Thursday, 27 September 2012

Ultimate plug plant...

You know how it's common these days to buy plants from the internet as "plug plants"? And if you've ever fallen for it, you'll know that they are tiny, weeny liddle things, which need to be potted on and nurtured for weeks before they are anywhere near big enough to plant out. And even then, half of them will die.

(Can you hear the bitter sting of experience in that description?)

Some companies, reacting to the complaints of their customers, now offer larger plug, which have slightly more chance of survival when the purchaser - as purchasers will always do - plants them out straight away in their garden.

They call them Super Plugs, or Giant Plugs, or something similar.

Well, how's about this for the Ultimate Plug:

What a whopper, eh?

One of my clients has some wooden bridges, made of very chunky 6" timbers, with holes drilled through them for drainage - you can see a couple of the holes above the Gigantic Plug.

Needless to say, the drainage holes get blocked up, and plants (ie weeds) grow in them, and every so often I go round with my good old daisy grubber (favourite tool) and weed the gaps, and pull out the plugs.

I don't often get such a complete one!

That really is six inches (oh all right, I can hear you, 15cms) of solid root, impressive, huh?

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Saying Goodbye to a garden

How do you say "Goodbye" to a garden?

It's inevitable, as a professional gardener, that at some point I would stop working at specific gardens: mostly, sadly, due to the loss of the client. Less often, it is due to the client moving away, and that's what I have this month.

The clients are moving out next week: cuttings have been taken, important plants have been lifted, split, and potted up for removal to the next place, and the many huge decorative pots have been emptied, ready to be packed up and sent to storage.

So how does a gardener feel about leaving a garden?

Obviously, it's sad to leave something that I've put so much effort into. I hate the thought of the next owners - without wishing to insult them! - not keeping on top of the thistles and bindweed, which are rampant through one particular area, and which need constant attention.

I am quite sad to leave behind the various willow work that I did there: again, it's a little depressing to think of someone neglecting them, and letting them overgrow themselves.

On the other hand (cheering up) maybe the next owners will lovingly prune them, and will enjoy their various seasons as much as the old owners did.

And of course, it's not as though it's "my" garden. And there is always the chance that the new people might decide that they need a gardener, after all.....

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Monday, 24 September 2012

Raspberries: always good value.

Ah, raspberries, lovely!

Here is the harvest from today:  there were just as many yesterday, and will no doubt be just as many tomorrow.

I always recommend rasps as being one of the easiest soft fruits to grow - as long as you like eating them of course.  I started with about six plants, which came from my allotment, and which were stragglers, growing out of line. They were simply pulled up, each with about six inches of root: I then plonked those in a rough curve in my back garden and left them to get on with it.  They were fruiting the next year, and have continued to thicken up and crop well ever since. 

Bad points:
1) They do tend to send up suckers everywhere. You have to be on the alert for them, and as soon as you identify one, pull it up bodily.
2) You do need to wear gloves to do so, as they are very prickly on the stem, and on the leaves.
3) After a couple of years, you go through a phase of being sick to death of them, so you stop picking them altogether.

Good  points:

1) Practically nil maintenance. (see below)
2) Enthusiastic and generous croppers.
3) Rasps are very easy to freeze! (see below)
4) Rasps are very expensive to buy!!!

So, a word about the maintenance. Don't be suckered (ha! ha!) into buying early fruiting ones. They are a pain:  they require permanent frames, wires, training, a complicated two-year fruiting regime and generally faffing about. And for what? To get rasps maybe a month earlier, when there are plenty of other fruits around. No, I suggest you buy "ordinary" autumn fruiting ones, and I recommend Autumn Bliss as being the best.   These ones don't need staking, they don't need wires to keep them upright, they don't need training: every winter you chop every single stem down right to the ground and throw all the tops away. Could not be simpler.  In my garden, they don't even require netting, as the birds don't seem to be interested in them.

As mentioned, they do send up suckers: if these appear close to the originals then fine, they become part of the block: but they will send runners right the way across the garden if they have to.

Mine are planted in a gap in the membrane, under the shingle, so they send out scouts to find weak points in the membrane, then push their way up and through the shingle: I simply pull out any that I spot.

They don't need frames or training - but my garden is very small, so I put up a wooden post at each end of the row, and one in the middle, and I wrap a length of green rope around them, to hope them more or less upright, and to give me room to squeeze past them on both sides. With a bigger garden, this simply would not be necessary.

They start cropping in late July ish, depending on the weather: and usually they keep on going right into November. Fantastic! If you don't pick them every day, or at least every other day, you get some that go over-ripe and then go mouldy, which is pretty revolting, but easily prevented by getting out there every day and picking.  When I've had enough to eat, I freeze some - just spread them out in a single layer on a metal baking tray, into the freezer, and when solid, shake them off the tray into bags or boxes and stack them neatly in the freezer. They last for months, and taste very nearly as good thawed, as they do fresh.

If I get so many that I get tired of them, I literally just throw them on the compost, but do keep picking them, to avoid the mould.

Best of all, they do cost a huge amount in the supermarket: yet cost nothing at all to grow! Of course, you may have to buy your original plants, but as they are so prone to suckering, you may well find that by asking around, you can get some for free, as I did. Well, they were from my own allotment, but you know what I mean.  Suckers may take a year or two to get fully established, but time flies, and in no time you will have your own crop, right on your doorstep.

I don't feed or fertilise mine, nor do I water them, they seem to do perfectly well on their own.

What more could you ask?! 



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Thursday, 6 September 2012

The Hunt for the Hemlock

Hemlock? What, that poisonous stuff?

Yes, that poisonous stuff.

Morag, one of my botany crew, emailed me last week to say that while out botanising, she'd found what she thought was Hemlock - Conium maculatum - and would I have a look to see if I agreed.

I know what you are thinking: "Looks just like Cow Parsley!"

Yes, there is a running joke that most people assume that white-flowered "stuff" on road verges is Cow Parsley, but actually there are a large number of Umbellifers - that is, plants who present their flowers in the typical Cow Parsley stiff flattened bridesmaid's bouquet, think "umbrella" - and it's quite a knack to differentiate between them.

Morag is studying Umbellifers as her specialist subject this year, so she's been on the look-out for interesting ones, and this certainly is an interesting one! It definitely looks like Hemlock -  purple stem and all - but Hemlock is supposed to flower much earlier in the year, June to July.

Having looked at her photos, I tend to agree: the only other possibility is Rough Chervil, which also has a reddish stem, although that also is supposed to flower earlier in the year. So how do we check what it is?

(Brace yourselves for a Botany Bit:)

Right, first things first, that purple stem is a very definite feature, so let's take a closer look at it: clever Morag has worked out how to take photos through her hand-lens (essential equipment for all botanists, preferably worn around the neck on an old shoelace).

Here you go - the hand-lens is like a small portable magnifying glass, but rather stronger than the ones you see used in 1950s detective stories.

Brilliant picture, eh?!

You can clearly see that the stem is green, but mostly covered with purple spots or blotches, which have run together to give the impression of an overall purple stem.

There are only three commonly-found Umbellifers with purple stems, so let's have a look at them:

1) Hemlock - our first suspect.

2) Wild Angelica or Angelica sylvestris (anything whose second name contains "sylv" means "of the wood", by the way, which can help to identify  plants - see, Latin names are not useless!)

3) Rough Chervil (or Chaerophyllum temulum) I know, these names, these names, but it's really important to get to grips with "proper" or scientific plant names.

Why? (warning: digression) Well, take Hemlock. It's poisonous - very poisonous. Apparently eating six or eight leaves is enough to kill you. (Memo to self: should talk with Morag about whether we should destroy this plant before it forms a colony?) But what exactly do we mean when we say Hemlock?

Proper Hemlock: family name Conium - comes in two species, both poisonous.
Water Hemlock: family name Circuta - four species, three of which are poisonous.
Hemlock water dropwort: family name Oenanthe - one species of this family is "grown and relished as a vegetable" in Asia, several other species are poisonous, and one species in particular is poisonous enough that eating one root is sufficient to kill a cow. You really wouldn't want to get them the wrong way round, would you?
And then there is Hemlock the tree: family name Tsuga - absolutely not poisonous at all.

Anyone cropping the "Hemlock" tree and hoping to kill a rich relation would be very disappointed.

But this illustrates the importance of learning the proper names for plants.

So where were we? Oh yes,

Hemlock has smooth hollow stems with purple blotches.
Wild Angelica has hollow purple stems.
Rough Chervil has solid, hairy stems with purple spots.

(There are several additional characteristics that can be checked to confirm the ID, but I won't bore you with them here.)

Morag and I independently checked the stems: hollow, and not hairy. OK, not Rough Chervil then.

Wild Angelica's stems are homogenous purple: we know this because we have found and identified it a couple of times recently. This plant had a blotched stem.

Finally, checking the foliage, this plant had finely cut, fern-like foliage, as per the description of Hemlock, whereas Wild Angelica's leaves are quite different (technically they are pinnate) and, again, we were familiar with Wild Angelica having found it recently.

So, Conium maculataum it is!

And in case you are wondering, I checked with the county wildflower officer, and no, we don't have to report it or destroy it. Although they did suggest that if there was a school nearby, it could be used as an educational resource to teach the kiddies what not to eat.

No, that's not a joke: apparently in days gone by, children were taught about Hemlock, Briony, and all the other horrors of the natural world, but these days they are not. Something about health and safety and outings, or some such rubbish?

Anyway, Hemlock was more or less sprayed out of existence, but recent changes in agricultural policy mean that it is having a bit of a renaissance, and is once again starting to appear growing wild.  The problem is that hollow stem: children used to use them for pea-shooters, which led to numerous cases of poisoning. Hence the importance of teaching children about natural dangers.

But to be honest, I don't think the children of today would think about making pea-shooters, would they? They don't seem to play outdoors without props, as we used to (oh blimey, I'm turning into Sorrowful, Acacia Avenue, writing letters to the paper that start "Why oh why is this allowed to go on?"), they seem to have phones stuck to their ears or their thumbs all the time, not leaving any spare grip for carrying peashooters.

Besides, their idea of a practical joke seems to involve changing someone's  Facebleurk status rather than pinging a pea at them. Ah, how times have changed.