Sunday, 30 May 2021

Happy accident - Lunaria annua (Annual Honesty)

Every so often, "one" comes across a happy accident in the garden: maybe two plants, which make an unexpectedly good contrast, or which go surprisingly well together.

Or a hitherto unseen combination of light, shade, and plants: sometimes only for a fleeting moment.

Here's one I encountered one September morning,  a couple of years back: it was early in the morning, the sun was shining through the Mulberry branches, and the previous week, I had used my last ten minutes at work in this garden, to do a bit of Honesty-stripping. 

Annual Honesty - Lunaria annua - is a plant which we don't grow for the purple flowers which it produces in summer:  we grow it for the amazing seed pods which follow the flowers, appearing in September.

Many people who grow this plant don't realise that the trick is to gently feel away the ugly brown outer layer of the seed pods, to reveal the white, silk-like inner membrane.

That is the part which looks so spectacular.

There are many ways to do it: you can gently rub them between finger and thumb, or you can gently bend back the tip, then peel off the outer layers: I've even seen people shake the plant vigorously - as I say, there are many ways. 

But the result is wonderful, and you can see why one common name for this plant is Silver Dollar Plant.

Oh, I should mention that the flowers are normally purple,  but there is a variegated version, whose foliage is a very interesting green-and-white:

...and this one has white flowers.

The seed pods are just as glorious, but in my experience, it's not as long-lived as plain green Honesty,  and it does not seem to be as prolific a self-seeder.

However, for foliage like this - right - I'm prepared to do a bit of cosseting!

Both the variegated and the plain green Honesty are often described as an annual, but it's actually a biennial: that means that the first year, you get a rosette of foliage, but no flowers: the second year you get the flowers. And the seeds. 

So the first time that you introduce Honesty into your garden, you'll have a lovely show of flowers, but the following year might appear to be a bit disappointing, with no sign of new ones.

However, the next year, you'll have masses of them! And for every year thereafter, because not all the seeds will germinate, the first year they fall, so it very quickly breaks the two-year barrier.

To recreate this sort of effect, look around your garden for a position where the late September sunlight falls across the back of a bed - somewhere you can see through. An island bed is a great place - or maybe the western edge of your garden, if you don't have solid fences on that side.

Then all you have to do is buy a couple of plants or - better - ask your friends and neighbours if anyone has some seed. Scatter the seed, be a bit casual with your weeding next summer, and the year after, you'll have this, to look at!









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Friday, 28 May 2021

How to edge your lawn - "Smartedge"

One of my Clients wanted to neaten a border, and I suggested that the easiest way was to install proper edging, which keeps the lawn out of the bed, and makes it much easier to mow alongside the slightly overhanging Raspberry foliage.

They agreed, which led to a discussion on the best type of edging to use: metal edging, as used in large estates and National Trust properties, is clearly the best and most durable: but it is very, very expensive.  It can be used for straight edges, and for curves: but it's quite hard work to install, and cutting it to length is not trivial!

Then there are wooden strips - left - which look very cottagey, but can only accommodate straight lines: they will also need to be properly installed with pegs at intervals, to which the boards are nailed or screwed,  and in anything other then right-angled joints, you need to do some fancy cutting, as you can see here.

Also, they don't last forever... within just a few years, they will start to rot.

That leaves us with plastic edging, which can do straight lines, and can do curves as well: and that appeared to be the best option here - not least because it can be cut with a knife, or scissors.

So I sent my Client on a voyage of exploration of the internet, to find some plastic edging which they liked.


But whatever you do, I warned them, don't even try to use that hideous wavy plastic strip...

Yes, this stuff (right). It is the invention of the devil, I warned them: it never, ever goes in easily, it sags and droops, ruining the shapes of the bed: it looks as though someone has been round your beds with a dough cutter, and within a short time it will have gone brittle in the sun and been smashed to pieces by your mower, flinging shards of green plastic all over the garden. 

Please, just don't use it. 

I can't quite believe that the garden centres are still selling this rubbish, but alas, they are.

Luckily, my Clients heeded the warning, and one day I arrived at work to find a roll of Smartedge waiting for me. 

Before we get onto that, here is the situation: a long, narrow bed, with a ragged lawn edge:

Those bald patches in the lawn are where the daffodils are, and this is part of the problem: the daffodil foliage can't be cut down until - usually - June, so it's not possible to mow this area for much of the early part of the year.

And this allows the edge to get a bit unkempt, as it is not getting any attention.

Hence my suggestion to put a proper edge on it.

Right, let's take a look at this Smartedge stuff, then.

This is a product with two components: a length of nice, sturdy black plastic, with a frill of funny little plastic triangles along the top edge.

You also get a bundle of plastic pegs, intended to go through the triangles.

The plastic has large teeth at the bottom edge - you can just see them in this picture, right - which suggests you can position it, then bang it down into place.

Best not to: unless you use a half-moon edger, or a border spade, to dig out a slot for it (or, to phrase it less confusingly, to cut the edge of the lawn where you intend to install it, to a depth of nearly the full depth of the plastic) (there you go, that was clear, wasn't it?! *laughs*): if you don't do that, you will find that wherever you tap it down into place, the rest of it will pop up. 

This is highly annoying. My Client had tried to install it before I arrived,  and was breathing heavily with frustration; even with two of us trying to hold it in place and tap it down, it just was not working.

So I sent him off to have a cuppa, while I cut out the channel. After that, it was easy enough to get the main strip of plastic in place: but those triangles defeated us!

The instructions say that the triangles are to be pushed into the lawn at an angle of 45 degrees, to anchor the edging into the turf. "You won't even notice them," the instructions say, cheerfully. "The mower will glide over them," they boast.

Yeah, right *with sarcastic inflexion*.  Only if you can get the darned triangles into the lawn, that is.

My Client's lawn was apparently triangle-proof, as the soil was as hard as a rock, and the grass had a mat of impenetrable roots, just where the triangles were supposed to go.

We struggled with it for some time, then took the executive decision to cut off the triangles. After that, it was plain sailing, and no, the triangles were not at all necessary. The un-fringed plastic slid neatly into place, we gently tapped it down:

..and here's a view from the business side, showing how it sits neatly inside the edge of the lawn - I backfilled some of the bare patches - and is buried to about half it's depth, in the soil.

If you look really, really closely, you can even see where we cut the triangles off!

Note, by the way, that the top of the plastic strip is BELOW the height of the grass. 

Here it is - right -  a couple of months later: you can see that the grass has now recovered, as usual, and the edge is straight, and neat. 

 The grass had been mown a few days earlier, but the edges had not been clipped, and that is another aspect of this strong, sturdy edging that appeals to me: if the Client has a hover mower, and sets it quite low, then there is often no need to go round with the edgers, after mowing it.

I have found, in this garden and in others, that if the Client has a wheeled mower - and these days, even the hover mowers tend to have wheels, and a rear roller, in order to get the stripes - then you do still need to go round and edge afterwards, because a wheeled mower doesn't quite cut all the way over the edge. 

For some reason, manufacturers of domestic mowers never make the cutting deck wider than the wheels: in fact, they are usually an inch or so less wide that the wheelbase, which is quite annoying.

Anyway, with a hover mower, no need to clip: but even with a wheeled mower, clipping the edges is super-fast, and very easy, because the plastic keeps your edgers in line, and all you have to do is snip off the overhanging fringe of grass. Dead easy!

If you are wondering how long it will last: well, this is a photo taken five years after installation: you can see, still perfect! 

I was there for a further two years, and over that time, the Raspberries were removed, and replaced with Fig trees and other underplanting - but the Smartedge remained firmly in place.

To summarise, then: 

1) a stout plastic strip, of about 4mm thick, and 125mm (5" ) in height, is about right for  your average domestic garden.

2) Flaps, and pegs, of any sort are an optional extra which could be considered as frivolous and unnecessary.

3) It is always a good idea to unroll the product on arrival, and lay it out on the lawn or drive, to flatten out, before you install it. On a hot summer's day, this only takes an hour or so. Otherwise, overnight is often a good idea, and if it's very springy, you might need to weigh down the ends.

4) Do not attempt to "bang it in": instead, take the time to cut a neat cliff edge to the lawn, nearly but not quite as deep as the edging strip. This is particularly important if you are aiming for straight edges.  Position it, then push it down the last little bit, until it sits - as per the photos - about an inch lower than the actual grass. This is to avoid damage to the mower, and damage to the edging strip.

5) If your lawn is badly wobbly, then you might have to backfill in a couple of places: it is always better to do this (just pinch some spare earth from elsewhere in the garden, the grass will soon grow over any gaps), than to cut the lawn back, and further back, and still further back, in order to get a straight line.

So, no more excuses! Out you get, and sort out those wobbly edges! 


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Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Waterproof leather boots: Nope! Can't be done!

Truly is it said, when two or more gardeners get together, they will talk about the impossibility of finding waterproof working boots...

Quite some time ago, I wrote a couple of articles about the problems I was having with wet feet: first of all I wrote about the various methods I'd tried to waterproof them, including Dubbin. Then, I did a little bit more research, and wrote about my disappointment with Dubbin

It was quite amusing, to receive so many comments from people telling me that dubbin works perfectly, when it clearly does not: many of them told me that I was applying it wrongly, despite me describing in some detail, the steps I went through - cleaning and drying the boots beforehand, warming them, hair dryers, blah blah blah. 

Nothing worked.

I tried Beeswax: nope, that didn't work.  I even had one question, asking "Is dubbin the same as Vaseline?" which prompted me to try it: nope, that didn't work either - 

And then there was the great Scotchguard, candle wax and neatsfoot oil experiment: nope, no luck there, either.

Today, I had a new comment from Virgil ("Hi, Virgil! You were always my favourite Tracy brother!") (I expect he's sick and tired of Thunderbird jokes by now....sorry!), who said:

"I know this is an old thread, but very interesting. 

"The dubbin I use has beeswax, cod liver oil, and lard. I assume the beeswax is what is doing most of the waterproofing. But, what is of utmost importance is also treating the welt around the edges of the boot. I am not sure any leather boot is 100% waterproof as water can get in from the top edges and through the lace area if there is enough water. I will say my no lace cowboy boots are as waterproof as it gets. 

"I think these treatments just make things better, but if you are in pouring rain or walking through water puddles, you are going to  get wet."

 Passing over the fact that it's nearly ten years since I wrote those articles, and you would have thought that by now,  technology would have progressed to the point where leather work boots which keep out the water for more than 20 minutes were a real possibility....

...anyway, Virgil, I take your point about the weak points of any pair of boots being the seams.  I don't attempt to paddle in my work boots, but I do have to work in areas with grass and foliage, which quickly soaks the lower half of the boot, and of course that's where the leather uppers are joined to the soles.

Sadly, I've given up on attempting to waterproof my work boots: now, I just change at lunchtime into dry boots and socks, and I have a drying rack permanently in the hall: and once the boots have dried out, I slap on a blob of common or garden hand cream (Nivea Soft works well, I have found), and rub it in all around the toes, the lower part of the boot, and particularly the area across the top of the foot, where they crease up - ie the vulnerable area.

Here - left - are yesterday's boots: they've dried out overnight, and in each case, I've done one boot but not the other, so that you can see the difference.

At present, I'm actually using up an old pot of Atrixo, but it's a very similar consistency to Nivea Soft. (It smells a bit, though, so I'll save the Nivea for my hands, and use up the scented Atrixo on the boots!)

This seems to be enough to keep the leather beautifully supple, and - as I say - I've actually given up trying to get them waterproof. 

So there is the conclusion to this series of articles: NO: it is NOT possible to have waterproof, leather, working boots, for any sort of reasonable price.

Sad, but true! 


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Monday, 24 May 2021

Salix Kilmarnock: is it safe to plant one by the house?

Yes folks, we're back to that dear old favourite topic, Salix Kilmarnock!!


I've written several articles about this grafted tree:  just type the word Kilmarnock into the search box - top left of the page, in the black strip -  for a full list of them.

Well, earlier this week, another question arrived, on this topic.  Stuart says:-

"As complete novice gardeners, my wife and I have just purchased a 'Kilmarnock willow' on the advice of our local nursery.
It is for an area at the front of the house which never sees much sun, and is a heavy clay soil. It always has a high water retention, and we were puzzled as to what could grow there.
The area is about 1m wide from the side of the house, and 3m long. So the willow would sit perfectly, however, having seen a previous question about the roots, do you think this could cause issues with our home foundations. Our home is a new build, not sure if that matters, but best include it.
The willow is in a pot at the moment. And is around 1.5m tall.
If it won't work here, we could put it in a large pot in the back garden, but we are still clueless as to how we fill this shaded clay area at the front."

There are several points to mention here, in no particular order:

1) Roots. It is always wise to consider roots, when planting trees. Willows in particular have a reputation for invading drains, in their search for water, so it's never a good idea - generally speaking - to plant any sort of willow too close to a house, or a building of any sort. 

Salix Kilmarnock is a bit of an oddity in this respect: because it is a grafted tree, and the upper part is very small (compared to a "natural" willow), the roots don't need to grow to full size to support it, so they can be planted in, for example, small front gardens. However, if you read some of those other articles I've written, you'll learn that one of the problems with grafted trees (indeed, with any grafted plant) is that of "reversion", where the rootstock sends out new growth which, if unchecked, can take over the whole plant. 

So, a case could be made that it is never "safe" to plant any sort of willow tree too close to a house, just in case the owner fails to notice it trying try revert, until it has grown into a proper tree and possibly damaged their drains.

Again, to learn more about this topic, type the word "reversion" into the search box at the top of the page.

2) Clay soil - the answer to this problem, Stuart, is to "improve it". How? By adding coarse material such as sand, or grit, or farmyard manure, or leaf mold if you have any. Tip it on top, and dig it in. I would not normally say this, but as it's a new build, you might even find it's worth hiring a rotovator for a day, or a half day, to bite into your nasty clay, and to chew it up, allowing the air to get, and then allowing the sand/grit/manure etc to be incorporated. Once you have done that, bring in some good topsoil, spread it on top, and then dig it in lightly - don't just leave it sitting on the surface, you need to get all these layers incorporated.

I don't normally recommend rotovators, because they destroy the soil structure. However, in a new build, there probably isn't much in the way of decent soil structure, so you have nothing to lose!

3) New build - I'm saying nothing about the build quality, but the soil is probably ultra-compacted from having the builders and their equipment stomping around on it for a couple of years, and may well have a ton of builder rubble under it as well, so that's another reason to improve the soil - break it up, turn it over, incorporate sand, add good topsoil. 

4) Shady plants - type into google, or a search engine of your choice, the words "plants for shady gardens uk" and you will be presented with lists: this can be a really handy way to do the research, if  you don't know much about plants. They will usually also give you pictures!

As the house is a new build, it's probably pretty well bare: so if I were Stuart and Mrs Stuart, I'd look for a couple of shrubs to give some height, I'd maybe add some support wires or trellis to any fences, and get a couple of climbers going: I'd plant some perennials for colour, and in autumn, I'd buy a big bag of bulbs - daffodils, tulips, nothing too fancy - and add them, to give some early spring colour.  In other words, a bit of everything: and I wouldn't worry too much about "filling" the garden this year: just put in a

5) Water retention - again, it's probably compaction from when the house was built: the normal process is for all the good topsoil to be scraped off, and taken away. The builders then run heavy machinery all over the place, for a couple of years, which creates a "pan" or crust of compressed clay: once the houses are built, they bring back in a load of topsoil (which may or may not be the original stuff!) and tip it on top of the compressed sub-soil, leaving the pan unbroken. This often leads to problems of sodden lawns, waterlogged beds, etc. See point 3) for suggestions on dealing with this issue.

6) Kilmarnock in the front garden: if I were Stuart, I'd take that big pot which he mentioned, put in the front garden, and then plant the Kilmarnock in the pot. 

This is for several reasons: it means that the little tree will get a good start, as it will be in a pot full of nice fresh topsoil, rather than having to dig its way in through the compacted clay. It will also be raised up: this means that Stuart will be able to see it more easily from inside the house, plus it will be that much closer to whatever sun does find its way into the front garden. Just to remind you, if the tree is currently 1.5m high, that's as high as it will ever get (as long as you don't let it revert!). It will get wider, and the branches will get longer, but the tree itself won't get any taller.

And finally, if it doesn't do very well there, if - after a year or two - it starts looking a bit sad, then it is much easier to move the entire pot, or (if it's a really big pot) to take the tree out of the pot, move it, and re-plant it elsewhere.

There you go, Stuart, I hope this helps!

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Saturday, 22 May 2021

Overgrown Hazel: how to restore

 I had a question this morning from Gareth ("Hi, Gareth!") concerning a large Hazel, which he says used to be a contorted Hazel, but which has mostly reverted.

He'd like to reduce it a bit: it's quite dense, and bulky, but he doesn't want to take the normal coppicing route, because the height of it provides welcome and necessary screening from passing double decker buses.

Here's the monster:

Well, it is indeed quite big, and does seem to be trying to take over the entire garden.

Definitely time to cut it back!

The good thing about Hazels is that they can be cut back hard: pretty well, as much as you need to: and they will always recover.

(Well, I say "always" because I have never yet known a Hazel which did not recover from even the harshest of coppicing, but there's always a first time.)

If you're not quite sure exactly what coppicing is all about, here's a link to my original article on this topic.

I have also written about how to "manage" a proper contorted Hazel: this isn't of interest to you at the moment, Gareth, but might come in handy in later years.

More usefully, I've also written about a sort of semi-coppicing method of controlling a formerly-coppiced "normal" Hazel, but without being so drastic.

And I feel it's that latter method which is going to be most useful for Gareth.

I'm quite intrigued by the idea that this was originally a contorted Hazel - and this does go to show why annual maintenance is so important, because contorted or curly Hazel are ornamental, unusual, very striking, and expensive to buy: so it seems a shame that someone has allowed this one to revert to common non-curly Hazel, at some time in the past.

So, what I would recommend, in this case? Here's a closer view of the base:

 ...and you can see that it is exhibiting the classic "overgrown coppice" growth pattern, ie lots of long straight stems, of a similar sort of size, instead of having one big trunk, in the way that normal trees do.

I would suggest that Gareth arms himself with a pruning saw, and starts removing the outer layer of shoots, cutting them as close to the base as he can.

I'd cut off all those little small wispy ones in front first, so that I could see what I was doing.

Then I'd take off the outer ring of straight shoots. 

If there are any curly ones, by any chance, they can be left... but all the dead straight ones should go.

Once that's done, the tree will be thinner, but still the same height, because the height comes from the inner stems, the older ones.

Next job, is to assess the slightly thinned tree, and see if there are any older stems which can be reached with the pruning saw.

This gets tricky, because the stems get in the way of the saw - and that's why I suggest going round the outside first: it clears the way, for access to the inner portions.

It's always best to take out the older wood if you can: you'll know which ones are the oldest, because they will be the thickest ones. However, sometimes it's simply not possible to get at them, without damaging too many of the other stems.

And that, of course, is why "proper" coppicing is such an efficient, time-honoured method of managing woodlands: it's quick! And easy!  No faffing about, off with their heads!

However, in a garden situation, we can take a bit of time, and restructure the tree to suit our needs, and in Gareth's case, we need to keep the height, but lose the excess growth below.

If I were doing it, I'd keep removing the lesser, straight, trunks, until the base of the tree - technically, the "stool", but there's always something vaguely funny about using that word -  looked less crowded, and until the area around the base was clear of smaller growth.

Then I'd stand well back, and take a look at the overall thing: did it need any more stems removing? Was it now looking lighter, more airy? Was it still providing a good screen?

If it was still looking a bit heavy and dense, I'd take out one or more of the oldest, straight, stems, until the top part was about where I wanted it, in regards to thickness.

Gareth asked about reducing the height: with Hazel, it's never a good idea to try to shorten some of the stems in order to reduce the height, as this leads to the cut stem producing a bunch of new stems right where you cut it, which makes the tree even more top-heavy. It also spoils the "form" of the tree.

So if I wanted to reduce the height, I would cut out the oldest, thickest straight stems, rather than trying to lop bits off the top. The oldest stems are obviously the tallest: so by removing them, you reduce the height, but in such a way as to leave a much more natural shape.

And that is pretty much all there is to it.

There is some regular maintenance to be done: in a month or so, Gareth will need to check all the cuts which he made, and will need to rub off, or cut off, every single bit of re-growth that he can reach. Otherwise, this time next year, the base will have a couple of dozen new, straight, stems growing, and in no time, we'll be back to the starting point again. 

This will need to be repeated at intervals through the summer, and will certainly need to be done every year in spring. 

Again, if it were mine, then next spring I'd repeat this process, and would remove another couple of the oldest straight stems, bearing in mind the necessity of keeping some height, for screening: the idea being, to keep removing a couple of older stems each year, until you arrive at the optimal balance of height, and density.

One further point: as this is, or was, a contorted Hazel, then it might be possible - after a couple of years of regular straight-stem removal - to restore it to being just contorted wood again. That depends on how much contorted wood there is, proportionally: without all the supporting straight stems, what is left might not be thick enough, or tall enough, to act as a screen. But it's worth thinking about.

So there you have it: a plan for reducing bulk, without sacrificing height - to keep those double-decker buses at bay!


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Thursday, 20 May 2021

Retraining a Rose which is too large

This story revolves around a standard Rose - that is, a rose which was originally trained as one single, upright stem, with a "lollipop" of flowering growth at the top.

This particular rose is a classic example of "wrong plant, wrong place" or - to be more accurate - "wrong plant for the wrong regime."

Why? Because it is a hugely vigorous rose: it sends up shoots at least 6' in length before they flower, which makes it enormously top heavy, and - because the "standard" part is already a good 5' off the ground -  the flowers end up way, way up there, out of sight.

It has also been a bit neglected, but we'll come back to that in a minute.

Here it is two years ago - right - and although it's a little hard to get a sense of scale, I can tell you that the bare stems at the base of it, in this photo, are at head height for me.

For the previous couple of years, I'd been doing the normal pruning regime for a standard rose, which is to cut down the top growth, in autumn, retaining a bundle of stout old wood, at the top of the main central stem.

But every year, the new shoots would be enormously long, those flowers would be out of sight,  no matter when I cut it. 

I tried an early spring prune, as per the normal RHS recommendation: but that just encouraged it to grow all the more.

I tried a pre-bud light prune, reducing all the new shoots by half: but they just produced more 6' long shoots, so the flowers ended up being even further away.

I even tried leaving it to its own devices, but that just made it worse, it ended up taller than the large Yew cones next to it!

So I decided to re-train it: to turn it back into a "normal" bush shaped rose, and to do this, I would need to take away the standard shape, by removing the central stem.

In March of this year, this is what we had:

It has suffered some problems over the years, and has not always been pruned properly: you might just be able to see in this photo - left - that instead of one central stem, there are two.

One of them is strong, upright and vigorous, the other is much older, and crosses behind the strong stem, then forks into two. 

So it's not quite a normal "standard" rose any more... 

In fact, it is entirely possible that this was originally a grafted standard rose, and that over the years, the top growth has died, and the plant has reverted,  which means that shoots from the rootstock have taken over. It is possible that someone tried to train one or two of those reverted stems into being the new "standard" stems, not realising that firstly, they should only have left one of them, and secondly, that they were far too vigorous to be trained in this style.

But at least they tried...

Now, there is always a risk, when carrying out drastic pruning, to any plant: it might turn its toes up and die.

In order to reduce that risk, I decided to do this renovation work in two phases, with the option to stop after phase one.

Remember how I described this rose as having one strong, upright, vigorous shoot? Well, that's the one we'll be keeping, and we will be pruning off the older stem, at the point where the new one emerges. 

My plan was to retain the one remaining stem as the new "standard" main stem, but my cunning Phase 2 plan, was to hope that the rose would throw out a lot of new buds, much lower down, so that I could then cut off this one remaining stem, at which point lo! and behold, we would have a bush rose. 

 Here's the rose, Phase 1 having been completed.

As you can see, just one upright stem remaining, and that has been carefully tied in to the original stake, to avoid it snapping, as it no longer has the other stems to lean on.

The aftercare regime for this plant involved water, water, and more water: all through April, I watered it at least once a week, to encourage it to put up some new shoots.

Many people don't realise how responsive roses are to watering: they are strong, tough, plants, which don't need to be watered unless they are in pots: but when you want them to make a special effort, it is well worth splashing the wet stuff around, as it really gets them going! 

Here's a closer look - right -  at the top of the one remaining stem: as you can see, I have pruned it into the classic "standard head" shape.

 If Phase 2 does not happen, then these short stubby stems will produce the massive 6' long growths again, and we will once more have a ridiculously high-flowering rose, but at least it won't be dead.

(Please note - in passing -  the correctly fitted tree tie: with a buffer between the stake, and the stem, so that one does not rub against the other.)

But if Phase 2 goes ahead, then the whole of this stem will be cut off completely.

Drastic stuff, eh?!

Right, now we can fast-forward in time to this week: if you remember, all the above work was carried out in early March.

Hang on, I'll just get a shop-front, and a mannequin, and a time-lapse camera, to represent the passing of time......

OK, it's two months later and what do we have: 

Fanfare of trumpets!

Here - left - you can see a whole handful of fresh pinkish shoots (slightly out of focus, apologies for that!) springing from the base of the cut, where I removed the oldest upright stem.

Success! Phase 2 can now swing into action!

Actually, in view of the fact that we have just had the frostiest April since records began in the 60s (records of frost, we assume, because we know that weather recording goes a lot further back than that), I am holding Phase 2 back, until these little shoots have had a chance to grow a bit more, and to strengthen themselves. 

At that point, off with his head! 

Then, later on this year, I am confident that we will have flowers on this rose, but flowers which we can all see, without having to stand on a ladder!

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Tuesday, 18 May 2021

The amazing strength of plants....

We've all heard the horror stories of Japanese Knotweed, working its way through concrete: we've all seen tiny little weeds pushing their way through tarmac: so really, we shouldn't be surprised at the sheer strength of plants.

And yet, it still seems wonderful, when I find something like this:

Isn't that amazing?

The new buds have come out so strongly, that they have actually pushed off a flap of old bark!

The bark is still firmly attached at the top and the bottom, and was under a considerable amount of tension from the shoot, pushing it outwards.

As I want these new shoots - more details to follow in a while - I cut off the now-loose flap of old bark, so that the shoots could continue to grow and develop.

But I'm pretty impressed!


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Sunday, 16 May 2021

A simple border for three seasons

This was a small project of mine from last year, now come nicely to fruition: a Client has a narrow border in front of their house, so it's very much on display all year round. 

It was planted up, many years ago, with a large number of patio roses, which make it colourful and lovely through all the summer and autumn, and it has an absolute mass of daffodils in it, mostly towards the path edge, which, of course, gives us a lovely early spring show. 

But when the daffodils start to die down, we end up trapped in that late-spring limbo where the roses are not yet out, but the daffodil foliage is lying there, all untidy and messy-looking.

So: what to do? We wanted something cheap, quick, simple, and low maintenance, which would give us a splash of colour at low cost, just for a few weeks.

My solution: let's move some of the Cowslips! 

And here we are:

They're free (we already have lots of them elsewhere in the garden), they are tough, they flower at the right time, and by the time the roses are starting to come into flower, they will have died down and will be nothing more than a very ground-hugging clump of leaves.

I moved them last June, and they settled in well: and as you can see, they are flowering their socks off now, in mid May.

The daffodils are pretty much over, but now we have another flush of yellow, to brighten up the day.

Although one thing interests me: all the Cowslips came from the same place in the garden, so they are all "the same" - I thought.

But there's one clump which is a distinctly paler yellow than all the others. Can you see it? Fourth clump from the right.

How intriguing! I shall have to take a closer look at those ones, because they might be False Oxlip (Primula veris x vulgaris) as opposed to normal Cowslip (Primula veris).

I will report back, at a later date... but in the meantime, there you go, how to increase the season of interest by adding a few extra plants, at no cost at all!

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Friday, 14 May 2021

Yucca tidying: the pineapple-ectomy Part II

I've written about this a couple of times before, but it bears repeating: I have invented the technique of the "pineapple-ectomy" for dealing with the annoyingly spine-tipped leaves of our dear friend the Yucca.

This technique involves simply cutting off the lower leaves.  All of the ones which try to stab you in the face as you weed around them, plus all the leaves which have drooped, or bent, or are growing at weird angles.

Now, I demonstrated this technique to a Client, who took to it with great gusto: but didn't quite do it as fully, and thoroughly ,as I would - which probably means that I didn't describe it well enough...

Here's what I was faced with, along with their plaintive cry "Why don't my pineapple-ectomies look as neat as yours?!"

Long story made short: "Because you didn't cut the leaves off as short as you could have done."

Back came the response, along with a slightly injured expression: "But I cut them off as short as I could?"

Aha, but not short enough, my dear! *twirls moustache*

(It's ok, I don't really have a moustache)

Never mind, I said, let me show you how I do it.

Out came the secateurs, and I started clipping off the short stumps of leaves, as close to the main trunk as I could get them.

As always when doing this, once you get one or two cut off, it gives you the space to get your fingers in much closer, and it suddenly gets a lot easier.

Here it is, partially done: you can see the difference in the length of the leaf stumps, by comparing the three on the left, to the ones at the front.

At that point, I handed it back to the Client, as it were, and they gleefully fell on it: that is a figure of speech, they didn't actually fall on it, otherwise we would have been mopping up the blood for the rest of the morning.

Yes, they are that spiky.

The Client, to make it clear, set to work, with cries of glee, and in no time it was properly pineappled, and looked super neat and stylish, just as we had planned. 

No more being stabbed while weeding! No more being stabbed while deadheading the rose which is annoying close to it!

So if you're thinking about applying this technique to your own Yuccas, that's all you have to do - just remember to cut back as harshly as you possibly can: right back, close to the main stem.

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Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Photinia - planting a new screen

 Love 'em or hate 'em, Photinia are here to stay, and "Red Robin" is the star of the Photinia clan.

If you don't know what they are, they are an evergreen shrub, strong growing, fast growing, but manageable: they can be pruned hard and will recover well, and they can be used as a statement stand-alone shrub or - more commonly - as a really good, nice-looking informal hedge.

Why do I say that "Red Robin" is the star of the show? The new foliage on this one comes up bright red, that's why: making it even more perfect for hedging, or for screening: positions where you are likely to want to chop a bit off them, from time to time. Because any such chopping, no matter how inexpert, results in a flush of new red leaves.

This - left - is what you might call the Ultimate Red Robin Hedge. Clipped to perfection, allowed to re-grow to perfection, photographed on a bright day, with a nice clear paved area for contrast.

But even on their worst days - unclipped, un-managed - they still make a good, colourful, interesting hedge, or specimen shrub.

They are naturally quite untidy: to create an informal hedge or screen,  I would buy enough plants, in 2litre pots, to be able to space them a good 2-3'' apart.  Don't waste your money buying bigger ones: it's been proven again and again that enormous 8' tall ones, which can cost £60-£150 each, will be overtaken in about 3 years by the £6.99 ones you bought at the garden centre. And the number of "big" ones which fail to thrive, and have to be replaced (if you were clever enough to keep the receipt) is very high.

Now we get to today's question:  I was asked recently how to go about creating a screen against a rather ugly wall, when the garden owners only had five plants.

Resisting the urge to say "well go out and buy some more, then!" I suggested they place the pots in position, spaced out along the wall: but instead of using a tape measure to position them mathematically equidistant (ie  at perfectly even distances apart, which is what we normally do), I suggested that they swivel the pots until they look "best", ie with the widest spread. Then, we would prune off any biggish branches at the back of each one, such that they can sit more closely against the wall, without damaging themselves.

At this point, I should say that I would never plant shrubs right slap bang up against a wall or fence, for a couple of reasons, which are covered adequately in this article about Why We Don't Plant Stuff Immediately Adjacent To Walls.

So, back to our new hedge: I then suggest that you plant out these five, then take all the stuff you pruned off, and for each pruned twig, remove most of the leaves, from the bottom (cut end) upwards, and shove them into the ground as far as you can - 6" or so, 12" preferably. If you are lucky, many of them will grow! Free plants, yay! 

Here are the General Guidance tips for this job:

When to prune: any time that suits you.  If you want to try growing on the prunings, make sure the soil is not frozen. The fresher the cuttings, the better, so put the prunings straight into a bucket of water - cut end down - until you have finished the planting: they'll be fine there for a day or two, if you don't have time to do it all on the same day.

How to prune: use secateurs (technically, use bypass secateurs rather than anvil secateurs. They are usually labelled, or look up the difference on google). Cut out the branches that you don't want, as close to their "main" stem as you can. Don't leave a couple of inches of sticky-out stub: it's untidy, and the stubs often die anyway.

When to plant: when you have the time and energy, as long as it's not snowing, or the ground is frozen.

How to plant:  Dig out a good big hole for each one (don't just chip out a pot-shaped hole) and sit the pot in it, to check that you have dug it big enough and deep enough. Then dig a bit deeper, to rough up the bottom of the hole. Remove plastic pot (don't laugh) (I've seen it done...), position the plant in the hole, replace soil all around it, firmly but not mercilessly: then water well, even if it all seems quite wet enough already. 

Take photos, make a note in your garden journal (what do you mean, you don't have a garden journal? Go out and get one!) as to how much they cost, and where they came from: stick in any labels and the receipts - just in case. It's very handy to have a reminder of these things. Remember to water them once a week (more if it's hot and dry or windy)  through their first summer, and make each of those waterings a good one: really drench them, don't just sprinkle a few drops and think that will do the trick.

Ongoing maintenance:

The chief beauty of these plants is the new, red, foliage, so about three times a year, it's worth pruning them back (and down) a couple of feet, in order to promote a flush of new growth.  After a few years, once they are well established, you can start a regime of cutting out about one-third of the oldest (thickest) stems, down to ankle height. Really! Sounds brutal, but it works. This prevents the shrubs getting over-congested, and promotes strong new growth.

 And that is pretty much it, for planting a screen of Photinia: quick, simple, and will be a thing of beauty for years to come!

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Monday, 10 May 2021

"I care for the Garden"

Well, of course I do, don't I?!

This came up in conversation with a Client the other day - they had been watching me walking back from spraying their Roses, and noticed me stop to say "hello" to a Peony which had recently been moved (it's ok, it's grown well, since I took this photo - right:),  and then stroke the leaves of another plant, in a reassuring, "there, there, you're ok" sort of way, and finally, apparently, I patted yet another plant in passing, as though to say "well done!"

When they'd finished teasing me about all this, they commented that I do far more than merely "work" in their garden, that I really "care" for their garden.

I agreed. 

I actually do "care" about their plants: I want them to be happy, I want them to thrive (partly because it then makes me look good, so - not entirely altruistic, then!), and I want the garden - as an entire entity - to fulfil its potential, as well as giving pleasure to the owner. That means striving to recycle all the waste of the garden into compost and leaf mold, then putting it back onto the beds: moving any plants which are struggling, and finding them a situation where they feel more comfortable: spotting gaps in the display at various times of the year, and striving to find good plants to fill those gaps: it's a great deal more than just "a bit of weeding and a bit of pruning", as someone once - very rudely - said to me.

Additionally, I care about my Clients: I want them to be happy in their gardens: so I strive to remove anything they don't like, and replace it with something better.  I also want them to be able to walk freely, safely, and comfortably around their garden, so I remove obstacles, cut back prickly or overhanging foliage, and suggest the installation of seating, of handrails, or maybe the replacing of steps with slopes (as mobility becomes an issue), as necessary.

I don't think this is unreasonable, or unusual - I think all good Gardeners quickly come to care for "their" gardens. Gardening is so much more than "just a job". I hate the word "vocation" because it implies long hours and crappy wages, but being a gardener is one of those few jobs where you really can enjoy the job.  

I am about the only person I know - apart from my fellow gardeners - who doesn't groan on a Monday morning!

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Saturday, 8 May 2021

Honeysuckle: how to get it to flower properly

I have to say, in recent years I've become disenchanted with Honeysuckle.

Growing up, this was a hugely popular plant: every garden had at least one, they flowered their socks off all summer long, didn't seem to need any pruning at all, and the scent was delicious.

But in the last decade or so, all I've been seeing are tangles of bare brown stems, with a few blooms right up at the top, which is very disappointing. 

I've arrived at my own method of dealing with Honeysuckle, which involves treating it more like a climbing rose than like a true climber: instead of letting it grow and grow, I cut them back to a framework of old wood each year. It's harsh, but it seems to be the only way I can get these plants to flower properly.

In order to get this:

 ...which was taken in June: 

I have to do this:

And this was taken the previous December.

I do the same thing, every year.

As you can see, it's drastic: all the stems have been cut back to about breast height, all the whippy growth has been cut off, and there are just a few main stems, and a few auxiliary stems, remaining.

Over the previous few years, I have diligently trained the lower branches to run horizontally, instead of letting them fly up to the sky, and you can see the looping shapes of the thicker stems, at the base: they are going from left to right, instead of just going upwards. This is quite hard to do: you have to be very firm with them, but you can see that the results are really worth it.

So, if you have a scruffy, ugly, honeysuckle which does not bring you pleasure any more, hang on until next winter, then cut it right down, harshly, like this. When spring arrives, water it well, to encourage new growth, and take the strongest new shoots left and right, instead of allowing them to shoot straight upwards.

Hopefully, you will see a dramatic improvement in flowering quality.

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Thursday, 6 May 2021

Rosa mundi: how to deadhead

 Back in April, I wrote about Rosa mundi, and how to get it to flower spectacularly. 

The secret, if you can call it that (especially after me talking about it quite openly on here!) is all in the annual pruning.

The harsh, harsh, annual pruning. *laughs*

But I did also mention that I deadhead it ruthlessly, and I had a couple of people asking me exactly what this meant, how I did it, and when.

Alas, it's one of those things which is so much easier to demonstrate, than to describe: memo to self, I really must save up and buy myself a Go-Pro on a headband, so that I can make How-To videos. Wouldn't that be fun! You could watch me doing something, instead of having to read a thousand words on the subject. Mind you, you'd also have to listen to me describing what I am doing, and I should warn you, I sound like a cross between Mary Poppins and a chipmunk...

Anyway, deadheading: what is that, exactly? It means, carefully cutting off a spent (dead) flower, so that the plant does not waste energy making seeds, but instead, uses all that energy to either make more flowers, or to build up their supplies for the following year, depending on what sort of plant we are talking about.

How to do it: use sharp secateurs, and cut off each flower neatly - don't pull them off *faints in horror*. (Why? Because that will leave a nasty, ragged stump which firstly, looks ugly: and secondly, which is prone to rotting, and with roses we always have to be aware of the dreaded die-back.)

When to do it: when the flower is "going over" as we say - when the petals are going limp, and/or going brown. As soon as it no longer looks lovely. 

Well, that's the traditional answer: but with Rosa mundi, there is a other little quirk: if  you leave the dying flowers in place, the petals get wrapped around the new buds, and can prevent them from opening. If it rains, then they turn into papier mache, and form impenetrable skins around the new buds, which definitely prevents them from opening!

The problem is that the petals of Rosa mundi keep their colour for a long time, so it is sometimes a tough decision, as to when is the right time to deadhead.

In a perfect world, you would go over the plant every day or two: in my somewhat less-than-perfect world, I am only in each of "my" gardens once a week, so if the Client is not able to do this task themself, then I have to do when I am there.


Here's one of "my" Rosa mundi bushes, photo take in late June, and at first glance it appears to be pretty much covered in flowers.

But a lot of them are fading, so it's time to remove them.

Out with the secateurs, and in I go, carefully snipping out every faded flower.


Here is the result, from this one bush: half a tub's worth of petals and a few odd bits: when working with roses, it is always worth carefully nipping out any dead bits which you might find, because dead bits lead to dieback, and we don't want that! 

(In case you don't know, die back is a phenomenon - not exclusive to roses - whereby a badly-cut branch will start to rot, and the rot will "eat" its way backwards along the branch, and can - in the worst cases - kill the entire plant. A lot of the RHS training is all about avoiding dieback, by pruning and deadheading correctly.)

Now, what does the bush look like, after all that lot have been removed?

Brace yourselves.....

Here it is, 20 minutes of denuding later.

Now, at first sight, you might be thinking "Aiieeee! Looks terrible!" but you'd be wrong: because in a day or so,  those new buds will be opening, and now we will be able to see them properly, and appreciate them fully.

Without the deadheading, you wouldn't really have noticed all the new ones, and would have assumed that the flowering season was over.

But now we have a whole new set of flowers to enjoy!

Rosa mundi only flower once - one grand flush of flowers, lasting a couple of weeks, and that's it: but it's so glorious when it happens, that we forgive them!

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Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Technology in the Garden Part 3: electric cars

Continuing my short series of articles about how technology is impacting our gardens: I've written about aerial views, and about lighting and PIR sensors, and I realised the other day that the increasing number of electric cars is going to lead to changes, as well.

Oddly enough, this train of thought began when a workman arrived at a house while I was scrubbing the block paving front drive: a job which I have written about here, and again here: 

It's a horrible job, but it's only once a year, usually, and it makes a huge difference.

So there I was, scrubbing away with the long-handled wire brush, and Simon the Electrician commented, in passing, that his own block paved drive was stained with diesel,  which had leaked from his van.

He asked me what he could do about it: would jet-washing help?

I replied "Nooooo!" because jet-washing is the worst thing you can do with block paving, as it blasts all the sand out from between them, leaving them jiggling like an 8-year-old's loose tooth.

In case you didn't know, this sort of (expensive) block paving is not laid on concrete: the blocks are loose-laid on sand. The skill is in the installation, to get them tightly packed, but to allow enough room for them to move very slightly, as vehicles drive over them: if they didn't have this room to move, they'd crack, and be ruined. It's one of the better driveway surfaces, ecologically speaking: rain can seep down between the blocks and dissipate, without flooding the house.

The worst sort of drives are solid concrete ones - or even worse, the ones where they lay the concrete then press a pattern former into it, so it looks like block paving - but has no drainage at all. Ugh. I can't tell you how many times I've seen workmen doing that sort of drive, and invariably they take it right slap bang up against the house/garage, so the water has nowhere to drain away.

Anyway, getting back to Simon and his stained blocks, I suggested lifting the stained ones, and swapping them for some unstained ones from random places around the edge of the drive, or in corners that are not particularly visible.

But of course I had to point out that if the vehicle had leaked previously, it would no doubt leak again.

"Aha!" said Simon, simply. "I now have an electric van!" Sure enough, he had a shiny new Nissan, I think it's an e-NV200: and with no diesel to leak, it shouldn't stain the drive.

This led on to the thought - I should point out here, that scrubbing block paving is utterly mindless work, so my mind tends to wander, while doing it - that electric vehicles were going to have an influence on our front garden design, in two ways.

The obvious way is that more people are going to need to pave over their front garden, in order to get their electric vehicles close enough to the charging point.

Otherwise, you can imagine a new crime of charge-jacking, where people drive their electric cars silently around the midnight streets, find a car with a long lead snaking out from the house across the pavement, and unplug it, plugging the lead into their own vehicle. Six hours later, they drive silently away, fully charged, leaving the householder wondering why they spend so much electricity on charging their car, and yet it never seems to have much charge in it.

But there's a secondary implication: now that vehicles are going to be much, much less prone to leaking diesel, oil, etc, more people are going to want to choose to have a smart, decorative surface to their new charging/parking bay.

Oh no! Not more block paving! Quick, someone, invent something practical, but easy to clean!

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Sunday, 2 May 2021

How to: Plant right up against walls

 Well, my first comment has to be "don't do it!"

Why not?

First and most obvious, it's often hard work to dig a planting hole very close to a wall: not only do you keep banging your elbows while you are trying to dig, but walls should have foundations, which might well extend outwards quite some way. So when you try to dig, you find that you are hitting solid foundations.

Next, even if you have deep soil close to the wall, there is often a leaching effect from the concrete, mortar etc, which can adversely affect the way plants grow.

Also, you may well find the soil is mostly comprised of builders' rubble and other debris: at least this can simply be removed, but it might have a lasting effect on soil quality, if a lot of mortar and other chemicals have leached into the soil.

The soil very close to walls is often of very poor quality - partly due to the builders mentioned above, partly because, even if the builders did not leave a stack of rubble behind, they will have trampled over the area very thoroughly during the process of building, so there is probably a solid "pan" or crust, a little way below the surface: and partly because it will have been subject to rainshadow for as long as the wall has been there. So you will often need to bring in new, good quality soil.

Talking of rainshadow, anything you plant which is very close to a wall, will need a lot of watering attention:  and not just at first, it will probably always need to be watered - partly due to the rainshadow issue, and partly because the presence of the wall will reduce it's "circle" of soil by 50%: the roots can only grow in one direction, instead of being able to quest out in 360degrees around the main stem.

For all these reasons, planting anything right slap up against a wall is a bad idea...

So what do you do, if you want to plant a - for example - climber, intending it to be trained up the wall? You have to plant it right at the base of the wall, don't you?

The trick is to plant it about 2' (60cm) out from the wall, and to lean the plant in, at an angle, so that the upper part of the plant is sloping back to the wall, and preferably is touching it, but the roots are a good distance away from the wall. You might need to add longer support canes, in order to guide the plant towards the wall.

This reduces the rainshadow effect, gives the plant's roots a chance to get at some halfway decent soil, and to experience a reasonable amount of rainfall.

Most climbers arrive from the garden centre in a pot with some canes already in it, which is handy - by planting the whole thing at an angle, you keep the stems of the plant straight. 

It means having to digger a bigger-than-normal hole, because you have to get the entire rootball, slanted, under the ground: sometimes you can "cheat" a little, by brushing of some loose soil from the uppermost edge of the  pot... but generally speaking, it's better to dig a bigger hole, so that the whole rootball can sit comfortably in it, at an angle.

This is a situation where a picture really is worth a thousand words! Annoyingly, I did this exact thing just last week, planting a Clematis montana against a wall, but I didn't take a photo. Sorry! I'll try to find a suitable plant, and will add a photo in due course.

 In the meantime, I should say that there are a couple of good points about planting close to a wall, which I should mention: firstly, the heat from the wall reflects back onto the plant, creating a micro-climate which might be beneficial for the plant.

And secondly, some plants actually like having their roots crammed up against obstacles: Figs, for example, are often described as fruiting more freely, if their root run is restricted: and being planted up against a wall definitely restricts their roots, as described above!

So it's not necessarily a bad thing, to have to plant right up against a wall, but there are a couple of points which need to be taken into account, when you do so.