Thursday, 31 December 2020

Fiskars UP84 long reach pruner - fail!

 Oh dear, I hate it when I damage my tools: ok, it's not as though I treat them like precious objects - they are, after all, working tools - but I still feel guilty.

A couple of weeks ago, just before Christmas,  I had a slight accident with one of my long-handled tools, and it's proving to be annoyingly difficult to fix.

Here's the plot: I used to have the use of a terrific long-handled pruner, which was basically just a hinged knife on an 8' long metal pole. 

 

This is the sort of thing - left. There's a hook at the top, which you hang over the branch to be cut: then you pull the metal lever, and ker-chonk! the branch comes tumbling down.

Simple to use, elegant, easy: for many years, this tool was my mainstay for pruning fruit trees, Wisteria, Passion Flower,  anything which grows above head height, because my business insurance doesn't cover me to go more than 1.5m off the ground. Which means I can't go up ladders.

(Before you start sending me info about insurance companies who would allow me to go up ladders, I am perfectly happy with this restriction, because I hate going up ladders!)

When my dearly-beloved Nissan Primera Estate finally died, after 14 faithful years (*sobs*), forcing me to change my car, my criteria was not so much engine size, 0-60mph (*snorts through nose*) (I'm laughing because when you regularly carry plants and plant material, you really want a car that will accelerate gently and smoothly, to avoid damage...), or what gadgets it had: no, it was more a case of "I must be able to get my 8' long pole into it" and I even took the pole with me, round all the car showrooms. 

Now, why was I so faithful to the long metal pole? Because it was quick, simple, and didn't cause any problems or faff. (As anyone who has ever been my Trainee or Student will tell you, I hate faff!) It would cut through quite large branches with no problem, never needed sharpening, and didn't get stuck up in the tree tops.

When I had to give the long pole back to it's owner (don't ask), I had to find a replacement, which took a while, because most of the long reach pruners have a hideous string-and-pulley arrangement: this sort of thing - 

Why do I hate this style of pruner?

Firstly, all that external stringing - the first time you use it, you realise that strings get tangled up, in branches, in twigs, in fences, on wires: for goodness sake, they even self-tangle!

Then you realise that, no matter how clever the pulley arrangement might be, you still have a degree of "stretch" in the string, so you can't get a good, clean, simple cut with it. You find yourself hanging on to the string, heaving and heaving, as though you were trying to raise the Jolly Roger on a windy day.

And I have nothing whatsoever to say about the added knife: this is a classic example of a "jack of all trades" tool: with the knife attached, the hook and blade can't get to the right branch without getting tangled up with an unwanted branch. And when you want to actually use the saw blade, you find that you can't cut cleanly with all that damned string hanging about the place. I already have a long-reach saw, a conveniently extendable one, which fits easily into the car: it's the cutting knife that I need, and these string-driven things just are not up to the job.

So: after rushing around garden centres like a mad thing, bereft of a long-reach tool and panicking slightly, I managed to track down the Fiskars UP84, a modern-construction tool, which was nearly as long as the 8' pole, and nearly as chunky.

For two years, it worked fine: not quite as good as the dear old metal pole, because they designed it to have a clever, poseable top part (very 'Action Man') in order to allow you to cut an any angle. Quite useless in the real world, of course: at any angle other than 'straight up', you can't see the blade, so you have to guess if you are in the right place. Or not. Also, the old fashioned one was easy to use -  you would hook it over the branch, then once you have the branch, you pull the lever and chonk! there it is done.

With the UP84, you have to push the jaws up at the branch, and there's very little sensory feedback along a nearly-8'-long handle, so you are never quite sure if  you have the branch firmly in the jaws, or not. This means you waste a lot of 'handle operations' with no actual cut, unlike the very positive old-style one. 

Yes, if I could find another old-style one, I'd buy it...

Anyway, the UP84 lasted two years, then a couple of weeks ago, I was tidying up some Beech hedging: the neighbour had contractors in to cut their high Beech hedge, but they hadn't bothered to do all the overhanging bits, so we - next door - were left with an ugly fringe of branches, obstructing the gateway and looking terrible.  Out with the UP84, and chomp, chomp, chomp with the branches. Until there was a chomp, chomp ping! and off went the spring.

It took me a while to work out why the tool suddenly wasn't working - there's a spring across the jaws, which makes them open ready for the next cut. This spring had somehow been pinged off, never to be seen again. (I did try searching for it, but honestly, there was no chance of finding it.)

Here it is, poor thing: spring-less and apparently gasping in exhaustion.

Firstly I checked my understairs cupboard (which is where my tools live) to see what springs I had 'in stock', as it were.

Nope, nothing suitable.

Then I looked online for a replacement spring: Fiskars do a spares set, which includes a new blade - and which costs £35.99!! Ouch! 

All I need is the spring!

 The whole tool cost about £90, by the way, so I suppose buying a spares set would at least be only one third the cost of buying a whole new tool, just for the sake of a spring which probably costs about a quid ....

So I tried to buy just a spring: the gap measures 65mm so that's a start, but I didn't know if 65mm was the size of the springy part, or the size of the whole thing including the attachment loops at each end.

 OK, let's be sensible; we'll buy a box of assorted springs, one of them is bound to be the right size. 

Did that.

Well, the sizes were ok, but they were way too feeble.  I had not used the words "heavy duty spring" in my search, because I thought that would lead me to the sort of suspension springs you get in cars.

I tried eBay: but, not knowing what "loading" the spring ought to be, I don't know how to get one that is strong enough, but not so strong that it's immoveable.

Then I had a brainwave! Let's ask the nice people at Fiskars!

So I emailed them, and asked if they would sell me just the spring, please.

I had found their facebook page, and it was not encouraging: there seemed to be a lot of posts from irate customers, asking why Fiskars had never responded to their emails. Oh dear. But I gave it a few days, and then a reply appeared.

Ooh! Exciting! 

It was from a lady called Laurene and she just asked "How long have you had the UP84?"

Hmm. Either they have changed the specs, and want to make sure that they send me the right one - that's the optimistic viewpoint - or they are going to say 'sorry, out of warranty' in which case I am going to be cross, because I asked if they would sell me a spring - I'm not expecting to get it for free.

I emailed back with the information, and a few days later - hooray! An email from Laurene confirming that they will send me a new spring, free of charge!

What lovely people! My £90 tool will once again work, and I won't have to waste £35 on a full spares kit that I don't need.


And when the spring arrives, I will fit it, and then I will take the pliers to it: the spring - as you can see in this screen-shot, left - has a loop at each end which hooks into the blade at one end, and the body of the tool at the other, and clearly that's how the original one was pinged off - a branch must have caught in it, and flicked it in exactly the right direction to come unhooked.

So I am going to bend over those hooks, to make them into closed loops, so they can't escape again.

And if they're too strong to be bent, then I will add some thin wire, around the loop and around the hole in the blade (and the body) - there's no way I'm letting my replacement spring escape!

So, top marks to Fiskars, excellent customer service, and I'm delighted that, in a few days, this tool will be working perfectly again.

...........

 

Update: well, life is never quite that simple, is it? Fiskars contacted me again, to say that they no longer have any springs for the UP84 in stock.

*glum face*

So, would I prepared to accept a replacement tool, instead? *incredulous face*.

They sent me a link to their catalogue, and I looked through it: the nearest to the UP84 seemed to be the UPx82,


It seems to be a good bit shorter, only 1.6m as opposed to 2.4m, but it is half the price.

Hmm, not much use to me, though.

The other "long reach" tool is the UP86, now superseded  by the UPx86, which is telescopic - problem there, is that a) it might not fit inside my car, and b) telescopic tools tend to get wobbly and weaker, the longer they get.

That's why I loved the original simple pole with bypass blade on the end.

I  notice that all these new UPx tools have the same unwelcome poseable head, but I note that they've added an orange plastic extension: perhaps they listened to my complaints about not being able to hook it over the branch?

Anyway, neither of those two options seemed to be terribly welcome, so I made an alternative suggestion to Fiskars: would they be prepared to send me courtesy spares set? The £36 set? Cheaper for them, than a whole new tool: and easier to post: and they would be winding down their spares anyway. 

And they agreed! "It'll take a month or more to arrive" warned the very nice Laurene, from  Fiskars, but I said that was ok, I would just have to manage without it until then. 

Secretly, I couldn't quite see why they couldn't break open on of the spares packs, and pop the spring in an envelope to me, but heyho, time seems to be more costly than money to big companies, if you see what I mean: to get someone to do that, would involve instructing them, they'd then have to physically go and get a spares pack, break it open, pack up the spring, dispose of the unwanted bits: yes, I can see their point, easier to send me an entire spares pack.

Which they did.

It took forever to get here, thanks to Brexit: it came from Eindhoven, via Appledoorn, where it sat for a good month or more: then it was released by customs, and made it across the channel to Stanford le Hope, where it sat for another couple of weeks: it was booked out for delivery two weeks ago, but didn't make it, and went back to Stanford le Hope... you get the picture. But UPS were very diligent, and almost every day for two months, they send me an email regretting that my shipment was delayed due to Brexit.

Finally, yesterday, the 12th March, I looked outside to see a flat package sitting in my porch. 

It had arrived! 

30 seconds later, I'd unpacked it, and was trying to fit the spring.

Half an hour later, I did it!

There you go, new spring wrestled into place, with the help of a pair of pliers and a lot of patience.

So well done Fiskars, and in particular to Laurene, who managed to get it all sorted out and organised for me.

But now, before I use it, I am going to find a way to attach some sort of retainer onto that spring, because I can't bear the thought of losing another one!



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Wednesday, 30 December 2020

What's in a name... Bog Sage and Scabious

The other day, while weeding (with my mind, as usual, doing it's free-range thing), I got to thinking about how plant names influence what we buy.

As an example, there are a trio of what I call Perfume Shrubs: medium sized, deciduous flowering shrubs, lovely things, but you rarely find them in gardens because they have difficult names - Abelia, Deutzia and Kolkwitzia. None of them have nice, easy common names - well, apart from Kolkwitzia which, the internet suggests, is known as "Beauty Bush" but I've never heard anyone mention it, ask for it, or recognise it, by that name.

So, my theory (*clears throat repeatedly* "Brontosaurs: by Anne Elk") is that plants with nice-sounding, easy to spell, names, will sell better than those with 'difficult' names.

In support of this theory, one of my gardening friends recently put up a photo of a knee-high plant with very pretty blue flowers, which was eventually identified as being Salvia uliginosa, or Bog Sage. 

I'd never heard of it!

Here it is - left: pretty little thing, isn't it?

But what a terrible name for a plant!

As if “Bog Sage” weren't bad enough, the species name does sound rather like Ugly-nose-er, don't you think? Would you buy a plant called Ugly Nose? 

Certainly I'd never seen Bog Sage in any of “my” gardens, but the flowers are beautiful, and a lovely shade of blue: so I wondered if the ungainly name made it harder for the garden centres to sell it.

I often wonder if more gardens would contain the lovely flowering shrub Weigela, if it were easier to ask for - is it Vee-g'ler? Why-gee-lee-err? No-one knows...

Which led on to another thought - anyone else remember the Flower Fairies? I bet that if there is a Flower Fairy for Bog Sage, she's really fed up with the name, and probably gets together with the Scabious Fairy to drink cups of tea and grumble about how lucky the Nigella Fairy is.

Bog Sage Fairy: “Oh, it's all right for her (*wrinkles up nose*), little miss Love-in-a-Mist. She wouldn't be so cheerful if she were called Bog.”

Scabious Fairy: “Huh, too right. But what about me: I sound like a particularly nasty skin condition.”

Bog Sage Fairy: “And it's not as if I could use my other name - I mean, Ugly-nose-er, pfff!”

Scabious Fairy: “I don't even HAVE another name! No-one likes me enough (sniffles) to give me a common name...”

Bog Sage Fairy: “Bloody Shakespeare - a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, he says. Well, that may be so, but people are not exactly rushing to buy (*spits the name out*) Bog Sage, are they?”

The sun sinks, as they consider the unfairness of their naming, and wish that Linnaeus had had the soul of a poet, or at least had had a book of nice-sounding names from which to pick....

 

 

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Saturday, 26 December 2020

Wild Mallow and Wild Geranium - how to tell the difference

This cropped up while my Trainee and I were weeding the Rose Knots the other day:  when learning to be a Professional Gardener, it's essential to know what is a weed, and what isn't, and there's quite a lot of skill involved in identifying early weed seedlings, so when I am feeling mean (*laughs*) I do what I call "point and shoot" where I point to one weed or plant after another, and my Trainee has to see if they can get the names right. 

I do it because I just love the look of panic on their faces!

No, that's not true, I'm not that mean. 

But it's a good way to keep reinforcing the identification, and it also illustrates how localised weeds are - once you start pointing at them, and naming them, you quickly realise that different parts of a garden can suffer from a different set of weeds.

More of this in a post to follow shortly, where we discuss how weeds  - and proper plants - move around without our help.

But for today, I was pointing out the small Wild Mallow seedlings, and my Trainee asked how I knew that they weren't Wild Geranium seedlings.

It was a good question! Both are common garden weeds, both of them produce rounded, or kidney-shaped leaves on long skinny stalks (pedicels), and both of them produce these early leaves in open rosettes: it takes a while for them to start creating the more upright flowering stems.

The answer lies in the shape of the leaf: here's some Wild Mallow:

This one is Malva neglecta, or Dwarf Mallow: it's a common weed in sunny South Oxfordshire, but only in two of the four Rose Knot beds.

More of that, in a later post!

This photo doesn't have SFS (secateurs for scale) so you'll have to take  my word for it, that it's a small plant at this stage, and those thin wiry stalks - pedicels - are about that long (holds thumb and forefinger as far apart as they'll go) and the leaves are about an inch across or so.

The two wild Mallows you are likely to find in a southern UK garden are this one, or Malva sylvestris, which looks very similar at this stage. 

Do  you need to know the difference between them? 

Not really - if you are weeding a bed, then you don't want either of them.

Now we turn to Wild Geranium: 

I'm not going to attempt to give a proper name for this one, as it could be one of several, and when learning how to be a gardener - as opposed to a botanist - you don't really need to know the exact species.

So for today, we'll call this one Geranium Unwantedii.

It's pretty much the same size as the wild Mallow, above.

As you can see, it has a very similar structure to the Wild Mallow: thin wiry pedicels (stalks) supporting small rounded leaves, all held in a rosette, springing from one central point.

But if you look at the leaves, you can see that they are deeply lobed. They look as though someone has taken a pair of scissors to them, and snip, snip, snipped. They are also softer, hairier, the stems are proportionally thicker, less wiry: but that sort of comparison only helps if you have both of them growing side by side.

So there you have it, in a nutshell: two similar-looking weeds, neither of which are wanted in our lovely Rose Knots.


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Friday, 25 December 2020

Top Tips: Wheelbarrows. Yes, again!

Top Tips: a series of short, very short, articles featuring Things Which You Might Not Already Know.

 Wheelbarrows: well, who knew that there was so much to say about them? This is my third Top Tip regarding the things!

Storage of wheelbarrows: when you are not using them, don't leave them just lying around the place, stand them up on end.

All wheelbarrows worthy of the name have what's called a Tipping Bar around the front wheel. This makes it possible to tip out the contents, without the barrow continuing to roll away from you. As per my post on terrible wheelbarrows, if yours doesn't have a tipping bar, throw it away and get a proper one.

These tipping bars also mean that a barrow will stand up on its own: it doesn't need to lean against a wall: it rests securely on the tipping bar, and on the front edge of the body.

Why store them standing on end?

Simply because if you leave them standing around in the "use me" position, the body will fill with water - rain, dew, dripping gutters, careless hose pipes, etc. And they will rust. Even the lovely Fort barrows, with their sturdy plastic bodies, have metal bolts holding the body to the frame, so rust is best avoided.

Standing the barrow upright keeps the rain out, protects the body from UV degradation, and takes up less floor space.

Here are two mis-matched barrows at my training garden:

As you can see, neatly stored, out of the way of the door.

(Number Three is away having a puncture fixed.)

Another advantage of doing this, is that it forces the user (ie my Trainees!) to ensure that the barrow is empty of mud, debris etc before they "park" them at the end of the morning, otherwise there's an avalanche of bits onto the shingle, and they would lose points for that.

(No, I don't actually dish out points to my Trainees: well, I do, but only informally, we don't keep score.)

And keeping our tools reasonably clean is all part of being a Professional Gardener.

The final point to note is that the barrows are NOT leaning against the wall - they are free standing.

So they are not damaging the wall.

And to prove it, here's a photo taken from the side, to show how the handles are clear of the wall.

If they didn't stand up by themselves, I wouldn't allow them to be stored in such a way that they rub against the painted wooden cladding of the wall, by the way: I'd find somewhere else for them to lean.

So there you have it, how to "park" your wheelbarrows!

 

For more Top Tips, either type "Top Tips" into the search box at the top left of the screen, within the black strip: or go to the right-hand pane and scroll down below the Followers section (checking to see if you are there, as you go: what? You're not a Follower? Shocking! Follow me, immediately! *laughs*), then select Top Tips from the list.



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Saturday, 19 December 2020

Is it alive? Well, I'm not quite sure....

I saw this last week,  and I couldn't decide if it was the funniest thing I'd seen in ages - or the creepiest.  So I videod it on my phone (hence the shakiness - that was me laughing).

Settle down, take a minute and a half out of your busy schedule, and watch it. Then let me know what you think!



Oh, and let me know if it makes your scalp tingle in a slightly pleasant way: apparently there's a "thing" doing the rounds on Youtube, where people create videos intended to provoke ASMR which Wikipedia describes thus:

"Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), sometimes auto sensory meridian response, is a tingling sensation that typically begins on the scalp and moves down the back of the neck and upper spine. A pleasant form of paresthesia, it has been compared with auditory-tactile synesthesia and may overlap with frisson."

Now frisson is familiar to all of us, who hasn't experienced that frisson of fear when the boss calls you in to the office, or when you are halfway down the road and suddenly think "Did I actually turn the gas off/lock the front door/pick up my wallet?"  

I'm less sure about parasthesia etc. And I'm really not sure about ASMR. When I looked it up on google, the main proponent seems to be a woman calling herself Heather Feather, and I started to watch one of her videos but in less than 30 seconds I wanted to punch her in the face, her voice and manner were THAT irritating.  No, my scalp was not tingling. I just had the urge to do violence, which is a bad thing. So I, personally, don't set any store by ASMR!





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Wednesday, 16 December 2020

Top Tips: wheelbarrows. Again.

Top Tips: a series of short, very short, articles featuring Things Which You Might Not Already Know.

Wheelbarrows are light when they are empty, heavy when they are full. Duh, obvious, huh?

So when you are doing a heavy job, such as digging out weeds, or clearing out a border in autumn, which means a lot of trips to the compost heap and/or the rubbish pile, always turn the wheelbarrow to face the way you are going to go, while it's still empty.

Here's how to do it - left.

The gate is to the left, so we turn the barrow to face that way, while it's still empty.

This avoids having to do an awkward manoeuvre with a heavy barrow, so you don't spill mess on the grass, don't grind a hole in the turf with the wheel, and last but not least, don't strain yourself trying to turn around in a confined space.

This is exactly the same principle as parking backwards, by the way: I always park backwards, wherever I go, because then I am doing all my manoeuvring with a warm engine, while I fully attuned to driving, and have already been looking at all the other traffic/pedestrians/obstacles etc. Then, when I drive out, the car is facing the right way, so it's easy to drive off with a cold engine and no faffing.  I never fail to be surprised at people who live or work (or shop) in places where they have to reverse out onto a road, often with steamed up windows, and usually in a hurry. Why don't they do all that faffing when they arrive? If you've accepted that you are going to hold up the traffic one way or the other, why not hold it up when you get there, rather than when you are trying to leave? (*shakes head*) Just saying!

Back to gardening....

For more Top Tips, either type "Top Tips" into the search box at the top left of the screen, within the black strip: or go to the right-hand pane and scroll down below the Followers section (checking to see if you are there, as you go: what? You're not a Follower? Shocking! Follow me, immediately! *laughs*), then select Top Tips from the list.



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Tuesday, 15 December 2020

Fungus on a Plum Tree: always a bad sign

Generally speaking, any fungus growing on a living tree is a cause for worry and distress: big, visible fungi are the fruiting bodies of types of fungus which live within a tree, "eating" dead wood.

Now, at this point, most people would think that if the tree is fully alive, and healthy, then there isn't any dead wood there - it's all alive. But actually, the central core of a tree, the heartwood, is kind of dead: all the metabolic activity is undertaken by the very outside layer of the tree - the bit just below the bark.

In fact, the vast majority of the bulk of  a tree is, technically, "dead"; only 1% of a mature tree is "alive", in the metabolic sense. All the hard work of transpiration, growth, etc is done by the leaves, the buds, the roots, and a thin layer of cells called the cambium, which lurks immediately inside the bark.

All the rest of the tree - the internal structure of wood - is just there as a sort of scaffolding, to hold the tree upright, and to present the leaves to the sun.

This means that if a tree is wounded, or damaged: either by natural means - storm winds breaking off a branch, perhaps - or by un-natural means (that would be us: pruning, chopping bits off, damaging the  bark by reversing the car into it, strimming too vigorously, banging nails into it etc), then a passageway is created through the living outside layer, into the "dead" inner areas, and fungus can get inside and start to spread.

Then, some time later, the external bits appear - the things we think of as "fungus", but which are actually a small part of the main fungus.

Here's a nasty but interesting case in one of "my" gardens: a mature Plum tree, forking at about breast height into two: growing in a rather congested border (I'm getting round to it, okay, give me time!), and which has produced less and less fruit over the past couple of years.  This year, it produced hardly any fruit at all, with a lot of visible dead wood in the upper areas.

In November, I had the time to take a close look at it, and realised that the front fork was completely dead, and that the back fork only looked leafy because it had bindweed growing right the way into it. 

Oh dear.

I cut off a few of the lower branches of the front fork, and yes, they were all completely dead. So I decided to start removing the tree, one bit at a time, over this coming winter.

First job, then, cut off the front fork. This was manageable by myself: but I might need help for the larger back one...  

It was a fairly quick job to get the bulk of the fork down: I always like to nibble away at tree limbs, reducing both weight and bulk, before I chop off the main trunk.

Having safely taken off all the outside limbs - sorry, too busy to take photos - I got out the trusty bowsaw and lopped off the front fork's trunk. Surprise! Not quite dead! I cut it a bit lower, and a bit lower still, hoping to get back to clean, living wood, but alas, it was rotten all the way back to the fork.

Oh well, always worth trying.

Two weeks later, back in the same part of the garden, I was astonished to note the eruption of bracket fungus all over the sad truncated remainder of the front half of the trunk:


And the intriguing thing, to me, is the way that the line of fungus curls around the trunk: it's clear that the front fork, the one I cut off, is infected, but it looks as though that part of the tree does not run straight down to the ground, as "one" would expect, but twists around.


Here's the same trunk, from the other side, and you can see how the line of fungus slides around in a diagonal line.

Interesting, huh?

I think this shows how trees don't necessarily grow straight up, the way we usually think they do.

Alas, it also shows that this entire tree is a goner, so I guess I will be chopping down the rest of it over the next few weeks.

 

And here's a closer look at the fruiting bodies.

Yuk!

I'm afraid I can't find much beauty in fungus, as to me, they always represent the death of a tree.

It's a bit of a truism that fungal spores are all around us, but it's a fact: all gardens are full of the stuff, and yes that includes the hated Honey Fungus.

In fact, Honey Fungus spores have been found five miles high in the atmosphere! Five miles! So you can see that there's little point worrying too much about fungus in general, and Honey Fungus in particular, because the spores are quite literally everywhere.

Luckily, they don't have much of an effect on healthy plants and trees, so all we can do is strive to keep the plants in our care as strong, fit, and healthy as we can.

In the case of this poor fellow, his days are numbered, his time is up, and over the next few weeks I will be removing him completely.

*sigh*

Oh well, let's find a silver lining - once this part of the bed is no longer shaded by a large tree, perhaps I can clear it out, and replant it with something lovely!


 

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Monday, 14 December 2020

Top Tips: instant makeover - lawn edges and mulch

Top Tips: a series of short, very short, articles featuring Things Which You Might Not Already Know.

Visitors due? About to put the house on the market? Wanting to take a nice photo, but the garden looks scruffy?

No matter what the time of year, an instant makeover for a garden is to clip the edges of the lawn, and to throw some mulch onto the beds.

If you have time to cut the grass, that's great, but if there isn't time to do the whole lawn, clipping the edges immediately improves the look.  It's a bit like not having time to go and get a haircut, but if you just trim your fringe, you suddenly look a lot tidier. 

And the mulching - there is nothing like a quick layer of fresh mulch to make a bed look tidy and well-kempt.

Here's a nice example - left: this bed looked as though a bomb had hit it, half an hour earlier.

A quick weed-round, a quick clipping of the edge, and a bag-and-a-half of mini bark chips, and look! Stunning!


 

 

For more Top Tips, either type "Top Tips" into the search box at the top left of the screen, within the black strip: or go to the right-hand pane and scroll down below the Followers section (checking to see if you are there, as you go: what? You're not a Follower? Shocking! Follow me, immediately! *laughs*), then select Top Tips from the list.



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Sunday, 13 December 2020

Mulching in Autumn

 Yes, we're back to Autumn Slaughter again!

Time to clear out another pair of beds: these ones are still quite newly planted, so they don't have much in the way of weeds, but they do need a bit of attention at this end of the year.

In this garden, I've been making leaf mold for three years, so we now have vast amounts of the stuff to use up.

Aha! I said to my current Trainee. Let's use some of our own leaf mold, to mulch those little beds!

Why do we mulch? Or, what exactly is mulching?

Mulch is a word that is both a verb and a noun: let's mulch those beds: and let's apply some mulch to those beds. Yes, you could say let's mulch those beds with some mulch! Mulch ado about nothing. Mulcher and Scully. 

Moving on..... "mulch" means a loose covering on the top of the soil. It can be organic - compost, leaf mold, bark chips - or it can be inorganic - shingle, decorative slate chips. The purpose is to protect the soil, by preserving moisture, by smothering and/or repelling weeds: sometimes it's just to make the garden look nicer.

We decided to mulch these beds mostly for decorative purposes, hence my suggestion of using the leaf mold, as it doesn't contain much in the way of nutrients, but that's ok because the soil in these beds was completely replaced when we did the original planting, two Trainees ago (*waves to Second Trainee*), which means that it isn't stale, tired old soil, in need of additional organic matter. No, it's still quite fresh and lush, but we noticed that the soil levels had sunk slightly, leaving a couple of the shrubs sitting very slightly proud of the soil level - that means, sitting a wee bit too high. If they had only just been planted, I would have insisted on lifting them and replanting at the correct depth: but as they've been down for two years now, that's not an option.

Well, it is: we could dig them up and replant them, but it would be a lot of upheaval and damage to the shrubs, which are just settling in nicely: so it's easier to raise the soil level by adding more material.

So, are there are Tricks of the Trade to mulching?

The first job is obviously to weed the beds: remove everything that shouldn't be there, and take the opportunity to cut down any lingering herbaceous material that has now gone brown.

There is absolutely no point in tipping a whole load of mulch on top of a weeds. They will take it as encouragement, and will grow all the more strongly. 

Then, having cleared out all unwanted growth, we simply spread a good thick layer of leaf mold onto the bed, all around the plants.

My technique is to "bowl" a double handful of the mulch, across the plants, rather than dropping it straight down on them from above. If you just drop the mulch, it tends to flatten the plants. This is not good. If you "bowl" it sideways, then it goes around the foliage without crushing it. 

This does mean that you need to work your way along the bed, in order to get the mulch all the way around the plants: you can't just stand in one place and shovel it out of the barrow. But it means that you get good coverage, nice and even, and the mulch goes a lot further, too.

That last point doesn't matter if you have huge builder bags of the mulch available (as we do, with our leaf mold), but if  you are using expensive bought-in chipped bark, then it's good to make the best use of it, by spreading it evenly.

Simple, quick, easy, and it really perks up the appearance of a winter bed.

There, that's the left-hand bed done: now we just repeat the process for the other one.

Once we'd finished this one - right -  we looked again at the support canes: this is one of the gardeners' ongoing internal debates - do we remove plant supports over winter, or leave them in place?

As always, with gardening, there is no right or wrong answer, you have to use your intelligence and pick the most appropriate course of action, depending on the circumstances.

In this case, we initially thought we'd leave the canes in place to protect the Lilies from being trampled on by the dogs (little tinkers!), but on reflection, we decided that the plants were safe and sound below the ground, so there wasn't any need to leave the canes in place. We would replace them in spring, as soon as the Lilies start to sprout, and in the meantime, the garden would look better without them.

Actually, there's another good reason for removing them: my notes tell me that the Lilies grew too tall for the canes, this year, so next year we will need to use longer canes. Definitely no point leaving the too-short ones in place, then!

So there you go, a quick easy job which refreshes the appearance of the beds, and protects the soil over the winter. Over time, our leaf mold mulch will be absorbed by the soil, and will work its magic to further improve the soil quality and texture: at which point we will, no doubt, add another three barrow-fulls!



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Saturday, 12 December 2020

Yucca: the pineapple-ectomy

 I recently wrote about my technique for working around Yucca, which are evil plants to work with, because every single leaf ends in a skin-piercing point. This is quite bad enough when they stab you in the arm or leg, or - as happened to me the other month - on the forehead, leaving "one" with blood trickling down the face.

(Luckily I noticed it, and mopped it up before my elderly Client saw it!)

I hate to think how much damage they could do, if they poked you in the eye, which is another good reason for wearing eye protection when gardening, as I do. No, I don't care if the protecto-specs make me look dorky! If you could see the number of scratches on the lenses, which accumulate over a period of about 5-6 months - at which time I have to replace them because they are too scratched to see through properly - then you'd wear eye protection too, I tell you!

Anyway, getting back to the Yucca; if you've read the above article, you'll know that it was left something like this: 

...which was a big improvement on how it used to look.

But it still wasn't enough.

This year, the couch grass was returning, and even though I have my clever loop-of-rope technique, I was getting a bit tired of being stabbed every time I went near it.

In a different part of the garden, there is another Yucca (they are everywhere in this garden!) right next to a rose, which I need to dead-head on a regular basis. 

So I get quite cross with the Yucca over there: and one of my work philosophies is based on a saying from one of my earliest bosses: "If a thing has happened often enough to become annoying, there is a very good chance that it will happen again."

So true.

In real terms, this means that if something happens often enough to annoy you, then do something about it!

So I invented a new pruning technique, called the pineapple-ectomy, which is where you take your secateurs and simply crown-lift the whole thing, as though each trunk were an actual tree, by removing leaves, starting from the bottom and working your way up.

This worked so well, and made my life so much easier over there, that I decided to apply it to this Yucca as well.

Here -  left - is the result.

You can see why I call it a pineapple-ectomy! 

Now all the lower leaves are completely gone: the stems are clear, which I think gives them a far more architectural feel, as opposed to the former "blob of leaves sitting on the ground" effect.

And as the lower leaves start to droop, all I have to do is snip them off - a job which is easy to do, now that I can stand close to the plant without being stabbed. 

A further benefit is that now I can see any couch grass as soon as it dares to set foot (or shoot) in the garden, so I can deal with it while it is small and feeble.

The Client liked this effect so much, that I did the same thing on all the Yuccas in this garden.

Which was quite a relief to me, as the gardener...

So there you go, an alternative way to present your Yucca!

 

 

 

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Friday, 11 December 2020

Leaf mold: How To Do It, even on a small scale

 I'm always writing about composting, and about making leaf mold - I don't think it's possible to be a proper Professional Gardener, and not be interested in these two vital methods of getting the "goodness" back into the soil, do you?

Normally, I advocate doing leaf mold on a fairly large scale: it's a lengthy process, and it takes up a lot of room so it's only worth doing, really, if you have lots of leaves, plenty of time, and somewhere to hide the bulky leaf pens.

Now and again, though, I am asked by a keen Client, to help them make leaf mold on a small scale, so I do my best.

The first step is usually to point them towards my excellent (brace yourself for relentless self-publicity) Book on the subject:

...available as an e-book, from the Kindle store in Amazon, it's free if you have Kindle Unlimited or Amazon Prime, only a couple of quid if you don't: and you don't even need a Kindle thingy to read it, as Amazon kindly provide a free download "App" (or, programme, as we grown-ups call them) so that you can read it on any device, Kindle or otherwise, or on your laptop, or on your PC.

So there's no excuse! Go and get it" *laughs*

Once you know how it's done, all you have to do is find the space for some leaf mold pens, rake up a mass of leaves, and wait patiently for a couple of years. 

This particular Client was really, really keen to make leaf mold, even though they have a smallish garden and not that many trees. They also had some old pallets, perfect: so I stood them up on edge, wired them together at the corners, and two years back we diligently raked up all the leaves (I say "we" but I mean "I", of course! That's what I'm paid for!), put them in the first pen, and made sure they were good and wet, by draping a  hose from the water butts up by the house, all the way down to the leaf mold pens at the bottom of the garden. Free water! I love it!

And that's pretty much all we did.

I checked a couple of times during the following year, to ensure that the pen was damp, and hadn't dried out too much, and if necessary, I ran the gravity-fed hose over there again.

Last week, I checked to see if it was ready to use: I always tell people that it takes three years, but sometimes it's done faster than that.

 Deep joy! It was ready for use.

Here is the bottom of our pallet-pen: two years ago, this was stuffed right up to the top with soggy leaves, and now, it has converted itself into a dense layer of quite nice leaf mold, about 4" deep.

This photo shows the last little section, I've already removed all the rest of  it.

This is why, by the way, you need "space" in order to make leaf mold - to get any sort of decent quantity, you have to be able to stack a large volume of fresh leaves, each year. 

And that's another reason why I tell people it will take three years, so you need three sets of pens: the second-year material won't be ready in time for you to use the same pen again, for the third-year leaves. If you see what I mean. So it's far better to work on three sets of pens, over three years, and just wait until it's ready to use. Unlike compost, there's nothing you can do to hasten the production of leaf mold - if you want to know more, you'll have to read the book!

So, I dug out the lovely leaf mold - well, it wasn't quite "done", but it was near enough - and used it as a mulch under the newly-established mixed native hedging.

Despite only being a layer 4" deep in the pen, it covered a surprising area, once I'd dug it out and scattered it lightly: to be fair, it wasn't a deep layer.

And there it is - right. 

Lovely dark leaf mold, all around the bases of our native hedging, which should help it to thicken up, and screen this end of the garden from the open field next door which - unfortunately - is scheduled to have new houses built on it at some point in the future.

And that's why we're establishing our native hedge now, a couple of years before we need it.

So there you go - making even a small amount of leaf mold is a good thing to do: it's a product which you cannot buy, but which is free to make, and takes minimal effort. Particularly as "one" would be raking up the leaves, anyway!

 

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Thursday, 10 December 2020

Putting the garden to bed for winter: Asters

For some reason, I don't really like that phrase - perhaps because, to me, gardens aren't "asleep" through the winter, there is still work to be done. In fact, there's a ton of work to be done, and I often find that I'm just as busy, if not busier, through the winter:  the days are shorter, the weather is worse, and there aren't as many working hours in the week.

So here we are again, "putting the garden to bed for the winter".... and here's a small bed which is clearly in need of some work:

As you can see, a mass of Asters, that's Michaelmas Daisy: and there's some leftover Alcea - Hollyhock, that is - and a dwarf Juniper, that's the sharply blue-green stuff towards the right of the picture.

My rule is to remove anything that's gone black, brown, or mushy.

Asters are very easy - they look tremendously tricky,  all that black foliage and dead leaves, and there seems to be a huge mass of them, but all you have to do is chop them right down low:


 Like this - right - and within a minute or two, you've cleared the worst of it.

I am always in two minds about what to do with the tops: those white fluffy-looking blobs in the picture above are the seed heads - Asters produce a massive amount of seeds, which is why they spring up everywhere in your garden - and I never want to put seeds on the compost heap, for the obvious reason.

Also, I find that the stems are very woody indeed, and take a long time to rot.

But it's such a large amount of green waste, it seems a shame not to compost it.

So, what's the compromise? 

If you have lots of time, and not a great deal of material for your compost pens, then cut off the bit with the seeds (that goes on the bonfire heap or in the green waste wheelie bin) and then cut the stalks up into shorter sections - just a few inches long. Or, you can bend and snap them, which is better than cutting: they break down more quickly if they are squashed, bruised and battered, than if they are neatly cut. Either way, if you reduce them to smaller pieces, they will rot faster.

If you have huge compost pens, then bung the whole lot in: your large heaps should achieve sufficient heat to kill the seeds, and the woodiness will be counterbalanced by all the other material you put into it.

But if you only have smallish compost pens, then bung the lot onto the bonfire pile, or into the green waste bin. Yes, it feels like a waste, but Asters invariably produce a large volume of material, and as far as compost heaps are concerned, too much of any one thing, is the worst thing for them.

Then, we get out the spring rake (which we mostly use in autumn, ha ha, gardeners' joke) and rake gently through all the clumps of cut-down asters, to get out all those dead leaves, and other general debris.

Here we are, a short while later - left.

Better, huh?

Once all the dead material has been cleared, we can spot any devious opportunistic weeds which have crept in, and they can be dealt with.

This leaves the bed all clean and tidy, all set for next spring.

Finishing touches include clipping the edge of the lawn (not done yet), which will really smarten the whole thing  up: and going over the newly-revealed patio slabs, weeding out the cracks, and finally sweeping up all the bits.

Job done!


 

 

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Wednesday, 9 December 2020

Delayed abscission: what on earth is it, and how is it useful?

 I love this phrase, it's one that crops up a lot in the Tree ID courses which I run for the FSC (Field Studies Council). It's interchangeable with the botanical term 'marcescence', which is even better!

So what is it, in real life? 

Brace yourself for some botany:  abscission is the process by which deciduous trees lose their leaves. 

 Firstly, the tree pulls all the sap, nutrients, and useful things such as chlorophyll out of the leaf, and back into to the twig, ie the main body of the tree.

Next, the petiole, or leaf stalk, forms a "scab" where it joins the twig, and this layer of cells is properly called an abscission layer.  This abscission layer seals off the junction, where the leaf joined the twig, and then the leaf can be shed, without risk to the tree.

Most deciduous trees go through this procedure en masse in autumn: and the removal of the expensive and useful chlorophyll is the reason that leaves go brown in autumn. 

Incidentally, the reason we get the beautiful autumn leaf colours is because many leaves are not 'just' green, they have other colours in them as well, but the chlorophyll is sucked out first, so all the green-ness goes, leaving red, orange, yellow etc, for a brief period, until those chemicals are also absorbed, abscission occurs, and the leaf - usually a dull brown colour by now - falls, discarded, to the ground.

Right, now we know what abscission is -  it's the process by which trees safely shed their leaves without loss or damage to the tree.

So delayed abscission (also known as marcescence!) is where the leaves don't fall once the chlorophyll has been reabsorbed by the tree.

Instead, they hang around on the tree, all brown and rustly.

Oddly enough, this phenomenon only occurs in juvenile trees, and in our daily lives, we can see this for ourselves, when we look at clipped Beech and Hornbeam hedges.

I'm sure you've seen hedges filled with dead brown leaves, in your local area: here's one, from one of "my" gardens a few years back:

I'm sure  you'll have seem something similar in your area - a tightly clipped hedge, full of apparently dead brown leaves.

It's most likely to be Beech: if the leaf coverage is a bit sparse, it might be Hornbeam.

This is where the 'juvenile leaves' bit becomes relevant: as far as the trees are concerned, by constantly trimming them down to less than about 6-8' (approx 2m in new money), they are fooled into thinking that they are still teenagers, so they hang on to their leaves over the winter.

Please don't ask me why the age of the tree should affect the abscission, because I don't have an answer to that. *runs off to do some quick research*  OK, there are several theories, none of which are very solid, but the most likely - in my opinion - is that younger trees hang onto the dead brown leaves to deter grazing: the brown leaves are unpalatable, and allow the buds for the next year's leaves to develop, without them being eaten.

You can see this phenomenon again in youngish trees: the lower branches will retain the dead leaves, while the upper ones are bare.

Here's a great local example - a thin line of young Beech trees, planted alongside a rural road: presumably to act as a physical divider, and to maybe be a bit of a windbreak?

You can actually see in this photo, how the upwind side of the tree is being shaped: the branches on the right - the direction from which the wind blows - are being held in a less horizontal, more upright position, and they are considerably shorter than those on the downwind side, to the left.

But today, the interesting point is that the lower section of the tree is full of dead leaves, while the upper growth is not.

This is repeated all the way down the line of young trees, and you can go out and look for this yourself, now that you know what you are looking for.

So which trees exhibit this behaviour? 

The main ones are Beech:to a lesser degree Hornbeam: and Oaks do it, too.

And how is it useful? If you want a hedge for privacy and screening, but you don't want heavyweight conifers, then go for Beech, because if you keep it clipped to below about 7-8' in height, it will hang on to those leaves, and give you some degree of privacy pretty much all the way through the winter, until the new leaves arrive in spring.

Mind you, you will then have to rake up the dead leaves in spring, when everyone else finished doing theirs the previous autumn!



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Tuesday, 8 December 2020

Hibiscus winter pruning

 I love a good Hibiscus - the hardy, shrubby type, that is.

I'm lucky enough to have a pair of them in one of "my" gardens, and they are a joy, all throughout the latter part of summer.

Here's the pair of them, nearly in their full glory, in September: as you can see, they are substantial shrubs, and are a wee bit close to the windows, so every so often, I have to trim off any branches which are trying to get in through the windows, or which are scraping against the glass.

We don't want them to get any bigger, otherwise the owner won't be able to see out of the windows,, but they love the flowers. 

So, how do you keep them like this - big, but not too big and flowering relentlessly?

The answer is, ruthless pruning! Every year!

This is what I do to them, every year without fail. Usually I don't get around to it until about February time, but this year I was asked to do them early, so they had their annual chop last week.

Here is one of them:

This is what you might call "before".

As you can see, the Hibiscus hasn't quite lost all the leaves yet, but the owner asked me to prune it, as it was blocking the light from the windows, and now that it gets dark so early, every scrap of light was appreciated!

My task is to trim off all the new growth which was made this year, going back to my "framework of old wood", ie the older, stouter branches.

It's easy to see which is the new growth: it's long, straight, slender, and there's a whole mass of them, all the same size.

So all I have to do, is go over the entire shrub, one branch at a time, with my secateurs, and snip, snip, snip, off they come. Sounds slow and tiresome, but it's dead easy and faster than you would think: the photo above was taken at 10.44...

 ...and this one, right, at 10.52.

That's only 12 minutes:  and that includes stepping in from the first photo, and assessing the shrub: putting all the bits into the wheelbarrow as I went: and then stepping back to take the second photo. 

So it actually took less than ten minutes.

As you can see, half a barrow full of offcuts, an now the shrub is 2-3' shorter than it was, and a great deal thinner.

 

 

This photo, left, gives you a closer look at the denuded branches.

As you can see, I have gone for an overall shape, and within that shape, every branch has been shortened to just above the point at which it left the larger branch.

Every couple of years, I make a few bolder cuts, removing any branches which are starting to look congested.

So there you have it, a quick job with good results. Finishing touches include raking underneath the shrubs, to clear up all the fallen leaves and small bits of debris, and - now that I can get around behind it - a quick weed-round, to get rid of any unwanted infiltrators. 

Job done!

 

 

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Monday, 7 December 2020

Top Tips: wheelbarrows

Top Tips: a series of short, very short, articles featuring Things Which You Might Not Already Know.

When loading your wheelbarrow, always load the end away from the handles first: and if you are moving a small amount of something heavy, ie rocks, bags of materials, an old tree stump etc, then make sure you put it at the wheel end of the barrow.

Why?

Because having the heaviest part of the load over the wheel means it is easier to wheel it.

Go on, give it a go: get something heavy, like a bag of compost or bark, heave it up into your barrow and have it at the handle end. Now trundle the barrow around. Ooer, heavy, and unbalanced. Stop, and move the bag to the far end, over the wheel. Now try again. Ah! Much better.

There's more information on wheelbarrows in this article, enticingly titled The Good, The Bad, and the Flipping Ugly.

For more Top Tips, either type "Top Tips" into the search box at the top left of the screen, within the black strip: or go to the right-hand pane and scroll down below the Followers section (checking to see if you are there, as you go: what? You're not a Follower? Shocking! Follow me, immediately! *laughs*), then select Top Tips from the list.

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Sunday, 6 December 2020

Autumn slaughter - clearing out the herbaceous beds

 It's that time of year again... things are going brown and horrible looking, and potential new Clients start mentioning phrases like "putting the garden to bed for the winter".

Most of my regular gardens are, of course, well under control by now, *laughs* but occasionally I get side-tracked, and here's a deep border which which was well overdue for tidying.  My Trainee and I grabbed barrows, secateurs, and forks, and got to work:

Bit of a jungle, isn't it?

How many plants can  you identify? *laughs*

Nearest to me, there are bearded Iris, with dead foliage to lift away, and dying foliage to be trimmed neatly back.

There's actually a miniature Japanese Acer buried in amongst it all, and that needs to have a space cleared around it, and also needs any dead twigs to be carefully removed. 

Then there's a mass of Acanthus spinosa, better known as Bear's Britches, or Ouch, What The Heck Was That? All the spiteful spiky seed pods can go straight to the bonfire heap: and for that matter, so can most of the foliage ... anything with spikes on it, is not welcome in my compost corner!

All odd brambles can now be located: I must have written a dozen articles on How To Get Rid Of Brambles by now, so I'll just say that we dug out every one that we could find, and there were quite a few of them. 

Next up are a mass of Alchemilla mollis, lovely plant in it's place, and in my opinion, that place is definitely in the rubbish pile ha! ha! No, I admit there is a place for this rampant spreader, but in this bed, we have so much of it that it's become a weed, so out it goes. 

Likewise for the Oregano, of which we have masses and masses. I made an executive decision a year ago, to remove all the excess Oregano, and we're still fighting it now. This could take some time. But out it comes, in huge sweet-smelling clumps, all destined for the bonfire pile. Well, no point trying to put it on the compost heap, as it's full of seeds.

Once we'd done all that lot, we could see where we were treading, and that allowed us to get closer to the wall, and able to carefully remove as much of the Pellitory-of-the-wall (proper name: Parietaria judaica, rolls off the tongue, doesn't it?) as we could reach. This weed is well named, because it will sneak into every crack and crevice in an old wall, thrust roots deep inside it, and then sprout enormous tufts of foliage, all covered with insignificant little brown flowers, which then release hundreds and hundreds of tiny seeds. So once you get it in a garden, you're going to be meeting it for evermore, it sometimes seems. 

Here's the "after" photo from the same vantage spot - quite a difference, eh?!

Yes, I know it looks heartlessly bare, but that's not a bad thing.

We've cleared out all the bug and slug hotels, so the little birdies can get in, now, to clear off any excess pests: we've raked off as much moss as we could, so the soil will have a chance to breathe, over the winter: and we've been able to get at a  lot of weeds which will otherwise smother our precious plants, next season.

We even "found" the obelisk, on the right there: alas, no sign of a climber, but maybe next year we can do something about that.

Once we've done the front part of this border, we'll throw on a good thick layer of our home-made compost, avoiding the bearded Iris area, because they don't need mulching, and in fact they have to sit proud of the soil, otherwise flowering is depleted. The phrase is "the rhizomes have to bake in the sun" in order to get good flowers the following year, so we certainly don't want to bury them in mulch.

And that's it, for this section, until spring.

This is a great time to be a gardener, you really get to see the bare bones of a garden, the structure of it: yes, gardens are beautiful in the spring, summer and early autumn, all full of colour and life, but I love a garden in winter, when you clear out all the mess and clutter, and suddenly it's all peaceful and tidy again.

And you get to see little hidden treasures such as this:

...the dear little Acer, barely visible in the first picture, visible but not obvious in the second. Here, I'm crouching down, in order to see it sideways on, for a change. 

Don't ask me which idiot planted a miniature Acer way, way at the back of a deep border, and hidden behind a big Yew topiary at that: I'm still trying to pluck up the courage to dig it up and replant it elsewhere. 

Maybe next year...
 


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Saturday, 5 December 2020

Top Tips: a new feature!

 I'm adding a new feature to this blog - Top Tips!

These are things which I know so well that I don't even think about them, but which you might possibly not have thought of.

They are usually very simple, and are often the sort of thing that make you think "why did I not think of that?" and I'm very happy to be passing such things on.

Most of them are self-invented, or self-noticed: some of them are things I've picked up from other people.

And I'm doing it because my previous Trainee used to shout "Top Tip!" with glee, every time I told them something useful, and now, with my current Trainee, I find myself saying "Here's a Top Tip for you..." 

We talked about it, and agreed that Top Tips are a good thing to share. The modern phrase, is of course "hack" but I don't like that phrase: to me, hacking is either something done by 50-a-day smokers, or it's a cyber crime. And I don't approve of crime, generally speaking.

So, how do you find all my Top Tips: well, you can either type Top Tips into the search box at the top left of the page:

...there, I've ringed it in red for you.

 Or,  you can scroll down and look on the right-hand pane, underneath the box which says Followers (*big wave and hello to all my lovely Followers! Hi, guys!*), where you will see a list of "Frequently covered subjects!".

If you select Top Tips from that list, it will sort out all the articles with that label, for you.

Easy, huh? 

So if you are new to gardening, or if you are embarking on a career as a gardener, check out my Top Tips - and keep coming back, as I will be adding them every time I think of one!

 

 

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Friday, 4 December 2020

How to retrieve a pot-bound plant.

What exactly is a pot-bound plant, then?

This term refers to plants bought from garden centres, in plastic pots: and to plants in our own gardens, which are growing in decorative pots, be they plastic, wood, terracotta, stone, etc., and which haven't been repotted for  months or, sometimes, years, and are starting to look less than healthy.

First, a word about what is supposed to happen with roots:

Roots are supposed to grow from the centre of the plant, usually positioned at the middle of the pot, to the very outside of the pot, mostly horizontally. This mimics what they would do, if planted in the soil - which is every plant's life's ambition, after all.

The exception is a tap-root, which goes straight down, and which can either force its way out of the bottom of a pot, or will be forced to grow sideways inside the pot. So a plant is "pot-bound" when the roots have reached the edge of the pot, and have been forced to go round, inside. 

It's less bad if they reach the sides of the pot and go downwards, but going round and round is what is called "girdling" and it is always a bad thing. As is wearing a girdle, for that matter. Generally speaking.

Most plants which we buy from garden centres etc are pot bound to some extent: in a way, they have to be, because the alternative is a plant which is not fully rooted - you know, the sort where you tip it out of the pot and half the compost falls on your feet. Garden centres would soon lose sales if they sold plants like that, so they tend to keep them until they are moderately pot-bound, in order to avoid complaints.

Here's an example, left, of something which is pot-bound, but not too bad.

You can see that the roots on the side are heading downwards, not round and round. There is a thick mass of roots at the very bottom, and  you can clearly see what shape the bottom of the pot was (!) so that area all needs to be cut off: those roots are tough, dry old things and won't be much use to the plant.

So take your secateurs, or an old bread knife, and cut/saw off the bottom inch or so, taking off all those hard, light-coloured roots.

Having done that, you will probably find that it's possible to gently tease out the sides as well, if you wish.

As an aside, you will often read books/articles describing the "teasing out of the roots" as though it were an essential thing to do: in my opinion, this is not always the case.

At this point, I should explain again (anyone who has ever been my Trainee, Student, or attended one of my Tree ID or self-employed Gardener courses can sing along with the chorus), that "there is no Right or Wrong in gardening": to a great extent, you do what feels right, and if it works, you do it again. If it doesn't, you do something different next time, unless you are particularly dim/optimistic/bloody-minded.

So in my opinion, for what it's worth, fluffing out the little, white, fine, feeder roots of a mildly pot-bound plant can damage them, so I prefer not to.  Instead, I prefer to ensure that the planting position is properly and thoroughly prepared, so that the plant finds it easy to send those delicate little roots out horizontally again.

And by "preparation" I mean digging a hole that is quite a bit bigger than the size of the pot: enriching it, if necessary: and ensuring that the base and sides of the hole are roughed up or loosened,  ie not chipping out a small pot-sized hole and ramming the poor plant into it.

Don't laugh, I've seen it done. There was one garden, once, which I was called in to "fix", where every plant had died, and when I dug up a few, I could see why: the previous gardener didn't like digging their horrible, solid clay soil, so he just carved out a pot-shaped hole for each new plant, de-potted the plants, and pushed them into the holes. As soon as they were watered (and every time it rained), the clay holes filled up with water, the roots rotted, the plants died. And what a horrible way to die, being drowned in a tiny clay pit.

So, to summarise: in my opinion, it's often better to spend time preparing the soil, rather than faffing about trying to tease out fragile roots, which might damage them.

Now let's look at a truly pot-bound plant:

Here's a good example - or should I say, a BAD example, ha! ha!

It's a smallish Spruce tree, which has been in the plastic pot for rather too long, and was starting to suffer.

The leaves were going yellow, no new ones were appearing, the worried owner asked me what to do: I asked how long since it had been re-potted, and was met with a blank look.

That long, huh?

So I heaved it out of the pot.....

Here's a close-up - left - and you can see the solid wall of roots, you can see every indentation of the pot, you can even see the decorative moulding on the side.

These roots are well past their useful life: being pressed up against the edge of the thin plastic pot, they have been alternately frozen and baked, as each year passed, so they are no longer of much use to the tree.

I asked if there was a bigger pot, to pot it up into, and was told that the idea was to keep it in the same pot.

I warned the owner that the tree might not survive this treatment, and that it would be better to re-pot it into a larger pot, or preferably to plant it out properly, in the soil, somewhere: but they were adamant that it should remain in the tiny green plastic pot.

Hey ho.

Oh-kay, then! Box-cut, it is. What's a box-cut? Keep reading, one more picture to show you first. 

So, we've seen a horribly pot-bound tree: and we've seen a garden centre plant which was not that badly pot-bound: now let's look at the dangerous pot-bound ones, where you have a totally flat, often shiny, outside edge. Here's a particularly horrible example:

...and for this sort of abomination, the only answer is drastic treatment: brace yourself, and read on.

The other "dangerous" ones, by the way, are those where you can't see any soil at all, between the masses of roots, and there are nothing but big, solid, dark brown roots. 

In that sort of case, then "teasing" out the worst of them can be the way to go, with the proviso that if the roots are big solid ones, you won't be able to tease them out at all. 

So, in that case, and in the case of this "round cheese" thing,  your only option will be the box-cut, but it will mean losing a lot of the stabilising roots.

As a generalisation, I feel that it's more important to get the rootball safely and firmly planted, than to spend a lot of time teasing out smaller roots from the sides, which are then going to be squashed back against the sides, once it's planted. But as I say, there are no rights or wrongs to this one, and it's ok to go with your instincts. 

So, how to deal with the truly horrible pot-bound plant: you will often hear people referring to the X-cut, and that means doing this: (cover your eyes, if you are sensitive):

This is where you take a sharp knife and make four or more vertical slits in the sides of the pot, then you turn it over, and slash an enormous X across the base.

Painful, huh?

The idea is to break the continuity of those hard old roots, forcing them into rapid re-growth.

It works, to a certain extent: but you are left with a "wall" of the old roots around most of the plant. 

Rather like leaving the plastic pot on... and don't laugh, I've seen that done, as well, but apparently I haven't written about it yet, so I'll do that later.

Right, back to the plot: if your pot is this badly pot-bound, so bad that you are seriously considering the X-cut, you might prefer to try the box-cut.

This is where you slice off the outside layer altogether, and remove the bottom couple of inches as well. Super drastic. I don't have any photos of my own, so I've had to pinch one off the internet:

Here is a sequence of three photos.

On the left, a pot-bound shrub with thick dark brown roots girdling the pot - can you see how they are going round and round?

This is baaaaad... as mentioned above, you can try teasing them out but you are most likely to snap or damage them, because they are hard and inflexible.

So, take your breadknife, and cut cleanly down - middle pic - on all four sides of the plant. Aim to skim off the minimum amount, but to get all the hard roots off.

Right-hand pic - your poor plant is now a square, instead of a round one. It has no girdling roots to restrict it. It appears to have no roots at all, but often when you do this, you will find that there are a lot of tiny roots, waiting in the wings, waiting for their chance at stardom, or possibly just freedom.

Having done this, get it planted immediately - you will, of course, have prepared your planting hole before starting the root pruning, won't you? ("questions which require the answer 'yes' ") - otherwise that newly-exposed soil will dry out, the tiny roots will shrivel and die, and so will your plant.

Sharp-eyed readers (Mal, that's you) will notice that in the picture above, they're using a pruning saw, whereas I am saying use a breadknife. That's because putting any sort of blade into soil is a seriously bad idea: soil contains actual tiny grains of rock, sand, grit etc, and these are death to sharp blades. Ask anyone with a chainsaw - you never, ever, get your chainsaw into the soil.

So I would never use my trusty pruning saw in this way: I keep an old breadknife, for such jobs, or I would just use my secateurs to chop off the bottom altogether, then skim off the sides with them. 

I don't normally bother trying to get a super-neat square shape, as they did in the photos above: I am more focused on getting off the worst of the hard roots, and getting the poor thing into the soil, as quickly as possible.

So there you have it: how to deal with pot-bound plants.

And after all that plant torturing,  I think we all deserve a cup of tea, and a sit-down!

 


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