Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Willow: it just won't die

I had a stack of willow wands in my front porch a while ago: I was making willow wigwams for sale. Doing this invariably creates a fair amount of mess, and various trimmed-off ends etc, all of which I put into bags, along with other potting-up mess and dead plant materials.

The bags go in the garage until such time as I have a car-load, at which point I load up the car and take them all down the dump.

Yesterday I was putting some more bags into the garage when I noticed something strange protruding from one of the older bags of waste.

Yes, it's a length of discarded willow, shoved into a black compost bag, along with various plant waste, stale compost etc, put into the garage some weeks ago,and look, it now has branches, leaves just beginning, and quite a good root system developing.

This just goes to show how amazing willow is: as Enid Blyton said in The Secret Island: "willows are full of life, and you can't stamp it out of them."

What - don't tell me you didn't read that one? The story of Mike, Peggy and Nora,  abandoned by their rather reckless adventuring parents, then abused and made to work by their cruel aunt and uncle: then running away with local lad Jack who shows them how to keep chickens and a cow, how to grow food, and how to build a house from willow. Possibly the first appearance in literature of a Living Willow sculpture, and I am constantly amazed that no-one has yet asked me to recreate one for their children.

Going back to the wigwams, under the general heading of "isn't it always the way": I made them back in February, but it was too cold to stand outdoors making them for long, so I just did half a dozen or so, then stopped.  I put three of them up at Dews Meadow Farm Shop, and they sat there for weeks.

"Oh," I thought, "good thing I didn't waste time making any more of them than I did."

Then the weather warmed up and they started selling:  within a couple of weeks I'd sold all of them, and was scratching around to find more willow. After a while, I couldn't find any more material to make any more.  And I've had enquiries ever week since - one lady even wanted to buy 5 of them.

So, lesson learned: next year I will make up as many of them as I have material for, and will store them in the garage until the weather gets warmer.

I even have one lady who wanted me to do a workshop in how to make them! And, now I think about it, I was asked by a local gardening society to do a workshop on this very subject, but they contacted me in June, and it was a bit tricky trying to explain why you can only get the materials in winter.

So I really must find a better source: if anyone in or around Wantage has a good-sized stand or hedge of willow that they coppice/pollard/generally chop every year, and who usually just throws out the cuttings, do please contact me.  Osier is best - that's Salix viminalis, or Salix purpurea.   Anything that grows long thin whippy twigs, and when I say "long" I mean a minimum of 6 ft (2m) of new unbranched growth each year.

Hoping to hear from someone! 



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Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Wildflower Strip

I remembered the other day that one of my clients, when I first went to work there, told me that they had tried and failed to establish a wildflower meadow in their paddock.

One of the usual reasons that wildflower meadows fail is that people tend to use land that is too rich: that is, land that has been fertilised or enhanced for years, such as part of their garden, or worse still, part of the lawn, whereas wildflowers actually need it lean and mean.

The paddock in question had been used as grazing for decades, which means that it had been regularly fertilised and re-seeded by the previous owners, and had of course been continually fertilised by the grazing animals, leading to lush rich grass.

My client had spent a lot of money on a wildflower consultant, who had completely failed to point out that the land would need impoverishing, and had then supplied a wildflower mix which had, predictably, completely failed. I understand that there was a light sprinkling of poppies the first year, and nothing since.

As the client was still keen on establishing wildflowers, I asked permission to try again, on a small area, but this time starting off with Rhianthus minor or Yellow Rattle. This is a very interesting wildflower, it is partially parasitic on grass roots, so it is the logical choice as the first introduction. If you can get the Yellow Rattle going, it will weaken the grass sward, allowing the wildflowers to grow without being choked by the more vigorous grasses.

So, the client and I selected an area, a strip on the edge of the mown section, quite high up the paddock. I asked him to mow it very short - "scalp it" was the exact instruction - then scarify it thoroughly.

Last week he emailed me to say that this work had been done, and on inspection I was very pleased to see a lot of bare earth between the scarified stalks. "Good job!" as they say.

Onto this I broadcast a light scattering of the Yellow Rattle seeds, as well as a scattering of a casual wildflower mix.  I then stomped across the area a few times to push the seeds down into the sward, and left it to see what happens.

Meanwhile at home I am experimenting with growing wildflower plugs from seed, intending to insert the seedlings into the area if the seed germination is poor. According to the internet research I have done,  it's not possible to grow Yellow Rattle as plug plants, as they need the grass roots to supply part of their nutrition. However, I'm going to give it a go, just to see what happens.

I'll keep you posted!

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Tuesday, 17 April 2012

"Half a bee, philosophically,"

"Must ipso facto, half not be.
But can a bee
Be said to be,
Or not to be,
An entire bee,
If half the bee
Is not a bee,
Due to some
Ancient injury?"


"Lah dee dee, one two three, Eric the Half a Bee,
A B C, D E F G - Eric the Half a Bee:
Is this wretched demi-bee,
Half asleep upon my knee
Some freak from a menagerie?
No! It's Eric the Half a Bee."

Ground bees are the bane of my life at this time of year.

Well, when I say "ground bees",  I'm not sure if I mean bees that live in the ground as opposed to a hive: I'm a botanist, not a - er, what's the word for someone knowledgeable about bees? Not lepidopterist, that's butterflies: apiarist?  *rushes to look up correct word on google*  Apiarist = "person who keeps bees". Well, that's close enough for the purposes of this conversation.

So, what bees do I mean? At this time of year, I find a lot of large bees - the sort that I (not being an apiarist) would call bumble bees, big fat black and yellow ones - dozing at ground level, tucked in amongst vegetation or sometimes, apparently, under the surface of the ground.

This means that when I am enthusiastically weeding borders, or tidying up old foliage of perennials, I keep disturbing them: the first I know is usually loud and indignant buzzing,  at which point I stop what I'm doing and gently turn over whatever soil or debris I have just moved, to try to find the bee without squashing it. Then I have to gently persuade it to clamber up onto my hand (gloved, of course - I'm not daft) so I can carefully transfer it to a part of the bed that has already been weeded.

Rudimentary google research indicates that bumble bees are the ones that buzz - thus confirming my identification, hah - and yes, they do actually nest in the ground. So it would seem likely that early in the mornings, they will be crawling around at ground level, waiting for it to get warm enough for them to get airborne.

These will be different from Leaf-cutter bees - we learned about them last year, do you remember? - who lay their eggs in cocoons made from leaf material, in tunnels underground.

(Did I just say "tunnels underground"? Can there be such a thing as a tunnel above ground? No, so that was a stupid thing to say, wasn't it? I do apologise. I think "tautology" is the official name for this ailment, isn't it?)

So where does the half a bee thing come in? Well, there I was, clipping the edges of the lawn with my long-handled edgers, and: - do you really need me to continue? Are you cringing already?

Yes, there I was, clip, clip clipping, at my usual high speed: and then there was some indignant buzz, buzz, buzzing.

I admit it, I closed my eyes. Just for a minute. But then I had to go down on hands and knees to take a close look, and yes, it was a big furry bumble bee, and it appeared to be still alive and indignantly buzzing although it did (warning: if you are of a nervous disposition, stop reading now) have only five legs.

Aaargh! I feel like a murderer! Can a bee survive having one of it's legs cruelly chopped off - albeit innocently - by a passing Gardener?

I do hope so!


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Monday, 16 April 2012

The Escallonia That Lived!

I've seen a lot of troubled Escallonia over the last couple of years: a shrub that is normally unkillable seems to be suffering after the two successive cold winters, not to mention the wet one just gone.

This one, however, is a success story: you might remember that around this time last year, I was presented with a dead-looking escallonia, which I chopped back to a framework - yes, very much as though it were a rose or a wisteria.

This is what I ended up with - right.

Within a few weeks it was leafing up, although one or two of the outlying branches failed to perform: it is not a terribly nice micro-climate, being north-facing, in a valley (so the wind whistles along it at times) and being very much at frost level.

However, it did all right, and the client was very pleased that it recovered.

Here is what it looked like last week: yes, all the new growth made it safely through the winter.

Not bad, eh?

So, if you are faced with a dead-looking shrub at this time of  year, it's often worth cutting it right back hard, and leaving it for a few more weeks, just in case.

This, to me, is one of the wonders of gardening - how sometimes you think a plant has absolutely had it, and yet with a bit of patience, sometimes they come back.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Tree ties: How Not To Do It

I thought you might find this as amusing as I did:

In case you can't quite work out what it is, it's a tiny, tiny tree on the left, a garden cane on the right, a tree protector around the stem, and a massive heavy-weight rubber tree tie dangling off the stem: not even connected to the feeble cane, just dangling there.

Sometimes I wonder about some of my clients!

Corrective action taken:

1) Removed the tree tie and put it safely away for later use.

2) Removed the pathetic garden cane, replaced it with a much stouter one, hammered in upright, taking care to avoid the roots of the tree.

3) Attached tree to new cane using a double twist of flexible Soft String.

And while I was at it:

4) Unpeeled protector, checked bark for damage, removed weeds from inside protector and replaced: also weeded the planting hole, trimmed the edges,  and added a mulch of our own compost around the base of the tree - but not actually touching it - to give it some encouragement.

Let's hope that the tree takes heart from this attention, eh?

Friday, 13 April 2012

Winter potatoes: Total Failure

I've just trawled back through the blog, and although I could have sworn I had written about this last year, apparently I didn't.

Right! Winter potatoes, then! Oh dear, have I given away the ending in the title? Will you still read on? Aw, go on, read on, there's always something to learn from other people's failures...

A couple of years ago, one of my clients asked me about planting potatoes in autumn, in order to have a crop of new potatoes for Christmas.

It sounded unlikely, but I went away and did the research, and sure enough, it is entirely possible: the instructions were to plant out potatoes in late autumn, while the soil was still warm, in the hopes that they would grow and produce tubers in time for Christmas. There are even special late-season seed spuds that you can buy for the purpose.  We did it that year, and it worked. Not spectacularly, there wasn't much of a crop, but considering that we used left-overs from the kitchen, it wasn't bad. And it provided enough for my client to have two meals over Christmas.

We did exactly what the internet suggested: planted out our spuds in September, let them grow - watering was not an issue, that year! - and I dug them up in late December. I think we started with about a dozen small tubers, and I lifted about two double-handfuls of tiny new potatoes.

This year - or rather, last year - we decided to try again, but this time to combine the "late spuds" with the "no dig  under plastic" idea which I have known about for years, but have never tried.

Have you encountered this one? You prepare the ground, spread black plastic over the bed, pinning down the edges or burying them in the soil, then cut slits and plant the potatoes through the 'oles.

When the foliage dies down, you cut off the tops and lift the plastic to reveal the tubers sitting on the surface, with no digging required. At least, that's the idea. I've seen pictures in books, but never seen it done in real life. The idea is that you don't need to earth up the plants as they grow, being under the black plastic is enough to keep the light out and prevent the tubers going green - which is, of course, the point of earthing up.

OK, hold onto your hats, into the time machine, and here we are back in early October of last year, 2011.

Wow, look at that autumn sunshine.

I laid out our black plastic and pegged it down - sharp-eyed readers will instantly spot that it's a compost bag, sides slit and turned printed-side down.

Well, why not? They are free, after all, and re-using is as good as re-cycling. In fact, re-using is better than re-cycling, as you are, by definition, not buying something new!

Right,here we are with the job done: the potatoes have been pushed through those little cross-cuts in the plastic, and pushed down a couple of inches into the soil below.

Oh, forgot to mention that of course I had dug over the bed beforehand, removed all weeds, raked to a fine tilth etc etc.
Having done the planting, I made the decision to cover the plastic lightly with soil, mostly for cosmetic reasons: I didn't think the black plastic looked too classy, and this is, after all, a part of my client's garden, not an allotment.

So a light sprinkling of soil was added, with sticks to mark the corners so I wouldn't forget where I'd planted them.

For the first few weeks, while it was dry and sunny, I watered the area, not at all sure if you were supposed to: after all, laying black plastic down does more-or-less prevent all rain from reaching the tubers..

Now we have to imagine that we are watching a sci-ci film about travelling through time: kindly imagine the pages peeling off a calendar, or perhaps, as this is a gardening blog, imagine a speeded-up film of the leaves going brown, falling,  bare branches, snow, snow disappearing, and so on.

Here's the scene in December: not a single leaf. Not one.

I think this counts as pathetic failure, don't you?

Having other tasks to do in the garden, I just left them sitting there all through the winter.

Eventually, in February, I found time to peel off the plastic and see what lay beneath.

A little gentle forking revealed just three potatoes, all of which were the original ones which I planted out.

One was firm and pristine, as you can see - the others were black and mushy.

Total failure, then.

So, lessons learned: although it is perfectly possible to grow a late crop of spuds in time for Christmas, it doesn't work if you plant them under plastic. Was it wrong to put some soil on top? Perhaps that covered up the slits to the extent that the sprouts couldn't find the 'oles? Hmm, not really, as I didn't find any rotted stalks below the plastic - and of the three originals that I found, none had any signs of sprouting.

And what about normal summer spuds, under plastic? Well, I suppose I might have a go in someone else's garden this summer - I don't think I dare suggest it to this client, I think she's supported my experimentation enough this season!

If any of you out there have experience of the Black Plastic Potato System, I'd love to hear about it, whether it went well, or whether - like mine -  it failed.... 



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