Friday, 27 September 2013

The world through a hand-lens...

Today I have a mystery picture for you: guess what this is:

Go on, have a guess!

Chocolate Cheerios?

Martian dwelling-houses?

OK I'm cheating slightly, as the photo was taken through a hand-lens. To the naked eye,. this is what it looks like:

Horrible, huh? A disgusting growth on the leaves of an oak tree, all diseased and rotten.

But not at all - when viewed through the hand-lens, you can see that what appear to be scabby pustules are actually tiny little homes, made by a Gall Wasp whose proper name is  Neuroterus numismalis.  (OK, I had to go and look it up on Wikipedia, I admit it.)

The adult wasps create these tiny formations, which are called Silk Button Spangles, great name, on the underside of Oak leaves, and their offspring develop inside the gall.

Amazing stuff, huh?

And to see this for yourself, all you need is a simple hand lens, available on Amazon for about £2.20 for a 20x ("twenty times" ie makes things twenty times bigger) folding lens.  You can get 10x lenses, but you may as well get the better one while you are at it.

This is what a standard hand-lens looks like: it folds into itself to protect the lenses, and if you want to look like a nerd botanist, you put it on a string or a shoelace, and hang it round your neck.

This is to prevent you putting it down while out "in the field" looking at things, and losing it in the long grass. OK, it does make you look a bit nerdish, but if you are lucky you will get other botanists (or bug-ists, I suppose) running up to you, saying "ooh, ooh, whatcha looking at?"

Of course, the down side of that is that you will be expected to learn a few names of things.. 

...but that's not so bad.

"Silk Button Spangles" you can announce, with authority. "They only manifest on oak leaves, you know." (True.)

And once you get a hand lens, you will find yourself looking at things, and being amazed at the detail you can see on the most ordinary of plants.

Actually, even looking at your own fingerprints through a hand lens is fascinating...

..and in case you are wondering, I took the close-up photos using my cheap phone camera, by simply holding the hand-lens over the camera lens, and getting really close to the leaf. Easy!

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Dead Elms: how to remove them

Ah, shame, Elms used to be a mighty presence in the English countryside, but after the invasion of Dutch Elm Disease, mature trees became a rare sight, and most of us have grown up only knowing Elm as a small tree, prone to suckering, and dying after a few years.

One of my clients used to have a row of Elms on the border of her property: over the years, they have all died off, but we are still enduring the suckers, which creep into the garden, grow rapidly, then die.

Here's a typical one that I was asked to remove the other week:

The Dead Elm. Ruining the view.
 As you can see, it is dead, dead, dead: it made it to about twenty feet high, then just ran out of enthusiasm.

Actually, that's a bit unfair: what happens is that a specific beetle carries the disease, and the beetles are attracted to the Elm flowers, and the Elms don't flower until they reach a certain maturity, which occurs when they reach the height of about 20-30'.

So just as a young Elm tree is starting to make itself useful as a tree, it matures enough to flower, attracts the wretched beetle, and is infected with Dutch Elm Disease. And dies.

The reason we still have Elms at all is because the disease kills the mature tree (I won't bore you with the mechanism, it's all to do with compartmentalisation and blocked phloem channels) but does not kill the roots, and as Elms are particularly good at suckering, the root is quite capable of throwing out dozens of suckers in all directions.

These will grow for ten or more years, until they reach the magic height, and then: yes, you've guessed it, they mature, they flower, they attract the beetle, they get another dose of the infection, they die.

Most Elms in the UK these days are in hedgerows, where the constant pruning keeps them well below the flowering height, so at least we still have that to be thankful for. And one day, who knows, someone might come up with a cheap vaccine for the trees.

In the meantime, here we are with a dead tree spoiling the outlook, and I am given instructions to get rid of it, but to preserve the squirrel-planted walnut tree which is growing right in front of it.

Step 1: cut down the bulk of the tree. Oops, that's actually step 2: the first job is to use my loppers to clear off most of the lower branches of the dead tree, so that I can get all round it without being poked in the ear,  and so that it will fall cleanly without demolishing the small walnut.

Cutting down is done with my trusty bowsaw and takes about ten minutes:

Dead Elm removal: first, fell your tree
There's the fallen trunk, cleared of lower branches in advance: to the right is the stump, which I have left about two foot high, and there is the little walnut tree, safe and sound.

Why a two foot stump?

Several reasons; firstly, if I am told to dig out the root, it helps to have enough stump to get hold of and rock.

Secondly, it means I can bowsaw at a moderately comfortable height, rather than kneeling down in ivy and nettles, with steamed-up glasses and sweat dripping off my nose.... come on, I get paid to work, but I'm not daft!

Once the bulk of the tree is down, I can return to the stump and assess it to see if it is possible to dig it out: in this case it is not necessary as it is part of the hedge, and actually we are quite keen to have a few more suckers coming up to work as screening while the Walnut matures. So I merely bowsaw it again, fairly close to the ground.

Elm tree removal: fell, sned but don't block!
 The top part of the tree is snedded: this means removing all the side branches, which are then chopped up into manageable sections, using my Big Orange Loppers (highly recommended, I would not be without them) where possible, and the bowsaw where not.

This leaves me with piles of brash - twiggy stuff - for the bonfire heap, and an interesting trunk for my client, who likes sculptural pieces.

And that was the end of the deal Elm!

Here is what is left: a small stump at ground level, and a little Walnut tree, wondering where all the sunshine and water is coming from!

Dead Elm tree removal: all done.
And before you ask, no, Elm is not a particularly desirable firewood: it's difficult to split, and it burns unenthusiastically and not very hot. So, if it's free and there's nothing else, on the fire it goes: but you wouldn't pay money for it.

And yes, this method of removing dead trees applies just as well to trees other than Elm - and indeed, to live trees as well!

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Tuesday, 17 September 2013

An unusual parting gift...

One of my clients is, sadly, moving away shortly, and the other week they presented me with a leaving gift:

Knowing my interest in scythes, they very kindly thought that it would be of more use to me than mouldering in their barn, unused even for Halloween costumes...

...crikey, what a thought, walking down the street with a lethally sharp blade hanging over your shoulder, and a mask on...

No - best not to think about it.

This old English scythe came as part of the accoutrements of the house when they moved in - it was in a dark corner of the barn - so they didn't know exactly how old it is. It's fairly contemporary, definitely C20th,  and they thought it might be post-war.

However, I took it along to my Scything course last weekend, and Clive the instructor told us that yes, it was an English scythe, yes, it was heavy and horrible to use, and it might not be as old as we thought - they were made right up to the end of the 70s, the very last one being made in 1982, which is staggering.  Of course, the timing coincides with the invention of the strimmer, in the 60s, which quickly gained popularity ("new toy") and put the scythe-makers of the 70s out of business.

The handle was most likely Willow, he said, and would have been steamed and bent into shape, so it was not a naturally occurring curved branch. The blade itself was badly bent at the tang (where it attaches to the handle) which is probably why the owners stopped using it, and presumably bought a strimmer instead, tucking this monster away into a dark corner of the barn where it lay, ignored, for decades.

I have no idea what I will do with it - Clive suggested the best place for these English scythes was hanging up in a pub, so I might try to find a pub which lacks one. Or possibly a museum of rural life?

If anyone has any suggestions... do let me know!Did you enjoy this article? 


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Thursday, 12 September 2013

Prettiest garden seat in the west?

Or the east, for that matter... Lookit this!

Wooden covered garden seat with hard  standing - and footrest!
Is that not the cutest garden seat you've ever seen?

So this is why my client had me chopping back the mighty laurel last month!

It arrived last week, while I was there working, and we had to get the delivery men to take it apart in order to get it into the garden, due to a 1" miscalculation as to the width of the stone gate... and the surprising resistance of the arch in the yew hedge, which was our back-up entry plan.

Still, it only took a couple of screwdrivers and five minutes to get the back and the roof off, then the components were carefully brought in (I would, at this point, use the word 'manouvre' but I don't know how to spell it) through the gate, and reassembled.


Well... not quite.  I wasn't keen on the concept of a wooden seat sitting on grass... partly for the "it will rot the legs" aspect, partly for the "you will never be able to cut the grass properly and it will tickle your ankles" problem. So I suggested that my client ask Ray, handyman and general good bloke, to build a little area of hard standing for it to sit on.

I'd seen some concrete slabs out by the leaf mould bins - as an aside, it often surprises me that I know what "junk" lives in hidden corners of my clients' garden, better than they do: actually, I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise, as I'm the one who gets sent to poke around in all the odd corners, to hide things, or find things, or move things...

...anyway, I made the suggestion, and we clambered round the back to look at the slabs.

"Well," said my client, "I never knew they were there!"

I only knew because a couple of years earlier we'd had problems with muntjac deer getting into the formal garden from the meadow, as the yew hedge is not solid at the bottom, despite it's solidarity at the archway. I had spent some hours rigging up a line of chicken wire at the base, to keep the deer out, and to be invisible from the garden, which was quite a trick.  And I remembered those slabs, as I had to move them to get the wire right to the end wall.

There were also quite a lot of bits of proper stone slab, but only broken bits and odd shapes: we were tempted by them (my client, being a lady of taste, would clearly have preferred nice stone to modern concrete) but I pointed out that the seat would need to sit flat and level, and they would be hidden underneath it, anyway.

So this week, I arrived to find the plinth beautifully laid, with a red brick edging to a) made it wide enough and b) to tie in, style-wise, with the brick-edged light gravel path nearby.

I was so thrilled! It's not often that you imagine something, describe it to someone else, who describes it to a third person, who then builds it exactly as you'd imagined it!

And I particularly liked the wooden foot rest...

Here it is from afar, nestling in the back corner of the garden:

Isn't that just lovely?

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Peening: non longer a mystery!

Well, I did it: I went on a Scythe training course, and learned how to peen my blade.

For all those out there who have asked the question, and/or expressed trepidation about it, it's not that bad!

Having done the course, I would firmly and definitely recommend attending a course (even if you are quite competent with your scythe) to learn about blade maintenance and therefore peening: there is only so much you can learn from reading about it, and although you can get a much better idea from watching some of the many YooToob videos about it, there is no substitute for sitting on a bench with someone knowledgeable watching closely, and being encouraged to do it yourself.

I even made a bit of a bish on the bit I did - I hammered twice in the same place instead of moving the blade along, resulting in a "tab" of metal extending beyond the line of the blade. "No problem," said Clive, our very nice instructor "just tap it up with the hammer and peen over it again." Alternatively, I could have filed off the excess and gone back to peening.

This shows that you can't really ruin a blade - or should I say, if you accidentally spoil the blade, someone more experienced can tell you how to recover it. Clive even told us that he had one particular old blade which he used for teaching, which was so "badly" peened that the blade was wavy and corrugated - but it still cut grass just as well as a perfectly flat one!

We were working with a peening jig, a clever little device that comes as part of the kit if you buy from Simon Farlie at The Scythe Shop - Clive commented that freehand peening was quite a skill, and that as the peening jig was pretty much foolproof to use, he saw no reason against everyone using one.

So choose a kit that comes with a peening jig, is my advice.

What is peening, exactly?  "Peening is a cold working process in which the surface of the component is deliberately deformed, in the basic method, by hammering."

And what does "cold working process" mean, exactly?

It's not like forging which requires extreme heat and skill: it's done cold, so you can do it outdoors, in the field, in the shed, or on the kitchen table, and you only need the peening jig and a hammer..

It's a "working" process - you "work" or change the metal,  manually, from one state (thick) into another (thinner).

And you do it by hammering. In our case, the skill of the hammering is removed by using the peening jig, so although we still hit it with a hammer, we don't hit the blade directly, we hit the jig and that transfers the energy to the blade in a controlled manner, and in just the right place.

I won't write a great long description about how it's done: you can find dozens of accounts on the internet, and - as mentioned - you really need to be shown how to do it, then be able to have a go yourself under supervision. It took about ten minutes to see how it was done, have a go, make a mistake, fix the mistake, and become confident. I am now fully prepared to peen my own blades as and when they need it.

The good news from the course is many fold - firstly and best, my style/technique was nowhere near as bad as I thought it was, and came in for very little criticism at all. Clive suggested that raising my upper handle a notch would cure my habit of missing the grass at the very end (left) of my stroke, and it certainly helped: I then felt the swing was uncomfortable, and realised that my lower handle was too low, so I moved that up a notch as well. Logically this should not have made any difference to my mowing, as the relationship between the two handles remained the same, but in fact it felt better in use, as I felt I was "stooping" less.

The rule about "lower handle to be on the point of your hip" is a guideline, not a firm rule and although it makes a good starting place, it is worth trying slight variations until you find the combination that works.

Second revelation of the day - the missing piece in my puzzle was my lower handle thumb position: I had been holding the handles as though using a wheelbarrow, with my thumbs wrapping round to make a circle with my fingers. I tried putting my left-hand thumb on top of the handle instead, and this instantly made it much easier to keep the blade right down on the ground at the end of each stroke.


Thirdly, my honing technique is pretty good, and my blade, on arrival, was awarded "Oh! Er, that's pretty sharp!" from Clive. Which was good news, considering I hadn't sharpened it after the last time I'd used it. I think it's all that practice using a steel on kitchen knives: it's very much the same technique but instead of wiping the knife up and down the steel, you wipe the sharpening stone down the blade from alternate sides, at a similar sort of angle. Again, hard to describe in words, easy to demonstrate.

Final good point of the day, and I'm a bit shamefaced as I say this - the other course attendees were perfectly nice people! I had been putting off going on a course as I had assumed the others would be dippy hippy types: in fact, I wrote a post about it then didn't have the nerve to publish it. It started off like this:

"I'd love to go on a course to improve my style - frankly, my dears, I could do with some improving - but I just can't bear the thought of the other course attendees: they are all going to be hippies, aren't they?

Two thirds of them will be bra-less women in tie-dye, with ribboned hair and nose-rings (ugh) and the others will be blokes with pony-tails and/or those horrible felted dreadlock-things instead of proper hair.

If lunch is supplied, it will be calves' liver and wet polenta or something equally horrible - tofu, possibly,  or some sort of veggie-burger.

Conversation will be earnest - it was bad enough going on my three recent rubbish recycling trips, I can tell you....and I will no doubt lose patience with one or more of them and shout "No wonder you can't get a job, looking like that! For heaven's sake tidy yourself up!" like a middle-aged parent.  *sigh* "

Yes, you can see why I didn't take that one any further, can't you? Anyway, I was wrong, wrong, wrong: my group comprised three women and four men, all perfectly nice grown-ups, and no-one had a nose-ring, and everyone had proper hair.

By the end of the day we were all mowing away like mad things, and those who did not already have a scythe had firm decisions about which blade would be most appropriate for their intended use. Andy of the Earth Trust (where the course took place) was at least half-way considering converting the Earth Trust from strimmers to scythes,  which pleased Clive immensely!

And best of all, I finally had a firm opinion on the subject of Naming: the scythe is the name of the tool. If you use it to cut cereal, ie a stalk with grain at the top such as barley, wheat, rye etc then you are Reaping. If you cut grass, ie to make hay, then you are Mowing.

So there is no such noun as Scythers, thank heavens (horrible word). We are either Mowers or Reapers, depending on what we are cutting.

I still think that we need a funky modern name for "people who use scythes to mow/reap/chop weeds" as Mowing doesn't really give the right impression - if you say that you are a Mower (no, we're not getting onto the Merry Mower-Maid discussion again!) then people assume you push a petrol-driven thing around, which requires no skill at all. And most of us on the course would be doing "rough" cutting, of weeds, canal banks, reserves, etc, which is technically neither reaping nor mowing.

So come on, all you scythe enthusiasts out there, let's come up with a better name for what we do! 


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Thursday, 5 September 2013

Chelsea Chop: Solidago

It works!

Earlier this year I subjected a thick stand of Solidago canadensis - Goldenrod, that is - to what is called the Chelsea Chop.

This just means chopping the tops off of selected flowering plants, to about half their height, in May.

The idea is that the severed stems then produce a group of flowers, instead of the single blossom, and somewhat lower down than you would get if you left them uncut.

It's called "Chelsea" not because it's done by yuppies braying "Air, Hair-lair, gorsh, must chorp thows flaaars" but because the cutting is done around the time of the Chelsea flower show. So it's a handy reminder that it's time to get out there with the secateurs.

As always, there is a trade-off:  on each stem, you are sacrificing one large tall flower, for the hope of getting several slightly smaller and lower ones, a little later on. It works well with all sorts of herbaceous (ie "flowers every year, dies down to nothing over winter") plants, and can be useful if you have flowers that tend to flop.

It's the sort of thing we do if we want a mass of Chrysanthemums, although the old boys growing them for competition would go the other way entirely - not only avoiding the Chelsea Chop, but removing all buds bar the central one, on each stem, to get one single massive flower. Which is fine if you just want to win a prize, but not so useful if you want a beautiful flowering border throughout the summer. 

One of my clients has a massive thick stand of Goldenrod (not my favourite plant, I have to say) and every year they flop forward in a messy tangle over the grass, until I am forced to chop the front few off at ankle height just to save them from being eaten by the mower.

Last year I wondered if I could apply the Chelsea Chop selectively,  just to those first few stems at the front, so I made a note in my diary and this year I remembered to chop them (cue maniacal "mwaaah haah haa!" laughter) good and early, and this is what they looked like back in May:

"Slightly terrifying" would be the description - have I ruined them? Will they respond? Will the client even notice? (no, they didn't.) I did a sort of casual layered arrangement, sloping up from front to back.

And this is what they look like this week - the original tops are flowering nicely, the lower ones are just starting to flower:

So not only do we get a "bank" of blooms, instead of the usual top-heavy green-mass-with-yellow-froth,  but we get a longer-lasting flush of lower blooms, so that when the top ones have gone brown and been chopped off, there will be still be the lower ones, flowering.

And, best of all - just look at this sideways view!

All standing stiffly to attention instead of flopping all over the place: the lower, chopped, stems are actually supporting the next layer of originals.

This is what I believe is called a "result".

Next year I shall be even more radical, and will chop the first several rows, rather than just the first few, in order to get a better "bank" effect.

Here is a close-up of the stems which I chopped three months ago - as you can see, each one has branched into four or five smaller stems, each of which is topped by the familiar yellow raceme at the tip.

Some of these smaller racemes are already opening, as you can see in the second photo, and some of them are yet to start, which means they will be going on for another couple of weeks.

I'm delighted with this technique, and will certainly be repeating it wherever tall plants threaten to fall over.

I wonder if it would work on Sedums? People are always asking me how to prevent them falling open in the centre, as they tend to do: to date, I have recommended cutting the central stems down to a couple of inches early in the season, which virtually is the Chelsea chop, now that I think about it... perhaps next year I'll try it officially, and see what happens.

Anyone out there already doing this? Do let me know!

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