Garden School:

Garden School:
Teaching this week: Assessing a new garden, and when to say "No" !

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?

Sunday, 26 April 2020

Weeding a slate mulched path

"Today I have been mostly... weeding a slate path"

This is one of those back-breaking but ultimately rewarding jobs.

Here's what I started with:

mmmm, lovely, I know. Not.

It's one of a series of pathways around a herb garden, with wooden edging, and an infill of rather nice purple slate bits.

Currently full of clumps of grass, brambles, thistles, you name it. Not lovely.

Well, to be fair, it did look lovely a year ago, but it's been somewhat neglected since then, and you can see that it is also still holding the dead beech leaves from last autumn, which is yet another problem with allowing paths to become infested with weeds.

So, what to do?

Answer, get down there on hands and knees and hand weed it.

"Hand weed it?" you say, in tones of horror.  "Can't you use weedkiller?"

Well, I could, but there are a couple of points against that course of action, first and foremost being my reluctance to use weedkiller unless I really have to. Chemicals are noxious, they cost money: ok, they are usually speedy to apply, but they have a couple of major drawbacks in this situation, to whit:

Secondly, weedkillers take a couple of weeks to finish working (don't bother with all those "24 hour" things, they just make the top growth wilt quickly, but the roots will survive, and grow back in no time) so the garden owner has to watch the weeds dying for two weeks or more.

Thirdly, the dead weeds then just sit there for several more weeks until they eventually disintegrate, so most of the time,  the garden owner begs me to clear up all the dead bits. This means that I am - fanfare of trumpets - hand weeding them. Yes folks, that's the only way to clear the mess, so why not just hand weed in the first place?

And fourthly, the decaying weeds are dropping their materials back down into the mulch/shingle/slabs, thus depositing another layer of organic matter which makes a perfect seed bed for - you guessed it, new weed seeds! So by using weedkiller, you are actually contributing to the problem.

So on balance, it's hand weeding every time.

Once the area is completely clear, then is the time to consider applying weedkiller: something like Pathclear, which stops seeds from germinating.  I do plan to spray these paths, now that they are clear.

Here's the finished article: can see that the weeds are gone,.

Much better!

I have also trimmed back the overhanging grass along the wooden edges (taking just that extra little bit of trouble, makes all the difference!), and have also flicked back onto the path any bits of slate which have found their way onto the grass.

Job done!

Friday, 24 April 2020

The difference between workmen and gardeners....

... well, I imagine there are many differences, but one in particular came to my attention last week.

My Client's handymen had been in, to lay some concrete slab paths and to install some really sturdy posts and wires for the new raspberry bed, and for the soft fruit bed.

When they came to price up the job, the lead man said "after we lay the paths, we'll rotovate that raspberry bed for you, save you digging it" which was a very kind thought. Normally, when workmen of any sort have been in a garden, you are left with heavily trampled areas which then take a lot of digging to restore to a nice working tilth. So I thought, oh goody, when I go there next time, all I have to do is quickly plant the new rasps, excellent!

*sigh* Best laid plans....

On arrival, it looked like this:

"Nice!" I thought.

(incidentally, look at the soil to the right - a week earlier, that had all been dug over ready for use. See what I mean about trampling workmen?)

But, being a bit cautious (for which read, "experienced") I thought I'd just quickly dig it over myself, just to make sure.

So I dug it over again, and this is the result:

A quarter bucket of rocks, broken glass, crockery and stones.

An a third of a tub-trug of roots, and weeds.

Now, this is not meant as a criticism of the workmen: well, yes it is, but not in a bad way.

We all expect certain things from our workers, and "one" would never expect a handyman to realise that it's kind of important to get all the weeds out before you put in permanent planting such as fruit bushes, trees, shrubs etc.

And this is precisely why I chose to dig it over again, even though it looked lovely: I'm the one that will be keeping the new rasps weed-free and productive, so it's very much in my interest to get the bed very thoroughly dug over and cleared of perennial weeds before we start.

And that level of experience and devotion to detail, dear reader, is what my Clients pay me for! ("so modest...")

Here's the final thing: rasp section dug, manure added and dug in, rasps planted, and the main veg area dug over (again!) ready for planting.


What a lovely sight!

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Cherry Tree sapling and Glyphosate

"Be careful when using weedkiller, to avoid overspray onto other plants"

Good advice: weedkiller tends to kill everything it touches.... 

Unless they are cherry tree saplings, like this one:

This is a self-set Cherry sapling, which I spotted last May growing under a clipped Yew hedge.

Never one to waste a training or experiment opportunity, I called over my Trainee and explained that we would deliberately spray this seedling, which at that point was about breast high, with glyphosate, to see how long it took to die.

We sprayed the foliage quite liberally, taking care not to splash the Yew hedge behind it.

And every week, we checked on it. Nothing happened. 

Weird, huh?

All the books, all the articles, all the weedkiller packs warn you not to let the spray drift onto "other plants". And I can tell you, I've seen many examples where people have sprayed one weed, somewhat carelessly, and have accidentally killed off a whole swathe of things around it.

One time, I was teasing a Client who had liberally sprayed weedkiller on his patio, then walked across the grass. He asked how I knew that he'd weedkilled the patio - he'd done it the previous week, when I wasn't there. I pointed to the short line of brown footprints across the grass, where the weedkiller on the soles of his shoes had killed the grass.

(I so wish I'd taken a photo of it!! Now I know that it takes approximately four steps on each foot to wipe off weedkiller from the soles of your boots...)

So, back to our experiment: the photo above was taken two months after we sprayed it, and as you can see, it's fine.

Now, 9 months later, the sapling is head high and looking quite lush. So much for the dire warnings about overspray.... actually, I think the real lesson here is that trees have a remarkable capacity for resisting it. Very small trees - anything less than knee height - are susceptible, but once they get past waist height,they are tough enough to withstand a certain amount of weedkiller.

This is not meant to encourage you to carelessly throw the stuff about, though: it's just an interesting point that woody-stemmed plants such as trees are far less susceptible to weedkiller than I had thought.

I still wouldn't use the stuff around the base of a tree though:  I'd get down on hands and knees and hand-weed around it.   Just in case...

Monday, 20 April 2020

Hydrangea: why we don't prune them in early April!

 Here's a lovely sight ("not") - a Hydrangea which has been nipped by the frost:

Who got the flamethrower out? *laughs*

To be clear, this is a hydrangea which has NOT been "pruned", although I have nipped off the nasty brown dead flowerheads a few weeks ago, as I think they look really ugly.

This is a good illustration, though, of why it's best, in the UK, not to prune them back properly at the first sign of nice weather...

Most books and articles say that in the UK, Hydrangeas are pruned in "late winter to early spring".

But they also warn against pruning before the last frost - and you can see why, as this is what happens to Hydrangeas which start enthusiastically sprouting, before we are done with the frosty mornings.

So, when should we actually prune them? I used to work for one lady who would never let me prune her many, many Hydrangeas until we were well into May: on the other hand, I have Clients who tell me to prune them the minute the sun comes out in March!

My compromise is to take off the brown dead flower heads, and any obviously dead stems, either whenever the weather starts looking a bit more spring-like (which varies hugely) or - frankly -  just as soon as I'm tired of looking at them, which is what I did with this one.

But as you can see, I don't prune back to "the lowest fat healthy buds" - no, I save those in case we need them. For good reason!

There's always a compromise in pruning woody perennials: if you prune them too early, there's a risk of this happening - the frost nips all the outer buds, and the plant is either ruined, or given a major set-back.

But if  you don't prune them, and the weather turns nice, all the buds sprout, and you then have to decide whether to prune it properly, thus "wasting" all that lovely growth - or whether to leave it, in which case the bush gets bigger and bigger until it's so big and woody that whole sections of it die: or until it's so big that you can't get down the path any more, and end up chopping bits off, leaving it unbalanced and spoiling the flowering display.

If "one" had pruned "one's" hydrangea down to a pair of nice fat buds a couple of weeks ago, when it was hot and sunny, "one" would now be faced with a lot of dead leaves, ruined buds, with not many options for cutting it back even further.

Left like this, you can see that there are plenty more buds and leaves further down each of the stems, safely protected inside the microclimate of the branches.

So in another couple of weeks, once we are safely out of April, I can go in and prune it properly, down to the lowest "nice fat buds" that I can find.

And yes, this will mean having to chop off some lush growth towards the ends of the branches, but better that than being unable to get in the front door: and if I time it right, I won't have to "waste" too much of the new growth.

Saturday, 18 April 2020

Brambles: is there a natural or organic way to remove them without using Round up or other chemicals?

I had a plaintive plea by email today from Roger: he's been reading my various blog articles on bramble removal (too many to list: if you look at the top left of your screen, there is a search box: just type "brambles" into that box, it will pull you up a list of every article on the subject) and asks if there is a "natural" way, ie non chemical, to remove brambles, especially in hard-to-reach areas where it just isn't practical to dig them up.

Well, Roger, the bad news is, No.

There is no guaranteed effective way to do it, without using chemicals.

Roger's garden suffers from a frequent problem: he says "mostly they are at the edges sprouting up from cracks in the walls on either side"  and this is possibly the most annoying place to find brambles,  second only to "coming up through the gaps in the decking".

As you'll know from reading any of my many articles on bramble removing, the only "good" way to get rid of them is to dig them out, but when that simply isn't possible, then yes, we have to resort to chemicals.

As soon as I say this, I know I will get a tirade from a very single-minded person who seems to trawl the entire internet for mentions of the dreaded word "glyphosate" and who then delights in spouting off at the writer, telling them how stupid and demonic they are for even suggesting it.

But hey, this is the real world! There are situations where nothing but glyphosate will do it, and poor Roger has one of these situations.

Before we get onto that, are there any other ways, non-chemical? Well, yes, a few. They aren't very good, though, so let's look at them.

1) you can use salt as a weedkiller: very bad idea.  Read the article to see why.

2) you could try vinegar: also known as acetic acid, so it's a chemical, right, a chemical!! Not natural! Well, it's made from a wine processing by-product, so I suppose that it could be considered to be "natural" but it's still nasty stuff: "The acid in vinegar can etch natural stone,", and if you don't believe me, look it up for yourself.  And even a superficial search of the internet will confirm that it's not very effective, "you need to use an awful lot of it to have any effect" is the phrase which is cut and pasted most often.

3) then there's boiling water: "mostly ineffective" seems to sum that one up.

4)  you could use a flame gun: these are long wands with a small blowtorch at the end, powered by either a replaceable gas canister, or a refillable paraffin tank. They are promoted as being an organic alternative to chemicals, for paths and drives. Organic! *rolls eyes* A complicated, expensive, factory-made, transported god knows how many miles, metal-and-plastic device, using either single-use non-recyclable pressurised cans of gas, or using paraffin (also known as Kerosene) which is a highly toxic fossil fuel derivative which is also used as rocket fuel (look it up yourself, it's evil stuff). Not what I call "organic".

Also, flame guns are notoriously ineffective: they scorch off the top growth, but they don't kill the roots at all, and most weeds/unwanted plants just grow back. Furthermore, their eco-footprint is terrible! And (more to the point) they cost a lot of  money in fuel, as those gas cylinders don't last very long. Not to mention the danger of setting fire to the garden, or to yourself.

So where does that leave us? Oh yes, if you have brambles growing in a position where you simply can't get to them, in order to dig them out, then by all means try the above organic non-chemical (sort of) means.

But for an effective solution, the only real alternative is the dreaded weedkiller.

There are two main candidates: triclopyr is very strong, it is the main constituent in SBK and SBK stumpkiller: it doesn't kill everything it touches but it does leave the soil contaminated for months. Not a problem if you are talking about under-deck or in-wall brambles, but bear it in mind.

Glyphosate kills almost all other plants, but you can replant on the area shortly after applying it: it does not linger in the soil.

So, in a nutshell, the simple easy answer is to get a squirty bottle of a glyphosate-based weedkiller: the brand name used to be "Round-up", but now you can buy generic own-brands. Just check the label to see what the active constituents are.

When you've bought this invention of the devil, here's how to use it.

1) Wait for a still, ie non-windy day. Why? Because otherwise you risk the spray "drifting" on the wind, and landing on non-brambles. Which will kill them. It's not selective, it will kill anything it lands on.

2) Check the temperature and check the pack: many chemicals are ineffective below certain temperatures, so don't waste it. If it's too cold, wait a few days. From memory, the lowest temperature is about 53 or 55 degrees F, which is about 11 degrees C. At 10 degrees C, you can see you breath if you huff out. So if it's cold enough to see your breath, it's far too cold to spray weeds.

3) Don't fiddle with the dilution. They sell it ready-mixed for a reason: people were making it double-strength because "it will work better", or half-strength so "it will last longer". Not so! Glyphosate is a translocated weedkiller, that means that  you spray the leaves, and it is drawn into the plant, and moved right the way down to the roots, whereupon it kills the plant, the whole thing, roots and all, never to regrow. With too strong a mixture, the plant cells die while it's on the way down, as it were, so it never reaches the roots. A bit like us choking to death on a huge lump of food. OK, not a very good analogy, actually, but hopefully you will see what I mean. With too weak a mixture, it simply doesn't work, just kills off the top-most few leaves.

4) Don't splash it around indiscriminately: use a hand-held spray bottle, get close to the brambles, and lightly spritz the leaves. Don't drench it, you don't want it dripping off the leaves, just make sure they are well wetted. This means you are using the minimum amount, not wasting any, and not risking it dripping all over the place.

5) Talking of splashing, don't use it when it's raining - the rain will wash it off, thus wasting it all - and don't use it if rain is forecast in the following few hours, for the same reason.

Well, Roger, there you go, hope that's helpful!

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Weeping Pear - there's trouble wit' graft!

James sent me some photos of his rather lovely Weeping Pear - Pyrus salicifolia 'Pendula' - because he's a bit concerned about it: it doesn't seem to be as vigorous as it was.

 Here is James' tree, you can see that it's been nicely staked, and it has a good clear trunk with all the foliage springing from a point which is just above fence height.

As an aside, this is a lovely compromise between giving yourself a privacy screen between yourself and next door, and not taking up too much room in your own garden: the clear trunk holds the branches up high, so that light and water can reach the bed below, which gives the owner the chance to get some seasonal colour and some foliage interest into the area.

Many people, in this situation, would have bunged in a dirty great evergreen Laurel, or some Leylandii, which would have been 100% successful in providing privacy, but would have been the same all year round, and would have filled up the rather narrow border completely.

An ornamental Pear is so much prettier!

Right, on with the plot:

Now, we all know about grafted trees, don't we (chorus of "Yes, Auntie Rachy" in depressed voices) because I've written about them several times, mostly to do with my dear friend Salix 'Kilmarnock' ,  the much-maligned miniature weeping Willow, but sometimes it's Weeping Pear, or Contorted Hazel.

About half the time,  the questions are about pruning them, or retrieving them if they've escaped and gone wild, and the other half, the questions relate to the graft. Usually, people don't understand the implications of grafted trees, and are struggling to deal with reverting rootstock shoots which are spoiling the ornamental tree, but in James' case, he has noticed that  his tree's graft appears to be damaged.

Here's the offending area: the tree is grafted at about head-height, and this photo shows a large damaged area just below the graft.

Now, first the bad news: the graft area does indeed look pretty bad, but that is something which grafted trees suffer from: it's an un-natural state of being, and in addition, Pears are not long-lived trees (compared to oak, ash etc!).

Now for the good news: I have seen grafted trees with similar damage, and for that matter I've seen non-grafted trees with much, much worse damage, which go on for years and years, looking unsightly but still growing.

And, more good news, because this damage is right up high, under the canopy, it's not going to be terribly visible, especially when the tree is in full leaf.

Looking closely at the damaged area, it's not rotting away, it's not been ripped, or eaten: it doesn't look like a fresh wound, it looks quite clean, and the edges are "rounded".  Does that make sense? I can't think of a better way to describe it, but my point is that it is not fresh damage, the bark has grown around the damaged area. Which means that it's less likely to mean that the tree is actively dying, if you see what I mean.

The  upper hole looks as though a branch has simply died back at some point, and although the lower and bigger hole looks a lot worse, it does also look as though it might also be the result of a branch dying - as opposed to something from outside attacking it.

It's always hard to be definite when only working from photos, but it's possible that those two wounds were made by the nursery who grafted the tree: they might have had to remove a couple of non-grafted branches which had sneakily sprouted while they were growing the tree on, before selling it: it's possible that these were a couple of grafted branch sites which failed to take: or the damage might have occurred since it was planted.  I neglected to ask James how long it had been there, but his comment about it losing vigour implies that it's been there at least a year or two, in order for there to be a comparison.  And I also didn't ask whether the damage was there all along: sometimes people don't look that closely at a plant, until it draws the attention by being a bit sickly.

On balance, then, I'd be cautiously optimistic about the future of this dear little tree.

Taking it a step further, James mentioned that he thought the tree was losing vigour: if it has lost a couple of the original grafted branches, then that might explain an apparent lack of vigour, in that it might have fewer branches this year - assuming it's a recent loss, which I must admit doesn't look the case.

So, what can James do?

Firstly, I would say don't try to cover the wounds: in the old days, people used to brush tar across tree wounds, or specialist sealant, but nowadays we realise that this is more likely to seal in moisture - leading to decay and death - than to seal out "germs". So the recommendation is to leave them open unto the air.

(Side note: someone asked me last year why I always phrase it like that - not "open to the air" but "open unto the air" and the reason is to do with A-level English Literature, and studying the poets. It's from a Wordsworth poem - yes, he wrote about more than daffodils! - called "Composed upon Westminster Bridge". End of digression, please continue:)

Secondly, you can see from the first photo that the tree is in a narrow bed, so there's not a lot of soil for it: it's a raised bed, so it will have better drainage than if it were planted in normal, flat ground: and there's an awful lot of competition - there are evergreen shrubs behind it, to either side, and of course the neighbour's apple tree right close by.

My recommendations, therefore, would be to give it a darned good soaking: at least two watering-can-fulls a day, once a day for a week, and once a week for a month. I would also use the word "gently" to apply to the watering - don't slop it all over in one go, because if you do, much of it will probably run off the bed without soaking in. Let it soak in properly - if it takes you five minutes to do it, instead of five seconds, well, just relax and enjoy five minutes of being out in the fresh air.

NB, if you find that the water just runs off the bed, then check this article on watering: Part 4: Resuscitation, as it covers that topic quite nicely.

I would also give it feed: something like Growmore,  or Liquid Seaweed, diluted as per the instructions. If  neither of those are available in the garden shed (bearing in mind the difficulty of going out shopping) ("Covid-19 lockdown restrictions", just in case anyone is reading this in five years' time and wonders what I am talking about!),  but there is a pack of Fish, Blood and Bone, that will do - having watered the soil on the first day, scatter a fistful of the stuff around the base, and scuff it in gently with a hand-tool. Then water again, to wash it right down into the soil. Yum!

Well, that's all I can think of for the moment, so good luck, James, I hope this helps!

Monday, 13 April 2020

Lime Seeds on a shingle path


Well done, Kate, correct answer received!  

Yesterday's Quiz Question asked what this little brown roundy things are:

... and they are indeed leftover lime seeds.

There is a huge lime tree (Tilia) just the other side of the wall, and it drops thousands of seeds into the garden, every year.

This is the sort of mess - right - which I get to clear up every year at around August/September time.

Oh joy.

Lime trees, like Ash trees, and Maples,  produce seeds with their own helicopter blades: these winged seeds ("samara", in botany-speak)  are designed in order - allegedly - to allow them to spread far and wide.

Ash and Maple produce seeds with two wings: Lime prefer to drop them with one long papery leaf-like blade, and the idea is that they flutter round and round, keeping the seed aloft for a longer time, so that the wind can catch them and disperse them far and wide.

No-one knows why Lime trees bother with this seed dispersal mechanism when, as you can clearly see, the vast majority of the seeds end up directly below the tree, ie in "my" garden.  *grumble grumble*

I'm not exaggerating - here's the first barrow load of the things, and it was the first of many.

It went on for weeks! Lime seeds everywhere... and they're a nightmare to rake up from shingle paths, even with a Spring Rake (warning: gardeners' joke approaching - "which we mostly use in autumn"), because it's so hard to get the seeds clear of the shingle.

Once the seeds have landed ("Crash! Thump! Helicopter Blade Failure!") they gradually disintegrate, the blade part (which looks just like a long narrow leaf, at first sight) falls off and the round ribbed seeds remain where they are, and hopefully, from the tree's point of view, find some nice soft soil in which to lie dormant over the winter, and then to germinate in the spring.

It would appear that some small furry critter spent a lot of time dragging them into this section of the path, then carefully nibbling their way into the seed:

Let's hope that they were delicious!

Sunday, 12 April 2020

Today's mystery item question

Yes folks, today, instead of sharing something I have done in the garden, or answering enquiries, I have a Quick Quiz Question for you:

What is this stuff?

The situation is a shingle path running alongside an old stone boundary wall.

As you can see, there is quite a lot of moss and weedy bits within the shingle.

But what are those roundy things?

There's a huge pile of them, proportionally, just at this point on the path.

Clue: it's nothing to do with the apparent hole at the base of the wall, that's an optical illusion, and is actually just a shallow indentation between stones.

Answers on a postcard... ok, answers by email or by comment below.

And I'll reveal all, tomorrow!

If you're good.......

Saturday, 11 April 2020

Intruders in the Climbing French Bean Bed!

Last week I started off some seeds for, among other things, my Climbing French Beans.

As an aside, for years, I always used to grow Runner Beans, mostly because "that's what we always grew" when I was young.

But I rarely eat runner beans - I buy French beans at the supermarket, or "fine beans" as they call them on the pack. So I started growing French beans instead, and they are just as easy to grow as runner beans, but taste better, don't turn into wooden inedible things if you forget to pick them while they are small, and they crop and crop and crop for months.

So, Climbing French Beans it is. They are now merrily germinating indoors, and it was time to prepare the bed for them.

This means taking off the anti-cat-fouling cover (wire mesh on a wooden frame) and lightly forking over the bed, removing any weeds.

As I fluffed it up, I found a sprouting seed! Wow! Could it be an un-germinated bean from last year?

I found over a dozen of them: bright yellow sprouts ("hmmmmm - not beans, then") and the "seeds" looked a bit solid to be any sort of vegetable.

Duuuh! They are hazel nuts, from the hazel hedge next door.

Those blasted squirrels must have sat on the top of the wire mesh, poking the hazels down through the squares, into the soil.

Persistent little blighters!

So, out with the hazels, I have quite enough of them next door and don't need any more, particularly not in my veg bed.

Then my daisy grubber hit something solid.

"Ouch!" I yelled, as the pain shot up my wrist.  I've had this veg bed in this position for years, there can't be any builder rubble in it, surely?

So I dug around a bit, and found a hard, solid lump that would not "give" at all.

This is what I unearthed:

What on earth is it? Roots of some kind, but as hard as half a brick (which is what I thought it would be, when I hit it with the daisy grubber),

Further excavation revealed that it was a tangle of solid roots, sending out an enormous shoot to the right, which went over a yard to the side.

 There you go, you can see it shooting off along the bed.

This, of course, gave the game away: it's a bamboo shoot.

"Uh?" you might be saying, at this point, "why is there a bamboo shoot in your tiny veg bed?"

The answer is that I have a large Phyllostachys nigra (that's Black Bamboo to the non-gardener) (or the "fairly new to it all" gardener) in one corner of my small garden, about 6-7' away from this bed.

As you can see, right.  (Sorry about the mess, but I'm partway through the job!)

And the crafty thing had sent out a questing root, all the way under the shingle, under the step, and up into my veg bed.

This is somewhat unusual: some Bamboos are famous for "running", and being a nuisance: in fact, Bamboo are usually labelled as either runners or clumpers, and P. nigra is usually a very well-behaved clumper.

That's partly why it's so expensive to buy: it doesn't normally spread itself, so you can't pot up the runners. You have to lift and split the clump, and grow them on to saleable size, which can take years.

But alas, this one has decided that it's time to head off into the sunset, via the rest of my garden.

For now, I dug down as far as I could, and cut it off, but as I did, I could hear Arnie's voice saying "I'll be back..."

Thursday, 9 April 2020

Covid-19 communication device

As part of my protocol for staying safe during the current c-19 situation, all my Clients have been instructed to stay indoors while I am working, to ensure there is no chance of us infecting each other.

The ones with the internet email me beforehand with a list of jobs, and we discuss by email various aspects of what I'll be doing: for those without the internet, either they leave a list pinned down somewhere (so I don't have to pick up) or sellotaped to the inside of their window, so I can read it without having to touch it.  And in both cases, if there is a query, we can talk on the phone in safety.

But for many of my "senior" Clients, they miss the personal contact: and many of them are quite alone, for much of time.

And now that we all have double glazing, it's very difficult to shout through a window, especially as a) many of them are a wee bit hard of hearing, and b) I don't have it within me to shout loudly at elderly ladies!!

So I take along this: my Covid-19 non-contact communication device:

Simple, eh?? Well, it makes them laugh!

Tuesday, 7 April 2020

Cotinus coggygria: time for the annual pollarding!

You know you've made it as a Professional Gardener when ....

I was working in one of "my" gardens today, in the front garden for a change, clearing up the mess of fallen leaves now that the bluebells are starting to sprout (Spanish,  unfortunately, but hey ho, the Client likes them), and are lifting the old leaves like lids.

As an aside, I hate to say "I told you so" but I told the Client last autumn that we should rake up all the fallen leaves on the small front garden - I say "we" but I mean "I", of course - but no, she insisted we leave them there, saying that they would rot down over the winter. Oh no, they won't. Yes, in the wild, fallen leaves get blown under hedgerows and into ditches, and yes, out there they do indeed rot down into the soil. Eventually. Not for months and months. In a garden, they just get soggy over the winter, then dry out into great flat sheets of compressed dead black mush.  End of aside.

A passer-by stopped me, and said:

"'Eere, you see that shrub thing there, the one you've just pruned?"

He was pointing to a Cotinus coggygria 'Royal Purple' which I diligently pollard every year. Here it is, freshly chopped:

 This is what we mean by pollarding: cutting off all the previous year's growth, in what appears to be a cruel and  unnecessary manner.

It's the same thing the council do to street trees in towns, and it's the same thing as coppicing, - but at a different height - which has been done since time immemorial.

It promotes vigorous new growth, and in gardens, it is often done to get larger and more luxurious foliage - especially in something like this Cotinus, which has rich dark purple foliage.

Here it is - right - in May of a previous year, just starting to sprout new purple leaves.  By mid-summer, is has branches long enough to interfere with passers-by.

Anyway, back to the friendly neighbour:

"Warl, I saw wot you did to it last year, so I did the same to my one."

At this point I began to wonder if he was going to blame me for his one dying?  Or, blame me for his one not flowering?

I pollard this one in order to get the best foliage:  we're not too bothered about the flowers, but we love the deep purple leaves, and if you pollard them every year you get superb leaves, but in some years you won't get much in the way of flowers - so I was just about to start explaining this, when he went on to tell me that his one had been "the best it had ever been, if you see what I mean."

"Me and me wife," he went on, "we always look to see what you is doing here, coz then we know it's time to do it in our garden."

So there you have it: apparently the residents of this street all keep an eye on what I'm doing, so they know when to do it in their own gardens!

Sunday, 5 April 2020

April: grow your own patio spuds

Ever wanted to grow your own spuds, but feel that you just don't have room for them?

Have you decided that, what with the covid-19 lockdown and everything, it is time that you made the effort to at least try?

This year, perhaps you might try growing some patio pots of spuds, just to see what it's like to grow your own. Then, if you enjoy it, and if  you like being vegetably independent of the shops (that's a new phrase which I have just invented), maybe next year you'll turn over some of your garden for spud growing. So here's some info to get you going.

Patio pots means exactly that: some largeish pots which you can sit on your patio, nice and handy for the back door.

Here's a little experiment I did for a Client a couple of years ago:

We started with two pots, which had previously been used for bulbs.

Pot number one: filled one-third with nice new compost, then four chitted seed potatoes were carefully positioned, and covered with a couple of handfuls more compost.

Chitting, by the way, is the process whereby you leave your seed potatoes in a light, frost-free  room for about six weeks before you plant them, so that they develop sprouts. People often sit them up in egg boxes, which always looks rather cute.

This is exactly the same thing which happens to your supermarket spuds, if you forget about them and leave them in the cupboard for too long.

But instead of growing a tangled mass of lanky white shoots, as your forgotten spuds do, they produce tight, short, dark purple sprouts - this is because they are in the light, rather than sitting in a dark cupboard.

Normally, of course, we don't want our supermarket spuds to go green and/or to sprout, because when they do, they start converting their starch into poisonous chemicals, making them less than delicious to eat.

But for planting, we do want them to "chit" or sprout, because then we know that they are definitely going to grow!

(And before you ask, yes, you can plant out neglected supermarket spuds, but normally people don't, because those long white shoots are fragile, and will easily be broken off as you attempt to plant them. So the spud will have to start again, wasting all that energy. You might further be asking if the whole "seed potato" sales business is a cynical way to get money from us, when we could just as well use our leftover supermarket spuds, and chit them? Well, sort of, and sort of not.  The "seed" potatoes which you buy are checked and certified virus-free, for a start: they are exactly the right size, not too big, not too small: and they are named varieties, so you know what you are getting. End of diversion, please drive on.)

So, pot number one had the chitted spuds placed low down in the pot, as is traditional: and we would add more compost as they grew, to "earth them up" as it is called. This is done to force the plants to produce more and more new tubers, all the way up their stems. It also ensures that the tubers which form, are kept in the dark ie underground, so they don't go green. See note above about green potatoes going poisonous...

Pot number 2: we decided to try the "plant on the surface" method. This involves filling the pot with compost, nearly up to the top:

...then covering the soil with black plastic (actually an old bark chip bag, cut up and used inside out), tucking it neatly in at the edges.

Next, we take our six chitted potatoes, make slits in the black plastic, and poke them in through the slits.

The idea behind this method is that the plant grows through the slit, thus receiving light: and the tubers grow under the black plastic, not needing to be earthed up, and - importantly - not needing to be dug up at the end, because they will all be sitting on the surface waiting to be cropped. But they won't be green and poisonous, because the black plastic will exclude light.

So, two pots, alike in dignity.

Each pot then had a handful of soil added to it, not a deep layer, just enough to cover the spuds in pot number 1, and to cover the rather ugly plastic in pot number two.

This was all done on the 9th April. Not this year, obviously!

Here we are nearly three weeks later:

As you can see, pot number one now has soil halfway up the pot: as the green shoots grew, I "earthed them up" by adding more compost

Pot number two is less dramatic, and is partially out of the frame, oops.

In fact, they look as though they have about the same amount of growth, but we know that the square pot's plants have grown a couple of inches and have been earthed  up, whereas the round pot's plants have just stuck their noses out of the bag, and that's it.

By the end of May, a month later, there was nothing to choose between the two pots.

The square pot had been earthed up to the brim, and both sets of plants had made excellent top growth.

Being in pots, we had to keep them well watered, of course.

By the end of July, they were ready to eat, so we emptied out the pots and compared the crop.

We all agreed that the traditional ones took more effort to get them out - I had to tip the pot over on the grass, and pull the whole thing out in order to get the spuds. This was fairly messy, which might be a problem if you really are growing them on a patio, and don't have any handy grass to use. You would have to spread out some sort of mat, sheet, or cover.

The plastic one was much easier to get to, all I did was cut off the top foliage, peel back the plastic, and there they were.

However,  I found the combination of black plastic, shielding foliage, and lots of watering, had created a sort of running buffet for slugs, and about half of the crop had to be thrown away because they'd been sabotaged by the slugs.  Call me old-fashioned, but when eating meat with my spuds, I prefer the meat to have had legs....

So there you have it, growing patio spuds definitely does work: you don't get a huge crop compared to growing them in the ground, but it's well worth a try, as there is not much which is more satisfying than eating veggies which you have grown yourself!

Friday, 3 April 2020

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

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

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

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

I certainly did!

Ten minutes with the shears, and here she is:

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

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

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

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Daffodils: why do we dead-head them?

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do we do it?

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

Lovely, eh?

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

How do we do it, actually?

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

Here's some I did earlier:

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

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

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

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

I have at least four reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, back to our daffs.

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

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

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

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

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

Here's a before and after:

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

One wheelbarrow full of deadheadings later:



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

Today's question, then:

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