Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Bramble removal: How To Do It

I've given this lecture twice in the last week, so I thought I'd be generous and share it with you guys.

"Given this lecture" did I say? How pompous! "Explained this principle"  might be better. Or shall we say that I have been asked about removing brambles correctly, and this is the advice and information that I have given out.

Brambles - don't you just hate them? They grow faster than almost anything else in the garden, they have evil sharp skin-slashing thorns, they tip-root themselves everywhere, and, as a final insult, at the end of the year, instead of dying down and rotting away, the canes solidify into tempered steel with titanium thorns, linking themselves into huge mats specifically to prevent us from getting at the roots to remove them.

OK, for a couple of weeks in late summer/early autumn they are laden with delicious fruit, but come on, the rest of the time they are a complete nuisance. Especially if they are in your garden...

In  my experience, there are two "types" of bramble problem.

First and most often found, are the ones which have rooted themselves in cracks in walls or paving, and which sprout a fistful of thin spindly shoots every year. They trip us up, scratch our ankles, and although we chop them right off at the ground, they still come back within a few weeks to annoy us again. They rarely fruit, so they aren't contributing anything, just being a nuisance.

The second type are the "real" brambles, great thick squared-off stems, miles long, covered in lethal thorns and forming an impenetrable forest, not to mention the long arms, waving in the breeze and lunging at any unwary passer-by. These are indicative of brambles that have been allowed to run wild for a couple of years or more.

Here's the botanical bit: both "type" are the same plant, Rubus fructicosus agg, or blackberry, or bramble. Yes, bramble and blackberry are the same plant. There are many closely-related sub-species or micro-species of blackberry, so it is known as an aggregate species, hence the agg at the end.   There are many specially-bred garden cultivars or species, bred for flavour, for early cropping, and for size of fruit. (Which, incidentally, is not a "berry" at all, botanically speaking, it's an aggregate fruit consisting of a number of drupelets. Fascinating, huh?) And there is even a selection of thornless varieties, and personally I can't understand why anyone would want to grow a thorny one, when they have the option of being thorn-free with the fruit being just as tasty.  In my own garden I have thornless blackberry, and they are the ones that I sell.

Blackberry or Bramble? It's completely your choice - I tend to use Blackberry for the ones grown for fruit, and bramble for the vicious escapees that I get asked to remove.

Now a quick word about their life cycle: it's a perennial plant, which means it grows back year after year from the same root. But it's a biennial cropper. Biennial means "in a two-year cycle". So in the first year, it sends out lengthy leafy growth in all directions, but no fruit. In the second year, these year-old shoots or canes produce little side-shoots which bear the flowers and therefore the fruit. After fruiting, these shoots die and become the brown tangles that we hate so much.

Each plant, though, is producing new shoots every year: so any one plant will have fresh vigorous non-fruiting shoots, plus last year's fruiting shoots, plus dead ones from previous years. Hence the insane tangle that you get.

If you are growing blackberries to eat, you need to "manage" them on a two-year cycle. Generally, this works best if you grow them against a wall, or if you build some sort of post-and-wire structure so that you can tie up this year's shoots to the bottom rung, and last year's shoots to the top rungs, for the best sunlight, and for ease of cropping.  After harvesting, you chop out the fruited shoots right down at the base, then move the fresh shoots up to the top rungs ready for next year. As the new shoots grow, you tie them in to the bottom rung. It's important to keep them off the ground, otherwise the tips will root and make new plants. Which is fine when you want to expand your crop, but it does reduce the amount of fruit, and how many new plants do you actually need?

Right, now we understand the life cycle of the bramble.  But, I hear you say, we don't care about its life cycle, we just want to get rid of it.

OK, bramble clearance.

"Type 1" spindly weedy things. Cut them off at ground level, using a knife if necessary to slice through the brown knobbly root part. In 2-3 weeks' time, go back and look for new leaves. Spray new leaves with Glyphosate weedkiller: the brand name used to be Round-up but it's out of patent now, so you can buy "own brand" types. Go back in another week or so, spray foliage again. Repeat until it stops reappearing. At that point, you may be able to prise out some more of the now-dead knobbly root part. For the rest of the year, keep an eye on it, and if it dares to make any new leaves, spritz them with the Glyphosate again.

"Type 2" mad bramble tangles.

Typically found when moving into a new garden, when taking on a new allotment, after being ill for some time, when expanding the garden, or when suddenly developing an interest in your garden after ignoring it for several years. Also found pretty much all year round when working on restoring your local canal. Which I do in my spare time. ("Spare" time! Hollow laugh!)

The first job is to get rid of the top growth so that you can get to the roots. Best option: hire a man with a brush-cutter (a strimmer on steroids) to chop it into small pieces so you can rake it up and burn it. What's that? You can't do that? OK, in that case put on stout clothes, get your thickest gloves, a rake, and a pair of secateurs. Get as close as you can to the tangle, and start cutting out sections. Don't overstretch yourself, just cut everything you can reach, and if you cut it into pieces 2-3 feet long, it becomes a lot easier to get rid of it.

When you work your way as far as a root,  leave a foot or so of growth so that you can find it later.  There's no need to cut it down to ground level, just to clear it enough that you can move around the area without being tripped, snagged and scratched.

Continue doing this until you have eaten you way through your bramble thicket.

You should by now be tired, sweaty, scratched and cross, and ankle-deep in bits of bramble. Well done! Rake up the bits and dispose of them.

Take a break.

Right, phase two. You can now tackle the roots. If you don't, they Will Be Back.

Now, here's the useful thing to know about bramble roots: they don't sprout from ground level, as normal plants do: they sprout from just below ground level. This is what catches most people out: they chop off the top growth, right down to the ground, then wonder how it keeps re-growing. This is why Type 1 are so persistent: when growing in paving or in cracks in walls, you simply can't get to the growing point, hence the instruction to use Glyphosate, which is a translocated weedkiller, meaning that it doesn't kill the leaf that it lands on: it penetrates the leaf, works its way down the stem to the root, then kills the root. Yay for Glyphosate!

Right, class, are we paying attention? Sit up straight, no fidgeting, here we go.

Here (right) we have a typical bramble:  it has the green shoots which bore fruit last year just starting to go brown, and some brown dead canes from the year before. This is, by the way, a fairly spindly example of the type.

First we clear away the leaf litter around it, to see what we have. To avoid being spiked in the eye, at this point I generally chop off most of the shoots.  There are no buds to be seen, but it would be a mistake to simply chop it off at ground level.

This is the same bramble, now reduced to just a couple of the shoots  - it's often useful to have something to get hold of, plus if you get called away half-way through, it's handy to be able to find them again.

I am now scraping around at the base to expose the roots. You can see that I've dug down a couple of inches, that's all. Not much more than scraping away the surface soil, really, and done on hands and knees, with a small hand-digging tool.

Right! There, can you see it? A  nice pink bud just visible, in the junction between the two remaining stems.

I can therefore cut off the root below this point.

Here's the cut-off root: you can see that I've cut it about 2" down - the white cut end on the right -  and now you can clearly see that pink bud, just above my thumb.

Apologies (as usual) for the quality of the photos, taken in haste with my camera phone, which does not have a macro setting, unsurprisingly.

Here's a different bramble root from the same section of garden: again, a lovely plump pink bud springing up from well below the surface level, and which was completely invisible when I started to remove it.

In this case, I managed to get several inches of root out as well, but the important part, the vital part, is to get below that "crown" or growing section from which these buds spring.

So I hope you can see from this that removing brambles is not impossible, and you don't have to dig out yards and yards of roots. Just ensure you dig out the bit with the buds on.

And when you have cleared your former jungle, it is worth going back every couple of weeks to check for new growth: if there have been brambles there before, there will be bramble seeds in the soil, and although you have carefully removed all the monster plants, you will continue to get new seedlings for some years. Tiny ones are really, really easy to get out - many of them will even just pull out, if the ground is soft - and it is so worth while to keep on top of them, having put in all the effort to remove the big ones.

I'm currently clearing a huge area of brambles for a client, so maybe next week I'll have some before and after photos to show you what can be done.

And I have added a couple more posts about brambles, if you want even more info on this subject:

Brambles: Part 7: The Right Tool For The Job. Secateurs, mostly.

Bramble Removal: Invaders from Next Door deals with this particular issue.

What Shrubs Can Hold Brambles Back  was an interesting question.

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Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Robins: gardeners' friends

Oh yes, we all love the little robin, cheeky, cheery little friend to the gardener. Erithacus rubecula, if we are being formal. They are very bold, and will approach very close to us humans, often perching on our wheelbarrows or tools.

We interpret this behaviour as being friendly,  but all they really want is for us to get digging! Apparently, in days past, robins used to follow the wild boar as they snouted around in the woodlands of Merrie England, disturbing the ground and revealing food for the robins.

So they see me as a glorified, upright, inefficient boar. Hmmm. Somewhat less than flattering.

At this time of year, early March, they are thinking about nesting, so instead of seeing them singly, I am starting to see them in pairs. They mate for the season (not for life) and are extremely territorial: all that cheerful singing starts as "Hey darlin', get it here!" then turns to "She/He's mine! Bog off!"

I remember some years ago hearing Bill Oddie tell the story of the time he made a stuffed model of a robin and nailed it to a fence. The garden's robin came along to investigate, sang to it, sidled up to it, and then viciously attacked it, ripping it to pieces. Must try that, some time, just to see if it's true.

Anyway, there I was, hard at work digging out some lovely stuff from the compost bins, ready for spreading, when I heard the familiar tuneful tweeting of a robin. As usual, I look all around - up, down, left, right, up again, down again, round again - before spotting one of them sitting in a nearby tree branch. "Hallo, chirpy!" I say brightly. This is my standard greeting for robins. I live in hope that they will learn to recognise my "song". (although I feel it's unlikely...)

More tweeting - oh, there's a pair of them. Within seconds, they are sitting on the wall of the compost bin, only a couple of feet away, and looking expectantly at me.  It took them less than half a wheelbarrow's worth of digging for greed to overcome caution, and there they were, inside the bin with me, picking up little bugs and small worms revealed by my digging.

This shows how close they will get:

... and this is not a tame robin from my own garden, one that knows me - it's just a robin from a garden in which I work.

I was very tempted to put a worm on the top of my boot, to see if I could lure one onto my foot for a photo, but I am paid to work, so there isn't really the time to experiment with them!

Monday, 5 March 2012

Camellias: do they really need acid soil?

I've always understood that Camellias, along with Rhododendrons and heathers,  need acid soil: the standard advice is that if you don't have acid soil, they can be grown successfully in large pots or tubs filled with specially-bought ericaceous soil, and fed with specially-bought ericaceous feed.

Last year, one of my clients presented me with a tiny thing in a pot, along with the rather grumpy information that an unloved relative had given them this plant, and could I "plonk it in" somewhere.

Ignoring the slur to my horticultural expertise, I took it away and read its label.  "Camellia"  it said. Well, that's nice and vague. Clearly it wasn't valued by the client, but was being planted in deference to some strange need to be nice to the unloved relative.

So I found it a spot beside the house - north facing, but moderately sheltered, partially under a group of small Japanese Acers, and sufficiently far back from the path that its death would go un-noticed.

That was last spring.

Here it is now: not only has it survived the summer and the winter in perfectly normal soil, but it is now budding fatly.

Who knows, it might even flower!

Of course, it might not survive another summer: I doubt that it will achieve full growth, or will live as long as a Camellia would when in the "proper" soil, but for now it seems to be surviving, and it at least three times as big as when I planted it.

So there you are - the question of the day is "Do Camellias really need acid soil?" and the answer would appear to be "not necessarily, if you don't mind them staying small, and possibly dying off earlier than expected."

I'll keep you posted of its progress!

*Update Sept 2013* whoops, I forgot to take a photo of it this year, and now that client has moved away, so I can't go back and do it. It was growing nicely, last time I saw it...

 *Updated again*  I have another Camellia, in a different garden, which needed to be repotted a couple of years back, when it's pot was accidentally broken. The Client didn't have any ericaceous compost, and didn't care enough for the plant to go out and buy some, so I had to repot it using normal multi-purpose compost. That was in 2018, and it's still flourishing, and flowering, three years later: and I don't even give it any ericaceous feed, because - surprise surprise - they don't have any of that, either! So on balance, I would say that although Camellias would prefer ericaceous soil, it's not absolutely 100% necessary....


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