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!

Sunday, 20 June 2021

How To get good flowers on a Honeysuckle

Earlier this year, I wrote about this problem, and I've had a few questions on the subject, so here's a bit of in-depth explanation, and then a perfect example of the principle.

Here's the back-story: I have a Client who wanted to screen off their wheelie bin area, so they erected a piece of trellis, and they wanted it to be covered in Honeysuckle flowers.  So we planted a Honeysuckle, and I spent the first year showing them how to train it, by persuading the stems to grow horizontally, from left to right, then from right to left, working their way slowly up the trellis.

"But we want it to cover the trellis!" they said. "Shouldn't we make it go straight up?"

I explained about the amazon jungle principle: that most climbers originate from densely wooded areas, which is why they have evolved to climb. They make their way up through the dense, dark canopy, until they reach the top. Then, when there are no more branches to climb, they flop over on their sides and languish in the sunshine.

Have you ever seen one of those wildlife or nature documentaries, where the presenter is winched up through the canopy? One minute it's all dark and leafy, and then they break through to the top, and suddenly they are in the sunshine, with a sea of greenery all around. 

Well, that's what it's like for climbers: they force their way up and up until they reach that point where they are suddenly in the sun. Then, having flopped over due to the lack of anything else to climb, they flower. Because now that they are out of the canopy, the flowers can be seen by pollinators, and once they are fertilised, the sun will ripen the seed pods.

In practical terms, this means that most climbers - this includes Honeysuckle, Roses, Wisteria, Clematis and various others - will only really flower generously, once they reach the top of their support: when the stems are laying horizontally, they "think" that they have reached through the canopy, and so they will now produce masses of buds.

So when we are training our climbers, we need to force them to go as close to horizontal as we can, in order to get flowers low down, where we can see them.  You have all seen climbers, I am sure, where all the flowers are way, way up there, out of sight: roses on arches are a classic example, and it's such a shame when we can barely see them.

This can be avoided by formative training: and it's quite simple, you literally just take the new growth, bend it gently sideways, and tie it to the support, as close to horizontal as you can.

Right, getting back to our Honeysuckle, then: last year, I diligently tied in the Honeysuckle at every visit, then left strict instructions with the Client, to continue the good work.

Here's what it looked like, last week:

Well, you can see where I stopped training it, can't you!

The lower two-thirds of the trellis is covered in flowers, exactly as requested: but the top part has just some bare, flower-free stems.

And that, dear readers, demonstrates the result of not following instructions! The Client wanted the plant to reach the top of the trellis, quickly, so they stopped training it left and right (just as soon as I wasn't looking!) and now they are disappointed that they have growth, but no flowers.

Had they followed the instructions, the trellis would have had flowers at least half-way up the "bare" part, although possibly not all the way to the top: but we both agreed that it would have been better to have had more flowers.

All is not lost, of course: we carefully untwined the upper, flower-free growth, and gently re-tied it to the trellis in a strict left-and-right pattern, which means that next year, it will also be covered in flowers, and the new growth will continue to be trained left-and-right, until the trellis is covered.

Having established this "framework of old wood", all we have to do each year, after flowering, is to cut of all those flowered shoots, leaving just the old wood. 

So there you have it - how to get fantastic flowers on Honeysuckle, at a height where you can see them, and enjoy them!



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Friday, 18 June 2021

Fasciation in Roses

I am utterly fascinated by fasciation!

If you don't know what this is, it's a naturally-occurring phenomenon, where a plant mutates: usually in the stem, but sometimes in the flower.

The commonest manifestation of this mutation is flattened stems: or, when flowers are involved, strange compound flowers, often weirdly distorted. I've written about stem distortion  already: and then I found it on Buddleia, and then, even on Bindweed!

It's completely harmless, non-infectious, cosmetic only: but weird and wonderful, to see.

Last week, I found it in a rose!! Here it is:

You can see that the flower also has a number of little tiny buds, within the centre of the flower!

How weird is that?

I'm not sure if the little buds would actually open into miniature flowers, but I'll keep an eye on the plant, and if I can catch it at just the right moment, I'll add photos to this post.

Just bear in mind that I'm only in this particular garden once a week, so I might miss it!



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Thursday, 17 June 2021

Nitrogen fixing root nodules - ever wondered what they look like?

I have often wondered about this ... all gardeners learn about the joys of legumes, that class of plants which are particularly useful to gardeners, because they possess the useful ability to "fix" nitrogen, ie to take it in from the atmosphere, convert it into something useful, then put it back into the soil so the plants can benefit from it.

We like this, because nitrogen is a fertiliser, and we spend much of our lives adding it to our gardens, in the form of soil conditioner, organic matter, liquid feeds, and chemicals such as Gro-more, 

The "usual suspects" in the legume family are things like broad beans, and runner beans in the vegetable garden: and the clovers, which are sometimes used as green manures. 

If you look up "nitrogen fixing nodules" on the internet, you get pictures of things like this:

This, apparently, shows the nodules on the roots of Medicago, a common weed wildflower.

There's no indication of scale, here, but I know that Black Medick is a small weed, and the roots are quite tiny, so these must be pretty microscopic.

So I have grown up with the idea that nitrogen fixing nodules are teeny, tiny things, not easily visible to the naked eye.

Then, last week, I was moving some mature Lupins, and was very surprised to find a whole lot of lumpy things on their roots:


Here we are - right - with my Trainee's hands for scale.

Can you see all those lumpy things on the roots?

At first, we wondered if they were galls of some kind: I have never seen anything like this, before.

Here's the best I can manage for a close-up - left - as my phone isn't very good at getting up close and personal to plants and things.

See how huge they are?

Great roundish knobbly things... whatever can they be?

Well, apparently, these are indeed nitrogen fixing nodules, according to my friend and colleague, Robert (*waves*), who tells me that on lupins, they can indeed grow quite large.  

Large enough to be seen, very clearly, with the naked eye.

So there you go - now we have all seen some actual nitrogen-fixing nodules!



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Tuesday, 15 June 2021

How To Save the Solomon's Seal!

 It's mid June and they're here again - yes folks, run out and check your Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum spp), because the caterpillars are in town!

Most years, we are just starting to enjoy these lovely plants:

...here they are, long arching fronds of pale green leaves, all lush and wonderful.

And underneath each frond...


 


 ...we find the flowers, dangling neatly in a row.

But alas, most years, we barely get time to enjoy them before the caterpillars move in, and strip them down to skeletons.


This - left - is what happens: one day the leaves are all lush and perfect:- the next day, you come out to find them in this state.

The critter responsible for this mass destruction is a small, light grey caterpillar, which is the larvae of the Sawfly.

They appear in huge numbers, and can strip a clump of Solomon's Seal in a day or two, which is quite distressing for the garden owner.

The problem with this pest is that you don't know you've got it, until you see the damage. 

So it's worth keeping a close eye on your plants: check them every day, and look for the first tell-tale damage, which is usually long "slots" appearing in the leaves:

Here's some I found yesterday.

What a nice, neat, oval hole!

I wonder what did that, you might think.

Turn the leaf over, and you will find something like this:



This represents the very beginning of the infestation - just a couple of dear little caterpillars, aaaah, how harmful can they be?

But if you leave them, your plant's leaves will be stripped to ribbons.

The good news is that sawfly caterpillars don't kill the plant: they ruin the leaves, and it looks horrible, but the plant will be back next year.: however, it can't be nice for the plant, to have all the photosynthesising material ruined before time, so put on your gloves, and squish them!

This is a revolting job, but essential: there's no point just shaking them off the plant, as they can climb back up. 

Squish them into sawfly caterpillar paste, then wash your gloves - it makes a terrible mess!

Turn over every frond, one by one, lifting it up by the tip of one leaf: gently, so as not to shake them off. Then squish them.

Repeat this process a couple of times a day for the next few days, to catch them as they appear.

I have tried jet-blasting them with the hose, which gets rid of the problem for a while, but doesn't really solve it: although there was one time when I came back from putting away the hose, to find a pair of blue tits gleefully scrabbling about, filling their beaks with wet caterpillars and flying off with them, presumably to a nest.

If there are too many for hand control, then you will have to resort to chemicals: you can get insectidal soap, which you mix up with water and squirt all over the plant - this suffocates the caterpillars, although I'm not sure how the blue tits would feel about it (mental picture of blue tits picking up the soapy caterpillars, then spitting them out and making yuk noises).

If you try this, remember that you have to soak the undersides of the leaves, not the tops, so it's a fun job, during which you WILL get soapy water up your sleeve. *laughs*

 


 

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Sunday, 13 June 2021

How to make a Loam Stack

I mentioned this subject earlier this month, in an article about how to lift turf the "easy" way: and a surprising number of people asked for more information on Loam stacks.

Simple explanation: a Loam Stack is nothing more complicated than a pile of lifted turfs, stacked neatly, and left to rot.  "Loam" is a fancy horticultural term for "soil of so lovely a texture that it makes your teeth itch in envy." 

Technically, "Loam" is the perfect blend of soil particles of different sizes, resulting in a product which is:

- friable, ie easy to dig and turn over: 

- nutritious, ie contains organic matter

- of good texture, ie has a mixture of smaller and larger particles

- retains moisture well, ie does not dry out into dust, or crack like concrete

- is a pleasure to handle.

It is, in fact, a sort of holy grail for gardeners: we all wish that we gardened on good loam.... but any garden soil can be improved, and making your own loam is a good step in the right direction.

How to Do It:

When you've just extended a bed or border, you'll find yourself with a pile of left-over turfs, and the question is always, what to do with them? They are too big and solid to go on the compost heap, obviously, but it seems a shame to put them in a skip, or in your green waste wheelie bin.

If you have any bare spots in the lawn, or some ragged edges, you can use a few of them to patch and mend, but generally speaking, most turf-lifting jobs leave you with a couple of barrow-loads of leftover lumps of turf.

So, let's be ecologically sound, and make them into something useful!

Find a corner of the garden, out of sight preferably, and make a neat free-standing stack: start with a layer grass-side down, then a layer grass-side up, then a layer grass-side down, and so on. Lay the chunks of turf down in a sort of brick-work pattern, as this helps to hold the stack together.

Try to keep the edges straight and as upright as you can (there is a terrible tendency to make each layer a bit smaller than the one below, but if you do that, you end up with a pyramid), and make an effort to keep the outside edges higher than the middle: that is, don't let it droop off at the outsides.  Use the thicker lumps of turf for the outside, thinner ones towards the centre, so that any rain which falls on it will be held in the middle of the stack, rather than washing off the outer layers.

Here's one I made last week:

It's tucked away out of sight, it's six inches clear of the wall, to avoid damage to the wall: and it's in the open, so it should receive a fair amount of natural rain.

I have another section of grass to lift next week, so it's not quite finished yet, but you get the idea.

Some of the questions were:

"How do you know how big to make it, when you start?"

Oh, good question. 

It's a guess. You have to guess. I could say that I looked at the area whose turf I was about to lift, calculated the square footage in my head (as "one" does), calculated the optimum base size, based on that square footage, then started my loam stack accordingly.

But I'd be lying. *laughs*

I guessed.  Sometimes I end up with a wide, low loam stack: once, I got it completely wrong, and ended up with a Towering Inferno (but without the flames) which gently topped over, six months later. That was annoying. 

"How long does it take to rot down?"

Quite a long time - usually two years. That's another reason for tucking them away in odd corners, so you aren't tempted to break them open early, just because you are sick and tired of looking at them. Many books, and most of the internet, will say "6 months to a year," but I have found that two years is more realistic, and the longer you leave them, the better the material. If you break them open too soon, you find that you still have quite a lot of fibrous rooty material, which means you feel obliged to sieve it, or at least to sort through it and discard the most fibrous bits. As you will know, dear reader, from my many, many articles on the subject of compost, I hate "faffing" ;  I would far rather take a bit more time and allow it to happen naturally, than to add chemicals (or physical exertion) in the hopes of getting my compost a bit sooner. And the same goes for leaf mold, and loam stacks: let them sit! Don't rush!

"Why do you have to stack the layers alternately green side up, green side down?"

Another good question.  I have no idea - it's "always been done this way". And anyone who knows me, will know that I hate doing things just because they've "always been done that way", but this is one instance where I actually do it the accepted way, without questioning it.

Logically, you could just as easily put all the layers green side down: the important part is to exclude light, to ensure that the grass dies off, so theoretically, they don't actually need to be stacked alternately. But for some reason, I have never minded doing it this way, so that's how I do it, and that's how I teach it.

 The only important layer is the top one: you don't want the final layer of turfs to be left green-side-up, otherwise it will just grow: and if you find that the alternating stacking leaves you with green-side-up, then just put the final layer green side down, regardless of what the one underneath was doing.

"Can you add to a stack, once you've started it?"

I prefer not to:  otherwise you end up with some parts being more rotted than others, or - more to the point - you miss out on having access to the older part, because it is covered up by the newer layers. 

Talking of adding to stacks, here's a Crime Against Horticulture from last year:  I'd made a beautiful neat, small loam stack in this garden:

 

 

Again, it was 6" away from the wall, to avoid damage and damp, nice and neat, free-standing etc.

Then the workmen came in to widen the drive, which meant lifting quite a lot of the grass.

My Client told the workmen to stack their lifted turf on my loam stack.

And this is what they did:



Hmmmmmm...

Instead of stacking the turfs neatly, they just tipped the lot in a pile, on top of my beautiful stack.

And they piled it up, against a dry-stone wall... soil is heavy, you know.

We had to dig it all out, to avoid damage to the wall, which was quite annoying!

"Do you need to put a plastic sheet underneath it?"

No, that's not necessary: it's better to have it on soil, really, because then the worms can work their way up and down the stack, thus helping it to convert into loam.

Do bear in mind that if you start a loam stack on top of a mass of ivy, or bindweed, or Ground Elder, etc, then you may well be laying problems up in store for yourself, because the bottom layer of the stack will become infested with the perennial weeds, which is bad!

So, starting the stack on bare soil is preferable. 

"Why bother?"

Why, indeed? Well, because you are taking part of your garden which you are, in effect, discarding, and turning it into something wonderful: top quality loam, which can be used for potting up, for growing seeds, for putting plants in pots (ie decorative pots), for spreading on the soil as a mulch in spring, or in autumn: for topping up odd holes or low areas, for enriching a planting hole: all sorts of uses!

And instead of having to pay to have it removed from your garden - ie putting it in the green waste wheelie bin, a service for which we have to pay (well, we do round here!),or a trip to the dump using your petrol and your time - you are creating a product which you would otherwise have to buy.

It's like a savings account for your garden: put old turf in, wait a while, then get lovely loam out!

It's ecologically excellent: you are retaining organic matter in your garden, which is beneficial because it is full of the microbes etc of your own garden, and is therefore "familiar" to your plants, plus you are avoiding the risks associated with buying in topsoil, organic matter, or soil conditioner, ie the risk of bringing diseases or unwanted weed seeds in: and, if you really need another reason, you are not bringing in a batch of "alien" microbes etc, which will then have to be assimilated into your garden's ecology.

Best of all, apart from the labour (and you were going to lift it anyway, so why not stack it neatly?), it's free!


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Thursday, 10 June 2021

Strimmer? I am never using one again, ever!

And why not, you ask? 

Answer: I have a modern Austrian Scythe, bought a couple of years ago - err, actually, it's now several years ago! -  for using at weekends when out volunteering with my local canal restoration group. Then, the following year,  when I started getting the usual requests from clients to bring my strimmer for specific jobs - one client had a mass of nettles, several of them have wildflower meadows, then there's trimming the rough stuff around trees, in the orchard, under benches and so on - instead of the noisy petrol strimmer, I took along my scythe and did the jobs with that: I was really impressed with how easy, quick and quiet it was, and the quality of the job was no less than it used to be with a strimmer. 

I have always hated using a strimmer, due to the noise, the stinging splatter of bits up your legs, the need for a steaming-up visor, sweaty gloves and ear-muffs, the noise, the smell of petrol - oh, did I mention the noise? Not to mention having a car than stinks of petrol for the rest of the week. 

My scythe may be a little slower, but it's silent (nearly), so I can do it as early in the morning as I like, without frightening the neighbours: it cost no more than a decent quality strimmer, but it doesn't use any fuel other than my energy and some water, and is in fact very nearly cost-free to use. When I use it, I can hear the birds singing, I can wear shorts and bare hands. 

To be fair, it does take a little while to learn how to use it, and how to sharpen it, but not long, and you don’t need to be “expert” in order to do a perfectly acceptable job.

As an example, here - left - is a rough area which needs attention once or twice a year. As you can see, it has breast-high Cow Parsley, but what you can't see is the underplanting of thistles, burdock, and what-have-you, which used to foul the Client's own strimmer. 


Twenty minutes later, it's all lying flat on the ground, ready to be raked up and stuffed into the compost pen. 

In instalments....

People always ask “how fast is it, compared to a strimmer?" 

That's the wrong question, for several reasons: firstly, it's not a competition between one and the other. There is no competition, in my view: I will never use a strimmer again, I will be using my scythe instead. (NB, "For Sale, Petrol Strimmer, contact me for details.") (Joke: they were both sold, within a year of getting my scythe.)

Secondly, it's not about speed, it's about enjoying the work rather than sweating yourself to death inside protective clothing, terrifying the wildlife for miles around, and setting teeth on edge in all the neighbouring houses. And there is an incredible sense of self worth, to be using your own muscles to do a job that other people need petrol and complex machinery to do. 

Thirdly, I have never, EVER, had anyone come up to me and start chatting while I was strimming. Dogs would yap, babes would cry, windows would shut, but no-one ever stopped me to talk about it. Scything, on the other hand... everyone and his dog wants to have a closer look, ask "why are you not using a strimmer?" and tell me stories about their great-great grandfathers… which sometimes means that it can take a little longer to get the job done. 

 Fourthly, a scythe will go through wet grass with no problem, which compares very favourable to a strimmer: no more chewy messes of mashed greenery clogging up the head. 

And fifthly, need I say it? In these days of eco awareness, and wildlife consideration, it seems that turning to the scythe is an obvious step to take. 

So how long does it take to learn, and to use? The friend who showed me his (stop laughing, I can hear you) gave me a ten-minute lecture, a quick demo and then let me have a go, correcting my stance as we went. I then bought my own one, and went on a one-day course, which was great fun: and now I am perfectly competent.

 I won't win any competitions, and I certainly don't leave it looking like a manicured lawn, but having just watched a local company hack their way, with strimmers, through one Client's meadow, then spend hours raking up the mess afterwards, I can truthfully say that I am no worse than they are. 

It takes barely a minute or two to set it up or pack it away: it’s so sharp that it goes through nettles, burdock, thistles, young plum root suckers (memo to self, watch where you’re going…) and things which my strimmer used to leave as ragged stumps: and it leaves the cut grass in neat rows instead of flinging it all over the place. 

You do have to rake up the cut grass afterwards, but hey, it's a crop! Let it dry out, and you certainly won't need to buy hay for the guinea pigs for a year or so. 

Now, I don’t want to get started on any eco-warrior, hippy-chick rubbish about being in tune with Mother Earth etc etc, but I really think that more of us should consider casting aside the two-stroke smoke-screen and the ear-splitting strimmer whine in favour of the scythe: we’re all a bit quick to reach for the power tools these days, but there is a massive satisfaction in gently swinging a tool which is ancient, but which is so well designed, which gets the job done, uses no petrol, and which attracts so much positive attention. 

And the down sides? Just three of them, so far: 

Firstly, you are using a very, VERY sharp blade: in use, the only real danger is to onlookers stupid enough to stand behind your left shoulder, but honing - every ten minutes or so - needs care, as does walking around carrying it. 

Secondly, the scything is the easy bit, it's raking up all the grass that takes the time. 

And thirdly, you get a lot of Grim Reaper jokes!

 


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Tuesday, 8 June 2021

Lawn edging again: How to make a classy edging, by re-cyling tatty old house bricks

Recently I wrote about installing plastic edging to a lawn: that was followed by an article about using Victorian rope-top tiles: and today, we are talking about an even cheaper way to create a similar effect, ie using tatty old house-bricks. 

This is something you often see in old walled gardens: a row of pointy-top brick edging.

It's actually very simple to do, but there are a couple of Top Tips to pass on.

Here's what I'm talking about:

There - isn't that nice?

It's charming, it's rustic, it's very much "in keeping" with the vegetable garden style...

It's also very cheap to do, being basically a pile of old house bricks that were lying around behind the garage.

But, as always in life, there is just a little bit more to it, than first meets the eye.

If you just push a load of house bricks into the soil, you'll find that they won't look neat for long: the mower will either leave a strip of ragged uncut grass, or will "bunt" them out of line: odd bricks will fall over, leaving an "All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth" sort of effect: and grass will grow through the bricks and invade your veggie patch.

So what's my Top Tip for this arrangement? Answer, a mowing strip, of wood.  

Here's the same run of edging, taken from a different angle - right - just after cutting the grass.

It shows the mowing strip - there is a piece of solid timber lying alongside the bricks, sunk down so that it is just barely below the level of the grass.

This makes it pretty much invisible - well, you couldn't see it in the photo above, could you? - but allows the mower to run quickly and easily along that edge, cutting all the grass, and not bumping the bricks out of line.

Grass can't easily grow through the bricks, because there is a solid chunk of wood holding it back.

And the wood also helped the handyman to install them in a good straight line, so they look smart and stylish, rather than looking dilapidated and run-down, which can easily happen, once they get a bit higgledy-piggledy. 

So, if you are thinking of adding this sort of rustic edging to paths, beds, borders, or a veg garden, start by assembling a large pile of bricks, and get yourself some long lengths of old timber: pressure-treated outdoor timber will last a lot longer than un-treated, but you have to accept that this is not a long-term installation, and the wood will need to be replaced every few years.

The timber needs to be quite chunky: here, we used leftovers from another garden project, which were about that wide (holds finger and thumb up, indicating about 2½") and about that deep (this time, full stretch of hand - about 5") and were enormously long, which made it much easier to install.

First, cut the grass really short. 

Next, take your half-moon edger (if you have one - if not, just use the flattest, least-curved spade you can find), and cut the edge: you can lay the timber out, to help you get a straight line. Cut a good deep "cliff edge", and lift out the soil in a trench.

Right, now you can sink the timber in place, until it is just below the level of the grass. Any higher, and the mower will keep scraping against it, so make sure you dig the trench deep enough. If you have to use more than one length of timber, then it is a good idea to join them together: the simplest way is to use a metal joining bracket, screwed across the join. The screws (and possibly the bracket!) will go rusty quite quickly, but that won't matter because they will be buried below soil level, so you won't see them.

Now, start adding bricks: go to one end or the other, find a half-brick, and bury it vertically, so that the top is just above ground level. Then place your first 45 degree leaning brick, such that at least half of it is buried below the level of the timber, and so that it is resting on the buried half-brick. If you don't do this, the whole lot will gradually lean over...

Once the first brick is correctly positioned, work your way along, leaning each brick on the one before, and taking care to get their tops all at the same level. It's often easiest to tip some loose soil into the bottom of the trench, and gently tap each brick with a wooden or rubber mallet, to get the right height.

Once you have seven or eight of them in place, start backfilling with the soil from the trench, packing it firmly around the buried portions of the bricks. 

When you get to the end of the run, just stop: pack more soil around the end brick, and there you are, all done. 

Cheap, relatively quick, extremely eco: and it looks really nice.

Curves are a bit more problematical: it's not particularly difficult to lay the bricks, as long as your curves are quite gentle, but without a mowing strip, you will find that the problems mentioned above will occur. So really, this method is best used for simple straight edges.

There you have it: a nice afternoon project!


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Saturday, 5 June 2021

Bindweed and edging

The purpose of putting down solid edging, between a lawn and a bed, is threefold: to make it easier for the person mowing, to reduce the time it takes to clip the edges, to bring style and elegance to a garden by clearly defining the shapes of the beds and borders; and to keep certain weeds out of the bed.

OK, that's slightly more than three...

I recently wrote about the "best" form of solid edging, ie a solid plastic strip, inserted vertically, which can make straight edges or curves, and which fulfils all the above requirements of edging.

However, it's not exactly stylish, in itself: plain black plastic - meh! Or, so said one of my Clients, a few years ago. They presented me with a huge stack of vintage rope-top edging tiles, which had been reclaimed from the garden of a house which was being demolished, and I spent a merry afternoon installing them.

They were hard work to install, because they were short sections: and in order to get a perfectly straight line, I had to spend a lot of time setting each one very firmly into the soil, then carefully backfilling, in order not to push them out of line.

They did look nice, though, once I was finished..

A couple of years later, the Client called me back, in a bit of a panic, and asked me to weed the bed, because it had somehow become infested with Bindweed. Sure enough, there was miles and miles of the stuff, so I had to clean out the entire bed, which meant lifting every single plant, cleaning the bindweed out of their roots, digging the whole be over thrice (I have written about this joyous task elsewhere...) then replanting.

"Where did it come from?" asked the Client, in bewilderment. (Actually, they were in Oxfordshire.)

In answer, I pointed to their elegant vintage rope-top edging.

As you can see, the bindweed - those fat, white, roots - has run all the way along the inside, the grass edge, of the tiles: and has then sneaked through the joins.

No matter how tightly "one" butts these tiles up to each other, they will always have tiny gaps between them, and pesky weeds will always take it as a challenge, crying "Woo hoo! Narrow gap! Come on chaps, let's squeeze through there, and infest that nice big border!"

And, of course, in order to get the bindweed out properly, I had to lift every single one of the blasted tiles, many of which had been pushed out of line by the bindweed anyway: then dig out the bindweed, then replace the tiles - which took another whole afternoon - and all in the sure and certain knowledge that the bindweed would soon be back.

In this case, a solid edging with no joins would have been a much, much better option: but, as the Client said, it doesn't look as nice.

We did consider installing the plastic edging first, then adding the fancy tiles on the soil side, in order to hide the black plastic... which might have worked... but in the end we decided (and when I say "we" I mean "they", of course) to stick to the stylish, elegant edging tiles, and the Client was therefore tasked with checking the bed more often, and calling me back at the first signs of a re-incursion of bindweed, so that I could catch the infestation while it was small.

And the moral of this tale? Sometimes, modern plastic alternatives are actually better than the traditional version!


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Thursday, 3 June 2021

Beeswax: waterproofing boots, Part 27

 OK, not really part 27, it just feels that way.

A couple of days ago, I had a comment from Virgil ("Hi, Virgil!") about using dubbin to waterproof leather work boots, which prompted another article on the subject: and while going through a backlog of photos,which were in the folder marked "might be useful for future articles", I found a whole set of photos of my attempts to use Beeswax.

In an earlier article, I had received some criticism of the state of my boots:"you can't expect to waterproof cracked, dried, boots," they said. "You really need to feed those boots!" they cried, in horror.

And my method was also criticised: "Heat is essential!" they all shouted at me, "You have to warm up the beeswax with a hairdryer, to get it to soak in properly."

 So,  a couple of years back, I apparently tried again, using a new pair of boots,  and here is the result.

Step 1: first, catch some bees.

Put them into a large bag, and squeeze them until the wax starts to run out - a rolling pin can be useful for getting the last few drops out.

No, I'm joking - just buy the beeswax,..

Easily obtainable via the internet!

Warm it up until it melts: a candle-making double pan is good for this, or put it in a metal bowl over a saucepan of gently boiling water.

Don't use your fondue set, or your chocolate-making equipment: no matter how much you wash it, it will taste of wax forever after. Yes, I know beeswax bears a close relationship to honey, but trust me, it's not the same thing!

Once it is runny, apply it to the boots: be careful not to burn yourself on the metal bowl, or on the liquid wax: be sensible, use a cloth until it's cool enough to do it with your fingers. 

Yes, fingers are the best applicators, otherwise the wax soaks into the cloth or sponge.

Here - right - we have the smeared-on, rubbed-in wax already starting to cool and dry, so at this point, out comes the hair-dryer, to melt it again.

This causes the wax to sink into the leather, which is where we need it to be.

I repeated this step several times, until the leather was gasping "Stop! Enough! I'm full up!", and at that point I let the boots cool down, and then buffed them with a clean cloth.


Now this - left - looked promising: the boots now had a shiny shell on them.

Just in case, I repeated the process one more time: more melted beeswax, more hair-dryer action, more rubbing: then a final buff with the soft cloth.

Nice!

Ah, but would it work?

We'd find out, next day...

In case you're wondering why I have little loops at the lower end of my laces, by the way, it's because the laces are too long - I don't lace them up to the top hole, because of all the bending-at-the-ankles which I do - and if I just tie them as they are, then they drag on the ground and get wet and muddy.

But I can't just chop a bit off, because then they'd fray.

So I work out how long I need them, pull the excess down to the toe end of the lacings, and tie it in a knot.

This has the additional benefit that the laces remain centred:  you don't end up with one loose end longer than the other. Top Tip! Even if your laces are the right length, tie a knot at the middle point, then re-lace them!

Right, getting back to the boots..

Here we are, quite literally out in the field, and about two hours into the morning.

The toes are wet, but shiny-wet, rather than matte soaked-wet. 

The apparent cracks and creases are where the beeswax is working its way out of the leather, where the boot bends.  Slightly weird... no-one mentioned that, on any of the internet research I did, before attempting this.

So, good news: lunchtime - dry socks. Oh goody!

Here's the bad news: 

Two days later, ie after two days of wearing them, the beeswax is all migrating out.

So my boots look like nothing on earth, considering they were new, two days earlier: they are coated with crusty beeswax, which was dropping off in all directions, and getting up my fingernails - urgh! - when I handled the boots. 

Stylish.  Not.

I tried using the hair-dryer again, to melt it back in, and then to buff them to a shine again, and it worked, sort of: but again, after a day or so of wearing them, they looked like this. 

And I had wet toes again.

So, where does that leave us?

Beeswax, in my opinion, does NOT work to make leather boots waterproof. Not for longer than a couple of hours. And it took me two evenings of hard work to get them waxed in the first place.

On balance, then, I'm sticking with my current regime of alternating between two pairs of boots, changing them at lunchtime if necessary: allowing each pair to dry, then applying any old handcream to them, to keep the leather soft and supple.

If you have any further questions or suggestions, I'd be happy to hear them: but please,  to that person who persistently tries to add robotic comments with clickbait links, to any article I write which mentions waterproofing boots - give it a rest! *laughs*


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Tuesday, 1 June 2021

How to: lift turf. The easy way.

OK I admit it, that title is sheer click-bait, there is no easy way to lift turf.

Oh, apart from hiring someone else to do it for you, of course. There are also machines which you can hire, called Turf cutters, and if you have a lot of turf to lift, then of course this is the way to go. 

However, if you only have a small area, you will have to do it yourself, the old-fashioned way. And if you've never tackled lifting turf before, here's a quick How To guide.

Firstly, cut the grass. Cut it short. Very short. The shorter you cut the grass, the easier it is to lift the turf.

Now you want to cut a series of straight slits in the grass, to mark out long strips of turf. 

Take your smallest, flattest spade - a border spade is the best tool for this job. There are special turf-lifting spades, but honestly, how many people have one of those lying around? But choosing the least-curved spade from your collection, will make things easier.

Now start cutting the slits: if your spade is quite curved, then you will need to use a half-moon edger, otherwise you'll end up with a strangely scalloped line.

And you really need these slits to be straight.

My border spade, left, is so flat that I can use it for this sort of job: just place it vertically on the ground, press it in with your foot, to make a slip just a couple of inches deep, and as vertical as you can. 

Move the spade along, and repeat.

Top tip: (warning: this technique is far easier to demonstrate than to describe!) having made the first cut, and assuming you are cutting from left to right, place the left-hand corner of the spade's blade in the right-hand end of the first slit, then rock it over to the right while pressing down with your foot.

Take care to have the distance between the slits exactly the same - well, pretty much the same - as the width of your spade.

Now go the end of your run of slits, and start lifting the turfs.

Aha, now you see why I specified cutting the slits to fit your spade!

The trick here is to get your spade as low as you can, so that it runs parallel to the ground. Bend right over, legs wide apart, and shove the spade in horizontally, with a swinging motion.

Shove it underneath the grass, as flat as you can: again, you can see why a flat-bladed spade is the best tool for this job.

Flick the first section up and over, then ram the spade in again, and repeat. 

The lifted turf will peel back like a caterpillar, and that is why you cut the slits first: it allows you to slice off long lengths of turn with neat, straight edges.

As turf is quite heavy, I generally only do about five or six spade-swipes before cutting off the turf, lifting it out of the way, and then continuing. 

When you get to the end of the first strip, start the next one!

Yes, it really is that simple.

The trick, if you can call it that, is to get a consistent thickness of turf: too thin, and they just fall apart (plus, if you don't get all the roots, then the grass will grow back!); too thick, and you are robbing the cleared area of good quality topsoil, plus you get very heavy turfs. 

You can see from this photo - left - that my second slice is not quite as deep as my first one, oops! I put this in to show you that even an expert - and I've lifted a lot of turf, in my time - can still do a fairly ragged job. And that it doesn't really matter!

Once you've lifted all the good stuff, you can go back round and lift the raggedy bits at the ends of the strips: they can go in the compost, or - better - into a loam stack. 

What's a loam stack, I hear you ask? Hang on, we'll come back to that, in a moment.

Now you have a large pile of turfs, what do you do with them? 

Well, you can use them to replace damaged grass elsewhere in the garden: if you have any annoying dips or hollows in the lawn, you can lay down a layer of your turfs on top of the existing grass, and stomp it down well, in order to raise the level: or you can move them to a new area altogether. 

There is plenty of information on the internet about how to lay turf, but in brief it is: 1) prepare the soil underneath by weeding it, levelling it, and treading it down well so that it is firm and level. 2) water it. 3) lay down your freshly-cut turfs, as soon as possible after lifting them. 4) put them down in a staggered pattern, ie so that  you don't have a neat grid of "joins"; 5) butt them up really, really tightly together. 6) stomp them down well, and 7) water them. And keep watering them for a couple of weeks, unless it rains. 

In this case, I wanted to use some of them to fill in a place where the removal of a very large shrub had left an annoyingly large curve in the lawn edge. 

Here it is, half done: I have just placed the freshly-lifted turfs down, well butted up and well stomped:  you can see that the edge is all jagged and peculiar, but that's ok because I haven't quite finished yet.

To finish the job, you can either use a knife (an old breadknife is good for this sort of thing) to re-cut a nice smooth edge, or you can leave the turfs to settle in for a couple of weeks, and the then re-cut the edge with your half-moon edgers.

Just remember to water the "new" turf: and don't mow it, or walk on it,  until it has rooted, otherwise the turfs will be disturbed, just as they are starting to knit together.

Now, let's get back to our loam stack:  if you end up with a large pile of bits of unwanted turf, make a neat stack of the bits in alternating layers, green side up, then green side down. After a year or two, the heap will have turned into a free-standing stack of wonderful rich loam which can be used for potting, or can simply be spread on the beds as a combined mulch/soil improver.  


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