Monday, 30 November 2020

Pumpkins at Hallow'e'en: why a pumpkin?

 OK, so technically I've missed Hallow'e'en for this year, but Mal and I were talking about Parsnips, after my Giant Parsnip Post of two days ago, which reminded me of this article Wot I Wrote a couple of years ago, for GreenPlantSwap.

Ever wondered why we cut big toothy grins in hollowed-out orange pumpkins? 

It goes right back to pagan times, pre-dating the birth of Christ: there was a Celtic tradition that on the day of the dead, at the end of October, all fires in the village should be extinguished, then re-lit by a priest, who went around from house to house.

Remember that these were the days before lighters and matches were invented, so letting the fire go out was a big thing for them: it would mean having to find some suitable dry tinder, then to find the correct rocks to strike sparks, and having tried fire-lighting by this method, I assure you that it can take quite some time, and a fair amount of effort.

In addition, fire might have been their only light, as candles were not generally common in Europe until the Middle Ages: so to let the fire go out after dark would leave them quite literally in pitch blackness, making it all the harder to relight the fire.

The symbolism of the priest bringing the fire back into the houses was presumably to make them grateful to their gods and their representatives on earth, who would bring the glowing embers which would re-kindle their fires.

And how, exactly, did he carry these glowing embers?

Answer: inside a hollowed-out parsnip. Parsnip? Yes, a parsnip. Or a carrot. At that time, by the way, carrots were mostly white, like parsnips. Orange carrots were not popular until the seventeenth century, when they were bred to produce the familiar bright orange, in honour of Dutch nobility, William of Orange: and they've been orange ever since. But back in Celtic times, they were mostly white, and in fact these two root vegetables were often used interchangeably.

But getting back to our parsnip - a good big, tough old parsnip was just the thing for carrying embers, and the tradition of using one to carry embers all round the village at the “end” of the year continued through the centuries, although over time it lost the original meaning: householders no longer extinguished their own fires, and it was no longer a priest who carried it, but was more likely to be a village elder.

Then came the exodus to the new world, and the Pilgrims took this tradition to America, where they quickly found that there was a splendid new vegetable out there, which was perfect for hollowing and carrying glowing embers: yes, the pumpkin. And with the over-the-top enthusiasm which marks everything that Americans do, it grew from being a humble ember-holder into being a decorative lantern, embellished with cut-outs to let the light show through more clearly.

And that, dear listener, is the origin of the gap-toothed scary pumpkin lanterns of today! 

So if "my" giant Parsnip - left, with secateurs for scale, in case you missed it -  turns out to be too tough to eat, we can always use it to carry embers round the village!

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!!

Saturday, 28 November 2020

How big do your parsnips grow?

 Answer: this big!

What a whopper, eh? 

Note the secateurs for scale... this is a seriously large parsnip.

And it wasn't the only one - I dug up a dozen or more, and at least half of them were in the same general size category as this one, although the other half were very, very short.

I think this might be something to do with this year's newly-constructed no-dig beds, made by laying cardboard over the old lawn grass, then heaping compost on top.

(No, not in the middle of the lawn - in an odd "spare" area, out of sight!)

So, some of the parsnips made it to the cardboard barrier and gave up, going for width rather than depth: and some of them clearly managed to poke a way through the cardboard layer, and went on to bigger and greater things, as this one did.

But all of them did it in six months, which shows how well the no-dig vegetable garden can work.

Traditionally, parsnips are left in the ground until after the first frosts, "so that the starch will turn to sugar". Personally, I find that the thinnings, which are lifted very early in the season, are just as tasty, so I am not sure how accurate the whole "leave them for the frost" principle really is. 

 I sometimes wonder if it's more the fact that parsnips seem to be able to survive being left in the cold damp ground for months, whereas other root veg - carrots, beetroot, for example - get eaten by slugs. 

This is, obviously, relating to the days before shops, freezers, and imported unseasonable veg. Back then, it was very difficult to store vegetables, to tide you over the hungry months of winter, when nothing was actively growing, and you'd eaten up the last of the autumn produce.

So parsnips became the "go-to" later winter veg, to be eaten when all else fails. You'll sometimes find them mentioned in reference to the "hungry gap". This is the period in spring, when we've eaten all our stored veg from last year, and - despite the apparently nice warm weather - nothing new is growing yet. Parsnips can tide us over, in that period.

Mind you, with parsnips this big, you'd only want one a week!

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!!

Tuesday, 17 November 2020

Tree Ties and How To Fit Them Correctly

This is a topic which keeps arising,  mostly because I get a new Trainee every year, so every year I have to run through all the basics: but you'd be surprised how many people don't know how to fit a tree tie correctly.

Right, point one: what exactly is a Tree Tie? Tree Ties are usually thickish rubber strips, designed to link a newly-planted tree to a firmly-planted stake. Their purpose is to hold the new tree steady, until it has put down enough roots to hold itself stable.
They generally come in two types - either a plain rubber strip with a buckle at one end, and a rubber block to act as a buffer:

Or a single strip with slits, which allow you to make a figure-eight around the trunk and the stake.

In both cases, the important point is to separate the trunk from the stake - we don't strap them directly to each other, because if you do, they will rub against each other, and cause damage. In a perfect world, the stake would be rock-solid and immovable, and the tree will have a little big of wiggle room so it can sway with the breeze, but not enough that it will damage itself.

Normally, at this point, I'll give you a quick How To Do It section.

But today, just to be different, I'll start with How Not To Do It.

Firstly, read this article on what is possibly the worst tree tie ever.
I might need to sit down for a bit after that one.

Now here's another example, left, which sends me into a decline every time I see it: the tree - a standard Rose, in this case - was strapped to the stake with INSULATING TAPE!!

*shrieks hysterically, rolls around on the floor laughing*

No, not laughing, shaking my head in sorrow. 

What is so bad about this? Insulating tape is stretchy, isn't it? No, not really - you can stretch it when you apply it, but then it shrinks back to the original size, thus clasping your items very tightly.

This is nice for many DIY applications, not so good for trees - "strangulation" is the word that comes to mind. If you look closely at the pic (brace yourselves!), you can see how indented the stem of the rose it, where the plastic tape is strangling it.

Here's another lovely example - not quite a tree tie, but in the same "damaging of the bark" category:

This poor tree was used as a fencepost, and had wire tied around it.

It grew.

The wire didn't.

It's now being strangled by the wire.

I had to cut away a section of the bark at the back, to get at the wire and cut it. I couldn't pull out the wire, it was so deeply embedded in the bark, and the tree will probably die in a couple more years.

But plants are remarkably resilient, so I've told the owner to keep an eye on the tree, and to keep their fingers crossed.

So, let's get back to proper tree ties. There are two types, hang on while I find a photo of them:

1) Traditional "buckle" tree tie. It's a length of strong plastic with a buckle at the end.

Please note the buffer block in the middle. If you are handed one of these buckle ties without the buffer, don't use it!

Without the buffer, this is merely a strap, and won't do the job properly.

How to apply it: pull out the end of the tie from the buffer block, wrap it around the tree, and re-thread it into the buffer block.

Then take the end of the tie around the stake, and slip it through the buckle.

Like this - right. The tree is on the right, the stake is on the left. The buffer block separates the two. 

The tree is held firmly, but not strangled. If you find that the strap keeps slipping - which can be a problem if your tree is very skinny at the time of planting - then the tie can be nailed or stapled to the post. 

NOT to the tree!

And if you do this, make sure you nail immediately behind the buckle, so that you can still undo the buckle to adjust it.

I should also say that if I had installed this one, I would have put the buckle on the other side of the stake - the far side, from this perspective. This is so that the loose end of the strap doesn't stick out into empty air. You should never cut off the spare length of strap, because you will need to adjust the tie every few months, and one day you might regret chopping it off! Also, they last forever, so in a few year's time you might well remove this tie and use it on another tree, which  might need the full length.

2) Modern trendy "Soft" tree tie:

This is a length of soft-ish rubber/plastic, with two slots in it, lots of bobbly bits, and some corrugations.

Look closely at the picture, and observe those corrugations.

How to apply it:  undo the tie, so that it is one long length.

Wrap it around the tree, with those corrugations on the INSIDE, against the bark of the tree. Why? I'll come back to that.

Thread the end through the first slot, the one at right-angles to the length of the tie, just as per this picture, and pull it up so that it is firmly around the tree.

Then take the tie around the stake, and thread it through the other slot, the one which is in line with the tie.

Keep pulling the tie through, until it is tight: you will notice that the "bobbles" act like brakes: once you have slotted one through the slot (clumsy phrasing!) it will hold itself in place until you pull it tighter. 

But you can still pull them out, by twisting the tie sideways, and with a bit of wiggling: they are not like zip-ties that have to be broken or cut once you've used them.

This is how they should look: tree on the left, stake on the right.

Note how the figure-of-eight conformation has the same effect as the buffer in the buckle tie: it keeps the tree safely away from the stake, so that the bark does not get damaged by rubbing against the stake.

Now let's get back to those corrugations: look closely at this pic, and you can see that the corrugations form vertical channels, allowing air to get to the bark of the tree. 

This prevents the bark from getting damp, mouldy and soft, under the tie - and therefore prone to damage. 

I'd like to add a couple of points about these ties: they are soft, yes, but that means that they are not particularly strong. I have had several failures of this type of tie, and by "failure" I mean that they have broken. So now - as I bought two dozen of each size, thinking that they would be great! - I have to use two or three of them at the same time, at various points along the trunk. This looks ridiculous, but is better than coming in to work one day to find a 6' tall standard rose lying on the ground because the tree tie broke.... *sobs quietly*    It's ok, luckily the rose survived, but it nearly gave me palpitations.

Another issue with these soft ties is that they are not infinitely adjustable, as the buckle ties are: you have to go with the best "bobble", so sometimes they are a bit looser than I would like, and sometimes they are a bit tight.

Finally, they always seem to end up with a great long loose bit flapping about, which looks untidy. Buckle ties are rigid, so the loose end just stays in place, and if you put the buckle in the right place, the loose end is not visible. With these soft ties, I usually end up tucking the loose end into the gap between tree and stake, which is ok, but not as "nice" as I would like. And I do like things to be "nice".

OCD? Me? No! I just like things tidy, neat, presentable. 

So on balance, you can see that I prefer the traditional type of buckle tie.

Any article on tree ties is obliged to include the warning: Go Back And Check!

Check, a week or so after installation, that the tie is still in place, and hasn't slipped down or loosened. If it has, adjust it, replace it: consider nailing it to the stake if necessary, remembering to do so in such a way that you can still adjust it.

Then, for ever afterwards, check the plant at least 2-3 times a year, to see how much it has grown, and to loosen the tie as needed. Otherwise one day, you will find that the tree has outgrown the tie. 

If you are unlucky, the tie will have strangled the tree and killed it.

If you are lucky, the tree will have won the battle, eaten the tie, and broken it, as happened here, left:

You can see the black plastic tie: well, can you see to the right, there is an indentation around the main upright? That's the mark of the tree tie. 

I cut it off on the far side (there was no sign of the original stake, just the strangling tree tie) but I couldn't get it out of the tree, because the tree had engulfed it, on the left. All I could do was cut it off short - the tie, not the branch.

So, heed the warning - once you string a piece of plastic around a tree, remember to go round a couple of times a year, to check that they are still needed, still fit correctly,  and are still doing the job properly.

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!!

Sunday, 15 November 2020

Compost - the Bucket of Shame

Compost bins - I love 'em! Except when Clients ignore my very specific instructions on what to put in, and - more importantly - what NOT to put in. 

Most of us already know that we don't put perennial weeds such as bindweed, couch grass and ground elder into our compost bins, as they will just continue to grow there: and we know not to put potatoes and tomatoes (or their peel) into the heap, partly for fear of blight, but mostly because if we do, we will have tiny potato and tomato plants popping up wherever we use the compost. And of course we all know that we never put plastic, glass, metal or other non-organic things in there. 

 But there are other things to avoid, which might surprise you: tea bags, for a start. I've written about tea bags before, and nothing has changed: yes, even the ones which say "plastic-free" are NOT plastic free!


Every time I empty a compost pen, I sort out the non-composted, inorganic rubbish - because there is no point putting it back on the garden, is there?

This means that every time, I end up with a  "bucket of shame" which can be gleefully presented to the Client, along with a big grin and the reassurance that everyone gets one.

Here is the Bucket of Shame from when I emptied a Client's black plastic "dalek" last week. Quite apart from the mass of tiny slivers of plastic (“As I mentioned last year, please take a little more care when shredding - paper only!”) there was tea bag after tea bag after tea bag... this is just the last half-bucket, by the way, I'd already emptied it three times before I thought to take a photo.

Why do they not rot? Well, if you can't be bothered to follow the link above in order to Read All About It, then in brief, if you think about it, they are made of specially treated paper that does not fall apart when put into boiling water, so it shouldn't really surprise you to learn that they don't rot on the compost heap either. 

Furthermore, the fabric of the tea-bag contains small amounts of polypropylene which melts when heated, which is how the bags are sealed in the factory. And we don't want plastic on the compost heap. 

To be honest, I wouldn't really encourage you to tip even loose tea-leaves onto the compost, as they are full of tannin. Likewise coffee grounds – ugh! 

Talking of glue, be careful with cardboard as well: corrugated card is stuck together with some noxious stuff which apparently includes heavy metals, so avoid adding it.

And then there is the famous eggshell myth: eggshells contain all sorts of lovely minerals so add them to your compost, say all the books.

News flash: they don't rot. 


Even if you crush them, the bits are still visible in the compost - lovely, when you spread it out on the beds!



The second photo shows a nest of eggshells, deep in an otherwise superbly rotted compost heap. As you can see, completely unrotted! And, despite extensive internet research, I have been unable to find any scientific proof that eggshells contain - or, more importantly, release - any nutrients or minerals into the soil. 

The same goes for the myth that you should water houseplants with the cooled water in which you boiled your eggs so they can have the benefit of all that “goodness”. Who says? There is no proof whatsoever. So don't add eggshells to your compost, unless you like seeing the bits all over the garden later.

I won't bore you all with my views on citrus peel (it doesn't rot!!), ecover packs (they don't rot!), “biodegradable” fabric washing-up cloths (“aargh!”), and finally, my pet hate, corn-starch food waste bags.... but I think you can guess where I stand on those items, too! 


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!!

Friday, 13 November 2020

Yucca - how to work around them safely

Ah, the unlovely Yucca. 

OK, that's a bit unfair, the flowers are spectacular, but this is not one of my favourite garden plants: firstly because in my mind it is forever associated with Pampas Grass, with all those unfortunate 70s connotations, but secondly and mostly because every single leaf is tipped with a nasty spine, and I have a deep and abiding dislike of being stabbed, slashed, poked, ripped and generally savaged by plants in my care. 

However, many of my Clients have them (sighs heavily) so I have to find a way to manage them.

The usual problem is where an old, well established clump has become very congested: they don't look particularly nice; they usually have a large number of dead brown leaves in amongst them, which encourages pests and impedes air flow; and often the clump is then over-run with perennial weeds such as bindweed or, in this case, couch grass – mostly because the poor gardener (that's me) can't get near the darned thing to weed around it.

So what do we do?

I have developed a useful technique for working around spiky plants, it involves taking a length of stout cord about 2 yards/2m long, and looping it around the plant: you then gently tighten the loop and work it up the stem, to pull all the leaves up into a neat package. This allows you to work around them in safety, and once you have finished the weeding, you can lean in and release the cord. Easy!

Ah, but what do you do when the clump is so congested that you can't see where to put the cord?


Here's a prime example: left.

A horrible mass, not elegant, not pretty, not adding anything to the garden, and impossible to weed around.

It is not one single trunk any more, it's now a mass of untidy bits and pieces.

And it's time for a tidy-up!

 First job: pull down the sleeves, check that the eye protection is in place, get your thick gloves on, and go in, on your hands and knees at ground level, ducking carefully underneath the spine-tipped leaves, with a pair of loppers or a sharp kitchen knife to hand. 

(That would be an “old” kitchen knife, of course, not one of your best Sabatiers...) 

Grope around at soil level until you find one of the outlying “trunks”, and lop it off, fairly close to the ground. Yucca is very soft and easy to cut, thankfully! 

Work your way around the clump, cutting off all the smaller trunks, sideshoots, etc until you can see the main trunk.

Here we are, partway through the job: you can see  my big loppers lying on the ground, and I like using them, because their long handles keep me a relatively safe distance away from the spiky bits.

I continued all the way round, lopping off the outlying stems.

It gets easier, once you can see where you are!

Once I'd got rid of all that lot, I was able to do the tying-up trick: work the cord around the trunk, make a noose and gently pull it tight, pushing the loop upwards until all the leaves are held in an upright bundle. 


There, phew!

You can then easily work all the way around the main trunk until it is as clear as you want it – I usually leave just one trunk if it is a good big one, or maybe 2-3 smaller ones.

In this photo, left, you can see that now I have a clear space around the plant, which now allows me to dig up the roots of the chopped-off trunks – otherwise each one will simply re-grow. 

It also allowed me to dig out all the couch grass roots with ease.

Having disposed of the rather large pile of off-cuts, and raked up the general mess, I could then untie the fronds and voilĂ ! 


This photo - right - shows a much neater, more shapely, nicer looking Yucca, with plenty of room to spread:  no couch grass all way through it, and - best of all - it will now be easy for me to tie up the fronds next time I need to weed around it.

This technique works equally well with large clumps of ornamental grasses, by the way, so if you have some troublesome prairie planting, give it a try!


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!!

Thursday, 12 November 2020

How to improve a border with cunning Cotinus coppicing

Last summer, back in the days when we were allowed to take an afternoon off work, jump in our cars and just drive somewhere... ah, happy days... I was visiting the gardens at Cerney House in the Cotswolds - ever been there? Not far from Cirencester: if you haven't, I recommend it, once it's safe to go garden visiting again. 

While there, I was struck by these lovely splashes of deep purple in amongst the herbaceous borders.

Lush, aren't they?

The plant was recognisable enough - a purple-leaved Cotinus coggygria, probably 'Royal Purple', but I was intrigued to know how they had managed to achieve such dense foliage so low to the ground. 

Was it a dwarf form? Was it actually a cunning grouping of seven or eight individual young plants in pots, plunged into the border for effect?

No, it was even more clever than either of those - they were perfectly ordinary, well established Cotinus bushes which had been drastically coppiced. 

The stumps from which all this greenery ("purple-ery?") sprouted were at least 6" across: substantial trunks, in fact.

One of the gardeners told me that they used to have a row of well established, fairly ordinary Cotinus along the back of the border, but one of them met with a drastic accident and had to be cut down to a short stump of about 2' high. They were so pleased with the resulting low growth that they took a chainsaw to the other ones, and now they do this every year to keep them low-growing and lush.

Coppicing is a great technique to use, not just on shrubs, but on ornamental trees which would otherwise grow too large for their situation: it not only prevents them outgrowing their allotted space, but it forces them to produce much larger leaves than normal, which can be just what the garden designer ordered. 

I have a four-year old Liriodendron (Tulip Tree) which I grew from seed, and earlier this year I cut it right down from being a spindly 5' tree to a tiny stump of barely 3", to see what would happen. Sure enough, it sprouted new leaves from the stump and now looks, well, rather cute. I shall be doing the same to my Eucalyptus next spring: it's grown very crooked, so I'll see if I can change it into a low, bushy plant instead.

I've also seen Paulownia (Foxglove Tree) treated as a low pollard, in order to get huge, really impressive leaves, just at the height where you can see them, and feel them, which is a real benefit, as they are lovely and velvety. 

In case you can't remember the difference, coppicing is where you cut a main stem down to about ankle height, allowing the plant to re-grow from that low point. Pollarding is the same thing but done much higher up the trunk - usually at head height or (in towns) at lamp-post height. 

Originally, coppicing was done to produce large numbers of thin, straight shoots to be used for weaving, constructing fencing or hurdles, or for bundling into faggots for burning: traditional uses, and traditionally used on trees such as Hazel, Willow, and Sweet Chestnut. 

Pollarding was done in areas where grazing animals shared the coppicing grounds, to prevent them eating all the new shoots, and the height of the cut was determined by the type of animal - horses have much longer necks than cattle or deer! These days, you are most likely to see pollarded trees in our cities and towns: we are all familiar with large street trees which, every couple of years, are scalped of all their growth, way up there at lamp-post height, leaving a bare, straight trunk, and a bit knobbly bit at the top. Pollarding for grazing giraffes, possibly.

Interestingly, (well, I think so) a tree which is coppiced can have its life expectancy increased drastically: there are documented cases of hazel - which normally manages about 80 years - living for several hundred years when regularly coppiced. Amazing, huh?!


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!!

Tuesday, 10 November 2020

Edging borders: why do I love it so much?

Oh, I love edging flower borders.

I know, I know, everyone hates doing the edges: I don't, I love it, it makes such a difference and it really takes so little effort.

Firstly, I have to get up on my soapbox about creating what I call cliff edges on lawns: I'm not a big fan of metal lawn edgings, as they make horrible screeching noises when whoever is mowing goes too far: and I particularly dislike that green plastic corrugated edging stuff, so beloved of the 70s, as the modern flymo shatters it, and spits the bits all over the place.

No, I am quite happy with merely cutting the lawn edge with my long-handled edgers, and the reason I like the Cliff Edge - an abrupt vertical chop of at least 2" - is that couch grass, the enemy of the flower border, spreads itself sideways but very shallowly.

So if you make a good Cliff Edge, the shoots grow out into the air, and get chopped off every time you edge the lawn, instead of infiltrating the borders.

And the  improvement is quite astonishing -  here's a common or garden long thin border, nothing special, and looks, well, let's be honest, it looks a complete mess.

Ten minutes with the edgers:

This is the same border but looking back on it from the other direction, once it has a nice crisp edge to it.

There, it's now a pleasure to look at, and a pleasure to mow - because whoever is pushing the mower round can just run quickly along the edge, with no fear of toppling into the bed and leaving one of those unlovely, round, scalped patches.

Even better, now that we can see where the lawn stops and the bed begins, there are some opportunities for additional underplanting, and we all love planting!

And there is another advantage to clipping the lawn edges: it gives the gardener a chance to actually look at every item in the border, rather like that conveyor belt in the TV game show, where we all shouted "Cuddly Toy!" at the end. 

In this case, we are more likely to shout "Bindweed!" or "Time to tie the roses in!" but the principle is similar: the trick is to remember to go back and sort out all the various items that you spotted on the way!

Many people don't understand how clipping the lawn edge actually works: I've had Clients come out to speak to me, all worried, saying "Please don't clip the edges, we don't want the beds to get any bigger."

(*snorts through nose*)

So I explain, gently and tactfully, that long-handled edgers are SHEARS, they are not like half-moon edgers: you don't chop into the ground with them, you just clip off the free, loose edges of the grass. 

Just like cutting your fingernails. Your fingers don't get any shorter, and the nail grows back constantly.

And I explain that foot traffic such as people walking, and people mowing, tends to "squash" the lawn edges into the borders, so if anything, the beds get smaller over time. 

So what's the real reason, then, that I love to clip edges?

It's two-fold: it's a fairly mindless job, once you get the hang of it, so that gives me some mental play-time: I am usually thinking about the current "new" book which I am writing (check out a list of the ones I've already published here on my Author Page at Amazon - and if there's a group of plants which you struggle with, and there isn't already a book to cover it, let me know!), or I'm plotting a new training course, or thinking of the next jobs to tackle with my Trainee, or wondering about why plants do certain things... never a dull moment, inside my head!

And the other reason? It makes a huge difference to the appearance of the garden, for relatively little effort.

If you clip the edges every week, then for much of the season, the clippings are so small that you don't even have to go round and pick them up afterwards, and that's definitely a win.

Sometimes, if you don't have time to cut the grass but can run round with the edging shears, it gives an instant lift to the garden - rather like trimming your fringe, which makes people think you've had a full haircut.

On the other hand, if you cut the grass but don't clip the edges, it never looks that neat.... so there you go, several good reasons to clip the edges of your lawns!

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!!

Sunday, 8 November 2020

Wrapping the Camellia up for the winter

I've written about wrapping up the Hydrangeas (and the Fig-inna-Pot) to protect them from frost, any number of times - just type the word "wrapping" into the Search box, which is at the top left of your screen,  to read all about it.

But this week, it was time to wrap up the Camellia again, and as my Trainee wasn't with me that day, I took some photos of the process, and thought I'd share them with you.

Firstly, why are we wrapping it?

It's a Camellia, which is not exactly tender and delicate, but it's in a pot, so it's a bit stressed all the time anyway;  it's positioned in a highly visible, rather windy spot; and it comes into flower very early in the year, which means that it has great big fat flower buds already formed, and there is a good chance that frost would ruin them, which would mean no flowers next year.

Here it is, last April: blooming nicely. 

As you can see, a substantial pot, and a fairly large plant, which is nicely proportional to the pot.

I don't plan to let it get much bigger, but it makes a nice feature against the black-painted buildings.

I'm less than thrilled with the rather scrubby grass underneath it, though: after discussions with the Client, we've agreed that next year, we'll lift all the turf and turn this small area over to shingle.

It's awkward to mow, not least because it has lots of edges where the mower can't reach: so it never looks really nice. And as it is in, as I said above, a highly visible spot - well, it would be better all round for it to be shingle, instead of grass.

 I also think the shingle would make a good colour contrast with the black woodwork, and will also reflect heat up. All good!

But for this week,  it's more important to get it safely wrapped up. We've already had one sharp frost, earlier this week, even though we're only in November.

So, why are we wrapping it?

To prevent frost damage. To protect those tender buds - next April's flowers - from damage.

What do we use?

Horticultural fleece: it's a man-made product, but it's re-usable, with care, year after year. I don't like using hessian or any cotton-type fabric, because they soak up the water and become really heavy, which often damages the plant underneath.

Likewise, I hate, loathe and detest bubble-wrap for this purpose: anything plastic will hold the water inside, so any winter sun will cause the plant to "sweat", leading to a mass of water on the inside of the plastic. This leads to mould, and all sorts of horrible problems. It also creates a haven for bugs and creepy-crawlies, and while I am all in favour of the wildlife, I don't really want them eating our precious Camellia, over the winter.

So, lightweight horticultural fleece it is: it allows the light through, so the plant doesn't die over the winter: it keeps the frost off, it allows the plant to "breathe", it allows some rain to get in, but it doesn't funnel a lot of rot-inducing dampness into the centre of the plant.

What do we need?

Collect together some stout canes, long enough to be pushed a good distance into the pot, and still be taller than the plant: some ordinary brown string or garden twine: scissors: and some fleece.

How To Do It.  Ready?

Right, before we start, ensure that the surface of the pot is clear of weeds, and that the plant isn't bone dry, for lack of watering. (*laughs*)

First job - shove in the canes. I have used five, pushing them in along the sides of the pot, so they are angled slightly outwards.

This is perfect, as the top of the plant is wider than the base.

As you can see, my canes are just a wee bit higher than the top of the plant, and are pretty much all the same height.

Next:  take the horticultural fleece, and run it around the plant a couple of times, to get a double or triple layer. 

How many layers you use will depend on how thick your fleece is: there's no right or wrong, as such, just use enough that it's safely covered, but not so much that you can no longer see the plant through the fleece.

Once you have lapped the plant a couple of times, cut off the fleece, having left enough spare to drape across the top of the plant.

Now run a length of string all around the lip of the pot, just below the brim:  make sure you have caught the bottom edge of the fleece inside the string, and then tie it, fairly tightly.

This ensure that the fleece won't creep upwards and allow the frost in.

Next, tie the sides of the fleece to the canes.

I do this by taking the fleece over the tops of the canes, then tying it at the very top.

Hmm, hard to explain: I'll take a better photo next week, and come back and add to this article.

Then, once the sides are good and secure, take the top "flap" over the top of the plant (you can just as easily use a separate length of fleece for this), and tie it to the canes.

This ensures that the frost can't "fall inside" the plant and damage it. 

Frost is weird stuff, by the way: it can form only at ground level (that would be a ground frost), or it can form in mid air (air frost) as well as on the ground.

For the purposes of gardening, though, all frost is bad, and we want to keep it away from the surfaces of the plants.

The idea of the fleece wrapping is to cause the frost to form on the outside of the fleece, instead of on the leaves and buds and stems. It's rather like wearing a coat in the rain - the coat gets wet, but you don't.

In a sort-of similar way, the fleece can be rigid with frost, but the plant within will be safe.

Here's the finished thing - right: I have added three horizontal layers of string, to prevent the fleece from "billowing" in the wind, and pulling itself out of the ties.

There we are! Job done! That will stay in place all over the winter, and won't be removed until we are fairly sure that there won't be any more frost - technically that could be as late as May, but usually it's more like late March or April.

In this case, because our Camellia flowers in April, we will unwrap it early in April, so that we can see the flowers. If it were a very delicate plant, we might have to keep an eye on the weather forecast, and re-wrap it overnight, if frost were forecast.

Alas, this one doesn't get the luxury treatment: once it's unwrapped, that's it, it stays unwrapped!

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!!

Saturday, 7 November 2020

Bramble seedling.... or Raspberry seedling? How to tell the difference

I had a very interesting question the other day, from a lady called June (*waves*) who was struggling to remove brambles, and who said:

 "We keep finding new shoots which I dig out, as and when, but I now have shoots of what look like brambles but could also be offshoots of raspberry? They look so similar, how do you tell the difference?"

 Not something I had ever thought about before, because to me, they are completely and immediately different. But then, I spend much of my professional life working with these plants, so of course I know the little blighters very well...

Being able to differentiate between these two plants requires an understanding of how they grow:  so let's start with a bit of background information, the relevance of which will be become apparent later on.

Blackberries/brambles (same thing, Rubus fruticosus) spread in three ways: they are a perennial, so the original plant gets bigger and bigger each year: they spread vegetatively, by a process call layering, and by seed. Let's take a quick look at each of those:

1) Perennial growth is easy to recognise, the base of the plant gets more and more congested each year, and you usually find a clump of cut-off brown dead canes.

2) Layering occurs when the tip of  a long whippy shoot touches the ground, whereupon it will produce roots. This creates major trip hazards for your poor gardener, and is the means by which brambles form impenetrable thickets.

Here's a photo of three bramble tips, which were touching the ground, and which have just started producing a bundle of roots, those white things, at the ends.

These ones have only just started rooting, so they were easy to dig up. Once they get a bit bigger, they become correspondingly harder and harder to get out.

Layering is a useful process for creating additional plants for free, but in this case, it is not what we are looking for - we're aiming for fewer brambles, not more!

3) And finally, seeding: each blackberry, each actual black berry, is - are you ready for some botany? -  an aggregate fruit, made up of lots of little fruits (known as drupelets) all welded together.

So each of those tiny little rounded bobbles - right - is an individual fruit, containing an individual seed.

Thus you can understand that one single "blackberry" can lead to, ooh, let's count them - 50 or 60 little seedlings.

Now you can understand why brambles are such a problem: the original plant keeps on coming back each year, the new growth can root itself and leapfrog all round your garden, and every single fruit which you fail to pick, will fall to the ground and produce a whole load of little ones.

Not to mention the little birdies, who will scoff the fruits, fly off, and poop the seeds out wherever they go.

Raspberries -
Rubus idaeobatus.  There are many sub-species and cultivars, but let's stick with that name for now. As you can see, also in the genus Rubus, so they do have a lot in common with brambles, and it's hardly surprising that people can find it hard to tell the difference.

They spread mostly in two ways: they are perennials, just like blackberries, so the original plant gets bigger each year: but their main method of replicating is to send up root suckers, often a fair way away from the original plant. They rarely do tip-layering, as their growth habit is much more "short and upright" rather than "yards long, and lax".

Logically, they would also spread by seed: they, too, have an aggregate fruit made up of drupelets, and anyone who has ever eaten raspberry jam knows that it is full of "pips" . Despite this, I have rarely found any raspberry seedlings in the garden - they mostly spread by sucker.

The suckers are little devils for going off exploring: in my own small garden, I've had them popping up yards away from the original plants.  If there are any solid obstacles in your garden, such as patios, paths, slabs etc, they will often creep all the way underneath them, then pop up, yelling "Surprise!" at the far side.

How to tell the difference?

There are two, quite different, types of invaders: tiny little seedlings, and stout shoots.

If you find tiny, wiry little seedlings, with surprisingly sharp and nasty "thorns" on the stem, then it's a bramble. As I have said, I have never yet found raspberry seedlings, so if it's a tiny, but spiky, thing, then it's a bramble. Dig it out. Destroy it!

If, however, it's a shoot that you find - June said "shoots" rather than "seedlings" - then you'll need to take a closer look at it.

Are they attached to the tip of a long, lax stem, all of which is above the ground? It's a bramble.

If you pull them up, do they have a tuft of roots just below the surface? They are a bramble which has tip-layered. 

Do they have individual "thorns" on the stem? Look at ground level, in particular.  If yes, it's a bramble.

Do the leaves start appearing at ground level, and continue all the way up the shoot? It's a bramble. 

Does the shoot, above ground, flop over sideways? It's a bramble.

On the other hand:

Does the shoot go onwards and downwards into the soil,  with no tuft of roots, in fact, no sign of roots, just a long brown underground stem? It's a raspberry.

Does your shoot join onto a length of brown root, growing sideways through the soil, quite possibly with another shoot a few inches further away? It's a raspberry.

Is there a tuft of bright green foliage at the top of the shoot, looking all fresh and perky, but nothing much on the stem? It's a raspberry.

Is the shoot covered in a dense coat of small bristles, like hairs, but rigid? It's a raspberry. 

Is it a bit reddish, the stem? It's a raspberry. (This does not always occur...)

 So there you go, a few ways to tell the difference. I did look for photos or illustrations, on the grounds that a picture is worth a thousand words, etc, but I couldn't find any good pictures. I shall endeavour to take some of my own, next year!

But meanwhile, June, hopefully this will help you to work out what your shoots actually are!


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!!

Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Ceanothus: how to start a new one.

 I recently received a question on an old post about a topiarised Ceanothus.

 This is what it used to look like, before I got my hands on it:

,,,covered in blossom, yes, but it was top-heavy, and it smothered everything underneath it.

So I started work on it, and over a year or so, turned it from a blob, into a thing of beauty.


Well, I think it's lovely, anyway!

The question related to the age and species of this one, and the obvious follow-on question is likely to be about how to create one for yourself, if you don't happen to have a gigantic one like this, slobbing around in your garden and in dire need of a big tidy-up.

The answer is, go out and buy a Ceanothus: pick one that flowers at the "right" time of year for you - some flower in May, like this one, some flower in autumn.

Choose a variety that says the eventual spread could be 3m/10' high, or more if you can: don't buy a dwarf one.

Look at all the ones they have for sale (never buy something like this from the internet, you really need to go to the garden centre and look at them for yourself),  and gently part the branches, to see which ones have the "best" main trunk.

If you look at the post I mentioned above, you can see that the above specimen turned out to have one single trunk in the middle, which then branched, at about 3-4' off the ground, into three/four upper branches.

This is just about as perfect as you are likely to find: bear this in mind when looking through your possible new plants at the garden centre, and find the one which matches it best.

If the ones for sale are only knee high, then pick the one with the best central trunk.

Take it home, sit it up on a bench, and take a good look at it. Decide which is going to be your main trunk, and carefully remove all the other branches, at ground level.

(Darn, I wish I had one to show you! Truly do they say, a picture is worth a thousand words...)

This will leave you with a strange-looking miniature tree, with one main trunk, a tuft of foliage up the top, and not much else. It suddenly won't look worth as much money as you paid for it, but don't panic. 

Plant it out in your garden, against a fence if you want to re-create one like mine, and put in a stout stake to support the single, lone, trunk.

This is necessary because you have removed all the bushy growth which used to support it, and you don't want that central trunk to be blown over and snapped.

Feed it, water it, nurture it: keep the single stem clear of all new growth.

Next year, look at the top,  and pick three or four of the best-looking branches. Trim back everything else, leaving just your chosen ones. This is the beginning of your topiary-trained tree.

Because you are removing all the competing branches, the plant will put all its energies into thickening and enlarging the few branches that you have allowed to remain, so in a couple of years' time, you will have something similar in form to "my" one, although it might take several years to get to a decent size.

You will need to keep "nipping out" any new growth along the lengths of your chosen main trunk and upper branches, otherwise it will revert to being a bush.

If I were to stop trimming the one which I did, in a year or two it would look just like it does in the picture above!

So, what are the key points?

1) Start with the best possible candidate - one with a discernible "main" trunk or stem.

2) Let it get to the height at which you want it to branch, then select a small number of upper branches, and trim off all the rest.

3) Support it while it's small.

4) Feed it and water it, to encourage growth.

5) Constant vigilance to remove unwanted growth.

And there you have it! I shall keep my eyes open for another project of this type, so that I can take photos of the very beginnings.

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!!

Tuesday, 3 November 2020

Autumn clearing: this is what gives me pleasure in the garden!

 Well, ok, misleading title - lots of things give me pleasure, in the garden: but at this time of year (late autumn) there is a particular pleasure in clearing out messy beds, and generally tidying up for the winter.

Here's a great example: one of "my" gardens has an Amelanchier, which is a small ornamental tree. It does very pretty starry white flowers in spring, and the foliage does nice things in autumn, too.

At the base of this small tree is a bed, filled with Soapwort, Saponaria.

Here it is last week: the Saponaria has long finished flowering, and is now lying limply on the surface, smothering the Hellebores and obscuring the nice neat edge.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I luuurve nice neat edges!

But in this bed, they have all but disappeared.

So, time for a pre-winter clear-up, and the first job is to cut down all the Saponaria, and discard them to the compost heap.

This reveals a shocking array of small weeds, which also have to be carefully removed, taking care not to damage the emerging shoots of the Hellebores. 

It also revealed a lot of ivy, creeping in from its lurking-place under the hedge, so it was a good time to pull that all out, as well.

Having exposed and removed the weeds, I could then rake off the dead leaves which were also liberally decorating this area, and finally, I could re-clip the edge.

There you go - right: nice neat edge, nice clear border, Hellebores revving up and ready to go, and a bag full of leaves, ivy, and other non-compostable rubbish to be disposed of, either by bonfire, by shoving it in the relevant wheelie bin, or by the Client taking it to the dump for recycling.

Happy Client - and happy gardener!

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!!