Sunday, 28 May 2017

A new Fedge!

Back in February I spent a very productive morning installing a new Willow Fedge - straight and simple, nothing complicated, but hopefully it will be the start of something much bigger. More of that later...

Right, first things first: what's a Fedge? It's a cross between a fence and a hedge. Usually made of Willow, sometimes referred to as Living Willow. The concept is very simple: you plant a row of willow wands (or "branches"), you weave them together, and you end up with something as good as a fence, but which is as alive as a hedge. Each year you cut them right back to the bone, to reveal the original framework, so in winter you have something decorative, rather like an ornate trellis. And in summer you have a wildly fluffy, green hedge. What could be simpler?

What is the secret of making a good Fedge? As with many things in the garden, preparation is key, second only to "start with decent materials" and then followed by "ongoing maintenance".

The preparation means lifting a strip of turf - it's best to remove all the competition, and grass is hungry stuff - and laying down a strip of water-permeable membrane. This helps to suppress the growth of weeds, and the re-growth of grass.

Here is my Client, measuring carefully and making slits in the pegged-out membrane, at regular intervals.

She bought a "kit" of materials, having simply told the supplier how long the Fedge was going to be - and they calculated how many of each thickness would be required. Very easy!

On arrival, the willow wands were unpacked and stuffed into a dustbin of water, cut ends downwards. This keeps them fresh and alive until you are ready to install them: obviously, the sooner after delivery the better.

In go the first row of stout uprights.

It's very easy - you literally just push them into the ground, through the membrane.

Once you have done all the uprights, the instructions on the kit tell you to tie a row of "binders" along the top at head height. This keeps the  uprights all the same distance apart, and helps to keep them upright once you start the weaving.

When I am making Fedges, I prefer to do the weaving before the binders, as it's a lot easier to do the "over under, over  under" routine with the loose end of the weaver being able to slide in-between the uprights, rather like those agility dogs you see going between the bendy poles.

But it is a lot harder to keep the Fedge upright if you do it that way: easy for me, because I have done any number of them, but much less easy for a beginner and as, this time, I was demonstrating how to do it so that my Client could do other Fedges by herself,  I thought it best to follow the instructions and do the binders nice and early.

Having done the binders, we start the first row of diagonal weavers.

"Over, under, over under!" we chanted as we worked.

Yes, it really is that easy.

The tricky part is getting to the end and coming back the other way - it's easy to get "lost" in the over-unders, and ending up on the wrong side of an upright.

Frankly, this isn't critical: by the time the leaves have arrived,  you won't be able to see any minor mistakes in the weaving.

When all the weaving was done, then came the job of tying in all the joins, where they cross: this helps to strengthen the Fedge for these first few weeks, while it is starting to grow, and it helps the branches to graft themselves together, which is what gives a Fedge its strength. Yes, those individual thin willow wands will "glue" themselves together where they cross, and as they grow the Fedge will become stronger and stronger.

Tying in is our chance to even up the lattice, making the gaps as regular as we could. And that's all there is to it. A bit of snipping of odd sticky-out ends, one last check that all the junctions were tied, and time to clear up the debris and have a cup of tea.

And here is a photo of the Fedge in  April, greening up nicely! 

As you can see, the Client has installed an additional chicken-wire fence - this is to keep the chickens on the grassy side, until the Fedge has thickened up enough to work as a hen-proof fence. I know it doesn't look as pretty, but it's only for the first year or two.

So what were those three points again? Firstly, start with decent materials: don't think that you can chop a few branches off a handy Willow, and make yourselves a beautiful Fedge for free.

The kits that you can buy online are from the "right" species of Willow, which is long, thin and flexible. Buying a kit ensures that it all the same species, so it all grows at the same rate - if  you chop a few bits off one Willow and a few off another, you'll end up with something of a mish-mash, with some sections growing tall and thin, with others trying to grow bushy. Plus they might well be different colours, although that is not a bad thing in itself. More to the point, it is very rare to be able to find "free" Willow wands that are both long, and thin: the frustration of trying to weave over-stiff branches quickly makes you realise the value of buying in the right materials. And of course it becomes a crop: you buy them once, and for ever afterwards you get an annual crop of prunings which you can use to build more Fedges, or to make willow sculptures, or to weave plant supports: you could easily recover the cost of the materials over the next few years!

Second point, Preparation: clear the ground in a strip, and make life easier for yourself by laying down membrane, which helps to suppress weeds around the very base of the willow.

Third and final point, "Ongoing maintenance". At installation, water it well. For the first year, water it well. Willow is thirsty stuff, and the more you water it, the quicker it will grow.  Keep the base as clear of weeds as you can: not only does that reduce competition, allowing the Willow to use all the water and nutrients available, but it looks nicer!  The "ongoing" part is the annual maintenance: at some point over the winter, go over the whole Fedge with secateurs and trim off all the long new growth, leaving just the original lattice. I know these seems cruel, but it's  not like a tree that we want to grow and grow: we want it to stay more or less the same size. Left  unpruned, every single wand will turn into a tree, which would be a bit overwhelming in a garden. 

Having pruned off the new growth, inspect the lattice to see if there are any dead wands: it's perfectly normal for a few of them to fail to grow,  or to grow well at the bottom, then die off a bit higher up. When you spot one, all you do is take one of then pruned-off wands, and slide it through the lattice to take the place of the dead one. Work it right down to ground level and push it as far in as you can, water well, and with luck it will "take" and will replace the dead one. I reckon to do a dozen or so replacements every year for the first few years, it doesn't take long and you don't have to buy any new willow, as you have your own wand-producing factory already in place!

And as mentioned, all those leftover wands can be used for other projects. In the first year, they are likely to be quite spindly and not very long, but after the second or third year, you will be getting a crop that is equal in size and quality to the wands that you originally bought.

You can let the top grow a little higher, if you want more shelter or privacy, but don't let it grow unchecked otherwise you end up with a hideous mess like this one:

 This train-wreck of a fence (which adjoins one of my Clients' gardens) has not been trimmed every winter for several years, all they do is lop off the top growth, and they don't bother to check the lattice at all.

So instead of winter giving us an attractive trellis-like thing to look at, we have this rather  ugly, top-heavy thing with huge gaps in it.

And of course it gets worse every year, as the top knobs get stronger and stronger, while the lower growth gets weaker and weaker. They are, in effect, pollarding it so in a few more years, they will have a line of single willow trees, instead of any sort of fence. What a waste.

So there you have it: how to install a simple willow Fedge, how to maintain it, and how to enjoy a living fence in summer, an attractive trellis in winter, and an ongoing source of free willow!

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Saturday, 13 May 2017

Irish Yew: reversion

I've written about Irish Yew recently, and now another strange case has come to my attention.

A Client of mine has a beautiful double avenue of slender Irish Yew:

 ...there, aren't they lovely? Marching down the grassy path, with a solid ordinary Yew hedge at the end, and an arched doorway cut in it.


It doesn't get much better than this..

But I noticed something odd about one of them.
 Uurgh, what's that untidy growth at the bottom?

They are not supposed to do that!

Close inspection showed that there were two stout stems arising from the base of the tree, which were not Irish Yew but were ordinary English Yew.

It's quite a good illustration of the difference between them: they are both Yew, but the English Yew branches are sprouting off in all directions, and even in this photo, you can see that the individual leaves are not crisply curling, the way that those of the Irish Yew are.

This is not the first time I've seen this: I was visiting Snowshill Manor a year or two back (don't bother: there's hardly any garden worth the word, people go there to look at the house and the eclectic contents, apparently)  and found this:

Doesn't that look familiar?

It's exactly the same problem, a fastigiate Yew with a sprouting bunch of "ordinary" Yew at the base. I'm sure I've seen another one somewhere else, at another public garden, but I can't find the photo.

Anyway, you see the problem: the "wrong" plant is growing at the base.

And the entirely "wrong" way to deal with it is to do what the useless gardeners at Snowshill Manor did, and attempt to clip it into the same shape as the fastigiate Yew.

As an aside, this is something that (professionally) drives me mad: paid gardeners not doing a proper job. It's perfectly ok for the owner of a garden to bodge it up in any way they please: it's their garden, it's their time, they might do something which I consider to be horticulturally inept, but I am most likely to just laugh a little bit (sometimes behind my hand, to be polite) and let them get on with it.

But it's a different story when a gardener is being paid to work there, and - in my opinion - should be expected to know the difference between plants, and how to deal with problems like this. Not to take the easy option of running the hedgetrimmer over it.

OK, enough of me grumbling: what, then, is the "correct" way to deal with it?

The "correct" way is to remove the "wrong" shoots as soon as you find them, long before they turn into an eyesore and need repeated clipping for the rest of their life...

Here's the sequence of events:

1)  Assess the situation.

Here's my slender upright Yew, with tufty-tail at the bottom. Taking hold of those branches, and pulling them gently outwards, I could see that there were two individual branches of the "wrong" Yew, springing out from below soil level at the base of the tree.

I tried to clear the soil away from them, to see if they were individually rooted, or were just suckers off the original tree, springing out from just below ground level - a lot of grafted plants do this, it's very annoying and needs to be dealt with firmly by removing those suckers from as low down as you possibly can. Just cutting them off at ground level won't work: the stumps will send up more shoots than ever. You have to rip them off from their base: sometimes this is easier said than done.

 Here's the first one: it seems to me that this is a separate plant, it has a thin root going sideways as well as a big thick one going downwards.

But I couldn't get it away from the main roots.
 Here - right - is the same root from the other side, and you can see "wrong" shoot number two, between it and the thick original trunk.

Again, I can't separate the roots - I can't find a gap to push the daisy grubber into.

On the one hand, this could indicate that the "wrong" shoot is a reverted sucker: it could equally well indicate that it's a seedling which has become grafted to the original tree's roots as it grew.

 As I can't get the shoots to pull away from the original trunk, all I can do is saw them off as low as possible, and here are the two front shoots, newly sawn.

I will now keep an eye on them through the next season or two, looking out for regrowth, and removing any that I find.

If I knew for certain that they were separate entities, I would dab some glyphosate weed-killer on the cut faces of their stumps, but as the roots do seem to be welded together, I can't risk doing that.

So, where does that leave us? The row of fastigiate Yews now looks correct again, with no rufty tufty English Yew trying to push its way into the arrangement: and I will be checking it every so often and removing any regrowth that I find, until those "wrong" shoots run out of energy and give up trying.

The question I am left with, though, is this: are these non-fastigiate shoots a case of the plant reverting, in the same way that variegated shrubs often through out a plain green shoot or two? Or are they actually seedlings which have dropped very close to the parent (fastigiate) Yew, and haven't been noticed as they grew?

I'm definitely in favour of the seedling theory.  I know that Irish Yew trees are very nearly all female: they bear the berries, which is how you can tell, but this means that they are normally pollinated by English Yew. I know that they rarely if ever come true from seed - the seedlings are overwhelmingly ordinary English Yew. I know this from my own experience, as well as from researching it, as I have weeded out about a million Yew seedlings from around the base of Irish Yew, and not one has ever grown into Irish Yew, they have all grown into normal English Yew.

So, in my opinion, it seems quite possible that some of the seeds will fall very close to the trunk of the Irish Yew, and would easily be overlooked when it came to weeding, to the point where they look as though they are shoots from the original tree. This is what I think happened here, but I can't tell for certain as all the roots are intertwined.

So now I am on the look out, every time I see Fastigiate Yew, for small shoots of the "wrong" Yew, small enough for me to be able to pull them out by the roots, if indeed they are on their own roots!


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Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Irish Yew: middle aged spread

Here's an interesting little conundrum about Taxas baccata 'Fastigiata', otherwise known as Irish Yew.

In case you didn't know, Irish Yew is a mutation of the normal Taxas baccata, where instead of becoming a stately, spreading tree, it grows very strongly upright, and the individual leaves are slightly curled all the way round the twig, giving it a lush and bushy appearance while remaining a very tightly upright tree.

And yes, it was first found in Ireland, hence the name.

It  has many uses,  being as strong, hardy, long-lived and tough as normal Yew,  and it is very handy for instances where you wanted a line of Pencil Cedars, much  loved in Italianate style gardens, but the weather isn't mild enough!

They start off as skinny little things, but if left along for long enough, they get bigger and bigger, and turn into massive upright columns.

At this point, the owner  usually - cursing their ancestors who planted the darned things - resorts to massacre with a chainsaw.  Sometimes you get an interim measure, if they have a half-way decent arborist (formerly known as "tree surgeon" but honestly, what a pretentious name for it: "surgeon") who will strap the tree horizontally with bands of wire to keep the growth tight against the trunk.

Personally I hate this, but not as much as I hate seeing people use hedgetrimmers on the upright sides... but that's just my personal opinion.

Anyway, back to the massive columns: what people normally do is just lop the top off, like this pair of unfortunates at Rodmarton House (left).

I suppose it does reduce the overall looming-ness of them, but it's still a squeeze to get along that path.

Being Yew, they take this as a challenge and immediately start growing again on the top, where they've been cut.

Yew is one of the few conifers who will do  this - will grow new green leaves from bare old wood from inside the canopy, and this is one of the reasons it is so enduringly popular!

With these two, I could see that they were growing around the rim - you can see the tufty new tips quite clearly.  But would they grow inside the canopy, I wondered, in the way that normal Yew does?

As there was no-one around, I hopped up on that low wall, leaned over, and took a photo of the "inside" of the tree.

Look!  Growth!

Lots and lots of it.

So now, I wonder, if we have established to our satisfaction that Irish Yew will indeed spring renewed from bare old wood if you cut it.. why don't people with overweight Irish Yew columns cut off the outside branches, as well as lopping off the top?

Logically, this should work: expose the original trunk all the way down to the ground, and it should all sprout new twigs, thus creating a much slimmer shape than just lopping the top off.

All I need now is a trusting owner who will let me have a go at doing it!!

Monday, 1 May 2017

Garden Hygiene III: First, sterilise your secateurs....

This is the third of three articles on the subject of Garden Hygiene: the first one covered general hygiene and sensible cleaning of tools; the second covered the hygiene aspects of moving plants: and this one deals with that common advice to Sterilise Your Tools.

Ever read this advice? I have - nearly every book or internet article mentions sterilising (or sterilizing if you can't spell properly) secateurs and other pruning tools "to avoid spreading disease", particularly when pruning roses and fruit trees.

How many people actually do this, I wonder?

Certainly, if you are only gardening in your own garden, then there is no particular need to sterilise at all: and as a general observation, I would point out that a garden is not exactly an operating room, and that spores are in the air, in the soil, on your clothes, on other plants, on passing birds, on the dog...

It's fair to say that if you have one plant which suddenly develops something nasty, then there is definitely a point to cleaning any tools you use on it: but do you also extend that care to the wheelbarrow that you carted the bits away in? The gloves you were wearing as you handled it? The clothes that brushed up against it? How far, exactly, should "one" go? Well, most of us don't worry too much about the peripherals such as gloves and wheelbarrows, but most of us agree that the cutting tool should be sterilised between uses, so as to prevent spreading of diseases from one plant to another. I think the worst advice is for fruit trees, where you will often read that the gardener must "sterilise the blade after each cut". Yeah, right, tell that to someone faced with 500 yards of espaliered apple trees to be pruned. Twice a year.

I did some research, asking my fellow PGG members (Professional Gardeners' Guild) what they did to sterilise their tools: I also asked local gardeners,  people on twitter and facebook, etc, and had some interesting replies, which I'll run though in brief:

1) Wet-wipes: alchohol wipes/detergent wipes/medi-wipes. They seem to be popular, especially among people with  500 yards of espaliered apples, as they are very convenient. Personally I'm really not keen on them, as a one-use non-bio-degradable wipe seems to be about as non-eco as it's possible to get, don't you think? But that's a different discussion.

2) Dipping the blades in a solution of bleach: guaranteed to rust the blades, but no guarantee at all about killing off any pathogens: there seems to be no solid information out there about what strength of solution is required, how long the blades need to be immersed, etc. Some people said a quick dip is enough, some said they left the blades soaking overnight.

3) Dipping the blades in Dettol:  see above.

4) Wiping with Jeyes Fluid. See above.

The funniest response I've had so far is "I stick them under my arm, clamp down and pull forward with an upward arching motion."

Seriously, though, it seems as though everyone has an opinion on this, and I was surprised how many of them said that I "must" do whatever they do, or that their way was "the only" way to do it, or "the only thing that works is..."  although when questioned, it quickly became apparent that not one of them has done any research on it, at all.

It also seems that there is a lot of confusion between cleaning and sterilising/disinfecting: a lot of people use the terms interchangeably, but they are two quite separate actions. "Disinfection" or "sterilisation" in this context is the killing of germs, whereas "cleaning" is the physical removal of germs.

For instance, getting back to those wet-wipes, did you know that you need to use them properly, which means taking the time to actually read the instructions. Disinfection requires the product to be on the surface for between 4 and 10 minutes. It says so on the pack. That means you have to keep re-wiping the surface with more and more wipes, in order to keep it wet for the required length of time. Then you have to let it air dry.

Further research turns up this little gem: articles to be disinfected need to be cleaned first.

What's the difference? I'll keep on saying this: Cleaning means "removing" germs. Disinfecting means "killing" germs.  And if your germs are lurking under a thick layer of organic matter, ie sticky sap, mud, crushed lily beetles and so on, then you need to firstly clean the blades by wiping off all the gunk ("hot soapy water" is usually recommended, but who can find hot soapy water in someone else's garden?), thus cleaning away the majority of germs: and then when the blades are clean, you can disinfect them.

Some sources say "Equipment should be immersed in disinfectant for at least 15 minutes, or according to manufacturers’ instructions" so there does not seem to be any firm answer as to how long it takes to disinfect a tool.

And then there is the vexing question of "how strong is your disinfectant"? Methylated spirits will be effective if it is made up fresh daily and diluted by adding about 3 parts meths to one part water (e.g. add 750ml meths to 250ml water). 70% isopropyl alcohol should be used undiluted. Which one are you using? Do you "make it up fresh" every day? And what about all those other, "own brand" disinfectants?

The answer is to have a look at the bottle and find the active ingredient. Benzalkonium chloride and cetrimide are common active ingredients in what are called "quaternary ammonium compound disinfectants" or quats for short. If you are using a quat, choose one where the active ingredient is at least 5% concentration and use at least one part disinfectant to 20 parts water. (If the active ingredient is less than 5% you will need to use a lot of the product for it to be effective.) You don't need to take my word for this, just look it up on google for yourself.

So how many types of "Disinfectant" are there? We all tend to say the word, without really knowing what we are meaning by it. You may be fascinated to learn that there are seven main groups of chemical disinfectants, as follows:
  • Phenolics such as Lysol or Sudol - these are very effective against bacteria but some are unpleasant to handle or are strong smelling.
  • Hypochlorites such as bleach - these are effective against bacteria but may be corrosive to metal. (Remember what I said about dipping your secateur blades in bleach? That's why.)
  • Iodophors which contain iodine - these are effective against bacteria and some even contain detergents.
  • Alcohol such as methylated spirits - these are effective against bacteria and are generally "fast acting" although it's hard to get a firm answer to the question "how fast?".
  • Quaternary ammonium compounds (quats) such as Savlon - these are generally less effective disinfectants but better as detergents.
  • Diguanides such as Dettol - these have a limited anti-microbial activity and are not suitable to disinfect equipment.
  • Pine fluids such as Pine ‘o’ Clean - these have very little disinfectant activity.

Everything I have read on the internet repeats the advice that "All disinfectant solutions need to be made up freshly each day" so we have to assume that contact with water starts them deteriorating - and for an unstated reason, "tools should not be left soaking in disinfectant", so you can't leave them soaking overnight either.

This is all very confusing, so I decided to stop researching general internet stuff, and go for some proper scientific research.

First I found a scientific Safety Manual which specified recommended disinfectants for laboratory use, which was very interesting: their list of suggested disinfectants only had three entries:

1) Hypochlorites (such as bleach) - Inactivated by organic matter. Corrosive to some metals. May damage rubber. Not compatible with cationic detergents. Working solutions need to be changed daily

2) Alcohols (e.g. 70% industrial methylated spirits) -  Poor penetration of organic matter, and should only be used on physically clean surfaces.

3) Quaternary ammonium compounds (QAC or quats) - Inactivated by protein and some plastics.

See - they also make the point about disinfectants being inactivated by organic matter, and they agree that fresh solution should be made up each day.

After Scientific laboratory research, I made the logical leap to medical recommendations, and took a short tour of their rules and regulations.  Interestingly, the medical world consider the quats (the ones we are most likely to get hold of) to be merely a low-level disinfectant: they are described as "Limited use as disinfectant because of narrow microbicidal spectrum."  They, too, specify that disinfectants must only be used only on clean, rinsed and dried instruments/equipment, because "Protein material, detergent and soap will inhibit some disinfectants." They must also be used in the proper concentration, and within the stipulated lifetime after dilution.

This reinforces our lesson that you have to clean (ie de-gunk) your tools before you even start to disinfect them.

Other lessons learned: The rougher the surface, the longer the contact time required for disinfection (crevices, hinges, worn and pitted surfaces). The number of micro-organisms present will lengthen the time for effective disinfection to take place. In general, higher bioburden requires more time for
disinfection. ("duuuh")  Some micro-organisms are more resistant to disinfection than others. The generally accepted order from the most resistant to the least resistant is: bacterial spores,
mycobacteria, hydrophilic viruses, fungi, vegetative bacteria, lipid viruses.

When it came to trying to find a "best" disinfectant, all I could find was gobbledegook like this:

"Many disinfectants are broad spectrum; that is, effective against all or most forms of microbial life. Some broad spectrum disinfectants include glutaraldehyde, sodium hypochlorite (bleach), and hydrogen peroxide. Non-broad spectrum disinfectants include phenolics and quaternary ammonium
compounds. Alcohols lie somewhere in between these two."

Not so helpful, huh?

Then I read this bit:

"Resistance of micro-organisms depends on the type of disinfectant used. A particular micro-organism may be more resistant to one type of disinfectant than another. For instance, alcohol (isopropyl or ethyl) is effective against vegetative bacteria and most lipophilic viruses, but is not effective against bacterial spores or most hydrophilic viruses."

So what do we actually want to kill, when we sterilise our secateurs? Unless you know what you want to get rid of, you are probably using the wrong product: and either way, you are wasting your time with antiseptic wipes and so on.

One definitive statement is that higher temperatures increase the killing power of most disinfectants, whereas lower temperatures may slow the killing power of most disinfectants, which is no help at all to those of us who work outdoors.

Then it occurred to me that I didn't actually know the difference between "antiseptic" and "disinfectant" and I had been using the two terms interchangeably.

But they are not the same at all - an antiseptic is used on living tissues and cells to destroy any types of infections which may be living on the tissue. Disinfectants are meant to destroy microorganisms which can infect nonliving objects. Common antiseptics include mouthwash, TCP, Dettol, Savlon, Germolene etc.  Things we apply to our bodies.  Disinfectant is stuff like alchohol, the quats we encountered earlier, formaldehyde, chlorine, Hydrogen peroxide, Iodine, Jeyes Fluid etc, (although apparently TCP can also be used as a disinfectant) and are the things we use on worksurfaces, floors etc.

This led me onto Dentistry, as a sub-division of "medical", and I found a study on disinfecting toothbrushes, which showed that Hexidine, 3.0% hydrogen peroxide and Listerine all showed 80-90% efficacy, whereas Dettol showed only 40% effectiveness in decontaminating the toothbrushes. Water, as a control, showed the least effectiveness in cleaning the toothbrushes. So if you want a clean, healthy mouth, soak your toothbrush for 20 minutes in Listerine once a week, then let it air dry. So much for using Listerine as a mouthwash!  My dental hygienist has always said that all mouthwashes are utterly pointless, and this certainly supports her: so rather than using it as a rather ineffective antiseptic, it is actually a quite effective disinfectant (ie to kill microorganisms on things around us).

Oh, and you should replace it - the toothbrush - every 3 months anyway, as the germs will build up on it in that time, to a maximum level.

How is that relevant to us gardeners?  The relevance is that if you are currently using Dettol to disinfect your secateurs, you are wasting your time, change to Listerine!

And what of that old favourite, Jeyes Fluid? It's a disinfectant for outdoor use (according to Wikipedia) and contains: *deep breath*   *outbreak of coughing - it's strong stuff!*

CRESOL -meta
CRESOL -para
Oh, and Tar Acids.   Yummmm, lovely.

Unfortuately, the Jeyes website would not let me see any of their data sheets, but I managed to find them anyway by googling "jeyes fluid data sheets" hehehehe, go on, try it yourself. It's scary stuff, designated as "acute toxicity"  plus warnings about damage to skin, eyes etc.  and whatever you do, don't heat it up and inhale the vapours ("duuuuh!"). However, I can't find any proof of what it actually does, other than the hype on the website with the claims about killing 99% of all known germs, and the claim - concerning the outdoor wipes - that they "provide anti-bacterial protection for up to 24 hours".

Don't forget that the phrase "up to" always includes the possibility of "barely .0003 of a second". And they imply that a single swipe with their wipe will do both of these tricks: kill 99% of the germs, and last for 24 hours.

However, after contacting Henkel, who make Jeyes Fluid, a nice lady called Joan told me that "The instructions for tools is to dilute 10ml of Jeyes Fluid in 5000ml of water, apply to the tools and leave for five minutes before rinsing off."  So much for the outdoor wipes.

I like the loose use of the word "germs", by the way - "germs" is the catchall name for microorganisms ("tiny things") such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa, some of which are harmful to us and/or our plants, most of which are essential for normal life.  They act in different ways, they live, breed and die in different ways, and unless we know which type of microorganism we are wanting to kill, we may well be going about it the wrong way. The only thing they seem to have in common is that they flourish in damp environments and die in dry ones, hence the emphasis on letting tools dry out properly.

While we're digressing, let's just ponder for a moment on the likelihood that a wet-wipe of any sort could offer 24 hours of protection.

I have to admit that I get a bit shirty about wet wipes in general (although I use them to clean my hands before I drive off in my car) because stupid people will try to flush them down the loo, where they won't dissolve, and where they clog up the drains. Put Them In The Bin!! Or better still, let them air-dry, then use them again as general wiping-rags. (Stop shrieking about the germs: as just mentioned, germs need a moist environment, so if you let the wipes dry out, they become inert and can be used for all sorts of things in perfect safety.) (no, I wouldn't blow my nose on them,  but they're perfect in the car for cleaning windscreen wiper blades, number plates, lights, etc.)

 The Royal College of Nursing's own document "Wipe It Out" , dated June 2011, investigates the role of medi-wipes: these are non-skin wipes used for the cleaning or disinfection of the patient environment or equipment (detergent or disinfectant wipes) and these are easily available to the general public.

This report said:

"Detergents are essential to the cleaning process, acting to release dirt from a surface.

"Wetness: the ability of the wipe to leave a layer of liquid disinfectant behind on the
surface it is applied to.

"Disinfectant efficacy: once the wiped surface dries, all disinfectant activity stops and,
should any residue of disinfectant be left behind, it will have no effect on further dry
contamination such as microbes (including spores) in dust, which will inevitably settle on
it or be transferred to it soon after cleaning."

Note that they they distinguish between the need for detergent, to clean the surface, and the disinfectant, which needs to be left behind in a layer of liquid.

They comment that the currently accepted European Committee for Standardization (CEN) tests involve a suspension of microbes which is commonly exposed to a disinfectant for up to 60
minutes (the contact time) before looking for an effect. 60 minutes! So if you are relying on a statement in the advertising material of your wet-wipes, which mentions compliance with a stated CEN test (sorry, what was that, your wet-wipes don't comply with any sort of standard? Well, they're going to be pretty useless then, aren't they?) then you need to understand that the CEN test expects your secateurs to be in contact with  your wet-wipe for 60 minutes of wetness to achieve whatever level of germ-killing they are claiming.

Food for thought, eh?!

The report goes on (I did warn you this was a long article, didn't I?):

"As disinfectants in wipes will only work while wet – in other words before they dry on a
surface (usually only a matter of seconds) – the contact time in some tests can grossly
overestimate the level of disinfection that will be achieved by the wipe in practice.
Other tests for wipes can use repeated wiping so that a surface is wet for far longer than
will occur in real-life use. This too will greatly overestimate performance in everyday use."

So, some of the wet-wipe manufacturers cheat in their tests.  Good to know.

"The most common disinfectants used in wipes are chemicals such as alcohols or surface
active disinfectants – quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs) or triamines. These
biocides will achieve limited disinfection (that is with nil or minimal sporicidal activity
or activity against non-enveloped viruses such as norovirus) within the exposure times
that are achieved in practice (typically a few seconds). It should also be noted that the
microbicidal activity will be further compromised if soiling (dirt, vomit, blood, faeces, etc.)
is present.

"Other wipes, usually substantially more expensive, can contain chlorine dioxide or
peracetic acid. These may have activity against spores and non-enveloped viruses, but
again their efficacy will be limited by exposure time, how well the disinfectant is applied to
surfaces (coverage), and the presence of contamination."

The result concludes:

"Wipes are increasingly being used to decontaminate low risk patient equipment or
environmental surfaces. Currently there is no guidance available to support users
or purchasers of wipes and little evidence to support wipes as an effective infection
prevention intervention."

I have read any number of adverts for medi-wipes which say "Kills 99.9% of all germs in 30 seconds and keep working on the surface for up to 4 hours."

In view of everything I have read in the past couple of weeks, I would put forward my opinion that this is simply not true. The 99.9% bit might be, but not the "30 seconds" bit, nor the "keeps working for 4 hours" bit. The data sheets on the individual chemicals are quite clear: in order to kill germs, the surface needs to be clean beforehand, and has to be wetted for 15-30 minutes, and as soon as the surface dries, the killing action ceases.

So, where does that leave us?

Firstly, cleaning your tools is more important than sterilising them:  if you clean off the sap and mud, there is no-where for the germs to lurk.

Secondly, if you really want to sterilise tools, there is no point using a convenient wet-wipe: the blades need to be "wetted", ie immersed in the solution, for the required length of time. The rules are:

1) Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to ensure that the correct (optimum) dilution is used.

2) Make up fresh solution each time, and throw it away once you're done.(I say "throw it away" but I mean "dispose of it safely" of course...)

3)  Check expiry date of the solution. The date should be clearly marked on the container. There is no point using out of date chemicals, they won't be fully effective.

4)  The dunking container must itself be thoroughly cleaned or sterilised every time you use it.

5)  Don't leave containers of disinfectant open - close them asap, and check the pack/bottle to see how long after opening the product is still effective.

6) Always thoroughly clean articles before disinfection, i.e., remove any substance such as dirt, sap, squashed worms and other biological materials.

7) Always allow tools to dry thoroughly after cleaning/disinfecting. This may mean storing them with the blades in the open position.

Thirdly, there is a strong case to be made for not using any anti-bacterial products at all, due to the very real and already existing problem of "super-bugs", ie germs which have become resistant to the anti-bacterials, due to over-exposure. Just type the phrase "Quat-resistant bacteria have been detected in homes routinely cleaned with antibacterial products" and you will find website after website banging on about this issue. OK, most of them are cutting and pasting from each other, but the point remains that using strong chemicals incorrectly (ie not soaking for 5-30 mins as per the relevant data sheet) is no use at all, and using them unnecessarily does more harm than good.

So what do I do? I quite like the principle of  "I stick them under my arm, clamp down and pull forward with an upward arching motion"!

But seriously, in real life, what do I do?

I keep my secateurs (and that includes loppers, choppers, bowsaw, pruning saw, knife, shears, etc) clean  of mud, sap and other plant material. If they get mucky while I am working, I use a handful of grass to wipe them clean. If any of your gardens are infested with Mare's Tails (Equisetum), by the way, then just use a small handful of these: their stems contain silica and they are nature's brillo pad.

If I have been cutting some material that is clearly infected, ie coral spot, any sort of mildew or powdery fungus, or if I've been cutting back plants which I know to have that sort of problem, ie Hellebores, or Roses, then after wiping with grass, I run them under the tap and dry them, before moving on to other plants.

In addition,  I have any number of pairs of secateurs on the go at any one time, so if there isn't time to wash and dry them thoroughly, or if I've found anything nasty in one particular garden, I can put aside that pair for proper cleaning and drying when I get home.

So there you go, phew, that lot took me months to get together, and although in a way it is depressing reading (ie you're doing it wrong, wet-wipes don't work, and doing it "properly" is a right faff) it is better to know the facts than to blithely continue with a regime that is ineffective.


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