Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Gardening is the best exercise: official

It's official!

For all of us right-minded people who hate the thought of "going to the gym", who equate that activity with skinny people showing off in lycra, and who cringe at the thought of full-length mirrors, there is excellent news from none other than Dr Michael Mosley, the chap behind (and in front of) the tv series Trust me, I'm a Doctor.

He's been doing a series of investigations into the truth about what is good for us - recently he did a fascinating programme on what happens to the carbohydrates in pasta when it is reheated after a night in the fridge, and found that the starch undergoes a chemical change in the cooling process, which means that instead of being instantly-accessible carbohydrate, which makes us fat, it turns into less easily accessible starch (he had all the complicated scientific names, I'm simplifying) which the body treats more like fibre: ie it does not have the instant fattening effect, it breaks down slowly inside us, which is good news for all those people who want low GI index foods, foods which don't give them the "sugar rush" and which keep their blood sugar levels more stable, reducing insulin production.

The upshot of the programme was that reheating yesterday's pasta makes it "better" for us, thus confirming that granny knew best all those years ago, when she taught us to use up our leftovers.

Today, it was all about exercise: he was analysing normal activities to see which ones could be considered comparable to going to the gym, without having to go to the gym.

The conclusion of the article - read it here on the BBC website - is, and I quote:

"And if you were wondering, one of the best all-round activities seems to be gardening."

Yay! It's official! Gardening is as good for you as going to the gym!! In fact it's better, as Dr Mosley's research confirms that a session of exercise/gardening every day is better than one concentrated burst of activity once a week, so that's one in the eye for the "oh, look at me, I've just done two hours of circuit training down the gym" brigade.

(No, I have no idea what circuit training is. I thought it was running, but apparently it's something like going round the various torture exercise machines in the gym. Please don't write in and explain it to me, I really don't care.)

So there you have it, get out there and garden: mowing the grass, planting flowers, digging, weeding, stretching, bending, breathing the lovely fresh air, listening to the birdies chirping: it's the best non-exercise exercise you can get!

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Product Review: Garland Garden Scoop

My local garden centre were selling these recently: handy-looking garden scoops made by Garland.

Garland Scoop
Looks ok, doesn't it?

Comes in a range of colours, I chose blue for no particular reason other than it's a nice cheerful colour, and easy to find when I put it down somewhere.
I took it home, and put it to work scooping compost out of the big bags into a bucket, which then gets carried to the work bench for riddling before use.

It takes quite a few scoops to fill the bucket, as the scoop is not actually that big, but that's not a problem, as compost can be quite heavy if it is wet.

When I started riddling the compost, I noticed that my knuckle was bleeding. I'd used the scoop right-handed (it works equally well in either hand) and it was the side of the second joint of my first finger.

When I went back for a second bucket-full, ouch! I quickly found out where the bleeding had come from!

There is a sharp, sharp edge at the corner of the moulding around the base, ringed here in red.

When digging into springy, resistant compost, I found that the hand slips up the handle all the way, the knuckle then makes contact with this sharp edge and after a few scoops, blood!

So on balance, I would not recommend this scoop.

For the time being I have kept it: it hangs on the wall and is only used for lightweight scooping, and not very often. I feel sure that it will end up in the bin, as it is not earning its keep.

Meanwhile, back at the compost bag, I've gone back to using an old trowel to scoop out the compost. So glad I didn't throw it away.

Friday, 17 October 2014

"Nice things Estate Agents Say"

What possible connection, I hear you say, can this have to gardening?

Well, last year one of my much-loved Clients died, and the daughter asked me if I would continue working at the garden until they sold the house.

Several months later, I had come to appreciate the difference between "Gardening" which I love, and "garden maintenance", which I don't, and I can assure you that I won't be doing the latter again in a hurry! Instead of a living, changing, evolving garden,  it became a static museum piece, with every plant being kept in a sort of horticultural stasis. I couldn't let anything grow bigger, I couldn't risk anything dying, so nothing was split or moved around for better effect (there being no-one there to water them between my weekly visits), and for the same reason, it was hard to introduce any new plants.

For the first seven months, all over the autumn and winter, it was just a case of keeping it tidy so it was less apparent that the house was empty: then when the house went up for sale it was time for spotless housekeeping, with lawn edges sharply clipped, everything dead-headed to within an inch of their lives, and every scrap of dead or damaged leaf removed immediately. Luckily, the sale coincided with that exact time of year when the front garden - first impressions being the most important - was an absolute picture.

Once it was sold, I was back to keeping it tidy and looking as though it were occupied while the process of contract exchanging took place, and yes, during this time I did take cuttings of some of the plants, in particular a spectacular yellow rose on the back fence, whose flowers don't last long, but are the clearest yellow I have seen - no hint of custard, just pure bright yellow. When my Client was alive, I rarely saw them fully open, as she would pick them for indoors, and I found that arriving to find the fence covered in fading yellow flowers each week really underlined the fact that my lady was gone. So I have taken cuttings of the rose as a reminder of her, and they are currently growing on quite promisingly in my front yard.

Now, where does the Estate Agent come into it?

One day I arrived for work to find the Estate Agent just finishing showing someone round, and he stopped to have a chat. He commented on what a good job I had done on the garden ("the best butter") and made some complimentary remarks on how pleased the family were with me, which was nice. He then went on to say that keeping the garden nice had made the house vastly easier to sell.

I must have looked at him slightly quizzically, as he went on to explain that in houses where an elderly person has died, it is traditional that the house - as was the case here - needs a massive amount of work done in the plumbing, electrics, decorating, kitchen and bathroom departments,  not to mention leaky outbuildings etc. That is ok, it's expected, and such houses are usually bought at a reduced price as "fixer-uppers" , ie they are bought by someone with an eye to making a quick profit by doing them up and selling them on. And the gardens are usually a complete jungle.

In this case, they were able to market the house not so much as a fixer-upper, but as suitable for moving into, simply and solely on the basis that the garden was perfect (his word, not mine, I know where the weeds are hiding!) so a normal family could easily imagine themselves moving in, and gradually doing the necessary renovation, rather than being completely overwhelmed by not only an outdated house (with due respect to my Client, you know what they mean) but also a horrendous mess of a garden to cope with as well.

This is of course a perfectly valid point, and I am very pleased to have contributed to my lady's family being able to sell the house so quickly, and for a good price. Significantly, the house next door has been up for sale for nearly two months now, it has been empty for well over six months, with a shaggy overgrown front garden and a mad jungle at the back: it's exactly the same house, in the same road, in fact it's a better house because it has a very smart conservatory on the back, and it's a great deal more modernised inside. But no-one has bought it.

This proves the estate agent to be right: if you let the garden go wild, not only will it take longer to sell, but you are likely to only get "fixer-upper" offers, whereas if you keep the garden nice, you can get much closer to top market price as a family home.

And best of all, the estate agent concerned rang me up last week - this is now some five months or more since the house sale went through - and asked me if I could take on another empty house, to "work the same magic" there, which is a tremendous compliment.

Unfortunately for the owners, I said "no thank you," as I have learned my lesson: gardens without owners don't need proper Gardeners, all they need is a firm of contractors who come in, blow the leaves around, chop the shrubs willy-nilly, and take the rubbish away.

I put my heart into all my gardens: they deserve to have a heart of their own, as well. 


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Tuesday, 7 October 2014

More plants rooted through odd items.

Found an old foam ball in a Clients' garden the other day, with a whole clump of dog violet growing right the way through it!

Here you can see where the main root has grown right the way through...

... you can see where the foam rubber ball is starting to disintegrate, as well. Yes, I know it looks a bit like a potato, but it's foam, I assure you.

And here is the stem attachment, on the upper surface.

Amazing, isn't it?

Another close-up of those roots coming out of the bottom.

And the moral of this story? Errr... plants are amazing, they will grow through anything. Oh, and don't throw your toys away in the garden, put them in the bin.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Balancing Stones

Slightly off-topic today, ie not actually about plants...  back in June, one of my Clients told me they'd enjoyed a visit to Asthall Manor, just northwest of Witney. They hold an annual sculpture week, during which they open the garden to visitors and display over 200 sculptures, most of which are for sale.

Now, I am not in the least bit artistic, but the garden sounded lovely, and it's not otherwise open to the public, so I trotted along and gained entry under false pretences: although when I bought my entrance ticket, and confessed that I'd actually come to see the garden not the sculptures, the lady on the desk said that I was far from the only one!

The gardens are, I have to say, lovely: a perfect combination of pleasing formal gardens by the house, and informal areas leading down to the stream.

They even had a wildflower meadow, and I can tell you from experience that it is not a trivial undertaking.

This one contained a very balanced mix of red poppy, lilac Agrostemma githago (a favourite of mine), blue Cornflower, wispy grasses, and white Ox-eye Daisy (my least favourite wildflower).

I suspect that they shave it down to nothing each winter, and sow it with a proprietary mix each spring. It's the only way to achieve this balance.

 Then I came across something I hadn't seen before - using the wire of the tennis court to support the sweet peas!

A clever and interesting idea: you can still play tennis on it, but it screens off the less-than-lovely court from the lower part of the garden.

I suppose it also affords a feeling of privacy to anyone playing tennis, as well.

Closer to the house were the formal gardens, very much to my taste: here, a novel twist on the usual box hedging parterre, which occupied a steeply-sloping bank running alongside the house.

I'm stood at the top, looking down.

The gardener - I always stop to have a chat with a gardener if I can - was working his way round, clipping the box, having not had time to get them all done before the opening.

When you install over 200 sculptures into a garden, apparently it makes a lot of extra work: not only having to create bases and plinths for them and mow around them, which you would expect, but it can also necessitate pruning and reshaping to create a suitable backdrop or frame for each piece.

Here's another section of the parterre, looking down on the main lawn. Each section of hedging was filled with a different selection of plants, some - as the gardener told me, with a sigh - more successful than others.

Personally I didn't envy him having to clip in such narrow channels between the hedges - I like room to get my feet down comfortable.

But I can appreciate the point that a narrow channel means you don't feel compelled to grow anything in it, and you can leave the clippings where they fall, as no-one can see them!

Elsewhere in the garden, there was a pretty little stream, a somewhat stagnant pond with sculpture in, on and around it: and a rickety-looking but very tempting bridge:

 I managed to resist going over it, just about.

Well, ok, I had no real inclination to try it!

Lovely construction, though.

Almost worthy of being labelled as a garden installation, wouldn't you say? *laughs*

Talking of installations (which is apparently a pretentious word for sculpture) - oh, I've just looked it up, and installations are generally indoor "art", whereas outdoors ones - or "outdoor interventions" as they are super-pretentiously called - are "often called land art".

You live and learn.

OK talking of the land art *restrains the urge to snigger* I suppose you might expect a post about a sculpture garden to have at least one picture of the actual sculptures?

Well, these are the only ones I actually liked, a series of five very large, beautifully carved and polished representations of a tulip flower opening.

Bizarrely, they were for sale individually.

What's the point of that? Surely most of their attraction lies in the progression from one shape to another? (Oh blimey, I've spent too much time talking about sculpture, I'm getting pretentious myself!)

Although I have to say, I did have the slightly unworthy thought that all they needed was a thick layer of cobwebs on an autumn morning to make them look less like tulips and more like the hatching face-hugger pods from the film Alien....

So, let's get back to the Balancing Stones of the title. I went there to see the gardens, which were well worth the visit: I frowned at, or laughed at, most of the sculptures, apart from the ones above: and I was utterly captivated by Adrian Gray, who was doing live demonstrations of his incredible skill at balancing stones.

In a quiet corner of the lower gardens, an area had been swept clear of leaves and debris, spread with shingle, and three wooden circles had been laid out, with a rope around to provide a safe exclusion zone.

Within the circles, this chap Adrian was carefully balancing stones - not little ones, bloomin' great big ones that he could just about lift.

Here he is, delicately placing an upper stone on a lower one.

On the left you can see one of the other arrangements, and no, they were not stuck together in any way.

They are just poised!

It took a little while, and I didn't like to interrupt him while he was concentrating, but once it was safely up I asked him about them, and he was gratifyingly easy to talk to.

Apparently he has always been a sculptor, and he started doing this aspect when he was involved in arranging some human figures, and he became interested in the way the heads balanced on the bodies.  This lead to balancing stones one on the other, and this lead to an exploration of how counter-intuitive it could get; how far "out of balance" could a stone appear to be, while still actually balancing.

Here he is, walking away from the one in the picture above, to talk to me.

Honestly, you would swear that it would just fall right off, wouldn't you?

But it doesn't. It sat there quite happily for twenty minutes or so, until a bunch of people arrived, and the tremors through the ground were enough to topple the left-hand one, and the third one that you can't quite see in this photo.

Whereupon he changed them around, and rebalance them to show the new arrivals.

He's been doing this for ten years now, here's his website: and if you get the chance to go to a live demonstration, I would recommend it.

The "best" part of his work is the live balancing, but you can buy - if you wish - one of his works for permanent display, in which case they are stuck together to avoid accidents. Apparently you choose the one you want, he brings the stones to your location, films them being assembled, then they are fixed together for safety, while you have the film to remind you of how it was done, which seems like a  nice compromise.

For this sort of live demonstration, he says that he takes some time to set the lower stones carefully and fairly securely on the ground, then he chops and changes between the upper stones. Each time he does it, it's different. Sometimes they stand for a long time, sometimes a simple footfall can topple them.


Sunday, 5 October 2014

A rose by any other name...

... would smell as sweet, as Shakespeare said, but it's a bit annoying when a rose that is bought for its colour turns out to be a different colour altogether.

One of my Clients decided earlier this year to clear out their narrow front, road-facing, bed, and transform it into a simple rose bed. They bought six new roses, two each of three colours, and we planted them in the new bed.

The plan was to have two white ones, two yellow ones, and two coral/orangey ones.

But look what happened:

There's the label, in the ground - it's clearly supposed to be a yellow rose, like the other one of the pair.

But what colour do you call the roses? I'd say red, rather than yellow, wouldn't you?

It wasn't a sport, all the flowers on this plant came up the same: I have in the past seen established rose plants throw out the occasional wrongly-coloured bloom, but in this case they were all the same.

Luckily the Client rather likes it, and although it (in my opinion) spoils the symmetry of the bed, they have decided to keep it.

But it does show that even professional rose growers get their labelling wrong sometimes!

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Topiary: clipping of Box Hedges with interfering plants

September is about the last chance you get to clip Box hedges: any later than mid-September and there is a risk that the new growth won't have time to "harden" before the first frosts of winter, resulting in a veneer of dead brown growth over the winter.

This hedge, the Bird Statue Bed, missed being done in August,  so last month (September) was my last chance to get at it before the winter.

Unfortunately, the Hydrangea arborescens 'Annabelle' growing within the hedge has been magnificent this year, and has totally taken over, as you can see:

Glorious, isn't it? One of my favourite Hydrangeas, and very easy to grow and maintain, you just chop it down early in the year and up it pops. However, it can get a bit exuberant, which explains why this hedge didn't get cut along with all the others.

First job in this case was to tie up dear Annabelle, safely out of the way:

A long length of stout cord is the easy answer,  just run it around the bush and gently pull it tight.

If your shrub fights back, or is very floppy, you can use two lengths of cord and do it in installments, getting higher and tighter each time until you have made enough space to work.

Here we are half-way done: as usual, I put down a plastic sheet to catch the worst of the clippings.

My usual pattern is to do the top first, then to lean over and do the top half of the inside face: climb over the hedge, do the bottom of the inside face then lean over and do the top of the outside face.

That's where I've got to in this photo: I then climb over again, and do the bottom of the outside face.

The reason for this complicated-sounding regime is that you can't hold the shears flat against the hedge for more than the depth of the blade, if you are leaning over.  And I find that I get a better edge from leaning over, than from doing the face that is facing me, if you see what I mean. Once the top foot or so is clipped, it provides a "line" to cut to, making it easier to maintain the original size and proportion of the hedge.

There we go, nearly done:
Now I just have to repeat the process on the other arm of the hedge, which is complicated by having an Akebia and a Clematis growing through it.

This means having to be very careful not to chop any of their stems accidentally!

I use the shears up until the last couple of inches, then I use secateurs, carefully holding back the stems with my other hand.

This particular hedge used to be level all the way across, but the Client wanted them to intersect at an interesting and artistic angle, so I have gradually been cutting the left-hand one down, and the right-hand one up (if you see what I mean) until they now form what always looks to me rather like the arms of the alien spaceship in the film Alien... I don't think my Client has seen the film, luckily.

Final job, after clearing away the clippings, is to gently release the cords and allow Annabelle to flop over the hedge again.

Oh, not quite the last job: having shocked the plants by cutting them, it's only kind to give them a feed, usually of Growmore or pelleted chicked manure, and a quick slosh of extra water, so that they will quickly produce the flush of new growth which inevitably follows pruning. This gives it time to harden up before we get the first frosts of autumn.

And now the hedges should stay tolerably neat and tidy right through the winter.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Bindweed by the yard.

I know that people often exaggerate, and I have frequently heard myself say that I have been pulling out "yards" of bindweed.

But yesterday, I really was pulling it out by the yard - and having to coil it up as I went, before throwing it in the wheelbarrow, en route to the bonfire heap.

Bindweed by the Yard

And I assure you that the large coil is all one length: impressive, huh?

At this time of year (early autumn), it's easier to just pull out the loose stuff, then go back and dig for roots later in the autumn, once the leaves are down and the shrubs have been pruned, so that you can get round them more easily.  The bindweed plants will usually throw up small new growth after having the top ripped off, so you will be able to find them quite easily.

The benefit is that by doing this now, before they flower, you can prevent them from setting seed and perpetuating themselves, not to mention the sheer pleasure of ripping out the horrible stuff before it can tangle itself inextricably around every tree, shrub and perennial in the bed.

So that is my recommendation for the week: if  you are getting overwhelmed with bindweed, don't worry about trying to dig it all up, just pull and pull and pull, throw it all on the bonfire heap (don't compost it, whatever you do, as there are bound to be some lengths of viable root) and go back later in the year to finish it off.

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Thursday, 2 October 2014

Grass: the wonder plant

Honestly, if grass had only just been invented, it would be hailed as a wonder plant that will grow in any conditions.

Even without soil.

Just look at this: it's a corner of one of my Clients' lawns, the grass petered out over the old crazy-paving path, so several weeks ago I put a neat edge on it.

 Last week, while I was edging the lawn, I wondered why the edgers would not slip into the gap between the grass and the paving, as they do elsewhere in the garden.

Closer investigation revealed that the grass was not firmly rooted in the normal manner, but was growing like a carpet, loose-laid over the slabs: here is the above rounded corner, lifted up - you can see by the dark stain where it used to lie.

A little careful prodding with the daisy grubber revealed that the grass was only an inch deep over several square feet of what we had previously thought to be lawn.

And in fact on the other side of the garden, I discovered by probing that there was an entire path, nearly a yard wide, running at a very odd angle across the lawn to the patio from the side fence.

The Clients didn't know about it, and they've lived there for several years!

If you had asked me, I would said that grass grown over paving would be easy to spot, as it would be prone to going brown in summer due to lack of water access. However, I've been there for two summers now, and I certainly didn't notice any change of colour or quality and, as I said, the Clients themselves had no idea it was there.

So there you go - if you have a large area of ugly paving, or old cracked concrete, and you don't have the funds to dig it up, don't bother: turf over it!

PS DISCLAIMER: please don't hold me responsible if you try this and it fails...  and if you do try it, modern turf is now shaved off very thin so I would recommend adding at least an inch of fairly good soil under the turf, and keep it very well watered for the first few months. 


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