Monday, 29 November 2021

The trouble with feeding the birds....

...especially if you offer seed, to attract finches....

 .... as I was doing, last winter: here's my seed feeder, hanging on the fence and extremely popular with the little birdies, as you can see by the low level of the seed in it.

So what is the problem?

The problem is.....

... that you get a forest of"crop" seedlings underneath it - particularly if you have shingle, which is apparently the perfect growing medium for birdseed!

Lovely, huh?

I see this repeated everywhere I go, even when people buy seed which has been treated and is allegedly "non germinating".

Even if you position your bird feeders on a patio, you will still find that the seeds will grow - in the cracks or joins between the slabs, usually, which can be very ugly, and quite destructive.

Sometimes it can be interesting: for example, one Client asked me to move her birdfeeder to a different position, and to dig over the bed on which it stood, replanting the area with some perennials.

Two weeks later, these guys started popping up:

How exciting! 

What on earth are they?

Yes, I know what they are really, I'm just trying to build some suspense...

It's Nicandra physalodes, commonly known as Shoo Fly. I don't know why. They don't repel flies.  Cursory internet research suggests that no-one else knows why, either...

If you're not familiar with this plant, well, it's a weed, properly speaking, although you will find the seeds for sale, bizarrely. It's not particularly attractive to bees:  the flowers - which are blue, and moderately attractive - open for a short time, just a couple of hours, then they are done: and the plant itself can get quite big, but is also quite lax, so it ends up flopping around all over your bed. 

So it's not really a "worthwhile" plant in the garden.

But it was interesting to see it, along with various cereal crops - millet, wheat (that was exciting!), and several that I couldn't immediately identify, and didn't dare leave for too long, as they were getting quite big. 

There is a case to be made, for leaving some of them to grow, then harvesting the seeds... free bird food! But most of the time, they are just scruffy, untidy weeds, cluttering up your border (or in my case, my shingle) and detracting from the general beauty of the garden.

And what is the moral of this tale?

I won't be feeding the finches, this year. I'll stick to fat-balls in cages, for the little birdies which I like to see - I always laugh at the sparrows, pretending to be blue tits:


..but if you want to attract birds but not plants, then here is a quick summary of how to reduce the mess, and reduce the amount of weeding you might have to do.

Firstly, buy the right product:- 

Niger seed is sterile, so it won't germinate.

Fat balls/suet logs or slabs = no germination. Presumably the seeds within in have been cooked...

Meal worms = do not grow into plants! 

Sunflower hearts/hulled sunflower seeds = processed, so they won't germinate

Avoid cheap bird seed, it will have a high proportion of cheap "filler" seed such as Milo, and Millet: avoid Milo in particular, as birds tend not to eat it! It's a type of grass, the seeds look very similar to Millet.

Choose a "no mess" bird seed: they remove the husks and other bits of inedible material, so the birds don't have to rootle through it (flinging it about as they do so) in order to reach the good stuff.  Allegedly.

So there you go, some simple advice on how to feed the birds this winter, without spending the whole of next year weeding!

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Saturday, 27 November 2021

Plant Supports: when and why to remove them

Winter - ah, a time to rest and reflect.

Not for us Professional Gardeners, it isn't!

We're rushing around like mad things, clearing up the debris of autumn, removing rotting foliage, mending fences, implementing some of the changes and improvements that we thought of earlier in the year, fixing problems that were spotted weeks or months ago, pulling dead wood out of the shrubs, clearing out the veg patches, and generally getting around to all those jobs that we didn't have time to do in summer.

We also have a long list of annual late-autumn/winter jobs to get through: greenhouse emptying and cleaning, winter pruning for the Roses, and the Wisteria, taking down runner bean wigwams in the veg beds, tidying things up generally, and so on.

One of these jobs is to remove the plant supports which have done their duty throughout the summer, holding our perennials in place so that we can appreciate the flowers.

But now their duty is done, and it's time to clear out the dead perennial upper growth, and tidy up the garden generally. This usually means removing the plant supports.

Or does it?

Let's take a look at why we do this - firstly, why do we remove the supports, over the winter?

1) they are not needed.

2) they are not pretty to look at, especially if they are home-made cobbled-together structures of canes and string, or if they are ancient, rusty, bent, horrible old things.

3) they poke you in the face when you are trying to weed around them.

4) they get in the way when you are trying to rake up autumn leaves etc. 

5) it gives us a chance, or a reason, to look at them and check that they are still firm, and solid, and not ancient, rusty, bent, horrible things, as in point 2).

But are there any reasons for leaving them in place? Well - yes, and here are a few that I can think of, off the top of my head (you can probably think of more, if you tried...).

A) It was such hard work getting them firmly in place, that we don't want to have to struggle with it again next year.

B) Every time you push plant supports in, there is a risk of damaging the roots of the plant you are trying to support: this is not important with fibrous things like Asters, but can be important in tuberous plants, such as Peony, or Dahlia (if you leave them in the ground).

C) If we take them out, we have to store them somewhere over the winter, and we don't have much room: plus, they might get lost, or damaged.

D) It's a faff, and we can't be bothered.  (NB This is NOT a "good" reason...)

E) (Hint: this is the "best" reason:) It marks where the plants are, so that we don't accidentally dig them up when - for example - tackling bindweed or some other pernicious weed, or if we decided to change something in the area. It also helps us to avoid treading on their new shoots next spring, when we are deadheading the bulbs and stomping around on the beds.

So what is the solution to this dilemma?

Answer: buy beautiful supports!

I particularly like these ones:

They are sold as Peony supports, for which they are perfect, as the splayed-back top layer gently supports the heavy flowers.

But of course they work pretty well for anything else which grows upwards, then flops over.

And in winter, they are easily beautiful enough to leave in place.

It's quite hard to find these particular ones: they are made by "Tom Chambers" and this one is called the Cottage Garden Herbaceous Basket.

There are a lot of imitations around - as you would expect! - but the ones I dislike are where, instead of the basket top, you have a row of knobs.

Here's some I found in my local garden centre:

As you can see, they appear to be very similar to the desirable one, above: but beware, those knobs stick out a long way around the base (if you see what I mean) and they will poke you, when you get too close.

This makes weeding and deadheading a bit tricky!

But they are still elegant enough to leave in the garden over the winter, which neatly cuts out objection number 2), above.

So there you have it, reasons to remove, reasons to retain: now it's over to you, to make the decision!

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Thursday, 25 November 2021

Hellebore leaves: time to burn them!

Bonfires - love them, or hate them, they are far and away the best way of disposing of infected plant material.

After all, if you put it in your Green Waste Bin and send it off to the council, what do you think happens to it? Here's the answer: it gets turned into soil conditioner. Which is not quite compost... but nearly. What's the difference? Compost contains nutrients:  soil conditioner may contain less in the way of nutrients, but still does wonders for the physical "construction" of the soil, making it better at retaining water, and opening up the structure of dense, clay soils, making them easier to work.

But I digress! (which will not surprise regular readers at all...)

If you put diseased material into your council green waste bin, it gets processed along with everything else, and ends up being spread on a field somewhere. The chances of disease lingering in the material are low: the council have developed the process specifically to avoid that sort of thing, but still, it's not a risk I'd care to take. 

So I would much rather burn the diseased material, then use the nice sterile ash for various purposes around the garden. More of that later.

In particular, at this time of year, I'm talking about Hellebore leaves... Helleborus orientalis, the low-growing winter-flowering perennial, found in most gardens, very popular, and rightly so. But the leaves don't rot: or, should I say, they don't rot quickly or easily. I know this, because I did a little experiment for myself, in which I established to my satisfaction that no, they don't rot.

So here we are: it's autumn, we're heading into winter,  the Hellebores are all looking terrible, and if  you haven't already done so, it's time to go out and cut off all those horrible brown, dead, diseased-looking leaves.


Well, for a couple of reasons: firstly, and horticulturally speaking,  most Hellebore leaves harbour a nasty disease which causes brown/black areas, they start as spots, and gradually spread over the entire leaf. Unsurprisingly, this is called Hellebore Leaf Spot.  It is caused by the catchily-named fungus Microsphaeropsis hellebore, and like all funguses (fungi?) it spreads by spores - so it's far better to get rid of the infected leaves before the spores are released.

Secondly, they look disgusting (left).

Thirdly, and possibly even more importantly than secondly, they will obscure the flowers! The leaves of most Hellebores are actually taller than the flowers, and that's a real nuisance because, after all, we plant our gardens with flowers, because we want to admire the flowers! We don't want to have to stand over them and rummage around, in order to see a glimpse of a petal - no, we want to see the flowers in all their glory, so this is a case where The Leaves Must Go.

Oh, and fourthly, by removing the bulk of the old leaves, you will find it much easier to rake out the fallen deciduous tree leaves, which otherwise catch in amongst the Hellebore leaves, making the garden look untidy and dilapidated. 

In most of "my" gardens, I am either instructed, or permitted, to cut off all the Hellebore leaves at this time of year. In one or two, I am asked to only remove the leaves which are actually brown and horrible-looking, and to leave any which are still green.

This is a nuisance, because it means that in a few weeks' time, I will have to go round them all again, and cut off those last few leaves, which will have gone brown by then. 

But it's also a good thing, because it shows where the Hellebores are, which prevents people treading on them, not knowing that they are breaking the flowering stems before they can fairly start growing. This is important in a garden where people routinely walk across the beds.... or have dogs.....

And then, in a few short weeks, we'll start to see the flowers pushing through: and without the covering of old, tired, leaves, we will actually be able to see them.

Meanwhile, get those old, diseased, horrible leaves onto your bonfire pile, and do this to them (left).

*Proprietary Warning* when I do bonfires, I never just set fire to the pile: what you can't see in this photo is that the dead material was piled a couple of feet away, behind me: so I move a few armfuls onto the bonfire patch, get it going, then pile forkfuls on top as it burns.

This gives all the woodland critters a chance to run away, having been disturbed by me rootling around in the bonfire heap, and gradually moving it over to the burning pile. 

Which is far better, for them, then being roasted alive, which is what happens if you just set fire to a huge heap of rubbish, without moving it first... hang on, I must have a photo somewhere:

There we go - my bonfire place is a burnt black patch, and I pile all the burnable stuff to one side of it.

Then, when I'm ready to burn, I move over some of the oldest, driest material - note the pitchfork stuck in the ground on the left, there - onto the blackened patch, and get it going.

Once it's good and hot, I can throw on the less-dry material, the more freshly-cut stuff, and it will still burn.

This is another advantage of doing it this way, rather than just shoving a match into the bottom of your heap - the inner, lower layers might be damp.

Oh, and a third perfectly good reason for doing it this way, is that you can keep the actual burning pile down to a reasonable size, so it doesn't get out of control. I arrived at one Client's garden, one winter's day, to find fire engines all over the place: the neighbour had accumulated a large pile of stuff to burn, and had simply set the whole thing on fire, and it had got out of control and set fire to the hillside. 


So, children, when planning to burn off your non-compostable garden rubbish, always stack in one place and burn it in another, for the benefit of wildlife, to make it easy to get going, and to keep it under control.

Then, when the burning is all over, and the pile has cooled down, you are left with a pile of sterile ash: this can be spread over the winter-cleared veggie patch, and dug in - it can also be used on garden steps, the sort in the shade where the grass won't grow:

Here's some I did earlier: they are just hard-packed earth with wooden risers, in a situation where it is far too shady for the grass to grow, but plenty of weeds managed it. *rolls eyes*

An annual application of bonfire ash keeps the weeds down, and because ash is gritty, rather than muddy, it's much easier to pack it down firm with your boots.

This keeps the steps "full", as it were: the earth tended to sink, so that you'd trip over the wooden edges. But once I started packing them with ash, this problem was much reduced.

Well, I seem to have strayed from the subject of Hellebore leaves, but there you go, two for the price of one!

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Tuesday, 23 November 2021

How to deal with overhanging tree branches: small garden trees

For some reason, I've had a lot of people all asking me the same question, this year: what do we do when our neighbours' trees are hanging over the fence onto our side, and we want to get rid of them?

I am guessing that this is in response to C-19, with a lot of people spending time in their gardens:  people who maybe didn't previously use their gardens very much?

And suddenly they are noticing how much nicer the garden would be, if it wasn't being invaded or overshadowed by next door's trees!

Hedges are one problem, and I'll save that for another post, but trees are quite easy to deal with. For the purposes of this article, we'll assume you are talking about smallish trees, or shrubs, which are just putting a few branches over to your side, and which are small enough for you to feel that you can tackle the branches with a pair of loppers or maybe a small hand saw.

Anything larger than that, and  you will need to get a tree surgeon involved, but for now let's assume it's just a couple of branches of a smallish tree.

Firstly, the legal situation

The law says that we are allowed to prune off overhanging branches, but they belong to the neighbour. Especially if they have fruit on them - the produce belongs to the neighbour. 

Technically, all overhanging fruit, including windfalls, belongs to the owner of the tree, not the person on whose lawn it drops, but no-one would ever try to enforce that. 

(mental image of laboriously picking up every single windfall, wasps and all, and launching them back over the fence...)

However, we can't just post them over the fence - that's fly tipping.

Properly speaking, you have to present them - cuttings and/or fruit -  to the neighbour, and ask them if they want them: and if they do not, then you have to dispose of them. 

So what is the correct way to deal with it? 

You should approach the neighbour, before doing anything, and tell them that the branches of their tree are intruding, and you want to have them removed: ask the neighbour if they would prefer to do this work themselves, or would they be happy for you to do it, and dispose of the cuttings.

Always make it sound as though you are just trimming: don't use the word chainsaw, removing, tree surgeon, or cutting: just say "trimming a couple of bits off".

If you are lucky, they'll say "oh dear, terribly sorry, I'll get my gardener/handyman to sort it out straight away."

If you are nearly lucky, they'll say, somewhat huffily, "I don't see any problem?" at which point you invite them to come round into your garden and see for themselves. Usually, when they do this, they then say  "oh dear, terribly sorry, I'll get my gardener/handyman to sort it out straight away."

If you are unlucky, they will shrug, say "Wotever," and refuse to discuss it, in which case, you go straight to "Lastly: If all else fails..." below.

Legal situation Part II: Conservation areas

You should already know if you live in a Conservation Area: but if you are not sure, look it up online: type in the words "conservation area" and your county, and you should find links to maps which show you where the conservation areas are.

I was quite surprised when I did this: I had assumed that Conservation Areas were only, I don't know, nature reserves, or roads with historically important buildings, but this is not the case, and almost every town and village has a Conservation Area or two.

Here are the Hanneys, East and West, two villages near where I live:

As you can see, West Hanney has one block - edged in red, shaded in pink - of Conservation Area, while East Hanney has one large block, and one little isolated bit.

It is quite fascinating, for a rainy day, to find your county's map, and have a look around where you live!

Normally the Conservation Areas are in the older parts of the town, or village, but now that housebuilding has been allowed to creep in all over the place, there are some surprising anomalies, such as this one, where some new houses were built at the edge of a conservation area, so part of their gardens is within it, and part is outside it:

 You can see, on the right-hand edge of the box jutting out to the right, that the (new) houses are inside the shaded area, whereas the bulk of their gardens are not.

I doubt that many of them even know about it! 

But it means that if they want to do any work - pruning, trimming, anything - on any tree or shrub whose stem measures more than 7cm (ie about 3") at 1.5m above the ground (ie about breast height) within the part of the garden which is inside the shaded area, ie the front gardens and the bit of the back garden closest to the house, then they will have to apply for Planning Permission. 

Yes, really! I'm not kidding, living in a Conservation Area means that you CANNOT prune any tree or shrub above the size mentioned, without obtaining Planning Permission first.

So it's well worth checking this out, before you do anything.

Right, moving on from the legal side:

Secondly, the physical side of it: 

It's worth pointing out that (legally) we are only allowed to cut back to the actual point where they overhang our boundary, which can result in something really ugly from our side, and bad-for-the-tree (horticulturally speaking) on their side.

What I mean is, if you drew a line vertically upwards from your fence, and cut off everything at that point, you'd end up with a lot of amputated stumps to look at, each of which would either die - very ugly - or would produce a clump of vigorous shoots, thus making the problem worse for future years, as well as looking a bit peculiar.

The correct way to do it, would be to assess each of the trespassing tree limbs in turn, and either cut them back to the trunk, leaving a neat wound that will heal cleanly: or to shorten them at a point which retains the "form" of the tree.

It's often worth pointing this out, in the hopes that the neighbour will take the sensible decision to do their own pruning, in order to control what is cut.

Thirdly, the moral side of things:

When dealing with any sort of boundary issue, the first rule - as discussed in this post about invading brambles -  is "Don't fall out with neighbours if you can possibly avoid it" which usually means talking to them, preferably before you get really cross about it, and definitely before you do the chopping!

If you already have a reasonably friendly relationship with the neighbour, all well and good: but if you are a bit distant, or - worse - if you've already had a bit of friction, then it can be hard to go and speak to them: but it's worth gritting your teeth and accepting that part of being a grown-up is having to do things you don't really like doing.

Approaching them in a fighting spirit is NOT the way to get it done: a calm approach along the lines of "I wonder if you'd be kind enough to.." or "Hi there, you might not be aware of this, but your [insert name of tree] is overhanging our side quite badly now, and I wonder if you'd be kind enough to ..." is much better.

Sometimes a pre-slaughter approach, along these lines, can prevent years of low-level war and bad feeling...

Lastly: If all else fails...

If they refuse to talk about it, slam the door in your face, or say they'll see to it, but never actually do it, then you will have to do it yourself, in which case I would advise dropping a note through their door to notify them that you will be carrying out this work on the [insert date] and that if you do not hear from them before that day, you will assume that they are happy for you to do the work and dispose of the cuttings.  Take a copy of this note - take a photo of it - to prove that you have notified them. Then get out there and do the work yourself. (Or get someone in to do it, obviously.)

And yes, obviously it's "unfair" that you will have to deal with disposing of the bits you cut off, but sometimes it's a small price to pay, in order to get rid of the annoying or intruding branches.

So there you have it: overhanging branches of smallish trees, how to deal with them. Always try the "nice" approach first, and strive not to let it escalate into war!


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Sunday, 14 November 2021

How to: Keep your feet warm in winter!

 Oops, I've just noticed that I haven't added any new articles for over a week - sorry everyone, I've been busy!

It always makes me laugh, when non-gardeners say things like "what do you do, in winter, when there's no work to be done in the garden?"

Hollow laugh, said she, rushed off her feet, trying to squeeze in all the extra jobs with the days getting shorter...

Anyway, a quick post today: cold feet.

Yes, we all suffer from this, some of us more than others. Trying to work with frozen toes is miserable, and takes all the joy out of working outside, and we had our first hard frost a couple of days ago, which means we were standing on icy-cold concrete, and trying to keep off the frosted grass, because if you walk across hard-frozen grass, it breaks the stems, and in a couple of days, there will be crushed, brown grass all over the lawn.

In this case, it wasn't really a hard frost, but was enough to make our boots wet, and our toes cold.

I wasn't too badly off, because I wear thick thermal socks, and I have extra insoles in my boots. Not the useless lambswool ones, I find they don't help at all, and after the first wear, the fluffy wool has packed down hard, so they're not exactly "trapping a layer of warm air" any more.

No, I use this type of insole, the sort you get in walking boots:

They slip inside your boots, over the existing insoles, and give you a layer of extra padding ("ooh! Comfy!") and because they are made of similar material to those camping mats, they are well insulated, so they help to stop the cold striking up through your soles.

So between them, the thick thermal socks, and my practice of doing some vigorous raking of leaves as soon as I arrive, I was moderately warm, right from the start.

My colleague was not so lucky, and was suffering with really cold feet.

Afterwards, being a helpful soul, I did some research into chemical hand and foot warmers: I've already discovered these wonderful gadgets for warming hands:

These are not for work - but I've found them to be great for standing around outside: and for going on long walks in winter, they can be slipped inside your gloves, keeping your hands nice and toasty.

"I wonder if they do them for feet?"

Yes, they do: but they seem to be small pads to go under the heel, or just under the toes, and I thought they would spend their whole time migrating up and down inside my boots, which would be annoying.


Further research found these ones, right:  which go under the whole length of the foot.

They are "single use" which is not very eco, but frankly they are wonderful! 

I found that if you take them out of your shoes/boots when you don't need them, ie lunchtime, and put them together face-to-face, then seal them inside a grip-top plastic bag, ie to exclude air, then they cool down and go inactive. 

After lunch, open the bag, slip them back in the boots, and in a very short time they are warm again.

Day 1: super warm, almost "hot" and, as it was not a particularly cold day, I was so hot all over by mid-morning that I took them out. I was down to working in a tee-shirt by then, I'm not sure how much "hot feet" contributed to that, as opposed to "working hard". After an hour or so, I put them back in!! Standing on wet grass was quite cold to the feet...

After work, I put them back in the plastic bag.

Day 2: opened the bag, flapped them about a bit to let the air get to them, hey presto, gentle warmth. Back in the boots, out we went, a second day of much more gentle warmth, but very pleasant. They were starting to feel a bit lumpy underfoot, but I found that I could squeeze any lumps between my fingers, and crush them. They appear to be granular.

Day 3: repeated day 2 - still some gentle warmth! Much less so, but enough to take the chill off the cold wet ground, and I was super-cosy all day long. Had a few "Princess and the Pea" moments, as they were definitely getting more granular underfoot, which necessitated a bit more squeezing and crushing with the fingers.

The instructions say to take them out for 15 mins every 3 hours to reactivate them, but they are so super-warm that I found that quite unnecessary.

And as you saw, they are very slim, and don't take up any room to speak of, inside the boot.

All in all, better value than expected, well worth it, even as a single-use item. Next time, I'll slip them straight into my boots and put the boots straight on, to reduce their exposure to the air, to extend their use.  Who knows, I might even get four days' use out of them!!

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Tuesday, 2 November 2021

Is it worth using fertiliser in autumn?

 I had an interesting question arrive, this morning: (*Waves to Nicola - "Hi there!"*)  asking about the validity of adding fertilisers such as Growmore, when planting shrubs etc at this time of year, ie mid to late autumn.

Would fertilisers be wasted, was the question, bearing in mind that the plants are now entering their dormant phase.

My answer is yes.

I feel there is no point using expensive fertilisers at this end of the year, although I am perfectly prepared to dollop on any amount of home-made compost as a mulch - once I've done the weeding in that area, of course! 

The pelleted sort of fertiliser, as opposed to liquid feeds, does say on the pack that it is - in effect - heat activated, ie the chemicals are not released until the weather is warm enough. The idea being that you scatter the pellets, and then as the weather warms up, the plant starts to need more nutrients, and they are slowly released by the pellets. 

So in this case, you would think that it would be fine to add them to shrubs etc in autumn, and they'll just sit there until next spring, when they will be needed. 

I'm not sure, myself: I'd prefer to keep the pelleted product safe and dry in the shed until the following spring. 

So, personally, then,  I would plant shrubs, and wallflowers, in the normal way, without additional fertiliser: then in spring, when they start to show signs of life, I'd either scatter a fistful of pelleted product around their base and fork it in, lightly, or I'd water in some liquid feed. 

Talking of liquid fee, I think that applying it in autumn would definitely be a waste, as the weeds would take full advantage and gobble it all up, while our precious plants would turn their noses up, in disdain. 

I have to say, on a purely personal note, that I now prefer liquid feed to anything else, with liquid seaweed being top of my list. 

The reason?

Firstly, it's cheap to buy, and very, very concentrated: just one measure into a watering can, so it goes a long, long way.

Second, because it is a thick brown liquid, you can see the water go brown, even when diluted correctly into the watering can, so there is a feeling that the product is actually getting to the plants. Yes, this is purely psychological, and for all I know they add a concentrated brown dye to the product!! But it makes me feel that I am doing the right thing.

Thirdly, it's ecologically sound: it's not a mass of chemicals, produced artificially, processed into hard little pellets, with a massive packing factory etc etc. Rather, it's a natural product: it's sustainable, being made from fast-growing kelp, and the processing is merely cutting it, collecting it, boiling and evaporating it. Nice!

Then fourthly, and this is the real reason: the pelleted one, if used when potting on plants, tends to persist in the soil, ie the pellets give up their nutrients (we assume!) but you can still see the little round pellets for months and months: they lose their bright orange colour, and look just like snail eggs! 

Many is the time I've been re-potting something, turned it out of the pot, had a mad panic thinking it was full of snail eggs, then tried to crush them, found them to be hard, and realised that they are no more than exhausted Growmore pellets! 


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