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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