Garden School:


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

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.