Garden School:


Garden School:
Teaching this week: Planning a project, and how to do Quantity Surveying, in order to establish the quantities required.

Friday, 25 September 2020

Pyracantha: how to get it covered in flowers

 I have a love-hate relationship with Pyracantha, or Firethorn, as it is known: I love the look of it, but hate working with it...

.. because it is covered in lethally sharp spikes... before you ask.

I was asked recently, by a neighbour of one of my Clients, how they could get their Pyracantha to flower as much as "ours" does - I had no idea that they were seething in  envy, every time they walked past, mwah haa haaa! (*maniacal laugh*)

The answer is deceptively simple - Pyracantha is one of those few garden shrubs which respond to pruning by flowering more and more: it seems counter-intuitive, but honestly, the more you prune it, the more flowers - and therefore berries - you will have.

To get the best from a Pyracantha, then, you need to grow it in a situation where you can prune it easily, ie not tucked away at the back of a border: I love them when they are espaliered along a fence or wall, trained to wires and cut back hard.

Here's one I trained up, a few years back when I'd just started it:

This is what they look like in May - you can see that the main branch, which is firmly tied in to stout wires on the wall, has flower buds on it, but it also has a lot of non-flowering new growth: these are the spindly bits, which are sticking out.

These all have to be pruned off, very close to the main framework: they don't bear flowers, and they just clutter up the design, and obscure the flowers on the main branches.

Plus, they make it very difficult to get close enough to prune it!

This is what most people struggle with: they want lots of flowers, so they assume they have to have lots of growth.

Wrong!

The trick, if you can call it that, is to be completely hard-hearted, and to go round several times a year, trimming off all the new growth. Yes, I know that you want a thick, bushy plant that is covered in flowers, but trust me, you won't get one, if you just let it grow and grow.

On the example above, I trimmed off all those skinny little new branches, back in May, again in mid summer, and again in autumn.

One year later, it looked like this:

There you go, thick lush growth all covered in flowers, which will, of course, turn into brightly coloured berries later in the year.

If I'd left it unpruned, it would be a mass of spiky green shoots, and you would barely be able to see the flowers.

And, of course, the path would be half the width that it is now!

How hard can you prune them? Well, you can quite literally allow just one single branch to grow: here's one of the upright sections of this same plant:

As you can see, one single branch has been allowed to grow upwards, and then one single branch has been allowed to grow out sideways along each of the wires, and I pruned them three times the previous year, to remove all fresh growth.

Here we are in May again, covered in flowers.

Over the next year or two, those three horizontal branches will thicken up, but I will still prune out all new growth, and I won't let them get any longer, either: you might just be able to see that this upright is between two windows, so it's important not to allow any further sideways growth, otherwise they won't be able to get the windows open. Or see out of them.

I've asked the owner to put up another couple of horizontal wires, lower down: and once they are in place, I will tie in new growth, one branch per wire, and prune off everything else, so the pattern will gradually spread all over the wall.

"Can it be that simple?" I hear you ask. Yes! It really is that simple!

"But what if I don't have any wires, or a wall to tie it to?"

Well, just prune it anyway. It works just as well with a free-standing bush: in fact, I have some photos of one, so come back in a couple of days and I'll put up a new post with pictures of it.  

If you are a bit nervous about hard pruning, then it is easier to prune to a tied-in framework, because it is very clear which ones you keep. But if you just have a wild, ragged bush somewhere, go out there now and cut off every branch which does not have berries on it. You might be surprised at how much better it looks, afterwards!



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Wednesday, 23 September 2020

2020: what a weird year.

 Most people will remember 2020 as being the Covid-19 year, but to us gardeners, it has been the Year Of Weird Plants.

For example, here are some Asters in one of "my" gardens:

Usually they are about waist height - these are tall Asters (Michaelmas Daisies).

As you can see, with my fork for scale, not to mention the greenhouse ("The greenhouse?" "I told you not to mention the greenhouse!"), er hem, they are now taller than I am.


Then there's this:


This is common Honesty, Lunaria annua: normally it's about waist height, sometimes a little less.

This - right - is a 6' high fence, including the trellis section. 

(Which was my idea, by the way: the neighbour put up the fence but it was only 5' high, and my people wanted a bit more privacy. So I suggested bolting a strip of trellis horizontally along the top: and lo! and behold, increased privacy but it let the light through, it baffles the wind, and best of all, it didn't make the neighbour cross!)

As you can see, the Honesty is very nearly up to the top!

Then we have the whole "flowering-out-of-season" thing: 

Here's a common or garden Wisteria, famously a plant which flowers in early spring.

Here it is - right - a week ago, that's the middle of September.

*sigh*

 

And it doesn't end there: 


 Here's the Kerria - another famously spring-flowering shrub - which not only flowered in March as it was supposed to, but had another go in August.


And talking of August, I have a photo which I took last month:


How weird is that - left? 

24th August, and all the sycamore leaves were falling, the Hemerocallis appears to be done for the year, and the Hellebores are perking up, as though it's already winter!

And don't get me started on fruit and veg: we had not one but four late frosts this year, after a mini-heatwave. So, many people are finding that their fruit trees have very little fruit on them this year, particularly apples, which seemed to bear the brunt of the blossom damage.

 

So, all in all, 2020 has been a weird year.....


 

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Monday, 21 September 2020

You know that expression "you look like a drowned rat"?

 Well, guess what I found in a Client's watering can the other day.

Oh look!

A drowned rat!

I assume that it clambered in for a drink, fell in, then couldn't scrabble its way out again.

I don't particularly care for rats, but I do feel sorry for any creature which meets this sort of untimely end. 

Before you ask, I know it's a rat because I took it over the road to my friend Dudley, a wildlife expert, and he identified it at a glance. He also commented that it must have been in the water for a long time, because the fur and the tail had rotted off.

Lovely.

Talking of "lovely" jobs in the garden, I was once asked to investigate a particularly smelly water butt: I poked around with a stick, and I thought I could see something under the surface, but I wasn't about to put my hands in, so I emptied the butt out, and found five drowned squirrels. Eeeuw!  Pretty stinky. And that, dear reader, is another perfectly good reason for always putting lids on your water butts, along with keep out the mozzies, and to prevent small children having accidents.

Again, the supposition is that the squirrels wanted to drink, and fell in, and once in, couldn't scrabble their way out. You do think that once the first one fell in, it's squeaking would warn the others away... but apparently not. Or maybe they fell in at different times? 

Eldest Squirrel: "Where's Tiny Squirrel?"

Small Squirrel: "Dunno, went out for a drink earlier. "

Elder Squirrel: " Well, go and find him."

Later...

Eldest Squirrel: "Where's Small Squirrel? "

Medium Squirrel: "Went out to find Tiny Squirrel. "

Eldest Squirrel: "Well go and find the pair of them. Honestly... "

Later.

Eldest Squirrel, in annoyed tone: "Where has Medium Squirrel got to? "

Large Squirrel: "Still looking for Tiny and Small? "

Eldest Squirrel: "Oh for heaven's sake, what's keeping them? Go and look for them, would you? "

Some time later:

Eldest Squirrel: " Honestly, if you want a job done...."




Saturday, 19 September 2020

Fasciation: now it's hitting the Bindweed!!

I've written about Fasciation before -  it's a perfectly natural, spontaneous mutation (not infectious, not harmful, just INTERESTING!!) which pops up from time to time.

I've seen it on Forsythia, on Summer Jasmine, and on Hibiscus, all of which were mentioned on the post above.

Then, last week, look what I found!

This is common or garden Bindweed - technically it's Hedge Bindweed, Calystegia sepum, but this is the one that most of us will find clambering around in our gardens.

It has stout, round (usually!), stems, big heart-shaped leaves, and large pure white trumpet-shaped flowers, and it twists and twines itself all over the place, if you don't catch it early enough.

Odd little side note: most people just call it Bindweed (sometimes with something unprintable in front of it), but occasionally you'll find someone with more plant knowledge, who calls it Convolvulus.  But that's the genus for Field Bindweed - Convolvulus arvensis: and that's the one with small pink-striped flowers, growing very close to the ground. In most gardens, Field Bindweed is mostly found in the lawns, but if you are really unlucky, it will spread from the lawn to the beds. This is baaaad news, as it's very hard to dig out: the roots are slender, but go down for yards.

Hedge Bindweed - this one, above - is the one that spreads like a mad thing, tying plants and shrubs together into tangles. It is actually easier to dig out than Field Bindweed, as it has fat white roots which are highly visible once you start digging. Brace yourselves:

 

There we go, a lovely tangle of Calystegia roots. That kept me occupied for half an hour or so, I can tell you!

 

Anyway, on with the plot - do you see anything unusual about the bindweed in the top picture? Take a look at the stem, top left of the pic: no? Here's a closer look at it:


 Isn't that interesting?

Completely flat, like a ribbon, instead of being round, as it normally is.

It doesn't seem to be slowing the plant down in the slightest, as it's still doing its best to take over the back fence, and throttle the winter Jasmine.

To give you a better idea of the scale, here's a close-up - apologies for the quality:


There you go: looks as though someone has ironed it, doesn't it?!

Totally harmless, to the plant that is exhibiting this behaviour, and to other plants around it - but kinda spooky-looking!

So now we can add Calystegia to the list of plants which are prone to experience this mutation; and if you've seen it on other plants, do please send me photos, I'd love to see them.

And one final point, sometimes when I show this feature to people, they are quite horrified and ask what they should do.

The answer is, nothing! It's not harmful, it's not infections, it's a spontaneous mutation. So just enjoy the weirdness of fasciation!


 

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Friday, 18 September 2020

How old is a tree? Count the growth rings, they said.

We all know this - to find out how old a tree is, you cut it down, and then count the growth rings.

Leaving aside the whole "but you've killed it now!" thing, we all know that trees grow unevenly - they grow more in spring and summer, and much less in winter.  So the wood, inside the trunk, appears to be different colours depending on how quickly it grew: paler, when growing fast, and darker, when growing slowly.

Last week, I was asked to lop a biggish branch off a Cercis, partly because it was unbalanced (and I do like a nice, balanced, tree), but mostly because it was blocking the view from the kitchen window.

Now, I love the chance to lop bits off trees, because I enjoy a bit of heavy-duty gardening now and again, and I don't often get the chance, these days.

Why? I hear you ask? Well, because most of "my" gardens have been in my tender care for 10, 14, 18 years, so I've pretty much done all the heavy-duty stuff that needs doing.

But every so often, I get the opportunity, and I make the most of it!

Out with the pruning saw, off it came - and look at what was revealed!

Isn't that a lovely little piggy face!

You can see that the "rings" in the cut section are not homogenous: they are not just different widths, as you would expect, but there are bands of different colours, as well.

The central core is darker than the rest of the wood - that's the heartwood, the oldest part of the branch (duh! It's in the middle - of course it's the oldest!) , but you can see, in addition, that there are two broken bands of dark colour - the piggy's eyes - and a complete ring of much darker wood, further out.

The broken bands would be from damage: it looks as though they are on the same ring, so it could be that, in that year, this branch had a couple of smaller branches broken off, or removed: or maybe the bark was damaged in two places - who knows. But it was enough to make a pair of scars on the wood. 

The darker ring, towards the outside of the section, suggests that there was a particularly bad year or years at that point, where this tree grew very, very slowly. It appears to be about 5 or 6 years ago, so what was the weather doing at around 2015? 

Well, the winter of 2013/14 was the wettest on record since lord knows when:  and that of 2015/16 was the second wettest.  But the previous July had set records for the hottest temperatures since 2003, so it was a period of extreme weather, which is hard for plants to cope with. And this is reflected in the band of very dark material, suggesting that the tree was struggling, that year. 

Isn't that interesting?


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Saturday, 12 September 2020

Brambles: medicinal uses

 Now here's an interesting comment: I have written many times about brambles, and always in the context of "how to get rid of the darned things."

 Just type the word "brambles" into the Search box - top left of the page -  to see what I mean!

Recently, one of those old posts received a comment from someone asking about how to uproot a bramble in order to use the roots for medicinal purposes.

Now, you might think that that's quite bonkers - brambles? Useful? - but actually there is some small truth in it: brambles are not quite as totally useless as you might think.

For  a start, time out of mind, the fruit has been eaten: we're all familiar with blackberry and apple crumble, with bramble jelly (not often found for sale these days), with blackberry jam (if you don't mind getting pips stuck in your teeth, uuurgh!) and with just eating the actual raw blackberries.

But did you know that the stems can, believe it or not, be woven into baskets? I have to say, though, that you have to harvest them ("ouch! aargh! blood! ow!"), then strip the spines off, before you can use them, and frankly, who would bother, when there is Willow -  freely available and completely thorn-free, much easier to work with, and which gives a much more satisfactory product?

And then there's dye: the fruits can be used for dyeing fabric officially, as opposed to unofficially ruining any clothing that you wear to go blackberry-picking. Warning - if you have a go at making blackberry dye, don’t work with anything you don’t want stained – and that means, pots, spoons, your clothes - everything. Cover any surfaces that you will be working on, and watch your feet - if you drop one and tread on it, then you'll end up with purple footprints all over the carpet.

 It's not the best of natural dyes - it's a faff to work with (see comment about covering up and avoiding staining, above) and the colour is a rather insipid purple which fades over a few washes to a really insipid grey, while leaking colour all over the rest of your wash. Is it worth bothering with? In my opinion, not really.

And finally we get to the original question, can it be used medicinally: yes, blackberry/bramble (same thing) leaves and root have been used for many centuries, before Boots the Chemist was invented.

There is tons of information on the internet on how to prepare the material, how to use it, and what it's for,  so I'll restrict myself to just two aspects:

1) Getting hold of it.

Roots: If you want to extract useful material, you will need to find big strong blackberry plants, the sort that have been growing for several years, and which have formed a great big clump which contains live growth from this year, and lots of dead canes from previous years.

Chop off the top growth and discard it, and you should then be able to get close enough to dig up the whole clump.

(Obviously if this is on someone else's land, then you will need permission to dig)

Get as much of the root-ball out as you can: a pickaxe or mattock will be useful. Take a spade, and dig vertically in a circle all around the root-ball, at a distance of about a foot or so. This will sever the smaller, unproductive roots, allowing you to lift out the central mass containing the thicker roots, which are the ones you will need.

Shake off the soil, take it home, and start preparing it.

Oh, and don't forget to backfill the hole that you just made, so that no-one falls down it and breaks an ankle: and dispose of the cut-off stems properly, as they will be very spiky and scratchy. Don't leave a massive tangle of vicious branches for someone else to deal with.

 If you just want the leaves, that's much easier:  but you'll need the freshest, youngest leaves, and the best way to obtain those is to cut back a big old bramble, then go back a week or two later, and harvest the new leaves which have sprouted from the cut stems.

2) Using your home-made preparation: always be aware that using "home-made" remedies is a potentially very dangerous game.

Why?

a)  For a start, did you get the right plant? As a botanist, I can't mistake a bramble for anything else, but I've seen people mis-identify them. Anyone using any plant/fungus/natural material needs to be VERY VERY SURE that they know how to correctly identify the plant.

b)  Contaminants/weedkiller. Did you check, before you harvested your plants, that they hadn't been sprayed recently? I'm not just talking about weedkiller, although you'll obviously want to be very sure that they haven't been sprayed with those:  there's also muck-spreading to think about, and local fauna urinating/spraying onto it. Just bear that in mind.

b)  Next, variability of "strength" of the final compound. There's a reason that chemical companies charge a lot for modern drugs: the manufacturing process is tightly controlled to ensure that they are 100% certain that what they sell us contains exactly the quantity of active ingredient that it states on the pack. If you go scraping roots and boiling them up, how do you how much of the active ingredient you actually harvested? Was your chosen plant having a good year? Does it contain chemicals other than the ones you want? Do you know the correct time of year to harvest? Many plants alter their chemical composition over the seasons.

c)  Dilution: once you obtained your remedy, how much do you dilute it before applying it/drinking it? As you can't possibly know what strength your compound turned out to be - as per section b) - how will you know how much to dilute it? You could be off by a factor of 10, or 100! All modern medicines have warnings about not taking too many of them - many would kill you, if you took ten times too many of them. Worth bearing that in mind.

If at this point you are saying to yourself, well, it doesn't matter, too much of it won't harm me: then I would caution you to think carefully about all those warnings on drug packets about NOT TAKING TOO MUCH OF IT. Why do you think that a "natural" chemical is not going to harm you if you take too much of it, whereas you totally accept the concept that an "un-natural" one will?  And if you unknowingly dilute it too much, well, it won't do you any good at all, will it?

d)  Why are you taking it? Do you actually know what's wrong with you? If you have an actual illness, are you certain that you know exactly what's wrong with you, and are you quite certain that your chosen natural remedy is actually going to be the right one? There are many lovely little stories on the news about patients taking the wrong drugs, because they've described their symptoms to someone other than a proper, qualified Doctor or Pharmacist, and have been mis-diagnosed. Do bear that in mind.

Finally, when you are researching a natural remedy - and I would hope that anyone considering taking this step would do a significant amount of research - make sure that you find original sources, not modern click-bait cut-and-paste.

I'm sure  you've all heard of the current "fake news" problem: well, it's nothing new, and it applies to every single topic that the internet contains. If you are using the internet as your research source, then you MUST apply due diligence, and do a proper amount of research.

While researching your chosen remedy, make a note of how many sites use exactly the same phrases as each other: this shows that they have merely cut-and-pasted the text. They haven't checked it. And they might have missed out a paragraph or two at the top or the bottom, and that is where you usually find the warnings and cautions. Just because you can find six sites all saying the same thing, this does NOT make it "true".

When you find an original source - usually you can tell by the language that it's "old" - just check out the vast range of ailments which the remedy in question is alleged to help with, and ask yourself: do you really believe that one plant can cure boils, paralysis, hernia or rupture, scalds, scalp infections, burns, rheumatism, blackheads, venomous bites, can stabilise loosened teeth (honest!), be used as an astringent, cure piles, stop looseness of the bowels, cure "soreness in mouth and throat" (without specifying any cause for such soreness), be used as a tonic, and cure dysentery, diarrhoea, and whooping cough as well?

Then ask yourself, at the time when this original source material was written, what was the average lifespan? 70? 60? 50? 40? 30? And what it is now, with modern medicine?

So be careful, if you are thinking of trying a "natural" remedy, in case you accidentally end up dying an "un-natural" death!


 

 

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Wednesday, 9 September 2020

Ivy Trees: topiary is not just Box and Yew, you know!

 Five years ago I wrote about my Ivy Tree: a piece of topiary on a garage wall. It started as just an outgrowth of unlovely ivy, but eventually I persuaded it to become a tree, much to the amusement of passers-by.





Good, eh?






Alas, a few years later the Client decided that extra water storage was more important, and the only place we could fit the new water butts, was in front of the topiary:

This kind of spoiled the point of the topiary (*laughs*), and it was going to be impossible to maintain it, as I would have to climb over and around the water butts to get to the wall - not very easy! 

So the ivy had to go: before the butts were filled, I had to move them out of the way, rip out the ivy, dig out the root, then re-install the water butts.

Undeterred, however, I turned my attention to another wall with ivy on it.


This is what I started with:

That's fairly  horrible, isn't it?

The Client asked me to stop it from getting under the gutter and creeping inside the garage, so the first job was just to cut it, a couple of feet down from the gutter, and pull off all the invaders.

This didn't take long - but it wasn't an answer, because they would quickly grow back, and I spent the next year,  doing this same job again and again.

Looking closely at the ivy, I found that originally, someone had planted a decorative, variegated ivy, but much of it had reverted back to plain old dark green: and of course in any competition between variegated (ie only part green) and fully green leaves, the branches with the fully green leaves are going to be much more vigorous, on account of having a lot more photosynthesising material than the part-white leaves of the variegated sections.

This, by the way, is why we have to keep a close eye on all variegated plants: we look out for reversion, and cut out any reverted - or "plain green" - branches as soon as we see them.

Here you can see one branch of variegated ivy on the left, among a mass of plain green.

So my first job was to cut out all the plain green stuff.

Which took me quite a while.... not least because I could only do twenty minutes at each session, as I also had the rest of the garden to look after!

Eventually, though, I'd removed all the plain, and was left with just the variegated.

Not a lot, as you can see - right.

But enough... so over the next several months, I kept an eye on it to make sure that only variegated material was allowed to grow.

As it grew, I gradually cleared off the stems, which would become the "trunks" of my trees, and allowed a bunch of growth at the top of each "trunk" to develop.

Slow work, with ivy, but a year later we were at this stage:

Not bad... but the left hand one is much too big, and it's all one big blob, whereas the rest of it is already suggesting a more Japanese-style cloud-pruned style of tree.

You can also see a lot of new bright green growth at the base: that's the  kind of thing that you have to be very aware of, and remove as soon as it regrows.

There we go, much better: I thinned out the left-hand lollipop and turned it into three separate blobs, rather than one gigantic one.

And again, note the new growth at the base - if you do this sort of topiary, you do have to keep on top of it!

I then decided that the left-most blob didn't need the lower limb at all, so off it came.

Now we are starting to get somewhere!

Over the following few months, I kept trimming back the "trunks", gradually removing all the foliage from those sections, and only allowing growth on my "clouds" or pompoms. 

Then it had a bit of a set-back: I missed it off the schedule for a couple of months, while we were doing some big projects in the garden: installing raised veg beds, moving plants around, new trees: all sorts  of interesting things.

But this meant I didn't have time to pop out and check the back of the garage.


Oops! And there it was, back up to the gutter again, and trying to get inside the garage.

Time to give it a stern talking-to!

Twenty minutes later, peace had been restored:


Ah, that's better! 

It wasn't as bad as it looked.. well, it was, but it didn't take me long to get back to where we were.

So this is pretty much the finished article.

Or is it?

Topiary is never quite finished: I find there is always something more to do.

A year later, I decided to finesse the left-hand blob just a little bit more, and here is the current state of play:


There, I think I can be proud of my copse of cloud-pruned trees, don't you?








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Monday, 7 September 2020

Sempervivum in flower!

 I'm not a great fan of Sempervivums or Houseleeks: they are very slow-growing, and they just don't satisfy anything within me, as a gardener or as a Professional Gardener. I suppose they're ok in gravel-filled butler sinks (said she, grudgingly) but in the garden, in general? No thanks!

But then, the other day, while at work, this happened!

 

Isn't that amazing?

 I still don't value Sempervivums very highly, but at least now I do appreciate that they might have something to contribute to the garden - even  if only for five minutes!



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Saturday, 5 September 2020

How much damage will Buddleia do to a fence: and vice versa!

Earlier this year, in February, I had to cut down a rather over-large Buddleia, one which had set itself somewhat too close to the fence.  
 
The neighbour was complaining, apparently, so the Client asked me to drastically reduce it early in the year, in the hopes that the regrowth would be a lot smaller, and wouldn't draw the ire of the neighbour.

It's a valid complaint, I have to say: really, Buddleia needs to be chopped down to about knee height every year without fail, to keep it looking neat and tidy. Otherwise it just grows bigger and bigger every year - and this one was actually a "weed" in the sense that it wasn't planted there deliberately, it had self-set. So you can understand why the neighbour had been moaning, and I therefore got out my pruning saw and started work.

Once I'd cleared off most of it, I could see the back fence: lo! and behold, there was a ducky little wooden picket fence there as well, which had been completely covered up by the exuberant buddleia.

When I got to the very back-most branches, this is what I found: 

Can you see that the picket fence to the left of the upright branch is mostly greeny coloured, but there's a raw bare patch at the top?

That's where the stems have rubbed it, while flapping about in the wind.

And when I cut off that stem, much lower down, and turned it around.....


This is what I found!

The buddleia had been crushed against the fence for so long that it had formed into a ridge around the top of the fence: and it had also worn away part of the wood! 

So the lesson here, boys and girls, is that shrubs and trees should never be planted this close to fences, because they damage each other.

As a gardener, I care mostly about the plants: but as a householder, I can also sympathise with the fence!!

If you have any Buddleia in your garden, keep an eye out for the many, many seedlings which they produce, and be ruthless: dig out any which spring up right at the backs of borders, because if you don't, this is what will happen.

If you catch them early enough, while they are still tiny, you can replant them elsewhere in the garden, or you can pot them up and give them away later: but it's better not to let them choose where they plant themselves, as apparently they are not very sensible!



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Friday, 4 September 2020

Weeping Pear: Cathy has a big one!

Recently, Cathy added a question to my article about Weeping Pear tree pruning, she inherited an old one, and it's getting a bit too big for the space.

She asks if it's possible to cut it right back to the thicker ‘main’ branches.

They love the tree, and they are worried that if they cut too much, it might kill the tree.  

I asked Cathy for photos, and she's kindly sent me a couple. Here is the tree in summer:

 

It's a lovely one, as you can see: but it is also just a bit too big for that space.

You can see where Cathy - or a former owner - has chopped off the bottom branches in a rather pudding-bowl style: not the most elegant of presentations!

I find this a lot, because it is hard to know how to prune a weeping tree - and this is precisely why I started writing this blog, to show people how to do these gardening tasks which never seem to be mentioned in gardening books.


Demonstrating rare intelligence, Cathy also sent me a picture of the "inside" of the tree, which is perfect - it shows how congested it is, and it show the matrix of branches which these trees develop.

I know that Cathy wants to reduce the sideways spread of the tree, but I'm going to start by suggesting that she does some thinning out first: as per the article mentioned.

Why? Well, if you look at this photo - right - you can see that none of those branches are straight and simple: they are all congested, twirly, intertwined,  and generally knotted together.

This means that reducing a weeping Pear is not as simple as just lopping off a couple of branches.

So I would suggest firstly, get up inside the tree, stand on a step if you need to: and cut out every dead twig you can find. 

If you are not sure if a twig is dead or not, circle it with your finger and thumb, and run that hand down and down and down  to the end: if you encounter foliage, then it's alive. If you don't, cut it off, as high up as you can.

Now look at the outer fringe of branches: instead of giving it a pudding bowl haircut, take each of the lowest branches in turn, and  shorten them according to the instructions in this article - it's about miniature weeping willows, but the principle is the same. Scroll down through the post to the little cartoon of how to do what I call the "undercut", which preserves the waterfall shape while thinning and shortening the branches.

Then stand back and take another look.

Without the dead material, it should be a lot thinner and lighter-looking: and with the tails properly trimmed, it should look more natural and less pudding-bowl-like. 

Is that enough? It might be....

If not, assess the tree from the front and decide where the particularly thick, dense areas are. Get an assistant to take hold of a branch in that area, then go inside the tree, and trace back that branch to where it leaves the main trunk, or where it joins a really thick branch. 

The reason for doing this, is that weeping Pear branches clamber around all over each other, and if you don't start at the "outside", as it were, you might cut off a branch on the left, only to find that you now have a big hole on the right!

Once you are happy that you have tracked the branch back to the source, carefully cut it off. You might need to cut the branch in several places, in order to get it out of the matrix without damaging the rest of the tree - don't just yank it out. 

Then step back and take another look, and repeat as many times as necessary.

By doing this, you will gradually reduce the tree, without ruining the overall shape, and without having any disasters along the way. Hopefully!

Once this work is done, the tree will grow more branches to fill any gaps - where you have allowed the light in, new branches will grow.

So the proper answer to Cathy's question is yes, they "could" cut it right back to the main branches, but doing so would spoil the lovely waterfall shape, and might well leave it very unbalanced: you can see from the "inside" photo that this tree has one huge old branch coming to the right, and two going to the left, so cutting right back to those big branches would leave a very odd shape.

In addition, weeping Pear are usually grafted trees, so too much pruning, ie the removal of very old, thick branches, might well prompt a spate of new shoots from below the graft point, which would be very undesirable.

I am fairly confident that even an over-large tree can be reduced quite substantially by just taking out the dead wood,  trimming off the tips, and maybe just thinning out a couple of medium-sized branches. Hopefully, it would not be necessary to cut it all back to the main branches.

So there you go, Cathy, that's your project for the weekend!



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Friday, 28 August 2020

Vine Weevils - evil little beasties!

 I've written in the past about Vine Weevils  and, following on from that post, I had an email from Susan ("Hi, Susan!") asking some follow-up questions.

Susan explains that she has a small shady front yard, filled with Astilbes which have not been performing well, despite being in conditions which they are supposed to like.

She wondered if they were in need of lifting and splitting - sometimes you do find that oldish clumps of perennials flower less and less enthusiastically, but they can be rejuvenated by the classic "lift, split, replant the newer bits from the outside of the clump, discard the inner, tired old bits" routine.

But,  horror of horrors, when Susan did this, she found that the roots were infested with Vine Weevil, which explains why the Astilbe were suffering. It's hard to flourish, when the weevil grubs are eating away all your delicate (and very necessary) roots.

 Now at this point, I would say that if you have no idea what Susan and I are talking about, go back up to that first line, follow the link, read all about Vine Weevils, then come back and carry on.

 So, is everyone with me? We all know what they are now, how they reproduce, and what to do if you find them? Great, on with the show!

 This left Susan with a pile of questions, starting with  the obvious one, can she save the Astilbes? I would say, hopefully yes: if they were mine, I would do the total removing of the soil - as per the article - and cleaning of the roots, then I would pot them up, with clean bought-in compost, and put them somewhere a long way away from the "infected" area, and preferably on a raised bench or plant stands. 

 This will give them time to recover, and also will give you a chance to check whether you got rid of all the weevil grubs and eggs.

Susan's next question was about suitable replacements, if the Astilbes were gone for ever: and the answer is, well,  anything similar which you plant there, will probably suffer a similar fate, so you might as well stick to the Astilbes.

Although having said that, some plants are more susceptible than others, so if you have plants which appear to be quite undamaged - Susan mentions ferns, and Day Lily (which I assume is Hemerocallis) which are fine - then it might be worth getting more of those, instead.

"Will the adults walk across the driveway and attack my neighbour's yard?" asked Susan. Yes. They will. They can't fly, thank the lord, but they are strong walkers, and very good climbers. There is every possibility that they walked over to her garden from that of her neighbour in the first place!

 A very sensible question is "Will the grubs starve if I don't replant until next year?" and the answer is yes: if you lift out every plant in the area, dig over the soil very thoroughly, then leave it bare, which allows time for the birds and small mammals to eat up any grubs that you miss, then yes, they should all die off. Without roots to eat, the grubs will die. But it's a bit sad to have to leave a whole area bare, for several months, and there is still the possibility that the adults will be lurking elsewhere in the garden, and will sneak back as soon as you replant.

So what does that leave? Chemical warfare, and biological warfare, as per the other article, and then ceaseless vigilance!

Susan, I hope this helps!


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Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Silver Birch suffering from death at the top

 Here's an interesting question which arrived in my inbox the other day: David sent me a picture of a recently planted Silver Birch sapling in his garden, which appears to be dying at the top, but is ok at the bottom.

Here's the picture:

David told me that the garden is near to the beach, so the soil is very sandy: and he commented that he has been watering the tree regularly, as instructed by the supplier.

I'm glad that David explained about the watering, because newly planted trees need special care for the first couple of years, while they are getting their roots down, and many newly planted saplings die because their owners only water them for the first few weeks, rather than for the first couple of years.

 So that would normally be the first thing I would say - was it watered properly. In this case, yes.

So, watering is not the problem, then!

Mind you, if the soil is very sandy, then any water which falls, be it rain or the owner watering it, will run straight though the soil and will drain away: and Birch trees don't have enormous tap-roots, they have a wide spread of very shallow-growing roots.

So if I were planting a tree in sandy soil, I'd do my best to incorporate a lot of what is called "organic matter" in the ground, before I planted it. Organic matter can be home-made compost, or bought-in well rotted farmyard manure - anything other than "multi-purpose compost" because the sort of compost you buy in bags from the garden centre is feather-light and fluffy, and does not hold moisture the way that proper "organic matter" does.

In fact, tell you a story (if you don't know by now how easily I digress from the official subject, then you haven't read much of this blog, have you!) I once worked in a garden where the lady owner had been very ill in hospital, and well-meaning friends decided to give her garden a makeover to welcome her back. Her soil was horrible rock-hard clay, so they bought in a lorry-load of multi-purpose compost, spread it all over the borders, about a foot deep (yes, on top of the solid clay), and popped in a load of new plants.

Every single one of them fell over! The compost had no "heart" or "body" to it: walking on the beds was like walking on a mattress, all springy and fluffy, and  anything growing more than about two foot high would flop over at the least bit of wind. I had to start at one end and go all the way round, lifting out all the plants, digging in the compost, then replanting.

And the moral of this tale, is to avoid spreading bought-in compost on the beds as a mulch: use it for pots and for seedlings.

Getting back to the subject of enriching sandy soil: I should point out that when doing this, it is important to dig a planting hole that is much bigger than the root-ball of the new sapling.

Why?

Because if you only chip out a pot-sized hole in your own, less-than-perfect soil, and fill it with lovely organic matter, then the roots won't have any incentive to get out there and grow, they'll hang around in the nice rich soil. This is bad.

Plus, you are creating a "sump", an area of soft rich soil, which will then fill up with water and might make the roots of the sapling rot.

So it's best to dig a good big, wide hole, bung in the organic matter, mix it up well with the original soil, firm it down well, then dig a smaller hole in which to plant the sapling. This gives it a good start: nice soil around the roots, and more of it to either side, to encourage it to spread out.

It's also always a good idea to have a big clear area around each tree that you plant: grass is greedy stuff, and if you don't keep the area around the trunk clear, then the roots of the tree are competing with the grass, plus there is always the risk of damaging the trunk when mowing.

So, if we assume that David's tree had an enriched planting hole, what's gone wrong?

I think the answer lies in the height of the damage, the height of the fence, and the comment that they live near the beach: I think it's likely to be a combination of wind damage, and possibly salt damage.

The wind comes whistling in across the sea, and then hits all the coastal houses: and you can see that the lower part, shielded by the fence, is looking quite healthy. 

Normally, I would say that wind damage alone would be a likely candidate, but in this case, the wind might indeed be salty, which would coat and scorch the upper, new, leaves, causing them to die.

Is there an answer?

Well, firstly I would suggest to David that he doesn't immediately chop off the top, the apparently dead bit: excessive wind can cause a tree to drop nearly all of its leaves: but they usually grow back again. This has been an exceedingly hot, windy, summer.  In my own garden, one of my decorative Japanese Acers did this, last month: every single leaf on it shrivelled up and died. I was quite upset - I've had it for 15 years or so, and it's Osakazuki, one of my favourite cultivars. But cheers and hoorays, it has now sprouted a whole new batch of leaves! Yay!

So I would say to David, give it a few weeks and see if it sprouts any new leaves.

But if it doesn't, then is all lost? David is understandably not keen to chop off all the apparently dead bits, as that would basically mean losing the whole top part of the tree. However, if it's dead, it's dead, and there's no point leaving it hanging around, as dead wood looks ugly, attracts the sort of insects which like dead wood (and which often then travel into the live wood and scoff that as well), and is prone to breaking off, which can then damage the lower portions of the tree.

My advice would be to firstly give it a bit more time, and a bit more water: but if there are no buds to be seen on the upper limbs - you might need to go up a stepladder to look closely - then he might have to admit defeat, and prune off the dead material.

Personally, before doing that, I would contact the supplier: if you kept the receipt, they should replace it, if you take it back, complete with roots. I'd phone or email them first and check, before  you dig it up, but most tree suppliers/garden centres want their customers to be happy, and are usually pleased to replace something which has died. You may think it's embarrassing, to stand in the shop admitting that you've killed a plant, but that's not the case - the shop is delighted to prove to all the other customers in the store, that they do offer a guarantee, and that they honour it. On the few occasions I've done this, I've received excellent service, no questions asked at all. Once it was an 8' tall Redwood which cost £45, I was very apprehensive about taking it back, but they not only replaced it, but did so with an even bigger one, with a much higher price tag on it, as they didn't have any small ones in stock.

If David doesn't want to, or can't, return it, then all is still not lost: even if he has to cut off the top part of the tree, it will - with luck - grow back. I have a small Silver Birch in own garden, whose top half was snapped off by excessive winds one winter. It was ruined! Ruined! I sawed off the broken top bit, as high as I could reach (it was quite a bit bigger than David's one) and for a year, it looked ridiculous: but then the next branch down took over as the "leader", and now you honestly would not know that it had been damaged.

As this tree is such a young one, there is every chance that it will do this: a new leader will appear, and it will continue to grow. 

Finally, the usual word of caution: if a tree or other plant has died, there might be a good reason for it, and if you don't fix that reason, then any other tree or plant in the same place, is likely to suffer the same fate.

So if the tree was damaged by the wind, then any new growth is likely to also be damaged by the wind, in which case you would need to change the plant - go for something which can tolerate high winds - or change the situation by, for example, attaching trellis to the top of the fence, to create a baffle for the wind: or planting a wind-break of tougher trees.

 Hope this helps!

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Thursday, 20 August 2020

Old Apple tree: disaster recovery

Here is the story of a poor old "James Grieve" apple tree, which is well past its best:

 

It has had an adventurous life: the garden in which it grows was split in half, about twenty years ago, when the owner built themself a new house in what must have been a lovely large garden. They chose to slap the new fence right up against the existing apple tree, so half the roots are in one garden, half in the other. Not necessarily a bad thing - after all, if you plant a tree right next to an existing fence, you'd get pretty much the same effect.

Then it started to lean over, and it's gradually gone further and further until now, it looks almost as though it was meant to be a cordon. 

For the past couple of years, it has produced less and less fruit, and the bark is split very badly:

Here's one of the splits, low down on the trunk: as you can see, not a pretty sight!


Then, above the grease band - right - there is this enormous split as well.

Hideous!

Don't worry about the blackness above - that's the remains of previous years' grease gunk, which we paint on to prevent codling moths and other pests from ruining the crop. 

And yes, we use both black grease, AND a grease band - I've been trying to save this tree for a couple of years, and we've tried everything to protect it, which includes watering, feeding, and copious amounts of physical protection.

But the crop has been decreasing, as I mentioned: and this year in particular, the leaves were looking paler and paler, despite regular feeding.

The good news is that there is a strong young sprout at the very base of the tree:


... so I suggested to the Client that we try to save it, by cutting off all the damaged and non-productive wood, keeping just this little bit.

We will tie it in to the fence as an espalier-type form, and if it doesn't grow, well, we will then buy a whole new tree. But the owners are very fond of this old man, and were keen to keep it, if at all possible.

I warned them that drastic pruning might send the tree into shock, and it might well die: but we all agreed that it was worth a try, as it was pretty much dead anyway.

So, first job, remove the upper limbs of the tree.


This is simple to do, if rather brutal: with pruning saw for the bigger bits, and ratchet loppers for the lesser bits, there it was, reduced to a skeleton in no time.

The reason for doing it this way is to get rid of the bulk of the tree before tackling the trunk: partly so that you don't get bashed, poked in the eye, and prodded by branches while trying to saw through the trunk, and partly to reduce the weight, otherwise there is a real risk that the trunk will fall before you have sawn completely through it, which might result in damage to the stump. 

And which might result in damage to surrounding plants, not to mention the gardener! So for these reasons, I always reduce the top of the tree before tackling the main trunk.

Second job, chop off the bulk of the main trunk: again, to get rid of the weight of it.

This was very simple to do, I just took the pruning saw and started sawing!

Now we move to the delicate bit: can we cut off the majority of the damaged trunk, without hurting the new sprout?

This one is particularly awkward, as it is right slap bang up against the fence, as you can see.

Traditionally, when cutting any branch larger than about 2" across, or when felling a main trunk, we do an undercut first: this is exactly what it sounds like, a small cut on the underside of the branch, or on the "wrong" side of the trunk. The purpose of the undercut is to cleanly break through the bark, so that if the limb starts to fall before you have completed the cutting, it won't rip a huge strip of bark off the trunk on the way down.

It also directs the stump or branch to fall in a chosen direction, rather than falling at random.


In this case, it was a really difficult place to get to: I needed to cut as far below the damaged bark as I could, but I needed to end the cut above the new sprout, obviously. Plus, the fence was in the way!

So I started my undercut, choosing an angle which would hopefully end up just above the sprout. 

Usually, the undercut is very small, less than a quarter of the diameter of the branch or trunk, but in this case I kept on sawing until I couldn't go any further from underneath.

Now, normally, if you try to do this - cut from underneath -  the weight of the branch will make the cut close up, thus trapping your blade. The technical term for this is pinching, and it's a maddening phenomenon, because you don't know in advance how far you can undercut before the blade gets pinched, and there is always the temptation to cut just a bit further... the deeper you go on the undercut, the less you have to cut on the top, so you can see why it's tempting to keep going, 

I did once lose a bowsaw blade when trying to cut down a largeish tree: I went a bit too far, the tree leaned over and pinched the blade so solidly that I couldn't get it out. True story! I had to unclip the blade and leave it there, stuck in the tree, until the following week when I returned with a new blade in the bowsaw, made a new undercut (smaller, this time!) and then cut the tree down from the other side. 

I was then able to pick up the released pinched blade. This taught me a valuable lesson about reducing the weight of a tree before you attempt to chop it down - and the importance of carrying a spare bowsaw blade!

But in this case I was able to undercut a long way upwards, because I could support the short length of trunk in one hand, taking the weight off the cut, so it wouldn't pinch.

It took a while, but having gone as far as I could from underneath - ie until the pruning saw blade was hitting the fence and I couldn't get any further round - I went to the top of the trunk, and carefully sawed down to match my lower cut.

This was slow work, with the fence in the way, but I got there.

Now, as you can see, the two cuts don't quite line up, so once the main trunk was out of the way, I could lay the pruning saw on the cut, and gently trim off that ledge.

Here we go, that's better.  A nice clean cut, without any ragged edges, and without a strange step in it.


Having done the job, we now have to finish off: and that means disposing of the corpse.

Here's the pile of material which I removed before cutting the trunk: now I have to spend some time reducing it down into manageable pieces.

If this garden had a bonfire pile, I'd toss the lot on there! 

But as it doesn't, and for the benefit of all of you who don't have the luxury of a bonfire, all you have to do is snip off all the smaller bits, and pop them in your green waste wheelie bin.

You will be amazed how a gigantic pile of waste can be reduced, in very little time, to a much more manageable volume, if you just cut it up into little pieces. Most garden tree waste is like this - it's bulky, but not heavy. Usually.  And all those angles make a big pile, but it's a matrix of holes, so if you can snip off the sticky-out bits, the matrix collapses and instead of a skip-full of waste, you end up with just this:

Here's what I was left with: five tub-fulls of small leafy pieces which went into the wheelie bin: and a pile of lesser branches, which I cut up into short lengths with my Big Orange loppers, plus the main trunk pieces.

These can be dried for firewood, they can be stacked in an out-of-the-way corner of the garden, to become a wildlife habitat, or they can be cut into smaller pieces and put into the green waste bin gradually.

 

Having cleared up all the mess, my final job was to give the remainder a good watering and a good feed.

As I said at the start, it might well die anyway, from the shock of such drastic pruning, but for the sake of half an hour's work, well worth trying!


Wednesday, 19 August 2020

Peach Leaf Curl - how to cure it

Urgh, Peach leaf curl, a horrible ugly disease which Peaches are prone to: it's a fungal disease, it manifests in spring, and it causes the leaves on new, young shoots to produce ugly red blisters, then to curl up and look all warty and disgusting.

It doesn't kill the tree directly - the diseased leaves will die and fall off, and the tree will produce new ones, but this is a tremendous strain on the plant, and eventually it will be worn down, and will die.

If you don't know what this disease is, then lucky you! If you can't remember the exact details, check out the RHS page about it (why should I do all the work? Go and look it up for yourself!) , or just google it, and you will quickly find out that there are no sprays which cure it, which can be devastating news.

However, most of the articles on the subject will tell you that the disease appears in spring, and is spread by dampness: "Wet conditions are needed for the spring infections to occur" is the phrase. So if you can keep your new shoots dry through this period, your tree will recover. Best of all, if you can break the cycle of infection and re-infection, then you might be able to completely "cure" your tree.

I tried this last year: one of my occasional Clients showed me a very poorly Peach tree, which was originally fan-trained against a wall, but which was now mostly dead, totally unproductive, and whose few remaining branches were being trashed by leaf curl every year.

Typically, I forgot to take "before" photos... sorry! 

Anyway, the first job was to remove all the dead wood, with loppers and pruning saw. This might well leave you with an unbalanced, lopsided, peculiar-looking tree, but there is no point leaving dead wood on a tree, as it is a home to infection of all sorts, and because it looks really ugly.

So, out with the dead stuff.

Next job, snip off every single leaf with the slightest sign of leaf curl disease. That left it pretty bare, I can tell you.

Next, rake up all debris below the tree - every single scrap of dead leaf must be removed and burned, and definitely not put on the compost. This is to prevent re-infection.

I also took the opportunity to remove all weeds at the base of the tree, to add some pelleted chicken manure and a bucket of organic matter, just to give the poor thing a bit of a helping hand. Being at the base of a wall, it was very poor soil, so a bit of improvement is a good thing: and as it is also in rain shadow,  I gave it a good watering as well.

Once all that was done, I described very carefully, with arm gestures, what was needed: a translucent plastic "roof" on a wooden frame, bolted to the wall above the tree, wide enough to cover all the tree, not very deep, just enough to keep the rain off the foliage. 

Now, I know this might sound contradictory: I'm complaining about it being in rain shadow, and now I'm telling the owner to put a lid over it? Yes, and the full explanation is that either the lid gets to be removed in May each year, and replaced in November: or you leave it in place, and have to water the tree through the middle of summer. In this case, there's a handy water butt right around the corner, so it was decided by the owner, that they would leave the shelter in place.

I was back there recently (which is why I'm writing about it now), and was thrilled to see that their handyman had built exactly what I described:

What could be nicer? I love it when I describe something, and someone else understands exactly what I meant!

So here it is, a stout wooden frame, bolted to the wall, with corrugated plastic to keep the rain off and to allow the light through.

Perfick.

You can see here, how abbreviated the poor tree is now, but at least it has a good covering of leaves on what remains of the branches!

Best of all, those leaves are absolutely perfect, not a sign of blistering or curling on them, so the Client is delighted - and there were even, apparently, three fruits on the tree this year!

The wooden frame allows us to hang plastic sheeting down at the front as well, if we need to: so far, the tree is untouched by leaf curl but if it recurs, we can extend the protection by hanging some clear plastic down from the front, leaving the sides open for pollination. I'm hoping this won't be necessary, as it is a bit of a faff, and visually quite unpleasant, whereas this frame is not so bad.

And if it were mine, as a finishing touch (apart from staining the wood dark brown to match the cladding above it, but that's because I like things to be "nice") I would have attached narrow guttering to the front edge, leading down to a water butt to one side: I am absolutely evangelical on the subject of water harvesting, and I hate wasting rainwater!

 So there you have it, how to protect your wall-trained Peach trees against peach leaf curl, without the use of noxious chemicals (not that there are any which help, though).

Monday, 17 August 2020

A perfect Yellow Rose

 As a change from the usual "How To Do Something" article, I thought I'd share this picture with you.

I'm not great at taking what I call "Beauty shots" of the garden, mostly they just come out as being a mass of greenery, in fact I wrote an article about this subject last year, having done some research into ways of taking better garden pictures, very quickly.

So, how am I doing? Am I getting better? What do you think? *laughs*


Sunday, 16 August 2020

Another Salix Kilmarnock is making a break for freedom!

A short while ago, Helen ("Hi, Helen!") commented on an earlier post about a pair of Salix Kilmarnock miniatures, which were missing their catkins, saying that on hers, the branches have gone a little wild and are trailing several feet along the ground. 

She asked if it is ok to lop a lot of that growth off now - in high summer - as she's concerned about accidentally killing something which is otherwise thriving.

Helen then sent me a picture of her tree:  

What a dear little thing! 

Helen is not alone, we've seen this before, where these dwarf versions have turned into muppet-like crawling creatures, attempting to take over the bed and possibly the entire garden.

I can't do better, really, than to point Helen, and anyone else with the same problem, to my earlier article about How To Recapture a Runaway, where I describe in detail how to tackle the pruning of this sort of creature, and suggest a couple of ways of improving it.

In a nutshell, yes, you can trim off those lower branches to stop them trailing across the ground. 

There are ways to do it which will leave a more natural-looking tree - see the above articles for details - because if you just take the scissors to it, you'll end up with a "pudding bowl" haircut, which always looks ridiculous.

So there you go, Helen - yes, you can trim off those trailing branches, and yes, you can do it at this time of year.

Hope that helps!

Sunday, 2 August 2020

Tree stakes - sometime you do what you gotta do....

Last year, I planted a small Laburnum tree in a large border.  The neighbour had just cut down a massive Sycamore, leaving a huge hole in the skyline, and my Client asked me to plant something that would grow upwards to restore their privacy, but which wouldn't be as dense as the Sycamore, and preferably would be a bit prettier.

That's why I went for Laburnum: they are small trees, quite airy, and of course in spring they have a fantastic display of yellow flowers.

Last week, I was checking on the tree and found that the stake had broken.

Oh no!

What to do?

I searched the shed, but couldn't find anything suitable... but I did find an ancient potato fork, all cracked and broken, rusty and clearly not in use any more.






































Two lengths of string later - Perfect!

Saturday, 1 August 2020

Salix 'Kilmarnock' yet again - The Case of the Missing Catkins!

I had a question in from Amol the other day ("Hi, Amol!"),  asking about two ornamental Kilmarnock willows which were bought together, earlier this year: one of them is growing much faster than the other, and they are not producing catkins.

Here's a picture of the pair of them:


Right, first comments: I love the stout planter-boxes! Excellently chunky.

Second comment: good staking! Short stakes, good angle, rubber ties. I can't see how well the ties have been fitted, but let's assume they are done properly.

To answer the two questions:

Firstly,  I see what you mean about them not looking similar any more. One is definitely doing better than the other  But that's ok, there's no problem, they are both definitely Kilmarnock, because they are both weeping. If one was something different, or had reverted, it would be growing upwards, instead of growing downwards.

They are both growing downwards beautifully.

So I wouldn't worry too much about that: it looks as though one of them is forging ahead, while the other is lagging behind, and this could be for many reasons: it's possible that they were not from the same "batch", so one is older than the other and therefore more mature.

They could have been supplied to the sales outlet by two different nurseries, and could therefore have been in different growing conditions before they were sold. 

It's also possible that one gets more light/water than the other,  even though they are in the same garden.

And even though they appear to be planted in identical planters, which were presumably built and filled at the same time, the soil/compost within the two boxes might not be the same (bought-in compost/topsoil/organic matter is very variable, even from one bag to the next, regarding the amount of nutrients it contains), and the ground underneath the planters might be different - one might drain more readily than the other.

To remedy this, Amol could give the poorer one a light dose of general-purpose plant food, such as Growmore, or Fish, blood and bone, or a small handful of slow-release fertiliser. Scatter it on the top of the soil, not too close to the trunk, and gently "scratch" it in to the surface of the soil.

Secondly, catkins, or lack of.

There are several aspects of this: first and most obvious is watering. Willows love water, they need it, it makes them grow lush.  So check the irrigation, or check your watering regime: go out there now, and take a small hand tool such as a trowel, go to one of the corners of one of the planters (so as not to damage the roots), push the trowel in vertically, then lean it over sideways, and look at the cross section of soil which this reveals. Does the loose soil immediately fall into the hole? It's very dry, water it more. Can you see a dark line of damp soil  just half an inch or so down from the surface? You are not watering enough, give them more. Is the soil uniformly dark and damp all the way down? Well done, you are watering perfectly.

On the subject of watering, if you're not quite sure about it, I've published a set of four articles on the subject, this is the first one, and it contains links to the other three. Read and learn.

Next is sun: willows need a fair amount of sunshine in order to flower, and the catkins are the flowers. These ones look as though they have plenty of space around them, they don't appear to be overshadowed, so they are probably not suffering lack of light.

And then there is physical damage: birds sometimes get a strange urge to pick the buds off the trees, early in the year. Allegedly, this behaviour is provoked by lack of food, but having observed the little birdies in my own garden, my personal opinion is that sometimes they just do it for mischief. Anyway, there is a possibility that birds - bullfinches and sparrows are the usual culprits - might have damaged the buds as they were forming.

It is just about possible that if "one" had pruned "one's" willows at the wrong time, ie very late last year, then "one" might have accidentally eliminated this year's crop of catkins:  but that's certainly not the case here.

That leaves us with the final and most likely answer: it's mid summer now, and the catkins appear very early in the year. They won't have catkins now, not until next spring. It is even possible that back in March, they had finished their show of catkins for the year, so the answer to that question is to be patient, Amol, and wait for next spring.

Before I go, I would just say that the "better" one of the two could do with a light prune: I wouldn't let the branches sweep down onto the soil, for many reasons, all of which have been covered in the several earlier posts about this plant. Just type the word 'Kilmarnock' into the search box - top left of the screen - to read more about pruning them.

And for that matter, the other one could also do with a bit of tidying, it's quite cluttered at the top: in fact, both of them are a bit dense and if there were mine, I would thin them out, just a bit, at the top. Again, check this article, and this one,  for pruning a Kilmarnock willow.

Oh, and don't forget to check on them at least a couple of times a year, to make sure that the tree ties are still fitting correctly - adjust them if they are too tight, too loose, or are slipping out of place.

There, hope that helps!
If your willow branches remain bare until the tree leafs out, you’ll be wondering how to get catkins on pussy willow. The first thing to check is irrigation. Willows love water and grow well near rivers and streams. Those planted elsewhere need plenty of irrigation to thrive. If you have been letting your willows deal with drought on their own, or have simply forgotten to irrigate during a dry spell, the trees may be water stressed. If there are no catkins on pussy willow trees, be sure the trees are getting enough water. Is your pussy willow not flowering because it isn’t getting enough sunshine? It might be. Willows need sun and may not flower if they are in deep shade. Birds love to eat the catkins before they open, especially bullfinches. If it has been a hard winter for birds, it is possible they munched all the pussy willow catkins during the winter. It’s also possible that, by pruning at the wrong time, you eliminated this year’s pussy willow crop. Prune your willow just after the catkins begin to fade.

Read more at Gardening Know How: Pussy Willow Catkins: How To Get Catkins On Pussy Willows https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/ornamental/shrubs/pussy-willow/get-catkins-on-pussy-willows.htm
If your willow branches remain bare until the tree leafs out, you’ll be wondering how to get catkins on pussy willow. The first thing to check is irrigation. Willows love water and grow well near rivers and streams. Those planted elsewhere need plenty of irrigation to thrive. If you have been letting your willows deal with drought on their own, or have simply forgotten to irrigate during a dry spell, the trees may be water stressed. If there are no catkins on pussy willow trees, be sure the trees are getting enough water. Is your pussy willow not flowering because it isn’t getting enough sunshine? It might be. Willows need sun and may not flower if they are in deep shade. Birds love to eat the catkins before they open, especially bullfinches. If it has been a hard winter for birds, it is possible they munched all the pussy willow catkins during the winter. It’s also possible that, by pruning at the wrong time, you eliminated this year’s pussy willow crop. Prune your willow just after the catkins begin to fade.

Read more at Gardening Know How: Pussy Willow Catkins: How To Get Catkins On Pussy Willows https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/ornamental/shrubs/pussy-willow/get-catkins-on-pussy-willows.htm
If your willow branches remain bare until the tree leafs out, you’ll be wondering how to get catkins on pussy willow. The first thing to check is irrigation. Willows love water and grow well near rivers and streams. Those planted elsewhere need plenty of irrigation to thrive. If you have been letting your willows deal with drought on their own, or have simply forgotten to irrigate during a dry spell, the trees may be water stressed. If there are no catkins on pussy willow trees, be sure the trees are getting enough water. Is your pussy willow not flowering because it isn’t getting enough sunshine? It might be. Willows need sun and may not flower if they are in deep shade. Birds love to eat the catkins before they open, especially bullfinches. If it has been a hard winter for birds, it is possible they munched all the pussy willow catkins during the winter. It’s also possible that, by pruning at the wrong time, you eliminated this year’s pussy willow crop. Prune your willow just after the catkins begin to fade.

Read more at Gardening Know How: Pussy Willow Catkins: How To Get Catkins On Pussy Willows https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/ornamental/shrubs/pussy-willow/get-catkins-on-pussy-willows.htm