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.


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.


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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