Garden School:

Garden School:
Teaching this week: Nothing: my Trainee is on holiday!

Friday, 9 April 2021

Elder - I made it weep!

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

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

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

Grabbing my trusty bowsaw, I leaped into action.

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

And then I leaped into action!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Elder - no, I did not know that!



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Wednesday, 7 April 2021

How to create a new hedge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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!




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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!


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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.


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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!


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