Thursday, 31 December 2015

Do you have plastic mesh in your beds?

This stuff has been driving me demented for years:

Have you ever encountered it?

Thin green plastic mesh, about 2" squares, buried in the soil.

It gets caught around the fork, it is tough as old boots so you can rarely break it or snap it, so you end up having to dig up whole section of it, disrupting the planting as you do so.

It makes me spit!

There was never any obvious reason for it - I had always assumed that it was something to do with landscaping contractors, as the only hint of a link between the gardens in which I find it is that they are either fairly new gardens, or have had obvious "cheap landscaping" input, by which I mean that they might have had some "design" work done, but not what you'd call good quality, long-lasting design- just those horrible makeovers where they slap down some turf in a circle, throw in some cheap-looking paving paths (which usually crack and crumble between the slabs, causing endless weed infiltration, but are otherwise set on a bed of 2' of concrete so they can't even be removed without heavy equipment) and cram in some massively unbalanced and badly-thought-out planting, such that the garden ends up with - as I encountered in one last year - one quarter-bed overflowing with rampant Vibernum, while the other three quarter-beds were desolate and bare.

Not that I'm biased against landscaping contractors (emphasis on the CON-tractors) you understand, it's just that I get lumbered with clearing up their inefficiency, short-cuts and total lack of planting knowledge... and in the case of this rotten stuff, I have to spend time digging it out, and it always takes much longer than it ought to, with frustratingly little apparent visible improvement.

So what it is actually for? Stabilising banks? Nope, I've found it on banks, but also on perfectly flat beds. Some sort of mulch matting? I don't think so, surely no-one would make a fabric that rots away to leave a skeleton of indestructible green mesh. Industrial-strength anti-squirrel netting? Well, it seems unlikely - why would people be protecting soil around herbaceous planting?

Eventually, after a lot of research, the truth surfaced - it's a material used by cheap turf suppliers. By which I mean, people who charge a lot of money but who use cheap, inferior turf. They grow it on this mesh stuff so that they can skim it up in really thin slices, thus using the minimum amount of good soil (and making the load lighter and less bulky so they can get more per lorryload), and so that they can lift it really early, before it has made a proper matted root system, so that they can get more crops off the same land.

Poor show, eh?!

It means that your turf might look nice when they first lay it, but for ever more you are going to be encountering the mesh - apparently, it can rise up through the grass and get caught on the blades of the mower, thus ripping up whole areas of lawn.

And woe betide your gardener if you decide to extend the beds (and this is where I come into it), as the mesh - if it wasn't removed by the action of lifting the turfs - turns up all over the beds for ever more and drives your gardener bonkers!

The manufacturer has apparently stated that it is biodegradable *snorts through nose* and, when a colleague of mine asked them how long before it disintegrated, was told "oh, only a year or so."  Not true! I have found it in gardens that have not had any changes done in over 10 years, and the photo above was from a garden that last had major work done when they moved in, which was over 20 years ago!

So if you are buying in turf, ask your supplier direct to their face if it has stabilising mesh in it, and if they say yes, cancel the order and go elsewhere.


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Wednesday, 30 December 2015

What is Santa's....

... favourite pizza?

(Does Santa even eat pizza?)

Well, it's nearly year end, and time to reflect on how the year went, and what new projects we plan to tackle next year.

I always encourage my Clients (and students) to take photos of their gardens at intervals, and to make notes in their Garden Journal about what worked well, what was a bit of a flop, any noticeable gaps in the garden and so on, on the grounds that when we finally get time to think about these things - and winter is a great time to think about them - we have invariably forgotten all the details.

One in particular that I am keeping an eye on is a Client who lives sideways on to a fairly quiet road, well, more of a lane really: they have a large bank of conifer hedging (ok, a MASSIVE bank) up by the house, as well as further down the garden, but there is a section in the middle which is deciduous trees, and every year they comment that in winter, when the leaves are down, they are annoyed by seeing traffic through the gap.

But they don't want to fill it up with conifers.

But they don't like seeing the traffic.

It's a bit of a conundrum.  So far I have encouraged them to plant a couple of decorative hollies in the area, on the grounds that they are evergreen, but not conifer - and they are not as "dense" as the unlovely Leylandii, but they do offer some privacy.

I was there for  tea and mince pies just before Christmas, and we all stood and regarded the gap: you could still see the traffic - although in defence of the hollies, I did point out that they have only been down a couple of months, and have hardly started to grow yet.

We decided that, once Christmas was over, they would take the corpse of their (real) Christmas tree and ram it into the ground in the middle of the gap, just to see what it would look like.  I thought this would give them a chance to get used to seeing "conifer" in the gap without going to the expense of buying and planting, and without making the long-term commitment before they are sure.

It is also an excellent way of getting the dead tree outside before it drops leaves everywhere, allowing it to die in its own time instead of having to trot it down the dump, thus filling the car with dead leaves and getting scratches all over the head lining. By the time spring arrives, it should be pretty much dead and brown, and thus much easier to chop up and dispose of in the green waste bin, bit by bit.

And hopefully by then, they will have decided whether they are going to fill the gap with conifers - or not!!

OK then, brace yourselves, here it is:

What is Santa's favourite pizza?

One that is deep pan, crisp and even.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

What do snowmen...

 ... eat for lunch?

(are you tired of these Terrible Christmas Jokes yet?)

I love the way that this sort of joke forces us to suspend disbelief entirely - snowmen don't eat anything, they are not alive! And if they were, they would only eat snow - after all, we are made of meat, and we eat meat, so logically all a snowman would need to eat would be more snow?

Perhaps I am over analysing...

Today is a day for planning - I have a Client with a bare corner in her garden, and I am planning to make it into something lovely.   To date, it has been the vegetable patch, but for a rather complicated reason involving the death of the irrigation system, it is not going to be used for veg any more. So, I have decided to make it a small sitting and cutting garden, with a bench, an up-and-over arch of sweet peas, and some sort of pathway that is not grass.

I have located a bench (found an old one, perfectly serviceable, round the back of the shed) and something I can use for the arch (former fruit cage with the netting removed, stood up on end) and I have already earmarked several plants that can be divided next spring, with the offshoots being moved to this new area.  I have a lot of annual seeds at home which I can bring along, and I am hoping to find enough bits of broken slabs down the edge of the compost bins to make a stepping stone path.

All I need to do today, really, is to decide roughly where the plants are going to go: shall I have a low border of lavender/rosemary edging my new path? Will I place hollyhocks at the back, as is traditional, or shall I put some closer to the path in order to make interesting "hidden" areas? Will oriental poppies look good in front of the aforementioned hollyhock, or will the colours clash? Does it matter if the colours clash? Shall I go for perennial sweet pea (I have some seeds, saved from another garden) which are obviously the easiest, or would it be better to raise them each year in order to have fragrance as well as flowers?

So many decisions!

Such fun!

Right, let's get it over with:

What do snowmen eat for lunch?


(presumably this is meant to be a pune or play of words on ice-bergs and beefburgers?!!) 


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Monday, 28 December 2015

What do Santa's little helpers...

... learn at school?

(ha! ha! Another good one!)

I've been taking advantage of time off work to sort out my enormous "Dead Gloves" box. This is the box full of odd gloves - mostly rights, as I always wear out my lefts.

Here is a picture of something which particularly pains my soul: Gold Leaf Winter Touch orphaned rights.

As you can see, I have quite a collection of them, and at £25 a pair, this represents a serious waste of money - there's nearly two hundred quid's worth there, and that is just this year's box.

Well, not a "waste" of money per se, as they are brilliant gloves for working in winter, being thermal lined and waterproof, thus keeping my fingers toasty warm and comfy in the worst of weather.  I just wish they would last a bit longer!

With some types of gloves - the summer ones, usually - I can turn the orphaned rights inside out and use them on my left hand, which is a cunning wheeze to extend their life: I'm not proud, I am quite happy to wear a glove with strange bits of thread hanging off it. But with these gloves, it's not possible.

I have even tried cutting off the fingers from a spare right and grafting them over  the damaged left, but they don't last for long, and the double thickness makes them unwieldy to work in. Shame!

Right, what was today's joke?

What do Santa's little helpers learn at school?

The elfabet.


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Sunday, 27 December 2015

Who delivers presents.....

.... to cats?

I'm sure I read somewhere that the internet was sinking under the weight of pictures of cats... probably true, there are whole websites dedicated to this topic. My favourite is.. oops, nearly lost all my street cred there.

Actually, I've had cats all my life except for the last 20 years (?) and I have to say, none of our cats ever pulled all the toilet paper off the roll (they would have been thrashed if they had tried it) or climbed up inside the Christmas tree (ditto). Presumably cats, like children, are not taught to behave any more?

This has been a year for plants not behaving as they are supposed to - not only do we have tulips flowering before they are even planted, but now we have deep-winter flowers appearing while it is still mild - look what I found last week:

Can you see them?

A pair of Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyamelis) merrily flowering, all by themselves.

I am well aware that some plants appear and/or flower in response to temperatures rising or falling, whereas some respond to day length: those are the ones that can be "forced" by being kept in the dark, or by being subjected to artificial light.

I had assumed that Eranthis were a day-length plant, but now I'm not so sure, they seem to be out awfully early. Nice to see them, though!

Typically, they are not where they are supposed to be  - in this garden, the Client wanted to have a drift of Eranthis around a rather nice wooden seat in one corner of the formal lawn, so I dutifully provided and planted a dozen of them, a couple of years ago. Once Eranthis get established, they set seed generously and over time they form wide drifts or swathes of colour in winter - lovely! In this case, however, instead of seeding around the bench, they have chosen to seed themselves in the nearby border.

This means that next month, I will be sent out with a trowel to dig them up and carefully transplant them back to where they are supposed to be!

Now, back to that cat joke:

Who delivers presents to cats?

Santa Paws.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Who hides in the bakery... Christmas?

(This one is actually quite good!)

Ah, Boxing Day - apparently this used to be the day when we opened our "boxes", ie our presents.  I'm not quite sure when present-opening migrated to yesterday, maybe googling it will give an answer:

*pause while I google*  Oh! Boxing Day was supposed to be the day when the staff and tradesmen were given their gratuity. Hmm, wonder if I should tell my Clients about this tradition? *laughs* No, I don't expect a gratuity from Clients, it's enough that they pay me to work in their lovely gardens!

I don't imagine that many people will be working in their gardens today, we are all too fat and full up from huge turkey dinners yesterday, not to mention the weather. I'll be happy if I can get to go out for a walk around the streets.

Talking of which, even on a day like today I can't quite stop being a gardener - I always like looking at what other people are growing in their front gardens, partly to see what they have, and partly to see if they have come up with an interesting or clever way to get around the usual front-garden problems of access, no light, paving for parking, wheelie bins and lack of attention.  Or even, a particularly effective combination of planting.

I'll try to remember to take pictures of anything interesting...

Meanwhile, back to the Terrible Christmas Joke of the Day:

Who hides in the bakery at Christmas?

A mince spy.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

What do you get....

.... if you cross Santa with a duck?

Today is Christmas Eve, and by now most of us are thoroughly fed up with the whole holiday thing, having been suffering it in the shops since early November.

But it wasn't always like this.. I have a series of school books about the Chalet School, they were written by a lady called Elinor M Brent-Dyer, about a pair of English sisters, one much younger than the other, who moved out to Tyrol and started a school. The first one was written in 1925, and she kept banging them out at a rate of more than one a year,  right through the war (which had quite an impact on the school), through rock and roll (which bypassed it altogether) and right up into the 70s. They are utterly fascinating as a social history of private girls' education, continent-based but still very "English".

The parts of the earlier books that always caught my interest - quite apart from the fact that having their hair washed was something they were taken to a hairdresser for - were the descriptions of Christmas, which didn't start until late on Christmas Eve. That was the day when the servants - servants!! - were given the afternoon off to go and do their shopping for gifts, and was the day when the tree arrived and was decorated ready for Christmas day.

So different now....

They didn't do a lot of gardening when they were based in Austria, apart from the annual wrapping-up of the rose bushes in sacking to protect them from the snow. This year, in this country, I have done very little plant protection: last week I did finally wrap up a fig in a pot, and a fairly new Sorbaria which the Client thought might benefit from another year of protection: it's been so ridiculously mild that no-one can quite believe that it is ever going to actually get cold again.

The 10-day forecast says we are going to have double figures, 13-14 degrees, right to the end of the month, which is quite extraordinary: and the long-range forecast is "mild and wet" right through to mid-January, so there doesn't seem a lot of point in wrapping up the plants.

If you do decide to go ahead with plant protection, here are a couple of Expert Tips: don't use bubble-wrap or any sort of plastic: the plants will still be "breathing" even through the winter, and the first sign of sunshine will cause them to "sweat" inside the plastic wrapping. This will lead to mould and fungus, ugh.  Instead, use horticultural fleece, which is lightweight and usually quite translucent - the light can still get in to the plant, which is kinder than plunging it into darkness for several months.  Even leftover landscaping fabric or membrane is better than plastic, but lightweight fleece is best of all, and can be re-used year after year if you are careful when you remove it. Don't use old sheets, they soak up the water and a) become so heavy that they are likely to squash or snap the plant, and b) long-term dampness is another way to invite mould and fungus onto your precious plant.

Second tip, use old pegs to hold it in place. Much better than trying to get loops of string to stay in place.

Third tip, try to leave the very top of the bundle open so that the air and the sun can get in freely. This helps to reduce the amount of insects who creep inside!

Here's one I did last week:

It's a fig, and as the branches are quite flexible I have been a bit cruel and have curled them gently upwards inside the wrapping, but only in order to make a neater package, as it is on the path. Next year I will have to do some judicious pruning, but I don't like to prune this late in the year.

You can see the cunning use of clothes pegs... and they are very handy when you are doing this sort of thing by yourself, without anyone else to hold the fleece in place while a force-9 gale tries to whip it out of your hands.

I then went on to wrap the pot - in bubble wrap, which is ok for pots, not for plants - which is mostly to protect the pot, rather than to protect the roots of the plant.

So, what do you get if you cross Santa with a duck?

A Christmas Quacker.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Where do snowmen.... to dance?

(I'm sniggering like a 12-year-old at this one, because it remind me of a different, rather ruder Christmas joke, but I'll try to keep that one to myself.)

This year, everyone is talking about the weird weather: it's been the coolest and least-sunny summer ever, and the warmest, mildest winter in over a hundred years, the upshot of which is that none of us feel as though it is really Christmas, and all the plants are flowering at the wrong times.

A friend of mine went to plant out her tulips last week - yes, rather late - and found this:

Your eyes do not deceive you, it is indeed flowering, in the bag. Not even planted yet, but already flowering!!

(In case you are wondering, the correct procedure in these cases is to get them planted asap, carefully so as not to snap the flowering stem, then give them a good drenching of water with liquid feed in it, in order to help the bulb stock up on energy for next year.)  (And at least you know for certain what colour it is!!)

So, where do snowmen like to dance?

At snowballs.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

What do you get....

... if you eat Christmas decorations?

OK, I admit it, there's not so much going on in the garden this week: it's nearly Christmas, I have officially stopped work for the holidays, so what can I talk about here, to keep you all interested? I've decided to treat you to a series of terrible Christmas jokes, courtesy of my Malteasers Advent Calendar - a small piece of chocolate and a dreadful pun for every day of the run-up to Christmas, which should keep us going until I get back to work. And I'll try to add some gardening content as well... honest!

Traditionally, the gardening columns say things like "winter is a great time for looking at seed catalogues" but they don't thrill me: most of the photos are unrealistically beautiful, many of them are, if not actually air brushed, artificially boosted (for instance, by bundling together a dozen blooms, when you know that in fact they flower in sequence, so you are unlikely to get more than one at a time from any one plant), and they are certainly presented in the best possible flattering-colour-filtered way.

Also, I know from experience that many of those exotic beauties simply won't survive in the cold damp soil of Oxfordshire... not to mention the fact that most of my Clients don't want to spend a lot of money on something that might or might not survive - they generally like tried-and-trusted plants that can be relied on to perform.

Talking of which, a while back, a kind Client gave me a huge stack of Garden magazines - the RHS monthly journal - going back over ten years. I sorted them into month and year order, and have spent the last two years working my way through them. The older ones, I have to say, are SO MUCH better than the current ones.  There is a lot of talk of dumbing down these days, and these magazines really prove it. The earlier ones used to take me weeks to read (I tend to read them only while stuffing down my lunch, so I only get 20 mins a day at them), and I would constantly be reaching for the scissors to cut out articles of interest to go in my scrapbooks and ideas books.

The later ones, and particularly this year and last year, can be flipped through in ten minutes, and I have not cut out and kept a single article. They have page after page of truly beautiful, huge, pictures, but not a lot of actual content. RHS, are you listening? You are supposed to educate and enthuse us, not entertain us with pretty pictures.

My point, however, is the realisation that so many of the "new" plants featured over the years in these magazines have simply fallen by the wayside.

All of them were hailed, at the time, as the latest, greatest, bestest thing - hardy, long-lived, long flowering season, disease-resistant, drought-hardy, perfect for this that and the other: but now they have sunk without trace. I do have one Client who likes to experiment, and who is always buying those "special offers" that you see in the papers, but I can't think of one plant, off-hand, that has survived longer than a year or two, or which has really impressed us with its flowering capacity.

And this is why I don't ever fizz with enthusiasm for "new" plants, I prefer to wait and see if anyone actually grows one locally, before I would consider recommending it to my Clients.

So no, I don't get much of a thrill from looking at seed catalogues at this time of year.

Now, what was today's Terrible Christmas Joke?

What do you get if you eat Christmas decorations?


Sunday, 20 December 2015

Ferns: time to cut them back!

The last post rambled on a bit, so here is the second instalment: how to tidy up ferns.

It is very much the same problem and the same principle as for the Hellebores: the old leaves reach a point where they are getting tatty, and they do obstruct the new fronds - but on the other hand, people say "Oh, but you should leave the old fronds there for frost protection".

It really isn't necessary, ferns are as tough as old boots, unless you live in an area with really hard winters. In this particular garden, the whole of this area is a massive frost pocket, as it is set within a deep valley, so the frost just sits there. And yet the ferns survive..

Here is the problem - the fern fronds have lost their fresh greenness and are getting quite brown and tatty, worsened in this case by having the brambles hauled down from above, when we cleared the upper bank of the worst of the top-growth (more of that another time).

A fern in this condition is no use to man or beast, and it is time to clear it away.

Looked at more closely, you can see that each frond has its own brown stalk, and they emerge from a knobbly brown base.

As the plant ages, these knobbles become huge, several inches across, and you often find knobbles growing out of other knobbles.

All you have to do is take your secateurs, and carefully snip off each brown stem, as close to the knobble as you can reach.

Here we are, halfway through the job.

You can see that this fern is actually a collection of smaller knobbles, where it has expanded over the years.

If I wanted to increase the fern bed, I would use a spade to chop off some of the outlying knobbles, getting a good chunk of root with each one. These would then be planted out, and the original plant would quickly fill in the gaps, so by next summer you would not notice that it had been split up.

Here is the whole thing, all fronds cut, and you can see that I have taken the opportunity to remove as much of the encroaching Lamium as I could.

I did also try to get off as much moss as possible, but it was firmly attached and I didn't want to risk damaging the new fronds.

This is an excellent time of year to do this job, as the new fronds are still tightly packed - can you see those smooth, lighter brown mini-kobbles? Each of those is a new frond, just waiting for spring. And when they are still tightly-packed like this, there is no chance of damaging them.


Here is the same clump, fully cleaned up and ready for spring.

You can see that I am trying to keep the Lamium to the area above the fern layer: this is to keep the Hellebore area free, not just for the convenience of the Hellebores, but because I am gradually filling up the lowest area with Common Spotted Orchids, and I don't want them to be swamped by the over-vigorous Lamium. It means that the Hellebore area is comparatively bare and uninteresting at this time of year, but only for a couple of weeks until the Hellebores start flowering, and I think it is well worth it, to preserve and encourage the tiny Orchids.

Luckily for me, the Client agrees!

And what of the cut-off fronds? Compost, or not compost?  I still don't have a definitive answer on this one. Personally I don't compost them, partly due to the millions of spores on them - I don't want to spend my life weeding out baby ferns - and mostly because I think they are too "tough" for composting, and that the mid-ribs would be persistent in the compost for too long.

The internet is no help at all here: some people say yes, some say no: there is a huge confusion about what is a fern, and what is bracken (they are different) and what difference it will make to the ph of the soil, and so on. So I will stick to my own principles for now, and as my composting is all done in "normal" gardens, not on a commercial scale, I will continue to put fern fronds on the bonfire heap, using the ash later on for other purposes.

If you have any thoughts or comments on the matter of composting ferns, I would be delighted to hear from you! 


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Sunday, 13 December 2015

Ferns and Hellebores - time to clear them away

It may be nearly Christmas, but now is the time to get out there and tidy up the "woodland" beds before the new buds start shooting.

One of my gardens has a fabulous Hellebore bank, but at the moment it looks like nothing on earth:

 Bit of a mess, huh?

It's suffered this year, as we have been doing sterling work on the brambles higher up the bank (if you want advice about removing brambles, I have written about it here, here, here, and here) and this has led to a lot of trampling, and a good deal of crushing as the brambles were removed.

Sometimes, a garden just has to suffer, for the greater good *sigh* .

Anyway, the brambles have been cut back and removed, and now it is time to tidy up this lower area.

This is what is causing the messy look - masses of fern fronds, and a whole load of middle-aged Hellebore leaves.

I deal with the ferns first - which, just to keep you on your toes, I will be explaining further down the page - and then you can see what the Hellebore leaves are up to.

I generally nip off any dead-looking or really tatty leaves as and when I see them, starting in late summer, so the ones that are still growing are in quite nice condition: but there comes a time when you have to clear them out properly, and now is that time.

"Why? " I hear you ask, "Don't they offer frost protection for the flower buds?"

Well, they do, but Hellebores don't seem to need it. I have spent the last ten years or more cutting off Hellebore leaves before Christmas, and I have never lost a Hellebore yet.

So, what do you do? Take each old Hellebore leaf, one at a time, take a pair of sharp secateurs, apply one to the other. Cut the stalk as low down as you can - there is no point leaving a couple of inches of stem to go brown and 'orrible, and it will only stab you in the knuckles when you go round them again, as you inevitable would have to - unless you don't mind looking at dead brown stalks, that is.

As you do this, look for the tender new shoots coming up: some will be leaves, but many - hopefully, most - will be flower buds, so take care not to cut or snap those ones.

Sometimes you might find that there are already some of the new season leaves appearing: they will be fresh and green, and a lot smaller than the old ones from the past season. It's up to you whether to leave them or not: my rule is that if they are neat and tidy, I leave them, but if they are growing at odd angles, or are going to obstruct our view of the flowers, then they get snipped off as well.

Once you have cleared the leaves away, suddenly it all starts to look more hopeful. Take the opportunity to clear away any infiltrating weeds while you are at it, but keep the weeds separate from the leaves - leaves are not for composting, partly because they are as tough as Horse Chestnut leaflets and take forever to rot, but mostly because they harbour the spores of a particularly nasty (and mostly unpronounceable) fungal disease called Microsphaeropsis hellebori (told you) which causes leaf spot, and is terribly common. The only way to control it is to clear out and burn the leaves, thus breaking the cycle of disease-spore-overwinter-jump-to-new-leaf-disease.

If you can't burn your leaves, then either put them in your council Green Waste bin (they get their processing plant up to a much higher temperature than we can, which kills the spores) or bag them up and trundle them down to the tip, for very much the same reason.

 Things will look a little bare afterwards, but not for long - here is part of the bank, "after", and as you can see, there are already flower shoots coming through.

I hadn't quite finished this section when I took the photo (says she, defensively!) so there is still some debris to remove and some weeding to do - just look at that cheeky Lamium there! - but you get the general idea.

I find it's important to cut back the leaves  now, before the new buds really get going, otherwise the new bud are distorted by having to force their way through the old leaves, and there is a much higher risk of damaging the new, when trying to cut off the old.

And now here is the bank, from the same point:

Much better!

OK, much barer, but now we will be able to see the flowers clearly, and I will also take this opportunity to sling on a thick layer of our own compost.

Not to protect the buds, by the way, just to enrich the soil: being at the bottom of a bank, a lot of water comes washing down through the year, and much of the soil gets washed away. There isn't much soil here, with chalk underneath, so I have to add organic matter whenever I get the chance.

So a good layer of compost will make the bed look very smart now, and won't harm or hinder the flower buds. In a couple of weeks they will be several inches high, and it will be exciting to see what colours we have - earlier this year I had to move a lot of the planting when the bank edging collapsed, and I'm not at all sure that I put them back in the right order!!

So, what about those ferns?

Oops, I've run out of time! I'll write about those in the very next post..... 


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Friday, 11 December 2015

Dear Prince Charles: lovely idea, but it doesn't work!

Now, I'm not in the habit of taking gardening advice from  HRH Prince Charles, but a few years ago a good friend of mine went on an outing to Buck House and came back full of a particular idea which is practised down there.

Apparently - I say "apparently" because I am only repeating what she said, I don't know this for myself - HRH is in the habit of planting up his enormous decorative terracotta plants with plants which are left in their plastic pots, the plastic pots being plunged into the terracotta pots.

After discussing this with a Client, she was so intrigued by the idea that we tried it with a Fig, in a particularly lovely but awkwardly-shaped ali-baba style terracotta pot.

Anyone who has ever tried to empty one of these out will tell you that it's impossible: the tapered-top shape means that the wodge of soil won't come out through the narrow opening, and if a plant has developed a good rootball, the only way to empty the pot is to chip the roots out one chunk at a time, which is both tiring and tedious. Last time I did this, I had spread out a plastic sheet, gently lowered the pot onto its side, and spent half an hour or more on hands and knees, patiently working away at it.

Never again, I quoth, nevermore!

This is why it seemed like a good idea to employ the HRH-pot-plunging technique.

All went well for a couple of years, the Fig grew strongly, it looked lovely, but earlier this year we noticed that it was leaning to one side rather a lot, and had sunk down rather low inside the terracotta pot.

No problem, said my Client, it's in a plastic pot, isn't it? Just lift the pot up, push some additional soil underneath to raise it, straightening it as you do so, will only take you five minutes.

Five minutes, she said.

Here is the offending article: as you can see, the main stem is listing drunkenly to one side, and the whole thing has sunk down well below the rim of the pot.

You can just see the curve of the black plastic pot above the sunken soil level, a good 5-6" below the lip.

Here is the view from above (the main stem does not look quite so crooked from here, but I assure you that it is well off-centre) showing the pot, along with a couple of cheeky weeds that have sneaked in.

They were easily dealt with, but of course, the inner pot would not lift up. I heaved, I strained, I heaved again, but it would not budge. I tried soaking it, to soften the soil, but that just made me muddy.

The fig has rooted through the plastic pot, hasn't it?

Of course it has.

Never mind, said my Client,  all you have to do is dig down the sides of the plastic pot, go underneath and sever the roots, then just pull it out.

"All you have to do...."

For a start, as you can see from this photo, there is barely enough room to slide a hand down inside the terracotta pot, and it took me twenty minutes to get to this stage - I have managed to scrape out a few inches of the surrounding soil, at the cost of several scraped knuckles, but I have now found roots, as you can see, and this means the fig has not only rooted through the bottom of the plastic pot and downwards, it has also spread the roots up outside the plastic pot.


By this point, the plastic pot was wiggle-able, but would not come loose, and I found it impossible to get a grip on it - it has a very small rim, and I just couldn't get any purchase, my fingers kept slipping off, adding a broken fingernail to the scraped .  I tried looping a rope round the rim,  to give me something to get hold of (you can just see the green rope in the above photo) but all that happened was that the plastic rim snapped, I jarred myself, and said a rude word. Sabrina, the Client's cat, walked away in a huff at this point.

I was feeling rather like walking away in a huff myself, but unfortunately I am paid to deal with these problems, so I stood back and reassessed it.

The good news was that all that heaving and straining had brought the main stem into a much more upright position.

The bad news was that I simply could not lift the inner pot up at all.

So I went to the Client, and told her that I could not get the plastic pot out, but that it was a lot more upright than before, and suggested that we just top up the soil to the rim of the terracotta pot, and pretend that I'd raised it.

It worked! The Client agreed, I rammed in a lot of soil to hold the plastic pot in the new, "slightly more upright" position, then - having checked that it does not harm a fig stem to be heavily mulched - I topped up the pot.

Result!  Happy Client, upright Fig, exhausted Gardener.

And a lesson learned, which I will happily pass on to all and sundry: if doing this trick at home, before you plunge the pot, take some strong nylon rope, make a loop long enough to go under the pot (doubled  up) and up each side, with enough above the rim to get hold of: get an assistant to hold these two loops as though they were using them to lift the pot.

Now take some more of the nylon rope and tie your lifting loop in place, just under the rim, and again towards the base of the pot.

Then plonk the whole contraption, rope and all, into the decorative pot. Backfill with soil, taking care not to disturb your lifting loop. When you get to the top of the pot, fold the  two hand-loops downwards and cover them with soil.

When you need to move the plastic pot, all you have to do is unbury those two hand-loops, and pull.



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Sunday, 6 December 2015

Never be scared of Conifers again!

Yesterday I published a new botany book, Conifer Basics.

This is part of a new series, hence the jazzy bright yellow covers... these Basics Books are aimed at complete beginners - people who know (or say they know) nothing whatsoever about the subject.

It came about after I lead a couple of Conifer ID courses last winter, which were very well received by my Midweek Botany Crew, and during which I realised that some people really do want an absolutely basic introduction to the subject.

So instead of focusing on the tiny differences between species, which is what I do in the Cribs (green covers), in this book I talk you through the broad differences between the various genera (plural of genus) of conifers, very much as I do on my courses.

The idea is that, after reading this book, anyone can go out (anyone in the UK, that is!) and look at the conifers in their area, and can identify them to genus level.

Not to individual species level - that's a bit more advanced, although I do give species info on Larch and Cedar, as they only have three each. But, after reading this book, you will be confident to identify most of the conifers you are likely to see, to genus level. That means you can go round your local garden centre selling Christmas Trees, and can knowledgeably say "Abies.... Abies...... Picea..... Abies..." which will astound and impress all your friends.

So what is in the book?

I start by explaining what a "conifer" really is, and why it is not as simple as saying "evergreen".

Then I split all the conifers up into three groups, according to what type of leaf they have - needle, flat linear leaf, or scale leaf.

Next I do a quick walk-through each of those three groups, giving a bit more information about what you need to look at, in order to work out which genus you have.

Then I run through twenty of the commonest genera of conifers in the UK, in detail, explaining what you are looking at, what you are looking for, and a little bit of background information on each genus.

You need never be scared of conifers, ever again!

Here is where to find it: Conifer Basics by Rachel The Gardener, available right now on Kindle, free to download if you have Kindle Unlimited or Amazon Prime, and only a couple of quid if you don't.

Still not sure? Here's the list of Chapters, so you can see what is covered:

1) Welcome
2) What's in a name (explanation of botanical naming)
3) Equipment Required: (minimal)
4) How to start looking at conifers:
5) What is a Conifer?
   Group 1: Needle
   Group 2: Flat Leaves
   Group 3: Scale Leaves.
6) Group 1 - Needles (Pine, Larch, Cedar)
7) Group 2 - Flat leaves, Evergreen (subdivided into green shoots and brown shoots)
                   - Flat leaves, Deciduous
 8) Group 3 - Scale leaves (subdivided into Big Trees, Hedges, and Others)
9) Finally (and a Crib)

My intention is that you will start with this book, become comfortable and confident on identifying to genus level, then go on to look at identifying to species level. Conifers are more interesting than most people think, and are a comparatively small group of plants, especially when compared to wildflowers, or garden plants. So it doesn't take long to become an Expert, and we all love being an Expert, don't we!

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Field Guide to Acacia - out now !

Usually, when I publish a new Field Guide, I am all jumpy-around, thrilled and excited.

Last week - not so much.


The latest Field Guide to hit the Kindle virtual shelves is for Acacias: trees that look like Acacias, that are called Acacias, and that have pinnate leaves and spines, and which might get confused with Acacias.

But Amazon made a slight bish with the cover:

Can you spot the publisher's mistake?? Yes, they have used the Scabious cover.


I waited a couple of days for them to sort it out, but a sorting out was not forthcoming, so in the end I had to unpublish the book, then create a new listing. However, it was not all a bad thing, as I spotted a spelling mistake, and then I looked at the next paragraph and thought that, actually, I could reword it to make it a bit easier to understand.

Anyway, it is now done, and available for FREE download if you have Kindle Unlimited or Amazon Prime: and if not, well, it's only the cost of a cup of coffee,  and you need never again be confused by this group of trees.

I'll be offering it for free this weekend, Sat/Sun 21st and 22nd November, so if you are really, really tight and can't afford even one cup of coffee *laughs* then you can get it for free.

Hopefully you be so impressed that you will then buy one of the other books which I have published: I'm up to 18 so far, 16 of which are Botany Field Guides, and there should be another one out this week, if the weather continues to be as awful as it is today.

So off you go! Download this nice little book, and learn all about Honey Locust and Black Locust, and Prickly Ash and Northern Prickly Ash, not to mention finally getting to grips with the difference between Acacia and False Acacia, which, in my opinion, looks nothing like "real" Acacia... 

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

How to keep ivy out, from beyond your garden

This is such a common problem: you work and strive to make your own garden or land nice, and then you are invaded by unwanted plants from next door.

What can you do?

If someone lives next door, your first step - before it really starts to wind you up - is to walk round and tap on their door. Introduce yourself, say that you realise they might not be aware of it, but their ivy (or bindweed or willowherb seeds or overhanging trees, or whatever the problem is) is causing you difficulties, and would they be kind enough to do something about it from their side.

I wrote about this a while back, in answer to a question about invading Brambles, and I said then that 90% of the time, the neighbour is surprised and then horrified to learn that their plants are being a nuisance, and usually they will be happy to sort out their side.  Sometimes, it can help if you offer to go round to their side and help them with the work (while cunningly leaving them responsible for disposing of the waste material, mwaah haa haa!) especially things like brambles and overhanging trees, where it really is so much easier to sort them out from the side on which they grow.

However, what if there is no-one next door - if the land is derelict, or public land? This was the case in the article mentioned above, and it goes for ivy as well: the only real answer is to get on the other side of your boundary, and attack it from there.

I have a Client with this exact problem: the back of their garden adjoins a very steep slope of land running down to a road, and the land is presumably owned by the council. Needless to say, the council don't do any sort of maintenance at all, and the top of this bank is infested with brambles, and has a lovely underplanting of ivy.

Last year - my first winter in this garden - I clambered round the back of the fence, and hacked off all the brambles for about a yard clear of my Client's fence. This allowed me to then loosen and pull back all the ground-covering ivy for the same distance, which gave me access all the way along the back of the fence, and meant that I was able to dig out any ivy that had rooted on "our" side of it.

It was too big a task to try to get rid of the ivy beyond the fence altogether, so I used what I call the "Hydra" technique: if you cut ivy (or brambles, for that matter) the cut end will sprout two or more new shoots, which are usually more vigorous than the original. If you cut these, then each cut will again sprout more than one shoot so you get four or five of them, and if you cut these .. you get the idea. Instead, I pull up the loose length of the ivy (or bramble) and fold it back on itself, so that it can continue to grow as just one shoot, instead of many, but it will continue to grow away from the fence.

Of course, if the reason the ivy was heading for the fence was to get more light, or just single-minded determination to go uphill, then it will end up heading back this way, but by tossing three- and four-foot long streamers of the stuff back down the slope, I could delay its return.

Here's what it looked like last week - not too bad, all things considered.

In this photo I am halfway through through the job, as I have already dealt with the brambles: I folded back as much of them as I could get to, and chopped off any dead brown bramble stems (which won't regrow) as far to the right as I could reach.

Now I have to tackle the ivy - as you can see, it has regrown all over the area, but not that thickly, and when I came to them, I found that they were mostly long "loose" strands, barely rooted into the soil. This meant it was a comparatively quick job to heave them up without snapping them off, and toss them over to the right, downhill. Wherever possible I would pull up the roots, but I didn't spend much time on it, as I have the whole of the main garden to attend to!

Here is the result: a clear exclusion zone, no ivy growing, no brambles leaning across: plenty of daylight for the back of "our" side, to help our planting to grow well, and by allowing light and air to the back of the fence, it reduces dampness, mould and fungal growth, which helps the fence to last longer. Best of all, there are now no brambles grabbing at me, as I carry out routine maintenance on "our" side.

So there you have it, a simple exclusion zone, invisible to anyone else, nothing for the council or nosy neighbours to complain about, and it also *looks over shoulder to see if anyone is listening* means that if the bare zone should be invaded by nettles, or willowherb, or anything of that type, I can - if I choose - easily spray weedkiller over the fence, without having to scramble round the back. 

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Sunday, 8 November 2015

Planting on steep slopes: board-and-post pockets

One of my gardens has a very, very steep bank - actually, several of them - and I am constantly trying to find better ways to get plants established.

Usually I chip a hole in the clay - always hard to do, and tends to fracture the face of the slope - and stuff it with decent compost before ramming in the plant.  I try to make a "lip" to catch the rain, as the plants rarely get watered once planted, poor things!

Last week I was presented with three small shrubs and asked to get them established way, way up one of the bank: not an easy job, but, hey! I like a challenge.

Last year I planted a couple of buddliea on another part of the slope, and as an experiment I had wedged a piece of timber across the slope for one of them, making a sort of miniature terrace, intending to see if the terraced plant did better than the unterraced one.

Surprise surprise, it did.

So for these little shrubs, I thought I'd take that idea and formalise it.

 Here is the first one: as you can see, it is quite literally just a short length of board, with a couple of pegs of odd half-round timber hammered vertically into the slope, to hold it in place. All materials were found on the rubbish wood pile, and hacked roughly to length with my trusty bowsaw.

I then dug a hole above the wood into the chalk, using the rough lumpy 'orrible "soil" to pack in at the bottom of the inside of the new terrace - hopefully, to hold in any rainwater.

Then I heaved a bucket full of compost up, tipped it in, mixed it round, firmed it down a bit, inserted the plant, and levelled it off.

Here is the second one, above and to one side of the first one: exactly the same.

This gives you some idea of the slope - it really is one-in-one, and I have to scramble up, heart in mouth, on my hands and knees.

I then have to brace myself like one of those mad free-climbers, while hammering in the posts.

Don't even ask how about how I get down - here's a clue, it's not graceful, and it involves sliding on my bottom.

 I told the Client that I was intending to get a rustic, artfully non-level look to the boards and pegs: to be in keeping with the casual nature of this bank, and to avoid introducing a jarring note of military precision.

All right, I admit it, this was the best I could manage while clinging to the slope!

I managed to get half a bucketful of water up there - yes, it was a full bucket when I started the climb - to give them a head start, and now they have been left to their own devices to see how they survive the experience.

I shall report back in due course! 


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Friday, 6 November 2015

How to get Couch Grass out of Bearded Iris

Here we go again: a new Client says "oh, could you just weed that clump of Iris for me, I've done all round it but there's a bit of grass I can't get out, in the middle of it."

A "bit" of grass?

Hmm, this is what I could call a full-on infestation of weeds in general but couch grass in particular.

This was a Bearded Iris, by the way, but this applies to any rhizatomous Iris.  They often need to be sorted out as part of the autumn tidyup (or "autumn slaughter" as I call it), and this is the time when you discover that they have grass and weeds poking up all around and through them.

It's easy to get into this situation:  Iris (plural of Iris, anyone? Irisis? Irises?) tend to form dense clumps, and if a blade of grass manages to infiltrate, it's impossible to get at it without damaging the rhizome, so there is a tendency to leave it "for now" and by the time flowering is over, and you get around to dealing with it, you find that there is a nasty infestation of grasses along with general weeds: and if you are really unlucky, the grass is couch grass.

What's the answer? Unfortunately, the only answer is to lift the entire clump, but it's not all bad news, as it gives you a great chance to remove any unproductive rhizomes, along with any rotting ones: this means you can space them out more evenly when you replant, and there will usually be enough to either start some new clumps elsewhere in the garden, or to give away to friends. (Or to pot up, for selling or swapping on GreenPlantSwap next year, of course!)

It sounds like a big job, but it's not so bad: I use a border fork, which is smaller than a normal one, and can more easily be pushed in amongst the other plants without damaging them. Get a sheet of plastic to protect the grass before you start, and work your way round the edge of each clump, levering gently each time you push the fork in: don't aim to rip them all out in one go, aim to loosen the soil all the way round first, so as to do minimum damage to the roots.

When the clump is loosened, lift the whole thing out and plop it down on the plastic sheet. Repeat for as many clumps as you have.  Now you can dig over the whole area, loosening the soil, and removing every scrap of couch grass root, along with any other weeds or unwanted plants.

At this point, stop and assess your soil: if you think it looks a bit impoverished, you could take the opportunity to improve it a bit but be warned, Iris don't like rich soil, they actually like things a bit lean and mean. Too much "goodness" in the soil, particularly nitrogen, will just result in lush massive leafage, and not much on the flowering side, so don't get too carried away.

Having prepared the bed for replanting, you can clean up the rhizomes. Shake off all the soil, get a sharp knife (or an old pair of kitchen scissors) and trim off any damaged rhizomes - sometimes you can't avoid tearing them as they are lifted, but all is not lost, as you may be able to tidy up the torn end. Look for any that are squishy or mushy, and trim them off, too. This season's flowering stems can be cut right off as well: they won't flower again from the same point, but each flowered rhizome should be forming new "arms" which will flower next year. I usually remove any feeble or spindly bits, as they are unlikely to do much, and I look closely for signs of pests: if I see any rhizomes with what look like woodworm holes, I cut off the damaged section and discard it.

This should leave you with a good selection of neat, firm rhizomes, thumb-thickness or more: firm, light-coloured, and with at least one good fan of leaves. Some people will trim off any dead roots - they are the dry, dark, skinny, ropey ones, as opposed to the fat white wormy ones and the wire-like ones - but I usually leave them,  as they can help to anchor the Iris when you replant it. If your rhizomes don't seem to have any roots at all, or only have little tiddly things, then there is one option you can try - pop them all into a shallow dish with an inch or two of water, propping them up so that the bottom of the rhizome is only just in the water.  Leave them outside but keep the water topped up, and in a couple of weeks they should have grown a whole mass of strong new roots.

Before replanting, work out which way the sun shines on the bed: the rhizomes need to be baked by the sun in late summer, in order to make good flowers the following year, so the trick is to orient the rhizomes so that the non-leafy end is pointing towards the sun. This might look a bit regimented at first, but by next season they will be putting out new growth at odd angles, and they will quickly look natural again.

At this point, I usually chop the top leaves down into a neat fan shape (left), to make it easier for them to establish themselves without being blown over by the wind. Iris seem always seem to be a massively top-heavy plant, and although they will need some leaves to photosynthesise, it is more important that they get their roots growing away, which is not possible if they are constantly being pulled out by windrock.

Now comes the clever bit:  replanting them in such a way that the rhizome is on top of the soil, but so that the roots are able to hold it in place.

Are you ready for this? It's easier to show than to describe, but here we go:  firm down the soil, decide where the first rhizome is going to be, then scrape out a trench to either side, patting and forming a firm central ridge of soil to support the rhizome, like an earthen plinth. Plonk the rhizome down on the top of the ridge, parting the roots and draping them down either side of the ridge. Now backfill the trenches with loose soil, patting it down firmly to hold the roots in place. Behold! Your rhizome is now sitting proudly above soil level, but is not wobbling and rocking to and fro.

The acid test is to water them in, once you have finished: if any of them fall over, you've done it wrong! If that happens, just lift out any fallen plant, and re-do the plinth-and-trench, bringing in more soil from elsewhere in the garden if you need to.

Here is the final job: nice clean rhizomes, nice clean soil, nice neat (ish) rows, big ones towards the back, littler ones towards the front, all pointing at the sun, which chose not to shine on this particular day, but when it does, these Irises will soak it up.

As a general rule, it's good to carry out this operation on overcrowded clumps of Iris every four or five years: there is no hard and fast rule, just do it when they start to look as though they are climbing over each other to get out of the soil.

Best of all, having dug the whole bed over thoroughly, this Client won't be troubled with couch grass again - as long as they keep an eye on it, and pull out any new growth as soon as they see it, instead of leaving it until it is so bad that they have to call in the professional!

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Laura Ashley Gardening Gloves - FAIL!

Back in the summer I was given a pair of beautiful white leather Laura Ashley gardening gloves. Ok, you have to ask yourself what idiot thought that "white" was a good choice of colour for gardening gloves, but the floral print is very pretty, and the leather is fabulous quality, really soft and very comfortable to work in.

For various reasons I didn't get around to wearing them for a while, but eventually, a couple of weeks ago, I put them on and sallied forth.

One week later, this is what they looked like: but you can disregard the general staining and dirt, that is perfectly normal and what you would expect (except for the idiot person who chose "white" for the colour, of course). Instead, look closely at the first two fingers on the left hand glove.

Here's an extreme close-up of the middle finger, and you can see that it has worn right through.

Yes, that is a darned great 'ole in the end of the finger.

The end of the index finger has also split, so now these two fingers are getting wet and dirty, and these gloves are being consigned to the bin.

After one week!!! And, to add insult to injury, they are called the Cressida Heavy Duty Gardening Glove. Heavy duty!!

I looked them up online, they sell for between £16 and £21, which is shocking for gloves of such poor quality that they only last one week.

Now, I read on the BBC website the other day that  "Social media is becoming the default method of dealing with customers." So I turned to social media, ie twitter, and contacted Laura Ashley: my hope was that would let me send back the damaged glove, and would replace it with a new left, if their customer service was as good as that of Gold Leaf Gloves, who I wrote about a while ago, they are the makers of Winter Touch, my best and highest recommended winter gloves.  I was planning to be cheeky and ask them to send me two lefts, in the hopes that these gloves would then last for twice as long, ie a fortnight. It was my hope that they would be generous in this way, as the transaction would be done on twitter, in full view, as it were.

So I tweeted them:

Alas, there was no response.  Not exactly on the ball, then. so I chased them:

That did the trick -  a day later, they finally deigned to respond. They kept asking me for the product code (product code? Mate, you sell them, don't you know your own product codes??) despite me telling them repeatedly that they were sold as Laura Ashley Cressida Heavy Duty Gardening Glove. How much more did they need?

Eventually they must have realised that I was getting shirty, and decided to fob me off with the following corporate rubbish:

"We do not stock these items personally".

What?? They have labels with Laura Ashley all over them, how can Laura Ashley UK disclaim all responsibility for them?

They are sold at an enormously inflated price, Amazon have them for £21, and most of that has to be for the famous Laura Ashley name.

Yet the company won't stand behind that name, and won't replace them when they wear through after just one week of use.

So, dear reader, what is the moral of this tale?

1) Laura Ashley are full of hot air: they are very happy to trade on their name, but don't bother to check the quality of products made under licence to use that name, therefore they won't accept any responsibility if the goods are of poor quality or design, or both.

2) Don't buy Laura Ashley brand gloves at inflated prices. Buy Briers instead. At about a quarter of the price.

3) You can sometimes get a fairly prompt response on Twitter, although you might not get the result that you wanted.

So those beautiful Laura Ashley gloves are going in the bin, and I am going back to wearing my Briers Professionals for dry days, my Showa Thermos for wet and coldish days, and my Gold Leaf Winter Touch for wet and very cold days.  And I will never buy anything marked Laura Ashley. Ever. 


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Saturday, 31 October 2015

The KleenSweep Broom - Fail

It's time for another biting product review!

Recently, I asked one of my Clients if they had an old outdoor broom that I could leave by the compost bins: the path leading to the area is lower than the soil level (I'm working on changing it!), and the loose soil falling across it is unsightly, as well as making my boots muddy every time I walk over it - which means I then track the mud across the lawn on my way back.

Last week, a new broom appeared. A brand new broom.  Oh dear, I was hoping for an ancient one, as it is going to be left outside.... well, never mind, I will tuck it under the hedge and hope that it survives.

The label says Kleensweep, a tacky americanism that sets my teeth on edge every time I see it, but luckily the label is already starting to peel off.

It has a pair of rather strange twisted metal struts to hold the head on, never seen anything like that before: but it should make it sturdy.

The bristles are rather weird as well - normally a broom has the bristles pointing slightly backward, so that when you sweep away from your self (the normal thing to do) they are already oriented correctly.

On this broom, however, the bristles seems to be pointing directly downwards, which means that every time I apply the broom to the path, it "bobbles" around for a second, until the bristles lean into the sweeping action. This is very strange, rather uncomfortable, and I sincerely hope that with time and use, they will "settle" into pointing one way or the other.

That, however, is not the worst thing about this broom.

Here's a picture of the broom - right.

Looks pretty normal, doesn't it?

Ah, but looks can be deceptive...
Here it is again, leaning up against the wall with several other tools.

Spot the mistake?

Yes, it is a good three bricks shorter than the others, and about two foot shorter than the hoe on the far left.

It's barely a foot longer than the forks and spade!

This makes it almost-but-not-quite-entirely useless as a broom: you can't sweep more than a foot or two away from yourself, or you lose hold of the handle! I nearly fell over the first time I used it - I started to sweep some leaves away from myself and there it was, out of reach!

What sort of idiot makes tools with teeny tiny short handles like this? It's not aimed at children, or very short people, it was sold - apparently - in a perfectly normal garden centre.

Worst of all, because of the metal bracing, you can't easily just put a longer handle on it. And why should you have to, anyway? *annoyed huffing*.

So, boo to "Kleensweep" and their Epic Fail Broom, and I shall be sweeping the path in tiny little arcs, for the rest of my time in this garden...

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

The Tale of the Smothered Acer or: How To Remove Ivy From A Small Tree: Part II!

I started work in a new garden last year, and I was intrigued as to what this was:

Clearly it was a small ornamental tree, the bud arrangement suggested that it was an Acer, and the size indicated that it was a Japanese Maple.

However, it was mostly covered with ivy, and was pretty well swamped by a massive, encroaching, ball of Box.

The first job was obviously to get rid of the ivy - always an unpleasant task, but on the other hand, I quite cheerfully detest ivy for many reasons, so there is always a certain amount of pleasure to be derived from getting rid of the stuff.

I started at the top, carefully unwinding the strands of ivy from what did indeed prove to be a small tree. When doing this, it's important not to just impatiently rip the stuff off, as by doing so, you might well damage the plant underneath. Even though it's a tree, it is still quite easy to inadvertently snap smaller branches.

So, gently does it, unwinding the stems, and as they come free, snipping them off into short lengths, taking care not to cut any part of the tree beneath.

After a short time, this appeared:

Impressive, huh?!

Yes, it's a Japanese Maple, and look - it's a rock! I had no idea that underneath all that ivy was a lovely old rock!

And  what a lovely windblown curve the stem has formed!

The tree, who was probably now screaming "Don't look! I'm naked!" seemed to be mostly undamaged by the experience, despite being pushed right over.

Annoyingly - well, to me, at any rate - previous gardeners hadn't taken the time to clip the monstrous Box ball, but had allowed it to smother this dear little tree.

I can't imagine why anyone would do this.

So that would be the next job - radical chop for the Box, but not just yet - I would rather wait and see if the Acer survives before I start altering the other plants. It would be very annoying to slaughter the box, only to discover that the tree is actually a dead one, particularly as the trunk of the little tree was revealed as being quite damaged. Also, this initial work took place in March, and I would rather not cut Box quite that early in the year, in case a frost comes along and ruins all the new growth.

By May the little tree was leafing up beautifully, so I went ahead with modifying the Box.

What you can't see from this angle is that the Box ball also encroached on the path to the left of the photo, to the point where people had chopped out a section of it in order to get past.  This makes a mockery of clipping it into a ball shape, with a great big lump missing out of the side of it... so I had no compunction about removing well over 2' in all directions, in order to reduce it to a size that would not encroach on the path, and would not interfere with the newly-revived Acer.

This does leave a lot of very bare stems, but they are one of those trees - like Yew - that will "break" from old wood, which means that when the bare inner stems are exposed to the light, they will produce new growth. Most conifers, famously, don't do this: once you cut back into old wood, they remain stubbornly brown and ugly for evermore, until the owner can't stand them and has them removed completely.

And no, I  don't know why the expression is to "break",  other than the way we say that a plant has "broken into bud".

Here we are in May:  lots of leaves on the tree, and a newly-chopped Box, much reduced in height, width and depth.

Two months after this photo, the Box had greened up quite nicely, in case you are worried!

So now I am a happy gardener again: the dear little Japanese Maple survived the experience, and we are now able to see it, in its full glory.

And it is quite glorious!

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Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Garden Review: Westwell Manor, Nr Burford

This is a garden open under the NGS Open Gardens scheme, which I visited earlier this year.

As an aside, I was talking to someone the other day who spoke at length of their dislike of the NGS, mainly - it seemed to me - based on class resentment. They had tried to deal with an NGS local organiser, I can't remember exactly why (they did tell me, but frankly I was losing the will to live after listening to their lengthy complaint), and were left with an impression of a lot of hooray henrys who were completely inefficient and seemed to treat the whole thing like an old boys club, quite removed from the real world.

Well,  I have met my local NGS organiser, and she's lovely, despite having a double-barrelled name, so I don't quite agree with their complaint: I've also been to many NGS garden openings, and usually they are a treat, a chance to see round a garden that is not normally open, and a chance to see a "real" garden, with real weeds, real neglected corners, and one which is used by real people, which can often be more interesting than the sometimes rather sterile National Trust type of garden, where they employ numbers of volunteers *grits teeth* (I have strong views on this subject) and where nobody actually "lives" in the garden.

However, sometimes you find one that is annoying: the Mill House in East Hanney is a good example, they opened a few years as one of a small handful of gardens in the village, participating in an NGS day. At the entrance there were three utter hoorays, sitting in the shade of their parasol and braying - "hwah! hwah! hwah!" is the nearest I can get to conveying the noise - to each other while ignoring us, the paying visitors. The garden was tiny, and mostly filled with a gigantic industrial cable-reel, I'm not sure if it was supposed to be a table, or a Feature. Weeds were abounding, good planting was not. It took less than five minutes to see the entire "garden", then we had to troop back past the owners, squeezing past some incoming visitors as we did. I very nearly wrote to the NGS to complain. But I didn't.

Westhall Manor was very nearly as annoying: firstly they had completely and utterly failed to make any arrangements at all for car parking. Every verge in the village was littered with cars, listing at dangerous angles and ruining the grass, as it had been very wet in the days preceding, and was drizzling as we arrived. Despite this, the visitor numbers were huge: the Manor was surrounded by gates and tracks leading to empty fields, yet they had done nothing about parking. It felt like one of those situations where the lord of the Manor "owns" the entire village and can steamroll any tentative complaints about insensitive car parking or ruination of front gardens.

Having parked on a verge way, way out of the village, and hiked back, we were greeted by a queue to get in, and the traditional trestle table with three people stood there, but only one person taking money, and no sign to tell us how much the entry was. The queue was formed by each person having to ask "how much is it?" and being told £6 (or whatever it was - it seemed quite high) then having to rootle around in their purse. In fact, it was worse than that, as the publicity in the local paper had stated the entry fee, but incorrectly, so there were people presenting the right money, being told that it was more, which caused embarrassment, and confusion while people hunted for more coins, having put away their wallets and purses in the sure and certain knowledge that they helpfully had the right amount to hand.

Having paid extra for a map of the gardens - which I consider to be a bit of a liberty - we were firmly directed to the next trestle table, where they were selling bottles of wine. I don't think they had produced it themselves, I didn't see any sign of a vineyard or a bottling facility, so presumably they had struck a deal with a local wine merchant? Who knows. Who cares?

So now we come to the map: having had to pay extra for it - yes, I'm still annoyed about that - we had certain expectations. It was nicely printed, on very good quality paper, and seemed to be based on a rather wishy-washy colour-pencil drawing or plan of the garden. It was dated 1996... oh dear, they've been using the same map for the last 20 years? Perhaps they had thousands of them printed, and have been working their way through them ever since? Bit of a cheek to charge money for it, don't you think? Twenty years old and somewhat out of date, as there were elements of the garden completely missing from the map, not least being an entire section containing a tump, and what was presumably supposed to be a wildflower meadow of considerable size.

However, that was not the last of the annoyances of the map: they had made the obligatory list of named features, designed and intended to encourage visitors to see all of the garden, and to navigate between places of interest. So far, so good - apart from being out of date, to the point where the tennis court (of little interest) had been replaced with a beautiful reflecting pool (very much of interest). But instead of using simple numbers, or even letters, as a key, they had chosen to use roman numerals.


How many people, in 2015, use roman numerals on a daily basis? How many people, for that matter, under the age of 40 would even recognise them? This struck me as so pretentious as to be laughable, and we spent the whole visit saying the numbers as they were spelled, ie "Shall we go and have a look at Eye Vee now?"  "Why yes - let's cut past Ex Eye and round Vee Eye Eye."  It was surprisingly difficult to work out which one was which, not least because they were all hand-drawn, and whoever did it was having to squeeze three symbols into a place where the single digit "7" would have been easier, simpler, and much clearer to read.

These initial impressions did somewhat taint my view of this garden, and it won't be one that I ever return to.

However, if you don't mind inadequate parking and pretentious presentation, do go there some time, if only to have a schoolboy snigger at their idea of stylish and classy topiary:

It is simply not possible to call this "garden room" anything other than "The Big Willy Garden".

And, just to make it even worse, the entrance to the Big Willy Garden is via a narrow slit in the hedge, towered over by The Big Boobies.

This poor lady clearly has no idea where she is standing.
Elsewhere in the garden we found such treats as this one: is it a new rockery, is it a mini wildflower "urban meadow" recreation, or is it - as we suspect - an overgrown weed-infested old concrete terrace?

At this point in our visit, I was approached by a rather irate woman, flapping her map and demanding "where is the tennis court, then?"

I  pointed to this feature - right - which clearly used to be the tennis court.

"Hmmph," she replied "That's not much good for playing tennis on, is it?"

I have no idea why she was so huffy about it: who would want a boring old tennis court in their garden when they could have a reflecting pool instead?  Maybe she had heard about the rather clever terracing or banking that had been constructed around the "other", presumably newer, tennis court, and wanted to see it? We had found it, incidentally, but only by being nosy, as it wasn't on the map.

And so to the actual reflecting pool - was it better than the tennis court it replaced? Well, yes, but it could have been done a lot better: take the one at Kiftsgate, for example. That one is stylish, elegant, interesting, and amusing.

This one, in my opinion, is a bit dull: for a start, it's too big, as they seem to have felt the need to take up the whole area of the tennis court, and as it stands, it is not inviting to walk all round it. In fact, I'm not sure that you can. Furthermore, although it is raining in the photo, so reflections wouldn't work, even if the water were still, what exactly is it reflecting? Green hedges. Hmm.

My final comment on this garden concerns the vegetable garden, or "Ex-eye" as they call it.

Can you see the climber, working its way up the chicken wire netting of the fruit cage? At this time of year, the leaves are dying, but the fruit is ripening nicely.

Can you see, on the left, those bright red berries?

Red berries, in a fruit cage.


Not so much - the climber is White Bryony, Bryonia dioica. The berries are poisonous.

Just saying.