Friday, 29 July 2022

Mulching with home-made compost - how to do it “properly”.

I am always writing about mulch: how wonderful it is, how good for the garden it is, and detailing some of the many reasons to apply it. 

However, I didn't say anything about how to get it onto the beds: as far as actually applying mulch goes, I didn't realise that there was a technique to it, until - earlier this year -  I set one of my Trainees off to do some mulching, came back ten minutes later, and was horrified by the mess they were making: they were digging out the compost with a big shovel, then heaving out great dollops of it all over the bed, apparently at random. 

This left a “surface of the moon” effect, with massive craters and mounds, squashed daffodils, and smothered plants, not to mention all the sticks and rubbish sticking out of it. 

Oops! I should have shown them how to do it, before leaving them to get on with it!

And as Trainees are with me in order to learn, I had to interrupt them, and explain that there was a better way to do it.

The correct technique, then, is to lift smallish shovel-fulls out from the compost heap, shaking or dropping them into the wheelbarrow. 


If they do not immediately crumble (and in this particular garden, our home-made compost is dense and compacted, as you can see, left!), then use the spade to chop vertically down into the material in the barrow, breaking up the clods as you fill it.

Pick out any sticks, stones, plastic labels and rubbish as you fill the barrow: sticks can be either thrown away behind the compost pens or - if they are fairly small ones - thrown into the active pen in order to go round again: but the non-organic rubbish must be put aside for disposal. 

I usually arrange to leave an old bucket or a plastic plant pot by the compost pens, for this purpose.

Then, when you get to the bed or border, don't use the spade/shovel to apply the compost.

Instead, take your hand-trowel in one hand, and chop it through the top layer in order to make it light, and aerated - “friable” is the technical term. Then lift a double handful (I keep the trowel in one hand, which allows me to take a bigger scoop, and keeps it ready for use) and deal it out in an underarm bowling action. This ensures that you don't crush some tender new growth under the weight: it spreads it out, making it go further (fewer barrow-loads required, heh heh) and it give a more even spread.

It also allows you to get the compost mulch right to the back of the bed, behind the plants, without having to step all over them - you can bowl the compost towards the back of the bed, and if you have chopped it up properly before bowling, you will be surprised how it goes around the stems, rather than landing on top and squashing the plants.

"Bowling" is an especially important technique when it's recently rained: treading on wet soil will compact it, ruining the soil structure, creating a pan or crust on the top - which makes it harder for water to penetrate the soil - and ultimately making it harder for you to weed it, later in the year. But by "bowling", you don't need to step onto the bed - you can do it from the edge.

Keep chopping and bowling until you've used it all, then go back for more if necessary.

The exact same technique works when mulching with chipped bark as well: it usually arrived in large tightly-packed plastic sacks, so it's important to tip it out of the bag into a barrow, then shake or chop it until it is in separate pieces, not in thick heavy slices. Again, take a double handful and bowl it underarm onto the beds. This makes it easy to get an even covering of bark, while not suffocating any plants, and it also makes it go further.

So there you go - it's not difficult, but it makes quite a difference to the garden!

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Wednesday, 27 July 2022

Bamboo: how destructive is it, really?

Anxious garden owners often ask me this question, or variations on this theme: is it safe to plant a bamboo in a smallish garden?

They are right to be concerned: I have seen scary bamboo groves, where the garden has all but disappeared, the neighbours are furious, and threatening legal action because the Bamboo is invading their gardens as well.

There are basically two types of bamboo - runners, and clumpers. Clump-forming bamboo are the well-behaved ones: as the name suggests, they form a clump, self-contained and tidy. Bamboos which are described as runners, or "non-clump-forming" are the invasive ones which will quickly become a nuisance, if you have a small garden. 

So read before you buy: look at the proper name, the "latin" name, of any bamboo which you are thinking of buying, and look it up on the internet to see if it is a clump-former, or not. 

One of the best ornamental bamboos, in my opinion, is Black Bamboo, proper name Phyllostachys nigra. It's not cheap to buy, because it is slow-growing: the plant which is on sale may have taken several years to attain that size. It's also expensive because it is beautiful! The stems start off green, but as the leaves open, the stems turn a gorgeous glossy black - every time I thin mine, they are pounced on by a local flower-arranging lady.  And they are almost evergreen - in a fairly mild winter, they keep their leaves, so they are interesting all year round. 

Here is my own black bamboo, normally just about reaching the upstairs windows, but on this day, bent double by the snow. Yes, this photo was taken in winter.... but you can see that it still has leaves, under all that snow.

(I thought we might all enjoy a picture of nice, cold snow: as we are in the middle of a hot spell at present!)

However, be aware that even a well-behaved bamboo such as this one can, in time, become a bit of a monster: one Client hired me to dig out the outskirts of her Bamboo which, after 30 years, had formed a clump which must have been 12' (4m) across.  That was an afternoon of pickaxe and sweat, I can tell you!

The standard advice is to dig a hole for your new bamboo, then line it with something strong and impermeable, such as thick plastic, or metal.

I find that old water butts are quite good for this purpose: they are super-strong plastic, and they come in convenient-sized hoops: all you have to do is get an ordinary woodworking saw, and gently rub it across until it "bites", then simply saw through the plastic.

The ones in this picture - right - were for a Mint bed, and if I were intending to use them to restrain bamboo, I would make just two hoops, not three, so they would be deeper.

Again, though, a word of warning: this will work for several years, but eventually the bamboo will find its way out of the bottom of the hoop, and will escape into the wild. 

However, even if that happens, it is a lot easier to dig it out when most of it is contained within the hoop.

If you can't quite visualise what this would look like in a garden, here - left - is one of the above hoops, buried vertically in my friend's herb bed, filled with soil and waiting for the mint to be planted within it.

In my experience, a newly-bought black bamboo will be perfect for at least 10 years or so, and then it will start to settle in, and get "big" - and in another few years, it will start to get "too big". 

When this happens, it is possible to thin out clumps of bamboo, which is done by sending your brave Gardener in to the clump, armed with a machete and a packed lunch, and instructing them to cut out some of the oldest stems, from the centre of the clump. This reduces the density, making them less overpowering.

A refinement of this technique is to instruct your Gardener to clip off all the lower leaves, from all the stems:

.... a tiresome job, but as you can see - right - you end up with something much tidier, and this process also allows light to reach the area below the bamboo, as well as restoring a feeling of space and elbow room, to your garden.

(I would just point out that in this case, I took the photo before I had cleared up all the mess underneath: it looked so much better once I had raked out all the debris!)


In fact, if you want to take this idea as far as it can go, how's this - left - for the ultimate Repressed Bamboo Installation? 

They have been planted in a very narrow raised bed, and the lower leaves have all been stripped off.

OK, that's a step further than I am prepared to go, personally: this was taken at a show garden, and I have doubts about the wisdom of covering the soil with white stone chips, partly because they are going to absorb a lot of heat - assuming that the sun shines on that side of the garden - and bake the poor bamboo roots: and partly because it is going to be a constant battle to keep it clean and pristine, once the bamboo starts shedding leaves. 

On a purely horticultural note, I would also say that the raised bed is very narrow indeed, so I doubt the roots of the bamboo have much soil - although, on reflection, is that a bad thing? It will suppress their growth, I suppose -  and they are not going to get much rainwater either: although, again, that might be a good thing, if you don't want them to grow too vigorously. And, personally, I would expect a garden which has been this highly "styled" to have irrigation.

Ah, and now we get to the point of this article - destructiveness of bamboo. Mythbusters explored the story that Japanese prisoners of war were tortured by being tied down over a bed of bamboo, whose shoots would pierce their bodies and very slowly kill them. It is, apparently, feasible: the shoots of large bamboos are strongly pointed, and can grow quite literally inches, every day. Nasty! 

Now, remember my own black bamboo, covered in snow, earlier in this article? Well, having been a perfectly behaved clumper for many years, it's finally started making a bid for freedom, and has started to send up runners.

I was sorting out that corner of my garden the other day, preparatory to repainting the woodwork, and noticed this - left.

Can you see that tall, thin, upright thing in the middle? It's a bamboo shoot, coming out of the wooden corner post...

To be fair to the bamboo, this corner post was already quite cracked, but look! The bamboo is forcing its way up along the line of weakness!

I am not entirely sure how I am going to deal with this: I don't really want to have to lift all the shingle, pull back the membrane, trace back the root and cut it off, close to the parent plant.

But I can't use any sort of weedkiller, because this shoot is still attached to the main bamboo, and I certainly don't want to kill that one off.

For now, I have truncated it, chopping of off short: but of course that won't stop it, and in no time it will regrow, and then I will have a tuft of foliage, instead of a single shoot. 


I suspect that I will have to undertake the excavation route: it's the only way (apart from nuking them from orbit, of course) to be sure. But it's a timely reminder that even the best behaved black bamboo will, if you leave it long enough, start attempting to take over your garden.

Long story made short:  some bamboos are worse than others and if in doubt, grow them in a large pot, up on feet!

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Monday, 25 July 2022

Plant Profile: Summer-flowering Jasmine

Shrubby Yellow Jasmine - in summer! 

Like many people, I love winter-flowering jasmine, whose proper name is Jasminum nudiflorum, which, incidentally, is one of those botanical names which really makes sense - the flowers (“flora” or “florum”) appear on bare, leafless (nude!) winter branches. So nude-ee-florum certainly describes what it does. 

 It's those clear, bright yellow flowers that I like: they really brighten up a dull winter's day!

For summer - which also has its share of dull days, I have to say - I grow Jasminum fruticans, which is a massively under-rated shrub, rarely seen for sale, yet very easy to grow, tough as old boots, pretty much maintenance-free, and delightful all year round.

It's semi-evergreen, which means that in all but the coldest winters it will keep the leaves, which are an attractive dark, glossy green and are interesting in themselves as they are tri-foliate, which means. as the name suggests, that each leaf, or piece of “foliage”, as it were, has three lobes. The flowers, which are very similar to those of Winter Jasmine, appear en masse in late spring, then again intermittently all through the summer.

It's a fully hardy shrub, and - like winter jasmine - it is not actually a climber: left to its own devices it will form a rounded shrub of about 4' tall, but it's very easy to take a couple of the rather lax branches (Parent Jasminum fruticans to baby Jasminum fruticans: “Darling, your branches are so LAX! Do hold them up straight!”) and tie them up to a trellis or fence, thus allowing new growth to form a cascade, and bringing the flowers up to eye height where we can see them more easily. 

Here's an example from one of "my gardens",  where I tied it in to an existing trellis, in an awkward narrow bed right up against a wall: and it's already at breast-height

This photo was taken in May, and you can see that it's flowering nicely.

Best of all, unlike winter jasmine, it doesn't sprout kraken-like tentacles which root wherever they touch the ground, so you won't have a problem with it taking over or getting out of control. It rarely needs any cutting back, maybe just a little trim in late summer to reduce some of the bulk: but generally speaking, it is easy to grow, and drought-tolerant once it is well established.

So if you like the idea of having bright yellow, scented, Jasmine flowers in summer as well as in winter, look no further than Jasminum fruticans.

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Friday, 22 July 2022

How to: remove Duckweed from a garden pond. Quickly & Easily! No Chemicals!

OK, I admit it, this is click-bait: there is NO WAY to quickly and easily remove duckweed from a pond, without using chemicals. And even then, it's not quick.

But there is a way to massively reduce your duckweed burden, quickly, easily, and without the use of any chemicals at all.

It won't clear all of it, which means that it WILL grow back: but it gets it under control.

By the way, when I say "duckweed", I'm not sure of the exact botanical name, and there are several different common names for it, but we all know what it is - those small, floating green bits that multiply until they are pretty well covering the surface of the pond.

In fact, in one of "my" gardens there is a pond where the duckweed is so dense that the surface of the pond looks like lush green grass, and we all think that one day, an unsuspecting visitor is going to attempt to walk on water, and will get a very nasty surprise.... and this is why I started doing research into ways to remove the wretched stuff.

Now, if you are struggling with a similar mass of duckweed, here's some good news for you - apparently a good thick covering of Duckweed does prevent the growth of blanketweed.... but that's about all I can find in favour of it! 

Some sites suggest that covering the surface of the water with, for example, water lily leaves, will reduce the duckweed, as will creating movement within the water, ie from a small fountain, or a solar-powered pump to recirculate the water in such a way that it splashes back down into the pond, to create as much disturbance as possible. 

Please note that it is not possible to combine these two ideas: lily leaves don't like disturbed water. 

(Personally, I rather think that the duckweed would just fill in any gaps around and between the lilies, so I don't think that idea would really work very well.)

Most pond websites agree that duckweed forms on ponds with too much in the way of nutrients (the rich sludgy stuff at the bottom), and not enough water movement/aeration, and is worst in ponds which are sheltered from the wind, and which don't have any flow, ie are self-contained. This probably describes most "garden"  ponds!

So, what do we do with duckweed?

The best advice seems to be, to manually remove as much as possible (nets, scoops, running a boom across the pond), before applying chemicals: but of course most of the chemicals which are available will also kill all your aquatic plants, along with most of the wildlife.

So we don't like chemicals in our ponds... oh, having said that, there is reputed to be one eco-friendly duckweed destroyer, which is said to not harm the other plants or the wildlife ...but it doesn't "kill" the duckweed, it just prevents it from multiplying, if I am reading the instructions correctly: and they emphasis the need to manually remove the bulk of the weed first. 

Not a great deal of use, then.

What is my great How To idea then?

Simply put: over-fill your pond. 

Here is a very small pond indeed, to show you how it works. 

All I did was to take the hose, run it into the pond, and let the water run until the water spills over the top, taking all the floating duckweed away with it. 

It was miraculous! And it watered the grass, at the same time!

Having turned the tap off, I left it to sit for a while, during which time a lot of little bits of duckweed floated to the surface, so those were scooped out with the net.

It is worth mentioning that we also took out the plants, and gave them a good hosing off, over the grass: otherwise the rising water level leaves a ring of duckweed around every vertical stem. Mind you, those little bits will then dry out and die off... so does it help? This point is open for debate, do please feel free to add your thoughts, below!

Also to be borne in mind is the life cycle of duckweed: those individual floating leaves start off life rooted into the plants, so once you have flooded off the top layer, it is worth gently agitating any submerged plants, to loosen off the rooted duckweed strands. Once they float to the surface, they can be scooped out with a net, or you can just add a bit more water, and flood that lot out as well.

Yes, on a big pond, it will take a lot of water, but if you have a lot of water butts (and if you don't - why not??!!) then you can clip a hose onto the water butt tap, and use that water, which is free, and is probably "better" for your pond than the chlorinated (and expensive) tap water.

And there you have it: compared to all the hours I have spent scooping with a net, this method is quick, simple, and very eco, especially if you use the water butt water.

Oh, and it's far, far better for the pond's wildlife - instead of all that scooping and banging about with nets, heaving plants in and out, and so on: just let the "tide" rise up to the top, and then let it settle naturally back down again.


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Wednesday, 20 July 2022

Holistic gardening

There is a lot of new age happy clappy rubbish spoken (and written) about holistic this, that, and the other, but it's one of those philosophies which is just made for gardeners. 

 So what exactly does it mean? 

The philosophical definition of the word is “characterized by the belief that the parts of something are intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.”

In other words, what affects one part of something, also affects other parts. Sometimes it is very easy to see the connection: if you push down on one part of a squashy lilo, for example, another part of it will rise - they are clearly connected. There is a seat at my local chinese takeaway like this: if someone else plumps themselves down on the other end of it, you find yourself being pinged upwards, in a rather amusing manner. 

Within the garden, we experience this all the time: some flowers or plants just go very nicely together. 

But in other situations, it might be less obvious: in the garden, you might think that watering your plants twice a day will do nothing but good, not realising that creating a constantly-damp environment can - amongst other things - create a haven for slugs and snails. This is bad.

Except that, this, in turn, can create a rich feeding ground for frogs, hedgehogs, and for birds, thus encouraging more wildlife into your garden. This is clearly good.

So in gardening, we all understand on some level that everything we do in the garden affects, and is affected by, the rest of the garden.

Perhaps we'll plant a nice tree, for example, just there. This creates a patch of shade, so the sun-loving plants underneath it will stop thriving and may die away - but the shade-loving plants will positively flourish. And we might enjoy having a shady place to sit, on a hot summer's day (ah, remember those hot summer days?!).

Birds come and sit in the tree, and we enjoy watching them come to our feeders, and we like the sound of their chirping and twittering. But then they strip all the buds off the cherry tree, eat all the soft fruit, poop all over our seat, and peck out our seedlings. 


Not to mention the forest of strange agricultural weeds which spring up, unbidden, underneath the feeders....

(Like this lot, left, in my own garden....)

Then, ten years later, we might realise that the lawn is now nothing but moss, we can't see out of the kitchen window any more, and there are no flowers left in the deeply shaded borders ... so we have the tree cut down. Then we realise, in horror, that that new housing estate they built round the back is really, really close to our fence... so we plant another tree

In a garden, everything is definitely connected!

But there's another aspect of the “holistic” approach that it totally relevant to us gardeners, and that's the concept that gardening is less about imposing your will on your green space, and more about working with what's there - for mutual benefit.

We all know that certain plants like certain conditions: acid-loving rhododendrons, pieris, and blue hydrangea come to mind, for example. And we all know that some plants need good drainage, some like it boggy, some need sun, others look best in shade, and so on.

So all good gardeners are naturally holistic - “right plant, right place” as they say. Ok sometimes we make a special effort to encourage an "unsuitable" plant - by physically altering the composition of the soil, perhaps - but such efforts are normally doomed to failure, as we all know! It is far better to work in harmony with what we have - although I'd make a caveat that it is always acceptable to improve the soil!

Even our choice of planting has a holistic aspect: just because a plant does well in someone else's garden, it might not do as well in our garden, if our conditions are different.  

And this works the other way round, as well: a dear friend of mine was given some Euphorbia myrsinites (Myrtle Spurge) by a neighbour, whose name is now mentioned with a curse and a spit.  In the neighbour's garden, this particular Euphorbia was a well-behaved and beautiful thing.

But in my friend's garden, in beds which had been mulched, fed, enriched and nurtured for decades, it took off like a rocket and within two years had infested the entire long bed, and much of the adjacent patio.

A case of a plant which settled in a little too well! 

But it demonstrated how "one" needs to consider the larger picture before introducing a new plant: it may have been fine in one garden, but could turn out to be quite unmanageable in another.

And this is the essence of the holistic approach: rather than taking a plant in isolation - "ooh, that looks nice, I want one of those!" we need to consider not only whether it will grow in our own garden, but whether it will look "right" there.  Will it out-compete other plants? Will it be overwhelmed by our existing planting? Will the colour, which looked so fabulous in the garden centre, clash horribly with what we already have?

So when we are talking about gardens, the "holistic" approach is clearly the right one!

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Monday, 18 July 2022

What is the point of a water butt without a watering can?

I'm currently writing a new book, about water management in the garden, because I always seem to be writing about how to manage watering of plants, in response to questions: and this has made me realise that a lot of people don't know where to start, when it comes to sensible watering arrangements,

So here are a couple of them to be getting on with - free of charge! (I'm good like that...)

When it comes to water in the garden, then, I have several rules:  here are some of them, in no particular order.

Firstly, obviously, have as many water butts as you can, because the water is free, and is better for the plants than tap water. And did I say that it's free?!

Secondly, always make sure your water butts are installed correctly, so that rainwater fills them, but doesn't overflow all over your patio: and make sure that the connections are done up tightly,  so they don't drip (it's wasteful and it promotes the growth of unsightly moss and weeds).

Thirdly - not that we're going in any sort of order - have the butts where you need them. There's no point having six butts up by the house, if your veg bed is way, way down the end of the garden. If there are no convenient gutters down there, then you might have to be a bit creative with your water management - you'll have to wait for the book to come out, for those, as there's quite a lot of information and suggestions to be shared!


Fourthly, although possibly secondly in terms of importance, always ensure butts are sufficiently high off the ground for you to get a watering can underneath them.... you'd think this would be obvious but apparently - right - this is not the case.

And while you are at it, make sure there's a level area big enough for the can to stand on while it fills.

And that leads to the whole point of this brief article: buy enough watering cans that you can leave one at each set of butts. I mean, what is the point of having a water butt without a watering can next to it? 

It drives me mad, having to waste time chasing around the garden to find a watering can - yes, I know that the Client is paying for my time, so if they really want to waste it, it is their business, but it's inefficient. 

I would much rather encourage my Clients to buy more watering cans, if they don't have enough, and I ask them to get the sort whose handle does not go over the filling hole (I mean, what idiot invented that style?) otherwise it's tricky to get all the water in the can, instead of over your feet.

As in this picture - left.

I mean, had whoever designed it never actually used a watering can?  *rolls eyes*

In a perfect world, I have two cans at each butt (or collection of water butts), so one can be filling while I am using the other to water with: this is what I do in my own garden. 

I quite enjoy the challenge of estimating how far open I need to operate the tap, to give me time to use up one can-full and return to the butt, before it overflow: but without having to stand there and wait for it to finish filling. 

And as a final note, in case  you have ever wondered how much money you are saving yourself by using water butt water, I worked it out once: assuming that you live on mains drainage, then taking into account the standing cost, the cost of the water, and the cost of removing waste water (if you didn't already know this, those of us living in towns ie without septic tanks) pay once per cubic meter for the clean water, then pay again, on the assumption that all the water we take, eventually goes back down the drains to be cleaned and returned to us), one average watering fan full of water "costs" half of one pence. 

This means that if you collect rainwater and use it on your plants, you are saving half a p for every can-full

So get out there, and buy some more watering cans!

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Friday, 15 July 2022

Gardening in a heatwave

I wrote recently about watering during an extended hot spell, and while working today I was pondering on what other things we can do to help our gardens: some of us are having what the met office call “light showers” this afternoon, but it's barely enough to wet the paths properly, so it's not going to do the gardens much good.

So what can we do?

It's more a case of what can we NOT do: normally at this time of year I am cutting back things like Alchemilla mollis, whose flowers are changing to brown as they go to seed, and the leaves are starting to look very drab and tired. 


My usual technique is to cut them right back to the bone, leaving virtually no leaves at all, unless they are very small, new ones. Then, in normal times, within a week or two a flush of new leaves appear, and within another week or two we have a perfect dome of fresh new foliage, and they often have a second flush of flowers later on, as well.

But this year, with the hot dry weather due to continue for days yet, it's wiser to put off any cutting back: the current leaves may well be tired and rather brown, but they are offering some shade to the roots below, so leave them in place for now.

Also, with not much rain likely, they won't immediately sprout new leaves, so we'd be looking at a bare, brown mound for longer than necessary. 

This goes for most of the hardy Geranium (Geraniums? Gerania?) as well: I'm just leaving them for another week or two.

Likewise, perennial Poppy, going brown now, and normally all set to be cut back to nothing: this year, I'm leaving them in place to protect the heart of the plant.

And as for weeds: well, to be honest with you, as long as they are not actually flowering, I'm tending to leave them in place: not only do they provide shade, but as the soil is now so hard, it takes a lot of effort to dig them out. Ah, truly is it said, “weed when wet, dig when dry,” although I wouldn't really fancy digging at the moment!

In particular, I'm leaving any wild Strawberry that I find: normally I ruthlessly remove them, but now they are providing some welcome greenery and again, providing a bit of shade for the soil, so they can live on for another week or two.

All the plants I would normally dead-head really hard, or cut right back - such as Penstemon, Campanula, Scabious, and Astrantia: all these plants are just having the tips of their flowering stalks dead-headed, taking off anything which is really brown, and leaving the rest to act as sunshades for the base of the plant.

As for other garden jobs: well, obviously, don't lay any turf this week or next: wait until we've had several days of rain to get the soil good and wet again, before attempting turfing.

For that matter, if you don't really need to move plants around, then don't do it: hold off on the post-flowering lift-and-split until such time as we have some water back in the soil.

I've been making lists of jobs to do “when the rains return”: and in the meantime I am dead-heading roses in the usual way, cutting back seeded stalks of Aquilegia (but not cutting all the foliage back hard, as I usually do) and Delphinium, and leaving the rest for another day!

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Wednesday, 13 July 2022

How to: cope in this hot, hot, weather

“Phew, what a scorcher!”

Remember the summer of 76? It didn't rain between March and September, there were hosepipe bans, and water had to be collected from stand pipes in the streets. (of course, I'm far too young to remember that myself, ha ha, but my neighbours have told me stories about it...)

This year is nowhere near that bad - luckily for us, we had rain, rain, and more rain earlier in the year, which has left the soil in comparatively good condition: it may be like dust on top, but generally, when we water our plants, the water goes where it's needed, rather than disappearing down those enormous cracks that we all hate so much.

However, we've had sun, wind (which removes moisture almost faster than the sun will), and heat for a few weeks now: this particular week, we are having temperatures in the upper 20s, and no sign of it breaking for at least another ten days.

So what can we do to help our parched gardens?

First and obviously, watering: there's been no sign of a hosepipe ban so far, so make the most of it: but don't get the sprinkler out. Sprinklers are incredibly wasteful of water: they send a gentle curtain of it all over the place, whether it's needed or not, they soak the foliage long before they soak the soil - and people tend to turn them on and then go away, so they could easily be running for an hour or more, which is far more than they are needed.

Instead, use your hose with a hand-held nozzle, and don't turn the water on full: most houses have high mains pressure, so work out how little you need to turn the tap in order to get adequate water. You don't need to sand-blast the plants - in fact, the slower the water arrives, the better for them. Also, most taps will dribble and waste water if you turn them up too high, so experiment in using “just enough”. 

My own tap at home only needs to go one quarter turn, to give me a perfectly adequate flow.

Don't spray randomly over the top: aim the water at the base of each plant, you don't need to waste time soaking the foliage - the water needs to get down to the roots of the plants. And don't waste water on plants which don't need it: all that lavender, all those herbs, all the Mediterranean silver-leaved plants, they don't need watering every day as they are, by nature, drought-tolerant - so once a week is plenty for them.

Likewise, plants with fleshy leaves - Sedum, Bergenia, for example - are able to go without watering for long periods, so you don't need to water them every day. 

Instead, focus on the water-sensitive plants which tend to wilt early - Rudbeckia are particularly water-sensitive, as are Hydrangeas, Campanula, and Astrantia. 

And my much-loved Lysimachia punctata Atropurpureum - left!

Summer bedding plants tend to be really water-sensitive, unfortunately: they have shallow, thin roots which aren't designed for long-term water sourcing, so they will need special attention.

Shrubs and trees have good deep roots, so they won't need any special watering, but fruit and veg will need a daily soaking, especially in raised beds.

Forget the lawn: grass is an amazingly resilient plant, and even though it appears to be parched, brown and dead, it will spring back to life the minute we get some rain. So don't waste precious tap water on it! Let it go brown and crispy for now.

Pots are particularly vulnerable to drought, so take them down off their “feet” and stand them in large saucers. This allows the water that would otherwise run straight through to be gradually soaked back up: it's a double win, because you apply less water (as soon as it appears in the saucer, stop adding it at the top), and that water has a chance to be soaked up, and be of benefit, instead of being wasted.

If you don't have any saucers, line a box with plastic (old compost/bark bags are good, even a bin liner will do) and stand the pots inside the box. It may not look pretty, but it will save the plants: and if you're clever, you can make a tasteful arrangement of them. Perhaps you could cover the front of the box with trailing foliage. Just remember to keep checking it for snails....

The best time to water is first thing in the morning, while it's still cool from the night air: the “worst” time to water is last thing at night, because the plants are shutting down operations and are not fully able to absorb all that lovely water - and you are creating super-luxurious damp conditions for the slugs and snails overnight!

As for watering in the mid-day sun being a waste of time and water, that's an urban myth: it does not all immediately evaporate, it mostly goes where it is needed, ie down into the soil, and it's only the very top layer that dries out quickly. It is far better to water very early in the morning: but it's better to water at noon, than to not water at all.

And just think, in a couple of weeks it will all be over, we'll be glumly sitting indoors looking at the rain, and wondering if we dreamt it all!

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Monday, 11 July 2022

Bearded Iris - summer tidy-up

It's that time of year...  

... and the Bearded Iris are finally over.

They've been beautiful - these are my own ones, at home, left -  but now they are done, and it's time to tidy them up for the summer.

The first job is to dead-head the flowering stems as the blooms fade, in order to prevent them going to seed, which wastes energy which we would much rather they put into next year's flowers.

Personally, I go round my Iris plants every couple of days, with a pair of scissors, and I snip off the fading flowers individually: most of my Iris (plural of Iris, someone: Irises? Ireeez? Who knows...) are lush bearded ones like these, so the fading petals tend to wrap themselves affectionately around the not-yet-opened buds, and if they get wet, urgh, they turn into that organic papier mache (as the roses do in wet weather) which then prevents the newer flowers from opening.

Then, once every bud has opened, flowered, and finished, it's time to deadhead the entire flowering stem: I am constantly surprised at the number of people who just nip off the top few inches, leaving a bare, truncated stem sticking up above the leaves. I don't think that's pretty...

Here's a good example, left: a mad jungle of beheaded flowering stems, overcrowded leaves, and assorted weeds.

Not only does this look messy, but it's a haven for bugs, slugs and snails.

So it's time for the summer tidy-up!

Firstly, the flowering stems. Gird up your loins (I have never known exactly what that means: I mean, I know what "loins" are (nothing to do with lions, or lino) and the phrase "girding up" seems to imply lifting something, with overtones of "girdle". So I have a sort of vague impression of heaving up the clothing which is otherwise flapping about the ankles, then tightening up a belt of some kind. In my mind, this is preparatory to doing some active, which requires freedom of movement. If you have a better idea, do please feel free to tell me via comment, below.) 

(Hmmm, I have just gone and looked it up for myself. I was not far wrong! Take the long flappy robe which you are wearing (!) pull it up to backside height, take all the spare fabric from front to back, between the legs, then reach behind with both hands, grab the "corners" as it were, bring them round to the front and knot the fabric. Thus creating a cross between shorts and a nappy - very practical, for leaping about energetically.)

Where was I? Oh yes, gird up your loins, grab the secateurs, wade in, and take a close look:

Here is a clump of Bearded Iris/Irises, and I have added arrows to point out the flowering stem, as it's not so easy to see, from this angle.

Once you have done a few of these, you will notice that each rhizome - that's the beige-coloured long thick lumpy thing, growing just above ground level - has just one flowering stem, at one end. This makes it easier to track down the flowering stems: they are thick round things, sprouting from the very end of a rhizome.

I have, incidentally, already cleared the weeds. and have trimmed the clumps in front, in order to show you what I am doing.

So, there is the strong, solid, round, flowering stem - as opposed to the bendable, flat, leaves.

Track it down to the very bottom, the lower red arrow, and cut it off cleanly at that point.

Can you see how there are big fans of leaves, one to either side of the (now removed) flowering stem?

Those are where next year's flowering stems will originate.

Iris (Irises? Still not sure) have an interesting way of growing: they start with a single rhizome, that fat light brown thing, at soil level.  This produces a single flowering stem at the end, but they also produce a new, smaller, bud to either side. This develops into a fan of leaves and a new rhizome, over the summer: then next year, those two rhizomes will each send up a single flowering stem, while the original one will never flower again..

So from one individual rhizome, you get one flowering stem this year, two next year, four the year after, and so on. After a few years, there are lots of rhizomes and lots of flowers: but then the clumps get so congested that they stop producing new flowering stems, and at that point they have to be lifted and separated. Ah, that Playtex moment! (showing my age now...)   That's a subject for another post, so for now let's get back to this one.

Take each finished flowering stem in turn, then, and cut it off right at the very base.

I know that, technically, the flowering stems are green and can therefore photosynthesise: I know that they often have smallish leaves on them... but once the flowering is done, I much prefer to cut them right down to the very bottom. 

Next step: trim back the leaves.

Now, this might not be to your taste: some internet sources will say not to cut back the leaves, but I was taught to do so, twenty years ago, by a lady who had large numbers of Iris (Irises?) ..hmm, shall we say who had a large Iris collection (*grins*), and who had been growing them for many years. She told me (and I checked, I looked it up for myself, and she was correct) that the rhizomes of Bearded Iris require a certain amount of sunlight in the current year, in order to flower the following year. She used the term "baking" - they needed to "bake" in the sun, she used to say.

So when it was time to remove the finished flowering stems, she taught me to cut the leaves down to a neat fan shape, in order to reduce the shade they cast on the rhizomes. I have done this ever since, and every collection of Iris plants in my care has flowered beautifully, so I will continue to do it!

This is the effect we are aiming for, then: flowering stems removed, leaves cut back to neat fans to let the light in, all weeds removed.

Sharp-eyed readers might also notice that I have pulled off all the brown, dying leaves as well. There is no point leaving dead leaves on the plants: it just encourages slugs and snails, and it also traps moisture at ground level, which is very bad for Iris rhizomes, as they are prone to rotting.  So all dead leaves are gently pulled off: if they don't want to pull off,  then snip them off as low as you can, and next time you are weeding the area, the stumps  will have died back sufficiently to be pulled off.

And that's pretty much it: all material can be put onto the compost, I usually chop the flowering stems into smaller sections to help them rot, but that's probably not necessary.

Within a couple of weeks, the new leaves are growing out from the centres of the fans, so they look a bit weird for a short time: but the end of flowering season coincides with the middle of summer, ie when the sun is highest in the sky, so it's the best time for the "baking of the rhizomes" to take place. 

I leave the new leaves to regrow, and they continue the good work of photosynthesising for the rest of the summer. 

As for feeding, the one thing you should not do with Bearded Iris is to mulch them: the rhizomes need to be sitting on the surface of the soil, in order to bake, and in order not to rot! They are very prone to rotting, which is why they like a well-drained soil.  It's ok to give them a bit of balanced feed now and again: mine get a sloosh of diluted liquid seaweed feed, usually once the leaf fans have re-grown, on the basis that I'm helping them to store up energy for next year's flowers. 

Again, though, the lady with the extensive Iris collection didn't feed hers at all, so I don't feel the need to pamper mine too much, and they certainly seem to thrive on a fair amount of neglect!

So there you have it, a quick ten minute tidy-up of the Iris bed, allows the sun and the light into the rhizomes, reduces slug and snail damage, helps to promote flowering for next year - and looks neater!

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Friday, 8 July 2022

Bindweed: does it really grow back from tiny bits of root?

Now, we've all heard this one - "you must dig out every single scrap of bindweed, otherwise it will grow back."

Is it true? And, how small a piece of root does it need, in order to grow back? 

Several years ago, I did a couple of very small experiments for myself, and the results indicated that bindweed will grow back from lengths of root as small as 1½"  - that's about 4cms - with no problem, but small pieces did not sprout.

Fast forward in time to last week (montage of diary pages flipping over at speed) (because unfortunately, I don't live opposite a ladies' wear shop with a handy mannequin in the front window), where I was checking over a large bed which, a couple of weeks previously,  had been the subject of an infestation of an invasive plant, and which had been clear-dug. We removed every single plant, and put them into quarantine: and I dug once, dug twice, and dug thrice to remove all of the invader.

Well, first the good news: the Houttuynia was completely gone, not a sign of it: no regrowth in the triple-dug bed, and no sign in the quarantined plants, either.


We - Mrs Client and I - decided that it was ok to replace the plants, and in doing so, we decided to spread them out a wee bit further than the clear-dug area, so I was tasked with digging over another section of the border.  We could see a few strands of bindweed there: the border contains two mature trees, whose roots make it impossible to dig out the bindweed properly, so we accept that there is always going to be a certain amount of bindweed to be monitored and controlled.

Long story made short, I dug out as much as I could, and where the new area met the thrice-dug area, I found one cheeky little strand of bindweed:

It's a single shoot of bindweed, but that's no reason to ignore it: one slender shoot can quickly grow to become a real infestation.

So out it came, and this - left - is what I found.

Can  you see, there's a tiny bit of old, slightly browner, root.

 Here's another shot of it:

There isn't anything for scale, so you'll have to take my word for it that the old, browner piece of root was about ¾" long, that's less than 2cm.

And as you can see, it is functioning perfectly well, and has put forth a good length of new stem - it was about a yard long (1m) above the ground. 

I think this proves the point that yes! Bindweed DOES grow back from the tiniest scrap of root!

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Wednesday, 6 July 2022

Crown lifting a pair of Holly trees

This was an interesting job - the Client has a pair of variegated Holly trees, one male, one female (which is a cunning plan to ensure that there are berries!) and they have outgrown their space somewhat.

Here they are, back in January, and you can see that they are swamping the  border, which is suffering from too much shade.

You could say that they are overpowering the underplanting, as it were!

They are also encroaching outwards, onto the grass, which is an annoyance for the mower (who happens to be my friend Ian, but that has nothing to do with it, honest).

This meant that it was time to take action: and, being a variegated arrangement, my first task was to carefully check for and remove any reverted shoots: that is, shoots which have gone back to being plain green, and have lost that lovely green-and-yellow variegation.

Why? Because reverted shoots are "stronger" than variegated ones. This is because they are completely green: lots and lots of lovely chlorophyll for photosynthesis, compared to the variegated ones, which are partly non-green. 

I say "non-green", because variegated plants come in shades of yellow, silver, red: but anything other than plain green is going to have a lesser surface area of green, and is therefore going to be less efficient at processing sunlight.

This means that the shoots with green leaves tend to grow bigger, faster, than the variegated one, and - if left to their own devices - they will outcompete the variegated shoots. After a while, you find that the plant is no longer multi-coloured, but is mostly all plain green again! 


Right, first job, then: check for, and remove, all reverted shoots. 

Next job, remove a few of the lowest branches, right back to the main stems - right.

What a difference!

As you can see, even a few cuts generates a fair sized pile of cuttings.

As an aside, as a Professional Gardener, I always find it advisable to do this sort of job without the Client watching: or, at least, to dispose of the piles of debris before they come out to check on progress, as sometimes they panic when they see the sheer volume of waste which is produced by even a fairly light pruning job.

And there's nothing worse than being stopped part-way through a carefully planned pruning, after I have chosen exactly how much material to remove in order to leave it both healthy, and balanced in appearance....

Having removed the reverted material, and made my chosen cuts, I can then step back, assess the result, and make any further small adjustments: often you find that removing a couple of the lower limbs reveals that some of the upper ones are flopping downwards too much, or you notice the odd sticky-out bit which needs to be nipped off, in order to leave a pleasing shape.

Usually, I then take a break and dispose of the cuttings, which gives the tree a chance to "settle", and gives me a chance to assess it with fresh eyes, as I return from the bonfire pile. 

Sometimes, this fresh look makes me aware that a little bit more finessing is required: sometimes it all looks fine, in which case, the pruning part of the job is done.

I can then rake up the odd bits of debris on the lawn, rake out a year's worth of dead leaves from the border, and then, oh joy, I can get underneath the trees without being stabbed to death by prickly Holly leaves, to properly weed that border, check on the underplanting, and replace any smothered plants which have died, or which are so feeble that they are better off being removed.

And then - final job - I can re-cut the edge of the grass properly, which will please me, because I like nice neat edges!

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Monday, 4 July 2022

Roses and Grafting - what, why, and where

Recently, I wrote about suckering Roses, and how to spot the suckers: and a few people asked for more information about the whole grafting business: all the books tell us that our Roses are prone to suckering, and that we must be constantly on the alert, to remove these suckers as soon as they appear, which is correct as far as it goes. 


First we need to understand why some Roses send out suckers. This is all to do with greed, and grafting. 

Grafting is the process whereby a "beautiful" Rose...

... is joined on to a "rather less beautiful but very sturdy and healthy and fast-growing" rootstock. Thus, the "beautiful" Rose grows quickly, and healthily, because it is being funded, as it were, by the sturdy rootstock. 

Why don't they just grow on their own roots, you ask? 

Ah, this is where the Greed comes in: the "beautiful" Roses, which have been bred to have huge flowers, to flower repeatedly, to be of unusual colours, etc,  are usually not as strong, not as healthy, and nowhere near as fast to grow as the less beautiful, basic roses.  

Rootstocks are usually something like Dog Rose - Rosa canina. Yes, that stuff that grows in hedgerows, all over the place: cheap, easy to obtain, fast-growing, sturdy.  

And the "greed" part is because the grower can take one specially bred, beautiful, rose plant, and cut out a dozen or more sections to graft onto easily-grown Dog Rose rootstocks, and can produce a dozen or more saleable plants in a year or so: whereas if they just took normal cuttings of the beautiful plant, they might take 5 years or more to grow to a saleable size - and there would be a very real chance of losing some or all of them in the meantime. 

Perhaps "greed" is a bit cruel, actually: I've made it sound as though it's the grower who is greedy, but  maybe it's more a case of the buyers, ie us, not wanting to pay a lot of money for a smallish, rather delicate plant, because we don't care that it might have taken five years of careful nurturing, to produce. We would rather pay a few quid for a bonny, boisterous-looking plant which will grow like a mad thing, and flower all summer long. So we have only ourselves to blame.

So, grafted roses, then.

Next question - "the books say to look out for growth from below the graft - what does that mean?"

Roses grow: we can see them putting out new shoots, and we can see those shoots getting longer and stronger, and bearing lovely flowers. But the rootstock also wants to grow, and although it has been selected and trained to give all its energy to the "beautiful" rose above it, sometimes they rebel, and start to put out shoots of their own. If the owner doesn't notice them, these shoots will quickly outgrow the "beautiful" rose, because they are - by definition - stronger and more vigorous than the upper part. That's why we have to look out for them and remove them as soon as we see them.

As per the other post, here is an example of a below-the-graft sucker:

...with the sucker helpfully pointed out for you.

There were actually four or five suckers on this particular rose, on this particular day, but this is the main one.

And this leads on to the next question: "Where, exactly, is the graft? "

On this particular plant, the graft is at ground level. 

All shrubby roses which have been grafted, will have the graft at ground level, so that everything we see is going to be the "beautiful" rose.


The other position for grafted roses is when they have been tortured grown as what is called a "standard" rose.

This is where the rootstock is allowed to grow just one branch, strongly upright: then, when it has reached the desired height, the "beautiful" rose is grafted on at the top.

Here - right - are a couple of standards: these are "big" ones, the graft is at eye level.

More often, they are at waist level, as it takes a long time to grow and graft something this big, so they tend to cost a lot of money!

They also need to be very firmly staked, and very firmly and safely tied to their stakes, otherwise you come to work one morning, and find this:



The ties had broken, the entire rose had flopped over to the ground, and the garden owner had done nothing about it!!

Luckily, in this case, the stem had not actually broken, and I was able to carefully lift it back to upright, and install some proper tree ties to keep it in that position: it survived the experience and went on to live a happy and healthy life. 

But it was one of those moments where my heart sank, as it was part - as you can guess from the photo - of a very formal Knot garden, and it was one of four matching roses. Losing one would have made a bit of a hole in the design...

Right, next question: "Are all roses grafted?"

 No, certainly not. I used to work for a delightful elderly gentleman who had a garden full of roses, and not one single one was grafted. They were all grown on their own rootstocks, as it were: many of them were cuttings he had taken himself.

So why are so many roses grafted? As mentioned above, it's our desire to have a big, healthy plant at the least possible cost, I'm afraid. 

But as long as we keep an eye on them, and remove any below-the-graft suckers as soon as we see them, all will be well!

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Friday, 1 July 2022

Why I dead-head Roses so vigorously

Because I am cruel and heartless. (*laughs uproariously*)

No, seriously, the horticultural reason is because it makes them flower better, by forcing the production of new buds.

But there is another reason -  when rain is forecast, this is what happens if you don't deadhead regularly:



Let's take a closer look:


The rain knocks off all the loose petals, scattering them under the plant, which looks untidy and attracts the binmen of the garden, ie slugs and snails.

It also turns the nearly-falling petals into a soggy mush, which then clings all over the nearby buds which have not yet opened, coating them in a sort of organic papier-mache, which then prevents the new buds from opening.

All this can be prevented, simply by dead-heading your roses once or twice a week. 

Or more if they are very floriferous:  one of my dearly beloved Clients has been on holiday, so on each visit, I've had a whole week's worth of deadheading to do, and I have been surprised at the sheer volume of spent flowers this produced - a whole compost-bag-full, right up to the top, each time!

And before you ask, no, I don't put roses on the compost, because they have sharp thorns (botanically, "prickles" but let's not get distracted by that, so early in the morning!) which persist in the composted material, and I don't like getting nasty surprises when I check the pen, to see how it is progressing!

So  you can see that there are many good reasons for deadheading roses.  

Oh, and here's another one: I used to love roses in full bloom: well, who doesn't, they're lovely! And I still do, but I also find that I prefer the beauty of a bud,  almost more than I like the beauty of a fully opened flower.  And by removing flowers as soon as they start to fade, we can see the upcoming new buds much more clearly.

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