Monday, 30 December 2019

Time to empty out the greenhouse

This is one of those lovely winter jobs, of which there are all too few when "one" is self-employed: a job that can genuinely be done when it is raining, or in heavy frost, when "one" can't walk on the grass for fear of ruining it.

And the job is - emptying  out the greenhouse from last season's crops.

Job one: cut down the plants, now that they are finished.

In this greenhouse, I grew two types of tomatoes, and one type of sweet pepper. spread over four grow-bags.

Here's a picture from back in August, showing everything growing well.

They continued to produce crop right into early December, but by two weeks ago they were starting to show signs of struggling: this greenhouse is unheated, and although they would continue to produce for a few weeks more, I usually empty it out before Christmas, because the Client expects to see a nice clean empty greenhouse.

If it were mine, I would prune out any sickly looking areas every day or two, and keep it going until well into the New Year, but part of being Someone Else's Gardener is knowing when to do what they want you to do....

So, first job is to cut down all the old growth. All of it goes on the rubbish heap: every gardening book I have ever read states that we must not put tomato or potato plants on the compost heap, for fear of perpetuating blight. Now that we have the internet, you'd think that we would at last be able to escape from the Old Wives' Tales which perpetuate urban and gardening myth, but no, if anything, the internet makes it worse, because about 90% of the internet is "stuff which has been cut and pasted from somewhere else" so you find the same old myths going round and round, but now they have an entirely fake aura of truth about them, "because I read it on the internet".

For many years I've wondered which part of the plant(s) contains the blight: is it just the fruit? Is it the foliage as well? So to be on the safe side, I have never composted any part of either of these plants. When writing this article, I suddenly wondered if things have improved, so I typed in a simple query, which throws up the following interesting and contradictory facts:

1) Which? magazine state that it's perfectly ok to compost blighted tomato material:

"blight only persists on living material so once the plant is dead it's fine to compost it." they say. They even say that it's ok to re-use grow-bags or compost in which you've grown blighted tomatoes! Rather them than me, I say.

2) Whereas the RHS state:

"Infected material should be deeply buried (more than 45cm deep), consigned to the green waste collection or, ideally, burned rather than composted".

So there you have it, the modern wonder of communication, the great and wonderful internet, will tell you two completely contradictory statements.

What do I, personally, do?  I don't compost any tomato or potato material at all: not the fruit, not the leaves, not the prunings, not the pinching outs, not the healthy stuff, not the tired old mildewy growth.  All of it goes on the bonfire heap.

So, where were we? Oh yes, cut down all the top growth and bin it. Undo the support cane construction, and put the canes aside to let them dry out thoroughly. This makes it much easier to deal with the roots.

Here we are with the top growth gone, and all the canes untied and removed.

Now I can pull out all the plastic collars.
 They get wiped down and set aside to dry thoroughly, then they can be stacked neatly and put away for the winter.

I love these collars, they make it extremely easy to water the grow bags, as you can slosh the water onto the collar in a great deluge, without having tidal waves of muddy water going all over your feet.

They also allow each plant to grow just a few inches higher than the main grow-bag height, which helps to keep the stems dry, and thus less prone to mildew, damp etc.

With the collars removed, you can see how the plants have made islands of compost for themselves, and you can easily see how this helps with the drainage: the main stem of the plant remains well drained, while the lower roots are filling the grow-bag.

It's now very easy to pull off each of these little volcanoes of compost and roots, and they also go on the rubbish heap.

Here are the grow-bags without the roots - I have brutally twisted off the tops, leaving the tired old grow-bag soil still inside the bag, rather than scattered all over the floor of the greenhouse.

These emptied bags can now be carefully  lifted outside, and the spent compost can be scattered on the beds, where it acts as a mulch over the winter, and a soil conditioner for next spring.

There won't be a great deal of "goodness" left in this soil, but it's perfectly ok to fling it around the shrubbery.

The final job is to sweep up any bits, pull out any cheeky weeds which have sprouted under the grow-bags, and to lay aside the irrigation pipe, ready for next year.

I would usually take the time to wash down the windows, as well: sometime that job gets left until spring, sometimes I do it in winter, it depends how much time there is. 

But it's certainly worth sweeping out the greenhouse, to allow it to dry out thoroughly over the winter.

I leave the side vents open, but close the roof vents, so there is no risk of the high level windows being damaged by winter storms: I also close the door, safe in the knowledge that the winter sun is amply hot enough to dry out the interior, and the side vents will allow all the dampness to escape.

So there  you have it! A quick and easy winter job, and so very satisfying to do!

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Thursday, 12 December 2019

Interesting things which I have found while gardening: a door.

"A door?" I hear you say.

Yes, dear reader, a door.

Once upon a time, there was a house, one wall of which was smothered in summer jasmine.

I say "smothered" because the owners could only just see out of the windows, it was so thickly growing, and  it was forcing its way into the render, which they knew because large chunks of it were clearly visible on the ground underneath the wall.

So I was asked to remove all the climbing jasmine, so they could get the wall re-rendered. And so they could enjoy some light in that room. Then they'd put up some proper supports, and we'd let it regrow in a more orderly fashion.

Now, this is a classic situation where I really wished that I'd taken a "before" shot, but alas, I didn't: the best I can do is this, from earlier in the year:

 Here is the bed taken from the left hand end, you can see that there are two windows, and a mass of winter-bare jasmine stems in a mad tangle along the ground, and all up the house wall.

There are some roses at the front of the bed, and a few struggling bulbs further along.

So I started at ground level, cutting down the jasmine to just a couple of inches, and gently easing the upper parts off the wall, and out from behind the downpipes.

It was a filthy job, I have to say.  By the time I'd finished, I was covered in dust, debris, insects, and little bits of jasmine: in my hair, in my eyes, in my ears, all down my cleavage (when, oh when, will someone invent the bra-strainer?), everywhere.

Plus, I had to be careful not to damage any more of the render than was already loose and falling off: plus, it had weevilled its way round the back of the downpipe fixings, to the point where the stems were actually forcing the brackets off the wall, so I had to just cut them off short above and below each point, and hope that one day, they'll dry up and shrink enough to be pulled free.

Finally, though, it was all done.

And that's when I found the door.

 Here it is! Isn't it lovely?

It was completely covered up - go on, go back to the first photo and look for it. There it is, if you know where to look, on the far right of the photo.

I had vaguely seen the black wood, and had assumed it was just a decorative panel, or possibly a third window which had been boarded up: but no, it's a proper door.

It doesn't actually open: on the inside,  it's been nailed shut and I think it was covered up with plasterboard when the owners first moved in.

On the garden side, the threshold is a good 18"  off the ground, and it opens right into the rose bed, as you can see, so it's unlikely to be used as a door in the near future.

But it's nice to know that it's there, and now the owner can clearly see how much rendering needs to be replaced - quite a lot,  unfortunately!

Sunday, 8 December 2019

How much rubbish does a garden generate

I get asked this question quite a lot: and what's more to the point, when I go to a "new" garden, I always have to warn the Owner that the work they want done will generate a lot of waste material. I mean, a LOT of it! This particularly applies to an ad-hoc ("hit and run") job, but does also apply to my regulars.

I try to compost as much material as I can. but invariably people hire a gardener to do the 'orrible bits of the garden: I rarely get to a bit of light dead-heading, or some casual gentle weeding, in the soft afternoon sunshine.  No, I'm usually sweating buckets, digging out bindweed, heaving out previously unspotted Sycamore or Ash seedlings, and fighting my way into overgrown shrubs in order to prune them. 

All this sort of work generates masses of bulky waste which can't be composted.

To give you an idea, here's how much "rubbish" I generate in one morning of work:

Bear in mind that I've already filled the brown wheelie bin...

And that I've put a fair amount into the compost bin - this lot is all the non-compostable material.

How large, I hear you ask, is this garden? Two acres? Four acres? Or, how long since you were there last - a couple of months?

Nope: I go there every week, one morning a week, and it's a rather small domestic garden, actually.

Is this exceptional? Well, yes and no: most weeks, I just put non-compostable waste into the wheelie bin and it's it's full, I put the excess into bags, which can often be tipped into the wheelie bin once it sinks, or which can be "held over" until after it's been emptied.

But about once a month or so, I generate this much waste: I try to bag and stack it neatly, and I try to put it somewhere where it won't get soaking wet, but I always feel guilty!

However, it has to be done: in some of my gardens, the owners just stockpile my overflow bags and save them for quieter times of the year, while in others, they prefer to load up their car and take them down the tip.

And this, dear reader, is why I prefer working in gardens big enough to have a bonfire heap!

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Friday, 6 December 2019

Folding spring rake - how to make them last forever

Ever used a folding spring rake? It's like a normal spring rake (brace yourself for gardeners' joke: "which we mostly use in autumn" *groan*) but is adjustable, which makes it sooo much more useful than the fixed one.

I love my folding spring rake, not least because by varying the width of the tines, I can use it to rake up big leaves, or small leaves, or border detritus; I can make it very narrow and use it as a scoop, with which to pick up leaves etc, I can make it very wide and use it to gently lift debris and leaves from between and around plants, without damaging them.  It's an excellent tool.

My first one lasted for years, until the tines were all bent and twisted, and it had trouble opening and closing because they were so far out of line, so I bought a new one.

Then, within just a month or two, I found that the tines kept falling out. The metal clasp which kept them in place was fixed with a simple nut and bolt, and it kept working loose. When it loosened, the tines would fall out, suddenly, disastrously, all over the floor, like, err, what's that kiddies' game? Kerplunk? Jack Straws?

Whenever this happened, it was a right pain to get them back together, not least because it needs three hands to do it. So I learned to regularly check the bolts to ensure that they were tight.

This extended the useful life of the rake to the point where the tines, once more, become bent and twisted. So I bought a new one, and imagine my surprise and delight when I found that now, they come with an extending handle, so you can simply twist to adjust the length of the handle.

Super useful! No more getting the handle caught in your jacket pockets when leaning over to pick up the piles! (Don't laugh, it happens...) Plus, it fits in the car perfectly! (I used to have to hacksaw off about one inch from the handle, in order to get it across the car...)

But oh woe! It did the "falling apart at the most embarrassing moment" trick, and when I took it all home to sort out, I found out that the clasp was no longer fitted with a nut and bolt, it was riveted. Riveted! Huh! Presumably it was cheaper to make? Maybe a machine could rivet them, instead of some poor person having to manually fit the two nuts and bolts?

But this means that you can't tighten them, and once the tines fall out, you can't get them back in, and even if you could, they'd just fall out again.  I tried packing the clasp to make it tighter, but to no avail. Now, call me a skinflint if you wish, but I'm not throwing away a perfectly good rake every few weeks, just because they have changed the way they construct them.

So I found out how to replace the nasty cheap rivets with proper nuts and bolts, and here's how I did it. I've explained in lengthy detail, for the benefit of any gardeners, female or male,  who might not have had to do this particular diy task before....

You will need:

a metal file (no, not a nail file, a great big proper hand tool for woodworking)
a centre punch (mine came in a pack of five different sizes) and a small hammer
a pack of 4mm bolts and nuts to go with them: I bought a small pack from my local hardware store.
a screwdriver and a small pair of pliers to do the bolts up (or a very small spanner, depending on what sort of fixing they have)
a junior hacksaw (not essential)

Right! Here's what we do.

1) assemble all the bits, and find a worksurface to do it on.

Here, I am using my battered old metal shelving in my porch - well, it saves having to cover up the carpet!  It's a mercy that it's turned milder this week, I would not have been doing this outdoors last week, I can tell you!

Look at the rake, look at the green clasp, and identify the two silver-coloured rivets, one to either side of the "fan" of tines.

Rivets are like bolts or screws with no thread and nothing to put a screwdriver in: they are designed to join two things together and never, ever come loose.  They are pushed through pre-drilled holes, then on the underside, they are hammered to spread out the metal shank, forming a ridge ("shoulders") which prevent the rivet ever coming loose.

2)  Turn the rake over, and you will see that on the underside, the rivets project out onto that silver coloured plate.

If  you run your finger lightly across them, you can feel how "proud" they are, how much those shoulders stick up above the flat plate.

That's the bit we have to file off.

3) Take your metal file, and file off the projecting edges of the first rivet.

Just rub it to and fro, try to keep it parallel to the plate if you can, but it doesn't matter if you scratch the plate, who's going to notice?

Here you can see that I've made a fair number of scratches, but I don't care, the important point is that I've filed off all the bits of the rivet which were sticking out.

Not sure if you have removed all of it? You can test, by running your finger across the surface, but be careful because the metal edges are often very sharp.

 4) Now take your centre punch: use one that is smaller than the size of the rivet, otherwise it won't be able to push it all the way through.

I have a set of five, and for this, I use the smallest one.

You can see I've put blocks of wood underneath the clasp part, otherwise the rivet would not have space to pop out.

Now whack it with a hammer!
 5) Keep tapping it with the hammer, until suddenly whooosh! the punch goes right through the clasp, and the rivet fall out, clinnnggg! onto the bench.

You can see the rivet - right - lying loose on the bench top.

How long does this take? If you hit it with confidence, just a few taps. If  you are a bit tentative, then it might take a while longer, but you will get there. As long as you have filed off the shoulders of the rivet, it will eventually fall out.
 6) Insert bolt.

Here is my hardware shop pack: M4 means 4mm, "x 20" means the shank of the bolt is 20mm long, there are ten sets in the pack, and they cost £1.25 which is pretty darned reasonable.

These particular bolts have a screw top to them, so you do them up with a screwdriver, not a spanner.

They are also designed to be countersunk, which is not perfect, but hey, who cares!

 7) Thread a nut onto the underside of the bolt, use either a very, very small spanner to hold it, or - my personal choice - a pair of needle-nosed pliers, while you apply the screwdriver to the top.

There, that's half the job done!

Now repeat this for the other side.

Don't do them both together, otherwise the tines will fall out and go all over the floor: do one, then do the other. It's always quicker to do the second one, because now you know what you are doing!

 8) Check the underside, here's the bolt sticking through the nut, which is now as tight as I can get it.

You can leave it like this or - if you are tidy-minded, like I am - you can file off the excess length of bolt.

This is a quick job with a Junior Hacksaw.

There you are, excess bolt filed off, job done.

And there, ladies, you have it: a folding spring rake that now will not fall apart in five minutes, but which should last for month after month after month....

...and if, like me,  you keep all the old tines from previous ones, then if the tines on your newly enhanced rake get bent out of shape but the clasp is still working well, then all you have to do is undo those bolts, allow the bent tines to clatter to the floor, and put in some second hand but straighter ones.

Tip: get someone else to hold the far ends of them, while you get them all lined up in the clasp, otherwise you will be there all day!

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Monkey Puzzle seeds: how to identify viable ones

 A while back, I wrote about the fun I'd had, germinating Monkey Puzzle (Araucaria araucana ) seeds, and yesterday I received the following comment from Tom:

"I developed an interest in Monkey Puzzle trees a few years ago when my mother, visiting me in WA from MT noticed one on my block.

I eventually purchased one from a local nursery and planted it at my Westport home and feed and water it well and it's growing at a rate I've never seen from a tree. I now would like to grow some from seeds and have learned of the male and female trees and how to identify them, but how does one know if the female tree has been pollinated and the seeds are viable?

Thanks, Tom"

Before we get started on the topic, let's do some energetic waving to Tom, all the way over there on the west coast of America, which is about as far away from sunny South Oxfordshire as you can get ("within the northern hemisphere").

Now to his question: firstly regarding the viability of the seeds.

Seeds only remain viable for a short while after they are shed, so buying seeds (especially off the internet) means you usually get stale old ones, which have very poor viability. It's always best to collect them yourself if you can - just make a note of every Monkey Puzzle tree in your area, and if you know the owner, ask them to let you know when the seeds start to fall:  and if they are in a public place, keep visiting them around autumn time, and look underneath the tree for the fallen seeds.

Why the fallen ones? Viable seeds are fat, and heavy: they fall to the ground under their own weight. Unviable seeds are light, and stay within the cone for a longer time.  So scrabble around in the leaf litter under the tree, and look for the fattest, palest-coloured, heaviest ones, and grab as many as you reasonably can. Don't bother with thin, flattened ones. In fact, look at them as though they were edible (which, actually, they are!): which ones would you buy to eat? The plump, shiny, nice-looking ones. Not the dark, wrinkled, sad-looking ones.

Now for Tom's pollination question: he has learned the difference between male and female trees, but I'll run though it again here for everyone else's benefit.

Right, how do you tell if you have a male tree, or a female tree? Brace yourself for some botany: Monkey Puzzle trees are normally dioecious, which means that some trees are "male", and some are "female".

I say that with quotes, because it's not the tree itself which is male or female, what I mean is that some trees produce only male flowers, while some only produce female flowers... but either way, it means that you will only get seed if you have a "female" tree, and if there is a "male" tree somewhere nearby.

Having said that, some Monkey Puzzle trees do have both male and female flowers on the same tree, the technical term for which is monoecious: so self-pollination is possible, although usually, in these situations, the flowers open at very slightly different times, so that you may still need a nearby male-flowered tree in order to get good seed production.

How can you tell the difference?

Male flowers are long fat cones which dangle from the tips of the branches. Female flowers are upright, stout pineapple-shaped things. Simple! But it's impossible to tell if a tree is "male" or "female" until the flowers appear, and this tends not to happen until the tree is quite mature, which can be as long as 30 years.  And of course, even if it is a female tree,  there is no guarantee that seeds will be produced, if the flowers are not pollinated. Not to mention the fact that all these flowers are produced high up in the canopy of a tree in excess of 30 years old - and they are fast-growing trees! - so you will probably struggle to see the flowers in any case.

So, on to Tom's final question about pollination, it's a simple one: the tree won't produce any seeds if it has not been pollinated.

So any seeds which you find will be viable, as long as they are fresh, plump, shiny and generally nice-looking.

There you go, Tom, hope that helps!


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Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Fasciation: it's fascinating!

Never heard of fasciation?

It's a spontaneous mutation, where a plant suddenly gets sick and tired of having "round" stems, and decides to try out being "flat" for a while.

Forsythia does it a lot:

This example shows a flat,  fasciated stem, and the fact that there are shoots and leaves coming out of it, also shows that the plant continues to grow in an otherwise normal way.

I've mostly seen this mutation in shrubs, with their woody stems, but I've also seen it in herbaceous plants: I could've sworn I had pictures of a fasciated weed which I found locally, a few years back, but I can't find it.  This is a lesson to Always Label Your Photos.... anyway, back to the fasciation.

Summer Jasmine is a little tinker for showing this mutation: here's a really good example, right: on top is the super-fasciated stem, and below it is a normal stem, for comparison.

It doesn't seem to affect the plant, other than cosmetically: it continues to grow, although sometimes fasciated stems get quite contorted, so they can spoil the pleasing outline of a plant.

Today I found a new addition to my list of Plants Which Fasciate: and that's Hibiscus.

I've not seen them do it before, but today, whee hee! there it was, a beautifully flattened  stem. Luckily it was on a part of the shrub which was being pruned anyway,  so the owner didn't mind me bringing it home and taking photos of it.

 Here it is: there's a perfectly normal round stem, with a perfectly normal smaller branch growing off to the left, and a perfectly weird fasciated stem shooting  off to the right.

 And here's that fasciated bit, through a hand lens: strangely sculptural, isn't it?

It almost looks as though there are many stems welded together, but that's not the case, it's just one stem which has chosen to grow in this weird way.

It's not contagious, it doesn't spread: some plants seem to be more susceptible to it than others, and I would certainly say that, anecdotally,  Forsythia is the most likely suspect.

So what do you do if you find an example?  Well, you don't have to worry about it: it's not infectious, it's not nasty in any way - if you don't like the look of it, prune it out, but I think it's actually rather an interesting little quirk, don't you?

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Thursday, 28 November 2019

How to do topiary to Ceanothus

Topiary is not just for Yew and Box: there are many shrubs which can be clipped into decorative shapes, and they don't always have to be formal boxes or cones, or strange lumpy animals.

A few days ago I wrote about a Juniper which I've been patiently Cloud pruning for the past few years (left),  and today I'd like to share a different sort of shrub which I have been working on for a few years: this time it's a Ceonothus.

There are many types of Ceonothus, it's a wonderfully varied genus: most of them are evergreen, but some are deciduous: most of them have blue flowers, but you can get white or pink ones: some flower in spring, some in summer, some in autumn: some are small, some are taller, some - like the one I'm about to share with you - can grow into small trees, if they are supported and pruned when they are young.

This means that if you really, really like blue flowers, you could have them nearly all year round!

This particular one is semi-evergreen, which means that in a mild year, they will hold their leaves all through the winter. It was planted slap up against a fence, which gave it support and shelter, so by the time I got there, it had become quite a monster, pushing itself out over the grass, interfering with the rotary washing line and swamping everything below it.

 Here it is in May, flowering magnificently, but rather top heavy and in fact, one branch on the left had broken under its own weight, leaving a rather odd gap.

My original plan was to reduce it in two phases: this year I would chop off all the front-facing branches, leaving just a high canopy.

Then, when it had started to re-grow, I would chop off the top, leaving a chest-high bush, which would be much more manageable.
So, step one: remove all the front-facing branches.

Here we are - right - having revealed the trunk, which had not seen the light of day for several years.

To my surprise, it was rather shapely: one central trunk, soon branching into three quite nicely balanced branches.

After looking at it for a couple of weeks, I was getting to like it like this.

One day, the owner needed a dead tree removed, and I'd recommended Rob, who is my go-to-guy for all the jobs which are too big, or too heavy, for me to do, or which are going to generate a ton of waste, as he has a waste licence and a big trailer!  Rob duly turned up to have a look at the tree, and while he was there, he commented on this Ceonothus.

I explained that it was only phase one, but he said that he liked it as it was, and that I should consider leaving it.

As I had already decided that I liked it, I thought I would go with this suggestion!

So, I left it.

Over the summer, the trunk sprouted a lot of new growth, which I removed, to keep the trunk clear.


Here it is in Feb of the following year, and just see the shadows on the fence, which mean that the rest of the fence, and the bed below, are now getting the benefit of some sunlight.

Here it is in June of this year - flowering over (it was wonderful!) and looking a bit pale, so I gave it some general Growmore feed.

You can see a few bits of regrowth at the base, they had to be cleaned off, and I trimmed out a few of the dead sections in the upper canopy while I was there.

I had also noticed that the canopy was a bit unlevel  - the left-hand side was lower than the right, so I adjusted that.

You might also be able to see that now there are plants growing underneath it: some nice white Astrantia on the left, and some lush deep red hollyhocks on the right.

Those hollyhocks are actually a wee bit too tall to fit under the canopy (remember, I originally planned to remove the canopy and make it back into a bush), so they are going to be moved next year.

 And finally, here it is as of last week: it had sprouted a tangled mass of growth at the base, so all that had to be cleared away again, and now you can see how level the canopy is.

Everyone who visits the garden admires it, and now that the bed below it has recovered, I can think about what to plant underneath it, to extend the season of interest in this rather neglected corner of the garden.

For the time being I've moved a lot of Hollyhock seedlings in there, just to keep them safe until I can see if they will come true from their parent and be a beautiful dark red, or whether they'll come up in any-old-colour, which is always the issue with open pollinated hollyhock.

So there you have it, topiary is not just for Yew and Box!

Update: Here it is, flowering in May of this year:

Nice, eh?!

The Hollyhocks underneath came up well, although the original one on the far right was too tall, as I've mentioned above. 

So I will be moving the Hollyhock over the winter, and I'll be thinking about what else to underplant.

The border is still a bit "skinny" there, so I might widen it, maybe put in a nice curve, or maybe I'll keep the straight edge, but give it another foot or so, which will allow me more space for underplanting.

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Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Paw prints in the brickwork - again!

Back in April 2015 I wrote about a brick I'd seen which had a pawprint in it.

Here it is, in case you can't be bothered to follow the link - two overlapping pawprints, probably from a cat or something with retractable claws, ie not a dog.

Well, today I received an email all the way from Minnesota  *waves vigorously in order to be seen that far* from Greg and Julie.

They have a house which was built in 1868 which, as they say, is  "old for this part of the country".

Not so much for us here in England, but for America, yes, that's pretty darned old!

They were doing some building work and found this;

How's that for a lovely old hand-made brick?

And how's that for a nice fat paw-print?

Again, it would appear to be something with retractable claws, so if I were shown this photo I would probably say "cat" but there may well be (or have been) other sorts of critters out there at that time,  with which I am not familiar.

Unless the person in the UK who made the "fake paw onna stick" for imprinting bricks also exported one to America...  *laughs*

If anyone else has photos of pawprints in bricks, do please send them in!

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

How to: start a Cloud pruned Juniper from scratch

Warning - this article is not for the faint-hearted....*laughs*

Have you ever admired those complicated cloud-pruned conifers? You know the sort of thing...

They cost a lot of money (the above one is 2'/60cm high) because they take a long, long time to train and prune.

Here's another specimen:

Check out the price - ten thousand pounds!!!

OK it's 230cm high (I can't work that out in my head but it must be about 10' tall) but still, that is an awful lot of money.

Both of these are Bonsai, which means "grown in a pot".

What's that?  Are you raising your eyebrows at me, and saying "Actually, 'bonsai' means little tiny trees carefully trimmed to look like big trees, but in miniature. That's what 'bonsai' means."

No it doesn't.

"Bonsai" means "grown in a pot."

There is another word for "young trees carefully trained and trimmed to look like really, really ancient trees" and this word is niwaki. It can mean just "a tree which is growing in a garden, as opposed to a tree growing in the wild", but it can also mean something like "the essence of a tree", so a tree which has been trained and pruned in the niwaki style means that someone has dedicated several years, into the training and pruning, the "sculpting", if you like, of the tree.

I love topiary, as all my Clients/Trainees/Students,  past and present, know. (In fact, one local gardener once said that she always knew, when she went to a "new" garden, if I'd ever worked there, as there would be some piece of slightly unusual topiary... I suppose that's fame?)

And I love the niwaki style, although I rarely have the luxury of dedicating four or five years to one single specimen.

I've always wanted to have a go at creating one of  these cloud-layer trees, the ones with pads of foliage on long bare branches, and I got a chance, back in 2016.

This is how it happened... in one of my gardens, I found a rather nondescript, nothing-in-particular Juniper (type of Conifer) growing in a rockery.

 As you can see - left -  it had been somewhat swamped by the neighbouring Asters growing up through it.

(The Juniper is the greyish-green bit...)

So the first job was to dig out some of the Asters, to give it breathing space.

This left me with this - right - a rather ugly, scruffy, conifer with no style, no "form", no nothing really.

The only thing you could say about it, is that it's green all year round.

So I decided to give it a radical prune. The Client didn't care what I did to it, so I thought aha! Perfect! I'll have a go at niwaki, see if I can convert it to a cloud pruned form, and if it all goes horribly wrong, I'll dig it out and throw it away.


So I started removing branches.

This is the back view (yes! They have a pool!), and I worked my way in at ground level, removing all the stems which were growing horizontally, because they were too close to the ground.

One wheelbarrow full later....

At the front again, now I am starting to see the shape of the branches.

There are some fabulous ones, shooting off at all sorts of odd angles.

I particularly love that right-angle on the left!


*snip snip snip*

Another couple of barrow-loads of branches later, it was done....

... and this is what I ended up with.

Weird bare stems, at odd angles, with "pads" of foliage on the tips.

Here we are two years later, in August.

As you can see, the foliage is growing back nicely, and is making quite shapely, thick, pads.

All I did was continue to clip back the pads as they grew. Quite easy, really!

This - left - is what it looks like today, in 2019.

The pads are all thickening up nicely, and in fact I'm now looking at it and thinking that I could remove a couple of them.

When I first did it, I was a wee bit cowardy-custardy when it came to removing branches, and I didn't quite take enough off.

Next spring, I'll go over it again and remove a couple of the more congested ones.

Here's the view from underneath, as it were.

You can still see that original interesting angle of the main stem, and you can see how the branches are fairly close to horizontal.

Not quite as horizontal as they would be if I were training a tree in my own garden, as I would be using guy ropes, canes and weights to pull them down to absolutely horizontal.

But considering this is in someone else's garden,  and I'm only there once a week, it's not bad, eh?

And in case you are wondering, this was the inspiration for the project: a Japanese print belonging to the Client.

So there you have it: how to take an anonymous conifer blob and turn it - over a couple of years - into a thing of Japanese style and beauty!




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Thursday, 14 November 2019

Asparagus - time for the autumn clearout

At last!

The Asparagus fronds are finally turning yellow so it's time to cut them back for the winter.

This is a job that rates as "easy peasy" and is very satisfying to do, especially on a cold grey morning when everything looks a bit sad and tatty...

First job, then: cut down the top growth.

Out with the secateurs, and off we go: cut each stem low down, just an inch or so above the soil. 

Here you can see that I've made a start, there's already a barrow-full of cuttings.

In my case I also had to remove the supporting strings around the foliage: this particular Asparagus bed is next to a path, and the foliage tends to flop, so I put some hooks in the fence behind, and run lines of string around the top growth to keep it well back off the path.

As these are all male plants, they don't have any seeds, so it's safe to put all the material straight onto the compost heap.

Cutting off the tops reveals the horrors of the weeds underneath - during the late summer,  it's impossible to weed between the close-packed stems, so I just leave it until autumn and deal with it all in one go.

So having removed the tops, I can then step into the bed to get all the weeds out. Now you can see why I leave an inch or so of the stems - so that I can see where the crowns are. This prevents me from damaging them by accidentally weeding too deeply or energetically around the crowns.

They are mostly annual weeds, but in this garden we also have bit of a problem with bindweed and ivy creeping over from next door.

The ivy is simple to deal with: any that comes over the top of the fence gets firmly pushed back onto their side, and any that tries to creep through the slats of the fence is gently pushed back through the slats, using my faithful daisy grubber.  It's important to stop ivy trying to sneak through fences, as once it gets through, the stems will fatten and eventually will break the fence.  But if you catch it while it's young, it's easy to just poke the new stems back to "their" side of the fence.

The bindweed, however, is a bit more of a problem, so I deal with it here by keeping a strip about 2' wide (60cms) bare at the base of the fence, to give me access during spring and early summer.

Here's what it looks like in June, when we have stopped cropping the Asparagus and are allowing it to grow out.

You can see my trampled area where I walk along, digging out or spraying any bindweed that I can find.

It's almost impossible to get rid of bindweed creeping through from next door: all you can do is keep on top of it, by removing or spraying every tiny shoot that dares to show itself.

Here, it's a particular nuisance because I can't dig it out if it gets into the Asparagus crowns, so it's essential to catch it while it is small, and this means I have to check every week.

If I'd been there when the neighbour replaced their fence, I would have asked them to add a couple of extra planks/gravel boards at the base of the fence, sinking them down about a foot (30cm) below ground level. This would have prevented their bindweed sneaking into "our" garden. Too late now! If it were my own garden, I would just do it: I would dig a trench on my side of the fence, at least a foot deep, and fix boards across, making sure that they either overlapped, or were fitted very close together, with no gaps.


Back to the plot: out come the annual weeds, and they all go on the compost heap: out comes a big bucketful of bindweed roots and shoots, and they go on the rubbish pile.  If you don't have a bonfire pile, they can go into your council green waste wheelie bin: it's ok to put them in there, as they get processed at high temperature which kills them. But never put them onto your compost heap, otherwise you'll end up with a compost heap full of bindweed....

And here we are, job done: weeds out, top growth cut back, all nice and clear ready for mulching.

Then I just leave it alone until next year, when we start to crop the asparagus again.

Easy peasy!

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Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Putting teabags in the compost - no thank you!

I have had several people asking the same question recently - "Is it ok to compost tea bags?"

The answer is, I'm afraid, a resounding "No!"

"But my tea bags say they don't contain plastic and are compostable?"

They might say that on the box, but it's not accurate!

There are two aspects to this question: firstly, what is in the actual teabag, and secondly, what do we mean by compostable.

First question first, then.

1) Most tea bags are stuck together using glue which contains plastic. This is not biodegradable, and they should NOT be put on the compost.

There are some brands which claim to be plastic-free, but in most cases, this is not actually true: if you read the pack, you will see that the manufacturers are making teabags using what they call "bio-plastic".  This is a type of plastic made from plant material rather than from oil.

It is still plastic.

Side issue: all plastic is bio-degradable at some point: it just might take a long, long, long, time. Bio-plastic is far better at bio-degrading, but it is still NOT compostable. See question two.

2) "Compostable", to you and I, means "we can put it on our compost heaps at home".   This is not the same as "bio-degradable" which means "will rot if processed at a commercial facility with very high temperatures".

Normal tea bags, whether advertised as "plastic free" or otherwise, will  NOT rot on a domestic compost heap. Commercial facilities are much, much hotter than our little home-made heaps: they are carefully monitored and controlled to achieve the conditions needed to break down the contents. If you want to know a little about how it works, check out my article on commercial waste processing.

Properly speaking, "bio-degradable" should be the term we use for everything that will rot, but which needs commercial facilities to do so, and "compostable" means items which will rot in the small, cool, home composting bins - unfortunately, the terms "bio-degradable" and "compostable" are used interchangeably, and this is where the confusion stems from.

From personal experience I can assure you that tea bags do not rot, in a normal domestic compost bin set-up: when you empty out the bin a year or so later, there they are, still looking at you, along with all the egg shells (they DON'T rot!!), plastic labels and citrus peel.

Now, I did some research on so-called plastic-free tea bags and found this information, on the six best-selling brands of teabag:

Twinings: contain plastic. Some of the "tag" teabags are "plastic free" - they are made from a plant-based paper material that is folded and stitched with cotton.
How do you dispose of them? Normal ones = the bin. Tag ones - put them in the kitchen waste bin, to go to the council recycling facility.

PG Tips: contain plastic.  Its website states that it is moving towards "fully biodegradable teabags" and we know what that means.
How do you dispose of them? The bin.

Yorkshire Tea: contain plastic. They are moving towards "plastic free" which means bio-plastic. I have grave reservations about this
How do you dispose of them? Normal ones = the bin. When they go "plastic free" put them in the kitchen waste bin, to go to the council recycling facility.

Tetley: contain plastic.
How do you dispose of them? The bin.

Pukka: claims to be "plastic free" as they don't glue, they stitch them together.
How do you dispose of them? Put them in the kitchen waste bin, to go to the council recycling facility.

Clipper: This company rather sneakily describe their teabag as "plastic free", but the bags contain a "renewable, plant-based bio-polymer" - also known as a bio-plastic. It says it is exploring a number of green packaging initiatives, including improving recyclability and reducing packaging weight.. but for now, they do still contain plastic. Even if it's plant-based, it's still a plastic.
How do you dispose of them? Put them in the kitchen waste bin, to go to the council recycling facility.

And as a further incentive, to avoid putting tea bags on your domestic compost pen:  if you think about it, paper dissolves in water, and what do you do with a tea bag? Answer: dunk it in water. The paper is full of chemicals to prevent it dissolving, and do you really want to introduce a full range of chemicals to your compost heap? 


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How to Plant Bulbs - the easy way.

Now, ask any of my various Trainees, or students for that matter, and they will all tell you that I pour scorn upon most garden gadgets.

There is a lot to be said for using "right tool, right job", but against that you have to balance having to carry around a car stuffed full of tools, most of which are only used once in a blue moon.  So, rather than having a gadget for every job, I prefer to use the minimum number of tools, with as many as possible of them being multi-functional (just use the "search" facility at the top to see my views on the dear old Daisy Grubber!).

When it comes to gadgets, one of my least favourite is the bulb planter.

You know the thing:

The product description says:

"Make bulb planting more enjoyable! This product easily removes and ejects soil, allowing you to plant bulbs with ease. It has a comfortable grip, depth gauge and easy release handle."

The idea is to push it into the soil, pull out a plug of soil, pop in the bulb, then pop back the plug of soil.

Sounds simple, huh?

Firstly, this only works if your soil is as soft as sponge pudding mix. (Don't look at me like that: I spent 14 years working for a lady whose soil had been so well mulched every year that it was JUST like sponge pudding mix - and chocolate sponge at that. Wonderful.  *sigh*)

Secondly, it only works if there is no grass growing on top of it - or, to be accurate, if there is any grass, it has to have been cut super-short, otherwise the bottom end of the planter simply can't cut through the grass.

Thirdly, if the gadget does actually manage to cut through the grass and sink into the soil, the soil then needs to be sufficiently "claggy" to stay together in a plug, and not just tumble out in loose blobs all over the grass, your feet, the pack of bulbs etc.

Fourthly, if you've managed to achieve all that, you then have to get the plug of soil out of the gadget in order to replace it in the hole. Allegedly you "just" squeeze the sides of the handle and out it pops. Yeah, right. In my experience, soil which is "claggy" enough to stay in a plug, is therefore "sticky" enough to stay lodged inside the gadget, and has to be poked out with a stick or a Daisy Grubber, whereupon it would normally fall apart and be useless for plugging the hole.

And finally, this means you can only usually plant one bulb at a time.

(I am tempted to add that, just as you get the hang of using the wretched thing, it breaks, but that might be considered unnecessarily pessimistic.)

So how do I do it?  I take my small border spade, and use it thus:

1) Make a flap.

Dig one vertical slit, then another one at right angles.

Lean the spade back from the vertical - that's what I'm doing here -  and push it under/across.

Rather as though you were lifting a particularly generous "turf".

2) Peel back the flap: don't cut it off, just fold it back.  It doesn't matter if the flap partially tears - just flap it out of the way.

If you are planting bigger bulbs and think the hole isn't deep enough, wiggle the spade blade around in the base of the hole to make it deeper.

3) Then sling in the bulbs. Here you can see I'm doing crocus, which are small, so I toss in a handful.

No, I don't set them carefully the right way up, I just toss them in. With bigger ones, I do normally try to get them right side up, unless there are hundreds and hundreds of them....  in which case they get shoved into the hole willy-nilly, a small handful at a time, and are left to make their own way up to the light. 

Don't worry, they all make it. Ask any professional gardener, and they will tell you tales of finding bulbs which had been planted on their sides - or even completely upside down! - but whose shoots had found their way to the top, and were flowering regardless.

4)  Fold the flap back to cover them, press down well with the foot.

I tend to stomp quite heavily, this helps to prevent squirrels and other rodents from digging up the bulbs and eating them.

5) Move a short distance away, and repeat.

That's it. Quick, simple, easy, not as backbreaking as doing them individually, works equally well on big bulbs such as species Daffs, and on tiny ones such as Crocus.

I find that this technique leaves a series of "pointy brackets" on the lawn, which are easy to see while you are doing it - this makes it easier when planting out the rest of the bulbs, as you can see where you've been.

But after a couple of days, the slits disappear completely.

I always use this technique for small bulbs, as they are ludicrously tedious to plant individually - plus it produces natural-looking clumps, rather than individual soldiers on display.

And I also use it for larger bulbs, again, to get a more natural grouping effect, with three or more bulbs in each pointy-bracket patch.

It works particularly well if you have a fellow gardener, or an interested Garden Owner, on hand, so that one of you does the spade work, the other pops the bulbs in place, as that saves having to keep letting go of the spade, then picking it up again. I'm all in favour of efficiency!

If I have only a few to plant, I used the same technique but with my hand-trowel: make a vertical slit, make another slit at a right angle, lever up the flap, push in the bulb, press down well.

All of which is a great deal easier and simpler than faffing about with the gadget!


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