Thursday, 29 August 2013

Crown lifting of shrubs

When a shrub  has had a chance to establish itself, there comes a point where it stops being a thing of beauty and becomes a monstrous glowering thing, slamped down to the ground and looming intimidatingly over everything around it.

This is the time to take action!

Here's a Euonymous in one of my clients'  gardens: it was doing very badly in the formal garden, it had been planted for a year or two and was doing nothing, so I was instructed to dig it up and bin it.

As always, I pleaded for the life of the plant -  "can't we pop it in somewhere else to see if it will pick up?" -  and my client agreed that we would put it out in the meadow to see what happened.

I duly dug a hole, dug it up, planted it in the hole, watered well, and left it there. It received no special attention  for, ooh, two years I think, until last year when I noticed it was getting a bit untidy, and trimmed back some of the longer branches.

This year I was doing some clearance in the meadow - more of that later - and I noticed that it was flourishing. Now this is a good thing, you might think: well, yes, but it was looking heavy and untidy, and was encroaching on our carefully nurtured patch of Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis, and yes, people really did use it for washing with).

My client agreed that it was looking cumbersome, so I cut off most of the lowest branches, up to about a foot off the ground, along with some of the longest arms,

Here it is Before: yes, that lumpy thing behind the purple tree (an upright form of Acer platinoides with crimson foliage)

And here is After: no, I don't know why the colours are so different, considering the photos were taken the same morning, about two hours apart!

As you can see, it's still an informal shrub, with a "wild" outline, but instead of hugging the ground like a hefalump, it now has legs!

This is a very simple treatment, which works for most shrubs: you don't have to reduce it down to one stem like a lollipop, in fact the multi-stemmed look is very trendy at the moment: just remove all the minor branches and skinny bits.

As always with these jobs, it's best to do a preliminary chop, then stand back and assess it to ensure you don't go higher than planned.

This particular one was straightforward, being a stand-alone, but the same principle works on shrubs in borders or beds: you just have to be more careful where you stand while you are doing it.

And yes, it did involve crawling around on hands and knees (" oow! oow! nettles!") underneath the shrub, with my hair all on end and spiders down my neck, but that's what my client pays me for!



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Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Distraction gardening... the best sort of gardening.

This morning,  perfect example: I arrived at the Client's garden with a target job in mind, and some donated Hellebores in a bucket.

Right! First job, locate the wheelbarrow. Not as simple as it sounds, as the garden extends to nearly three acres (at least three-quarters of an acre of that is lake, but that just means there is no short-cut across it) and the wheelbarrow tends to get left where it is last used. Eventually I found it, full of woody stuff clearly due to be taken up to the Bonfire Plateau.

Off I trundle to empty it.

On the way, I have to go along the border path, and oh! what's happened here? Due to the weather I missed my session last week, and in a fortnight the various geraniums (gerania?) and the Alchemilla mollis have finished flowering and have flopped all over the path. I heartlessly ran them over with the wheelbarrow, emptied it, and returned to clear the path. 

By the time I had cut back three-quarters of the way along the path, the wheelbarrow was full to bursting so I hastened off to Compost Corner, which is the opposite side and end of the garden from the Bonfire Plateau. Remember the lake?  Yup, no short cut.

On the way back to the border path, coming back the other way round the lake, I found the path partially blocked by the weeping willow, so that had a bit of careful crown-lifting -  you know, anything to avoid the "mum-did-my-fringe" kitchen-scissors pudding-basin effect - and having artistically arranged that to my satisfaction, I continued on, only to find the dog rose arching over the path is now catching at my hair, so that had to be trimmed and up-lifted as well: hmm, the barrow is only half full, and now I have to go back to the Bonfire Plateau, so I may as well fill it.

Right, the sallow is overhanging the seat and blocking the view, so that might as well be lifted. ("snip, snip, snip") and I may as well dead-head the dear old Z├ęphirine Drouhin rose, much loved by me as it is thornless and therefore a treat to dead-head, instead of savaging me, as roses normally do.

Bonfire Plateau, tip out, back down the steps, finish clearing the border path, right, take this lot to Compost Corner:  as I'm at the house end of the border path I'll go up the side of the garage and - oh crikey, look at the Vitis coignetiae (Crimson Glory Vine) it has smothered the garage again, no wonder the Client's car is sitting out on the drive today, they probably can't get the automatic door to open!

Off to my car to get my little steps, snip, snip, snip, clear the door, clear the side gutters, clear the pathway (having to peel the tendrils off the large lumps of shingle which are so not compostable) clear the side door, barrow now full, off to Compost Corner we go.

Ah, now we have to get round the house patio, and oh dear, look at the Alchemilla mollis here, looks terrible, all brown and disgusting, can't leave it like that: return from Compost Corner with empty bin, fill it up, empty it, fill it up again: Client appears, time to move my car so that she can get out. We look at the weeds growing on the drive. She looks at me. I look at her.

Correctly interpreting her look, I suggest that I spray the drive. We move the cars: I wave off the Client, re-park, locate the Pathclear, get down the sprayer, put one in the other, spray the drive, wash out the sprayer, put it away, get back to the wheelbarrow and I'm off to Compost Corner again.

This time, on the way back I glance up at the front of the house and see all the dead roses under the window - well, actually, growing over the window. That means every time my Client and husband look out of the window they are seeing dead flowers. Horrors! They have to go!

Dead-head and prune the rose.  Might as well do the one by the front door while I'm here. Oh,  and the one in the courtyard, which I am training into an angled chequerboard pattern. Cheers and hoorays, it has made two new sprouts, perfectly positioned for my training plan. Check pockets: drat, no flexi-tye, run back to my car to get some, tie in the new shoots, dead-head the rest of it. Admire it. Look around guiltily - it's not my garden to stand in and admire!! It's  my responsibility to make it nice for the Client!!

By now the wheelbarrow is nearly full again, so I'm off to the Bonfire Plateau again, chopping odd woody bits as I go.

Now, where had I got to? Oh yes, the house patio, finish off the Alchemilla, look speculatively at the Escallonia which is threatening to block the windows: check my watch, good lord, only ten minutes to go, and I haven't planted those Hellebores!

Rush round the house at top speed looking for some bare soil so that I can heel them in - I'll need rather more than ten minutes for the proper planting job,  as I have to clear a space for them and underplant them. Manage to squeeze the Hellebores in under the clematis, give them a hasty watering, and fingers crossed that they will survive until next week.

Distraction gardening: my favourite!

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Friday, 9 August 2013

GreenPlantSwap: a new way to sell plants!

The creator of this site very kindly invited me to join it: ever heard of it? No? Well, it's young, but it's daily growing, as they say in the song.

Here's my Grower page - (yes, that's me in the waders!)

...and here's a Link to GreenPlantSwap, to take you straight there.

The idea is to put us all in touch with local growers, thus reducing plant miles, supporting local industry, and providing us with plants which are likely to thrive in our location, rather than all this stuff that is bought in from Dutch polytunnels, and which either expires the day after you buy it, or needs weeks in a cold frame to be hardened off.

Has to be a good thing, eh?!

I have put up a selection of my plants on this new site, and I will be adding more as I get time: it gives you a better way to look at them, with photos of the mature plants as well as my personal photos of my plants: full information on how to grow them, other sellers to compare with (so that you can see how very reasonable my prices are, ha! ha!) and you can search through them by category: ie, you can select all the Grasses and Bamboos, or all the Hedging, or all the Climbers.

This should make it easier to select the plants that you want.

You can either email me direct, or via the site - like all websites these days, they like you to sign in, but the process is very easy, and does not cost anything. Don't forget that I offer free delivery on orders of £20 or more in and around Wantage.. and if you don't live nearby, but see something that you really, really want... well, email me anyway, as I might have a smaller pot of the same plant that can be posted to you.

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Monday, 5 August 2013

Laurel: time to lighten it

I always enjoy having a good chop at something: I shall resist the temptation to laugh in a "mwah haa haah!" manner at this point, in case you get the idea that I can't be trusted to neaten a shrub without being drastic with it: I can - be trusted, that is - but it's nice to have the chance to really get to work on something.

Most of my clients are - perfectly understandably - not able to be as drastic as the plant requires: unless you work with plants all year round, it can be quite scary to make a big change to a plant, in case you kill it.

With my many years of experience, I know that it's actually quite hard to kill plants, and that most of them are actually rejuvenated by having some major work done to them.

Exhibit A, today, is a very large freestanding Laurel bush, which I have chopped every couple of years in order to prevent it from taking over the entire corner of the garden. It hides a water butt, a pile of hardcore, and the bare lower trunk of a Prunus cerasifera which is really past its best... but we need to keep it within bounds, otherwise we can't walk round it.

Two years ago, the very old apple tree next to it died, and my client wanted to grow a climbing rose up the skeleton of the old tree: she persuaded the tree surgeon to remove all but the bigger branches, and to trim those to make a balanced frame. This has worked out quite well, rather better than I expected it to, but now the Laurel is encroaching on the apple, so I was given permission to cut it right back.

Usually I go in there with my big loppers and reduce the whole bush by five or six feet in all directions: if you were to look inside the canopy, you would clearly see where the last chop took place, as there are thick new stems sprouting from each lopped branch.

This year, however, my client wanted to keep the height, as a backdrop to the rose, and to hide the worsening Prunus. But she wanted me to clear the ground, and make it possible to see through the lower branches.

Here's what I started with:

 On the left is an island bed with a hydrangea, behind that another bed with a tree peony: then there is the mighty Laurel, behind the wooden chair, and to the right of the chair is the trunk of the dead apple tree.

As you can see, they are merging into one great mass.

The first job is to lop off the very lowest branches of the Laurel, right back to the main trunks.

This immediately clears the ground at ankle height, and can often be all that is required.

However, as we used to be able to walk around the back of the chair, I then trimmed with secateurs all the branches which were extending beyond an imaginary circle of about ten or twelve feet across, which would be clear of the chair, the apple, the peony bed and the water butt round the back.

Ooh, that's a bit better.

Suddenly there is daylight under the Laurel, the tree peony is no longer being squashed, and we can now walk once more behind the chair.

This is what the back used to look like - just the normal bushy growth of Laurel, as you would expect, with a lot of dead leaves under the centre of the shrub.

Can you see the chair? Nope, me neither.

And isn't that a bit more stylish?


The chair!

My instructions were to leave the dead leaves in a neat circle around the trunk - well, we all know that won't last longer than five minutes or one windy day, but for today, it did look rather neat.

And I had the satisfaction of knowing that there is one job that is going to last for a couple of seasons.

Then, of course, it took me half an hour to chop up the branches I had removed, and drag them all out to the bonfire heap.... 



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Friday, 2 August 2013

I'm so tasty...

... just look at my left heel:

And this is the reason that I wear thick socks and big boots when I work, even in the hottest of hot summers - "grass is full of biting beasties!"

Half an hour sockless, and I come home with clear evidence that something has walked up my shoe, onto my ankle, then gone for a short walk, taking lunch breaks along the way.

Presumably after three goes, he was full up?

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Scythe equipment

It's lovely to see how much interest this whole scythe thing is generating, I wish I'd started writing about it earlier!

Today - equipment.

I have an Austrian scythe, so if you have something other than that, this might not apply to you: and if you are still thinking about getting a scythe, then I would strongly recommend the Austrian scythe, it's light, well balanced, and easy to use.

I bought mine from Simon Fairlie at The Scythe Shop, (I do like a website that says what it does) and he supplies a good package of information, both on his website and with the documentation accompanying your new scythe.

Right, scythe equipment.

The first thing I bought was a long canvas bag, in which to carry the blade and all the odds and ends which I think are necessary and/or useful. After a few times, I found that the odd bits of equipment were a bit lost inside what is quite a big bag - and also, early on, I nearly lost my whetstone and holder  because I had left them on a fence post to dry before I packed them away... and yes, I walked off without them and had to tear back at top speed before they disappeared!

So I made myself a Scythe Tool Roll with a pocket for each item:

Here it is, showing you what it contains. From the left, there is the lower handle, then the upper handle, the sheath (I have the copper one, as you can see), the whetstone for honing, a spanner for tightening handles, and the allen key for tightening the blade holders.

Then there is a small handful of "spares" which I thought was sensible - I haven't yet dropped one of the small washers or nuts onto long grass and been unable to find it again, but I can see it happening one day -  and the wooden wedge, which I don't use at this time, but I might need it one day, when my style improves.

Here - right - is the tool roll with everything tucked in place.

There is a small pocket on the lower right-hand corner for the washers, nuts and wingnuts, and a slit for the wooden wedge.

The top flaps down to cover the pockets, which keeps everything in place and helps prevent them rubbing against each other in transit.


I then roll it up from the right-hand side into a slightly lumpy bundle...

 ...which is then easy to pick up and transport.

here you go, nice handy size.

Out in the field, every pocket should be filled, so if at the end of a session there is an empty pocket... well, we know what that means!

("turn around, go back and look for whatever is missing!")

So far this has proved to be a good philosophy, as there have been several occasions where I've put something down and not realised it: the sheath and the whetstone are the worst for nearly being left behind!

The best thing I was given was a plastic scythe cover, made for me by my friend Jim, who got me interested in scything last year. This makes it a great deal easier to move it around!

Here it is - very simple, just a piece of stout plastic sheet, bent over and fastened with rivets.

The blade curls neatly inside it, and there is a lovely low-tech shoe-lace at the end for tying round the blade.

Here's the cover with the blade part-way out, to show you.

Being somewhat curved, the cover has to be wide enough to accommodate the whole thing.

It is deliberately oversized, so that the blade has plenty of room to dry, and doesn't "sweat" inside it.

I have heard tales of the canvas covers absorbing water and causing - sharp intake of breath - rust!!!

So I'm very happy to have nice wipe-clean plastic covers, that don't encourage rust!

Finally there is the bag itself: it cost a few pounds from an Army and Navy Surplus store, and is pretty cheap and cheerful - no pockets, nothing fancy, just a plain long bag with a zip.

Here it is stuffed ready for action - the scythe blade in its cover just fits nicely inside the bag.

I felt a bit of a fool going round the shops with a tape measure, but it was worth it to get something long enough that no part of the blade - covered or not - sticks out.

In case you wondered about the contraption on the end, I added a couple of webbing straps, to hold a couple of water bottles.

You need water for the whetstone, hence the old milk carton (the lids live inside the bag when not in use, so the bottles stay fresh) and I generally get quite thirsty when working outside, so I take a bottle of water to drink, as well.

Yes, I suppose I could just take two ordinary bottles of water... maybe my tidy mind likes to have one of "dirty" water, which can be refilled at water butts if necessary, and one of "clean" water to drink.  Anyway, there they are: I found that inside the bag, they tended to fall over and sometimes leak, so it seemed easier to hang them on the outside where they stay upright.

As well as taking the tool roll and the blade, I take along an old pair of gloves, one of which (the right hand one) is stuffed into my pocket when working, so that I can pull it out for honing.

I take both of them, in case I feel the need to wear gloves - but mostly I enjoy the luxury of being able to work bare-handed.

The WD40 is used at the end of the day, once I've wiped off the grass from the blade and let it dry, I give it a squirt and put it in the cover for transport home.

And the first aid kit? Oh, I'm a big believer in "better to have it and not need it, than the other way round" so I assembled a kit which includes sticky plasters, antiseptic wipes, scissors, tweezers (for splinters), steri-strip "stitches" in case of slashes; odd dressings and micropore tape, a small tube of savlon, same of antihistamine cream for insect bites: a bandage, some eye-flush (you never know...) and anything else I think might be useful.

So far, the only injury I've had has been a major slash from brambles in the hedge, nothing to do with the scythe at all: and that's how I hope it will stay.

But it's good to be prepared.

So there you go, that's my Scythe Equipment bag: all I have to do is put in the blade, pick up the handle, fill up the water bottles, sling it on my shoulder and off I go, quite self-contained.