Garden School:


Garden School:
Teaching this week: Rose pruning (as always!) and leaf mold.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Do Hellebore leaves rot?

I've always refused to add Hellebore leaves to compost, on the grounds that they are tough, woody, spiky leaves, and I "have always heard" that they don't rot down very well.

Now, as you might know, if you have spent any time at all reading this blog, I have what might be called an Enquiring Mind, and as I came into professional gardening as an adult - as opposed to being apprenticed to some crusty old head gardener and accepting their word as law - I do rather tend to ask "why?" quite a lot.

Over the years I have learned - from asking "why?" - that a lot of the things we, as gardeners, are "told" to do are quite incorrect, or have no scientific background.

Conifers turning the ground around them acidic, for example: I did the experiment and it turned out not to be true at all. In fact, changes in soil pH were linked far more to depth of soil, than to what was growing above them.  More of that later.

And don't get me started on eggshells in compost heaps...

Anyway, Hellebore leaves: it always seems a waste not to compost them, but as mentioned, I have "always heard" that they don't rot.

So I tried it.

In January of this year I collected together a large pile of Hellebore leaves: I dithered between treating it as compost, ie mixed in with everything else and left open, or leaf mould, ie  just leaves, so in the end I did both.

I divided the pile in two, put half into a black plastic sack to be treated as leaf mould, and made the other half into a small compost heap with some mixed garden waste.

The two piles were left, hidden, in the clients' garden, to see what would happen.

Recently, I had a look.

Here is the leaf mould bag,  ripped open - ignore the couple of dry leaves on top, they fell in when I opened it, and I was in a hurry to take the photo as, technically, I was working at the time (*looks around guiltily to see if my client is listening*).

As you can see, somewhat disappointing - the leaf stalks are complete and undamaged, and although the leaf blades have diminished, they have turned into an unpleasant slimy, fibrous mass.

Normally I would allow two years for leaf mould production, so you might think I'm being a bit unfair here - but after the best part of a year I would expect my leaf mould to be partially made, and certainly I would expect it to be "dry", not slimy like this.

The bag, which was originally stuffed  full to the top, had mushed down to just four or five inches of solid matter, which is good, but it was not making the sort of progress I would expect from leaf mould.

When I went and checked my composted pile, the story was very much the same - you can see here the strong fibrous mat, which is far from being nice crumbly compost.

And compost, by now, I would expect to be making significant progress towards completion, after the best part of a year.

So on balance, I would have to say that on the small scale, "they" are correct to say that it's not worth trying to compost/rot your Hellebore leaves.

This was, of course, only a very small-scale experiment, and I know from my own experience that if you have large enough compost bins, almost anything can be rotted successfully, but on the basis of this little test, I would come to the following conclusion:

Don't bother composting Hellebore leaves.

Don't try to make leaf mould with them.

Put them in the council recycling bin if you have one, as they stand much more chance of being processed there, or add them to your bonfire pile and use their ashes around the garden instead.

In fact, some time after writing this post, I went to a Hellebore-breeding nursery, and they were adamant that Hellebore leaves should be burnt, in order to prevent the spread of that particular disease that causes black spots on the leaves.  So, in this case, my own common sense view was very much in line with that of the professionals, which is nice.

Conclusion: Clear Up Hellebore Leaves And Burn Them!

Friday, 20 December 2013

Planting in narrow-necked containers

Ah, the scourge of the professional gardener - well, one of many, actually. We'll no doubt come back to some of the others later... anyway, narrow-necked pots are a real pain when you are responsible for the maintenance of the plant within.

Why?

Because, traditionally, whatever is within grows a huge solid root-ball, that is too big to pass through the narrow neck.

This leads to all sorts of headaches when it comes to maintaining precious specimens, or simply emptying the pot out, when it's time for something fresh.

I can't tell you how many times I have spent an age, on my knees, chipping away at a rock-hard  tangle of roots, at a terribly awkward angle, whilst trying not to damage the plant, or to damage the pot.

Here's a good example - a very elegant Ali-Baba style pot, which contains a small Fig, just a couple of years old, which needs wrapping against winter frost, partly due to only being a couple of years old, partly due to being in a very windy section of the garden.

The wrapping process, by the way, is exactly the same as for wrapping the hydrangeas, which I seem to be writing about every year: get fleece, get pegs, wrap fleece round plant, hold in place with pegs, tie string. Avoid doing this on windy days. There, all done.

So, getting back to the pot problem - what is a girl to do?

My cunning strategy, employed here, is to get a big plastic flower-pot that slides comfortably within the narrow neck, and plant the chosen specimen within that.  I then just "plunge" the plastic flowerpot into the decorative urn - it all looks lovely, watering is straightforward, but when I need to empty out the pot, I can just pull the flowerpot straight out. Even if it's made roots through the bottom, it still gives me something to get hold of and pull!

So there you are, a simple trick: get a normal plastic pot that fits easily in the decorative pot: sit one inside the other.

And if you tip in some extra soil/compost all around the plastic pot and over the rim no-one will ever know!

Thursday, 19 December 2013

*singing* "Chestnuuuuts roasting on an open fire..."

And you can't get much more "open" than a bonfire:

This was the scene last Saturday morning: my trusty Canal Club cohorts and myself had gathered for our twice-monthly restoration work party, and Bob, our great and glorious leader, had brought along a bag of chestnuts and a tin.

Once the obligatory bonfire was well under way, he produced these goodies, and instructed us to stop feeding it just before lunch break, by which time there would be a good pile of ashes.

The tin was then inserted, and by the time we'd finished our lunch break, the chestnuts were done, and the vultures descended.

Jolly nice they were, too! I can't remember the last time I had real chestnuts, roasted over a real fire:  well, I can, it was back when we lived in East Anglia, in a stone-floored bungalow whose only heating was an open fire in the living room. ("Aye lad, we used t'live in't shoe box in't middle o't road...")  I can remember being shown by my Nana how to put chestnuts on the small coal shovel, and to put them carefully into the side of the fire. I must have been about ten years old.

But once we moved back to London, it was all Parkrays (enclosed fires inset in the old chimney breasts) with back boilers, and then gas central heating boilers.

Which means that I've never really had the opportunity to roast chestnuts, since then.

So thank you, Bob, for bringing the joy of roasted chestnuts back into my life!

And if any of you out there are thinking about having a go, here are the details:

Buy a bag of chestnuts.
Cut off a corner, or pierce them with a stout skewer (mind your fingers as you do). This prevents them bursting, and jumping out of the fire.
Put a shallow layer into a metal container.
Push metal container - without the lid - into the ashes of a good hot bonfire.
Leave until they are just starting to go black.

When the skins have split, they are ready for eating. Pick off the shells and toss them into the bonfire - then eat the contents.

Lovely!

Once you have finished, don't forget to rescue the tin, clear up any mess, ensure the bonfire is safely extinguished, then pack away the tin ready for the next time.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Disaster in the high winds!

Well, I say "disaster", it wasn't really that bad..

.. on that very windy day last week, I arrived at the far end of the garden to see this:


The Akebia had been blown right off the top half of the summerhouse!

"Oh dear," said my client, "you had better cut it right back."

No sooner said that done, and to be honest, I was quite glad of the excuse, as I think the summerhouse has some lovely brick detailing in it, and I love the carved-brick arches, so it can sometimes seem like a shame to cover it up, even with this lovely Akebia.

So I went and got the long-pole-with-a-knife and set to work, cutting out all the branches that were leaning off.

Ten minutes later:

There you go, heartlessly bare, but I managed to save one set of upward-curving stems, so it wasn't a complete disaster after all.

And it does do a climber good to be cut back good and hard every few years: it's a chance to get out the dead wood that just harbours disease, and to promote a fresh flush of new growth.

Hopefully next spring we will see just such a flush, and the summerhouse will once again be leafy and green.

But in the meantime, I will enjoy admiring the brickwork!

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Today I cleaned a greenhouse...

... which is not something I often get to do!

One of my clients had bought some special greenhouse glass cleaner, and asked me if I would mind doing the job, as he was still having trouble with his leg (the reason I am working for him) and was finding it difficult to twist and turn.

Of course I would! I do anything - within reason - that my clients require.

So I set to work with a bucket of cold water, a cloth, and rubber gloves (I'm tough, but not THAT tough!) and soon had the inside sparkling clean, and all the plants safely back in place.

Then I turned to the outside. It's a lean-to greenhouse, so there was quite a long slope of glass, well out of arm's reach.

I asked what the client usually used for cleaning the roof. There was a pause, and a somewhat shifty look. Ah, it hasn't done it in recent years, has it?! I then asked if they had an old mop, anything on a stick, and was presented with  a small dishmop.

"A small dishmop?"

Never one to let having the wrong tools stand in the way of doing a job, I improvised:


It worked a treat!

Monday, 16 December 2013

Eggshells in compost - no! no!

For about the tenth time - don't put eggshells into your compost!

They don't rot!!

This is something that really gets me going: every book or article I have ever read about composting says that you should compost, among other no-nos, eggshells.

I can only assume that one person, somewhere back in the dim and distant past of gardening journalism, made this statement, having never made compost of their own, and everyone since has just copied what they said.

Last week I was digging into a newly-opened compost heap, and oh look, guess what I found:

 Yes, those are eggshells.

Complete, unbroken (despite the practically geological weight of peat-like compost above them) eggshells.

You can't see it in this photo, but there were actually four or five, neatly stacked inside each other, where the client has obviously tidied them up before tossing them in the compost.


Alas, they don't rot.

Here's the "cliff edge" of the compost: it's always interesting - well, to me, anyway - to see the different strata of the material.

Here, just above yet more eggshells,  you can see a lighter grey strip which would have been last winter, with ash from the open fire being added in a thick layer ("I keep telling them to stir it in or mix it up, but do they listen...?") directly covered by the thick peaty black layer which is probably the rich spring grass.

As you can see, and as I have said before, this particular Client's compost heaps break all the rules: they are set on a solid base of paving slabs, so there is no soil interaction and no drainage: they have solid sleeper sides and back, so there is no aeration at all. And the client piles on thick layers of grass with no attempt to mix in other material. And none of us ever even attempt to stir them, or turn them.

However, they make the most fantastic compost.

Why? Simply put, they are BIG, for a domestic garden: four feet across, six or more feet long, and at least three feet deep, although it sinks to a mere two feet or so of compacted compost.

They have no lid or horrible old carpet on top - the rain gets in, I also throw the occasional bucket of water on them if it's been dry, and I do take care to rake out the top of the pile so that there is a "dip" in the middle, not a conical heap, so that any rain that arrives is kept in the pile, and doesn't just wash off to the edges.

In my experience, more compost heaps fail for being too dry, than for being too wet, and virtually everywhere I work, I take this one simple step to keep the top of the heap flat or concave, to catch and keep water.

Oh, I also always make a point of stuffing the corners of the compost bins with plant material. Too many people heap the stuff up in the centre, which leaves hollow caves in the corners and around the edges. These are of course bone dry, so they don't rot down. Worms don't have teeth, they need it soft and wet!

Going back to eggshells for a moment - I could talk about compost all day - there is a supporting myth which says that eggshells are full of "goodness" and that's why we should put them on the compost heap.

Firstly, I would ask "who says?" along with a side order of "prove it!".  As far as I know, there is no scientific evidence as to the vitamin and mineral content of eggshells, nor to what degree any such "goodness" can be extracted from the shells.

I know that people give eggshells to their chickens in order to help them make better shells - a somewhat cannibalistic practice, I can't help thinking - but that's a physical matrix, like taking small stones to build a wall.

If it is possible for any of the "goodness" in an eggshell to be extracted, it is likely to be via water, so it would make more sense to take the water in which you boil the eggs, and tip that out onto your compost heap.

So what do we do with the eggshells?  Personally, I put them in the Kitchen Waste caddy along with any meat/fat trimmings and send them off to generate electricity but if you really want to keep them in the family, do please crush them into little teeny, tiny fragments before adding them to your compost heap.

Otherwise you will have to meet them again when it's time to spread the compost!

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Elephant Tree

Well, what else can you call it:


Fairly terrifying, isn't it?

In case you're wondering what caused it, it can be damage to the young tree, usually from a too-tight tree support, or - more often, and definitely in the case of both the one above, and the one below - it's just a graft union. They tend to get increasingly ugly over time.

 Here's another example of grafted trees that I spotted locally - how's that for hideous?

Looks like someone is bursting out of their corset, doesn't it?

Most annoyingly, it was one of a small grove of the same trees, all grafted, and all planted by one of those dippy-hippy eco groups who really ought to know better than to buy grafted trees when their stated aim is to plant up native woodland.

Grafted! *snorts with laughter*

I can't believe that they were "unable" to find normally-grown trees, so did they choose the grafted ones because they were bigger and would create more impact, more quickly? Or did they just not notice that they were grafted?

Even worse - yes, even worse! - the rootstocks were producing suckers, which this group were utterly failing to remove. Anyone who knows anything about horticulture knows that when using grafted trees or plants, it is vital to remove all suckers and shoots from below the graft, as they will be from the rootstock, not from the desirable top material (scion is the technical term) and they will, by their very nature, be more vigorous than the scion. If they weren't, you wouldn't bother with a graft.

So by leaving these suckers, within a short time each desirable tree will have a thick understorey of competing rootstock shoots, which will shortly out-grow the top-worked material.

Sigh.

They mean well, these eco groups, but I do wish they'd put aside a little of their grant funding for consultation with experts, before wasting their money (which is often funded by taxpayers, that's you and me), and the efforts of their volunteers, in this way.

For that matter, I'd be happy to be consulted, at a reduced rate!!

So, if you are thinking of buying trees for your garden or to start a small native woodland, don't buy grafted ones!!

Monday, 9 December 2013

Guess what I did last week...

Built a glider?

Nope!


Created a Christo-style art installation? (right)


Nope!

It was merely time to wrap up the hydrangeas for the winter - and this year, the left-hand shrubbery has so many hydrangeas in it that my client decided it would be simpler to buy one enormous length of super-quality fleece and to just cover the whole lot up in one go.

Luckily we did this last week, before the massive winds arrived, otherwise we might have been blown right across the county!

We started at one end, unrolled it along the bed, looked at each other, and said "Well, that was easy!"

Of course, it took me a further 20 minutes to barrow over a dozen bricks and carefully tuck in and weigh down the edges, but it was a great deal faster than wrapping them up individually, which is what I have done every previous year, and what I am still doing for the rest of the hydrangeas, dotted around the garden.

It seemed to survive the storm winds of this week with no problem, now it just remains to see if it will survive snow... but at least it is my client's responsibility to rush out and clear off the snow, not mine!

Friday, 6 December 2013

The Fernery

Here's a novel use for a compost heap: as a temporary nursery for ferns.


"Why?" you ask.

Well, my client needs to have some work done on the retaining wall of the Road Bank - it's crumbled away to nothing, which means the slope is now encroaching upon the path, plus it looks terribly tatty, and worst of all, it makes it very difficult for me to clamber up the slope to weed it, as without a "stop" at the bottom, the soil tends to crumble and tumble down. Which makes me reluctant to attempt to climb up it, which means it doesn't get weeded, thus making it look even worse.

So I have a vested interest, as a tatty weedy section of the garden reflects badly on me: and to be honest with you, I'm not that keen on slithering around on crumbly banks, so I am all in favour of a bit of remedial work.

Thankfully it's been agreed that the lower level will have to be mended, and that means getting in some hard landscapers, ie builders.

Knowing what normally happens when builders set foot in a garden (please imagine me rolling my eyes at this point) I suggested that we (and when I say "we", you know that I mean "I") dig out the ferns and hellebores from the crumbling edge, keeping them safe somewhere else in the garden, so that we can replace them after the workmen have gone.

With this in mind, I carefully lifted as many of them as I could, and then came the problem of finding somewhere for them to live over the next few weeks.

All the beds are full...

Aha! I can heel them in to the compost heap!

Not as daft as it sounds - the compost heap is massive, it's four foot across, six foot long and at least three feet deep in thick, compacted, wonderful, compost.  It will take me weeks, possibly months to dig it all out and spread it on the garden - I'm only there one morning a week, after all - so it will be the perfect home for the plants, until we are ready to put them back in place.

Here is what they looked like this week, having been there for three weeks:

They are not only surviving there, they are actually starting to flourish!

I shouldn't be surprised, of course: compost is the stuff that we spread on the garden to encourage the plants to grow.  I can only imagine that these plants think they have died and gone to plant heaven, with a whole compost heap to feed on!

Typically, there has been no sign of the builder since I lifted these plants, and I somehow doubt that he will come before Christmas now, but it doesn't matter: the plants are fine, and they can stay there until I am ready to move them again.

Best of all, when I replant them, I can spread them a little more evenly along the bank, to get better coverage - I'm actually rather looking forward to it!

Saturday, 30 November 2013

The tide was very low today...

Well, not today - actually it was a month or so ago, but there was so much to say at the time that I didn't get around to publishing this post.

I arrive at work that day to discover that the lake was - well, not quite "empty" but as low as I had ever seen it. Just look:


That's fairly horrible, isn't it? That collection of stones is The Small Island and is normally, well, an island... so you can see that it's not a particularly deep lake, but it's unnatural for a lake to be showing its muddy bottom!

Here's the back of the Big Island - every so often I have to put the waders on, stagger across the channel and weed it.

On this day, it almost looked as though I could just walk across, if I didn't mind climbing up the  mangrove roots once I got there:


And no, I didn't attempt to splash across - I know from experience that the mud is at least ankle deep, so I wear chest-height waders and take an old broom handle for balance. Actually, I think I have a picture of me in the waders, hang on, I'll go and find it:

*rummages around in picture files*

There you are, that's me, the waders, and the broom handle, staggering around thinning out the Reed Mace, the spring before last.

That's a job which deserves a post all to itself - the horrors of fumbling around barehanded, under the muddy water, pulling at slimy Reed Mace roots, not quite knowing what living things are slipping around my fingers..

Ugh!

But it  has to be done, otherwise the Reed Mace will take over the entire lake, which is - in fact - what they are trying to do this year. But that's another story. As you can see, I'm well above the knees in water, and I can tell you that I was well above the ankles in mud, hence the need for the balancing broom handle!

This is the view from the same angle during Low Tide - as you can see, the mud is now showing:

But it's still pretty...

And the reason for all this distress?

It's quite complicated, but it all has to do with Thames Water - yes, those villains, sigh - and the incorrectly-set automatic measurement points, lower down the stream. Which made them think that the water level up here, in the lake, was "correct".

We think not!

However, after a week of complaining to them, and several visits from their inspectors, they agreed that the level was too low ("Well, duuh!") and finally started pumping water through again.

At 11.30 exactly, I heard the welcome sound of water trickling, and the lake started to refill.

And the following week, I was delighted to find it once more fully full, if you see what I mean, and had the joy of working to the usual gentle splashing of it going  out, over the weir.

The Kingfisher was back, happily doing his Blue Flash impersonation up and down the lake: the ducks were back, quacking and quarrelling as they do: now we have to wait and see if the voles will come back or not.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Ground dwelling bees

Is it just me, or are there more ground-dwelling bees around this year than previously?

For about the dozenth time in the last month, I've been hard at work, industriously digging, and have been startled by an irate buzzing at ground level.

Closer inspection, and listening intently, leads me to find solitary bees, covered in earth, and looking very cross about it.

At first I thought that I was somehow knocking them off of nearby plants and accidentally burying them in the spoil, but a little research showed that many bees actually dwell in the soil. They dig themselves tunnels and underground chambers, and can go as much as a yard underground, which is pretty amazing, considering their size.

Here is this morning's little fella - not a terribly good photo as I don't carry a camera around with me when I am working, and my phone camera just isn't any good at taking close-ups. But I hope you can see that it's a good-sized thing, black all over, and furry like a bumble-bee.

It's not a leaf-cutter bee, they are not furry, so I have no idea what it is - if anyone out there knows about bees, I would be delighted to be enlightened!

As you can see, they are quite large and sturdy, and they seem to be totally non-aggressive - they stagger about drunkenly, buzzing continuously, which I assume is to warm themselves up, before eventually they fly away. Being kind-hearted, I try to put them in the sun somewhere to help them warm up, or at least to put them out of the way while they recover.

But it does seem a little odd that I have been digging the same gardens for over ten years, and it's only this year and last year that I keep finding them, don't you think?

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Walnuts and weirdness

Walnuts - I know, not a subject that normally lends itself to weirdness - but the walnuts have been a bit strange this year.

We are talking about Juglans nigra here - Black Walnut. Similar to the familiar edible walnut that we all remember from Christmas (Juglans regia) but more ornamental - it has much longer leaves, with more leaflets on them, giving the tree a much prettier aspect. The books often mention "aromatic foliage" as well, but I'm not convinced about that.

As an aside, I have to tell  you that up until this year, I had always thought that ornamental Walnuts did not bear edible fruit, and were only planted for their foliage. Apparently - with thanks to Wikipedia - that is not the case, and the nuts are indeed edible, if somewhat stronger-tasting than "normal" walnuts.  Sadly, I'm not all that keen on ordinary walnuts, otherwise I would be bringing them home by the barrowload from the large Black Walnut tree in one of my clients' garden... but as it is, this is the time of year when I spend quite a lot of time working under the tree.

Why, you ask? Well, the path to Compost Corner runs under the walnut tree, and once the fruits start to drop, it's a constant battle to remove the little ankle-snappers before I come a cropper on them.

(Note: "to come a cropper" is a technical gardening term involving tripping over obstacles, unseen due to pushing a laden wheelbarrow. At worst, it involves landing head-first in the contents of the wheelbarrow.)

So where does the weirdness come in?

Well, firstly, this looked as though it were going to be a really poor year for walnut fruits - last time I looked, there were leaves a-plenty but no fruit to be seen. "Oh dear," I thought, insincerely, "what a shame, no ankle-snappers this year."

Then, last week, I walked out towards Compost Corner for the first time that morning, and noticed a sour smell on the air - oh no, not walnuts? Yes,  the ground was suddenly covered in  fallen fruits:


Here is the path to the compost bins, liberally strewn with walnut fruits in their green husks.

They are very much the size of tennis balls, but not as soft: so just imagine trying to manoeuvre a wheelbarrow along a path with dozens of tennis balls rolling about on it.

Not easy!

When this happens, the only thing to do is to carefully make my way to the compost bins and unload, then work backwards along the path picking up the darn things and lobbing them into the wheelbarrow. The first few make loud clanging noises - they are rock hard, unlike tennis balls - but once it's part full, the job gets rather quieter. Then I go to my special walnut tip, round the back of the compost bins, and turn them out. Then back for another load. And so on.

Here is today's Walnut Heap - as you can see, quite a substantial pile.  It's based on top of last year's pile, and the year before that.

The husks soon go brown and rot away, but of course there are shells inside!

Interestingly, Walnut has a reputation for poisoning the soil around it, and although this is a wild exaggeration (it was waist-high in Cow Parsley last year, for a start), it is true that the roots and leaves all contain a chemical called Juglone, which can affect the growth of certain plants, notably tomatoes ( I shall be doing an experiment on that next summer) and, for some reason, Silver Birch.

It is certainly true that no weeds are growing on my Walnut Heap, but I don't know if that is due to Juglone poisoning, or just the fact that few wind-blown seeds  can get to the Heap, as it's somewhat under the trees, combined with the sheer density of the layer of walnuts that I add to it each year.

So, back to the weirdness - first there were none on the tree, then hundreds of them on the ground - then I found this clump:

That's four of them, fused together.

The books say that Black Walnut sets fruit in groups of one to five, so it's not really that peculiar, but you don't often find them welded together in this manner.

As I was picking up these fruits, there was a whistling sound and a hefty thump close by - yes, they are still dropping. I hate to think how painful it would be to have a quartet like this dropping on my head!


The next weird Walnut was this strange siamese-twin of a thing - presumably where two fruits had fused together early on in their development.

I took it home to take a closer photo, and as you can see, the husk is already starting to rot away.

Apparently this ruins the flavour of the nut, though: you have to get them out of the husks while they are still fresh, if you want to eat them.




And the final instalment on the weirdness quota was when, after clearing away three barrow-loads of fruit, I looked up into the branches of the tree, to see dozens more of the little rascals still hanging up there.

Which means I will be doing all this again, next week!

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Today, the weather will be....

Well, what a week. And it's only Wednesday.

On Monday I went out to work in shorts, and by mid-morning I had shed my jacket and was rolling up my sleeves.

Tuesday morning started with a frost, so I (grudgingly) put on longs: some of my clients tend to shriek at me if I turn up in shorts on days where it's obviously "quite chilly" and I don't like to distress them, so sometimes I have to get into longs a bit early.

This morning, I went out in longs with thermal long-johns underneath, and I was grateful for them! No frost, but it was cold, damp, and very windy.

Then by mid-morning it started to rain, so I packed it in and came home.

I wonder what we'll get tomorrow? Snow?

Monday, 11 November 2013

The willow of Damocles

A week or two ago, I noticed that a willow tree was starting to lean over the lakeside path in a somewhat alarming manner - so I brought it to my clients' attention,  they looked at it in horror, and promised to get the tree surgeon in as soon as possible.

Last week, it was leaning even further, and when I arrived there this week, they had taken my warning very seriously indeed, and had propped up the tree until the tree surgeon could get there and deal with it:


That's quite an impressive metal prop, isn't it?

I have no idea if my client had it lounging around in the garage, or whether they had to go out and hire it, but it's just the thing for the job, as it is a substantial Willow, as you can see, and it is hanging right over the path.

So far the tree has crushed the metal arch, over which I have been training the rambling rose for the last couple of years... and worst of all, those thick brown "branches" running on either side of the red metal support are actually the stems of this rose, along with the rather angular-looking one below. They now run on either side of the tree, and we are going to have to make some tough decisions before the tree surgeon arrives.

If we do nothing, the tree guys will simply chop off the rose stems, chop off the tree, and dispose of the mess.

I personally think it's unrealistic to expect tree guys to take any trouble over a climbing rose - the tree is dangerous, heavy, huge, and they are going to have enough of a job on their hands without being expected to take care of the rose stems, not to mention the fact that the stems have large numbers of rock-hard spiky prickles on them, which will make their job even worse.

However, I think it may be possible to cut off the bulk of the rose growth over the arch, in order to keep those big main stems: if  we can keep 10' or 15' of them, it will give it a big head-start next year.

To this end, I've been nibbling bits off the rose each time I pass en route to the bonfire heap, and I'm hoping that I'll have time to do a more drastic job next week - I have no idea when the tree guys are coming, so I need to get it done sooner rather than later.

It's somewhat ironic that earlier this year,  my client and I were congratulating ourselves on getting the rose to smother not only the arch, but the pump house and the tree above -  we agreed that this year it was the best display ever, and possibly the best we had ever seen, as it was making a perfect waterfall down the bank.

*sigh*

Ah well, that's life.

The plan is to install a new arch once the tree is safely chopped, then we can re-train what is left of the rose, and the new growth, to reinstate the tunnel effect at the path. And we can but hope that the rose will eventually find its way back up the bank again.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness...

Huh, season of cobwebs, slugs, and wet toes, more like!

Here are some of the cobwebs I found the other morning, on my "nursery" plants in the front yard:

Look at that! Layers of them!


What a lovely corner web - I have some of those in my hallway, ha ha!


Here's another lot, on a half-full tray of Fragaria -  layers and layers of them, all highlighted in the
morning mists.











Honestly, it made me feel such a lazy housekeeper... but a day or two later, they were all gone. Presumably destroyed by heavy rain, wind, and the general action of me tidying up the trays, moving plants around and so on.

As for the slugs, is it me, or are there more of them around than in previous years? I've been finding some monstrous orange ones lately, which I assume are too big for my garden's resident frog to get his chops around. He takes good care of all the little slugs, but this year I'm finding quite a few of the orange giants have made their way into my front yard.

And as for the wet toes: *sigh*, yes, it's that time of year again when I start complaining about the water from wet grass working through the toes of my leather work boots, and soaking my socks.

I've tried Dubbin, nikwax, beeswax, vaseline (I was desperate, ok?!) that stuff you get from Gore-Tex, and saddle-soap, and nothing keeps out the water. I just have to have a lot of pairs of boots on the go, so that I can change into dry socks and boots each lunchtime, stuffing newspaper into the wet pairs to help them dry out before the next day.

My latest hope is shoe polish - a kind person has just put a comment on my Dubbin post from October of last year, pointing out that dubbin is a leather conditioner and is not supposed to be a waterproofer, and suggesting that after dubbin or saddle-soap to clean and condition the boots, I should use a wax-based shoe polish on top, for waterproofing.

So I'll give that a go, and will report back in due course. In the meantime, if you have any further suggestions, do please add a comment!

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Even trees have Bad Hair Days...

Saw this in the Pinetum at Chatsworth:


Made me feel better about my "I don't comb my hair, this is how I got out of bed this morning" style.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Dipley Mill - lovely place

I wrote about this earlier this year, having driven past it on the way to visit  West Green House again, and having then found it on the internet and established that it's only open a couple of times a year.

Finally last month, I managed to get to one of the open days, and I can recommend it highly.

This was the view that tempted me:


Seen from the road - with thank to Google street view, as it's not a bridge on which you can stop and admire the mill stream - and here it is from the inside, as it were:


Lovely, isn't it? I wandered a little closer to the road bridge, admiring the symmetry of the reflections in the still water:


 Every garden with water should have a boat, even if it's not a real one, and yes! they had a boat.

The label on the side told us that it is came from Thailand, and is very fragile, which is why they screen it off from the garden.

Presumably they no longer use it on the water there - or maybe they never did, as they only have the one stretch of still water, then it's all weirs and so on: as the name suggests, it's a former Mill, rather than a house with a decorative lake on which you can paddle around in a genteel manner.
Other things which caught my eye include this rather lovely part-grown arch into the wild part of the garden.

I'm not entirely sure what the foliage is: I thought it was willow-leaved pear - usually seen as a pendant tree - as any normal willow would be far too vigorous for a small arch like this.

But I didn't really look too closely at it!

I know, I know - "call yourself a Botanist!"

*hangs head in shame*

If the garden were in Oxfordshire, this might be a candidate for Prettiest Garden Seat In The West.

(Award currently held by a seat in one of "my" gardens.)

I particularly like the Bamboo Grove all around it.
Here's a more traditional willow arch, strongly made and growing well.

Stupidly, I took the photo from the right angle to show off the formation of the arch, instead of the right angle to show the "long" view across the water meadows to the elegant statuary at the far end.

Oops!

I'm a gardener, ok, not a garden photographer!

Regardless of  my photographic shortcomings, Dipley Mill is a lovely garden to visit,  so put a note in your diary for early next year, look it up in the NGS Yellow Book, or check the website for opening times. Well worth it.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

"What shrubs can hold brambles back?"

What an interesting question!

The simple answer, unfortunately, is that not one single shrub/tree/fence/barrier can  hold brambles back.

They are pernicious, invasive, destructive, and their only redeeming feature is the fact that they bear delicious fruit.

Any shrubs that you plant as a barrier to brambles will simply be infiltrated by new growth, which will then root where the tips touch the ground (another charming habit of this plant) and continue to grow, entwined in and around the shrub(s).

Eventually, the shrubs will be swamped by the brambles, and may even die from the competition.

Solid fences and even walls won't stop them: I've seem brambles appearing over a wall at least three feet above head height, and I've seen them appearing at the base of what appeared to be solid garden walls, having tunnelled underneath from next door.

So what solutions can I suggest?

As you'll already know if you've read much of this blog, I frequently talk about clearing brambles, and the importance of cutting them off just an inch or so below soil level, but that's where they are already present.

Things are quite different if you have already cleared the garden, but are troubled by next-door's brambles coming back in to your area. If next door has occupants, it's always worth going round and  knocking on their door, asking them to deal with the problem on their side before it gets to you.  Do this now, before you get too worked up and angry about it - just ask them, in a friendly manner, if they would be kind enough to deal with the brambles. In about 80% of cases, they have no idea that they are causing a problem, and will willingly deal with it. In about 10% of cases, they are aware but have been too lazy to do it, and your call might just prompt them into doing some work. As for the remainder, well, there is always the chance of getting "Tough" and a door closed in your face, but it doesn't happen often. And at least you will now know where to throw the snails... [That was a JOKE, ok, a JOKE!]

In many ways, it's actually quite easy to keep invaders out, you just have to arm yourself with a spray-bottle of a glyphosate-based weed-killer, to spritz any new growth - bramble, ivy, ground elder, anything you see - as soon as it dares to poke a nose over your boundary.

And whatever you do, don't cut or snap off any long growths - just post the loose end back over the fence, then push as much of it as you can back onto their side. If you cut the stems - and this applies to brambles, ivy and many other climbers - they will respond by creating two or more new shoots, all blessed with enormous vigour, so you are only making things worse for yourself. By pushing them back, you are adding weight to their side, and in time they might just fall away from the dividing fence, which would be a bonus.

If you only have something like chickenwire between Them and you, things are much more difficult, although continued vigilance with the glyphosate can work. And at least you can spray a little more than your own boundary - and no, I'm not suggesting you lean over the fence and weedkill as much of their garden as you can reach, I'm suggesting that you can spray through the bottom inch or two of the wire, to try to catch anything rooting very close to the fence.

If you possibly can,  I would suggest erecting a solid fence of some kind, leaving enough of a path for you to access this fence all the way along, then planting screening shrubs inside it. You can then walk along the boundary once a month or so, with your spray-bottle, spritzing any new growth.

And if you can always keen this area clear of invaders, it will make it a lot easier to deal with the ones which will invariable self-seed within your garden.

There, hope that helps!

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Horse Chestnut Leaves for Leaf Mould

Aha, it's that time of year again - the questions about leaf mould are starting to appear!

Leaf Mould is a subject dear to my heart, nearly as much so as proper compost,  and I'm always writing (and talking) about it, so here is a brief overview:

Compost = garden waste, aerobic  process (needs air) done by bacteria (and worms), takes 6 months to a year.

Leaf mould = leaves only, anaerobic process (does not require air, ie no turning) done by fungus, takes two years.

The result is also different:

Compost = nutritious, full of goodness.
Leaf Mould = not a lot of nutrition, mostly to be used as a soil conditioner or mulch.

"Not much nutrition?" I hear you say, "So why make it?"

Well, if you have a lot of leaves and put them on your compost heap, you will ruin the compost. Leaves take a lot longer to decay than green waste, and it's a different process, so if you pile them into your compost bins they will still be there in a year's time, and will have interrupted the worms in their digestion of the green waste.

(I say "green waste" , by the way, when I mean the mixture of green and brown stuff that goes in the compost - soft herbaceous material, annual weeds, and a smaller amount of small woody twigs and so on.)

But leaves arrive in copious quantities, and they are free, so if you have the room to make some pens for them, and the patience to wait two years for the result, then why not?

How To Do It:

1) Make some pens - they don't have to be particularly sturdy, unlike compost bins, you can use just chickenwire and a post in each corner.

2) Fill with leaves, preferably wet ones.

3) Leave for two years.

Yes, it really is that simple.

If you really want more detail:

1) Make the pens about a yard square or more if you can. Make several - they will need to sit there for two years, and the leaves will come down every year, so you need at least two sets of them. Just as with compost, three sets is best: you can manage with fewer pens if you are prepared to put in some work, but if you want the best result for the least effort, make three sets. If you don't have enough leaves to justify making permanent pens, you can make quite decent leaf mould with black plastic rubbish sacks: stuff them to the top with wet leaves, tie the tops, and leave them in a stack somewhere out of the way.

2) Which leaves, why wet, can you shred them, and can you mix them? Wet because the process is fungal, so they need to be dark and damp in order for the fungi to flourish. Shredding is not necessary, so why waste effort/fuel? In my experience, the shredded pieces do not rot noticeably faster than the full sized leaves. Yes, you can mix all sorts of fallen leaves, as long as you avoid the following:

Horse Chestnut - they take a long time to rot, and the rachis (central ribs) never do.
Evergreens - holly, laurel, conifers.
Road sweepings - they will be contaminated with dirt/pollution/spilt fuel etc.

3) Leave them undisturbed. Really! That's all you have to do. Fungi like it dark, and wet, and they don't like disturbance. The leaves shrink massively once they start to rot, but don't be tempted to put the new season's leaves on top of the old season's ones, otherwise you can't get to the good stuff to use it - start a new pen for the new autumn.  There is always a temptation to combine two old pens, when they have shrunk down to just a couple of inches, but it really is better to just leave them.

"Why three sets?"  Ah, to avoid work, that's why. You can manage with two sets - I say "sets" because one pen is never enough - if you don't mind having to turn out the "first" set into bags so that you can re-use them for that year's leaves. But if you want to do the minimum of work, then have three sets.

The resultant "stuff" is lovely, dark, crumbly, non-smelly and wonderful for improving the texture of your soil. It loosens up clay, helps all soils to retain water, gives body to poor, sandy or dusty soils, and it can also be used for potting up and for seeds, if you mix it 50/50 with whatever you normally use.

As mentioned, it does not contain much in the way of nutrients, but is very beneficial in these other ways: and has the massive advantage of not containing weed seeds! This makes it additionally useful as a mulch - you can spread it around on the surface of the beds, where it will suppress annual weeds and help the soil below to retain moisture.

Most of my clients now have leaf mould pens, and whenever I am planting out, or digging over a bed, I add a barrow-load of mixed home-made compost and leaf mould. Lovely!

Monday, 21 October 2013

Wanted: left-handed gardener...

... who uses Gold Leaf "Winter Touch" gloves, and who wears out only their right-hand gloves the same way that I wear out only the left-hand gloves.

Exhibit A, m'lud:

My current Gold Leaf glove pile, five pairs of gloves: five ruined left-hands, four perfect right-hands.

Now, in case you're thinking "what about that one damaged right-hand glove, then, eh?" I'm still confused about it:  I seriously think this came from a faulty batch, as the rights never normally show any damage at all. I shall be sending it back to Gold Leaf, to see what they say, as these gloves are not cheap, around £25 a pair, but they are brilliant winter gloves: toasty warm, with the Thermalite lining, and they really, truly are waterproof.

Some days I take them off after work, and they have to come home in my yellow bucket, as they are dripping water and are too wet to be put back in my tool bag, and yet my hands are dry, warm and comfy. These are the only waterproof gloves I have found - other than Sealskinz, of course, which are so waterproof that you can plunge a gloved hand into a bucket of water and not feel a thing. Which is pretty amazing for a glove that is more or less knitted! However, because they are knitted, they are really not up to the job of gardening.  So in winter, I live in my Gold Leaf gloves.

But as you can see, I am accumulating a pile of wasted "rights".

A couple of years ago, I wrote to Gold Leaf about this, and they very kindly sold me a "pair" of left-hand gloves, ie two lefts, which I then matched up with two of my spare rights, giving me two pairs for the price of one, in effect.

How's that for obliging? I think I'm going to have to write to them again - unless I can find a left-handed gardener who has a similar pile of undamaged lefts. We could then negotiate a swap of half our piles, so that we both end up with some usable pairs again.

So if you are left-handed, and recognise my plight, do get in touch!

Oh, and this is not just a Gold Leaf problem (not wishing to alienate a supplier who, I hope, might once again hand over some left-hand gloves!!),  far from it: I always wear out the lefts first. Here is my current pile of spare rights:


Working clockwise, that's three pairs of Briers very nice leather Gentlemen's Gloves which come up very small, hence me buying the Gents' ones, and not the Ladies' ones: oh, also the Ladies' ones were bright pink (yuk) and cost £9.99 whereas these cost £4.99. Blatant sexism, huh.  I wrote to Briers, returning two of the ruined lefts in the hope of getting replacements,  and they replied that they were no longer making these gloves, which I thought was a shame, as they are very good lightweight summer gloves. However, they kindly sent me two pairs of the next ones in the range, "Professional", to try.

They are retailing for £15.98 which I think is a bit steep for summer-weight leather gloves: they are slightly thicker than the Gentlemen's ones, which is good (although I have already gone through the left of the first pair)  they have some rather  unnecessary features about which I will be writing back to Briers, and they are totally and utterly not waterproof. The slightest hint of wet foliage and they, like most thin leather gloves, are slimy at the fingers, and your hands are getting wet and cold on the inside. The inside of the glove, that is, not the inside of your hand, ha ha.

Oddly enough, reading the website to which I linked, they are described as "synthetic leather" which sounds like a contradiction in terms, quite apart from the fact that if they are not leather, why aren't they waterproof?

Anyway, so far Briers seem to be a good supplier, I'll let you know what they say when I return the Professional lefts, with my comments.

Next are the five current Gold Leaf "Winter Touch" ones, my favourites. Their only drawback in autumn/spring is that the Thermalite makes them very, very warm: and I find that when my hands get too hot, I can't easily pull them on and off. So I'm still looking for a waterproof but cool glove, something with more thorn protection than those thin rubbery "Master Gardener" ones, which are not bad, but aren't warm enough for autumn, when the cotton backs soak up the water and they get to feeling too cold for comfort.

The red ones, bottom row, are very nearly very good for summer/autumn working, as they are fairly resistant to wet foliage, and I can often get through a four-hour morning in one or two pairs of them. Sadly, I can't remember where they came from - I could have sworn it was one of the sheds, but I can't find any more of them, and they have no maker's name on them. Otherwise I would be out there buying more of them, for those days when it's a bit wet, but far too warm to wear the Winter Touch gloves.

Next is the little yellow Town and Country leather glove, which has been a good summer glove: leather, but more resistant than most to the problem of leather gloves failing in the wet. The leather is quite a bit thicker than many of the others I have tried, which might be the reason.

Then we have the yellow-and-red Town and Country ones, which I am still buying, despite the same problem in wet weather.  I have two pairs ready for use, plus a pile of these spare rights, and I'm considering turning some of the spares inside out to become lefts.

Finally, an annoyingly brilliant glove, pink and white, looks like leather, but was surprisingly water resistant, able to hold off water ingress for quite some time,  and didn't dry out into concrete-hard glove sculptures after a soaking. They were made by B&Q, I bought about six pairs of them two years ago, and when I got to the last pair (these ones) I couldn't find them for sale again. Close inspection showed a label saying "made of pvc" which probably explains their water-resistant qualities...  I have just bought some new pink gloves from B&Q, which look rather similar, but are labelled "supple leather palm". Not pvc. So they may not turn out to be any good.

I'll let you know.