Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Forget-me-not seed time...

All professional gardeners hate this time of year: the Forget-me-not having finally finished flowering, it's time to heave them out, and that means.... *heavy "Dracula" chords on the Hammond organ* ...

...seeds everywhere!

This is how you know it's time to weed them out: instead of being a mass of blue flowers, they are a haze of dusty grey, often with an under-layer of unattractive black foliage.

The seeds stick to everything - the backs of my gloves, for a start.

...and to my the laces, to my tee-shirt, my shorts, to everything!

It's a horrible job, but well worth doing: clearing out all the dying plants removes a lot of slug and snail running buffet material: it allows the birds to get in amongst the plants again, so they can pick off pests: it allows good airflow among the other plants in the area, thus reducing the risk of mildew etc: and it makes the whole bed look so much better!

Don't worry about losing the plants, by the way: Forget-me-not are annual plants, so once they have finished flowering they will die anyway.

But they shed thousands of seeds, and you will be enjoying their seedlings for years to come!

So there you go, a quick and simple - although not very pleasant - job to do in the garden this week: pull out all the dying Forget me not.

Oh, and don't put them on the compost heap, otherwise you will have thousands of seedlings popping up  everywhere!

Monday, 27 July 2020

How to grow perfect slug-free salad

Are you growing your own veg for the first time this year, and are you finding that your home-grown lettuces are being shredded by slugs?

Are they being slaughtered by snails?

Are they so disgusting that you are throwing most of them on the compost heap, rather than eating them?

Have you tried coffee? Citrus peel? Copper tape? Egg shells? Or any of the other multitude of so-called slug prevention items, all of which are completely useless, as I have already demonstrated in an earlier article?

Today, I am going to share with you my answer to this problem, which gives perfect, 100% protection for your salad.

It takes a bit of setting up, mind: you will need to buy or repurpose the following items, or something very similar:

1) cheap shelving.
2) some plastic guttering, preferably square section

How To Do It:

Assemble the guttering into a square or rectangle. Sink it into the soil so it ends up at ground level. Fill it with water, Clear out everything inside the "moat", set up the shelves, put trays of lettuce on the shelves and there you go!

Fantastic clean lettuce, 100% slug free!

Of course, there's always a wee bit more to it, that these simple instructions would suggest: for a start,  you'll need to seal the joints in the guttering, and it takes quite a while to get the guttering set exactly level.

Plus it is essential to clear out all slugs from within the moat, before you even start!

You do then have to keep the moat topped up, but of course you are watering the lettuce trays every day anyway, so that's not difficult.

As you can see, my shelves are actually one of those cheap plastic greenhouses, and as I already had the old, damaged, plastic skin, I cut the top off, and added it as a "lid", to stop birds sitting on the frame and pooing on my lettuce.

In case you are wondering why on earth I decided to do this, it was just a proof of concept, to show a friend how it would work: they have now moated their entire new raised veg bed, with great success.

And I have now a perfect salad bar, nice and handy for the back door!

Sunday, 12 July 2020

How to identify a flower if you have no idea what it is.

I was out with my Trainee the other day,  and we came across a garden plant which neither of us recognised.

Now, I often get asked this question, by younger gardeners who live and die on the internet: how do you find out what a plant is, if you don't know what it is called - where do you start?

So here is my entire process, for naming a plant using only the internet.

Firstly, we looked at it: did it remind us of anything? I thought it might be Astrantia, because the leaves looked like Astrantia. 

This - left - is what Astrantia foliage looks like, and it was about the right size: the leaves were as large as the palm of my hand, and the whole thing was waist-high: bearing in mind that the pot was a large one, so that adds a foot or so to the height.

But then I looked at the flower, and it was orange.

Hmm, probably not Astrantia then, because Astrantia come in shades of purple through to dirty white, I've never seen an orange one. But the leaves looked really Astrantia-like. 

Did we panic, scream, and run around crying "What is it?! What is it?!"

No, we did not.

First and most obvious thing, we looked in the pot to see if there was a label.

You'd be surprised how often the Garden Owner leaves a label in the pot. I never advise my own Clients to do this: the labels degrade over time, they shatter, and then you've lost them forever. I always recommend keeping the original label in the Garden Journal (what do you mean, you don't have a Garden Journal? Everyone should have one! Write down all the plants you have, make notes of new ones which you buy, what they cost, where they came from: clip the receipt into the Journal in case they die and have to be returned for a refund: take photos of your garden every so often, print them out and stick them into the Journal to remind you of what looked good, what looked bad, where the gaps were, which areas could do with improvement, etc) for reference, and making new labels to put out with the plants. This helps to avoid the "fruit salad" effect of many little bits of brightly coloured plastic in the garden.

In this case, alas, no label.

Next step: ask the garden owner. "Excuse me, we were just admiring this lovely thing here, what a super/lovely/unusual colour/shape [mix and match as appropriate], can you tell us what it is?"

This approach is less successful if "one" is working there at the time, because when "one" is a Pro Gardener, "one" is rather expected to already know all the plants... but nevertheless, I have been known to ask the Client, I have no shame!

In this case, no Garden Owner available.

Right, research time: take photos. Take several, to ensure that they come out - photos of the flower, the back of the flower (the sepals, on the back of the petals, are often useful for ID) the foliage, the stems, try to get overall pics of the size and proportion of the plant, along with some close-ups to give you some useful detail. If possible, put something in the photo to give a sense of scale.

Here's the foliage - see what I mean about it looking like Astrantia?

But here's the flower, and because I have my hand behind it - to make it clear in the photo - that also gives us a sense of scale:

Quite exotic, isn't it?  Definitely not Astrantia.

Back at home, we turn to google or any other search engine.

My first thought had been Astrantia - I was fairly certain that they did not produce orange flowers, but heyho, always worth checking the obvious candidates first, so I typed in

"Astrantia orange flower"

...and then clicked on "images". As I thought, the foliage was similar, but Astrantia definitely don't come in orange.

Next I tried

"orange flower long stamens"

because that seemed to be an unusual and possibly definitive part of the flower. I got lots of lilies. Then I looked again at the photo, and realised that the long parts were not stamens at all (If you're not sure what a stamen looks like, google it now!), so I tried again with

"orange flower long thin petals".

This brought up some interesting pics, but not what we wanted. I wondered if it was something exotic, but it was growing outside, and we've had all sorts of weather this year including four bouts of late frost, so I discounted tender, exotic things. I tried

"orange flower annual"

..because I don't grow annuals myself (what a waste of money! Much better to buy a plant once, and enjoy it for years, than to have to keep re-buying it year after year...), and therefore I don't know much about them, and it's entirely possible that it's an annual that I simply don't know.

This search threw up loads and loads of orange flowers, mostly Calendula (Marigold), Zinnia, Gazania etc, all the usual suspects - even I know those ones! - but nothing with the fringe of long thin petals.

OK, possibly not an annual then, let's try perennial:

"orange flower perennial"

Aha! There it is! Trollius! Same flower, with a layer of skinny petals shooting upwards.

Now I can put "Trollius" into google, and the one that looked closest was Trollius chinensis. So I put that into google, and yes, that looked a lot like it. I then altered the search terms to

"Trollius chinensis foliage"

... and looked closely at the leaves - yes, that's definitely it, yay! Returning to search for just Trollius chinensis, I scrolled down through the images to see if I could find one that was identical to our mystery plant, and I'd probably go for 'Golden Queen'.

So there you have it, this is my "process" for identifying an unfamiliar garden plant, and I hope that it inspires you to search for the names of unfamiliar plants.

Just remember that a huge proportion of photos on the internet are wrongly labelled, so don't look at anything on Pinterest, Facebook, or any of those "amateur" sites: go for plant nursery websites, on the grounds that anyone selling the plant is duty bound to label it correctly!

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Thursday, 9 July 2020

I fixed the wall!

Being an Artisan gardener means.... that you could do something simple and ordinary, but instead you choose to go one step beyond....

Here's a not-very-good picture of something which really annoys me: one of my Clients asked the handyman to re-build a section of a low stone wall around a raised bed: the wall was damaged in places, and falling down in others, and they also asked the workmen to insert proper solid steps in the middle. They did a reasonable job of the steps, but look at this:

Ignore the pile of loose bricks to the right, they were put there out of the way, temporarily (not by me!).

We are looking straight down at the top of the wall.

Look at the stone wall in the centre.

Look at the wooden fence.

Admire the 4" gap between the end of the stone wall, and the wooden fence



There's a height difference of a good 12" (30cm for you youngsters), which is why the wall was there in the first place. So the soil from the bed is going to continually wash down through that annoying gap.

This also means that the owner will always be sweeping that end of the patio, as there will always be soil and debris washing down onto it.

I put up with this for about a month, then finally my inner "I like things NEAT!" persona took over, and I went in search of a suitable stone to fill the gap.

Two minutes later:

There we go!

I found a stone which was almost exactly the right size and shape to be wedged into the gap.

Now the soil won't wash out of the bed, and now I can stop grinding my teeth every time I weed that area!

So the question remains: am I being over-fussy?

Do you allow workmen to do a crappy job such as this?

Are there any handymen out there who would care to comment - do you just not "see" this sort of thing? Would it just not occur to you that a raised wall really ought to go all the way to the end of the bed? Would you have left it like this, if it were in your own garden??!!

Answers on a postcard, please...

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Hazel coppice: cosmetic renovation pruning

I've written about this topic already - here's an article about a pair of historical coppiced hazels which were in need of renovation.

So I won't repeat the story of coppicing,  other to say that coppicing was a way of managing woodland which was in operation for thousands of years, producing a variety of crops from firewood and charcoal to beanpoles, pea sticks and other plant supports; fencing, hurdles and other garden structures; hedge stakes and binders; baskets, walking sticks, ties for fastening thatch pegs: all these and more, produced  in a totally sustainable, low-impact, extremely low-cost, minimum maintenance way.

Pity we stopped doing it, really... but the result of the industrial revolution and increasing urbanisation means that, all over the country, there are thousands, possibly millions, of former coppiced trees - hazel, sweet chestnut, and willow being the main ones, but also including alder, oak, hornbeam, beech, birch and even sycamore - which have been left to go to rack and ruin. We no longer need all those products: now we have gas boilers for heat, low-quality mass-produced fencing, and plastic.

This means that in almost every woodland you pass or walk through, you will find the remains of coppicing: trees which have, instead of one single large trunk, a multitude of smaller stems, all sprouting upwards from the same place. So look out for them, next time you go out for a walk!

They also occur in modern gardens, particularly where former woodlands were parcelled off for housing - you often find old coppiced trees in largeish gardens.

Yesterday I had one of them to attend to: an old hazel coppice, in a garden setting, which was growing a wee bit too big for the area, and needed to be controlled - but not too much.

Here's the Before picture - yes, I actually remembered to take a photo before I started!

As you can see, not particularly offensive in any way, but it is getting a bit boisterous, and if not controlled now, it will become unmanageable in a year or two's time.

It also overhangs the bench, and the owner wanted to be able to sit there without having branches slapping them in the face... and to be able to mow without ducking under the branches... so I got my pruning saw out, and set to work.

As this is a "cosmetic" pruning, I wasn't actually re-coppicing at all, I wasn't going to cut the whole thing - I was just removing some of the branches in order to thin and lighten the tree.

Normally, the routine would be to remove the oldest branches: but in this case I decided to just take off the outside fringe of branches, which would leave a more upright shape and would reduce the bulk and the width, without sacrificing any of the height.

Privacy was also an issue: there is a neighbouring property to the left, just behind the bench, and it was essential to keep a good amount of screening on that side.

So, out with the pruning saw - there wasn't room to use the trusty bow-saw! - and off we go.

There we go - hardly any difference, really.

Except that now, the hazel no longer overhangs the grassy path, and the bench is clear, and is back in the sunlight again.

The owner asked me to remove some of the rear trunks as well, because the neighbour had "mentioned" the overhanging branches on their side, so I cut out a few of the rear-most branches as well.

This might not have made much of a difference to the front view, but you might just be able to see that there is now quite a lot more light towards the back, which makes the bench feel a bit more open and welcoming.

In doing this work, I also discovered a poor struggling Pyracantha against the fence, which had been rather smothered by the hazel growth, so I tied that in to the fence and hopefully it will now have a chance to provide a splash of colour down there.

Now, you might be wondering how much I actually removed from this hazel.

Answer: about a whole tree's worth!

Here's my waste pile: in fact, there are two piles, one pile of the long straight trunks, and a second pile to the left, comprising smaller branches and a few wayward bits which I chopped off the larger trunks in order to make them easier to stack.

How long did all this take?

It took me about ten minutes to cut out the unwanted trunks, which includes a couple of minutes assessing the job and deciding which ones to remove: and then half an hour to clear away all this lot, trim them and stack them neatly for the owner to dispose of.

This is often the way with tree work! Ten minutes to do the job, and two hours to dispose of the corpse, as it were.

So now, in this garden, we have have a nice clear bench, which gets the sun, and on which people can sit without wearing a hard hat for protection: the neighbour is happy because the overhanging branches on his side have been removed: and the whole area generally looks more inviting and manageable.

Job done!

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Saturday, 4 July 2020

Curly Hazel problems!

I had an email the other day from Karen ("Hi, Karen!") asking for my opinion about her contorted Hazel.

Now, regular readers will know that Curly or Contorted  or Corkscrew Hazel (Corylus avellana 'Contorta') is not my favourite curly wurly shrub or tree: that honour would always go to Contorted Willow, which I think looks better, it certainly grows faster, and is a lot easier to manage as - not being grafted - it will never revert to being straight, as it were.

Also, the leaves of the Willow are normal willow leaves, whereas the Hazel leaves are as contorted as the stems, which I think makes them look a bit diseased. So Hazel is fantastic in winter, not so good in summer: whereas the Willow is fantastic all year round, plus is easier to manage. So that's why I don't really care for the contorted Hazel.

But I shall put all that aside for Karen's question!

(And anyway, are you ready for this? Terrible confession: I actually do have a very small contorted Hazel in my own garden, it's a purple leaved  one, and I looooove purple foliage!)

She had a corkscrew Hazel in a pot, and decided to set it free, and plant it out in her garden, but alas, it is not looking spectacular. In fact, it's looking a bit poorly, Karen says that it has scale insect, ants are present and some of the branches are blackened.

So let's look at those three issues. Firstly, the scale insects.

Here's Karen's picture of the scale insects:

If you don't know what scale insects are, they are tiny hemispherical creatures which clamp themselves onto the branches of vines, bushes, etc.

Their hard carapaces protect them from being picked off by birds or other predators, and under their protective shells, they are secretly sucking the sap out of the plant, and slowly killing it.

In this photo, left, they are small light brown dots, there are several clusters of them along the dark grey stems of the curly Hazel twig.

Once they get settled in, they don't move around - they dig themselves in to the branch, and settle down to a nice sedentary life of sucking sap, and producing eggs.

Some types of scale insect (there are something like 8000 species!) secrete honeydew, in the same way that aphids do, which means that where there are scale insects, there are also ants...

Secondly, ants. I am dead against ants on plants, they do huge amounts of damage because where there are ants, there will be a nest, and that means excavation of the soil. So although the ants galloping up and down the stems might not appear to be doing much harm, they are bound to be nesting somewhere nearby.  And if the plant is in a pot, as this one was for many years, then they are probably inside the pot, ruining the roots by creating open passageways - "galleries" - which allow air to get to roots, which then kills the roots.

Also, ants need food, and they particularly love aphids because they can "farm" them for the honeydew, so where there are ants, you will often find aphids, which means sticky mess from the honeydew, more ants, and aphids ruining the leaves, to accompany the scale insects ruining the twigs.

And then there are the black bits:

This - left - is Karen's photo of some of the dead parts of her Hazel, and I can confirm that yes, they are dead bits.

There is nothing to do with these branches, but to prune them out entirely, as Karen has done.

If you are nervous about doing this, start at the tip of a deal-looking branch, and cut off just the last couple of inches. Look at the cut end - is it brown and dry? Or is it green and moist inside? If it's green, or pale coloured, and moist, then it's still alive, hooray! Do not cut any more off.

But if it's brown and dry, then it's dead: cut off another few inches and check again. Sometimes, if you do this, you will work your way half way along the supposedly dead branch, then find that there is actually live wood there: what a good thing you didn't chop the whole branch off, then!

Of course, sometimes you carefully snip your way all the way back to the main trunk, and it's dead all the way, so you think "Huh, I could have done this in one single swipe instead of wasting five minutes carefully mincing off a small piece at a time" but there you go, that's how you learn: after you've done this about a hundred times (as I have) you start to be able to recognise dead wood when you see it, and you can be brave and go in for the kill right at the start. But if you are not sure... take your time, and do it in small stages.

Why were there dead branches on the tree? Who knows: it could have been damage, the very act of lifting an established shrub or tree out of a pot is quite a physical thing, and it's easily possible to accidentally snap a couple of branches - and with a contorted tree, it's often hard to see that something has been damaged.

Or it might be the shock of being planted: sometimes plants respond to being freed from their pots by romping away like good 'uns: sometimes they scream in horror and lose a few branches or stems, just to frighten you.

Either way, it will probably recover, as long as it got a good watering when it was first planted out, and maybe again if we have more of this very drying, windy weather.

Getting back to the lovely scale insects ("not"), how do you deal with them?  It's best to remove the adults, I just wipe them off with a gloved hand: they can often be scraped off en masse, which is strangely satisfying. Once they are dislodged from the branch, they will die: and often when you do this, if it's a really bad infestation, you'll find that a lot of the shells are dry and dead anyway, so you are not being quite as much of a mass murderer as you thought.

This will remove the bulk of the problem, but there will still be any number of eggs and crawling larvae still on the plant, so once you find scale insects, you will have to keep re-checking, and scraping off any new ones that you find. Eventually, this war of attrition will get rid of the pest.

The problem is that many plants, especially vines, have lots of nooks and crannies where the little blighters can lurk, unseen, and out of reach, but if you don't want to spray your plants, then the only option is ceaseless vigilance, which will at least reduce the burden on the plant, even if you can't completely eradicate them.

Personally I apply ant powder: it gets rid of the ants, and although it is not one of the suggestions for killing scale insects, I find that a good dusting of ant powder results in a lot of very dry scale insects, which can be easily scraped off.

The non-eco methods involve applying systemic bug killer to the plant: this makes the sap poisonous to sap-sucking insects, so when the greedy little scale insects start sucking, instead of "slurp, slurp, burp" it's more like "slurp, slurp, aaaaaaaagggh, gack, aaaaargh!" and they die. Takes a while, a few weeks, and you still have the dead shells or cases on the branches, so you'd need to scrape them off, otherwise you won't be able to see if there are any new ones coming along. So the best regime, clearly, is to scrape them all off first, then spray the plant with a systemic bug killer.

Hopefully Karen will find that in a few weeks, her Hazel tree has recovered from the scale insects, recovered from the shock of being transplanted, and is growing nicely!

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Friday, 3 July 2020

Salix Kilmarnock - pruning and rusty leaves!

I've just had an email from Lisa (*waves enthusiastically*), who recently planted two very nice Salix Kilmarnock trees, and had a couple of questions about annual pruning, and rusty leaves.

Here's a photo of one of them:

Lisa says that when she bought them, they came with instructions to prune the branches down to 15cm (errr, errr, 30cm is a foot, so that'll be 6" in real life) just after the catkins have fallen, which would presumably be in late spring.

She didn't do so, and is worried that she's left it too late, so what should she do?

My advice is to leave them this year - they look fantastic, perfectly demonstrating the "light airy waterfall" which all Salix Kilmarnock owners should be aiming for.

I personally think that pruning it all back to 6" is a bit harsh, but willows are very fast growing, and if Lisa had chopped this one back as instructed in about April or early May, it would probably be very nearly back to this stage by now.

The idea behind the hard prune is to keep the tree airy and uncluttered: left to their own devices, these sweet little grafted trees do tend to morph into massive leafy bushes, lacking both shape and style, so a firm hand is often required.

If it were mine, I'd leave it for this year, but next year I would prune probably about half of the branches down to the suggested 6". And when I say half, I mean taking out one, leaving one, taking out one, leaving one... I don't mean chopping off all the ones on one side or the other! 

Then, the following year, I'd prune out the ones that didn't get done this year, and I would repeat this process every year. This would have a net effect of creating a tree where none of the branches are more than about two years old, so it should remain small and shapely for many years to come.

Just to remind anyone who hasn't read any of the many other articles I've written on this topic, these trees are GRAFTED, that means that the single upright trunk belongs to one species of willow, and the graceful weeping branches at the top belong to a different species.

So the tree will never get any taller, it will just get thicker!

This is the second reason for an annual prune: with grafted trees, it's important to be able to see the base of the tree clearly, because they are little devils for sending up suckers from the rootstock, ie the bottom half. Sometimes they are true suckers, sprouting up from soil level: sometimes they are buds on the main single stem. But every one of them must be removed as soon as it is seen, otherwise your shapely weeping tree will turn into a massive upright "normal" willow before you can say lickety-split.

Lisa's second question was about rust on the leaves: this is a fungal infection, which causes discoloured spots on the leaves. There are thousands of types of Rust, some are specific to a particular species, some are less fussy. So I don't know which type of rust is infecting Lisa's trees, but all rusts are fungal, they spread by spores - so they are pretty much everywhere, in the air - and their idea of a good time is to find somewhere moist and warm so that they can replicate. Something like Athlete's Foot, but for trees.

Their favoured conditions tend to occur in a tree with dense branches, which has been watered from above: sprinklers are a particularly bad way to water trees (or anything, for that matter, but I'm a bit scathing on the whole subject of using sprinklers to water your garden, so don't get me started!).

So how can we help? We can help by maintaining a good air flow within the tree, which means pruning it regularly to prevent it getting too dense. We can also help by clearing away weeds and other growth around the base of the tree:  and by watering only from below.  Obviously we can't prevent rain falling on them, but we can avoid extra unnecessary "rain" !

If there are only a few leaves with rust spots, it's worth gently picking them off and destroying them - don't put them on the compost, otherwise you will be spreading the spores wherever you use the compost. Put them into your council green waste wheelie bin, or take them to the dump. Or burn them, if you are lucky enough to have space for a bonfire.

And in autumn, make sure you clear up all fallen leaves - again, bin or burn them, don't put them on the compost -  and leave the ground absolutely bare underneath them, to help prevent the spores from multiplying and making it worse next year. It's also worth adding a thick layer of mulch around the base of the tree, once you have cleared up the last of the fallen leaves: this will prevent any spores on the soil from being splashed back up onto the tree.

If you find that rust keeps reoccurring, it might be necessary to spray the foliage with an anti-fungal agent: but it's important to start spraying as soon as you see any sign of rust: or preferably, before any of it appears. Those of us who strive to be organic and not use unnecessary chemicals will have to make a decision whether to spray early, or to wait, and hope that it won't be needed.

So there you are Lisa, hopefully that has answered your questions!

If you want to read more about these trees, you can either type the word Kilmarnock into the Search box - which is at the top left of the screen, in the black banner. Or you can read this article, which in turn refers to several of the others!

Did you enjoy this article? Did you find it useful? Would you like me to answer your own, personal, gardening question? Become a Patron - just click here - and support me! Or use the Donate button for a one-off donation. If just 10% of my visitors gave me a pound a month, I'd be able to spend a lot more time answering all the questions!!