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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