Saturday, 22 June 2019

"June drop" - what is it?

If you've ever grown fruit on trees - apples, pears, plums, that sort of thing - you might have heard the term "June drop".

Ever wondered what it means?

Nothing to do with pear drops, nothing to do with June bugs, (this one on the left is a May Bug or Cockchafer, but it's close enough), but everything to do with a natural thinning out of the fruit.

What happens is that each flower in a "bunch" gets pollinated, and if all of them are fertilised, then you get as many fruits as there were flowers.

This sounds like a good thing - ooh, lots of fruit! - but the tree can only support so many fruit, in two ways: firstly, a heavy crop of fruit is literally heavy, and can snap the branches - and secondly, if there are too many fruits in each bunch, then you get a lot of little tiny fruits, instead of a couple of nice big juicy ones.

So what do we do about it? Traditionally, we thin out the fruit: as soon as the fruits start to form, we look through the bunches every week or so, and remove some of them.

Using common sense, the first ones to be removed are any which are damaged, any which are badly mis-shapen, any which show the slightest sign of rot.

The next round of removals is for any which are markedly smaller than the others - the runts of the litter, as it were.

So far, so hoopy.

But the complication comes when we get to June, and the traditional June Drop. This is a natural phenomenon whereby the tree decides for itself whether it has too many fruits forming, and voluntarily drops a proportion of them.

Yesterday, I was merrily clipping the edges of the lawn around an apple tree when I noticed a strange texture underfoot: the grass was oddly lumpy.

Closer inspection showed a mass of teeny tiny apples, which have been "June Dropped" naturally by the tree, at a very early stage of their development.

Great, saves me some work!

The eternal question in my mind, when thinning fruits, is "are these small mis-shapen fruits which I am about to remove going to be dropped anyway during the June Drop, so am I wasting my time doing it manually?"

Actually, there's an even worse Eternal Question, which is this: does the tree drop a fixed percentage of fruits, because if it is always going to drop, say, half of them, then what if I've just removed the fruits which the tree was going to drop anyway (as I am sure the tree would agree with my selection of naff-looking fruits), in which case will it now drop half of the "good" fruits which I have left?

I have no answers to this conundrum.

If I had my own orchard, I'd do experiments with photographing, marking and recording each bunch of fruits, and I'd manually thin out some, leaving others untouched, to see what level of difference there is.

I'm certain that there is SOME difference, because I have a Client with a particular apple tree which I normally thin for them, as the fruits form: and one year I wasn't able to do it, I can't remember exactly why - I think we had several major garden projects going at once, and I just didn't get around to doing it.  And that summer, they definitely had masses of very small fruits, all strangely shaped where they were crammed up against each other, instead of our normal crop of good-sized, edible ones.

So I do know that yes, it is an important part of cultivating fruit, but I don't know the answers to my Eternal Questions.

(I'm not even going to mention biennial bearing, where trees alternate between bearing a heavy crop one year, and a pathetic feeble crop the next.)

Oh, one more thing about June Drop: I wrote recently about hoes, which are not my favourite tool (if you want to know why, read the article!), but if you have a Swoe, which is a particular type of hoe, 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!

Friday, 14 June 2019

Lily Beetles - tremble in terror!

Lily Beetles - *groan*

They're a bit late this year, but look out everyone, Lily Beetles are here with a vengeance once again.

What's a Lily Beetle? I hear you say. Well, if you don't know what they are then you are either very lucky, in that you have never had them, or you don't grow lilies.

Or, possibly, you have given up growing Lilies, as they never seem to do well for you?

If your Lilies look like this - brace yourselves -

 ... then you know the pain of Lily Beetles. Disgusting mess, eh? The leaves have been shattered, shredded to nothing. and the flowering buds have been completely eaten away.

If you don't know what Lily Beetles are, here's one I found earlier (don't worry, it's dead now) - they are quite large, shiny bright scarlet, beetles, which simply drool over our beautiful Lilies, and to a lesser extent our Fritillaries.

I've had Clients in the past come running up to me, wailing about ladybirds eating their Lilies: it's an easy mistake to make, but Ladybirds are hemispherical, like half a pea, whereas Lily Beetles are longer and flatter: also, Ladybirds have spots upon their backs, whereas Lily Beetles are plain red, no spots.

The adults come flying in, usually from mid May onwards: they scoff the leaves, often leaving those squared-off holes, and then they lay their bright orange eggs on the underside of the leaves.

 Here's a string of freshly laid eggs - right - and if you find two or more of the adults doing the piggy-back thing, you know that these eggs are about to be laid, so there's an extra incentive to destroy them.

These bright orange eggs hatch very quickly into larvae, which then cover themselves in their own excrement (“charming!”) for disguise, so we can no longer easily see them.

These larvae then, under cover of the black poo, eat what is left of the leaves, and this is what leaves our plants looking like nothing on earth - tattered, ragged foliage with clumps of black icky stuff on them.

If  you are very lucky, they'll only eat the foliage and leaves the flowering buds alone, but the lack of foliage will cause the bulbs to be seriously distressed, to the point where they may well not flower at all the following year.

 So, what can we do about it?

Answer, get out there now, and start looking for them. They are ridiculously easy to spot, being bright scarlet, but they have a nasty little trick: when disturbed, they fall to the ground and lie motionless on their backs, so you can't see them.

See what I mean? (left)

Hard to spot on a concrete path, quite impossible to spot on dark earth.

This means you need two hands - cup one underneath the leaf, then gently nudge the beetle off the leaf into your hand.

Or, crease a sheet of stiff paper lengthwise, and hold it under the plant.

Either way, once you have them, crush them! Kill, maim, destroy!

As with many things in the garden, prevention is better than cure, so be vigilant now, early in the season: check your Lilies several times a day, and squish any adults that you find, before they get a chance to lay eggs. Be warned - they have hard carapaces, so when I say “squish”, I mean “crush underfoot, on a hard surface, or guillotine with a thumbnail if you are not squeamish.”

By killing every adult that you see, you can prevent them from laying eggs, thus saving your Lilies - and those of your neighbours - from an untimely demise.

After more than a decade of doing it, I am no longer squeamish, and at this time of year I am often to be found with a red-stained thumbnail.

If you don't quite fancy the search-and-destroy routine, the only alternative is to spray: most of the sprays are systemic, which means that you spray them onto the leaves, the spray is absorbed by the plant and circulates to all areas, the lily beetle eats the leaves which now contain the poison within the sap, and the beetle dies.

The downside of this regime is a) you have to do it a few days before the first beetles arrive, and of course we all forget: or possibly we're all hopeful that this year, we will be spared, b) it's using chemicals, and c) some of them will live long enough to lay their pesky eggs, so spraying is not a cure-all, but it can help to cut down infestations if you can get it on in time.

So if you plan to spray, it's a bit late now......

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Strawberry and Herb pots: how to make them better!

Someone offered me an unwanted strawberry pot the other day; what a kind thought, you might say.

But there was a catch - they were giving it to me because it "didn't work".


The problem was, they said, that every time they watered it, the water just flooded straight through the pot and out of all the holes, washing out the soil and leaving the plants hanging on precariously.

This was because it was a badly designed pot!!

Firstly, in case you're not clear on what a Strawberry pot is, it's a pot which has several openings in the sides, designed so that you can grow six or so separate plants, each with its own opening.

They are brilliant for strawberries, because strawberries like to dangle, and the design of the pot keeps them off the soil, so they don't go mushy and horrible. It is also a lot easier to protect a pot from slugs and snails, compared to having them in a bed or border: the pot can be sat on your patio, you can put copper tape around the base (which doesn't actually work, as per this article), and they are close to hand.

They are also very popular for herbs, because you can plant six or more different herbs in each pot, sit it on the patio by the kitchen door, and be able to pop outside and snip off a fragrant handful whenever you wish. And as herbs like to be well-drained, they are particularly suited for them.... oh hang on, strawberries need a lot of water, don't they? More of this later.

Here's a typical herb pot:

As you can see, nice terracotta pot, holes in the side for a variety of different plants, and space on top for a slightly larger one.

This is actually a very successful way to grow herbs: because they have a limited amount of soil, they don't get unmanageably huge.

And, because of the design shortcomings, the top one tends to get all the water, and the lower plantings tend to be rather dry, which suits most herbs.

So far, so hoopy,  However, these pots are more often used for strawberries, and this is the sort of picture they use to sell them:

There, isn't that lovely?

Bursting with fruit, as healthy as a healthy thing, and only taking up six square inches on your sunny patio.....

However, there's a bit of a conflict with the above situation - strawberries need a lot of water, and they take a lot of nutrition out of the soil.

How do we deal with these two opposing sets of conditions?

Well, first things first, decide what you are going to grow. If it's herbs, all well and good, plant it up and off you go.

But if you want strawberries, you will need to take a bit more care with your choice of pot, and with your management of it.

Right, why do some of them leak water all over the place? In a word, because they are badly designed.  The holes in the sides need to have quite extensive lips, like little cups.

Here's a perfect example of a really crap design. It's a cheaply-produced pot, most likely it was machine-made by the million, and they just stamped out the holes and presumably discarded the unwanted clay.

This sort of pot is only ever going to be any use for herbs, and even then it's going to be annoying to use: when you first fill it, the soil is going to fall out all  over your feet, and even once the plants have become established enough to hold the soil in, every time you water you are going to have a flood on the patio.

This - right - is the style of pot you should be looking at. Don't look at the overall shape of the pot, that doesn't matter, but look at the way the planting holes have cups underneath them.

"Ahhhh!" I hear you say.

Yes, that's right, it's that simple: buy pots with projecting cups, which hold the soil, and hold the water.

Right, so what do you when you've inadvertently bought (or been given) the wrong type?

Here's my personal fix - I was given a beautiful blue strawberry pot with, alas, the wrong style of hole. In my local charity shop, I found a set of six blue mugs for £2, almost exactly the same colour. Ten minutes' work with a small hammer, and I'd managed to get four half-cups, which I then cemented in place with Milliput (modelling clay).

I also added a strip of Milliput along the broken edge, so I didn't get slashed to death when tending to my plants....

Life being what it is, I broke a couple of the mugs in all the wrong places, so I didn't get six decent halves - you can see in this photo that my answer is to block up the bottom-most holes with plastic, and to do without those ones: at least I now have four good planting cups, instead of none!

You could use rigid plastic for this: short pieces cut from old guttering would do - so search the shed and see what bits and bobs you have lying around, and see if any of them can be put to use.

When you fill the pot, use shop-bought, good quality compost: this is one time when home-made compost is actually not the best, as it can have variable amounts of "goodness" in it, and that means varying from "mmm, quite a lot" to "oh dear, practically nothing" and alas, there is no quick and easy way to test your own compost for nutritional value.

Also, and more to the point, homemade compost is inevitably full of weed seeds. Which means you waste a lot of that "goodness" in growing weeds which compete with your strawberry plants, and you waste a lot of time trying to winkle them out without disturbing your precious crop.

And, don't just plant up and forget: the nutrients in shop-bought compost only last for 4-6 months, and strawberries are greedy feeders, so give them some balanced feed - such as Gromore - every couple of weeks, and a little sploosh of tomato feed in their water once every week or so.

Right, so now we've either thrown out the "wrong" pots and replaced them, or we've found a way to bodge them into being usable: we've used good compost and have lined up our feeding regime: so how do we water?

Even with the right shaped pot, the trick is to water very slowly to avoid it all spilling out of the top, and out of the top-most planting pockets. I find it helps to ensure that you don't fill the main body of the pot right up to the top - allow a couple of inches so that the water can sit on the soil and soak in.

If you find that frustrating,  my answer to this is to insert a couple of lengths of seep hose vertically into the pot when I was planting it up. So now I pour the water down the tops of the seep hose as well as on the soil: they fill up with water right down to the bottom, and release it slowly.

As an alternative, you could get a length of plastic pipe, drill a lot of small holes in it, block up the bottom, and stand it vertically in the pot when you plant it. Then you just fill up the pipe with water, and it gradually empties itself into the soil.

So, in a nutshell: buy the right design: if you have the wrong design, see if you can change it: use bought compost and be prepared to use additional feed: water slowly, add some pipes or seep hose to get the water right down to the bottom, and there you go, strawberries of your own!

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Chelsea Flower Show 2019: zombie apocalypse aftermath

Well, everything they say about Chelsea Flower Show is true. Yes, everything!

It's big, it's commercial, it's horrendously expensive: it's fantastic, there's so much to see, it's very well organised: there are too many trade stands, too many other people, not enough show gardens; there are lots of trade stands and shopping opportunities; it's all as fake as a fake thing (having to look at stands full of flowering hydrangeas - ours, locally, are barely budding  up - next to stands full of flowering daffodils is a bit of a strain on the horticultural credibility), but it was still a fabulous day out!

I haven't seen any of the TV coverage - on account of not having a TV - nor have I read any of the reviews etc, other than to have noted that "Kate" had created a garden, so this review probably won't say quite the same things as the other reviews...

After an early start, and a rather giggly journey on the luxurious Oxford Tube coach (still can't accept a coach called "The Tube" as to me, being London born and bred, the Tube is the Tube, and that's that. End of diversion, please drive on:), we arrived at Victoria, hopped on the shuttle bus and found ourselves in a steady flow of Chelsea visitors, entering the showground.

We worked our way gently through the security search ("Oy! Give me back my Hula-hoops!") then headed for the Pavilion, on the grounds that a) most people were heading straight for Kate's Garden,  and b) we weren't quite sure about the weather, and if it should chance to rain everyone would stampede for the shelter, so we thought we'd get it done first.

Good decision, as it turned out: it was sufficiently un-crowded that we could move round at a decent pace, and it hadn't yet heated up to boiling point in the sun.

So, the Pavilion: that's where the plants live. Lots and lots of plants, rather like a "Best of Village" gardening show, but on a large scale and - generally speaking - without the veg. Many of the stalls were one-hit wonders, a chance for the plant breeders to show you just how many garish colours they can breed into their specialist subject: but quite a few had made an effort to create a mini-show garden, which we all enjoyed more than just "here's our plant in red, here it is in yellow".

To give you an idea of how un-engaging the Pavilion was (to me, that is) I only took one photo:

... and that was more to remind me of the cunning positioning of a bonsai within a circle of painted wood.

Now I am looking for a garden in which to create something like this.....

After an hour or more in the Pavilion, and having narrowly avoided being part of the filming while we were - fruitlessly, as it turned out - trying to get to see the Ikea stand, we escaped and went out to see the D-Day landing memorial garden.

This is not quite a garden, it's more of a cross between an art installation and a memorial, and is quite wonderful.

On the right-hand side, you have the garden part: something like 11,000 individual Sea Thrift plants (Armeria maritima) in white and pink, all carefully grown in pots, crammed together on the forecourt of the Royal Hospital to form the illusion of a windswept, sandy beach. Among the plants are 15 stone plinths, representing the troops who fought at the D-Day landings: each engraved with a quote from an individual veteran.

At the front of the line is a life-sized statue of one particular veteran, Bill Pendell MM, who is a local man, he comes from Stanford in the Vale. The statue shows him as he was last year, age 97, and depicts him sitting, looking out to sea.

On the left is the "sea", an impressive structure of grey steel girders and chippings, representing the waves of the  landing. Among those waves are some ghostly images of young soldiers, cleverly made by welding washers together to form a chain-mail effect, but only detailing part of the soldier, giving them an ethereal, transparent quality.

(apologies for the photo, I didn't take one myself due to the excessive quantity of elbows and hats around me, so I pinched this one off the internet.)

The concept is that the 97-year-old Bill sits on the right, watching  his younger self rushing out of the waves. Of course, we all ask ourselves what he would be thinking, what he would say when he saw his younger self on the beaches: sadly, we'll never know because Mr Pendell died last December - after the sculpture was made, but before seeing the installation.

The garden was, like all the show gardens, fenced off to keep out the masses, but a special few people were allowed to go inside and walk around it.  And the lovely part is that after the show, the whole garden is being packed up and reinstalled in Normandy: not only that, but the foundation who raised the money for the garden are also paying for 75 veterans to be brought to London to see it.

After seeing this, we found somewhere moderately quiet to eat our packed lunches: we're not daft, we'd heard the rumours of huge queues and over-priced food, although to be honest, it didn't look that bad: £10 for a smallish portion of fish and chips seems quite reasonable to me, and the serving seemed to move along quite nicely.

Refreshed and renewed, we wasted 15 mins queueing for the loos - honestly, guys, come on: the briefest of brief surveys suggested that the ratio of women to men was a minimum of five to one, so how come there were so few loos for the ladies? The organisers had made a bit of an effort, with a large block of mobiles loos (nice solid ones, not those nasty blue plastic tardis things) and a team of young staff chivvying us along ("Come on ladies! Move all the way through, more round the back, chop chop!") and a very effective mass handwash arrangement.

However, by the time we'd all been processed, the queue was faintingly long, and the volume of the grumbling was getting quite worrying. Fearing a riot, we hastened off to see the show gardens.

As always, they look lovely on tv (I used to have one, I know what the presentation is like) but in real life, you can only see one side of them, and then you have to fight your way to the barrier, and if there is someone particularly tall/stout/behatted in front of you, well, it's quite tricky to get a good view. And you don't like to spend too long looking, as you are very aware of the crush of people behind.

But we managed to get a feel for the themes of the show gardens: to me, there was nothing particularly new there, it was all a bit derivative: lots and lots of rusty iron, and a strong theme of zombie apocalypse eco aftermath. You know, the zombies have eaten everyone, and nature is returning to take over.

Those show gardens which resisted the rusty iron, still went for the mock "wild" look, which - as a gardener - I find teeth-grittingly annoying. Why? Firstly because it looks lovely now, for the five minutes of the show (allowing for the fact that many of the plants at the show have been forced/held back/tortured in some way to get them perfect for that one week) but - as several astute visitors said out loud - once this plant and that plant have gone over, there'll be very little left to look at for the rest of the summer, and nothing at all left for winter interest.

And secondly because creating and maintaining a "wild" garden takes just as much time as creating and maintaining a traditional garden, which many people don't realise. I don't mind if a garden owner wants a wild garden because it's wild, because it reminds them of their childhood, because they want to be friendly to wildlife etc. I start gritting my teeth when they want a wild garden because they think it will be low maintenance.

Oh no it won't! I'll be writing about this separately, so come back later if you want to  know more on that topic!

So what did actually catch my eye?  Well, first was this very contemporary garden, mostly because one of my Clients wants to install a narrow rill in their garden, and wanted ideas:

...this isn't quite what they are looking for, but I rather liked the idea of the very narrow stream, easy to  step over. And I liked the idea of using different coloured stones for the edges, so you can see them!

Not so keen on the "concrete slab" footbridge though - it's not the concrete slab-ness that I dislike, as that is actually quite in keeping with the rest of the garden, but the fact that they've put it behind (from the point of view of the chair and table) the wall. With greenery overhanging it.

Why would you choose to do a tightrope balancing act on a narrow footbridge, then squeeze round the back of the wooden wall - actually the side of a pergola - brushing through foliage en route?

I can't help feeling there was a slight mistake in the build.

Please note, again, the "wildflower" style planting. Nice for five minutes.... not exactly lovely all year round, though.

The next thing that caught my eye was the garden produced by the Australian adventure holiday company, and not just because they were dishing out free goody bags.

(I do love free goody bags!)

Love the dear little wombat on the left (comment overheard from another visitor "Oh look, a beaver!"), and the iconic Koala. Not quite so sure about the Foxgloves, though: I would not  have considered them to be native Australian plants.

*slight pause while I go and check*

Oh! "Naturalised in some parts of south-eastern Australia"

Well, that told me.

Meanwhile we were hearing from other visitors that the queue for "Kate's Garden" was now reaching inter-galactic lengths, so we decided to give that a miss.

Instead, we hopped up into the exhibit next door, which was a treehouse, in the hopes that we'd be able to see over and down into it, but alas, "Kate's  Garden" was surrounded by trees and we could not get a single peek. Drat!

Finally, I took a photo of this stand which showcased some fantastic metal water-feature trees sculptures.

I've wanted one of these since seeing the copper weeping willow water tree at Chatsworth, and these were far, far better than that.

They had a stand full of them, so they'd built a shallow tank to house them, and the sound of the "rain" was like that of a thunderstorm!

The trees are getting more and more realistic, and as you can see, they're now making strange but colourful flowers which also spout water.


I'm not quite sure how I'm going to fit one of these into my tiny garden... in a perfect world, I'd have the whole thing installed!

Alas, the firm who make them have had a total "Fail" on the advertising front, as I can't find them on the internet: I've searched for Chelsea 2019 trade stands, artificial trees, water sculpture, water trees, copper trees, etc etc and I still can't find who makes them.

So, that was Chelsea 2019: zombie apocalypse aftermath, wildflowers and weeds, rusty iron, and well worth getting up very early in order to get there not long after opening time, in order to have a chance to see round before it got too crowded.

Best points: showground policy is "no dogs, no prams, no pushchairs, no babies, no children under 5". It's a show for grown-ups, and it was lovely. No screaming children, no perpetually being run over by buggies, no having to watch your every step for fear of treading in dog poo.

Worst points? Definitely the queueing for the loo. I have submitted feedback to the RHS. *laughs*

Will I go again? Unlikely: having now looked at photos on the internet (while searching for the metal tree people), I can  honestly say that you get a better idea of the show gardens from the tv coverage and the internet - after all, they are able to compose the shot (hahaha, I typed "compost" instead of "compose" there and had to go back to change it!) to show off the relevant/best features of the garden, and you don't get bumped into, while you are trying to see them.

However, I do think that the Chelsea Flower Show is something that everyone should go to once (everyone who is interested in gardening, that is!) and I am extremely happy that I have now ticked off that box, with grateful thanks to the kind friend who invited me to go!

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