Garden School:


Garden School:
Teaching this week: Removing Hellebore leaves and trying not to tread on the daffs.

Wednesday, 3 March 2021

How to Pollard Cotinus coggygria for the best foliage

At this time of year - early March - there's still time to give Cotinus coggygria the annual pollarding, where I chop off all this year's luxurious growth, in order to promote large-leaved foliage for next year.

Pollarding, in case you don't already know, is a form of pruning where you keep the main trunk(s) of the chosen shrub or tree, and chop off all the new growth every year.

Why? Well, we pollard trees and shrubs for two main reasons: firstly because it allows us to keep them down to a manageable size, and secondly to promote super-large foliage.

Pollarding is quite different from just "lopping off half of all the branches to make it smaller". That practice is known as "topping" or, in my world, "butchering". A tree or shrub which has been topped, or - in gardening terms - "lollipopped" or "bunned" *shudders theatrically* can be ruined for years, as each cut branch will throw out a mass of new growth, which then sprouts untidily at the tips.

It is just so illogical: if the reason for cutting back the limbs was to make it smaller, well "Fail!" as the  kids say, you've just forced it to grow super-fast, and right at the extremities, not to mention spoiling the outline or "form" of the tree.

So normally we would do the classic RHS "one in three" style of pruning, where you remove about a third of the oldest stems right down at base  level, each year. This keeps the shrub down to a manageable size, it retains the original form of long arching branches, and if it's a flowering shrub, then regardless of what time of year it flowers, you will always have two-thirds of it flowering.

Pollarding,  however, is where you want to keep some height, but you want to keep the overall size as it is, and not allow it to get any bigger.

The other reason for pollarding a shrub - or, for that matter, certain trees - is that it promotes huge, juvenile foliage.

So if you have a shrub, or tree, with particularly appealing foliage, then pollarding is the way to go.

Some years, I pollard my Cotinus (plural of Cotinus, anyone? Cotini? Cotinusses?) in late autumn, but some years this job gets left until Feb or even March: it rather depends on the weather, partly because the weather affects how soon the leaves drop, and there's no point trying to do this with the leaves still on it, and partly because if the weather is very wet (as it is this year) I can't get onto the beds without ruining the soil and getting mud all over the lawn.

This is, in fact, one of those useful gardening jobs that can be saved up until conditions are right!

Here's one which I do every year - this is what it looks like over winter, once the leaves have fallen:

...so I go round and chop off every single one of those long lanky shoots, right back to the main stem.

Bearing in mind that I do this one, without fail, every single winter, you can see just how much it can grow in one year. 

The main parts of this shrub are at eye-height for me: so those lanky stems are easily 6-7' long.

If you didn't prune it every year, imagine how big it would get!

I say that, but actually, the act of pollarding, or hard-pruning, promotes growth, so if you were to leave it unpruned, it would not really make this amount of growth every year: growth would slow down each year.

But it would soon become an over-large shrub. So I pollard it, every year, and this - below - is what it looks like when I'm done.


Brutal, huh?

It is now a typical pollard, with knobbly lumps where I have repeatedly shortened the new growth, as hard as I can.

It grows back every year, trust me!

Pollarding like this has another couple of benefits: the weather can get to the soil around the base, so it gets water, and frost, and other natural climate ingredients.

The removal of the branches allows me to get in there and weed: so it doesn't become infested with bindweed or other noxious weeds.

And, not least, it allows an underplanting of bulbs and early spring flowers, to brighten up the area.

So there you go - how, when, and why to pollard your Cotinus bushes.




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Monday, 1 March 2021

Pond maintenance

You know how people sometimes start off a conversation, or an article, with phrases such as:

"[insert theme]: ah, a subject dear to my heart." ? 

Well, pond maintenance is about as far from my heart as it is possible to get. I loathe pond maintenance!

I still do it, mind you, when I am paid to do so: but it's a horrible, horrible job! *laughs* 

No - it's not that bad. I'm joking. But there are a couple of drawbacks about working in ponds...

Firstly, it's a wet job: as they say at Alton Towers: “You will get wet, on this ride”. OK in summer, not so nice at any other time of year. 

It is always a smelly job. Always. Without exception. Ponds stink - or, to be accurate, the decomposed sludge within the pond, stinks. And that always leads to sorrowful faces and mock accusations from fellow workers, concerning who let loose the smell...

Then there's the fact that it is, invariably, a slimy job. I hate slimy things *shudders theatrically* so I have to wear gloves to do it, which reduces the fun: I have a pair of super-long waterproof gloves... 

 

 ... which at least mean that you can make a desperate lunge, without inadvertently going in too deep, and getting water up inside them. 

And if, on the way back from clearing out the pond, 'one' should discover a cow having trouble to expel a calf...well, it's good to have the right tools for the job. 

Please note: That Is A Joke. 

I also normally try to wear my waders; it's no good the Client saying "oh, it's only about a foot deep", if I step inside it with wellies on, I can guarantee that the tide will come in, and I'll end up with water - and possibly slimy things - down inside them. And that's why I'd rather wear my waders, right from the start! 

I have also found, over the years, that one person will bravely step into the pond to lift out the baskets, but then they won't be able to lift them properly, and the one on the bank will lean out to help.... disaster has been known to strike. So on balance, on go the waders, then I can step one leg - or more - into the  pond, to help, if necessary.

Thirdly, or possibly fourthly, there is no good time to do it - it's immensely disruptive for the wildlife in the pond, no matter when you do it. So I always have to ask the Client to arrange for plastic sheeting beside the pond, so that we can leave all the debris out, overnight, which gives the wildlife the opportunity to crawl, slither and slide back into the water, once we've all gone away. 

Most books will say to do it either in spring or autumn, but frankly it's a huge upset for them, at any time, so we just have to grit our teeth and get on with it, saying to ourselves that we'll probably only do this sort of job once in ten years or so. 

And that leads on to the other problem: it leaves the Client with a huge sodden pile of material to be disposed of: material which, by definition, won't rot, so there's no point trying to compost it. 

I have completely forgotten to mention the perils of the phrase "we can repot some of the [insert name of aquatic plant]" which is invariably said, lightly, about half an hour before it becomes apparent that the existing [insert name of aquatic plant] has grown into a man-eating thug of a plant, while they weren't looking, and has eaten the basket in which it was planted, and has knotted roots with two or three other nearby baskets, so when you try to lift one of them, you find they are all linked together, with a combined weight of, oh, about a ton.  

Getting them out of the baskets is often quite a struggle, and usually leaves you with one sadly deformed, or badly broken basket,  and enough roots to fill at least ten of them. How did they all fit in that one basket? And as for getting them out - well, that's when you suddenly realise why you should have held on to that old breadknife.

So, all in all, it's not the most pleasant way to spend a summer afternoon. But at least it's fairly safe, if you are careful: in fact, the biggest danger with pond work (apart from falling in) is when people bring new plants in, which they often do, once it's been cleared out. That can bring invasive weeds into the pond, which is disastrous. 

To avoid this, I always advise Clients to put new purchases into a tub of water for at least a month, to see if they have anything nasty growing on them, before adding them to the pond. 

In summary, then: if you have to clear out your pond, lay in a stock of plastic sheets, long gloves, possibly waders,  and a couple of assistants. Oh, and a bread knife.



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Thursday, 25 February 2021

Euphorbia - careful as you go!

 I'm not a big fan of Euphorbia as a genus: I find most of them quite untidy in growth, and dull in colour. 

OK, they have their moments: 

Here they are after a summer rain shower, all glittery with raindrops.

And, yes, I suppose they do provide height and colour through most of the winter.

But they have one major drawback, which makes me  dislike them, as a gardener: and that's the evil white milky sap. 

 It's sticky, it ruins your clothes, and for many of us it causes an allergic reaction if you get it on your skin. Apparently if you get it in your eyes it means a trip to the hospital, so for goodness sake, don't get it in your eyes!

At this time of year, a lot of us will be catching up with the cutting down, if you see what I mean, of the herbaceous plants, and many of the Euphorbia will need to be cut back as well, and because of that sap, it's well worth taking a bit of extra care when working with them.

For a start, always wear gloves. Always! And preferably long sleeves, just to make sure you don't get the sap on your skin.

With many perennials, it's usually easier to cut them in two stages, removing the tips, with the old flowers and seeds, to go on the bonfire heap, and then cutting the stems right down, with that material going onto the compost heap.

But not with Euphorbia! As soon as you cut or break a stem, that white sap starts to ooze out, so only cut once, and watch out for the cut stems in your hand dripping on you.

My method is to approach the plant (cautiously!) from one side, and gently gather up all the stems with one arm. Then I lean over and cut the first few stems as low as I possibly can, really close to ground level. The next few stems have to be cut very slightly higher, otherwise you find your hand is brushing across the stumps of the first ones, which nicely covers you in sap. So by the time I've done the entire clump, it has a gently shelving appearance.

As I cut, I lay the cut stems over to one side - it's no use picking them up, as they will drip everywhere, and it's less messy to pick them up all in one bundle, then shove them straight in the wheelbarrow and off to the bonfire heap with them.


Oh, and it's not just the stems, which ooze this milky sap - no, it's the leaves as well. 

So the most casual brush-past results in leakage.

This, as a concerned adult, is why I always encourage Clients to let me dig up and burn any Euphorbia, if they have children or pets. Or grandchildren. It is abominably easy to brush past the plant, and damage the foliage.

No matter how careful I am, I always end up with some sap on my gloves, so it's a good idea to wipe your gloved hands on the grass a couple of times, to get it all off. Otherwise you transfer it to your clothes, your legs, your hair.... you get the picture.

 This photo - above - shows a barrow-load of Euphorbia on their way to the bonfire heap: and yes, all those white splodges are droplets of sap - so always stack them in the wheelbarrow with the cut ends away from yourself!

 

 

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Tuesday, 23 February 2021

"What's the worst thing about using a Scythe?"

...some-one asked me the other week.

I tell you -  using a scythe is a constant attraction to other people, they just can't stop coming up and asking questions!

So, what's the worst thing?

Well, if you'll excuse the expression, it's all the hippy-shit that goes with it.

I use my scythe because it is the right tool for the job, it's quick, it's quiet, it's nice to use, and I hate strimmers. Not because I want to be in tune with nature, or because I am rebelling against the totalitarian state ("what?") or, what was it now? "as an expression of your rejection of being repressed by our industrialisation process". No, I didn't understand what she was on about, either.

I like the satisfaction of using my own muscle power to get the job done, rather than just tiring them out holding some heavy, whining piece of machinery.

I love being able to still hear the birdies singing, and being able to have conversations with passers-by, while working bare handed and not muffled by layers of protective clothing.

I even quite like the reactions of passers-by: no-one (so far) has laughed at me, and I get some interesting comments. Some people are quite taken aback at first, then when they stand and watch for a while, and talk to me, they realise that I am actually completely modern, and fairly normal (using "normal" as a general term...).

 Here's a very nice little meadow, which I scythe every year in July: the grass gets well above knee-height, so the Client's mower won't go near it.

So, I spend one afternoon a year with my scythe, and he spends about one hour a year raking up my neat piles and windrows (which is what we scythers call a pile, only long). 

No fossil fuels, no stinking up my car, no leaking oil etc in all directions: just me, swishing away, silently sweating. But nowhere near as much as I would do, if I were wearing full PPE in order to use a stinky strimmer!

Certainly I am not any sort of eco-warrior, despite being a long-standing member of the local canal restoration group (and a former folk singer, but we don't talk about that *shudders theatrically*). I eat meat - lots and lots of meat - I drive a car (ok I keep my cars until they are between 9-14 years old, based on the last two, but that's because I am sensible, not because I am eco-mad), I have a solid business background, short hair,  and I don't wear open-toed sandals. Did I miss any blatant generalisations or cliches?

Within a year of buying my lovely modern Austrian scythe, I sold both my strimmers.

This says it all really: now that I have a real scythe, I no longer need my strimmers, and I quickly realised that I would never, ever, ever use them again. So I sold them. Yay! (and I used the money to buy myself more MEAT to eat!) (Sorry, Max, and all other confirmed vegetarians out there...)

Diversion: in conversation with a Client, and discussing vegetarians - we talk about all sorts of things, my Clients and I - the question arose:

Mr Client:  "What do you call someone who is definitely not a vegetarian - that is, someone like you, who eats meat?"

 Me:  "Normal."

End of diversion, please drive on. 

So, getting back to scythes:  a fellow gardener, Susan Cohan, wrote this on the ThinkinGardens site a couple of years ago - she was writing from the USA, but the point is valid here and now:

"I don’t support the use of small backpack, gasoline powered trimmers of any variety, but wonder why with the current movement for all things handmade and artisinal that gardeners haven’t taken up the cause with more hand driven pruning?  Is it lack of skill or interest?  Did lopers and hedge pruners and rakes get forgotten?  Is it because it takes time to learn the methods and when to put those into practice?"


That's a very interesting question, I thought: she's right, what with everyone cracking on about pollution, global warming, CO2 etc etc etc etc etc, why am I still the only professional gardener I know, who uses a scythe? 

I'm not quite the only one who runs half-day training courses on how to clip topiary with shears, the old-fashioned way (left: halfway through...), but there's not many options to learn this skill.

Finally, a point which I read somewhere, a while back, which I think is such a valid comment, that I might even get myself a T-shirt printed, with the following slogan:

"There's a massive contradiction between fostering a wild-flower meadow, and the brutal savagery of a stinking, angry-sounding strimmer."

How very true.



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Sunday, 21 February 2021

What to do with a New Build garden

A little while ago, I was contacted by a potential Client, who had just bought a new build house, and wanted me to come and “do” the garden for them.

Unfortunately, landscaping a new build is not what I do: I'm more of an on-going horticulturalist, whereas with a new build you usually need blokes to do the heavy work such as moving soil, laying patios and paths, etc.

I spent some time with the owners, discussing the best way forward, and having organised all my ideas, I thought I might as well share them with the rest of you.

Having actually had a new build house myself, once (never again!), I would suggest that if you don't already have firm ideas of what you want from a garden, it might be best to consider just having it turfed over to start with.

This will allow you to walk on it for your first year, while you sort out the inside of the house, settle into the area, and learn where the sun falls, where the wind blows, where you like to sit out, which parts feel overlooked, how much bigger the patio needs to be (!), whether you need a shed, what you want to grow, and so on. This will also give you time to think about designs and layouts etc. 

It can be a mistake to rush into landscaping, especially the hard stuff like patios, paths, raised beds and shed locations - it would be annoying to pay a lot of money to get it "just so" and then find out that the path is in the wrong place! So sometimes it's better to allocate the first few months to just getting used to being there. 

Sneakily, this will also give you time to observe what your neighbours do, and if you see someone else on the new site having good work done, you can ask them for the name of their handyman, builder, and/or landscaper. And of course your own immediate neighbours might add extensions, conservatories, plant trees etc which might affect how you use and enjoy your own garden. 


There is a philosophy, in gardening circles,  which suggests that when you move house and inherit an existing garden, 'one' should not do anything for a whole year, to see what plants appear, as the seasons pass.  

This is very sensible advice: it also gives you a chance to appreciate why the previous owners planted an enormous conifer just there, for example. It would be annoying to have a big tree expensively cut down, only to realise that, without it, next door's windows are suddenly looking right down into your patio: or that car headlights now shine right into your garden: or something equally annoying.

And, in a similar way, it's often prudent to let your new build garden settle, before you start proper gardening. Often, the first winter will reveal sodden areas where the soil is badly compacted, areas which might need drainage, and so on.

So, even though you might be really keen to get your new garden up and running, it's often better to take a step back from it, and give it a bit of time: not necessarily a whole year, but enough time to properly assess your new outdoor space. After all, you are hopefully going to be there for many years to come, so it's worth taking a bit of time, right at the beginning.

 



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Tuesday, 9 February 2021

Replacing a lawn: do you really need to dig it up?

I received an interesting question the other day, from a reader who wanted to replace the smallish front lawn on his relatively new build property.

He said that cars were over-running the edge of his lawn, and compacting it: and he had doubts about the quality of the soil underneath it. So he wanted some advice on how to restore the soil structure, before attempting to relay the lawn, and whether it was a good idea to create a bed at the edge of the lawn, with planting to keep the cars off.

Now, this is a problem in two halves: the easy (but hard work) half is to stop the cars trespassing, and that is, as he had already spotted, easily sorted by making a new bed adjoining the drive, and planting some nice bushy shrubs.

The hard work comes in, because he will need to dig out the area for the bed, and he already knows that it's badly compacted. He is also likely to find that there is a quantity of builder rubble just under the surface, which will need to be removed: and he will also find that the edge of the driveway should project into and under his lawn area, because that's how they are made: they don't go straight down into the ground, the foundations of paths, drives, roadways etc always extend sideways.

So after digging out all the horrible compacted soil, and removing any rubble, the new bed area will probably need the addition of some 'organic matter' which is the polite name for 'farmyard manure'. Don't use what is called 'compost' or 'multi-purpose compost' because it doesn't have the 'body' of proper organic matter: it is lightweight, does not hold water well, and is pretty much sterile. Organic matter is closer to home-made compost: it's thick, solid, holds water well, and provides a good soil structure: whereas multi-purpose compost has no structure at all.

The order of events is something like this: remove the old turf. If it's badly compressed, full of weeds, worn out, or horribly yellow-looking, don't bother keeping it. Dig out any rubble, and fork over what's left. Tip on sufficient organic matter to bring the soil level up, to about 2" higher than the drive. Fork it over - that means, use a garden fork to stab and stir, to mix the new organic matter with the original soil underneath. Leave to settle for a week or so, then fork it over lightly again, and plant your shrubs.

Why do I say leave it to settle?

Because if you don't, it will settle after you've carefully planted, and then your shrubs will end up like this:

...with their roots visible above the surface. 

You can see the circular shape of the original plastic pot!  Aaargh!

If this happens, just get some more organic matter, and tip another layer on top, forking lightly to unite the two layers, until the plants' roots are safely covered again.

Anyway, getting back to our small front garden: 'one' will find it impossible to plant the shrubs right on the very edge of the bed, because of those pesky foundations for the drive: but that's ok, because they will quickly spread, and the visual barrier should be enough to deter the cars - people might not care much about their tyres, but they usually care quite a lot about their bodywork!

Right, now we turn to the question of the lawn area - or, that part of it which is to remain lawn.

That also needs to be lifted, soil enriched, allowed to settle, and relaid with new turf, right?

Not necessarily.....

Here are some interesting facts about turf in general, and soil structure in particular...

1) grass does not need much depth of soil: 

 

... this - left -  was an area of apparently perfectly healthy lawn, been there for years, but turned out to have a patio underneath it. 

You can see how I've rolled back the turf like a, well, like a roll of turf!

The grass was happily growing, and had been for many years, with about an inch (3cm) of root-filled soil. 

In this case, the garden had been split when the previous owner built themselves a new house (some 20 years ago) in the very large garden, and sold off the old house - with the smaller 'half' of the garden. 

They clearly just laid turf over most of the garden: I found proper stone patios, nasty 70s crazy paving patios, brick paths, stone slab paths: all sorts of hard landscaping just an inch or so under the grass, criss-crossing the garden. And I'd been working there about four years before doing this, and had never noticed, not even in the hottest summer, than the grass was anything other than normal grass, on normal soil. 

In fact, I only discovered it because when I was digging in one of the borders, and I went to stab my fork into the lawn, beside me, as I normally do: I don't lay tools down on the grass because a) someone might trip over them, b) wooden handles don't enjoy lying on wet grass, and c) then I'd have to bend double to pick them up, every time. So I just push them into the lawn beside where I'm working. 

In this garden, I did that in one particular place and the fork went "Clang!" which lead me to investigate, and then I found these numerous areas where the fork wouldn't go in more than an inch.

End of digression, please drive on.

Where were we? Oh yes, turf.

2) you can lay new turf on top of old turf.

If it's already level, and more or less at the right height, and doesn't suffer from waterlogging every time it rains, then you can spray off the grass (using something like glyphosate) and wait until it's bare: or you can cut it really, really short - scalp it - then do some energetic scarifying/scratching with a soil rake, to fluff up the soil between the blades of grass, then plonk the new turf down on top. This has the advantage of avoiding the 'soil sinking' problem.

This works well if the old grass has a lot of superficial weeds, or moss: not so well if it has deep-rooted weeds such as Dock, Thistles, Bindweed,etc, because they won't be smothered by the new turf, they will just grow through it.

3) lawn does not really need a viable soil structure - if grass were invented now, it would be hailed as a miracle ground cover, which can grow almost anywhere, needs minimal maintenance (running the mower over it once a week - unskilled labour) and provides colour, and a porous surface, all year round.

Of course it is 'better' to have a good soil structure underneath it: and in a perfect world, we would lift all the old turf (setting it aside somewhere for a year in a Loan Stack), dig over the whole area, add organic matter, then relay new turf. But this will take weeks, and will take a lot of hard work (and money). And for a small front garden, especially if you rarely use it, it might be easier to just over-lay fresh turf.

 

 

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Sunday, 7 February 2021

Metal composting "bins" - Good, Bad or Indifferent?

One of my students asked a question the other day - would it be worth making compost pens from corrugated iron, on the grounds that they already had the metal, and it would save having to buy new components. 

What an interesting question: my instant reaction was to say no: they are better made out of wood. Or even - dare I say it - plastic. I'm not at all a fan of plastic compost pens, and if you would like to know why, just type "compost" into the search box up there at the top left of the page:


There, can you see it? Super-useful: so if there's a particular topic which interests you, type it in there, and see what you get - I would almost put money, that I have written something about it...
 
And if by chance I haven't - then drop me an email, the address is in the right-hand pane, just below the big blue advert for my book.

So - no, I'm not a fan of plastic bins, but I would prefer them -  just - to a metal bin.

But why?

Why this automatic rejection of a metal compost pen?

My first thought was obviously, rust-pain-blood-tetanus injection. I catch myself often enough on wooden bins: the thought of damaging myself on metal ones is almost not to be considered.

But maybe that's just me being a sissy, so I thought about it a bit more; this particular student is always very interested in the "why", in the reasons behind my observations and opinions, so it was worth me sorting out my ideas.

Another obvious thought is that metal is a better conductor than wood, so the metal compost pens would be colder in winter and hotter in summer. (I feel this is sub-obtimal).

But you can buy galvanised metal pens: round, square, solid, or slatted like this one: 


...which suggests that they are a well-accepted thing: the comments seem to suggest that most people buy a metal one in preference to a plastic one, on the (somewhat dubious) grounds that metal is more eco than plastic.

Hideous, though, isn't it? At least wood, no matter how old, has an intrinsic softness to it. And no matter how tatty a wooden pen is, you can always slap a coat of paint on it.

And personally, I'd say I'd be extremely likely to scrape myself on all those metal edges... but they'd certainly be quick to assemble, which is a big plus.
 
Rat proof, though? Hardly, with all those slats. But anyway, in my experience, rats dig their way in from underneath, and a compost pen must sit on the soil ("should" sit on the soil), so you are never going to keep rats out, if they are determined to get in.

So what would I advise? I would say "go with wood" if for no other reason that this one: corrugated metal flexes, so you'd probably have to build a wooden frame anyway, to keep it in shape.

In which case - and you just know what I'm about to say, don't you? - why not build it all out of wood!





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Saturday, 6 February 2021

Pampas Grass: How to Set Fire to One (with or without being a Swinger!)

Ah, the lovely Pampas Grass.

Proper name:  Cortaderia selloana.
Urban Myth: planted in front gardens, in the 70s, by "swingers", a term which meant couples who like to meet other couples, often several at a time, for elegant evenings of Blue Nun, accompanied by cubes of cheese, tiny silverskin onions and chunks of pineapple on cocktail sticks, pushed into a foil-covered potato. At the end of the evening, car keys would be dropped into a bowl and each lady would pick out a set of keys, then do the wild thing with their owner. Allegedly.
Impact on plant sales in the 2000s: people stopped buying Pampas Grass, because all their friends and neighbours would tease them about being "swingers".
Impact on house sales in the 2000s: anyone trying to sell their house would rip out the Pampas Grass before even contacting the estate agent.
Was it true? Probably not. I've known a few swingers, in my time (don't ask), and they have all said nope, not true.

So, in a nutshell, this is a plant which fell into disfavour. It also has become an invasive, banned, plant in some countries, where it spreads uncontrollably. Not so, in the UK, though, because our climate doesn't allow it to take over. However, it can grow into large clumps, and it does need a firm hand.

In recent years, it's become popular again, mostly with flower arrangers and interior decorators, because the flowers, the plumes,  can last for months, and are large and dramatic.

As a gardener, this means having to maintain the wretched things.

As per my earlier article on this plant, they are a bugger horrible to work around, because the leaves are wickedly sharp, and draw blood at the first contact with human skin. In fact, the name Cortaderia comes from the Spanish word ‘cortadera’, meaning (depending on who you ask) 'something which cuts' or 'sword' or  'cutter'. Whatever the exact etymology (I always have to check that word, in case I'm accidentally talking about beetles), the leaves are hellishly sharp.

However, there is one easy way to deal with them, if space allows: you can burn them. Yes, you can set fire to them. Yes, I have done it. (Yes, it is quite scary - they go up in flames as though soaked in rocket fuel!)

So, How To Safely Set Fire To Your Pampas Grass.

First, look around - is there room to have a bonfire on the exact spot? If not, don't set fire to it. If, however, there is nothing but grass nearby:  nothing overhanging, no overhead cables, then give it go.

Before getting the matches out, rake out as much of the dead material as you can, including those plumes: set them to one side, to be put on the flames once it's burning. Why not just set light to the whole thing, as it stands? Because 'control' is good, and if your clump is full of old, dead material, it will burn surprisingly fiercely. You can also chop off some of the top growth, if you are even a little bit nervous about doing this: again, they can be thrown back on, once it's burning nicely, if you wish.

Next, lay out the hosepipe and connect it to the tap, and turn it on. A ha'porth of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as my dear old Nan used to say: far better to have the hose ready for use and not need it, than to set fire to the hedge, the shed, next door's house, etc.

Now, have a good old prod around inside the clump with a broomhandle or something similar, just in case there are any dear little hedgehogs, or a family of small rodents, living in it. Give them a chance to scoot out, before you incinerate them.

Then, you can set fire to the thing. In most cases, I have taken a small handful of the flower heads, made them into a bundle, set fire to it, then pushed this into the middle of the clump. Then stood well back.

Here's one I did one year: this was done in late March, and this is what it looked like after the fire had burned out:

Actually, this was a week or three later, once the scorched grass had recovered.

Once it had reached this stage, I raked it thoroughly, with a soil rake, and most of those brown stalks came right off.

 

 

 

 


 Here - right - is the same clump (from a different angle) in late May.

 

You can see that it is re-shooting beautifully, and you can also see the total lack of debris and rubbish: this means that the new shoots grow up clean, and with good air circulation.



 

 


And here - left - is the same clump in September: you would never know, would you?

This does not need to be done every year, but it's a good thing to do once every, say, three or four years, because it gets rid of all the debris, all the clutter, all the dead stems, and it kills off every pest and disease in sight.

So there you go: the thing about the "swingers" might not be true, but the idea that you can set fire to them once every few years, is perfectly correct.



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Friday, 5 February 2021

Who said that Nature does not produce straight lines?

 Exhibit A, m'lud:


A stem of common or garden Mint - Mentha spicata. This is the one you probably have growing in your garden - the one that you are advised to grow in a pot, or with a barrier around it, to stop it taking over your entire garden.

What shape would you call that stem?  Square. Definitely square. Not square-ish, Nice flat sides, sharp crisp corners - it's square.

I think this definitely proves that nature does, indeed, from time to time, produce straight lines!




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Thursday, 4 February 2021

The sound I dread...

Today I heard a sound that every gardener, at this point of late winter, dreads to hear:

It was a faint, very faint, scrunching sound, underfoot.

There might have been a tiny bit of sensation, as well: a sort of gentle, soft 'give' underfoot.

I was raking leaves at the time: yes, I know that we did all that autumn stuff a couple of months back, and yes, this particular garden was cleared of leaves - several times, actually - back before Christmas.

This morning, I went in to find that the Cotoneaster, usually a reliable evergreen one, had shed about 50% of it's leaves all over the lawn. So I raked them up.

And as I was doing so......


Yes, you got it: I trod on the daffodils.

Yikes!

Sorry, guys!

My only defence is that because they were covered in leaves, I didn't see them. At all. Even after I'd trodden on them, I didn't immediately see them - I gazed around the lawn vacantly, thinking "What was that, then?" before looking downwards.

Oops.


Hopefully, they will recover - they didn't actually break, they got bent over a bit. I will keep an eye on them, and see how they get on.


Meanwhile, elsewhere in the garden, and talking of daffodils, how's this for an unusual sight: you know how people such as myself will tell you, of bulb planting, that for many bulbs such as daffodils, and snowdrops, it's not actually vital to plant them right way up?

That they will sort themselves out, if you get it slightly wrong?

That they have occasionally found bulbs which have been planted completely upside down, still growing and flowering beautifully?

Well, how's this for an extreme example:

Yes, it's a daffodil bulb which is growing completely OUT of the soil! 

I imagine, as it's in a pot rather than in a bed, that one of those pesky squirls (that's 'squirrels' pronounced in a Yankee red-neck manner, with an underplanting of 'danged varmints') (and when I say 'underplanting' I mean sub-text, of course) has dug it up, but then left it on the surface.

So it started to grow - and the growing shoot has pushed its way into the soil, instead of pushing a way out of the soil!

In case you think this is an optical illusion (it isn't), here's another picture, showing me gently pulling it out of the soil, and you can see how much shoot was underground:


Having gently extracted it, I then made a hole - with due care for the other bulbs in the pot - and shoved it as far down as I could.

Hopefully, it will make a full recovery. But it's not often you find daffodils growing underground....







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Friday, 22 January 2021

Amaryllis: don't throw them away after Christmas!

 Like Hyacinths, Amaryllis are a popular Christmas gift: but unlike Hyacinths, they can't be planted out in the garden afterwards, so they often get discarded, once they have finished flowering.

What's an Amaryllis, I hear you ask?

Proper name, Hippeastrum, and usually sold like this:

 


...as a gift for Christmas. You get one enormous bulb, a small amount of compost, and a pot. 

The idea is that the recipient opens the box at Christmas, plonks the bulb in the pot with the compost, and then - usually a few weeks later - enjoys the beautiful flowers which grow from the bulb.

The flowers are quite spectacular - huge long stems, and enormous flowers.


There - you can see how big they are.

They make a very popular Christmas gift, but alas, once the flowers are over, there's not a lot of point keeping them, because - as mentioned - they are not hardy plants, to be shoved outdoors in the garden: no, they are tender house plants.

So why don't people just keep them indoors and let them grow again? Well, they do, but they won't flower at Christmas, they'll flower in the summertime. Which is not a bad thing, in itself....but they are seen as Christmas flowers, for some reason.

However, they can be persuaded to flower at Christmas again, it just takes a bit of time and persistence.

Oh, and before we get on to the whole "how to make them re-flower next Christmas" part, I need to warn you about a level of evil called "waxed bulb" which means, as the name suggests, that the bulb has been coated in wax. These ones will not flower again. 

Why not? Because they have been coated in wax, after having had their roots and basal plate cut off.

This shocks the bulb into flowering, because it knows it is about to die.

"About To Die!!"  *screams in horror*

It is completely beyond me, how someone who presumably works in the horticultural business could have invented this method of killing selling plants. They are sold as "no watering, no mess, no pot, just pop them down on your table and they'll flower for you!"  

Excuse me while I have a brief lie-down...

Right: Non Work-Of-The-Devil-Waxed-Bulbs, then.

These ones have been very carefully prepared, in order for them to be ready to flower just after Christmas: they have to be allowed to dry out, stored in the dark for several weeks, then brought out into the light at just the right time. 

Too soon, and the bulbs are shooting before they can be given. Too late, and it's a disappointing gift that doesn't do anything.

Which is why they cost so much money! That, and the fact that they take five years to get to flowering size..... which is all the more reason not to throw them away, after just one blooming.

So, what do you with your post-Christmas Amaryllis? It flowered, it was spectacular, but it's now February and the show is over. Time to bin it?

No!

Instead, keep it growing: give it a little water each day, and once a week, add some concentrated plant food: a couple of drops of Baby Bio would be fine. Cut off the flowering stem, as low down as you can, and discard it, and keep the rest as a sort of house plant.

Once the weather gets better, in late spring, put the whole thing outside: you can plunge it into the ground (which means leave it in the pot, dig a hole in a bed or border, and shove the whole thing underground, pot and all) or you can tip the gigantic bulb out of the pot, and plant just the bulb.

Once it's outdoors, continue to feed it once a week or so, and now you can use Growmore, or any balanced feed.

Round about mid August, dig it up and bring it inside: shake off the soil, or wipe off the pot, and put it somewhere dark, and dry: you want it to go dormant, so don't water it, don't feed it, just leave it to dry up. Cut off the foliage once it has definitely died, and leave the rest of it in the dark, dry place: a garage is ideal, or the under-stairs cupboard, perhaps. 

Now for the tricky part: waking it up!

It needs at least two months in the dark, so at some point around November or early December, bring it into the light, trim off any remaining dead foliage, and re-pot it, if necessary. As you will have seen from the pots they came in, they don't need a lot of room for their roots, and usually the pot is barely bigger than the size of the bulb. 

Pot it up, and sit in somewhere indoors, where it gets lots and lots of light: a sunny south or west facing window ledge would be perfect. Water it enough that the compost is just moist, but don't keep watering it until it starts to sprout.

This is the exciting bit!

Sometimes they only take a few days to start sprouting, sometimes it's as long as 6 weeks: you won't know until you try.

But eventually, greenery will appear, oh happy day!

Sometimes they send up leaves first, sometimes it's a flowering stem - it's easy to tell the difference, because the leaves are flat and thin, and the flower spike will be thick and fat. Don’t worry if your amaryllis starts growing leaves first, that doesn’t mean it won’t bloom.

As soon as your amaryllis starts to grow a flower spike, make sure it’s getting plenty of light, give it a little water every day, just enough to keep the compost moist, and - the really important bit - make sure to rotate the pot a quarter turn, daily.

Otherwise you will end up with a Leaning Tower Of Amaryllis, and that just looks weird.

Here's one I bought for someone else last year, but wasn't able to give to them, so I kept it myself: I'd never actually grown an Amaryllis bulb before, because - being what you might call an 'outdoor' gardener - I am hopeless at keeping house plants alive.

However, I was forced to look after the one I'd bought: being a gardener, I couldn't let a plant die, not even a house-plant, and I was hoping that, once it had flowered, I would find someone locally that I could offload it to. BUT! Once it started to sprout, I was fascinated by the speed at which it grew: and once the flowers opened, well, I was amazed. The flowers were gorgeous: pure white, huge, and beautiful.

So I decided to keep it.

I followed the above regime, and look!


By the 6th of Jan, it had made one huge flowering spike, and a second one was just starting.

Such excitement!

 

Ten days later, the flowers started to open, and by the 19th, there two beautiful white trumpets, with two more just starting to open.

 


 

 Here we are today, the 22nd, all four flowers on the first spike have opened, and you can see that the second spike is nearly as tall as the first one  and hopefully, will have another four flowers, once it also opens.

Note how straight and relatively upright they are -  this is achieved by doing the quarter-turn rotation every day without fail. 

It's quite incredible to see how fast they grow, and to see how quickly they start to lean towards the light. 

As you can see, I have huge windows, which does help.

So there  you have it, how to encourage a Christmas gift to keep on giving!

I am planning to do the same again this year: I'll keep it as a houseplant through spring, then  bung it out in the garden for the summer: I'll drag it back indoor in August, and throw it under the stairs until early December.

If you don't fancy doing all this: if you think it's too much work, or not worth the hassle: then please send me your unwanted Amaryllis bulbs - I'll look after them!!!



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Monday, 11 January 2021

Mushrooms wot I have found...

 It's been a good year for mushrooms...

The other day, I wrote a quick article concerning the difference between mushrooms and toadstools (none) and the importance difference between Fungi (which occasionally produce mushrooms) and mushrooms (all of which are part of a fungus).

When looking for photos to illustrate that article, it struck me how many mushrooms I've seen in the past couple of months.

First there was this one:

I found this bunch in September, looking diseased and disgusting.
  



 

Then there were these ones - right -  which I found later in the month, in a different garden.

I always suspect these orangey-coloured ones of being honey fungus: the official description of Honey Fungus mushrooms are that they are a warm golden colour, usually with a small, slightly darker bump on the very top.

They are usually shown as being flatter, more like an opened umbrella, but I know that mushrooms grow fast and change shape radically as they grow. This lot are all crammed together, so it's quite possible that they just haven't opened up yet.

They are growing on a piece of dead wood, in case you can't see, so they could be anything...

Then, a week later, I found this bunch in another garden (I get around, in case  you hadn't noticed), and they have the darker tip, and the right shape, to be Honey Fungus, but they are a bit pale.

I know that, when you ask anyone to identify mushrooms, they always want photos from underneath, because the gills can be indicative, as can the presence or absence of a "collar", a fringe of material around the stem.





 So I remembered to take a shot of the underside, just in case anyone can say "Aha! Yes! It's a Xxx" or even "Aha! It's definitely NOT a Xxx" because sometimes, knowing what something is not, is nearly as useful as knowing what it is.

Not quite as useful, but nearly.


We're into October now: on the 5th I found this lot, left: growing far too close to some bearded Iris which I had moved, earlier in the year.

I'd dug over that part of the bed quite thoroughly, so I have no idea why this clump of mushrooms decided to appear - it's unlikely that there's dead wood under the surface, because I dug it all over!

Nasty glossy looking things, aren't they?

Again, a shot of underneath, knowing that if I don't, someone will ask... and how horrible are these?

The stalks or stems look as though they have peeled open, like over-ripe bananas.

Uuuurgh! 

I know that there is no much point in trying to dig out mushrooms, per se: as we now know, the mycelium, the main part of the organism, is under the surface, and, iceberg-like, is a lot bigger than the bit we can see:  and the mushrooms themselves appear, apparently at random, then quickly disappear.  

But in this case, I ripped the whole lot out and put them on the bonfire pile, so they wouldn't spread their spores around, and so that I would not have to look at them any longer.

 A fortnight later, I found this lot:

Large, eh? (Secateurs for Scale)

Great big, greyish, flat-topped things...

 


 

... and beautifully white underneath. Snow white! 

This lot were growing in a lawn, for no apparent reason: just one clump of them, all alone.

So there you go, quite a selection of Fungi, all found in local gardens, over the past few weeks. 

Presumably conditions have been "just right", so they all decided to fling up some fruiting bodies and spread their spores around.

 

 

Oh, and I nearly forgot, in December, there was this outbreak - left -  of Bracket Fungus on a dead/dying Plum tree:

I have no idea exactly which Bracket Fungus it is, but I'm pretty sure it's one of them.

It will be interesting to take another look at that tree, when I return to work, to see how much the fungus has extended over the winter - or whether the whole tree is dead, by now!

 

And now, for my final item on this list, we have a Blue Mushroom. 

Blue Mushroom, I hear you say?

Yes - blue!

Some years, back, a small batch of these delicate things popped in a shrubbery, in one of "my" gardens, and I went rushing inside to show the Client. 

"Ah yes," she said. "We get those, every so often. Mr Client loves them, he'll eat them." 

I was horror-struck: they were blue! Surely that was a bad sign? But no, ten minutes later, Mr Client was out there with me, harvesting every blue mushroom we could find, and then heading kitchen-wards.  

He cooked them, and offered me a taste. I declined. He ate the lot. That was in 2014, and he was still alive last year, so I guess he was correct - but I still wouldn't choose to eat them myself! 

And finally, the obligatory warning: unless you are VERY VERY SURE about your fungus ID, do not eat anything which you find growing in your garden or in the wild.  



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Saturday, 9 January 2021

Mushroom and Fungi - what's the difference? (and what about Toadstools?)

This question came in from a former Student the other day: what's the difference, botanically speaking, between mushroom and fungus, and where do toadstools fit in?

 Right! It's actually quite simple.

Firstly, Mushrooms and Toadstools are the same things. We tend to think that mushrooms are the things we eat, and toadstools are the red things with white blobs, beloved of fairy tales, and poisonous.

Not so - many innocuous-looking mushrooms are poisonous, some fatally so: 

 ...like this rather lovely-looking, pure white fellow, whose name is Amanita virosa.

Doesn't sound too bad, does it?

The common name, though, is Destroying Angel and it is "deadly poisonous."

Go on, look it up for yourself. Looks pure as the driven snow, but it will kill you. One small mushroom is enough: it contains specific amatoxins, which are described as one of the most potent and lethal biological toxins in nature. The chemical which kills you is what is called "thermostable", which means that cooking does not destroy it: and just to make all our lives complete, it can resist drying for years.

On the other hand.... this one (right):

...which is possibly the most fairy-tale-looking of all 'toadstools' - Fly Agaric or Amanita muscaria, to give it the proper name, is actually not poisonous. 

Yes you heard me. Won't kill you.

It will make you hallucinate, and feel as sick as a dog, but it won't actually kill you. It might make you wish that you were dying, but - eventually - you will recover.

So that's the first lesson about Fungi: the words Mushroom and Toadstool are interchangeable.

The second lesson is the difference between mushroom and fungus.

Mushrooms are the bit we see - these things:

We buy them in the supermarket to eat, we see them in the fields. 

We point and say, "Ooh look, mushrooms!"

Slightly more knowledgeable people might point and say "Ooh, look, Fungus!"

Knowledgeable people, who like to be grammatically correct,  might point and say "Ooh, look, Fungi!"   because that is the plural of Fungus. 

Is there a plural of mushroom?  Mushri? No, it's mushrooms.

So what's the difference?

Technically, a fungus is an organism: it's not an animal, and it's not quite a plant either - it exists mostly below the ground, and that part is called the mycelium: and every so often it pops up what is called a fruiting body, above the surface. This is the bit which is called a Mushroom. So all Mushrooms are also Fungi.

Not all Fungi, however, produce Mushrooms.

Fungi can be very, very big: the largest organism on earth is not a blue whale, or a gigantic tree: it's a fungus, specifically it's an Armillaria solidipes (which is a type of Honey Fungus, so this is not good news for gardeners), which is growing in Oregon, and which is estimated to be - brace yourself - 3.7 square MILES in size. Oh, and probably somewhere between 1,900 and 8,650 years old, but that's incidental to the size of the damned thing.

Certainly, it is accepted that the bit which appears above ground - the Mushroom - is the smallest part of the organism. It's a wee bit like taking hold of one apple, and comparing it to the size of the tree on which it grows. Fungus = big, Mushrooms = quite small, by comparison. 

So when you see something like this in your garden, you are perfectly at liberty to say "Ooh, look, Mushrooms!" 

Or to scream in horror and say "Aaaaargh, Honey Fungus!"

 

 

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Friday, 8 January 2021

How to: tell the difference between Daffodils and Snowdrops, when they first emerge.

 It's that time of year again! What Helen Yemm calls the "Boot and Shoot Ballet", where the bulbs are just coming through, and we have to be very careful where we put our feet.

Mind you, I say "bulbs are just coming through" but this photo:

...was taken on 26th October.

Er hem.

Anyway, it's now officially January, the depths of winter, and just as we are all getting depressed about the short days, the cold weather, and the low  light levels, lo! and behold, we get the first signs of spring, the bulbs start to come up.

Yes, ok, I know that some of them started back in October... but generally speaking, it's the depths of winter.

I'm often asked how to tell which bulbs are which: and there are two answers to this question, one relates to "what is this bulb which I have accidentally dug up" and the other covers "which bulb is this, which is growing in the garden".

For the first question, that being Bulb ID, you will need a time machine so that you can go back in time to last autumn, and can go and look round the garden centre, where they have racks of bulbs in packs, for sale. (It's too late now, so you'll have to wait until next autumn.)

This is a perfect opportunity to learn which bulb is which. The packs usually have a nice bright colour picture on the front, and a transparent bag, so you can check the condition of the bulbs, before you buy.

(Top Tip: when buying bulbs for your garden, use the same criteria as you would when buying onions for the kitchen: if the bulbs are firm, nicely coloured, and look good, they are ok to buy. If they are tatty, mouldy, and/or squishy, return them firmly to the shelf.)

Drat, I did have a photo of a bulb selection, from last autumn, which I took along to show my Trainee, because it was a sort of "Usual Suspects" of bulbs. But I can't find it. Sorry! I would describe them all to you, but honestly, it's better to look at them for real, or type "snowdrop bulb" in quotes into your search engine, and look at Images. Then repeat it for Daffodils, tulips, crocus, and anything else which interests you.

So, onto the second answer: how do you know what's coming up in the garden?  Specifically, I was asked how to tell the difference between Daffodils and Snowdrops. 

 This was an interesting question: like so many gardening questions, an experienced gardener just "knows" the answer, and I find it fascinating to explain something to someone else, because it often throws up interesting points of botany etc, which would otherwise never get explained properly.

Here's a picture of two pots from my front yard, taken on the 19th December:

The one on the left contains Daffodils - a miniature variety called Tete a Tete, which is my second-favourite all time Daffodil.

The pot on the right contains Snowdrops.

Look at the colour - just the overall impression of colour.

The Daffs, on the left, are a bright green.

The Snowdrops, on the right, are a greyish green. I'd be prepared to accept bluey-green or bluey-gray, the point being that they are not bright spring green.

So that's your first clue: the colour. Snowdrop foliage is generally not a clear bright green.

Now, the problem with this sort of comment, is that, until your eye has "learned" what you mean by bright green or bluey-green, it doesn't really help unless you have the two of them, side by side.

So here's something more definite to look for.

 

Daffodil leaves have faint lines in them: 

Can you see that pattern of vertical lines?

I'm not sure if they are the veins of the leaves, or just colouration, but when you look closely, under good light, you can just see a faint, delicate, striped effect.

Snowdrops, on the other hand, having honking great stripes. Quite unmistakable.

Look at this clump - left: there are dark green sections, light green sections, even a whole lot of white parts. 

This gives the plant a sort of mint-humbug effect.

This is partly why they have the bluey-grey effect: they are not any one single colour, but are an interesting two-tone or even three-tone sort of plant.

So, daffs are green and mostly not-stripey: Snowdrops are blue-green and quite stripey.

And now to our third and possibly most useful clue:

As the new leaves emerge from the bulb, they are covered by a sheath, which protects the delicate tips, as they push their way out.

Here's a close-up view of the Daffodil base:

Rather a yellowy green, in this picture...

Can you see how there is a sheath, wrapping the very base of each shoot?

It's the same bright green as the leaves, and has a whiter ring around the top, so you can clearly see it.

Don't worry about the enormous transparent growths, they are just drops of water. It had been raining... 

Look at a few of the shoots in this picture, and decide for yourself roughly how far up the shoot they extend. A short distance? Halfway? Nearly all the way to the top?

And here is the pot of Snowdrops, same day, same time: can you see how the sheath is much whiter than the leaves (which are, as you know, a bluey green, and stripey to boot), and it extends much further up the shaft of the leaves.

Yes, there is one there whose sheath is only half-way up the leaves: this is a practical demonstration of Rachel's Rule number 1 (for Botany, that is), which is "Everything you read or hear about a plant should, could, and probably will, be prefaced by the word 'usually'"

This just means that you need to look at a selection of plants, and take the average.

So if you look between these two photos, you can see that on Daffodils, the sheath is "usually" quite short, whereas on the Snowdrops, it is "usually" very long, almost up to the top of the leaves.

Now here we are, a week later: first, the Daffodils:

Check out the sheath: it's still very much "low", isn't it?

This day was somewhat milder (it was the 27th Dec, if you are interested) and you can see how the leaves are starting to part, to open up a little bit.

Still a nice, clear, bright green.


Here - right - is a close-up of the Snowdrops on the same day.

This close, you can see the stripes on the leaves, as well.

But the important part is the sheath, which is still tall, as a proportion of the shoot. 

The leaves are also still being held much closer together than those of the Daffodil.

It's as though the Daffs are optimists, starting to open up in hopes of spring: whereas the Snowdrops are still braced for the snow and cold weather yet to come.

Please note: that is a whimsical comment, not a botanical observation.

(*laughs*)

There are, of course, many other bulbs in the garden: Crocus are very small, with fine, grass-like leaves, and the flowers appear very soon after the foliage, sometimes almost simultaneously. Hyacinth are great big things, and the short fat leaves contain the bundled-up flower buds, almost as soon as they clear the ground, so they're easy to spot. And then there are the Muscari/Grape Hyacinths, or the Scourge of South Oxfordshire, as I call them:  they have very find, spindly, foliage, often floppy, so they are again, easy to recognise. 

But when it comes to Snowdrops and Daffodils, there you go,  three things to look for, if you would like to know which is which, without having to wait for the flowers to arrive.



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Tuesday, 5 January 2021

How to: clear Virginia Creeper (or Boston Ivy) from a tile-hung wall.

 Answer: carefully!

This is the plant in question - 

 Virginia Creeper - proper name Parthenocissus quinquefolia.

It's one of two very similar clinging, climbing perennials: the other is Boston Ivy, or Parthenocissus tricuspidata.

As you can tell by the names, they are closely related.

Both of them cling to walls and fences by the use of short forked tendrils, which end in little sucker pads. Both of them grow quickly: both of them have lovely autumn colours when the leaves turn red, yellow, orange, and various shades in-between. Both of them will gallop up the side of a house, and into the gutters, the minute you take your eye off them.

There's not a lot to choose between them, in looks or in growth habit, so how do you know which one you have? 

Well, if it looks like that - above - in summer, and looks like this - below - in autumn, 


...then there is a good chance that it's one or the other.

How to tell the difference:

Look at the leaves - what shape are they? 

Are they divided into five, or seven, pointed leaflets, radiating outwards, like fingers from the palm of your hand?

That'll be P. quinquefolia, then: "quinque" being French for five, and "folia" meaning to do with the foliage.

If the leaves are more all of one piece, with three big pointed lobes, then it'll be P. tricuspidata: "tri" meaning three, obviously, and "cuspidata" comes from the word "cusped" meaning pointed, so it means something with three points.

See, Latin Is Not Your Enemy! *laughs*

So, a couple of weeks back, the autumn show was over, the leaves had mostly fallen, it was time for the annual Parthenocissus haircut.

First job: cut through all the stems at head height.

Yes, all of them!

You can see how that dense covering of leaves was actually supported by relatively few, slender, stems.

So I just cut every single one, just above the support wire.

Then I started pulling down the upper growth.

This has to be done gently and carefully, because the upper storey of the  house is tile-hung, and pulling too hard might result in damage to the tiles.

So I carefully take each one in turn, and gently pull it off.



Ten minutes later, I am wallowing in tough, wiry stems, which I bundle up together and trot off to the bonfire heap, out of the way.

Then I look up at the house, to see how many I've missed.

Quite a few!

(Those white bits are not low-lying cloud, just drops of rain on the lens.)

These remainders are the ones which have snapped off, and are now too short for me to reach.

So I turn to my trusty Darlac long-handled snips, an extremely useful, lightweight tool. 

It's basically a pair of secateurs on a stick, and I have two of them: one very short one, which is 1m long and which lives in my car permanently: and the super-long extending ones.

Here's the business end, with my normal secateurs for comparison.

As you can see, secateurs on a stick.

The clever part is the brown-looking grid thing on the upper segment: it means that once you have pulled the trigger to cut, it will hold onto whatever you have cut, until you release the trigger. 

This takes a bit of practise.

Here's the whole thing - left. It's about 7-8' long, but it extends to about 12', which is super-handy for this sort of job.

It means that I can reach up, get hold of one of those dangling stems by cutting it and then holding it: then I can gently tug it down.

And if, as often happens, it breaks again, I can just "cut" it higher up, and hold on to it again.

With a little patience, all the stems are soon removed: well, most of them, at any rate! And all with no damage to the tiles at all, and no need for the poor gardener - that's me - to go up ladders. 

There you go, job done.


All that remains is to tidy up the lower stems a wee bit: I snip out any obviously dead ones, and aim to leave an even coverage of stems, ready to spring into life in spring.

Then I rake up all the mess, sweep the path, and trot all the rubbish off to the bonfire heap.

Job now completely done!

I do this every single year, and it grows back every year, right up into the gutters.

I hate to think how big it would get, if I didn't carry out this drastic-looking prune every year!

 


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