Garden School:


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

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!