Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Wet toes - all part of being a gardener

I had a question the other day, from Gasper ("Hi there!") asking if I ever had any success in my quest for waterproof boots.

Well, in short: "no."

I still get wet toesies, in fact this morning I abandoned work after just two hours, as my boots were soaking, and my socks were getting wet.

Call me old-fashioned, but I'm not prepared to work in wet socks! My old Nana used to say it would give you rheumatism - or gout, or would make your hair curl, one or the other.. it's also uncomfortable, and likely to lead to sore patches, so I just won't do it.

So what have I tried? *sigh*

I tried dubbin - useless and sticky.

Neatsfoot oil - useless and very expensive.

Candle wax - dead cheap, only worked for 20 mins. But surprisingly effective for those 20 minutes!

Vaseline - very cheap, not very effective, and apparently not very good for the leather.

Scotchguard - quite expensive, makes me drool for Pear Drops (which are quite hard to find, these days!) and doesn't seem to actually work.

Oh, and I tried buying Sketchers allegedly waterproof boots - above - and no, they were not waterproof, after about the first half dozen times of wearing them.

I even considered getting some Seakskinz waterproof socks: I'm not sure if that is really the answer, though, as I feel that it would be as bad as putting a plastic bag inside the boot, which is another tip from my Army buddy - and which is not recommended, as it makes your feet sweat so they get nearly as wet as they would without the bags.

So what does that leave?

I asked around my fellow PGG members, and got mixed answers: some people would swear by one particular brand, but others would say they'd tried them and they were useless, all of which was very annoying.

My minion, however, wears DMs (Doc Martens): and says they are totally waterproof.

Now, I have experience of DMs, from back when I was in my late 20s, and my calves still twinge when I think of them. It is not a good idea, dear reader, to go for a 6-mile walk in brand new rock-hard DMs. They kill you. Slowly. And painfully. Now that I'm a grown-up (allegedly!), I realise that they have to be carefully broken in, and I'm not quite sure if I'm prepared to go through the "3 months of blisters" that the internet suggests. Also, and I don't wish to sound like a skinflint here, they do cost in excess of £120 a pair. I normally pay around £50-£60 for my Wrangler leather boots, and that seems a bit steep, but ok considering they are for work, and I do spend 8 hours a day in them.

£120  does seem a bit much for something that is going to hurt me for months.... but my minion said I was looking at the wrong boot, the £120 is for what you might call "fashion" DMs, and that I should look again, for "work boots".

Which I did, and I've now ordered a pair of FS64 DMs, which are apparently the standard work boot, with steel toecaps and everything. They were a mere  £72 (*flinches*) but if they are truly waterproof, then they certainly will be worth it.

My minion kindly demonstrated how to "work" the area at the back of the heel before wearing them, to get a bit of flex in the leather, so I will make a point of doing that before subjecting my feet to them, and I'll report back in a month or so, to let you know how I am getting on!

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Physocarpus - taming a wild one

I had a question recently from Corine ("Hi, Corine!") about pruning of a particular shrub. The question was:

"We have a very overgrown Physocarpus ‘Dart’s Gold’ that I am rather fed up with:  I am tempted to cut it right down to the base but I don’t want to kill it as it gives us privacy."

If you're not familiar with Physocarpus, take a moment to look it up - go on, you're already on the internet - as it's a lovely shrub, and rather under-used. It doesn't have a useful common name: the nearest is "Nine-bark" but I've never heard anyone call it that.

'Dart's Gold" is not one that I particularly like myself: when it comes to Physocarpus, I like Physocarpus opulifolius 'Diablo' (or 'Diabolo') because it has fabulous dark purple foliage. I always think of the "opulifolius" part as referring to the foliage - the "folius" part - as being "opulent" , which it is, and as for the Diabolo bit: maybe there's a connection to diabolical, the devil, dark, who knows?

Whatever the basis of the naming, it's a tough, hardy, shrub, which grows in pretty much any soil or sun conditions: it has nice upright stems (if you prune it according to the following regime, that is!) and in spring, it has sprigs of creamy white flowers, which are particularly nice against the dark foliage of the Diabolo cultivar.

So, the pruning: Corine's question is a fairly standard one, and my normal answer is to describe the old "cut out 1 in 3" pruning regime. If you're not familiar with this regime, here's the details: it's a really, really useful thing to learn as it can be applied to pretty much all garden shrubs.

All you have to do is cut out one third of the main stems each year, from as low down as you possibly can. Ground level would be ideal, but sometimes - if they are very old and congested - it's not possible to get that close to the base, so you might end up having to cut them at ankle height, or even at shin height.

A pruning saw is usually the best tool for the job, or a pair of loppers if you can get them in amongst the stems: and yes, it will involve crawling around on your hands and knees, so wear gloves, kneepads, and protective eyewear.

Why do this? The easy way, non-gardeners think, is to take the hedgetrimmers to it, and just round it down to whatever height you want it.

Ah, but this ruins the shape, the "form" of the plant.

When you cut a shrub, it will tend to sprout two or more new shoots from the cut end, so by using the hedgetrimmers, you will gradually create a hedge: a free-standing one,  which is round rather than long, but still, basically, a hedge. If you do it repeatedly, it will get bigger, and thicker and thicker on top, while getting thinner and thinner at the base, until you get a top-heavy "lollipop" which looks ugly, and is still too large.

Furthermore, if it's a flowering shrub, then you will probably never have seen flowers on it, from the day you started using the hedgetrimmers.

Instead, start an annual regime of cutting out one third of the main stems every year.

Year one: cut out a third of them. Any third, it doesn't matter, you might find it easier to cut out the ones on the outside, but you'll get the best effect if you can spread them out throughout the shrub. Cut them out as low as you can. If you really, really need to reduce the height, then go ahead and chop the tops off what's left.

Year two: you'll have the two-thirds of the original stems (now sprouting lots of lanky bits high up where you trimmed them) plus a whole batch of new, straight, upright ones which have sprung from the base. Carefully avoid these new ones, and cut out  half of the old ones, right down low again. Again, if what's left is too high at the top, reduce the height a little.

Year three: aha, now it gets to be fun: cut out the last third of the old stems. Right down low.  Now you have got rid of all the old, congested, wood: you have a year's worth of new straight stems from this year, along with a year's worth from last year. So your shrub is now clean, and clear, comprising straight, upright stems which can arch naturally, instead of fighting each other and having their heads chopped off by the hedgetrimmers.

Year four onwards: each year, cut out the oldest, tallest stems, right down low. Not necessarily a third of them: if you want more bulk, leave it for another year: if it's getting too tall, take out the tallest stems, but always cut them right down low.

This regime produces a shrub on which nothing is more than three or four years old: at least two-thirds of it will be bearing flowers, and keeping it under control will now be quick and simple, and nothing like the wrestling matches you had for the first three years.

When to do this? Whenever you have time. If it's a deciduous shrub, then doing it in winter means you can see the stems more clearly without all the leaves getting in the way. Doing it in spring means that regrowth will start quickly, covering up any gaps you might have inadvertently made.

Why do it in instalments?  It's kinder to the plant: the parts which you leave can continue to photosynthesise and support the plant, while the new shoots are growing. Too much of a shock can sometimes kill a plant, especially an old, well-established one.

Although having said that, if it's driving you mad, I would always say "give it a go" on the grounds that you are already fed up with it, so if it dies, well, it's no great loss, is it?

So, getting back to Corine's original question, if it's driving you mad but you want to retain privacy, then do half this year, and do the other half next year. I'd suggest doing the "back" half first, on the grounds that you won't then have to look at the bare cut ends for a couple of months. I'm assuming that if privacy is an issue, then it's on a boundary somewhere...  then, next summer, when it's regrown some new stems at the back, cut out the other half of the old ones, the "front" ones.

Thus, you retain some privacy, and give the plant time to recover between prunings.

Good luck, Corine, let me know how it goes!

Friday, 12 October 2018

Briers Lady Gardener Gloves: sexism in gloves!

I'm a disappointed bunny today.... yesterday I started a new pair of gloves,  which is nothing new in itself, as I get through gloves very quickly.

*shakes head and grumbles “you can't get the quality, these days: gloves used to last for years and now it's barely five minutes” grumble grumble*

Usually they go through at the tips of the fingers, particularly (but not always!) on the left hand, and I know that I am not alone in this: I'm still searching for a gardener who wears out their right-hand gloves, so that we can do a swap of our orphans.

Or, a decent glove that lasts longer than a couple of weeks.... 

Anyway, yesterday I started this new pair:

now, when I buy Briers gloves, I usually go for the ones called Professional: I must have had dozens of pairs of these over the last few years, getting through them faster and faster as the quality - which was excellent when they started - deteriorated.

Along with deteriorating quality, they also went up in price, to the point where a £6 pair of gloves is now £14.99, so I started looking for alternatives.

On the rack, at the garden centre, they had these ones: “Lady Gardener”, price £6.99.

They appeared in most aspects to be exactly the same as the Professional Gardener - fake leather palms, strange cut-out patch on the index finger knuckle (for ease of bending?) Velcro tab for fastening. The only difference seemed to be the colour - you can just hear the marketing department saying “ooh, ooh, let's make them pink, we'll sell lots of them!” and one lone voice of common sense reminding them that not all females swoon over pink... so they made them dark purple instead.

 OK, that's acceptable.

So, I put on my dark purple “Lady” gardener gloves and started working - oh, hello, what's this? There's a hole in them - ALREADY????

Look closely at the third finger, on the picture above.....

Unbelievably, the stitching on the finger had a gap in it.

There is no excuse for this - it's called “skimping”. It's where they cut the garment (whether it's clothing, gloves, shoes, anything) with such tiny seam allowances that the slightest lack of concentration by their machinists means that there are gaps in the seams, where the stitching has missed the seam allowance altogether.

 Here - right - I've pushed my finger through the hole to give you an idea of the size.

This is despicable: do Briers really think that just because we are female, we don't deserve decent quality? Do they think that we will accept poor quality stitching on our “Lady Gardener” *spits the phrase* gloves, because we get poor quality stitching on our everyday clothes?

Now don't get me started on the poor quality of female clothing - it's the reason I wear men's clothes for work, including boots: clothes allegedly designed for women are invariably made from inferior materials, badly cut, poorly assembled, with fewer pockets, and those they do deign to provide are much shallower than men's. Unfair! Oh, and they usually cost more, too. Super unfair!

So, Briers, I am very disappointed that your so-called Lady Gardener range is the right price, but definitely the wrong level of quality.

I'm contacting them today to see what they say.... and I'll let you know.

Actually, the story is even worse: I went to fling these gloves into my box of "things which I have been sent to review", and in it I found another pair of them, from several months ago, possibly a year or more ago.

It's clear that I threw them in there, in disgust, because they had worn through at the finger tips in an unreasonably short time. I can't remember if I ever got around to reviewing them ("oops!"), which will teach me to do the reviews asap, to save me buying a crap product if I have already tried it!

 The packaging and the product code are different - this pair are item B0648 whereas the ones above are B6036 - and they're a different shade of not-pink, but they didn't last very long at all.

As you can see from this close-up (right) the index and second fingers on the left had both went right through, and this was in probably no more than a couple of days' use.

Who exactly do they design them for, I wonder?

I was going to say something like "Elderly ladies who do a bit of light dead-heading?" but all the elderly ladies I know are demon gardeners, who work nearly as hard as I do!

So, let's wait and see what Briers have to say for themselves....

..... update,  an hour and a half later:

A nice lady called Amy from Briers contacted me,  confirming that this is not the level of quality they expect from their gloves, and offering to send me a replacement pair straight away.

So, providing that the replacement pair are fine (and I'm sure that she'll check them carefully before packing them, won't you, Amy? *laughs* ), it looks as though you can buy Briers gloves with confidence, as they do indeed stand by their guarantee.

I do like a happy ending! 


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Saturday, 22 September 2018

Trainee Tales: The Snick of the Secateurs

It's quite amazing, the things that "one" doesn't notice "oneself" doing, in "one's" own specialist subject, isn't it?

I remember back in my 20s, when I used to make period clothing professionally (don't ask...) that a customer, visiting for a fitting, was more amazed by the way I tied knots in the thread with which I was hand-sewing, than in anything else I did.

Padded jacks, with leather strapping: pearl-encrusted stomachers: extravagant slashing: all of these and more paled in comparison to the simple way in which I knotted the end of the thread before starting to sew.

To me, this was such a basic part of sewing that I didn't even think about it (for your information, I just loop it twice round a finger, then roll the loops over themselves,  then pinch the knot tight with thumb and finger: simple), but for them, it was a minor miracle.

In the same way, in Garden School last week, my current Trainee was working through the lavender beds, and there was a sudden gleeful cry of "I've got it!"

"Got what?" I asked, straightening up from my share of the lavender. "My secateurs are making the proper snappy sound that yours do!" was the reply.

I love the concept of mine doing it the "proper" way... but I had to admit, I could see what they meant - or rather, I could hear what they meant. There had been silence for the first couple of minutes, then after a while there were two lots of snippy, snappy, snicky sounds, as we chomped our way around the beds.

So what made the difference? My Trainee has been happily pruning roses and other plants in the six weeks or so since they began the Trainee Placement, but without - apparently! - making the right sound. Pondering this, while I continued with the lavender, I came to the conclusion that it's a question of confidence: when you first start using secateurs, there's a tendency to use them like scissors - squeezing the two handles together in a continuous motion, increasing the pressure until you're through.

But when I do it, I snap them together with flair and style (*laughs*), and a significant amount of decisiveness.

My Trainee and I discussed this point, and came to the conclusion that "fear of cutting off your own fingers" came into it as well: and yes, to this day, I live in fear of accidentally doing just that. I've cut the loose fabric on gloves several times, and I have to say that I have "pinched" myself with the secateurs a couple of times, but so far - touch wood - I haven't actually drawn blood.

I think there's a completely subconscious level of self-protection going on: there's a thing called kinaesthetics, which I've probably spelled wrongly, which is all about knowing where your own body is. I learned about it when I did a lot of horse riding: some people are "naturals" and some struggle, and there's a way to find out which you are. You can do this yourself, now, if you like:  hold your two arms up in front of you, across your body, at chest height. Point your index fingers at each other, about an inch apart - close, but not touching.

Right, now relax them down by your sides again.  Now, go back to that same position, but with your eyes closed.  Do it quickly, don't think about it too much - then open your eyes and see how far adrift your fingers are.

If they are very nearly in the correct position, congratulations,  you have an excellent degree of kinaesthetic skill, and you would make a good horse rider. You probably also have a good sense of balance - the two go hand-in-hand, as being balanced is easy if you "know" where all the parts of your body are.

I hardly need to say that my fingers rarely end up level, and yes, I was never a "natural" rider!

So I think this sense is one which prevents us from hurting ourselves - we subconsciously pull back if we sense that we might be close to cutting ourselves. Of course, it's not something to rely on, and part of my demonstration of lavender pruning was to show my Trainee what I consider to be a sensible hand position, to be used when doing repetitive cutting back of lavender (or anything else, for that matter), with the spare fingers all safely out of the way of the blades.

This allows the secateurs to be applied with confidence, and with a good solid SNICK! as they close.

As a side issue, I remember one Client from many years ago often used to say that she could always find me in her garden, by following the sounds of the secateurs.  So I guess that making the "proper" snappy sound with your secateurs is a sign that proficiency has been achieved, yay!

Sunday, 16 September 2018

White worms in the compost

I had a question from Terese, in the small hours of this morning: she asked about small white worms which had found their way, uninvited, into her compost heap.

The questions were, are they baby brandlings, and will they do the compost any harm.

Firstly, no - they are not baby brandlings. Brandlings are red from the word go, they start off as tiny red things and then become larger red things.

The small skinny white worms are Pot worm, or potworms, proper name Enchytraeidae. I have no idea how that is pronounced - I'd go for Enky-try-eye-day, I think. They are a group of worms who like things really, really wet, and with a very low pH, ie an acidic environment.

A good compost heap will have a more-or-less neutral pH, and will be good and moist but not soggy. So you can see that if the potworms move in, the brandlings have probably already moved out.

The good news, and the answer to the second question, is that the potworms do the same job as the brandlings - they will scoff the organic matter, then poo it out, thus creating compost. The “bad” news, if you can call it that, is that the compost they produce is going to be rather more acidic than neutral, which might not suit your plants.

Although, as you are apparently adding a lot of low-pH material to your compost, your garden is probably quite a low-pH one anyway!

So if your compost contains lots of tiny white, semi-translucent worms, you now know that they are potworms, and it's an indication that your compost heap is a bit too wet, and a bit too low in pH.

If you want the brandlings back, it's quite simple - you need to change the conditions of your compost heap, by drying it out a little, and raising the pH.

To dry out the compost, you can add dry, crunchy material such as flower stems, dried-out strimmed long grass, or shredded paper, stirring them well in: and you can cover the heap from rain and dew for a few days, taking the cover off when the sun is out.

Then, to raise the pH, the standard remedies include adding wood ash and stirring it well in - which will also help with the soggyness problem, by aerating the material - or finely crushed eggshells.

The final suggestion - and this is not my own, this one comes from the internet, so no guarantees! - is to soak a slice of break in milk and plop it down on top of the heap. After a few days, it will apparently be colonised by the potworms, and you can then remove it and either dispose of it, or bury it in the garden somewhere. This will drastically reduce their population so, along with changing the conditions of the heap, this should break their cycle of dominance.

So now you know! Red worms, white worms, all worms are good, and they also act as an indicator to tell us something about the composition of our compost.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Edging of beds: how to retrieve an untidy one

Earlier this year I had a fun job: a very large, long border had lost its nice crisp edge, and it was time to restore it.

The edge had been lost for two reasons: firstly and mostly, the planting had grown overlarge and was overhanging the grass in several places, which meant that the grass in those areas had died off.

And secondly, it had been a wee bit neglected for a while, with no-one clipping the edges to keep them straight.

This resulted in a very wobbly edge!

In cases like these, you have to decide whether to restore the original line of the bed,  which would mean removing and/or reducing the plants which were encroaching on the grass line, or whether to re-cut the bed edge slightly further out, in order to accommodate the plants.

Which one to choose? The decision depends on several factors: for instance, is there another bed alongside it or opposite it - if it's one of a pair, they will need to match.

Are there other garden elements nearby, such as gates, hedges etc which need to line up with the edge? Is there enough room for the mower - if the grassy part is a narrow path, you can't remove more of it to accommodate plants if doing so will make it too narrow for the mower.

And, a sensible, practical one - does the edge meander all the way along, or is there just one massive missing bits? There is no need to do a major restructure of the bed edge if there are only one or two badly spoiled patches.

Having taken all these things into consideration, I decided to widen the bed slightly: re-cutting the front edge to allow the plants room to spread.

Step one was to stretch out a line, to see how badly the edge was out of line, and to work out where the new edge was going to be.

This involved measuring the depth of the bed, to ensure the new front line wasn't going off at a weird angle, and showed that it wasn't really all that bad: you can see the typical “in and out” wavy edge. where in some places, the grass has been lost, and in other places, it has invaded the bed.

So I put the line in what seemed to be the best midway position, with the minimum of grass to be removed, but enough to leave a good edge. (The photo above shows my Trainee, learning how to use a half-moon edger.)

In this case, there was another part to the problem:  at the back, there was a narrow grassy strip which was now too narrow for the mower to get along. So, having decided where my new line was going to be, I decided to use the lifted turves to build up the edge at the back. This meant doing a bit of preparation to the back edge, removing a few plants which had taken advantage of the lack of mowing to spread out into the grass. It also meant taking the time to weed the strip of soil which would be turfed, and to get it level and at about the right height.

Right! To work! Firstly, cut all the way along the line, using either a half-moon edger (which is the traditional and best tool for this job) or a border spade with a very flat blade (which is what I normally end up doing!).

Next, lift the damaged turves and lay them aside.

Here - right - is that step, and if you look closely, you can see the slight wiggle where my Trainee did his bit! ("Bless!")

This does not matter in the least: once the job was finished, I went along the new edge with the edgers and just tidied out that minor digression.

You can see that now, we have a nice clear edge to give those plants room to grow and flop forward, without trespassing on the grass.

Thirdly, peg out the line at the back of the bed, cart the lifted turves round to the back, and lay them down with the cut edge outwards.

Any gaps were filled in with loose soil, and over time the grass will grow and fill them.

Finally, remove the line again, and stomp down the “new” turves, then water them well. The back edge is a bit wobbly, as it's quite hard to make a perfect edge with what you might call “variable” hand-lifted turf! That doesn't matter: in a few weeks, the new turf will have knitted into place, and can be trimmed into a good straight line.

There you go, job done: and now, some months later, the new front edge looks great, and the plants are all within it - and as for the back edge, you would never know that it had ever been so badly damaged!

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Sunday, 19 August 2018

Cherry tree with damaged bark

I had a question come in the other day, about a small ornamental Cherry with damage to the bark - a whole section of the bark at about chest height was peeling away, and the anxious owner was worried that the tree would die.

Here's a picture of the tree, taken earlier this year: as you can see, quite a big area of damage.

So why did this happen, and what can be done?

Well, the first thing to say is that Cherries are not long-lived trees: an ornamental one can have a lifespan as short as 20 years, which is no time at all in the life of a garden, especially if we buy them when they are four or five feet tall, which means they are already five years old before we get them.

So if you have a Cherry that's been there for more than a decade, it may well be heading towards the end of its life anyway.

The actual damage could have occurred for many reasons: it could be frost damage, where water gets inside a small split in the bark, then freezes. As it expands, it splits the bark.

The original split may have been disease: cherries are susceptible to phytopthera and to bacterial infection, and there's not much we, as garden owners, can do about it - the spores are "in the air" as it were, and there is no way to prevent them wafting in.

Canker is another possible cause: if the crack in the bark is accompanied by a gummy substance or a darkened crust, then the tree may be infected with one of the many fungal diseases known collectively as canker. Like phytopthera, cankers are always hanging around looking for an opportunity, and trees that are stressed due to frost damage, mechanical injury or lack of water are more likely to develop canker.

If you spot any heavily cankered branches, the best thing to do is to prune them out, making sure that diseased branches are burned or destroyed, to prevent the disease from spreading right back into the tree, and into others nearby.

Going back to frost damage, a little internet research suggests that after a chilly winter night, the south- and east-facing sides of a cherry tree may split as the morning sun causes the bark to warm, expand and break.  If this occurs, the tree will heal on its own, but it forms callused scabs, which are less than pretty. To prevent this, the internet suggests that we paint the trunk with whitewash to help reflect light, making sure to do this only when the trunk has no open wounds. I'm not sure I'd actually go that far, myself, would you?

Apparently you can also "wrap the tree with plastic, paper or cardboard to keep it warm while it heals."   Personally I would not wrap any living plant in plastic, as it "sweats" which would worsen the problem. And I'm not keen on wrapping any plant in anything, for that matter, because you are creating a bug hotel which may well be ecologically very sound, but is likely to lead to even more damage to the bark. So much for the internet, then!

Another possibility for damaged bark is herbicide Injury: many weedkillers contain a wetting agent that can cause permanent damage in thin-barked trees, such as cherry trees, especially when the trees are young. So if you have to use weedkiller near your trees, try to stay at least 20-30 feet away from the trunk (not always possible, I know), and only ever do it on calm, still days, so that the wind doesn't waft the spray over onto the trees.

If it makes you feel any better, I have this tree near to where I live:

As you can see, the bark is split so dramatically that it's practically hanging off the trunk, and the damage extends well over 50% of the trunk diameter.

Yet it's been like this for at least five years, and so far the tree keeps soldiering on, undaunted, which is probably a lesson to us all in persistence in the face of adversity.

So is there anything we can do to prevent these problems occurring in the first place?

Yes: healthy, stress-free cherry trees are far less likely to succumb to problems such as splitting bark than trees that are poorly taken care of.

If you are thinking of planting a new Cherry tree, wait until early spring: trees planted then will have plenty of time to develop a strong, healthy root system before winter sets in.

Plant them carefully: prepare a good, big hole, make sure it's the right depth, and make sure you don't damage the trunk when you manhandle it into the hole, especially if it's a largeish one.

Be careful with stakes and ties: never, ever nail or screw the tree tie to the tree (don't laugh, I've seen it done), and check the ties every year to make sure they are not getting too tight.

Water and feed your new tree for the first year, and in subsequent years, if we have prolonged dry periods, give it a bucket of water every couple of days.

Be nice to your tree: if it's planted in grass,  make a clear space all around it for a foot or more - grass is terribly competitive for water and nutrients, and both fruit trees and ornamentals dislike having to compete for these essentials.

There's another good reason for making a small "bed" around their base: many bark problems are caused by damage from strimming or mowing, so if you have a small clear area around the base of each tree, it will reduce the risk of banging the mower into the trunk, or of whipping it bare with a strimmer.

So there you go: damaged bark on ornamental cherries can be prevented - to some extent - by keeping the tree healthy and un-stressed: and if the worst does happen, it's not always fatal. Or at least, not straight away!

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Friday, 17 August 2018

Hoeing: why I don't do it

The humble Hoe - or, Lethal Weapon and Death To Plants, as I call them.

Many of my friends work in what I call "Estate" gardens: you know,  those big houses owned by rich posh people who have a full-time gardener, or a team of gardeners: and most of them live and die by the hoe, by which I mean that they use them all the time.

But I rarely use one.


Well, firstly, what is a hoe? It's a sharpened blade on the end of a long stick, and you work it by pushing it to and fro just below the surface.

The principle is to chop tiny weed seedlings off before they get started: the dead top part dies in the hot, dry sun, and the root below the surface dies with no leaves to support it.

This only really works on hot dry days, on tiny weed seedlings, with no valuable plants nearby and big gaps between the proper plants: perfect for allotments, in fact, where the crops grow in neat rows, or for the afore-mentioned Estate gardens where they tend to have very large clumps of specific plants, with large gaps between them, making it easy to hoe.

In most of my rather smaller gardens, the beds are packed with a mad variety of plants, in various stages of growth,  and there are no straight lines or obvious gaps at all, such that hoeing is far more likely to chop down something precious than to just get the weeds. Furthermore, most of my gardens don't have those convenient tiny annual weed seedlings: oh no, they have horrible things like bindweed and couch grass, to pick just two at random from the list - and these weeds do not respond favourably to having their heads chopped off. In fact, they see it as "pruning" and they respond by growing even more -  oh woe! So no, I don't hoe. Ho ho. *bits tongue and resists urge to make jolly santa joke*

Hoes come in several different styles: mostly it's a flat-ended blade, but there are also Swoes:

 these are shaped rather like golf clubs and are much better for gardens - as opposed to allotments - as the head is much smaller, and you can, to some extent, work around plants, although they really only work if  you have good big clear gaps between each plant.

This one belongs to a Client, and I do use it for the Rose bed, which has no underplanting at all, so it's much quicker to hoe than to hand-weed: not to mention being able to get in amongst the roses without being scratched to death!

They can also be used, during the June Drop season, for playing Swoe-Apples, a game I invented where you use the swoe rather in the manner of a golf club (with overtones of lacrosse, as you have to hold it in front of yourself) to flick fallen apples off the lawn into the beds, where they can rot down and add organic matter to the soil.. Two points for a clean flick: lose one point for an apple that poings backwards. Beats all that bending down to pick them up!

The second reason I don't hoe (apart from in the rose bed, as mentioned) is that you then have to go round and gather up all the dead chopped tops, otherwise they die on the surface and look horrible. Clients would complain.  Again, in an Estate garden you are working on a large-scale: big clumps of plants, to be seen from a distance, often a considerable distance: so it doesn't matter if there are some dead bits adding to the brownness of the soil, in fact they are probably some kind of lightweight mulch, as far as those beds are concerned.

But in my small gardens, the Client can see every inch of every border: it's a far more intimate experience.

Thirdly, there is the dreaded "pan": this is the technical term for a crust of soil which builds up on or near the surface, which prevents water (rain, irrigation) from soaking in and doing some good. Instead, it sits on the top in flat puddles, then when it dries out, it makes the pan even worse. Frequent hoeing without any sort of digging can lead to this problem.

Fourthly, no matter how good you are with a hoe, there are many occasions where you just can't get the hoe right up to the base of the plane: either there are obstacles, such as low-growing branches (I'm thinking of some particular Roses...) or you dare not risk accidentally chopping the stem. So you end up having to get down on  your knees and hand weed anyway!

At this point, one or two people might be shouting "flame gun!" at the screen: these are long wands with a small blowtorch at the end, powered by either a replaceable gas canister, or a refillable paraffin tank. They are promoted as being an organic alternative to chemicals, for paths and drives. Organic! A complicated,  metal-and-plastic device, using either single-use non-recyclable pressurised cans of gas, or using paraffin (also known as Kerosene) which is a highly toxic fossil fuel derivative which is also used as rocket fuel (look it up yourself, it's evil stuff). Not what I call "organic".

Also, flame guns are notoriously ineffective: they scorch off the top growth, but they don't kill the roots at all, and most weeds/unwanted plants just grow back. Furthermore, their eco-footprint is terrible! And (more to the point) they cost a lot of  money in fuel, as those gas cylinders don't last very long. Not to mention the danger of setting fire to the garden, or to yourself.

So what do I do, if I don't hoe? I use the much-loved Daisy Grubber:

... one simple hand-tool, no moving parts, nothing to break down: they cost just a couple of pounds, and each one lasts for many months.  I dig the weeds out by the roots, while loosening the soil as I go, which I call "fluffing up" the beds, and it gives me the opportunity to check everything as I work around it.

And I know that a weed which I have physically removed is NOT going to grow back! 


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Thursday, 12 July 2018

Hot Weather Watering: Part 4: Resuscitation

Earlier this week I started a short series on Watering in Hot Weather: the other pages being...

1: General Principles.
2: Don't waste water on plants that don't need it
3: Pots

Today, last in the series (unless I think of something else to add), Part 4: Resuscitation.

What to do  if you've left it too long, and the plants are wilting....

In the Garden:

Well, obviously, get out there and water it, even if it appears to be horribly too late: it constantly amazes me how plants will recover from what appears to be certain death.

There's a three-letter acronym they use in the RHS Level 2 course: PWP. It stands for Permanent Wilting Point. (Honest! No joke!)

If a plant has reached PWP then it can't recover, and is dead.

But there is a whole spectrum of conditions before you get to that point - differing degrees of wilting, if you like. So it's always worth watering and waiting, just in case...

You can help by roughing up the surface of the soil around the plants: often, soil will form a pan or crust on top, which prevents any water from getting down to where it can be useful, ie around the roots of the plants. Break up the surface of the soil with a hand-fork or a daisy grubber, aiming to make the top couple of inches penetrable.

If the soil is like concrete, stab downwards with the hand tool, to make vertical holes: they will then fill with water next time you get the hose out, and will act as little sumps, to hold the water down below the surface. Eventually, the sides of all these sumps will soften and crumble, allowing water to penetrate more freely.

Soil pans (or crusts) are often worse where people hoe, rather than weed: a hoe tends to create what looks like a fine tilth, but is actually a shallow layer of dusty soil on top of a hard pan, neither of which is good for the soil or the plants. So if you are in the habit of hoeing, check that your soil is still open and crumbly by trying it with a hand-tool.

With regard to trees and shrubs, they will drop leaves if stressed by lack of water, then grow new ones when water becomes available. So if you find brown, crispy leaves on plants, don't expect them to miraculously turn green again. If the brown or black leaves are willing to drop off when you gently shake them or brush a hand through them, then remove them, rake them up and dispose of them.

But don't pull off dead leaves which are reluctant to fall - don't force them, as you might damage the bud at the base of the leaf, and that's where the new leaf will grow from. Once the new leaf appears, the old one will fall of its own accord.


Next time you are about to water, push your fingers into the soil around the plant(s), if it's loose enough. Is it dry and dusty? Pour on a slosh of water, wait for it to disappear, then push your fingers in again. Is it still dry and dusty, and has the water all gone, leaving the soil miraculously still bone dry?

This is the problem with shop-bought compost: it is very hard to re-wet it.

There are two ways to re-wet compost: either you have to submerge the whole pot in a bucket of water, holding it under until it stops bubbling (resisting the urge to snarl "Give me the secret codes, you swine"), then leave it for at least an hour: or you have to manually push the water into the compost by rubbing it through your hands in the manner of someone rubbing up a crumble.

(For anyone under the age of about 40, or anyone male, much of baking involves mixing fat and flour together. Stirring doesn't do it, you have to get in their with your bare hands and rub them together between fingers and thumb,  using a rub-and-lift action repeatedly, until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.  [At this point, I'm wondering how many people under the ago of about 40, or male, don't even know what fine breadcrumbs look like..]  Wetting compost requires a very similar action, and takes about the same length of time. I'm sure there's a video on it on yootoob somewhere...

... good lord, there is indeed, it's right here.)

So if your pot's soil is like dust, pour on some water and get your hands good and muddy, rubbing the water into the soil until you get mud. Go as far down into the pot as you can - this will depend on how full of roots the pot is. Once the soil is rewetted like this, you will be delighted to see that future waterings no longer flood straight through and out from the bottom.

Soaking is easiest, in the sense that once you plop the pot into water, you just go away and leave it: but it only works with pots small enough to fit into a bucket. And you might have to weigh down the pot, to stop it bobbing around on the surface.

For larger pots, especially heavy terracotta ones, all you can do is place them on the deepest saucers you can find, as per part one:  water them until the saucer fills, give it time for that water to soak back up into the pot, then keep adding more water to the top, until you reach a point where you can water the top without it immediately flooding down into the saucer. This indicates that you have managed to soak at least some of the soil within the pot, hooray!

Leave them sitting in their saucers until the hot weather is gone.... it won't be long, I'm sure.

If you  have a large number of smallish pots: seedlings perhaps, or cuttings, then a soaker box is a good way to do it: take a plastic tray or box or container (or a cardboard box lined with plastic, ie a bin liner, or a compost/bark bag), fill it with a couple of inches of water, and stand the pots in it. Pour more water onto their tops and leave them to soak for a while.

Here's my soaker box at home - left. It's a plastic greengrocers' vegetable tray lined with a compost bag (no expense spared, for us Professional Gardeners!).

As you can see, I use it for individual pots which have dried out too much, and for trays of smaller 9cm pots.

They get plunged, and allowed to soak it all up: and if they are looking a bit pale and wan, I add some liquid seaweed feed to the water in which they are soaking.

The piece of wood top left, in case you are wondering, is a ramp to help my frog get out with dignity... here's a close-up of the top of the picture:

Yup, that's my little froggy pal, the reason why I have snails in my front yard, but no slugs.

Good boy, froggy! He seems to think my soaker box is his own private pond, but I don't know what he thinks about the times when I add the seaweed....

As with the garden advice, I'd suggest not being too quick to prune the plants, unless there are sections which are clearly and obviously dead: if in doubt, give it a chance.

Having said that, with perennials, you can certainly crumple off any paper-dry foliage, as it is unlikely to recover: but in general, I would say leave them for a few days, to see if they pick up.

And finally, don't stop watering just because the sun goes in one day, or if we have a light sprinkling of rain: keep on watering until we get proper, drenching, British-summer-rain again. It won't be long!

If you missed any of the other articles in this series, you can either go back through the archive list, or jump:

1: General Principles.
2: Don't waste water on plants that don't need it
3: Pots
4: Resuscitation (this one) 


Did you enjoy this article? Did you find it useful? Would you like me to answer your own, personal, gardening question? Become a Patron - just click here - and support me! Or use the Donate button for a one-off donation. If just 10% of my visitors gave me a pound a month, I'd be able to spend a lot more time answering all the questions!!

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Hot Weather Watering: Part 3: Pots

Earlier this week I started a short series on Watering in Hot Weather: the other pages being...

1: General Principles.
2: Don't waste water on plants that don't need it
3: Pots
4: Resuscitation

Today, then - POTS!

Oh la, and fie, and horrors in general: pots in hot weather are Trubble with a capital T.

They are getting all the very worst of drought, for these reasons:

1) they have restricted top openings, so they don't catch any rain that might arrive, and they don't catch much water from random sprinkling either.
2) they don't have access to the water bank in the soil.
3) the sides of the pots get scorched by the sun, drying out the roots.
4) they are usually filled with compost (as opposed to "soil"), which is very hard to re-wet once it dries out.
5) they are frequently left up on their "feet" all through the summer.
6) they are totally reliant on their owner to water them... and they are easily overlooked!

I must just add a word of explanation about watering: in Part One, I went on at length about not flooding any individual plant, and how to move the hose to and fro to give the water time to soak in.

With pots, it's all different: their soil is usually hard and compacted, and they often have a dreadful surface pan, so with pots, it is permissible to flood the top of the pot, then leave it to soak down.

So how can we help our poor pots?

Firstly get them off those feet, and get them standing in saucers: plastic ones, terracotta ones, the deepest ones you can find: or use large trays if you don't have any saucers: and if you are desperate, get a biggish cardboard box (or a plastic tray) and line it with plastic: a bin liner, or a compost/bark bag if they are in reasonable condition. Then sit as many pots as you can fit in, inside it.

Why? If, when you water them, the water runs straight through and out of the bottom: and/or if the soil or compost has shrunk away from the sides of the pot, then your compost has dried out and - as per point 4 - it's very hard to re-wet it.

And pouring more and more water into them doesn't help, because the water runs straight through, without being absorbed.

By putting a saucer or tray underneath the pot, that runaway water will sit at the base of the pot and will gradually, by osmosis, be sucked back up into the pot.

Secondly, try to group your pots together during hot weather: this allows them to form their own little micro-climate. Instead of each pot being fully exposed to hot sun and drying winds, they will shelter and shade each other. Not much, but it might be enough to make a difference: and it makes it a lot easier for you to water them, if they are all in once place.

These two points can easily be incorporated together: move all your pots into plastic-lined trays or boxes!  You could even make a decorative arrangement of them, perhaps with a line of empty pots to hide the front of the box... or some trailing foliage.

But just be aware that you are creating a Slug Hotel, so it's worth checking it every so often, and evicting any interlopers. On the other hand, you are also creating a safe environment for frogs, newts, and other small damp-loving amphibians.

Thirdly, how much to water: take note of the expression "it takes one inch of water on the top of a pot, to penetrate eight inches down". So as most plants have roots of 4-8", you'll need to aim for getting up to an inch or so of water on the top of the pot, as it were. If the water starts to sink into the soil as soon as  you start to pour it on, well, that's good: but you can still see for yourself that you need quite a lot of water to soak the soil to the right depth.

If you are not sure how long it takes to add this much water, stand a shallow straight-sided bowl or container on top of a pot, then water it as much as you would normally do. Look in the pot. Gasp in horror at the bare quarter of an inch of water that has accumulated. Go back and water it properly!

This - incidentally -  is why planting instructions always say "leave a gap of at least an inch between the top of the soil, and the top of the pot."  It's to accommodate the amount of water necessary to properly soak the pot.

If it helps, I hold my hose or watering can over a largeish pot for a count of between 5 and 12, depending on the size of the pot. And that's quite a slow count, but remember that I turn my hose pressure way, way down to avoid jet-blasting.

Those are the three important elements of saving your pots in hot weather: saucers, grouping, and sufficient water.

There are also a few other things you can do,  to help your plants-in-pots.

Clear away any weeds, moss, algae, etc on the top surface. They are cheekily sucking up the best of the water each time.

Rough up the surface: break up that "pan" or crust on top, to make the water more likely to get down inside the soil, rather than running to the edge and sneaking away down the sides of the pot.

Add a mulch of something like gravel, small stones, slate chips, anything like that: a hard mulch prevents weeds, prevents a surface pan forming, and slows down the water that you slosh on top, giving it more of a chance to soak into the soil, rather than running straight through and away. I'm not a big fan of hard mulches on pots, but in hot weather they have a role to play, and many people find them decorative as well.

Finally, remember that pots are totally dependent on you for their water, and in this very hot weather, you might need to water them at least once a day, maybe even twice. It's a small price to pay!

If you missed any of the other articles in this series, you can either go back through the archive list, or jump:

1: General Principles.
2: Don't waste water on plants that don't need it
3: Pots (this one)
4: Resuscitation 


Did you enjoy this article? Did you find it useful? Would you like me to answer your own, personal, gardening question? Become a Patron - just click here - and support me! Or use the Donate button for a one-off donation. If just 10% of my visitors gave me a pound a month, I'd be able to spend a lot more time answering all the questions!!

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Hot Weather Watering Part 2: don't waste water on plants that don't need it.

Earlier this week I started a short series on Watering in Hot Weather: the other pages being...

1: General Principles.
2: Don't waste water on plants that don't need it
3: Pots
4: Resuscitation

Today is Part 2: don't waste water on plants that don't need it.

Not all plants need to be watered!

Look at your beds and borders, and see which ones are showing signs of stress - wilting leaves, yellowing leaves, leaves falling off, and general droopiness. Focus on those one: don't waster water doing a generic "spray everything in sight" policy: one day soon there is going to be a hosepipe ban again, but if we are all sensible and use a little less, that dreaded day can be put off for as long as possible.

Some plants are more susceptible than others: Rudbeckia (Coneflower), for example, wilt at the least sign of drought. As does Lysimachia punctata:

This is what they normally look like, one of my favourite purple-foliage plants (I have been known to shear off the top couple of inches to prevent them from flowering: some people like the bright acid yellow flowers against the dark purple, but personally I can live without them), here forming a river of purple in amongst other planting.

But oh dear, this is what a similar planting is looking like today - right.

Not happy!

Luckily, this is one plant which can recover from drought: I gave it a good watering (and gave the garden owner a polite and tactful talking-to about neglecting their watering despite specific instructions), and if we are both lucky, it will recover: if not, I'll chop off all this foliage, right down to the ground, and wait a week or two for it to throw up a whole new batch of shoots, which they usuallly do.

Campanula (Bellflower) are rather water-sensitive: and Astrantia do exactly the same as the Lysimachia:; they pull a fainting fit, wilt and die, but if cut right back and watered well, they will usually get their act together and re-sprout.

Hydrangea are another plant which you might not consider to be water-sensitive, but they are - very much so. A hot day can see them with their leaves drooping in a pathetic manner, begging for water. Luckily, they will mostly pop up again once they receive a good soaking.

Summer bedding, being short-lived and shallow-rooted, is definitely going to need special attention, and personally I always give roses a good soaking, as they need water in order to produce new shoots, and new shoots means new buds, which means more flowers. So it's well worth giving the rose border some attention.

What about plants which don't need the extra watering?

For a start, ignore the lawn! To keep a lawn green and lush in this sort of weather will require an hour with the sprinkler, and that is just such a waste of expensive tap water: let it go brown and crispy! Unless it is freshly laid turf (in which case, get that sprinkler out and spray, spray, spray!), let it die off: it will recover in an amazing way within a few days of the rains returning.

And they will return, trust me!

Meanwhile, turn your back on the lawn: and Mediterranean plants such as Lavender,  most herbs, anything with silver foliage and/or hairy, furry, mealy foliage - all of these simply don't need watering every day.

So don't waste water on them: give them a drenching maybe once a week, if it continues hot like this, but not every day.

Likewise, established trees and shrubs should not need any help with watering: they have good deep roots, and the soil - thanks to the endless rain of "spring" this year - has a good water bank.

Having said that, anything at all in a pot is going to need special help, so that's the subject for tomorrow's article.

If you missed any of the other articles in this series, you can either go back through the archive list, or jump:

1: General Principles.
2: Don't waste water on plants that don't need it (this one)
3: Pots
4: Resuscitation

Did you enjoy this article? Did you find it useful? Would you like me to answer your own, personal, gardening question? Become a Patron - just click here - and support me! Or use the Donate button for a one-off donation. If just 10% of my visitors gave me a pound a month, I'd be able to spend a lot more time answering all the questions!!

Monday, 9 July 2018

Hot weather Watering: Part 1, general principles,

This week, I have had everyone and his dog asking me about watering plants. Hardly surprising, as we've had hot sunshine, hot winds, and no rain for a good four weeks or more, and no sign of the hot weather breaking for at least another week or even longer.

"Phew, what a scorcher!" as they said, back in 76.

I feel sure that in a couple of weeks' time, we'll be shivering indoors, watching the rain on the windows, and wonder if we imagined four whole weeks with constant sunshine, no rain, and no end in sight....but in the meantime, what can we do to help our plants?

I wrote an article about this for GreenPlantSwap the other day, but I have a lot more to say on the subject, so I've split it up into four parts:

1: General Principles.
2: Don't waste water on plants that don't need it
3: Pots
4: Resuscitation

Right, let's start with general principles.

When the weather is hot and dry, you might need to water your plants, and in essence, that means splashing a bit of water on them from time to time.

But as always, there's a little more to it than just a simple bald statement, and as the phrase "hosepipe ban" seems to be hovering in the air, it's worth a few words to encourage us all to use our water wisely.

How to water.

When you water, don't splash it around wildly, all over the foliage, the path, your feet, etc: aim it around the base of the plant That's the bit that needs the water.

Turn down the pressure of the hose, or - better - use a watering can. You are not jet-washing the plants, you are imitating nature, which droppeth like the gentle rain from above.

If you find using watering cans too heavy, and you really have to use a hose, then buy one of those big nozzles with a variety of water patterns, rather than the sort which make a narrow jet.

This is the jet-wash type of nozzle - you twist the yellow part against the grey part to make the spray narrower (and into a jet-washer) or wider (and softer).

There is no pressure control or trigger, it's either on or off: the only way to turn it off is to twist it all the way wider and wider until eventually it stops.

After spraying your legs, and everything within a 180 degree angle...
This type - right - is much better in three important ways.

Firstly, see that big roundy thing at the left? It's a series of spray patterns, you twist it round to select them. The best one is the "gentle rain" setting.

Secondly, see the grey/yellow trigger? That means you point it in the right direction, squeeze the trigger and there is the water, exactly where you want it.

You don't waste water on the journey between one watering point, and another.

The red band going horizontally across is a lock for the trigger, so if you have a large area to water, you can lock the trigger on, to avoid hand strain. Nice!

Thirdly, and best of all, see that red sticky-up tab on top? Push it to the right, you get full pressure. Push it to the left, it reduces the pressure.

So, even if you've turned the tap on too far, you can reduce the pressure down to a point where you are gently watering, not sand-blasting.

Now, a word about those mains taps: don't turn them on full! You don't need to turn the tap on and on and on, until it won't go any further. When I use my own mains tap at home, I turn it from the 12 o'clock position to the 9 o'clock: that's one quarter turn. That's all. And that's plenty of pressure.

Turning the tap on full just puts pressure on every connection in the hosepipe, and much of the time, it means your tap end is dribbling and wasting water. So don't turn it on so far!

Next: how much to water.

Don't pour on so much water that it starts to run away, or makes a big wet puddle on the surface: both of these mean that you have put too much water on too quickly, without giving it time to soak in.

This also means, counter-intuitively, that you have stopped too soon!

Your aim is to give sufficient water that it can soak into the ground around the plant. This means a slower application speed - see above - and it can mean going round the plants in a circuit: instead of doing each plant once and that's it, go to and fro from plant to plant, giving the water time to seep down into the soil before returning.

To explain what I mean, this morning, I watered a long bed of roses for a Client: if you imagine each rose bush has a number, I started at number one, and gave it a slowish count of five. Then on to number two ("..two, three, four, five")

This gives the water time to soak in to number one.

Back to number one (second sloosh), then number two (second sloosh) then on to number three (first sloosh... two, three four, five.)

Back to number one (third sloosh) and now we're up and running: on to number two (third sloosh, two three, four, five) , then number three (second sloosh) then on to number four (first sloosh.)

Back one: number three (third sloosh), number four (second sloosh) and on to number five (first sloosh)

Back one: number four (third sloosh, number five (second sloosh) and on to number 6 (first sloosh)

Hmm, it sounds a lot more complicated than it is!

Basically, once you get going, you water three plants as a group, one, two three: then back one and water three, including a new, dry one, each time. This gives each plant three bouts of watering, with time between for the water to soak in.

A simpler method, on small gardens, is to go from one end to the other, then back again, and back again. (Some of my gardens are quite large, so I've had to establish the most efficient way to do things.)

If you put on too much water at once, you'll often see it forming rivulets and running away. This is a sign that you are watering too fast: water will always take the easiest course - lazy stuff! - and it would rather run away on top, than soak in. This is a particular problem on banks, or beds which have a slope to them.

The answer is to do it more slooooowwllllyyyyyyyy.

You can also build little mini-moats around selected plants, to give the water time to soak in. Of course, they are anti-moats, really: just a ridge of soil, built up on the downward side of the plant, to stop the water galloping off downhill. Technically they are bunds (how many of you know what a bund is? Answers below, please...).


Don't slap on the sprinkler.

Sprinklers are the work of the devil for anything other than lawns, as they waste water by spraying it indiscriminately all over the place, they splatter water all over the foliage, leading to those white water-marks and spots which make people think their plants have a nasty disease, and - worst of all - people tend to set them going and then leave them for an hour or more. Such a waste! Our precious, clean, expensive tap water!

Also, if you use a sprinkler rather than a can or a hose, you miss the opportunity to have a chat, as it were, with all the plants. You miss out on seeing what they are doing, how they are getting on: which ones are flowering, which ones need deadheading, which part of the bed is starting to need weeding, where the gaps are.. all those things that make gardening more interesting.

Watering cans:

The best way - not only are you directing water exactly where it's needed, at a nice slow speed, but it gives you a chance to check out all the plants, as you go along. But I do accept that it can be heavy, and can be slow if you have a lot of plants to water.

You can make things faster and easier by having a dipping tank: this can be nothing more complicated than a large open-topped tub under the tap of the water butt, sufficiently large for you to dip the watering can in. When you are watering, you leave the tap open enough to top it up as you use it.

This cuts out all that tedious standing-around-waiting-for-it-to-fill.

Or, you can get two watering cans and learn to judge how far to turn the water butt tap on, to get the second can full just as  you have finished using the first one.

Handy Hint: (known these days as a Hack, apparently, but I'm that old that I remember when Life Hacks were called Handy Hints, or possible Top Tips) many water butt taps don't put out a neat flow at anything other than fully open, so cut a short length of hose and push it over the tap.

Here's one I made earlier... you might need to hold the end in a  beaker of hot water for 10-15 seconds to soften it, but it's worth it to avoid it splattering all over your hands.

When to water:

There's an urban myth that says it's a waste of time to water in the middle of the day or when it's very hot.

Not true! Well, not entirely true.

The best time to water is very early in the morning, while it is still cool: the water will soak down into the soil straight away, and will be available to the plants as they start their day's work.

Watering last thing is the evening means you are putting water around the roots of the plants while they are "asleep", so they are not benefiting from it: and you are creating a whole mass of five-star hotels for slugs and snails, allowing them to move freely all around your plants overnight, which is their busy period. So watering in the early evening is actually the worst time to water.

Watering in the middle of the day means that the water goes straight where it is needed, and is appreciated straight away. Yes, some of it will be lost to evaporation, but even on the hottest day, most of the water goes where it is needed, and you will see that the soil remains damp on top for some time. If you really, really believe that the sun will suck all the water out of the soil, then after watering, use the hoe to rake some dry, dusty soil over the watered areas, to act as insulation.

As a general rule, then, watering in the morning is best, evening is less good,  but it's far, far better to water in the heat of the day, than to not water at all.

Coming tomorrow:

Part 2: Don't waste water on plants that don't need it
Part 3: Pots
Part 4: Resuscitation


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Saturday, 7 July 2018

Salix Kilmarnock: suffering in the heat

A nice lady called Wendy sent me this picture of her Salix Kilmarnock:

...along with the comment that some of the leaves had started to go yellow and drop off and - worryingly - she could see a lot of what looked like tiny black eggs on the undersides of some of the leaves.

First things first, the dropping of the leaves: this is nothing to worry about in early July 2018, after three weeks of solid sun and no rain, with no rain forecast for at least another week.

All it means is that the tree - along with the rest of us - is getting a bit stressed by the continued heat, and is probably a wee bit short of water.

During periods of drought, many trees shed their leaves to conserve water, then when the rains come again, they put out a whole batch of lovely new ones.

So that's the leaves, now what about the things that look like tiny black eggs? Well, they are probably tiny black eggs... *laughs*... and they are probably from aphids. If you have time, they can be removed: either you can jet-blast them off with the hosepipe (a perfectly valid way of cooling down, as there will be a lot of back-splashing, ha!ha!), or you can gently wipe each leaf individually, squashing the eggs and destroying them. It is perfectly permissible to wear gloves to do this.

Whether you manually remove them or not, it is best to give the tree a going-over with the bug spray.

There are two main types: organic ones using “fatty acids” and non-organic systemic ones using chemicals. There is a difference in the way they work, and the way in which they are applied, so it's worth checking which one you have.

Organic bug sprays, using those odd-sounding “fatty acids”, work on contact by smothering the bug. So it's very important to get it all over the plant, including the undersides of the leaves. Yes, I know we all read those instructions, then blithely spray from above - but if you don't wet the entire surface, top and bottom, then you are leaving safe havens for the little buggers bugs to live and breed.

So be prepared to get the spray all up your sleeves, down the back of your neck, and all over the place - but it's worth it, to get rid of the pests.

Non-organic bug sprays are "systemic", which means that they are absorbed by the plant, then when the sap-sucking insects arrive, and bite the plant, they are poisoned. This means that the damage is often done before the bugs die... but it does at least mean that each insect only gets one sip!

Systemic sprays don't need to be applied to every part of the leaf in quite the same way that organic ones do, but you do need to ensure that the leaves are well wetted. And do bear in mind that it takes a day or so for the “poison” to work its way through the plant, hence the instructions on the packs to spray at the first sign of pests - that is, don't leave it until your plant is a heaving mass of aphids before applying it!

And in all cases, read the instructions on the pack, and follow them: they will tell you how to apply it, and when to re-apply it. There is no point spraying the same plant five times in one day - follow the instructions.

Right, that's the dropping leaves, and the aphids: what else is there to mention? Oh yes, take a look at the top of the pot: it seems to have a few weeds and mossy bits growing there. Always best to remove them: a tree in a small pot like this needs all the water and nutrients it can get, so don't make it fight the competition.

Clear out the top layer of soil along with all those weeds, and then add some fresh soil or compost: this is what is called “top dressing”. It's a chance to get rid of weeds along with the tired old top layer of soil. When I top dress, I take the opportunity to drop in a handful of granulated balanced feed such as Growmore, underneath the new layer of soil.

If you don't like the look of bare soil around the base of your potted plant, you can add a mulch of gravel, shingle, stones, slate chips, anything you like: these hard mulches have another advantage, in that they allow the water to soak straight in to the soil when you water it, rather than pouring over the sides of the container.

The disadvantage is that once a year or so, you will need to scrape them all off so that you can top-dress the soil underneath. This is a good time to wash the hard mulch to get rid of moss, algae, lichen etc. You'll usually find that, over time, the mulch becomes incorporated with the top layer of soil, which makes it look untidy, and allows weeds to grow - so it's a good exercise once a year, to clean it all off. It's also a good time to check that nothing has taken up residence in among the hard mulch - they can be a haven for slugs, snails, ants, woodlice, you name it!

Going back to the pot, Wendy's pot is a good shaped one: straight sides are far and away the best, they give the biggest amount of soil and are the most stable.

Second from worst (bear with me!) are pots with wide tops which slope elegantly in at the base, such as this one - left.

They look lovely but as the roots grow downwards, they are in less and less soil: and these pots tend to tip over quite easily. They don't hold as much water as a square-sided one, and have a higher ration of "side" to content, as it were, so the roots get baked by the sun all the way down.

Worst of all are those lovely Ali-baba style pots:

...this one (right) looks lovely, but it combines the top-heavy wrongness of the narrow base with a narrow neck, which makes it impossible to get the plant inside it out, if you need to repot it.

Well, I say "impossible", nothing is impossible, but it took me the best part of a whole morning to wrestle this particular fig out of this exact pot, a few years before this photo was taken, in order to straighten it up.

So, squat and square-ish are the best shapes for a pot in which you are growing a tree, and as always, the larger the better in order to give the tree the most amount of soil, and the best possible "water bank", ie the amount of water that remains in the soil between watering.

Wendy's tree is in a pot that is just about big enough; if it were mine, I would probably get a pot that was a couple of inches bigger all round, but I like to give trees room to stretch a little.

Bearing in mind that these Salix Kilmarnock trees are top-grafted, they won't get any bigger, just stouter: so you might think that by keeping it in a smallish pot, you are restricting its size, but that's not the case. I've written about these trees here, here and here (and several other times! ), so if you want more details about the intricacies of top-grafted Salix Kilmarnocks, check those articles, and you can also use the "search" facility at the top left of the page.

And finally, a general point for all pot-grown trees, we are expecting them to do a lot of work for us, for not much payment: so if you grow a tree in a small pot, remember to give it a feed every few weeks through the summer. Top-dressing in spring, with the addition of a small fistful of granulated feed, will get it going nicely: and add some liquid feed to the watering can from time to time through the summer: I use liquid seaweed, but any liquid feed will be better than nothing.

Oh, one other point:  during a hot, hot spell like the one we're having currently (in a couple of weeks' time, when the clouds come back, and we're sitting indoors glumly looking at the raindrops splashing in the paddling pool we rushed out and bought, we'll no doubt be wondering if we dreamt about five weeks of endless sunshine), you can make life easier for your potted tree by putting a large saucer underneath it: if it's up on feet, take the feet away, and let it sit directly on the saucer.

This means that when you water it, the water will go through the pot and will collect in the saucer, where it can gradually be re-absorbed. This is particularly helpful if you've accidentally allowed the plant to dry out too much: you know that horrible situation where you pour on the water only to see it gallop straight through the pot and out the bottom. By putting the pot on a saucer, that wasted water has a chance to get back inside the pot.

I wrote about re-watering over-dry pots at length here,  so check it out for more details.


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Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Practical gardening skills: clipping box topiary

I've been neglecting the blog somewhat, *guilty face* as I have been working super-hard for the last couple of months: not only making hay while the sun has shone, shone, shone, but presenting my usual FSC training courses, including - for the first time - a one-day workshop on the extremely challenging topic of How To Use A Botanical Key.

Not an easy course to run!

I've also been working really hard on Garden School, which is my big project for passing on practical gardening skills. We've been clipping box topiary hedges like mad things:

Here's the Big Knot, half done. Can you see where we've been? *laughs*

Have you ever wanted to have a go at something like this?

Have you ever wandered round all those stately homes, wondering how they get such nice neat edges on their hedges, or how long it takes to clip them? Ever wondered what happens if they slip, and chop off the wrong bit?

Come along to Garden School and find out for yourself!

It's not often that individuals will get a chance to have a go at full-size, mature topiary, but take it from me, it's not rocket science, and almost anyone can do it.

Each session starts with tools (cleaning, maintenance), an explanation of how the plant grows and how we use this knowledge to create the shapes we want: then a demonstration of how to clip, and then you get a chance to do it yourself, including the aftercare of the plants, and how to avoid pesky things like box blight.

The Big Knot is now finished, but of course we'll be doing it all over again in mid September, so if you want to book a place, contact me now for details.

In the meantime, I have a few places left on a very specialist Topiary course: renovation of neglected box hedging. Not for the faint-hearted, this is a chance to see how to restore topiary. There will also be some Box Ball Clipping, which is always fun.

To book a place, or to learn more, contact me at