Garden School:

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

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Ivy - another reason to hate it!

OK, I'll come right out and say it, I hate ivy in nearly all its permutations.

This is my professional opinion, based on how many times I have been asked to remove encroaching or swamping ivy, and how many hours I have spent wrestling with the damned stuff.

I accept that there are some (few) situations where an attractive variegated ivy can be of use, or maybe where a decorative small-leaved slow-growing ivy might fill a niche in a garden, but the common dark green stuff - nope, no sympathy, I can't stand it.

Last weekend I was working on my local canal, clearing the footpath of some overgrown trees. No, not by myself, I belong to the Wilts and Berks Canal Trust, a group of volunteers who rescue and maintain the old canal in the sure and certain hope that one day it will again have boats on it. Not as unlikely as it might seem, the Kennet & Avon was once derelict and virtually non-existent, and now it is a thriving waterway. Our turn will come.

Anyway, there we were, chopping up some small trees that had fallen across the towpath. One in particular was a massive thing, at least six foot across, and covered in ivy, and we were all quite surprised that such a massive tree should have simply fallen over.

When we started to cut up the tree into lengths, we realised that it was not a big tree at all, it was a small tree with a dense covering of ivy, growing out at least two feet all around the original trunk.

If you've ever tried to cut up an ivy-covered log, you'll know that it's almost impossible, as the loose ivy gets in the way of the blade, and prevents the teeth getting a grip. So you have to remove the ivy before you can even start to saw at it.

Seven of us spent half an hour or more using loppers, secateurs, a spade, and several bowsaws to get the ivy cleared from the trunk in five or six places, so that we could saw through it and move the sections away from the path.

Here is the cross-section:

That's my glove on top, to give you an idea of scale.

Can you see that two of the cut sections are kind of pink, while the others are white?

Those two pink ones are the actual trunks of the tree.

All the rest is ivy.

Yes, those multiple white-ish sections are solid ivy.

And you can see that there is far more ivy than tree! No wonder it fell over! The weight of ivy stems was more than double the weight of the tree, not to mention the outer coat of loose branches and leaves, which probably doubled the weight again. Far more than the roots could handle, and whop! over it went.

And that, dear reader, is another perfectly valid reason why I hate ivy!

Friday, 19 December 2014

Topiary from scratch!

Big excitement for me earlier this year: one of my Clients has a row of fairly substantial box plants along the side of their drive, which were bought to "hide" the stone wall.

Personally I think it's a rather lovely wall, but apparently it belongs to next door, who never do anything to their garden so the wall is falling down in places, and has a lot of weeds growing in the cracks, not to mention the brambles etc that lean menacingly over to our side. So I can see the point in covering it.

Anyway, when I suggested that it was time for a trim, assuming that they were there to form a hedge, my Client said that she didn't want a boring old hedge, she wanted them to be individual plants.

"OK," said I cheerfully, "Any particular shape?"

She looked at me blankly.

"Rounded, like eggs?" I chirped, helpfully. "Pointy tops?"

After some discussion, it became apparent that she couldn't quite picture how they would look, so I did the first four into pointy tops, and the next four into rounded balls - actually more eggs, than balls, as they were planted a little bit close together.

 Here is the first stage - the four on the far left, currently in the shadow, are pointed, and the next four are eggies. The one on the far right of this photo is an original unclipped one, to give an idea of the original size.

Here's a view along the run, from further back, showing the neat clipped ones in comparison to the unclipped ones. As you can see, I haven't reduced them in size very much, as they are required to hide that wall, so I have just aimed to make a slight separation of a couple of inches between each one. 

After a week or two, the decision was reached: it was to be Pointy Tops, please.

The first job was therefore to put points on the eggie-shaped ones: check! - then to carry on along the run, clipping them into Pointy Tops as I went.

Here I am working along the row - oh hang on, I can see one that's taller than the rest, and one that is bulging out too much.

*snip, snip, snip*
There we go, I am at the end of the row, and they are more or less in line.

Not bad, considering I have not used one single piece of string, card, cane, or any other device: this is all done by eye.

It's not possible to get them geometrically precise the first time they are cut, as some of the individual plants lack branches in the right places, so there are some "voids" here and there.

At this stage, I don't worry too much about voids, and I explain carefully to the Client that this is a natural process, and that they will fill in over the next few times they are trimmed.

A week later, back again, time to do the final three.

No, it didn't take me all morning to do them last time, but I have the rest of the garden to work on as well, you know! In fact, I think I did the main length over two weeks.

Here I have just started on the first of the final three, but as you can see, when they are growing this close together, you can't do one at a time, you have to do a rough clip of the neighbour in order to make room for the shears.

 There we go, all three clipped to shape, and the bits have been neatly raked up and are in the wheelbarrow ready for disposal.
 Here's the completed run, as seen from the drive.
 Do feel free to admire the neat shapes and the almost-precise duplication of angles.

Is it my imagination, or are they getting less Pointy as we go from left to right?

As I said, I don't get too hung-up on perfection on a first clip for several reasons: the plants need time to adjust to their new shape,  it takes a while for all the cut off bits to fall out, and sometimes they just don't have branches in the right places. This usually sorts itself out over a few clips, and certainly I am very pleased with this work.

So was the Client, luckily!

Also, there is something in our brains that find a "wrongness" about plants that are too perfectly aligned.  That's why you can nearly always spot artificial flowers or plastic topiary - they are just too perfect to be true. The ground is rarely perfectly level anyway, and there is always a balance to be found between geometric "level" and being "level" to the eye.  I have seen hedges cut with spirit levels and templates which then had to be recut by hand: it's no good getting the top of the hedge perfectly level if, for example, an old wall which is visible behind it, is not level.

This was done back at the end of July, so they were all putting on new growth within a couple of weeks. I gave them all a good fistful of chicken manure each, and I ran the hosepipe down there and gave each one a good drenching - this was on the day of the final clipping, to give them a head start.

Sometime people ask if it is better, or easier, to do it all in one go, or to work in instalments.

The easy answer is that it doesn't matter: both ways have advantages and disadvantages. I find that when you are doing repeated identical shapes, it can be easier to do them all at the same time, as you get into a sort of routine of getting them all at the same height. But it can get very tiring to repeat the same motions, so in many ways it's better to take a break.

My "trick of the trade" if  you like to call it that, is that when I return to a run of topiary that is part-done, I always start by standing over a completed one and making a few dry-run passes with the shears, to get the "feel" of the shape again. I then move over to an un-cut one and start clipping.

As mentioned, both myself and the Client are very happy with the way this project turned out, and I am looking forward to next year, when I will be clipping them regularly and when they should take on a really good, solid, shape.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

How to: remove Ground Elder.

Some very nice friends of mine recently asked me if I'd come up and help them with a bit of gardening - "We have a border that needs sorting out," they said, "It's got a bit of ground elder in it."

A bit!!

It was a complete SEA of ground elder! And this is only about a fifth of it!

The hole, by the way, is where we removed a shrub that (after careful cleaning of the roots) was to be relocated elsewhere... yes, once again I forgot to take the "before" photo before I actually started, oops....

So what do we do in this situation?

Answer: exactly the same as we do for Couch Grass: we dig once, dig twice, dig thrice.

There is no shortcut. You dig it over, as described for Couch Grass (and yes, this applies equally to Bindweed), loosening the soil and gently easing out the stuff by the yard. Put it straight into bags to be burnt, sent off to the tip, or put in the brown bins: don't even think about composting any of it.

Then you dig it over again, to get the bits you missed. You wait a week, to see what pops up - then you dig it over for a third time, before you even think about replanting.

Here are six bags of roots, dug out on the first session: this was from about a third of the area, which gives you an idea of the sheer volume of material to be removed.

The idea was to make this end of the bed a continuation of the layout you can see behind the bags, with grass in the middle, a mixed border at the back, and a narrow border of nepeta at the front.

But first I had to clear it of everything, including odd bulbs, masses of Asters, and a couple of different types of geranium, all buried in amongst the ground elder.

I put aside several clumps of each, with instructions to the clients that, if they wanted to keep any of the existing plants, they would have to clean off every scrap of soil, and ease out every scrap of ground elder root before replanting. I always recommend dunking the clumps in a bucket of water to wash the soil off the roots, so you can get out every last little bit, so off they went to fill some buckets with water.

Here we are on the second session, the end is in sight...  it took about another eight bags to finish off the job, and yes, it was tough going.

But so worth it!

We managed to save a lot of white Japanese Anemone, along with a rather unexpected rose bush.  I'm hoping this will be accommodated somewhere in the back garden, as we are planning to get two more climbing roses for the wall, to match those further along - Zephirine Drouhin, a lovely thornless rose.

Well, I say "lovely".... all roses are lovely, I think, but thornless roses are a particular boon to the hardworking Plantsmith, as you don't get scratched to death every time you prune them.

Here's the right-hand end, dug thrice, and with the central section having had an initial "firming down" as early preparation for the turf.

This is the part that involves walking like a duck up and down, all the weight on your heels, taking tiny steps, with passers-by looking at you curiously. Ignore them, it's essential to get the dug-over soil compacted, otherwise your new turf will rise and fall like green waves, and will look terrible.

There is a big difference, by the way, between soil that has been firmed down by duck-walking which is a good thing - and soil that is "compacted", which is a bad thing!

I now went away, callously leaving my friends with an empty bed (*laughs maniacally*) for a week, and instructions to keep an eye out for any regrowth of Ground Elder, and to spray any that they saw with glyphosate-based weedkiller.

The plan was to let it sit for a week like this, partly to check for regrowth, partly to let the soil settle, partly to give us time to do the initial planting of the borders without the complication of being unable to walk on the newly laid turf.

The plan worked well - there was a remarkably tiny amount of regrowth.  Most of it was at the back: it was very difficult to get all the Ground Elder out where it was growing in and through the old wall. However, persistence paid off, and my friends bravely continued zapping any bits they saw.

A week later the new plants arrived, and were duly put in place, which revealed just a few small bits of regrowth, easily removed and disposed of. As the soil had had a dense layer of weeds growing on it, I added some fish, blood and bone to the planting holes, to give the new plants a bit of a head-start, and reminded my friends to water them well.

Two weeks later (rain...) I returned: the rolls of turf had been collected from the garden centre that morning, so all I had to do was rake the centre section twice - firstly to get it level, secondly to get a nice tilth at the interface.

The first raking was using a "hard" rake, as opposed to a spring rake, holding it nearly parallel to the ground, and pushing and pulling very firmly. This takes the top off any high spots, and moves excess soil to any low spots. When I was happy that irregularities had been ironed out, I duck-walked over it one more time, to firm the soil. Then I did the second raking, to fluff up the top surface - which will be in contact with the underside of the turf. This also removes any stones and hard lumps, conveniently.

Now for the quick bit! Down goes the turf - green side up, stagger the joints, butt them very closely together, thump them down with your hand as you go, especially the joints, then don't let anyone walk on them.  Like carpet tiles, if you don't have a hard edge to the area, walking on them straight after laying will cause the strips to move apart. And if air gets into the joints, the turf will die, spoiling the effect and creating a lot of after-care.  Hence my instructions to my friends to stand on the drive and water the grass and the borders, without walking on them.

Here's how it looked, freshly laid:

 ...and here is the view from the other angle, showing the new section blending invisibly into the old section:

 That was the end of the main planting phase, and my friends were left with instructions to water the plants every day using a hosepipe while standing on the drive, and to water the grass as well while they were at it.

All that was back in May: here is what it looked like in July, just two months later:

Not bad, eh?

The new grass has knitted in well, it's now ready to be lightly mown , and the new plants are all settling in really well.

The roses are coming along well, although you can't see them as they are somewhat out-grown by the wall flowers, penstemons and hollyhocks.

As you can see, the tiny nepeta plants are really growing well, and I will be keeping them trimmed back very tightly, to prevent them getting floppy and woody.

Two months later I gave the nepeta their close trim to keep them neat, and did a thorough check for regrowth of ground elder. I would be lying if I said there was none at all, but what did appear was just tiny scraps, and easily dealt with: any found in the beds was eased out with a daisy grubber to avoid disturbing the new plants, and any found coming out of the wall was spritzed carefully with glyphosate.

As I had said to my friends right back at the beginning, there was always going to be some regrowth as the old wall was riddled with holes and quite possibly didn't have proper foundations, so the roots of the ground elder would be right the way under and through the wall.

But that's ok, as long as we keep an eye out for it and spritz all tiny new growth.

I went back last week and gave it a year-end once-over: cutting back the perennials for the winter, trimming any straggly bits of nepeta, planting bulbs for spring, and tying in the roses so they don't get battered over the winter.

Job done!

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Couch grass in the Ivy

Groan, I get this a lot... "how do I get couch grass out, when it's growing right in amongst my Iris?"

I'm afraid there is only one answer: you have to lift them, clean them, and replant them.

Here's a good example of the problem:

You can see where I've tried to weed all around them, bu there is grass growing right through the rhizomes, along with a few other weeds as well.

Trying to extricate these weeds will only risk damaging the Iris rhizomes, so you might as well bite the bullet and do the job properly.

Firstly, get a fork underneath the clump and loosen the soil. Do this from all angles around it, bit by bit.

Then gently lever out the clump, in one piece if you can.

If it's a particularly large or dense clump, then you may have to accept that there will be some casualties: ram the fork down in the middle of the clump and lever out one section at a time.

Once the plants are out of the ground, shake off as much soil as possible.

It's usually helpful to remove any dead or dying foliage at this point, and to cut what is left right down, both for ease of handling them now, and for reducing wind rock once they are replanted.

Once you can handle them, pick out every scrap of weed and grass root: it's usually easy to tell the difference, as the Iris roots are thick, white and fleshy,  whereas couch grass roots are thin,  wiry, and are often striped brown and white in sections.

You can see here that I have cut back the upper foliage. I tend to do a "sword" shape as that's how I was trained, but you can do one sloping cut if you prefer. It really doesn't matter!

This leaves us with handfuls of bare rhizomes, all with dangling white roots, but with no weed or grass roots in amongst them.  At this point you can check for damaged rhizomes: just cut off any damaged ends.

Now for the fun part, replanting!

Obviously, you will need to dig over the area from which you lifted them, to clear away any leftover grass roots and other weeds, and it's often a good opportunity to improve the drainage by adding grit or sand, if the soil is heavy. Iris don't like to be damp, especially over the winter. They also don't like rich soil, so don't bother adding compost or other organic matter, just remove the weeds and any large stones, then rake it roughly level.

If  you look at an individual rhizome, you can see that it's a fat sausage-shape, with leaves at the end, and a number of roots springing out from the sides.  The roots are often quite short, which makes it hard to plant them firmly without burying them completely.

The answer is to scoop the soil away from a central ridge, lay the Iris on top of the ridge, dangling the roots down both sides of the ridge, then press soil over the roots to hold the plant in place. Now you will see the point of reducing the "sail" of large leaves!

Typically, I failed to take a photo of this part of the process, for which I apologise, but it's not always possible for me to take lots of photos, as I am being paid to work, so I tend to just take a quick snap now and again.  This is why I offer Garden School sessions, where we can do these things together, and where you can ask as many questions as you like.

There we go, much better! I generally water them in, to give them a good send-off, then leave them to settle.

If, after a few days, you notice that any of them have fallen over, just push them back in place and, if necessary, pile some extra soil over them.

Traditionally it is considered important to have the rhizome clear of the soil, as they need to "bake" in the sun through the summer in order to flower well the following year. I have no idea if anyone has ever tried a proper experiment to see if this is the case, but it's certainly true that Iris, left to their own devices, will push themselves clear of the soil, and I think this is a good indicator that they prefer to grow in this manner.

Oh, and are you wondering why they are lined up neatly like soldiers in a row?  The reason is to get them facing the sun, and to prevent one set of leaves shading out the rhizome behind.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Compost contamination

Time for a grumble now: shop-bought compost.

I get through a lot of compost: propagating seeds, potting up the seedlings, and for potting on plants while they are growing, ready to be sold. People often ask me which compost I use, hoping to find a trade secret.  Alas, no secret, I buy the cheapest multi-purpose I can find, in the biggest possible bags.

The best value is usually to be found at Homebase or B&Q,  and for some time the B&Q own brand has been the best.

Gigantic 125 litre bags, tightly packed, and although I certainly can't lift them, I can "walk" them on their corners for short distances, and I use my sack-barrow for longer distances.

On buying them - about £7 each this year - I ask a member of staff to load them into my car, and when I get home I can pull and tilt them out of the back by myself.  Their heaviness means there is a slight penalty in buying the biggest size, but they are the best value: and often you can get a better price for buying three at a time.

To use them, I slit the top as close to the seam as possible, and about half the time they open up really easily with a "lip" of plastic which prevents the contents spilling out all over the floor. The other half of the time, the seams are welded too tightly, and you end up with - you've guessed it - the contents spilling all over the floor. But that only affects the top inch or two...

My procedure is to scoop the compost out of the bag into a bucket, then take the bucket over to my potting bench and sieve it using a coarse ¼" mesh. This removes all the contaminants, and leaves me with three piles: firstly a big pile of lovely fine sifted compost, ready for use: secondly a small handful of assorted rubbish, and thirdly a big double handful of compost "nuts" which are too large to go through the mesh. They are usually rounded woody bits, and they are perfect for top dressing after potting.

"Top dressing?" you say.  Yes, I find that a layer of compost nuts on top of the pot prevents a crust forming, making it easier to water them for months afterwards - the water goes straight in to the nut layer, then slowly soaks in, instead of running off the top.  It's also easier to get weeds out!

So what about the rubbish? Here you are, the contents of one single bag of Verve compost, patiently collected as I sieved each bucketful in turn:

Going round clockwise from top left - a large assortment of bits of plastic film, various colours and thicknesses.

Then a stack of little sticks - not exactly unexpected, but too big to want to leave them in my compost, most of them are 2-3" long (drat, should have put in a ruler for scale, sorry - it's one piece of A4 paper, if that helps). Under those, a selection of stones, all too large to go through the sieve.

Then, bottom right, some more wood, this time chunks rather than twigs. Bottom middle, glass.

Yes, GLASS. One very large clear bit, and several sharp slivers. This is why I always wear gloves when sieving my compost, and this is why, once sieved, I can pot up bare handed without accidents.

Just above the large piece of glass is a section of hard plastic with very sharp edges - glad to have got that one safely out of the way - then to the left, more assorted plastic shards.

Last year I went on a series of trips to various recycling plants, and I was intrigued to hear that at the garden waste processing plant, they are not allowed to bag up and sell the compost to the public, because they can't guarantee that it does not contain contamination - of the sort mentioned above. So they sell it to local farmers at a low price that just covers the cost of processing. Thus, incidentally, reducing our council tax and making that part of the process self-supporting, which is a very sensible way to run it.

But I am staggered (yes! I'm sitting down, but I'm still staggering!) that the council are not allowed to sell their material, yet B&Q are allowed to sell theirs, which contains a whole pile of non-organic matter.  Every single bag of bought compost I have ever had contains contaminants at about the level shown above. I always sieve out the nasty stuff, and by the end of a bagful, I always have about this much material.

To be fair to B&Q, they do print a warning: "wear gloves while handling this compost" on the bag, but to be fair to the users, I do think that as we are paying for this material, we should not expect it to contain glass, sharp plastic, and quite such a lot of plastic film. Wood and stones I can accept, but wherever they are getting this stuff from, I don't think much of their quality control.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

When I say "it will generate a lot of non compostable rubbish"...

... I am not kidding.

I get this a lot with one-off gardening jobs: someone calls me in to retrieve their garden before it gets too wild, and I hear myself asking them how they will get rid of the rubbish generated, as I don't have a Waste Licence.

I could get one, they only cost £30 a year, but I would have to take the garden waste up to a special site, a round trip of about 35 miles, and I would have to pay a further £20 per tonne for the actual disposal. Per tonne!  How am I supposed to accumulate and store a tonne of non-compostable garden waste such as prunings - famous for being massively bulky without generally being heavy - and when I have done so, how am I supposed to get them there? In my tiny little car?

So no, I don't have a waste licence, nor am I likely to. Clients have to dispose of their own waste: my regulars all have lots of compost heaps (I see to that!), they usually also have leaf mould pens, and they certainly have a bonfire pile. If I interview a client who doesn't have a bonfire pile, but who says casually "Oh, don't worry, I'll take anything you can't compost down to the tip", I'm afraid that I generally don't take on the job.

This is why:

Impressive, huh? Nearly as high as the ruined summerhouse, ten feet wide, and at least five or six yards long. This is about four months' worth since the last bonfire...

... and it's not that big a garden!

This material is made up of:

1) hard woody/shrubby material that won't compost  - although if you had a shredder and some patience, you could reduce the bulk and produce chippings which could be left in a neat heap to compost themselves: I would not add them to a traditional compost heap, I'd let them rot separately.

2) Herbaceous material cut down over winter, which contains too many seed-heads to risk putting it on the compost.  You could chop off all the tops and put just the stalks on the compost, but it's very time-consuming and somewhat tedious to do that. Includes things like asters, aquilegia - anything with a lot of seeds on top.

3) Pernicious weeds such as lemon balm, comfrey - things that tend to re-root themselves in the compost. Also includes the roots of bindweed, ground elder, nettles etc which, if put on the compost, would consider themselves to have been "planted" and would grow.

4) Nasty spiky stuff ie brambles, which are unpleasant to handle, don't rot even when shredded,  and are better burnt.

All these materials can't go on the compost heap, need to be disposed of, and would take a lot of time and effort to transport to the tip.

Now, I can hear you saying that a one-off job won't produce that mountain of waste, and you are right, but any overgrown garden will produce much more waste than the owner would think possible, and I am not comfortable with being blamed for it.  I was accosted once by a one-off Client from several months earlier, who complained that they were still working their way through the heaps of waste that I had left them - oops! Well, I did warn them...

... and now, as mentioned above, I will often regretfully refuse to take on such jobs. Instead, I sometimes recommend that they call in a "landscaping" firm who will slaughter everything and take away the mess, leaving the garden somewhat denuded, but at least it's clear, empty of waste, and the owner can then get to work on restoring it, or employing a proper gardener to replant and make it beautiful again.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Abbey House Gardens: closing down.

Earlier this year I heard the news that this glorious garden was closing, as the owners are divorcing and having to sell in order to split it, so I rushed down there to have one last look around.

In case you haven't been there, it's almost in the middle of Malmesbury, the couple (former couple) who own it are famously nudists, and garden in the nude, and allow nude open days where visitors leave their clothes at the entrance. In England! In our weather! *rolls eyes*

Luckily I have managed to only visit on "clothed" days, although I've seen Ian, the owner, in just boots and very brief shorts, which was quite shocking enough to someone who regularly comes home scratched, bleeding and covered in insect bites from my normal day's gardening in "normal" clothing, and who cannot imagine how battered I would be without any clothes at all.

 Here are a few snaps from the day - starting at the formal gardens, which I always enjoy, as I love the feel of formal gardens, as well as having a professional appreciation for the time it takes to get topiary into shape.

Here's a lovely example of "over and under" box hedges, and yes, that is a tortoise on the left.

He's not allowed to wander around at will, but it seems to take him quite a long time to get from one side of his pen to the other, so I guess he doesn't mind.

Here's another corner of the same "room", with another lovely variegated holly in the middle.

That thing on the right is possibly the biggest pot-made-into-water-feature that I have ever seen...

What a whopper!

I was trying to do an arty shot with the reflection of the house in it, but didn't quite get it right.

More topiary, this time they've carefully presented the date 2000, which is presumably the date they planted it.

I love the detail that goes into this sort of topiary - look at the elegant shape of the "2".

 Now this is what I call a water feature - a slender tapering spindle with water tumbling from the very tip, and shimmering all the way down to the bottom.

On a good day, it looks as though it is spinning in  place.

It's made of separate discs on a central pole, so you can just see through it - another lovely effect.

 Oh dear, another attempt at an arty shot between the hedges.
Now we get to the herbaceous beds, in the next section of the gardens: in a way, I enjoy seeing other gardens looking a bit messy and tired at this time of year (I went there in mid September) and this bed certainly looks as though it could do with a bit of attention!

I've seen the long borders very early in the year, and they are cunningly banked upwards from the path to the back, so that you get a much better layered effect once everything is in flower.

Another bed, another urge to get in there and weed it!
 The vegetable garden was looking particularly tired...
 ... and some of the beds looked as though they could do with a bit of structural attention.

Presumably, once it had become apparent that the owners' relationship was over, decisions were made not to indulge in the usual maintenance that you need to keep these raised beds looking good.

Leaving the formal gardens behind, I headed out the "back" to the wild area.

And there I found this cheeky little fellow growing on the hillside, as though he had the right to be there!

(Japanese knotweed, in case you don't know it.)

Minor digression - have you seen the size of the fish!!!

They have a big raised pond by the tea shop, in which they have a lot of Koi carp, a typical decorative fish for posh gardens.

I hadn't been for a couple of years, and I was staggered at how big they have grown.

OK, without anything to give it a sense of scale, it's hard to accept how huge they are, but please believe me that this one is well over two foot long, and I doubt I could get a grip on his body, even using both hands around the middle.

Not that I would ever try, of course!

They are very inquisitive and friendly, as the staff take pains to feed them when the visitors are looking, and they give small paper cups of fish food to little kiddies.

 Moving down into the wooded area, I was very saddened to see that so many of the Tree Ferns have died.

I remember when they were newly planted here, they were "the in thing" and it was very enviable to see how many of them had been planted.

Sadly, though, they are now looking more like a petrified forest than a flourishing jungle.
 Here's one of those odd little things that catches my eye and intrigues me - here's a lovely dry-stone retaining wall along by the house, beautifully built, but look, there's one big block sticking out!

Why? Why? I want to know!

As there was no-one to ask, I headed on down to the lake, looking very jungly in the September sunshine.

And here is their funny little tump - it's the spoil heap from digging out the ponds below, apparently, so they have made a virtue of it by adding spiral paths and a cute little hut at the top.

Heading back up to the house again, on my way out I took another snap of this lovely topiary, I love the use of the two colours to emphasise the shapes.
And finally a quick plant snap - I don't usually take many photos of plants (well, I do, but they are never worth looking at!) but this was irresistible: ever seen one of these?

It's a Fascicularia bicolour.

"What?" I hear you cry.

It's a Bromelaid, which are mostly aerial tropical jungle plants which have to be grown as houseplants over here.

Not this guy!

It likes full sun, and it likes being well-drained, but apart from that it will grow in most of the UK quite happily, outdoors all year round.

It's not as spiky as it looks, and in late summer the leaves start to turn this very bright scarlet. In a good year, this is followed by a bright blue flower, apparently.

I was kindly given one by a fellow Professional Gardener earlier this year, which I split up and potted on, and I have high hopes that in a year or two I'll have a surplus of them ready for sale.

So there you have it, my last trip round an interesting and contemporary garden, now sadly up for sale but, even more sadly, well out of my reach.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Gardening in Varifocals

Last year I was told by my optician that I would have to start wearing varifocals, which induced a bit of drama-queen panic ("omg I'd OLD!!") and which raised the question, would it affect my working in gardens?

To my surprise, there was nothing on the internet about it. I googled "gardening in varifocals" and there was nothing at all.  I got a lot of information about varifocals, and a lot of pages of complaints, but nothing specifically about gardening.

Later that week, at Book Club, I asked the other members if any of them were varifocalled - unlike bi-focals, you can't see it in the lenses, more of that in a moment - and two of them were. One gave me the usual tales of falling up and down stairs, the other said the varifocals were great in normal life, but she couldn't garden in them other than on the flat parts of her garden: she said it was impossible to work on her steep rockery, as she kept thinking she was going to fall off.

Not very encouraging, eh?

Specsavers assured me that if I couldn't get on with the varifocals, they would change them for either bi-focals, or two pairs of specs, one for distance, one for reading, at no charge. So I went ahead.

Now, if you are reading this post, you must by definition have a bit of interest in the subject, so I'll quickly explain exactly what varifocals are.

Firstly, you know what normal specs do - they are lenses that go in front of your eyes, they compensate for your own eyes' shortcomings, and present your eyes with a tweaked version of reality which, when it gets to your brain, is perfectly in focus.

At some point, as your vision changes over time, you reach a point where you can see the distance clearly, but you can't see close-up any more, so you end up with two pairs of glasses: one for distance, one for reading, which can be a bit of pain.

So to make bi-focals. the optical laboratory take your distance glasses, then insert a small piece of your reading glasses at the bottom, so you look through the top in normal use, and look through the insert to read. Two pairs in one!

They are clearly visible from the outside, as little half-moon shapes within the lenses (right).

For varifocals, the laboratory "smooth out" the join between the insert and the main lens,  and there is in fact a third zone at the top of the half-moon, which is part-way between distance and reading.

This means that you get three pairs in one!

The benefits are that you don't have a visual "jump" between one lens and the other, and the third zone is perfect for computer use, which is not as close as you hold a book, but is too close to be seen through the distance lens.

Some people don't like the fact that others can immediately see that you have bi-focals: it's a vanity thing for them, so they like varifocals because they look just like normal specs.

The problems with varifocals are much the same as those you get with bi-focals, ie adjusting to the change. Common problems are stairs - you look ahead at the stairs, which is fine, but then when you glance down to see where your feet are going, you are suddenly looking through the reading lens, which means they appear to be a lot closer. Other people complain of things swinging towards them and away from them as they move their eyes up and down: also there is the "nodding dog" phenomenon that you often see with people wearing bi-focals, as they tilt their head up and down to get the object they are looking at into the right zone of their lenses.

I'd read all about these, I'd heard many horror stories from friends (and from complete strangers, I'll talk to anyone) about how long it took to adjust: some people take weeks, one friend said it took her three months to get used to them.

All this was quite worrying. Then I talked to one lady who said briskly that it took her just 20 minutes to get used to them, and that they were wonderful.

At last! Something positive.

A week later, I collected my new specs, declined to wear them straight out of the shop, but instead took them home and waited for the weekend. After all those stories of stumbling around, headaches, and so on, I thought it would be better to try them out while not having to work and drive....

I put them on, and went out for a walk. At the very first kerb I did a massive mis-step and wobbled around with one foot in the air, feeling silly: by the end of the road I'd forgotten I was wearing them, and took the kerb without thinking. Half an hour later, I'd completely forgotten about them, apart from the pains in the nose and behind the ears that I always get with new specs.

Brilliant is the word I would use for varifocals. Absolutely bloody brilliant. I can see number plates from miles away, I can read road signs long before I get to them, I can see the individual leaves on the trees, and I can still read my watch, my phone, my books, the computer, the dashboard of the car etc, all with one pair of glasses.

So, how about the gardening, then?

In general, no problem at all. I don't find that steps disappear, I don't find things swimming in and out of view, I clamber up and down steep banks with no more problem than ever before, I use all sorts of steps, and I can read labels and packets with ease.

However, there are one or two oddities about varifocals that are worth mentioning.

Firstly, it's a lot easier to turn your head than to swivel your eyes round - although this might be because I have a high prescription, which means my lenses are quite thick. I find that when crossing roads on foot, I do now tend to look right over my shoulder rather than just a quick glance. One person had mentioned this - she said "you can no longer scan a room, you have to look at each thing individually" which didn't make sense when she said it, but now I can see what she meant. This does not mean that I look like an owl, just that I'm getting a little more neck exercise than I used to. And as I said, I think this is more to do with my high prescription than with the varifocals.

Secondly, I have learned to accept that good light is now more important for reading, and this is part of getting older. It's easy to blame the specs, when really all you need is a better light. I now have a super-bright kitchen with LED spotlights instead of the old single hanging bulb, and it's much easier to prepare food etc.

Finally, there is one odd position that gardeners get into that causes a problem: when you are bending right over, it's not possible to read or see small details because your neck won't bend up like a flamingo.  As I have a "bad" knee, I rarely kneel down on the ground, I usually just bend right over and work half-upside-down, and I have found that in some situations, I can't clearly see the base of the plant. This is a small price to pay, and I have learned to adjust my position by either kneeling on one knee, or by crouching momentarily.

It's the same problem I have reading the gas meter, which is in a cupboard at ground level: I have to crouch down to get close to it, then I find I'm looking through the distance zone instead of the reading zone. This was quite a puzzle at first: in the end I found that shining a torch on the dial helped, by increasing the light level.

So on balance, I would say that if you are about to plunge into bi-focal or varifocal life, and you are concerned about it (for gardening, or just for normal life), then fear not, it's not as bad as it sounds. People are always very vocal when things go wrong, which is why the internet is full of horror stories, whereas people who are happy with things, ie the vast majority, don't feel moved to get on the internet and talk about it.

My personal advice would be to get a friend to hold your hand or your arm the first time you go out for a walk in the new glasses, and to distract you with conversation about the weather, so that you don't "think" about them. Just get out there and do it, relax, and hopefully you will find it as easy to adjust to them as I did.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

How to: Cut back Aquilegia

Aquilegia - also known as Columbine, or Granny's Bonnets, a staple plant of cottage style planting, and a generous self-seeder. 

There's nothing quite like a mass of them to create the pretty, frothy effect so sought-after in informal planting, but left to their own devices, they can take over your borders and can become quite a nuisance.

My "management style" for this plant is two-fold: firstly, after flowering, cut them back and cut them back hard;  and secondly, buy named varieties, and be ruthless about weeding out the seedlings, as most of them will revert to the usual blue.

Which is not to say that blue is bad, of course, but why have the plain old ones, when you can buy really beautiful ones?

Here's a selection from Chiltern Seeds: I'm not specifically recommending them, just using their picture to illustrate the variety you can have these days:

Aren't they gorgeous?

So that's my second piece of advice - buy some lovely ones to start with, and weed out any seedlings.

Or, should I say, leave a few seedlings but weed out most of them, especially the ones which pop up too close to other plants. Sadly, these beauties above won't come "true" from seed, but you might get something interesting.. or they might all come up plain blue, who knows!

Working backwards, then, my first piece of advice is in respect of dead-heading. Most people are far too gentle with their dead-heading, and just nip off the actual dead flower. This leaves an unattractive blunt stem sticking up, which does no-one any good.

So part one of dead-heading is to cut off the flowering stem right down to ground level. That leaves you with a mass of foliage, some of which is new, some of which is old. 

If you leave it at that, then in a month's time you'll have a mound of mostly dead foliage, looking battered and untidy, but with some fresh new growth inextricably in amongst it.

So my method is to be ruthless: after you've taken out the flowering stem right down to the ground, cut off all the old leaves as well.


As you can see, a mound of somewhat tatty foliage, and some old flowering stems.

Stage one: cut out all the flowering stems, and also cut out the majority of the leaves.

The original plant is by my foot, there are two piles of cut stems and leaves, to give you an idea of what proportion of material is removed.

As you can see, all that is left is a handful of short, new, leaves.

Stage two: rake through what is left of the plant with either your fingers, or a small hand tool.

As you can see, and as you would expect, I use my faithful Daisy Grubber for this operation.

Raking through removes all the dead material, and any leaves or other bits which have fallen onto the plant over the previous few weeks.

Raking out the rubbish lets air and light into the centre of the plant, reducing the risk of slug or snail attack, and reducing the risk of fungal diseases such as mildew.

The result might seem to be heartlessly bare, but the plant will reward you by putting on a spurt of new growth, and in a few weeks you will have a neat dome of fresh new foliage, which will continue to look nice until the end of summer, when you repeat the process but even more drastically.