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.