Sunday, 19 September 2021

Scythe Blade Special - Peening and progress

 This is going to be a bit of a specialist article, only really of interest to Scythe-Nerds!

Yesterday two of us went on a scything course with Clive Leeke : one of us had never used a scythe, and the other one (me) was very aware of having picked up lots of terrible habits over the last 6 years, and was therefore not keen to teach the other, so as not to pass on those evil habits.

So we went off to Sonning Common for the day, and one of us learned, while the other re-learned.

The most interesting part of the day - for me - was a chance to re-learn the skill of peening, which is something I haven't needed to do, so I'd forgotten all the details.  

Peening is the act of hammering the very edge of the blade, to "draw down" or "stretch out" a bit more of the metal, in order to create a new cutting surface. It is done when the edge becomes chipped or damaged, or has been honed ("sharpened") so many times that the razor-thin edge has been worn away. 

So we peen down a bit more metal, from the bulkier part of the blade, to get a bit more wafer-thin metal which we can then hone.

Simple, huh?

I was beginning to wonder if my own blade was due for peening, as I have been using it for the last six years without cease... and my friend Jon, from Canal Club, was wondering the same, because his blade was quite battered. Neither of us were quite brave enough to peen our own blades, so he lent me his battered one to take along to the course, in the hope that we would be able to peen it for him.

For those of a nerdish disposition, all the blades shown here are 65cm Ditch blades.

Now we get to the nerdy bit: here are a long sequence of photos of the cutting edges of our blades, as seen under high magnification.  I took the first set of photos because I wanted to see if there was a discernible difference between my own, current, blade, and my spare back-up brand-new, never-used blade.

So let's start with them. On with the nerdery! 

In all these photos, we are looking down on the blade, the top edge of the photo is heading up towards the rib, the bottom edge of the photo is the cutting edge. And, as they appear in sequence, I was starting at the beard and working out towards the tip.

First set: my own, current blade:

My interpretation: quite a nice, straight, consistent cutting edge. No major nicks or dings. Better than I had thought it would be: but what would Clive say? Well, on arrival, he pronounced my blade to be super-sharp, so I was well pleased.

Right, now here's my new, un-used blade for comparison:

To my surprise, not hugely different. This blade had, on arrival, been peened and honed (along with my other one) by my friend Jim, who is very much an expert on such things. So it does not have a perfect "factory finish" but is, as it were, ready for use.

I think the main difference between the two, is that my blade in use, shows a lot of diagonal markings from honing.

Now we turn to Jon's blade: this is what it looked like when he dropped it off:

Overall, pretty straight along the bottom, I thought: not as bad as you would have thought from looking at it, if you see what I mean. There is a definite progression: the first photos are at the beard end, and the cutting edge is pretty straight. Then we get to the main working part of the blade, and there's a bit more wavyness going on. Then there is the one almighty ding, quite close to the tip.

Ok: brace yourselves! Here's Jon's blade again, after the course: peened, and honed, and tested.

Now you can see the fresh, shiny new metal which has been peened - or "stretched" - off the blade, to form a new cutting edge, thin enough to be honed and made super-sharp.

I am sure that a better peener would have made a more even job of it, but it's not bad, for a beginner, and already it is a lot less wavy, and most of the smaller dings have now gone, as new metal has been brought down to fill the gaps, as it were.

Even the Big Ding is better than it was: Clive explained that we could, had we wished, have removed it entirely, by peening more metal down around and over it, then filing off the excess to get back to a straight cutting edge. But as this ding is situated right up by the tip, he said it was not worth spending a lot of time and energy in doing "advanced peening" on it, when it was not on the part of the blade which did the majority of the cutting work, particularly as "advanced peening" carries a risk of cracking the blade, which would be bad: so that level of remedial work would be better carried out by someone more experienced than us.

One point of interest for scythe-nerds, and for myself and Jon, was Clive's comment, on first seeing Jon's blade, was that, despite all the wavy bits and little dings, it was still super-sharp and very effective. 

Does that mean that it didn't really need to be peened? Well, technically, yes: while the blade can still be honed, and while it keeps that sharpness for a reasonable time, you don't really need to peen. But it was good to get the dings out, and I am sure that Jon will be glad that he's put off the awful moment of having to peen, for another few years!

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Saturday, 18 September 2021

Always exciting - opening up a compost pen!

Today was the day - time to open up a compost pen, and see whether it was full of "lovely stuff" or not!

Just to remind you, my preferred way of making compost is to have three pens: one to be filling, one to be rotting down, and one which is fully rotted, and available for use.

I am always writing about compost - if you want to know more, either type the word into the search box, top left of the screen: or go to Amazon and buy my book on How To Make Compost And Leaf Mold *laughs* because it's excellent, and has all the detail you will need.

Today, then, was an exciting day: this pen has been rotting down for a good long time, and is ready to be opened.

First job - take out a couple of the front planks, now that the level has sunk down so much.

Next job - rake off the top, dry, layer, which has only partially rotted, and put all that material onto the "fill me" pen.

Now, what do we have?


Apparently we have a pair of gloves making "bunny ears".

Ignoring them.... this is great! We have a successful compost pen.

You can see that the pen has reduced in volume by over half: it was full to overflowing when we stopped filling it, and in the intervening several months, it has rotted down until there is just a compact mass of "lovely stuff" at the bottom.

At least, we hope that it is "lovely stuff"... so let's take a closer look.


Ooh yes! Lovely stuff! Dark, nearly black: moist but not soggy, friable but not dusty - perfect "organic matter".

This can now be used as an autumn mulch on the beds, as I clear them, ready for the winter: it can go as a nutrient-rich mulch around the base of the fruit trees in this garden: I will be topping up the various pots and planters with it: and whatever is left over will be going onto the Veg patch, once it's cleared at the end of the season.

That will take care of this material, and by spring, when we are ready for more mulching and soil improving, why, by then the next pen - the one which is currently in the "rotting down" stage - should be ready for opening. 

It also means that this pen, the one I am now emptying, will be standing empty for a couple of months, which gives the wood time to dry out, thus extending its life. 

There are many advantages to the "three-pen" system, of which I am so fond!

Now, this leads on to another point: a recent Training Day Student was asking me to clarify the differences between compost, multi-purpose compost, and organic matter. What were they, what was the difference between them, and did we use them for different things? 

So I wrote a post about it - do please check it out, if you are the least bit unsure about what is what, in the wonderful world of compost!


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Thursday, 16 September 2021

What is the difference between compost, organic matter, and leaf mold?

This is a question from a recent Training Day Student: they asked me to clarify the differences between compost, multi-purpose compost, leaf mold, farmyard manure, potting compost, John Innes, organic matter, etc  - what were they, what was the difference between them, and did we use them for different things?

This is an excellent question!

It's one of those things that every professional gardener knows, as a matter of course, and it's easy to forget that we were all new to it, once. 

So here we go! What do we have, under the general heading of "compost"?

1) Compost - home-made

2) Compost - multi-purpose

3) Farmyard manure

4) Organic matter

5) Manure from someone's muck heap

6) John Innes products

7) Leaf mold

Let's look at each of those in turn - grab yourselves a cup of tea, folks, this might be a long post!

1) Compost - home-made. This is what we make in our own gardens,  from our own weeds, cut-down herbaceous material, kitchen vegetable scraps and so on, which rot down into "compost". It is free to make, and it is fantastically "eco", because we are keeping all the nutrients within our own garden, which is a good thing for many, many reasons. It teaches us about the true meaning of recycling, it reminds us of the circular nature of gardening, and it teaches us patience - it takes as long as it takes, and there is no point trying to rush it.

Use for: potting on cuttings, digging into beds and borders, using as a mulch.

Pros: free to make, on hand when we need it (because it's already in our gardens!), rich with nutrients.

Cons: takes time, is messy - and compost pens are rarely pretty, plus they take up space in our gardens.

2) Compost - multi-purpose. This is the stuff we buy in plastic bags from the garden centres. It used to be made mostly from peat, mixed with rotted plant material,  but now we know that Using Peat Is Bad, so it's mostly plant-based by-products such as coir, bark, coconut husks, and so on with - allegedly - added fertiliser.  It's mass-produced, it often contains contaminants such as glass, stones, plastic etc, which vexes me, and I have written about this at length. The worst thing about shop-bought compost is that if you let it dry out, it is very difficult to re-wet it: you have to tip it into a tray, add water, and physically push the water into the dusty compost, using the same action as when you "rub up a crumble". And if you don't know what that means, I've described it in detail, here

Use for: seedlings, potting on cuttings, potted plants. 

Pros: cheap to buy, easy to transport (it comes in bags), fairly clean to use.

Cons: goes dusty if allowed to dry out, only contains enough nutrients for 6 weeks (read the pack! It says so!), is often contaminated, is of variable quality, and uses a lot of carbon with packing, transporting, storage etc.

3) Farmyard manure. This is now available in bags, to buy, from garden centres, which used to make me laugh like a drain when I first saw it. Yes! People are buying small bags of cow poo! *laughs* Anyone who has ever walked past a farm will know what a huge volume of cow poo is produced in the UK, great steaming heaps of it, so it strikes me as amusing that townies are buying it in dainty little 50litre bags.  However, if your garden soil is lacking in nutrients, or in "body", then adding farmyard manure is the best thing you can do, and at least by buying it, you are supporting the farming industry.

Use for:  digging into beds and borders, using as a mulch.

Pros: neatly packaged, clean to transport, good rich stuff. Properly speaking, it should be regulated, so it should contain known amounts of nutrients, and should not contain more than an acceptable level of chemicals, drugs, etc (ie all the treatments given to the cows, in their normal farmed lives).

Cons: again, packaging, transporting: all of which is a high carbon cost.

4) Organic matter: this is the posh name for farmyard manure. For squeamish townies who don't like the idea of putting cow poo on their gardens. Poor souls.

5) Manure from someone's muck heap. Anyone with a horse or two will gladly give the stuff away for free, because horses, like cows, are basically poo-machines: you put grass (hay/feed etc) in one end, and get poo out of the other. The trick is to get what is known as "well-rotted manure". Fresh horse poo is too "hot" to use on plants: it generates heat as it rots, and literally burns the plants. But very old horse poo, which has been badly stored, or has become water logged, is horrible stinky stuff, and will not doe your roses much good. "Well rotted" manure is a homogenous mass, which does not smell of anything in particular, and is not unpleasant to the touch. If you can see individual "clods" of poo, then it is not well rotted. If it stinks, it is not well rotted. If it is slimy and heavy, it is not well rotted. If someone invites you to help yourself to their muck heap, ask them which is the oldest one, and head there.

Use for:  digging into beds and borders, using as a mulch. 

Pros: free! Should be lovely rich stuff, full of nutrients.

Cons: you normally have to shovel and bag it up yourself, so it's hard work, and can make a mess of your car.  Also, it may well contain drugs/chemicals from anything given to the horses, ie worming treatments, other medication etc. Another good reason for heading for the oldest part of the muck heap, in the hopes that any chemicals will have degraded.

6) John Innes products: ah, the holy grail of gardeners. Loam based products, finely graded and tested for nutrient value, and selected for various uses, ie seed compost, potting compost etc. Loam, by the way, is the Ultimate Soil. It's friable, holds water well, full of nutrients and minerals, is lovely to handle, etc etc etc. 

Use for: seedlings, potting on cuttings, plants in pots: there is a different grade for most requirements.

Pros: all of the above.

Cons: expensive!

7) Leaf mold. A bit of a soap-box of mine... I am always writing about it, I've even written an eBook about it!  (How to Make Compost and Leaf Mold - does what it says on the cover...) Briefly, you just rake up all your fallen tree leaves in autumn, and let them rot themselves down into a wonderful lightweight, fluffy, non-smelly product which you cannot buy... no, no-one sells it, I can't think why, and as soon as I move house and get a bigger garden, I am going into production, believe me! Leaf mold does not contain much in the way of nutrients, but has a lot of minerals, and is a truly fantastic soil conditioner. 

Use for: seedlings and potting on cuttings, if mixed 50/50 with compost:  digging into beds and borders, using as a mulch. 

Pros: free! Easy to make! Takes an annoying waste product - dead leaves - and turns it into something wonderful!

Cons: takes time - 2 years minimum. But patience is a virtue....

So there you go, a quick run-down of the main types of "compost", their differences and their uses. 

And to make it even easier for you, here's a handy table!





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Tuesday, 14 September 2021

Moving house? How to take your best plants with you.

Non-gardeners would never even consider this to be a problem... but what do you, if you love your garden, but you have to move house. Can you take the garden with you? Or, can you at least take your favourite plants?

There are two elements to this question - horticulturally, and legally.

Let's start with "legally". Properly speaking, the buyer is buying the house and the garden, as seen. So if you plan to take plants with you, you need to ensure that the agents, and the buyers, know that certain plants are not included in the house sale.

It's fairly easy, obvious, and acceptable, to point out that all plants in pots will be moving with you, but it gets a bit more awkward if you intend to take plants which are growing, or which appear to be growing, in the ground.

I say "appear to be", because I have a lot of small trees in pots which are "plunged" into the ground, specifically to stop them from rooting, and make them easier to lift, because I fully intend to take them with me, when I move. This means that I will have to point this out to the agents.

It is sad, but true, that most people - non-gardeners - won't even "see" most of your garden, they'll just get an impression of greenery, leaves, colours, etc. So they won't care if you take a few plants with you. And it's quite easy to work out what sort of people they are - if they look round your house, then when shown the garden, burst into excited skips of joy, crying "Oh look, a Liriodendron!" and rush round taking photos of everything, then you will have to be quite specific, if you are intending to dig it up and take it with you.

But if they just look outside, and say "hmm, oh yes, very nice," then you can probably get away with nabbing a few prize specimens, as long as you don't strip the place. And make sure the garden is "tidy" afterwards: if they can't see any obvious holes in the planting, they might not even realise that you have removed your favourites. 

So that's the legality of it: what about the practicalities? Well, that divides into Prep, Decisions, Just Beforehand, and Packing.


Well, first and most obvious, "Pot them up". Dig up your precious ones, pot them up, well in advance of the move. This serves a double function: firstly, plants in pots are not "part of" the garden, and secondly, if they are going to die, then they might as well die before you have gone to the trouble of moving them.

Secondly, "Take cuttings, take seed". Again, well in advance of the move: get some clones established, get a stock of seeds, labelled and packed up neatly.

Thirdly, "Impose upon your friends". Consider moving some of your plants into someone else's garden for a few months... of course, you might not get them back, but it can be a useful back-up.

It's a good opportunity to divide big, old, perennials, especially grasses etc, to refresh them: so pot up a couple of good strong sections for yourself, put back a decent section into your garden, and maybe give a couple of leftover section away to friend and relatives - again, as a back-up.


What to take? What to leave?

Do a garden plan of the new place, and work out where you are going to put everything. This might make you realise that you don't have room for all of it... in which case, don't take it with you!

Moving house is a great time to declutter, and that includes the garden. Clear out all those old pots, un-used tools, and "stuff" in the shed, and see if you can recycle or re-home anything which you are not going to need in the new place.

This includes plants - if you have pots containing plants which are straggly, scruffy, half-dead, and which generally do not bring you joy (Marie Kondo strikes again!) , then get rid of them: throw away the plants, and then assess the pots: are they good enough to come to the next garden? Or are they the wrong size, the wrong shape, the wrong colour, or damaged: in which case, bin them, or pass them on.

Having decluttered the shed and the garage (and the outhouse, and the porch, and the under-stairs cupboard, and the meter cupboard, and the lean-to, and the conservatory if you have one....). the take a look at the actual plants.  When it comes to plants growing in your garden, grafted plants are the worst to move, because damaging the roots - and it's inevitable that there will be some damage - will prompt them to send out new suckers and shoots. 

Climbers are also very difficult to move, not least because it means chopping down nearly all of their upper growth. The shock might be more than they can bear. Again, ask yourself if you really, really need that particular climber: can you easily buy a replacement? If not - if, for instance, you love it, but you don't know the name of the exact cultivar - then give it a go, but if they are available everywhere, well, maybe it's better to start with a new one?

Alan Titchmarsh said once, "why do this? Part of the fun of moving to a new garden is to try new things, so why re-create your old garden?"

He's right, as usual, in many ways: the soil and the microclimate are likely to be quite different in the new place, so your old plants might not grow exactly as they used to - they might be smaller, they might even be much bigger!  But if you have sentimental plants, or plants which are not easy to find for sale - and it's well worth checking this out - then I think you are perfectly right, to take them with you.

Just Beforehand:

When the time comes, once you have a moving date, find a friend or relative who will let you move a load of things in pots round to their garden for a few weeks, so that you are not trying to do it all on one day.

Obviously you'll ask them to water your pots for you, having shown them how to do it properly, and having thanked them effusively, in advance, for their time and care.  

Then, once you've moved house and are ready to collect them, ask the friends to stop watering, a few days beforehand, to make them a little lighter to move, and a lot less messy. 


To load up the pots, if it's mid-season and they are fulsome and fluffy, consider a bit of judicious pruning, to make them more manageable: and tie up shrubs or spreaders with twine, to make a neater package. If at all possible, get them all to be upright, and not spreading much beyond the size of the pot - which won't be possible for small trees etc, but might work with most of your shrubs.

Pack them into the van, little ones first - counter-intuitively - and push them right to the very front of the van, hard up against the front panel. Braking will fling the pots forwards, so don't give them any room to slide. If your pots are terracotta or ceramic, wrap them in bubble wrap, or wedge slices of cardboard between them, and push them firmly up against each other. This way, they won't be able to fall over, and if they are already touching - albeit buffered - then they won't be able to clash together.

If you are moving in winter, when herbaceous plants have died down, you might be able to stack the pots two or even three layers deep. 

If you have anything spiky - Yucca, Berberis, or god help you, Monkey Puzzle - tie their fronds up first, then wrap them in a couple of layers of brown paper.

Here's a Monkey Puzzle tree, left, which I had to move a few years ago: having dug it up, the branches were gently raised and tied, then on went the brown paper.

It worked surprisingly well!

And by tying up the fronds first, you also reduce the overall size of the plant, which makes it easier to pack them into the van.

Put the tallest ones along the sides of the van, so you can tie the upper growth loosely to the sides of the van: there are usually lots of handy struts and fixing places, inside moving vans. Then fill up the middle of the floor space. 

Put the biggest, heaviest ones in last - yes, counter-intuitive, but it means it's easier to load and unload them, because they are right by the doors: and the heavy ones are least likely to fall over. Unless they are very tall and a bit top-heavy - but tall ones should be along the sides of the van, anyway.

At this point, it's tempting to say "drive the van carefully and slowly" but let's be realistic, you - or your van driver - will be driving exactly as they normally do, ie keeping up with the traffic flow, and braking hard if necessary. Of course, the driver will be aware of their load, and will try to avoid heavy braking and hard cornering, but you can't expect anyone to crawl along at 10 mph just because they have plants in the back. So pack them well: lots of cardboard or bubble-wrap between the pots, and wedge them in as tightly as you can.

As an aside, I now have a lovely mental image of a van full of bubble-wrapped pots, slamming on the brakes, to an accompanying sound track of "Swish! Swish! Pop-pop-pop-pop-pop..."

Once you get them "home": unload the van, cart them into their new home, and water them well.

Assess for damage: anything which got badly crushed or smashed - that's plants, and pots - might need to be binned, but hopefully most of them will have survived. Untie the ones you had to straight-jacket, and let everything settle down for a few days.

And then you can start the job of planting up your new garden!

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Sunday, 12 September 2021

How to water plants in pots - properly

I seem to be always writing about this - but it's been a couple of years since the last article, and just the other day I saw a perfect illustration of the problem, so let's run over it again.

Plants which you buy from garden centres are potted up using compost: not soil, or earth, but compost.

These days, we are all trying to reduce the amount of peat we use in our compost, so most of the plants you buy will be in peat-free, or peat-reduced, commercial compost.  And when I say "commercial compost" I mean the sort of stuff you would buy in a bag from the garden centre, not the compost that you make in your own garden.

Now, the problem with commercial compost is that it does not hold water very well.  And once it dries out, it is very difficult to re-wet it - as you will know if you have found an oldish half-bag of compost in the shed, and have been mystified as to how it has apparently turned into reddish-brown dust, and is now totally useless for potting up. There is a way to deal with it, I wrote about it at length, here.

This also happens to compost with plants growing in it: it's fine, as long as it is regularly watered, and kept moist, but if it is allowed to dry out - oh woe! It becomes almost impossible to re-wet it, and the plants usually die.

Here is an absolute classic, text-book example. My Client had bought five lovely big ferns, but - unknown to me - had completely failed to water them, for the week before my visit.

I cheerfully issued the instruction: "Please give those plants a good drenching before they are planted," and this was done.

But when the holes were dug, and the plants were de-potted (an essential step before planting: take off the plastic pot!! Don't laugh, I've seen it done - or, rather, not done...), this is what we found:


The water has soaked just the top inch or so, and has totally failed to soak all the way through the bone-dry compost.

You can see the trickles, down the sides, where the water was unable to get "in" to the compost, and has run down the sides of the pot, creating a bit of a puddle at the very bottom, but completely missing out on the centre of the plant, which is where you would expect to find the majority of the roots.

So,what's to be done?

Firstly, learn to tell the difference between a pot which has been adequately watered, and one which is bone dry and about to die.

How? Two easy ways to tell, and that's quite apart from simply looking at the upper part of the plant, to see if it looks dull, lack-lustre and is visibly wilting...

The best way is to check how heavy the pot is. Moist compost is heavy, so the pot will feel heavy.

Of course, if your plant is in a permanent, decorative, pot, you won't be able to lift it up easily: and even if you could, the decorative pot will have a weight to it, so you won't be able to tell.

So, we turn to the other method: press the tip of a bare, dry, finger onto the surface of the compost. If your finger comes away clean, then the pot needs water. If there are one or two crumbs of compost sticking to your fingertip, then the pot still has a good amount of moisture in it.

Secondly, if your finger is clean, if the pot weighs nothing, if the leaves are dull and droopy: then the only thing to do is to immerse the entire pot in a bucket of water, and hold it down until it stops bubbling. This can take some time - ten minutes, fifteen minutes - so a brick or two can be useful, to weigh down the pot and hold it underwater.

Once you have successfully re-soaked the compost, lift it out of the bucket and let the excess drain away, then leave it to recover. If the leaves perk up, hooray! you have saved it. If they remain droopy and dull, even a day or so later, then the plant has probably reached what the RHS call, rather delightfully, the PWP or Permanent Wilting Point, ie death. Nothing more can be done, other than to doff our caps, bow our heads, and say a sad farewell as we tip the plants out, and bung it on the compost heap.

Having gone to the effort of saving your plants-in-pots, you can help them to survive future droughts by watering them less often, but more thoroughly.

The rule, if you can call it that, is that it takes a depth of 1" of water above the surface of the compost, to penetrate 8" down. It can be hard to work out if you have given the plant an inch of water, because it will - or, it should - start to soak in, as soon as you start to pour it on. But think about how much water it takes, to cover the surface of any given pot, to a depth of an inch (that's 2.5cm for you youngsters), and aim to gently pour that much water on to each pot.

If you find that the water all runs out of the bottom, then your compost is still not thoroughly wetted in the middle, so try the dunk-and-soak routine again. 

You can also try standing recalcitrant pots on saucers, so that the water will pool at the bottom, instead of running away, and therefore has time to be soaked back up into the pot. But a quick word of warning about this method - very few plants like to sit with their bottom in water all the time, they need air as well as water, so remember to empty the saucers after an hour or so, if they still contain water. 

After a while, you will get a "feel" for how much water your pots need, and hopefully you won't ever find another pot full of bone dry, powdery compost-dust!


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Friday, 10 September 2021

Is it possible to clone a Weeping Pear tree, for sentimental reasons?

I had a question appear on an earlier post about pruning a Weeping Pear tree, and the answer was a bit too long to fit into the comments box.  This is what they wanted to know:

"I have a weeping silver pear in my garden which was planted by the previous owner on the birth of his child. 

The tree is well established and therefore he did not want to risk killing it by transporting it. Would it be possible to clone the tree so that I could pass a tree on to his daughter? 

Would this need to be done by a professional or is it something I could do? " 

Well, that's an absolutely lovely idea! 

 Unfortunately, it's also a rather tricky one: the tree was probably grafted, so although you could take cuttings from the weeping branches easily enough - well, moderately easily - they won't look like the parent plant: they won't have that upright central trunk and then the waterfall of branches. 


If, by the way,  you are reading this, and wondering what we are talking about, Weeping Pear -  Pyrus salicifolia 'Pendula' - is a (usually) grafted tree, with a central upright stem or trunk, supporting a crown of beautifully pendulous branches, all covered in silvery-grey narrow foliage.

On a good year, they even have pears!! Not edible ones, unfortunately...

This one - left - is a small one, grafted at about head height. As you can see, the branches grow like a waterfall, downwards. 

As they don't know that they've been grafted onto a small trunk, they continue to grow and grow, so they have to be pruned regularly, and carefully, otherwise they drag on the ground. 

They can also be a lot taller than this small one: another Client of mine has one that must be 15' tall, at least. Quite spectacular!

I don't know how big the one in question is: if it's smaller than the one in the picture above, then it might be worth having a go at digging it up - but if it's any larger, then sadly the original owner is right, digging it up will probably kill it.

So, how would we go about cloning it?

In a nutshell - and this is a somewhat simplified version - you would take several cuttings, which means cutting off a few of the smaller branches, and putting them into pots of compost. Wait several months to see if they "take", ie if they start growing. 

If you get a cutting which grows, then hooray! You have cloned the tree. 

However, it doesn't end there: it takes several years and a fair amount of skill to create a weeping standard... to get the weeping shape, you need to encourage your cutting to grow straight and tall, by tying it to a sturdy upright support. Prune off any side-shoots, so that you only have the one, upright, shoot. 

When it reaches the height which you want it to be, you can allow it to make side-shoots just above that point: if it shows no inclination to produce them, you can simply prune off the very tip, which will encourage it to produce a cluster of side shoots, which will become your weeping canopy.

As you can imagine, this can take several years, especially if you want it to be fairly tall.

And that's the reason why the ones you buy are usually grafted: it's much quicker to grow on a load of non-weeping pears, then chop their tops off, and graft on some branches from a weeping variety. But it still takes several years, and that's why grafted trees are expensive to buy.

So the options are, 1) take some cuttings, and grow it on: which may take years, and it might never look quite as nice as the grafted original.  2) buy them a replacement tree - I know, it's not really the same, is it? or 3) attempt to dig up the tree, pot it up into the biggest pot you can find, water and nurture it, and wait until next spring. If it survives, give it to them, with a huge flourish!

The original question included another question, which was  "Would this need to be done by a professional or is it something I could do?"

As you can see from the above description, it's not rocket science: so it is something which anyone could do... but it is true that a professional would have a much better chance of ending up with something approximating the original tree. They would know how many cuttings to take (lots), how to prepare and nurture them, they would be familiar with the training regime, etc. 

The problem is, as this is a long-term project, it would probably cost you a lot more to hire a professional, than it would to just go out and buy a replacement. And what if they invested three or more years in your clones, and then there had been a bad fall of snow and they'd all died... would you still pay them? Would they fob you off with a non-cloned replacement?

Maybe it would be better to invite the daughter to come round, and get someone who is good at photography to take some portraits of her, with the tree. That way, she'll have a memento, and you won't have to risk killing the tree by digging it up. 

But whatever you choose to do, it's still a lovely thought!

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Thursday, 9 September 2021

Why are gardeners told to move plants in autumn?

This is a question from one of my lovely Patrons (*waves cheerfully*) - not, not a unicorn, leaping to my protection against the Dementors, but a kind person who pays me a little bit each month, in order to encourage me to write more often. And who is therefore allowed to ask questions!!

The question is, why are we always told to move plants in autumn?

It's absolutely true: all the books, all over the internet, all the time, tell us that we must move them in autumn, lift and divide them in autumn: and the implication is that  autumn is the only time of year when we can carry out these operations.

So, does that mean that we are not allowed to move or divide plants at other times of the year?

Hell, no! (That's me saying that, not the internet) 

I've spent my entire professional gardening life moving plants, as and when, with no particular regard to the season, because - being a professional - I am paid to do the job, and if the Client says "move it!" then I will move it. I will - being a professional - warn the Client of any possible consequences, but at the end of the day, they pay me to work, and if they want it moved now, then I will do my best to carry out their wishes.

Even Roses - yes, mature, established Roses can be dug up and moved, and certainly not "only" in autumn: I have a couple of articles about moving Roses, in my holding file, so watch this space!

Right, so what's all this business about moving things in autumn? I think there are several issues, all combining to create this "rule", and now that we have the internet, well, 90% of it is cut-and-paste, so anything (right, or wrong!) gets copied and copied and copied until it is so pervasive that people believe it.

Firstly, I do believe than an awful lot of gardening "rules" date back to the days of posh houses and the team of gardeners. Before the invention of mowers, a lot of time was spent cutting the grass - by scythe - and cutting the hedges using shears, which took up a lot of time. Autumn, in those days, was a time when the grass stopped growing, so the under-gardeners were freed up to do other tasks.

Next there is the aspect of not wanting to ruin the flower display for the year. When the family were in residence, they didn't want to see gaps, or anything ugly, or in that half-dead state which plants often go through just after they are moved. This meant that rearranging the beds and borders would often have to wait until the family had gone off to their winter home, or at the very least, until the weather kept them indoors, and less likely to see what was going on outside.

And thirdly, I think there is an element of having put up with something, having looked at and grumbled about it, all summer long, and finally deciding that enough is enough, it's time to move it.

Oh, and fourthly, going back to the whole "posh houses" thing, there was every chance that the family would go away over the summer hols: in the well-to-do times, the senior staff would be taken down to the summer residence, while the junior staff and the poor old gardeners were left behind on what was called "board wages", ie barely enough to eat. But as time went on, and belts were tightened, staff would be laid off until they were needed again - the origin of the zero-hours contract, I suppose. The upshot of all that malarkey was that no-one would be around to water plants, so nothing could be moved until everyone returned: and by then, you can imagine, there would be a ton of weeding, tidying, staking, dead-heading and so on, to be done, so moving plants would be a long way down the list, and maybe they wouldn't get around to it until they were fairly into autumn.

These were all perfectly good reasons, and in fact the second and third ones are still valid in the modern garden: but personally I prefer to move plants in spring - you can quickly see if the plant is going to die or not. There's nothing worse that expending a lot of effort to move something in autumn, which sits there looking miserable all over the winter and into spring, then you wait and wait for new leaves to appear, giving it "just one more week", then "just one more..." and eventually you have to acknowledge that it has, indeed, shuffled off this mortal coil, and you have wasted all those weeks of time and effort on it. 

Far better to move it in spring, when you can quickly see what it's going to do - it either lives or dies. Which is pretty much my motto, when it comes to moving plants - "It will either live, or die." Ask any of my Trainees! For that matter, ask any of my Clients! They will all have heard me say it, cheerfully, when asked if it was safe, or a "good time", to move something. Sometimes you just have to grit your teeth, and get on with the job.

The only possible genuine reason for autumn moving, in my opinion, is the one where they say "move plants in autumn to give them time to get their roots established before they go dormant over winter."

Now, I have to say that I am not totally convinced that any plant, moved in autumn, will bother to start putting out roots "while the soil is still warm" because personally, my definition of "the soil is still warm" involved me being able to kneel on it, in shorts and bare knees. If it feels cold to my knees, then I reason that it will feel cold to the plants and their roots.

But the theory seems to be that, if you move them in spring or summer, they immediately start trying to grow leaves, shoots, flowers etc, at the possible expense of growing roots. In the same way that propagation manuals all tell you to choose a non-flowering shoot, because you want the cutting to put the energy into making new roots, not into making flowers. 

Which makes sense... but there you have it, personally, I prefer to move plants in spring, so that I can see if they are going to live or die, sooner rather than later.

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Tuesday, 7 September 2021

How to... get your geraniums under control in late summer

OK folks, I admit it: when I type Geraniums with an s, I want to type Gerania.  Does anyone else feel that urge? Or is it just me?


Just me, then.


OK, well, there comes a point in late summer, when the Geranium have flowered their socks off for weeks and weeks, but now they are starting to look a bit of a wreck.

This week, a Client asked me to apply the Firm Hand to the geraniumsss around her small pond, because they were smothering it:

Yes,, there is a pond in there, somewhere.


By standing closer, and leaning over, you can just about see the water!

Most of this mess is straggly, over-grown geranium, which have finished flowering, and are just flopping about all over the place.

They are also smothering the Bearded Iris at the front: and this is bad news, because Bearded Iris need the sun on their above-ground rhizomes - the  phrase in all the gardening books is "to bake the rhizomes" in order to promote good flowering the following year.

So, what do we do?

Answer, we grab our trusty secateurs, and start to cut back the lanky growth.

This is always a super-scary thing to do, because in order to do it properly, you have to absolutely scalp the existing plants: one of my elderly Clients had a lovely expression for it, she used to tell me to cut them back "to the bone". That means, to cut off everything. Lanky flowered stems, floppy leaf stems, even the cute little new leaves. Chop the lot. Be brutal.


Well, you could spend all day carefully tracing back the flowered stems one by one, and cutting them off, close to the base of the plant. This would preserve any newer leaves, and wouldn't leave the bed looking bare and ugly. But, by cutting back really hard, you promote the plant into making a flush of lovely fresh new growth. 

And, if you were to carefully cut out the long stems and leave a fair amount of leaves, you would find that a) they would be lank and floppy, because they have grown up through the mat of older growth, and without it, they are not strong enough to stand upright: and b) within a week or two, they will be "old" leaves and will spoil the look of all the fresh new ones.

It's also massively faster to just grab the lot, and chop!

Here we are, half-way through the job: the Bearded Iris have been revealed, and are now blinking in the light.

Geraniums usually start off in fairly neat clumps, so it's a case of tracing back the long floppy stems until you find the base unit, as it were, then cutting them off as close as you can.

You will probably find that they are also spreading themselves out, so this is a good time to check for any expansion into unwanted areas, and if you find some which are heading off the wrong way, just pull them out, or cut them off.

In this case, there were a whole mass which had managed to root themselves around the edge of the wire mesh anti-heron frame, where it sits on the stone edging: so they all had to be carefully pulled out. 

I say "carefully" because I didn't want to damage the cover, or damage the pond edges - and I certainly didn't want to fall in, either!

There were also a large number of geranium which were rooting themselves in and amongst the Bearded Iris, which we certainly don't want, so out they came.

And here's the "final" version - I put that in quotes, because in gardening, nothing is every final, and there was some additional shrub-tidying and general weeding to be done, as well.

But this is the general effect: Geranium cut right back, Bearded Iris rescued, and their foliage trimmed back to allow the sun to reach them all: the path, now that we can see the edge of it properly, has been swept of debris, and the pond had been topped up with water.

I also watered all the cut-back edges, because that will encourage the Geranium to produce that flush of new leaves as quickly as possible, so they don't look bare and scraggy for too long.

Job done!

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Saturday, 4 September 2021

How to get rid of Ash saplings when digging is not an option

This is very much going to be Part I of the saga...

There are certain trees which pop up in all our gardens.... Ash, Sycamore, Hawthorn, Hazel, and Norway Maple, for a start. Almost everywhere.

Slightly less widespread - or, should I say, more localised - would include Walnut, Lime, Laburnum, and Oak. If your garden, or that of your neighbours, has one of those trees, then you are probably weeding them out all the time. Oh, and I should add Yew to that list: a good Yew hedge in one garden will generate cute little Yew seedlings for a fair distance to either side.

I'm sure that, wherever you are in the country, you could add a couple of trees to that list. 

Now, trees are wonderful things, but we don't usually want them in the garden

Normally, as a professional gardener, I spot them early, and weed them out while they are tiny.

This delicate, pretty little thing - left - would, if left unweeded, turn into a Lime tree.


And that's all part and parcel of being a professional: it's being able to spot the weeds among the "proper" plants, being able to recognise them at their early stages of development.

Something this tiny is easy peasy to weed: just take hold and pull gently, and out it comes.

And if you pull not-very-gently, and it snaps off, well, you're pretty much guaranteed to have killed it, so that's not a problem any more.

Ash seedlings are easy enough to recognise, as they exhibit the classic compound leaves very early on, when they are still small enough to pull out, easily and quickly. Once you have seen a few hundred of them, you learn to spot them before they have even produced the first set of "proper" leaves:

Here's a handful I pulled out, recently - it does make you wonder why the UK inadvertently set in motion the wholesale slaughter of our Ash trees, by importing disease-ridden ones from Europe... when they grow so easily, and are weeded out in such huge quantities....


But enough of that, back to the plot: if you miss an Ash seedling, it quickly grows into an Ash sapling, and that's a lot harder to deal with, as they produce an initial long, strong taproot, which is, as we gardeners say, "a bugger" to dig out.

There is a whole sub-set of lazy gardeners out there, who don't bother to dig out the saplings, and instead they just cut them off at ground level, or as close as they can, and hope that no-one will notice. Alas, Ash will regrow from this treatment, as will Sycamore, Hazel, and Hawthorn, and probably most of the others, as well.  Instead of having a sapling, you then find, a year or two later, a thicket of the stuff, springing multi-stemmed from the cut-off stub.

Then there's the situation where the invader cunningly positions itself right by something with very similar leaves, so that it goes un-noticed.

This is what happened in the garden of a friend of mine: she has a lovely Wisteria, growing up some battered old trellis, and when I was there last week, I spotted the Ash tree which was taller than I was, by a fair amount. It had sneakily grown right up high, inside the cover of the similarly-leaved Wisteria.

It was far too big to dig out, not to mention that it was hemmed in on one side by a patio, and on the other by the base of the trellis fencing, so all I could do was cut it off as low down as I could, just like one of those not-very-good gardeners which I mentioned above. 

My first suggestion was to wait until it had sprouted a few new leaves - which, of course, it will - and then spritz them with weedkiller: nice fresh, young, leaves are very good at absorbing the chemicals, so it should be successful.

But, alas, my friend does not allow the use of weedkillers in her garden (which explains the amount of bindweed, cinquefoil etc, but who am I to criticise?) (*laughs*), so I had to come up with another plan.

As you can see from this photo, I took a leaf out of the arborists' book, if you'll pardon the expression, and sawed a few vertical cuts in the stump, in the hopes that water would get inside the stump, and rot it.

I will keep an eye on it, over the next few months, and we'll see what happens!

Any bets, anyone?!

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Thursday, 2 September 2021

How to relocate Daffodils in the middle of the summer

 Here's an interesting problem: 

I had a question from one of my previous Trainees, the other day: they asked "the Client is going to have a pond made, in front of an apple tree. They have asked me to dig up and store the daffodils from the lawn in that area. I’m not sure if the pond will be in the exact area of the daffs but I am thinking how easy is this to do?  Would it be better done when the pond is dug out?"

Daffodils in lawn are always tricky to move, for several reasons: firstly, they are often rooted very deeply, and secondly, it's often hard to remember, in the middle of summer, exactly where they were.... 

In this case, the obvious thing would be to wait for the digger to arrive on site, and get them to scoop up the bulbs. 

However... how many digger drivers do you know, who give a hoot about buried bulbs?  They have a job to do, and they often don't have time to faff about being careful of the plants, so in this case, I would suggest that it's better to get the daffs out now. 


 If I had to do it, this would be my plan:

1) lift the turf over the whole area of the daffs. You can usually see where they have been....
2) start at the edge of the area, and dig out a small trench, with a spade, in the hopes of finding how deep the bulbs are. There is a chance that one or two might get sliced at this point, but hey, there are always going to be casualties.
3) once you have found them, dig out blocks of soil with the spade: turn them upside down, peel off the bulbs.
4) replace the blocks
5) stomp down well
6) add extra soil on top, to make up for what you've inevitably lost by taking the bulbs out
7) stomp down well again.
8) replace turf, water well.

Then clean off the bulbs, put them in the garage to dry - well spread out - then store them until autumn, at which time they can be planted. If the pond has been done by then, they can be planted decorously around the edges: if not, they can be bunged in somewhere else. And you know that when I say "bunged in", I mean "planted carefully and conscientiously, all the right way up, at a proper depth, and in a location where they will give pleasure for many years to come."

As I said, bunged in. 

A cheap, quick alternative is to ignore them altogether, let the pond digger do his worst, buy a big bag of new bulbs for a tenner in autumn, to replant around the pond once it's finished: and if any of the originals come up next spring, well, it's a glorious bonus!



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