Friday, 30 September 2022

Ornamental Grasses: How to tidy them up in autumn

Just the other day, one of my former students sent me a picture, asking "what on earth do I do to this monstrous grass?"

Here it is:

Quite a large clump, quite untidy-looking: they didn't know exactly what grass it is, and I can't tell from this photo, but it doesn't really matter, because my advice would be the same, whatever it was.

(It looks like a Miscanthus, judging by the plumes of now-going-brown flowers/seeds, but don't hold me to it.) 

I've had a lot of these types of grasses in my care, over the years - just type "prairie" into the search box, top left of the screen - and they are always a bit difficult to deal with, because in order to make any real difference to their appearance, you have to be quite drastic in your treatment, which may not go down well with the Client.

Once the flowers have definitely gone over (hard to tell from photo if they are brown and dead, or if that's their flowering colour), then there are two options: 

1) Go over the whole clump carefully, and cut each flowering stalk out one by one, tracing them as far back to their base as you can.

Next, rake out the dead leaves/debris using a garden fork.  This entails running the tines of your garden fork firmly and repeatedly through the clump, raking out all the dead bits. I usually start at the base and work upwards, until I've removed a good quantity of dead material: then, once the "tangles" are out,  I rake across, and downwards: in all directions, really, to get out as much debris as possible.

Why do we do this? Dead material harbours bugs, which can damage the roots of the plants: it also encourages moisture, and a thick layer of dead material will stay soggy all through the winter, so by spring you might find that the centre of the plant has rotted away, leaving you with a ring of younger material, and a bit of a bald spot in the middle!

Plus, it looks brown and unpleasant.

If you don't have time or inclination to carefully rake out the dead stuff, move to the other option:

2)  Give it a radical haircut, all over.  Chop it with shears/secateurs into a neat dome:


Please note, this is not the same plant as in my student's photo - this one is a Stipa gigantea, Spanish Oat Grass, but it demonstrates the process on an otherwise evergreen grass.

Having cut it right down, you can then easily and quickly rake through to remove the dead material.

Next year it will re-sprout, and at least it looks tidy in the meantime. 

I am still in two minds as to which method I prefer: this drastic method does look a bit "fake" at first, but it is very neat. And very quick. 

The "carefully" method takes ages, and doesn't look much different when you're finished, so you appear to be not giving good value for money.    

Oh, and the radical chop does also give you a chance to check on any smothered plants next to it, and it also gives you the opportunity to check for weeds growing through it.

But it does look a bit drastic....

So it's your choice, as to which course of action to take: if it's in your own garden, then you can do whatever you prefer, and if - like me - you are doing this in someone else's pride and joy, then I find it best to explain the two methods to the Client, and then do whichever suits them best. They are, after all, paying me!

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Wednesday, 28 September 2022

I hate my neighbour's overhanging trees: what can I do about it?

 I often get queries like this: there are many myths and myth-understandings about our rights, their rights, and the law, when it comes to neighbouring trees being a "nuisance" to us. So here is a quick FAQ with the answers to what I might call the Usual Questions.

DISCLAIMER: this is not a legal site! Do your own research! If you have any doubts, then consult your local Council: ask for the Parks department, or the Planning Department.

Before we start, this assumes that the tree in question does NOT have a Tree Preservation Order (TPO) on it, and that you do NOT live in a Conservation Area.  If it has, or you do, then you need to apply for Planning Permission before doing anything to any tree which has a trunk of more than 75mm (about 3") diameter, at about breast height. Yes, anything more than a sapling requires a Planning Application before you can prune it, shape it, neaten it, or reduce it. And you most certainly cannot fell it! 

You should already know if you live in a Conservation Area, but how do you find out if a tree has a TPO on it?

Answer: go to the internet, and find the map for your county: it's a site, and should be something like “maps.[your county]  If in doubt, type “conservation areas [your county]” into a search engine. 

Look around the map, find your house, and look to see if it is within a Conservation Area - it will be shaded, if so - and whether it is or not, look to see if there are any TPOs to be seen.

Here's an example, taken at random:










The pink-shaded area is a Conservation Area: this is Oxfordshire, other counties use different colours. ("Why? Why?")  The green blobs are trees covered by TPOs, and as you can see, they can be inside the Conservation Area, or outside it, or just on the border! They can be individual trees, they can be blocks of woodland, they can be strips of trees, like hedgerows with mature trees in them.

I have helpfully ringed them in black, but you may need to look closely at the map to spot them.

So, having established whether or not you are in a Conservation Area, and whether or not there is a TPO on the tree in question, here are some answers to some common questions:

Can I cut off overhanging branches? 

Yes, provided it is done without trespassing onto the other person’s property. It is also permissible to climb into the tree to undertake the work, again so long as it does not require going into the neighbour’s garden/land. Note that trees covered by a Tree Preservation Order (TPO) or in a Conservation Area will require prior consent from the local authority. 

Do I have to get permission from my neighbour or give them notice to cut off the overhanging branches? 

No. Your actions are classed as ‘abating a nuisance’ which does not require permission. Only in situations where you need access to their land to undertake the work would permission be required. Similarly prior consent from the local authority is required for trees with a TPO or in a Conservation Area. BUT it is always, ALWAYS, a good idea to engage the neighbour in dialogue before doing anything drastic. Yes, I know that people will say "it's easier to ask for forgiveness, that to be bothered to discuss it and get permission beforehand" and yes, I know that many people will be thinking "If I ask them, they might say no, so I'll just do it, then they won't be able to stop me" but this is short-sighted, and foolish: just take a moment to think of all the hundreds of ways that a neighbour could make your life a misery, if you angered them....

What do I do with the prunings?  

Once branches are cut off they should be offered back to the tree owner. If the owner doesn’t want them then you will be responsible for disposing of the prunings; you can’t simply throw them over the boundary into your neighbour’s garden!

Can I cut back further than the boundary to prevent regrowth causing a problem?


What if my neighbour complains about how the tree looks after I have cut off the branches to the boundary? 

They do not have any legal recourse but in the interests of good neighbourly relations you might consider options for compromise, such as sharing the cost of a tree surgeon to create a balanced canopy.

Am I liable if I cause damage to a neighbour’s tree as a result?

Yes. In law you would be considered negligent. Sometimes branch removal can lead to tree failure due to disease, a change in the balance of the tree, or different wind loading that causes the tree to blow over. For these reasons it is important to employ a competent tree surgeon or arboriculturist who could minimise risk and would take on the liability for the work (check they have public liability insurance prior to engagement of services).


Can I pick and keep the fruit from overhanging branches?

No, not without permission from the owner. I know, weird, huh? We all think that we are allowed to pick it, if it's over our garden, but technically, legally, no we are not!

Can I collect windfalls from a neighbour’s tree that overhangs my garden?

No, not without their permission. Windfall fruit still belongs to the owner. Which is even more weird: I mean, how would they stop you?

Fruit fallen from fruiting trees in a public space, or on common land, is in most cases OK to forage. If in doubt, check to see who owns the land and seek permission first.

What about liability for poisonous fruit, seeds or leaves?

The tree (or hedge) owner will be liable for damage caused by fruit, seeds or foliage but only if it overhangs the boundary.


Can I tell my neighbour to come over and sweep up the leaves from their overhanging tree?

No. *laughs hysterically at the mere thought*  Mind you, I say that, but I do actually know of an incident where a neighbour complains, every year, about fallen leaves, and has asked the tree owner to clear them up. "No chance!" is the answer to this one, "You should not have bought a house with big trees all around it, if you did not want to deal with leaves on your astroturf..."

The owner of a tree is not obliged to clear up fallen leaves. The exception is if damage occurs as a result (e.g. blocked drains) in which case it is advisable to notify the tree owner in a letter.


Can I cut off roots growing into my property?

Yes. You have the same rights (and liabilities) as for cutting off branches. And prior consent from the local authority is required if the tree has a TPO or is within a Conservation Area.

What if the tree falls over after I cut the roots?

As well as rights, you have the same liabilities as for cutting off branches. So for example, if by reason of cutting through your neighbour's tree roots, the tree is weakened and falls over, you would be liable for any damage it causes. Thus it is important to exercise reasonable care before cutting any tree roots and seek professional advice for anything but the most minor work.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that "it is important to exercise reasonable care before cutting any tree roots and seek professional advice for anything but the most minor work" is just about of equal importance to "always TALK to your neighbours, before things reach the point where you are angry about it."

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Monday, 26 September 2022

Gardeners: the horrors of the Outside Loo

I've worked in gardens where there were no facilities, and I'd have to pee in the shed, or round the back of the shrubbery: yes, I know, I know, but needs must, when the devil drives.

I've worked in gardens where there were wonderful facilities:


This lovely, lovely Client had an outhouse, attached to the main building, which contained a tool store, a pantry with wine cellar, and - joy of joys - a loo, with a tiled floor so I could go straight in there with muddy boots.

Even though it was an outhouse, it was always clean, neat, tidy, and well stocked with loo paper.

And, and, it had a RADIATOR ooo, lovely: as you can see, it meant that on a cold winter's day, I could warm up my gloves, while having a pee in comfort.

I was very, very sad when this Client passed away: not least because they were a lovely Client, with a fabulous garden, but oh! I do miss that loo!

At the other end of the scale, there was this one - right:

Yes, it's technically indoors, but as you can see, not very salubrious, and barely enough room to get your backside on the seat without being crowded off by the water treatment box or the sink.  

Plus, the walls were crumbling, leaving brick dust everywhere: both toilet and sink were cracked: it was frequently out of stock of toilet paper (I quickly learned to check before using it!), it was never cleaned, and it was used by random visiting builders and workmen, so there were often interesting, er, leftovers to greet me. 

All this would not be so bad in itself, but it belonged to a multi-million pound establishment, and you do think they could have spent just a little bit of money on it... after the first few weeks there, I pinched a broom from the shed and left it there, so that I could at least sweep the floor from time to time. And they did, eventually, find me the key to the door, so that at least I could pee in private....

But all this pales into insignificance, when compared to the sight which greeted me last week:


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Friday, 23 September 2022

Mystery Plant - solved!! Autumn Crocus.....

This article could also be titled "At last! I've found out what the mystery plant is!" or possibly "The importance of persistence, when trying to identify an unknown plant."

What am I talking about?

Back in February of this year, I encountered these leaves in one of "my" gardens:

The bed was mostly bare, just some clumps of these wide, somewhat fleshy leaves.

I had no idea what they belonged to, and nor did the Client.

I couldn't remember seeing anything in flower in that part of the bed, and nor could the Client.

They certainly weren't Daffodils, far too "limp". 

Nor were they early Bluebells - far too stout, and too tall - they were shin height.

They looked rather like Lily leaves, but I couldn't think of a Lily that would be up in was quite a mystery. I looked through some of my reference books, couldn't find anything that fit: I did some cursory internet searching but that didn't help: I asked my fellow gardeners, but none of them recognised the leaves, either.

I told the Client that we would have to wait, and see what happened.

Months passed.

By May, the leaves were tatty and ragged, and there had not been any sign of flowers.

Had I missed them? 

I was in this garden every week, but I didn't always work in this particular area, so it was possible that I had missed the flowers altogether... there were no flowering stems, no evidence of flowers at all.

My Client and I looked at each other, dolefully. 

"Perhaps we missed them?" they said.

"Perhaps they didn't flower this year?" I suggested. Sometimes bulbs come up "blind", ie with no flowers, for a variety of reasons.

We shrugged, and moved on.

Then, last week, I was working on this bed: it's been full of Solomon's Seal, which is lovely, but is a bit of a one-trick pony, in the sense that once it's over for the year, that's it, no more: the leaves get eaten to shreds by the pesky Sawfly caterpillars, so we cut down what's left of the stalks, and we are left with bare earth for the rest of the year. 

My Client and I had agreed to move away from the monoculture, and to intersperse the Solomon's Seal with some tall white Iris from elsewhere in the garden, along with some excess Sedum, and a little small-leaved Geranium to fill the gaps, while still leaving a mass of Solomon's Seal, for the early part of the year.

So there I was, fork on shoulder, on my way to prepare the bed by digging out some spaces for the Iris, and what do you think I saw, in the otherwise pretty much empty bed?

 Mystery solved! 

The leaves belonged to the Colchicum autumnale, whose common name you could almost guess, couldn't you? Yes, it's Autumn Crocus, even though it's not actually a crocus. 

Also known as "Naked Ladies" for the obvious reason!

They do their flowering now, in autumn, then they send up their leaves in the depths of winter: then their leaves die down in early summer, and they lie inert for months, then they send up the flowers, all alone, in autumn! 

How weird is that?

As you can see in the photo above, the flowers are fragile, so a cold morning can lay them down on their sides:  heavy rain will flatten them; and they are pretty much impossible to move when they are flowering.

But when they are fresh, and the late summer sun catches them... lovely!

They do look rather like a Crocus, don't they? You can see why they acquired that particular common name.

But they are much larger, they stand almost ankle high (when not flattened by wind, rain, and careless pets, of course), and although they are only there for a few days, their ephemeral fragility is wonderful to behold.

In a couple of weeks, they will be gone: leaving nothing to indicate where they were, until they send up their leaves, in the depths of winter.

And the moral of this story is twofold: firstly, this reinforces the notion that when you move into a new house, don't do anything drastic to the garden for the first year, because you never know what's going to come up where, until you have been through all the seasons: and secondly, when you can't immediately identify a plant, don't give up: take photos, make notes of where it was, and revisit the place at different times of year - and eventually, you will find out what it is!!

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Wednesday, 21 September 2022

What is the best way to propagate trees?

Answer: a shingle path. 

You would think that a shingle path would be a barren desert, as far as seedlings are concerned, wouldn't you? 

However, nothing is further from the truth, as a shingle path seems to provide a perfect germination and nursery bed for many plants, including trees! 

Here are three photos which I've taken in the last fortnight, each showing the large handful of tiny seedlings which have been weeded out from three different Clients and their shingle paths. 


The first handful are Field Maple, from a shingled parking courtyard: 

This represents about half of the amount which I weeded out.


These ones are common Ash trees from a shingle path around the house:


It's a pity that we don't yet know, or have an easy way to determine, which Ash seedlings are going to be resistant to Ash Dieback Disease, because I am throwing them on the compost heap by the dozen! 


...and the third are Lime seedlings, from a decorative shingle-and-rubble seating area (don't worry, it looks prettier than it sounds!) around the base of an old Cherry tree, and at least a hundred yards away from the Lime Walk, which presumably provided the seeds.

Each handful contains over fifty seedlings … ah, if only I had a couple of acres, what a wonderful tree nursery I could have.

Why are they so successful? Well, shingle paths are a matrix of small stones, which water clings between: even on a hot day, if you scrape back a couple of inches of shingle, you will find that the lower stones are damp. 

But at the same time, this matrix allows for really good drainage, so shingle virtually never becomes waterlogged. 

This combination provides just the right amount of water that the seeds need, plus protection from the hungry mouths of small mammals who would otherwise scoff the lot. Seeds bring along their own store of nutrients to get them started, of course, but even paths with good quality membranes below them will accumulate a surprising amount of organic material, from “bits” that drop down from above, from weeds that grow and die, from the dead bodies of worms, small invertebrates etc, and from the very dirt which is washed down with the rain.

This is enough to let a seedling get a good start in life, and it doesn't end when they are barely a couple of inches high: I have weeded out young trees well over a foot high, with roots which stretched to 18” or more through the shingle.

Removing them - for weeding, or for potting on - is very simple, all you have to do is to take a small hand tool (I use my daisy grubber, but a hand fork works just as well), push it into the shingle close to the seedlings, and wiggle it around to loosen the shingle, while you hold the plant by a leaf. As the shingle is loosened, the seedling will come free.

Last year I was walking past a local factory when I noticed a lot of tiny, dark red seedlings in the rough gravel path. Inside their compound was a rather lovely purple Norway Maple, so I carefully lifted every seedling I could find, brought them home and potted them up. Now I have a dozen small purple trees, free of charge.

So, if you want some trees for free, keep a close eye on your nearest shingle paths!

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Monday, 19 September 2022

When is a tree not a tree? When it's covered with Ivy...

Once upon a time there was a tree.

It lived and grew, in a pleasant back garden, and no-one minded that it was only eight or nine feet away from what we all still call a "telegraph pole". even though we no longer have telegraphs.  The Utility Pole - that's the correct name for them, now - in question supports the power lines to the house. So it's quite important.

Being out of sight behind the shed, Ivy also grew in that area.

"Hey, that's a nice tree," said the Ivy (not out loud, obviously), "I think I'll climb up there and see if I can take over the neighbourhood."

So the Ivy climbed the tree.

The houseowners, not realising what a problem this would become, let it grow. 

From time to time, they made half-hearted attempts to pull down the Ivy, but they never did more than superficial damage, and over a period of time, the Ivy made it right up to the top of the tree.

"Heh, heh," smirked the Ivy (again, not out loud, obviously), "I've made it to the top! Excellent, now I shall spread my limbs out in all directions, in case there is anything else nearby which I can climb."

The Ivy was also smothering the tree, but didn't particularly care, because a) Ivy has no concept of time, or the future consequences of its actions:  and b) it is the spawn of the devil, and doesn't care about any other plants, anyway.

Eventually the householders realised that the tree was getting perilously close to their power lines, and if the tree were to damage those power lines, it might affect their enjoyment of the many electrical gadgets with which they had filled their home.

So they called in the trusty Garden Team, that's me and my Arborist, and asked us to take the ivy off the upper parts of the tree, and to trim back the branches which were nearly touching the power lines.

After informing the electricity company, and gaining permission to work (this is all legal stuff, don't worry about it), we set to work on the tree, and found out that in fact there was barely any tree left, under all the ivy, and that in fact the many "branches" which were threatening the power lines were - in fact! - ivy branches.

Yes, ivy can achieve significant thickness of stem - remember the Gigantic Ivy which I shared with you, earlier this year?

Ivy stems can lean out, mid-air and unsupported, for easily six to eight feet, and that's what had happened at the top of this tree.

So it was actually the ivy threatening to eat the power lines, not the tree!

Either way, it had to go, so we cut off the ivy, and contemplated what was left of the tree (which is a story for another day).

As the tree was in a fairly sorry state, we reduced it in height, and here is one of the "slices" off the top of the tree:

You can just see the tip of my boot, at the bottom of the photo, for scale.

Gosh, just look at all those closely-packed stems.

Hang on a minute: those are not all tree stems, are they?

Some of the are ..... IVY!!

Closer inspection revealed that only three of these cut stems are actual tree material:


Just those three with the arrows pointing to them.

All the rest were ivy stems.

How incredible is that?!

Almost the entire top of the tree was ivy!

So, folks, don't ever let ivy sneak up your garden trees: you may think it is harmless, but it's an evil plant which is planning to EAT your trees, smother them, and eventually kill them!


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Friday, 16 September 2022

Autumn: Season of Mists, Mellow Fruitfulness, and Moss...

Ever wondered why the word for “to scrape out all the moss and dead grass from your lawn” is Scarify? 

Answer - because it's pretty darned scary-fying to do it! 

You start with what appears to be a nice, normal, green lawn: you apply the autumn “weed and feed” product, either by trundling a little cart up and down the lawn, or by doing the old-fashioned broadcasting by hand, with sweeping arm motions: then a fortnight later you are confronted with big black patches where the moss has been killed, and you look at it in horror and realise that you can't just leave it, you have to get out there and scrape out the dead stuff.

If you are lucky, you'll have a little electric scarifier, which looks like a cut-down mower but with long thin teeth instead of a blade: if you are less lucky you'll have an ecologically-sound hand-push scarifier, which looks like a minimalist rake on wheels: or if you are really, really, unlucky you'll just have the good old Spring Rake, which we use in Autumn (gardeners' joke).

Whatever tool you have, when you start to apply it to the lawn, masses and masses of moss will spring up in an apparently endless supply, leaving you with scary bare-looking patches, and a massive bagful of fluffy green stuff that cannot be put on the compost, as it is mostly moss, and therefore you would end up with compost full of moss spores. And you certainly don't want to spread the moss around the garden any further! 

Here are a couple of photos, showing the process:

First we have an area of the lawn which the moss-killer has revealed.

The moss is dying off, and there are bare patches showing.

Out with the folding Spring Rake (“which we use in Autumn”... gardeners don't have many in-jokes, so we have to make the most of the ones we do have) which I find does the job better than a “fixed” one, as you can alter the width of the tines to get the best effect. 

To use it, just scrape it across the grass - and although I use the word “scrape” it's actually quite a light combing action - the trick is to get the moss out but to leave the grass behind, so there's quite a lot of upward motion. 


Here's an "action picture" - I generally comb it once in one direction, then at a right angle, then again like this, in a swirling motion, in order to a) get the last of the moss out, and b) remove the rather odd partings that you get, if you just rake in straight lines. 

Great for the stomach muscles, allegedly: I ought, by rights, to have the female equivalent of an impressive six-pack by now but alas, I'm still soft and squishy (*sighs*) in the stomach department. 

But at least the lawn is looking better!  

Here you can see a handful of dead moss, with a few strands of live grass in it - it's impossible to avoid snapping off a few strands, it's more important to get out as much moss as you can.

If your handful is more grass than moss, though, "do it a little more gently!"

This debris should not go onto the compost: moss itself takes a long, long time to rot down, plus it leaves the compost heap full of spores, as mentioned above, so if you try to compost it, you will just end up with moss all over the flower beds as well as in the lawn... instead, burn it, bag it and take it to the tip, or put it in the green waste wheelie bin: at the commercial green waste facilities, they achieve much, much higher temperatures than our little domestic composters, so they are able to safely compost the moss, and kill off all the moss spores. 

I have had people ask if this raked-up moss can be used in floral arrangements, instead of buying expensive sphagnum moss, and the answer is Yes - if you didn't apply moss killer beforehand. (Because if you did, it will be black, instead of green!) I do have one friend who cultivates a Japanese Moss Garden, which is like a lawn which has been really, really badly infested with moss, to the point where there is no actual grass left. She loves it: it's green, it's springy, it does not require mowing: and every so often, she'll rake off a section of it, and use the resulting rakings for making decorative wreaths.

Once this is all done, you should be left with a somewhat bare-looking grassy patch: the blackened dead moss is gone, but now the soil is showing through.

So the next job is to scatter a little fresh lawn seed on the bare patches, and they will soon green up again. 

And in case you are wondering "can't I just scatter the grass seed over the mossy bits, and not bother with all this raking and hard work?" then the answer is no - the moss prevents the grass seed from making contact with the soil, so it doesn't germinate. You need to scarify first, in order to make a clear passage down through the existing grass, to the soil beneath.

There, all done!

Well, not quite: it's an unfortunate fact that if you have moss in your lawn, just raking out the existing moss won't cure the problem, and that's another whole subject: but at least by removing it annually you can prevent it taking over the grass completely, and it gives the grass a chance to recover. 

September is a great time to do this, so get your weed'n'feed applied, wait a fortnight, then get raking!

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Wednesday, 14 September 2022

Fascicularia bicolour - a weird name for a weird plant

Have you ever heard of it?

No, nor had I until my colleague Gareth gave me a crowded potful, several years ago: then a couple of months later, I found an enormous one growing in a Garden, which I had gone to visit.

It's a Bromeliad,  which are strange and exotic evergreen plants, most of which are houseplants: but a few of them are hardy enough to survive outdoors. This one, which comes from Chile, is one of the outdoor ones, and they don't seem to mind our climate at all.

They are evergreen, and very tough: the leaves are not exactly "sharp" but are certainly quite unpleasant to handle. Most of the time, they are just a mound of rigid, dark green foliage: but once they reach a certain size, they start doing something quite extraordinary - the inner leaves turn absolutely bright red!

This is the sort of photo which you find on "plants for sale" sites - and it explains the "bicolour" part of the name, as it is a startling contrast of scarlet and bright blue, with added yellow flecks.

But what are they like, in real life?

Well, Gareth's original gift was split and repotted many times, as they are prolific at producing "pups" around the base, which can be easily removed and potted on, to create new plants. 

This is no longer a "rare" plant in South Oxfordshire, I can assure you!

I had so many of them, that I ended up adding some to a little patch of Guerrilla Garden which my neighbour and I created on the piece of scrubby grass in front of our two houses. Partly just to give them a chance to grow, partly because I had too many of them, and partly to give a shock to the vast numbers of dogs whose owner allow them to pee all over the place...heh heh... but mostly because I didn't have the space in my own small garden, to let them grow on.

Fast forward a few years, and yesterday I was cutting back and weeding our little Guerrilla Garden, and lo! and behold, what did I find?

Yes! One of my Fascicularia plants is actually flowering!!

It's about a yard across now, and although the centre hasn't gone blue - yet -  we do have the bright red inner leaves, which are quite startling to see.

This plant has had no nurturing at all - I planted it, and pretty much forgot about it, and up until yesterday, it had been rather smothered by all the other plant there - so much for "requires full sun", as all the books say!

So there you have it, a weird and wonderful plant, which grows perfectly happily in a west-facing bed, in the cold and windy corner in front of my house.

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Monday, 12 September 2022

September: time to plant up pots for spring flowering!

Gardening is not, generally speaking, an "instant" activity. We are usually thinking ahead in terms of weeks, months, seasons, years, decades.... which is why, incidentally, most professional gardeners detest garden makeover shows on tv, because they are all about instant results, with no thought for the future: and they give the non-gardening public quite the wrong idea! 

Ground Force is the usual example: a fantastic show, great presenters, and yes, it got a lot of people interested in their garden, which is a good thing: in fact, it's a great thing, but it also did a lot of harm to us "real world" gardeners, because Clients would expect us to magically transform their gardens, overnight. I was once actually called and asked to do some "emergency gardening" : I went along to have a look at their neglected, barren, untidy, hideous garden, to be told that they were having a garden party the following weekend, and wanted it "made over" in time for this very important event. I managed not to laugh in their faces, but they honestly thought that one, lone, gardener could retrieve what looked like a decade of neglect, in one afternoon. I think not.

It also raised unrealistic ideas about how a garden should look, when it has just been restructured, redesigned, or "made over" - because they invariably over-stuff the garden with plants, to get that instant effect. There was never any mention made of aftercare, or the ongoing maintenance of the newly made over garden.

In fact, they did start a spin-off, whereby one of the presenters returned to a garden a year or so later: but they were inevitably in a dreadful state, so the series was pulled after, I think, just a few shows. No-one wants to see a failed make-over, after all - and no-one wants to see all the hard work that is required to retrieve an over-planted garden, once it has returned to the wild.

All of which is a rather long-winded introduction to the concept that now, in early Autumn, we need to think about our spring-flowering bulbs.

And this is in my mind, because this week, it was time for the annual "refreshing of the pots" in one of "my" gardens.

The owner has a long row of large terracotta pots along a narrow bed in front of their house, so they like to have splashes of colour there, all year round, to cheer up the approach.

At this time of year, the summer bedding is pretty much finished, so it's time to refresh the pots, and plant them up with spring-flowering bulbs, ready for next year.

 First job: check out the summer planting, and decide what, if any, is worth saving.

In this case, the wallflowers were in quite nice condition, and a couple of the other things, but most of it  was definitely looking tired.

So, out with the old: using a trowel, I carefully removed all the planting.

This revealed the dry, exhausted compost.

The very top layer went into the compost bin, along with the various small weeds: once below that, the tired compost was scattered on the surrounding beds, to mulch down as general "soil conditioner".

Here are the rescued plants - they are a bit like gigantic plugs! 

I took a little time to clean out the surface weeds, a there's no point putting them back into fresh compost.

Now we turn to the pot: having emptied out most of the old, tired, compost, I added a small handful of fish, blood and bone, then a layer of nice fresh multi-purpose compost.

When filling decorative pots or troughs, I don't like to use garden compost, ie home-made compost, because - alas - it's invariably full of weed seeds, because our domestic compost pens just don't achieve the heat needed to kill them all off.

This doesn't matter too much in the garden, because that gets weeded anyway, and there is a lot of competition from the existing plants: but in a freshly planted pot, the weeds will will have all winter and all that lovely fresh compost, in which to grow and thrive... so I prefer to use just clean, new, multi-purpose compost, bought in.

Having added a layer of compost, in go the bigger bulbs, in this case Tulips: my favourite, Queen of Night, to be exact.

These are beautiful dark, dark purple ones. Lush!

As you can see, I space them out roughly in a circle, and I try to get them not quite touching each other, but I don't usually bother to try to stand them all up on their bottoms, pointy end upwards.

If you wish to do this, just push them gently, half-way down, into the soft compost, then trickle a couple of handfuls on top, being careful not to disturb them.

Bearing in mind that I have a dozen of these pots to get through, I don't have time to faff about, so I just bung them in, and cover them up!

Having added more compost, and firmed it down gently, I can then add the next layer of smaller bulbs: this is sometimes referred to as "lasagne bulbs" or  "a lasagne pot" which is a slightly pretentious way of saying "layered".

You can see that I have laid out an outer circle of smaller bulbs - mostly allium - with a central group.

Allowing for the way the pot sides slope outwards, this means that this layer of bulbs is not directly above the lower layer - so the tulips will come through the gap, without pushing the allium out of the way.

More compost is added, and firmed down: and then the saved plants are re-planted in the very top layer of compost.

To ensure that I don't damage the bulbs below, I firm down a layer of compost above the smallest bulbs, sit these "plugs" on top, then carefully work the compost around them, rather than digging into the surface.

Now that it's fully planted, I can water it in well, and that pretty much sets it up for the winter.

 Sometimes there is a decorative mulch to be added, instead of plants: sometimes there will be a circle of wire mesh, if there is no planting, in order to prevent small mammals - squirrels are the usual culprits - from digging up the bulbs over the winter.

In my case, I now repeat these steps for all the other pots, and then that's that job jobbed (as my Client always says!) and my work here is done until next spring, when we will all enjoy the bulbs!

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Friday, 9 September 2022

How to: take cuttings of Sedum

I had a call the other day from a past student, wanting to know how to take cuttings of Sedum:  and this is one of the easiest plants from which to take cuttings, so here is the illustrated guide, and I hope that you will all have a go at this, for yourselves.

Firstly, take your chosen Sedum.... so what's a Sedum, before we start?

Sedums don't seem to have a good common name, I think that Stonecrop is the commonest, or possibly Ice Plant.

They range from tiny little alpine things, to great big knee-high free-standing clumps, and they are what is known as "succulents" which means, as you would suppose, that the stems and leaves are fleshy.

This makes them very drought-tolerant, hence their popularity with gardeners: the small ones are usually found in rockeries, the larger ones tend to fill out the borders.

 There are hundreds of cultivars, ranging from pale green foliage, through darker green, into purple (which is my particular favourite). The flowers are not massively showy, but are very attractive to bees and other pollinating insects, so most gardens will have a Sedum or two, somewhere.

To make some new plants, all you do is take a couple of stems: just cut them off at the base.

Generally, try to pick good solid, firm ones. It doesn't matter if they are flowering, because we are going to cut off the flowers: and the longer the better, because then you can get multiple cuttings from each stem.

First things first - prepare the pot. Here, I'm using what is called a half-pot: designed so that you don't need to use as much compost. As soon as the cuttings have rooted, they will be "potted on" into their own pots, so there's no point wasting a full-depth pot.

Take your compost/potting mix, half-fill the pot, firm it down gently with the back of your hand: then top it up, firm it again, top it up, firm it again.

I use the back of the hand, because you get a more even pressure. And the point of doing it in layers is to prevent that situation where it's all compressed on top, but soft underneath.

Having compressed the compost, take something like a pencil - you can get official "dibbers" for this task, but frankly, an old pencil works just as well - and push it down, vertically, into the compost, to make a hole.

If, when you withdraw the pencil, the hole immediately fills in, then your compost is too dry! Check out this post about how to get your compost to the correct texture....

Now pick up your piece of Sedum. 

Look at the way the leaves spring out, in pairs: the point from which they originate is called a "node". 

"I wondered, lonely as a cloud..." no, that's "an ode", not "a node". Do pay attention.

Your first cut is going to be just exactly below the bottom-most node.

Like that.

I have snipped off the piece of stem below the node. 

This is because nodes are growing points: they put out leaves, but when you bury them in compost, they put out roots instead. If you didn't trim off the piece of stem below the node, it wouldn't grow, it would simply rot, which might spoil your cutting.

Look at the placement of those leaves:

Then gently cut off the lowest pair, and the pair above.

With a fleshy plant like Sedum, you might well be able to pinch off the leaves with your thumbnail: but if in doubt, use secateurs or gardening scissors (which are exactly the same as kitchen scissors, or any other type of scissor, but which have been relegated to the garden) and snip them off, as close to the stem as you can reasonably manage.

I have taken pains to keep my hand in exactly the same position, to help you see what I am doing.

(Memo to self: must get that Go-pro so that I can do videos...)

Now look at the pair of leaves just above where I am holding it. 

Those are going to be the "top" leaves, which we retain:

So now you snip off the stem immediately above that top pair of leaves.

This gives us our complete cutting: one pair of leaves remains, for photosynthesising, all the others have been removed because they are going to be under soil level, and if we left them on the stem, they would rot. 

Which would be bad.

Take the finished cutting, and pop it into the hole which you made in the compost.

You can, if you wish, dip the base of the cutting into hormone rooting powder before inserting it into the soil.

Personally, I've given up bothering, as cuttings seem to root just as well without it: and if you put too much rooting powder onto a cutting, it can cause the cutting to die, because the hormones stimulate the cells into rapid growth - which is what you want, if you want it to root - but too much causes the base of the cutting to form a callus, where the cells have grown too fast. A callus is waterproof, so the cutting can't take up water any more, and therefore dies.

And how much rooting powder is "too much"?  No-one knows for certain, it's one of those things you get a feel for, when you take a lot of cuttings: it's called experience. So if you don't have much experience, it's probably better to do without the rooting powder. Trust your Sedums! They will root quite happily, all on their own.

Firm the compost down, around the base of the stem: you can (just) see that I use two fingers, one each side of the stem. 

This helps me to avoid knocking the cutting over sideways, as I am trying to get it firmed in place.

How firmly? Think of tucking up a small child in bed: firmly enough that they can't get their arms out, but not so firmly that they can't breathe.

Repeat these steps with the remainder of the Sedum stems, you should be able to get two or three cuttings from each length:

Position them around the edge of the pot, like this - left - and you should be able to get five or six cuttings into each pot.

Why put them round the edges? I'm still not sure exactly why, some books say that it helps them to root faster: certainly, when it comes time to pot on your rooted cuttings, it is easier to get them apart when they are all spaced out round the edges of the pot.

Having finished with the cuttings, water them gently, trying not to splash them: and if, by any chance, any of the cuttings falls over sideways (which means that you didn't follow the instructions about pre-wetting your compost), wait until the water has drained through, then gently firm them in again, making sure that each one is upright and not touching any of the others.

Now put the pot outside somewhere, and check it every day, to see if it needs watering. Lift the pot up, to test the weight: or dab a dry finger onto the surface, and look to see if tiny crumbs of soil/compost are sticking to your finger. If they are, all is well. If your finger comes up perfectly clean, then the compost needs watering.

After a couple of weeks, you won't need to check every single day, a couple of times a week will probably be enough, but it's good to get in the habit of checking your cuttings daily, at first.

Now, you just leave them to get on with it for a couple of months!!



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Monday, 5 September 2022

When Grass Snakes shed their skins...

OK, you guys are probably going to say "Huh, we see these all the time," in a dismissive way, but I was fascinated the other day, to discover a complete cast-off grass snake skin, in one of "my" gardens.



Here it is, I moved it onto the grass in order to get a better photo, as it's translucent,


it's about 2' long, and must have been shed fairly shortly before I found it, because they are fragile, and it would have disintegrated in no time.

The detail was incredible - you could literally see every scale, and you could clearly see the difference between the smaller scales on the back, and the longer ones underneath, where it "walks".

I'm sure you know that snakes, not having any legs, "walk" on their ribs, and they use the rough edges of those lower scales to get a grip on whatever they are walking on.

You can even see his little eyes!!

Isn't that astonishing??!

Hilariously, this skin was found on the decking next to the stream, so it almost looks as though the snake took off its skin, before going in for a swim...

I had thought this was a fairly large one, but having done a cursory internet search, they get quite a lot bigger than this: and apparently female grass snakes shed their skins before laying eggs, so maybe there will be a new generation of little grass snakes, in a couple of months.

I shall keep a careful look-out for them!

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Saturday, 3 September 2022

Hydrangea Annabelle: did a grenade go off?

After a sudden downpour overnight, I arrived at work this morning to find poor Annabelle looking as though, well, a bomb had gone off! 

"Who's Annabelle?" I  hear you cry, concernedly. It's ok, it's not a person, it's a plant - Hydrangea arborescens 'Annabelle' to be exact, one of my ultimate favourite Hydrangeas, because it is as tough as old boots - normally! - it's super-easy to grow (just chop it back to knee height every year, no faffing about) and the flower heads are HUGE!!

Here she is, all flattened - left.

A bit of a shocking sight! Normally, this is how the plant looks:

This  photo - right - was actually taken the previous year, as I didn't have a comparison photo, but you get the general idea: nice upright stems, heavily weighted with enormous blooms.

So, did I panic? 

Did I run around, tearing my hair out? 

No, I left it alone, knowing that once the water drains off, it will bob up again and be as good as new. 

Sometimes, if I have time, I gently shake off some of the water to help them, as Annabelle has such gloriously large flower heads, or “inflorescences”, as we botanists say... but usually, they will recover perfectly well on their own. 

This particular specimen has a rather Heath-Robinson contraption of metal hoops around it, just below the level of the hedge, but as you can see, the overnight rain was just too much for it!

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Wednesday, 31 August 2022

Nodules on an old Hazel tree...what on earth are they?

The other day, I was removing root suckers from a very old Hazel (Corylus avellana) and I noticed these:

No, I have no idea what they are.

They appear to be hard, round, nodules: about the size of garden peas, and scattered all along the base of the tree, where the base flares out.

I've never seen anything like this before, and a cursory internet search ("nodules on hazel tree" "hazel bark galls") didn't throw up any images of anything similar.

So they don't appear to be galls (which I would normally expect on leaves, not on bark, anyway), and they're not burrs, either.

If you have any suggestions, please feel free to leave a comment below, to email me direct - address at the top of the page, in the right-hand column - or to send me the answer on a postcard!!!

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Monday, 29 August 2022

Time to trim the Lavender

It's that time again! 

This is a subject that comes up again, and again.... and again... when, and how, to cut back the lavender.

First question: why do we cut it back?

Answer: because if we don't, the plant gets bigger ("but that's a good thing, surely?" "Listen on, my pet, there's more to it than that,") and with lavender, that means that it gets woodier: and once they get woody, they start to fall open, losing the neat dome shape that we all admire. 

Instead, they flop open, revealing unlovely brown woody stems, many of which are dead.

Here's a fairly typical example - left.

It still flowers, it's still pretty, the bees still love it: but it's sprawling, and untidy, and is starting to flop over the path.

This is what happens if you plant a lavender, and don't prune it for five years...

Did you know that lavenders have quite a short life span? Friends of mine used to run a lavender nursery - yes, a whole nursery, just for lavender!! - and they told me that a lavender plant should be expected to live for five years, that's all. 

Five years!

I can hear several of you shouting at the screen "but I have lavender in my garden that's been there for donkey's years!" and I would agree: I know of many really old lavender plants. My friends commented that, if an individual lavender plant is pruned properly every year, it will indeed last a lot longer than five years. But most people don't prune them properly.

And secondly, lavender do seed themselves quite readily, especially if they are not pruned: so it is entirely possible that the "old" plant is actually one in a series of self-set seedlings, which have grown up around the original plant, which may have died off in the meantime.

I'm not totally convinced, with due respect to my friends: I think that they are confusing "perfect lavender plants" with "ordinary plants in our gardens and we don't mind if they are a bit shabby or shapeless." 

Anyway, back to the point: why prune lavender? To keep it compact, to extend it's life.

How to prune? Grab your secateurs in one hand, get a flexi-tub or other handy garden waste disposal device, and approach the lavender. Gently open up the foliage, until you can see the individual branches. Take hold of one of these branches, quite low down, then slide your hand upwards around the branch, compressing - gently - the foliage as you do so. Wow, I must get myself a go-pro, this sort of thing would be so much quicker if I did a short video of it...  once you have reached the point where you are seeing blue/green leaves, cut off the handful, and drop it in the tub.

I've just re-read that, and it makes perfect sense to me, because I must have done this about a thousand times by now: but it's one of those things which is so much easier to demonstrate, than to describe.

In brief, then, cut the lavender one handful at a time, making sure that you don't cut so far down than you are cutting into bare brown wood, because it won't re-grow from that point.  Always leave some greenery. But don't cut so "high" that you are leaving bare flower-stalks, either: cut them right off. As I say, far easier to demonstrate,  I shall look into the go-pro thing again.

Put all the cuttings into the bin, or on the bonfire pile: they don't make good compost. 

Here's a long lavender hedge, part-done: can you see where I've been?

I meant to do "before" and "after" but, as usual, I forgot to do the first one until I was already half-way down the row! 

However, this is actually quite nice, as it shows you how much, proportionately,  you can take off - and how much to leave behind. 

Enough that it's still green, but without all those sticky-up flowering stalks.

And here - right - is the finished item, a nice rounded shape, all the stems are gone, but there's plenty of green foliage left.

Before you ask, yes, you can, if you wish, do this job with a pair of shears. Many people find it easier to get a neat, balanced shape if they use shears.

(Or even the hedgetrimmers, although I would not recommend that, as a) they are a bit coarse for the job, and b) one slip and oops! All gone!)

The benefit of doing it by the handful, though, is that you don't have to spend half an hour afterwards, picking up all the tiny little bits, which have gone everywhere. Especially on a gravel drive, as it's a nightmare to pick up all the tiny pieces. By doing it one handful at a time, there is no clearing up at all.

And as for "when", that's actually quite simple: when it starts to look "grey".

Lavender flowers are, well, lavender coloured, except for white lavender of course: and when you look across the plants, you should see a haze of blue-purple-lilac-lavender colour.

When you start to see a haze of grey, then that is the time to cut them back.

The actual time depends very much on the weather: I've seen Lavender still flowering right into early autumn, but in a hot and dry year such as this one, they are finished much earlier in the year. So don't go by the calendar, go by your own eye: when they get that "haze of grey" look, get out there and trim them back!

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