Sunday, 30 November 2014

When I say "it will generate a lot of non compostable rubbish"...

... I am not kidding.

I get this a lot with one-off gardening jobs: someone calls me in to retrieve their garden before it gets too wild, and I hear myself asking them how they will get rid of the rubbish generated, as I don't have a Waste Licence.

I could get one, they only cost £30 a year, but I would have to take the garden waste up to a special site, a round trip of about 35 miles, and I would have to pay a further £20 per tonne for the actual disposal. Per tonne!  How am I supposed to accumulate and store a tonne of non-compostable garden waste such as prunings - famous for being massively bulky without generally being heavy - and when I have done so, how am I supposed to get them there? In my tiny little car?

So no, I don't have a waste licence, nor am I likely to. Clients have to dispose of their own waste: my regulars all have lots of compost heaps (I see to that!), they usually also have leaf mould pens, and they certainly have a bonfire pile. If I interview a client who doesn't have a bonfire pile, but who says casually "Oh, don't worry, I'll take anything you can't compost down to the tip", I'm afraid that I generally don't take on the job.

This is why:

Impressive, huh? Nearly as high as the ruined summerhouse, ten feet wide, and at least five or six yards long. This is about four months' worth since the last bonfire...

... and it's not that big a garden!

This material is made up of:

1) hard woody/shrubby material that won't compost  - although if you had a shredder and some patience, you could reduce the bulk and produce chippings which could be left in a neat heap to compost themselves: I would not add them to a traditional compost heap, I'd let them rot separately.

2) Herbaceous material cut down over winter, which contains too many seed-heads to risk putting it on the compost.  You could chop off all the tops and put just the stalks on the compost, but it's very time-consuming and somewhat tedious to do that. Includes things like asters, aquilegia - anything with a lot of seeds on top.

3) Pernicious weeds such as lemon balm, comfrey - things that tend to re-root themselves in the compost. Also includes the roots of bindweed, ground elder, nettles etc which, if put on the compost, would consider themselves to have been "planted" and would grow.

4) Nasty spiky stuff ie brambles, which are unpleasant to handle, don't rot even when shredded,  and are better burnt.

All these materials can't go on the compost heap, need to be disposed of, and would take a lot of time and effort to transport to the tip.

Now, I can hear you saying that a one-off job won't produce that mountain of waste, and you are right, but any overgrown garden will produce much more waste than the owner would think possible, and I am not comfortable with being blamed for it.  I was accosted once by a one-off Client from several months earlier, who complained that they were still working their way through the heaps of waste that I had left them - oops! Well, I did warn them...

... and now, as mentioned above, I will often regretfully refuse to take on such jobs. Instead, I sometimes recommend that they call in a "landscaping" firm who will slaughter everything and take away the mess, leaving the garden somewhat denuded, but at least it's clear, empty of waste, and the owner can then get to work on restoring it, or employing a proper gardener to replant and make it beautiful again.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Abbey House Gardens: closing down.

Earlier this year I heard the news that this glorious garden was closing, as the owners are divorcing and having to sell in order to split it, so I rushed down there to have one last look around.

In case you haven't been there, it's almost in the middle of Malmesbury, the couple (former couple) who own it are famously nudists, and garden in the nude, and allow nude open days where visitors leave their clothes at the entrance. In England! In our weather! *rolls eyes*

Luckily I have managed to only visit on "clothed" days, although I've seen Ian, the owner, in just boots and very brief shorts, which was quite shocking enough to someone who regularly comes home scratched, bleeding and covered in insect bites from my normal day's gardening in "normal" clothing, and who cannot imagine how battered I would be without any clothes at all.

 Here are a few snaps from the day - starting at the formal gardens, which I always enjoy, as I love the feel of formal gardens, as well as having a professional appreciation for the time it takes to get topiary into shape.

Here's a lovely example of "over and under" box hedges, and yes, that is a tortoise on the left.

He's not allowed to wander around at will, but it seems to take him quite a long time to get from one side of his pen to the other, so I guess he doesn't mind.

Here's another corner of the same "room", with another lovely variegated holly in the middle.

That thing on the right is possibly the biggest pot-made-into-water-feature that I have ever seen...

What a whopper!

I was trying to do an arty shot with the reflection of the house in it, but didn't quite get it right.

More topiary, this time they've carefully presented the date 2000, which is presumably the date they planted it.

I love the detail that goes into this sort of topiary - look at the elegant shape of the "2".

 Now this is what I call a water feature - a slender tapering spindle with water tumbling from the very tip, and shimmering all the way down to the bottom.

On a good day, it looks as though it is spinning in  place.

It's made of separate discs on a central pole, so you can just see through it - another lovely effect.

 Oh dear, another attempt at an arty shot between the hedges.
Now we get to the herbaceous beds, in the next section of the gardens: in a way, I enjoy seeing other gardens looking a bit messy and tired at this time of year (I went there in mid September) and this bed certainly looks as though it could do with a bit of attention!

I've seen the long borders very early in the year, and they are cunningly banked upwards from the path to the back, so that you get a much better layered effect once everything is in flower.

Another bed, another urge to get in there and weed it!
 The vegetable garden was looking particularly tired...
 ... and some of the beds looked as though they could do with a bit of structural attention.

Presumably, once it had become apparent that the owners' relationship was over, decisions were made not to indulge in the usual maintenance that you need to keep these raised beds looking good.

Leaving the formal gardens behind, I headed out the "back" to the wild area.

And there I found this cheeky little fellow growing on the hillside, as though he had the right to be there!

(Japanese knotweed, in case you don't know it.)

Minor digression - have you seen the size of the fish!!!

They have a big raised pond by the tea shop, in which they have a lot of Koi carp, a typical decorative fish for posh gardens.

I hadn't been for a couple of years, and I was staggered at how big they have grown.

OK, without anything to give it a sense of scale, it's hard to accept how huge they are, but please believe me that this one is well over two foot long, and I doubt I could get a grip on his body, even using both hands around the middle.

Not that I would ever try, of course!

They are very inquisitive and friendly, as the staff take pains to feed them when the visitors are looking, and they give small paper cups of fish food to little kiddies.

 Moving down into the wooded area, I was very saddened to see that so many of the Tree Ferns have died.

I remember when they were newly planted here, they were "the in thing" and it was very enviable to see how many of them had been planted.

Sadly, though, they are now looking more like a petrified forest than a flourishing jungle.
 Here's one of those odd little things that catches my eye and intrigues me - here's a lovely dry-stone retaining wall along by the house, beautifully built, but look, there's one big block sticking out!

Why? Why? I want to know!

As there was no-one to ask, I headed on down to the lake, looking very jungly in the September sunshine.

And here is their funny little tump - it's the spoil heap from digging out the ponds below, apparently, so they have made a virtue of it by adding spiral paths and a cute little hut at the top.

Heading back up to the house again, on my way out I took another snap of this lovely topiary, I love the use of the two colours to emphasise the shapes.

And finally a quick plant snap - I don't usually take many photos of plants (well, I do, but they are never worth looking at!) but this was irresistible: ever seen one of these?

It's a Fascicularia bicolour.

"What?" I hear you cry.

It's a Bromelaid, which are mostly aerial tropical jungle plants which have to be grown as houseplants over here.

Not this guy!

It likes full sun, and it likes being well-drained, but apart from that it will grow in most of the UK quite happily, outdoors all year round.

It's not as spiky as it looks, and in late summer the leaves start to turn this very bright scarlet. In a good year, this is followed by a bright blue flower, apparently.

I was kindly given one by a fellow Professional Gardener earlier this year, which I split up and potted on, and I have high hopes that in a year or two I'll have a surplus of them ready for sale.

So there you have it, my last trip round an interesting and contemporary garden, now sadly up for sale but, even more sadly, well out of my reach. 


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Friday, 28 November 2014

Gardening in Varifocals

Last year I was told by my optician that I would have to start wearing varifocals, which induced a bit of drama-queen panic ("omg I'd OLD!!") and which raised the question, would it affect my working in gardens?

To my surprise, there was nothing on the internet about it. I googled "gardening in varifocals" and there was nothing at all.  I got a lot of information about varifocals, and a lot of pages of complaints, but nothing specifically about gardening.

Later that week, at Book Club, I asked the other members if any of them were varifocalled - unlike bi-focals, you can't see it in the lenses, more of that in a moment - and two of them were. One gave me the usual tales of falling up and down stairs, the other said the varifocals were great in normal life, but she couldn't garden in them other than on the flat parts of her garden: she said it was impossible to work on her steep rockery, as she kept thinking she was going to fall off.

Not very encouraging, eh?

Specsavers assured me that if I couldn't get on with the varifocals, they would change them for either bi-focals, or two pairs of specs, one for distance, one for reading, at no charge. So I went ahead.

Now, if you are reading this post, you must by definition have a bit of interest in the subject, so I'll quickly explain exactly what varifocals are.

Firstly, you know what normal specs do - they are lenses that go in front of your eyes, they compensate for your own eyes' shortcomings, and present your eyes with a tweaked version of reality which, when it gets to your brain, is perfectly in focus.

At some point, as your vision changes over time, you reach a point where you can see the distance clearly, but you can't see close-up any more, so you end up with two pairs of glasses: one for distance, one for reading, which can be a bit of pain.

So to make bi-focals. the optical laboratory take your distance glasses, then insert a small piece of your reading glasses at the bottom, so you look through the top in normal use, and look through the insert to read. Two pairs in one!

They are clearly visible from the outside, as little half-moon shapes within the lenses (right).

For varifocals, the laboratory "smooth out" the join between the insert and the main lens,  and there is in fact a third zone at the top of the half-moon, which is part-way between distance and reading.

This means that you get three pairs in one!

The benefits are that you don't have a visual "jump" between one lens and the other, and the third zone is perfect for computer use, which is not as close as you hold a book, but is too close to be seen through the distance lens.

Some people don't like the fact that others can immediately see that you have bi-focals: it's a vanity thing for them, so they like varifocals because they look just like normal specs.

The problems with varifocals are much the same as those you get with bi-focals, ie adjusting to the change. Common problems are stairs - you look ahead at the stairs, which is fine, but then when you glance down to see where your feet are going, you are suddenly looking through the reading lens, which means they appear to be a lot closer. Other people complain of things swinging towards them and away from them as they move their eyes up and down: also there is the "nodding dog" phenomenon that you often see with people wearing bi-focals, as they tilt their head up and down to get the object they are looking at into the right zone of their lenses.

I'd read all about these, I'd heard many horror stories from friends (and from complete strangers, I'll talk to anyone) about how long it took to adjust: some people take weeks, one friend said it took her three months to get used to them.

All this was quite worrying. Then I talked to one lady who said briskly that it took her just 20 minutes to get used to them, and that they were wonderful.

At last! Something positive.

A week later, I collected my new specs, declined to wear them straight out of the shop, but instead took them home and waited for the weekend. After all those stories of stumbling around, headaches, and so on, I thought it would be better to try them out while not having to work and drive....

I put them on, and went out for a walk. At the very first kerb I did a massive mis-step and wobbled around with one foot in the air, feeling silly: by the end of the road I'd forgotten I was wearing them, and took the kerb without thinking. Half an hour later, I'd completely forgotten about them, apart from the pains in the nose and behind the ears that I always get with new specs.

Brilliant is the word I would use for varifocals. Absolutely bloody brilliant. I can see number plates from miles away, I can read road signs long before I get to them, I can see the individual leaves on the trees, and I can still read my watch, my phone, my books, the computer, the dashboard of the car etc, all with one pair of glasses.

So, how about the gardening, then?

In general, no problem at all. I don't find that steps disappear, I don't find things swimming in and out of view, I clamber up and down steep banks with no more problem than ever before, I use all sorts of steps, and I can read labels and packets with ease.

However, there are one or two oddities about varifocals that are worth mentioning.

Firstly, it's a lot easier to turn your head than to swivel your eyes round - although this might be because I have a high prescription, which means my lenses are quite thick. I find that when crossing roads on foot, I do now tend to look right over my shoulder rather than just a quick glance. One person had mentioned this - she said "you can no longer scan a room, you have to look at each thing individually" which didn't make sense when she said it, but now I can see what she meant. This does not mean that I look like an owl, just that I'm getting a little more neck exercise than I used to. And as I said, I think this is more to do with my high prescription than with the varifocals.

Secondly, I have learned to accept that good light is now more important for reading, and this is part of getting older. It's easy to blame the specs, when really all you need is a better light. I now have a super-bright kitchen with LED spotlights instead of the old single hanging bulb, and it's much easier to prepare food etc.

Finally, there is one odd position that gardeners get into that causes a problem: when you are bending right over, it's not possible to read or see small details because your neck won't bend up like a flamingo.  As I have a "bad" knee, I rarely kneel down on the ground, I usually just bend right over and work half-upside-down, and I have found that in some situations, I can't clearly see the base of the plant. This is a small price to pay, and I have learned to adjust my position by either kneeling on one knee, or by crouching momentarily.

It's the same problem I have reading the gas meter, which is in a cupboard at ground level: I have to crouch down to get close to it, then I find I'm looking through the distance zone instead of the reading zone. This was quite a puzzle at first: in the end I found that shining a torch on the dial helped, by increasing the light level.

So on balance, I would say that if you are about to plunge into bi-focal or varifocal life, and you are concerned about it (for gardening, or just for normal life), then fear not, it's not as bad as it sounds. People are always very vocal when things go wrong, which is why the internet is full of horror stories, whereas people who are happy with things, ie the vast majority, don't feel moved to get on the internet and talk about it.

My personal advice would be to get a friend to hold your hand or your arm the first time you go out for a walk in the new glasses, and to distract you with conversation about the weather, so that you don't "think" about them. Just get out there and do it, relax, and hopefully you will find it as easy to adjust to them as I did.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

How to: Cut back Aquilegia

Aquilegia - also known as Columbine, or Granny's Bonnets, a staple plant of cottage style planting, and a generous self-seeder. 

There's nothing quite like a mass of them to create the pretty, frothy effect so sought-after in informal planting, but left to their own devices, they can take over your borders and can become quite a nuisance.

My "management style" for this plant is two-fold: firstly, after flowering, cut them back and cut them back hard;  and secondly, buy named varieties, and be ruthless about weeding out the seedlings, as most of them will revert to the usual blue.

Which is not to say that blue is bad, of course, but why have the plain old ones, when you can buy really beautiful ones?

Here's a selection from Chiltern Seeds: I'm not specifically recommending them, just using their picture to illustrate the variety you can have these days:

Aren't they gorgeous?

So that's my second piece of advice - buy some lovely ones to start with, and weed out any seedlings.

Or, should I say, leave a few seedlings but weed out most of them, especially the ones which pop up too close to other plants. Sadly, these beauties above won't come "true" from seed, but you might get something interesting.. or they might all come up plain blue, who knows!

Working backwards, then, my first piece of advice is in respect of dead-heading. Most people are far too gentle with their dead-heading, and just nip off the actual dead flower. This leaves an unattractive blunt stem sticking up, which does no-one any good.

So part one of dead-heading is to cut off the flowering stem right down to ground level. That leaves you with a mass of foliage, some of which is new, some of which is old. 

If you leave it at that, then in a month's time you'll have a mound of mostly dead foliage, looking battered and untidy, but with some fresh new growth inextricably in amongst it.

So my method is to be ruthless: after you've taken out the flowering stem right down to the ground, cut off all the old leaves as well.


As you can see, a mound of somewhat tatty foliage, and some old flowering stems.

Stage one: cut out all the flowering stems, and also cut out the majority of the leaves.

The original plant is by my foot, there are two piles of cut stems and leaves, to give you an idea of what proportion of material is removed.

As you can see, all that is left is a handful of short, new, leaves.

Stage two: rake through what is left of the plant with either your fingers, or a small hand tool.

As you can see, and as you would expect, I use my faithful Daisy Grubber for this operation.

Raking through removes all the dead material, and any leaves or other bits which have fallen onto the plant over the previous few weeks.

Raking out the rubbish lets air and light into the centre of the plant, reducing the risk of slug or snail attack, and reducing the risk of fungal diseases such as mildew.

The result might seem to be heartlessly bare, but the plant will reward you by putting on a spurt of new growth, and in a few weeks you will have a neat dome of fresh new foliage, which will continue to look nice until the end of summer, when you repeat the process but even more drastically. 


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Sunday, 23 November 2014

Removing Ivy from walls.

Ah, this old chestnut again.

I can't tell you how many times I am asked about removing ivy, and I'm afraid to say that it's a horrible job, and there is no shortcut.

Firstly, why remove ivy from walls?

Oh, shall I count thee the ways?

1) It's hideous.

2) It hides bugs and creepy crawlies, including slugs and snails.

3) It damages the wall. Yes, I know that traditionally, this was meant to apply only to old walls with old flaky mortar, which ivy can completely destroy: modern houses are supposed to be ivy-proof. Well, they may be, but the clinging aerial roots leave marks which are very nearly permanent, so once you remove the ivy, your wall is marked for many years to come. I call that damage.

4) It damages the wall - if we are talking about garden walls, which are often only a single layer of bricks. The stems can find their way through small crevices or damaged areas, then they thicken up, and can push bricks or stones apart.

5) It hides the wall - so you can't see any problems at the early stages, such as cracks, damp patches, etc, not to mention the way it gets carried away and inveigles itself under gutters, behind downpipes etc.

6) It may look ok while it's young, but as it matures you get a mass of ugly brown stems down here at eye height, and a top-heavy mass of foliage up there *waves hand upwards* where you can't reach it without ladders, or without paying someone to get up and chop it.

7) It looks hideous.

Yes, I know I repeated that one, but honestly, ivy is not pretty. If you have an eyesore to be covered quickly, go for Russian Vine (Fallopia baldschuanica) but only if you appreciate why it's called "mile a minute vine": or Passion Flower (Passiflora caerulea) which grows nearly as fast, but has the benefit of beautiful exotic flowers and strange orange fruits - alas, not edible, but interesting right through the autumn.

Much better would be to attach some trellis to the offending wall and grow something pretty up it - a rose, a clematis, something with berries like Pyracantha, or you could even espalier some fruit along it, depending on which way it faces.

If you really, really have to have ivy, at least get a variegated one, which will have the dual benefit of being a) slightly prettier and b) slightly slower-growing.

Anyway, back to the point of this post - once the ivy has colonised, how do you get the wretched stuff off? There is no weedkiller around that will have any effect on it, sadly, as the leaves are very glossy, meaning that any weedkiller will slide straight off. The only way to get rid of it is to heave it off manually, cut the root - which is often wrist-thick by the time you get around to doing it - as low as you can, and apply something like SBK or a specialist stump-killer to it.


Right, here is Exhibit A, an ivy covered wall.

As you can see, it has flowered - those round spiky-looking things - which means it is mature ivy.

People might try to tell you that it's important to leave some mature ivy, as the flowers are an important source of nectar for the bees late in the year (it's late October), but I would propose as a counter-argument the suggestion that whoever thinks that bees need more ivy should go for a walk along the footpaths, back alleys, canal towpaths, council land etc wherever they live, and just look at the sheer astonishing volume of ivy, often underplanted with nettles, to be found in your local neighbourhood.

Trust me, there is plenty for them, they don't need the extra few square yards in your garden.

First job, then, is to clear away a space at the foot of the wall: or to spread out sheeting, otherwise you will find it impossible to clear up the mess this is going to make. And trust me, it IS going to make a mess! Ivy is full of dead stems, dust, and dirt, and it is usually fairly unpleasant to do this job: I have known people wear goggles and a face mask, and although I don't go that far, I do take care not to get it in my eyes, and I usually end up sneezing in an utterly unladylike manner.

(Actually,  I do most things in an unladylike manner: it always makes me laugh when some of my ladies describe me as "my lady gardener" as I stand there in battered boots, scruffy shorts, mud up my legs and often across my face, bleeding from various scratches and with my hair on end and full of bits!)

Approach the wall, secateurs in hand, and tentatively take hold of a stem of ivy. It doesn't matter where  you start - I usually start at a convenient waist height. Cut the stem, as far back as you can reach without getting a faceful of dust. Repeat.

After a short while, you will be able to pull the loose stems away from the wall: this is good, but be careful about pulling dirt and dust onto yourself. It works best if you can stand about 2' out from the wall, such that the dead stuff falls down to the ground, rather than falling on you.

Repeat for the next half an hour or so, pulling down any that are loose, and cutting everything back as closely to the wall as you can.  It is sometimes possible to use hedgetrimmers for this, but they will only get through the newest, thinnest growth, so in many ways you might just as well start with the secateurs.

Any that are too thick to cut with ease, use loppers: you might even need to use a pruning saw, although it's often awkward to use one, when you are working so close to a wall. 

It makes the job easier if you have a wheelbarrow by your side, and you can fill it as you go.

Once you have cleared a working space, it suddenly gets easier. Continue chopping until you get this sort of effect:

Revealing the stems
As you can see, lots of ivy on the left, a patch of bare brown stems, and then some brickwork is becoming visible.

Once you can see the brickwork, you can exchange the secateurs for a stout metal tool, which you use to lever the stems away from the wall.

(Drat, I should have taken a photo of that stage.)

I use my dear old daisy grubber, of course, but any metal tool will do - an old flat-blade screwdriver, a small crowbar, anything that's slender enough to get under the stems, and strong enough to break them.

Sometimes you need to cut through the stems by snipping repeatedly with the secateurs before you can get it away from the wall, and often the stems will snap off. Don't worry, just keep working away at it.

Here we are, after about ten minutes hard work: I've cut the loose stuff back to reveal stems, and I've levered off a section from ground height up to almost the top of the wall.

At this point I started attacking the stems going over the top of the wall, and was able to get a huge bundle of loose stuff off, in one go, which was very satisfying.

Typically, some of the stems were on the far side of the wall, so I had to go round the other side in order to cut them as well.
"Good god, there's a perforated wall under there!"

Finally, after three barrow-loads of bits went off to the bonfire pile, the end pillar was revealed.

And to my astonishment, a genuine old 1970s style perforated concrete block wall!!

When the Client came out to see how I was doing, I drew this to her attention, much excited, rather as though I had made an archaeological "find".

Once I have cleared the whole wall, apparently a large panel of these perforated panels will be revealed, which will allow a huge amount of extra light into the veg garden.

There is a catch, though: apparently there is a matching panel on the other wall, to the other side of the house, which is currently completely smothered in climbing Hydrangea and Jasmine.

Ah well, that will be a job for another week...

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Thursday, 13 November 2014

Compost heaps - you're doing it wrong!

Well, there's not really any such thing as the "wrong" way to do compost, there are nearly as many ways as there are gardeners, and all of them work to some extent.

However, if you want top quality compost, quickly and easily, then it's worth listening to an expert.

*coughs modestly*

I've written a lot about compost over the years, so I won't repeat the usual stuff that everyone knows, about not putting too much of any one thing, especially not too much grass at once: and about not putting spuds or tomatoes on the heap - but it's worth repeating that more compost heaps fail for being too dry, than fail for being too wet.

Especially when people add a lot of grass clippings, despite my pleas...

A thick layer of grass forms a waterproof lid on a compost heap - this might surprise you, but just think for a moment about what a thatched house is roofed with. Yes, it's more or less grass, isn't it? Wheat straw, traditionally (now usually reeds, due to shortage of wheat) which is just a rather large form of grass.

Here's a perfect example of a compost heap that has been inadvertently piled up with too much grass:

This is the typical "pyramid" shape which I see so much in gardens where I don't work.

And occasionally, in ones where I do work!

The problem is that the rain runs straight off the peak of the pyramid, leaving the contents bone dry, unpalatable to worms, and therefore not rotting.

So what do I do?

As any of my Clients will tell you, I get in there and re-distribute it!

Here's the finished version: I have raked the "point" to the outsides, flattened the heap, stuffed material down in all the corners and the flat edges, tapered the top so that rainwater runs into the heap, not out of it, and I have also made several holes in the top layer, so that any rain can get in at various places, not just the very centre.

Job done!

And if you are thinking that all this is not really necessary, I would point you to all the many Clients who have commented that they have never been able to make decent compost until I came to work for them. And now they all make so much "lovely stuff" that sometimes, we don't know what to do with it all!

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Why are there worms inside my compost bin lid?

Ooh, a compost question, lovely!

This relates to those black plastic dalek-style composters, much loved by local councils, much hated by proper gardeners and people who, like me, are asked to empty the darned things.

Why the dislike? They are hard work, that's why. To make them work properly, ie to create compost in a reasonable time, you need to add material in thin layers, alternating soft green stuff and woodier brown stuff, with small amounts of grass only, and possibly handfuls of Garotta compost activator.

You also have to stir them - not an easy task, even with the special Helen Yemm-recommended stirring tool (a claw on a stick, with a T-bar handle at the top).

Getting at the compost is another major hurdle.  Forget the idea of lifting the little lid at the bottom to access it: if you do that, you will shortly have a hollow cave with bone dry rock hard walls... no, the only way is to lift the whole thing up vertically, plop it down next door, then shovel the top two feet of disgusting squishy rotting stuff into it, before you get down to any decent compost

This is all time-consuming, and hard work... and one of my main principles is to get the best result from the least amount of work, not because I am lazy, but because I get paid by the minute, as it were, and I don't like wasting other people's money. Also, it's a good principle for the owners of the gardens: who wants to spend a precious free afternoon double digging, or something that you don't like doing? Gardens should be enjoyed, they should not be a duty.

Spending a lot of time and energy on compost is, in my view, the wrong way to do it: with just a little bit of forethought and organisation, you need hardly spend any time at all on it, other than the actual filling.

To avoid all of the above mentioned problems, all you need is a set of three pens, and they need only be a yard square each.  And if you are about to object that you don't have room for three bins, just consider that your dalek takes up one yard, you will need the space to reposition it for emptying, so that's two yards: can you really not squeeze in a third yard? Even slightly less than a yard would work.

Once you have your three pens, here is the routine:-

1) Fill number one, keeping the top flat and level. Don't let it turn into a cone inside the pen - stuff the corners as well as piling it on the middle.  When number one is full to overflowing, stop using it.  Do not add anything more to number one.

2) Start to fill number two, as above. Leave number one alone, don't cover it, don't add any more to it, even though the level is shrinking.

3) When number two is full to overflowing, start to fill number three.

By now, number one should have sunk down to about a third full, and should be ready for use. Scrape off the top layer, which might be a bit weedy, and toss that material onto number three.  You will know when the material is read to be used when you can't recognise anything within it. If you dig into it, and can see leaves, or stems, or worms, then it's not ready.

4) Use number one: spread on the garden, dig it in, use in pots, use as mulch. By the time number three is full, you should have used up all the stuff in number one, and you can start filling number one again.

You will note from the above that there is no stirring, no adding chemicals, no faffing about: no covering with carpets (yuk!), no extra time spent on them. Just pile it in, keep it level, let it get on with it while you get on with enjoying your garden.

However, if all you have is a dalek, then here is some detailed advice:  don't add too much grass at any one time - thin layers only. And by "thin" I mean an inch or two, no more. If you find that you get too much grass at once, stack it in a box or a bag next to the dalek, and add a layer each time you add some other material to the dalek.

Likewise, don't put sheets of cardboard in the dalek: rip them up into small flakes. If it is the corrugated type, don't add it to the compost at all, as the glue they use to stick the layers together is often quite noxious.

Shredded paper is the same thing - little and often. If you only shred once a month, stuff it into a bag and add a bit each week.

Oh, and don't add egg-shells (they don't rot) or citrus peel (ditto) or meat in any form (attracts rats) or biodegradable/cornstarch bags: yes, I know they say they are meant for composting, but they are designed for large-scale commercial composting, not small domestic operations, which simply don't reach the temperatures required to disintegrate them.

Right,  back to the question: Why are there worms inside the lid?

A classic phenomenon of daleks: you lift the lid and it's full of squiggling red worms.

These are brandlings, they are the one and only composting worm: normal fat, pale earthworms do not live in compost heaps as it's too hot and would kill them.

Conversely, brandlings do not live in the soil out and about in the garden, it's too cold and would kill them.

So when you empty your compost out, don't fling the red worms out as well, put them back in the dalek.

Why are they inside the lid?

Answer - because it's too wet for them in the heap. Solution: add some dryer matter, such as stems or stalks, or a bagful of paper shreddings, or some flaked cardboard. They will soon work their way down again.

And, a frequently-asked associated question: Where do they come from? Should I buy them?

Answer - no, no, and thrice no! You don't need to buy brandlings, they just turn up of their own accord, unless your new compost heap is bone dry. I have no idea how they get there, how they know it's compostable material, or where they come from.

Finally, as an aside, one of my Clients once bought a plastic compost "tumbler" which was a barrel on a stand, the idea being that it could live in the outhouse, close to the house, for easy filling, and it would be easy to tumble it frequently, for fast composting.

However, my Client quickly found that it got too heavy for her to turn it, so I would have to give it a good tumble every time I was there. Those shallow grooves are barely fingernail deep, so there's not much to grip when trying to turn it, and we found it got very wet and therefore heavy: also, the contents would be in one solid lump, so the first "tumble" each week was really hard going.

A further drawback was the number of flies it attracted, which was fairly horrible. The compost it made was not particularly good, and it was a beast to empty: you can see the "hatch" in the photo, it's quite small.  About the only good design element was the flat stand underneath, which caught all the liquid draining from the compost. This compost "tea" we would drain off every so often into old squash bottles, then dilute and water onto the plants. Of course, we had no scientific way of establishing whether it really did the plants any good....  after a year or so, it was given away to a neighbour.... 



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Monday, 10 November 2014

Well that's what I call pot-bound!

One of my Clients has a small decorative Spruce tree in a tiny, tiny pot: way too small for the tree, and so densely packed on top with roots that I can't even give it the usual solace of a top-dressing of new compost, as I can't get any of the old stuff out.

Worse, the roots have "risen" above the edges of the pot, so watering it has been almost impossible.

The poor thing has been dropping leaves and looking sickly, and all through this summer I've taken the time to trickle a little water onto it every time I am there, but it just can't soak down into the soil. Most of it just runs off, even after I stabbed a few holes in it vertically, to try to get some water down to the interior.

Two weeks ago I had had enough of this treatment, and suggested to the Client that the tree really needed either a much bigger pot, or to be planted out. As the Client is currently very busy and often working away from home, there isn't much time or attention to be spared for the garden (luckily he has the sense to allocate money to it, ie paying me to keep it nice!) so he took the easy option and told me to plant it out.


I found a good place, dug the 'ole, then wrestled the tree out of the plastic pot.

I don't have a "before" photo of the tree inside the pot, it was just too terrible to be shown on the internet.

But here it is after being liberated.

As you can see, the roots are so densely packed that you can actually see the pattern of the moulding from the pot, embossed into the rootball!

I don't think I've ever seen anything quite as pot-bound.

And I'm not even mentioning the long bare stem!!

Just look at that - truly horrifying.

The only thing you can do with a root ball like this is to dig and lever away at the outside layer - not gently, you really have to go at it - with a handtool (I used my daisy grubber), to loosen the outer layers of roots, and to remove altogether the very outside ones, which are "glazed", hard, and dead.

Once this neat shape was reduced to a fluffy mass, I planted it out, watered it in well, added a thick mulch of home-made compost, and left it to settle in.

Hopefully, even this late in the year, it will respond by putting on some new leaves, and with any luck next year it will start to grow properly.

Today I made a path from nothing.

I'm not sure if this comes under the heading of "garden archaeology" or "miracle gardening".

It started when my Client asked me to tidy up the edges of the grass, where he had cut the lawn but couldn't get close to the edge of the low wall.

I started to clip away a neat edge, including the bare area where a pot has been standing all summer.

Having clipped the edges, I noticed that the pot had not killed off the grass below it, but had been standing on a stone.

"OK," I thought, "odd place to have a stone."

Poking or stabbing downwards with my trusty daisy grubber, I realised that there was stone all the way under the grass....
... which peeled up like a carpet.

Now, this is a phenomenon which I have observed in other places in this particular garden: the house used to have a very large garden, but the previous owners built another house on it, split the garden, and sold off the old house.

My Clients - in the "old" house - therefore have a rather odd-shaped garden, and there are signs of old paths running under the grass at odd angles here and there.

Up came the carpet of grass...

... all I had to do was put a neat edge on it, and run the hose over the stones to get rid of the loose earth.

Took me about ten minutes, including the hosing.

While I was at it, I lifted enough to make a narrow path leading from the main, modern patio to the bird feeder, so they can now fill it without having to walk on wet grass.

There you go, nice neat edge, clean little path, and it's easier to mow.

The Clients appeared, and shrieked with delight at my "instant" path.

Oh good! It's always a relief when you change something, and it goes down well.

Here's the finished effect.

(That post is the bird feeder, btw)

I offered to make the path wider if they preferred, but they decided to keep it narrow for now.

They don't know how old the original stone work is - presumably it was laid when the house was built, and I commented how funny it was to see what is, in effect, crazy paving but done in real stone.

Presumably this is what they were copying, in the 70s, when crazy paving was massively popular.

One day, I'll go round this garden marking out where there is paving under the grass... one day.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Water butt installation: very nearly a good job.

My Client recently wanted to install a water butt in a shingled area, and said she had asked her builder/handyman to fit the diverter, and make a plinth for it. I reminded her to remind him not to just scrape back the shingle and use bricks, loose-laid on the earth (as he has done elsewhere) as the weight of a butt-full of water eventually makes them tilt and sag. We agreed it would be best if he laid a slab down first, then put the more attractive brick paviours on it.

I arrived there this week to find that he'd done a beautiful job, the water butt was in position and appeared to be sitting on paviours, but there was a solid slab underneath.

Great stuff.

Until I noticed that the paviour plinth was about an inch proud of the shingle, and that he had neglected to make an area for the watering can to sit on.

So when my Client tried to fill the watering can, it wouldn't stand level under the tap, and kept tipping over.


Clearly, it needs a little "apron" to stand on ... I decided the easiest fix would be to nestle another layer of three paviours into the shingle - they don't need to be set on slabs, as they only have the weight of one watering can, which is a big difference from having the whole weight of the water butt on them.

Off I went, to the back of the garage,  but I could only find two more of the paviours. Drat! Oh well, two will be better than none, and I can keep looking around for a third one. Most gardens have odd piles of odd bricks, posts, wood etc, it's just a question of finding them.

I scraped back the shingle, then bedded my two additional paviours into the shingle at the same height as the plinth.

Here's my enhanced version:  much better!

You can't see the height difference from this angle, but I hope you can see the problem - the original plinth just wasn't big enough to stand a watering can on.

Now it works perfectly, my Client can fill the can with ease. So remember, children, when installing water butts, always ensure there is room to get a can under the tap, and a flat place for it to stand on! 


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Saturday, 8 November 2014

Bird House Fortification

I love feeding the little birdies through the winter, it's a constant, daily joy to watch them coming to the bird feeder on cold mornings, while I am eating my breakfast.

Like most people, I prefer the "nice" birds: robins are always welcome, as are blackbirds, although they rarely fly up to the feeder, preferring to feed on the ground, as do the dunnocks (which look rather like sparrows, until you get used to them).

I love my chirpy cockney sparrers, although I'm seeing fewer and fewer of them as the years pass.

I used to get the "big flock" of about 18, and the "little flock" of seven or eight, in past years, and I would look out for them - but now I only get a few at a time.

Here are a couple of them, pretending to be blue tits on the fatball feeder.

Thrushes rarely come to my garden, which is such a shame as I would love a "tame" thrush to take care of the snails. I have a couple of frogs, who do a great job of eating all the slugs, but they don't make much impression on the snails.

Sometimes I even get the odd woodpecker,  here's one using his tree-climbing skills to hold the post, while he "makes a long neck" to get at the fat ball.

Occasionally I get wrens, I get lots of blue tits, the occasional great tit, and - my ultimate favourite - long tailed tits, which are about as cute as they get, and which seem to be rather short-sighted:  if the flock appears (you can hear a sweet, high-pitched peeping getting closer and closer, that usually means they are approaching) and I am in the garden, and stand still, they will fly all around me to get to the feeder.

Here's a couple of them, discussing how to get at the fat balls inside the squirrel-proof feeder.

"Go on, squeeze through there."

"I can't get in!"

"Yes you can, go on, you're nearly through, I'll give you a push."


I bought this feeder in an effort to prevent the starlings scoffing everything in sight, and it worked - but the small birds were not particularly keen on it, either. I can't blame them, it does rather look like a cage, doesn't it?

My main problem, however, was with pigeons, those great, fat, bloated, rats of the skies. Have you seen their feet? *shudders* horrible things!  Collared doves are ok, at least they have a certain amount of grace, and you usually only get two of them at a time, but the pigeons were becoming a bit of a nuisance.

I tried various feeders - cages for fat balls, seed feeders, plastic globes, you name it - and they all had the same problem, which was that there would be a rain of "bits" all around and underneath them, which attracted the pigeons.

So I decided to go for a bird-house, a little hut on a central pole, as it would keep the feed off the ground, and would keep the rain of the feed. Which it did. But the pigeons would blunder their way inside it, then scoff the lot.

What to do?

The first step was to create some bars to keep the darned things out - using scraps of wood, and some of my home-grown canes, I created a "cage".

Here is the Mark I version: it was initially 100% successful at keeping the pigeons out, and the starlings as well,  but it appeared to be irresistible to a squirrel.

Look closely....

Yes, there he is, enjoying the bird food.

Ah well, I don't really mind squirrels, and at least he had the decency to just squeeze between the bars.

The starlings, however, took it as a challenge and learned to land on the roof, take hold of the projecting pegs, and pull the canes out. This allowed them inside, and the pigeons as well. Hmmmm.

Mark II: the canes were wedged tightly in place, apart from two at the front, to allow me to refill it.

Much better. No more starling ingress. However, the pigeons took to landing on the roof and waddling around.

This shouldn't really be a problem, but the are so fat that they shake the entire pole, and given the choice, I would not have them in the garden at all.

So how could I stop them landing on the roof?

Answer: more of the canes, cut short and stuck into another piece of scrap wood, at odd angles. I took the idea from commercial anti-bird-perching strips that you see on top of rafters in covered walkways.

Hah! Success!

It looks ridiculous, but now the pigeons are foiled from landing on it, as are the magpies.

(Memo to self: must tidy up the garden before taking pictures in it.)

So now I have dry bird food, no mess on the ground underneath, no pigeons, no starlings, and hopefully this winter I will have a good range of little birdies coming along to enjoy it! 


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Monday, 3 November 2014

"Is dubbin the same as vaseline?"

This question popped up yesterday, and it's flattering to think that I am now considered to be an "expert" on the subject of waterproofing boots.  Unfortunately I don't know the answer to the question, and some superficial internet research reveals that no-one else knows, either. Some people say you should never use Vaseline on leather boots, other people say that Dubbin rots the stitches anyway.  Most leather treatments seem to be some kind of mineral oil, but no-one seems to know for sure.

Personally, I am always complaining about leather boots that are not waterproof, and I've written several articles on the subject - I started with Dubbin: does it actually work? closely followed by Dubbin: no, it doesn't! then there was the great Beeswax experiment.

At the end of that winter, I had decided that nothing worked.

This year, I tried Scotchguard, candle wax and neatsfoot oil.   The Scotchguard did not work, although it worked fabulously on a fabric handbag, and also on a pair of leather casual shoes. The candle wax was no better than vaseline, and was very messy to do: and as for the neatsfoot oil, well, the boots drank nearly a whole bottle of the stuff, and this was a brand-new pair of boots, unworn, so no comments about me mistreating my boots, thank you very much!

Here they are, still golloping the stuff.

The bad news is that, after all that effort and a not-inconsiderable cost, when you think that it took nearly a whole bottle of the stuff... after all that, I put the boots on and they were PAINFUL!! Nothing to do with the leather treatment, they were just typical brand new boots, so hard and unyielding that I couldn't wear them. Despite pouring all this oil into them.

Now, to be fair, I often struggle with new boots: I wear my boots to death, by which time they know every crease and bend of my feet, so new ones are always a bit of a trail, and I do expect to have sore toes and sore heels for several days when breaking in a new pair.

But these ones were so bad that I committed the heinous crime of jumping ahead to the next pair in the pile: having just spent £210 on new boots, luckily I had them ready.

Here is the new boot selection: the top pair are my usual Wrangler boots, superficially the same as the ones above, which were bought about 8 months ago (I hate shoe shopping so much that I buy several pairs at once) but the leather is so soft and supple that I was able to wear them quite happily, straight out of the box.

Hmm, perhaps other people have complained about the last batch of rock-hard ones?

The dark pair to the right are something new, Skechers "waterproof" boots.

I put "waterproof" in quotes because I am quite cynical about claims of waterproof-ness... but they even have a metal tag on the laces which says Waterproof in big letters.

The third pair, on the left, are the same Wranglers as the top pair, but a different colour. As though I care what colour my work boots are!! *laughs sardonically*

So far, I have worn both pairs of the new, soft Wranglers and they are fab, but I've only worn them in the dry.

Now to the Skechers: I've worn them for a month now, and there have been several days when the grass was very wet, which usually means wet toes. So far - unbelievably - I've had warm dry toes.

There is nothing on the box or the boot to suggest how they have achieved this miracle, or how long it is going to last. There's nothing on the internet about them, either:  the brand appears to be a fashion brand, which is bad news, but the boots are immediately comfy to wear, quite hefty and solid, but flex well:  perfectly comfy for driving, walking around the gardens, working, bending, digging, crouching, everything: the tops of the toes seem to "darken" as though they are soaking up water but my socks and feet remain warm and dry.

So far, these boots are getting 10/10!!

The brand is Skechers, the boot type is Mens Sargeants, they cost around £60 and are worth it.

So, frankly, I no longer care if vaseline is the same as dubbin or not, as I won't be using either of them on these boots! 

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