Garden School:

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

Sunday, 12 July 2020

How to identify a flower if you have no idea what it is.

I was out with my Trainee the other day,  and we came across a garden plant which neither of us recognised.

Now, I often get asked this question, by younger gardeners who live and die on the internet: how do you find out what a plant is, if you don't know what it is called - where do you start?

So here is my entire process, for naming a plant using only the internet.

Firstly, we looked at it: did it remind us of anything? I thought it might be Astrantia, because the leaves looked like Astrantia. 

This - left - is what Astrantia foliage looks like, and it was about the right size: the leaves were as large as the palm of my hand, and the whole thing was waist-high: bearing in mind that the pot was a large one, so that adds a foot or so to the height.

But then I looked at the flower, and it was orange.

Hmm, probably not Astrantia then, because Astrantia come in shades of purple through to dirty white, I've never seen an orange one. But the leaves looked really Astrantia-like. 

Did we panic, scream, and run around crying "What is it?! What is it?!"

No, we did not.

First and most obvious thing, we looked in the pot to see if there was a label.

You'd be surprised how often the Garden Owner leaves a label in the pot. I never advise my own Clients to do this: the labels degrade over time, they shatter, and then you've lost them forever. I always recommend keeping the original label in the Garden Journal (what do you mean, you don't have a Garden Journal? Everyone should have one! Write down all the plants you have, make notes of new ones which you buy, what they cost, where they came from: clip the receipt into the Journal in case they die and have to be returned for a refund: take photos of your garden every so often, print them out and stick them into the Journal to remind you of what looked good, what looked bad, where the gaps were, which areas could do with improvement, etc) for reference, and making new labels to put out with the plants. This helps to avoid the "fruit salad" effect of many little bits of brightly coloured plastic in the garden.

In this case, alas, no label.

Next step: ask the garden owner. "Excuse me, we were just admiring this lovely thing here, what a super/lovely/unusual colour/shape [mix and match as appropriate], can you tell us what it is?"

This approach is less successful if "one" is working there at the time, because when "one" is a Pro Gardener, "one" is rather expected to already know all the plants... but nevertheless, I have been known to ask the Client, I have no shame!

In this case, no Garden Owner available.

Right, research time: take photos. Take several, to ensure that they come out - photos of the flower, the back of the flower (the sepals, on the back of the petals, are often useful for ID) the foliage, the stems, try to get overall pics of the size and proportion of the plant, along with some close-ups to give you some useful detail. If possible, put something in the photo to give a sense of scale.

Here's the foliage - see what I mean about it looking like Astrantia?

But here's the flower, and because I have my hand behind it - to make it clear in the photo - that also gives us a sense of scale:

Quite exotic, isn't it?  Definitely not Astrantia.

Back at home, we turn to google or any other search engine.

My first thought had been Astrantia - I was fairly certain that they did not produce orange flowers, but heyho, always worth checking the obvious candidates first, so I typed in

"Astrantia orange flower"

...and then clicked on "images". As I thought, the foliage was similar, but Astrantia definitely don't come in orange.

Next I tried

"orange flower long stamens"

because that seemed to be an unusual and possibly definitive part of the flower. I got lots of lilies. Then I looked again at the photo, and realised that the long parts were not stamens at all (If you're not sure what a stamen looks like, google it now!), so I tried again with

"orange flower long thin petals".

This brought up some interesting pics, but not what we wanted. I wondered if it was something exotic, but it was growing outside, and we've had all sorts of weather this year including four bouts of late frost, so I discounted tender, exotic things. I tried

"orange flower annual"

..because I don't grow annuals myself (what a waste of money! Much better to buy a plant once, and enjoy it for years, than to have to keep re-buying it year after year...), and therefore I don't know much about them, and it's entirely possible that it's an annual that I simply don't know.

This search threw up loads and loads of orange flowers, mostly Calendula (Marigold), Zinnia, Gazania etc, all the usual suspects - even I know those ones! - but nothing with the fringe of long thin petals.

OK, possibly not an annual then, let's try perennial:

"orange flower perennial"

Aha! There it is! Trollius! Same flower, with a layer of skinny petals shooting upwards.

Now I can put "Trollius" into google, and the one that looked closest was Trollius chinensis. So I put that into google, and yes, that looked a lot like it. I then altered the search terms to

"Trollius chinensis foliage"

... and looked closely at the leaves - yes, that's definitely it, yay! Returning to search for just Trollius chinensis, I scrolled down through the images to see if I could find one that was identical to our mystery plant, and I'd probably go for 'Golden Queen'.

So there you have it, this is my "process" for identifying an unfamiliar garden plant, and I hope that it inspires you to search for the names of unfamiliar plants.

Just remember that a huge proportion of photos on the internet are wrongly labelled, so don't look at anything on Pinterest, Facebook, or any of those "amateur" sites: go for plant nursery websites, on the grounds that anyone selling the plant is duty bound to label it correctly!

Thursday, 9 July 2020

I fixed the wall!

Being an Artisan gardener means.... that you could do something simple and ordinary, but instead you choose to go one step beyond....

Here's a not-very-good picture of something which really annoys me: one of my Clients asked the handyman to re-build a section of a low stone wall around a raised bed: the wall was damaged in places, and falling down in others, and they also asked the workmen to insert proper solid steps in the middle. They did a reasonable job of the steps, but look at this:

Ignore the pile of loose bricks to the right, they were put there out of the way, temporarily (not by me!).

We are looking straight down at the top of the wall.

Look at the stone wall in the centre.

Look at the wooden fence.

Admire the 4" gap between the end of the stone wall, and the wooden fence



There's a height difference of a good 12" (30cm for you youngsters), which is why the wall was there in the first place. So the soil from the bed is going to continually wash down through that annoying gap.

This also means that the owner will always be sweeping that end of the patio, as there will always be soil and debris washing down onto it.

I put up with this for about a month, then finally my inner "I like things NEAT!" persona took over, and I went in search of a suitable stone to fill the gap.

Two minutes later:

There we go!

I found a stone which was almost exactly the right size and shape to be wedged into the gap.

Now the soil won't wash out of the bed, and now I can stop grinding my teeth every time I weed that area!

So the question remains: am I being over-fussy?

Do you allow workmen to do a crappy job such as this?

Are there any handymen out there who would care to comment - do you just not "see" this sort of thing? Would it just not occur to you that a raised wall really ought to go all the way to the end of the bed? Would you have left it like this, if it were in your own garden??!!

Answers on a postcard, please...

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Hazel coppice: cosmetic renovation pruning

I've written about this topic already - here's an article about a pair of historical coppiced hazels which were in need of renovation.

So I won't repeat the story of coppicing,  other to say that coppicing was a way of managing woodland which was in operation for thousands of years, producing a variety of crops from firewood and charcoal to beanpoles, pea sticks and other plant supports; fencing, hurdles and other garden structures; hedge stakes and binders; baskets, walking sticks, ties for fastening thatch pegs: all these and more, produced  in a totally sustainable, low-impact, extremely low-cost, minimum maintenance way.

Pity we stopped doing it, really... but the result of the industrial revolution and increasing urbanisation means that, all over the country, there are thousands, possibly millions, of former coppiced trees - hazel, sweet chestnut, and willow being the main ones, but also including alder, oak, hornbeam, beech, birch and even sycamore - which have been left to go to rack and ruin. We no longer need all those products: now we have gas boilers for heat, low-quality mass-produced fencing, and plastic.

This means that in almost every woodland you pass or walk through, you will find the remains of coppicing: trees which have, instead of one single large trunk, a multitude of smaller stems, all sprouting upwards from the same place. So look out for them, next time you go out for a walk!

They also occur in modern gardens, particularly where former woodlands were parcelled off for housing - you often find old coppiced trees in largeish gardens.

Yesterday I had one of them to attend to: an old hazel coppice, in a garden setting, which was growing a wee bit too big for the area, and needed to be controlled - but not too much.

Here's the Before picture - yes, I actually remembered to take a photo before I started!

As you can see, not particularly offensive in any way, but it is getting a bit boisterous, and if not controlled now, it will become unmanageable in a year or two's time.

It also overhangs the bench, and the owner wanted to be able to sit there without having branches slapping them in the face... and to be able to mow without ducking under the branches... so I got my pruning saw out, and set to work.

As this is a "cosmetic" pruning, I wasn't actually re-coppicing at all, I wasn't going to cut the whole thing - I was just removing some of the branches in order to thin and lighten the tree.

Normally, the routine would be to remove the oldest branches: but in this case I decided to just take off the outside fringe of branches, which would leave a more upright shape and would reduce the bulk and the width, without sacrificing any of the height.

Privacy was also an issue: there is a neighbouring property to the left, just behind the bench, and it was essential to keep a good amount of screening on that side.

So, out with the pruning saw - there wasn't room to use the trusty bow-saw! - and off we go.

There we go - hardly any difference, really.

Except that now, the hazel no longer overhangs the grassy path, and the bench is clear, and is back in the sunlight again.

The owner asked me to remove some of the rear trunks as well, because the neighbour had "mentioned" the overhanging branches on their side, so I cut out a few of the rear-most branches as well.

This might not have made much of a difference to the front view, but you might just be able to see that there is now quite a lot more light towards the back, which makes the bench feel a bit more open and welcoming.

In doing this work, I also discovered a poor struggling Pyracantha against the fence, which had been rather smothered by the hazel growth, so I tied that in to the fence and hopefully it will now have a chance to provide a splash of colour down there.

Now, you might be wondering how much I actually removed from this hazel.

Answer: about a whole tree's worth!

Here's my waste pile: in fact, there are two piles, one pile of the long straight trunks, and a second pile to the left, comprising smaller branches and a few wayward bits which I chopped off the larger trunks in order to make them easier to stack.

How long did all this take?

It took me about ten minutes to cut out the unwanted trunks, which includes a couple of minutes assessing the job and deciding which ones to remove: and then half an hour to clear away all this lot, trim them and stack them neatly for the owner to dispose of.

This is often the way with tree work! Ten minutes to do the job, and two hours to dispose of the corpse, as it were.

So now, in this garden, we have have a nice clear bench, which gets the sun, and on which people can sit without wearing a hard hat for protection: the neighbour is happy because the overhanging branches on his side have been removed: and the whole area generally looks more inviting and manageable.

Job done!

Saturday, 4 July 2020

Curly Hazel problems!

I had an email the other day from Karen ("Hi, Karen!") asking for my opinion about her contorted Hazel.

Now, regular readers will know that Curly or Contorted  or Corkscrew Hazel (Corylus avellana 'Contorta') is not my favourite curly wurly shrub or tree: that honour would always go to Contorted Willow, which I think looks better, it certainly grows faster, and is a lot easier to manage as - not being grafted - it will never revert to being straight, as it were.

Also, the leaves of the Willow are normal willow leaves, whereas the Hazel leaves are as contorted as the stems, which I think makes them look a bit diseased. So Hazel is fantastic in winter, not so good in summer: whereas the Willow is fantastic all year round, plus is easier to manage. So that's why I don't really care for the contorted Hazel.

But I shall put all that aside for Karen's question!

(And anyway, are you ready for this? Terrible confession: I actually do have a very small contorted Hazel in my own garden, it's a purple leaved  one, and I looooove purple foliage!)

She had a corkscrew Hazel in a pot, and decided to set it free, and plant it out in her garden, but alas, it is not looking spectacular. In fact, it's looking a bit poorly, Karen says that it has scale insect, ants are present and some of the branches are blackened.

So let's look at those three issues. Firstly, the scale insects.

Here's Karen's picture of the scale insects:

If you don't know what scale insects are, they are tiny hemispherical creatures which clamp themselves onto the branches of vines, bushes, etc.

Their hard carapaces protect them from being picked off by birds or other predators, and under their protective shells, they are secretly sucking the sap out of the plant, and slowly killing it.

In this photo, left, they are small light brown dots, there are several clusters of them along the dark grey stems of the curly Hazel twig.

Once they get settled in, they don't move around - they dig themselves in to the branch, and settle down to a nice sedentary life of sucking sap, and producing eggs.

Some types of scale insect (there are something like 8000 species!) secrete honeydew, in the same way that aphids do, which means that where there are scale insects, there are also ants...

Secondly, ants. I am dead against ants on plants, they do huge amounts of damage because where there are ants, there will be a nest, and that means excavation of the soil. So although the ants galloping up and down the stems might not appear to be doing much harm, they are bound to be nesting somewhere nearby.  And if the plant is in a pot, as this one was for many years, then they are probably inside the pot, ruining the roots by creating open passageways - "galleries" - which allow air to get to roots, which then kills the roots.

Also, ants need food, and they particularly love aphids because they can "farm" them for the honeydew, so where there are ants, you will often find aphids, which means sticky mess from the honeydew, more ants, and aphids ruining the leaves, to accompany the scale insects ruining the twigs.

And then there are the black bits:

This - left - is Karen's photo of some of the dead parts of her Hazel, and I can confirm that yes, they are dead bits.

There is nothing to do with these branches, but to prune them out entirely, as Karen has done.

If you are nervous about doing this, start at the tip of a deal-looking branch, and cut off just the last couple of inches. Look at the cut end - is it brown and dry? Or is it green and moist inside? If it's green, or pale coloured, and moist, then it's still alive, hooray! Do not cut any more off.

But if it's brown and dry, then it's dead: cut off another few inches and check again. Sometimes, if you do this, you will work your way half way along the supposedly dead branch, then find that there is actually live wood there: what a good thing you didn't chop the whole branch off, then!

Of course, sometimes you carefully snip your way all the way back to the main trunk, and it's dead all the way, so you think "Huh, I could have done this in one single swipe instead of wasting five minutes carefully mincing off a small piece at a time" but there you go, that's how you learn: after you've done this about a hundred times (as I have) you start to be able to recognise dead wood when you see it, and you can be brave and go in for the kill right at the start. But if you are not sure... take your time, and do it in small stages.

Why were there dead branches on the tree? Who knows: it could have been damage, the very act of lifting an established shrub or tree out of a pot is quite a physical thing, and it's easily possible to accidentally snap a couple of branches - and with a contorted tree, it's often hard to see that something has been damaged.

Or it might be the shock of being planted: sometimes plants respond to being freed from their pots by romping away like good 'uns: sometimes they scream in horror and lose a few branches or stems, just to frighten you.

Either way, it will probably recover, as long as it got a good watering when it was first planted out, and maybe again if we have more of this very drying, windy weather.

Getting back to the lovely scale insects ("not"), how do you deal with them?  It's best to remove the adults, I just wipe them off with a gloved hand: they can often be scraped off en masse, which is strangely satisfying. Once they are dislodged from the branch, they will die: and often when you do this, if it's a really bad infestation, you'll find that a lot of the shells are dry and dead anyway, so you are not being quite as much of a mass murderer as you thought.

This will remove the bulk of the problem, but there will still be any number of eggs and crawling larvae still on the plant, so once you find scale insects, you will have to keep re-checking, and scraping off any new ones that you find. Eventually, this war of attrition will get rid of the pest.

The problem is that many plants, especially vines, have lots of nooks and crannies where the little blighters can lurk, unseen, and out of reach, but if you don't want to spray your plants, then the only option is ceaseless vigilance, which will at least reduce the burden on the plant, even if you can't completely eradicate them.

Personally I apply ant powder: it gets rid of the ants, and although it is not one of the suggestions for killing scale insects, I find that a good dusting of ant powder results in a lot of very dry scale insects, which can be easily scraped off.

The non-eco methods involve applying systemic bug killer to the plant: this makes the sap poisonous to sap-sucking insects, so when the greedy little scale insects start sucking, instead of "slurp, slurp, burp" it's more like "slurp, slurp, aaaaaaaagggh, gack, aaaaargh!" and they die. Takes a while, a few weeks, and you still have the dead shells or cases on the branches, so you'd need to scrape them off, otherwise you won't be able to see if there are any new ones coming along. So the best regime, clearly, is to scrape them all off first, then spray the plant with a systemic bug killer.

Hopefully Karen will find that in a few weeks, her Hazel tree has recovered from the scale insects, recovered from the shock of being transplanted, and is growing nicely!

Friday, 3 July 2020

Salix Kilmarnock - pruning and rusty leaves!

I've just had an email from Lisa (*waves enthusiastically*), who recently planted two very nice Salix Kilmarnock trees, and had a couple of questions about annual pruning, and rusty leaves.

Here's a photo of one of them:

Lisa says that when she bought them, they came with instructions to prune the branches down to 15cm (errr, errr, 30cm is a foot, so that'll be 6" in real life) just after the catkins have fallen, which would presumably be in late spring.

She didn't do so, and is worried that she's left it too late, so what should she do?

My advice is to leave them this year - they look fantastic, perfectly demonstrating the "light airy waterfall" which all Salix Kilmarnock owners should be aiming for.

I personally think that pruning it all back to 6" is a bit harsh, but willows are very fast growing, and if Lisa had chopped this one back as instructed in about April or early May, it would probably be very nearly back to this stage by now.

The idea behind the hard prune is to keep the tree airy and uncluttered: left to their own devices, these sweet little grafted trees do tend to morph into massive leafy bushes, lacking both shape and style, so a firm hand is often required.

If it were mine, I'd leave it for this year, but next year I would prune probably about half of the branches down to the suggested 6". And when I say half, I mean taking out one, leaving one, taking out one, leaving one... I don't mean chopping off all the ones on one side or the other! 

Then, the following year, I'd prune out the ones that didn't get done this year, and I would repeat this process every year. This would have a net effect of creating a tree where none of the branches are more than about two years old, so it should remain small and shapely for many years to come.

Just to remind anyone who hasn't read any of the many other articles I've written on this topic, these trees are GRAFTED, that means that the single upright trunk belongs to one species of willow, and the graceful weeping branches at the top belong to a different species.

So the tree will never get any taller, it will just get thicker!

This is the second reason for an annual prune: with grafted trees, it's important to be able to see the base of the tree clearly, because they are little devils for sending up suckers from the rootstock, ie the bottom half. Sometimes they are true suckers, sprouting up from soil level: sometimes they are buds on the main single stem. But every one of them must be removed as soon as it is seen, otherwise your shapely weeping tree will turn into a massive upright "normal" willow before you can say lickety-split.

Lisa's second question was about rust on the leaves: this is a fungal infection, which causes discoloured spots on the leaves. There are thousands of types of Rust, some are specific to a particular species, some are less fussy. So I don't know which type of rust is infecting Lisa's trees, but all rusts are fungal, they spread by spores - so they are pretty much everywhere, in the air - and their idea of a good time is to find somewhere moist and warm so that they can replicate. Something like Athlete's Foot, but for trees.

Their favoured conditions tend to occur in a tree with dense branches, which has been watered from above: sprinklers are a particularly bad way to water trees (or anything, for that matter, but I'm a bit scathing on the whole subject of using sprinklers to water your garden, so don't get me started!).

So how can we help? We can help by maintaining a good air flow within the tree, which means pruning it regularly to prevent it getting too dense. We can also help by clearing away weeds and other growth around the base of the tree:  and by watering only from below.  Obviously we can't prevent rain falling on them, but we can avoid extra unnecessary "rain" !

If there are only a few leaves with rust spots, it's worth gently picking them off and destroying them - don't put them on the compost, otherwise you will be spreading the spores wherever you use the compost. Put them into your council green waste wheelie bin, or take them to the dump. Or burn them, if you are lucky enough to have space for a bonfire.

And in autumn, make sure you clear up all fallen leaves - again, bin or burn them, don't put them on the compost -  and leave the ground absolutely bare underneath them, to help prevent the spores from multiplying and making it worse next year. It's also worth adding a thick layer of mulch around the base of the tree, once you have cleared up the last of the fallen leaves: this will prevent any spores on the soil from being splashed back up onto the tree.

If you find that rust keeps reoccurring, it might be necessary to spray the foliage with an anti-fungal agent: but it's important to start spraying as soon as you see any sign of rust: or preferably, before any of it appears. Those of us who strive to be organic and not use unnecessary chemicals will have to make a decision whether to spray early, or to wait, and hope that it won't be needed.

So there you are Lisa, hopefully that has answered your questions!

If you want to read more about these trees, you can either type the word Kilmarnock into the Search box - which is at the top left of the screen, in the black banner. Or you can read this article, which in turn refers to several of the others!

Friday, 12 June 2020

Lupins again - how to dead-head them

Further to my recent post about deadheading Lupins, here are a couple of photos to explain more clearly how to deadhead them "properly".  They do say that a picture is worth a thousand words, so instead of me waffling on for a thousand words. here's how to do it:

Firstly, take your Lupin: here's a good example,

See that one in the middle?

The flowers have all gone, and instead there are lots of nice fat green seed pods.

PLEASE NOTE don't eat them! They are poisonous!

So it's time to deadhead it: mostly because those plump seed pods are going to go brown any day now, and they will spoil the appearance of the plant.

Also, if you bought your Lupins ("Hand over your Lupins!"  "NO! STOPPIT! We are not doing Monty Python sketches again!") then you will have chosen the colour: and if you let them drop seed everywhere, you will get lots of small Lupins which will not be the same as the one you bought: open pollinated plants (ie pollinated naturally, outdoors, in your garden) don't come "true" from seed.

OK, sometimes you can get a lovely variety of mix and match plants that way, but unless you like the fruit-salad look, it's best to avoid too many seedlings.

How to dead-head? Take your secateurs (or scissors, if you are a  non-gardener) ("Go out and buy some secateurs!!") and place them on the stem, below those nice fat seed pods. Slide them down until you meet the first batch of leaves on the stem. 

Don't cut immediately below the seed pods - below:

If you cut here, you will end up with an annoying bit of bare stalk sticking up.

Instead, slide the secateurs a bit further down the stem.

Can you see in this photo - left - that I am holding the leaves in my (bare) hand? I'm doing this to keep them out of the way, so that you can see clearly what my Trainee is demonstrating, ie where not to cut.

So don't cut there - slide a bit further down the stem, and cut just above those new leaves which I am holding.

Here - right - is my Trainee about to snip off that same stem.

I have released the leaves which I was holding, and you can see that the secateurs are just above the place where the leaves join the stem.

By cutting here, you avoid having the bare stem sticking up above the leaves.

There you go, much less than a thousand words,  hooray for the power of the photo!

Sunday, 7 June 2020

Lupins: will they re-flower if you dead-head them?

I had a question in from Nick this morning ("Hi, Nick!") about Lupins (oh dear, I can hear myself singing "Dennis Moore, Dennis Moore, galloping through the sward" already).

He asked, is it too late to cut back lupins for a second flush of flowering if the plant has formed seed pods?

Simple answer: no!

There is still time to get a second flush of flowers, if you dead-head them hard, now.

What exactly does that mean?

If you look at a Lupin - sorry, I can't help myself -

Dennis Moore, highwayman: "Hand over your Lupins!"
Group of posh folks in carriage (ie victims of highwayman) "What, the flower Lupin?"
DM: [impatiently]"Yes, yes,  hand them over."
Victims: [plaintively] "But we don't have any Lupins!" 
DM:[in smug tones] "I happen to know that this is the Lupin Express!"
[mutters of "damn, bother" as they produce bunches of Lupins from under coats, behind their backs etc]

(End of digression, please read on) can see that it is mostly one long spike, covered in small flowers.

Here's some I took a photo of, earlier.

If you look at the spikes nearest to us, you can see that they have gone to seed: there are fat green seedpods where the flowers used to be.

So this is the time to chop off that flowering spike, right down to where the leaves start.

Don't just chop off the top bit and leave a stump sticking up: that's just ugly.

Trace it down until you find where it stops being a bare stem, and starts having leaves,  and cut it there.

Sometimes you will find that the stem is already sending up a new little sprout of flowers, so - obviously - you would cut just above them.

Even if there are no new flowering spikes to be seen, being cut back like this will often prompt the plant to send up a whole new spike. Not always, but often.

So  yes, it is well worth dead-heading your Lupins, even if they have already started forming seedpods.

Oh, and don't put them on the compost, unless you want lots of tiny Lupins everywhere next year!

Wednesday, 3 June 2020

Product fail - pipecleaner plant ties

I saw these for sale a while ago, they seemed cheap, and very cheerful, so I bought some.

"Soft Twist Ties" they state on the pack, as though "Pipe-cleaner" is under copyright.

I tried them in a few gardens, and my, they were easy to use!

Soft on the hands, obedient - they stay where you put them - and they seemed to be strong enough to do the job, but soft enough not to damage the stems of the plants.

And occasionally they cause hilarity, when the Client says "OMG, look at the size of that caterpillar!"

So I started referring to them as caterpillars.

But a couple of months later:

Oh dear.

They are metal inside, and it has rusted.


Not very pretty.

Furthermore, I have found that after a year, the rusty ones just break, they just fall apart, so the plant falls off the wall/wire/trellis.

Product Fail!

I've spent the last month hunting them down and replacing them with dear old Soft Strong,

This is by far the best product I've found for long-term tying of plants to supports.

It's plastic, which is not very eco, but it stretches, so it doesn't strangle the plant: it lasts for decades, can be undone and re-used, does not go brittle in winter, and apparently never ever breaks once it's been tied!

(I have broken a few bits by stretching them too far, especially once they've been outside for a couple of years, or when it's very cold)

Available for sale via my website, here's me being lazy and just putting up a link!

It's £2 a pack, each pack contains 12 ties, each 7½" (18cm) long, UK only, payment by Paypal.

To order, email me - my email address is at the top of the page, on the right.

In summary then:

Caterpillars = OUT!!

Soft String - IN!!!!

Saturday, 30 May 2020

Bramble Removal: turning brambles into a meadow

I had a comment from Martin the other day, on one of my many posts about brambles (*waves to Martin*) and it raised a couple of good points, so I'm starting a new article for it. (That original one is now a mile long, and I do wonder if anyone actually ploughs through all the comments!)

Martin said:

"Having now got everything down to ground level it's obvious that the bramble & nettle infestation has impoverished the (light/sandy) soil to the extent that there's a lot of moss (now dry) cover over a large area and little evidence of grass.

"Do we just wait for the rain to see what appears?"

Firstly, well done Martin! If you can see bare soil, then you have done a proper job! 

As for the mossy, impoverished soil,  that will be because brambles are greedy swines, and will also have shaded the ground, which promotes moss formation.

However, all is not lost: nettles have a reputation for being able to access nutrients well below the surface of the soil, with their long yellow roots. They are often used as an indicator that the underlying soil is quite good, even though it might look quite poor on top.

So, what would I suggest? Bearing in mind that I haven't seen it... I would suggest raking off the moss - it does no good, it doesn't rot down and enrich the soil in any way, and it will be full of moss spores, so if you leave it, you will just get more moss.

So if it's all nice and dry, rake it together into big heaps and burn it!! OK, you could choose to bag it up and bin it, or take it down the tip, but it is usually very bulky stuff, so it takes up a lot of room in the wheelie bin or in your car. If you burn it, it destroys the spores, saves you a trip to the dump, and you can rake the ashes out over the soil, where any nutrients will be given back. Hooray!

What will that leave? An area of light, sandy soil, with very little growing on it. (And possibly one scorched patch where you had the bonfire, but don't worry about that...)

Perfect for making a meadow!

When people try to create a wildflower meadow from a grassy area, the usual problem is that the soil is too rich, and the grass is too dense and too strong, so wildflower seeds - and I assume, Martin, that when you say "meadow" you mean "wildflower meadow" - struggle to gain a foothold.

This means that if you have bare, impoverished, sandy soil with a sparse amount of grass, it should be perfect for scattering seed and getting a lovely meadow going.

As it has been unseasonably dry and sunny, with no end in sight, I would hold off scattering your wildflower seed until it rains, because if you do it while the soil is bone dry, the little birdies will come and scoff the lot. And the small mammals will grab any which the birds miss.

The act of raking off the moss will "fluff  up" the top surface, which is probably pretty dusty and light anyway, so if you wait until it rains, or is just about to rain, the rain will push the seeds down into the soil, and they will germinate quickly: and once they have germinated, the small plants will be less  desirable for hungry birds.

Hope this helps!

Thursday, 28 May 2020

The importance of labelling plants correctly.

I have a tray full of pots of large Bearded Iris in my front yard: they were given to me two years ago, when a friend said she was digging up her beautiful white Iris and binning them.

Being one who cannot ignore a plant in distress, let alone a sad little orphan who is about to be thrown out, I brought them home and potted them up.

Did I label them?

Yes I did. The tray contains seven large plastic pots, now getting all contorted as the Iris inside them grow and grow... they didn't flower last year, which was understandable, as Iris don't enjoy being ripped out of the ground wherein they have lain for so long..... it usually takes them a year or two to recover.

This year, cheers and applause, flowering stems popped up in five of the seven pots.

Gleefully I waited for the flowers to form....

Hang on!

That's not white!!

Sure enough, two of the pots sent up lovely dark blue flowers.

However, lovely they may be, but they are not white, so out they go: labels changed to "blue", and into the For Sale section.

Tearing of hair!

So then I had to wait, on tenterhooks, for the other pots to flower.  Would they be blue as well? Would they be white? Where had all the white ones gone? Had I accidentally sold the white ones, mis-labelled as something other than white?

Oh no!

A week later, much to my relief, two of the other pots sent up white flowers, and they are truly gorgeous.  No sign of flowers on the remaining pots, all of which are still labelled "white" but now with a question mark on them.

And that, dear readers, is today's lesson: always, always label your cuttings, seeds, and rescued plant material as soon as you can!!

Saturday, 16 May 2020

How to even up a medium sized Japanese Maple

Funny, having very recently written about my exploits, tidying up a small Acer palmatum, I have now received a question from Donna in Rhode Island, asking about her rather lovely Japanese Maple, which is a bit uneven.

 Donna says:

"I have a few long branches which seem to have been cut before I bought it and new, smaller branches trying to reassert themselves in the same direction trying to grow parallel with the old."

This is a very common problem: the nurseries know that people want to buy a good-sized tree (or shrub) but they don't want it so big that they can't get it in their car.

The answer, alas, is for the nursery to chop bits off, in order to keep the tree or shrub down to a manageable height, with no thought for how it is going to grow for the rest of its life.

It's very common for plants to respond to pruning by sending out a spurt or clump of new shoots from the point where they were cut: this is often an excellent thing, if you want a hedge, or if you want a multi-stemmed tree, but not so good if you are looking for a more traditional "tree" shape.

Especially for these Japanese Maples, which are supposed, if anything, to have sinuous and interesting trunks, not a stick with a tuft of foliage on top.

(I'm not saying that Donna's tree is a stick with a tuft of foliage, no sir, not at all!)

Here's a couple of photos to illustrate this phenomenon:

They are photos of a particular Portugese Laurel (Prunus lusitanica), which regularly outgrows the space in which it is planted. Every year, the owner asks me to reduce it in height, but not to remove any of the width, because it is screening something ugly. So instead of the usual "rule of three" pruning technique, I have to do what I call "lollipopping" which is where you just chop a bit off the top, to bring it down to a reasonable height.

(Not a technique I enjoy using, but in some circumstances, I do what I have to do!)

Now, every time I do this, the cut end sprouts a few new shoots. So, the next time I do it, I cut the original single branch, an inch or two  lower than where I cut it last time.

Why? you ask.

Well, let's say it's Year One, and there are seven upright stems which are too tall. I cut them all - that's seven stems, all cut to say 6' high,as per the Client's request.

For the rest of the year, they grow merrily, each one putting out three or four shoots.

Now it's Year Two, and those multiple new shoots - 7 x 3 or 4 - are now too high again. If I were to cut each of them, that would leave me with up to 28 shoots, all about three inches higher than my original 6' cut.

They all grow merrily, again, each one putting out three or four shoots.

So in Year Three, oh dear, we have 28 x 3 or 4 shoots, and now our small shrub is looking rather top heavy - bare down below, and a great big tuft of foliage up the top. The over-heavy top foliage keeps the light away from the lower branches, so they tend to get less and less well clothed.

And now I have to reach up to 6'6" in order to cut them, and I'm only 5' 6" myself.  (Actually, I'm five foot five and three quarters, it's  my ambition to be five foot six. Apparently we stop growing upwards as we get older, and start to actually shrink. I'm not sure if I'm sufficiently aged to start shrinking - although I have felt like it in the past few months!)

So you get the point: the shrub is growing higher, and I am not. Eventually I have to start standing on steps in order to cut it each year, and the Client eventually notices that it's growing too high.

All this palaver can be avoided by simply cutting a little bit BELOW your last-year's cut.

Here's a picture of the one I did last week:

Here you can see that just above my cut, the stem branches into three.

Those are the new shoots from last season, which grew in response to me cutting it, just where the fork occurs.

If I were to cut each of them, I would have three times three shoots next year.

Aagh, panic! That would be bad.

Here's another branch from the same shrub: again, I have cut it just below my last year's cut, and you can see that this one has four big stems shooting from the cut (there's one round the back), and a couple of little ones as well.

So, getting back to Donna's question, when the nursery chop a bit off a tree or shrub, the tree often responds by throwing out several new shoots from the cut end.

Sometimes, this is a desirable thing: it's how you get multi-stemmed trees, for a start!

But in other cases, it leaves the tree -  in this case - with what is called "multiple leaders", so instead of having the traditional single trunk or leader, Donna's tree is developing two or more of them, at the same time.

All is not lost: if Donna wants the tree to grow taller, in a traditional single-trunked shape, then she will have to select the smaller of the two parallel upright leaders, and cut it off.

This is to leave the tree with only one leader, so that it will concentrate on becoming a tree. Sometimes this will leave the tree horribly lop-sided, in which case the remaining stem might need a bit of a help, ie a stout cane that it can be tied to, in order to force it back into a fully upright position.

But you would be surprised how trees will straighten themselves up, if a lot of branches are removed. They are quite remarkable!

"Hang on," I hear you say, "won't that cut end sprout three or four new shoots, as you have just described?"  Top marks for listening, well done. Yes, it probably will, so Donna will have to check it every couple of weeks, and gently rub off any buds that form on the cut end.

Also, if the other leader is "forced" into a fully upright position, the miracle of hormones will mean that the tree will put most of it's growing efforts into that stem, and won't send as many "grow! grow!" messages to the cut end.

But if Donna wants to keep the tree small, and to encourage it into a more Japanese frame of mind, then she can take a look at those longer, sticky-out branches, and - just as I did with the small acer in the other article - she can shorten those branches by looking underneath them, and cutting at a point where they branch. 

This is so much easier to demonstrate than to describe! I have been asked many times to put up videos of How To Do Stuff, and I'm thinking about it...

So if I had Donna's tree, and here it is again: 

..what would I do?

Assuming that it is planted there for beauty, and not for screening or privacy, I would leave the two parallel upright stems, but I would trim off the bits which are shooting off to the top left, and also to the top right.

This would give the tree more of a Japanese feel, being slightly more flat-topped, rather than having two horns sticking up.

I've put in some red lines to indicate roughly where I would chop - can  you see them?

And when I say "chop" I don't mean, chop, of course, I mean that I would carefully clip out the unwanted stems, leaving as natural a line as possible.

Or this is the drastic version, turning it back into a single-stemmed tree.

This time my red line is very low down -  ooooerrr! - and would basically remove the entire right hand side of the tree. I assume that the left-hand side is more desirable, but this is the sort of thing for which you really need to see the tree, in situ.

It might look very different from the other angle.

So there you go, Donna, does that help at all?

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Sedum: how to propagate after Chelsea Chop

A couple of days ago, I wrote about using the "chelsea chop" to prevent Sedums from flopping open, and "Stainless" reminded me that the offcuts can be used as propagation material. Free plants!

It's very simple, so well worth having a go. Here's a quick "how to do it" tutorial.

Having cut out those central stems,  right, you will end up with a hole in the middle of your clump, and a handful of shortish cut-off stems.

Take the off-cuts, gently cut off the lower leaves, and push the stems into a pot of soil or compost.

Put about five or six stems in each pot.

It is traditional to put them round the edges of the pot, but no-one seems to know why. I have done one or two experiments, not enough to be conclusive yet, but initial results suggest that it doesn't make much difference to the rooting of the cuttings, whether they are right up against the sides of the pot, or an inch in (ie not at the edge) but if you put them pretty close to the edge, it does slightly reduce each plant's roots infiltrating those of the next cutting.

Annoyingly, I have taken photos of this process twice, but still haven't managed to get a full set of photos of the whole thing... in focus! Oops, will try harder.

Anyway, having put them into a pot, leave it outside - it does not need to be put indoors, or in a greenhouse - and keep it watered.

In a few weeks, or maybe a couple of months, some, or many, or all, of the stems will have produced little tiny baby plants at the base, where they join the soil.  Allow them to grow a little bigger, then gently tip out the pot and separate them, potting each one on individually. At this point, you can cut off the original big stem, if you wish.

Let them grow on for a few weeks, until they are big enough to plant out.

Yes, it really is that simple - and now you have lots of strong young plants, ready to be planted out in your garden, or passed on to other people!

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Chelsea Chop: it's time to hit those Sedum!

I wrote about the Chelsea Chop on Solidago (Goldenrod), but someone asked me the other day about how I prevent my Sedum (plural of Sedum, anyone? Sedums? Sedia?) from flopping open and outwards, which they all seem to do.

The answer is to apply the Chelsea Chop!

Here we are a couple of days ago, the Sedum plants (hahhahhaaa, cunning way to avoid the grammatical obstacle of the unknown plural of Sedum!) (ok smartipants, I've looked it up on the internet and it says Sedums, so I'll go with that from now on) are currently still small and compact, but we all know that won't last for long: all it takes is a splash of rain and they will be knee high or more, and will then start to flop open.

So, what do we do?

Simply take your secateurs, grab your courage with both hands, and cut out a small section in the very centre of the clump, as short as you can reach.

There you go, that's all you have to do.

Sharp-eyed reader will spot that this really is the same clump, you can see the small light green plant to the right - it's a rogue Tanacetum (Tansy) which will be weeded out eventually, but I'm quite soft-hearted about them, because they smell so great! Luckily, once you have one Tanacetum in your garden, you will have millions of them for ever more......

That's it - you have removed a small handful from the very centre, and that allows them enough room to grow without being so crowded that they flop open.

Within a few days, you won't even see the hole, the other stems will have leaned inwards to fill it.

But this summer, the clump will be much less likely to flop open. 

And as proof, if proof were required, here are a series of photos of these Sedums (see, I can do it now!) from last year:

This was taken in 2018, in mid August, and as you can see, they are flopping all over the place.

"They always do that," complained the garden owner: "is there anything you can do?"

So last year I did the chelsea chop on all of them.

One week later, you can barely see the holes - as promised!

Here we are in early August, and they are all standing up very well - such a difference from the first picture!

Note how they start off quite white, before slowly turning pink.

And finally, here we are in September, all gone pink, and virtually all standing up.

Quite a difference from the floppy ones of the year before.

So there you have it: the Chelsea Chop -  how to do, when to do it (ie when they are just starting to form nice rounded clumps), and why to do it.

Sunday, 10 May 2020

Brambles: roots and membrane

Yes, more talk about brambles!  I am seriously thinking of renaming this blog "All About Brambles" as that's what about half of "new" readers are looking for!

Anyway, another question about brambles which deserves an article to itself, as the first article - the first one of many, by the way - has such a huge list of comments and questions under it, that I bet most people lose the will to live before they reach the end.

So,  a new question, a new article.

This one comes from Vicki. (says in Michelle Pfeiffer voice:  "Ice skater, or stewardess?")  (only joking, I was watching Batman Returns last night!)

Vicki says they have just cleared an area at the back of their garden so they can extend, and that the area was previously covered in brambles.

She asks: "All the shoots are now gone, though, and the roots are still in the ground. Do you think glyphosate will still help to kill the roots? We are planning to cover the area with membrane, then bark chippings:  do you think the brambles will still grow through this? "

First question: no, glyphosate will not help at this point, because there are no new leaves for it to be sprayed onto. Glyphosate is a translocated weedkiller, you spray it on the leaves and it moves down inside the plant to the roots, then kills them. So no leaves = no point of ingress. Also, one of the main benefits of glyphosate is that it is inactivated on contact with the soil - it doesn't poison the  soil for months afterwards.  So by spraying it on bare ground, it is immediately deactivated. It won't penetrate down and kill the roots.  (cries of "Drat!" from Vicki)

Second question, will brambles grow back through membrane and bark chips.

Now, this very much depends on how the shoots were removed.  If the top inch or two of the area was removed by machinery, ie scraped off, then the growing point will have been removed and all should be well.

But if the shoots were just pulled off, or chopped off using loppers, or a strimmer, they will only have been cut at or slightly above ground level, so the crowns of the brambles are still in the ground.  In this case then yes, they will regrow, and they will either grow through the membrane, or they will push it up from underneath, resulting in strange lumpy areas.

My suggestion would be to spray the area with something like SBK, or possibly Pathclear, before you lay the membrane. If you read the instructions for both of those products, you may well be able to decide which one you think fits the bill best.

The non-chemical answer would be to leave the area as it is for a couple of weeks until the brambles start to re-grow, then you can dig them all out properly. (I can hear Vicki groaning from here.)

And the truly eco suggestion would be to get some pigs in to truffle it all up for you, but honestly, that is such a silly suggestion, and I do wish that the dippy hippy eco-warrior brigade would give it a rest: I have only known one person in my entire professional life so far who had sufficient room to put pigs on their bramble infestation: and he refused to do so because it would have taken several months, and he did not want to live with the quagmire they would leave at the end of it, and the smell, noise, disturbance and vigilance they would create and require, in the meantime. *end of annoyed rant*

Hopefully that will answer the question for Vicki!

Monday, 4 May 2020

Japanese Maple, Acer palmatum: how to improve a small tree

Time for another "How To" article!

Earlier this week I noticed that one of "my"  Acer palmatums was getting quite overgrown, and had lost its shape completely.

This is one which I rescued from a fate worse than death, ie being smothered in ivy, five years ago.

As you can see, it's still lovely, just look at those beautiful leaves, but it has turned into a bit of a "blob", instead of being shapely and stylish.

The lower fronds are sweeping the ground, which is never a good thing - they'll be chopped by the mower for a start, and they make it impossible to weed underneath it.

So, what do we do?

The first job is to crawl under it on hands and knees, grab hold of those lowest couple of branches, and follow them back to where they join the main trunk.

And then chop them off.

Then run round the other side, and see what it looks like. Oh, you can't actually see it from the other side, as the conifer blocks it completely.  Good! I need only worry about how it looks from this angle, but normally when doing something like that, you need to check round all sides after each cut, and before doing anything more.

So, that's the bulk of the big branches removed.  Stand well back, and assess it:

Ooh, that's better.

Now we can see the shape of the trunk, and we can see through it and out the other side.

And we can also see that it's quite unbalanced, there is too much on the left.

So, back to hands and knees, locate where that lowest branch joins the main stem, and cut it off.

Getting better: it's looking more like a canopy now, and less like a blob.

But now you can see that the right-hand side is too low, it's touching the low growing plants.

So, back to hands and knees, and this time I take hold of the lowest branch on the right, and follow it back, not to the main stem, but just back one "joint" in the branch system.

And chop!

That's better, now the canopy is free of the ground, and it's more balanced.

There are just one or two wispy bits on the far right which are not quite right, though, so I go in with the secateurs and very carefully nip off a couple of the lowest fronds.

At this point, it's best not to get too carried away with the fine detail, but at the same time, having taken the step to do all the drastic pruning, don't waste the effort by leaving just a few untidy bits sticking out.

Here's the final thing, and I secretly think that the left-hand branch is maybe just a wee bit too long, but I'll stop there for now, and take another look at it after a couple of weeks.

This photo might not look very different from the one above, but those couple of small extra snips make all the difference!

(I can't find a way to make an animation of them, sorry.) (well, I can, but I quickly realised that for an animation to work, you have to be standing in EXACTLY the same place for each photo, otherwise the viewer gets an unpleasant, earthquake-like experience and has to go and lie down for a while.)

So there you have it, how to re-define a lovely Japanese Maple. Be brave, be bold, and know when to stop!!

Saturday, 2 May 2020

The shortness of the gardener's arms.

That sounds like a chapter in a who-dunnit, doesn't it? The Clue of the Part-pruned Hedge...

"Hmm," said Sheerluck Soames, to Dr Wotsit, the faithful sidekick.

"The gardener who is responsible for this bed is - let me see, five foot, five and three quarter inches tall, and has an aversion to using a ladder."


Every time I go past this section of hedge, I nip off any branches which are sticking out over the grass, so that whoever mows the grass can do so with ease, and so that the grass isn't deprived of light, which would make it die: and that would be really annoying, right by the gate, which obviously concentrates all the foot traffic.

And, selfishly, so that I can open the gate properly, get a wheelbarrow through properly, and generally just move around the area without having great big wet Yew branches thwacking me in the face.

Then, when I was weeding the bed, I was again being thwacked by over-long branches, and it was getting hard to reach some of the plants, so I just nipped back a few branches each time I was working there.

I hadn't noticed how much of it I had trimmed off - and oh look! What a lovely neat corner!

Thursday, 30 April 2020

Artisan Gardening. What the heck is that?

"What's that?" I hear you say.

"Bit pretentious, innit?"

You could be right... but this is a bit of a soapbox of mine, so get a cup of tea, settle down, and let me tell you all about it.

Being a "gardener", you see, is one of those annoying job titles that doesn't mean much: we need a new word for someone who gardens not as a hobby, but professionally, at a much higher level than mere amateurs – in the same way that a Chef is only another name for a cook, but while we can all cook, none of us would claim the title of Chef unless we had been trained.

Likewise, all you need to be a hairdresser is a pair of scissors and a comb: which is fine for simple styles, or if you like the pudding basin look, but if you want a complex layer cut, or advice on what style would suit your face, or you want to dye your hair, or perm it, or you need to look good for a special event, or you have problems with your hair: well, you go to a professional who is trained, experienced, and insured, don't you?

My friend Paula came up with the word Plantsmith which I think is brilliant: it gives the immediate impression of someone who works hands-on with plants, which is accurate, and has a pleasing overtone of Blacksmith, with echoes of years of training and experience, a level of aptitude, physical strength and a feeling that it is a life-long commitment.

And I've just started using the phrase Artisan Gardener, which came to me in a flash of light when reading a recipe which suggested the meal be served with “artisan bread”. I had no idea what they meant by “artisan bread” but at the same time, I knew EXACTLY what they meant: something hand-baked, non-mass-produced, more expensive than supermarket bread, possibly much tastier, made by someone with experience and/or training in bread making, someone with a bit of artistic flair, possibly using more expensive materials.

Isn't that exactly what I, as a Professional Gardener, am doing?  Yes, anyone can "do a bit of weeding" but there's a reason why people pay me to do their garden. Well, to be honest there are many reasons, and simply "not having enough time to do it myself" is rarely one of them.

I don't consider myself to be “arty” in the least, but gardening professionally does require a certain “eye” for colour and composition, an understanding of design, style and repetition, and being an Artisan Gardener seems to me to sum up all those added extras that I bring to a garden.

One of my friends objected, saying that she hated the word Artisan, along with Upcyled, Vintage, and Etsy. I know what she means, and I'd add “pre-loved” to that list. But in my opinion, people older than me accept the word “artisan” in its original meaning of craftsman: and those rather younger than me, the pre-loved upcycling crowd: well, they are the generation that my website is aimed at, so using a term which they are comfortable with should just bring me in a whole new wave of customers!

Personally I still can't accept “Plantsman” (or the horrible clunky “Plantswoman” which I think is far more sexist than just making “Plantsman” apply equally to men and women) as I think it is pretentious, and it doesn't convey that you actually work with your hands. I really dislike “Horticulturist”, for much the same reasons.

But Artisan Gardener: that, I can live with.

And if you want to see examples of what it means to be an Artisan Gardener, look for the posts which are labelled Artisan Gardening: there's a pane on the right-hand side *points*,  which starts with Buy The Book! (relentless self-publicity...!), About Me, Followers etc, and if you scroll down, you get a list of "Frequently Covered Subjects!"  Just click on Artisan Gardening and there they are!

Making a lonely dark corner into something lovely

Being an Artisan gardener means.... that you could do something simple and ordinary, but instead you choose to go one step beyond....

Here's the situation:  a very elderly Prunus cerasifera - and look at that fantastic twisted trunk! - living all alone, in a dark gloomy corner containing my leaf mold pens.

There is also a water butt, for watering the leaf mold, but not much else. There's a load of beastly ivy, clawing across the ground towards the tree, an old wooden seat, some ancient rotted lengths of tree trunk, some old bricks and garden rubble, and not much else.

"Can you do something with this corner?" sighed my Client. "It's so ugly."

I agreed, but then, does anyone apart from the two of us actually ever go there?

"Oh yes," said my Client, much to my surprise, "I am always showing visitors your leaf mold pens."


There was me thinking that I was the only one who cared.

So, what can I do?

Obviously I could take the easy option, and just tidy it up a bit: there's a stack of black and green bin liners with leaves in, waiting for there to be room in the current leaf mold pile, so I could stack them more neatly, out of sight.

And I could possibly make a neater pile of the bricks, and maybe I could scrape up that huge pile of garden rubble, dug out over many years, and move it out of sight somewhere.

Or.... I could do something a bit more interesting.

So this is what I did.

Neat brick edging to make a circle around the tree, and a pathway to the leaf mold pens.

There were two colours of garden rubble:  red brick and white "stone", so I used them for the infill, but arranged the colours in a basic sort of pattern.

There wasn't time to do anything spectacular or stylish, but I thought a simple pattern would be better than nothing.

I moved the log seat along a bit, so now you can sit on it an admire the garden: and now visitors can admire my leaf mold pens without getting muddy feet.

And, it used up quite a lot of the pile of garden rubble, along with most of the old bricks.


Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Shingle paths - do they need membrane underneath, or not?

Carrying on from the last article about weeding a slate-mulched path... this is a question which pops up a lot: when a Client is about to install a new path, and they've decided to go for shingle, should there be a membrane laid underneath it or not?

In favour of membrane:

1) weeds can't grow up from the soil below it.
2) the shingle stays cleaner, because there is a physical barrier keeping the soil down, and the shingle up.

Against membrane:

3) if it's not laid properly, it looks appalling
4) if it's not maintained, and weeds are allowed to grow, it's almost impossible to weed it.

Before we go through those four points, what do we mean by membrane? People usually mean landscaping fabric, a woven plastic-based material which allows water through, and which doesn't rot for many years. You can also use any sort of plastic sheeting, those bulk builder bags cut up into flat sections, even old compost or bark bags, cut open and laid flat. If using a jigsaw of little pieces rather than one continuous roll, it is vital to overlap them by at least 6", otherwise weeds will creep through the gaps.

The correct way to install it is to decide on the route of the path first, clear away the turf (if it's currently grass), and remove any perennial weeds, either by digging them out, or by weedkilling them. Perennial weeds are deep-rooted ones which come back year after year, and if you don't get them out before you lay the membrane, they will continue to grow, so either a) you'll get strange lumpy humps in your shingle path (if you weren't sufficiently generous with the shingle) or b) they grow sideways and pop up at the sides of the path, making it impossible to get at their roots, so  you can never satisfactorily weed them out. Without using weedkiller.

Then decide on an edging to your path - if you use any sort of loose material such as shingle, slate chips, etc, then without an edge to keep it in place, the material will creep away over the edges. This is merely annoying if it's adjacent to a flower bed, but lethal if there is lawn next to it, as the mower will pick up the bits and fling them out at high speed, while making horrible expensive-sounding noises.

Install the edging, digging out some of the soil if necessary to give you a decent depth of shingle inside the edging. Lay the membrane,  ensuring that it goes right under the edging and out the other side. Then fill - generously - with your loose material. Don't skimp! Use lots!

When it comes to which membrane to use, I always tell people that the most expensive membrane will not keep out "all" of the weeds: and the cheapest possible membrane (such as black bin liners - yes, I've seen it done!) will keep out "most" of the weeds. And this is the whole point of membrane: it drastically reduces the amount of weeding you have to do, as in point 1).

However, no matter what membrane you use, seeds will still float gently down from above, so there will always be some sort of weeding issue.

Here's an illustration of a badly laid membrane, to illustrate point 3) :

The membrane wasn't laid right to the edges of the path, and it wasn't pinned down.

If I'd been responsible for this, I would have taken the membrane right under the fence line, and pinned it down a good  6" into the other side.

You can buy custom-made metal pegs for membrane, they are like gigantic staples: or you can buy garden wire, cut it into 15" lengths (errrr, 37-40cm for you youngsters) then bend it so you have two 6" legs (125cm approx) and a straight bit across the top. Then just push them through the membrane into the ground. Simple! Then spread the shingle (or whatever) on top.

As it is, the membrane was just a bit too narrow, and the edges kept being scuffed up, because there wasn't any shingle on them to hold them down. After a while, the edges of the membrane fold back as you can see in the photo, debris blows underneath them, and then it's very hard to get them to disappear again.

If your paths are doing this, the only thing to do is to pull back the offending edge a bit further, scrape out all the debris and muck underneath it, including the inevitable pile of shingle which has worked its way in there: lay the membrane down flat against the earth, pinning it down if possible, then scrape the shingle over it from the middle of the path outwards. Then go and get some more shingle! There is not much worse than a skimpy layer of shingle over a highly visible membrane....

The other drawback of neglecting this type of membrane is that weeds can grow through it, which leads to point 4):  when this happens, it can be very hard work to get them out: plus,  it often damages the membrane because the roots have pushed down and can make quite big holes for themselves. Plus, as though that weren't enough, the action of pulling out big clumps of, for example, grass, will "lift" the membrane, rucking it up, and will pull a lot of soil and debris up to the surface.

I had one example a couple of years ago where a garden owner had installed a "native mix" hedge, planting through membrane, and covering it with a very deep chipped bark mulch. Alas, with no maintenance by the owner, masses of grasses grew all in among the saplings, choking them and looking rather untidy. The owner tried and failed to dislodge any of the clumpy grass: I tried, failed, and told them the best way would be to remove the membrane.  They were not happy! "But we spent hours on a freezing cold winter day cutting holes in the membrane and planting through them!"

I was not about to suggest weedkiller, partly because I don't like using it unless necessary, but mostly because of the risk of overspray killing the saplings.

So the only answer was to remove the membrane, which I finally did. It took me nearly as long to get the stuff out as it did them to lay it in the first place, as I had to scrape off the bark chips between the huge clumps of grass, thistles, and other weeds; carefully cut from sapling to sapling, ease out the mucky, weed-stuffed membrane, then do the weeding, and then replace the bark chips.

It looked fabulous afterwards, though, and although some weeds have reappeared, nearly a year later, it was a quick and easy job - relatively - to weed it this spring.

Now, if you've been paying attention, you'll note that we've covered points 1, 3 and 4, and have skipped neatly over 2.

Point 2 was in favour of membrane: the shingle stays cleaner, because there is a physical barrier keeping the soil down, and the shingle up.

 Well....... most of the time, it does!

This is the bottom layer of some really good, deep shingle, which looked perfect on top.

But when I had to dig a planting hole in it, I scraped back the top layer, to find that below was a mass of mud and shingle.

"Yuck!" I thought, "what happened to the membrane?"

I kept scraping, and there it was. You can just see the white membrane being uncovered.

This picture illustrates my final point about shingle/gravel/slate/loose material surfaces: debris is constantly falling from the skies. Rain is dirty (otherwise we wouldn't bother with window cleaners), birds drop seeds which rot, leaving organic matter behind: sometimes weeds die of their own accord, and their bodies contribute to this mass of organic matter.  And if you use weedkiller on your shingle instead of pulling up the weeds, the dead ones rot away and fall down between the shingle, adding to it even more.

The good news is that worms live in this sort of environment! I know, don't pull that face at me, it's true, I frequently find real live worms squirming about in deep shingle. They can push themselves through the matrix of spaces, and it's lovely and damp down there because rain and dew work their way down and sit in all these little spaces: and on hot days, the heat draws moisture up out of the soil below, which then condenses on the lumps of shingle, thus keeping them moist. Lovely for worms, and the birds can't see them, so they can go about their business unmolested.

So there you have it, the full story behind the simple question of whether shingle paths need membranes or not.

What do you think?