Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Wed: aaaand back to winter!

Brrr, shiver shiver, today I was working in long-sleeved tee, fleece and jacket again (oh, still in shorts, I'm not going back to longs now!) so much for summer. It started out at 11 degrees, made it up to 12 by lunchtime then back to 11 again on the way home later in the afternoon.

Still no word about the Yard, so I chased again: ho hum, these things always take time. Ah, for the happy days of informal arrangements, made with a handshake and paid in cash: now it's all Licences and Agreements and Receipts and Tax Returns.. which reminds me, the year has ended and it's time to do the tax return again, oh joy!

Well, despite the threat of rain today, and the cold wind, I managed a good solid morning of edging and weeding, and a good solid afternoon of lifting and splitting and replanting.

And now a question: "What can I plant on my trellis that doesn't shed leaves in winter"

Ah, one of those questions.  The simple answer is that everything sheds leaves in winter: if you choose something evergreen, it will simply shed it's leaves all year round, but not in such large quantities.

The usual suggestions for this question - allowing that no mention has been made of location, which way does it face, is it free-standing or against a wall, do you want flowers, what colour flowers do you like and dislike, how much soil is there below it for planting etc etc, all of which will affect the answer - would be something like Pyracantha, or Clematis Armandii:

Firstly, Pyracantha or Firethorn. It comes in a choice of red berries, orange berries or yellow berries: it can be easily and quickly trained around a trellis, it provides a screen all year and the berries are terrific for the birds.

The drawbacks? Being evergreen, it will shed some leaves all through the year, but not so many as to cause you real problems.

It is also very spiky, so you need to wear gloves when handling it. and...

... it needs a lot of pruning otherwise it will go rampant and take over, so you do have to handle it quite a lot.

Also, the more you prune it back to a framework, the more flowers and berries you will get.  One of those strange plants where what appears to be cruel behaviour - cutting it hard - will be rewarded with more flowers.

The other usual suspect for this situation is the evergreen clematis, Clematis Armandii:

It is very popular, for good reason: the flowers are magnificent, and it does more or less keep it's leaves over a mildish winter.

But there are a couple of points to consider:

Firstly, those leaves: they are leathery, and they are BIG. In a cold winter, they will be shed in large numbers, and will lie in sulky brown piles on the ground, refusing to rot.

Secondly, it's a big, vigorous climber - so you will need stout support for it.

Thirdly, it is indeed vigorous - so if there are any trees or other solid features nearby, it will make a bid for the skies and you could well be left with the less-than-glamorous stem, while someone else gets the benefit of those flowers.

But I  hope this helps! 

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Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Tues: When is a dead Escallonia not quite dead?

After a winter like the one we've just had, I am finding any number of shrubs that have been seriously damaged, if not destroyed, by the cold weather.

Here's a classic example: an old, well established Escallonia which, after several years of careful shaping, was exactly as we wanted it - and now look at it:

Looks fairly horrible, doesn't it? "Oh no - will we have to chop it down?" asked the client, wiping mock tears from her eyes. I suggested, as I am suggesting to everyone at this time of year, that we leave it for just another couple of weeks, to see if it will come back or not. The client was tempted, but hated having to look at the horrible dead stuff. So we agreed on a compromise, I would chop off all the dead stuff back to a neat framework, and then we'd let it sit for a week or two, with our fingers crossed.

So, secateurs in hand, I waded in amongst the carnage to see what could be done. And lo! and behold, for there were buds. Not huge numbers, but nice fat ones, and not just from the very bottom, either.

I don't know if you can see this very well, it's hard to get a camera phone to focus on something close at hand, but there are signs of life in a couple of places on this twig.

And if you can't see them, well, you can enjoy the view of a clients' garden!

So, I set to work cutting back to the nearest good bud, while keeping as much of a framework as I could, which meant keeping a few branches that I thought were unlikely to sprout, but you never know your luck.

Here's the "after" version:

At least it now looks neat!

Then I had an interesting problem to solve: Alan the handyman is coming in soon, possibly next week, to replace a length of courtesy fencing that has rotted away to nothing.

"Courtesy fence?" Oh, I mean a fence that is only put up to show the boundary, not to keep people in or out. It runs between this garden and the next, and it has a friendly opening section, so that the neighbours can wander into each other's gardens at will. It's a very simple arrangement of upright posts, about 3' tall, with round cross-poles making a handrail.

And at the bridge point - where the stream runs from "their" lake into "our" lake - we have been training a rose along it, just for decoration. I know it seems a bit contrary to have a thorny rose running along a handrail.... but it stops people leaning on it!  However, now we have to remove the rose so that Alan can get to the handrail to replace it.

To give you some idea of the problem, here it is: can you even see the handrail?

No, me neither, but I know it's under there somewhere.

(Actually, you can just about see it in the bottom right-hand corner where I have started pruning it, then decided I should take a photo before, not after....)

The worst thing is that when I started doing this, I broke all my own rules.

I have strict rules about climbers: they are to be tied to the wire or trellis, not twined round it.

If you twine a climber, especially a rose, around the support then as the stems grow, they will break the support. And you will never be able to get them off, if you need to, for example, paint the wall behind them.

In fact, for trellis placed flat against a wall, I always ask clients to ensure that the trellis is a) not clamped flat to the wall but is an inch or so away, to allow air to circulate and b) instead of being screwed to the wall, is hinged at the bottom and pegged at the top.

This means that when it's time to paint the wall, we just unclip the top, gently lay the trellis down - or lean it against a couple of supports, if the plant is no longer very flexible - paint the wall, then pop it back up. Simple, quick, the painters  like it, the plants like it. We all win.

So, back to this one: I didn't have any wires at all, I just wrapped the rose stems around the handrail, in an interesting over-under cross-over pattern.


So, "What Does One Do?"  Well, "one" runs along  the stem from the base, chopping off all the side shoots, leaving just the main stem, and it's one or two biggest shoots. Just like pruning normally, going back to a framework.  I then carefully unwound the main stem and the big shoot, in each direction, and lay them down on the path.  Hopefully once the handrail is replaced, I will be able to re-wind the shoots in each direction, and they will continue to grow again.

Whether they will flower or not is another question... I'll let you know later in the year!

Monday, 11 April 2011

Mon: Weeds, weeds, and more weeds

Spent the whole morning just weeding: one barrow-full of compostable weeds, then back over the same area for a barrowfull of couch grass and bindweed to go onto the bonfire heap: then another barrow-full of compostable etc.

I sometimes wonder if anyone has invented a wheelbarrow with two compartments?

The afternoon was a special treat: I'd put it aside to do some work in my own garden, having pretty much finished painting the fences and trelliswork last week. So I moved stuff in pots, checked what was dead, weeded the shingle, set the water feature going, and decided that re-positioning all it's cobbles would be a project for another day: stuffed all the dead clematis cuttings into bags for taking to the dump, and re-assembled the frame of the old, dead, plastic greenhouse into four shelving units. Well, into three, I shall have to take a hacksaw to the roof poles before they will be recycled into legs for the fourth bench.

Then I drove off into Wantage because - fanfare of trumpets - I succeeded in finding a Man in Town who sharpens garden tools. For a mere £10 they have agreed to re-grind my faithful old shears, and they are quite optimistic that they should be perfectly all right afterwards. They might even be done by the end of the week!

Final job for the day was to chase the manager about The Yard - yes, still no sign of a licence, and I am itching to get in there and start potting things on.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Fri: Prairie Beds

Today, time to clip the edges of the Prairie beds. The clients have managed the first mow of the year, and it looks lovely, except for the edges, so I spend the first 25 mins or so going round with my edgers, and cursing them for being new ones that are just NOT AS GOOD as the old ones, which finally gave up the ghost at the beginning of this year.

Usually, with long-handled edgers, it's more a case of tightening them than sharpening them, but I tried that and still couldn't get them to cut, so I had to go and buy a new pair. I thought this would be lovely, having new tools, but they are really not very good. I picked Fiskars, formerly Wilkinson Sword, and they looked nice: spongy grips, anti-concussion bumpers, lightweight aluminium tubes etc. But, and this is becoming a theme, modern tools are just not as well made as old ones. They may be lighter to carry, but they don't have the same heft to get through the cutting. It also feels as though they don't cut right down to the points, which makes doing sharp corners a bit tiresome.

I've spent the last couple of weeks using these new ones and grumbling about them, and searching through other people's sheds to see if they had an old un-used pair, so that I could make them an offer for them.

In fairness to Fiskar, at this point I have to say that I abuse all my tools horribly, as I am paid (as it were) by the minute so I don't waste time: I often use a tool for more than it's intended purpose rather than putting it down, going back to the car to get the bigger tool, using it for 2 seconds, taking it back to the car etc. I use my edging shears not just for clipping off the "fringe" of newly-grown grass, but also for chopping back minor overhangs or slight errors in edges of beds.

So, my task for this weekend is to find someone who can re-sharpen the old ones for me...

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Ferns, Rhubarb and weeds

Oh, what a relief, two days of blissful sunshine and general warmth.

Today I have a big list of jobs to do: my client is going to be unavailable for a couple of weeks, so I have been left a huge long list, which is what I like best.

I think it's being able to tick the jobs off as they are done - so satisfying.

Anyway, I started with a few minor jobs that have been left over from the winter - cutting back the ferns for one. Most of them have been done, but there are always a few that escape me. This one, as you can see, was looking quite tired and bedraggled, and it was high time for the chop.

There, much better. I love ferns at this exact time of year - when those new fronds aren't even starting to open yet, but are clearly visible.

It's the promise, isn't it?

I think if I had ferns in my own garden, I would be captivated with the moment that they unfurl, but not being able to look at them every day, I tend to miss those moments.

Next on the list is a bit more planting up of the poor little orphans that were removed from the Left Hand Shrubbery:

Here they are in their bags, quite happy and comfortable, having been there for a few weeks.

As you can see, we will use any sort of bag for this! Not just compost bags, but old carrier bags were pressed into service as well.

In this case, we had a lot of asters that were looking for new homes, and it was decided that the Right Hand Shrubbery was going to be the right place for them.
And here we have the "after" shot,  each bag-full was split up into usually three portions, which were then planted out in small groupings.

Today, I didn't even need to water them in much, as this garden is served with an irrigation system, which has made a huge difference to the garden.

Not just to the plants, come to think of it, but to my client as well, who no longer has to spend time with the hosepipe in the evenings!

Now the beds get ten minutes twice a week, and that's all they need.

Can you see that tiny little black kitty sitting in the summerhouse?

That's Sabrina the Hunter Cat, she of the "I got a rabbit and I don't know how to kill it" fame.

Here she is, disdaining me in some style, and refusing to come over and say hello.

Silly me, she's charging up her batteries, we all know that cats are solar-powered, don't we?

So, enough of admiring the cat, off to the meadow I go, it's time to get the 2nd earlies in the ground, but first I have to weed, edge and dig over the bed.

 Here's the Rhubarb Bed, so called for the obvious reason, and it has very nearly disappeared under weeds and encroaching grass.

Well, it hasn't had any attention since last autumn, so we shouldn't really be surprised.

My first job is to dig out the main weeds in the bed: then to cut the edges so we can see where we are with it.

We are slightly breaking the rules here, as we had potatoes in this bed last year, and properly speaking, we should rotate the crop.

But we are going to risk it, just for one year.

Here's the bed afterwards - you can see that by now, the sun has come out, and yes, I have removed two layers and am working in t-shirt and shorts again.

Hooray, it's nearly summer!

I've put in four rows of 2nd earlies, marked by the stakes, and I've put some of our compost round the rhubarb as encouragement.

Then I turn my attention to the other two beds: the middle one is the Raspberry bed, filled with Autumn Bliss late-fruiting rasps, which were installed just two years ago, using left-overs from my own garden.

They send up suckers everywhere, and often they come up with good roots on them and can be transplanted.

Free plants! We love that!

Again, later in the morning, all three beds are weeded, dug over, (not the same thing), and neatly edged again.

This should make it easier for mowing:  I always feel that it's a kindness to the mower if the gardener can get good clean edges on the beds, as it helps them avoid that nasty "falling off the lawn" situation, which leaves big bare scrapes on the grass.

In the days when I used to regularly mow as well as garden - these days, most of my clients either do their own grass, or have "a man" who does it - I would sometimes do the edges first, especially at the beginning of the year. That way you can see where you are going, no accidents, and as soon as the mowing is done, the whole job is done.

The rest of the morning was spent weeding and tidying The Lane, the approach to the house, then sweeping it and applying weedkiller. It always looks so nice when freshly done!

After lunch it was off to Childrey and one of my ad hoc clients, and a quick round of weeding, chopping, tidying, and planting up the big pots for the summer.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Wed: aaaaand suddenly it's summer!

Yes folks, despite the miserable weather yesterday, and the coldness of Monday, today we were up to the giddy heights of 20 degrees, cor, 21 is 70 in old money, and that's hot!

Not knowing what the forecast was - well, I stopped paying attention some years ago: if I listened to the forecasts I would never get out of bed -  I went out in long-sleeved tee, fleece, and jacket. Within ten minutes the jacket was off, and ten minutes after that, off came the fleece, up went the sleeves.


And what glorious job did I have to do, on this glorious morning? Digging out an old, dead, ceanothus stump. Oh joy. It's been looking increasingly sickly over the last couple of years, despite being planted in a sheltered little spot that, technically, is a south-facing wall. Two years ago I gave it a major chop to encourage it, and it budded lower down in the approved fashion.

But last year it all went brown at the Time of the Snow, and it just hasn't recovered. So today my client instructed me to dig it out.

First I chopped off all the branches, working my way down from the tips, in the hopes of finding some good live wood. Nope. Then I dug, terrier-like, all round the base of it.

You can't quite see it in this photo, but I have dug about a foot and a half down....  my technique for things like this, where it's impossible to get at it from all sides, is to scuff away the soil from one side at a time, and cut through as many of the roots as can be reached.

Ideally, they are cut twice: one as close as possible to the main body of the plant, and again as close as possible to the edge of the planting hole.

This allows room to rock the root, and room to get a trowel in to remove loose soil.

I say "cut" but sometimes it means sawing, with the pruning saw, or in worst cases, with a bowsaw.

There you are, out it came.

I can't get all the roots out, as you would normally do, as they run under the gravelled area, way beyond the planting hole.

You can see from the cut-off branches and the cut-off roots that it was quite a substantial plant, in it's day.

Alas, no more.

And I think I found the reason for the decay and death:

I'm not quite sure if you can see that clearly - the white fungus-ey stuff under the bark is, I think, honey fungus.  It would be referred to as the scourge of South Oxfordshire, but Muscari (grape hyacinth) already has that title.

After all that hard work, it was back to the Woodland Bed for more weeding, including removal of Pear suckers, of which there are a mighty number every year.

Generally I try to pull or wrench them off, rather than cutting, as cutting gives the same result as coppicing: you get lots more suckers next year!

Pulling them off the roots is a much better option, but only works if they are fairly small suckers.

Also in the woodland bed, remember a while ago I mentioned Epimedium versicolour, and the option of pruning away the old leaves so as to display the delicate new flowers?

23rd March, that was, and now look! A fortnight later, we have masses of flowers, and fresh new leaves as well.

It is well worth the effort of carefully snipping out the old bronzey leaves, to get this sort of display.

Incidentally, taking photos for this blog has made me realise how hard it is to take photos of plants! Too far away and all you get is an impression of greenery. Too close and it's out of focus (quickest of quick shots with a camera phone, nothing fancy) or you can't really see the effect at which I am aiming. But hey, at least they are real photos, of real plants and real gardens.

The afternoon was equally hard work but shows promise: I did the final "moving of the plants" around the quadrant beds - at last, they are all in the right places. I re-cut the edges for the first time this year, (which improved the look of it no end) and next week I will be finishing the weed-round, and it'll be nice to see them looking really spick and span.

Actually, no I won't, next week the client will be there, so we will have a rare opportunity to discuss the design and the planting, so there might not be time to get all the way round. Ah, especially as I have just remembered that I also have to edge the backs of the beds, where the meadow grass is currently encroaching.

I have persuaded the owners that they really need to put some sort of hard edging around the back edges of these beds, to keep the grass out and make it easier to mow, and to trim the hedges. Not to mention reducing my weeding! It's a big job, these beds must be - do you know, I have no idea how big they are.

Excuse me while I rush off to Google Earth to measure them:

Right, here they are! This must have been taken not long after they were installed, as there isn't any sign of planting: I've only been working here a few months, I'm not sure exactly how long ago the garden was created.

So, you can clearly see the circle, it measures 80' across, which means I have an outside circumference of 251 feet (minus the three openings, minus the patio and planting area) to dig out, and clear of couch grass.

Ouch, that could take some time! Perhaps I'll concentrate on doing one quadrant each week.

Having been playing about on Google earth, here are the famous Crescent beds, featuring the Prairie Planting as has been mentioned.

The shadow obscures pretty much all of the left-hand crescent, but you can clearly see the right hand one.

In this case, they measure 60' across the middle, as we look at it, and about 70' from top to bottom. This surprised me: I mean, they are clearly crescents not semi-circular beds, and I would have thought the overall shape would have been more oval than that.

Amazing what you can see on Google Earth, isn't it?

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Tues: definitely November

Rain, rain, go away... yes, it's definitely November. Blustery, wet, ugh, I nearly stayed in bed.

Instead of gardening today, here's a question: one of those that you never quite know how to answer.

Some while ago, this was actually last year, I was working in my Prairie Beds garden, which is a very up-market B&B: the style is called "boutique", apparently - it no longer means "place to buy overpriced fashionable clothes" and now it means "very much upper end of the market and luxurious". Quite right too, it's a lovely place. And I work there!

Anyway, as part of my duties, I always chat pleasantly to any visitors that I encounter in the garden, and I answer any questions that they might have.

On this day, the lady (who was of foreign extraction but spoke very good English) asked:

"Is that (pointing to the large oval of grass between the two prairie beds) grass or turf?"

"Urrrrr" I replied, wondering how to phrase it politely, "in this country, 'turf' is the same as grass, unless you mean the plastic fake grass that they use on football pitches?"

No, she didn't mean plastic grass, she meant the real stuff. But what did the question mean? Eventually, after some affable waving of hands, we established that when she said "turf" she meant newly laid using bought-in  turves, as opposed to grown from seed or "already there".

I was able to tell her that the grass in question used to be just rough meadow or pasture grass, and had been brought to the current smooth greenness by nothing more than regular cutting. She was happy.

I couldn't wait to run round and tell the clients!

Monday, 4 April 2011

Mon: Yes, we're back to November

It was just 5 degrees this morning! Such a shame, after last week: but nevertheless, I went out in shorts. "Live and Die in Shorts!" is my motto.

Of course, I was also wearing a long sleeved tee, fleece and sleeveless jacket, plus thermal gloves: but no thermal socks today, my waterproof boots have gone the way of the last pair and have cracked, so there's no  point wearing them. So I'm back to "summer" wear of leather boots, with thick but non-thermal socks

I do admit to having second thoughts when I got out of my car! But after ten minutes or so I was starting to warm up, and it wasn't that bad, really.

This morning, as a change from Prairie Bed Weeding, I took the opportunity to go round to the Courtyard Garden and do a bit of weeding there. It doesn't need a great deal, but it's good to keep an eye on it. To my horror, the Pampas grasses were looking like nothing on earth, so I had to brace myself and get in there with the secateurs.

In case you  have never had the pleasure of owning a Pampas Grass - you know what they are, great big things with fluffy plumes - hang on, I'll find a photo of one:

There you go, stock photo blatantly stolen from the internet, showing a common or garden Pampas Grass or Cortaderia, in the commonest-of-common plantings, ie slap bang up against a suburban  house.

This style of planting, and indeed this plant, has somewhat fallen out of favour, being considered "very seventies".

However, it gives you a good idea of how big they get. This one is probably not more than 5-10 years old, and you can see what a monster it is. I doubt that downstairs room ever sees the light....

The two that I was tackling today looked more this this (below) except that they were in one case right up against the house, and in the second case up against the back fence.

And they were pretty much all brown, with that same tangled mess of broken flowering stems and dead fronds.

Horrible job, but they pay me to do it... so.... pulling gloves up, sleeves down, collar up, zip up, and trying to keep my legs out of the way, I set to work.

Why such precautions? If you put "cortaderia" into google translate you get something  like "sword" , which just about says it all for this plant. Every single frond is serrated - hard and serrated - all the way along both edges. To my fleece, they behave like velcro, sticking and dragging. On bare skin, it's more like razor blades. I managed to get three large bags stuffed with the dead stuff, with  only a couple of minor grazes and one big slash across the side of my neck. Not bad! I find it's better to stuff the dead material into bags, rather than trying to just load it into a wheelbarrow, especially when - like today - it is blowing quite hard. The fronds will blow just everywhere, and will be a menace to bare skin for months afterwards.

I always have some old compost bags in my car, and luckily I also had a very large blue bag, perfect for dealing with this sort of stuff.

By comparison, I had a nice peaceful afternoon splitting herbaceous perennials and re-planting the new sections, always an enjoyable job, and at one point I even took my fleece off! However, the sun went back in, so that didn't last long.

On the way home I stopped off at Dews Meadow to check my bench - alas! no sales! - then back home and done for the day - oh, apart from a bit of potting up.  I weeded out an area of shingle that was full of Helleborus seedlings, and as the only hellebores for some distance are a group of very nice dark red ones, there is a good chance that these seedlings will be similarly dark. So I've potted them up, four per pot, and carefully labelled them, and we'll see what they're like in a year or two! 



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Friday, 1 April 2011

Fri: A Winnie-the-Pooh day

Or, to be more accurate, a Blustery Day. Who was it that said, of March, "in like a lion, out like a lamb". Or was that April? No, I'm pretty sure it was March. Well, it certainly went "out" like a lion, didn't it?

I'm not keen on blustery days, when weeds and debris are whipped out of  my hands before they have a chance to get to the wheelbarrow... furthermore, I'm still suffering the tail end of the cough-and-cold, so I decided to take the day off, stay indoors, and hope for better weather next week.

Well, I say "stay indoors" but I had a couple of errands to do, not least being paying my monthly charge to Dews Meadow for my outlet: luckily all the plants were still upright, the boys in the shop are extremely good at picking up any fallen ones, ("Thanks, guys!") but it seems a bit mean to rely on them, so I drove home thinking about ways to keep the pots standing upright.

It seems to me that a piece of old trellis, raised a few inches above the bench, would provide a grid to hold the pots in place. Now all I need is a piece of old trellis... perhaps I should be brave and go out to my garage for a rootle round. There are all sorts of interesting things in there... maybe I'll just have a cup of tea first..., instead, I'll show you this photo of a clump of Solidago or Golden Rod from earlier in the week: not a great favourite of mine, as I am usually presented with a floppy clump and asked to "make it neat". Hmmm. This means having to avoid saying "well, you should have staked it/let me stake it a month ago when I mentioned it", and having to lop off all the damaged stems leaving a neat but greatly thinned display.

(Considering that there is a perfectly lovely dwarf form - "Fireworks" freely available, I often wonder why anyone still plants the "normal" tall one....)

Anyway, this clump is not too badly behaved, as long as I get the semi-circular heavy-duty metal hoops in place early enough.
Solidago showing growth restriction

But the point of this photo is to illustrate an interesting variation on the usual growth pattern..

Generally, plants of this type make roundish clumps.

You might remember in Weeds, Weeds and more Weeds  I included a photo of a Miscanthus grass, showing the typical grasses' circular growth with a dead centre.

Herbaceous perennials often do the same, but to a lesser degree - the outer edges are more vigorous, the inner less so, rather than being quite dead. But they are always more-or-less circular.

This Solidago, however, has tried to form a clump and has been thwarted by the mature Yew hedge on the left. So it's formed a line!  Emphasised in the photo by a red line, for clarity.  You can clearly see the barren Exclusion Zone where the Yew has made claims to all the nutrients and water available, denying any to the Solidago.

Mwaah haa haa! Oh, sorry, that's me laughing maniacally at something that can curb the growth of Solidago.

Right, I think I need that cup of tea now... 


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