Monday, 28 February 2022

The Peony Bed: when the party is over...

After my article on how different Peony cultivars grow at very different speeds, I had a question from Tia (*waves*) asking what the bed looked like, once the Peonies were over.

That's a very perceptive question! 

This - right - is the same Peony Bed in December, from slightly further back, and as you can see, it's pretty empty: typical of many herbaceous perennial beds through winter and into spring.

At the bottom of this photo, you can see the tip of a variegated Box ball, there's one on each side of the path, for symmetry: and there is a Rosa Mundi versicolour behind it, inside the round metal frame. 

Just out of sight at the top of the picture is a large Hydrangea.

As you can see, we mulch this bed with bark chippings. and it has an edging of Ipheon, on the right, which are spring-flowering bulbs.

You might just be able to see that there are a couple of clumps of "other stuff" towards the left-hand edge of the bed - these are Iris sibirica, and Tradescantia: but the Peonies carry the burden of this bed, through the summer.

Well, here's the Peony Bed in late June: we're looking at it from the opposite angle.

This cunningly means that we have the other bed, the one beyond the shingle path, providing some taller plants which will continue flowering into summer: there is a dark red rose (L.D. Braithwaite, glorious scent), a whole mass of Bearded Iris and purple Gladioli, and a run of Margaret Merrill white roses.

Now you can see that the Barrington Belle Peony is still flowering, with the dark red flowers: they look almost purple in this photo.

That was the Peony which was barely showing buds in March: and, as it is the last to start, so it is the last to finish.

The other two are finished with flowering, and have been dead-headed.

This prevents them wasting energy on making seeds, and allows them to stock up their tubers, ready for next year. It also looks better - get rid of anything brown and dead-looking, that's my motto! Every week, after flowering, I would check the foliage and cut back progressively, as the flowering stems died back, in order to leave good green foliage for as long as possible.

We usually fill the spaces in the "front" (from this angle) of this bed with annual Cosmos, in white, and often with Nigella (blue), plus - to be perfectly honest - anything from elsewhere in the garden that needs a temporary home.

Once the Peonies are truly over, we are left with the Rosa Mundi versicolour and the Box ball at one end, and the Hydrangea at the other end, and we rely on the annual Cosmos and other oddments to fill the space until we're back to autumn again, at which point all the herbaceous material is cleared away, a fresh layer of mulch is added, and that's it until spring!

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Thursday, 24 February 2022

Peonies: growing at different paces!

I keep meaning to write about this: I used to have a Client with a big Peony bed, and I was always intrigued by how differently they grew.

Er, by which I mean, how one variety would appear a lot earlier than other varieties.

At this time of year - February - we are just starting to see the big, fat buds of Peonies appearing at soil level, which is always exciting. But then they don't do anything for quite some time. Especially if we have a cold spell.

So, this is a photo taken at the very end of March, a couple of year back:

This is part of the Peony bed, and you can see that it's still early in the year, because the pot on the shingle is still wrapped up in fleece, for the winter.

And what do we have, in our Peony bed?

Closest to the bottom, on the right, we have something still at ground level.

Above it, on the right-hand edge, we have a clump of upright red shoots.

And to the left of that, we have greenery!

In detail, then: 

This one is Barrington Belle, which will have large, dark pink flowers with a jazzy yellow centre.

As you can see, the buds are barely breaking the surface of the soil.

The second one is Coral Faye, or possibly Fay (the original label said Faye) and they will have loosely rounded, cup-shaped blossoms, later on: in, as the name would suggest, a shade of pink.

And on this day, we have good strong shoots, looking lush and wonderful, full of promise.

Startlingly further ahead that the Barrington Belle!

And the third one, in this small comparison, is called Flame, and it has buds!

Not just lush foliage, but actual buds!

Isn't that extraordinary?

How can there be three varieties of Paeonia lactiflora, growing in the same bed, with the same soil, weather conditions etc, and yet they grow at such different rates?


I never cease to be amazed, entertained, and entranced by my job! 

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Tuesday, 22 February 2022

Using wood chip as a mulch

Early last year, I started working with an Arborist, and we offer our tree Clients the option of keeping the woodchip which we produce, to be used as a mulch in their garden.

Here is an example, left: woodchips spread at the base of espaliered fruit trees, allowing the gardener to prune and attend to the trees, without having to step on earth, but without the expense of installing hard landscaping such as paving.

We like to do this, because it is about the most ecologically-sound thing you can do - for many reasons!

Firstly, it's the product of your own garden, so you are keeping the nutrients within the garden, instead of extracting them and, in effect, throwing them away. This is an extension of composting, where we strive to reclaim all the nutrients and minerals, rather than paying the bin men to take them away, or having to waste petrol going to the tip with bags of garden waste, or - worst of all - burning them.

Secondly, birds love mulch! It is quickly colonised by a myriad of bugs, beetles and other critters beginning with 'B', and the birds have a lovely time, flicking it about and scoffing to their hearts' content.

Thirdly, it means we don't have to charge our Client for taking it away - which reduces the cost of the job. 

Fourthly, it's free! Why buy expensive bags of chipped bark, or other mulch, when you can re-cycle your own trees and hedges?  Plus, if  you buy-in bags of chipped mulch, you never know quite what you are going to get, whereas when it comes from your own trees and hedges... well, you know exactly what's in it!

Some people, though, are reluctant to put chippings on their beds, for various reasons, so let's run through a few of those.

Before we get into the science of it, let's be clear about the terminology here: woodchip is applied as a mulch, which means that it sits on the surface of the soil. It is not "dug in", the way that compost, manure, 'organic matter' (posh word for manure) or soil conditioner are. 

So, what are the main concerns, then? 

Nitrogen stealing:

This is to do with the theory that wood chippings will take nitrogen from the soil, during the act of decomposition.

Not the case: as the mulch sits on top of the soil surface, and is not dug in, there is only a very small amount of nitrogen extraction being carried out by the chippings, and that all occurs on the interface between the underside of the mulch layer, and the surface of the soil. This means that any small transfer of nitrogen from the soil only affects the surface, and has no impact at all on the soil below, which is where the roots of the plants are living.

This, by the way, is possibly one reason why a thick layer of mulch suppresses weeds: although personally I think it is more to do with it being a physical barrier to prevent weed seeds making contact with the soil and by excluding light from the seeds already lying on the surface, before the mulch was applied.


If the tree has any "germs" in it, will they not be transferred to the plants around which the mulch is spread? Often, the Arborists are called in because a tree is damaged, or diseased, or dying: not just to make it a bit smaller, neater, or tidier. It's a fair point, but again, chippings are used on the surface of the soil, not underground where the roots are.


This is a variation on the theme of Pathogens: there are some trees which contain chemicals, which  suppress the growth of competing plants. Walnut is allegedly one (although I have never yet found a Walnut tree with nothing growing underneath it), Rhododendrons is another, as is Cherry Laurel. So would wood chip (Digression: "how much wood, would a wood-chipper chip, if a wood-chipper would chip wood?" Answer: we can fill a one-ton builder bag in about ten minutes of intensive chipping!) therefore not kill everything, where you spread it? The answer is basically "No", because mulch sits on top of the soil, it is not dug in: meaning that any allelopathic chemicals do not get incorporated into the soil, where the roots of the plants are.

Cleanliness: next to godliness, so they say.

Chippings are bulkier than bought mulch: the chips form a matrix which creates a whole ecosystem for bugs, worms, and even small mammals to live, work, eat, and die in. Importantly, this matrix also allows air and water down into the soil, and the larger size of the chips means that soil and "dirt" gets washed down between the chips every time it rains, so the surface stays clean and mud-free. This makes it easier to walk across the area without getting muddy feet, which is nice for the gardener, and nice for the lawn as well!

Smothering the plants:

You often read the phrase "apply mulch in a deep layer, 4-6" deep."  I have never yet, not once, seen mulch spread that deeply. Good heavens, it would make the beds look ridiculous, if you piled 6" of mulch on top of the bed!  I would say that 2" is a more reasonable depth to aim for: enough that you can't see the soil through the mulch, if you casually stir it with your foot.

And personally, when applying mulch on "my" gardens, I always spread or rake it out by hand, and I tend to draw it back from the stems of shrubs. Herbaceous perennials generally find their own way up through a layer of mulch, but I would never put mulch over Peonies (because they don't like their tuber to be buried, it adversely affects the flowering) and Bearded Iris, because their rhizomes need to sit on the surface, and be baked by the sun each summer, in order to promote good flowering the following year.  

Bulbs, of course, will push their way up through any amount of mulch, even through this pile of bricks - right.

And I am very fussy about not piling wood chippings, or any sort of mulch, for that matter, up around the trunks of trees. I will always draw the mulch away from close contact with the bark of a tree.

That deals with the usual objections: there are also a couple of really good, positive reasons for using wood chippings as a mulch.

Soil surface preservation:

A thick mulch of chippings slows down the effect of rain on the soil: during heavy rain, instead of the soil being battered and waterlogged, the mulch absorbs and slows down the passage of the rain, allowing it time to be absorbed gently into the soil below. This prevents the creation of a surface pan, or "capping" where excess water dries and creates a crust: it also prevents soil erosion and the washing out of nutrients.

Temperature regulation:

A thick mulch of chippings protects the soil - and therefore the roots of the plants - from extremes of temperatures. In summer, it takes the worst of the baking heat - ah, remember baking heat? Did we have any, last summer? I can barely remember being hot... *sigh* - which keeps the soil below cooler: and in winter, it obviously provides a snug anti-frost covering.

Long lasting:

Chippings last a lot longer than bags of bought mulch, which quickly "composts" down and disappears into the soil. Sometimes this is what you want, but sometimes you want a mulch to remain on duty for longer, and chippings are ideal for that.

Where to use them:

On beds and borders: in a fairly thin layer. Don't worry about bulbs, they will push right up through the mulch with no problem.

Under hedges: as thickly as you like, which will help to cut down on weeds, and will provide a lovely ecosystem of bugs to feed birds and small mammals.

Under and around trees, for a natural woodland look

As a top surface for paths: wood chip makes a good all-weather surface which isn't dusty in summer, and doesn't make your shoes muddy in winter.

To absorb moisture from areas which have been trampled and worn out: just spread it around on the muddy areas, and keep topping it up until it's no longer muddy!

So there you go, many good reasons to use wood chippings as a mulch on your garden!

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Sunday, 20 February 2022

Corkscrew Willow: how NOT to prune!

Sometimes, people send me photos of trees which make me say "D'aaaawwww!" in a soppy voice. 

Or which feature something beautiful and stylish, which generates approval, and a warm smile.

Sometimes a photo will make me do that thing which I believe is called "pursing the lips" (kind of the exact opposite of a warm smile, presumably) to express vexation with an undertone of disapproval and possibly dismay, which usually leads to an article on How To Do whatever it featured, in the hopes that other people won't make the same mistake.

And sometimes I get one which just makes me screech "Whaaaaaaat!!" in disbelief.

Had one of those yesterday. (*laughs*)

Consider yourself warned, I am about to insert it: it's a corkscrew willow - that's usually Salix babylonica var. pekinensis 'Tortuosa', sometimes just Salix babylonica 'Tortuosa', or sometimes Salix matsudana 'Tortuosa'.  A tree of many names (experts can't quite agree whether it is one species with two names, or two different but very similar species), which also has at least three common names, those being Curly Willow, Corkscrew Willow, and Contorted Willow.

This one belongs to Derek (*waves*), it got a bit too big, he got a bloke in to prune it and - in his own words (that's Derek's own words, not those of the butcher pruning bloke, who probably thinks, to this day, that he did a good job), "I had a guy prune it towards the end of the summer. I think he went a little too far with the pruning"

Brace yourself, here it comes:

(Poor thing.)

Under the general heading of Crimes Against Horticulture, you have to ask yourself - what on earth is that? Is it a tree, a shrub, a tangled mess? (Sorry, Derek!) 

Taking a deep breath, and muttering "Calm, calm" to myself, let's take a look at it.

It clearly used to have a single main stem or trunk, which was brutally chopped off halfway up the window.

Then there is a secondary large branch coming out at an angle, from about knee height, by the look of it, which was hacked off at about waist height.

 There was also another largish branch, even lower, as we can see in this photo, right:

The branch - visible as a round white area, facing us - was sprouting out at ankle height, and has been cut off flush to the trunk.

So that's the situation:  it was a small tree, it's quite close to a building and to a fence, it had presumably grown a little too large for comfort, as willows are fast-growing, even the decorative ones.

Now, the good news is that willows are almost impossible to kill by pruning, and because they grow so fast, it is actually quite easy to re-shape them, to re-style them, to retrieve them if someone has been a bit heavy-handed with the pruners.

The bloke who pruned it had presumably been told to reduce it, and he took the easy route and just lopped off three main stems.

As you can see in the photos, there is a mass of thin, spindly growth all over what is left of the tree, plus a clump of really good strong shoots, popping out at ground level, on the right-hand side of the trunk: you can see them as the batch of thick, green stems, in the photo above.

Now, to be fair to him, I don't know how much growth there was at the base of the tree before he got to work: a lot of those skinny little stems are quite brown, which suggests that they are not fresh growth from last year, but are older. 

In which case, he was faced with something which was already closer to a bush than a tree, so he may have thought it best to cut down the tree part, and leave it as a bush.

Or, all of that growth has appeared subsequent to the pruning, in which case he failed to advise the client that the willow would respond to hard pruning by throwing up a mass of shoots from lower down, and that the owner would need to check the tree weekly, and remove all of these shoots, in order to restore the tree to a "tree" shape, rather than a "bush" shape.

So what can be done?

Firstly, I would suggest the owner needs to decide if they want a bush, in that position, or a tree. 

If space, or light requirement, dictates that a bush is better, then I would cut out the remaining "trunk" as low down as possible, ie treat it like a coppice. Every year or two, probably in early spring, I would then re-coppice it by cutting off all the growth back down to the lowest point, and letting it regrow.

This will produce a mass of more-or-less upright curly shoots, all pretty much the same size, so it will be a tidy shape, with fresh green foliage: easy to maintain (no skill required!) and every time you cut it, you will become very popular with your local flower arranging group, who will pounce on the offcuts with delight.

If, however, a tree shape would be preferred - maybe in order to keep it to a more narrow shape - then it could be treated as a semi-pollard, ie shoots are allowed to grow from the point on the main trunk where it was cut, ie the top:  and from the end of the one big side branch - again, where it was cut. 

But all other growth must be removed, to keep the trunk clear.

This - left - is the primary school rendition of what it would like like: dark green represents the existing trunk and light green is the new growth.

To do this,  all of those spindly, skinny stems need to be carefully removed, as close as possible to the trunk, including those thick green ones at ground level.

This will restore it to being a tree, and although it will initially look like a dead tree, with no branches, it will quickly re-sprout.

However, the owner will need constant vigilance, to remove all new shoots other than those in the desired locations, ie the cut ends of the main trunk, and of the side branch. 

This means going over the tree once a week, and looking for buds, or little sprouts of growth, and rubbing them off - literally, just rub off the bud as soon as you see one. This does the least amount of damage to the tree, it removes the unwanted growth before it wastes a lot of energy in growing, and - best of all - when you rub off a bud, it rarely re-grows. 

Whereas if you let the buds grow into proper shoots, and then cut them off, the cuts will immediately produce two or more shoots, rather in the style of the Hydra of legend, so you will be making even more work for yourself, plus you will be forcing the tree to waste a lot of energy on those shoots.

By the end of the season, the tree should have a cluster of new shoots at the ends of those two points - the main stem and the one side branch - and will be starting to look more like a tree.

As for the future life of the tree, the owner can assess it, as it grows, and next time it is starting to look a bit too big, it will be a simple job to thin out those permitted shoots, thus keeping the tree to a reasonable height, but not having to chop it so drastically.


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Friday, 18 February 2022

Cruelty to trees: Pots

Growing trees in pots is something we all do, from a decorative Acer to the odd seedling found in the garden and potted up "to see what it turns into",  but it's about as cruel as it is possible to be. Why? For the following reasons:

1) Water
The tree does not have access to water from the surrounding ground, it is totally dependent on what we give it. Even if it rains, the surface area of the pot is tiny, so it won't catch much - and a lot of the rain will catch on the leaves and drip off, outside the rim of the pot anyway.

2) Water again.
The water that we give the tree is usually tap water - it's chemically treated, chlorinated, usually very cold, and lacks all the "dirt" that you find in rainwater: minerals, organic material etc, If you think rainwater is "clean", just think about why we have window cleaners... or look in the bottom of your water butt, some time.

3) Nutrition.
We may have given the tree top-quality shop-bought compost when it was first planted, but after a few weeks, any nutrients in that compost will have been exhausted, and the tree relies on us to replenish them. If we don't give it a balanced feed every couple of months, it will struggle. Sorry, what was that? You didn't realise that shop-bought compost had a limited life? Yes - if you read the bag, it says "contains nutrients for up to 6 weeks". That's all! So if you have been growing this tree in the same pot for a year or two, it is not getting much in the way of nutrients!

4) Stale soil.
Without any worms, beetles, grubs etc moving around within the soil inside the pot, it becomes stale and compacted. Unfortunately, adding worms to the pot makes it even worse:  the worms will aerate the pot, yes: but by doing so they will damage the roots. So it's not worth trying to "naturalise" the soil within the pot by shovelling in a handful of worms now and again.

5) Temperature shock.
Instead of being tucked safely below the ground, the rootball of the tree is unprotected, shielded only by a thin layer of terracotta or - worst of all - plastic. This means the roots get baked by the hot sun, dehydrated by the wind, and in winter, are subject to freezing and all the damage that can cause.

And yet we still grow trees (and other plants) in pots.. *sigh*

Why do we do it? A major advantage of plants in pots is that you can move them around as the fancy takes you - so if they are struggling, or looking unhappy, you can move them somewhere more sheltered, or sunnier, or shadier, or just somewhere different, until you find the place where they are happiest.

They can also be used seasonally: I have one Client who has a Norway Spruce in a biggish terracotta pot, and each November it gets moved in front of the French windows, so they can put outdoor lights and plastic decorations on it: there we go, a real Christmas tree without it dropping leaves everywhere, and without having to kill a tree every year.

But is there anything we can do, to make things better? Like it or  not, sometimes having a tree in a pot is the only way to have the tree, and we wouldn't want a garden without trees, would we?

So what can you do to help your little trees in pots?

First and most obvious, put them in the biggest pot you can reasonably manage. A bigger pot holds more compost, and therefore more water: it doesn't dry out as quickly as a small one: there is more room for the roots to grow, and being heavier, it is less likely to fall over sideways on windy days.

Secondly, shape: there are two things to avoid here: curvy sided, narrow necked pots: and slender, narrow-bottomed pots.


Let's check out curvy pots first.

This pot, left, is a wonderful Ali-Baba shape: it's a very good size, it's beautiful to behold, but it's a bugger (technical term) when it comes to re-potting.  This is because of the very narrow neck: you will find it impossible to get the plant out - particularly if it is badly pot-bound. 

Many is the time, over the years, that I have struggled, sweated and sworn at this particular pot, as the Fig within it grew, and was repotted. 

So avoid bulbous pots with narrow necks, if you possibly can.

If you want curves, try to choose the less tight-necked shape: here are a nice collection of gently rounded pots with curved, but wide necks, on the steps at Cerney House, one of my favourite Cotswolds gardens to visit.

I think I like this arrangement in particular because it is symmetrical, which I always like: and the blue pots are very similar to the ones in my garden! (it's always nice when you see your own personal choice of style etc, in a "professional" garden!)

These ones do indeed have a narrower neck, but it is not much of a bottleneck, and they are quite straightforward, when it comes to re-potting time.

So my advice, as a professional, is to go for straight-sided pots, if you possibly can.



Another shape to avoid is the sort with a narrow bottom - but for a different reason.
This one - right - is beautifully stylish, but oh my goodness, how prone to tipping over is that going to be?

Plus, if you think about it, the roots of a tree will start from the central point, then spread outwards, much as the above-ground growth does.

So, in this pot, just as the roots are thinking about extending themselves, they meet the sides of the pot.

And the deeper they go, in desperation, the less soil there is!

This one, left, is better: it has nice straight sides, but it is proportionally tall-and-narrow, so it's already a bit top-heavy.

If it were twice as wide, but with the same taper, it would be absolutely fine: but this one is possibly likely to topple over, so it would be better used for low-growing plants, rather than for a tree.

Thirdly, moving on from shape, there are other issues with growing trees in pots, one of which is their propensity for sneaking roots out of the drainage holes and into the shingle or soil below.

I nearly lost one of my lovely potted Japanese Maples in that way: I did think it was getting a bit lush and vigorous, considering it was in a pot, and when I tried to rotate the pot, to encourage it to grow straight, I found it had rooted right through into the shingle, through the shingle, through the membrane, and into the soil below.

I had no option but to cut off the exploratory root, sob! sob! This gave the tree quite a set-back, although it did survive the experience.

Which lead on to a dual-function piece of advice: put your potted trees up on "feet". This not only prevents them sneakily rooting into the ground, but also allows better drainage, as large pots can suffer from being waterlogged, in winter, once their drainage holes block up.

(I say "once" the holes block up, not "if" the holes block up, because they invariably do...)

If you want your pots to be positioned in amongst your beds or borders, rather than sitting on a patio or a path, then rooting through the hole is going to be a very real problem, so I'd suggest getting a small stone/concrete slab, like a stepping stone, to put underneath the pot.  If you have decorative mulch such as bark, on the bed, then just push the bark up all around the slab, and you will hardly see the slab at all, while still making sure that the plant can't root through into the ground.

Fourthly, group them together: one pot, all alone, suffers from  too much drying wind, or hot sun, or freezing temperatures: but if you put a few of them together, they form a little micro-climate, and shelter each other. It also makes it easier for you to water them!! 

Too much variety can look like pick'n'mix, or "jumble sale", so try to group them in ways which please the eye: for instance, pots of the same colour or style always look stylish together, such as this group, left:

Normally I find that odd numbers of pots looks more "natural", if that's not a funny word to use for hard, man-made pots. 

So generally speaking, groups of three, five or seven pots look best, but in this case four looks fine, possibly because there are three pots with plants in (one is empty), there are three pots on the decking (one is raised)... 

This collection, on the other hand - right -  is too crowded and cluttered, with no theme, no cohesion regarding the planting, or the shapes, or the colours: and how do you get to the middle ones, to water them, check them, weed them?

I have a Client who has something pretty much like this, and it's a constant pain to maintain it. (Which is, of course, why they ask me to do it, instead of doing it themselves!)

Fifthly (still not sure if that is a real word), feed them. Make a point to give your potted plants a balanced feed (something like Growmore, it doesn't matter if it is pellet or liquid) maybe once a month, through the growing season.

Oh, and once a year, give them a top-dressing: that's where you gently scrape off the top layer, and replace it with a layer of fresh compost, maybe with a mulch on top of that. 

So that's a few points on how to keep your potted trees happy.

As for re-potting, this is not - strictly speaking - necessary, especially if you don't want the trees to get any bigger.  It is good practice, horticulturally speaking, to re-pot them, maybe once every couple of years because it gives you a chance to check the roots, check for pests, see how they are getting on, etc, but you can simply de-pot them, check the roots, reduce the roots slightly, and put them back in the same pot, if you are happy with their current size.  

I have Horse Chestnut trees which must be at least 12 years old, still less than 4' high in their relatively small pots. And they are staying in those pots, until I move house and get a bigger garden!!

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Wednesday, 16 February 2022

How to: tidy up Potentilla (and Spirea, and other small summer-flowering shrubs) over the winter

Here's a quick question which came in the other day: what does "one" do with shaggy Potentilla bushes, over the winter?

Should "one" cut them back? Or leave them?

All of the following, by the way, can also be applied to other smallish, summer-flowering garden shrubs with an untidy habit, such as Spirea.

By coincidence, I gave one of these useful shrubs its annual tidy-up, just the other day, so I can actually provide photos for this topic!

Here's the little beastie in question: how's that for a scruffy mess?

It's in a funny position, just on the edge of the paving, somewhat smothered by the Genista in front - that's the green thing - and with a very large Box topiary behind it.

So it's not a particularly well-favoured spot.

I have to prune this poor thing every year, because it hangs over the paving, as you can see, and if it got much bigger, it would be a bit of a trip hazard. And what you can't really see is that it's at the top of a flight of steps.

Not a good place to trip.

So every year, at some  point between it dropping all the leaves in autumn, and starting to sprout again in spring, I give it a good haircut.

Digression: the pruning of these small, tangled shrubs is never quite "textbook", because the books all say that you should prune out one in three of the oldest stems every year, just as you would for larger shrubs such as Viburnum.

But it's often hard to work out which stems to cut, and they are often more of a tangled mass, rather than a collection of neat stems.

As background to this article, I used to have a Client who had three identical, well-established Spirea in a bed, and one year we did an experiment: one was cut back with the shears, one was painstakingly pruned, removing one in three of the oldest shoots (a horrible job, as the branches were so inter-twined), and the third was done half-and-half: I carefully removed a few of the oldest branches, then sheared over the tops of what was left.

This left us with one bush at the original height, but thinned: one small round clipped one: and one which was quite literally half-way in-between.

Later than summer, I reviewed these shrubs, and you honestly could not tell which one had had which treatment.

I just wish I could find the photos.....

Anyway, the point is, with small congested shrubs such as Potentilla and Spirea, I now don't waste time trying to prune them beautifully, according to RHS recommendations: I just take my secateurs or shears, depending on their size, and reduce them down to a neat ball.

Like this:

I've also included the pile of cuttings, to give you an idea of how much came off.

As this is a small one, I did it with secateurs, and it took about, ooh, twenty seconds.

Here's a closer view, from above:

As  you can see, just a simple chop into a roughly rounded shape.

I did rake through it with my daisy grubber, to pull out any dead material, but otherwise, that's it. 

I do this every year....



...And this is how well it recovers, every year.


So there you go, when faced with small shrubs with untidy growth habits, don't worry too much about the "one in three" pruning rule, just hack them down - errrr, prune them carefully, I mean - into neat shapes.

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Monday, 14 February 2022

How Not To: clear weeds from a patio.

This is a bit of soapbox of mine: don't use weedkiller on your patio.

Now, I shall say up front that I quite cordially hate, loathe and detest weeding patios, it's right up there on my Top Three Most Disliked Gardening Jobs, along with scraping off herringbone paving, and planting bulbs.

You may be wondering what those three jobs have in common, to make me dislike them so much, and the answer is that they are all physically hard work, but you don't get any obvious reward: bulbs don't come up for many months, obviously: and as for the other two, well, quite often the Client can't really see what's been done, once I've cleared away the mess.

For instance, this is how much debris comes off, when scrubbing a herringbone block paving drive - left - but once I've swept it all up, the drive looks "nice" but within a day or two, everyone has forgotten how horrible it looked before I scrubbed it.

And within six months or so, it needs doing again... this is possibly the closest job to "housework" in the garden.

Likewise, with weeding patios, they start off looking horrible: (right)...

....I spend an hour or so hand weeding them...

.... they look great, as everyone agrees, but ten minutes later they've forgotten just how bad it was, and have stopped seeing the improvement.

And within a few months, they need doing again.

So these three jobs are my least favourite.

You might well be wondering why I still weed patios, if I hate it so much: and in brief, it's because I don't approve of using weedkiller on patios, nor those disgustingly non-eco gas wand things, which I consider to be an invention of the devil, about as un-eco as it is possible to get, and - but wait, rather than listening to me ranting about them, just type "weeding patio" into the search box, top left of the screen, and you can read all about my opinions on the subject...

So, in brief, even though it's a job I really dislike, I still get on with it, and hand-weed the darned things.

This time, I'd like to clarify something which I always say, but which is often queried.

One of my objections to using chemicals is that the weeds die off, but you have to look at them for weeks, while they die, and then nine times out of ten, the Client gets so fed up with it that they ask me to hand-weed out the dead stuff. So I might just have done it by hand the first time!

And this is what I mean:

Just look at that. 

This photo was taken about five weeks after the Client used weedkiller on their patio.

As you can see, a horrible brown mess, plus a whole load of nice new green weeds already re-growing.

"But I sprayed it!" the Client wailed, "Why is it still covered in weeds?"

Well, my dear (*laughs*), that's because weedkiller may kill the weed, but it doesn't clear away the dead foliage, in the way that a gardener does. 

Nor does it sweep the patio afterwards, including round the backs of all the pots, clearing out the mess of previous-winter-leaves which have been lurking there for months. Nor does it put the pots back neatly, having weeded, watered and mulched them for you. 

Even worse - even worse!! - is using weedkiller on weeds growing in shingle.

Isn't that horrible?

(Especially to the right, where the Garden Owner has over-sprayed the weedkiller onto the grass, with predictably disastrous results...)

All that dead material is going to - eventually - fall apart, and work its way down into the matrix of the shingle, thus providing lovely organic matter for the next generation of weed seeds.

So, not only are the owners not getting rid of the weeds in the shingle - you can still see them - but they are actually laying the foundations for more weeds to grow.

In my opinion, it is far better to ask your gardener to hand weed, than to splash around a load of chemicals, have to endure looking at dying foliage until it sets your teeth on edge, and then ask your gardener to do it, anyway. 

After all, it's my back that gets the ache!

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Saturday, 12 February 2022

How to: install gro-bags.

This is another of those garden tasks which you'd think doesn't need any explanation, but I keep coming across grow-bags, or gro-bags, however you spell it, with plants jutting out of them, with only half the rootball inside the gro-bag: or gro-bags which are rock hard and bone dry, with the owner anxiously telling me that they water them every day, but the plants are still dying. 

So what is a gro-bag? 

It's an undersized bag of compost, commercially produced, made to be long and flat. 

They are laid direct on the ground or up on frames, they are more or less a standard size, and they are intended to be used for the growing of crops - outside or, more often, in greenhouses - where there is no soil to be planted into.

The bags are self-contained: you cut a small hole or slit in the top, insert your plants - usually three per gro-bag - water them, enjoy them for the summer, then discard the whole thing at the end of the season.

Not exactly “eco”, but oh! so convenient!

They work because they hold all the compost neatly inside (no spillage). they hold water well (because they don't usually have any drainage holes, unless they get handled roughly), the compost has enough nutrition in it to get plants started, and because they are only intended to last for one season, it doesn't matter than they will be pretty much exhausted by the end of the season.

So where do people go wrong? 


They are manufactured and delivered to the garden centre in enormous numbers, stacked on pallets, which leaves them flat as pancakes, as you can see - left.

 This makes them very easy to get hold of, easy to move, but not so easy to plant into.


So when you get yours home, take them to their final location, then stand them on their side and gently squash them with your fist. 

Turn them gently over, and repeat. 

Why gently? 

Because they have one long seam along the bottom, and if you treat them too roughly, this seam will split: a cunning ploy by the manufacturer to get us to buy more of them, no doubt.

 If this does happen, though, just turn them upside down and use them with the split edge on top. 

There is no rule which says that you have to use them with the pretty printed side upwards!


After squashing, take hold of each corner in turn, and shake it a little, until the compost within comes loose from the corner. 

Then flop them down flat again, and pat them back into shape.

This treatment - which takes about two minutes and thirty seconds -  de-compresses all the compost inside, including the corners (which is often otherwise wasted), and makes it easier to insert your plants, and a great deal easier to get the water to stay in the compost. 

It also makes them deeper, which means that when you make a planting hole, you are less likely to hit the bottom of the bag and accidentally rip it.

Having fluffed them up, you can prick a couple of small holes in the underside, then cut holes in the top, and plant them up with ease: and when you water them, the compost is already nice and “open” and able to soak up all the water.

There you go - simple, really! 



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Thursday, 10 February 2022

Rats in the compost pens.

Is it an urban myth, that we are never more than twenty feet away from a rat?

Or it is true?

Well, I don't know the answer to that one, although I suspect that the law of averages must come into it at some point: everyone who lives in a city or town which has sewers must, by definition, be less than 20' away from rats at all times, because they live in sewers. And as there are many, many more people living in cities in towns than living in rural areas, then on average, yes, we must "all" live within a few yards of rats, pretty much all the time.

And most of us just don't care - after all, when was the last time you went down a sewer?

(Actually, true story, I live at the downhill end of the sewer which serves my house and those of my neighbours: and some of the uphill ones are the sort of BRAINLESS and STUPID and SELFISH people who put things down their toilets. Things other than the usual and expected items, that is. So when the sewer blocks up, I, being downhill, get to know about it first. 

So I have my own set of drain rods, and about once a year, I have to rod out the drains, because they are blocked by the junk which those BRAINLESS and STUPID and SELFISH people uphill, put down their loos. 

I am talking about wet wipes, of course: great wodges of them, which jam the pipes up nicely. But also - picking a list at random, from past rodding experiences, fag butts, disposable nappies, cotton buds, banana peel, whole grapes - I mean, who puts whole grapes down the loo? You can see why I revert to capitals, can't you?

Anyway, where were we? Oh yes...)



Those of us with compost pens probably also have rats, or small mammalian vermin of various sorts, because even if we do the thing properly, and don't ever put meat, table scraps, or plate scrapings onto our compost pens, rats and other small vermin will still enjoy tunnelling into it, because it will sit there undisturbed for six months or more, while we wait for it to rot down. 

And rats just love being undisturbed.

So, why am I talking about rats today, in particular?

Answer: today I dug out a compost pen, because Mrs Client wanted to use some of it on the roses, and the rest was to go onto the "no-dig" vegetable beds of Mr Client. 

Here's the compost pen in question:

This photo was taken the day I opened it up, at the end of last year, and you can see how much it has rotted down, bearing in mind that it was full to overflowing when we finally decided to close it off, and start filling the next one in sequence.

And what did I find when I got to the bottom of it?


A skull...... just the one, nothing else.

I'm pretty sure this is Rattus norvegicus, or common rat.

Although I have to admit, it's a bit bigger than I would have expected - that's a 3" fence post, which gives you some idea of scale.

I often find skulls of small mammals around gardens, but they are usually rather smaller than this one.

So maybe it was an old, old rat... whatever the history of it, it died in the compost bin and decomposed. 

There were the remains of some tunnels through the compost, towards the back: again, nothing unusual, I often find tunnels when turning out compost pens. Luckily, I rarely see the residents: probably the noise and disturbance of me digging them out gives them sufficient warning to scarper.

Although there was that time that I was shovelling a huge heap of topsoil which had been sitting on the Client's drive for about two months... I didn't realise that some bunnies had taken up residence, until I had dug in as far as their tunnelling, at which point I suddenly had one bunny shooting off to my left, one to my right, and one shot straight between my ankles. A bit like the Red Arrows, but without the smoke.

Anyway, getting back to my dead rat: I'm not worried about the compost - it's just fish, blood and bone, but without the fish, when you think about it, so I'm sure it will be good for the veg patch.



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Tuesday, 8 February 2022

Fasciation: in roses, again!

Last year was a good year for fasciation, in the sense that I found quite a few examples of it, in the gardens in and around where I live.

I don't see anything sinister about this: rather, I think it's the kind of thing that you start to notice, once you start looking out for it. It's all around us, all the time, but mostly we just don't look for it.

This one is actually from the tail end of last year, oops, I didn't get around to filing all my photos, and this one was overlooked...

There you go - isn't that weird? 

("At least!")

It's a Rose - or, should I say, it's supposed to be a Rose, a perfectly normal (if somewhat lax) David Austin shrub rose, which normally produces single flowers.

This time, it produced a wild, mutant cluster! 

I know it looks like something out of a strangely botanical horror-mutation film, but it's purely cosmetic, and is perfectly harmless to the plant.

It may never happen again, to that particular plant: it's not infectious, and it doesn't do the plant any harm at all.

It just looks weird!


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Sunday, 6 February 2022

Rose Pruning by Example: Third and Final

Well, I say "final" but I am sure there will be more on the subject, in due course!

On Thursday we looked at a Rose in a pot:  yesterday we looked at a shrub rose against a fence, which was getting a bit wayward: today we are looking at the final part of Neil's three-stage Rose pruning question, and this is a good one: 

It's a well-established climbing Rose, on trellis against the house.

Neil says it flowers well the first time, but the second flush is weaker: there is a lot of growth at the top: and he's not at all sure how to prune it.

First things first, comments: looking at ground level - when you first plant a climbing rose up trellis, don't EVER tuck it behind the trellis.

Everyone does this! 

It's wrong, in so many ways.. as the plant grows and thickens, the stems will damage themselves against the trellis, and the trellis will be distorted and eventually pushed off the wall.

Talking of trellis, here's a very short article on How To Fix Trellis To A Wall - The Correct Way

It's too late for this one, but you can see that, eventually, those lower stems are going to break the trellis. But, sufficient until the day is the evil thereof, as they say, so we won't worry too much about it now, other than to comment that, over time, very old branches will need to be replaced, and when the time comes, allow the new replacement shoots to be tied to the outside of the trellis, not tucked behind it! End of lecture...

Right, three parts to this job.

1) Lower trellis

I am very pleased indeed to see that lower branch being taken horizontally along the trellis under the window: excellent work! 

A closer look shows two or three stems going along, and one which is meandering at an indeterminate angle.

If I were there, I'd take the indeterminate one and lower it down to the horizontal, tying it to the trellis under the window, along with the other ones. 

As per yesterday's article, I'd aim to keep the "main" stem of each  branch, and clip off all side growth to just two or three buds.

Yellow indicates pruning points, the red arrows and dotted lines give an indication as to where I would place the pruned shoots, tying each one along that trellis.

You will note that there are more or less three stems, and I am suggesting spreading them out so that each stem runs along one pane of the trellis. It is always best to avoid the stems crossing each other, if you can possibly manage it. It avoids them damaging each other by rubbing, and it makes it easier to prune, in subsequent years.

This should result in a flush of flowers at exactly the right height to see from inside, but won't leave any annoying branches obstructing the window, and tapping and scraping against the glass on windy days.

2) Upper trellis

It seems a shame to waste it, as someone has taken the trouble to attach it to the wall, so I'd get up a ladder and find the strongest shoot at height, which could be taken over to the right.

Sometimes you can find a suitable candidate on the correct side of the plant: sometimes there might be a good shoot going off the "wrong" way, which can be either gently bent over and tied in, or can be "flopped" or "flipped", to get it going the way you want it.

It's almost impossible to do this from photos, but to give you an idea... this forward-springing branch looks good and strong, and it's still green, so there's a good chance that it's still flexible enough to be bent over to the right. 

If you can't find one that you like, there might well be a good strong shoot lower down, which can be tied in to the main upright trellis until it reaches the right height, then bent over to the right. 

Having selected the new "main" shoot, tie it as far along the upper horizontal trellis as it will reach, and again, prune off all the small, spindly side-growth, leaving just 2-3 buds on each pruned shoot. I know it won't look much, but it will soon grow. In future years, you will do the same for this main branch as for the lower trellis, ie at the end of the year, shorten all side shoots, leaving just the main stem,  letting it grow longer until it reaches the end of the trellis, at which point you cut off the tip, every year.

3) The Rest Of It...

Urgh, now we get to the horrible bit.

Again, up the ladder we go, and now we need - I say "we" but I mean you, Neil - to isolate all the strongest, oldest branches which are either tied to, or tucked behind (heinous crime, but you've already heard me on that topic!), the trellis, and prune off all their side growths, all the spindly bits, down to the 2-3 buds point again: but in addition, prune off all the stems which are rubbing against each other, or which have been badly contorted by, or damaged by, the trellis.

Aim to get rid of the clutter, and leave just the older stems, each with a lot of short stubby pruned side-branches.

Now turn to the stems which are currently leaning out, away from the house.

Can any of them be gainfully tied in to the trellis? Are any of them nice enough to take the place of one of the oldest, most gnarled, tucked-behind-the-trellis stems? If so, cut out the old stem, and tie the replacement (having pruned off the side shoots to 2-3 buds etc etc) to the outside of the trellis in place of that old one. 

Aim to spread out the stems across the trellis, if possible, and in a perfect world, you would have maybe four or five main stems rising up that main trellis, not crossing or touching each other, and each tied to the outside of the trellis, not tucked underneath it. It might take a couple of yearly prunings to reach that point.... but it's good to have some ambitions! (*laughs*)

As for the rest of the leaning-outwards stems... off with their heads! Off with their entire bodies, to be honest: cut them right back to the point where they leave the trellis.

Again, yellow indicates the pruning points, bearing in mind that some of those stems might already have been removed or relocated.

But you get the idea.

As per the other two articles, having done all this pruning, give the rose some feed, and a good watering, and pretty soon it should be covered in buds.

You'll note the order in which I tackled this job: first we did the lowest section, the horizontal trellis under the window.

Then we looked at the upper parts, dealing with the "immovable" branches which were tucked behind the trellis.

Then we looked for a "moveable" one to take across the upper horizontal section.

This is so that we don't, for example, cut off a lower branch that we subsequently need to tie in higher up, to replace a damaged one, or to - in this case - take over to the right.

The exception to this work plan is if the rose is very bulky, and spiny, and you can't get the ladder close enough to the main stems without being scratched to death... in which case you might have to start at the base and work your way up.

4) Ongoing Maintenance

I'll add this comment in for free: having done this work, you have now got a "feel" for being brave, and cutting stems right back, very close to where they left the framework of old wood.

So, through the summer, when the rose starts to flower, go over it once every week or fortnight or so, and dead-head it: but don't just nip off the dead flowers.

Instead, take the shoot with the (dying) flower on it, trace it back to where it left the main branch, and prune it there, leaving one or two buds (or a couple of inches/4-5cm if you can't see any obvious buds), just as we did for this winter pruning.

If it's the sort of rose that produces multi-stemmed flowering heads, then nip off each individual bloom as it dies, if you can - in the real world, it's not always possible to find the time to do this, nor to reach them - then once pretty much all the flowers from an individual flower-head have gone over, prune that whole stem back to the main branch.

Most people don't realise that routine  dead-heading, like winter pruning, should be done as though the rose belonged to your worst enemy. Chop it off! Hah, that'll show them! It is almost impossible to kill roses by pruning them, and dead-heading hard - as opposed to just nipping off the flower head - will encourage new growth and more flowers. 

This might help Neil's rose with it's "weak" second flush of flowers: if it's cut back good and hard after the first flush, the second flush may well be a lot stronger, especially if it gets another feed at that point, and possibly some extra watering, as it is rather in the rain-shadow of the house.

So there you have it, three descriptions of pruning three very different roses, with thanks to Neil for asking the question, and supplying good photos!

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Saturday, 5 February 2022

Rose Pruning by Example: second installation!

Yesterday we looked at Neil's small rose in a pot: today we look at the second one, which is a larger, shrub rose, growing in a sheltered corner, against a fence. Tomorrow we deal with the climber on the house, so don't forget to come back and check that article as well.

Neil wasn't quite sure where or how to prune this one, which has a mixture of old and new shoots, and which was covered in flowers last year.

Now this one is lovely: this is the sort of rose which, if asked to prune, makes me rub my hands in glee, because it's very nearly already perfect.

All it needs is a firm hand now, and it will be fantastic again, later on this year.

Why such enthusiasm?

Most people, putting a rose in this sort of location, will let it just grow straight upwards, which means we get a ton of flowers right up at the top, above fence height: which means that next door get the benefit of the flowers, and we have to look at the scrubby old fence. 

(No offence meant to the fence in this photo, it's a lovely fence, really!)

I spend much of my professional time training Roses, getting them to bend over sideways exactly like this, because this growth shape promotes the most flowering.

If this one were mine, I would help it along by adding some support wires to the fence: the lowest one would be a couple of inches above the gravel boards, then another two or three, horizontally, above it. 

Hang on, I'll get the cat to do some drawing:

There we go, the yellow lines indicate the rough spacing of the horizontal wires, and I should emphasis that the wires go against the fence, BEHIND the rose.

Not in front of it!

We are not trying to tie the rose to the fence.

If you are doing this, it's worth doing a proper job: don't use tiny staples in the fence, and flimsy wire. 

Use vine eyes, and if you check the other side of the fence, you will see where the horizontal battens run, which gives you some decent wood into which to screw the vine eyes.

So although I have drawn - sorry, the cat has drawn - nicely spaced wires, the spacing may be dictated more by where it's possible to get a vine eye securely fixed.

Having stretched some good quality outdoor wire along the newly-installed vine eyes - taut, but not so tight that it pulls the vine eyes out, or goes pingggggggg! when you touch it -  you can then look at pruning.

This is a job of two halves: firstly we need to select four or five main branches, spread out in a fan-shape. These will be tied onto the wires, and will be the permanent framework.

Then we need to nip off the bulk of the thin, new growth, in order to promote new thin, new growth (*laughs*) which will bear the flowers this year.

So, firstly, let's look at our Framework Of Old Wood:

This rose is very nearly there already, hence my enthusiasm: it would only need a little bit of encouragement. Very nearly perfect!

This is what I would be aiming for:

(Blimey, it's much easier to do this in person, than do it with illustrations!)

OK, so in this photo, the red lines indicate where we will bend the main rose stems over, and tie them to the horizontal (yellow) wires.

The aim is to cover the fence completely, and to get as many of the rose stems as possible, as horizontal as possible.

This serves the double purpose of covering up the fence, and bringing the flowers down to a height where we can appreciate them.

I've just noticed that I said "fan shaped" above, and this isn't really a fan, other than informally: it's more of a horizontal spread.

An alternative would be to go for a more formal fan, ie leave the branches straight, but to spread them out into a fan shape.

Here's one I did, some years ago:

Originally, it was just a very untidy, bushy, prickly, lanky thing, flopping all over the path and generally being a nuisance. It is a rambling rose, rather than a proper climber, as is, frankly, a bit too big for the space. But the flowers were lovely, if rather sparse, and the Client was keen to keep it.

I chose the strongest upright, and took that one to the right: then I cut off every single right-pointing shoot, and every single outward-springing shoot, leaving only the ones to the left.

These were then tied in to that old trellis, and to a variety of fixing points on the wall.

I was pretty ruthless in removing any shoots which did not fit my plan.

(As an aside, I often say that I wish I'd been Ruth instead of Rachel - equally biblical, and then I could have been Ruth the Ruthless Gardener. Catchy, don't you think? And so very, very appropriate...) 

After this initial "ruthless" training, ( ha! ha!) all I had to do each year was to cut off all the previous season's new growth, back to this framework of older wood. And every subsequent year, all those angled shoots were covered with flowers.

Right, back to this rose on the fence: we've installed the wires, we have selected our "main" stems, we have decided whether to take them along the wires, as per the red lines, or whether to go for a fan shape.

Now we can take our secateurs and carefully snip off all the smaller side shoots from each of our "main" branches. This will reduce the clutter, clarify the situation, and make it much easier to tie in the main branches. I normally cut them down to 2-3 buds, ie I leave a short length, I don't cut them off flush with the main branch. If you can't see any buds yet, then just cut them back to a couple of inches (4 or  cm).

Once the pruning is done, we can tie in the branches to the wires. Always use something soft and preferably a bit stretchy, don't use wire which can cut the stems, or hard plastic which will damage the bark. And be prepared to check and loosen/replace these ties at least once a year, otherwise you'll find your rose being strangled, as it thickens up.

I think I've written about ties once or twice - if you go to the Search box, top left of the page, and type in "ties" or "tying", it should lead you to some helpful articles. Oh, all right, I'll do it for you - here's one that might be helpful.

The idea is to keep that framework of old wood, and every year, once flowering is finished, we go over the plant and again, clip off all the new growth, leaving just the old wood behind. That way, you keep the flowers at easily-viewable height, and the rose never gets out of control.

After a few years, you can allow one or two well-placed new stems to grow out, to replace one or two of the older ones, but that's a story for another article.

So there we go, job done: we've decided on our Framework Of Old Wood, we've trimmed off the unwanted growth, we've tied the framework in: we could give this rose a small fistful of granulated feed, or a slosh of liquid feed, and a good watering, and then all we have to do is wait for summer, and enjoy the flowers!

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