Garden School:


Garden School:
Teaching this week: Biting the bullet: when to be brave, and to rip out existing garden features, in a garden which is not giving the owner any joy!

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Photinia - planting a new screen

 Love 'em or hate 'em, Photinia are here to stay, and "Red Robin" is the star of the Photinia clan.

If you don't know what they are, they are an evergreen shrub, strong growing, fast growing, but manageable: they can be pruned hard and will recover well, and they can be used as a statement stand-alone shrub or - more commonly - as a really good, nice-looking informal hedge.

Why do I say that "Red Robin" is the star of the show? The new foliage on this one comes up bright red, that's why: making it even more perfect for hedging, or for screening: positions where you are likely to want to chop a bit off them, from time to time. Because any such chopping, no matter how inexpert, results in a flush of new red leaves.
 

This - left - is what you might call the Ultimate Red Robin Hedge. Clipped to perfection, allowed to re-grow to perfection, photographed on a bright day, with a nice clear paved area for contrast.

But even on their worst days - unclipped, un-managed - they still make a good, colourful, interesting hedge, or specimen shrub.

They are naturally quite untidy: to create an informal hedge or screen,  I would buy enough plants, in 2litre pots, to be able to space them a good 2-3'' apart.  Don't waste your money buying bigger ones: it's been proven again and again that enormous 8' tall ones, which can cost £60-£150 each, will be overtaken in about 3 years by the £6.99 ones you bought at the garden centre. And the number of "big" ones which fail to thrive, and have to be replaced (if you were clever enough to keep the receipt) is very high.

Now we get to today's question:  I was asked recently how to go about creating a screen against a rather ugly wall, when the garden owners only had five plants.

Resisting the urge to say "well go out and buy some more, then!" I suggested they place the pots in position, spaced out along the wall: but instead of using a tape measure to position them mathematically equidistant (ie  at perfectly even distances apart, which is what we normally do), I suggested that they swivel the pots until they look "best", ie with the widest spread. Then, we would prune off any biggish branches at the back of each one, such that they can sit more closely against the wall, without damaging themselves.

At this point, I should say that I would never plant shrubs right slap bang up against a wall or fence, for a couple of reasons, which are covered adequately in this article about Why We Don't Plant Stuff Immediately Adjacent To Walls.

So, back to our new hedge: I then suggest that you plant out these five, then take all the stuff you pruned off, and for each pruned twig, remove most of the leaves, from the bottom (cut end) upwards, and shove them into the ground as far as you can - 6" or so, 12" preferably. If you are lucky, many of them will grow! Free plants, yay! 

Here are the General Guidance tips for this job:

When to prune: any time that suits you.  If you want to try growing on the prunings, make sure the soil is not frozen. The fresher the cuttings, the better, so put the prunings straight into a bucket of water - cut end down - until you have finished the planting: they'll be fine there for a day or two, if you don't have time to do it all on the same day.

How to prune: use secateurs (technically, use bypass secateurs rather than anvil secateurs. They are usually labelled, or look up the difference on google). Cut out the branches that you don't want, as close to their "main" stem as you can. Don't leave a couple of inches of sticky-out stub: it's untidy, and the stubs often die anyway.

When to plant: when you have the time and energy, as long as it's not snowing, or the ground is frozen.

How to plant:  Dig out a good big hole for each one (don't just chip out a pot-shaped hole) and sit the pot in it, to check that you have dug it big enough and deep enough. Then dig a bit deeper, to rough up the bottom of the hole. Remove plastic pot (don't laugh) (I've seen it done...), position the plant in the hole, replace soil all around it, firmly but not mercilessly: then water well, even if it all seems quite wet enough already. 

Take photos, make a note in your garden journal (what do you mean, you don't have a garden journal? Go out and get one!) as to how much they cost, and where they came from: stick in any labels and the receipts - just in case. It's very handy to have a reminder of these things. Remember to water them once a week (more if it's hot and dry or windy)  through their first summer, and make each of those waterings a good one: really drench them, don't just sprinkle a few drops and think that will do the trick.

Ongoing maintenance:

The chief beauty of these plants is the new, red, foliage, so about three times a year, it's worth pruning them back (and down) a couple of feet, in order to promote a flush of new growth.  After a few years, once they are well established, you can start a regime of cutting out about one-third of the oldest (thickest) stems, down to ankle height. Really! Sounds brutal, but it works. This prevents the shrubs getting over-congested, and promotes strong new growth.

 And that is pretty much it, for planting a screen of Photinia: quick, simple, and will be a thing of beauty for years to come!


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Monday, 10 May 2021

"I care for the Garden"

Well, of course I do, don't I?!

This came up in conversation with a Client the other day - they had been watching me walking back from spraying their Roses, and noticed me stop to say "hello" to a Peony which had recently been moved (it's ok, it's grown well, since I took this photo - right:),  and then stroke the leaves of another plant, in a reassuring, "there, there, you're ok" sort of way, and finally, apparently, I patted yet another plant in passing, as though to say "well done!"

When they'd finished teasing me about all this, they commented that I do far more than merely "work" in their garden, that I really "care" for their garden.

I agreed. 

I actually do "care" about their plants: I want them to be happy, I want them to thrive (partly because it then makes me look good, so - not entirely altruistic, then!), and I want the garden - as an entire entity - to fulfil its potential, as well as giving pleasure to the owner. That means striving to recycle all the waste of the garden into compost and leaf mold, then putting it back onto the beds: moving any plants which are struggling, and finding them a situation where they feel more comfortable: spotting gaps in the display at various times of the year, and striving to find good plants to fill those gaps: it's a great deal more than just "a bit of weeding and a bit of pruning", as someone once - very rudely - said to me.

Additionally, I care about my Clients: I want them to be happy in their gardens: so I strive to remove anything they don't like, and replace it with something better.  I also want them to be able to walk freely, safely, and comfortably around their garden, so I remove obstacles, cut back prickly or overhanging foliage, and suggest the installation of seating, of handrails, or maybe the replacing of steps with slopes (as mobility becomes an issue), as necessary.

I don't think this is unreasonable, or unusual - I think all good Gardeners quickly come to care for "their" gardens. Gardening is so much more than "just a job". I hate the word "vocation" because it implies long hours and crappy wages, but being a gardener is one of those few jobs where you really can enjoy the job.  

I am about the only person I know - apart from my fellow gardeners - who doesn't groan on a Monday morning!



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Saturday, 8 May 2021

Honeysuckle: how to get it to flower properly

I have to say, in recent years I've become disenchanted with Honeysuckle.

Growing up, this was a hugely popular plant: every garden had at least one, they flowered their socks off all summer long, didn't seem to need any pruning at all, and the scent was delicious.

But in the last decade or so, all I've been seeing are tangles of bare brown stems, with a few blooms right up at the top, which is very disappointing. 

I've arrived at my own method of dealing with Honeysuckle, which involves treating it more like a climbing rose than like a true climber: instead of letting it grow and grow, I cut them back to a framework of old wood each year. It's harsh, but it seems to be the only way I can get these plants to flower properly.

In order to get this:

 ...which was taken in June: 

I have to do this:

And this was taken the previous December.

I do the same thing, every year.

As you can see, it's drastic: all the stems have been cut back to about breast height, all the whippy growth has been cut off, and there are just a few main stems, and a few auxiliary stems, remaining.

Over the previous few years, I have diligently trained the lower branches to run horizontally, instead of letting them fly up to the sky, and you can see the looping shapes of the thicker stems, at the base: they are going from left to right, instead of just going upwards. This is quite hard to do: you have to be very firm with them, but you can see that the results are really worth it.

So, if you have a scruffy, ugly, honeysuckle which does not bring you pleasure any more, hang on until next winter, then cut it right down, harshly, like this. When spring arrives, water it well, to encourage new growth, and take the strongest new shoots left and right, instead of allowing them to shoot straight upwards.

Hopefully, you will see a dramatic improvement in flowering quality.


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Thursday, 6 May 2021

Rosa mundi: how to deadhead

 Back in April, I wrote about Rosa mundi, and how to get it to flower spectacularly. 

The secret, if you can call it that (especially after me talking about it quite openly on here!) is all in the annual pruning.

The harsh, harsh, annual pruning. *laughs*

But I did also mention that I deadhead it ruthlessly, and I had a couple of people asking me exactly what this meant, how I did it, and when.

Alas, it's one of those things which is so much easier to demonstrate, than to describe: memo to self, I really must save up and buy myself a Go-Pro on a headband, so that I can make How-To videos. Wouldn't that be fun! You could watch me doing something, instead of having to read a thousand words on the subject. Mind you, you'd also have to listen to me describing what I am doing, and I should warn you, I sound like a cross between Mary Poppins and a chipmunk...

Anyway, deadheading: what is that, exactly? It means, carefully cutting off a spent (dead) flower, so that the plant does not waste energy making seeds, but instead, uses all that energy to either make more flowers, or to build up their supplies for the following year, depending on what sort of plant we are talking about.

How to do it: use sharp secateurs, and cut off each flower neatly - don't pull them off *faints in horror*. (Why? Because that will leave a nasty, ragged stump which firstly, looks ugly: and secondly, which is prone to rotting, and with roses we always have to be aware of the dreaded die-back.)

When to do it: when the flower is "going over" as we say - when the petals are going limp, and/or going brown. As soon as it no longer looks lovely. 

Well, that's the traditional answer: but with Rosa mundi, there is a other little quirk: if  you leave the dying flowers in place, the petals get wrapped around the new buds, and can prevent them from opening. If it rains, then they turn into papier mache, and form impenetrable skins around the new buds, which definitely prevents them from opening!

The problem is that the petals of Rosa mundi keep their colour for a long time, so it is sometimes a tough decision, as to when is the right time to deadhead.

In a perfect world, you would go over the plant every day or two: in my somewhat less-than-perfect world, I am only in each of "my" gardens once a week, so if the Client is not able to do this task themself, then I have to do when I am there.

 

Here's one of "my" Rosa mundi bushes, photo take in late June, and at first glance it appears to be pretty much covered in flowers.

But a lot of them are fading, so it's time to remove them.

Out with the secateurs, and in I go, carefully snipping out every faded flower.


 


Here is the result, from this one bush: half a tub's worth of petals and a few odd bits: when working with roses, it is always worth carefully nipping out any dead bits which you might find, because dead bits lead to dieback, and we don't want that! 

(In case you don't know, die back is a phenomenon - not exclusive to roses - whereby a badly-cut branch will start to rot, and the rot will "eat" its way backwards along the branch, and can - in the worst cases - kill the entire plant. A lot of the RHS training is all about avoiding dieback, by pruning and deadheading correctly.)

Now, what does the bush look like, after all that lot have been removed?

Brace yourselves.....


Here it is, 20 minutes of denuding later.

Now, at first sight, you might be thinking "Aiieeee! Looks terrible!" but you'd be wrong: because in a day or so,  those new buds will be opening, and now we will be able to see them properly, and appreciate them fully.

Without the deadheading, you wouldn't really have noticed all the new ones, and would have assumed that the flowering season was over.

But now we have a whole new set of flowers to enjoy!

Rosa mundi only flower once - one grand flush of flowers, lasting a couple of weeks, and that's it: but it's so glorious when it happens, that we forgive them!



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Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Technology in the Garden Part 3: electric cars

Continuing my short series of articles about how technology is impacting our gardens: I've written about aerial views, and about lighting and PIR sensors, and I realised the other day that the increasing number of electric cars is going to lead to changes, as well.

Oddly enough, this train of thought began when a workman arrived at a house while I was scrubbing the block paving front drive: a job which I have written about here, and again here: 

It's a horrible job, but it's only once a year, usually, and it makes a huge difference.

So there I was, scrubbing away with the long-handled wire brush, and Simon the Electrician commented, in passing, that his own block paved drive was stained with diesel,  which had leaked from his van.

He asked me what he could do about it: would jet-washing help?

I replied "Nooooo!" because jet-washing is the worst thing you can do with block paving, as it blasts all the sand out from between them, leaving them jiggling like an 8-year-old's loose tooth.

In case you didn't know, this sort of (expensive) block paving is not laid on concrete: the blocks are loose-laid on sand. The skill is in the installation, to get them tightly packed, but to allow enough room for them to move very slightly, as vehicles drive over them: if they didn't have this room to move, they'd crack, and be ruined. It's one of the better driveway surfaces, ecologically speaking: rain can seep down between the blocks and dissipate, without flooding the house.

The worst sort of drives are solid concrete ones - or even worse, the ones where they lay the concrete then press a pattern former into it, so it looks like block paving - but has no drainage at all. Ugh. I can't tell you how many times I've seen workmen doing that sort of drive, and invariably they take it right slap bang up against the house/garage, so the water has nowhere to drain away.

Anyway, getting back to Simon and his stained blocks, I suggested lifting the stained ones, and swapping them for some unstained ones from random places around the edge of the drive, or in corners that are not particularly visible.

But of course I had to point out that if the vehicle had leaked previously, it would no doubt leak again.

"Aha!" said Simon, simply. "I now have an electric van!" Sure enough, he had a shiny new Nissan, I think it's an e-NV200: and with no diesel to leak, it shouldn't stain the drive.

This led on to the thought - I should point out here, that scrubbing block paving is utterly mindless work, so my mind tends to wander, while doing it - that electric vehicles were going to have an influence on our front garden design, in two ways.

The obvious way is that more people are going to need to pave over their front garden, in order to get their electric vehicles close enough to the charging point.

Otherwise, you can imagine a new crime of charge-jacking, where people drive their electric cars silently around the midnight streets, find a car with a long lead snaking out from the house across the pavement, and unplug it, plugging the lead into their own vehicle. Six hours later, they drive silently away, fully charged, leaving the householder wondering why they spend so much electricity on charging their car, and yet it never seems to have much charge in it.

But there's a secondary implication: now that vehicles are going to be much, much less prone to leaking diesel, oil, etc, more people are going to want to choose to have a smart, decorative surface to their new charging/parking bay.

Oh no! Not more block paving! Quick, someone, invent something practical, but easy to clean!



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Sunday, 2 May 2021

How to: Plant right up against walls

 Well, my first comment has to be "don't do it!"

Why not?

First and most obvious, it's often hard work to dig a planting hole very close to a wall: not only do you keep banging your elbows while you are trying to dig, but walls should have foundations, which might well extend outwards quite some way. So when you try to dig, you find that you are hitting solid foundations.

Next, even if you have deep soil close to the wall, there is often a leaching effect from the concrete, mortar etc, which can adversely affect the way plants grow.

Also, you may well find the soil is mostly comprised of builders' rubble and other debris: at least this can simply be removed, but it might have a lasting effect on soil quality, if a lot of mortar and other chemicals have leached into the soil.

The soil very close to walls is often of very poor quality - partly due to the builders mentioned above, partly because, even if the builders did not leave a stack of rubble behind, they will have trampled over the area very thoroughly during the process of building, so there is probably a solid "pan" or crust, a little way below the surface: and partly because it will have been subject to rainshadow for as long as the wall has been there. So you will often need to bring in new, good quality soil.

Talking of rainshadow, anything you plant which is very close to a wall, will need a lot of watering attention:  and not just at first, it will probably always need to be watered - partly due to the rainshadow issue, and partly because the presence of the wall will reduce it's "circle" of soil by 50%: the roots can only grow in one direction, instead of being able to quest out in 360degrees around the main stem.

For all these reasons, planting anything right slap up against a wall is a bad idea...

So what do you do, if you want to plant a - for example - climber, intending it to be trained up the wall? You have to plant it right at the base of the wall, don't you?

The trick is to plant it about 2' (60cm) out from the wall, and to lean the plant in, at an angle, so that the upper part of the plant is sloping back to the wall, and preferably is touching it, but the roots are a good distance away from the wall. You might need to add longer support canes, in order to guide the plant towards the wall.

This reduces the rainshadow effect, gives the plant's roots a chance to get at some halfway decent soil, and to experience a reasonable amount of rainfall.

Most climbers arrive from the garden centre in a pot with some canes already in it, which is handy - by planting the whole thing at an angle, you keep the stems of the plant straight. 

It means having to digger a bigger-than-normal hole, because you have to get the entire rootball, slanted, under the ground: sometimes you can "cheat" a little, by brushing of some loose soil from the uppermost edge of the  pot... but generally speaking, it's better to dig a bigger hole, so that the whole rootball can sit comfortably in it, at an angle.

This is a situation where a picture really is worth a thousand words! Annoyingly, I did this exact thing just last week, planting a Clematis montana against a wall, but I didn't take a photo. Sorry! I'll try to find a suitable plant, and will add a photo in due course.

 In the meantime, I should say that there are a couple of good points about planting close to a wall, which I should mention: firstly, the heat from the wall reflects back onto the plant, creating a micro-climate which might be beneficial for the plant.

And secondly, some plants actually like having their roots crammed up against obstacles: Figs, for example, are often described as fruiting more freely, if their root run is restricted: and being planted up against a wall definitely restricts their roots, as described above!

So it's not necessarily a bad thing, to have to plant right up against a wall, but there are a couple of points which need to be taken into account, when you do so.


Friday, 30 April 2021

How to feed the birds - without feeding the Starlings!

 I've written about feeding the birds a few times: just type the word "bird" into the search box, top left of the screen, to get a list.

The key points include having trees, or fake trees (ie fences, pergolas, or even plain wooden poles),  for them to sit on and inspect your feeders, before they come down to eat: then to have bird feeders which are suspended off the ground: and to allow them time to get acquainted with your feeders - and for the "new chemical" smell to wear off - before they will come and feed.

However, getting the birds that you actually want, as opposed to the thugs and the greedy ones, is another question, and I have provided a few answers to that knotty topic, already: one of my answers is to exclude the bigger birds - pigeon, magpies - from my feeder, by turning it into a mini-fortress.

So what about starlings, then?

I was talking to a lady the other day, who is a keen bird-feeder, and normally she complains about the mess the Starlings leave under her feeders: not to mention the way they squabble, and the tremendous racket they make!

This time, however, she was all smiles.

Why? I asked.

Well, it turns out that she'd tried out a new type of bird feed, which was seeds mixed in with very small pellets of suet; and the mess was, apparently, indescribable. The Starlings, it seems, were flinging the seeds out, in order to get to the suet.

Interesting....

So she tried removing all the suet-based feed, leaving just seeds, grain, etc: lo! and behold, a massive reduction in the number of starlings.

Which leads us to an interesting conclusion: if you don't want starlings, don't feed suet-based food.

Try it, dear reader, and let me know if it works for you.....

 

 


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Wednesday, 28 April 2021

How to retrieve a new-ish hedge...

 ... that didn't get it's formative training - see this article - and has gone a bit tall and skimpy.

Here's a good example: I received a question about this run of mixed hedging :

It's a run of Blackthorn and Hawthorn hedging, planted specifically for privacy, but not living up to expectations! 

As you can see, it's bare bones down below, just where the density is needed: and it's congested and top-heavy at the very tips, where it's had the hedgetrimmers run over it for the past couple of years.

The owners have tried to bulk it up by piling up tree prunings from elsewhere in the garden, at the base: and last year they added the criss-cross trellis to the top of the post and rail fencing, to try to get the illusion of some privacy, but nothing worked.

This is absolutely typical of what hedging does, if it fails to get the formative pruning, as mentioned in the previous article - there's a link to it, above - and is allowed to just grow and grow.

As you can see, we have pretty much one stem per plant! Heading skywards, with virtually no branches lower down.

"What can we do?" cried the owners, tearing their hair, "Please don't say that we're going to have to rip it out and start again!

Luckily, there is something which can be done: it's drastic, but not as drastic as having to replace the entire hedge. It will start to have an effect immediately, although it will take a couple of years to come to full fruition, as it were

Right, brace yourselves, this is what I suggested.

Year One: ie this year, now, in winter:  cut down every third plant, to about ankle height. These stems will each put out two or more new branches, this year, and they will probably have grown at least a foot or more in length, by autumn. Leave the other two-thirds as they are.

Year Two: ie next winter: look at all those new shoots, at knee height, and cut them down to about a foot (30cm) above the original, ankle-height, cut. Then, turn to the original trees, and cut down every other one, to ankle height, as you did with the first "third".  This is the second "third", as it were, leaving the final "third" at their original height.

Year Three: look at all the new shoots, both the ones from the Year One chop, and the ones from the Year Two chop, and prune them all back to about a foot (30cm) above their original cut. this means you have three "layers" or levels at the base of the hedge: two-thirds of the original trees at ankle height, one third at about a foot above that, and another

Sounds complicated, but once you get going, it's quite straightforward. Here's a cartoon, illustrating the sequence of cuts on any one tree, compared to what happens if you leave it uncut:


This is a simplification, of course, but it clearly shows how you need to make those formative pruning cuts in the early years, in order to get the bushy growth below.

The advantage of doing this, as opposed to ripping the whole lot out and starting again, is that a) it costs you nothing, and b) you do at least retain some semblance of privacy, while the cut stems are re-growing.

Here is a snap of the same hedge, taken this February, 


 One in three trunks has been cut, and as you can see, there is still some feeling of "hedge", it hasn't destroyed the whole thing: and once the leaves are on it, things will be much improved!

Best of all, though, those cut stems will start sprouting new branches, and will fill up that gaping empty gap.

In order to get this to happen as quickly as possible, I always recommend watering the cut stems - well, to be honest, the entire hedge - at least once a week throughout spring and early summer, and to give it a feed as well: Growmore, in either liquid or granulate form: or liquid seaweed, whatever you have to hand.

This will encourage strong new growth, and will make you feel better about having to slaughter part of your hedge!

Then, next winter, it won't be such a wrench, when you have to do the second "third", as it were, because you will have seen how much new growth occurred, which will give you confidence.

In subsequent years, once the two-thirds have regained the full height, the owners could then take the final third down to ankle height. 

All of this regime, by the way, refers to the main trunks or stems: in addition to this, you should run the hedgetrimmers over the whole thing at least twice a year, even if it looks a bit spindly, because this will encourage all the small side shoots to branch, in exactly the same way as described for the main shoots, and thus it will become thicker and fluffier, lower down.

There you go - all is not lost, even if you have accidentally created a hedge on stilts!

 

 


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Monday, 26 April 2021

Curly Willow: how to reduce it

 I had an interesting question the other day: Fiona asked me about her Curly Willow (Salix matsudana 'Tortuosa') or Corkscrew willow,  which has a few dead branches on it.

 Fiona is concerned about the dead branches, but is also concerned about having it pruned, and said it "hasn’t been pruned for a few years after our neighbours described the last guys who did it as ‘cowboys’."  

Here's what it looks like:

It's getting quite big, for a tree which is relatively close to houses, although it gives lovely dappled shade, as well as privacy.

What's interesting about this tree, to me (before I get on to Fiona's questions), is the way it branches just a couple of feet off the ground.

You can see that it starts off as one trunk, like a normal tree: then - at about knee height - it suddenly turns into a multi-stemmed tree.

There seems to be a sack of something lying across the base of the tree, not sure what that is... but you can see that there is one original clear stem, then it suddenly changes, into something with several upright stems.


Here - right - is the closer view of that part of the trunk, and can you see how it has split into two massive trunks, plus at least two or three smaller ones?

Actually, I shouldn't use the word "split" because it hasn't split at all. There are two possibilities here.

1) it was originally a grafted tree. That means that the upper, curly, branches were joined onto a non-curly rootstock. This is a bit unlikely, at that height: this tree is not normally grafted anyway, because it is as vigorous as any other Willow, and doesn't need to be cosseted by being grafted onto a different rootstock.

Furthermore, trees are normally grafted a lot higher than 2' off the ground. However, it is a possibility.

More likely, though, is:

2) the 'cowboys' of a few years back, have just chopped it straight across, and all those new trunks have sprouted from the cut.

This is what willows do.

When you prune them, they say to themselves "'Ere, someone's chopped me top orf: I am therefore obliged to put on an extra spurt of energy, to replace them bits wot they chopped orf."

As Enid Blyton put it, rather more elegantly, "willows are full of life, and you can't stamp it out of them." 

That's from The Secret Island, by the way, and is what Jack said, when the children were building Willow House. 

It is possible that the tree was damaged, so they cut it back for safety: it is possible that the previous owners said "Blimey, that's too big a tree to have near the house, get rid of it," and the 'cowboys', not knowing any better, took a chainsaw to it, assuming that the stump would die.

Whatever the reason, the willow was reduced to a stump, whereupon it started to grow, grow, GROW!

In no time it had put up four or five new stems, from that stump, and with no further interference, each of them thickened up into the mighty stems we see before us.

In effect, the tree was coppiced: just once. Then left to get on with it. Which it did.

So, whichever of these options caused the shaping, what can Fiona do about her dead branches, and are they a sign of the tree dying?

Firstly, it's definitely a good idea to get dead branches removed: quite apart from the risk of them eventually dropping down and hitting you on the head, a dead branch will just rot, and in doing so, the rot might spread to other branches. Plus, if it is a branch which has broken - and therefore died - but which is still attached to the tree, then when it does eventually fall, it might damage the bark even further. Like when you damage a fingernail - if you don't cut it off neatly, it might catch on something, then rip across, doing worse damage than if you'd cut it.

Secondly, no, it's not a sign of the tree dying: all trees lose the occasional upper branch, it's part of their natural cycle, and if you walk around your local woodland areas, you will find that virtually every deciduous tree has a small pile of dead branches lying around underneath it. Willows are super-tough trees, and it would take a lot to kill one.

However, in a garden, the dead branches do need to be sorted out, and I'd certainly suggest getting in a tree surgeon, or "arborist" as they now call themselves...

.... as an aside, if I were in a profession which is basically using power tools (ie you need training, and it's bloody dangerous, so due respect to them, but it's not exactly over-technical) to prune trees (of which there are only a couple of dozen commonly-found species, not exactly a lot of work to learn all about those few, compared to the thousands of garden herbaceous, shrubs, bulbs, climbers, etc that we Gardeners have to learn) - and I'd found that that profession had claimed the word "surgeon" and successfully worked that word into their job title, with no resistance from the paying public at all... well, it would take an atom bomb to get me to change it to the rather stupid word "arborist" which is meaningless to 99% of the public, as opposed to the 100% who know what a "surgeon" is......

Anyway, leaving that aside, the trick to finding a good arborist is to a) ask for local recommendations: but not "are you an arborist who is recommending themself",  but "have you used an arborist lately, and would you recommend them?".

If you don't know enough people to ask for recommendations, and/or you don't have a local community website or community social media page, then look around on the internet for arborists, phone them up, and ask them what qualifications they have (LANTRA is the accepted one), how long they've been operating (if less than five years, give them a miss: yes, we all have to learn, but do you really want them learning on your precious tree?), are they insured (if not, scream and run away), what do they do with the waste material, and - most importantly - how soon can they do it. If they say they can come and look at it now, and can do it next week, scream and run away! A good arborist will be booked up for weeks ahead, if not months.

As a general observation, for the benefit of anyone else with a similar tree, pruning the upper part of the tree depends on whether you want to reduce the height, or reduce the density, or both.

Actually, I'm leading you astray again, because regardless of whether you want to reduce the height, or the density, or both, I'd say the same thing: take out one or more of those main stems, rather than trying to reduce every single branch.

Thus, in a couple of years, you'll be back to where you are now.

If you chop "all" the stems at the same height, it will ruin the shape, or "form" of the tree: in fact, it will turn it into a pollarded tree. If you're not sure what that means, type "pollard" into the search box, top left of the screen, and read all about it!

In nearly all cases, I would far rather remove one of more entire stems, then allow it to regrow into a natural "form", than to give it a massive chop and wait for it to regrow.

It does rather look as though this particular tree has already been "semi-pollarded"  once before, at a height of about 8' from the ground: just about 2' above fence height, you can see that the two major stems each have a thick knobbly bit, with a multitude of smaller stems growing out from that point.

The good news is that Willows can take almost any amount of "butchering", by cowboys or by inadvertent damage. Cut stems will sprout new branches, and all of them will be curly and corkscrew-y,

To summarise: Fiona's questions were, are the dead black stems a sign of something terminal: answer, probably not, all trees lose the odd branch here and there. Also, how to go about finding a non-cowboy to deal with it - see advice, above.  

And as for frequency of pruning: I know this sounds a bit facetious, but the true answer is "when it starts to look too big/look top heavy/become an annoyance/no longer brings you joy" (as Marie Kondo would say!). There is no hard and fast rule about when to prune: it depends so much on how fast it grows, where it is, and so on.

So, I hope that helps!

 

 


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Friday, 23 April 2021

How to: get Rosa mundi to flower spectacularly

People visiting one of "my" gardens, often used to ask me how I got this Rosa mundi 'Versicolor' to flower so magnificently: 


Gorgeous, isn't it? Often described as "The oldest and best known striped rose" and I would agree with that, although I'd probably add "and the best looking!" as well.

Sometimes this rose is known as Rosa gallica 'Versicolor' but it's the same thing: it is what's known as an Old Rose: this means it only flowers once, it doesn't go on re-flowering all summer long: but it's worth waiting for. and enjoying it, when it does.

So, in answer to the question "how do I get it to flower..." I have to say, it's that old, old, principle of "you have to be cruel to be kind", which applies to so many aspects of gardening.

I could give a long description of how I mulch it every winter, how I feed it every spring and summer, etc: but really, the main thing I do is this - every winter:

There! Simple!

I chop it down without mercy. 

First I apply the usual RHS "3-Ds" by which I mean that I remove anything dead, diseased, or damaged/dying.

Then I take out any crossing, rubbing branches. 

Next I remove any weak, spindly growth, and any that I simply don't like the look of. Then I chop what's left down in height, quite drastically, and that leaves me with this - left.

I do this every winter, and once it is flowering, I do deadhead it every week.

And that's all!



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Wednesday, 21 April 2021

Why does a gardener need a Pickaxe?

Every gardener needs a pickaxe at some point: they are indispensable for removing large clumps, and large stumps, where a normal digging tool such as a fork or a spade is simply not up to the job.

Here's a good example, left: the Client wanted me to remove a massive clump of Miscanthus zebrinus.  It's a wonderful striped grass, but this one had grown too overpowering, for this particular garden.

It was far too big to just dig out with a fork, so I used my Pick-Mattock to get it out: there it is, lying on grass getting ready to attack.

I then used the same tool again, to split the enormous clump into smaller sections, which were later replanted elsewhere.

(I do love to re-use plants!)

A pickaxe is also the weapon of choice for removing stumps: tree stumps, big shrub stumps - this tool is definitely the right one for the job.

Here I am, right, using it to get out the last sections of an enormous shrub, which had been cut down by the handyman, but not dug out, so it was starting to re-shoot.

Technically, my tool is a Pick-Mattock, not a Pickaxe, before someone picks me up on that point: it has a pointy blade on one side - the Pick - and you can see in this photo, it has a broad scoopy bit on the other side - the Mattock - which is also sharp enough to be used to chop through roots, but really comes into its own,  when it comes to scraping and lifting away the loose soi, and other materials.

I used to have a traditional Pickaxe, which - as the name suggests - has a Pick at one side, and an Axe on the other. But I quickly found that the axe part wasn't used very often, whereas the Mattock-type blade was nearly as good as an axe, for chopping roots, but has the additional use of being like a narrow shovel.

As anyone who knows me, will know, I love multi-use tools, so I threw out my old Pickaxe, and bought a nice brightly-coloured Pick-Mattock instead, and have been using it ever since. 

("For Sale: old Pickaxe. Well used. No longer required.")

However, it's not what you would call a delicate tool: you need a certain amount of room to swing it,  there is always the danger of accidentally hitting an underground pipe or cable, not to mention the possibility of hurting yourself with it, as they are very heavy - for us female gardeners - and quite unwieldy.

Last year, I was introduced to the Micro-Pick, which sounds like a dental instrument, but turned out to be a completely wonderful addition to my tools.

There: isn't he great?

Rather like the Darlac Cut'n'Hold Snapper tool, I looked at it with scorn at first sight, thinking "that's too small and girly to be of any use".

But, as with the Snapper, once I tried it for size, I was hooked!

Designed to fit into a standard tool-bag, according to the product description on the Screwfix site: by total coincidence, the perfect size for female gardeners who have smaller hands than men. IE, all of us.

This tool now lives in my car, and you'd be surprised how often he is used. 

And you'd also be surprised - I certainly was - at just how much "heft" you can get, from such a comparatively small tool, especially in restricted areas.

Just the other week, I was faced with a very large Viburnum stump which needed removal, and the owner couldn't get a digger in, because it was at the back of a flower bed.

So I was tasked with getting it out by hand.

Oh joy.

I started traditionally, with the border fork, to loosen the soil around the roots, but within minutes I was legging it back to Brian (my car is called Brian, don't ask) for the Micro-pick, who doesn't have a name yet, but really ought to: any suggestions, anyone?

Anyway, the Viburnum was then attacked with the Micro-pick ("Mick?") (yes, I quite like that. OK, Mick he is!).

 Here's a picture of the monster:

As you can see, the first thing to do is to chop off all the top, the foliage etc,  so that we can get close to the base: but we take care to leave the main trunk at least to knee height, so that we have something to grab hold of, and lever, once we've severed most of the roots.

Next we have to remove a saucer-shape of soil, cutting through all the roots as we go. Out came Mick the Micro-pick, and we chopped all round it.

Once it got to this stage, we were able to rock it: but it was very firmly rooted, so I did have to bring in the big pick-mattock from home: not so much for the digging, as for the levering.

A better tool for the job would have been what I grew up calling a bodging bar - a long, heavy bar of metal, with a point on one end and a sort of chisel shape on the other. 

But I couldn't find mine, which was a bit confusing - how can "one" mislay a metal bar that's 5' long? With a damn great point on the end? After turning the garage upside down, I suddenly realised that it wasn't actually mine:  I used to borrow one when I needed it, from a friend. So I had to find one online and order one of my own, and apparently this tool is called a crowbar.

Now, I thought a crowbar was one of these:

 ...which I always think of as the burglars' friend. I have a couple of these, in various sizes: but apparently, this is not a crowbar at all - in fact, this tool rejoices in the title of "Wrecking Bar".

Isn't that a great name?

It's a Wrecking Bar. Great for wrecking pallets, and getting nails out of wood.

Not so good for levering stumps out, because it's too short, and because the nail-removing bit gets in the way. 

The correct tool for the job, then, is the crowbar (point and chisel): but a good old fashioned Pick-mattock can also be useful.

Shortly afterwards, there it was, having a ride in the wheelbarrow, which very nearly collapsed under the weight.

Onto the bonfire heap it went!

Job done: and the moral of this story is, that girls can do anything, if they have the correct tools, and a little bit of technique!




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Monday, 19 April 2021

"Gold Collection" Hellebores: are they worth the money?

This is a rather sad trend, which  I've noticed over the past few years: Clients proudly produce a pot containing a large, freshly bought Hellebore, gorgeous, lush, beautiful: and they ask me to plant it in their garden.

I read the label - to be honest, I don't need to read the label, I can tell by looking at it, that it's a Gold Collection Hellebore - and my soul shrinks within me: how do I break the news to them, it's Gold Collection, and therefore *spine chilling chord on the Hammond organ* it is going to DIE.

Yes, folks: they all DIE.

Before we turn to "why", let's look at "what".  What exactly is a Gold Collection Hellebore?

Hellebores come in a few different species: there's the "wild" one, Helleborus foetidus, with the charming and slightly misleading common name of Stinking Hellebore: there are a couple of less common ones such as H. argutifolius (Corsican Hellebore) and the rarely seen H. viridis, or Green Hellebore.

And then there's the usual garden plant, H. orientalis, which is variously known as Lenten Rose, Oriental Hellebore, or Hybrid Hellebore: this is the one which most of us have in our gardens.

They have beautiful flowers, which they hold in a lovely Princess-Diana-like wilting stoop, so that in order to properly appreciate them, you have to stop, bend over, and gently turn them up to face you. 

Or, if you have a very good gardener (*smirks*) you plant them on a raised bed, or on the edges of the terracing, so that the owners are looking upwards, into their lovely faces, instead of looking downwards onto them. (*disengages smug mode*)

Because of this, and the general laziness of the plant-buying public, the company behind the Gold Collection bred a whole selection of Hellebores by crossing H. orientalis with H.argutifolius and H. viridis, in an attempt to get something hardy, but which would hold the flowers upwards, or at least, facing outwards. 

 They also went for the most dramatic colours, and the super-double frilly petals - you know, the ones so hated by bee-lovers, because the flower structure is so complex that bees struggle to get inside them.

They cost a lot of money, they look fantastic, but they all DIE!!

One of my Clients bought a dozen of them, one year: the following year, only two of them came up again, and they were - to be perfectly honest - quite straggly and nowhere near as lush as when they were bought.

Here's a typical example: this Client bought a beautiful dark red Gold Collection Hellebore, it stood nearly a yard high, fantastic thing: but this is what happened to it two days after purchase:

yes, it wilted in the cold weather, and all the lovely stems flopped outwards.

It looked rather as though a grenade had gone off.

So, not fully hardy, then. And this would be the bulk of the "why" question: they DIE because they are not fully hardy, they can't survive outdoors in the UK.

Also: (and this is my pet peeve, which applies to many, many garden centre plants) they are not properly hardened off: no doubt they were all shipped in from Europe where they had been growing in polytunnels, and no doubt they were kept in a sheltered polytunnel once they arrived in the UK.

I always suggest to Clients that, in winter, when they go to garden centres,  they don't buy plants which are stacked on wheeled trolleys: there is a very good chance that the trolleys are wheeled under cover at night, so you have no way of knowing how long they've been there, or how tender they are.

The whole point of Hellebores is that they flower in winter, and they are tough and strong: there is simply no point in buying a "non-hardy" Hellebore, and then trying to wrap it up in fleece against the cold weather!

So I shall continue to advise my Clients against buying anything from the Gold Collection, no matter how luscious they are!

 

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Saturday, 17 April 2021

Hydrangeas: looking battered in April

I had a question yesterday from Nina (“Hi Nina!” *waves*) concerning one of her potted Hydrangeas, which was looking particularly sad.

To put this question into context, I should tell you that it's the third week in April, but we're having really cold weather, here in 2021: in fact, this is what it looked like four days ago:

 Quite a change from last year, which was apparently the sunniest April on record...

And that's not the worst of it: most plants can cope with snow, the real killer is the fact that we've been having what is called Aprilicity: although I'm not convinced that that's a real word, it describes the phenomenon of April days when the sun is hot, but the air is cold. 

We've been having a lot of that, lately: on one day in particular, I went out at 8am in long trousers, fleece, jacket, and scarf: in the afternoon, I was working in shorts and a tee-shirt. 

Weird weather. 

And this is very confusing for the plants!

So here is Nina's Hydrangea: 

As you can see, it does look a bit battered, poor thing. 

But all is not lost, this is what happens to Hydrangeas over the winter, and that's why we don't prune them until well into May. 

If you have something similar to Nina's, all you have to do is be patient for a couple more weeks, then carefully prune it down to about half the size it is now: that is, take each stem one by one, and cut it down to roughly half the length, making your cut just above a pair of leaves or a pair of buds. 

You can see that the foliage in the "middle" of the plant is fresh and green, and generally looks a lot healthier than the ones on the outside.  

That's because it was sheltered by the outside leaves, which have been quite badly frost-bitten.

And that's why we are always told, by the gardening books,  not to prune Hydrangeas until "all risk of frost is past"which in the UK could mean early March or could mean the end of May, so you have to take a bit of a risk, at some point:; but generally speaking, I don't prune Hydrangeas until mid May.

I do make an exception for the dead brown flower-heads, I should say: I hate the look of them, so I tend to nip them off, once they are starting to look battered and ugly. But I don't cut the stems down until late spring - and Nina's plant nicely demonstrates why.

On balance, then, I am confident that Nina's Hydrangea will recover: my suggestion would be to put up with it for another couple of weeks if at all possible, because those damaged leaves (and the flower heads) will provide a bit of shelter for the inner leaves; they create a micro-climate, in effect. Rather like draping horticultural fleece over delicate plants: the frost will settle on the outer areas - the fleece, or in this case, those already-damaged leaves - and won't affect the inner ones.

Then, a little bit of pruning, and all will be well!


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Thursday, 15 April 2021

Buying "bare root" plants: when NOT to buy

 I've been feeling a bit vexed lately, at the number of adverts I've seen for people selling "bare root" shrubs.

What's wrong with that? I hear you ask. 

Well, a "bare root" plant is one which has been grown in open ground, by a plant nursery, specifically to be sold in the dormant season, that's December-March. They are dug up to order: this means that they live happily in the ground, until a customer places an order and pays for them, at which time they are carefully dug up, the loose soil is shaken off, they are usually wrapped in either damp hessian, sawdust, or sphagnum moss, or put straight into plastic bags, to keep the roots damp: they are usually keep refrigerated, until they are posted off, or collected. 

This ensures they are in the best possible condition, on arrival.

A "bare root" plant is NOT one which has been ripped out of someone's garden, often by a builder, tossed aside while they do the actual job for which they were hired - you know, laying a patio, building a wall, doing some plumbing work etc - and then, at the close of the day, the owner realises how much a shrub costs to buy, and decides to offer it for sale, instead of tossing it in the skip.

By now, it's been sitting outside for the best part of the day and the roots are bone dry, but the top part still looks good.

 It seems to be a side-effect of Covid-19: people have been "trapped" in their houses for a year,  so they are improving their gardens, making them more usable, by extending patios, having wooden out-houses built to be used as home offices etc, which means that plants are being removed.

And they are - not unreasonably - trying to recoup some of the money by selling off the plants they no longer want. 

Here's a typical example:


How awful is that?

"But the leaves look all green, glossy and healthy,"  I hear you say.

Well, that's because it's an evergreen, and it will take a couple of days for the leaves to start showing any signs of distress.

But look at those roots - bone dry, damaged (many of them have been broken) and frankly, that's too small a rootball to support a plant that size. 

When you buy a container-grown plant from a garden centre, it may well look like a small pot for a lot of plant, but the plant has grown in the pot, and filled it with roots. This is an "outdoor" plant, whose roots have spread sideways with joy and glee: so the rootball should be quite a bit bigger than this.

The white van gives you a clue that it's been carelessly dug up by a builder, rather than carefully dug up by the owner.

So no, I wouldn't be paying £30 for this poor thing. Especially half-way through April, or in the middle of summer, or at any time other than the dormant period of December-March.....

If you are planning to sell plants from your garden, here are a couple of suggestions.

 1) advertise them a couple of weeks before the builders are due, and title the advert "Dig Your Own!". Then whoever wants them can come and do the hard work for themselves. Advantages: you don't have to break your back digging them out, and if they subsequently die, then it's not your fault. Disadvantages: if the buyer is canny, they will take the biggest possible rootball, and they won't give much consideration to the plants around the desired one!

2) advertise them early, then when someone agrees to buy them, dig them up yourself, and either keep them in a bucket of water, or wrap the roots up well, as the nurseries do. Advantages: no-one trashing your garden, and the buyer is more likely to be happy. Disadvantage: it's hard work for you! And if they fail to turn up, then you will need to find a new buyer quickly. 

3) if we are past the dormant season, then dig them up and put them into pots - plastic pots if you have any large enough. Let them settle for a couple of weeks, and if they are still flourishing, you can sell them as potted plants, and get a better price than you can for bare-root.

And if you are thinking of buying some "cheap" shrubs from someone else's garden, ask them if you can come and dig them out yourself!


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Monday, 12 April 2021

How to: plant a potted plant, into the ground

 How's that for a complicated title?

I had a question this morning, from Ovez:  "Is it possible to plant the Kilmarnock in the ground still in a pot"?

There are two questions, here, and I'm not sure which one Ovez is asking, so I'll answer both of them.

1) If you buy a Salix Kilmarnock in a pot, is it possible to plant it in the ground?

Yes.

All you have to do is dig a suitable hole, take it out of the plastic pot, and plant it in the ground. Water well, keep an eye on it for the first year, and it should be fine. No, it won't get any taller: it's a grafted tree, as per the explanations in my various posts about Salix Kilmarnock. (Or just type "Kilmarnock" into the search box, top left.) So it will get stouter, over the years, but it won't get taller.

However: and it's a big "however" - it is essential to keep checking the tree to ensure that it hasn't reverted (again, check my previous articles for details on this) otherwise you will end up with a massive Grey Willow tree, taking over your garden and sending roots all over the place. 

If you take care to always rub off any buds, leaves, or signs of growth from below the graft, then planting out a Salix Kilmarnock shouldn't cause any problems with roots etc, but with willows, it's always better to be safe than sorry, so have a care about where you plant it: not too close to the house, not too close to any underground drains, etc.

2) Can you sink a potted plant into the ground, still in the pot?

 This might sound like a daft question, but actually, there is a long history of putting plants in pots into the ground. It's known as "plunging" and it does have a few benefits.

The idea is to take the plant in its plastic pot: then sink the whole thing into the ground, still in the plastic pot. 

Why? Well, it gives the roots protection from extremes of cold, and of heat. It can give stability to a rather top-heavy plant, where the top growth is out of proportion to the roots: it can allow you to give a bed or border a very mature look, instantly, but allows you to move the plants around, if you don't like the arrangement: particularly if  you spread a decorative mulch over the surface, so you can't see the rims of the pots.

It works well for tender plants, that can't stay out all winter, because it's easy to heave them out at the end of summer. And it means you can change your arrangement quickly, if  you need to: for something like a wedding or a garden party, you can plonk a lot of mature plants in pots into the beds, to get the effect you want, then later on, they can be pulled out and either returned (if hired), sold, or planted elsewhere.

Another aspect of this strategy, is to leave the plastic pot in place in order to contain the roots, to stop the plant or tree from spreading: there are two main reasons for this, the first is to stop the spread of rampant plants such as Mint, or Bamboo: the second is to keep the plant small, to bonsai it. ("Bonsai" means "grown in a pot", by the way, it doesn't actually mean "tortured to look like a miniature version of the proper thing")

So it's possible that Ovez is thinking that by leaving his Kilmarnock in the pot before planting it, it won't grow too much.

Well, Ovez is partly right: but in my experience, most trees will bust their way out of the pot, by sending down roots through the drainage holes, then enlarging those roots until they destroy the bottom of the pot. And once they have their roots free, they are off! See this article, about a Bay Tree, for details of a full-sized tree which has escaped from the pot in which it was planted....

And in the case of a Salix Kilmarnock, it won't get any "bigger", ie taller, anyway, so it probably does not need to be restrained in this manner.


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Sunday, 11 April 2021

Pyracantha: how to get the best display of berries

 ...on a free-standing bush.

I have written about my Pyracantha pruning regime several times - just type "pyracantha" into the search box, top left of the screen, to find them - but usually I'm writing about a trained specimen, usually on wires, usually on a wall.

Something like this one, left.

This one is flowering, of course: pretty little white foamy flowers, which then turn into colourful berries later in the year.

A question came in this morning, about how to manage a free standing bush, where you don't have that nice neat framework to prune back to.

Well, the principle is exactly the same: three or four times a year, you just need to cut off the wild exuberant new growth, because the flowers - and therefore the berries - are borne on the old wood, and the new growth is just super-spiky, and therefore annoying.

If you don't prune, then by the time berries are forming, you can hardly see them amongst the new growth, which is a bit of a waste.

But there is a problem with a free-standing Pyracantha - if you let it go its own way, it becomes a monster, tangling itself around everything else in sight, and creating a super-prickly thicket which will defeat even the bravest, boldest gardener. 

So, in self-defence, you end up having to prune it, to some extent: and then, before you know it, you have a neat "shaped" bush.  I am a great believer in allowing plants to achieve their proper "form", and I hate it when unskilled labour runs a hedgetrimmer over a flowering shrub - "bunning", as it is known in the trade - but sometimes, well, it's the only way to go.

Here's an example: one of "my" gardens has two large free-standing Pyracantha shrubs, one to either side of the entrance gates, and they need regular attention, in exactly the same was as those which are carefully trained along wires.

This is the top of one of them, back in August of last year:

As you can see, it's a mass of green shoots, pinging out in all directions, and although there are berries on it, you can't really see them, because of the excessive growth all around them.

This fresh growth, of course, does not have berries on it, because they don't flower on the new wood, but on the old wood. And of course, without flowers, you don't get berries!

Ten minutes of hard work later, I'd carefully pruned out all those new shoots, cutting them as far back as I was able to: cutting them back "within" the shape, wherever possible.

This left me with something that looked like this:


Much tidier, and what's more to the point, now we can see the mass of berries, instead of being distracted by the wild exuberant new growth.

It also makes it easier for the birds to get to the berries: yes, of course we want to see the berries, and get the benefit, but I am always happy, in a way, to see that the birds have stripped the bushes of fruit, because it means that the fruit is being useful, and won't be wasted. 

It also means I won't have a hundred or more tiny Pyracantha seedlings underneath the bush next year...

Here's a photo of the entire plant, to give you an idea of the scale:






 

Lovely, isn't it? I always think of them - there's one on the other side of the drive - as Guardians of the Gates.

There we go, then: in a nutshell, if your Pyracantha is free-standing, you can still have the superb display of berries, but you have to accept that it is going to look a bit, er, neat and tidy.



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Friday, 9 April 2021

Elder - I made it weep!

 Well, it's only fair, as Elder often brings me nearly to the point of weeping, when it seeds everywhere, grows everywhere, and had to be weeded out from everywhere.. plus there's that horrible smell  you get, from the foliage....

But now I am a happy bunny, because a few weeks back, I actually made an Elder tree weep!

It was a very old tree, it had slumped down across a fence, as is their wont, as they say (that's an expression, for the benefit of anyone under the age of about, ooh, desperately late forties, not a spelling or punctuation mistake). and the owner asked me to take the weight off the top, before it crushed the fence altogether.

Grabbing my trusty bowsaw, I leaped into action.

OK, let's be realistic: I grabbed my trusty bowsaw, eye protection, gloves, and a pruning saw: then I did a careful risk assessment of the tree (old, fallen) the fence (sturdy, should be ok), and the immediate area (safe): I checked out my escape routes ("if it falls there, I can go that way: if it falls anywhere else, I'm ok over here"), and then I cleared all the ivy away from the trunk, so that I could see what I was doing.

And then I leaped into action!

Much to my surprise, when I started to cut into the main trunk - having lightened it by removing all the upper limbs - it started to leak sap!


There - all that yellow stuff oozing out. I have never, ever seen that before - have you? I must have cut down dozens, if not hundreds, of Elder trees over the years, and I have never, ever seen one weep clear yellow sap before.

By the time I had finished the cut, it had stopped, and no more came out: there were no obvious sap channels in the wood, no central void or anything like that, so I am slightly mystified as to where the sap came from.

I've seen Silver Birch weep like a babe, if babes cry tears of liquid ice:

...this - left - is a stump from some plantation felling, in the depths of winter.

As you can see, the sap has risen from the stump, flowed over the sides, then frozen overnight!

I'm also well aware that Fig trees (Ficus) leak sap when you cut them, as does Cotinus  (and it's super-sticky too, ruins your clothes and leaves you smelling strangely of citrus), and also Mulberry, which can't be pruned any later than about February, along with Walnut, Magnolia, most Vines, including Parthenocissus; and most Acers.

But Elder - no, I did not know that!

 

 

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Wednesday, 7 April 2021

How to create a new hedge

In order to get a good, thick, hedge, there are a couple of principles you need to know.

Firstly, as always, there is the correct preparation of the ground: it's essential to clear away all previous plantings, weeds etc, and that includes digging out rubble, debris, stones etc. 

Next, it's usually a good idea to enrich the soil before you start. This hedge is likely to be in place for decades to come, so it makes sense to give it the best start possible.

Then we have the correct choice of trees/shrubs: they should be appropriate in ultimate size for the area, and appropriate for the situation, ie which way it faces, prevailing wind, soil shortcomings, etc. Another consideration is the reason for the hedge: if you want privacy, then evergreens are going to be the way to go. If you want shade in summer, then taller, tree-form hedging will give the best result. If you want a changing "look" from season to season, then pick flowering shrubs, or shrubs/trees which have interesting autumn foliage.

Once they are planted, this is where a lot of people go wrong: they don't understand about formative pruning, and think "Right, we want it tall, so we won't cut it until it has reached the height we want."  They do this, and a year or two later, they contact someone like me, and ask - piteously - "what's wrong with our hedge? It's all thin and scraggly!" and the reason is, because they failed to do the formative pruning.

Formative pruning means that, even though you really, really want the hedge to grow tall, as quickly as possible, you MUST prune it, in order to get it thick and strong, as well as tall.

Here's why - when you prune a shrub or tree, the branch or shoot which you cut, immediately starts growing again, but instead of just re-growing one shoot to replace the one you cut off, they put out two, three or more. This is a result of a phenomenon called apical dominance: when you have just one shoot - ie like a tree, with one main trunk - then all the energy goes into pushing that one up, and up, and up. If you cut off the top of that main branch, the apical dominance is removed, and the nearest buds to the cut will all start to sprout: so instead of just one shoot, you get several.

This is the basic principle behind all topiary, and hedging: you cut the one single stem, in order to get two or three. You cut those two or three, in order to get four or six. You cut those four or six, to get eight or twelve. This is how you get thickness in your hedge.

I explained all about how this works, in an article last year about sorting out a tree which was growing too large: the explanation includes pictures of a laurel, showing the results of the previous year's pruning, so if you're not quite clear on what I mean, go and read that article.

As a further illustration of this phenomenon, here's a lovely photo of the cut end of a huge, old, Yew hedge: the owner needed to put in a gate, so some of the Yew hedge had to go, leaving us with an exposed cross-section:


 There -  isn't that lovely? Looks just like a lung, doesn't it, with all the branching alveoli. 

You can clearly see that there are very few branches at the centre, but they fork and fork and fork, until by the time we get to the outside, it's an impenetrable mass of green foliage.

This doesn't just happen: in order to get a hedge of this size and thickness, it will have been cut back at least once a year, until it attained the size required.

So when you are creating a new hedge, don't just plant it, water it, and leave it: prune it every year, to encourage it to branch. At this point, someone usually asks "how low do I cut it?" which is very much a piece-of-string question. It's hard to give a feet-and-inches answer, as it depends on the species, and the size, of your young hedge. But as a generalisation, I'd say take off about a third of each stem. Then, this time next year, look at it again, and take off about a third of all the stems - there should by two or three times as many of them - and again the following year, until it has reached the height you want.

It may seem cruel, it may seem counter-intuitive, but that's gardening for you!

But what if you've already grown your hedge, and you are less than happy with it - can it be fixed? Yes, it can, and that will be the subject of the next article - how to retrieve a hedge that's gone a bit tall and skinny. Catchy title, eh?!



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