Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Why is Botany a failing subject?

Did you know that it is now not possible to do a degree in Botany? It just does not exist. The last botany-specific degree, at Bristol Uni, closed in April 2011. The subject is now lumped in under something woolly like "Plant Sciences" which seems to cover a lot of eco and ethno, but not a lot of actual Botany.

Mind you, when there are hardly any paying jobs as a Botanist, what can you expect? I do strongly believe that universities have a duty to provide education in fields where there might be jobs at the end of the course, and not to waste our/my tax-payers' money on frivolous degrees or devalued subjects such as the infamous "Media studies".

Of course, this problem does not apply to Botany alone - why, just recently there has been a case in the main BBC news about a Geology graduate who complained that having to spend a fortnight stacking shelves in her local supermarket (in order to keep her job-seeker's allowance, or "dole" as it used to be) did not result in a job for her, and took her away from her voluntary work.

What does this say, apart from the obvious conclusions that a) a degree in Geology is four years wasted if you can't get a job, and b) geology graduates clearly feel that they are somehow above shelf-stacking?

Sarcasm aside - I have no sympathy for someone who has taken four years of expensive education, most of which is funded by me, the tax-payer, and has failed to find themselves any sort of job at the end of it - her main complaint was that two weeks of shelf-stacking took her away from her voluntary job.

No-one asked her what that voluntary job was, but I rather suspect (or shall we say I damn well hope) that it was in her chosen field, and that she had found that doing unpaid work was the only way to get experience that was in any way relative to her degree.

Now, on this subject, I recently had a short article printed, titled "Volunteers: the enemy within" in which I expressed my opinion that garden volunteers were a huge part of the problem for Horticultural workers: why would any employer pay a living wage, when they know they can get workers for free? This particularly applies to large gardens which are open to the public - many of them openly admit that they would not be able to open if they had to pay all the gardeners. The National Trust are one of the worst offenders: I was prompted to write the article by the Waddesdon House website, which was appealing for volunteer gardeners, "no experience required".

What does this say about gardeners?

It says that as long as you give them a five-minute chat and point them in the right direction, anyone can be a "gardener". No experience required. Certainly no qualifications. Not worth paying for, then.

And yet gardening - proper, professional gardening - is actually highly technical, requiring skill, patience, practice, and a sustained regime of pruning, shaping, cutting, and nurturing. It's not even just remembering all the plant names - it's knowing what soil and water conditions each of them need to thrive, how they need to be seasonally assisted or restrained: what pest control help they will need, and when to apply it: how to cope with changing climate and soil conditions, how to make the best of what you have, how to successfully propagate the huge variety of plants: coping with accidental damage or animal destruction: well, I could go on for quite some time, but you get the picture.

And Botanists are a step beyond Gardeners.  And I can say that, as I am both.

So why do we need Botanists, then, as opposed to Gardeners?

In a nutshell, I guess you could say that Botanists are specialists and scientists, whereas Gardeners are generalists and get-on-with-its.

Recently there has been a  lot of publicity for the Ash dieback disease, which looks as though it is going to change the look of the countryside in much the same way that Dutch Elm disease has done.

And people have suddenly realised that there are no young people in this country studying Plant Pathology, which is basically Why Plants Die.


Plant Pathology used to be part of the Botany degree, but now I see that you are lucky to get one lecture on the subject in your woolly Plant Sciences degree, even though the title "sciences" should, I would have thought, included more of the scientific side of things. Analysis, soil composition, DNA, GM, cultural experiments, that sort of thing. Apparently not.

So in a decade or two,  we will find out current crop of Botanists retiring (not that that seems to stop Botanists, ha ha!) with none to replace them, so we will have to buy in all our research from overseas: from Plant Pathologists who don't live here, don't work in our climate, and possibly might not be the best people to analyse problems.


It almost  looks as though Botany is going back to it's roots - whoops, pun unintentional! - and the only people who will be able to study it will be those who are privately funded.

Rather like the old days when "gels" and "Young Ladies" were sent off to college to learn embroidery, botany, and playing the pianoforte....

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Monday, 18 February 2013

Buddlea - time for the annual chop

Buddlea are famous for growing into mad monstrous shrubs, and if you want to keep them under control, you have to give them a very stern annual chop.

Today it was the turn of a fairly aged specimen, which in earlier years had split, fallen over, re-grown, split again and so on. 

Once it was subjected to my tender mercies, it quickly developed a framework, so that we would have clear space underneath it, and flowers at a variety of heights: if you chop it all down to waist height, or knee height, you get a sort of "lollipop" effect, which can be very attractive, or which can be downright ugly.

For this one, I choose to keep three main uprights, at slightly different heights, with a couple of lower ones.

As per my post of last week, I tried very hard to remember to do a "Before" photo, and I very nearly managed it: I'd done half of the first upright before I remembered, oops!

So here it is, more-or-less Before:

 As you can see, having been trimmed to this framework last year, it produced a mass of long, straight shoots, giving a very good "covered with flowers" bush through the summer.

All I have to do it cut off each growth, as low as possible.

This results - due to the delights of apical dominance - in each cut stem producing two or three new stems in the following season, so the shrub just gets bushier and more floriferous every year.

And here is the finished article, retaining the three main branches, which are more staggered in height than they appear from this angle.

I have also trimmed off all the whiskery bits and pieces, and have removed any dead stems.

And not a moment too soon, there were already bunches of leaves to be seen: and if you leave it too long, all that energy is wasted, so if you have not already done so, get out there and get that Buddlea chopped!

Friday, 15 February 2013

Mahonia cuttings: truncheon method

"Truncheon method?" I hear you ask.

Today, mid February, my client and I agreed that the Mahonia (cultivar unknown, but not "Charity" as she seriously dislikes that one and wouldn't have it in the garden) was now fighting with the bamboo behind, and we both agreed that we preferred the bamboo.

As both were about the same height (it's a semi-dwarf bamboo) I suggested that we should brutally chop the Mahonia down to about shin height, so that when it regrew,  instead of fighting, we'd have one leaf shape below, and the other above.

We both liked this idea.

My client then asked if the material to be removed could be used as cuttings. Resisting the urge to say incredulously "in the middle of winter??", I put forward the opinion that it was always worth having a go, and suggested trimming the off-cuts down to about two feet in length, then simply ramming them into the nursery bed, and we would see what happens in spring.

Now, this work certainly doesn't fall into the category of softwood cuttings taken in summer, nor of semi-ripe cuttings taken in autumn. It's also not quite hardwood cuttings, in fact the nearest technique is probably that of the truncheon, which is basically taking a branch, removing all smaller branches, leaves etc, then ramming 50%-75% of it into the ground and leaving for a couple of years. It's a well-established propagation technique for quite a few trees, including fig, and particularly including Mulberry.

I say that with gritted teeth, as I have repeatedly tried this technique with this same client's Mulberry, and have totally failed to get a single one to root. I have a feeling that I've been too modest in my material: most of the references to this technique refer to branches as big as your arm.

Anyway, there it was, we'll try the truncheon technique, so after cutting the shrub down to size, I took half a dozen of the best of the off-cuts out to the meadow (yes - this client's garden is so big it has a meadow, sigh), trimmed off the lower material, reduced the top leaves to just a couple of leaflets, and rammed them into the soil.

There you go, don't they look ridiculous?

I sloshed a bucket of water over them - quite un-necessarily, bearing in mind how damp the soil is, but old habits die hard - and now we will leave them until Spring, and see what happens.

I might even have another go at the Mulberry.....




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Thursday, 14 February 2013

Renovating an overgrown Hazel

Hazel - familiar to all of us for the catkins in spring, and the nuts in autumn. Due to those naughty, naughty squirrels, the nuts are often buried in our flowerbeds, leaving us with surprise Hazel trees in later years.

In many cases, the seedlings go un-noticed until they are quite well established, and then - I hate to say this, but I've seen it so often that I know it to be true - it often happens that they are beheaded at ground level by the garden owner, or by a lazy gardener, instead of being dug out properly.

Now, this happens more often that I would like: usually with persistent self-seeders, such as Ash, Sycamore, Hawthorn and Blackthorn. This leaves the roots undamaged, allowing quicker and thicker re-growth of the top. And then they say to the gardener (me) "Oh, could you just pull those little seedlings out," unaware that the so-called seedling actually has a five-year-old root system, and now takes a fork and a serious excavation to remove it.


Anyway, back to the Hazel - when beheading happens to a Hazel, be it lazy, accidental, or on purpose, the result is basically a coppice. Coppicing is an ancient woodland management system: suitable trees were chopped at ankle height (or at waist or head height, when it's called Pollarding, but it's the same principle) to promote the growth of lots and lots of smaller stems, rather than the traditional single trunk.

Walk around any woodland, or parkland, and you will find coppiced Hazel, usually in groves, and - these days - usually massively overgrown.  They look like a photo of an explosion at ground level: a mass of stems, all much of a thickness, sprouting from one single point.

One of my clients has a couple of them: one was the result of ramming some "pea sticks" rather too firmly into the vegetable garden, and leaving them for a couple of years, not realising that they were Hazel and therefore (like Willow) hard to kill.

Another was planted by a squirrel, but they liked it, so they left it.

Now, it's a monstrous thing, and today I decided to tidy it up a bit.

Typically, I forgot to take a "Before" picture [memo to self: really, REALLY must remember to do that] so you'll have to take my word for it that the lower branches had spread out to the point where they obstructed the steps, and the bank. Which is currently sprouting snowdrops, and would look lovely, if only we could see it...

So I set to work with my trusty bowsaw, removing the outer layer of mostly horizontal growth.

Here's the result: a much neater shape, with the lower branches cleared away, along with some thin stragglers.

Here are some of my cuts to the base: as you can see, some of these stems are now quite substantial, they are thicker round than my wrist, but all were easy to nip off with the trusty bowsaw.

I try to cut as low down as possible, and with a slight slant to allow water to run off the cut - yes, just like when we prune roses, but on a more industrial scale.

Sometimes, as in that small one to the right, you just can't get "at" them cleanly, so that one was cut just as far down as I could reach.

And yes, I could have gone all the way back to my bag and got out the small pruning saw...  but when paid to work, there is always a calculation of Time It Takes To Get Correct Tool versus Money. And when I'm at the far end of a garden, well, sometimes I just do make do with the tools I have to hand.

This is the other side of the tree, showing some more cuts.

The steps are now clear, and we can now see the snowdrops when we come in the side gate: success!

By the way, there are two types of Hazel commonly found in the UK - Corylus avellana is the normal, common Hazel, found in woodlands, parkland, road verges, canal-side walks and so on.

The other is Corylus maxima or Filbert, which is more often found in vegetable gardens where they were deliberately planted, as they produce larger nuts.

I'm not including Contorted Hazel, which I would only expect to find in ornamental gardens, as they are very expensive to buy.  Both C. avellana and C. maxima have a "Contorta" cultivar, and I rather think that there is a red-leaved variety as well.  All of them look very interesting in winter, and hideous the rest of the year - in my opinion - as the leaves are as contorted as the stems, leaving them look as though they are suffereing from some weird disease.  *shudders*

If you really want something with contorted stems, I would always suggest going for contorted Willow instead - Salix babylonica "Tortuosa" - which has very similar stems, but has long, elegant leaves that look nice all summer through: plus it does not throw up annoying straight stems, and of course you can chop it back wildly whenever you feel like it, as it's fast-growing. And every branch that you cut off will grow: so instead of one very expensive slow-growing shrub, you get as many fast-growing but easily-manageable shrubs as you wish.

So, when out walking, if you see a tree with lots of smaller stems, instead of one trunk, very much like the one pictured above, then it is probably Hazel.  And at this time of year, it will have catkins!

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Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Winter Aconites - lift and split

It's that time of year again... the Winter Aconite are going over, and it's the right time to move them around the garden.

First things first: Winter Aconite is NOT part of the Aconite family,  and it is NOT poisonous. The correct name is Eranthis hyemalis, and the common name simply reflects the similarity in the shape of the leaves.

They are one of my favourite flowers, one of the few to be flowering from very early in the year, and they are so brave and defiant, such tiny little flowers in all that harsh weather... irresistible.  By March, we're all sick and tired of yellow in the garden, but in January, it's a treat to see them, especially as they tend to come out some weeks before the snowdrops.

For some reason, they have a reputation for being difficult to establish, and I have no idea why, as I have successfully moved them around the garden, around the village, and to other villages altogether. I have moved them in flower, I have moved them when they have gone over (ie finished flowering) and I have raised them from seed, with no problems at all.

My only thought is that if anyone were to buy them at any other time of the year, you'd have the same problem that you get with snowdrops: if you buy dry bulbs, there is a high chance that they have been stored dry for some months, and have therefore died. It's far better to buy them them when they are flowering - not least because then you get free seed, as well as the bought bulbs.

Here is my step-by-step guide to moving Eranthis hyemalis:

Firstly, decide where you can take them from:

Plenty to choose from here!

And by the way, five years ago, there were none here. None at all. I have been gradually moving a few clumps each year from elsewhere in the garden, and they are building up into a fine colony.

So now when I am asked to pot some up for friends and relatives, or when I decide to move a few, this is my first port of call - "under the weeping ash".

Next, select your clump.

I like to take a mature, flowering, clump, on the grounds that if by any chance the bulbs don't survive the move, then the seeds will at least have a chance to get it all started in the new location.

You can see on the left of the fork, there are lots of much smaller leaves: these are the seedlings from previous years, and they illustrate nicely how this plant will quickly form a carpet.

Now gently lever the fork, to lift the clump out of the ground. They don't root very deeply, and it's easy to get right underneath them.

I tend to lift out the whole clump on the fork, then "bounce" it a few times to shake off any loose dirt.

This helps me to check for unwanted weeds - this patch is a bit prone to Cow Parsley infiltrators, and I don't want to give any casuals a head-start elsewhere in the garden.

 Here is the clump after shaking, and you can see the mass of fibrous roots which are under the bulbs, and the length of pale white stems which were above the bulbs, but under the soil.

As I said, a good time to check for unwanted weeds, odd roots, and other rubbish.
Then into the bucket they go, to be planted elsewhere.

Planting consists of digging out a fairly deep hole, chopping up the soil until it is as loose as possible given the conditions: settling the clump in place, somewhat deeper than it was before, then firming the loose soil around it.

At this time of year I don't usually bother to water them in, as there is plenty of moisture in the soil.

This lot went into the top of the Paddock Bed, where they will - in future years - be enjoyed from the kitchen window.  I also took another bucketful to fill in under the Dove Tree, and some more to bulk up those already making progress across the Perfume Bed.

I also made up another three potfulls to be given away: in that case, I simply potted them up in the usual way, watered them in well, and left them outside the greenhouse, ready to be given away by my client,  when required.

And the amazing thing today was that the soil was - as you can see - quite friable and light, despite being damp. Shaking removed most of it from the roots. And yet - turning uphill and waving dramatically at the skyline:

...there was snow on the higher ground!

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Botany Crib Sheets

One of my Botany Crew was expressing an interest in my crib sheets the other day.

Crib sheets? What are they, I hear you say.

Well, when looking at plants, after a while, you get quite proficient at identifying what type of plant it is ("errr, it's a thistle") but the tricky part is finding out exactly which thistle it is.

Firstly a quick reminder of how plants are named: all plants belong to a family, but often the families are HUGE so they are not much help. For example, the Rose family - Rosaceae - contains Rowans, Cherries, Blackthorn, Pears, Hawthorns, brambles, Potentillas, strawberries, Agrimonies, Geums, Meadowsweet, the Sanguisorbas, the Alchemillas, not to mention actual roses.

Once you get beyond the Family, you get Genus, then Species.

So, for example, the common bramble is in the family Rosaceae, genus Rubus, species fruticosus.

You could say that the Family is the ethnic group, the Genus is the surname, and the species is the christian name. So we don't use Family much in everyday botany.

And of course you will already have realised that plants are named chinese-style, with the surname first. Or like a school register. Once you get accustomed to that, it gets easier to remember them!

Surnames are capitalised, first names are not: properly speaking the whole thing should be in italics but I think that makes it look too daunting to non-botanists.

So there are several plants called Rubus: Rubus fruticosus is the common blackberry, and Rubus idaeus is the common raspberry. Garden plants usually have an extra name at the end, often in single quotes: they have been bred and bred until there are many different sub-species, or cultivars. So the things I have in my back garden are Rubus idaeus 'Autumn Bliss'. And it should be written Rubus idaeus 'Autumn Bliss'.

 In my experience, the differences between the various species (christian names, but appearing after the surname, remember?) often boil down to just one or two characteristics, so the trick is remember which characteristics are relevant to your plant, and which way round it is.

I call these the defining characteristics.

F'rinstance, there are three common types of a pretty blue field flower called Scabious. At first glance, they all look pretty similar.

[Diversion: what a horrible name, Scabious.  No wonder they are still not particularly popular garden flowers. I often wonder if the fairy of the Scabious is madly, horribly jealous of the, for instance, Wintersweet fairy... End of diversion.]

So, Scabious, wildflower-type, non-cultivated, the sort you would find out in the wild:

If you look at pictures, preferably in a reference book rather than on Google images (as many of those are wrongly labelled!) or if you look at the actual flowers in the field, you will quickly see that they have two sets of leaves.

One set of leaves appear at ground level, and are called basal leaves.

The other leaves appear part-way up the flowering stem -  known as stem leaves.

I've done a quick cut-and-paste for you:

It's not always easy to work out these details at first, but the more you do, the easier it becomes: look at the leaves on each picture, and work out which are the basal leaves (basal, base, bottom), and which are the stem leaves.

The central one, annoyingly, has cut the plant in half and put the top half over the bottom half, so look closely.

Then say to yourself  "If the leaf is long and sort of lance-shaped, and does not have any lobes or shapes or cut-outs, then it is SIMPLE. If the leaf looks as though someone has been at it with the scissors, cutting into it from the outside, but not quite as far as the central vein, then it is no longer simple, in fact it is PINNATAFID."

Now look again at the pictures (ok, you can read the caption as well) and see what conclusions you can reach.

So, on the left is Small Scabious or Scabiosa columbaria. (see - putting it in italics makes it less accessible, doesn't it? Admit it, you didn't even read the latin name, did you?) The lower leaves are pinnatafid, but the upper leaves are very simple. They are long and thin. Lanceolate - like a lance.

In the middle is Field Scabious or Knautia arvensis: the lower leaves - follow the stem up from the root and the first pair you find are simple. All the rest are pinnatafid.

On the right is Devil's Bit Scabious or Succisa pratensis: and all the leaves are simple. No pinnatafid ones at all. But they are not as thin as those of Small Scabious.

So if you now find a delicate blue flower, on a slender stem, and you are pretty sure it's a Scabious, you can look at the leaves and easily determine which one it is.

In fact, you can just look at the upper leaves, but you can then also check the lower, basal, leaves for confirmation. Although be warned, sometimes it is not easy to find the basal leaves, they have often rotted away by the time the top part is flowering.

Now  you've learned all that, fine and dandy: but how are you to remember it, when there are several thousand other wild flowers to learn?

Answer: a crib.

Either write or type these defining characteristics in a grid.

Now, as soon as you look at it, you can see that it's not 100% clear: if you can't find any basal leaves, and can only look at the upper leaves and they were simple, would it be Small, or Devil's Bit?  So you look again at the illustrations, and you can see that the Small Scabious upper leaves are very fine, very narrow - lanceolate, in fact - whereas those of Devil's Bit are more what you would call leaf-shaped.

So you add the word Lanceolate to the upper leaves of Small Scabious.

There you go - a quick simple crib, to remind you of the salient points, which you can carry with you and quickly check, rather than having to wade through a whole paragraph of botanical description.

And after a while, you find that you won't need it any more.

(Of course, if your specimen doesn't "fit" within the crib, then you have to dig out the reference books and go through the less common options. But you will quickly find that in most cases, you are seeing the commonest varieties.)

I have a whole pack of such cribs, on index cards with a ring through the corner, easy to flip through. Or at least they were before they got wet the other week... but that's why I type mine and hold them on the PC, so that I can re-print them when they get wet, or update them when I find additional information, or mistakes.

The plan is to laminate them, once they are "perfect".

"And then sell them!" says Stephanie, looking at me hopefully....

Ah, but making your own cribs helps to fix the defining characteristics in your mind, I find!

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Cow-slip? Or Cow's Lip? Now I know...

...or at least I think I do.

This has always bothered me - is it cow-slip, or is it cow's - lip: no-one has ever been able to tell me. They all just say cowzzlip and leave it at that.

But I have an enquiring mind.

Today I have been researching the humble Primrose, Primula vulgaris, and you know how it is with researching on the internet, you get distracted by all sorts of side issues.  It's wonderful, in so many ways, and I so envy those lucky souls who have managed to find a way to be paid to be botanists and NOT have to write reports, show results, etc. The ones who can just "do research" and maybe publish a paper now and again. Lucky beasts... grrr.... also to a lesser extent I envy those who are retired and can do what they want with their time - although of course if I just wait around long enough, my time will also come.


Anyway, today I was not able to work due to the weather, so I chained myself to the computer and while looking at Primroses,  I was slightly detoured onto the Cowslip, Primula veris, and this is what good old Wikipedia has to say:

Well, that answers that question. It's cow-slip. Good to know!


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