Sunday, 26 July 2015

Miniature Gardens: we have a resident!

I had a shock the other day, when I was watering my Minature Gardens: something leapt out!

Can you see him?

A sweet little frog, perfectly in scale for the garden, sitting on the rim and no doubt wondering why his new prime location was subject to sudden monsoon-like drenchings at roughly the same time of day every day.

And this is why I don't have a slug problem in my garden!

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Giant Hogweed: dangerous (and hideous!)

Honestly, those Victorians... they brought Giant Hogweed into the country and planted it in their stately home gardens, thinking it was "lovely".

But it looks just like Cow Parsley only worse - the foliage is hideously coarse, it's a dull greyish green, with massive rough leaves, each can be 3-4' across, and look very much like normal Hogweed. At least Cow Parsley has delicate, bright green foliage.

They wanted it because it was huge - it really can get to more than 15' high - and I suppose it coincided with their fascination with Dinosaurs and all things massive.

The legacy, however, is that the wretched stuff is now loose in the UK, growing unchecked in the wild, particularly alongside rivers or canals, or in damp shady woodland.

And the danger is that the plant's sap - the juices that leak from the leaves and stems if they are broken - are very nasty indeed. They are not poisonous, but when they contact your skin, they leave it super-sensitive to sunlight. So the next time you go out in the sun, the area of skin which was touched by the sap will flare up into blisters and will hurt like hell. Continued exposure to sun will lead to burns, which in turn will leave scarring and long-lasting damage.

This sensitivity can last for months, even years.

It mostly occurs when workers are strimming, without proper protective clothing: the action of  a strimmer releases the sap and sprays it far and wide, and if you are wearing shorts and a tee-shirt, with no face visor, the results can be quite horrible. One of my Canal Club colleagues did exactly this: he was strimming an area in Abingdon, with his shirt sleeves rolled up, and the next day he was down to A&E with nasty burns on  his arms. Thankfully, he was wearing proper head and face protection, and gloves, otherwise it could have been even worse.

The BBC website was publicising this problem yesterday, two lads from Bolton were playing in a patch of the plants, and woke up next day looking like this:

The report says they were "touching" the plants, and the photo's caption says "repeated contact".

I had understood that it was only the sap that could do this, and that you would have to break the foliage to release the sap: we don't know exactly what the lads did, but I suspect they were dodging through and round the stems, so it's possible that they had broken off some of the leaves as they passed.

Certainly the right-hand picture seems to indicate that contact occurred where the bare neck pokes out of the tee-shirt or top, and that some sap has dribbled down the lad's back, with additional splodges over the shoulders.

Poor little lads! They are in for a time of it, and I bet they will be saying to their parents "See! If we'd stayed indoors playing computer games we would have been fine, but oh no, get some fresh air, you said, get some outdoor exercise, you said, go and play in the park like we did when we were kids, you said..."

The parent was reported as saying "I couldn't believe we didn't know about it; most people don't know about it. It's just a weed. You are not expecting it to cause severe damage."

This is absolutely true: I have written in the past about finding Hemlock growing locally, and the fact that children are no longer taught about poisonous plants.

Perhaps it is time that Health & Safety rules were revised to allow schools to do nature outings again.

In the meantime, you can help yourself by going onto Google and searching for Giant Hogweed - the proper name is Heracleum mantegazzianum (mnemonic: Hercules Moto-Guzzi) and learning what it looks like.

Then download a copy of my Field Guide to Umbellifers, catchily titled "It's Cow Parsley, isn't it?" and get out there and identify all the "stuff that looks like cow parsley" in your local area.

It's available to download FREE if you have Kindle Unlimited, otherwise just £3, and think what it could save you in pain, blisters, scars, and having to keep out of the sun for the next few years...

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Strawberry Field maintenance

Are your strawberry beds starting to look tatty? You've picked several bowlfuls of lovely strawberries over the last few weeks, but now the bed is full of dead brown leaves and looks terrible.. but fear not, it's perfectly normal.

 Here is the "before" photo of the strawberry bed of a Client: the crop has been really good, but it's clearly time for a bit of tidying up.

All I do is - having removed the protective net - approach each plant individually, and cut off all the dead leaves,  and all the fruiting stalks which have been stripped of fruit.

This included any dead-looking fruits, or any tiny knobbly ones that are not going to come to anything.

I leave any new leaves that are just starting, but I take off any that are more than, say, one third brown.

Here is the result: all the dead stuff has been removed, allowing air and light to get to the remaining plants.

Quite a difference, isn't there?

Why do I do this?

Apart from making it look better - which is probably justification enough, come to think of it *laughs* - removing dead material has three purposes: firstly, decaying plant matter attracts nature's dustbinmen, the snails and slugs, and we don't want to encourage them in the strawberry patch.

Secondly, an  understory of dead foliage provides the perfect hiding place for said slugs and snails, while they feast themselves.

Thirdly, allowing air to circulate reduces the risk of powdery mildew and other "rotting" diseases.

Actually, there is a fourth reason: a good hard pruning like this stimulates the plants into sending out a new flush of leaves, which look good: a new flush of fruits, which is good for the obvious reason; and it also promotes the formation of runners, so we can select a few of them, peg them down and allow them to develop in order to make some replacement plants for the end of the season.

It is good practice to replace strawberry plants after four or five years: they don't go on for ever, and after a few years they become likely to contract various viruses. But if you like the taste of the ones that you already have, you can allow a few of them to put out runners, which are "clones" of the original plants. So you know they will taste the same!  These new plants can then be used to replace the oldest ones.

I do this by starting at one side of the bed, and replacing a quarter of the plants each year. This also gives me the chance to get the plants back into nice neat rows! Not that I'm obsessive about neatness in the garden, it's just that it's easier to step into the bed for weeding, and for picking, if there is room to put your feet down without squashing a plant, and this is obviously easier if they are in rows.

Having replaced the netting, I then got out the hosepipe and gave the whole bed a good drenching, which it needed after the hot weather we'd been having - although to be honest with you, I would still have watered the bed, even if it had rained the day before, as a good watering helps the plant to get that new flush of leaves under way.

So there you have it: how to clear up your strawberries. And best of all, in a couple of weeks, there should be a whole new crop of fruit to eat!

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Rose deadheading

One of my favourite occupations!

Here is one of my best-loved roses, it's a Gallica rose, a very old-fashioned one, which means that it is beautiful, scented, and tough: none of these over-bred, over-blown, rubbishy scentless roses that you get these days: this is a good strong old-fashioned rose, which comes back year after year with minimal maintenance.

They form a low bush, and this particular one, Rosa mundi 'Versicolour' has dark pink striped petals.

Like all roses, you get the best from them if  you dead-head them as soon as the flowers start to fade. Oh, except for Rosa rugosa, that rough tough hedging rose, which forms wonderful fat red tomato-like hips in autumn. That one, you don't dead head. Most others, you do.

With Rosa mundi, there is an additional reason for deadheading - the petals are large and remarkably resilient, so if falling petals are dampened by dew or rain, they can easily wrap themselves around adjacent buds, preventing them from opening.

So once a week I go round with the secateurs, carefully removing any fading flowers.

 Here is the "after" picture - yes, all those lovely colourful splodges have gone, but just look how many buds there are, just waiting to open!

It tidies up the whole plant, and reduces the carpet of soggy and browning petals that you otherwise get on the grass below.
And here is the result - half a bucket full of petals and stems, to go straight on the bonfire heap.  I don't compost them:  the stems and leaves are very prickly and would spoil the texture of my compost. I suppose I could labouriously pull off all the petals, *laughs* but when I am being paid by the minute, as it were, it just isn't worth wasting time on it.

And could the petals not be used for pot-pourri, you ask? No - for that, you need to take the petals before the flower is fully opened, so these tired old ones just wouldn't be any good - not to mention the fact that many of them have already gone brown.

Nope - it's the bonfire heap for them, which might seem a little sad, but then just think about how much joy they have given us while they were on display!

Monday, 6 July 2015

The Ivy Tree

Or, how to make a beautiful and interesting feature from something as horrible as ivy growing up a wall...

One of my Clients asked me to reduce the ivy growing up the outside of his garage, but he didn't want it removed completely, as the wall would otherwise be bare brick.

Now, I can think of half a dozen things that would be better to grow up a brick wall to disguise it, but no, he wanted to keep the ivy.

So I deliberately and maliciously cut it into a neat shape, clearing all the leaves off the lower stems. That was last year, and of course the wretched stuff keeps growing back, so every few months I have to clear away all the new growth.

Here it is, half done:

All I do is cut the stems heading for the gutter: you can see on the left where I am working my way across.

Having cut each ascending stem, I then pull them away from the wall - and by the way, if you find yourself doing this, don't pull "away" from the wall or they will snap off, leaving you with bits clinging way out of reach. Instead, ease each stem a couple of inches away from the wall, then pull "downwards".

I know this seems illogical, but by doing so, you can get huge long lengths off all in one piece, which is easier to clear up, and means you don't have to get a ladder out to reach those pesky out-of-reach parts.

Having cut across the top, I then locate any loose stems that are growing away from the wall, and clip those right back. This leaves me just with one layer of ivy,  covering the wall but not forming a mat of hanging greenery. If you leave the hanging stuff, the leaves underneath will die off, so when you do cut back the loose ones, or if they get damaged, all you have are nasty grey stems and dead leaves. By clipping them right back, you keep a flush of new green leaves tight to the wall, which is much neater and easier to manage.

And here is the finished article - cunningly cut to look like a small copse of trees.

Nice,  don't you think?





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Sunday, 5 July 2015

A-scything we go.. eat you heart out, Poldark!

Ah, happy days, a chance to use my scythe again, second time this year: one of my Clients has a wonderful display of spring bulbs in their front lawn, but the downside is that once you cut back the grass, it looks nasty and brown for a couple of weeks until it recovers.

As they were participating in the village Open Gardens, we decided not to cut back the bulb foliage and grass until after the opening, on the grounds that overlong grass areas clearly said "aha, you should've been here in spring, we had BULBS!" whereas brown grass just says "dead grass".

So it didn't get cut back as normal, but was left to grow - and a surprising number of wild flowers appeared, so much so that we are now thinking about adding in some more of them, to make it prettier while we are waiting for the bulbs to die back.

Once the Open Garden day was over, we realised that the mower was not going to be able to get through the knee-high grass at all, so I took my scythe along and cleared it.

First job - pick up my scything kit.

This includes the blade and snathe (long wooden handle), along with the white pack which contains the side handles, my honing stone, water sheath and so on.

I also take two water bottles (one for me, one for honing) and the just-in-case first aid kit.

Well, better to take it and not need it...

Here is my first target, a small Magnolia, thoroughly swamped by the overlong grasses.

Three minutes later,  all done. One Magnolia safely released from being smothered, one pile of new-mown hay to be raked up and disposed of.

There is such a pleasure in scything - it's so much nicer than pushing a mower around.

I then moved around the lawn, taking down all the long grass patches.

Job done - all I have to do is rake up the rest of the mowings and pop them onto the compost heap.

And all without breaking into a sweat!

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Daisy Grubber: time for a new one!

The humble Daisy Grubber is my favourite hand tool (if you don't count secateurs) and is permanently in my hand or in my pocket while working... but they don't last forever.

Usually, the metal digging part becomes loosened from the handle, and they have to be thrown out, but recently I discovered that Wilkinson, a local cheapy shop, do a really nice good quality plastic-handled one for about £2, which I wrote about with huge enthusiasm earlier this year.

Well, good news, the cheap red Daisy Grubber has lasted from April right through into July - and that's something that is used every day, and quite often is used nearly all day long.

However, it is time for a new one, as the prongs have worn down to the point where it is getting less efficient to use.

 Here is the new one on the left, and the old one on the right, showing just how much of the metal blade has been worn away!

It has always interested me that one prong wears down more than the other, presumably because - as the tool is used right-handed - it hits the ground first, so it does more than its fair share of work.

Sharp-eyed observers will also note how the black paint has been worn off, but that doesn't affect the tool at all.

So there you go, proof that cheap tools can sometimes be true bargains: I bought three or four of them, but now I'm going to visit Wilkinsons again and buy half a dozen of them, which should keep me going for a couple of years!

Friday, 3 July 2015

Using old broken rubble in a decorative way.

.. or, how to make something lovely out of a pile of rubbish.

In one of my gardens, a range of old outbuildings were knocked down when the house was built, and the soil gradually built up over them.

This means that all along one side of the garden, I can't dig a hole more than about four inches deep without encountering a deep layer of rubble, which I then have to painstakingly excavate by hand.

The rubble goes on the rubble heap, along with all the various bricks that turn up from time to time.

One day, a couple of winters ago, I suggested to my Client that we could recycle this rubbish into a neat decorative circle around the old tree, in order to make it more attractive.

 Here's the "before" picture - one pile of bricks, one pile of rubble dug out over the past few years, and a tree surrounded by earth, weeds, nothing in particular.

Ta daa!

One circle of bricks, infilled with a layer of garden rubble, with the different colours used to create a bit of a pattern.

It looked so good that I continued the idea, making a short path off to the left to the leaf mould pens.

Nice, don't you think?