Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Where there's a Willow, there's a way...

At last! It's that time again - time to trim back the willows.

I have quite a lot of willow-work scattered around my gardens: I have lots of Fedges, plus the Willow Bridge which I think I've mentioned earlier.

"Fedges?" I hear you say, "What's a fedge?"

Answer: it's a cross between a fence and a hedge, made of willow, which grows. There, now you know.

The principle is laughably simple: take plain willow "wands" or branches-with-no-side-shoots, push them into the ground, and weave them together decoratively.

The wands will put out roots and will grow: where they cross, they will gradually graft themselves together, and you get something nearly as sturdy as a fence, but which is green and leafy in the summer, and is bare but decorative in the winter. A sort of living trellis, really.

And then there is the Willow Bridge... no, that does not make it a Brillow.

Two years ago one of my clients asked me to install a fedge to separate their garage flat from the rest of the garden, to give some privacy to the tenant, and to screen off the newly-installed oil tank.

I suggested that if they were ordering willow for this, it would be a good idea to get enough to make an additional fedge to hide the extraordinarily ugly compost bins that they had just built for me. (I gave them detailed instructions! I gave them sketches! I gave them measurements! They asked their handyman to do it, and instead of a neat block of 3 x 1m square bins, I got 2 x 2m square monstrosities, easily 1.5m high,  grumble grumble grumble...)

Well, they measured the area, sent off for the willow, it duly arrived, and I got to work.

Here is the Curvy Fedge, seen from the garage side.  It runs in front of the unlovely oil tank, leaving the small grove of silver birch on the "garden" side: it then snakes elegantly around to divide off the tenant's area.

You can see that I was asked to put down membrane at the base: this is not always needed, but grass does offer a lot of competition to willow, so it was either use the membrane, or spend the whole year weeding around the base of the wands.

This is of particular relevance in their first year, while they are getting established.

This Fedge clearly demonstrates the principle: insert an upright wand every - whoops! nearly said 18"! - 45cms to form the basis of the Fedge. Then go back and insert wands at 45 degree angles, and weave them alternately in front of, or behind, the uprights.  Tie them together at the joins. Add a long wand to the "top" of the Fedge to give stability - this is a non-living one, and will die - then, if required, add a decorative top.


I did something similar for the compost bins, making the tops into decorative Cathedral-type arches.

There was plenty of willow left over, so I did another short length along the drive, (left) where it fronts onto the road: I thought it would be nice for visitors arriving to be greeted by something a bit unusual.

This client, by the way, runs a very nice boutique B&B, so the garden has to look good, and be safe, all year round. More of that in another post! Back to the willow. This was taken in May 2009, which is about four months after I installed it, and you can see that it put on quite good growth, even in the first year.

There was still yet more willow left over, even after doing another "screen" up by the house:  and I came in to work one morning to find that the clients had been out playing, over the weekend, and had taken all the leftover willow and had rammed them into the stream, tying the ends along the bridge. Well, why not? All it took was a little neatening, and the arranging of some of the wands into strong horizontal bands, to form the framework for future years.

This became known as the Willow Bridge, for the obvious reason, and during the summer it looks like this:

I spend 20 minutes or so, every other week, weaving the new growth in so that visitors can still see over the sides.

You might remember that this year, we had late frosts? Well, the new growth was completely blackened and spoiled, to the point where there was nothing to do but cut off all the horrible black bits, and let it regrow. It didn't look too pretty for a couple of weeks, but then it picked up speed again, and you would have to look closely to see where the damage was.

I don't prune this at all: if I did, there would be twice as much new growth (apical dominance and all that) and visitors would never be able to see the stream! Instead, I plait it sideways, filling in the sides of the bridge as much as possible, and keeping the top as low as I can.

It gets a lot of compliments, which is nice.

And then, of course, once a year it has to have a proper haircut:  this is essential with decorative willow, otherwise it will lose it's form completely, and just become a huge willow tree.

Here is the same side of the bridge as shown above, but today it is late January, the leaves are blackened and falling, and it's time for the big prune. I go along the handrail, cutting off all the current year's shoots, right back to the basic framework which I established the first year.

Seven wheel-barrow-loads later, the job is done, the bridge is bare again, and the visitors are asking "where is the Willow Bridge?" 








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Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Water Butts

Another subject that is dear to my heart - capturing and using rainwater, which is free, rather than expensive treated drinking water.

I was giving a client's water butt the annual dredging the other day, and I thought you might like to see it, as it's a bit of a lateral-thinking answer to a problem.

What was the problem? Well, three years ago there were two problems - firstly, next door's gutter was broken, so the water was making a mess on our side, and secondly, that end of the garden had no water supply, and I had just installed a set of three leaf mould pens which, being under the trees, were not going to receive any rain water.

I quickly realised that my client was unlikely to carry buckets of water all the way down the garden just to dampen the leaves, so I had to find a way to make it easy for them.

Asking the client gave the answer "I think there's an old butt somewhere", and a quick rootle around in the car port turned up an old water butt, and a short length of guttering. There are always plenty of old bricks around the garden, so I built up a nice stack of them, put the butt on top, and held the length of gutter up. Perfect! Now all I needed was a way to suspend the guttering so that it caught the water from the broken gutter, and directed it down into the butt.

The following week, I returned with a wire coat hanger from home, and a pair of pliers, and bingo!

Here's the top - you can see that next door's gutter has somehow shifted out of the joining bracket, and there is now a gap of about 4". (Errrr, 10cms. Sorry, I really will try to go metric....) It's a single-storey building, by the way, otherwise I would not have attempted it...

This top edge of my black gutter is propped up against the wall, and is leaning against the support bracket, which you can't quite see in this picture. It has been in place for two years now, and doesn't seem to need anything more to hold it there.

The bottom edge is supported inside the water butt by the wire coat hanger, bent in an S-shape to go up and over the edge of the butt.

At the business end, I have two lengths of old hosepipe, either of which can connect up to the tap - which, you may note with some amusement, is quite literally a kitchen tap......

One of these hoses is just long enough to run from the water butt to the leaf mould bins, which are just to the left, out of shot.

All we have to do is clip it on, turn the tap, and water the leaves. It's a very slow trickle, being just gravity fed, so I generally set it going, then go and work for 20 minutes or so.

The second hosepipe is the clever one, it runs around the back of the tree to the right, round the corner of the garden and slightly downhill to another water butt.

By the clever facility of syphoning, the water from this water butt can go and fill the second water butt, quite some distance away.

"Syphoning?" I hear you ask. Syphoning is the phenomenon whereby water, once you get it running along a hosepipe, will happily go uphill if the final destination is lower than the original height.

Shall I say that again?

It means that I can run a hose from the bottom of this butt, along the ground, UP and over the lip of another water butt at pretty much the same height, then down inside the butt. Once the water is flowing, it quite happily goes up and over, like a very small miracle. This means I can fill the second water butt, some distance away, to the same level as this water butt.   Which means half full, of course. Then when this butt fills again, I open the tap and they equalise again. If it were raining steadily, and I left the tap open, they would both eventually fill to the top and overflow.

But it does mean that we now have two sources of water at the far end of the garden.

And yes, in case you are wondering, once this butt is full, it does overflow and splash around, just as it did before I installed it - but during the winter, when we don't need it, I slip a piece of plastic into the broken gutter, so that most of the water runs along it and down at the end into next door's drain, as it is supposed to.

While on the subject of syphoning, and "oh we haven't got room for one", here's a quick run-down of my own back garden's water collection system.

I had exactly the "oh, I haven't got room for one" problem: there was a down-pipe, but it was between the window on one side, and the pear tree on the other, so there was no-where to put a water butt.

My garden slopes slightly away from the house,  so I installed a water butt at the far end of the garden, and experimented with a hosepipe.

You need an assistant for this game.... set up your water butt, then lay a hose-pipe from there to the downpipe.  Hold your end of the hose at a comfortable height. Ask your assistant to hold their end of the hosepipe about a foot off the ground.  Fill the hosepipe with water, until it comes out their end. Ask them to lift their end slowly until the water stops coming out. Continue to add water to your end - a jug is handy for this - and ask them to raise their end, until you have both of you holding the ends a metre or so off the ground, and both of you can see the water in the end of your hose.

You can now play a fun game of raising and lowering the ends, to observe how moving one end makes the water level change in the other end.

Now, you need to get the hosepipe arranged such that the water butt end is as high off the ground as the intake of the water butt. In my case, I had the water butt up on a stand, to allow filling of watering cans, so the overall height was about a metre and a half. (look at me, trying to be modern and metric! I am thinking "4' off the ground" but I'm trying to work in metres now...) Then you can see how high your rainwater diverter needs to be. In my case, it was about one metre off the ground, because the garden slopes away from the house.

There is no point putting the rainwater diverter in any higher, otherwise the water won't come back up the pipe once the butt is full.  That's why you have to establish the level of the water butt first.

Having marked the downpipe to show where the rain diverter was to go, I then buried the hosepipe through the garden.

Here is one section, running through the courgette area, past the caged strawberries and the empty cold-frame. As it's shingle here, I am simply scraping back the shingle, putting the hose pipe in position over the membrane, and scraping the shingle back.

It's quite deep, just there, but I've been happily walking over it for a couple of years now, and it doesn't seem to have harmed the hose.

As I said, my garden slopes away from the house, so I had terraced it, using log roll edging to hold back the top terrace, and putting in two shallow steps in the middle.

To pass this obstacle, I had to dig a channel inside the log roll edging, dig a little tunnel underneath the bottom of the wood, and feed the hosepipe through it.

Yes, I had emptied out the water first.

I then tucked the hose under the shingle at the very base of the bottom step, where it was unlikely to be trodden on, and continued across the garden to the water butt.

If you try this, make sure you start with an overlong length of hosepipe, and leave plenty at each end, as the distance is just a little further when you bury the pipe.

On arrival at the end of the garden, I connected one end to the water butt, cutting off the excess: I then connected the other end to the rainwater diverter.

And it works perfectly!

So well, in fact, that I added another water butt down there - you can just see the two of them side by side on the far left of this picture, hiding behind the raspberry poles.

And there in the middle are the blue steps that we bypassed earlier.

As you can see, no sign of the hosepipe: at the house end I just have a neat diverter and a length of hose disappearing straight down. At the far end, the hose rises out of the ground and straight into the left-hand butt.

This ensures that I have plenty of water in the garden, and it's free water!

There, I hope that inspires you to have a go. If you have any questions, do feel free to ask. 


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Saturday, 12 November 2011

Today I saved a Bee...

Well, at least, I hope that I did.

I'm sure you have read that our bees are in trouble - their numbers are declining, there is a specific virus that is reducing their numbers, we are removing their habitats, and so on.  So we are all being encouraged to Be Nice To Bees.

This involves planting bee-friendly plants, which of course I thoroughly embrace, and I have to say that one day, I am hoping to keep bees myself.

So the other morning, I was intrigued to find a large bee sitting on a late Lychnis coronia flower: there was a light frost on the grass, and there was also a light frost on the bee's fur. "This doesn't look good" I thought. It looked as though he'd been out all night....

Two hours later, he was still there - clamped on for dear  life, but not actually moving.

Lines from Monty Python were running through my head: Eric the Half-a-Bee, to be exact. Anyone else remember that one? It went something like -Can a bee be said to be, or not to be, an entire bee: when half the bee is not a bee, due to some ancient injury. Singing! "Is this wretched demi-bee, half asleep upon my knee, some freak from a menagerie? No! It's Eric, the Half-a-Bee" etc.

So I collected a saucer, some warm water and some sugar from my obliging client, then added the bee:

I left him in their warmish porch, having tipped the sugar water so it ran practically up his nose.

Half an hour later, I returned - success! There he was, with his proboscis zipping in and out, taking in the sugar water.

I have since found out that this is a reflex action - if a bee's antenna make contact with a sugar solution, the proboscis automatically starts working.

So I guess my bee was refuelling in his sleep? What a useful reflex, as I am sure the bee was too cold to have been able to feed of his own volition. What a good thing I unknowingly dunked him in the sugar water.

How long does it take a bee to refuel? Quite some time, I think: I left him in the saucer for an hour and three quarters, then when I was leaving, I transferred him to an open Scabious bloom, along with the rest of the sugar water, in the hope that he would continue to feed, and that being in the sun - which had obligingly come out by then - would warm him up sufficiently to be able to fly off, feed normally, and be safely tucked away somewhere before dark.

Did it work? I won't know for sure, unless I go back in a week's time and find a dead bee at the foot of the Scabious.. but at least I tried!



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Friday, 11 November 2011

Time to make leaf mould!

Yes, it's that time again: I spent a happy hour yesterday raking up leaves and stacking them in the Leaf Mould bins for a client. 

I'm into compost and leaf mould in a big way, I even lecture on the subject, (If you want me to come and give a talk at your organisation, just email me - but only if you are near to Wantage!) so it's lovely to be paid for doing it!

In case you're not totally clear on the subject, here's the briefest precis:

Garden debris rots as an aerobic process, meaning that it needs oxygen. Hence the presence of worms, earwigs, and other livestock in your compost heap.

Leaves rot via an anaerobic process, meaning without oxygen - they use fungus. Hence there are no worms, earwigs or other livestock in the leaf mould bins, just fungus.  It also take a lot longer - two years, normally.

If you don't have many leaves, it's ok to put them on the compost heap, if you mix them in well - they will eventually rot. Even better if you can shred them, or mow them up.

But if you have a lot, it's much better to treat them separately. You can either make special leaf-mould bins out of chickenwire, or you can simply stuff them into black plastic sacks and stack them out of sight somewhere.  (Black bags are not the prettiest part of gardening.)

Honestly! It works just as well in bags, but if you have a lot of them - and most of my clients have big gardens and lots of trees - then making chickenwire bins is much quicker and easier.

The only "trick of the trade" (if you can call it that ) is to make sure the leaves are wet.

The resultant leaf mould is wonderful stuff for conditioning the soil - it doesn't have a great deal of nutrients in it, unlike proper compost, but it lightens the soil and helps it to hold water. And it's completely free! All you have to do is collect the leaves, leave them for two years, then spread it around...

...and as I like to be helpful,  here are my Top Tips:

A - Leaf Mould bins/pens

1) Leaves are not heavy, so you literally only need chicken wire wrapped around four posts.
2) They are, however, very bulky, so you may need to make three or four of them.
3) Make sure they are wet - frosty days are ideal for raking up the leaves. If not, just water them. This also helps reduce their bulk so you can stuff more in on top. If you site them under trees, you may have to add more water a couple of times during the year.
4) Next year, you could shift the half-processed stuff from three bins into one, to free up a couple more bins - but that is making work for yourself. Do it the easy way, make plenty of pens, let them sit for two years.

B - Leaf Mould In Bags

1) Rake up the leaves, stuff them into plastic sacks. The bigger the better.
2) Throw in a bucket of water, make sure they are good and wet. You want them to go mouldy.
3) Tie the top of the bag, loosely, then stab the sides viciously with a fork. We are aiming for wet, not sodden. If you don't tie the top, and stab too enthusiastically,  they all come flying out of the top of the bag. Ask me how I know this......
4) Stack the bags out of sight somewhere. Behind a shed is ideal.
5) In two years' time, they will have shrunk into flattened slabs. Open, or peel off the bags, if you used thin bin-liners. Good quality bags can be re-used. Break up the slab of dark, peaty stuff and there you go.

C - General Points

1) Don't attempt this with evergreen leaves - holly, laurel, conifers - as it won't work.
2) Don't bother with Horse-Chestnut leaves either, they don't rot well.
3) Other than those, yes, you can mix up as many different types of leaves as you can.
4) No, you don't need to shred the leaves.
5) This is for leaves only - don't mix in grass cuttings, or normal garden waste.

I've often read on the internet that leaf mould is a good potting compost, but I'm not convinced about that, as it is pretty low in nutrients. I would say that it makes good seed compost, as it does not contain weed seeds, as long as you pot the seedlings on into "normal" compost or bought compost.

Anyway, there are the basics, so off you go! Rush outside with a rake and make yourself some free leaf mould.

As far as I know, there is nothing to stop you raking up leaves from public areas such as parks, grass verges and footpaths, so if you have room to stack the bags, but no trees, this need not stop you!

Thinking about it, it would be lovely if we could start some community schemes - I live on a housing estate which a huge number of grassy areas and a good variety of trees, and there are leaves everywhere. If only the local brats weren't so bratty, I would make some pens and encourage my neighbours to help to fill them, and to help themselves to the leaf mould in due course. But - sigh - I just know that the pens would be pulled apart, or the leaves would be set on fire.

Oh well, maybe one day...

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Roses: never quite dead.

Today we have a happy tale, of a rose that didn't quite die.

The rose in question is a very old one, which had in it's time been much loved by the client, but was now in a sad and sorry state, being mostly one gnarled stem, which grew vertically to above head height, and then produced a small tuft of spindly growth with just a few flowers.

Last year, with permission, I gave it a massive chop, removing all the pathetic top-growth, cutting it back to the one bare stem. Taking the chance for a bit of plant-torturing, I then carefully bent the main stem over to the left, close to the base, and tied it in to the wall.  Finally, I cut the stem neatly,  leaving just what looked like the most promising shoot.

It did well, producing a good strong shoot from the highest point, pretty much as you would expect: and that shoot grew well, thickened up, branched, budded, and actually produced flowers.

"Great!" you might be thinking, "a success, then!"

Ah, but I wanted more! I wanted it to shoot from much lower down.  So I watched and watched, I gave it some compost, I gave it some water, and finally:

...much to my joy, this tiny little shoot appeared - can you see it? Right at the top of the picture, heading off on the diagonal,  it's the same colour as the red bricks, and is about 3" long at this point.

Each week I would check it,  hardly daring to look in case it had been damaged by wind, client or cats.. but it survived!

And here it is at the end of the season, you can see the strong new shoot rising out of the top of the picture, in brown,  and my little shoot is that lovely fresh green one.

And yes, you are quite right, I have already started the torturing process by tying it in to the wall and forcing it to go horizontally.

As I never tire of explaining to people, climbing plants all have their basis in a jungle environment, and they all think that their mission in life is to grow and grow until they get to the top of the canopy, where there is sunlight and freedom. At that point, they lay down on the canopy and relax, and only then will they burst into flower.

So if you want a lot of low-down flowering from your climbers, you need to prevent them from making a bid for the sky: instead you have to gently persuade them to go left-and-right instead.

Much of my work with roses involves torturing gently persuading them into more horizontal growth, in order to get them covered with blooms at the right height for appreciation by us normal-sized people.

Fan-training is always nice, if you have a rose against a wall: for pergolas or upright supports, wind the new growth round the support, rather than letting it gallop straight up. Then at the end of the season, cut the new growth off, back to your basic shapes, and allow those to become your framework. After the second year, maintenance gets suddenly much easier!

So that new little shoot is going to be allowed to go right, and then it is going to be eased back to the left, and in time this will become part of the "framework" wood of this rose.  Other new shoots will be treated in the same manner, and in a year or two the wall should be well covered, with blooms at just the right height.

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Thursday, 3 November 2011

Maintenance of Grasses: Miscanthus Zebrinus

Oh yes, it's that time of year all right, I am now stripping grasses wherever I go!

The latest one is  Miscanthus zebrinus, which is a lovely upright, clumping grass, with bands of creamy yellow running across the leaves, rather than down the middle. It's quite slow to increase itself, which is what I usually find with what you might call "highly bred" grasses. Generally speaking, the closer a plant is to the original, the better and faster it grows, the tougher it is, the longer it lives.

So, how do we deal with this grass at this time of year?

Here is a clump "before": as you can see, very similar to the Sugar Cane that I talked about a couple of entries ago, in that the leaf sheath - the part that wraps around the stalk - dies off and goes brown, and can easily be pulled away to reveal a clear green stem.

This has the added benefit that you have fewer fronds blowing around the garden for weeks afterwards!

Once again, all you have to do is take each dead leaf in turn and pull it away from the stem.

This requires a little care: if you pull too hard, you risk bending or breaking the stem, which is bad: if you pull too sharply, the leaf part will break off, leaving the stem still encased in the dead sheath. This means you have to go back and do it again, this time slitting the sheath with a finger nail and peeling it carefully away.

Yes, as with my Sugar Cane, it's a job that I find is best done with bare hands.

And the result?

Nice clean stems, great reduction in the amount of dead brown "stuff",  generally better all round.

What do you mean, you can't see the difference?

Look again!

Actually, the difference is greater when seen from a distance, and the general effect is, I assure you, an improvement. 



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