Friday, 30 April 2021

How to feed the birds - without feeding the Starlings!

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

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

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

So what about starlings, then?

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

This time, however, she was all smiles.

Why? I asked.

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


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

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

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



Did you enjoy this article? Did you find it useful? Would you like me to answer your own, personal, gardening question? Become a Patron - just click here - and support me! Or use the Donate button for a one-off donation. If just 10% of my visitors gave me a pound a month, I'd be able to spend a lot more time answering all the questions!!

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

How to retrieve a new-ish hedge...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right, brace yourselves, this is what I suggested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Did you enjoy this article? Did you find it useful? Would you like me to answer your own, personal, gardening question? Become a Patron - just click here - and support me! Or use the Donate button for a one-off donation. If just 10% of my visitors gave me a pound a month, I'd be able to spend a lot more time answering all the questions!!/>

Monday, 26 April 2021

Curly Willow: how to reduce it

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

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

Here's what it looks like:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More likely, though, is:

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

This is what willows do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, I hope that helps!



Did you enjoy this article? Did you find it useful? Would you like me to answer your own, personal, gardening question? Become a Patron - just click here - and support me! Or use the Donate button for a one-off donation. If just 10% of my visitors gave me a pound a month, I'd be able to spend a lot more time answering all the questions!!

Friday, 23 April 2021

How to: get Rosa mundi to flower spectacularly

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

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

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

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

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

There! Simple!

I chop it down without mercy. 

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

Then I take out any crossing, rubbing branches. 

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

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

And that's all!

Did you enjoy this article? Did you find it useful? Would you like me to answer your own, personal, gardening question? Become a Patron - just click here - and support me! Or use the Donate button for a one-off donation. If just 10% of my visitors gave me a pound a month, I'd be able to spend a lot more time answering all the questions!!

Wednesday, 21 April 2021

Why does a gardener need a Pickaxe?

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

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

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

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

(I do love to re-use plants!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There: isn't he great?

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I was tasked with getting it out by hand.

Oh joy.

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

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

 Here's a picture of the monster:

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

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

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

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

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

Now, I thought a crowbar was one of these:

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

Isn't that a great name?

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

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

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

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

Onto the bonfire heap it went!

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

 Did you enjoy this article? Did you find it useful? Would you like me to answer your own, personal, gardening question? Become a Patron - just click here - and support me! Or use the Donate button for a one-off donation. If just 10% of my visitors gave me a pound a month, I'd be able to spend a lot more time answering all the questions!!

Monday, 19 April 2021

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

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

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

Yes, folks: they all DIE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It looked rather as though a grenade had gone off.

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

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

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

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

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


 Did you enjoy this article? Did you find it useful? Would you like me to answer your own, personal, gardening question? Become a Patron - just click here - and support me! Or use the Donate button for a one-off donation. If just 10% of my visitors gave me a pound a month, I'd be able to spend a lot more time answering all the questions!!

Saturday, 17 April 2021

Hydrangeas: looking battered in April

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

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

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

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

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

Weird weather. 

And this is very confusing for the plants!

So here is Nina's Hydrangea: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you enjoy this article? Did you find it useful? Would you like me to answer your own, personal, gardening question? Become a Patron - just click here - and support me! Or use the Donate button for a one-off donation. If just 10% of my visitors gave me a pound a month, I'd be able to spend a lot more time answering all the questions!!

Thursday, 15 April 2021

Buying "bare root" plants: when NOT to buy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here's a typical example:

How awful is that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you enjoy this article? Did you find it useful? Would you like me to answer your own, personal, gardening question? Become a Patron - just click here - and support me! Or use the Donate button for a one-off donation. If just 10% of my visitors gave me a pound a month, I'd be able to spend a lot more time answering all the questions!!

Monday, 12 April 2021

How to: plant a potted plant, into the ground

 How's that for a complicated title?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you enjoy this article? Did you find it useful? Would you like me to answer your own, personal, gardening question? Become a Patron - just click here - and support me! Or use the Donate button for a one-off donation. If just 10% of my visitors gave me a pound a month, I'd be able to spend a lot more time answering all the questions!!

Sunday, 11 April 2021

Pyracantha: how to get the best display of berries

 ...on a free-standing bush.

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

Something like this one, left.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This left me with something that looked like this:

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

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

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

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


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

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

Did you enjoy this article? Did you find it useful? Would you like me to answer your own, personal, gardening question? Become a Patron - just click here - and support me! Or use the Donate button for a one-off donation. If just 10% of my visitors gave me a pound a month, I'd be able to spend a lot more time answering all the questions!!

Friday, 9 April 2021

Elder - I made it weep!

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

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

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

Grabbing my trusty bowsaw, I leaped into action.

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

And then I leaped into action!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Elder - no, I did not know that!



Did you enjoy this article? Did you find it useful? Would you like me to answer your own, personal, gardening question? Become a Patron - just click here - and support me! Or use the Donate button for a one-off donation. If just 10% of my visitors gave me a pound a month, I'd be able to spend a lot more time answering all the questions!!

Wednesday, 7 April 2021

How to create a new hedge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you enjoy this article? Did you find it useful? Would you like me to answer your own, personal, gardening question? Become a Patron - just click here - and support me! Or use the Donate button for a one-off donation. If just 10% of my visitors gave me a pound a month, I'd be able to spend a lot more time answering all the questions!!

Monday, 5 April 2021

Cape Gooseberry - grow your own!

Last year, when visiting a friend for tea and buns, I was presented with a bowl of strange round yellowy things, which I thought were Mirabel plums.

But no! They were what is called Cape Gooseberry, proper name Physalis peruviana.

This is closely related to, but quite different from, Chinese Lanterns, which many of us grow in our gardens - those are Physalis alkekengi, which is just such a great name, isn't it? Al-key-kengy. They're the ones with the dark orange papery "lanterns", hang on, I'll find you a  photo - 

There you go, not one of my plants, photo stolen from the internet.

So, we have a garden, ornamental species of Physalis: and we have an edible species.

I decided to try growing the edible species: one of my Clients has a greenhouse, and they very kindly allow me to grow my own choice of plants, so instead of going for the usual cucumber and peppers, I installed a grow-bag full of Physalis peruviana.

They were super-easy to propagate: just take a left-over fruit from the supermarket pack, the more over-ripe the better: squish out the seeds, dry them on kitchen towel, then sow them.


Here they are, newly planted out in the grow-bag collars: if you don't already use these on your grow-bags, I would definitely recommend getting some.

All you do is press them into the top of grow-bag, once it's in situ: then cut around the mark they make, and slip them inside. Three of them fit neatly into one grow-bag, as you can see.

Then you can - if you wish - add some extra compost to the central section, and then put in your plants.

To water, you fill the outside ring, and the water seeps slowly into the bag: this allows you to get more water in, without it running all over the floor of the greenhouse, and without it washing the compost out.

Clever, huh?!

In my photo, you can see that I have irrigation in place, but I still feed the plants every week with liquid feed, so that goes into the collar, and therefore none of it is wasted in spillage or seepage.

Here they are by the end of summer: fantastic growth, lots of flowers,

I made a simple support framework of canes, just as you do for tomatoes, and I kept them tied in neatly: partly for support, but more to stop them taking over the entire greenhouse!

They grow quite vigorously, and seem to be very happy in an unheated greenhouse.

And after the flowers - we had......

Fanfare of trumpets! Fruit!

And yes, they were not only edible, but were actually just as nice as the ones from the shop.

So - the moral of this story is: if you like eating Cape Gooseberry, and you either have a greenhouse, or know someone who has one... then there is plenty of time (it's only April, after all!) to get some started for this year.

So why not have a go? In autumn, let me know how it went!




Did you enjoy this article? Did you find it useful? Would you like me to answer your own, personal, gardening question? Become a Patron - just click here - and support me! Or use the Donate button for a one-off donation. If just 10% of my visitors gave me a pound a month, I'd be able to spend a lot more time answering all the questions!!

Sunday, 4 April 2021

Lesser Celandine ... the fight continues

Some time ago - in fact, crikey, six years ago!! - I wrote an article about Lesser Celandine and how to remove it, and today a question popped up, on that article.

For those of you who are too darned lazy to read the first article, even though all you have to do is click on that link.....  Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) is a small, low-growing, ground-hugging plant with rosettes of long-stalked rounded leaves, and single bright yellow flowers on stems a couple of inches high.

This is what the beastly thing looks like - left - and that earlier article explained all about the plant, how to recognise it, and how to get rid of it.

However, there was one thing I didn't cover, and that is how to get it out, once it has invaded your lawn.

Alas, this is what has happened to one poor reader, who I think is based in Tunbridge Wells: they have managed to get rid of the beast in their flower beds, but it's also in their lawn, and it's taken over a significant area.

The original article did mention weedkiller - with all the usual provisos about not using it unnecessarily, diluting it properly, applying it carefully, etc etc blah blah blah (don't pull that face: yes, we all know that weedkillers are the creation of the devil, but sometimes, honestly, there is no realistic alternative).

But - and it's a big but, if you'll pardon the expression - the situation changes, when you are dealing with weeds infiltrating your lawn.

Why? Well, simply put, because weedkiller may be called "weed" killer, but actually, it should be called "Death To All Green Plants Killer". Yes, if you spray weedkiller on weeds in your lawn, you will kill the lawn as well. Harsh, but true.

So how do we deal with this weed, when it's taking over the lawn? My Tunbridge Wells friend says, in a comment which is striving to be light-hearted and positive, but in which the undertone of desperation is showing through:  "a band perhaps 1.5 meters deep [of the lawn] at the back of the garden is now a 50/50 mix of grass and lesser celandine (morer celandine, we call it). What do you think we should do with the lawn? I don't want to dig it up and re-lay turf as that may be a different colour to the existing lawn, which is quite big. Is there a weedkiller that will terminate the morer celandine but not the lawn?"

Pausing for a moment to hoot with laughter at their made-up name of "Morer Celandine", and biting my tongue to prevent myself from telling them about the real, existing plant which is genuinely called Greater Celandine (in case it sends them into a decline), let's have a closer look at the problem.

If the area of lawn in question is now 50% Lesser Celandine, then this is a major infestation, and it is not going to be easy to get rid of it.

Here are some suggestions, in no particular order:

1) Dig it out. Lift the turf, taking with it a generous slice of soil, 2-3" of it, and burn it. Burn, baby, burn! Whatever you do, don't compost it!! And don't stack it anywhere in your garden, and don't dump in a lay-by (not that any reader of this blog would do something so anti-social, I sincerely hope). Burn it. Nuke it from orbit - it's the only way to be sure. *grins* If you don't have napalm or a nuclear bomb handy, then put it in the council green waste bin, because the way they process the green waste is - I am assured by my local council, and here's the article all about it - easily sufficient to kill all parts of the plant, including those pesky tubercles. And if you don't know what tubercles are, go back and read the first article for yourself.

That is the quick, easy, and painless way to do it.

Drawbacks: you might need to hire a digger and driver, or one of those machines for lifting turf, so it's expensive: you might have to pay to have the soil taken away, as it will be heavy - too heavy to just pop it all in the council green-waste wheelie bin, if you have one - and you will also need to buy in some topsoil to replace what was taken out, and then you'll need to buy turf/seed to make it all green again.The new bit won't match the old lawn at first, but over time, it will become almost invisible.

2) Weedkiller: right, two aspects to this one.

2)a) use a Lawn weedkiller such as Verdone. This is a product designed to kill weeds in lawns, but be warned! Follow the instructions on the pack very carefully, and don't be tempted to apply it more often than instructed, otherwise you will kill all the grass as well. ("I told you so, Judith...") Why? Because Verdone works in a deviously clever way: it is formulated to run off narrow, linear leaves (ie grass) and to sit on the surface of wide, flat leaves (ie weeds) where it gets absorbed, and then kills them. So although it is a chemical, the selectivity of the application is actually "mechanical". It doesn't "know" which bits of greenery are the treasured grass, and which are the hated weeds: it just slides off narrow leaves, and sits on wide ones.  So Verdone is useless on weeds with narrow leaves, such as Yarrow, Plantago lanceolata, etc but it's pretty good on stuff like dandelions, hawkbits etc.

Now here's the gotcha: I don't think that Verdone would have much impact on Lesser Celandine because of the glossy leaves. Anything with glossy leaves - and Ivy is the one which springs to mind - tends to be resistant to weedkiller, because the glossiness causes the chemicals to simply run off, before they have a chance to be absorbed. In the case of the lawn infestation, this might well result in more of the grass being affected, because it will get a double dose: the actual spray should run off the narrow leaves, but then it gets a second coat, as the product runs slowly off the Celandine leaves. I have not tried this for myself, but it seems like a logical conclusion.

2)b) spot treatment: use normal Glyphosate-based weedkiller, but only apply it to the Lesser Celandine. One way to do this, is to get an empty plastic bottle - a squash bottle, or a fizzy drink bottle - cut off the base, and the push the neck over the nozzle of your weedkiller squirty-gun. Hang on, a picture is worth a thousand words, let me search the internet for you...

There you go, something like that: the idea is to create a shield around the spray, so it only goes on the plant which you are targeting. So if you plop this down over each Celandine plant in turn, and spritz it with Round-up/Own Brand Glyphosate, then it should reduce the impact on the lawn around the plant.

Please note, I say "should", not "will".....

And please also note that after a few squirts, you get the product dripping down the insides of the bottle shield, and splattering in places where you might not have intended it to go.

There used to be a product you could buy, which was glyphosate-based, but was thick and sticky, like a gel: this would work, if you were to get down on hands and knees and patiently work your way across the immense patch of Celandine, gently dabbing at the leaves of each plant.

But in all these cases, it will take a couple of weeks for the product to work, and when it does, you will find yourself with big round bare patches in the lawn, where the leaves of the Celandine have killed the grass below.

So you'll end up having to re-seed the area anyway... and there will be rogue Celandines popping up over the next few months  in which case, you might as well bite the bullet, and go for digging it out and re-turfing. 

And - as mentioned above - although re-turfing an area might seem drastic, it really is the only way to get the stuff out, within a reasonable time-frame: and - as also mentioned - although the new turf will start off looking a lot brighter green than the "old" turf, it will quickly blend in. And you did suggest that the infested turf was at the far end of the lawn.. so maybe you won't notice it, all that much!


Did you enjoy this article? Did you find it useful? Would you like me to answer your own, personal, gardening question? Become a Patron - just click here - and support me! Or use the Donate button for a one-off donation. If just 10% of my visitors gave me a pound a month, I'd be able to spend a lot more time answering all the questions!!

Saturday, 3 April 2021

Dredging a natural pond

Today was a fun day - if rather cold... I'd been asked to tidy up a natural pond - that's a pond which does not have a plastic liner, or is cast in concrete, it's a pond where the bottom is just ordinary soil, through which the water rises, to fill the pond.

This particular one is, we think, situated over, and fed by, an underground stream, because it never dries up completely, even in the hottest of summers: and at this time of year (very early spring), the ground all around it is sodden, and it's full right up to the top.

Working in a pond, like chopping down trees, is a job where it's far, far safer to have two of you, so I roped in a colleague, and the two of us arrived on a cold, windy morning, with the thermometer saying 4 degrees, but the BBC website saying "Feels like: 1 degree." Brr! 

Undaunted, we put on our waders, pulled on our super-long gloves - as described in my previous article about Pond Maintenance - and started by clearing dead foliage and debris from the plants around the edges. The pond was thickly covered in floating duckweed, but luckily we weren't expected to get rid of that - just the dead foliage above water level, and the debris from overhanging willow trees, under the water.

It's always best, I find,  to do this job first, because we were shortly going to be flinging the dredgings out and over those edge plants, so we might as well get the tangled parts out of the way first. 

"Eeek!" (*girly scream from me*)

"What's up?" from my colleague.

"Frog!" I yipped. No, I'm not scared of frogs, I just never see them until they move, and then they make me scream like a girly. I know how those dinosaurs in Jurassic Park felt.

"Stop being such a wuss." 

That's what I like: supportive colleagues.

Next, we bravely slid ourselves into the water. Yikes! But after the first couple of seconds, honestly, it wasn't that bad. The duckweed slid aside as we moved around, but it was impossible to get it out, even with nets - I have tried, in other ponds.

First job on the agenda, then, once in the water, was to remove a self-set willow, which had taken root on the island. This was a bit of a struggle, as it was quite a big one, and there is very little purchase, when you are sinking into mud, and when you really, really don't want to lose your balance. Luckily, I was able to get one knee up on to the island, which allowed me to grope around underwater until I found the roots of the willow, and I was then able to trace them down into the sodden soil, and pull them out, one at a time. Hooray! Success, out came the sapling.

The next job was to dredge out all the sticks and other debris which had fallen in over the past few years, which released a wonderful aroma, as you can imagine. This was achieved using a pitchfork, which was exactly the right tool for the job. Not something I would ever use on a modern, plastic-lined pond - yes, for the obvious reason - but perfectly ok in a natural pond. 

Scoop after scoop of rotting twigs, stringy bits of dead foliage, and stinky mud came up, and were gently placed in piles on the side of the pond: they will be left there for several days, to allow the critters time to crawl back into the water, once all the fuss and kerfuffle has died down.

Having worked our way up one side and down the other, we did the bit in the middle, and then gave the island some special attention.

"Eeek!" ( *girly scream from me*)

"What's up?" from my colleague.

"Another frog!" I yipped.

There was a heavy sigh from behind me. 

More dredging - sometimes it feels as though, no matter how much you dredge up, there will always be more to come out... but we were making progress. Having done all the deepest middle bits, we turned our attention to the shallower edges. 

Suddenly, there was a manly scream: well, ok, to be fair, more of an exclamation.

"What's up?" I enquired.

"What the heck's this?!!"

I carefully turned around - the water was, for your information, what I call high-thigh deep, ie not quite up to the crotch, but nearly: plenty deep enough to engender caution when moving around, even in chest-high waders. Did I mention that it's a natural pond? That means that there is no solid bottom as such, it's just mud, mud, and more mud, and quite squelchy underfoot. This makes me particularly careful when turning around, as it's easy to end up with a twisted ankle.

"What does it look like?" I asked, slowly and carefully wading over to join my colleague.

"It's all black and shiny, it's huge!"

Terrible thoughts of leeches came to mind... but I went and looked anyway. Phew! It was only a Great Crested Newt - and it was a whopper! I have these in my own garden, they are not particularly rare in Oxfordshire, so I'm well familiar with them, but this one certainly was a big one! As we were both in chest waders, we weren't able to get at our phones to take a photo, but here's what one of "my" ones looks like:

Very dark, almost black: glossy, and if you turn them upside down - gently - they have bright yellowy-orange blotches, underneath.

The one we found today was at least twice as big as this little fellow, left.

Did I gleefully say "It's only a newt, don't be such a wuss!"? No, I did not. I'm nice, like that. Plus, there were huge heaps of stinky mud all around us... better to resist temptation, I decided.

After putting him carefully out of the way - the newt, not my colleague -  we continue clearing and dredging.

There were one or two more minor frog incidents, but nothing scary, and neither of us fell over, so that counts as a good morning's work.

Having extracted ourselves from the pond, we raked up any odd bits of debris into the existing piles, and left it there: as well as allowing the wildlife time to return to their habitat, it's an excellent idea to let pond dredgings drain for several days, because trying to bag them up when they are wet is a disgusting job, plus they stink out your car, if you have to take them to a tip. Much better to let them dry, for weeks if necessary, before carrying out that manoeuvre.

And here is the finished result:





One natural pond, eight neat piles of debris (this is only half of it), and yes, the duckweed closed over the water again as soon as we took our eyes off it.


Did you enjoy this article? Did you find it useful? Would you like me to answer your own, personal, gardening question? Become a Patron - just click here - and support me! Or use the Donate button for a one-off donation. If just 10% of my visitors gave me a pound a month, I'd be able to spend a lot more time answering all the questions!!

Thursday, 1 April 2021

The Downpipe of Doom!

 You know that someone really, really loves their Wisteria...

...when they do this:

Isn't that hilarious?  Four right-angle bends, and a vertical section hanging in mid-air, all to get the downpipe past the immense Wisteria stems.

Here's a closer look at what they did: can you see, there's a very stout bracket, which is taking the weight of the stems: every window on the ground floor has two of these brackets, one to each side, and all painted black, to blend in.

As a gardener, I completely admire their dedication to the plant.

Presumably this is one of the sights of south Oxfordshire, when it flowers, so they didn't want to take the other, more obvious course, ie chop down the Wisteria, and let it grow again. 

(And yes, I will be going back that way as often as I can, over the next few weeks, to check on progress!)

The easier, but drastic, option, would have given them a chance to check all the window lintels, to check the fabric of the building for damage and damp: and they wouldn't have had to install this Heath-robinson contraption, which presumably clogs up in at last two places, and probably has to be cleaned out and emptied, twice a year.

But it would have meant a whole season, maybe two, with no flowers.

And this, dear Reader, is why I never allow Wisteria in my charge to grow behind a downpipe!


Did you enjoy this article? Did you find it useful? Would you like me to answer your own, personal, gardening question? Become a Patron - just click here - and support me! Or use the Donate button for a one-off donation. If just 10% of my visitors gave me a pound a month, I'd be able to spend a lot more time answering all the questions!!