Garden School:


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

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.