Garden School:


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

Saturday, 29 February 2020

Why would you plant ivy in a pot...

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 27 February 2020

Digging up an old rose

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

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

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

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

Here's our Rose:

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

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

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

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

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

Then we went back to the rose.

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Saturday, 22 February 2020

Velcro plant ties - Fail!

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

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

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

Sounds  like a good plan, doesn't it?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is this "wrong"?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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


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

Again, unsatisfactory.

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

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




Sunday, 16 February 2020

Plastic Compost Bins

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why not?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They are less than beautiful.

But they work beautifully!

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

Perfect composting.