Saturday, 29 October 2016

How to water plants in pots that have dried out.

This is a question that keeps coming up, mostly in relation to Salix Kilmarnock trees grown in pots, but it applies just as well to any other plant which is grown in a pot: it also applies, on a smaller scale, to plants which are still in black plastic pots, and which haven't been planted out yet.

With smaller pots, you know if they are drying out because the plant starts to wilt, and when you pick up the pot, it weighs nothing, so that's easy enough.

Large pots, though, are much more difficult. To check, tip some water onto the surface of the pot. Does it sit on the top, like blobs of mercury? Your pot is bone dry. Does it disappear immediately all round the edges of the pot, then run out on your feet? Your pot is bone dry, and the soil has shrunk away from the sides of the pot. Does it disappear down, apparently through the soil (rather than round the edges) but still run out on your feet? Your pot is bone dry.

In all these cases, what has usually happened is that the compost within the pot has dried out: natural soil is much better at holding water than shop-bought compost, but shop-bought compost has many advantages when putting plants in pots - it's clean, it's sterile with no weed seeds, it's lighter than our heavy old garden soil, it doesn't contain sharp stones to hurt our hands, it's simply "nice" to use - so in most cases, that is what we use.

Also, there is a misconception that shop-bought compost is full of nutrients, and we have been brainwashed by the suppliers into believing that our own garden soil, or home-made compost, is somehow inferior to their heavily-processed compost: even though it does state clearly on the packs that it contains all the nutrients your plants need for the first six weeks.

What it doesn't say is that after six weeks, your plants have used up all the nutrients in the compost, and are now totally reliant on what you give them.  In real life, this means that most potted plants are having to survive on whatever nutrients the rain brings in!

Now, anyone who uses shop-bought compost will know that it is very difficult to re-wet it once it has dried out.  How many times have you found the tail end of a bag of compost in the shed or garage, and opened it only to find that it's turned into something like dust? Well, that's what has happened inside your pot.  The problem is that pouring more water onto it simply doesn't work - it just runs out over your feet again.

So what do we do?

Going back to that old bag of compost, the only way to re-wet it is to tip it onto a potting bench or, to be more comfortable, into a plastic potting tray - here's my battered old one:

...then add some water, and use your hands to mix and stir it in, running it through your fingers repeatedly until it is evenly moist.

If you've ever made cakes, it is EXACTLY the same set of motions as rubbing the butter into the flour: lifting it in your hands, letting it drop back,  until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.

Clearly, this is not possible when the compost is firmly and irretrievably tucked around the roots of your plant.

Instead, the only thing to do is to "plunge" the pot, which means putting the whole pot into a big bucket or tub, filling it with water, and giving it time to soak.

With a small plastic pot, the sort that you buy from the garden centre, put the pot into a bucket, then fill it halfway up the pot sides with water. If the pot immediately bobs up like a rubber duck, then you know that your pot is absolutely 100% dry! Weigh it down with some bricks, and add more water until the level is just over the top of the soil. If the soil level is - as it should be - an inch or so lower than the rim of the pot, then you will need to tip the last of the water onto the surface of the pot, not alongside it.

Now, take a look - is it blowing bubbles? This is good, it means that the water is finding and filling all the air-filled holes inside the root ball of the plant. Keep adding water to the top of the pot, as the level drops, until it stops blowing bubbles. Make sure it is weighed down, then leave it to soak for an hour or so.

When you lift the pot from the bucket, let it drain for a moment or two, and while you do so, think about how heavy it is. This is the weight of a waterlogged pot - you will remember how little it weighed before the plunging, and the ideal weight is about two-thirds between the two, leaning towards the heavy side, rather than the light side.

Now that the pot is re-soaked, you can water it in the normal way (preferably slightly more regularly, as apparently you have been neglecting it a bit) and the water will all be absorbed, instead of running straight through the pot.

So now we move on to our "big" pots: in their case, it's not usually possible to find a tub big enough for total immersion, and even if we could, we'd need a fork-lift truck to get them out afterwards, so we have to be more practical.  Instead of a tub, sit the pot on a deep tray or a large pot saucer - the biggest one you have, and the one with the deepest sides. (Health & Safety note: if it's a heavy pot, get someone to help you lift it!) Water the top gently, until the saucer is full of water. Go away and leave it. After a while, check the saucer, the pot should have soaked up at least some of the water. Add some more water to the surface until the saucer is full again. Repeat several times.

Try to lift it - if it now feels really heavy, then well done! You have successfully re-soaked your pot.  Water it one more time, this time with some liquid feed. Leave it for a while, overnight if necessary, until the water in the saucer has been absorbed one last time - as this water will contain the liquid feed - then get your assistant to help you remove the saucer.

If this happens regularly, or if you find it a real chore to do it, you might consider leaving the large pot sitting on a saucer permanently, which will make it easier to water, as the water can run down into the saucer then be absorbed back upwards.  However, if you do this,  you will have to take care not to leave it sitting in a puddle of water, so if the saucer is still wet after an hour or so, you will need to tip out the saucer and not water it again for a while. And in winter, you will need to either take away the saucer or put up on feet to prevent it getting too wet while it is not actively growing.

As a general observation, to test if a plant in a pot is drying out, touch the pad of your finger lightly to the surface. Your finger should come away with just one or two tiny bits of soil sticking to it. If no soil comes off, then the pot needs watering: if your finger comes off covered in mud, then the pot is too wet and needs more drainage.

Of course, this doesn't work if you have a decorative mulch of stones or gravel on the pot! 


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Thursday, 27 October 2016

Gold Leaf Winter Touch Gloves: is the quality falling?

For years I've been recommending Gold Leaf gloves, and in particular the Winter Touch ones: they are waterproof, thermal, and yet thin enough to work in. They're not cheap, at £25 a pair, but well worth it.

Or at least, I thought so, until this year, when I had a bit of a hiccup.

Now, I go through my gloves in the same place each time - the tips of the fingers on my left hand, usually the first or second finger. It's annoying to wear out always the same glove, and I have a large box full of right-hand orphans, in the hopes that one day I'll meet a fellow gardener who wears out her right-hand gloves, and we can come to some arrangement...

Here's my current left-hand (ie worn out) glove collection, from last winter: I know, I know, why do I keep them? I don't really know.

I've tried mending them, by cutting off the outer layer of a "good" finger and stitching it over a damaged finger - yes, these gloves are THAT good, it's worth trying to extend their life - but it was never successful, and usually the new finger would fall off after a day or two, or it would feel so lumpy and clumsy that I would just go out and buy a new pair.

But then there was this pair, from the very end of last winter:

This time, they came apart at the seam down the inside of the thumb.

Why couldn't it have been the right hand glove? Why! Why! I have a dozen spare rights! But no, it had to be the left hand that went, curses.

Unfortunately, I'd bought them as part of a batch a couple of months earlier, so although I'd only used them a few times, the receipt was several months old, and the shop were not interested in replacing them.

They were thrown into the "Dead Gloves" box at the time, and have remained there ever since, and no, I haven't bought gloves from that particular garden centre again.

As they were my last pair, I rushed over to a different garden centre, and bought a new pair. Within just a week or two, they'd gone through at the fingers, but on the RIGHT hand, so I took them back and complained, taking along a couple of pairs of my older ones to show that I always wore out the left hand, not the right, and that therefore there must be something wrong with their quality.

The garden centre manager agreed, and replaced them.

By then, it was spring, and too warm to need them, so the new pair went straight into the cupboard.

Earlier this month, out they came, and off to work we went: it's always a proud moment, the first day of wearing beautiful brand new yellow gloves. They don't stay that way for long...

Day One: 11th October. They got quite wet, so here they are drying on the radiator rack along with the Showa Thermos.

Day Two: 12th October, drying on the rack again after a second day of wetness and mud.

 Day Three: 19th Oct. 19th? Yes, they aren't needed every day, and they are sufficiently expensive that I don't wear them unless I actually need them!

Oh ho, what's that? Holes????
 Horrors! On their third day of wearing, there are already holes!!

Please note this is in the third finger, which is quite unusual - mostly, I go through the first and second fingers.
 Here's a gruesome close-up of the damage: not rips or tears, I should stress, they are simply worn through.

And I wasn't even working particularly hard!

Alas, having no others, I had to wear them again two days later, so this is Day Four of wear, 21st Oct. The two little holes have now combined into one big one, and these gloves are now in the Dead Gloves box.

Four days!! £25!!

I contacted Gold Leaf, and I'm happy to tell you that I received a very full and informative response from Kelly Cooney, one of the owners: they have assured me that there has not been any lowering of standards, and that they are very concerned about the problems I have had.

They sent me a postage-paid label, so I could return these ones, and the pair where the thumb seam ripped (it was tempting to send them back the entirety of my Dead Gloves Box but that would have been a bit unfair!) and they duly replaced them, which is excellent news.

Even better news, they have a new style of glove, a cotton one with double-dipped fingers, and they have sent me a pair to trial and report back on: I've started using them, but now the weather has turned suddenly cold, they've been put on hold for a while, but  I will add a link to the Product Review for these new gloves, once I've assessed them.

Kelly took the trouble to point out that Gold Leaf do a whole range of gloves for different conditions, and of course I already know that: I have a pair of their Dry Touch, which are as waterproof as the Winter Touch but don't have the super Thinsulate lining, so they were intended to be worn on the many wet days when it was too mild to wear the full-on super-warm Winter Touch. I wore them a couple of times during the summer, but not enough to review them properly. Watch this space, I'll review them next year, and I'll come back to this post and put in a link, when I do.

Additionally - as I said, it was a very full email! - Kelly mentioned that another customer has successfully wrapped duct tape around the worn-out fingers to extend their use: this sounds a lot quicker and easier than trying to transplant an entire glove-finger, and somewhat less Frankensteiny, so I might well give that a go.

As I said above, these gloves are just so good to work in, that it's worth trying to extend their life!

And in the meantime, if anyone out there wears these gloves, and always goes through their right-hand glove first... get in touch!


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Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Garden Hygiene Part I: Tools

Coincidence is an interesting thing, isn't it? I had an email the other day from Corine *waves enthusiastically* asking about reducing the risk of spreading diseases/pests from one garden to another.

As a Professional Gardener, obviously this is very important to me, and the coincidence occurs because I have been researching into the sticky (literally!) question of tool hygiene, with particular reference to fruit and rose pruning.

It's one of those issues on which everyone has an opinion, but virtually all of them are actually wrong.  More of that later.

Firstly I'd like to split the question into three parts - this one deals with general hygiene for gardeners, Part Two will deal with moving plants, and the third part will cover the thorny question of disinfecting tools, particularly relating to fruit and rose pruning (did you see what I did there? "thorny" question, regarding roses? No? Oh well).

And within each part, the first point to make is the difference between "cleaning" - which means physically removing the dirt/germs/bugs - and "disinfecting" which means killing the germs.

Right, general garden hygiene, then. If you ("one") work in more than one garden, it makes sense to take some basic precautions, and that means not transferring mud/dirt/debris/bugs from one garden to another: this is "cleaning". I am assuming that you, like me, have your own tools: if you use the Clients' tools (something of which I disapprove, for several reasons!) then obviously you don't need to bother too much, although it is polite - if nothing else - to leave tools cleaner than you found them.

During the last outbreak of foot-and-mouth, things were much more serious, and I chose to have two sets of tools and footwear, swapping them over at lunchtimes, and decontaminating (ie cleaning and disinfecting) both sets every evening. I found this was more efficient than trying to rush through the cleaning during my lunch break.

Phew, it was hard work!

Was it necessary? Well, probably not, but I thought it was better to be safe than sorry.

Since then, we have reduced to Hort-Com 3, as it were, and I went back to my normal routine of merely "cleaning" tools and boots off at the end of each session - I should say that I mostly do only two jobs a day, but if you do three or more, then all comments will obviously relate to each gap - and after working in the one garden which I knew to have honey fungus, I was particularly careful about cleaning tools and boots thoroughly.

"Cleaning" means scraping off all the mud/dirt/debris. Starting with the larger tools, ie fork, spade, and trowel, I use a smaller tool, usually the good ole' Daisy Grubber, then a wipe over with a gloved hand. If your tools are ancient, rusted and pitted, then you are never going to get them clean, so buy some nice modern lighter weight stainless steel ones!

Next is cleaning the boots, again with the Daisy Grubber: turn up one foot at a time and scrape through and through the cleats (the knobbles on the sole) then once vertically all round the edge. It's always easier with one hand than the other, but learn to do it with both hands, although not at the same time, obviously! Remove any remaining soil with a stiff brush or a damp cloth.

Once everything else is done, the Daisy Grubber gets wiped on the grass then on the glove, and finally the gloves get brushed together vigorously to shake off the loose stuff, then put aside to dry.

This may sound like a lot of faff, but you can make it easier for yourself by being efficient: try to do all the digging for each session in one go, then clean the fork/spade just once. If it's a wet sort of day, I'll usually leave the cleaned tool standing out to dry, then wipe it over with a glove just before putting it away, as it's often easier to remove the last dribs and drabs of soil once it has dried out.

As for the boots, I plan out my work so that I stop working on the soil about 20 minutes before the end of the session, to give me time to clean out the soles of my boots - as described above, with the Daisy Grubber - then I can walk about on their grass to get them perfectly clean before I leave. This might sound a bit mean, but the principle is that their earth (and any nematodes, disease etc it may carry) stays within their garden: and I don't waste that last 20 minutes, I use it to do the final wheelbarrow emptying run, collecting up of tools etc then some easy light work such as deadheading or weeding while standing on the grass, ie not treading on the borders again, to keep the boots clean. I find that ten minutes or so of walking on wet grass is enough to get all the mud off, and this removes the need for stiff brushes etc. If the grass is dry, then generally speaking so is the soil, so it's not clinging to the boots in the same way, and I can usually find an area of grass that is out of sight, so I can "scrub" my boots across it a few times.

On wet days, once the boots are clean, even a short walk across hard standing will allow them to dry, so by the time I have done my paperwork and returned to my car, they are clean and dry and I don't need to worry about transferring anything nasty to my car mats.

All that leaves, for the end of the session, is the Daisy Grubber and the gloves: and I have so many pairs of gloves on the go that it's very simple to drop the "dirty" pair into a plastic bag to be taken home in quarantine, until they can be spread out to dry.  See? Not such a chore, after all.

Now, moving onto specific garden pathogens such as honey fungus and phytophthora: the former has air-borne spores, the latter has some types which are air-borne, but is mostly spread by water-borne spores.

Honey Fungus:

Some basic research into honey fungus reveals that virtually all gardens have the spores present: spores have been found up to five miles high in the atmosphere, so they pretty well blanket the entire country. Honey fungus is really only a problem with susceptible plants, by which I mean plants which are sickly, stressed, ailing etc. Strong healthy plants are not bothered by the presence of honey fungus: which stands to reason really, otherwise anyone who found honey fungus in their garden would shortly have a totally barren dustbowl instead of a garden, and that is clearly not the case.

So there is not much point in trying to disinfect boots and tools to prevent that sort of disease.


This particular blight spreads mainly by 1) water and 2) human activities. Rain and irrigation wash the spores off infected plants and down into the soil: and boots, tractor tyres, animal paws etc pick up damp soil containing these washed-down spores, and trample them from one place to another.  Thus, it spreads.

So, there is every reason for cleaning soil - mud, dirt, debris - off your tools and boots between sites.

As an aside, when I get in my car I have a pack of wet-wipes, and use a couple of them to remove excess mud from my legs and arms: not that I seriously think that any germs would be transmitted that way, but more to keep my car relatively clean! Don't buy expensive Wet Wipes at £1 for a tiny pack of 10:  go to your supermarket's baby section, and buy the cheapest own-brand wipes. They are more like 50p for a pack of 80 or more, so you can be generous with them. On hot days, they are also perfect for wiping a sweaty face and neck! They are not particularly sound on the recycling front - but I stuff my not-very-dirty used ones into the cupholder in my car, and as they dry out they get used again for cleaning bird poo off the windscreen and bodywork, before finally being put in the bin.

Getting back to Garden Hygiene, as far as sensible daily hygiene goes, the trick is definitely to Let Things Dry, and this is the point of doing the detailed mud removal.  Most germs/bacteria/bugs die without a damp environment, so if you can allow tools and boots to dry thoroughly between use, you are unlikely to be moving contaminants around. So it's well worth buying extra boots and gloves, so you can change at mid-day: and it makes them last longer as well, if you can give them a rest and let them dry out properly between wearings.

So, in answer to Corinne's question about inter-garden hygiene, the answer is to remove as much of the loose mud and debris as you can: wipe off the rest: allow tools and boots to dry between sessions, and don't allow a build-up of soil.

Part Two will deal with moving plants, and then on Part Three we get to the knotty problem of disinfecting tools: exciting stuff, eh?! 


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Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Sezincote: lacking in charm, right from the start

I've been to this garden once before, on a rainy afternoon (my favourite time for garden visiting, as it reduces the competition!), but only briefly, so I was looking forward to seeing it again, and having time to see all of it, and a few weeks ago I finally managed to get back there.

This time, I managed to drive directly to the car park entrance instead of having to drive all through the park, which was a good start: but on reaching the payment booth, I encountered a seriously grumpy woman who wouldn't smile, didn't respond at all to my friendly greetings, and who, when asked for a map of the garden, snarled "it's in the guidebook, £3."

Charming! I do consider that a map of the gardens is essential when garden visiting: how else are you going to know that you've seen everything? But to charge for one? Huh! *rolls eyes*. Virtually all gardens give you a map: sometimes you are loaned a laminated one, to be returned on the way out, which is an excellent way to do it - after all, what use is the garden map once you leave? - and sometimes you are handed a simple A4 paper map, that's all it takes, but no, not at Sezincote, you have to buy the guidebook.

Trying to look gracious instead of pissed off, I bought the guide book: this time, I intended to see the whole thing, so I grudgingly paid the extra money - in cash, incidentally, as they don't take any form of electronic payment. How very odd! In this day and age, they insist on cash! Makes you wonder if they are declaring all their income, doesn't it? I can't imagine how you can expect to run a business, sell tickets and indeed sell teas and cakes, without taking any form of card payment.

Anyway, turning to the rather slender guide book, I unfolded the paper map and guess what, on my previous visit I had indeed seen all of it. It's not actually that big! Oh dear. Well, let's check the guide book then: oh good, it has a brief history of the house, then it goes on to a Garden Tour, so I followed their suggested route.

The first thing I have to say is that the gardens are weirdly dislocated from the house. The "tour" starts by directing you up to the house, where there is a small area of formal garden to one side: it has a moderately nice water feature (which I would not describe as a "canal" as you can easily step over it), and a lot of my pet hate, Irish Yew which has been tied up with wires and chopped with hedgetrimmers in order to keep them slender. The guidebook explains that the design called for Italian Cypress, but they would not be reliably hardy in this position, so they used Irish Yew instead. I suppose that makes it ok....

Above this rather soulless and empty area, there is a long Orangery: anyone know the difference between an Orangery and a Conservatory? Nope, me neither. This is where the age of the guide book started to be felt, as the description of the plants within it did not fully match those in existence - plants don't live for ever, and clearly some have had to be replaced over the years. But at least I did get to see a Fatshedera in real life: a strange "why did they do it?" hybrid of Fatsia and common Ivy, which creates a semi-climbing shrub with leaves that are more like Fatsia than Ivy: and is as good an argument against genetic modification as any that I have heard.

A quick stroll around the "wildflower meadow" proved yet again that it may be trendy to have a wildflower meadow, but it's not always a great success: theirs, in August, looked like nothing on earth, just tatty grass, with dead stuff in amongst it, a ton of Wild Carrot (which looks exactly like Cow Parsley to non-gardeners) with a few tiny bits of Lotus corniculata (Common Bird's Foot Trefoil) scrambling at the edges.

Following the instructions in the book, I took the pleasant stroll on mostly grassy paths across the hillside, thinking as I did so that it would be dreadful on a really wet day... and passing on the way a set of three interesting little stone niches: not quite grottoes, not quite an ice house, not quite big enough to walk into it, but deep enough to be intriguing. Alas, no mention of them in the guide book.

On reaching the top pool and fountain, I took the time to read the guide book and to try to locate all the planting it mentioned.

Hmm, 12 years is a long time in a garden, and evidently a lot of the planting has been replaced over the years!  Still, it's pretty enough, and leads you into the rest of the garden, which are basically in a linear strip running down the side of the drive. The planting is lush, and there is plenty of it along the stream which babbles its way down the hillside, through a larger pond with a bridged island, to a terminal pond which was clearly being renovated, as the banks were scraped bare, with evidence of Mare's Tails being killed off.

I think what I enjoyed most about this garden were the lovely mature specimen trees: not all the ones mentioned in the guide book were to be found, but I managed to locate  and identify most of them. I think I must be having a bit of a purple craze at the moment, as the one I liked best was an enormous purple hazel, not exactly rare! Oh, and the saddest find was a recently-planted nearly-dead purple-leaved Birch, which you hardly see anywhere: the few surviving leaves were a fabulous deep purple colour, but an awful lot of the branches were quite, quite dead.

At this point I have to have a grumble: I've mentioned this before, and I'll no doubt do so again - why on earth do these paid entry gardens insist on using power tools during opening hours? This place only opens on Thursday and Friday afternoons (and Bank Hols) so why can't they cut the blasted grass on a Monday, a Tuesday, or a Wednesday? It's hard to appreciate the beauty of the views with a pair of hideously loud ride-on mowers cantering up and down, and throwing up dust. It also meant that there were no gardeners to be seen, so there was no chance of asking any questions.

Apart from that, it's ok, but a bit small for the money. I was quite disappointed to find that I had indeed managed to cover it all the other time I visited, and I probably won't be going there again, as there was nothing that felt particularly special. 

The grumpy woman on the entrance booth told me that they have a new Head Gardener, so maybe some changes will now be made: I did find one piece of new planting:

 ...and I have to say, it was like a breath of fresh air against the rather oppressively top-heavy growth elsewhere in this garden.

Makes you realise that "mature" planting is not always as desirable as it might sound! And I have to say, in my own gardening, I have noticed that my tastes have changed over the years that I've been gardening professionally. Fifteen years ago, I would not have "allowed" any bare soil to be seen - it was all about filling the beds.

But now I find that I prefer a little space around my plants: I like to see the structure of each one, I find it calmer and more peaceful to be able to see each plant in its own right, rather than stuffing the beds full of plants.

It's also healthier for the plants, allowing free airflow around them: it reduces the number of slug and snail refuges, and it allows the gardener (that's me) to move around the bed for weeding etc without trampling anything, or falling over whilst balancing precariously on one leg, trying to find a safe place to put the other foot down.

Overall, I would say that this garden is a very average way to spend an hour or so: not suitable for children as there is a lot of water, and in order to follow the route you have to negotiate the very exciting stepping stones under the bridge. These are not so good for wobbly Seniors either, I had to assist one lady who lost her nerve half way across!

There is also a fair uphill walk back to the car park, and it's a lot longer on the way back... you would have thought, with all those acres of fields, that they could allocate a parking area rather closer to the garden entrance? 

You do sometimes wonder why these people bother to open to the public, if they are not going to embrace the situation and truly welcome their visitors - I have a theory that there is some sort of tax advantage to being "open to the public", so they pay lip service by providing the things that make money, ie an entrance booth, a tea shop and (usually) a gift shop and/or plants for sale, but without really committing themselves to the experience.

On balance then: charmless from start to finish, and I doubt I'll bother to go there again.

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