Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Garden review: Misarden

Back in July I had an odd afternoon off, so I went back to Misarden Park Gardens for another look round - this is a small garden with a minor identity crisis (it's Misarden-with-an-a Park Gardens, on the Miserden-with-an-e Estate) outside Stroud, just off the A417 but very tucked away. The route from the A417 involves turning off at the Winstone turn, then following a narrow windy lane that - following my sat nav - gets narrower and windier, clinging to steep hills, skirting woodland, and diving into tiny hidden valleys.

It's almost worth going there just for the journey!

Having survived the cross-country part, you arrive at Misarden village and then have the challenge of finding the place, as - in common with many of these places where the Estate "owns" the village - they don't feel the need to put up nice clear signs, and every turning looks like the entrance to somewhere private.

I've been there three or four times before,  but I still went the wrong way and had to do a 3-point turn before spotting a turning that I vaguely recognised. It still felt like entering someone's private drive, but no, it turned a corner and lo! and behold, there was the tatty old barn, there was the gateway to the Plant Nursery associated with the garden, and there was the field of pristine grass which does not say "car park" but which seems to be used as such. This time, I was the only car there, so I bravely parked on the grass, wondering as I did so if some groundsman somewhere was looking out of a window and cursing these thoughtless visitors who park all over his nice green sward...

As always, there was no-one in sight, so I put my money in the Honesty Box, took a leaflet/map, in case they had added anything since my last visit (I hold them very gently, and if they are undamaged, I replace them on my way out), and set off. The recommended route takes you through a doorway in a stone wall:

 ...nicely framed by a wall-trained Cytisus battendieri, a strangely Zorro-sounding name for something whose everyday name is Pineapple Broom.

Pineapple? Well, I suppose so, but to me it look more more like a cross between a yellow Buddlea and Laburnum.  I thought the silvery foliage was lovely, though,  and it should be evergreen in mildish winters.

Resisting the urge to take a cutting, I went through the doorway which led straight into the big borders: a sloping lawn with two very deep herbaceous beds (one is a border, one is a bed with grass beyond) running down the slope towards the formal lawns: there is so much to see that the only way to do it is to go down the left-hand one, admiring the full depth as you go: back up the inside of the right-hand one, then down the far side of the right-hand one. Luckily the fourth side of the box, the wall, does not have much of interest on it, just a few shrubs.

Alas, I was so busy looking at the plants that I forgot to take a photo, but frankly I have found that amateur photos of herbaceous borders are simply not worth looking at - I don't know exactly how the professionals do it, must be something to do with depth of field, but every "border" photo I take is just a bland presentation of a mass of green with dots of colour.

Turning left from the double borders takes you into what they call the walled garden, and this year they have changed things around a bit: it's always interesting to see how "big" gardens do this. They seem to be paying lip service to the Grow Your Own brigade: plonking what is possibly the highest and chunkiest raised bed I have ever seen, in the middle of one of the formal sections of the walled garden.


And proportionally all wrong... it's too small!

*shakes head*

Makes you wonder whose bright idea that was. At least they managed to get it dead centre, and at least they put a nice mowing strip all around it, so I suppose if they were aiming to create a fusion of formal garden and veggies, they could be said to have succeeded.

Moving on, and trying not to laugh, I encountered another "new" area, this time rather more successful:

That's more like it! A large square had been marked and edged, a good firm path laid round the outside, then each of the four corners populated with a sturdy, shapely, elegant support, each planted with white sweet pea.

Have I already used the word elegant?

Well I'll use it again - very elegant.

The whole area was set as a diamond shape within the walled garden, which made a nice change from being set square, as it were, and I liked the simplicity of the layout, the repetition of shapes, and the single colour of planting.

If I were being picky ("Who? Me?") I would say that you would probably have to step off the path in order to pick/deadhead the flowers, which made me wonder: would it work if, having cleared the weeds (presumably here they lifted turf for the paths and beds so it wouldn't have much of a seed bank in the soil), you planted the sweet peas then mulched the bed with gravel to match the path? It would look even smarter, and you could step all round the planting without getting muddy shoes.

Of course, you'd have to, at year end, carefully scrape off the gravel mulch, and wash it clean for re-use, but hey, that's what the under-gardener is for, right? *laughs*

The next area of interest is, of course, the compost heaps!!

 You can tell a lot about how a place is run by the state of their compost heaps... in this case, what is the verdict?

Well, they are a very good size, they are open fronted which is less efficient but makes sense when most of the material is going to be brought up here on the back of the ride-on mower.

They all have weeds growing on them, so they lose a couple of points for that... and they don't appear to have a proper rotation going on. To me this is unforgivable, but I do know that in many of these large "estate" gardens, they have machinery to move stuff around: so when all three pens get half full, they use the digger to put all the top halves together, ie the unrotted stuff, so they can get to the good stuff. Each to their own, I guess.

Right, back to the garden: walking back down alongside the run of old buildings, I was trying to admire the Fruit Tree Wall, but my eye kept being distracted by the terrible edging of the border:

Come on, guys!

Get out there with an edger and make it straight!

Or at least make it nicely curvy!

I can't quite see why anyone would bother to weed under the fruit trees, yet not bother to put an edge on the grass... ho hum.

And it's not as though it is out of sight, it's on the main route back to the formal garden.

Perhaps they hope that people are so dazzled by the compost pens that they won't see it?

Or maybe they hope that the eye will be drawn ahead, to the rather lovely border running down to the formal lawn?

Bearing in mind what I said earlier about my inability to take photos of borders....

... there, not brilliant, but not bad, eh?

I was very struck by the lovely combination of purples in this border: small berberis at the front, and a mix of purple-leaved Elder (Sambucus nigra - possibly Black Lace but who knows) Cotinus coggygria 'Royal Purple' (also known as Smoke Bush, also comes in green, but who would have boring old green when you can have dramatic black?) and my personal favourite, Physocarpus opulifolius 'Diablo' which rejoices in the never-used name of Ninebark. (I have no idea why, it does not appear to have nine types of bark: cursory internet research suggests that the plant is described as having "exfoliating bark" so maybe people thought it had nine layers of bark to shed?)

The rest of the garden includes a very nice inset water garden, rather like the one at West Green House which I like so much (when it is not ruined by screaming children, that is) but on a smaller scale. I wonder if this one was the inspiration for it?

Meandering past it and down the big stone steps, I was accosted by a rather nice spaniel who wanted to show me the dead bird he was carrying. Yum, lovely! His owner apologetically told me that he could not be parted from it... she was on her way to the veg garden with a trug, to "pick some produce", so she was clearly the owner of the house. We had a short chat about the garden, but I didn't have the nerve to ask, as I always want to ask, how the owners of these places feel about having strangers wandering around all over it. There must be times when visitors ignore the "private" signs and look in the windows... do they not get tired of it? I would be constantly irritated by having people walking round my garden, but do they feel less ownership of their house and grounds, because it was inherited rather than bought with my hard-earned cash?  If you grow up with housekeepers, staff, gardeners, grooms, tutors, do you feel less connected to your house, less protective of it? Often you hear that the family are only "in residence" for certain months of the year, so maybe moving from house to house means that they think of all their houses the way I think of hotels: it's "my" room for now, but it's not "mine", and people such as cleaners and staff have the right to just walk into it.

Leaving aside such unanswerable questions (for now - one day I will meet a garden owner who is sufficiently friendly that I feel I can ask those questions. One day!) and returning to the garden, I continued my "usual" tour by slithering down the steep grassy bank to the main lawn and going right round the house to the far terrace, up the little steps - it's all right, it's on the map, we are allowed to be there - to a sort of terrace or patio, raised above the lawn, but so overgrown with a massive magnolia that you can't walk onto it:

...isn't that fab? You have to bend double to duck under the branches!

I love this little area, because it is the size of my entire garden at home, yet - she said, wryly, trying not to seethe with jealousy-  they have so much space that they can afford to let the Magnolia take it over, without even feeling the loss of it. *sigh*

My tour continues with the long walk across the big lawn in front of the house, then round into their small arboretum and back up the slope to the entrance, pausing to have a look at the Well en route.

Once again, I was virtually the only visitor: the lady I spoke to said that it is busier at weekends, (which is the main reason why I like to go garden visiting mid-week if I possibly can) but I got the impression that it is never heaving with visitors, so if you like a quiet, peaceful outing, with nice views over rolling fields: not too large a garden, but interesting: then put Misarden Park Gardens in your diary for next year, as they are closed now for the winter, and open again in April. 


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Saturday, 26 September 2015

Compost: best buy: Silvamix, Melcourt Industries

Earlier this year I went on an outing to Melcourt Industries, a company who supply commercial compost and mulching materials.

The outing was arranged by my Guild, the Professional Gardeners' Guild, and we were given full access to the entire site, from the arrival of the rough materials, through the various processing piles, through to the bagging section.

It's always fascinating to see any machinery with converyor belts and hoppers, and it's always fascinating (to gardeners) to have a look at other people's compost arrangments, so it was an excellent day out all round.

I have certainly never seen anything on the scale of Melcourt, as far as composting is concerned, and it was possibly the cleanest, tidiest industrial site I have ever been on! At the end of the visit they very kindly gave us each a bag of their standard garden compost, and wow, was it lovely stuff! It had a texture that I can't quite describe, not soggy, not gritty, not exactly harsh, but not fluffy: lovely to work with, and very easy to "wet".

And, unlike the usual cheap stuff that I buy, not a single un-usable particle:  no plastic, no glass, no great thick woody bits, every teaspoon of it was fully usable.

Unfortunately it's quite expensive for me: I'll stick with sieving the cheap stuff for now, but if ever I become rich, I shall definitely be buying Silvamix!

Monday, 21 September 2015

Bringing style to a Cotoneaster.

 A little while ago I wrote about the technique of pruning from underneath, as used when dealing with weeping foliage trees.

Now,  to show you that a similar technique can be used on other shrubs, here is a massively overgrown cotoneaster that I was presented with last winter: the Client complained that it was projecting over the pathway, scratching them as they tried to walk past it.

They also thought that it was very ugly and tangled as it was, but they didn't want it completely removed, just tidied up, neatened, and "made more stylish".


Where to start? As with the weeping tree, the first job is to remove any dead wood, anything diseased, and any branches that are damaging themselves or others by rubbing together.

Then I started at ground level and removed most of the lower main branches, to clear the main trunks up to a couple of foot clear of the ground.  This is called "crown lifting" and usually I do it on small garden trees where the owners have to duck their heads to walk underneath it.

(Having to duck under tree branches is one of those things that sets my teeth on edge, so I always promote the Crown Lift technique "in order to make it easier for whoever has to mow the grass", which normally gets the man of the house on my side!)

So, having sawn off the lower branches - which significantly improved the over-dense canopy - I did a quick snip-through of the depleted canopy, this time to remove any branches that were crossing at "ugly" angles.

It's hard to describe exactly what I mean by "ugly" angles other than to say any branch whose angle is really out of line with all the others. "Jangling" is another word I use when teaching this technique, in the sense of "it makes my nerves jangle". When you have a lot of stems all going in one direction, and just one sproinging off in another direction, it "jangles" or, if you prefer designer-speak, it interferes with the harmony of the branches, and has to be removed. This is, needless to say, one of those things that is much easier to demonstrate, than to describe!

Having thinned out the canopy, here is the pile of  "jangling" branches which had been removed:

This sort of material is normally destined for the bonfire pile, but it can be shredded, and then added to the compost heap.

Not a bad pile, eh?

Usually, Clients tend to faint when they see this size of pile, so normally I have to whisk it away in instalments, so they don't realise quite how much has been cut off. Luckily, in this case the Client knows me of old, and is happy to let me get on with the job.

And what, if anything, you might be wondering, was left?

Plenty, is the answer:

Here we are - the main stem has been seriously reduced, the canopy has been frivolously reduced, and what is left now describes an interesting windswept curve from left to right and back again.

We can all now walk along the path without getting scratched, the bed underneath the canopy now has quite a bit more light, and - despite that huge pile of waste material - there is still a lot of the shrub left.

Job done!



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Sunday, 13 September 2015

Pruning a weeping pear/willow

I've been asked about this several times, and it's one of those jobs that is easy to demonstrate, almost impossible to describe.

However, I will try!

This technique applies to small ornamental weeping trees, usually either willow or pear - Salix caprea 'Kilmarnock',  or willow-leaved pear, Pyrus salicifolia 'Pendula'. Both of these are usually grafted trees, where the ornamental weeping foliage is grafted onto the top of a short upright trunk.

This leads to two problems: shoots sprouting vertically from ground level, and overcrowded tops.

Shoots sprouting from the bottom are easily explained and easily dealt with. They are shoots from the original, non-weeping, rootstock, which are usually very vigorous, and must be removed as soon as you see them.

In a perfect world, you will spot them as soon as they are tiny green items on the lower trunk, in which case you remove them by pulling them sharply downwards, away from the trunk. Don't cut them: cutting will promote regrowth, the idea is to pull away the base of the shoot thus removing the area producing growth hormones, so it won't regrow.

(One of my Clients swears by wiping saliva on the ripped-off area, saying that the enzymes in our saliva kill these growth hormones. I'll let you decide whether to try it or not!)

In a less-than-perfect world, you didn't notice them until they were a foot and half long, in which case you have no option but to cut them off. Cut cleanly, with secateurs, as close to the trunk as you can, and keep an eye on the cuts as they will almost definitely re-sprout from that point. As soon as they do, rip the new growth off.

New shoots coming up from underground, near to the trunk, should also be dealt with as soon as you see them - again, don't cut them unless you really have to - try to clear away the soil until you can see the point of attachment, then rip them sharply away from the trunk or root.  If all else fails you will have to cut them, but again you will then have to keep an eye on them for regrowth, and deal with the new shoots as soon as you see them.

Now we move up the trunk to the top.

The principle is to aim for a "light airy waterfall" effect. If yours is more like one of the shaggier muppets on a stick, then it is time to remove some unwanted foliage.

As with nearly all tree work, start with the three Ds: dead, diseased and damaged.

That means, go over the whole mop head, removing any branches which are obviously dead, ie with no leaves growing on them: branches which are diseased - ie fungus, pustules or other nasty things growing on them - or damaged, ie where two branches have rubbed against each other, damaging their bark. Cut out one or the other of rubbing branches - the worst damaged one, or the smaller of the two.

Usually, this will leave you with a massive pile of dead sticks on the lawn, and a significant improvement in the look of your weeping tree.

Now we can tackle the live foliage: there are three elements to this part of the work - balance, length, and thickness.

Firstly, step back and assess the overall shape of the tree. It is fairly balanced, left to right? Move round a quarter turn, and look again, to check if it is balanced front to back. This will show you where to make your first proper pruning cuts, in order to get it level.

Next, look at the distance above the ground - do any of the branches sweep the ground? If they do, they are too long and will have to be shortened. Aim to have all branches swinging clear of the ground: how far clear will depend on the size of the tree, but as a rough guide I like to have mine at least a foot clear of the ground.

Lastly, look at the top of the tree - is it still a dense mass, or can you now see through it? If it is still a dense mass, you will have to thin out the top.

Right, now we move on to the actual pruning! You can do it in any order, but I always do the thinning out of the top first, otherwise you might waste time beautifully pruning lower branches, then realise that you have just removed the whole branch. Then I do the balance pruning, to get it equal left-to-right, and equal front-to-back, then lastly I do the length pruning.

I use sharp secateurs for most of the work, and a small pruning saw for thinning out the top part, where the branches can be quite substantial.

All cuts are made to the same principle, and this is the only "technical" bit that you have to learn - again, it is much easier to show than to explain, but I'll try.

When cutting any weeping tree, always cut out the "underneath" growth, leaving a branch or twig that is "springing" up in the right direction.

Here's a photo showing a branch that has been poorly pruned: the owner just wanted to make it shorter (it's a full-size weeping pear, not a miniature one) so they cut off the branch at random, leaving an ugly stump and a down-ward growing branch.

The red line indicates the correct place to cut - immediately below a branch that is "springing" upwards.

If you haven't done this before, it can make it easier if you duck inside the canopy of the tree, then you can more clearly see which branches are springing away from you, and which part of the branch is growing straight downwards.

This is how you make every single cut, regardless of where it is on the tree: always cut just below an outward springing branch.

So, first job, thin the top: duck back inside the canopy, and work your way round the tree, taking out maybe three or four largish branches, the ones growing at the innermost part of the canopy. The idea is to keep the outer, freshest, growth, and to lose the congested old inner growth.

Once you have removed a couple of main branches, it should be a lot less congested, and you can step outside the tree to re-assess the balance: did your thinning solve those problems? If not, shorten the branches that are out of place.

Then, take a look at the length of the remaining branches, and trim any that are too long.

By always cutting the underneath growth, you will not spoil the outline of the tree: you will not remove the freshest outside growth, just the tired inner growth: and you won't end up with a terrible "pudding-basin" haircut, but will have a natural, slightly uneven lower hem.

There is one further problem you might encounter with these weeping trees: small branches that spring up vertically, ruining the outline.

Sometimes people leave them in the hope that as they grow heavier, they will eventually "weep" but in my experience they rarely do, and the tend to spoil the look of the tree for months in the meantime, so they are best pruned off, very close indeed to the branch.

Here's an example of one (right), and the red line indicates where you should cut it.

Here is one I did earlier, as they say. This is what it looked like before I started - not too bad, as I was the one who pruned it the previous year, and you can still just about see through it, but it had grown a bit wayward so the owner called me back for an annual tidy-up.

There weren't any major branches to come out this time, just a few of the side branches to be removed.

Most of the branches were lying on the ground, so I went all the way round shortening them.

Then I went over what was left, removing all the many upward-and-outward shoots.

Here is the result, which is much neater and yet which still looks natural.

So much better than running the hedgetrimmer over it...



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