Monday, 31 August 2015

How to instantly tidy up a garden: edge it!

I took on a new garden recently, for a couple who were tired of it always looking "untidy", and one of my first suggestions was that they needed to neaten up the edges. There is nothing like defining edges for smartening up a garden, especially if you use the opportunity to even out any odd shapes, or to balance up any uneven sizes.

There are a variety of ways of achieving neat edges, depending on whether the grass runs up to a bed/border, or up to a wall, or up to a patio. Each has its own problems, and solutions, so I'll cover then in three sections:

1) Beds/borders.

Beds and borders need to have an edge, even in cottage style planting, otherwise they will always look scruffy and unkempt.

Firstly take an overall look at the shape - are the straight edges still straight? Are the curves regular, and "nice" to look at? Or do they waver in and out?  Use pegs and string to check and adjust straight edges, or lay out a hosepipe to assign "nice" curves. Then cut the turf off to those lines - you can use a proper half-moon edger, or a small border spade to do it, just make sure you cut down vertically.  After you have gone along the whole edge, go back and remove all the chopped-off bits of turf, which can often be useful for filling in any gaps in the newly defined edges, or to patch in any bald spots elsewhere in the lawn.

If you end up with a large pile of bits of unwanted turf, turn them into a loam stack: make a neat stack of the bits in alternating layers, green side up, then green side down. After a year or two, the heap will have turned into a freestanding stack of wonderful rich loam which can be used for potting, or can simply be spread on the beds as a combined mulch/soil improver.

Having re-shaped your edges, go round again with a hand trowel and ensure that you have a clear, sharp edge all the way round, flicking back the loose soil as you go -  I am a big fan of what I call the "cliff and gutter" style of edging. That's where you cut a sharp vertical edge into the grass, 2-3" deep, and create a slight slope up into the bed or border. This gives a "gutter" which traps glass clippings and fallen leaves, making it quick and easy to maintain with long-handed edgers.

Here's one I did a while ago - you can see where I have scraped back the soil on the section which I had to re-cut to get a smooth curve.

This cliff-and-gutter technique has the added advantage that couch grass - which is present in virtually all lawns - grows sideways, barely an inch or so under the surface. So if you cut a cliff edge about 2" deep, the couch grass roots find themselves waving about in mid-air and are chopped off every time you edge, thus preventing it from spreading into your beds or borders.

Clever stuff, eh? I am a professional, you know.

If you have very crumbly soil, or if you don't like having to keep recutting the edges, you can choose to install a permanent hard edging strip.  Metal is clearly the best and most durable, it works well for straight lines or for curves, or for a mixture, but it is the most expensive to buy and install. Wood strips look very cottagey, but can only accommodate straight lines: they will also need to be properly installed with pegs at intervals, to which the boards are nailed or screwed, and they don't last forever. Finally, there are some rigid plastic edgings available now, one of which I had the fun of installing recently. I haven't finished writing up that little adventure yet, but when I do, I'll come back and add a link to it. Good quality plastic edgings can be very effective....

... but whatever you do, don't even try to use that hideous wavy plastic strip.

Yes, this stuff (left).

 It never, ever goes in easily, it looks as though someone has been round your beds with a dough cutter, and within a short time it will have gone brittle in the sun and been smashed to pieces by your mower.

Please, just don't use it.

Right, that's beds covered, next are vertical edges.

2) Walls: (which includes log roll edging)

The problem here is that most mowers won't go quite up to the wall - or should I say, most mowers don't cut out to the edge of where the wheels go, so you always end up with an untidy fringe of uncut grass.

The answer is to insert a mowing strip: something laid flat at the base of the wall, projecting a couple of inches out, on which the wheels of the mower can run.

This can be stone setts, those nice red paviours, or good old ordinary bricks, set flat on the ground, frog (indent) down.  Using the same colour material as the wall often looks neatest: on the other hand, a contrasting colour can look stylish. Whatever you use, butt them right up against the vertical wall, and ensure they are level with the grass. Being individually small, they have the advantage of being able to accommodate a certain amount of curvature, as well as making very sharp straight lines.

You can use "stone" in the sense of random bits of stone found in the garden, but if you have too many gaps, the grass will grow up between them and spoil the effect.

Here's a simple example pinched off the internet: a low brick wall, with a line of what looks like granite setts at the base.

It's just enough to let the mower's wheels run over the edging, so all the grass gets cut. No more long-handled edgers! No more strimming! No more having to get the shears out and go down on hands and knees.... and of course, if you are having a wall built, have a mowing strip built at the same time.

It has the added advantage that most walls are built on some sort of foundation which often extends a couple of inches either side of the wall to spread the load, and this often prevents the grass from growing properly, so you get a tatty strip of half-dead grass and bare weedy patches, combined with some areas of long scruffy grass. Not nice!

3) Finally, patios: in a way, they are one big mowing strip so they should not be a problem, but in many gardens they present an untidy, uneven edge.

The first job is to go along the edge with a daisy grubber, or a small hand tool and pull out any grass that is finding its way between the individual slabs or bricks of the patio.

Now look at the grass in relation to the patio - are they the same height? If the grass is higher than the patio, get out (or borrow) the roller, and squash it down until they are level. If the grass is a little lower, that's not normally a problem: if you wish, you can raise the lawn by either lifting the edges and tucking extra soil underneath (hard work and quite finicky to get correct) or you can sprinkle soil or compost lightly over the area every couple of weeks for the next several months, until it has risen to the right height. This looks a bit odd for several months, but is cheap and easy to do.

Next, go all along the edge again, making a very small channel between the patio and the grass: it needs to be just big enough for the long-handled edging shears to get in, so about an inch deep and maybe half an inch wide should do it.  You might need to scoop out a little strip of soil to achieve this.

Once you've cleared it, take the edging shears, slot them into the channel, and trim the grass - just to check that you have cleared a channel correctly.

If the patio is crazy-paving with an uneven edge, then you are going to struggle to keep it neat: the options are to either take the time to lay a formal edge, mortaring in any gaps, or to accept that you will have to cut a straight edged channel right the way across it, leaving some earth-filled gaps on the patio side which will have to be weeded by hand every so often.

Most gardens have a combination of these three lawn edges - beds, walls/vertical, and patios - and it is well worth spending some time to sort them out, as it makes such an improvement to the general appearance of the garden, quite apart from the amount of time it saves  you each time you cut the lawn.

The final advantage is that sometimes, if you don't have time to cut the whole lawn, just clipping the edges can make it look neat and kempt, in a fraction of the time it would take to mow it. 


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Friday, 14 August 2015

Brambles: The Next Generation (weedkiller)

I had a very nice email from a lady called Shelagh the other day, asking a couple of questions about bramble removal, and rather than add to the length of the original Bramble Removal: How To Do It article I decided it would be more efficient to start a new one.

This is, of course, in addition to these articles:

Brambles: Part 7: The Right Tool For The Job. Secateurs, mostly. "Part 7" is a bit of an exaggeration!
Bramble Removal: Invaders from Next Door deals with this particular issue, and...
What Shrubs Can Hold Brambles Back  which was an interesting question.

Right! New question, new article - all about weedkiller.

As I have said in the other articles, the first task is always to cut off and remove the top growth: you can't do anything when you are being slashed to ribbons every time you turn around, and mindlessly spraying the whole area with weedkiller will just turn the green prickly growth into brown prickly growth.

It doesn't matter where you start from, just put on some thick gloves, stand there and start chopping the long growth in front of your face: cut it into short sections, using secateurs, or loppers if the stems are too big to cut easily.

Once your face is safe, start to cut downwards and sideways until you have cleared a small space. Then extend that space in all directions. This task is way, way easier if there are two of  you: one can chop, the other can rake away the short sections ready for burning or disposal.

Aim to leave the brambles with short ankle-height stumps: any shorter and you will be forever tripping over them... if they keep catching on your socks, cut most of the stump down to ground level, leaving just one or two upright stumps so you can see where they are.

If digging them out is not an option, we come to weedkiller. As I keep on saying, I am not a big fan of weedkiller but there are some situations where it is the only realistic option, if you don't have the time or the energy to dig out every single root.

As you might have read in my other bramble articles, brambles are sneaky in that the growing point is an inch or two below soil level - most people either chop off just the bit above ground, and are horrified when they immediately grow back: or they spend months trying to excavate the long, deep roots, when all they needed to do was get out the top couple of inches.

Removing them with a mattock is a good compromise, but can be enormously hard work, especially in mid-summer, after weeks of scorching sun. *pause while I gaze out of the streaming window at the torrential rain currently falling on South Oxfordshire.* It has been suggested that pigs are the perfect eco-answer, as they root around with their noses, diligently uprooting every plant in the top 6" of soil, leaving a soft tilth, ready fertilised.

However, this is massively impractical for 99.99999999% of us, who don't have pigs, don't know anyone who would lend us a couple, and don't have enough acreage to make it worth while anyway. Or who have neighbours who might well view piggies as less of a bramble-removing tool, and more of a sort of walking uncooked breakfast.

So where does that leave us? With weedkiller.

Yes, I know that chemicals are "bad" for the soil, the environment, the bees, and for us. However, needs must when the devil drives, and brambles do cause the devil to drive particularly hard. (As an aside, did you know that the expression "needs must when the devil drives" is actually older than the USA? John Lydgate’s Assembly of Gods, written about 1420 says: “He must nedys go that the deuell dryves” which is very much the same expression used by Shakespeare some time later. Since then, it has been corrupted into the modern form, but the meaning is still clear: when the devil is driving you, ie when you have no choice, you gotta do what you gotta do. End of diversion, please drive on.)

In my opinion, the best and only chemical to use is a Glyphosate-based herbicide.

Herbicide means "kills herbaceous material" by the way,  ie weeds, grass, flowers, everything with green leaves that dies down in winter: we tend to call it a Weedkiller, but that is a loose use of the word, as it will kill precious plants just as thoroughly as it will kill weeds.

Right, Weedkillers 1.01.

Which weedkiller should I buy?  Read the packet, buy one whose active ingredient is Glyphosate. You don't need a combined weedkiller, you don't need a super-fast "kills in 24 hours" product, just use good old Glyphosate. Buy it in undiluted form, otherwise you are paying several pounds for a one-use spray bottle and a lot of water: and don't buy "handy" sachets or tiny tubes, as they are incredibly wasteful and over-packaged - keep looking  until you find a pack containing a simple bottle of the product.

The brand name used to be Roundup, but now it is out of patent protection, you can buy it a lot cheaper as an own-brand product from Homebase and B&Q. If you have a lot of brambles to deal with, buy it in concentrated format, and buy a pressure sprayer.

This (left) is the best type of small sprayer: you dilute your herbicide as per instructions, screw on the lid quite tightly, then pump the plunger up and down until you feel resistance. Then you just hold the trigger down to spray.

As the level of liquid inside falls, you have to pump again, but it's very easy to do.

You can adjust the spray by twisting the nozzle where the liquid emerges: it is always best to spray on still days to avoid the spray drifting onto precious plants, but if you have to spray on slightly windy days, you can twist the nozzle to make the spray coarser, or wetter, so that it doesn't drift.

If you have a large area, then you might prefer the next size up, which has a shoulder-strap and is easier to carry.

Whatever sort you get, either buy a red one, or write "POISON" in big letters on it in felt pen. Even though you rinse it out well after use (you will rinse it out, won't you?) you should always keep the weedkiller spray equipment separate from other garden sprays.

How does it work?  Glyphosate is a translocated herbicide. You spray it onto the leaves, it is soaked up by the leaves and works its way back down the stems to the roots. It works as a hormone, so when it reaches the roots, it "tells" the plant to grow, and grow, and grow.. the plant then exhausts itself by over-growing, keels over and dies completely, roots and all.

How long does it take to work? Check the pack - it takes about 2-3 weeks. At first there will be little change, and you will think it hasn't worked. Then the plant will grow massively, and you will think that not only has it not worked, it has somehow encouraged the plant. This is not true - look closely, you will often see that the plant is growing contorted and pale, as it is being forced to grow so much more than is healthy. Then, finally, it will die.

Shall I dilute it less than it says on the pack, so that it's stronger? No! No! And thrice, no! If you make it up to be too strong, it will kill the plant tissues too quickly, before it reaches the roots, so the top part will die off but the weed will grow again from the root. Follow the instructions exactly.

Shall I dilute it more than it says on the pack, so that it will go further?  No - if you dilute it too much, it won't have the desired effect, and you will end up having to spray again. Just follow the instructions on the pack.

Can I use it at any time of year? No - again, check the pack, it specifies the temperature range at which it is most effective. In easy terms, it works best in summer and autumn, and it doesn't work particularly well if it about to rain, as the rain will wash it off the leaves before it is absorbed into the leaf. Thus you are wasting your expensive chemical.

Will it poison the soil? If used correctly, no. Glyphosate is one of the few herbicides that does not poison the soil. The packs state that it is "inactivated on contact with the soil". However, this does not mean that it is beneficial to the soil, so use it with restraint.

If you use your Glyphosate correctly diluted, applied on a sufficiently warm, still, day, then after 2-3 weeks you should see real results, as the plants die off.

Of course, this is not the end of the story: those roots are now dead, but they are still going to be in the way when you want to cultivate the soil. You can leave them to rot down over time if it is rough ground, but if it's a garden bed or an allotment area, then you might find that you have to pull out the dead roots anyway - but at least if they are dead, they should be a lot easier to pull out than when they were alive.

And of course you must keep going over your de-brambled patch, at least once a month, checking for new growth that might have been missed, and "spritzing" any new leaves that you find with Glyphosate.  Even after a year or more, you will still find tiny seedlings, because the ground is going to be full of seeds - ie pips - which will continue to germinate for many years to come.

But a newly germinating seedling is a teeny tiny thing, easy to pull out without even needing gloves, as they don't start getting prickly until they are an inch or two high. And you will soon learn to recognise them! If in any doubt, take a photo of the tiny seedling, put a label or a marker by it, and keep going back to check and take a new photo every week. Whatever it turns out to be, you will have a photographic record of how it started, so you will be able to recognise it in the future.

Well, I hope you enjoyed learning about weedkiller and brambles: I have a special treat in store for  you over the next few weeks, I have been shown a steep bank which is absolutely smothered in brambles, and I will do my best to take photos at various steps of the project, to share with you once it's done...


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Thursday, 13 August 2015

Another Free Field Guide!

Yes, it's that time again: Amazon only allow me to give them away for a certain number of days, presumably because when we give them away, they don't make any money at all....  but I like to offer them for free when I can.

And there is always the hope that if you download this one for free, you will realise how great they are, and buy a couple of other ones!

This weekend, 15th/16th August, it's the turn of Speedwells:

All you have to do is wait until Saturday (or Sunday) then go to Amazon, here is a link to the book to make it easy for you.

If you don't have a Kindle, it doesn't matter -  you can download it to any ebook, tablet or phone: you can even download it to your pc and read it in the comfort of your own home! All you have to do is follow the simple instructions on the above page - you just type in an email address and Amazon will send you the download programme (or "app" ) completely free of charge.

You can then download the book to your pc.


Then, after reading it, you can get out there and look for Speedwells wherever you go: in rough grasslands, paths, down by the canal, anywhere really.

Let me know what you find!