Garden School:

Garden School:
Teaching this week: Biting the bullet: when to be brave, and to rip out existing garden features, in a garden which is not giving the owner any joy!

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.