Garden School:


Garden School:
Teaching this week: Rose pruning (as always!) and water management

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Cerney House Gardens

Winter, a time to reflect on gardens visited earlier in the year...

Back in June I went to Cerney House gardens, which truly is a "hidden treasure" of the Cotswolds. You need a map and directions to find it, as it's tucked away up a narrow winding lane, and you have to drive up and up, far beyond where you would think it would be. Suddenly you find yourself on what is clearly the entrance to a proper "old" estate, and then you get directed into a field to park.. and that's it. No-one on gate duty, no-one to tell you where to go, and no-one in sight.

Using your native intelligence, you walk up past what appears to be someone's private cottage, and eventually you find the way in, greeted only by an Honesty box, into which you slip the money.

Don't you think, by the way, that the whole Honesty Box thing is so typically and wonderfully English-garden? Where else could you just leave a flimsy wooden box with an invitation to drop money into it, and still find it there at the end of the day? With money in it? I do the same at my Plant Sales Bench, there is a sturdy wooden box, and although sometimes I am disappointed, most of the time it contains the right money. Wonderful!

Anyway, after popping the money in the slot (as always, nervous and uncomfortable, and strongly feeling the desire to wave the coins aloft as much as to say to any hidden camera "Look! I'm paying!") you go through the doorway into basically a walled garden, set sideways along a slope.

I've been there twice now, and have never seen another soul... not another visitor, no gardeners, no-one trying to flog me garden tat or ludicrously expensive guide books, no-one.

Heaven.

The overall effect is delightfully shabby, with a good set of weeds, and a fair amount of topiary waiting to be trimmed, but that only adds to the Sleeping-Beauty charm of the place.

It also benefits from being set partly in, partly across a steep valley, so there are no vast empty spaces on the treeline, but a nice comforting feeling of being enclosed.

This is, I have to say, the sort of garden in which I could work, and work... and work....

The layout is more or less simple straight strips along the slope, like contour lines made into hedges, which give a succession of vistas. Here's one, with a cute little stone summerhouse at the far end:

As you can see, herbaceous borders, more or less tidily fulfilling the instructions of "big ones at the back, little ones at the front" and frankly, it's a perfectly sensible way to arrange things.

Being an amateur photo, the general effect here is of a mass of greenery with splodges of colour, but in real life it was somewhat more organised. There was a feeling of colour co-ordination, not slavishly, but melting gently from one shade into another as you strolled along the grassy paths.

In one strip I found the classic box-edged  "knot" gardens - well, every garden of this size has to have them - but they had made a bit of a twist: the knots contained fruit trees, making it impossible to see the overall pattern of the knots. Not exactly standard!  Also, and I really liked this idea, they were pretty much empty.

I gathered from some scattered labels that they are stuffed with tulips in Spring, and that must be a sight to be seen. Then they seem to grow some of their veg in them - you can see,  below, the remains of a runner-bean wigwam - and other than that, they leave them bare.

As you can see, desperately in need of clipping (this was in June) but nonetheless still very attractive.


I was rather taken with that idea, to have nothing but spring flowers and fruit trees in my knots - although I expect I'd get tired of trying to clip intricate hedges with an apple tree snagging my hair and poking me in the eye, so I'd probably either skip the fruit trees, or (more likely) prune off their lower boughs to allow clear access to the box.

At the back of the garden I came across a nice use of foliage: a run of Cotinus coggyria, probably "Royal Purple", all substantial shrubs but cut down to stumps a mere two foot off the ground, and allowed to grow super dark foliage at knee height.

The stumps were at least 8-9" across, so they must have been quite hefty specimens at one point; I always love to see evidence of someone who is even more hard-hearted at cutting things down, than I am.

There - isn't that lovely?


Fabulous foliage right where you can see it,  terrific contrast with the other greenery, and a nice compliment to the wall behind.

It would have been so easy to have left them as standard shrubs, and I have no idea if the drastic chop was intentional, or the result of damage or disaster: but it certainly works.

After wandering up and down the strips a few times, I found my way to the far end of the garden, containing a raised area for herbs.  Not just your average sage and chives, but genuine "herbal" herbs, all beautifully labelled with their names and former uses. And in some cases, a warning!

Beyond that, again, I found the working area, comprising greenhouses, composty heaps (always of interest) and rows of plants in pots, presumably cuttings that were being grown on ready for use in the garden proper.

I love to see that sort of thing, it's always interesting to me to see how others do it. Round the back of the greenhouse seemed to be a woodland walk that is probably wonderful in spring, and returning to the main walled garden, I made my out past the "house" gardens (far too shy to go and have a good look at them), past the ice house, and back up the main drive to the parking field.

And still, in two visits, not another person in sight. *sigh* perfect...

Friday, 28 December 2012

Double Digging: don't do it!

I was given a book for Christmas: called, intriguingly, The BAD tempered Gardener" by Anne Wareham.

It seemed like a whimsical play of words on Christopher Lloyd's book about the Well-tempered garden, and seems to be written by a lady who genuinely loves gardening, but at the same time, really, really hates it. She loves the effect, but hates the hard work involved.  You should hear her on the subject of double digging!

Mind you, you should hear me on the subject: summed up by the phrase "Nope."  I don't do double-digging: in my opinion it is one of those exploded myths, that has been scientifically proven to be a waste of time, but which people still seem to torture themselves with.

What is double digging?  Oh, it's horrible - you start at one end of a plot, generally a vegetable plot of the old-fashioned large allotment size. You dig out the first strip to a depth of one foot deep, putting the soil onto a piece of plastic or into a wheelbarrow. This leaves you with a trench. You then fork over the bottom of this trench to loosen the soil, and add some manure.You then dig the second strip, turning the soil over into the first trench. Thus creating a second trench. Whose bottom you then fork over, and add manure. You then dig the third strip, flipping the soil into the second trench. And so on. When you reach the end, you trundle round the soil from the first strip, and tip it into your final trench.

Simple, huh?

No mention of the fact that more than one spit deep, your soil turns into solid blue clay that weighs a ton, breaks your back, refuses to slide off the spade, and when scraped off with a stick, lies there as though awaiting the potters wheel, looking about as far from "fine tilth" as it is possible to get.

No mention of the fact that all your decent topsoil is therefore buried under a layer of clag, stones and whatnot, leaving cracks and lumps in equal numbers.

Nor any mention of the fact that you are unable to plant anything into this mess for several months, until the top layer has weathered down a bit, to the point where it becomes possible to break it up into clods.

Nope! As I say, "exploded theory", it is now accepted that double digging ruins the soil structure, destroys all those lovely interactive eco-systems of worms, beetles etc, and does not bring new vitamins and minerals to the surface. It's what I call "received wisdom" which is also known as "blindly doing what you were told to do, even though there are patently better ways of doing it."

OK, on soil that has been badly compacted over many years, ie under mown grass, or on a new build site, then you would need to aerate the soil - but frankly,  in either of those situations I would seriously consider hiring a chap with a rotavator. Or just tipping compost on the top and letting the worms get on with it. Or planting spuds, and letting them loosen it up. There are many options other than double digging, and there are very few instances where double digging is the right and only thing to do.

Let me tell you a story about the Sunday roast.  It's a joke, ok, not a true story:

Newly married husband compliments wife on her Sunday roast. "Mmm, very tender" he says. "Glad you enjoyed it," she responds, "Roasts are dead easy, your turn next week." (it's a proper, modern, marriage.)

Next week, his turn to cook the roast: being less good at cooking than her (give him time, he'll learn) he asks advice on several points, and is reminded to cut off the end of the roast before putting it in the oven.

"Why?" he asks.
"To make it tender" she replies.

Afterwards, being of an enquiring turn of mind, he is thinking about this issue. "Why, exactly, should cutting off the end make it more tender?" he asks. "Dunno," she says, "I've always done it." Continued discussion leads to the fact that it was her mother who taught her to do this.

They visit the mother and ask her.

"Oh, yes," replies the mother, "Always cut the end off the joint, makes it tender, always done it." Cross-examination leads to the fact the it was her own mother, in turn, who taught her this.

They rush off to the nursing home and find the ancient grandmother. When asked why she taught her daughter to cut the end of the roast off, she replied "so it would fit in the dish, of course."

There you go, the classic demonstration of  Received Wisdom: doing it a certain way because it has always been done a certain way, without ever asking why... or whether it can be done better, faster, easier, some other way.

In gardening, you should always challenge Received Wisdom. It's easy - and after all, it's not as though gardening were something vital like open heart surgery, which is clearly a sphere in which you definitely would stick to the Received Wisdom: "shall I cut this artery open before I clamp it? Hmm, everyone says you should clamp first, cut second. Guess I'll do what everyone else does, in this case. "

No, unlike surgery, gardening is a field in which mistakes, in the biggest sense of the word, really don't matter very much. The worst you are likely to do is kill a plant or two. But you might make some really useful discoveries.

As a point of interest, SmugAmanda used to boast about her mass bulb planting style: she would lift an area of turf, scrape out some of the soil below, scatter a handful of bulbs and press the turf back down on top. No time wasted setting the bulb the "right" way up - she would just dump them in, and bury them. Saved her hours of time, considerable backache, and the results were 100%  flowering, regardless of which way up the bulbs were.

Now, any gardener can tell you about bulbs that have been found upside down but still sprouting beautifully, I know that I've found a few over the years.  But not all that many... I also know that many bulbs have contractile roots with which they pull themselves deeper into the soil, so it's not too much of a stretch to imagine that some bulbs are capable of "turning" themselves right side up in the soil.

So SmugAmanda was right in her slapdash planting style - it really doesn't matter about "setting" the bulbs beautifully upright.

A good example of a time when ignoring Received Wisdom was the right thing to do. Refusing to double dig is, I feel, another good example.  Taken to extremes, you get the "no dig" veg garden system, whereby you use heavy planks or sleepers to create small, accessible raised beds, fill them with good soil,  plant your veg,  and never, ever have to dig them over. Just weed out the weeds, lift out the produce, gently fork over with a hand-tool, or rake it level, and re-sow.

The trick is to get the beds sufficiently narrow that you can reach to the centre from each side, so you don't need to tread on it to weed or harvest. If it never gets compressed by your big gardening boots, then it never needs to be dug over, just "fluffed up" as necessary.

All of which is a long way from reviewing a book, but very much in the spirit of it!

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Wrapping Hydrangeas for the winter: Part II

Talking of last week - as it's been too cold to work this week - I did a bit more Hydrangea-wrapping, for those who expressed an interest.

 Actually, it was about two weeks ago - my, how time does fly - and this was a special case.

Firstly here is the hydrangea in question, surrounded by a sea of Brunnera, with a splendid fern adjoining it.

The first job was to gently tie up the fronds of the fern, to keep it safely out of the way.  Not rocket science - just make a loop, place it a third of the way up the plant, and gently pull it tight. Then make a couple more loops, above and below, and pull them tight as well.

This keeps all the fronds neat, and prevents anyone stepping on the base of it. "Stepping on it?" you ask? Yes, stepping on it - for we are expecting the tree surgeon and his men in the near future, and the more precious items in this area are going to need protection.

 Step 2: chop back all the Brunnera. They won't take any harm from the chopping, and I suspect they won't actually be badly hurt by being trodden on, but we will see.

Originally I suggested to my client that we cut them down in a strip, to make a clear pathway, to encourage the men and their big boots not to trample the entire bed.  But on reflection, we decided that it's a huge tree, and the men would be working with a massive amount of wood, being both heavy and dangerous, so it would make more sense for us to protect the plants, leaving them to trample the area as much as they needed to.

I had already moved "Pat Elmore" (the sculpture) to a safe place under the trees, along with her plinth, so all we had to do was cut down/dig out/cover upwhat was to remain.

Once the fern was tied up and the Brunnera chopped back, it began to look a little more hopeful: I carefully dug up and potted some nice Aster divaricatus or Wood Aster (now apparently known as Eurybia divaricata, hate the way they keep changing the names...) which have delicate white daisy-like flowers on long, lax, black stems which zig-zag around, hence the name: just think of diversions, divaricatus, it will all make sense.


A couple of other treasures were dug up and potted, and a couple of less-treasured items, such as the Digitalis ferruginea on the left, were left to fend for themselves, along with the geranium at the Corsican Ivy at the back.

This clearance revealed another Aster divaricatus which had been hiding - there it is, on the left - so I whipped that one out as well, and stuffed it into a pot.

Well, I say "stuffed it into..", by which I mean that I carefully and lovingly potted it up.

Then the Hydrangea was trussed up in fleece, like a rather unappetising Christmas turkey.

But, aha, I can hear you thinking that I didn't make a very good job of wrapping this one up.

Well, there's a reason, and here it is:

 Yes, the incomparable romance of an upturned dustbin standing on a couple of bricks.

If the tree men still manage to break the Hydrangea after all this, well, then I guess it was just meant to be...

Of course, my client and I accept that any tree work bears the danger of destruction to the plants below, and the tree in question (the Scots Pine at the back) has been assessed as "about time it was removed" as it has a split trunk, and there is the constant worry of it splitting one day, and crashing down on the neighbours' outbuilding, represented by that wall behind the trunk. It's not a particularly lovely outbuilding, but my client feels, quite rightly, that any tree-led destruction would not help neighbourly relations, so she has taken the bold step of having it cut down now, before something happens.


And here is the reason - as you can see, split trunk, and it's quite a substantial tree.

We are both quite keen to see how the bed below the tree responds to the sudden increase in light and rain that it is going to receive next spring!

Friday, 14 December 2012

Hellebore leaves: no, I don't compost them.

Here's a slight mistake I made last week:

Without thinking, I flung an armful of Hellebore leaves on the compost bin, before remembering that I don't compost Hellebore leaves.

So I had to carefully pick them out again, and move them to the bonfire heap.

Why?

In my experience, they don't rot in any sort of satisfactory manner: the leaves are spiky, the stems are woody, and they ruin the texture of the compost.

It always seems a shame, to put what appears to be green stuff on the bonfire heap, but there is something about Hellebore leaves, rather like Horse Chestnut leaves: they just don't seem to want to rot properly.

Of course, this is quite a small composting operation, and I have no doubt that if you were to add them to a very large bin or pen, and if you didn't mind leaving it for a long time, they would eventually rot down.

But in this garden - in fact, in all of my gardens - I prefer to keep them away from my composting activities.

Ah, last week *sighs with nostalgia* when it was warm enough to get lots of work done.....

Thursday, 13 December 2012

St Agnes' Eve, ah, bitter chill it was...

...OK I know it's not actually the 20th Jan (allegedly the coldest day of the year) but it's beginning to feel like it.

For the fourth consecutive day,  we have thick frosts, and it's not even Christmas yet.... at this rate, January is going to be truly horrible.  The only ray of hope is that the forecast is set to get milder - with heavy rain, alas - on Friday, with the winds swinging round to the south.

Well, I could do with a milder week, I have masses to do in all of my gardens, and it would be lovely to be able to get out there and get on with it.

So who is St Agnes?  Patron saint of chastity, gardeners, young girls, rape victims and engaged couples, amongst others. How did she become a patron saint? Oh, another of those horrible stories of religion: she lived in Roman times, around 300ad, and by the age of 12 was beautiful and sought-after, but she had committed herself to god and would not accept any offers of marriage.

A local big-wig (The Prefect Sempronius) wanted her to marry his son, and when she refused, he condemned her to death.  Charming.  Apparently it was against the law at that time to execute a virgin, so - are you ready for this? - the Prefect had her stripped naked and dragged through the streets to a brothel, specifically for defiling, to make her eligible for execution.

Tales of what happened there vary: some versions say she grew hair all over her body, ie to make her repulsive to men (although frankly the sort of men who would drag a naked child through the streets to a brothel would not, one assumes, be that fussy), some say that anyone who tried to rape her became impotent *laughs heartlessly and hysterically at that one*, some versions say they were struck blind: all versions agree that she was sentenced to death by being burned alive. However, the wood would not burn, so one of the soldiers had to cut her head off with a sword. Or stab her to death.  Accounts vary.

All of which seems a little harsh for a vow of chastity.

Her day of martyrdom is the 21st Jan, and on the night before, legend has it that if a virgin fasts, she will see the face of her future husband.

And the only reason we even know about this is the Keats poem, St Agnes' Eve, a chilling celebration of how cold winter was, before the invention of central heating, global warming, and the general effect of the industrial revolution.

If you are not familiar with it, I highly recommend it. I studied it as part of my English Literature A level at school, and it's one of those poems, like the Ode to Autumn, which just stays with you all your life.

Without wishing to get started on a dissertation, I will just repeat my favourite parts, from the first two stanzas.

The famous opening line sets the scene:

St Agnes' Eve, ah bitter chill it was

Bitter chill, you notice - not any old chill, but a bitter one.

The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold

Lovely image of the owl, feathers fluffed up, yet still cold. Or, a-cold, as the poet would have it, in order to make it scan properly.

The hare limp'd, trembling, through the frozen grass

Oh, the poor hare! He not only limped - pronounced the way we pronounce it, the removal of the "e" prevents readers of that time from saying "limm-ped"  which is how they tended to say things back then - but he was also trembling. Awww, sad.

And silent was the flock in woolly fold

Which to me nicely sums up the dumb resignation of sheep, who are not exactly noted for their intelligence. The hare was on the move, presumably trying to find somewhere less cold for the night, but the flock just stood there, silently, suffering. 

We then go on to a bit of description of the beadsman, a sort of religious servant, paid by rich people to say prayers for them when they could not be bothered to do so themselves. He shivers his way around the family chapel, his breath rising in great wreaths, and he can barely contemplate the dead entombed bodies lying there: they have those carved effigies above them, made from cold, cold stone, surrounded by what are described as "black, purgatorial rails", mmm, lovely, and - my favourite line - of this beadsman

....and his weak spirit fails
To think how they may ache in icy hoods and mails.

I love that! His "weak spirit", and the way it "fails" altogether, at the thought of how very much colder than himself they are: the hoods are bad enough, but the "mails", metal chain mail - can you imagine how cold it would be to wear metal mail in cold weather?

And the relevance to gardening? Sometimes, when confronted with a massive task, or something really unpleasant, I say that last line to myself, to remind me that my spirit is not weak, and it will not "fail" before the challenge.

And then I get on and do whatever it is.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Caryopteris pruning.

Wow, is it that time again, already?

Yes, it is, time to prune my stylish and shapely Caryopteris.

When I say "my",  I actually mean "belonging to one of my Clients and under my care", of course....

Here it is, looking shaggy and scruffy, having flowered magnificently this summer, as always:

Caryopteris before annual pruning
This is the one I have mentioned before, which was annoying planted rather too close to the edge of the bed, so I have to employ some ingenuity and skill at pruning, in order to keep it clear of the grass but to avoid ruining its lovely shape.

Shrubs like these are simple to prune: you just work to the basic principle of roses, vines, wisteria etc to have a framework of old wood that you prune back to, each year.  Err, possibly "to which you prune, each year" would be more grammatically correct. Anyway, all I do is carefully chop back each and every long flowered stem, right back to the knobbly base: then remove every single whisker I can see, until this is what remains:


Caryopteris part way through pruning
I have cheated slightly with the photo, I am standing in the bed in order for the pruned stems to be clearly seen against the grass.   (In case you were wondering.)

Sometimes I leave a promising shoot, which is growing in the right direction, to thicken up and become part of the framework: it's often a good idea to have a couple of reserve shoots growing from lower down the plant, in case of damage to the upper sections.

Next week,  one of my jobs will be to clear out underneath and around it, to give it some air for the winter. Although it is now going to be bare and brown for several months, by pruning it into a shapely form, it can still bring enjoyment to the viewer.

And this one always brings entertainment value: the client here could never remember what it was called, until I told her about my mnemonic for it, which goes something like this:

Caryopteris.

Cary Grant, film star.

Optician, Optical, Optometrist - all to do with spectacles and eyesight.

So it's Cary Grant in spectacles. Cary-Opterist.

Simple, huh?

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Opening a new compost bin.

Aha, I always enjoy this moment - at last, it's time to open up one of the compost bins!

Here it is, after I've opened the front panels, and taken out the first barrow-load of wonderful compost:

Compost bin
This is one of three pens: earlier in the year it was full up, in fact it was heaped higher than the top, and now it has shrunk down to a mere one foot high of solid, lovely, lovely compost.

This set of bins (built by me, from leftovers, about six years ago) are each roughly a yard deep, a yard high, and two yards wide. We use them in rotation: first we fill one, re-filling it as it sinks: when it gets to be higher than the sides, we start filling number two, leaving number one to rot.

In this garden, I have an old doormat that I lay across the top of the "filled" pen - not to keep in heat, or keep out water, or anything like than, but purely to remind the gentleman of the house not to put any more grass clippings on it!

If all goes well, he spots the mat, and his grass clippings go into pen number two along with all the garden waste, until that one is also full right up to the top.

At this point, pen number one is usually down to about half height, but it's important to leave it to rot, and not to add any more to it. Instead, we move on to pen number three, filling that one, and leaving number two to rot.

This is the danger point - I have to move the mat to pen number 2, leaving number one open, and trusting that Mr Client will remember not to use it!

By the time number three is about half full, number one is ready for use: if the very topmost layer hasn't quite rotted through, it gets tipped into number three, and the rest can be used on the garden. If all goes well, the pen is emptied before pen number three starts overflowing: at that point, the cycle moves round one step and we start again to fill  up pen number one.

I always advocate building compost pens in threes: I never, ever have to turn the heaps (a back breaking job I am happy to avoid) nor do I have to "stir" the heaps: they are practically no work to maintain, other than moving the mat across.

And if you want my "trick of the trade" for compost bins, it would have to be "don't ever make a pyramid".

Always spread out the waste - in fact, if anything, make a slight hollow in the centre, so that any rain, including dew, runs into the heap, not out of it. More compost bins fail from being too dry than from being too wet, I assure you!

I never bother with carpet covers, or lids: I find that they process the waste perfectly well, if you leave them open unto the sun and the rain.

I often get clients telling me that their compost heaps "didn't work" until I came along, which always mystifies me, as I don't do anything special to them.

I do, however, offer a lecture on Composting and Leaf Mould, so if your gardening club or social group would like to learn how an expert does it..... give me a call!

Monday, 3 December 2012

Time to wrap hydrangeas for the winter.

Last week, one of my clients presented me with a pile of horticultural fleece and a bag of pegs.

Well, I can take a hint.

So off I went to what we call the Left Hand Shrubbery, to wrap up the Hydrangeas for the winter. We do this every year, regardless of the weather forecast, as my client has quite a large collection of them.

The job is very simple:

  1. Take a length of fleece.
  2. Fold in half to get a double thickness.
  3. Wrap around the plant in question.
  4. Use pegs to hold it together.
There, that wasn't exactly rocket science, was it?

Pegs, by the way, are an excellent method of holding fleece in place - so much better than trying to get string to stay in place, without crushing the plant below.

I don't prune the hydrangeas before wrapping: the principle is to use the fleece as frost-protection, to keep as much of the plant as possible safe over the winter. Then in spring, we cut back to nice fat buds, choosing well-placed ones, at whatever height we want.

"So why bother to wrap them up?"  you ask.

Well, if we didn't, the frost would spoil a lot of the buds, and we would not have as many to choose from, the following year. 

Here's the Left Hand Shrubbery, partly done:

Hydrangeas wrapped in fleece for the winter
As you can see, I don't worry too much if a bit of the plant sticks out the top - in the case of those three skinny ones, it's H. arborescens 'Annabelle' which sends up new shoots from the base in spring. So we will probably remove most of this year's shoots next year - but we like to keep them protected until spring, just in case. Especially as these three are newly planted - hence their tiny size  - and will benefit from a little extra cossetting.

On the subject of anti-frost wrapping, don't use bubble-wrap! It's plastic and nasty, as when the sun shines, the plant will "sweat" inside the wrapping, and by spring you will have lots of mould and other unpleasantness.

Horticultural fleece is the best stuff, as it is light and doesn't squash the plant. It also does not soak up the water (as hessian does, weighs a ton when wet) and it lets a certain amount of light through, which keeps the plant in tune with the, errr, what's it called? Circadian rhythm? *rushes off to google it*  Yes, that's the one, the 24hour rhythm of light and day which tells plants and animals when to grow, and when not to.

Bubble-wrap is best kept for wrapping up pots, to protect the terracotta: or in the case of plastic pots,  to protect the roots of the plants within. A good double layer, tied around with string, and make sure you cover up all of the pot, right down to the ground. If you can, raise the pot up on "feet" or on blocks of some sort, as another way to protect them from frost. "Ground Frost" is called that for a reason, it forms at ground level, so if you can raise the pots, you give them a little extra protection.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

First, release your wren...

An interesting start to the day: on a normal day I arrive, unlock the garden gate, walk over to the back door to collect my Notes for the day, then on to the Greenhouse to leave my work bag out of the way.

"Greenhouse" doesn't quite do it justice, it's practically a conservatory, being half-brick then real old-fashioned glass panes, all against a very old wall. It's beautifully fitted out inside, with staging on two sides, shelves underneath, storage for tools against the wall, and plenty of space.

Often there are butterflies and bees in it, in the summer, as they find their way in through the vents, then can't find their way out.

Occasionally I have even found one of the house cats in there; presumably they had been sleeping, unseen, on a lower shelf when the client closed up the day before, and hadn't been noticed!

But today was different, there was a wren inside it.

Poor little thing, it went quite mad when I walked in: had I realised, I would have entered very slowly and quietly, but of course I had no idea until it started thudding against the glass at the far end, scaring me half to death in the process.

As usual, little birds are completely immune to "there, there, it's all right, calm down, let me sort you out" and they just flap around, hurting themselves and making me feel guilty. At least this one was flying freely, he wasn't caught up in anything, so I propped the door wide open, and very gently moved around him, herding him towards the door.

Success!

Out he flew, never to be seen again.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Old ivy never dies.

One of my clients has a beautiful Grade II listed summerhouse, the back of which is troubled by excessive ivy.

Periodically I am sent round to the back to pull the ivy off, a job which is at once hateful (I detest working with ivy as the dust makes me sneeze, I invariably get bits in my eyes, in my hair, and down my neck; it takes a long time to do a decent job, and the wretched stuff invariably grows back, so it always feels like a lot of effort for not much result) and satisfying, as I really, really dislike ivy, and take pleasure from pulling it down.

Every time I do it, I comment that without digging out the roots, it will just grow back again: but often there isn't the time to spend digging out roots, when there are a hundred more important jobs to get on with.

Last year, I resorted to cutting across the stems, pulling off as much as I could both upwards and downwards, then spraying the base with glyphosate.

Now, at this point I will digress into that urban myth that cutting ivy stems will not kill off the upper part, but that the ivy will somehow take moisture from the air and will continue to live.

I have done a significant amount of research into this subject, and I am happy to report that this is not true: ivy uses walls/trees etc for support, not for nutrition. The problem rises where the aerial roots find an alternative source of water, ie on the "other" side of the wall. In that case, if you cut it across lower down, the upper part can still find water and can re-grow a new root system.

This does not apply to modern houses - mostly to old houses with very soft mortar (and no cavity insulation), or to elderly outbuildings or garden walls made of just one layer of bricks, so that the aerial roots can go through to the other side, and find a source of water over there.

But on a modern building, if you chop across the stems at ground level, or at knee height, and remove a section of the stem completely, then the upper part will die.

It will, however, take 3-10 years to rot enough to fall down of its own accord...  the other urban myth, the one which says  "leave the upper part to die, it's easier to remove" is also untrue. The tiny aerial roots actually harden when they die, so they become even more work to remove. The best time to remove the upper part seems to be 2-3 weeks after cutting the stem - time enough for the plant to start to wilt, but not time for the tiny roots to start to harden.

So, going back the the one I did last year, before I learned about the hardening of the aerial roots:


I chopped across at ground level, and pulled off as much as I could reach at the time. As you can see, the upper part is stubbornly still attached to the wall.


Here's a closer view of the dead stuff.

I had another go at pulling it down, and now the dead stems are brittle, so instead of being able to pull of great long streamers of it, it snaps off in short lengths, which is maddening.

At some point I am going to have to climb up and scrape it off.

*glum face*

So, if you have ivy growing on a wall, don't delay, chop it down NOW before it gets out of hand.

In fact, I think after ten years of professional gardening, I can't find any good reason to allow ivy to grow up walls. Not one single reason.  Grow something else! Grow roses, grow pyracantha, paint the wall, anything rather than grow ivy up it!!

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Leaking boots: beeswax doesn't work, either.

After my researches into Dubbin appeared to say that it did not do anything to help waterproofing, I read a suggestion that Beeswax would do the trick.

So I took out my newest pair of work boots, still quite dry and clean, and applied two coats of beeswax, rubbing it in well,  and buffing to a slight shine on each coat.

All seemed to be going well, so I went out and spent the morning on longish wet grass.

Result:


Oh dear, somewhat less than successful.  The right-hand boot (on the left in the picture) has a broad stripe of non-soaked leather across the top, but the rest of the toe area is quite damp.

It is clear from the photo below that the problem is worst where the boot bends.


I have to say, they were lovely and soft, considering that they are virtually brand new.  But I am disappointed in the lack of waterproofing.

Just in case I didn't apply the beeswax sufficiently diligently, I left them to dry, then applied another coat or two: however, same result, wet socks after just a couple of hours.

Very disappointing!

So the score so far is:

Dubbin: rubbish, does not work.
Beeswax: lovely soft leather, does not work.
Vaseline: doesn't work, but makes boots very supple and at least is very cheap.
Nikwax: utterly useless, both the "leather" one and the "nubuck" one.

If anyone has any further suggestions, I would love to hear from you...

Monday, 5 November 2012

Urrrr, I'b got a code...

*sniffle* I don't feel well!  All last week I had that uncomfortable feeling that I was going down with a cold: I had a couple of slightly headachey days, and a feeling that there was a large hole in the very centre of my head,  filled with cold air.

Do you ever get that feeling? As though the air is suddenly too cold on the (presumably) sinuses (I'm a botanist, not a medical student) which often means that a snotty head-cold is approaching.

But nothing came of it, I was fine over the weekend, and looking forward to getting some work done this week, if it would only stop raining every day.

This morning the barometer was actually rising, but all the foliage was sodden, so I had to cancel my morning job, although I had high hopes of going out this afternoon.  But I've been feeling more and more poorly as the morning passed, so maybe I'll stay in the warm this afternoon.

Drat.

It's not just the missed income (no work = no money), it's the fact that I actually miss doing my job. I like weeding! I like pruning! I like discussing the possibilities, planning for the next season, making harsh decisions on what has to go... I like actually getting out there and working.

*Sigh*

Maybe tomorrow....

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

What a bad year for plums.

In fact, a terrible year for plums.

I have a client with several plum trees in their walled garden, and normally they supply me with plenty of fruit (it's all right, I have permission to pick!) but this year I have been woefully plum-free.

This has been the problem:


Plenty of fruit set, plenty of fruit growing, but then they all succumbed to the festering brown pustule rot. I believe it is properly called "Brown Rot",  but festering brown pustule rot gives you a much better idea of the problem.

First they go brown and puffy, then the whitish pustules appear, then they shrivel up into mummified prunes. Having, of course, spread the disease all around themselves.

It seems to affect plums, apples and pears,  and there is no treatment other than constant vigilance, and removing any infected fruit as soon as you see them. Oh, and don't compost them, whatever you do - otherwise you'll just spread the infection all round the garden. Burn or bin them.

Clearly, I didn't get to these ones in time - but then, I am only there once a week, and I have a large area of garden to patrol, not just the fruit walls. Unfortunately this is one of those jobs where the responsibility has to hang with the owner, who is able to check on a daily basis.

Personally, I think we can help the plants by keeping the branches uncongested, which I achieve by pruning them gently pretty much every year - I take out crossing branches, and any that are too close together, aiming to get a nice even framework. I am also scrupulous at removing any rotters as I find them, and in clearing up the mess underneath the fruit trees each week. Even ordinary fallen fruit gets cleared away - it just encourages the wasps etc, and no, I don't believe that wasps are sensible enough to target the sacrificial fallen fruits! I prefer to clear them all away as often as possible.

Finally, it's always worth a quick check in autumn, to gently remove any mummified fruits that were missed during the summer.

It's such a shame, I love plums... I assume it's been particularly bad this year due to the general coolness of the weather, and the amount of rain we have had, as wet weather helps the spores to spread, and helps the fungus to multiply once it has spread.

So, not much we can do about this year, other than to keep our fingers crossed for better weather next year!

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Bread and cheese again....

...ho hum: thick, wet, cold fog has enveloped the south of England again today, and it's too wet for me to work.

Again.

Days like these are particularly maddening: I wish it would just rain, and get it over with. As it is, I keep looking out of the window and thinking "I could be out there working" but as soon as I  venture outside, I realise that it is thoroughly unpleasant, and I may as well be indoors, studying.

To make it worse, I have started with a new client this week - or at least, I should have been, had it not been for the weather.  You might remember that I have lost a garden recently:  I've been working temporarily for some people who are shortly moving, and wanted their garden kept presentable,  but hopefully this new client will become my regular replacement.

I do hate taking on a new client, then not being able to work. I feel as though I've let them down... I want to make a good impression... and I want to get started on their garden, there's lots to do.

Oh well, such is life.

Later this week I am taking an afternoon off to go down to Abbotsbury Gardens, down near Weymouth:  they have illuminations in the garden for a short period each autumn and, having missed it last year, I have decided to make the effort to go and see it this year.

So now I am torn - hoping the weather is good for a long drive, but also hoping the weather is bad, otherwise I will be consumed with guilt for taking time off when I could be working.

Ah, the trials and tribulations of being a gardener!

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Dubbin: apparently, no it doesn't work!

As per yesterday's post, I have done a little more research on the subject of waterproofing my leather work boots, and although I found any number of forums full of people smugly saying "oh yes, I've used dubbin for years" I also came up with this:

It's a website selling dubbin - and if you read it, the product description actually states "It is very good at keeping leather healthy and good for many uses, but does not repel water."

Pfff!

I also found a few sites recommending not dubbin at all, but beeswax.

So I dug out the tin of beeswax that came with my expensive Ducal furniture (20 years old but still looking good) and used some of it on one pair of boots.

I've done another pair with vaseline,  as that seemed to be better than the (useless) dubbin.

I've left both pairs for it to soak in overnight, as recommended. Apparently that might be part of my problem, I tend to apply the dubbin just before I leave for work, and it seems as though it needs a little time to work its way in. Although Pappy's Dubbin does clearly say that it doesn't repel water, so it might not matter how long I left it to soak in.

We'll come back to this issue in a few days....

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Dubbin: does it actually work?

All this year I've been having problems with my boots leaking, leaving me with wet socks.

Last winter I wore the last of my wonderful plastic boots - they stopped making them after one year, but they were brilliant, made with the lower part of solid moulded plastic, ie completely waterproof, fur lined for super warmth, and with a steel instep so you could still use a spade without hurting the underside of your foot.

They even fastened with velcro!

But after a month or so of wear, they cracked at that point where the foot bends. I sent back the first pair and received a replacement: they also went in the same place, then they were withdrawn. I found some for sale on Ebay, bought them, wore them until they cracked: I even found some amazing waterproof gluey stuff which would hold the cracks together for another couple of weeks before cracking again.

Sadly, regretfully, I finally threw away the last pair, and I am hoping to find something similar but better for this coming winter.  They are now selling "fashion" versions of these boots everywhere, but of course they lack the steel insole, the furry lining, and I bet they wouldn't stand up to any degree of hard use.

In the meantime I have been back to "summer" leather boots, but it's been such a wet year that I've had as much trouble with wet socks through the summer as I normally do in winter.  I find that the leather boots are fine for an hour or two, as they soak up the water,  then it works through and I get wet socks. Usually, in a normal summer, the worst that happens is that by lunchtime my boots are at the "soaked" stage, so I wear a different pair for the afternoon, letting them dry out alternately.

But this summer, it's been too wet, and I've been getting wet toes.

I tried Nikwax: applied it exactly as per the instructions, tried the one for leather, and the one for nu-buck, as I don't actually know which type of leather my boots are made of.

Neither of them made any difference at all.

So I bought some old-fashioned Dubbin from the old-fashioned shoe shop (average price of shoes for gents: £170. And we are so not talking Jimmy Choo here) and applied that as per instructions.

I found that for the first hour or so, the water "beaded" on the surface, which was excellent: but by mid-morning it was soaking through again, leading to wet socks. Plus I would have to re-apply the dubbin every day. This was a bit of a disappointment, on both counts.

The other day I tried dubbin on one boot, and cheap old vaseline on the other. Here we are, one hour into the test, both feet looking identical:


As you can see, excellent "beading" but the fabric of the boot is darkening.

And by lunchtime I had one wet sock - on the dubbin-ed foot.  So on balance, vaseline is possibly slightly more effective, and a tiny, tiny fraction of the price.

If anyone can tell me a better way to way to waterproof these leather boots, please please comment!

Mind you, I have to say that I've never had such soft, supple boots....

Thursday, 4 October 2012

"We'll read to you, as you disappear,"

...said Prue, one of my Botany crew.

I was up to my ankles in squelchy mud at the time, and sinking.   It's good to know that my fellow Botanists are a caring, sharing, bunch, willing to go that extra mile to ensure the comfort and safety of their colleagues.

It didn't look that bad when I stepped off the path onto the mud - left - and two of the others had already walked across it in perfect safety.

In retrospect, my mistake was in standing still... and you know how it is, once you start to sink, trying to lift one foot just makes the other one sink even faster.

Luckily Morag, from firm ground, extended a helping hand to steady me while I rocked first one foot, then the other, free, with disgusting slurping noises (from the mud, not from my feet).

Meanwhile Prue and Stephanie were calmly discussing how fast I would sink. Stephanie kindly suggested that the last they would see of me would be my hand-lens, held high above my head, Excalibur style.

Mike and Rob were too busy laughing at the expression on my face to offer any help.
I tell you this just to let you know that even during a quiet mid-week botany outing, danger still lurks around every corner.

This week we were in Sydlings Copse, yet another BBOWT nature reserve, just north of Oxford. I am constantly amazed how, just off a busy road, there can be a dear little nature reserve, carefully fenced and maintained, and with a staggering variety of habitats.

We found a number of common weeds wildflowers, some of them new to us, some of them now getting quite familiar.  We also encountered the ponies, who were very curious about our books and hand-lenses, and kept checking to see if they had somehow become edible...

Unluckily for us, we also encountered one of the wardens, who told one of the crew off for picking a specimen in order to look at it more closely.  Normally we would all agree with this stance, but in an area being deliberately grazed by ponies? Hmmmm... and if you're going to be picky, BBOWT, it's high time the feet of those ponies had some attention from the farrier, they are desperately in need of a trim. So there.

Anyway, we escaped the watchful eye of the warden and wandered through the reserve and down to the stream-side area, which is where I found the quick-mud.

As well as all the "usual suspects" we found Veronica beccabunga - great name, huh? As usual, I don't have a photo of it, you'll have to google it, but it was well worth getting stuck in the mud for.

And guess what else we found: yes! Common Reed! Phragmites australis, to those who know, and we know something interesting about this plant, don't we, boys and girls?

Much laughter from the crew, except for Mike and Stephanie, who hadn't been on the Abbey Fishponds outing.  So I had to explain it to them, and demonstrate the swivelling leaves, while the rest of the gang either laughed or groaned, having had to hear it several times.

But honestly, they swivel! Don't take my word for it, get out there and try it for yourselves!

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Holly.... a prickly problem

I used to love holly... ah, Christmas, berries, glossy dark green leaves...... until I had to work with it on a daily basis.

When people think of "evergreens" they think "how nice, it doesn't drop leaves in autumn."

No, it drops leaves all year round, in a steady continuous stream, un-noticed: so that no matter what time of year you work around a holly tree, bush or hedge, there are ALWAYS dead leaves lying around to stab you through your gloves.

As you can probably tell, I've rather gone off holly in recent years.

But I still have to deal with it on a weekly basis, so here today is my tip for the disposal of holly cuttings.

Firstly, don't even think about composting them: they don't rot down, they just get harder and even more prickly.

Burning them is the best option, if you have a bonfire pile: if not, they have to go in the Brown Bin for garden recycling, or down the dump in bags for mass green waste recycling.

But the problem is how to deal with a mass of cuttings: they are so bulky for their weight, not to mention the savage prickly edges.

I have a particular problem with the holly of one of my clients: it's a solid holly hedge immediately outside her kitchen window. The path to the front door runs alongside it, so I have to keep it clipped back for the benefit of the delivery men. And as my client is pretty much housebound now, I have to keep it clipped below the height of the windowsill, so that she can see out.

Sometimes it seems that I am forever clipping this darn thing! I use ordinary garden shears, a couple of times a year, but every few years it starts to get over-large, and the shears won't go through thick branches, so I have to step back and have a real chop at it, and reduce it by a foot or two in all dimensions. This leaves it looking a bit bare and leggy, but it leafs up in no time at all.

Well, this week it was time to have a major chop again - but the problem is the disposal of the bits.

In previous years, my client has burned the bits in the back garden, but unfortunately is no longer able to do so, meaning that now I have to cram them all in the brown bin. To my horror, the brown bin filled up in about ten minutes, with the hedge barely touched: holly forms a matrix which is full of air, ie wasted space, and it's very resistant to being squashed - especially as the height of a wheelie bin makes it awkward to get at the contents.

At this point I should mention that another of my clients, a lady well into her eighties, tells me that she climbs into her brown bin and jumps up and down to compress the contents so she can get more in...I admire her sense of balance, but I'm not quite prepared to do that myself! However, it was a good idea - perhaps I could get more holly in the bin if I could squash it a bit?

So I came up with a compromise: like most senior folk, my client still has her old black plastic dustbin.


I take this with me, start work on the hedge with secateurs, cutting out branches to reduce it by at least a foot.

As I go, I fill it with the holly cuttings: as you can see, it doesn't take that many cuttings to fill it to the top.

Then I apply the "compression unit" ie I put one leg inside the dustbin and squash it all down with my boot, going over and over it until it gives in.

A little like treading the grapes, but rather more carefully.

I have found that a dustbin apparently full (above) will compress down to a layer about 3" thick.

This means I can add more cuttings, compress again, and repeat until I can't get my leg inside the dustbin any more.

At that point I can tip the whole compressed mass into the wheelie bin. Much better! I still managed to fill the wheelie bin,  and there was another compressed dustbins-worth, but this can sit safely in the dustbin until the wheelie bin has been emptied, next week.

And yes, after a whole summer in shorts, my legs really are still that pale and pasty. When I remove my socks, you can see a sort of tan line, but it's nothing like the tan I've had in previous years.

Summer? What summer?

Anyway, there you have it, when faced with monstrous amounts of holly to dispose of, use an old dustbin and just trample it down in instalments.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Ultimate plug plant...


You know how it's common these days to buy plants from the internet as "plug plants"? And if you've ever fallen for it, you'll know that they are tiny, weeny liddle things, which need to be potted on and nurtured for weeks before they are anywhere near big enough to plant out. And even then, half of them will die.

(Can you hear the bitter sting of experience in that description?)

Some companies, reacting to the complaints of their customers, now offer larger plug, which have slightly more chance of survival when the purchaser - as purchasers will always do - plants them out straight away in their garden.

They call them Super Plugs, or Giant Plugs, or something similar.

Well, how's about this for the Ultimate Plug:


What a whopper, eh?

One of my clients has some wooden bridges, made of very chunky 6" timbers, with holes drilled through them for drainage - you can see a couple of the holes above the Gigantic Plug.

Needless to say, the drainage holes get blocked up, and plants (ie weeds) grow in them, and every so often I go round with my good old daisy grubber (favourite tool) and weed the gaps, and pull out the plugs.

I don't often get such a complete one!

That really is six inches (oh all right, I can hear you, 15cms) of solid root, impressive, huh?

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Saying Goodbye to a garden

How do you say "Goodbye" to a garden?

It's inevitable, as a professional gardener, that at some point I would stop working at specific gardens: mostly, sadly, due to the loss of the client. Less often, it is due to the client moving away, and that's what I have this month.

The clients are moving out next week: cuttings have been taken, important plants have been lifted, split, and potted up for removal to the next place, and the many huge decorative pots have been emptied, ready to be packed up and sent to storage.

So how does a gardener feel about leaving a garden?

Obviously, it's sad to leave something that I've put so much effort into. I hate the thought of the next owners - without wishing to insult them! - not keeping on top of the thistles and bindweed, which are rampant through one particular area, and which need constant attention.

I am quite sad to leave behind the various willow work that I did there: again, it's a little depressing to think of someone neglecting them, and letting them overgrow themselves.

On the other hand (cheering up) maybe the next owners will lovingly prune them, and will enjoy their various seasons as much as the old owners did.

And of course, it's not as though it's "my" garden. And there is always the chance that the new people might decide that they need a gardener, after all.....

Monday, 24 September 2012

Raspberries: always good value.

Ah, raspberries, lovely!


Here is the harvest from today:  there were just as many yesterday, and will no doubt be just as many tomorrow.

I always recommend rasps as being one of the easiest soft fruits to grow - as long as you like eating them of course.  I started with about six plants, which came from my allotment, and which were stragglers, growing out of line. They were simply pulled up, each with about six inches of root: I then plonked those in a rough curve in my back garden and left them to get on with it.  They were fruiting the next year, and have continued to thicken up and crop well ever since. 

Bad points:
1) They do tend to send up suckers everywhere. You have to be on the alert for them, and as soon as you identify one, pull it up bodily.
2) You do need to wear gloves to do so, as they are very prickly on the stem, and on the leaves.
3) After a couple of years, you go through a phase of being sick to death of them, so you stop picking them altogether.

Good  points:

1) Practically nil maintenance. (see below)
2) Enthusiastic and generous croppers.
3) Rasps are very easy to freeze! (see below)
4) Rasps are very expensive to buy!!!

So, a word about the maintenance. Don't be suckered (ha! ha!) into buying early fruiting ones. They are a pain:  they require permanent frames, wires, training, a complicated two-year fruiting regime and generally faffing about. And for what? To get rasps maybe a month earlier, when there are plenty of other fruits around. No, I suggest you buy "ordinary" autumn fruiting ones, and I recommend Autumn Bliss as being the best.   These ones don't need staking, they don't need wires to keep them upright, they don't need training: every winter you chop every single stem down right to the ground and throw all the tops away. Could not be simpler.  In my garden, they don't even require netting, as the birds don't seem to be interested in them.

As mentioned, they do send up suckers: if these appear close to the originals then fine, they become part of the block: but they will send runners right the way across the garden if they have to.

Mine are planted in a gap in the membrane, under the shingle, so they send out scouts to find weak points in the membrane, then push their way up and through the shingle: I simply pull out any that I spot.

They don't need frames or training - but my garden is very small, so I put up a wooden post at each end of the row, and one in the middle, and I wrap a length of green rope around them, to hope them more or less upright, and to give me room to squeeze past them on both sides. With a bigger garden, this simply would not be necessary.

They start cropping in late July ish, depending on the weather: and usually they keep on going right into November. Fantastic! If you don't pick them every day, or at least every other day, you get some that go over-ripe and then go mouldy, which is pretty revolting, but easily prevented by getting out there every day and picking.  When I've had enough to eat, I freeze some - just spread them out in a single layer on a metal baking tray, into the freezer, and when solid, shake them off the tray into bags or boxes and stack them neatly in the freezer. They last for months, and taste very nearly as good thawed, as they do fresh.

If I get so many that I get tired of them, I literally just throw them on the compost, but do keep picking them, to avoid the mould.

Best of all, they do cost a huge amount in the supermarket: yet cost nothing at all to grow! Of course, you may have to buy your original plants, but as they are so prone to suckering, you may well find that by asking around, you can get some for free, as I did. Well, they were from my own allotment, but you know what I mean.  Suckers may take a year or two to get fully established, but time flies, and in no time you will have your own crop, right on your doorstep.

I don't feed or fertilise mine, nor do I water them, they seem to do perfectly well on their own.

What more could you ask?!

Thursday, 6 September 2012

The Hunt for the Hemlock

Hemlock? What, that poisonous stuff?

Yes, that poisonous stuff.

Morag, one of my botany crew, emailed me last week to say that while out botanising, she'd found what she thought was Hemlock - Conium maculatum - and would I have a look to see if I agreed.


I know what you are thinking: "Looks just like Cow Parsley!"

Yes, there is a running joke that most people assume that white-flowered "stuff" on road verges is Cow Parsley, but actually there are a large number of Umbellifers - that is, plants who present their flowers in the typical Cow Parsley stiff flattened bridesmaid's bouquet, think "umbrella" - and it's quite a knack to differentiate between them.

Morag is studying Umbellifers as her specialist subject this year, so she's been on the look-out for interesting ones, and this certainly is an interesting one! It definitely looks like Hemlock -  purple stem and all - but Hemlock is supposed to flower much earlier in the year, June to July.

Having looked at her photos, I tend to agree: the only other possibility is Rough Chervil, which also has a reddish stem, although that also is supposed to flower earlier in the year. So how do we check what it is?

(Brace yourselves for a Botany Bit:)

Right, first things first, that purple stem is a very definite feature, so let's take a closer look at it: clever Morag has worked out how to take photos through her hand-lens (essential equipment for all botanists, preferably worn around the neck on an old shoelace).

Here you go - the hand-lens is like a small portable magnifying glass, but rather stronger than the ones you see used in 1950s detective stories.

Brilliant picture, eh?!

You can clearly see that the stem is green, but mostly covered with purple spots or blotches, which have run together to give the impression of an overall purple stem.

There are only three commonly-found Umbellifers with purple stems, so let's have a look at them:

1) Hemlock - our first suspect.

2) Wild Angelica or Angelica sylvestris (anything whose second name contains "sylv" means "of the wood", by the way, which can help to identify  plants - see, Latin names are not useless!)

3) Rough Chervil (or Chaerophyllum temulum) I know, these names, these names, but it's really important to get to grips with "proper" or scientific plant names.

Why? (warning: digression) Well, take Hemlock. It's poisonous - very poisonous. Apparently eating six or eight leaves is enough to kill you. (Memo to self: should talk with Morag about whether we should destroy this plant before it forms a colony?) But what exactly do we mean when we say Hemlock?

Proper Hemlock: family name Conium - comes in two species, both poisonous.
Water Hemlock: family name Circuta - four species, three of which are poisonous.
Hemlock water dropwort: family name Oenanthe - one species of this family is "grown and relished as a vegetable" in Asia, several other species are poisonous, and one species in particular is poisonous enough that eating one root is sufficient to kill a cow. You really wouldn't want to get them the wrong way round, would you?
And then there is Hemlock the tree: family name Tsuga - absolutely not poisonous at all.

Anyone cropping the "Hemlock" tree and hoping to kill a rich relation would be very disappointed.

But this illustrates the importance of learning the proper names for plants.

So where were we? Oh yes,

Hemlock has smooth hollow stems with purple blotches.
Wild Angelica has hollow purple stems.
Rough Chervil has solid, hairy stems with purple spots.

(There are several additional characteristics that can be checked to confirm the ID, but I won't bore you with them here.)

Morag and I independently checked the stems: hollow, and not hairy. OK, not Rough Chervil then.

Wild Angelica's stems are homogenous purple: we know this because we have found and identified it a couple of times recently. This plant had a blotched stem.

Finally, checking the foliage, this plant had finely cut, fern-like foliage, as per the description of Hemlock, whereas Wild Angelica's leaves are quite different (technically they are pinnate) and, again, we were familiar with Wild Angelica having found it recently.

So, Conium maculataum it is!

And in case you are wondering, I checked with the county wildflower officer, and no, we don't have to report it or destroy it. Although they did suggest that if there was a school nearby, it could be used as an educational resource to teach the kiddies what not to eat.

No, that's not a joke: apparently in days gone by, children were taught about Hemlock, Briony, and all the other horrors of the natural world, but these days they are not. Something about health and safety and outings, or some such rubbish?

Anyway, Hemlock was more or less sprayed out of existence, but recent changes in agricultural policy mean that it is having a bit of a renaissance, and is once again starting to appear growing wild.  The problem is that hollow stem: children used to use them for pea-shooters, which led to numerous cases of poisoning. Hence the importance of teaching children about natural dangers.

But to be honest, I don't think the children of today would think about making pea-shooters, would they? They don't seem to play outdoors without props, as we used to (oh blimey, I'm turning into Sorrowful, Acacia Avenue, writing letters to the paper that start "Why oh why is this allowed to go on?"), they seem to have phones stuck to their ears or their thumbs all the time, not leaving any spare grip for carrying peashooters.

Besides, their idea of a practical joke seems to involve changing someone's  Facebleurk status rather than pinging a pea at them. Ah, how times have changed.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Wheelbarrows: what a difference some air makes.

Recently, at one particular client's garden, I've been feeling as though I were labouring under a huge weight.

Instead of whizzing round the garden at top speed, I've been toiling along the paths, struggling to drag the wheelbarrow up the steps to the bonfire plateau, and generally feeling as though it's all become rather hard work.

Am I getting old?

Is it all too much for me?

No - the wheelbarrow had a slow puncture, and over the last several weeks, I have (I must admit) noticed it getting a bit softer - but this week I arrived to find it completely flat. The client, when I mentioned it,  merrily told me that it goes down every six weeks or so, and produced a pump.

35 or so psi later, there I was, rejuvenated, reinflated, and rejoicing in the effortless way the wheelbarrow flew across the grass once more.

That will teach me to attend to these things sooner, rather than later!

Monday, 27 August 2012

Planting on banks and steep slopes: Part 3

I wrote recently about establishing shrubs on slopes, with the throwaway comment that if terracing is not an option, establishing shrubs first is the easiest way to get started.

Of course, that generated the question "How, exactly, do you establish a shrub on a steep slope when the soil keeps getting washed away by the rain?"

Oh dear, slap on the wrist for me: this is exactly what I hate most about gardening columns, and gardening books: they blithely tell you what to do, without telling you exactly HOW to do it. Rather like that Mrs Beeton cookery book, whose recipe for Hare soup begins "First, catch your hare"  which makes the assumption that we all know how to catch hares. Or would want to.

OK, the answer is in two parts: you either plant very small plants, whose above-ground growth is so small that it won't catch the wind, or the rain, and be knocked over or washed out.

Or, you plant much bigger specimens, and make special planting holes for them.

Obviously, when planting on a slope you can't dig a hole straight down, as you do in a normal garden - you have to slope it backwards diagonally into the slope. How to describe it? Dig a hole that is at right angles to the surface of your slope. So that when you slot in the plant, in its pot, it sticks out at a silly angle but sits flush with the surface.  Then dig a little deeper, and increase the angle of your hole a little, so that the plant is more nearly upright, but you must make sure that all of the rootball is tucked within the planting hole, otherwise the soil will wash away and expose the roots, and the plant will die.

Here's my solution to the problem: I make miniature terraces, for individual shrubs.

Just take a short length of wood - planking, half-round timbers, leftovers from DIY projects - , and two stakes - stout canes, metal rods, old broom handles, tree stakes or whatever you can find - and use the  stakes to support the wood, just below the plant.

Remember the impressive terracing of the Grand Bank?  I found some leftovers on the bonfire pile and liberated them to make a mini-terrace for a Photinia that we planted even higher up that bank, and which was struggling due to soil erosion.



Not terribly elegant, but considering I was clinging onto bare, slippery soil about ten feet above the impressively high Grand Bank, I think I did reasonably well.... the two wooden stakes were hammered about 18" in to the hillside, and the short length of half-round post is simply held there by gravity, and soil.

After installing it, I scraped down some loose soil from above, and captured some of the loose soil that had already washed down, and rammed it all against the half-round wood. This ensures that the Photinia doesn't get washed away, and helps to catch any rainfall, allowing it to soak into the captive soil, rather than just rushing off down the hillside.

We planted two Photinia and one Buddleia (which you can just see, to the right) to give a splash of colour to this newly opened area, and it will be interesting to see how long they take to get established up there. In particular, I will be interested to see if this Photinia does better than the other one, which doesn't (as yet) have a mini-terrace all of its own.

Although I intend to keep scrambling up there to clear away the smothering ivy, I'm not worrying too much about the Glechoma muralis as it helps to reduce soil erosion, and will help to retain moisture around the planting hole.

Diversion about Latin names: this is why it's so important to learn the "proper" names of plants - Glechoma is variously known (according to wikipedia) as Creeping Charlie (never heard it called that), Ground Ivy (ah yes, that's what it's called in Oxfordshire) and gill-over-the-ground, a name that I have never heard before. By using the "proper" name, you know that you are talking about the same plant. If you hate latin names, and struggle to work with them, I'd be very happy to come along to your gardening group or social club to convince you!

Back to planting on a slope: I have also had some success using lengths of landscaping fabric to make a sort of bag, or sling, that can be used in place of the wood, with a couple of stakes. It's less obtrusive, and seems to last long enough for the plants to get their roots well established.

A final word about planting on a slope: when you've done it, and are watering the plants, water them very, very slowly.  If you sloosh the water around too quickly, it just runs off the surface, adding to the soil erosion problem.  Use a fine rose on the watering can or hosepipe, and run it gently for just a couple of seconds, then wait until the water has soaked in, then another couple of seconds, wait, and repeat.

It takes time, but you should only need to do it for a couple of weeks, unless you are planting in the middle of a really hot summer... and let's face it, I can't remember what a hot summer feels like, can you?

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Marcham Salt Marshes

At the end of August last year, I went along to Marcham to help with an informal survey on a patch of salt marsh, just outside Abingdon.

"Salt marsh?" I thought. "But we're about as far inland as it's possible to get!"

It turns out that there have been saltwater springs there since the Roman times, and a small corner of an arable field had been set-aside by the owners, to allow the area's vegetation to regenerate, to see if there would be any regrowth of Wild Celery which apparently was brought over by the Romans, and can tolerate the saltiness of the earth around the springs.

Judy was in charge, and my word she is quick! We rushed around the section of the field, initially just looking for the Wild Celery, then roughly counting it, then just noting the fact that there was actually quite a lot of it.

Along the way we found Veronica beccabunga - always a favourite of mine, due to the incredibly silly name - and water chickweed, both indicative of how wet the ground was. We also found both types of Scrophularia (another silly-name favourite of mine), S. nodosa (Common Figwort) with the pointed leaves and square stems: and S. auriculata (Water Figwort) with leaves that were toothed, but rounded in outline - and the stem also square, but having additional wings at each corner.

Along with quite a lot of other stuff, but I didn't have time to make a list. The three of us worked as a team: Judy identified, I referenced with the books, and Ann made the list. Part of the rush was the impending black clouds,  not to mention lunchtime, so I only had time for a brief chat with Rob, who arrived late.

Unfortunately there's no point anyone rushing out there to have a look, as it's private ground, although the owners are being most obliging with not ploughing that corner, and allowing people onsite to survey it.  So I won't give the exact location.

This was an interesting outing for me, as it was very different from our casual walkaround at Abbey Fishponds the week before. As Judy is very experienced, it was not ID, it was recognition, which is not the same thing at all.


Planting on banks and steep slopes: Part 2

Recently I wrote about the Road Bank: today it's the story of the Grand Bank, on the other side of the lake.

This bank is not quite as steep as the Road Bank, and as it is south-facing and in full view of the house, it definitely gets the most attention.

Last winter, the client took the plunge and had a couple of sycamores removed by the tree surgeon. This was quite an operation, not least because first of all, they had to get planning permission from the Council. After submitting the application, and waiting for several weeks, a nice man turned up unannounced with a map and a letter, and asked us to point out the trees concerned. He confirmed that they were indeed common old Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) and there was no problem with us removing them.

Resisting the urge to say sarcastically "Thenk yew SOOO much", we waved goodbye to the council, the client gave the tree surgeon the go-ahead, and next time I arrived for work, wow! Daylight!

It's a bit of a truism that you have no idea how much light a tree steals from your garden, until you have it chopped back or, as in this case, removed entirely.

Suddenly there was a massive area of bare bank, the grass was visibly growing in the newly-arrived light, and all the garden paths had mysteriously gained a lush deep covering of new wood-chips....

Stage Two of the operation was for Alan The Handyman to do the terracing: the rest of the Grand Bank is substantially terraced with half-round logs, and the plan was to continue this across the newly exposed section.

Stage Three would be planting it up: we decided to install a few key shrubs to "match" those in the adjacent bank, to plant out a selection of new herbaceous items, plus a couple of roses, then to gradually fill in with cuttings and segments of the original planting, so that in a year or two's time, there wouldn't be a visible distinction between the old and the new.

Stage Two-B, which mustn't be forgotten, is to send the gardener (me) up the terraces to dig them over, as they had been severely compacted by Alan the Handyman and Roy the Helper and their big boots. Luckily for me, the boys, as part of their job, had barrowed up loads and loads of our home-made compost to fill up the new terraces. Not quite so luckily, they then stomped all over them, so I had an interesting hour working my way backwards along each terrace, forking the soil loose without flicking it over the edge, and without a single careless mis-step, which would have sent me tumbling a considerable distance to the ground.

Here we are, then, on the morning of Stage Three: the impressive terracing is in place, the soil has been enriched with compost, well trodden in, then forked loose,   and a couple of hundred pounds' worth of plants are sitting on the grass, roughly in order, ready for planting.



And here we are an hour later, all plants in position: but wait, where have they gone?



Oh, there they are, they have disappeared in the sheer size of this new area.

Four terraces up, by the way, you can see one of the mighty stumps, then there are two more on the top terrace, top left hand of the picture.

Getting the stumps out would have been extremely expensive, so at my suggestion, we left them there so that their roots would continue to support the bank - can you imagine the damage if we had tried to remove them? -  and our plan is to apply glyphosate to the new growth repeatedly over the summer.

(The client thinks that I am going to leave the ivy in place, but I am fully intending to glyphosate the ivy as well, mwah hah haaaahh)

This all occurred three or four weeks ago, and the new planting is settling down well. I asked the client to water in the first week, but it has rained pretty much every other day ever since planting, so irrigation has not been necessary.

I have been up the terraces every week to weed, and to check on the new plants: and to apply glyphosate to the new sycamore leaves, and the old ivy leaves. All is going well so far, and in the next couple of weeks I will be lifting and splitting some of the old planting, and transferring segments into this area.

If anyone out there has worked on a more impressive piece of terracing, I'd be interested to hear about it!

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Abbey Fishponds

Towards the end of last August, I went on a Botany field trip to the Abbey Fishponds - ever heard of this place? No, me neither. It's a BBOWT nature reserve, which is quite literally in the middle of the housing estate, within the ring road of Abingdon.




There you go, amazing, isn't it? Clearly within the ring-road.

Four of us met up in a side street, having never been there before, and none of us really believed that there would be a nature reserve right in amongst the houses.

But there was!

Unfortunately, it was well used by dog walkers, so there was dog poo all over the place, which is about as disgusting as it gets:  luckily botanists are in the habit of wearing wellies, and eventually you just ignore the poo, trample all over it,  and ensure that you clean your boots off before leaving the site. Yuck.

Right, moving on from despicable dog-owner who won't either pick up the poo, or train their damned dogs to do it on command....

We'd been given a minor task: we were told to look out for some Clinopodium calamintha (Lesser Catmint) which was "on one of the medieval banks".  Otherwise, we were there just for pleasure, to see what we could find, and to practice our ID skills.

As we entered the reserve, the first plant we met was the Common  Reed, Phragmites australis. It's the one you often see growing along the ditches beside the road - tall green stuff, with purple plumes. It's certainly all along the A338 between Marcham and the Hanneys, round the Venn Mill area.  I forgot to take any photos, so you'll have to look it on on Google if you don't already know it. It's a bit of a pest, as it's very invasive, and tends to crowd out other plants.

But I'd read something interesting about it - apparently the leaves are not firmly attached to the stems, they can swivel.

"Swivel"?

How can leaves swivel? They have to be attached to the stem, surely?

The others looked at me as though I were bonkers (don't worry, I'm used to it) so I took hold of one of the stems, grasped one of the long, thin leaves, and gently swivelled it round the stem.

Good lord! It swivelled! It really did!

We decided that the strategy was developed to prevent damage to the leaves - by swivelling around the stem, they always line up the way the wind is blowing, so none of the leaves have to be flapped up and over themselves. Thus, none of them are subjected to folding and damage.

If you look at a stand of these reeds, you can see them doing exactly that - all the leaves line up in one direction, as though someone has carefully combed them.

And if you take hold of one and gently move it around the stem, you can see how it happens.

Go on, get out there and try it for yourselves, it's amazing!

Anyway, that broke the ice, and we wandered on through the reserve, stopping every few paces to find and ID the next plant. Unfortunately I didn't make a note of what we found as we found it, so I can't give you a list - sorry! We didn't find the Clinopodium calamintha (Lesser Catmint), but then we weren't really sure if we'd actually found the medieval bank or not.

However, for a first outing we all enjoyed ourselves, and as dusk fell, we realised that we'd only actually gone about half-way through the reserve.

So I'm sure we'll go back there again some time.