Friday, 1 December 2017

Ferns - How to tidy them up for winter

Winter really seems to have arrived this year, and it's only the first of December: we've had heavy frost here for the last week, and all those plants that were bravely - and wrongly - flowering out of season will now be suffering the consequences.

There are still jobs to be done in the garden, and one of those is to cut back the ferns that are now looking sad and battered.

Some years, they retain good colour and some springiness in their foliage right through to March, but this year they seem to be going brown and lying down very early, which gives us a nice winter job to do.

Here's one I did last week, half done to show you Before and  After in one go: you can see the tight, shiny "knot" of new fronds in the centre, and you can see that, on one  half,  I have cut the old stalks down so tight to the base that you can't even see where they were.

Here is a classic case - right - of  How Not To Do It.

Horrible, eh? This is what it looked like in late April, and the owner had been looking at it, like this, all winter long.

But they were not alone, a lot of  people make this mistake, when cutting back non-evergreen ferns; they chop off the old fronds a couple of inches above the base, in the mistaken belief that they are being kind to the plants by leaving them a bit of frost protection.

Not so!  Well, unless you live in the very north of the country, or on a very exposed hill-top or coast, but even then, ferns don't need it, they are fully hardy and can cope with whatever the UK throws at them.

Also, if you leave a fringe of dead stalks like this,  you are creating a lovely "bug hotel" for overwintering slugs, snails, and other beasties. Now, this could he could be considered a good thing, if you are keen on preserving the wildlife, but personally I would rather leave them some piles of logs and branches around the far back edges of the garden, rather than encouraging them to hang around my beds and borders, not to mention how the dead bits don't really add to the beauty of the winter border.

Finally, and as far as I am concerned, this is the best reason: if you don't cut off the old stalks right down close to the base, then you can't see the wonder of the new fronds unfolding, next spring.  Have you ever looked closely at new fern fronds? They are amazing! And so many people miss them completely, because they either didn't cut back the ferns at all, or left a few inches of old stalks on them.

Oh, actually that's not "finally" at all - the real "finally" is that, come next spring, if you have left a length of old stalk, and you want to clear away the by-now nasty rotted stems, it is really fiddly and time-consuming to do it without damaging the new fronds.

So, all ways round, it is much better to cut 'em back now, and cut 'em back hard! 

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Sunday, 26 November 2017

How to start a cut flower business

Well, this is not exactly my specialist subject: I wrote the book about how to be a self-employed gardener, not a cut flower grower.  But questions are questions, and someone has just written in asking me if is it possible to start a cut flower business in your own back garden,  and what tips would I give for starting it, and for finding customers.

I must admit that I wouldn't have thought of starting a cut flower business without at least an acre of so of land, but I don't see why you couldn't at least start in your back garden.

A first step would be to ask friends and neighbours if they have a spare area that you could either rent cheaply, or use for free: I have a friend who "rents" the large back garden of an elderly neighbour for a peppercorn rent, the owner being housebound and unable to do anything with the garden.  It might also be worth approaching your local council and asking them if they have any unused areas: allotments are cheap, but cannot be used for commercial growing, but the council might have other areas of land which they might rent to you.

Also try all your local churches - they are massive landowners, and it is often surprising what they own. I know of a chap in the next village who rents a one-acre field from the church, he keeps animals on it, and grows veg, and apparently it's a very cheap rent.  So there are a couple of avenues you could try, to get more land, before having to take the step of buying some.

Even though my book (below) is aimed at gardeners,  everything in it about tax, bank accounts, responsibility etc is very valid, and I would advise anyone using it to springboard into a variation on the theme of gardening to go through each chapter and topic, working out how it relates to your chosen business.

 First is going to be research (predictably): who are going to be your customers? What sort of flowers are they going to want?

Are you going to just grow the flowers, and sell them loose (in which case, to the public? Or to florists?) or are you going to make up the arrangements yourself, thus maximising  your profit.

Have you already done a course (minimum requirement, I would say), or obtained a qualification (better) on flower arranging? At the very least, have you watched as many youtube tutorials as you can find, and have you successfully made up some arrangements?  Will you need to deliver them - and is your home suitable to allow people to collect?

That last one, by the way, is a nod to Vicky's Seeds, who used to be Vicky's Flowers until - apparently - the neighbours complained to the council about the number of visitors clogging up their road. The council investigated,  and told Vicky that she needed planning permission in order to run a business from her home, and that they would refuse such permission, as she did not have adequate parking for visitors. She, being a lady of intelligence, stopped selling plants and converted to selling seeds instead, which can all be done by post. No more enraged neighbours! But the point remains, if  you intend to have members of the public come to your house to collect products, then you need to be able to accommodate them, you might need permission from the council, and you might also want to think about the personal safety aspects of publicising your home address to all and sundry.

What is going to be your speciality?

You would need to decide on a speciality, I think,  in order to reduce the number of species you would need to grow: if land is limited, then you need to concentrate on plants which give reliable flowers and/or foliage for your chosen market. Which leads on to...

Are there any gaps in the market that you think you could fill? Wedding flowers are the obvious one, but that maybe too obvious, as you would be competing with large numbers of established businesses. Plus, a wedding is vitally important, so what would you do if the flowers didn't open in time? Or if some wild weather demolished your cutting beds two days before the wedding? You would probably need insurance of some kind, to avoid being sued by distraught brides if their promised wreath turned out to be a handful of mis-matched roses with a clump of laurel leaves for greenery. At the very least, you might find yourself having to rush out and buy blooms from florists, which would ruin your profit margin completely.

So apply some lateral thinking - who else buys cut flowers? What about funeral flowers, office blocks, local florists (which should be your first call, I would have thought: ask them if they are looking for any new suppliers, emphasising your local credentials, and ask them also if there are any specific flowers/foliage which they find it hard to source), dentist/doctor receptions, small boutique hotels/b&bs - I used to do the garden for one of the latter, the owner spent a fortune buying in posh smart flowers for the rooms. If you can offer a delivery service, you could find yourself with a nice regular income, supplying weekly flowers all year round.

Talking of all year round, what will you do in the winter? Apply some thought as to how you can extend the season: can you fit a small polytunnel into your garden? Is there a sheltered corner or side passage which gets the low sun in winter, where you could fit in a line of small plastic greenhouses? What about foliage - it's not just about the flowers, and this is where your friends and neighbours might come in handy again, if some of them would let you plant some specific foliage shrubs, on the understanding that you will on occasion have to rush round and pillage them.

Think about how people use the internet to find suppliers - what do they type in? When you have created your own website and blog - which you need to do NOW, right now, as it takes several months for new internet content to be viewable - make sure that all those words and phrases are featured within the text of your website/blog.

Having done all that research, you can then turn to the actual products: which are the best flowers to grow? Do you already know what you plan to grow, or do you have a somewhat vague idea of beds full of massed colour? You will need to determine how long a flowering season each species has: is it worth growing five-minute wonders, or would you do better to stick to the less exciting but more reliable ones?  Will you grow annuals from seed? Perennials for year-on-year cutting?

What about irrigation? Soaker hose or low-level drippers are essential, to avoid water damage that you would get by spraying the blooms from above, so  you would need to think about the costs and practicalities of setting that up.

What about pests? How will you deal with slugs, snails, earwigs, beetles, weevils, rabbits, deer, and the neighbours' grandchildren kicking footballs over the hedge? Are you planning to present yourself as being organic? This might open up more markets for you, but it might severely restrict the spraying and bug killing that you can do, which in turn might affect production.

All these things need to be considered.

I would assume that the person asking the question has already taken the basic step of putting the phrase "how to set up a cut flower business" into a search engine: I found two from Saga, of all people, one about a cut flower garden and one about how to start a business in cut flowers:  there was some interesting information from Hobbyfarms, and even Country Living have an article on the business side of things. This demonstrates that there is no shortage of information out there.

Another point I make in my book is the value of "easing into" being self-employed by overlapping it with your current job: you can do all the set-up and the first steps while still working at your "day" job, and it can take several months for adverts to be published, so it is worth deciding on your advertising budget and how you are going to use it, well before you actually leave your day job.

In addition, it can take months to establish any sort of planting: even if you plan to grow only annuals, you will still need to clear the beds in your garden,  get rid of all weeds, maybe move some of the beds in order to make the most of the sunny side of the garden - all this can take months, and you might as well be earning while you are preparing.

My book also has chapters on how to research and decide on a business name for yourself, avoiding the major pitfalls: one of my favourite stories about choosing a name relates to a friend of mine who decided to use her own name for her business, but when she googled it, she found it was also the name of a minor porn "star".  Not really the sort of fame for which she was hoping....

So it's true: a book about how to be a self employed gardener can indeed be useful to anyone starting a similar sort of business!

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Thursday, 19 October 2017

Another interesting article....

... on Anne Wareham's excellent website, ThinkinGardens.

Anne is a very interesting lady and garden owner: she opens her garden, at Veddw House (pronounced Vedd-oo, she assures me) to the public through the summer months, and she has written several gardening books.

The one that caught my eye was "The Bad Tempered Gardener". The title made me laugh, firstly because it's uncompromising in rebutting the usual airy-fairy "oh, gardening is so lovely and wonderful and good for the soul, and everyone who gardens is an angel," , and secondly because it seemed, to me, to be having a sly dig at Christopher Lloyd and his "Well Tempered Garden".

Having read her book, I can certainly say that I don't agree with all of her views, but I respect her like heck for having them, and for having the nerve to declaim them. In particular, Anne despairs at the way reviewers (or visitors) describe all gardens as "lovely" despite the evidence in front of them. I'm moderately outspoken on the same subject - you are most welcome to read through some of my garden reviews, if you have an hour or so spare:  just look to the right of this pane, there is a heading "Frequently Covered Subjects!" under which you can see Garden Visit. Click on that and you'll see what I mean.

I can't quite remember how, but we made contact via social media, and I think Anne was quite pleased to find someone else who was prepared to be rude - where appropriate - about other people's gardens.  It was a great pleasure to finally meet her in real life, when I visited Veddw House gardens earlier this year. Or was it last year?

(short pause for some panic-stricken paging though the Garden Visit posts.... oh no! It was indeed last year! I started to write the review and decided it was too late in the year to publish it: better to hold it over until spring,  so that anyone reading it would be able to go and visit more or less straight away. And then I forgot! Oh woe! Anne, please forgive me! Not least for all these exclamation marks!!)

Anyway, we've been friends ever since, and from time to time I submit an article to her for inclusion on ThinkinGardens, and I'm always thrilled when one gets accepted.

Today's one is a thought-provoking piece about children and gardening. I love being a professional gardener, and between mentoring, writing a book about it, and giving workshops on How To Be A Successful Self-Employed Gardener, I'm clearly all in favour of encouraging people to take up this profession.  But I'm somewhat dubious about the wisdom of forcing the government to add it to the curriculum: gardening as a compulsory once weekly lesson, yes. Gardening as an after-school activity, yes. But gardening as a career choice? I'm not so sure.

Why all this doubt? Surely I should be keen to get the next generation of gardeners up and at 'em?

Well, yes, but it's a bit like doing a degree in Klingon: where is the job, afterwards? What about all the graduates, clutching their degrees in Media Studies while they wait for an interview at a fast food joint? What about that recent headline story about the girl with the geography degree, refusing to take temporary shelf-stacking work while she waited for a job which was "more suited to her qualifications?"

This will apply ten-fold to professional gardeners, as there is hardly a stately home in the country which is expanding the gardening staff. Most of them are laying off staff, reducing team size, downgrading jobs, bringing in contractors and volunteers (don't get me started on volunteers...) and thus reducing the number of experienced, qualified staff required.

There will always be some youngsters who are passionate about gardening, and who are determined enough to get the qualifications, find someone to give them experience, and who will forge their own way into this profession.  Yay! for them, I say: well done, good choice.

But I don't think there is any point in forcing the schools to push it as a career.

Read it for yourself, and let me know what you think:

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

New Year, New Botany Courses!

Well, ok, it's not actually "new year"  yet, but they are now available for booking, so don't miss out!

Next year I will again be running three Tree ID courses for the FSC - Field Studies Council - at their London facility in Bushy Park, which is quite near to Hampton Court. And we all know a song about that, don't we children? (sings  "oh, the day Good King Henry got his Hampton Court") (What? Don't you remember that?  "Carry on Christmas" from 1969, available for viewing on youtube, if you google it. Go on, you know you want to!)

Er hem.

Right, back to the courses: in February I'm doing the incredibly hard Tree ID in Winter course, with impossible tasks such as identifying trees without any leaves. Actually, it's not that difficult, and is rather fun, once you get going. And my job is to get you going, so book yourself onto that one for a good start to the year.

In March you have another chance to attend my greatly-acclaimed Intro to Conifers course: conifers are a lot more interesting than you would think, and by the end of this course  you will be able to identify 23 genera of Conifers with ease. Honest.

March is a busy month for me, as I am also giving an evening talk to the Sunningwell Garden Club, as well as running a repeat of my one-day workshop on How To Be A  Successful Self-Employed Gardener, which was a hoot last time: one delegate submitted feedback that said it was worth the course fee just to see the demonstration of how to pee in public. Well, that's lovely, but I do hope they got more out of the course than just that one topic! (Although it did provoke rather a lot of giggling and shrieking, I must admit.) We haven't confirmed the date for that one, but it will be a Saturday in early March.

April is another evening talk, this time to the Wallingford Garden Club, and in May we have the very easy Tree ID in Summer course, which is pure enjoyment as  the leaves do make it fairly easy, once you know what you are looking for. If you struggle to tell the difference between an Oak and a Sycamore, come along to this course: it's fun, you will learn a lot, and it's very satisfying to be able to spot one tree from another.

Then in June comes a new course, How To Use A Dichotomous Key, which is an essential skill for anyone with the slightest interest in Botany, but it's a hard thing to learn. This course will take you by the hand and lead you gently through using botanical Keys, their uses, and their limitations.   Like all the ID courses, we'll be doing as much practical work as we can, so you can expect a lot of outdoor work, with our bottoms in the air!

More details of all these courses are on the Events page, just click on the tab above.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Salix Kilmarnock - Dwarf version

Well, here we are talking about Salix caprea 'Kilmarnock' again: this time, a dwarf version.

A while back, a nice lady called Sally sent me some pictures of her tiny Kilmarnock, with a question about pruning, and why it hadn't grown any taller.

I've done several articles about this particular tree: it's very popular, but it's not a "normal" tree, it's a very specialised type of tree where the nursery takes one type of willow - a weeping form, whose branches droop decorously and languidly downwards - and graft it onto the trunk of a normal upright willow.  Why? Two reasons; the weeping type of willow is HUGE: and secondly, they take many, many years to reach a size where they weep properly.

And most people don't want a HUGE willow tree, they want something small and manageable, hence the grafted tree.

The nurseries can choose how high up the trunk to set the grafts, so they can dictate the height of the tree: the idea is that the main trunk never grows any higher, so the tree never outgrows the garden.

But the branches do continue to grow (because they think they belong to a tree which is 60' off the ground) and this can lead to confusion, and to armadilloes crawling into the shrubbery. (see link for explanation!)

Here is Sally's super-dwarf Kilmarnock:

As you can see, it's been planted as a feature at the edge of a small bed, surrounded by a colourful mix of what look like Begonias etc.

Frankly, it's a bit lost.

And as you can see in the photo above, the branches of the tree are so long that they are crawling across the paving.

Sally was concerned because she wanted to prune it -  understandably, not too keen on the whole crawling-across-the-paving look - but wasn't quite sure how, and didn't want to make it any shorter than it already is, as she was a bit disappointed that it wasn't making as much of a feature as she had hoped for.

Here's a close-up - right - of the top part, showing how the grafted weeping branches curl straight over and head for the ground.

You can also see the label, which describes it as growing to 1m high. That's only a little over 3', so actually the tree is doing exactly what it should be doing.

However, please note the picture on the label:

Not a very clear picture, but you can see that the seller has presented the plant as being in a pot, all alone, with the stem clearly visible and nothing else around it.

My advice to Sally, therefore, was that she should consider digging up the little tree and putting it in a large, decorative pot, in order to see the true beauty of it.

She could also consider putting the pot on a stand or a pedestal of some kind, to give extra height, and to bring the flowering portion of the tree up to eye height, instead of being down there at knee level.

She will then be able to carry out the "under-pruning" which I describe in detail in the armadillo article, which should leave her with a feature tree that looks very much like the one on the label.

Instead of looking like an armadillo crawling off into the hedge!


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Saturday, 9 September 2017

Wildflowers In A Box

I came across this product in a garden centre a little while ago - wildflowers in a "shake-on" pack.

It caught my eye as it was made by the same company who supply Patch Magic, which one of my Clients bought last year, and which impressed me very favourably when I applied it to a bare patch in the formal lawn.

The Patch Magic pack says that it's grass seed, feed, and (I think) coir: you shake it over the prepared bare ground, press it down, water it, and that's it: the coir protects the seed and retains moisture, and has the added - rather clever - benefit that as it starts to dry out, it changes colour to a pale brown, so you can easily see when it needs watering again.

Well, it worked fantastically: the new grass popped up in no time, and now is thick and lush, just as we wanted it.

So when I saw their wildflower version, I thought "Wow, that's a good idea!"

However, a week later (strange coincidence I know, but life is full of them) I was asked to do a one-off weeding and tidying session for a lady who had hurt her back, and was worried about the garden getting out of control. She asked me particularly to weed her "Wildflower Patch", which she had sown using the exact same Wildflowers-in-a-Box pack that I saw for sale.

It was so bad/good that I had to take a photo of it:

The bare brown crescent is where I have removed grass - I got this far, than then thought "this is so bad that I must take a photo."

If you look closely, you can see a lot of grass: at the bottom is some Nigella (Love in a Mist) which is not in the Wildflower Box, but is from the existing garden: there is a good quantity of forget-me-not, and some cleavers (goose grass), also from the main garden.

But wildflowers? Not a single one. Not even Poppies, which are legendary for their easy germination.

By the time I'd removed all the grass, and the many recognisable and unwanted weeds such as thistle, dock, nettle, bindweed, buddleia, chickweed etc, there was very little left. The poor Client was most crestfallen that her "instant" wildflower bed had, to all intents and purposes, failed completely.

I think her mistake was in not ensuring a stale seed bed before sowing: grass will smother most wildflower seedlings, as will large established weeds.

This means that if you want delicate wildflowers, you have to make it easy for them by clearing away everything from the chosen area, waiting for the weeds to spring up, clearing those weeds, waiting again for the next crop, clearing those ones and only THEN planting your wildflower seeds.

This is not as easy as it sounds, as it means having to look at bare brown soil for several weeks, early in the year; and not many of  us are prepared to sacrifice parts of our gardens in this way.

Instead, I took her a selection of small plants from my own garden, including Fox and Cubs (Pilosella),  Fritillery, Common Spotted Orchid, Helleborine, Foxglove and Purslane, along with a handful of fresh poppy seeds of various kinds, which formed the basis of a varied and colourful bed, which should return year on year as the plants are all perennials, with the annual poppies filling in the gaps until the others have spread.

So, based on this rather small sample size, I would not recommend buying wildflowers in a "shake-on" box!

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Monday, 21 August 2017

Salix Kilmarnock: How to recapture a runaway

Willow just loves to grow.. and sometimes, they can outgrow themselves.

I was recently sent a picture of a Salix Kilmarnock which was desperately in need of a haircut, as the branches were so long that they were lying along the ground.

Here he is: looks a bit like an armadillo, escaping into the shrubbery!

To remind you, this is a grafted tree: the nursery take some "weeping" willow branches and graft them on to a short upright trunk of a different, non-weeping willow.

It is usually a weeping form of Salix caprea (Goat or Pussy Willow) at the top, by the way, and this is quite different from the proper Weeping Willow - Salix babylonica - which is familiar to us all from riverside walks and willow pattern plates.

They can be made at almost any height - and they never get any taller, because it is not the trunk which is growing, it's the weeping branches which grow, and this photo is a perfect illustration of this phenomenon: the tree is four years, the trunk is still only about, what 3' tall, but the branches are now twice as long, and have hit the ground, and are now having to lie down, instead of swinging freely.

Is this a problem? No, not really, but it's not a good idea to leave them this long, as they prevent air and light reaching the trunk, which might lead to disease, and will certainly lead to the owner being  unable to see what weeds are lurking underneath there.

The thing to avoid here is going round cutting every single branch an inch above ground level - what you might call the "pudding basin" haircut, as that will look awful.

Instead, aim to end up with each branch at a slightly different height above the ground, so that they all swing clear, but are not all the same length. And the real trick is to not have any cut ends at ground level, which requires a bit of skill - we'll come back to that in a minute.

So,  how do you catch this runaway tree? Firstly go round it right now at ground level with the secateurs, and cut off everything that is touching the ground:  cut each of those branches just an inch or two above the ground, to get rid of the weight

Once that's done, get on hands and knees and duck inside the canopy, which I imagine will feel like a small dark cave... look up inside, and see if there are a mass of dead brown branches with no leaves on them. If so, carefully cut them off, as high up as you can, inside the "cave". Dead branches are no use to anyone, and harbour fungal diseases. Clear them away, along with any weeds and dead stuff on the ground at the base of the trunk.

Tip: the first time you do this, choose what looks like a dead branch but before you cut it, circle it with finger and thumb: then slowly run your hand downwards until you get to the very end of it, to make sure there is no live growth further down. No live growth: cut it off, as high up as you can.

Now, crawl outside, stand up, and take a look at it - does it still look very dense? Duck back inside, and see if you can thin out the canopy by removing a few of the inner branches right up at the top, inside. (It's a bit hard to describe this!) If you are nervous about doing this, start by taking out one from each quarter, ie just four branches. Nothing too drastic.  Choose a branch, trace it back to the centre, then once again circle it with finger and thumb,  run your hand slowly down it, pulling in all the side shoots on that one branch. If you gently pull them towards you (while you are crouched, sat, or kneeling inside the cave), you can see what would happen if you were to remove that one branch, before you actually cut it: if it leaves a gigantic slash in the canopy, then don't cut it, choose another one.

Now we move on to the advanced work, and this next part also applies if there are only a few big branches, and you don't feel brave enough to chop any of them off in case they leave a big hole. Instead you can thin out the growth by a technique called "undercutting".

As always, it would be much easier to demonstrate this than to describe it (memo to self: must get a GoPro headcam some time) but I'll try.

Let's imagine that your weeping Kilmarnock tree has been cut in half, right through the middle and has turned into a cartoon on the way.

This is what it might look like: central single trunk, tuft of growth at the top (I didn't draw in all of the branches) and each branch curves out and down from the top.

You will see, on your tree, that each main branch has side shoots growing from it, and because it is a weeping form of willow, they all ("mostly") grow out and down. This means that if you take the tip of one branch, where it touches the ground, and trace it back up, you will find that it is actually not one branch running all the way to the top, but is a sort of compound branch, with side shoots springing outwards from it.

Undercutting means to cut out the inner, lower, section, leaving a usually thinner, lighter shoot. As per the diagram.

You can see that if you cut it there, underneath where the side shoot springs out, you have shortened it, but you have retained the natural look. If you repeat this a couple of times up the same branch, as per this cartoony sketch, you can see that you have take out two branches from the "inside" but have left the growth on the "outside".

Do it right, and from outside it doesn't look very different, but you will have removed up to half of the weight of the branches, allowing what remains to swing freely and lightly: plenty of air can circulate, and it does not look as though it's been hacked with the kitchen scissors.

Best of all, by doing so, you should have removed several of the overlong shoots which were cut off first of all - so instead of having a bunch of chopped ends all at roughly the same length, you should now have mostly non-cut ends, all at different lengths, giving a much more natural look.

That is the technique of undercutting: you cut away the material that is "under" the outer layer of branches.

The final job is to check around the base of the trunk - hopefully you can now see it, and get to it! - to see if it is putting out any shoots: any such shoots must be removed immediately, as they are not "weeping" growth but are from the original (ordinary) willow trunk, and if you leave them, they will quickly grow straight  up, through the canopy, out into the light, and will completely ruin your Kilmarnock.

You can easily identify them because they will be growing from ground level or just above it, and they will be dead straight and heading upwards. If they are tiny little sprouts, rub them off. If they are just a couple of inches big, rip them off. Go on, it won't hurt the tree. If they are bigger than a couple of inches then you will have to cut them off with the secateurs, but be sure to cut them off as close to the trunk as you can, and be aware that by cutting them, they will probably grow back, so in a month or so you will have to check again and rub off any new growth. Literally, rub it off with your thumb while it is tiny.

If  you find new shoots springing up from the ground around the base of the tree, you will need to remove these ones as well: gently scrape away the soil until you can see where they are growing from, and pull them off: as above, if you can't pull them off (either because they are too big, too tough, or are sprouting from too far underground) then just cut them, but be aware that you will have to keep rechecking every couple of months, because Cuts Will Re-grow. 

There you go, that's How To Do It: firstly do a rough cut to get rid of all the trailing branches, cutting them just an inch or so above the point where they touch the ground.

Check inside, and remove any dead branches.

Thin out the canopy - just a little, if you are nervous or haven't done this before.

Undercut the longest branches to restore a more natural "hem" to the tree - aim for a light, airy waterfall.

Check the base of the trunk for shoots and remove any that you find.

Clear away the mess, take a photo, job done!


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Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Rachel The Gardener - Oxford

Isn't it odd, how people expect you to react in certain ways? A Client anxiously told me, the other day, that their mother had seen my van in Oxford, and they were a bit confused because - pointing to my little car - I don't have a van?

I laughed, and told them for the last year or so I'd been turning down enquiries from people asking me to work in Oxford, starting with "I saw your van..."

Each time, I have had to tell them sorry, I don't work in Oxford (hateful place, wouldn't touch it with a barge pole, parking restrictions everywhere and far too many people), and furthermore I don't have a signwritten van, so I'm afraid that wasn't me, that you saw.

Now here's where the expected reaction comes in: clearly there is another person called Rachel, who is working as a gardener somewhere in Oxford, and who has a signwritten van: and the Client expected me to be really upset that someone had "stolen" my name.

Not at all!

For several reasons: firstly and most importantly, my "name" is not a trademark, it's not registered and protected: "Rachel" is a common enough name, and it stands to reason that there would be a few more gardeners called Rachel out there, so I would never have tried to protect it.

It's entirely possible that the Oxford "Rachel The Gardener" has no idea that I exist, and decided on that name all by herself. After all, I didn't choose it for myself -  it evolved:  neighbours would look over the fence when I was working and clear their throats loudly to get my attention. To reassure them that I was not a burglar, I would introduce myself - "Good morning, I'm Rachel - the gardener." And it stuck.

Of course, it could equally well be a cynical attempt by someone to cash in on my internet presence and name: but should I be offended or outraged by this? No! Not at all! For a start, their advertising has pretty much failed, if people are seeing the van but not getting the phone number or contact details, so that they look it  up on the internet: and, of course, they then find me. So if anything, this imposter *laughs*  is bringing in jobs for me. Which I turn down, of course, as I don't work in Oxford.

And that's the second reason:  I work in a very small area around Wantage, I don't go to Oxford at all, so our territories don't overlap in the slightest.

Also, any gardener who drives around in a van is likely to be more of a contractor or at best a groundsman, than an Artisan Gardener: I would expect that van to be full of mower, blower, hedgecutter and the stink of petrol. I am more what you might call a horticultural gardener: I work with plants, flowers, fruit, specialist pruning, design, topiary, enhancing the planting etc - not cutting grass and hedges. So we probably don't even do the same sort of gardening.

And finally, there's that old saying, "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery", so if someone thinks that copying my name will somehow bring them more work, then great, I'm complimented!

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Raking fallen apples - the cheap and easy way

When the apples start to fall, the back starts to ache... as all those windfalls have to be picked up, otherwise the grass will be ruined.


Well, not terminally ruined, as grass is very resilient, but if you leave them, the grass under each windfall will die, leaving small round bare patches. Also, in the short term,  the dead apples will rot, attracting wasps, which can spoil an otherwise nice day in the garden. And dead apples go brown, with nasty rings of fungus pustules on them, uurgh, not very nice to look at.

Finally, the grass will grow over the apples, as you won't be able to mow there: if you try, the mower will bump and bang over the fresh windfalls, and will squash the older ones, thus worsening the "dead grass patches" problem.

So there is no alternative: if you have apples trees in your garden, and you value your lush green lawn, then you will need to pick them up.

However, help is at hand: I have invented an easy and cheap way to do it. You don't have to go out there every day, bending double to pick each apple individually.

Nor do you have to buy an expensive gadget for picking them up.

Yes, there are actually gadgets for this job  - I saw something called an Apple Wizard being advertised a year or two ago, it looked like a wire mesh basket on a pole, you roll it across the grass and it picks up "up to 10 apples each time" (which, cynically, probably mean no more than four or five) then you empty it ("takes less than a second to empty!" so, probably 30 seconds of faffing about each time) into your basket. Cost - about £70.

Or, you can look for devices to collect tennis balls - this fun little toy also costs £70 or so, and you can use it to pick up tennis balls AS WELL AS apples!


And here was me, not realising that my life was not complete, as I do not own a tennis ball collecting device....

Anyway, back to the plot, I can't quite get to grips with  paying £70 or more for something that will only be used briefly once a year: but I don't want to break my back picking them up individually, so I generally just rake them up.

But this has drawbacks as well: it's frustratingly slow. The lightweight Spring Rake (which we mostly use in Autumn, ha ha, gardeners' joke) is too flimsy for heavy apples, but the solid Ground Rake tends to dig itself into the grass: it's hard work and slow, to rake up apples this way.

So I invented something better.

It's called the Apple Roller.

All you have to do is take an ordinary ground rake, stab one smallish apple onto each end, and lo! and behold, the rake glides across the ground as though it was on wheels, enabling you to rake up the applies into piles, quickly and easily

 Here is the prep stage: one smallish apple stabbed onto each end of the rake.

Then you just rake!

Easy peasy!

The rake glides, the loose apples bumble themselves towards you, and you can corral the apples into a couple of piles.

And when the roller apples fall apart, no problem - just stab a couple of new ones!

Having made a few biggish piles, I turn my tub-trug on its side, between my ankles, and scoop the apples into it, tipping them out into the wheelbarrow: then when the barrow is full, off to the compost pen they go.

Now here's a grand moment - my first ever gardening video! (If you don't count the occasional wildlife one...) I have no idea if this will work, but if it does, here is the Apple Roller in action, and do please bear in mind that I'm doing it one-handed while holding the camera in the other!

So, what do you with the apples that you rake up? Answer, pop them onto the compost heap.  You can't have too many apples on a compost heap! Even if  they are mouldy, squishy, rock hard, it does not matter - tip them in, and no matter how many you put in:

"here's one I filled earlier..."

... they seem to rot down to nothing in a couple of weeks.

I suppose that apples are mostly water, after all.,

And yes, this applies to crab apples, eaters, cookers, pears and plums as well.

And as a final note, if you want to make life easier for yourself, keep the grass cut short under your apple trees. 


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Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Wheelbarrows: The Good, The Bad, and the Flipping Ugly

Well, you'd've thought a wheelbarrow was a pretty simple piece of kit, wouldn't you?

But there is more to it than you would think, as I found out over the years.

It all started many years ago, with a new Client, who had a large garden but no wheelbarrow. "Oh," I said when I interviewed them, and this fact came to light, "well, I will need a wheelbarrow in this garden."

"No problem," they replied, "we'll get one, and have it ready before you start."

On arrival the following week, I was greeted with one of these little monsters:

 Clearly designed by an idiot - probably male - who had never attempted to use it.

Firstly, let's look at those tiny little wheels. Rather like a suitcase. It rolls moderately well across tarmac, although with a tendency - like a suitcase - to wobble from side to side, eventually falling over.

Maybe it will be better once it has some weight in it, I thought. So I did some weeding, filled it up in no time at all (not as big as it looks ha! ha!) and tried to trundle it round to the compost heap.

Well, it didn't wobble - but it didn't want to roll, either! Any amount of weight in it, and the tiny wheels sink into the grass and won't roll.

Finally, when I managed to drag it to the compost heap, there was the issue of emptying it. How the heck are you supposed to empty it? I tried tipping it over on its nose, and the back panel neatly caught the bulk of the weeds, tipping  them back in when I uprighted it. I tried tipping it over sideways, which was as ungainly as an ungainly thing, and found that only half the contents would spill out (all over the place, I should add). To get them all out, I had to completely upend it, and stand it upside down. Phew, what hard work!

And as for getting the contents into a compost pen with a 3' high front - no chance!

The only other answer was to bale it out from above - and what a waste of time and effort that is! It turned out to be deeper than it looks, so I could only just reach the bottom of the bucket part, and in doing so I got wet and muddy all up my arms, and I also bumped my head on the back panel a couple of times.

Score: 0/10
Remarks: Fail
Other Remarks: Waste Of Time.  And Money.

Then there was the Rusty Old Tin Barrow:

This sort of thing is just an insult to a professional gardener: you are prepared to pay for my time, but you are not prepared to provide a decent barrow?

It's rusty (health hazard: if I catch myself on any sharp edge and break the skin I'll be rushing off for a tetanus injection), it's flimsy, it has holes in it so it leaves a trail of bits wherever I go: it's badly balanced, it's too small to get much in, it makes a hideous noise at every step, and the handles are so short that I bang my knees on it when trying to walk.

Worst of all, there is no bar around the front wheel, so you can't tip it up to empty it: if you try, you find that it's the wheel that is contacting the ground, and being a wheel, it tends to turn, so it either runs away from you (annoying) or runs towards you so you fall face forwards over it (embarrassing).

The owner of this thing, unable to take a hint, did  not have a Professional Gardener for long.

Score: 0/10
Remarks: Fail
Other Remarks: An Insult

Then we have the Large Builders' Barrow:

This one is perfect in size, shape and wheelability, but as you can see, metal barrows are subject to rust, particularly when the Owner leaves them out in the rain...

They are also rather on the heavy side. But at least they tip up nicely, so you can slide the contents out onto the waste heap with ease.

This sort should be stored preferably under cover, or at the very least, tipped up on its tipping bar so the tray (the body) stays dry.

Score: 8/10
Remarks: Pass
Other Remarks: Sturdy, durable, especially if stored properly.

Talking of "large" barrows, don't ever buy your gardener a gigantic barrow unless a) they ask for it or b) they are a big hefty bloke.  

One of my Clients had the most enormous wheelbarrow I had ever seen, something like this one on the left: they proudly showed it to me, thinking that I would be pleased.

Alas, it was so huge that I could only fill it a third full, otherwise I couldn't lift it.

Tipping it out was almost impossible (you can now buy big ones like this with a tipping mechanism, so clearly I was not the only gardener to struggle with it!), and it was so big that it was difficult to manoeuvre it without casually squashing plants as I passed. Not good!

Score: 0/10
Remarks: Fail
Other Remarks: Yes, Size Is Important. But Too Big Is Not Good.

Oh, I mustn't forget the groovy folding barrow:

"You're a girl," they think, "we'll get you something super light."

Newsflash: yes, I'm a girl, but I'm a big strong girl *flexes arms to show off muscles* and this sort of barrow is not worth the (exorbitant) cost.

They are flimsy, badly designed, hard to wheel - there is a reason that the other word for "folding" is "collapsible" - small in capacity, and hopeless for tipping out.

And of course, in no time at all the fabric has ripped, rendering them completely useless.

Score: 0/10
Remarks: Fail
Other Remarks: Flimsy, and Annoying to Use.

Now there is a new kid in town: The Puncture-Proof Self-Assembly Barrow.

This barrow is guaranteed to never, ever get a puncture. Because the wheel is solid.

This means that it does  not roll easily and smoothly, it jerks and jolts over every tiny bump, and it does not "ride" up a kerb or a step in the way that a pneumatic wheel does. But, it should never, ever get a puncture, so we have to open our arms to it.

And it arrived in a box, from the internet, requiring just some very simple home assembly, which Mr Client did himself.  Mrs Client then quietly asked me to check that nothing was on back to front or inside out, which made me laugh - but it was fine, all was well.

 As with so many things in life, it's not perfect: apart from the "bumpy" ride, it's quite narrow in the beam, which makes it a little bit prone to tipping over sideways when heavily laden.

Also, here's a picture of my foot as I am walking with it, pushing it and walking normally. Note how narrow it is - my feet just brush against the legs as I walk, almost tripping me up,  which is very annoying. Chalk up one "Bad Design" mark. But, the handles are good and long, so I just hold it out in front of me: give it one "Good Design" mark to make up for it!

Score: 8/10
Remarks: Pass
Other Remarks: Slightly hard going, but at least we'll never be unable to use it due to a puncture!

So after all those horrible barrows, what do I recommend?

Brand name "Fort".

Plastic bodied, Fort barrows. Not cheap, £50-£60 or so, but the bodies are a good size, the plastic ones don't rust,  are light to use, and don't deafen you every time you touch them.

Here is what you might call the Ideal Client: two Fort barrows!!

As mentioned earlier, nothing in life is quite perfect and the dear old one, the purple one, has received damage to a handle at some point in the far past, so there is a good thick layer of insulating tape round the handle. ( I wonder who did that? No, no idea...)

And the green one, the new one, well, the plastic hand grips which it came with (still in place in this photo) did not stay on the handles. What twit designed them, I wonder? What possible point is there in designing a handle that slips off the tube every time you use it? Do the designers never actually try using these things? Empty, it's fine, but as soon as you have any weight in it the handles get weirdly longer until squip! off comes the plastic grip. And as for going up steps with it - hopeless!! In the end we removed the handles completely, and I expect that come winter, we'll be wrapping the metal tubes with insulating tape to make them less cold to handle.

But despite this, Fort are still far and away my favourite barrow.  10/10, obviously.

Summary: the perfect wheelbarrow has:

1) a pneumatic wheel, not a solid wheel.

2) a plastic pan/body, not a noisy, rust-prone metal one.

3) a tipping bar around the front of the wheel.

4) one proper-sized wheel, at the front. No other wheel configuration is necessary or desirable.

5) two handles, one at each side (*laughs*).

6) and is wide enough in the beam that you can comfortably walk with it, without banging your knees, or feet, on any part of it.

So there you have it: if  you want someone to come and work in your garden, don't waste time and money on gadgets, or on fancy, trendy items,  get yourself a plain, old-fashioned, preferably plastic-bodied, decent Fort wheelbarrow!

Oh, and 7) - a spare wheel, so that if it gets a puncture, we can swiftly swap out the wheel so that I can use the barrow for however long it takes to get the puncture fixed!!

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Saturday, 22 July 2017

How to manage Opium Poppy - Papaver somniferum - in the garden

I love the huge annual Opium Poppies - Papaver somniferum - and in one of my gardens, I have a large swathe of them across a small area which we laughingly call the Wildflower Garden.

I sowed them from seed earlier this year, they've done tremendously well, but now:

well. they're not so pretty anymore, are they?  This means that it's time to pull them out.

However, before I do that, I'm going to collect some of the seed so that I can re-sow for next year, and also so that I can sow them in another part of the garden.

This is something I do every year, with many plants, but someone asked me about it the other day, which made me realise that the phrase "just collect some seeds your annual poppies" is not quite enough detail.

So what do you do, if  you want to save seed?

You will need:

A large paper bag, or an old used large paper envelope - A4 is fine, and it doesn't matter if it has a clear window in it.


Somewhere warm and dry to hang them.

Right, here's How To Do It: Cut down the stems, quite low down, and tie them together in loose bunches. Pull the paper envelope or bag over the seed pods, and tie it around the stems.  Then hang the whole contraption, upside down, somewhere warm such as a shed or a garage, or a sunny porch. As the seed pods dry and ripen, the seeds will fall out and will be caught in the envelope.

Nothing complicated about that, you might think.

However, how do you know if the ones you are picking still have any seed left in them? Answer, look closely at the seed pod, just under the flat lid, to see if you've left it too late. It's not the colour you are looking for, it's whether the pod has opened or not.

Here's one which has opened - can you see those chutes, or flutes, just under the upturned lid? That's how the seed gets distributed: the wind blows the stems around, which shakes the head, and the tiny black seeds come out of those chutes.

When the stem eventually breaks, the seed pod will end up hanging upside down, and any remaining seeds will then fall  out.

Simple, and elegant.

Here is one which is unripe: can you see how there are no holes, no chutes: no way for the seed to get  out.

This is the sort of seed pod that you want to select, and the fatter it is, the better.

If you wait until the seed pod goes brown, you will probably lose most of the seed, so it's better to pick them while they are still fairly green and - importantly - still sealed up.

They don't take long to dry, maybe a couple of weeks, but it doesn't matter if you forget about them and they stay there in the shed until next year: the seed will fall out, and will be collected by the envelope.

It's always a good idea to write on the envelope the date, the name of the plant, and what colour the flowers were - otherwise you'll forget, and then you'll end up with a box in the shed filled with envelopes of mysterious seeds....

Then, next spring, you can scatter the seed wherever you would like Poppies to appear, and there you go! Easy peasy!

Now, before we leave the subject, I might as well add a quick comment about the final aspect of this: how to clear up the rest of the mess.

Once you have harvested the best pods for drying and seed-saving,  what is the best thing to do with the rest?

Firstly, go round again and chop off all the old seed heads, collecting them as you go - here's a bucketfull that I collected from the garden above.

These are the ones which are already open, are partially open, or are not plump enough to be worth saving.  I always cut them off first because this material goes on the bonfire heap (or in the council green-waste bin if you don't have a bonfire). I don't want this stuff on the compost heap, as it contains a lot of seeds - duuuh, obviously!! - and I don't want little poppies pop-pop-popping up everywhere I use the compost.

Also, and less obviously, I don't want to have a constant shower of tiny poppy seeds down the back of my neck and in my ears while I am removing the rest of the foliage...

... so I cut off the seed heads and dispose of them, then I go round again and pull out the remainder of the plants, which can then go on the compost heap.

Simple. Of course, the garden always looks a bit bare when you've just done it... but you might well find that removing the old poppies reveals a few late starters, young plants which will flower in the next couple of weeks, to remind you of how lovely they were!

Saturday, 8 July 2017

What to do when water puddles on the surface of the flower beds.

Earlier this year I helped a friend to set up some new flower beds in her back garden: she'd had the garden completely landscaped with new raised, shaped bed edges, a beautiful summerhouse to sit in, new turf lawn, and a super new patio.

The builders had piled the old soil back into the beds, but of course had left all the weeds, and had trampled it all down flat, so our first job was to dig over all the beds, digging out the roots of the perennial weeds (couch grass mostly) and aerating the soil again.

We then replaced the plants which had been temporarily potted up, and my friend bought a whole lot of new plants, which we planted: it all looked lovely, and I left her with strict instructions to water the new plantings, even if it rained.  And a good thing too, bearing in mind that we've had the driest spring/early summer for years, and the hottest June in decades!

However, there's a problem: when watering, the water is now forming puddles on top of the beds.

This is not a big problem: it is absolutely typical of "old" soil in a "new" garden, for a couple of reasons. Well, three main reasons, anyway!

Firstly, the builders: obviously they had to stand on the ground both inside and outside the beds while they were laying the walls, causing compaction. Having built the walls and levelled the lawn area, they threw all the excess soil into the beds, not worrying about getting topsoil on top and subsoil below it, just mixing it all up and very probably walking all over it again while they laid the turf.

We dug it over to a depth of a spit and a half (nothing to do with expectorating, that means one and a half times the depth of a spade) which aerated the soil again,  but there will still be some compacted soil underneath, and the "soil" will be mixture of topsoil ("good") and subsoil ("horrible") which will make the soil less free-draining than it could/should be. This is not necessarily a bad thing: the normal action of worms and bugs will eventually sort it all out, and in the meantime at least the soil is not immediately drained of all the water!

Secondly, the soil was already a bit "tired": the house had been rented for many years, the various occupants were not really into gardening, and they would have not have been adding manure, digging in compost, mulching, moving plants (thus aerating the soil) and so on every year. It takes a while to get back on track, but the sooner you start, the sooner  you'll get there, and you can tell the quality of your soil by the colour: it should be brown, and preferably dark. If it's kind of grey, then it is "tired", or what gardeners call "lacking heart".

It's easily remedied:  just add organic matter. Make this an ongoing part of your garden routine: do it now (whatever time of year you are reading this!) and aim to add more as often as  you can - at the very least, twice a year, in spring and again in autumn: but frankly I'd add organic matter whenever I came across any.  Don't worry if you already have plants in place - just add the organic matter on top of the soil, taking care not to pile it against the stems of the plants,  and let the worms do the work in pulling it down into the soil.  You can help them by gently digging it in - use a small hand tool and just turn over the soil enough to mix the new - which will be delightfully dark - and the old - which will be pale and grey.

When I say "organic matter" I mean any of the following:

- Home made compost from your own bins. Usually  lovely rich stuff!
- Horse manure: if you have a friend with a horse, they will usually welcome you with open arms if you ask for some, although  you will probably have to go and dig it out yourself. This is a good thing, as it means you can get the well-rotted manure from the oldest part of the pile, which is the best stuff.
- Cow/chicken/pig/anything else manure: again must be well-rotted. See below.
- Bought-in manure in bags from the garden centre: expensive, but lovely stuff.
- Leaf mould: does not add much in the way of nutrients, but is fantastic soil conditioner, for improving the texture and the water-holding capabilities.

Now a quick word about manure and the phrase "well rotted": it's essential to get well rotted manure, as fresh manure is not good for the garden, for several reasons. Firstly, because it needs to absorb nitrogen in order to rot down. We don't want to give any of our precious nitrogen away! We want more of it, not less! Secondly, too-fresh manure can also "burn" the stems of plants, as it creates heat as it rots. This, in combination with the concentration of nutrients, can dehydrate plants. Thirdly, most fresh manures are high in nitrogen (N, for lush green foliage) whereas most of our garden is filled with flowers (requiring P,  Phosphorus, and K, Potassium) so it always better to wait until the manure is mature, as it were, then it can be mixed with the soil. Fourthly, fresh manure is very prone to forming a crust or pan on the soil, if you spread it on too thickly: just think of a cow pat. You wouldn't want a continuous sheet of cow-pat on the beds, would you? And fifthly, if there is such a word, fresh manure is STINKY!!

So how do you  know if what you are being offered is well-rotted? Two ways: if it is STINKY then don't touch it. And if you can see "clods" then it's not ready: just like our home-made compost, if you can still recognise any constituent parts, then it is not ready for use. Of course, if you have a largeish garden, you can accept any sub-standard manure, stack it out of sight somewhere and in a  year's time, it will be well-rotted and ready for use. Don't add it to your existing compost heap, just leave it to rot down by itself.

Where were we? Oh yes, the soil:

Thirdly:  due to the dry spring and hot early summer,  all garden soil everywhere became very dry earlier this year, and it takes a long time to "re-wet" it thoroughly. You would think that a bone dry soil would just suck up all the water, wouldn't you? Well, no it doesn't: normally, when you water a bone-dry soil, the water disappears like magic but it is not making the top soil wet, it is actually vanishing down cracks in the soil, and it's not doing the plants - whose roots are in the top 4-8" of the soil  - any good at all.  The other end of the same problem is when the too-dry soil forms a pan or crust on top, such that the water can't get in, and sits there on the surface, sulking.

Normally, "one" would have been watering the garden throughout the dry spring, but as my friend had builders trampling about, the garden was not watered at all - so the soil has no water banked, as it were, and very dry soil, like shop-bought compost, is hard to "re-wet".

Right, we now know what conditions can lead to water puddling on the surface: compaction, mixing of sub-soil, tired soil, over-dry soil. So how can we fix it?

Firstly, water gently: only turn the tap enough to get the water coming out the end of the hose, not so fast that it sand-blasts everywhere. Think of the phrase "it droppeth like the gentle rain from above" and hold the hose pointing upwards, so the water falls on the plants from above, not from the side: you can also shake the hose nozzle, to create a light shower of big drops.  Move the hose from side to side in elegant sweeps (pretend that you are a sprinkler), so that each set of droplets has time to soak in before you get back to that section. Watch for the water to soak in - as soon as puddling starts, stop watering that area - move the hose on to the next area.

In between waterings, use your hoe to break up the surface: this will prevent a crust or "pan" forming, as crusts make puddling much worse.

As mentioned above, add organic matter whenever you can - your own compost, or well-rotted manure or bought in bags of farmyard manure. Don't add "multipurpose compost" as that doesn't really improve the soil. Over time, this will enrich the soil and will make it hold water better: new rainfall will soak in quickly and evenly, and it will stay moist for longer.

So there you have it,  what to do when water puddles on the surface of the flower beds!


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Wednesday, 28 June 2017

How to manage your block paving drive

Do you have one of these block paving drives? Does it no longer look quite as beautiful as it used to when it was first laid?

Are there tiny weeds growing in the cracks? Moss? Nasty black lines where the joins go?

All these are signs that you need to do a bit of maintenance now, before things get out of control.

Why? Because even the best quality block paving is usually only laid on a hardcore and sand base, they are not cemented into place - the reason being that the individual blocks need to be able to move very slightly as cars drive over them, otherwise they would crack: and it also allows drainage of surface water. The edges may well be cemented in place, to stop them drifting apart - but not the main area.

You might think that a bit of mud or moss on the drive is not a problem, or that you don't really mind the odd weed or two: but the problem is that weeds tend to get bigger and bigger until the point where they start to force the blocks apart, leading to all sorts of problems. Also, any plant growth between the blocks will catch any wind-blown debris such as litter, or leaves, instead of letting them blow clean across and away. This material then rots down, creating more organic matter to feed the weeds.

Even a layer of moss along each join will catch water like a sponge, creating a nice planting environment for weeds.

So, what to do? Get yourself a long-handled wire brush, the sort that is sold for cleaning patios and drives. You can do this on your hands and knees, using a daisy grubber or an old kitchen knife, but a long-handled brush really saves the back...

Wait until we've had a few dry days, then start at one corner, facing outwards, and use a to-and-fro scrubbing motion along the join. Annoyingly, most of the best block paved drives are laid in a herringbone pattern, so each join is no more than one and a half blocks long.. so you don't get a chance to build up a good rhythm. Ah well, such is life. Scrub along the join. Take a small step to the left or right - scrub the next join. Take a small step... scrub the next join.. continue until you reach the end.

Change the brush to the other hand, take a half-step backwards, and scrub the join at right angles to the last one you did. Take a small step to the left. Scrub the join....

Continue doing this  until you are demented with boredom and can't take it any longer. Put down the scrubbing brush, go and get a normal yard broom or household (outdoor) broom, and sweep up all the loose bits. Then go back and scrub another section.

The reason for starting in a corner and looking outwards is so that you are not treading on all the loose bits, by they way: there's no point scrubbing them off, just to tread them all in again!

Here's one I did this week: the top (right-hand) half has been scrubbed but not swept, and I swept a small strip to make the difference more obvious: can you see where I've been?!

This was quite a large drive, so I did it in instalments over a couple of weeks.

When I'd finally finished, the result was spectacular, it looks just like new!

Having de-mossed and de-weeded it, the final job is to spray it with a residual type of weedkiller (Pathclear is the usual brand name, or something clearly marked "For paths and patios") to help prevent seeds from germinating and starting the cycle all over again.

So there you have it - how to keep your beautiful block paving drive looking like new: once a year, scrub it and sweep it! 

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Monday, 19 June 2017

Using Salt as a weedkiller

I came across this little oddity the other day: someone was seriously suggesting using salt as a weedkiller in the garden.

After screaming "Are you crazy??!!??" at the screen, I decided to do a little research to find out why anyone would suggest such a daft thing, and it transpires that it's part of the whole eco-warrior "we don't use chemicals" and "Monsanto [makers of Glyphosate] are the Devil" dippy hippy thing.

As you can tell, I'm not a fan of that type of thinking: it's fine when you only have yourself to think of, but if  you are growing food to feed the masses (who all want perfect produce, cheap), or if you are paid to produce a beautiful garden within strict time limits (in most cases, I'm only there for half a day a week), then sometimes chemicals - judiciously used - are the only answer.

So why do I shriek in horror at the suggestion of using salt as a weedkiller? Does it not work? Oh, it works all right: it works superly. It will kill any plant or gastropod within range: if you put salt on a slug or on the stem or leaf of a plant, the salt will allow all the water inside the body of the slug or plant to move outside, in a rather drastic manner. This is why slugs and snails "foam" if  you put salt on them: the salt draws out the water on the skin where it touches it, and the water inside the creature rushes outwards to fill the gap, gets drawn outside, so more water rushes out... so the creature dies, howwibly. *maniacal laughter in the background. Yes, I know they are all god's creatures, and that I am supposed to be kind and nice to everything, but news flash, a) I am not actually all that nice, and b) sometimes in life we have to make choices, and I would rather have undamaged greenery than have a huge population of gastropods. So there.*

This process is called Osmosis, and you can look it up for  yourself if you are interested: in layman's terms, the salt "pulls" the water out of the slug or plant.

The bad news is that salt stays in the soil for ages - not quite forever, but nearly.  Do you remember your bible lessons? The bad guys used to "sow the land of their enemies with salt". This means they would scatter salt on the farming land to kill all the crops, and to prevent any new crops being grown there for many years. The "enemies" would die of starvation, or would have to flee the area. It's not an allegory, it was how they actually did it.

So unless you want a garden in which the only things to grow are salt-hardy Oleandar, Rosemary and Butcher's Broom, you do not want to add salt to your soil.

This also goes for killing those slugs and snails, by the way - don't ever sprinkle salt on the ground, or on the critturs: pick them up (if you are squemish, wear latex gloves, or use tongs) and pop them into a jar or pot with some salt in the bottom. Every so often you can empty the shells out into the bin. Do not put them on the compost heap!

There's another reason for not sprinkling salt on the garden to kill slugs and snails: the eco warriors (or "eco worriers" as I think of them) say that it's very efficient, and unlike the blue slug pellets, does not leave any residual poison in the creatures, so they can be eaten by birds or vermin without ill effect. Not true! Just as too much salt in our diet is bad for us, highly salted gastropods are very, very bad for birds, and although I can't find any firm information on this one, I can't imagine that they'd be very good for moist-bodied frogs.

Although I would say that from time to time I empty out my salt pot onto the rough grass in front of my house, and within a night or two, the whole lot have invariably gone, shells and all: so presumably there is something with four legs that likes crunchy, lightly salted, snails.

As an even further aside, when doing the three-yearly re-blacking of the bottom of a narrowboat, I asked what we should do with the masses and masses of barnacles that we scraped off before we could get to the paint. "Oh, just leave them there, on the ground," said the marina's manager: "they'll be gone by morning."  And sure enough, they were, shells and all.

Anyway, back to the salt issue: even if you really, really don't want to use "chemicals",  what do you think table salt is, scotch mist? It's mostly sodium chloride, but if it comes from brine (ie "natural" sea salt, obtained by evaporating salty water such as sea water or salt lake water) then it will also contain greater or lesser amounts of magnesium chloride, magnesium sulfate, calcium sulfate, potassium chloride, magnesium bromide, and calcium carbonate.

If you choose to go for "table salt" then you should be aware that it has several additives: potassium iodide for one, to give us protection against thyroid disease: plus magnesium carbonate, calcium silicate, calcium phosphate, magnesium silicate, and calcium carbonate.These are added to prevent clumping, and to prevent it from absorbing water.

So it's not exactly "chemical-free", is it? And it's terribly bad for the soil, so just don't use it on the garden: either use the minimum amount of commercial weedkiller - which has been carefully tested, and calibrated to be effective - or just get out there with a daisy grubber and weed by hand or by hoe!


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Saturday, 10 June 2017

How to move a rose - yes, it can be done!

Recently, a friend asked me about a problem she was having:  some mature roses were in the way of some unavoidable construction work. She asked if it was possible to move the roses, so that they could be replanted once the builders had gone.

The answer is "yes - probably!"

And by coincidence, I found myself doing exactly the same thing a couple of days ago, so I took some quick photos as I did it, on the basis that a picture is worth a thousand words, and it would save me quite a lot of typing if I could illustrate the job as we went.

Right: first job, cut down the top growth of the roses in question. Why? Firstly because any large transplanted shrub is going to struggle at first, so it is a kindness to remove some of the burden of foliage. Or, to put it another way, it will probably panic and drop a lot of its upper foliage anyway, on the grounds that all those leaves are just too much to support: so we might as well do the job for it. Secondly, for the comfort of the poor gardener who is being asked to dig it up: roses have thorns (technically, prickles, but I am not wearing my Botanist hat today, so we'll let that one go) which can make it extremely unpleasant to work close to them.

So, firstly, cut back a lot of the top growth. Aim to end up with something about knee height and yes, you are going to lose all those lovely flowers, so take them inside and put them in vases! Cut off enough of the outside "ring" of branches that you can get fairly close to the roots without being slashed to death.

Don't waste the bits you cut off, though: you can use them for cuttings. Look it up online if you're not sure, but it's basically choose pencil-thick sections, push five or so cuttings (each a good 8" long) around the edge of a pot of soil/compost, water them gently, let them get on with it for a year or so. Keep the pots watered, but not soaked.

Take a lot of cuttings from each rose: two pots of five cuttings I'd say, and don't forget to take photos of the roses and label the cuttings according to the photos. If they have name labels, so much the better, but if not, use your imagination: at the very least, identify what colour they are. This will be your back-up, in case moving the plants is not a success....

Here's what I was presented with: a climbing rose which had sadly lost its supporting tree, and was far too big to be allowed to regrow in this position.

Most of it had been cut off when the tree fell, but it had regrown a lot of whippy shoots -and a fair amount of weeds, as you can see!

In this case, my first job was to chop off the wildly long growth so I could get close enough to weed it.

 Here is phase two: weeds removed, growth cut back to something manageable.

Now we get the spade out, and cut vertically downwards in a circle around it.
 As soon as I started, I realised that there was one stout branch that was still too long: I'd retained it because it has three or more good strong shoots coming from it. But it was no good, it was in the way, so it had to go.

Here you can see me starting to dig in a circle around the plant.

Dig straight down with the spade, a full spade depth, or more if you can. Then start working across, under the rose: try to get as big and complete a rootball as you can.

Use loppers/secateurs to cut off roots as you meet them: you are not going to be able to get all the roots out, so it's better to cut them cleanly than to try to lever each plant out, ripping the roots as you go.

Having removed this one, normally you would carefully retain the root ball: but in this case there was a lot of couch grass running through it, so unfortunately I had to shake off all the soil in order to get the roots of the couch grass out.  This is sub-optimal, as it exposes the roots and damages the fine ones, but there's no point trying to replant something which is infested with a perennial weed!

Here is the plant in my bucket: please note that I  have brought along the labels as well -  it's always good to keep the labels with the plants!  In this case I only had the one to move, but if you have several different roses to move, then write out labels and tie them to the remains of each rose as you go.

As this one has  been cruelly stripped of the soil, I filled the bucket with water and left it to soak for 20 minutes or so - which also gave me the opportunity to check that all couch grass roots had been removed.

Then it was time to pot it up and water well.

It will now sit outside somewhere safe, until needed: the owner will keep it watered and, with luck, it  will survive.

If you are simply moving the roses, then obviously you don't need to pot them up, they can go straight to their new home which you will have prepared before digging them up: clear the ground where they are going to go, dig it over well, make sure you have removed any nasty perennial weeds such as bindweed/ground elder/couch grass etc: dig in some home compost or some well rotted manure in preparation and dig the hole ready, so that as soon as you lift the rose, you can trundle it straight over the the new place, and plant it. Water well, and keep an eye on them for the following few weeks, watering as necessary.

Although generally speaking, it is always best to have plants firmly in the ground, in some ways, it is not a  bad thing if you have to pot them up: it gives them the time to die, if they are going to die, before you expend the energy to replant them: and it's often easy to forget about a transplanted shrub, whereas if they are in pots, you will be more likely to keep an eye on them.

If you do have to pot them up, here are two Tips for watering: having radically pruned and root-pruned them, they will be a bit delicate for a while, so water them gently, don't drench them - get some drip-waterers, those gadgets which you fit onto an empty squash bottle, and which allow water to penetrate slowly and gently.

Second watering tip, get a squirty spray bottle, and when you've filled up the water bottles each day, "mist" the foliage with water. Don't feed them at this time, just let them re-establish their roots in the pots.

 If the potted ones fail, hopefully you'll have cuttings: if the cuttings fail, hopefully you'll have some of the potted ones: and if all else fails, well, time to buy new ones.

But it is well worth the effort to try and keep them. 


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