Monday, 26 January 2015

Brambles: Part 7: The Right Tool For The Job

Well, ok, probably not actually part seven, but I do seem to keep on writing about brambles, and I keep on getting questions about this subject, so it's clearly one of those topics that is never going to die.

Rather like the brambles, it seems!

(See  Bramble Removal: How To Do It and What Shrubs can hold brambles back? for information, and try this article for an uplifting success story.)

I had an interesting question from a lady called Jill today, asking what tool I actually use when cutting through the roots of the brambles.

Oops, did I not mention that?

Right, just in case, here is a quick expo on How To Cut Bramble Roots.

I would always recommend using secateurs/pruners.  The names are interchangeable, and relate to a one-handed hand-held tool, rather like a pair of scissors on steroids. In moments of stress, kitchen scissors can indeed be used for many gardening actions, especially those sturdy ones you get for chopping through meat and fish (Kitchen Devils do a good pair) but really, it's worth spending a few pounds and getting a proper pair of secateurs.

I would not recommend using a knife, as knives a) tend to slip, b) can be dropped on the ground and then knelt on (ask me how I know this... yes, I've seen it done) and c) require a sawing action, which is hard work, and getting soil on the blade will blunt it very quickly. You can also chop round each root with a sharp spade, but again, that's hard work. Secateurs are best.

They come in two types, and many sizes: the two types are Bypass and Anvil. Bypass have an action like a pair of normal scissors, and these are the type that I use, all day every day. Anvil have one blade and a flat plate, and in my experience they tend to squash whatever you are cutting, rather than cutting it cleanly. A ragged cut is not only unsightly, it leads to infection, so in my opinion, anvil secateurs or anvil loppers are only fit for rough work - we use them down on the Canal (in my "spare" time I am a volunteer on the Wilts and Berks Canal) and they are fine for hacking back overgrown towpaths, but I would not allow them in any garden of mine.

The sizes are usually 15mm or 20mm, and relate to the size of branch they can get through. However, it is more important to look at how "wide" the handles open, in relation to how big your hands are.

For men, the bigger the better. For ladies, don't use secateurs that open wider than you can comfortably get your fingers round. You will just strain your hand if you do, plus they will tend to "pop" out of your grip at awkward moments. Better to buy a smaller pair that fit your hand, and if you encounter bramble roots (or any other root, branch, or stem, for that matter) which are too tough for your slightly smaller secateurs, then use a pair of loppers, which are basically secateurs with long handles, which give you better leverage.

To demonstrate this point, here are two pairs of secateurs that I am currently using: both are bypass pruners made by Wilkinson Sword, who changed their name to Fiskars, both are 15mm with 10 year guarantee (pause while I laugh hysterically) and should therefore be similar.

 Here are the two pairs - one black pair, one orange - on top of each other, with the handles left open.

As you can see, the orange pair open far less than the black pair.

But the blades open the same distance, so they can both make exactly the same size maximum cut.

This means that the black pair are harder to work with, as you need bigger hands to get round them.

To  demonstrate this, I've taken photos of my hand holding each pair in turn, fully open.

As an aside, I am holding them left-handed as my camera phone is easier to operate right-handed: but secateurs work equally well for left handed or right handed people. The only difference is whether the lock has been positioned for one-sided use, or for two.  The orange pair are only usable right-handed, as the lock is on the left (out of sight in these photos, sorry). The black ones have a sliding lock on the top, which means they can be used in either hand.

It's good practise, to get used to using them in either hand: most garden tools can be used either way, and it reduces muscle strain to be able to change hands. Also, there are some situations with awkward access where it's very handy to be able to lean round with the "other" hand, as it were.

Where were we? Oh yes, to  demonstrate this, here is my hand holding each pair in turn, fully open.

Firstly the orange pair: old faithfuls, as you can see by the wear on the handles.

See how I can get the tips of three fingers around the outer handle? My middle finger is slightly bent, showing that I can already start to close my hand, with the handles fully open.

 But with the black pair, I can only get two fingers around the outer handle, and my middle finger is fully straightened.

This means I can't get a grip on them to close them, without shifting my hold.

And you can see that my holding hand is right up against the red lock, which is on the "top" of the tool, rather than on the handle. Compare this to the photo above, and you can see that my whole hand is much lower down the handle. This means that, mechanically, I don't have the full length of the upper handle for leverage: I am squeezing the handles together right at the top, near the hinge, instead of comfortably part-way down the handles.

So using this black pair is more tiring than using the orange ones: each and every "squeeze"  is slightly harder work than it needs to be, I have to constantly shift my grip in order to close them, and if I let go a bit casually, the handles spring apart wider than I can easily get hold of, so I tend to drop them a lot while working.

Trust me, it gets very tiresome after a while.

Unfortunately, it seems that Wilkinson Sword/Fiskars are phasing out the dear old orange ones, probably because I keep sending them back to have the locking tab replaced. The presumably "new" design with the locking on top is far better for ambidextrous use, and does not wear out in the same way, but as these photos demonstrate, the shape and proportion of the tool has been changed for the worse.

Ah well.

This is why I would advise you to take secateurs out of the pack and try them in your hand before buying them.

Next point: What brand to buy? At this point, someone usually mentions Felco, and people will always tell you to buy the best quality you can afford. As a Professional Gardener, I am going to buck that trend and advise you against buying ludicrously expensive tools. Garden snobs always say "Ah, but my Felcos have lasted me for 200 years and if the blade wears out they will replace it for just £30" or whatever.  Well, I treat my tools terribly: I use them to get through material way above their advised size, I get them filthy, wet, I use them to cut roots ie in the soil, which is very bad for metal blades, and finally I rarely bother to clean or oil them. I sharpen the blades probably every second or third day, and I find they generally break before the blades ever wear out.  So I would shudder to spend £40 or more on a tool that I am going to abuse.

On the other hand, I would warn you very strongly against buying anything for the garden from "cheapy" shops:  any shop with the word "pound" in their title should be avoided, and buying from any shop which appears chaotic will only lead to disappointment.

I would suggest buying from a local garden centre, or from B&Q/Homebase: don't buy the cheapest own-brand, don't buy a pack ("Buy these, get THIS thing free!" you will never use it...), try it out for size, and - here's where we get "do as I say, not as I do", sorry - wipe them clean at the end of the session, and make sure they are allowed to dry before you put them away. If you don't garden every day, as I do (the rust never gets a chance to form, ha! ha!), then give them a drop of oil (3-in-1 preferably, but cooking oil or baby oil is better than nothing) on the hinge, and on the spring if it is one of those solid-looking wraparound ones, rather than the traditional coil.

How much to spend? Well, do some research: look on the internet and find out what Felco cost, look in your garden centre and see what the cheapest ones cost, then buy a pair for a bit more than double the cost of the cheap ones, or a bit less than a third of what a Felco pair would cost. At the time of writing, Felco are £37-£45, the local cheapy shop is doing a pair for about £3, and I would spend about £10. Obviously this will vary depending on whereabouts in the country you are, and how old this post is by the time you read it, but hopefully by relating the price to two extremes, you will be able to spend about the right amount, and will be happy with the result.

So, Jill, I hope this has answered your question: use bypass-style secateurs to cut the bramble roots, and wipe them clean afterwards. 

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Monday, 12 January 2015

Transforming a hedge

This is one of my favourite types of project - reshaping a hedge.

Recently I was asked to shape up a long line of individual Box plants, which I really enjoyed doing, and in a similar but simpler vein, I was asked by a different Client to change a plain box hedge.

It has been a simple thigh-high block for many years, it screens a brick wall which my Client dislikes (I rarely agree with that problem - I love old brick walls, I find them so interesting, especially when you can see where things have changed: either where the original builders ran out of bricks and had to use other materials, which you see quite a lot in old walls, or the ghosts of old doorways or windows, which occurs surprisingly often) and we have tall plants in the narrow bed beyond it - currently Eupatorium, a five- or six-foot high monster with large purple heads - so we see the flowers, but don't have to look at the bare stems in summer, or the bare soil in winter.

Last year, the decision was made, it was to be shaped into something more interesting in its own right.

Here it is in July, slightly overdue for a clipping, but we had deliberately allowed it to grow on a bit, in order to give us more leeway for the reshaping.

My Client decided that she wanted it to have three humps, two dips, and rounded ends. She placed canes to mark where the two dips would be, and our plan was to allow it to grow up higher than it is at present, for the two humps.  So it would be a slightly flat-topped hedge to start with, and she was happy with this.

The alternative would have been to have taken the existing height as the top point, and cut the dips well below that: but my Client felt it would make the whole thing too low.  It's always much easier to recut something lower than to wait for it to grow, so it was agreed that we would cut the dips today, and let the humps grow up over the next few months.

 Here's the beginning: I rounded the end, cut the first dip, and clipped the front face of the hedge.

I did wonder if it would be more time-efficient to clip the entire front face first, but after a little consideration I decided to do it one section at a time - mostly because I thought that if I clipped the front first, making it all neat and tidy again, my Client might have a change of heart!

Here's how I made the dip: at the position marked by the cane, I used secateurs to chop right across the width at the height required.

If you have not done this before, don't be alarmed that you appear to be cutting into dead, brown wood.

This is what Box does; all the leaves are concentrated at the outside, and the inside can appear to be quite hollow. But once the branches are exposed to the light, new little leaves will appear and it quickly goes green again.

Working outwards from that initial cut, I levelled off the dip, mentally drawing a curving line upwards above the hedge, to allow for the humps, once they have grown.

Although we want the humps to grow, I still gave that area a light clip, to encourage more growth.

If I didn't,  the upward growth would be long thin shoots, and the top section of the hedge would for ever more be lanky and prone to flopping about.  In order to keep it strong and sturdy, it's important to keep clipping it lightly, even as it rises up.

Here's the finished hedge on that day: you can see the brown patches in the dips, and  you can see that the humps are flat-topped and a bit strange-looking.

But the Client was happy, and over the following few months the brown parts greened up beautifully, and the tops grew nicely.

Typically, I did not remember to go back and take a photo at the end of the summer, to show how much improved it was -  oops!

After finishing the clipping and clearing up the mess, I gave the hedge a good feed of growmore scattered around the base of the plants, and gave it a good watering to get the feed down into the soil, and to encourage it to make a growth spurt and green up quickly.


Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Hellebore leaves: better with, or without?

"With... or without?" I can hear the impatience in the voice of the optician... what am I talking about? Ah, all of you with perfect sight will never have struggled through this yearly ritual, where the optician is trying to fine-tune the new specs, and holds up a lollipop lens to the one uncovered eye. They ask you if it's better with it - or without it.

Invariably, by this time, I've been sat in a chair in a darkened room for anything up to half an hour or more, dazzled by the screen with the letters on it, eyes still smarting from having bright lights shone in them while being told to look this way, that way, upwards, downwards, all without blinking for what seems like hours at a time: not to mention the horror of the glaucoma test, where they puff air at your eyeball to test its pressure. Sounds simple enough, I know, but I leap a foot out of the chair every time, forcing them to start over again. I can hear the impatience in their voices, I know they want me to sit unblinkingly still, but I can't! I just can't!

Where was I? Oh yes, Hellebore leaves.

Not the usual ones, today: usually I talk about good old Oriental Hellebores, proper name Helleborus orientalis, also known as Helleborus x hybridus, which tells you all you need to know about the promiscuous nature of this plant.  These are the "usual suspects" in our gardens, the one most often planted, which have lovely bowl-shaped flowers in shades of cream to pink/purple.

 But today it's Helleborus foetidus, or Bear's Claw Hellebore.

But in essence, the question is the same - is it better to cut away the old leaves once they start flowering, or to just leave them?

Personally I prefer, in both cases, to remove old leaves. With Oriental Hellebores, the leaves are prone to a nasty disease called Black Spot, which makes them look hideous: but even without any infection, the leaves are usually getting tatty by the time we get past Christmas, so it is definitely Better Without.

Once you have made that decision, you then have to decide if it's better to remove them sooner rather than later: sooner is easier, technically - just chop off the leaves before the flower buds have started to show. Quick, clean, simple. The only problem is remembering not to tread on the area in the next few days, until the buds are clearly visible! So if you know that you are likely to be working in that area, it might be best to leave just one or two leaves in place, as "markers", until the flowers are safely up.

Today the question arose in connection with  Bear's Claw Hellebore,  also known by the horrible name of Stinking Hellebore. Most unflattering. Which idiot said "A rose by any name would smell as sweet"? Wrong! How many of you have Deutzia in your gardens, then? How many of you just said "what's Deutzia?"

It's a beautiful, tough, easy-to-grow, perfumed, flowering shrub, with pretty, white or pink flowers which come in single, double, or frilly varieties. Maintenance free, doesn't spread or sucker, not subject to any particular diseases, and yet I hardly ever find it in gardens. Like Kolkwitzia. And I am certain it's because neither of them have a catchy name.

Anyway, leaving aside this digression into the Naming Of Shrubs, back to our hellebore, and at this time of year the old leaves are generally turning black.

Mmm, tasteful.

Not.  (as the kids say).

So, out with the secateurs and gently snip, snip off all the dead leaves.

Unlike Oriental Hellebores, these ones have big thick trunk-like stems (technical term: caulescent) with leaves all up the flowering stems  so you can't just cut them off at ground level, as you can with the Oriental Hellebores which don't have big thick stems (technical term: acaulescent).

Sometimes you can gently pull them off, but there is always the risk of damaging the flowering stem, so I prefer to cut them.

There we go, all done.

The only disadvantage, as I see it, is that in this particular situation, the blackened leaves did at least create a backdrop for the acid green flowers, and without that backdrop, they are less easy to see against the rest of the greenery.

Not such a problem if yours are growing in mostly herbaceous beds, because in winter they would have bare soil below them.

And here's a closer view of the finished article.

So, what do you think?

Better with, or without? *laughs*

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