Thursday, 30 August 2012

Wheelbarrows: what a difference some air makes.

Recently, at one particular client's garden, I've been feeling as though I were labouring under a huge weight.

Instead of whizzing round the garden at top speed, I've been toiling along the paths, struggling to drag the wheelbarrow up the steps to the bonfire plateau, and generally feeling as though it's all become rather hard work.

Am I getting old?

Is it all too much for me?

No - the wheelbarrow had a slow puncture, and over the last several weeks, I have (I must admit) noticed it getting a bit softer - but this week I arrived to find it completely flat. The client, when I mentioned it,  merrily told me that it goes down every six weeks or so, and produced a pump.

35 or so psi later, there I was, rejuvenated, reinflated, and rejoicing in the effortless way the wheelbarrow flew across the grass once more.

That will teach me to attend to these things sooner, rather than later!


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Monday, 27 August 2012

Planting on banks and steep slopes: Part 3

I wrote recently about establishing shrubs on slopes, with the throwaway comment that if terracing is not an option, establishing shrubs first is the easiest way to get started.

Of course, that generated the question "How, exactly, do you establish a shrub on a steep slope when the soil keeps getting washed away by the rain?"

Oh dear, slap on the wrist for me: this is exactly what I hate most about gardening columns, and gardening books: they blithely tell you what to do, without telling you exactly HOW to do it. Rather like that Mrs Beeton cookery book, whose recipe for Hare soup begins "First, catch your hare"  which makes the assumption that we all know how to catch hares. Or would want to.

OK, the answer is in two parts: you either plant very small plants, whose above-ground growth is so small that it won't catch the wind, or the rain, and be knocked over or washed out.

Or, you plant much bigger specimens, and make special planting holes for them.

Obviously, when planting on a slope you can't dig a hole straight down, as you do in a normal garden - you have to slope it backwards diagonally into the slope. How to describe it? Dig a hole that is at right angles to the surface of your slope. So that when you slot in the plant, in its pot, it sticks out at a silly angle but sits flush with the surface.  Then dig a little deeper, and increase the angle of your hole a little, so that the plant is more nearly upright, but you must make sure that all of the rootball is tucked within the planting hole, otherwise the soil will wash away and expose the roots, and the plant will die.

Here's my solution to the problem: I make miniature terraces, for individual shrubs.

Just take a short length of wood - planking, half-round timbers, leftovers from DIY projects - , and two stakes - stout canes, metal rods, old broom handles, tree stakes or whatever you can find - and use the  stakes to support the wood, just below the plant.

Remember the impressive terracing of the Grand Bank?  I found some leftovers on the bonfire pile and liberated them to make a mini-terrace for a Photinia that we planted even higher up that bank, and which was struggling due to soil erosion.

Not terribly elegant, but considering I was clinging onto bare, slippery soil about ten feet above the impressively high Grand Bank, I think I did reasonably well.... the two wooden stakes were hammered about 18" in to the hillside, and the short length of half-round post is simply held there by gravity, and soil.

After installing it, I scraped down some loose soil from above, and captured some of the loose soil that had already washed down, and rammed it all against the half-round wood. This ensures that the Photinia doesn't get washed away, and helps to catch any rainfall, allowing it to soak into the captive soil, rather than just rushing off down the hillside.

We planted two Photinia and one Buddleia (which you can just see, to the right) to give a splash of colour to this newly opened area, and it will be interesting to see how long they take to get established up there. In particular, I will be interested to see if this Photinia does better than the other one, which doesn't (as yet) have a mini-terrace all of its own.

Although I intend to keep scrambling up there to clear away the smothering ivy, I'm not worrying too much about the Glechoma muralis as it helps to reduce soil erosion, and will help to retain moisture around the planting hole.

Diversion about Latin names: this is why it's so important to learn the "proper" names of plants - Glechoma is variously known (according to wikipedia) as Creeping Charlie (never heard it called that), Ground Ivy (ah yes, that's what it's called in Oxfordshire) and gill-over-the-ground, a name that I have never heard before. By using the "proper" name, you know that you are talking about the same plant. If you hate latin names, and struggle to work with them, I'd be very happy to come along to your gardening group or social club to convince you!

Back to planting on a slope: I have also had some success using lengths of landscaping fabric to make a sort of bag, or sling, that can be used in place of the wood, with a couple of stakes. It's less obtrusive, and seems to last long enough for the plants to get their roots well established.

A final word about planting on a slope: when you've done it, and are watering the plants, water them very, very slowly.  If you sloosh the water around too quickly, it just runs off the surface, adding to the soil erosion problem.  Use a fine rose on the watering can or hosepipe, and run it gently for just a couple of seconds, then wait until the water has soaked in, then another couple of seconds, wait, and repeat.

It takes time, but you should only need to do it for a couple of weeks, unless you are planting in the middle of a really hot summer... and let's face it, I can't remember what a hot summer feels like, can you?


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Saturday, 25 August 2012

Marcham Salt Marshes

At the end of August last year, I went along to Marcham to help with an informal survey on a patch of salt marsh, just outside Abingdon.

"Salt marsh?" I thought. "But we're about as far inland as it's possible to get!"

It turns out that there have been saltwater springs there since the Roman times, and a small corner of an arable field had been set-aside by the owners, to allow the area's vegetation to regenerate, to see if there would be any regrowth of Wild Celery which apparently was brought over by the Romans, and can tolerate the saltiness of the earth around the springs.

Judy was in charge, and my word she is quick! We rushed around the section of the field, initially just looking for the Wild Celery, then roughly counting it, then just noting the fact that there was actually quite a lot of it.

Along the way we found Veronica beccabunga - always a favourite of mine, due to the incredibly silly name - and water chickweed, both indicative of how wet the ground was. We also found both types of Scrophularia (another silly-name favourite of mine), S. nodosa (Common Figwort) with the pointed leaves and square stems: and S. auriculata (Water Figwort) with leaves that were toothed, but rounded in outline - and the stem also square, but having additional wings at each corner.

Along with quite a lot of other stuff, but I didn't have time to make a list. The three of us worked as a team: Judy identified, I referenced with the books, and Ann made the list. Part of the rush was the impending black clouds,  not to mention lunchtime, so I only had time for a brief chat with Rob, who arrived late.

Unfortunately there's no point anyone rushing out there to have a look, as it's private ground, although the owners are being most obliging with not ploughing that corner, and allowing people onsite to survey it.  So I won't give the exact location.

This was an interesting outing for me, as it was very different from our casual walkaround at Abbey Fishponds the week before. As Judy is very experienced, it was not ID, it was recognition, which is not the same thing at all.

Planting on banks and steep slopes: Part 2

Recently I wrote about the Road Bank: today it's the story of the Grand Bank, on the other side of the lake.

This bank is not quite as steep as the Road Bank, and as it is south-facing and in full view of the house, it definitely gets the most attention.

Last winter, the client took the plunge and had a couple of sycamores removed by the tree surgeon. This was quite an operation, not least because first of all, they had to get planning permission from the Council. After submitting the application, and waiting for several weeks, a nice man turned up unannounced with a map and a letter, and asked us to point out the trees concerned. He confirmed that they were indeed common old Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) and there was no problem with us removing them.

Resisting the urge to say sarcastically "Thenk yew SOOO much", we waved goodbye to the council, the client gave the tree surgeon the go-ahead, and next time I arrived for work, wow! Daylight!

It's a bit of a truism that you have no idea how much light a tree steals from your garden, until you have it chopped back or, as in this case, removed entirely.

Suddenly there was a massive area of bare bank, the grass was visibly growing in the newly-arrived light, and all the garden paths had mysteriously gained a lush deep covering of new wood-chips....

Stage Two of the operation was for Alan The Handyman to do the terracing: the rest of the Grand Bank is substantially terraced with half-round logs, and the plan was to continue this across the newly exposed section.

Stage Three would be planting it up: we decided to install a few key shrubs to "match" those in the adjacent bank, to plant out a selection of new herbaceous items, plus a couple of roses, then to gradually fill in with cuttings and segments of the original planting, so that in a year or two's time, there wouldn't be a visible distinction between the old and the new.

Stage Two-B, which mustn't be forgotten, is to send the gardener (me) up the terraces to dig them over, as they had been severely compacted by Alan the Handyman and Roy the Helper and their big boots. Luckily for me, the boys, as part of their job, had barrowed up loads and loads of our home-made compost to fill up the new terraces. Not quite so luckily, they then stomped all over them, so I had an interesting hour working my way backwards along each terrace, forking the soil loose without flicking it over the edge, and without a single careless mis-step, which would have sent me tumbling a considerable distance to the ground.

Here we are, then, on the morning of Stage Three: the impressive terracing is in place, the soil has been enriched with compost, well trodden in, then forked loose,   and a couple of hundred pounds' worth of plants are sitting on the grass, roughly in order, ready for planting.

And here we are an hour later, all plants in position: but wait, where have they gone?

Oh, there they are, they have disappeared in the sheer size of this new area.

Four terraces up, by the way, you can see one of the mighty stumps, then there are two more on the top terrace, top left hand of the picture.

Getting the stumps out would have been extremely expensive, so at my suggestion, we left them there so that their roots would continue to support the bank - can you imagine the damage if we had tried to remove them? -  and our plan is to apply glyphosate to the new growth repeatedly over the summer.

(The client thinks that I am going to leave the ivy in place, but I am fully intending to glyphosate the ivy as well, mwah hah haaaahh)

This all occurred three or four weeks ago, and the new planting is settling down well. I asked the client to water in the first week, but it has rained pretty much every other day ever since planting, so irrigation has not been necessary.

I have been up the terraces every week to weed, and to check on the new plants: and to apply glyphosate to the new sycamore leaves, and the old ivy leaves. All is going well so far, and in the next couple of weeks I will be lifting and splitting some of the old planting, and transferring segments into this area.

If anyone out there has worked on a more impressive piece of terracing, I'd be interested to hear about it!


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Thursday, 23 August 2012

Abbey Fishponds

Towards the end of last August, I went on a Botany field trip to the Abbey Fishponds - ever heard of this place? No, me neither. It's a BBOWT nature reserve, which is quite literally in the middle of the housing estate, within the ring road of Abingdon.

There you go, amazing, isn't it? Clearly within the ring-road.

Four of us met up in a side street, having never been there before, and none of us really believed that there would be a nature reserve right in amongst the houses.

But there was!

Unfortunately, it was well used by dog walkers, so there was dog poo all over the place, which is about as disgusting as it gets:  luckily botanists are in the habit of wearing wellies, and eventually you just ignore the poo, trample all over it,  and ensure that you clean your boots off before leaving the site. Yuck.

Right, moving on from despicable dog-owner who won't either pick up the poo, or train their damned dogs to do it on command....

We'd been given a minor task: we were told to look out for some Clinopodium calamintha (Lesser Catmint) which was "on one of the medieval banks".  Otherwise, we were there just for pleasure, to see what we could find, and to practice our ID skills.

As we entered the reserve, the first plant we met was the Common  Reed, Phragmites australis. It's the one you often see growing along the ditches beside the road - tall green stuff, with purple plumes. It's certainly all along the A338 between Marcham and the Hanneys, round the Venn Mill area.  I forgot to take any photos, so you'll have to look it on on Google if you don't already know it. It's a bit of a pest, as it's very invasive, and tends to crowd out other plants.

But I'd read something interesting about it - apparently the leaves are not firmly attached to the stems, they can swivel.


How can leaves swivel? They have to be attached to the stem, surely?

The others looked at me as though I were bonkers (don't worry, I'm used to it) so I took hold of one of the stems, grasped one of the long, thin leaves, and gently swivelled it round the stem.

Good lord! It swivelled! It really did!

We decided that the strategy was developed to prevent damage to the leaves - by swivelling around the stem, they always line up the way the wind is blowing, so none of the leaves have to be flapped up and over themselves. Thus, none of them are subjected to folding and damage.

If you look at a stand of these reeds, you can see them doing exactly that - all the leaves line up in one direction, as though someone has carefully combed them.

And if you take hold of one and gently move it around the stem, you can see how it happens.

Go on, get out there and try it for yourselves, it's amazing!

Anyway, that broke the ice, and we wandered on through the reserve, stopping every few paces to find and ID the next plant. Unfortunately I didn't make a note of what we found as we found it, so I can't give you a list - sorry! We didn't find the Clinopodium calamintha (Lesser Catmint), but then we weren't really sure if we'd actually found the medieval bank or not.

However, for a first outing we all enjoyed ourselves, and as dusk fell, we realised that we'd only actually gone about half-way through the reserve.

So I'm sure we'll go back there again some time.

Friday, 17 August 2012

This is why I'm not a "garden designer"

One of my clients very kindly saves the gardening section of the Telegraph for me each week, and I find it very useful for keeping up with what is current, in the eyes of the general public.

Last week's one has a feature on Joe Swift, freshly recovered from his first (and last, he says!) appearance at Chelsea as a competitor, rather than a commentator.

Now, I have a qualification in garden design, but I never, ever call myself a garden designer: prior to reading Joe's comment, I would have said for two reasons, but now I shall add his reason to my list.

His reason? He made the following comment:

"I haven't gone down the garden-designing route because the people with enough money to let you do a proper garden tend to be very controlling."

(If you want to read the article, it's here.)

How very perceptive!

I've observed this phenomenon myself, as in the past I've worked with a couple of local garden designers, and I have had to listen to them on the subject: and yes, clients have their own ideas about what they want, and so, it seems, do the designers. Well, of course they do, otherwise they wouldn't be designers, would they?

It's always funny being piggy-in-the-middle: on one particular morning, after hearing the designer (who I knew well) expressing herself freely on what she wanted to do, but would not be allowed to do, I then had to listen to my client expressing herself equally freely on the iniquities of garden designers who are paid to do what the client wants, but who try to insist on installations that are not at all in line with what the client requires, and who are clearly "not listening".

On balance, I think I'll stick to being a gardener, with a willingness to make suggestions if required!

Oh, and in case you're interested, my other two reasons?

Firstly, garden design involves an awful lot of non-gardening work: there are client meetings, briefing sessions, measuring sessions: the first draft includes hours spent checking suitability of plant sizes and spread, and hours spent actually creating the plan, either by hand or on the computer: then there's the presentation of the design, discussion with client, amendments to plan, more hours spent checking on suitability of other plants to replace any the client didn't like the sound of: re-presentation, acceptance of plan, relief all round, and so on.

This is why "proper" garden designers charge thousands of pounds: they have to cover all that time and effort.

Personally I prefer actually getting my hands dirty.

Second reason: I have done quite a lot of small-scale garden re-designs, usually for a newly cleared area, or to completely revamp a tired section - as opposed to cohesive design of an entire garden - and I keep running up against this same problem:

If I supply a list of plants, the client will never, ever, buy exactly what I specify. They smile and say "oh, those ones were really expensive so instead of getting five, I got two, and they didn't have those ones, so I got those instead."

Thus instead of co-ordination of colour and height, and a decent coverage of the ground, we end up with a skimpy show of bits and pieces, some of which are completely inappropriate for the soil, or for the design. Or both. And it doesn't reflect well upon me.

So I end up specifying a budget, getting that approved, and then having to go and do the plant shopping myself. Which takes a massive amount of time, for which I don't get paid. Grr!

There is also another element to this second reason *looks around guiltily in case anyone is listening* in that I propagate and sell plants (shameless plug: go to Dews Meadow Farm Shop, folks, on the A338 just north of Wantage, where I have a permanent sales bench) and there is always a tendency to favour my own plants when I design a bed.....

In my opinion, there is a world of difference between "getting in a garden designer" and "asking my gardener to redesign that area" and I now make sure that if a client asks about re-designing, they understand the difference.

Garden designer = thousands of pounds, style, instant effect, job-in-a-box.

Gardener designing = cheap, gradual effect, constantly evolving.

What do you think?

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Planting on banks and steep slopes: Part 1

Banks are always a problem, when gardening: rain erodes the soil, while failing to actually water the plants, and it can be really hard to get a good coverage of plants going.

In my experience, if terracing is not an option, it's best to get the shrubs in first, weeding around them until their roots are strongly established: then it's easier to get the understorey planted, once the shrubs can protect the smaller plants from rain.

But I like a challenge... and I have one garden which regularly presents me with a specific gardening challenge, that being how to establish new plants on what is basically a one-in-one slope.

It contains a lake (yes, I'm lucky enough to work in a garden with a lake) with steep banks virtually all the way round, as the lake is set in a deep valley. These banks are very steep, in places being more than one-in-one, which means that gardening on them is a bit tricky - I slip and scramble around on them like a mad thing, and I have been known to tie a rope to the barriers up above, in order to have something to hang on to. Not quite abseiling, but the same principle.

Over the last year we have had two rather different problems with the banks: today I'll focus on the Road Bank.

Back in March, we decided to tackle the problem of the north-facing bank, known as the Road Bank: there is a road up above, where people used to stop to admire the lake. I say "used to" as it has become very overgrown in the last couple of years, and the mature cherry tree suddenly sent up dozens of suckers. These have become hefty young trees, giving the brambles something to wind around and forming an impenetrable mass.

Here's a snap taken back in March, from a precarious perch towards the top of the slope.

As you can see, not a lot of planting remains, just a mad tangle of brambles, and some uninspiring Lamium.

Part of the problem is that the bottom of the slope used to have a two-foot high wooden edging to it, marking the end of the slope and the beginning of the lake path. Three years ago, this wooden edging was rotting away to the point where I could no longer climb up over it safely in order to get up the bank to weed it.  Well, two years later, the edging was pretty much gone, and the brambles had well and truly taken over the bank.

Here is the bottom of the bank, and the line of Hellebores - photo taken in March of this year - showing how the original bottom terrace edging has crumbled away to nothing, so the bank now slopes untidily down onto the path.

The path is about a yard wide, then it slopes down again into the water.

Not the best place to fall down!

So I was sent up there with a machete to clear off the brambles, chop down the cherry suckers, and then to dig out as many of the bramble crowns as possible.

You might remember that I wrote about Bramble Removal back in March, and this is the large area to which I was referring in that post.

Here is a section of that bank after bramble removal: first stage, chop off the mile-long razor-sharp top growth. Second stage, carefully dig out every bramble root that I can find.  This reveals the bare bank, and the number of cherry suckers. I left these until last, so that I had something to cling to and lean on while I was de-brambling, in case you are wondering.

Once I'd reached this stage, I chopped off the cherries, leaving their roots intact to hold the bank together, and in some cases leaving a short stump to assist with scrambling about on the bank to weed it - I have been up the bank several times to weed it, this summer, and it really helps having odd anchor points.. It's been massively frustrating having so much rain, as the bank has been slippery: and yes, I did tumble down it at one point, doing an impressive version of the splits en route. I still feel it in that leg muscle, to this day...

In May the client and I agreed it was time to get on with replanting, so we bought in what seemed like a lot of plants, until I started planting them, when they all disappeared against the scale of this bank. But we saved a lot of money by taking sections from other plants in the garden wherever possible, and several of my other clients kindly contributed off-cuts or thinnings of their plants.

That's one of the things I love about my clients, they are all so willing to donate plant material to each other!

We planted all the things that we knew would do well:  anything that had survived, anything already growing in the garden, and anything we could get for free. This included a lot of Cotoneaster (species unknown) seedlings, weeded out from another garden. They are very good at binding a slope together, and provide a light canopy which helps to suppress weeds, while also having berries, and often good autumn colour.

We scrounged as many Hellebores as we could from everyone in the village, along with bought-in plants such as Asarum europeum for ground cover, lovely glossy kidney-shaped leaves pretty much all year round:  Liriope spicata "Alba", again a good ground-coverer, with pretty white flowers early in the year,  and some Luzula sylvatica "Aurea" which is a golden woodrush, it has bright acid-green to yellow foliage pretty much all year round, and is excellent for planting as a "river" through a mixed herbaceous border. Up on the bank, I hope that it will spread quite rapidly, as it gives a bright glow even in the depths of winter, and doesn't require any maintenance at all. Part of my cunning plan to reduce the amount of time I spend scrambling around up there!

By summer, the brambles were growing back so I went a-scrambling again, this time armed with glyphosate weedkiller, so we'll see how well that worked: most of the plants were settling in well, and the client and I were amazed at how well the ferns were doing: being covered in brambles, we hadn't realised quite how many ferns had survived the neglect, and when I checked it last week, they were huge! Presumably they have enjoyed the wet winter and spring, combined with considerably more light than in the last few years.

Now I just have to remember to keep on top of the weeding, and keep on top of the brambles.


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