Friday, 25 January 2019

Ants in the pants

A while ago, I had an email question from Karen ("Hi, Karen!") who was concerned about ants moving in on her Salix Kilmarnock: I answered her at that time - wouldn't want you all to think that I don't answer my emails!! - but it was a good question, so I thought I'd share it here.

My first reaction to the question, I have to admit, was "Ooh goody, this makes a change from questions about pruning the darned things!"

Karen had noticed ants congregating on the tip of each leaf, in vast quantities. She noted that none of the leaves appear to have been eaten or damaged, but obviously no-one wants to have ants all over the place.  She'd tried traditional bug spray, and she'd tried blasting them with the hose pipe but they kept coming back: so her question was in three parts:

1)  how to get rid of them
2)  will they cause any harm to the tree
3)  is it safe to use ant powder on a tree

So here are my answer, in reverse order:

3) yes, you can use ant powder on trees.
2) No, it won't cause any harm to the tree, as long as you use it in moderation.
1) see below for detailed instructions!

Right, firstly, ant killers: ant powder is the usual stuff, it comes in a flexible plastic puffer pack: it looks like talcum powder, and you puff it out where the ants are to be found. They walk through it, as they march around on their unfathomable business (where are they all going?  Aren't they supposed to have a nest in one place, then send out troops to find and bring back food? Why are they going in both directions yet not carrying anything?), then carry it back to the nest where it kills them, the others, and the queen, thus getting rid of your ant problem for good.

Ant powder is what I always recommend for ant in the lawn, and ants in patios. As a non-chemical alternative, you can use boiling water on patios, but I would not suggest doing this on plants!

However, ant powder is nasty stuff, and being a powder, it can blow around all over the place, so a better option for trees is to find the gel version. It's sold for getting rid of ants in the house:  you squeeze out a thin line of the gel along a threshold, or across a marching line, and it works in the same way as the powder, ie they get it on their feet and trample it back into the nest.

(At this point I always have a vision of the Doorman Ants fussily saying "Wipe your feet! You don't know what you've been walking though, honestly, my  nice clean nest, harruumph")

Secondly, why are there ants in our trees anyway? Generally, the ants only colonise a tree if there are aphids, or certain types of insects, in it. Ants like aphids (and those other insects: if you're that interested in knowing exactly which ones, you can look up a  list yourself!) because they produce a sweet sticky fluid called honeydew, which ants really enjoy. So if the aphids are there, the ants will move in and "farm" them: they'll guard them and look after them, and encourage them to produce more honeydew.

So having used ant powder to get rid of the ants, it's worth taking a close look at the tree to see if there are any other inhabitants that need removing. As far as I can tell from personal experience (and a quick internet search), ant powder does not kill aphids, so you'd need to address them as a separate issue.

Generally speaking, my advice about ants and all creepy crawlies on my small trees is to get the hose out, close the nozzle well down, and jet wash the plant, to blast off as many of the pesky little blighters as you can, then pouf a ring of ant powder around the main stem, fairly close to the ground, so that everything marching up or down has to go through it.

Refresh the ant powder every couple of days, particularly if it rains: and lo! and behold, in a couple of weeks, you should be ant-free!

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Thursday, 24 January 2019

Hang on - I thought this was winter?

Ok, so we haven't actually had any snow to speak of, but I do remember a couple of really hard frosts, all sparkly and white: so this is definitely winter, isn't it? January? Winter?

So why, I ask myself, did I find these two items at work yesterday:

Exhibit A: autumn leaves.

I spent weeks before Christmas, raking up every fallen leaf in this particular garden.

And yet, yesterday, first day back after my short winter break, I found a barrow-load of them.


Did they all blow into "my" garden from elsewhere?

Do the birds pick them up, fly over and drop them? (and if they do, how many leaves can an African swallow carry?)

And then there was this - a Scabious, in full flower, with several more flowerheads just opening.

Did they not get the memo that they are summer flowerers?

I know that a lot of people moan on about how the seasons are changing, they're not predictable and straightforward "like they used to be". Which begs the question, have they EVER actually been neat and tidy 3-month slots?

Or is it just a fact of life that we all mis-remember the days of our youth - those long hot summer holidays, the snow at Christmas: are they all just a fake mix of inaccurate memories and fake memories from films and books?

And if so, which months do you think belong to which season?

I'm going with:

Winter =  Dec-Jan-Feb

Spring =  Mar-Apr-May

Summer = June-Jul-Aug

Autumn = Sept-Oct-Nov

What do you think?


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Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Hazels: what to do with an overgrown coppice

Last week, I received a question: what to do with an enormously overgrown old Hazel coppice.

Now, before we get on to what to do with it, a quick reminder about coppicing: time out of mind, it was a way of managing woodlands, in order to produce useable materials for fencing, furniture, firewood and fodder - all sorts of things. It involves repeatedly chopping a young tree down to - usually - ankle height, which prompts it to send up new shoots from the chopped base.

These new shoots will all be pretty much the same size as each other: so instead of one big central trunk with a lot of smaller, wiggly side branches, you get a whole bunch of same-sized shoots, and because they are crowded together, they fight for the light, which means they grow up vertically, nice and straight.

When they are big enough, they are all cut off at the same time, and the cycle repeats. 

This is usually seen on trees such as Hazel, Willow and Sweet Chestnut, but is also used for Oak, Lime, Alder: depending on what the trees were to be used for.

Alas, these days we don't need much coppiced wood: we don't burn faggots (bundles) of thin wood, we buy in seasoned and chopped hardwood. We don't make our own walking sticks, or fences, or hurdles: we don't make our own charcoal, either! So most of the coppiced woodlands have been left to return to the wild, over the last  50 years or more.

You can see them everywhere: next time you are out for a walk, or visiting a stately home, look at any areas of woodland that you pass, and check out the trunks: are they all one-trunk-per-tree? Or do some of the trees appear to have multiple stems, all sprouting from the ground? These are the remains of old coppicing.

In fact, the very name "copse" means an area of coppiced woodland.

You are probably also familiar with pollarded street trees: this is just coppicing at a higher point above the ground.

So, this question: John said that he has been asked to renovate a couple of very old coppiced Hazels, which were choked with holly at the base, and are very congested.

Here's a picture of one of them, half-way though the holly clearance:

"Good job!"

This is definitely the first thing to do: clear away everything other than Hazel, including ivy, brambles, and anything else growing around the base.

John asked what the best plan would be, to renovate these trees.

There are several reasons for wanting to renovate old coppices: they are part of our agricultural and social heritage, for a start.

Also, coppicing keeps the tree in a "juvenile" state, so that it does not ever grow old and die, the way that single-trunk, "normal" trees do. Honestly, that's true! There are coppiced trees which are hundreds of years old. So by allowing a coppiced tree to revert into being a "proper" tree, we are actually killing it.

And, of course, a renovated tree just looks better! Overgrown coppices such as John's ones, above, are unsightly, they are full of weedy choking growth, there is a risk of dead limbs dropping, and there will be lots of dead wood in the centre, which will be hosting pests and diseases: far better to put in a bit of work to restore the tree.

I wrote about the general principles of coppicing some time ago, when I had to restore a much smaller Hazel.  That one was more of a decorative tree than a crop tree, and the owners didn't want it coppiced, they just wanted to be able to get up and down their steps in safety.

John's trees are more historical: he thinks that they may be at least 50 years old, they may well be much, much older. They are also what you might call "public property" as they are on land which is accessed by the public, so it's important that they are both safe, and handsome to look at.

So, what would I advise?

The obvious suggestion is that it is high time they were coppiced again! Get out the bowsaw, and cut every single stem down, as low as you can.  Pull out any seedlings of other trees which you may well find lurking in the centre, and clear out any ivy etc that was hidden by the larger growth.

In seven years' time, do it again.

Drastic, but simple, and historically correct.

However, this leaves a big hole in the horizon, in which case you can do what I call a cosmetic coppice: this is where you cut out the largest, ie oldest, of the re-grown stems, leaving a thinned-out selection to give some vertical cover, while the new shoots grow.

If the tree is normally only seen from one side, you can choose to cut down one half of it - either the front, or the back, as it were.

If it can be viewed all round, then you can choose to take the time to thin it out by removing just the largest ones: but this can be time consuming, and tricky to do, as you have to get your tools in amongst the younger stems, without damaging them. It's perfectly possible, it just takes longer.

Every year thereafter, you would need to cut out a few of the oldest stems, and after a few years, you will find that you have a nice mix of thinner, younger stems.

If you are wondering why I say to cut out the older wood: well, if you cut out the youngest, thinnest, stems, then you are not renovating the tree, you are merely sending it back to being a tree instead of a coppice, which will eventually lead to its death.

And yes, it is perfectly possible to turn a coppiced tree back into a "normal" tree, by cutting out all but one or two of the stems - leaving the biggest ones - and allowing just those ones to grow. This means an annual prune of the base, to remove all competing new shoots, and you will always have a strange lumpy base to the tree: but yes, it will eventually look like a "proper" tree again.  This is kind-of what I had to do for the Client mentioned above, when I restored their Hazel

So, as John has two of these monsters to deal with, he could choose to properly coppice one of them now, and then in about three years' time, coppice the other one. Hazel, in case you are wondering, is normally coppiced on a 7-year cycle as it is a fast grower, so that's why I'd suggest about three years between working on the two of them: one will be half-grown before the other is chopped.
As an aside, Oak used to be coppiced on a 50-year cycle... we live our lives so fast these days that it's hard to comprehend an investment system that would not pay out for 50 years or more, isn't it! 


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Wednesday, 2 January 2019

New Year's Resolutions... and a bit of blushing.

Well, here we are at the start of another New Year - it's January, it's already dark by mid afternoon, but hey, we're past the shortest day, so it's all uphill now, until summer!

Usually you'll find gardening columns etc banging on, at this time of year, about how all gardeners do is sit indoors and drool over seed catalogues.

But not me!

Nope, instead of lounging around looking at seed catalogues, I've made a sort-of resolution to do a bit more blogging this year.

I say on my website that I have a daily blog which I update weekly, which was sort of a joke... but I can see from my postings list that I've been quite lax in the past few months, and I haven't even averaged one a week.


Why? Is there nothing going on, in the gardening world? Has nothing of note happened? The answer is that I've been concentrating on Other Things, not least of which is the super-exciting Trainee placement - more of that later - and blogging has had to take a bit of a back seat. But all that is over! Yes! I've re-discovered the exclamation mark!!

Actually, I have a somewhat embarrassing confession to make: I received an email from Australia, from a nice lady called Veronica (*waves enthusiastically*) (oh, is it the middle of the night there? Sorry... *waves somewhat more quietly*) who was kind enough to say that this blog is not only “Bloody Bonzer”, *glows with pride* but is apparently,   “Smick”.

Now, not being Australian, I wasn't quite sure about that last one - I have to take her word for it that Smick is a good thing. Over here, it's a bit of an insult;

"Smick: noun. Northern Irish. derogatory, informal. A young lower-class person typified by brash and loutish behaviour."

It's the Irish equivalent of "chav". 

Just in case I'd missed something that "the kids" are all saying, I looked it up in Urban Dictionary, and alas: 

Leaving aside the peculiar vernacular of the person contributing the entry, I think we can agree that in the UK, "smick" is not quite a compliment.

But I'm still perfectly happy to accept "Bloody Bonzer", Veronica!

(And would you believe, I typed that as "bloody bonsai" and had to correct myself... not that I have a one-track mind, noooo, not at all...)

So what's the embarrassing part? Well, Veronica was very kind,  in her praise of my skills in written communication (and that's such a good phrase that I shall probably work it into my cv) etc, and I'm kinda blushing a bit.

But I'm easily flattered, as all of my readers - yes, both of you - will know, so the embarrassing bit is that all it takes is one compliment, and here I am, determined to write for another year.

(Veronica, at this point, punches the air and shouts "Yessss!" in an Aussie accent)

So, thank you Veronica, for taking the trouble to email all the way from the place where it never snows: and I hope you continue to enjoy my articles!