Saturday, 29 October 2011

Olive trees - surviving the winter

Did your olive trees suffer this year?  If so, you are not alone, I have received several questions concerning what to do with dead or nearly-dead olives.

So here is a tale of encouragement: one of my clients had two olives in huge terracotta pots: great tall things, with about 4' of clear stem then a lollipop of foliage, several years old. They had been in a fairly well sheltered courtyard gardens, on different sides of the house,  and last winter they both suffered terribly.

The one to the north of the house took the whole summer to die, and almost once a month I would find myself climbing up on my steps to chop off yet another branch that was clearly dead. By June I had had enough, and suggested that it would never regain its form, so we agreed to cut it right off at soil level, water it well, and see if would re-grow..

By July, a few tiny shoots were to be seen - by August the best one was a foot high - so in September, I removed all the weaker shoots, gleefully inserted a cane  and tied the strongest new shoot firmly upright.  Two weeks ago, I had to replace the cane with a longer one, as it has made about 5' of growth, which I think is quite remarkable.We may yet save it.

The other one, however, was much sorrier:  it hadn't been watered at all during the summer, and by about August it was clearly dead. Again, I sawed it down to soil level, but  I arrived one morning to find the pot empty, and later I spotted it on the bonfire heap.

Time passed, bonfires piles were burned, and to my surprise, in late September, I was adding some cuttings to the bonfire heap when I noticed that the blackened, burned root of that olive was actually sprouting. I showed the client, as I thought it would amuse them, and they immediately wanted me to replant it.

"Oh no!" I groaned (silently, of course - I never disagree with clients if I can possibly help it) "It will never, EVER recover!"

But I cleared out some of the soil from the pot, added some fresh compost, re-planted the scorched, truncated thing, watered it and left it. I've been watering it most weeks ever since, and  I just wish that I had taken a photo of it when it was fresh off the bonfire, because last week, lo! and behold, a positive thicket of shoots.

I selected the strongest, carefully pulled off all the rest, and inserted a cane.

Here it is.

Just as with the other one, I have selected the strongest shoot, and tied it firmly upright.

For now,   I am leaving the side branches, as it will need some foliage.

As it grows, I will remove the lower branches, to reform the clear stem.

And in time, I will top up the compost in the pot to cover the original trunk.

You can clearly see how big the trunk used to be!
Then, this week, we had our first taste of frost - just a little on the grass, but a reminder that October is nearly gone, in fact the clocks go back this weekend: and once we are into November, the cold weather might arrive.

Now, as these two olive trees have tender, new little shoots, we definitely need to protect them, so it was time to wrap them up in fleece for the winter.

Slight problem: the House has paying guests all through the winter, and no-one wanted to see scruffy bundles of horticultural fleece tied up with string, getting blown about all over the courtyard and having to be chased, retrieved and re-tied every week. As we had last year.......  so I was tasked with thinking up a more "stylish" way of protecting them.

In the garage we had some willow wigwams, which had been cleared of sweet peas a few weeks ago. Could they be pressed into service, I wondered? At the very least they would stop the fleece from blowing about all over the place.

While searching for the fleece, I found the tail-end of the landscaping fabric that we used for the willow fedges a couple of years ago. And I couldn't find the fleece anywhere. So I decided to line the wigwams with the landscaping fabric and see if it was possible to slip the whole thing neatly over the olive shoots.

Well, what do you think?

The fabric has a multitude of tiny holes in it, being landscaping fabric, so it is neither as opaque nor as dense as it appears, and I am hoping that it won't leave the shoots too much in the dark.

I guess that we can always take the lid off, if we get a few nice days.

Apart from slight concerns about the light, I was so pleased with the effect that I repeated the work on one of the larger wigwams, for the other olive tree shoot.

And here is that other one, snug and smart on the main patio area, where guests frequently sit out after breakfast.

Much better looking than a bundle of white-and-going-grey horticultural fleece, that's for sure.

But if anyone has any other bright ideas for protecting fairly tall plants, other than the "bundle up in fleece and use lots of string" then I would be interested to hear about it! 






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Friday, 28 October 2011

Prairie Planting: Grasses maintenance

Well, I have had a nice quiet month from my Prairie beds: September is the time when they don't need any attention at all.

 Here is one of them, taken last week: as you can see, heaps of low red grasses, masses of tall grasses, and the Alchemilla mollis has come back into nice neat mounds of foliage, as planned.

The Photinia hedge behind them has been a bit of a disappointment to me this year, as the garden's owners wanted it to grow higher as a a screen, which means I haven't been cutting it, which means no fresh new red foliage.

Luckily for me, it grew sideways as well as upwards, and just last week I was instructed to clip it back enough so that they could get the mower round the back of the bed in two strips again, instead of the one-and-a-half strips to which it has shrunk.

So there will soon be some red growth on the inside, which will please me. I'm just hoping that there is time for it to freshen up before it stops growing for the winter.

As you can see, it's hard to get nice photos of plants.

The more I try to take photos for this blog - on the basis that a picture is worth a thousand words, and I am sure that all readers would rather look at one photo than listen to me rattling on for a thousand words - the more I realise the skill that professional plant photographers need to have.

I mean, just look at it! In real life, this is a lush, dramatic bed, with interesting contrasts in foliage, and interesting toning colours.

In this photo, all I can see are the dead brown stems of the cardoon, leaning at ugly angles across everything else.

And this one is supposed to show the contrast between the Miscanthus at the rear, with the sticky-out foliage and the purple fluffy flower heads, when compared to the thrusting uprightness of the Stipa at the front,  which is now much more straw-coloured.

They both have variegated foliage, each having a white stripe up the centre of the leaf, which is supposed to add cohesion to the planting.

But does any of that show through in the  photos? No, they just look a bit scruffy, and rather too close together!

Oh well, such is life. I am not a professional plant photographer!

But I try: and today, here I am showing you about maintenance of annual grasses, as I get a lot of questions on this subject.

The one in question is Stipa tenuissima or Feather Grass.

I have masses of it in these Prairie beds, as it self-seeds generously all around. However, it's very hard to move it once it has established itself, so I have learned to allow the seedlings to grow, then weed out the ones I don't want. I now have "rivers" of it through the beds, and it has become an annual battle to keep the river but prevent, as it were, the flood.

At this time of year, each clump needs a bit of tidying, as the flowering is over, and the fluffy seed heads can quickly become a horrible sodden mass, if we get any rain.

Just chopping off the tops might seem to be the easiest way to deal with them, but it looks horribly unnatural, so a better option is to comb them.

Here is my step-by-step guide to Combing Grasses.

Here is a typical clump of this grass, waving beautifully in the wind, but starting to shed the dead seed heads, giving a strange cobwebby look to the ground around each clump.

My preferred tool for this is my daisy grubber, but you can use a small hand fork, one of those three-pronged claw tools, or your own fingers. In gloves, of course.

For larger grasses I use a border fork or a rake, but these smaller ones are better done by hand.

1) Gather the clump together, from the base, and pull it over to one side.

I am doing this right-handed, so I am holding the grass in my left hand. Reverse positions if you are left-handed.

Immediately, you can see the difference between the fresh green stems at the bottom, and the dead brown/white stems at the top.

You can see the daisy grubber there on the ground, ready for use.

2) Now start to rake from right to left, pushing the tool in to the clump and running it straight up the length of the stems.

I do this quite quickly, over and over again, and you need to push quite hard once the dead stems start to come out.

They quickly work their way up the bundle of grass towards your other hand.

3) Part way through: you can see that an area of split dead stems is gathering.

4) Here you can see what a mass of dead stuff is building up.

It's important not to let go of the bunch too soon! Hold on to it, and keep combing upwards.
5) There you go, nearly done: large mass of dead stems and spend seeds in one hand, and most of the clump has sprung back upright, released from being part of the bundle.

And here is the finished article on the left, below - much more green than brown now, and no danger of the seed heads forming a soggy brown mass. The 'Before' picture is to the right, so you can see the difference.

After half an  hour of work, I had filled a wheelbarrow with the combings.  Then all I had to do was get the spring rake, and carefully - and gently - rake between all the clumps to remove all the stray dead stems.

Job done! And well worth the effort. 


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Thursday, 27 October 2011

Call that "Customer Service"?

We have a sad and sorry tale of woe today - which could be titled How Not To Do Customer Service.

The other day I popped in to a nursery, while I was out and about. Naming no names, but not far from home, it used to be a very average nursery which went bust, probably due to them selling weeds along with every plant.

Earlier this year it was bought, and re-opened, still as a plant nursery, but the new people seemed to be very into chickens, which is not a bad thing (keeping chickens is positively trendy round here) and their wobbly hand-painted signs have been advertising "Come and stroke the bunny's" which made me grit my teeth every time I saw it, and "Come and pet the baby chicks".  Baby chicks? Chicks are babies by definition, surely?

Mostly due to these grammatical annoyances, I hadn't bothered to go and investigate them, and I was feeling a little guilty for not doing so. Not everyone has A levels in English, and it's wrong of me to discriminate against them, just because I think their signs are uneducated. Maybe they did it deliberately in order to lure in people who may have felt a bit shy about going to a new place? Who knows.

Anyway, finally, I went in, interested to see what plants they were offering at this time of year, as I am getting a bit low on choice for my bench at Dews Meadow Farm Shop, (shameless self-publicity) and it's always interesting to see what other people are selling.

It was a weekday afternoon, getting on towards closing time when I drove in and parked in the car park, which was fairly nice: shingled, rather than muddy, and with a row of "show sheds" at the back. They were each set up in a mini-Chelsea plot, the effect somewhat spoilt by the weeds growing within each enclosure.

I was a bit confused by not being able to see into what used to be the main selling area, as it was blocked off by stacks of pallets, shrink-wrapped around bags of compost. Not terribly enticing, but to the left was a big portacabin-type building, with "Shop" in big letters over it.

"Aha!" I thought, "That's the way to go."

I opened the door - after a bit of a struggle - and was nearly choked by the stale, damp smell of the place. Memo to self: don't buy icecream or anything edible from here.  There was no-one there, so I let out a few "Hal-looooo?" noises, somewhat self-consciously. I mean, it can't be hard to set up a bell or buzzer to let them know when anyone drives through the entrance, surely?

Eventually a woman popped out of a door, and looked at me.

This is the point at which I would expect "Can I help you?" or "Sorry to keep you waiting" or even "Hallo". But no, she just looked at me.

OK, I thought, it's up to me to start the conversation, then. I asked "Are you still selling plants?" which I thought would be a good start. "No." she replied. Flatly. This threw me somewhat. Resisting the urge to ask her why they were calling themselves a plant nursery, I said "Oh. Ok, thanks." and turned to go.

Why I said "thanks" I will never know. Years of training, I suppose. "How rude" would have been more appropriate.

As I turned to go, she suddenly came forward to the door, and said "What sort of plants were you looking for, then?" which was a bit odd, from someone who had just said that she wasn't selling any. I replied "oh, perennials mostly, some shrubs, but don't worry, I'll try somewhere else."

"We're not doing any at this time of year, people don't want to buy plants at this time of year," she said, suddenly becoming quite chatty.  Then she turned and pointed beyond the pallets of compost, drawing my attention to a staggering amount of weeds, growing freely in what used to be the neatly shingled sales area of the former owners. "We've got those orange things," she said, "but that's about it."

Sure enough, there were some pots standing amongst the weeds, containing greenery and some orange flowers.

"No-one wants plants at this time of year," she repeated.

"OK," I replied "don't worry, er, I'll be going, then."

So I hurried back to my car and drove off, noticing as I did so the large rack of bedding plants just beside the building, which she had totally failed to bring to my attention.

Call that customer service? I don't!

Friday, 21 October 2011

Sugar Cane: and time to strip it

"Strip the sugar cane?" I hear you say, in tones of wonderment.

Yes, Strip the Sugar Cane. No, it's not a strange folk dance, it's an annual ritual that I go through in my back garden, round about this time of year.

Along my back fence I have a stand of Miscanthus sacchariflorus, or Sugar Cane. It's a tall, lovely grass, with slender canes - a bit like bamboo, which it does somewhat resemble - and long leaves which rustle fabulously in the wind.

Every year it has an annual stripping, where I peel off the old, dead leaves to reveal the bare stems, or culms, which then turn bright red over the course of a week or two. This leaves me with beautiful elegant red stems over the winter, until such time as I chop them all down to nothing in March, ready for the next year's stems to start growing.

Here's what it looked like when I started:

Yes, a tangled mess.

You can see that each long, slender leaf wraps itself around the culm, then leans away to become the leaf.

All I have to do it take each leaf in turn and carefully strip it away from the culm.

"All I have to do", excuse me while I laugh hollowly - forgot to mention that the edges of the leaves are quite sharp, so I have to be a bit careful how I handle them.

And no, I can't do it in gloves, as the leaves need to be separated from the culms, and I have found over the years that a thumbnail is just exactly the right tool for the job. So I do it in bare hands, and put up with the occasional slash.

Actually, it's quite a fun job to do, as you can really see how much progress you are making.

And here is the result.

Can you see the difference? All that tangle of dead stuff has gone, and the culms are now revealed, in their green splendidness.

Best of all, I know that in a couple of weeks - especially if we get some frost next week as has been forecast - they will turn bright red, which always makes a nice contrast with the blue of the trellis beyond.

I'll try to remember to take another photo in a couple of weeks' time, to show you how nice they look.

There are still a lot of leaves left, so I still get the rustling when the wind blows: and over the next few weeks I will pop out there and strip off more leaves as they start to die off.

This means that I will have a period of several weeks where the stems are partly bright red and partly green, which is very enjoyable.

Updated insert: I still haven't taken a photo of them going bright red, but here's a pic from a different winter:

This photo - right - was taken about a week after I stripped off the leaves,  in late September of that year, and the stems have gone dark purple, which is quite dramatic.


Eventually they reach a point where all the leaves are gone, and all I have are the stems, bright red (or purple!) but with no tops. I generally leave them in place over the winter, as the colour remains good, and they do provide some level of screening.

Then, once the stems have faded to golden brown, I cut the whole lot to ground level, which gives me a crop of lightweight garden canes. Interestingly, this plant is now being grown commercially as a biofuel.

So there you have it - Strip the Sugar Cane! Oh, and no, in this country, they don't make sugar... sadly!


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