Monday, 20 April 2015

The Mysterious Case of the Pawprint in the Brick...

Saw this amazing little paw-print recently:

Isn't that lovely?

And unusual?

It appears in a red-brick Georgian house, built around the middle of the C18th, and presumably a cat walked across the bricks in their forms, before they were baked in the kiln.

I assume it's a cat - something with pads, and retractrable claws, and it seemed about the right size for a cat.

The owner wondered what sort of animal would have six toes, but I told them I was fairly certain it was two footprints, one nearly on top of the other.

A lot of four-legged animals walk in a pattern called "tracking" or "tracking up" whereby on each side, the back foot is placed exactly where the just-lifted front foot was. If you watch them walking, you can see this lovely coordination, the front foot rises just fractionally before the back foot would have nudged it.

In horse riding, this is something which is part of daily training, ensuring that your horse tracks up properly, and doesn't slop along with the back hoofs not landing exactly where the front ones went. If you look at a run of hoofprints in soft ground, you can often see whether the horse was working properly, or slopping along, by looking for overlapping hoof prints.

None of my various riding instructors could ever tell me why we had to work on this, but I have always assumed that any four-legged animal can only see where the front two feet are going, so to avoid unnecessary injury to the back feet, they should be placed only where the front feet have safely gone.

So we could assume that this little paw print is a back foot overlying a front foot.

Or, the cat started to walk on the half-set bricks, felt its paw sink in, rocked back, then decided to go ahead anyway.

Who knows.

Update: just had another one come in!  Read all about it here...

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Lesser Celandine: how to remove it

I had a question today, (*waves to Seb*) asking for suggestions as to how to remove an infestation of Lesser Celandine.

First the basic Botany: Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) is part of the Buttercup family, and is not related to Greater Celandine (Chelidonium majus) which is part of the Poppy family. This is why you have to learn the "proper" names of plants and wildflowers; common names are often seriously misleading!

If you are lucky enough not to know about this little beastie, this is what it looks like:

It is a small, low-growing, ground-hugging plant with rosettes of long-stalked rounded leaves, and single bright yellow flowers on stems a couple of inches high.

The leaves are glossy, sometimes heart-shaped, sometimes kidney-shaped, but always indented where the stalk joins the leaf - "cordate" is the technical term.

They flower now, April, then the whole thing dies back and disappears for another year, so they can only be dealt with while they are visible.

They spread quickly, forming a dense mat of foliage which tends to smother all other plants, choking out all the dainty spring wildflowers - it is often described as an "aggressive and unwanted garden invader" but in a woodland setting, it can create a carpet of shiny yellow.

It spreads in no less than four ways - each individual rosette grows in size and spreads by rooting, creeping stems: by seed, by small white bulbils in the leaf axils above ground and (worst of all) by tubercles, which are tiny tubers, each of which can grow into a new plant. These form at the base of the plant, so when you try to dig it up, they easily get dislodged and fall, unseen, back into the soil.

They are also the reason for the scientific name - "ficaria" means "fig-like" and they do look a bit like tiny figs.

Here is a photo of the base of a plant, showing the collection of tubercles or tubers.

So, how do we get rid of this little blighter?

As usual, catching it before it gets too bad is the real answer, but - as usual - that is easier said than done, and if you move into a garden with a heavy infestation, then hard work will be required.

The bad news is that smothering them - with black plastic, or with deep mulch - does not work, so digging them out is the only answer.

If you have a "spotty" coverage of them, then take a trowel and chop vertically downwards around the plant just inside the range of the leaves.

Hang on, a picture is worth a thousand words: *quick search of google images and application of Paint*

There: to remove a single clump, lift up the leaves and cut vertically downwards with a trowel, roughly where the circle lies. Go down about 3-4", then lever out a plug of soil with the roots in it.

This is specifically to avoid the risk of dislodging any of those pesky tubers.

Place each plug carefully in the bucket or wheelbarrow, then put the whole lot into your "green waste" bin to be disposed of by the council, whose heat treatment plants should kill it all. When you have done them all, either fill the plug holes with home-made compost, or fluff up the soil around the hole with a small fork, so that it fills in the gap.

Whatever you do, don't even think about dumping this garden waste over the back fence, or on a road verge somewhere, as that will just spread the infestation.

If you don't have a green waste bin, then put the material into bags and take it to your local dump: again, the waste there will be heat treated.

If you have large areas to deal with, there are three ways to approach it.

1) Get on your hands and knees and dig out plugs day and night for the next month. This is quite hard work, boring, and will leave you with lots of little pits. But it will get rid of them.

2) Dig up the top 3" of the entire area. This will be very hard work, may even require a small digger, and what do you do with the spoil? You will probably have to pay for a skip and proper disposal, otherwise wherever you tip it out, a colony of Celandine will appear.

3) Weedkiller.... yes, I know, howls of protest from Christine the glyphosate-hater, and everyone else who abhors the use of chemicals, but there are times and situations where it is the only sensible option. Bearing in mind how invasive this plant it, and the risk that anyone you pay to cart away a couple of tons of soil/tubers may well just illegally dump it in the nearest layby, well, it might actually be more responsible of you to use a weedkiller.  If you do, read the instructions carefully, apply it exactly as per instructions regarding dilution, time of application, etc, use the minimum, don't do it on a windy day, and take photos before and after, so that you know which areas have been sprayed.

4) Unsubstantiated internet research: "a dressing of coal or wood ash is said to reduce an infestation of Lesser Celandine" according to this website but I have not tried this for myself, so I can't comment on its effectiveness.

With regard to timing, it would be better to dig the plants up in very early spring, as soon as you see the first leaves, and before the bulbils have formed, thus reducing the risk of spreading viable material around. Likewise for the use of glyphosate, better to catch them in early spring when the leaves are fresh and before they flower, thus hopefully killing them before they set seed.

And a final word, be careful to clean all soil off your tools (and boots) before using them elsewhere, to avoid spreading the plant around.

Like all these garden invaders, it can be dealt with, but it takes hard work, and patience: but the more of them you can get up this year, the fewer there will be for next year.

UPDATE:  After receiving a question, I have written another article dealing with the topic of how to remove this pesky weed when it has infested a lawn.



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Sunday, 12 April 2015

Cheap tools, cheap shops

Now I'm the first to admit that I am not a garden-tool snob: I don't buy expensive tools, the reason being that I treat them terribly.

Secateurs in particular have a hard life: I cut things way beyond what they are designed to do, I cut roots underground - and soil is very, very bad for blades - I never clean them, or oil them, and I sharpen them every couple of days in the roughest, horriblest way.

So I don't waste money buying expensive ones. They are very much expected to work hard and die young, although every single pair I have ever had have broken - either the spring, or the locking tab - long before the blades were worn out.

A while ago, I wrote about secateurs in the context of wrestling with brambles, and I said "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."

As always, there is an exception to every rule, and this is it:

I found this Daisy Grubber in Wilkinsons for about £2, with the handle in red plastic. The blade appeared to be made of metal, it appeared to be firmly fixed to the handle so I bought it. It's been brilliant, every bit as good as the B&Q ones I normally use, but being bright red plastic, it has been so much easier to find it when I drop it! I've now bought another two of them for back-up: one of the major problems with all these "cheapy" shops is that the products are often non-repeatable. Just as you get used to something, it breaks, you go back to the shop and find that they no longer do them.

The moral of this story is "keep an open mind" and don't be too quick to write off the cheapy shops: but I stand by my statement to avoid buying tools in shops with "pound" in their title!

Sunday, 5 April 2015

April: time to Cut Back the Cornus.

Here's what we have today: a lovely red-stemmed Dogwood (Cornus alba 'Sibirica').  We've enjoyed the red stems all winter, and now it is just starting to leaf up.

In order to get a similarly lovely display next year, we have to prune it now: I know it seems wrong, but if left un-pruned, Cornus will thicken into a small tree, and it is the new growth which has the brightest and best colour.

After all, we grow it for the winter colour.

Here we are ten minutes later - every single upright red stem has been reduced down to the bottom-most set of buds:

Yes, I know it looks drastic, but every stem which was cut will now sprout at least two new stems, they will grow upright and straight, and they will have lovely bright colouring next winter.

Trust me! I'm a professional!

I would further enhance this particular specimen by clearning the weeds and rough growth from around the base of it, giving it a good mulch of our own compost, and possibly a liquid feed of something like Gromore, to encourage it.

By next winter, it will be a thicker mass of strong, upright growth.

If you have left yours too long, and it has turned into a horrible gnarled brown-stemmed looming shrub, fear not, there is a way to deal with it. I should warn you that this technique is not for the faint-hearted, but I have done it dozens of times in various gardens, with consistently good results.

Step 1: get your loppers, and chop everything down to ankle height.  Go on, chop it all down.  Here's one that I did two years ago, it was taller than me and really not pretty at all.

 After fifteen minutes of really hard work, I had worked my way in through the thicket of branches, and had cut everything down to quite literally ankle height.

As you can see, few of the stems were red, most of them were dull brown, or dull green, which is such a waste.

"It was lovely for the first couple of years," sighed the Client.

 Having cut all the stems off, the job was not done:  a lot of the stems inside the base were dead, so the next job was to cut all the dead stuff off, as close to the base as I could.

I also removed all the lowest branches, the ones projecting at ground level, parallel to the ground.

We want branches to grow upwards, not outwards, so my aim was to clear the bottom layer. This also helps prevent the shrub from spreading itself around too far.

There we are, job done: brutal, are you thinking?

Are you concerned that there is hardly anything of it left, and that there will only be twelve new branches, at most?

Here is the self-same shrub later that same year,

As you can see, it's fully recovered, it is bushy, leafy, it is no longer squashing the poor little Choisyia in front, and everyone is much happier, including the Client.

When winter arrives, all those stems will be revealed in their bright red beauty.

And, of course, next April the Client will know what to do!

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Ash Trees - not dead yet

Ah, a sight to gladden the heart of anyone who was disturbed by the discovery last year of Ash Dieback Disease, Chalara fraxinea:

 a whole bank of Ash seedlings, growing like crazy as no-one bothered to strim the verges in the village last year.

Now they are too stout to strim, so it looks as though we will have a tiny linear woodland along this bank.

It will be interesting to watch the natural process of competition - how long, I wonder, before the smaller ones start to die off? 

Should I mark the larger trees now, while they are small, so that later I can assess which ones succeeded?

Will the ones at the bottom of the bank - which presumably will get more water than the better-drained, higher portion of the bank - flourish?

Or will the council come along one day and chop down the lot?

Who knows..... 


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Friday, 3 April 2015

Propping up the Mulberry - a pleasing symmetry

One of my Clients has a large and stately Mulberry tree which, like all Mulberry trees, is suffering from a case of slow-motion flop. Instead of growing upwards, like any sensible tree, the branches gradually curve downwards under their own weight, until they touch the ground.

This is why every old Mulberry tree you ever see will appear to be on crutches, stilts, or legs - here's a particularly good example from another of "my" gardens:

I often wonder if someone designed the Mulberry specially to melt, over time, in order to keep the fruit within easy picking reach of the ground.... whatever the reason, it's a nuisance, as the tree gets wider and wider, making it harder and harder for the lawn-cutter to do their job without being poked in the eye.

Last week I was finally able to do a bit of much-needed work on the "floppy" Mulberry, now that the danger period of Jan-March is over: you should avoid pruning sap-bleeders during this time, as they will - as they name suggests - bleed alarming quantities of sap if you do so. Vines are prone to bleeding if cut in winter, along with Walnut, Birch -

- here's a lovely photo of a Birch tree which was cut down in mid-winter, the sap flowed freely and then froze.

It's part of a plantation in a local wood which was undergoing management, not a garden tree, in case you wondered!

...and Magnolia, most Acers, and some of the big climbers such as Virginia Creeper and Boston Ivy.

But now that spring is properly here, it's safe to do a little work on them, which in this case involved removing a couple of seriously dead branches, and shortening one perfectly good branch that was sticking right out over the path.

Having removed the branch, I was left with a fairly straight piece about 3' tall, stout, and with a nice flat end, where I had neatly sawn it.

So I used it to prop up one of the outlying branches, thus reducing the need to cut it back.

I found this arrangement very pleasing! Much nicer than the usual horrible mass-produced wooden fence posts that I usually end up having to use.

Best of all, the Client was so pleased with the effect that I have been given permission to raise a few more of the branches in a similar way, so now I am looking at the trees out in the paddock with a new eye.... 


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