Sunday, 15 November 2015

Field Guide to Acacia - out now !

Usually, when I publish a new Field Guide, I am all jumpy-around, thrilled and excited.

Last week - not so much.


The latest Field Guide to hit the Kindle virtual shelves is for Acacias: trees that look like Acacias, that are called Acacias, and that have pinnate leaves and spines, and which might get confused with Acacias.

But Amazon made a slight bish with the cover:

Can you spot the publisher's mistake?? Yes, they have used the Scabious cover.


I waited a couple of days for them to sort it out, but a sorting out was not forthcoming, so in the end I had to unpublish the book, then create a new listing. However, it was not all a bad thing, as I spotted a spelling mistake, and then I looked at the next paragraph and thought that, actually, I could reword it to make it a bit easier to understand.

Anyway, it is now done, and available for FREE download if you have Kindle Unlimited or Amazon Prime: and if not, well, it's only the cost of a cup of coffee,  and you need never again be confused by this group of trees.

I'll be offering it for free this weekend, Sat/Sun 21st and 22nd November, so if you are really, really tight and can't afford even one cup of coffee *laughs* then you can get it for free.

Hopefully you be so impressed that you will then buy one of the other books which I have published: I'm up to 18 so far, 16 of which are Botany Field Guides, and there should be another one out this week, if the weather continues to be as awful as it is today.

So off you go! Download this nice little book, and learn all about Honey Locust and Black Locust, and Prickly Ash and Northern Prickly Ash, not to mention finally getting to grips with the difference between Acacia and False Acacia, which, in my opinion, looks nothing like "real" Acacia... 

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

How to keep ivy out, from beyond your garden

This is such a common problem: you work and strive to make your own garden or land nice, and then you are invaded by unwanted plants from next door.

What can you do?

If someone lives next door, your first step - before it really starts to wind you up - is to walk round and tap on their door. Introduce yourself, say that you realise they might not be aware of it, but their ivy (or bindweed or willowherb seeds or overhanging trees, or whatever the problem is) is causing you difficulties, and would they be kind enough to do something about it from their side.

I wrote about this a while back, in answer to a question about invading Brambles, and I said then that 90% of the time, the neighbour is surprised and then horrified to learn that their plants are being a nuisance, and usually they will be happy to sort out their side.  Sometimes, it can help if you offer to go round to their side and help them with the work (while cunningly leaving them responsible for disposing of the waste material, mwaah haa haa!) especially things like brambles and overhanging trees, where it really is so much easier to sort them out from the side on which they grow.

However, what if there is no-one next door - if the land is derelict, or public land? This was the case in the article mentioned above, and it goes for ivy as well: the only real answer is to get on the other side of your boundary, and attack it from there.

I have a Client with this exact problem: the back of their garden adjoins a very steep slope of land running down to a road, and the land is presumably owned by the council. Needless to say, the council don't do any sort of maintenance at all, and the top of this bank is infested with brambles, and has a lovely underplanting of ivy.

Last year - my first winter in this garden - I clambered round the back of the fence, and hacked off all the brambles for about a yard clear of my Client's fence. This allowed me to then loosen and pull back all the ground-covering ivy for the same distance, which gave me access all the way along the back of the fence, and meant that I was able to dig out any ivy that had rooted on "our" side of it.

It was too big a task to try to get rid of the ivy beyond the fence altogether, so I used what I call the "Hydra" technique: if you cut ivy (or brambles, for that matter) the cut end will sprout two or more new shoots, which are usually more vigorous than the original. If you cut these, then each cut will again sprout more than one shoot so you get four or five of them, and if you cut these .. you get the idea. Instead, I pull up the loose length of the ivy (or bramble) and fold it back on itself, so that it can continue to grow as just one shoot, instead of many, but it will continue to grow away from the fence.

Of course, if the reason the ivy was heading for the fence was to get more light, or just single-minded determination to go uphill, then it will end up heading back this way, but by tossing three- and four-foot long streamers of the stuff back down the slope, I could delay its return.

Here's what it looked like last week - not too bad, all things considered.

In this photo I am halfway through through the job, as I have already dealt with the brambles: I folded back as much of them as I could get to, and chopped off any dead brown bramble stems (which won't regrow) as far to the right as I could reach.

Now I have to tackle the ivy - as you can see, it has regrown all over the area, but not that thickly, and when I came to them, I found that they were mostly long "loose" strands, barely rooted into the soil. This meant it was a comparatively quick job to heave them up without snapping them off, and toss them over to the right, downhill. Wherever possible I would pull up the roots, but I didn't spend much time on it, as I have the whole of the main garden to attend to!

Here is the result: a clear exclusion zone, no ivy growing, no brambles leaning across: plenty of daylight for the back of "our" side, to help our planting to grow well, and by allowing light and air to the back of the fence, it reduces dampness, mould and fungal growth, which helps the fence to last longer. Best of all, there are now no brambles grabbing at me, as I carry out routine maintenance on "our" side.

So there you have it, a simple exclusion zone, invisible to anyone else, nothing for the council or nosy neighbours to complain about, and it also *looks over shoulder to see if anyone is listening* means that if the bare zone should be invaded by nettles, or willowherb, or anything of that type, I can - if I choose - easily spray weedkiller over the fence, without having to scramble round the back. 

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Sunday, 8 November 2015

Planting on steep slopes: board-and-post pockets

One of my gardens has a very, very steep bank - actually, several of them - and I am constantly trying to find better ways to get plants established.

Usually I chip a hole in the clay - always hard to do, and tends to fracture the face of the slope - and stuff it with decent compost before ramming in the plant.  I try to make a "lip" to catch the rain, as the plants rarely get watered once planted, poor things!

Last week I was presented with three small shrubs and asked to get them established way, way up one of the bank: not an easy job, but, hey! I like a challenge.

Last year I planted a couple of buddliea on another part of the slope, and as an experiment I had wedged a piece of timber across the slope for one of them, making a sort of miniature terrace, intending to see if the terraced plant did better than the unterraced one.

Surprise surprise, it did.

So for these little shrubs, I thought I'd take that idea and formalise it.

 Here is the first one: as you can see, it is quite literally just a short length of board, with a couple of pegs of odd half-round timber hammered vertically into the slope, to hold it in place. All materials were found on the rubbish wood pile, and hacked roughly to length with my trusty bowsaw.

I then dug a hole above the wood into the chalk, using the rough lumpy 'orrible "soil" to pack in at the bottom of the inside of the new terrace - hopefully, to hold in any rainwater.

Then I heaved a bucket full of compost up, tipped it in, mixed it round, firmed it down a bit, inserted the plant, and levelled it off.

Here is the second one, above and to one side of the first one: exactly the same.

This gives you some idea of the slope - it really is one-in-one, and I have to scramble up, heart in mouth, on my hands and knees.

I then have to brace myself like one of those mad free-climbers, while hammering in the posts.

Don't even ask how about how I get down - here's a clue, it's not graceful, and it involves sliding on my bottom.

 I told the Client that I was intending to get a rustic, artfully non-level look to the boards and pegs: to be in keeping with the casual nature of this bank, and to avoid introducing a jarring note of military precision.

All right, I admit it, this was the best I could manage while clinging to the slope!

I managed to get half a bucketful of water up there - yes, it was a full bucket when I started the climb - to give them a head start, and now they have been left to their own devices to see how they survive the experience.

I shall report back in due course! 


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Friday, 6 November 2015

How to get Couch Grass out of Bearded Iris

Here we go again: a new Client says "oh, could you just weed that clump of Iris for me, I've done all round it but there's a bit of grass I can't get out, in the middle of it."

A "bit" of grass?

Hmm, this is what I could call a full-on infestation of weeds in general but couch grass in particular.

This was a Bearded Iris, by the way, but this applies to any rhizatomous Iris.  They often need to be sorted out as part of the autumn tidyup (or "autumn slaughter" as I call it), and this is the time when you discover that they have grass and weeds poking up all around and through them.

It's easy to get into this situation:  Iris (plural of Iris, anyone? Irisis? Irises?) tend to form dense clumps, and if a blade of grass manages to infiltrate, it's impossible to get at it without damaging the rhizome, so there is a tendency to leave it "for now" and by the time flowering is over, and you get around to dealing with it, you find that there is a nasty infestation of grasses along with general weeds: and if you are really unlucky, the grass is couch grass.

What's the answer? Unfortunately, the only answer is to lift the entire clump, but it's not all bad news, as it gives you a great chance to remove any unproductive rhizomes, along with any rotting ones: this means you can space them out more evenly when you replant, and there will usually be enough to either start some new clumps elsewhere in the garden, or to give away to friends. (Or to pot up, for selling or swapping on GreenPlantSwap next year, of course!)

It sounds like a big job, but it's not so bad: I use a border fork, which is smaller than a normal one, and can more easily be pushed in amongst the other plants without damaging them. Get a sheet of plastic to protect the grass before you start, and work your way round the edge of each clump, levering gently each time you push the fork in: don't aim to rip them all out in one go, aim to loosen the soil all the way round first, so as to do minimum damage to the roots.

When the clump is loosened, lift the whole thing out and plop it down on the plastic sheet. Repeat for as many clumps as you have.  Now you can dig over the whole area, loosening the soil, and removing every scrap of couch grass root, along with any other weeds or unwanted plants.

At this point, stop and assess your soil: if you think it looks a bit impoverished, you could take the opportunity to improve it a bit but be warned, Iris don't like rich soil, they actually like things a bit lean and mean. Too much "goodness" in the soil, particularly nitrogen, will just result in lush massive leafage, and not much on the flowering side, so don't get too carried away.

Having prepared the bed for replanting, you can clean up the rhizomes. Shake off all the soil, get a sharp knife (or an old pair of kitchen scissors) and trim off any damaged rhizomes - sometimes you can't avoid tearing them as they are lifted, but all is not lost, as you may be able to tidy up the torn end. Look for any that are squishy or mushy, and trim them off, too. This season's flowering stems can be cut right off as well: they won't flower again from the same point, but each flowered rhizome should be forming new "arms" which will flower next year. I usually remove any feeble or spindly bits, as they are unlikely to do much, and I look closely for signs of pests: if I see any rhizomes with what look like woodworm holes, I cut off the damaged section and discard it.

This should leave you with a good selection of neat, firm rhizomes, thumb-thickness or more: firm, light-coloured, and with at least one good fan of leaves. Some people will trim off any dead roots - they are the dry, dark, skinny, ropey ones, as opposed to the fat white wormy ones and the wire-like ones - but I usually leave them,  as they can help to anchor the Iris when you replant it. If your rhizomes don't seem to have any roots at all, or only have little tiddly things, then there is one option you can try - pop them all into a shallow dish with an inch or two of water, propping them up so that the bottom of the rhizome is only just in the water.  Leave them outside but keep the water topped up, and in a couple of weeks they should have grown a whole mass of strong new roots.

Before replanting, work out which way the sun shines on the bed: the rhizomes need to be baked by the sun in late summer, in order to make good flowers the following year, so the trick is to orient the rhizomes so that the non-leafy end is pointing towards the sun. This might look a bit regimented at first, but by next season they will be putting out new growth at odd angles, and they will quickly look natural again.

At this point, I usually chop the top leaves down into a neat fan shape (left), to make it easier for them to establish themselves without being blown over by the wind. Iris seem always seem to be a massively top-heavy plant, and although they will need some leaves to photosynthesise, it is more important that they get their roots growing away, which is not possible if they are constantly being pulled out by windrock.

Now comes the clever bit:  replanting them in such a way that the rhizome is on top of the soil, but so that the roots are able to hold it in place.

Are you ready for this? It's easier to show than to describe, but here we go:  firm down the soil, decide where the first rhizome is going to be, then scrape out a trench to either side, patting and forming a firm central ridge of soil to support the rhizome, like an earthen plinth. Plonk the rhizome down on the top of the ridge, parting the roots and draping them down either side of the ridge. Now backfill the trenches with loose soil, patting it down firmly to hold the roots in place. Behold! Your rhizome is now sitting proudly above soil level, but is not wobbling and rocking to and fro.

The acid test is to water them in, once you have finished: if any of them fall over, you've done it wrong! If that happens, just lift out any fallen plant, and re-do the plinth-and-trench, bringing in more soil from elsewhere in the garden if you need to.

Here is the final job: nice clean rhizomes, nice clean soil, nice neat (ish) rows, big ones towards the back, littler ones towards the front, all pointing at the sun, which chose not to shine on this particular day, but when it does, these Irises will soak it up.

As a general rule, it's good to carry out this operation on overcrowded clumps of Iris every four or five years: there is no hard and fast rule, just do it when they start to look as though they are climbing over each other to get out of the soil.

Best of all, having dug the whole bed over thoroughly, this Client won't be troubled with couch grass again - as long as they keep an eye on it, and pull out any new growth as soon as they see it, instead of leaving it until it is so bad that they have to call in the professional!

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Laura Ashley Gardening Gloves - FAIL!

Back in the summer I was given a pair of beautiful white leather Laura Ashley gardening gloves. Ok, you have to ask yourself what idiot thought that "white" was a good choice of colour for gardening gloves, but the floral print is very pretty, and the leather is fabulous quality, really soft and very comfortable to work in.

For various reasons I didn't get around to wearing them for a while, but eventually, a couple of weeks ago, I put them on and sallied forth.

One week later, this is what they looked like: but you can disregard the general staining and dirt, that is perfectly normal and what you would expect (except for the idiot person who chose "white" for the colour, of course). Instead, look closely at the first two fingers on the left hand glove.

Here's an extreme close-up of the middle finger, and you can see that it has worn right through.

Yes, that is a darned great 'ole in the end of the finger.

The end of the index finger has also split, so now these two fingers are getting wet and dirty, and these gloves are being consigned to the bin.

After one week!!! And, to add insult to injury, they are called the Cressida Heavy Duty Gardening Glove. Heavy duty!!

I looked them up online, they sell for between £16 and £21, which is shocking for gloves of such poor quality that they only last one week.

Now, I read on the BBC website the other day that  "Social media is becoming the default method of dealing with customers." So I turned to social media, ie twitter, and contacted Laura Ashley: my hope was that would let me send back the damaged glove, and would replace it with a new left, if their customer service was as good as that of Gold Leaf Gloves, who I wrote about a while ago, they are the makers of Winter Touch, my best and highest recommended winter gloves.  I was planning to be cheeky and ask them to send me two lefts, in the hopes that these gloves would then last for twice as long, ie a fortnight. It was my hope that they would be generous in this way, as the transaction would be done on twitter, in full view, as it were.

So I tweeted them:

Alas, there was no response.  Not exactly on the ball, then. so I chased them:

That did the trick -  a day later, they finally deigned to respond. They kept asking me for the product code (product code? Mate, you sell them, don't you know your own product codes??) despite me telling them repeatedly that they were sold as Laura Ashley Cressida Heavy Duty Gardening Glove. How much more did they need?

Eventually they must have realised that I was getting shirty, and decided to fob me off with the following corporate rubbish:

"We do not stock these items personally".

What?? They have labels with Laura Ashley all over them, how can Laura Ashley UK disclaim all responsibility for them?

They are sold at an enormously inflated price, Amazon have them for £21, and most of that has to be for the famous Laura Ashley name.

Yet the company won't stand behind that name, and won't replace them when they wear through after just one week of use.

So, dear reader, what is the moral of this tale?

1) Laura Ashley are full of hot air: they are very happy to trade on their name, but don't bother to check the quality of products made under licence to use that name, therefore they won't accept any responsibility if the goods are of poor quality or design, or both.

2) Don't buy Laura Ashley brand gloves at inflated prices. Buy Briers instead. At about a quarter of the price.

3) You can sometimes get a fairly prompt response on Twitter, although you might not get the result that you wanted.

So those beautiful Laura Ashley gloves are going in the bin, and I am going back to wearing my Briers Professionals for dry days, my Showa Thermos for wet and coldish days, and my Gold Leaf Winter Touch for wet and very cold days.  And I will never buy anything marked Laura Ashley. Ever. 


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