February 2020

Why would you plant ivy in a pot...

... to prevent the roots spreading too far, presumably!

Found this when I was removing a decorative large-leaved ivy:

A large tree had been removed down to a low stump, hence the "snow" of sawdust, and in preparation I had chopped the ivy down to about two feet off the ground, not realising that it was buried in a large terracotta pot.

This made it moderately easy to remove the plant - I just slid my fork down the outside of the pot and gently levered until the roots below it gave way.

Out came the pot, out came the roots, and there it was, all ready to be moved elsewhere in the garden.

This technique is called "plunging", where you have a plant in a pot and quite literally  just plunge it into the soil.

Usually, this is done with the intention of lifting it and planting it properly at a later date: often, plants in pots are plunged in autumn, to keep the roots safe from frost over the winter. Then, when spring arrives, the plant - complete with pot - can be lifted easily, and then planted - minus the pot - in the final location.

But in this case, the bottom had been removed from the terracotta pot with the clear intention of letting the ivy roots grow into the soil, in order to access the water bank of the soil, but in such a way as to restrict their growth.

Not a bad idea: I've planted mint and bamboo in "hoops" to prevent their spread (not together obviously)  but I haven't previously done it with ivy. It certainly makes it a lot easier to dig it up!

Thursday, 27 February 2020

Digging up an old rose

Recently, I received an email question about digging up an old rose ("Hi, Suzi!" ) and luckily, I'd pretty much covered the subject in an earlier post, How To Move A Rose - Yes, It Can Be Done!

Then, just last week, I had another opportunity to do this task myself: in one of my gardens, the Garden Owners have decided to redesign various area, and the washing-line area is going to become a veg garden.

This means that a well-established rose is now scheduled for the chop, which gave me the perfect opportunity to show my Trainee how to move an old rose.

As I said in the earlier post,  it's going to be a bit of a challenge, but it's always worth trying!

Here's our Rose:

It consists of three metal supports (presumably the previous gardener couldn't find one big one, so they used three little ones crammed together), with our rose growing slightly off-centre.

I have spent the last three years training it round the supports instead of shooting straight upwards: when I first came to this garden, the supports were all completely bare, with a couple of old stems rising vertically, then a tuft of roses way, way up at the top,  out of reach and pretty much out of sight.

After three years, it now twines all around the supports, and is smothered in roses all the way up, which is much better.

But now it's time for it to go: it's always a shame to lose a plant where you've invested a lot of time in training it, but heyho, these things happen, and I'd always much rather work in a garden where things changed and evolved over time, compared to a garden where nothing ever changes, which can get a bit dull after ten years or so (*laughs*).

Before we started this job, we made sure that we had already prepared the place into which it was going: we dug the soil over, cleared out any weeds, added some good organic matter from our own compost heap, and checked that the wires on the wall behind the new place were firm, and ready to be used.

Then we went back to the rose.

First job, as per the earlier post, is to remove most of the top foliage, partly because it will put the plant under significant stress, trying to support all that top growth once we have callously ripped it from the ground: partly because it will be easier for it to establish in the new position without all that top-growth flapping around (compare this to autumn pruning of roses to prevent wind-rock); partly because we will have to remove the old metal plant supports, and it was thoroughly entwined: and mostly so that we don't get poked in the eye while trying to dig it out.

First part of the drastic pruning: take a good look at the whole plant, and then look at the base to check the proportion of strong new growth, to old tired growth.

Here - right - you can see that we have two old stems - the thick, grey ones - and two young stems, which are slender and green.

So, we got our pruning saws, and carefully cut out the two old stems, right down there at the base.

Then we traced each stem upwards, cutting it in short sections of about a foot at a time (that's 30cm for all you youngsters), and carefully easing them out of the supports, trying to do as little damage as possible to the remaining stems.

This was a good opportunity to let my Trainee see for themself how easy it was to cut the "wrong" stem... the trick is to start at the bottom, where you sawed through the old stem, and work your way up, rather than starting at the top and working down, because if you do that, you may reach the bottom and find, oh horrors, you've carefully pruned the wrong stem. 

This left us with just two new stems, but still rather too much top growth.

As an exercise, I showed my Trainee how we would prune it if it were staying in place - we go "inside" the bush, and prune out anything thin and leggy, anything that's clearly dead (ie pale brown in colour) and anything which appears damaged.

As this is a rose being twined around a support, I would also remove anything growing out at a spiky angle, ie sticking straight outwards, which might be tricky to bend around the supports.

This reduced the rose quite drastically, as you can see - right.

If the plant were remaining here, at this point I would clear the ground around the base, give it a good feed, and mulch it thickly to encourage it to spring into life as soon as it gets a bit warmer.

But in this case, as we are going to dig it up, we will prune even more drastically (pause while I revive my Trainee, who fainted with shock at the prospect of pruning it even harder) to make it easy to lift: and to help us to remove the metal supports without damaging the stems.

 Here's the final version: reduced to just two new-growth stems, and in order to get out the plant supports, we had to remove nearly all of the thinner growth.

Having done all this (and revived my Trainee again), we cleared away the weeds - no point in taking them to the rose's new home! - and started to dig around the rose.

As you can see from the photo, the rose was not planted in the middle of the hole, just to make our life more difficult: so we had to lift some of the grass in order to get as many roots out as possible.

When you do this, by the way, it is always shocking to see how little root structure a big rose will have.  Naturally,  I forgot to take a photo of the naked roots...sorry about that, but you can take it from me that roses tend to have one big gnarly bit of root in the middle, then a couple of enormous long thick ropey roots, and not much else at all.

It is impossible to dig up the whole length of the long roots, so we just went as deep as we reasonably could in the time allowed, and cut the roots as far down as we could reach.

We then plunged the bare-root rose into a bucket of water, to keep the roots moist, and carried it carefully over the the new location.

Here it is, in the new position, and tied to the wires - which are nearly invisible in this photo! - to prevent it flapping around, which will give the roots a better chance to establish.

We watered it in well, and moved some white Hellebores from elsewhere in the garden, to give it some company.

There you have it: job done, rose moved, now all we had to do was go  back and tidy up the hole where the old rose was, by backfilling all the loose soil: and to put the metal supports away in the shed, until such time as we find a need for them.

Now we just cross our fingers, wait for spring, and hope that it sprouts!

Saturday, 22 February 2020

Velcro plant ties - Fail!

I saw this stuff for sale in the garden centre, and thought I'd give it a try:

 It's basically a long strip of velcro, but the clever part is that the reverse of the strip is "sticky" all the way along.

So you can cut it to any length, which has to be a lot cheaper than buying packs of small lengths.

Sounds  like a good plan, doesn't it?

So where would we use this product, in the garden?

 Here's a typical situation - we have a long thin plant, in this case it's actually a seedling of Passiflora cerulea (Passion Flower) and it's grown sufficiently long that it needs to be tied in.

Another situation would be tying in a climber as it grows up a trellis: or tying in a rose to pegs or wires on a wall, for example.

In this example, it's being tied to its own stake in the small pot, but it could be on a trellis or other  plant support. This is just a handy plant on which to demonstrate.

Now, when it comes to tying plants to supports - and this includes climbers, roses, flowering shrubs, almost anything - I have two rules.

The first rule is always to tie the plant to the support, not to force it to twine around the support: unless it's a vigorous clematis!

Why? Stems will thicken up over time, and if your support is fitted quite closely to a wall or fence, the thickening stems will in time become too big for the gap, in which case either the plant, or the support, will break.

It also makes it easier to arrange the stems - in the case of something like a rose, you might want to spread it out evenly, or make a formal fan shape, and it is much easier to train the rather rigid stems if you just tie them where you need them, rather than trying to bend them around sharp corners.

And my second rule is to attach the tie to the support, and only then to attach it to the plant.

This rule has a couple of reasons behind it: firstly, by attaching the tie firmly to the support first, you avoid the tie sliding up or down. 

Secondly, it allows the stem to have some room for expansion: here's a good example, left, using my favourite Soft String plant tie.

This is what I normally use, and this is how I normally use it.

The benefit of this material is that  it is stretchy, so you can get it really tight around the support.  On a spindly little thing like this,  you can make a small stable loop to allow the stem to grow: and for bigger stems, where the outer loop would be firmly against the stem, it is very easy to undo the knot to slacken it off as the plant grows, without the tie falling off the support, never to be seen again.

The question today is therefore: would the velcro stuff be easier to use than dear old Soft String?

Firstly - right - is a demonstration of the Wrong Way To Do It.  The tie (in this case, the new velco wrap) has just been wrapped tightly around both support and stem, clamping the two of them together.

Why is this "wrong"?

Firstly, if you strap the plant stem directly onto a harsh solid support - which could be cane, trellis, wire - it will cause damage to the stem as the natural movement of the plant causes it to rub up against the support.

And secondly, it doesn't allow the plant stem room to expand, so the tie will eventually throttle the plant.

This velcro wrap is better in that respect than wire, string, or narrow ties: because it is flat, it is less likely to cut into the growing stem.

However, I couldn't actually get it to be very tight. It was sufficiently loose in that picture, to slide up and down, and swivel roundwards. This is good for the plant stem, I suppose, but every time the wrapped part moves, it will be rubbing the plant stem against the cane, which is not good.

So , how can I get the velcro wrap to be "better" and more useful?

My current Trainee and I spent ten minutes trying to work this one out.

Here's our first attempt: wrap the velcro tightly round the cane, and then loosely round the stem.

Verdict: rubbish, the whole thing kept slipping down the cane as the velcro - having no stretch in it - doesn't sit firmly on the cane.

Attempt two: a  loose wrap, trapping the stem in the tie part.

Neither of us liked this one - again, the tie will slide up and down the cane, and we didn't like trapping the stem within the velcro.

Three: wrap the velcro as tightly as we could around the cane, then at an angle around the stem.

Again, unsatisfactory.

If the velcro wrap isn't "tight" against the cane, it slips up and down, so it's not really giving the support that we want, and there is quite a risk of the stem snapping, or being damaged by the friction.

So on  balance, it's a big Thumbs Down to the velcro-style plant wrap, and I shall be sticking to Soft String!

Sunday, 16 February 2020

Plastic Compost Bins

I received a question the other day: what did I think of these plastic compost bins:

... did they have any problems, would I recommend them.

A very good set of questions!  All answered fully and at length (as you would expect!) in my book (brace for relentless self-publicity) on the subject, How to make Compost and Leaf Mold, available now from the Amazon Kindle store, free to download if you have Kindle Unlimited, and only a few quid if you don't. (end of relentless self-publicity)

In brief, my answers would be "Not a lot, yes lots, and no."

Hmm, that might be considered less than helpful: ok, in brief, then, but not THAT brief:

I don't like any of the plastic compost containers, mostly because they are too small, also because they are made of plastic, which is about as non-eco as you can get, and mainly because they really don't work terribly well.

The concept is a good one: traditional compost pens are made of wood, and over time they rot and fall apart. They tend to take up a lot of space: proper composting requires three pens. They are not pretty: there is usually a degree of mess around them, and after a year or three they usually start to lean or sag.

So what could be nicer than a clean, simple, plastic thing with a lid on top to keep the smell in, and -  here's the clever part - a door at the bottom so that “Withdrawing the compost is also simple and convenient “, as it says in the advert.  Thus, instead of having have a set of three pens cluttering  up the garden, and/or having to walk to the far end of the garden to use them because they are so hideous that you want to have them as far away and as much out of sight as possible... instead of all that, have one neat, compact, easy-clean thing nice and handy for the back door.

And yet I don't like them, and would most certainly not recommend them.

Why not?

Personally I don't like compost pens with lids, as - in my experience - more compost fails for being too dry than for being too wet. So if one of my Clients bought this system, I'd remove the lids and just use them as open-top pens.

Next we have the doors at the bottom so that "Withdrawing the compost is also simple and convenient" Pff! Load of rubbish! None of the "empty them as you go" systems work, in my experience: trying to pull compost out the bottom gives you half a bucket of almost-useable stuff, and always leaves a hollow cave, which then dries out and goes rock hard. It only works if you take the time to push the hovering top layers well down to the ground. Which is not as easy as it sounds, I assure you. You could, of course, resort to a compost stirrer, but then you can't use the bottom door at all, because stirring the compost (a filthy, tiring, horrible job) means that all the contents are at the same stage of rotting-ness, and this goes against all my composting principles of "letting nature do it properly, quietly, easily, and naturally".

Which means that if those two attributes don't work, why are you paying £65 for the thing, when you could just as well use cheap old bits of unwanted planking, or even old pallets, to make it for very little cost?

Going back to emptying these plastic things,  as the little doors at the  bottom simply don't work,  you will find yourself having to do the old-fashioned hard-labour task of "emptying the compost bin" once a year. This means having to dig everything out through the top opening (messy, hard work, smelly, tiring), put aside the unrotted stuff which is, of course, on top (dirty, messy, smelly), extract the good stuff from the bottom (dirty, tiring, but satisfying) and put it aside (more mess) then tip back the unrotted stuff (very dirty, very smelly, and by now quite exhausting) into the empty bin.

The only way to make this job even moderately easy is to have a plastic bin without a base, so that you can lift the whole thing off the stack of compost, plonk it down next to the stack, then lift the top layers straight into it, revealing the "good stuff" (we  hope) at the bottom.  It's still very tiring, and still very messy. And this sort of thing puts a lot of people off, from making compost at all.

At this point, I always say that if you do it this way, you need enough space for two of the bins anyway,  so you might just as well build two of them - and can you really not find space to squeeze in a third one? Then you can operate the three-pen system which means no digging, no stirring, you just fill them up one at a time, and leave them to get on with rotting as nature intended. No need to add chemicals, no need to stir, no need to faff with them at all. Perfect.

So there you have it: why I don't like plastic compost bins (note use of the word "bin" ie rubbish),  and will always recommend making wooden pens (note use of the word "pen" ie place to hold useful material) and preferably in sets of three.

Here is a picture of a set I built in one Client's garden: these are large pens because it's a large garden:

Note the slats at the front, so you can keep it low while you are filling them - easy to get the materials in - and then add more boards as the level rises.

Note the air gaps in the side and back slats: lots of air, lots of drainage.

Note the sign indicating which one we are curently filling, to avoid the HEINOUS CRIME *laughs* of ruining my three-pen system. (To read about the the no-dig, no-stir, easy-peasy three-pen system just check out the book I mentioned earlier!)  This makes it easy for the garden owner to get it right.

Here, at the other end of the scale, are a set of compost pens built with nothing but "found" material, scavenged from various corners of the garden, the shed, and the garage:

As you can see, I used pallets, metal grids, old wood, wire, anything I could scrounge.

They are less than beautiful.

But they work beautifully!

And - most importantly - neither I, as the gardener, nor the Garden Owner, have to expend any energy at all on them, other than piling the waste material on top of the "Fill Me" pen.

Perfect composting.

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Fig - another Myth but this one is true!

A while ago, I wrote an article on Figs: Myths and Mythstakes which focused on the forbidden practice of winter pruning a hardy fruiting Fig shrub (oh yes you can), and the fully accepted concept of these Figs not fruiting on anything younger than 2-year old wood (oh yes they do).

But there's another myth which I forgot to mention because I didn't think of it at that time, and that's the one about the dangers of Fig sap.

There are many species of Ficus, ranging from our fruit-producing Common Fig - Ficus carica - through a wide range of houseplants: all of them have sticky white sap, and all of them are toxic.

Now, when dealing with plants and the internet, you quickly realise that the terms "poisonous" and "toxic" are used interchangeably.  I  normally use poisonous to mean something that, if you eat it, will make you ill/dead, and toxic means that it will hurt you in some way, physically, on the outside, as it were.

In this case, Fig sap appears to fall into both categories, as there are mentions on the internet of houseplant fig leaves being poisonous to dogs: and certainly all types of Ficus have sap which contains furanocoumarins, those pesky chemicals I wrote about at length in the newest eBook, Horrors of the Hedgerow (now available on Kindle Unlimited for free, folks! And only a couple of quid otherwise, well worth it!)

If you don't know what furanocoumarins are, they are chemicals which, on contact with our skin, make it photo-sensitive. That means sensitive to sunlight. Doesn't sound too bad, I know, but in real life it leads to horrific blisters, and subsequent scarring - and can leave the unlucky person with a long-standing sensitivity to sunlight. No more sunbathing! No more going outdoors without covering up the affected areas - it's no joke!

So why am I writing about Fig sap, today?

Well, after carrying out the drastic Fig pruning referred to above, my Trainee and I cut the debris up into wheelbarrow-sized chunks:

then raked up all the debris, made the area look as neat as we could, and went on to work in another area, full of the satisfaction of a job well done.

When we were packing  up to go home at the end of the morning, I noticed that I had a big sticky patch on my leg, just above the knee.

"Ooops!" I said, "look, I've got Fig sap on my knee, drat!"

I grabbed a wet-wipe from my car, and tried to scrub it off, but it was quite resistant to the wet-wipe. But I didn't think anything of it. That was on the 19th March.

A couple of days later, I noticed that there was a discoloured patch of skin where the sap had been.

I didn't think anything of that, either: I assumed that the sticky patch had just picked up some dirt: not unusual for a gardener wearing shorts, after all! 

Here we are - right - on the 15th May!  Two months and many, many hot showers/baths/attempts to scrub it off, and I still had a dark stain on my leg, where the sap had been.

So there you go, there is indeed truth in the suggestion that Fig sap can be nasty stuff!

From my point of view, it didn't hurt at all: it was stinging slightly on the day that I did it, but that could well have been because I'd been scrubbing at it with a wet-wipe. 

I didn't have any blistering, or itching, or feeling sensitive, nothing at all.

So to me, Fig sap is not something that I'd be particularly careful about, as it doesn't seem to do me much harm.

But we are all different, and some of you might react much more painfully, so heed my advice and be careful when pruning your hardy outdoor figs: wear gloves (I always wear gloves! And eye protection!) and do try not to get it on your bare skin.

Has the stain completely faded yet? *rolls up trouser leg to check* Not entirely! It's now the following January, and if you know where to look, you can still just about see it, so that shows that it can take ten months or more for the effects to fully fade!

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Plant Passports: possibly the final word?

After a hectic week of the "small" plant growers of the UK collectively shouting at APHA (Animal and Plant Health Authority) concerning the unworkable and unenforceable new Plant Passports (PPs) Directive which, as it stood, was the DEATH of plant sales in the UK - cheers and applause, APHA have changed their guidance.

For a while, they were telling us that we needed to undergo Registration (free, quick, easy) AND to also apply for Authorisation to Issue Plant Passports (PPs), which is potentially very expensive.

This is now their policy concerning the new Plant Passports (PPs) Directive, as it applies to those of us who propagate our own plants at home:

" For all these situations you would only be required to be registered. (ie You are growing the plants yourself, and selling them face-to-face; you are growing them yourself, advertising them online, but handing them over face-to-face with money exchanging hands on the doorstep; you are growing them yourself, advertising them online, taking payment online (ie Paypal etc) then handing the plant over face-to-face.)"

In a nutshell, if you sell plants by post/courier, ie not local, then you need to do Registration, and you also need to go through the (expensive) Authorisation process as all plant movements require the plants to have PPs.

However, if you sell plants face-to-face, ie from your garden, at boot fairs, locally, then you do need to do Registration, but you don't need to issue PPs.

Thank heavens for that! A huge sigh of relief is now wafting up from all the millions of specialist "amateur" growers, the hobbyists, the clubs, the charities, and all of us who supplement our jobs/pensions with selling a few plants on the side.

The email finishes:

"Our guidance on this has changed following feedback and a review of the application process. As we deal more with the application side rather than the specifics of policy, we can only follow the guidance we are given, but I apologise that the initial guidance you were given on this has changed."

Yay! That beeping sound is APHA reversing their decisions, changing their minds, responding to our somewhat heated feedback, and amending the restrictions! So hooray for common sense, and well done to everyone who pestered APHA with endless emails!

Sunday, 19 January 2020

Salix caprea - dead or alive?

I had an email from a chap called Eddie yesterday - Hi, Eddie! *waves*.

He has a couple of really sickly-looking miniature weeping willows (the grafted ones) and he's wondering if they'll be  live again, or whether they are dead.

Here's the first photo, and oh dear, it does look a bit sad, doesn't it?

Mind you, almost everything is looking sad, or beyond sad, at the moment, which is not unreasonable considering that we are just about in the middle of winter.

(What do you consider Winter to be? I think Winter is Dec, Jan Feb, spring is then Mar, April, May: summer is June, July and Aug, and autumn is Sept, Oct and Nov. Seems fair to me?)

Here's the other photo, the right-hand tree is also looking very sad.

So, what do I think?

Well, first the good news: there are some small branches there, Eddie, which are pale brown in colour, can you see them? There's one going across in front, in this picture. Those are almost definitely still alive.

More good news: all willows look like this at this time of year. Usually they drop the dead leaves, so they don't look quite so alarming.

So, what would I advise?

Firstly, "wait until spring" - whatever you do, don't be tempted to chop anything off, just because it looks dead. With these little grafted trees, cutting them back ruins their form, and if  you are too heavy-handed, you could lose all the lovely weeping branches altogether. So don't try to "tidy up" the upper part.

But in the meantime, you can make them look better by very gently cupping your hand loosely around each branch, and running it downwards to gently nudge off the dead leaves.

Sweep them all up, get rid of them.

Then look at the surface of the pots - they are both covered with green stuff, and from this distance it looks like mostly Marchantia, or Liverworts. This is really not helping the trees, as they are stealing all the nutrients and a lot of the moisture, and willows need their water!

So, get something like an old pencil and see if you can get rid of them. I'd put the pot up on a bench or table to make it easier to work with, and wear eye protection or just be careful not to get a branch in the eye. Lever our the top layer - you'll probably find that you can peel off whole slabs of Liverwort, which is strangely satisfying.

Get it all off, then very carefully and gently check around the trunk, at ground level, to make sure you got it all. If you leave just one bit, it will regrow. You might need to use a fingernail to very, very gently remove the Liverwort from the base of the trunk. I'm trying not to use the word "scrape", as you really don't want to damage the bark.

Top up the pots, as you will have removed a good inch of the top layer, with some fresh compost, and maybe a layer of mulch on top.

Remove those labels: labels with elastic ties can often strangle a small plant, because the wind makes them twizzle round tighter and tighter, and those plastic tickets will degrade in sunlight, so one day you'll come back to find bits of fractured plastic all over the ground and no sign of the label.

I always suggest that people get themselves a Garden Notebook, in which they can make notes of when they buy plants, stick in the labels and the receipts, print out photos and stick them in, write comments about parts of the garden which are really good one year, or which are not so good, etc. So pop the labels in your Garden Notebook. 

Then replace the pots, having taken the opportunity to sweep away all the debris around and behind where they were standing.

If you can barely lift the pots because they are so heavy, put them up on a couple of bricks to aid drainage. (Or those nice little decorative "feet" for pots.)

If they are so light you nearly drop them in surprise, then after mulching, give them a good watering.

Now wait until spring, and see what happens. Willows are very tough, and will do their best to recover from any amount of damage and/or neglect, so there is every chance that they will produce buds and then leaves, and  be lovely again this year. Be patient!

Oh, and you might like to reconsider where they are standing: to be covered with Liverworts like that suggests that they are somewhere a bit damp, and a bit shady. They might grow better and recover faster, if they get a wee bit more sun?

I hope this helps, Eddie, and do send me pictures in spring!

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

How to be a successful self-employed Gardener

I'm delighted to say that the WFGA have again asked me to run this one-day workshop:

To book, follow this link to the WFGA website .

This is a great chance to really hear about the nuts and bolts of taking up this profession: so if you've ever thought about it, if you've ever gazed wistfully out of your office window and wished you were working outside in the fresh air....

.... and if you can get to Grove, Oxfordshire, then come along!

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Selling plants - Working with plants - new Law - what you need to know!

There is now a  newer post, on this subject, but I'm leaving this one up, because a lot of people have linked to it.

Heads up, folks: a new law came into operation on 14th Dec 2019 and ALL OF US who sell plants and ALL OF US professional gardeners need to know about it, and understand it.

DISCLAIMER:  This is the best information that I have as of today, but cannot be taken to be legally binding in any way!! Don't take my word for it, don't base your opinion on what "other people on the internet" are saying, go and read it for yourself.

Here's the link to the Directive:

Like all government statements, it's badly written, and at first sight is contradictory, confusing, and frustrating, but stick with it and read it all the way to the end. 

Right, have you read it? Are you crying quietly, or sobbing wildly? Never mind, be strong, we will find a way to work together to make things right, but let's start by running through the basics.

There are two points to this that need thinking about - selling plants, and working with plants.


This bit affects all of us who sell a few plants as a hobby, as a small off-shoot of our business, to supplement our job/pension, or for charity.

What does it mean? In short, every plant which moves around the country, now has to have a Plant Passport (PP), so that its movements can be tracked. That means into and out of the country, and movements within the country.

Who is doing all this?  APHA = Animal and Plant Health Agency,  the government organisation responsible for implementing this Directive.

Why are they doing it?  Duuuh, to control the spread of pests and diseases. Remember when Ash Dieback appeared from nowhere, rushed across the country and devastated half of our Ash trees? We, in the UK, demanded that something be done about it, and this is it.   However, the powers that be didn't quite think it through properly: I honestly believe that they had no idea just how many people in the UK grow plants and sell/swap/trade them. So they've produced legislation that appears, to us, to be extremely heavy handed. But take heart, they are listening to our pleas, and have already made concessions to the interpretation of the Directive. More of that below.

So what do we have to do?

It's a two-stage process:  Registration and then Authorisation.  All plant sellers have to be registered, and many of them have to further be authorised to create the Plant Passports (PPs).

You can't be Authorised without being Registered first, and there are going to be a whole lot more people just Registered, than there will be who are both Registered and Authorised. You'll see why, in a tick.

So do we really all have to Register?

Yes, anyone who sells plants, or swaps them, or gives them away to charity, has to Register. Don't scream at me, I didn't make this law!

What, all of us?

Yes, even if you only sell a couple of plants a year.
Yes, even if you sell for charity or not to make a profit.
Yes, even if you propagate them yourself. Especially if you propagate them yourself!
Yes, even if you are a hobbyist, or a specialist, or a small business, or self-employed, or a small nursery, (or a big nursery!), or a club or group: if you do it as a hobby, as a business, as a way of earning a few bob on the side. In ALL of those cases, you - the person who grows the plant and sells it, or trades it, or swaps it - have to be Registered with APHA.

If you then sell the plants "online", and by that they mean if you post them (and yes, that includes courier/horse and trap/sending your mate on his moped - anything other than face-to-face) then the plants now have to have PPs, and you will have to get Authorisation to issue those PPs.

What plants are included?

All of them. The Directive starts off (misleadingly) by saying "Plant passports are an EU official document to move regulated plants and plant products within the EU. If you’re based in England and Wales and you’re moving plants or plant products in the EU they may need plant passports." (Scotland is having a similar but slightly different system)

Many people are reading that first paragraph, and pick up the phrase "regulated plants", and say "ah, but I don't sell any regulated plants, I only sell common everyday plants, they're not on a regulated list". Wrong! Further on, the Directive states that regulated plants includes:

"all plants for planting
- some seeds
-  seed potatoes
-  some fruits with peduncles attached"

I think we can all agree that "all plants for planting" covers everything from annuals, perennials, bulbs, shrubs, trees etc. No loophole there, sorry.

Isn't it just for online sales?  Not quite: it's for "distance sales" which means anything other than face-to-face sales, where you physically hand the plant to the person who is going to plant it in their garden. So if you advertise them online, on your website, on ebay/gumtree etc, or if you advertise in a specialist magazine, or if you belong to a specialist plant group who have members all over the country: regardless of  how you advertise them,  if you send the plants out by post/courier etc, then in addition to getting Registration, you also have to get Authorisation, so that you can issue PPs.

If  you only sell/swap face to face, then you only need to do Registration.

What about buying plants from a retailer, and selling them on?

Plants which you buy from wholesalers, trade retailers etc will all have their own PPs on them when you buy them.  If all you do is buy them, and then sell them on locally, face to face, you need to do Registration but not Authorisation.

What about if I buy in plugs and grow them on, or buy in a big plant and split it, and then sell it? 

Oooh, now it's getting complicated. If you buy a tray of plants and divide them up before selling onwards - whether that's by post or face to face - then the plants "no longer meet the definitions of their original plant passport." so you will have to be Authorised to re-PP them.  Same if you buy a big plant and split it up: you've "changed" the plant, so its old PP is no longer valid, and if you want to sell it on, whether that's by post or face to face. Either way, you will still need to be Registered.

OK, everybody still with me? Two layers of bureaucracy:

A) Registration first (quick, free, easy) and then

B) Authorisation (quick, easy, darned expensive) if you buy plants and change them (ie grow them on, split them up etc) regardless of  how you sell them, OR if you grow your own plants and then sell them via post/courier, ie anything other than a face-to-face transaction.

It's pretty clear that we all have to do Registration, but that most of us will be able to stop there, and not go on to Authorisation.

However, those who propagate rare plants, or who live in the back of beyond, and who rely on the wide marketplace that the internet gives us, to get customers, and to get good prices, and who therefore have to send plants out by post: well, at the moment, this Directive is the Death Of Plant Sales to those people.

Why? Read on....

So, how do get these Plant Passports then?

Good news: we can issue them ourselves. Bad news: to do so, first we have to "Register" as Plant Sellers (free, easy, do it online, quick) then we have to apply for "Authorisation", which is a licence to create PPs, and that part is hideously expensive and complicated. The application itself is quick and easy, you get approval in 5 days, BUT then you have to be inspected. And the inspection could cost as little as £123.16, but could cost a great deal more, as - get this - they charge for inspections at a pile-it-up rate of £61.50 for every 15mins of the inspection, INCLUDING travel time (bastards), and doing the paperwork afterwards. Others have already worked out that if you are a long way from one of the APHA offices it could cost as much as £900 for an inspection, and they occur 2-4 times a year. Or less. Or more.  Once inspected, and approved, you can then print your own PPs, which are very specific, and are described in detail in the Directive.

So, to summarise: this is DEATH to plant sales via post.

I can't think of anyone I know who sells enough plants by post to make it worth while getting authorisation. 

"But ebay and facebook still have lots of plants for sale with no mention of PPs, why shouldn't I carry on?"

You're on your own on this point: I can't offer any advice, it's up to you.  Personally I'm not actively selling anything by post until I know what's going on for sure:  but it has been said, with fair accuracy, "how on earth are they going to know?"

But I only sell half a dozen a year - surely they don't need me to Register? 

Yes, they do. *sigh* Look at it this way: it's free to Register, it takes about two minutes to do it online, and if there's an outbreak of anything nasty, they can contact everyone in that area and warn them about it. It's not like Big Brother Is Watching You Grow Your Plants - they just need to know who is moving plants from one place to another, and the first step is to get everyone who passes plants on, whether for money or love, onto a list.

What about us Professional Gardener who buy plants for our Clients, or for our neighbours if they can't get out?

Well, it doesn't matter if we make a profit on the sales or not, it's all to do with the plants already having a PP.  APHA say:

 "You are ok to buy for your neighbours and for your clients, as you are essentially the “end user” of the Garden Centre, so they do not need to supply you with one." [ie PP]

APHA seem to count that as a separate transaction - so buying them from the garden centre is one face-to-face transaction, no PP required, then we sell them to our Clients, face-to-face, no PPs required. As long as we don't split up a tray, grow on plug plants, or divide a bought plant before passing it to the Client.

One thing to look out for, though, is that retailers (garden centres, B&Q etc) take delivery of plants with PPs attached, but already people are reporting that some trade suppliers are selling trays of plants to the garden centres with one PP for the whole trolley: and as the gardener centres are selling them to us - the "end user" - face to face, they don't need to give us the PP.  So, each individual plant does not necessarily have a PP on  it.  If you think that you are going to grow on some bought plants, or split them, or propagate from them, then you will need to ask the garden centre etc to give you a PP, and I can see this being a bit of an issue.

Points of note: this is an EU Directive, that means it was created by the EU but don't start with the "oh but we're leaving the EU" , because a) virtually all EU directives are being transferred to UK law as we speak and b) we, the UK, and specifically the HTA (Horticultural Trades Association), are the ones who asked for this Directive.

What exactly is a "Directive" and is it actually law?

"Directives lay down certain results that must be achieved but each Member State is free to decide how to transpose directives into national laws" so the directives turn into laws, usually pretty much unchanged

"What idiot asked for this?" see above - we did!

"But why?" Remember Ash dieback and how we all screamed about imported plants bringing disease into the UK? That's what prompted it, so let's not all whine too much about it, it's for our own protection.

I know it seems heavy-handed (and it is) but it's intended to provide full traceability for all plant movements other than very local.

And if, like me, you're pulling out your hair and screaming "why did no-one tell us about this?" well, it was put together and issued THREE YEARS AGO.  If you've followed my link, and actually read the thing, you will have  noticed that the webpage in question was published on the 29th July 2015.

So the government gave us all well over 3 years grace to get ready for it. Pity no-one actually publicised it, eh? If you want to know what the government is going to introduce in the way of new laws, you have to be extremely vigilant, persistent, and have a private income because you would need to spend all day every day trawling the government websites to spot new things as they go through the system. It's simply not practical for us, at ground level, and I must say I'm pretty pissed off with people like the RHS and the various gardening organisations, for failing to even mention this to their members.

Ah, but now, once they have a list, they have no excuse for not communicating this sort of thing to us.

Oh, and a final annoyance: what are the penalties for non-compliance? Well, they're not stated, are they, so they could be anything!!


There's another aspect of this wretched Plant Passports business that has slipped by: I was just looking idly at the registration form, and look what I found:


the very first line is:

"You will need to complete this form if you are professionally involved in planting, producing, breeding, moving, storing, dispatching or processing of plants or plant products."

Errr, doesn't that mean that every Professional gardener in the UK will have to do Registration?

To my knowledge, no-one in the gardening world has mentioned this over the past three years - not the PGG (Professional Gardeners' Guild - mostly for employed Estate gardeners), not the GG (Gardeners' Guild, I think this one is just for self-employed gardeners), not the WFGA (fantastic charity gardening organisation for amateurs and professionals alike, focusing on training and improvement), nor, to my knowledge, anyone else.

Maybe I was wrong, then: surely the government can't introduce compulsory Registration of all professional gardeners without telling them about it beforehand? So I emailed APHA and asked:

"Does this mean that every single professional gardener in the UK, whether self-employed or employed, needs to individually register?"

And a Jack Butcher of APHA responded:

"You are correct, all professional gardeners in the UK, need to register.

"You can register to become a Professional/Registered Operator or to become the former and an Authorised Operator.

"To register and become a Professional/Registered Operator, you will need to complete one form, Application for Official Registration form.

"To register and become a Professional/Registered Operator and an Authorised Operator who is authorised to issue Plant Passports, you will need to complete two forms, Application for Official Registration form and Application for Authorisation form."

I checked with APHA, and yes, it's the same forms as for plant sales. I further asked them if I, as a professional Gardener, therefore have to fill in two forms, one for being a Gardener, and one for private plant sales, and they said yes! Bizarre, eh?

Again, I honestly believe that APHA dropped the ball here, and completely overlooked the huge number of individual Professional Gardeners to be found in the UK.

Some weeks later I was contacted by my local APHA Inspector ("ooooooooooo!") who very nicely asked me if I had any further questions, and of course I had dozens.  One of them, expressing my concern about how APHA have completely failed to contact individual gardeners, and asking how on earth they thought they were going to do so, was passed by my Inspector to someone else in APHA, presumably someone higher up the chain, and I received this reply from Dan Munro of APHA:

"Hi Rachel
In reply to your questions:
1. The scheme does not apply to ‘every employed and self-employed professional gardener’. Only those that carry out commercial contracts, planting on ‘3rd Party land’ are affected e.g. Council Land or planting on behalf of Building firms. Building firms doing their own planting would not be affected. Gardeners working for Private individuals are not affected."

So there you have it, more "beep beep" noises as they reverse away from their earlier comments.
All of us "private" gardeners, whether employed or self-employed, do NOT have to Register with APHA.
Unless we also sell plants, in which case yes, we do: as mentioned above, and here's the direct link to the form: scroll down to Documents, and click on the first one, Ref: AppREG . It should open as a pdf, you can type direct into the boxes:  save it somewhere safe, then email APHA and attach your completed pdf to the email.

A couple of days later, you'll get  your Registered Professional Operator number, which can then be proudly displayed on all your paperwork.  (yes, I'm laughing as I say that.)

Oh, and if you have no  idea where to find your "ten figure grid reference" , go to something like google maps, find your home, zoom right in and double click on the road, then look at the page address bar at the top of the screen.  It will say something like and then a string of numbers. Those numbers are your grid reference, and the form wants the first five of each half of the reference.   That is, if the reference numbers are something like:


then they want you to type in 51505 from the first set, and the first five after the comma, ie 02307.

There you go, no excuse now!

So there you have it: going by the number of plants for sale on ebay yesterday (over 76,000 listings) there are an awful lot of people who are going to be affected by this.  It is possible that APHA might agree to producing a hard and fast list of susceptible plants, and that anyone who grows things not on the danger list maybe doesn't have to issue PPs to sell them via post: or maybe even not be Registered.  I can't quite see all those dear elderly ladies who pot up a few bits for the village plant sale, having to be Registered before they can do so... it's just ridiculous.

So there are a lot of aspects of this new law which might change: there has been a perfect storm of emails, forum posts and comments starting "...but APHA told me...." and they have already made a few changes to their interpretation. I am quietly hopeful that there will be more changes yet to come, making it simpler.

It might be a while before we get all the answers: it would seem that APHA are somewhat inundated with emails asking questions and - no doubt - complaining bitterly about it, to the point where they are now apparently responding with a form email saying "we are seeking clarity and will get back to you in due course".

In the meantime, I am taking the advice of, and following the example of, a lady called Daniela who said:  "There is so much misinformation floating about it’s mind boggling. When I try to educate I am told that I am incorrect. Oh well. I tried. I am not going to lose anymore sleep over it. I am registered. I am aware. I am not going to spend much more time on it. I see plants, seeds and bulbs sold with and without PP. It’s not working me up anymore. I am doing my bit. That’s all I can do."

Yay, Daniela! That's where I am going to be, until such time as APHA get some "clarity" and stop contradicting themselves and just muddying the waters until none of us can see where we are going, and all of us are thoroughly sick and tired of the whole thing.

So do please keep coming back to this article to check for updates.

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Why is the lawn not full of Cotoneaster seedlings?

Exhibit One, M'lud:

This is the lawn under a spreading Cotoneaster tree - probably C. waterii, I'm not sure.

And just to remind you all (I'm grinning at my current Trainee, who struggles with this one), it's pronounced K'Tony-aster.

Not cotton-easter. K'Tony-Aster.

Every year this K'Tony-Aster  produces hundreds of berries, which blanket the ground underneath the tree - it's partly in a shrubbery, partly overhanging the lawn.

I rake up the berries on the beds with ease, but it's a lot harder to get them out of the lawn, and a lot of them get "squashed" into the grass as people walk over them

So why is this lawn not knee-deep in Cotoneaster seedlings, I wonder?

In fact, I wonder this every year! I have yet to see a single seedling, in the lawn or in the bed,  which seems odd, bearing in mind the sheer volume of them.

There is a Sycamore tree in next door's garden, and every year we have hundreds and hundreds of Sycamore seedlings: they pop up in between the patio slabs, in the beds, in the lawn, everywhere: I regularly spend several hours in early spring just weeding the patio!

So why isn't there an equivalent Cotoneaster  seedling forest?