Monday, 30 August 2021

How to Help Wildlife - Big Things

 Yesterday, I was prompted to write about how the "re-wilding" trend does not have to be followed slavishly.... and I added a few simple suggestions as to how to help wildlife in your garden.

 If you really want to help wildlife, and you've either done as much in your own garden as you can, or you don't have much of a garden in which to work, then here are a couple of bigger things which you can get involved with.

1) Pester your local council to link up isolated areas of greenery, to produce what are called "linear features" . OK, this is a big one: but every little helps, and every letter to a local councillor is one more for the pile, and eventually, things will improve.

To illustrate the importance of creating what are trendily called "linear habitats", here's a photo of a fairly typical "new development" of houses, in a small town. 

Very trendy, isn't it: nice curving roads, which look so good on the plan, but in real life, mean that you can't follow the house numbers, so you can't find anyone: there's nowhere to stop and check, because there are no lay-bys or spare parking areas, the roads are so narrow that two cars can barely pass, and there are no pavements at all: everyone seems to be overlooked by everyone else, so there's no privacy in the gardens: and half the houses have really odd-shaped gardens, unusable and awkward.

No, I'm not a fan of new builds.

But the important thing here is to look at those tiny, awkwardly-shaped back gardens.

Can you see how the fences split them up into units: this illustrates the importance of the Hedgehog Highways. But even if you get together with your neighbours, and allow free passage for Hedgehogs, where will they go at the end? All the blocks of housing are isolated, and surrounded by roads. Even the laughably small "green play area" in the centre is surrounded by a road.

So when the developers submit their plans, go along to the planning meetings, and challenge them to link up the green spaces, instead of cutting them up into tiny blocks.

2) Support your local canal restoration group: canals are the ultimate linear wildlife corridor, and contain water, banks, trees, undergrowth, overgrowth, muddy bits, dry bits, and virtually every habitat that wildlife could want - all conveniently linked together, and with a towpath on just one side, providing a haven and an escape route for all the wildlife on the far bank, while allowing us to walk quietly and peacefully along the other side, and to enjoy watching the wildlife flee in terror before us.

Please note that nothing likes a derelict, stagnant canal: not even the wildlife... so it's really important to support the work of restoration groups, and to get the old canals opened again, for leisure and for wildlife.

Oh, and as a long-term supporter of canals, can I just say here that, on a working canal, the water is SUPPOSED to be brown and murky! It stops the weeds from growing and choking the waterway.

Brown water is good: green, stinky, slimy water is not.

3) Get involved with Botany: learn about it, take some courses, learn how to use a Dichotomous Key, learn about identifying local wild flowers. Take this interest to your local schools: encourage them to take the children out on nature rambles, and to build School Gardens.

4) Join a local nature reserve, as a volunteer: they are always desperate for free workers, and there are usually many roles to choose from.   I prefer the active work, such as work parties to clear the undergrowth and manage the greenery, but there are always heaps of admin roles, from local publicity, to accounts, to fund-raising (all volunteer-run groups are always desperate for help in fund raising!), and there is bound to be something that suits you.

5) Go out litter picking. If there is a local group, who meet up regularly, join them. But if there isn't, just buy yourself one of those long-handled pickers, they only cost a couple of quid: then go out, every so often, armed with the picker, and two carrier bags - one for "rubbish", one for recyclable tins and bottles. Fill the bags, take them home, put them in your own bins. Yes, you will get a strange look now and again, but most people will thank you for making the effort. Yes, you shouldn't "have" to do this, but let's face it, in the real world, people do drop their litter, and the council do not have the resources to pick it up - and it's our wildlife which suffers the consequences.

It is also scientifically proven that litter begets litter: if a footpath is already littered, people will drop more. But many habitual litter-droppers are reluctant to be the first if you reduce the amount of litter, by picking it up, then the amount of new litter will decrease.

6) Local footpaths: put pressure on your local council to keep your local footpaths clear and open. This means asking them to cut back overhanging greenery, and to keep the grass cut short: if they say they don't have the resources, get some local groups started, of volunteers who will walk round and do a bit of chopping and cutting. Yes, there are insurance implications, but as with litter-picking initiatives, local councils are starting to realise that they can't do it all themselves, so they have to work with locals, and with volunteer groups.

You might be wondering why "clearing the footpaths" will help the wildlife: the answer is that if the footpath is clear, and passable, then walkers will stick to it: they won't wander all over the place, trampling the wild flowers and disturbing the hedgerows, pushing through hedges into fields to find alternatives to muddy or impassable paths, and generally spreading themselves out, far and wide. 

So there you are, a few suggestions on how to get yourself a little bit more involved with wildlife on a local, but larger, level. I am sure you can think of some more!

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Sunday, 29 August 2021

How to: Leave a bit of your garden wild, for wildlife

You don't need to.

Yes, I'm going to be controversial here: the average suburban gardener DOES NOT NEED to leave areas of their garden "wild" in order to encourage wildlife, which includes hedgehogs, birds, butterflies and bees.

You do NOT have to put up with something like this - left - just because you want to help wildlife.


Trust me, I'm a professional! 

The average modern garden contains plenty of food, shelter and safety for wildlife, and it always has done.

The sole exception to this are those hateful new builds, which are pretty much sterile: and I'll come back to those later.

But for those of us not living in brand new shoe boxes, our gardens already have an existing ecosystem, an ongoing, ever-changing interplay and balance between plants, weather, sun, shade,  insects, mammals - and of course, ourselves.

And if we suddenly start to leave areas of it unmanaged, as recommended by just about every gardening magazine/article which you read these days: well, it can ruin those existing ecosystems. 

It sounds like a lovely idea, doesn't it - "re-wilding" is the trendy term. I find it is usually presented in a cunning double-layered way: superficially, it's all about the wildlife, but there is a strong sub-text of "and it's less work for you", which is, of course, a complete fib... besides which, our small birds LOVE us to work in the garden. Even simple hand weeding loosens the soil, brings bug and grubs up to the surface, and brings in the birds. I can't tell you how often I am followed around one of "my" gardens by the resident robin, or blackbird, who eagerly pounces on each area, as I move on.

In real life, your own garden has taken years to achieve a balance, and I don't mean white flowers V blue flowers, or flowers V shrubs: I mean a balance of predator and prey, starting at mammal size, running down through birds, into caterpillars, further down into bugs and beetles, and beyond, right into the soil, and the lives of microbes,  fungi, and other "invisible" occupants of our gardens.

So don't rush to ruin what might have taken decades to establish!

Not to mention the risk of "re-wilding" leading to invasions of things such as bindweed, ground elder, brambles, cow parsley -  all things which tend to smother other plants, leaving us with an area of basically monoculture, instead of the variety which is necessary for a balanced ecosystem.

If  you are concerned about wildlife - and we all should be - then just look around - there are miles and miles and MILES of alleyways, footpaths, woodland, disused canals, disused railways, derelict building sites, field boundaries, neglected allotments, dual carriageway embankments:  all teeming with nettles, brambles, and the other unlovely "wild" plants. Not to mention piles of rotting wood and vegetation, perfect for beetles and other small critters.

You do not need to let part of your own precious garden go to the wild - or "to rack and ruin" as I would say - just to help wildlife.

Instead, what should you do?

There are a few simple, cheap things which are easier on the eyes, and better for the wildlife, than letting a corner of your own garden go wild. And here is a short list of five of them, to get you thinking.

1) Feed the birds

Let's start small. Just feed the birds, through the winter. You don't really need to feed them in summer, because that's when there is plenty of "natural" food for them, and that's when you want them to be giving their chicks fresh meat, not stale peanuts and processed suet, which contains lord-knows-what. 

(When I say "fresh meat" I mean caterpillars, worms etc, not your best Sirloin...)

As an aside, and to explain that remark, just bear in mind that pretty much everything you buy which is "edible", ie anything which can rot, is usually treated chemically to ensure it doesn't start rotting while in the shop. 

So all those bags of bird seed may well have been sprayed with preservative: and it's a good bet that the plants from which they were harvested were also well sprayed, to ensure a bountiful, rot-free, insect-free, long-transit time, crop.

This means that the commercial food which we buy for the birds, although well-intentioned, is often not quite as "good" for them, as we think it is.

In winter, the birds won't mind, because they'd rather scoff our preservative-tainted foods, than starve to death. 

But in summer, let them go back to a more natural diet, of slugs, beetles, caterpillars, and other things which would otherwise eat our crops and flowers - this is what you might call a "win-win" situation. 

Better for their digestion, better for our veggie plots.

For more detail on  how and when to feed the birds, try this article... or just type "birds" into the search box, top left of the screen.

2) Hedgehog runways. This is a sort of medium-sized topic, because it involves more than just yourself.  It's a terribly trendy topic, just now, and I wrote about it here, recently.  Oh, and adding that link has reminded me that it's Hedgehog Highway, not Runway... although I love the idea of Hedgehogs on the catwalk... with cats, showing them how to do it properly...

Anyway, digressions aside, this involves nothing more complicated than making a few ground-level holes in your fences, so that Hedgehogs, and other small critters who cannot jump, can pass between one and the next. But it also means involving your neighbours, to get as many of them as possible to also make holes for the Hedgehogs, so that they can move freely between all of the gardens. 

3) Plant trees. This one is fairly easy, and you don't need a big garden, or big trees, to make a real difference.  Trees bring sound and movement to a garden, as the branches and leaves swish.  They offer safe vantage points for feeding birds, and they offer a place for them to sit and rest. And if you are very lucky, a place to nest!

If  you don't have much room, go for ornamental trees such as Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum, there are many beautiful cultivars, they will grow happily in a large pot,  and most of them don't need special ericaceous compost), or choose a small tree with berries, such as Rowan, or Cockspurthorn - which is a type of Hawthorn -  or Crab-apple: or Birch, which produces more seeds than you would think, from looking at it.

4) Variety:  Gently enhance the variety in your garden. If you have some trees or tall shrubs for shade, some bushy shorter shrubs for shelter, some herbaceous perennials for autumn cover, some plants in pots (which harbour a surprising range of creepy crawlies, both in and underneath them), some flowers for bees, some veg for the caterpillars (*laughs*), a shed with a gap and some odd bits of junk round the back of it,  then you have done your bit for wildlife.

5) Mulch your beds and borders: whether you mulch with home-made compost, or with bought-in bark, it doesn't matter: mulching creates a wonderful accessible layer of bug and beetle habitat, perfect for small birds and mammals. It turns a bed or border into a running buffet for them!

So there you go - there is no need to force your garden into being re-wilded, but there are few easy things you can do to help the wildlife. 

In many ways, the most important thing you can do is to get out there and enjoy your garden: use it, plant it, weed it, grow things in it: and by doing so, you will be helping the wildlife, whether you know it or not!

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Sunday, 22 August 2021

Scything time again!

Ah, the hot sunny days of August, in England *glances out of window at crashing rain*... 

Yes, apart from the rain, it's summer, and that means it's time to scythe down the grassy "meadows" again: the flowering is mostly over, and now we need to remove the top growth to keep the meadow areas impoverished, and to give the seeds a chance to get to soil level, so that they will germinate for next year.

It's been a busy year for scything, this year: I seem to have been at it once or twice a week, for the last several weeks!
This is actually a lovely thing: I'm very pleased that more people are having a go at "letting the grass grow longer for wildflowers", which includes this year's "No Mow May" movement. 
So what I have been scything, recently?

Here's the first one, a small suburban garden, with sweeping crescents of what I call "long lawn", ie not much in the way of flowers, but lots of grasses:

In this garden, we live in hope that some wildflowers will - one year - appear. We've been allowing the grass to grow long since 2018, and so far, as you can see, it's mostly just grass. 

I did take along a spare pot of Bee Orchid which I'd grown from seed, and last year that was added to the grassy area. But Bee Orchid are notorious for their poor germination, and their strange habits: one year you will have a couple of flowers, the next year maybe none at all, then on another year, there will be lots of them! They are a rule unto themselves.

But we live in hope.

Then there is this garden - right:  a rather lovely long, thin, tree-filled section of garden, which the owner allows to grow long every year, with mown paths: we get quite a few Pyramidal Orchid there, as well as the usual selection of lotus corniculatus (Bird's foot trefoil),  and various vetches.

As you can see, quite wild and woolly at this time of year, and definitely due for scything.

Ah, that's much better!

This one took me two afternoons to do, this year: usually the garden owner comes along to rake up the grass, after I cut it: but this year, ill health prevented him helping, so I had to do both jobs, which therefore took twice as long. 

And this photo only shows the middle section - there's quite a lot more of it!

But it was worth it, to see it all neat and tidy again. 

And then, just to make a change, I was working on my local canal last weekend, and was sent into the cut, to scythe down the reeds so that we could get access to the other bank, in order to do some very necessary tree trimming.

An interesting experience, working on very squishy - "uncertain" - footing, with reeds rather taller than I am, as you can see. 

But the scythe was the perfect tool for the job, as I could cut very nearly the full width, in one sweep. 

One inch at a time...

 Here's one I did earlier: a small but interesting meadow, again with mown paths, which is getting more colourful by the month, as we keep adding specific plants to it: by scattering seed, and by adding plug plants of various wildflowers.

Here, the grass is so good that we make hay from it... and here I am, halfway through scything it down.

This was a dreadful job, as we had had heavy rain the previous week, which had utterly flattened it, which makes it hard work for me.

But, perseverance paid off, and I got it all chopped down, and into neat windrows. The Client then spent the next week turning and re-turning the windrows, to try to dry it out: but the weather was against them, and in the end about half of it was not dry enough to store, so it was given to the chickens, for them to scratch about on.

Why do I find all this scything to be so peculiarly pleasant? As I said on an earlier post, this is, I think, a great quote:

"There's a massive contradiction between fostering a wild-flower meadow and the brutal savagery of a stinking, angry-sounding strimmer."
I love the concept of the "brutal savagery" of the petrol strimmer. I mean, it's so true! They are noisy, smelly, they use both petrol and oil, the operator has to wear ear defenders, a visor, with eye protection as well (if they are sensible): steel toecap boots, long sleeves, anti-vibration gloves, long trousers... they have to carry the fuel, it stinks out their car, they leak fuel and oil everywhere, and they spit the bits all over the place.

Compare that to me in shorts and a tee-shirt, no gloves, no ear defenders: whistling gently to myself as I swish, swish, swish, the grass down, in nearly total silence, leaving it in neat (ish) rows, to be made into hay if required.
And that really sums it up, for me: if  you go to the trouble of growing your own little bit of wildflower meadow, if you clearly care about the wildlife, the environment: why on earth would you then allow someone to brutalise it, with a petrol strimmer? 
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Saturday, 21 August 2021

Plants can't talk...

 ...but they can still tell us things.

Like, when they need watering, for example. That's an obvious one - they wilt, collapse, drop their leaves and generally look pitiful when they don't get enough water.

Here's a typical example - left - of a Hydrangea. 

These shrubs are notoriously prone to showing water stress, they can be wilting on a hot afternoon, even if they've been watered that morning!

Luckily, they respond well to watering, and usually pick up again quite quickly.

Incidentally, did you know that the esteemed RHS have an actual, genuine expression for plants which have wilted so badly that they will die: it's a three-letter acronym, PWP, and it stands for - I kid you not - the Permanent Wilting Point.

*snorts through nose*

I thought my RHS Level 2 tutor was kidding, the first time they told us about that expression, but no, it's a genuine one. If a plant has reached the PWP, it won't recover. It will, in fact, shuffle off this mortal coil.

Next, Nutrients - plants will often change colour to indicate that they are struggling. 

 This leaf - right - is showing the classic symptom of what is called interveinal chlorosis. 

Chlorosis means "lack of chlorophyll" which is desperately important, because chlorophyll (visible to us, from outside, as the green colouration of the leaves) is where the plant does the photosynthesising. So lack of it, is going to be very bad news indeed.

And the "interveinal" bit is exactly what it sounds like - "between the veins". So you can see in this picture, the veins are still green, but the rest of the leaf blade is pale, and rather yellowy.

This is "usually" (anyone who has ever been on one of my courses, or has ever read one of my Field Guides, will remember Rachel's Rules: Rule 1 - "usually"  *laughs* ) so this is "usually" a symptom of lack of iron. 

In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that there are other reasons: but lack of iron is the main one.

And sometimes, they can tell us about persistent weather: 


What do you think this Silver Birch, left, is trying to say?

It has two messages:

1) "The sun is always over THERE, and I like the sun!"


2) "Blimey, the wind don't half blow from the left, in this garden..."

And indeed, it is leaning towards the sun, and yes, the prevailing wind does get funnelled in from the left, because of the arrangement of buildings and mature trees, which form something of a wind tunnel.

You can't see it from this photo, but every tree in this particular garden has the same degree of "lean" to it!  Every plant which I have added, since my arrival, has been staked and supported in a heavy-duty fashion, in the hopes of keeping them more upright, but I suspect it's a losing battle...

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Thursday, 19 August 2021

*singing* "Who let the cows in! Who, who-who, who-who"

 That's to the tune of "who let the dogs out", by the way...

And what, you may be asking, prompted this frivolous bout of non-gardening singing?

Well, passing over the concept that singing in a garden is actually perfectly permissible:  in fact, once, just once, I was working inside a high-hedged garden when I heard someone in the next-door garden singing a folk song. I won't bore you with the details, other to explain that it was one of those where the chorus is normally sung by two parties, a practice which was cunningly invented to allow the "lead" singer a chance to get their breath back and/or to take a gulp of beer. 

In this case, I was idly listening, while clipping the topiary, and when the chorus arrived, he sang both parts, which doesn't really work very well. 

So I absent-mindedly joined in, as the "second" singer. Yes, I know, I swore I'd never sing folk songs again - I was day-dreaming, ok? So there I was, singing a folk duet with a total stranger. 

Just that once. Never again. 

Anyway, where were we? Oh yes, singing in the garden is perfectly permissible. Why, just the other week, my current Trainee was singing something called "The Thong Song" which they maintained was a real thing, although I still think they were pulling my leg.

And I was prompted to start singing about cows when I encountered this lot:


At first sight, does that not look like a big cow-pat? 

A particularly large, and messy one?

It turned out to be nothing worse than a mass of grass clippings which had not been picked up by the mower.

This is what happens when two problems coincide: firstly, you don't have a collecting basket on your mower, and secondly, when you let the grass get rather too long!

The mower starts to mash the grass into pulp, so it can't dry up and blow away, because there is just too much of it.

It then rots down into a sticky, icky, mass, especially if rains the day after the grass was cut. And then it kills the grass underneath it, because a thick layer of grass is not a hundred miles away from a thatched roof: and grass does not grow indoors!

The moral of this story is therefore a warning not to let the grass grow too long before cutting it - and if you can't avoid the situation, then go round afterwards and rake up the worst of the fallen cut grass.

Otherwise, it looks as though someone let the cows in - who, who-who, who-who!


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Wednesday, 18 August 2021

Solomon's Seal: a bad year for the sawfly larvae...

 ,,,or, a really good year for the little blighters, depending on your point of view.

Back in June, I wrote about How To Save Your Solomon's Seal, with advice on  how to prevent the wretched sawfly larvae - or "caterpillars" to those who don't care what they are, and only care about protecting their plants - from decimating your Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum spp).

For some, this advice came too late...

 Oh dear.


"What can I do?" comes the frantic plea.

Unfortunately, once they've reached this state, there is nothing that can be done, and my practice is to cut them right down, because there isn't going to be much in the way of photosynthesising going on, and they look horrible! So just cut the stems right down, throw the sad, tattered remainders on the compost heap, and then go and read the article to which I linked, above: and make a note that next year, start the protective measures a lot earlier in the year.

And, in case you've ever wondered why this plant is called what it is, it's all to do with the marks on the rhizomes:

If you have Solomon's Seal in your garden, you'll know that they tend to sit on the surface of the ground, rather than being buried deep below it, so you can often see the rhizomes in winter, sitting just flush with the soil.

And you will no doubt have noticed that the rhizomes are not smooth, they are ridged, and lumpy, with junctions and odd bits sprouting off to left and right: and they also have a lot of these strange round marks on them.

Personally, I think it's fairly clear that these are the scars from the previous year's stems, but apparently in times before the internet, ie the middle ages (*laughs*), these scars were said to look like the fabled seal of King Solomon. 

So now you know!

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Tuesday, 17 August 2021

You know how we all tend to exaggerate, a little, in normal life? We say things like "Oh, I would KILL for those cheekbones!" (Oh no you wouldn't, that would be murder.)

Or we say: "It took me ALL DAY to weed that bed," (no, it took you an hour and a half.)

Well, the other day I was presented with a nasty bindweed infestation:

Underneath all that lot is a standard Exochorda x macrantha 'The Bride', believe it or not.

The bindweed is on it, around it, below it, up the shrubs to the right, and heading south for the lawn as well.

So I set to work: and in case you are interested in my "process", I shall tell you how I approached it.

(I say that, because recently I had a paying student, who kept asking me what my "process" was.  This is not an expression I have heard, since turning my back on office life, and it took me a while to realise what they actually meant, by it.)

First job, then, sever the stems of the bindweed, as they rise into the shrub.

Next job, take off your gloves, and gently unwind the stems of bindweed, bit by bit, cutting them into smaller sections as you do so: don't just grab a handful and pull, otherwise you will definitely strip the foliage, and will probably break many of the branches, as well. Plus, being a standard, it only has one central stem, and it would be pretty disastrous to snap that!

Then, work your way down the shrub, unwinding and cutting the bindweed, until the whole thing is revealed.

Now you can start working your way back into the shrubs: and now, it is ok to grab handfuls and pull.

Once you have pulled out all the "loose" bindweed, you will then have to dig the roots out, and that's quite a job.

But my point, in this article, is that by the time I'd cleared the Exochorda, I was - wait for it - LITERALLY...

....up to my knees in bindweed! 








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Monday, 16 August 2021

Roses! Roses with fasciation!

Yet more fasciation - what is happening to the world?! *laughs*

I've spent the last several years waiting, with bated breath, to find the rare examples of fasciation, and now they are popping up left, right and centre!

This week, it's the Roses...

I've written about Fasciation several times - just type the word into the Search box at the top left of the page - so I won't cover it in detail again, other than to say that it is a spontaneous, harmless, mutation which plants sometime exhibit.

This is a rose stem, left: and  I have never before seen fasciation on roses, so this was quite exciting for me!

As you can see, left, the stem is madly curved - it's not floppy, it's perfectly rigid, but instead of being straight, it has this crazy curve.

Fasciation usually manifests like this - the stems become flattened and ribbed, instead of being round, and they often adopt strange curves, instead of being straight.

It's not infectious, it doesn't adversely affect the plant, it's not "permanent" in the sense that a particular plant might show some fasciation this year, and might never do it again.

It just looks a bit odd, doesn't it?!


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Sunday, 15 August 2021

How To: prop up a Mulberry tree

Anyone who has inherited a Mulberry tree will know about this problem - they are lazy trees, which grow to a certain size, then lose interest in being upright trees, and decide to lie down and take a rest. 

Here's a typical example, below: ten years ago, this one was leaning at only about half the angle which it has now achieved.....

 .... and I watched it fall over, in slow motion, over this period.

(I do wish I'd taken a photo every year, then I could have made a gif of it leaning gently over!)

When I first started gardening there, I used to be able to weed all round the main trunk - without bending over!

Now, as you can see, there is barely room for a daffodil.




 Here's another Mulberry, right: much larger and older: 

In this case, the Client had had a tree felled, elsewhere in the garden, and used large sections of the trunk, as props. 

You can't see the bases of the props, but they are each standing on an old concrete slab, which serves to spread the weight, keep them stable, and reduce rot. And of course, as soon as the underplanting grows, they are quite invisible.

It's best to keep the limbs off the ground if you can, because lying on damp ground tends to make the older limbs rot, which is not a good thing.

They do also sometimes root themselves into the ground, but that isn't really a problem as such - in fact, you are making new Mulberry trees! 

But really, it's best to keep the branches where they belong, up in the air.

So, why am I suddenly telling you about Mulberries?

Answer: I had a question from Graham (*waves*), who has a very old Mulberry tree, with a habit of occasionally dropping large branches, and which now has a Branch of Damocles leaning right across the main garden.

Graham said that he'd had a tree surgeon in, who said he was sorry, but "he hasn’t the structural expertise in propping up large tree branches".

At first I was a bit, er, scornful about this, because the routine is quite straightforward: just find a stout wooden post, or a non-decayed branch (preferably with a fork at the top) then wedge it under the offending branch. 

Here's a nice, simple example - left. 

A branch with a fork at the top, wedged neatly underneath a drooping branch.

Here's another, on the same tree - right.

You can see that it's a very stout, forked branch, but not very long... so I used a second piece of wood (stolen from the woodpile!) underneath it, to raise the fork as high as I could. The weight of the branch holds it all very firmly in place.

It definitely helps to have at least two people: one (or more) to lift up the branch slightly - if there is still any "give" in it - and the other to ram the post underneath. 

I went on to say that if the branch is seriously huge, and you cannot lift it at all, then simply choose larger supports - very much the sort of thing shown in the pictures at the beginning, which were sections of trunk from a large tree - and put them in position, using additional smaller "slices" or discs of wood, in order to get as high as possible under the drooping branch. Then allow time and gravity to lay the limb down onto the support. 

You can see that here - left - I used two slices of a felled tree (again, stolen from the woodpile), to prop up this overlong branch.

In this case, Mr Client was around, so I got him to lift up the branch, as I slid the second slice of trunk into place.

So there you see the principle: any old branches will do, as long as they are stout, and are in good condition, and they should last for several years.

As the trees will continue to grow, props will often need to be re-positioned every few years, so this gives you the opportunity to check them for decay, and replace them if necessary.

But then Graham showed me pictures of the tree in question: ah! I see the problem! Not only is it a whopper, but the offending branch is currently a good 9' (3m) off the ground, so although the principle of the "prop" is sound, it simply would not be possible in that situation. Any prop would need to be quite massive, and would need to be set in concrete (not exactly in tune with a garden!) and even then, it would not be structurally sound. 

Further, the branch is growing very nearly horizontal to the ground: and it was clear from the photos that it was pulling away from the main trunk of the tree, so there was every chance that the whole branch would just shear off, at some point.

So, with regret, my advice to Graham was to get the tree guy in again, and instruct him to reduce the offending limb, quite significantly.

I always feel like a murderer when I say this, but there are times when a tree just has to be reduced, and as Mulberries are notoriously prone to splitting, and sinking, and dropping branches, and collapsing in slow-motion: well, it might be better for the tree, to have some of that weight removed.   

The options then are twofold: either remove one entire branch, right back to where it joins the tree. There are many advantages to this: it's a clean cut, it deals with the problem for all time (well, for that particular branch, at least), and it can open up the canopy to let light in to the centre of the tree.

But on the other hand, it might leave a big hole in the canopy... in time, the tree will fill in any hole, but sometimes Clients are a bit twitchy about having too much removed at once.

In which case, a solution is to assess the branch, to see if there are any side branches, closer to the trunk, which are growing out at a "shapely" angle. If there are, then the branch can be shortened to that point, which takes the weight off the branch: in fact, when you start to reduce a large branch, you can often see the limb visibly lifting, as the weight is gradually removed.

When I say "a shapely angle", this is something which is a bit hard to describe without using my hands: it means a branch which is heading off from the original branch, in such a way that it can take over the job of "leader", thus retaining the original "form" of the tree.

I would expect an arborist to be able to advise as to which limbs to keep, and where to cut: the essence is to get the weight/bulk off, but to try to retain something of the "form" of the tree - and to get it back to being a more upright shape. If possible...

Finally, we turn to the knotty problem of WHEN to prune a Mulberry. They are subject to leaking dramatic amounts of sap, if pruned at the "wrong" time, so it's important not to rush out there and chop bits off them at random: any worthwhile arborist or tree surgeon should already know this, but it's worth mentioning it again.

Some quick internet research throws up some contradictory statements:

1) "Winter pruning can be performed from November to early March, though we recommend pruning in early March, just before growth recommences."

2) You should only undertake pruning when the tree is dormant, roughly 1 month after the leaves have fallen. (they fall in November, so that's a vote for December-ish)

3) Prune mulberries when they are fully dormant; about a month after leaf fall. (this is the RHS website, so I'd agree with that one.)

4) Try not to cut branches larger than 2 inches (2.5 cm.) in diameter. (Yes, that's not very helpful, we often have to do things, because they need doing...)

5) Don’t prune when the weather is very cold. When the temperature is under 50 degrees F. (10 C.), it is harder for the tree to seal off its wounds. A good time for mulberry trimming is in spring prior to the buds turning green. ("Spring", eh? That's traditionally April or even May...)

6)Prune towards the end of dormancy, in early March.

7) Although most trimming should be done in winter, you can do some selective trimming in the summer if your tree is growing too much for your liking. For example, you can trim off the top of the tree in summer to control its height. (that's from Wikihow, so it must be true, right?)

8) February is TOO LATE to prune sap bleeders such as Birch, Walnut, Mulberry etc.

Confusing, huh?

There is another Mulberry pruning issue: many of the internet entries stress that, even if you do it at the "right" time, you should only do minimal pruning: the figure of "only cut branches not more than 2 inches in diameter" keeps cropping up.

This chap, in direct contradiction, says "And remember – you can chainsaw a mulberry to the ground and you won’t kill it. They’re amazing.... Unlike some other fruit trees, mulberries can take a ridiculous amount of pruning and shaping."

So, after all that lot, what do we think? 

Well, it's much easier to do the work when the leaves are off the tree, ie the depths of winter, because you can see what you are doing. I think we all agree on that.

But on the other hand, sometimes you just have to do the work, if the tree and/or the Client requires it, regardless of the time of year.

And, as always, a penn'orth of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as they used to say, so if you have a Mulberry tree in your garden, check it over at least once a year, and see if there are any branches which need attention. Mark dead or damaged branches, to remind you which ones to remove, at the end of the year, and prop up any which are starting to droop.

Finally, really finally, here's a scary thought:

Did You Know? In 1984, the city administration of Tucson, Arizona, banned the planting of mulberry trees citing that the amount of pollen produced by these trees was harmful for humans...


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Monday, 9 August 2021

Vinegar Weedkiller: myth or mith-take?

The other day, I wrote an article about so-called organic weedkiller, and I briefly mentioned vinegar.

I had a question from one of my lovely Patrons (*waves*) asking for more detail on vinegar, because the internet is full of articles saying how effective it is.

"Use vinegar to kill your weeds" the articles say. "It's cheap, quick, easy, safe, and very good".

My opinion: it may be cheap, quick and easy, but it is far from safe, and it is very far indeed from being "very good" at killing weeds.

So let's look at it in a bit more detail.

Firstly, what do we mean by vinegar? The chemical in vinegar,  which kills the weeds, is Acetic acid. 

Most supermarket vinegars, whether white, or brown, contain only 5%  Acetic acid. For weed-killing, you need over 10%, and some reports suggest even 20%, so regular household vinegar may wilt the weeds, briefly, but they will quickly regrow. In most cases it will do nothing.

As an aside, did you know that most fish and chip shops don't actually use vinegar? I know, horrifying news, but apparently most of them use what is called a Non Brewed Condiment.

Traditional vinegars are made by fermenting alcohol (wine, in the case of wine vinegar; cider for cider vinegar, and an ale made from malted barley in the case of malt vinegar). The fermentation process takes time, and all the colours in the vinegar occur naturally.

Non-brewed condiment, however,  is made from "food grade glacial acetic acid", apparently: diluted with water, coloured with caramel, and with some salt or spices added for flavouring. Why? Because this is a much quicker and cheaper process: it can be stored in concentrated form and diluted when needed, and it has a much, much longer shelf life.

According to Trading Standards in the UK, it cannot be labelled as vinegar or even put in traditional vinegar bottles if it is being sold or put out on counters in fish-and-chip shops... but they all do it.

So don't even attempt to kill weeds with "genuine chip shop vinegar" because it will probably contain even less acetic acid than the "real" stuff!

Right, moving on from that.... vinegar. Acetic acid. For killing weeds.

How does it work?

Acetic acid will kill any plant, regardless of the source. It absorbs moisture from the leaves and quickly kills and shrivels the weed. Be warned, it's non selective, which means that it will kill every plant it touches, including grass, and your precious perennials. 

It is also - and this is an important point - a "contact only" weed killer, meaning it will only kill the parts of the plant it touches. That means that it won't work on deep rooted weeds - dandelion, bindweed, Cow Parsley, Hogweed, Ground Elder, brambles ... I could go on, but we'd be here all day - which will simply regenerate. from their roots underground.

Next questions: Is it safe to use vinegar as a weed killer?

Well, for the most part it is "safe", in the sense that it won't burst into flames, or poison your pets, but be warned that higher concentrations of acetic acid can be extremely dangerous. 10-20% acetic acid vinegar is potent stuff, so if you do choose to have a go at this, make sure you use safety gloves, eye protection and - preferably - a face mask at all times. Oh, and try not to breathe the fumes too much.

As well as the possibility of it burning you, if you get it on bare skin, you should also know that  overuse can quickly alter your soil PH, which MAY cause all sorts of harm, and prevent future plant growth. 

What are the benefits of vinegar vs commercial weed killers? 

It's relatively cheap and readily available. It can work very quickly, sometimes taking as little as couple of hours to eliminate small weeds. Once sprayed it isn't likely to be harmful to the environment, your pets or your children. Kills most garden weeds in one application. No need to exclude kids or pets from the area. Can be used in areas with edible crops. (Allegedly, on that last one. I'm not sure I'd really want all my crops to be delicately perfumed with vinegar...)

What are the disadvantages of using vinegar? 

 Higher acidity means much more danger.  It won't kill deep rooted or larger weeds. It is not as effective as commercial weed killers. It cannot be used on lawns (to be fair, nor can Glyphosate).  Lower acidity vinegars may not work at all. Can affect soil PH if over sprayed. 

Right, so let's assume that, despite all the foregoing, you are determined to give it a go. 

How to use vinegar as a weed killer: 

There is no need to dilute vinegar, it's already in liquid form which makes it easy for the plant to absorb. Diluting it will only decrease the effectiveness. Put the vinegar into a sprayer bottle,  or a pressure sprayer, so that you apply it accurately and evenly, remembering to use safety equipment. Simply spray it onto the weed,  covering the leaves and the stems. Be careful not to get any on any plants you wish to keep: and don't overspray, or drench: try not to allow the vinegar to seep into the soil, if at all possible.

Can I combine it with salt?

Well, yes: you can add some salt, to increase the effectiveness, but bear in mind that passage in the bible about killing your enemies and salting the ground: salt will poison the soil, and it takes a long time to dissipate.

Whether you add salt or not, bear in mind that if you plan to replant the sprayed area, ie maybe to put grass seed down, or to plant new crops, then you will have to give your soil PH sufficient time to recover. How long is that? Honestly, I don't know, and apparently nor does anyone on the internet. It could be a few days, it could be a year or two, no-one actually gives a duration. Which says something about the general inadvisability of using chemicals which have not been rigorously tested, doesn't it?

Do I need to add washing  up liquid?

Strictly speaking, you don't "need" to, but adding a squirt or two of washing up liquid reduces the surface tension of the plant, allowing the salt and vinegar to be more easily absorbed, thus increasing the effectiveness of both. Just bear in mind that washing up liquid = yet more chemicals, which you are adding to your soil.

Best practices for effective use: Use on a sunny day when the weeds are in full sun. If you do this it isn't uncommon for small weeds to die within hours. Don't use on windy days as it may blow the vinegar onto plants you wish to keep. Don't use when the plants are already wet, ie just after rain, or heavy dew: and don't use when rain is forecast, for the obvious reason. ("because the rain will wash the vinegar off the leaves", of course.)

How effective is it? 

Aha,  the million dollar question. It is - according to the internet, I have not actually tried it myself -  highly effective against small or new weeds that haven't become established and don't have energy stores to regrow. Vinegar is a contact killer, for the most part it will only kill the parts of the weed it touches. It won't travel through the plant and kill the roots, as Glyphosate does. It won't be effective against large invasive species like knotweed or brambles.

So, to sum up: vinegar, old story, doesn't really work very well: seriously, would Monsanto have gone to all the effort of developing and testing glyphosate, if vinegar did the trick?


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Sunday, 8 August 2021

Non-glyphosate weedkillers: truth, or terrible?

 Oh blimey, here we go again: as Mal (*waves*) pointed out in an earlier article, I am still blithely suggesting that, if you have to use a weedkiller, then it is better to go for one which is just glyphosate, rather than one of the "instant effect" cocktails which are mostly defoliant, and which don't - literally - get to the root of the problem. But it is getting increasingly difficult to buy glyphosate-only weedkiller.

Besides, a lot of people want to avoid chemicals, in which case, you might think about going for a so-called Organic Weedkiller: the two commonest ones are Acetic acid (vinegar, old story, doesn't really work very well: seriously, would Monsanto have gone to all the effort of developing and testing glyphosate if vinegar did the trick?) and, the latest craze, Pelargonic acid.

Interestingly, Roundup are pushing their non-Glyphosate weedkiller: this is "interesting" to me, and somewhat amusing, because Roundup used to be the brand name of the only glyphosate weedkiller on the market, until it came out of patent around the year 2000, and suddenly all the "sheds" (B&Q, Homebase, etc) were able to sell their own-brand glyphosate weedkiller, for half the price.

So now Roundup are fighting back, by piggybacking on the current scare stories about glyphosate, to present us with their glyphosate-free alternative: 

They are calling it Roundup Naturals, which is just hilarious... but we'll get onto that, later.

So, what's it all about?

The active constituent is Pelargonic acid, also called nonanoic acid, which is an organic compound with structural formula CH3(CH2)7CO2H. 

Impressed, huh? 

Oh all right, I admit it, I looked it up.  

More detail: it is a nine-carbon fatty acid: it is a colourless, oily liquid, with an unpleasant, rancid odour.

Mmm, yummy.

The pack boasts;

 "Weeds may show first effects within 2-3 hours of spraying"  

Ooh, that's exciting, we all love a quick result, don't we? Except that, as gardeners, we know that the quick result is rarely the best one.... and a weedkiller which has quick results is nothing more than a defoliant: it is not a proper answer to the problem, because the weed will grow back from the undamaged roots.

So where does this unpleasant, rancid-odour acid come from? The clue is in the name, the original compound was extracted from Pelargonium. Yes, those smelly conservatory plants, relations of our common garden Geranium. (Geraniums? Gerania? Who knows...) The leaves contain an oil, from which Pelargonium acid can be extracted. Does this mean that it is a natural, organic product? No, it does not! *laughs*.  It is merely named after the plant which originally provided the substance: most of it is now synthesized. 

Next question: whether naturally harvested, or synthesized, how does it actually work?

"Nonanoic acid (Pelargonic acid) is produced naturally in plants when the fatty acid Oleic acid is oxidised by stress associated free radicals to form Pelargonic acid. When left unchecked Pelargonic acid denatures internal cells walls eventually causing plant death."

Translation: vast amounts of it will destroy the cell walls in the soft green parts of the plant, leading to fast wilting and death. 

However, the roots are unaffected, and woody growth is unaffected: it only works on young, soft, green growth.

What else do we know about this wonder product?

It's quite scary, actually: Pelargonic Acid is also used in riot control: if you don't believe me, check it out for yourself.  To be exact, Pelargonic acid vanillylamide (PAVA or nonivamide) is the product - and, as an aside, the majority of PAVA is derived from synthesis rather than extraction from natural plant sources, so does it really count as "organic"? -  which is used, but in order for PAVA to work, it must be directed at the subject's eyes. The pain to the eyes is reported to be higher than that caused by CS tear gas.


My next question is, would you drink it?

"The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved pelargonic acid as a food additive, and as an ingredient in solutions used commercially to peel fruits and vegetables. These approvals indicate that FDA considers it safe for humans to eat food containing small amounts of pelargonic acid."

The above quote is taken from a US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) document titled "Pelargonic Acid Fact Sheet". (Although it is dated 1st April, not sure if that is relevant or not...) It should be reassuring, to read that the same product we are using to kill our weeds, is used to peel our fruit and veg, but somehow, that information makes me vaguely uncomfortable. Maybe, because it underlines that small amounts of it are good and useful (ie the food preparation) but when applied in large quantities, it kills things. And perhaps I'm not comfortable with the concept of applying "a lot" of a chemical.

Moving on to other bits of Small Print on the label:

1)  "contains CMIT/MIT" 

Ever wondered that that means? Well, CMIT is - brace yourself - Chloromethyl-methylisothiazolone. There, now you know. 

Sorry, what was that? You want to know what it is, and what it does? Well done, these are the questions that you should be asking, if you are really committed to organic, earth-friendly, weed control. 

Put simply, it's a preservative, to inhibit the growth of mould, ie to extend shelf life. So, your so-called organic product is stuffed full of chemicals to stop it going stinky in the bottle. 

2) "Maximum number of treatments: 4 per year."

How many people actually read that, I wonder? And of those, how few obey it? Just above that command, there is the instruction to "Repeat as necessary after a minimum of 7 days" so that cuts it down to only being used twice a year. Hmm.  And also suggests that the product regularly does not work very well, and needs to be reapplied. Hmm, again.

3) "It is most effective on young weeds, smaller than 10cm"

Good to know - won't have any effect on the main crop of weeds, then? And, as we already know, it won't affect anything with a stout, woody stem - which makes it great to use for teeny tiny weeds under the hedge, but won't do a thing for brambles.

Now for a minor diversion: the same product is available in Australia under the brand name of "Slasher" (*snorts through nose*) and their marketing information proudly states:

"SLASHER Weedkiller contains 525g/L (Pelargonic acid) Nonanoic acid. Pelargonic acid is a fatty acid which occurs naturally as esters in the oil of pelargonium plants. It can be made synthetically, however, to meet Organic Standards the Pelargonic acid in SLASHER is produced sustainably from biologically based raw materials using an environmentally sustainable patented method  of extraction."

What does this mean? It means that any product which does NOT make that exact statement, is using the artificially synthesized Pelargonic acid, not the "natural" or "organic" stuff. 

Personally, if I had to use a chemical, I'd rather use one that was synthesized and was therefore consistent in strength and effectiveness, and did not require the death of huge numbers of plants, in order to extract it. Call me old-fashioned, but there seems to be a slight mis-match in the concept of " oh goody, we can kill lots more plants in order to extract the herbicide that we need to organically kill these other plants."

There's another teeny tiny "gotcha" in the instructions for that product: it states that you must agitate (shake) the spray bottle every 5-10 minutes, in order to keep the product "well mixed in the spray water". So if you - like most people - don't bother to read the instructions properly, you will find that the first 9/10ths of the area which you spray is barely affected by the weedkiller, because you didn't shake the bottle every five minutes, and all the active ingredient has settled to the bottom. Or risen to the top, it doesn't specify which.


So, what does all this mean? What, if you are interested, is my opinion? 

I think we should all be very careful of glyphosate alternatives for the moment. Many of them are products which have been press-ganged into weed-killing, having formerly had very different uses. And, whatever your opinion of Monsanto and the whole glyphosate issue, it did go through stringent, lengthy testing, before it was released to the general public.

Finally, getting on my soapbox a bit, the term "earth friendly organic herbicide" is a logical fallacy.  It is no more than marketing, intended to sell a product.  Pouring chemicals on the earth is NOT friendly, nor is it ORGANIC.  The whole phrase is carefully designed to sell their glyphosate alternatives....... as you will know if you have read any of my articles on bramble removal (of which there are now many! Go to the "search" box, top left of the page, and type in the word "brambles", if you would like to know more on that subject), I am not in favour of weedkiller, but I accept that in some situations - ie brambles! - there is no realistic alternative. 

But - and it's a big but (no jokes, please) - I will state again:

The earth-friendly, organic way to deal with weeds, is to dig them out and compost them.


Well, this brief article has turned into a lengthy one: but I do feel that there is no point me sitting here and just typing "Organic weedkillers? Nah, don't bother, they're crap" because what good does that do? How would that help you to make your own minds up?  Instead, I like to do the research, find out some facts, and present them to you, all neatly wrapped up in one - looooong - article.

And I hope that it helps you to understand what you are buying: if it did, then, seriously, please consider making a donation, or becoming a Patron.


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

Saturday, 7 August 2021

Mnemonics and how to use them

 Mnemonics are very useful, when learning any new skill or interest.

What, exactly, are they?

Wikipedia says they "...are a learning technique that aids information retention or retrieval in the human memory" which is less than helpful. A more useful description is "a tool that helps us remember certain facts or large amounts of information. They can come in the form of a song, rhyme, acronym, image, phrase, or sentence"

They work because they change the problem: instead of having to learn a new, complicated, word, which means nothing, and refuses to stick in your brain, you just have to remember some nice, easy, familiar words, in a slightly unusual juxtaposition.

As an example, one of my Clients struggles to remember new plant names, so I always have to invent a mnemonic for her. 

She used to have a large, old Caryopteris in her garden:  I wrote about pruning it, some years ago, and I mentioned her difficulty with remembering the name.

I told her to think of Cary Grant (for a younger person, I would perhaps have gone with Cary Elwes), and the thought process was something like this:


Cary - opteris.

Cary Grant, film star.

Optician, Optical, Optometrist - all to do with spectacles and eyesight.

So it's Cary Grant in spectacles. Cary-Opterist.

She has never had a problem remembering that one, from that day forth.

And just last week, we had the same problem: this time with Balloon Flower, proper name Platycodon. This is a beautiful perennial, I have no idea why it isn't more common, as it comes in a lovely strong blue (also in white): it's easy to grow, fully hardy, very well behaved... anyway, it's called Balloon Flower because the buds are quite extraordinary:

There - isn't that weird? They inflate, in super-slow motion, until they look like balloons, about to burst.

And then, of course, one day they do burst! Into flower, that is.

"Kaboom!" as Fred would say.

(Hey Fred, how are you doing? Give me a call, I'd love to hear from you...)

When the flower opens, it is still quite spectacular, if maybe a wee bit more "ordinary" than the buds:

Anyway, getting back to the plot: my Client asked me the name of this plant, which she had just noticed in one of her borders.

When I told her Platycodon, she gave me that Look: the one that says "no matter how many times you stand there and say it to me, I will never remember it."

So we started with a Duck-billed Platypus: that was an easy beginning.

Codon? Coat-on?

Right, it's a Duck-billed Platypus, which you are taking out for a walk (I said), and it's a cold day for a creature who is accustomed to the heat of Australia, so it has to put a coat on.



Close enough! And at the end of it, I received a lovely compliment: "I love your teaching methods," she said.

Happy Client, Happy Gardener.  So if you struggle to remember the proper names of plants, try changing them into something which is easier to remember.

Here's one more, to get you started: way back when I first started gardening professionally, I had awful trouble remembering the name Hellebore.

Here's a clump of Helleborus orientalis, the one you are most likely to have in your gardens.

I just could not remember the name! Whether it was these ones, or the slightly more "wild" one, Helleborus foetidus, I simply could not bring the name to mind, when I needed to.

And when I say "needed to", I mean "when presented with a specimen, with the Client stood there, looking at me enquiringly, and expecting me to know the name of the plant."

This was somewhat embarrassing, as you can imagine. "Call yourself a gardener?" I used to mutter to myself. But that did not help.

So I turned to mnemonics: and the phrase "what the hell is that plant" was easy to associate with the plant in question, and of course the emphasis is on the word "hell", as in "hell-e-bore". 


"What the hell-hell-hellebore" is now what runs through my mind, every time I see one. Although after all these years, I am finally starting to remember the actual name, so that's progress, I guess!

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

Friday, 6 August 2021

How to deal with Brambles growing down the side of the shed

 I've just had a plaintive plea in from Keith: he says:

"I've had a new panelled fence fitted to my back garden and also a large shed about 9 inches away from it. I've now discovered a bramble growing between the fence and shed but cannot reach to to cut it back or reach the root. 

"The gap is too narrow to use loppers (they need a wider space to operate them) and I cannot use weed killer because my cat keeps going in there. I have tried to stop the cat but it's impossible (try making a cat do something it doesn't want to do) do you have any ideas for dealing with my problem (the bramble I mean)?"

This is a horrible situation, and not at all uncommon.   Everyone plonks the shed as close as possible to the fence, to avoid wasting our precious garden space: but it does lead to this problem.

It is far better to leave a gap wide enough for a slender person to just about make their way down it: after all, at some point you are going to want to paint the fence, paint the shed, cut next door's overhanging trees, rescue a fallen bird, etc etc: so it's far better to leave room to get down there safely.

In a perfect world, you'd leave a gap of a yard/metre, and then you could also use it for storage of garden canes, folded-up chairs, etc. But of course, with gardens being smaller and smaller these days, sometimes it is not possible to do the "sensible" thing,  and you have to manage, with what you've got.

Here's a classic positioning blunder, pinched off the internet - left.

This shed is pushed right into the corner, and is also hedged in by the trellis on the left.

So there's no chance at all of either repainting the fences, when they need it - which they will! - or of dealing with brambles and other weeds creeping in around the sides and back of it.

So how can I help Keith and his kitty-cat?

Well, it's going to involve weedkiller, but first let's look at how to get the main part of the bramble out.

Keith comments that the gap is too narrow to use loppers, and that makes sense - loppers open quite wide, and if the gap were wide enough to open the loppers, it would be wide enough to walk down.

However, loppers also work if you hold them vertically, with the handles opening up-and-down, as it were, rather than out-to-the-sides, so that would be the first option: try to get the loppers in, vertically, and see if you can chop off some of the canes.

However, even if this works, it won't solve the problem, and here's where the weedkiller comes in.

I've checked the Data Sheets for glyphosate, and they state that pets must be excluded from sprayed areas ONLY until the product is dry. And it's a very quick-drying product.

I would therefore suggest buying some Glyphosate-based weed killer: not the ones offering "Instant Death", "Works within 24 hrs" etc: just the plain ordinary Glyphosate weedkiller.

Then grab hold of Mr Furry, and shut him indoors with a bowl of food, and keep him indoors until the area has dried: to be on the safe side, I'd wait for a dry, windy, hot day if possible, so that it dries as quickly as it can: I'd start the job early in the day, and I'd keep the cat away for as long as possible.

If you think that the political prisoner might make a bolt for freedom, then I would put him in a cat-carrier: this might seem like a mean thing to do, but if you are seriously concerned about your pet, then better safe than sorry.

Having excluded the cat, lean in as far as you can, and spray liberally.  

This process will probably have to be repeated every couple of months: either the bramble is sneaking under the fence, in which case there will probably be more of them, or it grew from seed, in which case there are very possibly more seeds, lying in wait! 

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