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: 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?


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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Saturday, 16 January 2021

2020: APHA, Covid - what else could go wrong?

 Well, that was the year that was.

APHA (part of what used to be DEFRA) started the year off well, by changing the rules about plant movements within the UK. As a response to the Ash Dieback Disease disaster, they decreed that all plants must now have passports, and if a plant is moved from one part of the country to another, then the passport must be updated and sent with it.

Sounds like a great idea: problem is, they created a system intended to deal with the relatively small number of professional nurseries and plant importers. So companies were told to register with APHA, implement certain systems for labelling etc, then they would be inspected four times a year to ensure they were complying. No big deal, really: professional nurseries already had systems in place to track plants, to label them, etc, so all they had to do was update the labelling to ensure it was APHA-compliant, and add the cost of the inspections to their normal business expenses.

APHA, however, didn't think about all the thousands, possibly millions, of people who sell relatively small numbers of plants on ebay, on the internet, via their own small websites etc. For all of us, the concept of four inspections a year was a killer: because APHA stated that the cost of inspection would be charged on a sliding scale depending on how long it took the inspector, including travel time.... it was calculated that for some of us, not living near to one of the five or six regional APHA offices, could incur a cost of well over £1000 per inspection.

Not exactly practical, for someone who only sells a few plants a year.

So, the year started with The Death Of Online Plant Sales for most of us. But never mind, APHA said it's perfectly ok to sell plants face-to-face, because they're only moving locally, not nationally, and that's what APHA wanted to stop - plants moving around the country willy nilly, spreading disease, with no way to track where they came from. That's pretty much how Ash Dieback Disease got into the UK, and how it spread around so quickly.

So we all threw away our online plant sales, and concentrated on local sales.

And then we had Covid.

So we couldn't sell face-to-face either.  

Never mind, at least we can still work: by definition, professional gardeners work outdoors, and mostly alone, so that's ok, right?

Well, sort of: those who normally work in pairs - partnerships, as it were - had to consider how safe it was, and had to change some of their arrangements. All of us had to tell our Clients to stay indoors, not to come out and chat, not to offer us tea/coffee (not that I accept drinks anyway, but I know that some of my colleagues do), and - oh no! - we weren't allowed to go and use their loos! Luckily, most of mine have sheds or shrubberies, and this year, most of us have learned how to pee outdoors. (I'm ok, as a walking veteran, I have a P-style!)

It also meant that a lot of gardeners who, like me, choose to have a mix of year-round regulars and ad hoc "irregulars" and/or short-term projects, lost a lot of their ad hoc work, and were not able to take on new Clients:  it's been possible to continue working for the regulars, because I know what they want done, and they trust me to do it, and to some degree, I don't "need" to talk to them person-to-person.

But with a new Client, you need to spend time with them, discussing what they want, what they don't want, learning about them, interpreting their descriptions etc.  And this is pretty much impossible when you can't sit indoors with a sketch pad and a notebook, and you can't walk round the garden together, discussing the plants. Yes, I tried it with masks, it just doesn't work: I felt like a bank robber, and it is incredibly hard to develop a rapport with a stranger, when you can't see their faces.

And bear in mind that the majority of my Clients are senior folks, many of whom were shielding.

So, loss of plant sales, loss of new jobs, loss of ad hoc jobs: 2020 was a crap year.

It almost seemed as though the plants were also having a peculiar year; 

Here's one of "my" gardens on the 24th August.

It's autumn.

On the 24th August....

And here we are - right - in spring.

Spring, yes? Daffs coming up? Definitely spring.


26th October.

But it hasn't all been bad...

For a start, we are now getting vaccinations, which should help to get it under control. And as many of my Clients are, as mentioned, Senior folks, at last they had priority for the vaccination.

Secondly, we've all realised that we need to talk to each other more! My own group of local gardeners have had some online Zoom chats and meetings, and I have now "met" many of them, and put faces to the names, which is lovely. 

Even better, we're all determined to meet up in person, once it's safe to do so!

Thirdly, we've all - gardeners and non-gardeners alike - re-learned the importance of outdoor spaces, and it's been heart-warming to see how many people have turned to their gardens for peace, for fresh air, for respite from the house, for exercise, for fresh air. Yes, I put fresh air in the list twice, it's that important!

 So I am happy to write off 2020 as a nightmare year, and here's hoping that 2021 will be better....



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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.


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: 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.


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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Monday, 4 January 2021

Bramble seedlings and Raspberry Seedlings - Part II!

 A few weeks back, I answered a question from June ("Hi June!") about how to tell the difference between Bramble seedlings, and Raspberry seedlings.

I promised to update the post, once I'd found photos of the two plants at this early stage, in order to show the difference.

To remind you, we are not talking about Bramble/Blackberry rooted tips:

These - left - are what happens when stout Blackberry/Bramble (same thing, Rubus fruticosus) shoots reach the earth, and form roots, in a process which is called Tip layering, and which is one way that Brambles spread themselves so widely. 

 The other method of propagation for Blackberries is to grow from seed, and that is what June was struggling to identify.

She needed to know the difference between young Blackberry plants, and young Raspberry plants.

Well, a picture is worth a thousand words, so this:

- right - is a genuine Bramble seedling.

It will have grown from seed - what you and I would call a "pip".

 I am holding it against my inch-marked blackboard, so you can see that it's only a few inches high: it is thin and spindly, it has more than one stem, they are what you might call "lax" ie a bit floppy.

Oh, I should clarify, I am holding it just above what was ground level, and there is a leaf growing out just where my thumb lies. So, below my thumb is the root, and you can see how thin it is.

Above my thumb is the main stem, which then immediately branches, so there are two wiry, prickly stems, each with leaves springing from it.

Here's  a closer look - check out those stems, they are covered in individual prickles.

You may call them thorns or spines if you wish - technically, botanically, they are prickles, but I won't distract you with that one!

So, lots of prickles, making it very uncomfortable to hold, despite it being only a small plants.

 The leaves are on short stalks, which are also covered in prickles, and you can see that these juvenile leaves are softly rounded - "lobed" is the technical term, and the lobes are not pointed, they are rounded.

"Young" raspberries, on the other hand, occur from root suckers: as per the other article, I have not yet knowingly found a Raspberry (Rubus idaeobatus) seedling, despite the huge number of pips which they produce, and which the birds fling around all over my garden - you'd think I would be knee deep in Raspberry seedlings by now, but I have yet to find a single one.

And Raspberry root suckers look like this:

This one is the same size as the Bramble seedling above, but look at how stout it is.

Look at the way it springs from the ground - not a thin, spindly stem, but a strong, stout, single, upright stem.

This is a reflection of it being a root sucker, rather than a seedling grown from a pip: it has a substantial root system already in place, so the new growth can be strong and vigorous.

Most of the leaves are in a tuft at the top: and you can see here, that they are divided into usually three leaflets (rather than being lobed) and the leaflets tend towards the pointed, rather than the rounded. I would also say that the leaves are usually a fresh, bright green, compared to the rather dull, matte green of the bramble: and these young leaves are very strongly pleated or folded: they look as though they need ironing.

In close-up (not sure how clearly you will be able to see this, it's not the best of photos!), the stem has a reddish cast: this is caused by the bristles

The prickles themselves are  small and fine, rather than large individual things as per the Bramble.

It still hurts to pull them up without gloves on, but Raspberry are nowhere near as unpleasant as Brambles.

So, there you go, the difference between young Brambles - spindly, skinny, congested, rounded leaves, vicious individual prickles: and young Raspberries - stout single stem, reddish haze of small bristles, pointed leaves, held in distinctly three-lobed leaves.

 You'll know the difference as soon as you pull them up - as per the other post - but I hope that this article helps you to see the differences, before you get to the pulling-up stage.

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Sunday, 3 January 2021

Don't waste those Christmas Hyacinths!

Were you given a lovely bowl of Hyacinths as a Christmas gift? Are the flowers just starting to go over?

Don't throw them away!

Yes, they can be planted out in the garden. No, they won't flower at Christmas next year, if you keep them indoors: the bulbs we are given as gifts have been “forced” to make them flower very early. Forcing was invented by the Victorians, and involves chilling the bulbs for several weeks, then keeping them in a regime of restricted light, to mimic winter. This makes them think it's spring, when it is actually just before Christmas, and that's why they flower so early - and why they won't do it again next year.

However, they are still ordinary Hyacinths, and if you plant them out now, as soon as they have gone over, then they should recover and will flower in the normal, outdoor, fashion next year, and for many years thereafter.

I've done this for years, and several of “my” gardens now have lovely spring flower displays, all from rescued Christmas gifts.

To help them have the best chance, here's what to do:

Remove all the fancy packing, including any support canes, string, moss, tinsel etc.

Decide whereabouts in the garden you are going to put them: somewhere where you can see them from the window is nice. Often a mixed border will be quite unexciting at this time of year, and they can be slotted in between the cut-back perennials.

Make sure that the soil is not frozen solid! If it is, keep them indoors until it's soft again.

Shake off as much soil as possible, leaving the white roots intact.

Cut off the flowered stems as low down as you can, leaving the leaves intact.

Plant the bulbs as deep as you realistically can - aim to go at least 6” or more downwards, so that the bulbs are well protected from ground frost, and from being dug up by squirrels and other rodents.

Try not to dig a tiny, trowel-sized vertical tunnel, as it will then fill with water next time it rains, and the roots of your bulb will rot. Instead, dig out a reasonably wide hole, and make sure you loosen the sides and bottom of the hole once it is deep enough: don't just chip out the bare minimum. 


Shake the roots out so they go sideways instead of being bundled underneath the bulb.

 Here -  left, you can see the wodge of compressed roots, which is a result of being in a decorative pot.

Shake them firmly to get that old, stale compost off, but try to leave the white roots intact if you can.

Sit each one down on the loose soil at the bottom of the hole, and then pack the soil back around it, making sure it is pushed well down onto the bottom. This is to avoid having an air gap under the bulb, which will kill the roots. 

Here are some I planted out - this was actually last year, in the second week of January, which is about the usual time that people start to throw out their Christmas flowers.

For comparison, I took a photo showing the ones I'd planted out the previous year.

As you can see, they are just pushing up their flowering spikes, and this is what you might call their "natural" time of year for flowering.

Having finished the planting, if your soil seemed to be nicely dry and crumbly, water them in: if not, just leave them, there will be sufficient water in the soil.

Leave them to settle in, and die down naturally, over the next several weeks. If you want to give them a boost, give them a foliar feed, a week or two after planting: any liquid feed will do, liquid Growmore, seaweed, or even Baby Bio: not too much, just a light shower.

Don't expect them to flower again in a few weeks - they've done their bit for this year. But next year, at about this time, they should be poking their noses up, along with all the other garden hyacinths, and for years to come, they should be back every year.

Best of all, if they were a Christmas gift, then they are, in effect, plants for free!



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Saturday, 2 January 2021

There are times when I think I'm not as bright as I think I am...

A while back, I was working on a climber, growing on a house wall, in a narrow passageway beside the house.

It was a real wind-tunnel, and I was getting cold.

So I closed the gate.





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Friday, 1 January 2021

How do plants just "appear" in gardens, and in the wild?

 I'm sure you've all seen this sort of thing -   a sudden outcropping of a particular "weed" in one part of the garden, when it is nowhere to be seen elsewhere.

This particular one - left - is Carex pendula, common name Pendular Sedge, and it's often sold as a garden plant, which is why I put the word "weed" in quotes. As you probably know, there is a saying, within gardening, that a weed is only a plant in the wrong place.

In this case, the weed in question is a rampant self-seeder and a flipping nuisance, and it seems to have a mad determination to plonk itself in the "wrong" place at every opportunity.

This is a large garden, with no Carex pendula in it, not anywhere: I've looked over fences into as many neighbouring gardens as I could without being arrested, and I can't see it anywhere nearby.

And yet, here we are, a nice little clump of them appearing amongst the Bearded Iris.

The same thing occurred last week, when I was talking to my current Trainee about weeds: I always think it's very intriguing, the way you can  have eight otherwise identical beds, as we have in the Big Knot, all with the same Box hedges around them, all with the same planting within each quadrant, and yet you get different weeds in each one.

Well, to be accurate, you get a different "set" of weeds in each one. One quadrant might have a lot of one particular weed, which doesn't appear in any of the others. Or, seven out of eight of them have a particular weed, yet the eighth bed doesn't.

It's very interesting..... well, I think it is. Let's face it, hand weeding is one of the less intellectual aspects of being a Professional Gardener, but I enjoy it because - like edging the lawns - it gives my brain ample time to go a-wandering, and although I do spend quite a lot of this time preparing the next book, or composing blog articles in my mind, it also gives me time to wonder about things. I call it "having an enquiring mind" - I like to know why things do what they do, how they work, how they grow, why are some things different, why are some the same:  I seem to have an endless capacity for asking questions, and I often wish I didn't have to earn a living, so that I could do research all day long.

So, getting back to our weeds: the same question arose, again,  when one of my paying Students asked a question, having found a colony of Helleborus foetidus (Stinking Hellebore, unfairly named if ever a plant was, and hopefully joining forces with Scabious to create an action group to Rename Unfairly Named Plants) in some woodland, with no apparent reason for the colony being there.

How, they asked, did the first plant get there?

Well, the answer is all to do with transmission - how do plants spread themselves naturally, and what additional vectors are there, which might be called "un-natural".

The first and most obvious ones are wind and weather: many plants have tiny, super-light seeds that can quite literally be blown around on the wind. Very natural indeed.

The next most likely are birds: yes, our feathered little friends have a great capacity for picking up seeds, either on their feet or feathers or - more often - by scoffing the seeds, and then pooing out the reproductively active parts later. This is an excellent method of seed dispersal, not least because a pooped out seed may well have a protective coating of poop on it, which may protect it from being eaten again, and may well contain moisture and even nutrients, to help it germinate. This also counts as natural, because the seeds need to make themselves edible and attractive. 

Even the "caught on the feet or feathers" route could be considered natural, because the seeds will have evolved a degree of stickiness, or barbed-ness, in order to latch on to the bird.

Then we get to the less natural methods: the dumping of garden waste, for a start, which is prevalent in lay-bys, edges of woodlands by gates where there's room to pull a car over etc - anywhere that lazy people can stop, unseen, to dump their waste. This accounts for some surprising garden escapes, and some very undesirable ones, too, such as Japanese Knotweed.

Such dumps then often lead to further "un-natural" transmission, because if there's room to park a car, you will often get dog walkers, which means muddy boots, which can easily pick up seeds from the layby areas, which get trampled all through the woodlands and rough areas.   Even the dogs are helping - not just their muddy paws, but their [disgusting] poop, which may well contain seeds or material from the owners' garden.

 And of course the vehicle tracks will pick up mud, and seeds and/or plant material from the first dump site, and take it to other places.

Within the garden, there are all those methods and more:  you will often find actual garden plants, not just weeds, popping up in random locations. Clients will often say 'No, I didn't buy those Xxxx, they just appeared there.' Strange, but true. 

Every time we dig up a plant and move it, we may be taking seeds from other plants along with it: every plant we buy from a garden centre may well have its own time-bomb of seeds (and sometimes you get plants which are completely mis-labelled, which is always fun); every time a kind neighbour or friend gives us a plant, it could have absolutely anything living in the pot, and that includes unwanted garden pests as well as weeds: every time we mulch, we might be inadvertently bringing seeds into the garden, and of course our own home-made compost is well known for being full of weed seeds.

Even wood chip can contribute -  I had one Client who received a big bag of chipped garden waste from a friend,  and spread it on their vegetable area.  They were quite surprised, the following spring, to find a flourishing colony of Buddleia: yes, the small wood-chips were sprouting. Luckily (for me) they were very easy to weed out.

 So you can see that there are many ways in which plants can "walk" around the countryside, and indeed can walk around, within our gardens: and there's something to be learned from these weeds - apart from an insight into what your neighbours are growing, of course - because the way that plants arrive and spread themselves in our gardens, is very relevant if you are wanting to create a 'natural' or 'cottage garden' look.  Don't plant neat groups of three or five, symmetrically placed: plant them in straggly groups, untidily arranged: or in 'drifts', to emulate the natural spread of wind-blown seed.


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