Garden School:


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

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

East Hanney OPEN GARDENS coming up in June


Shameless self-promotion time: come and see one of my gardens!

Sunday June 14th, two lovely private gardens are opening in East Hanney, to raise money for The Brain Tumour Charity.

Entrance is just £5, one fee to cover both gardens, and they are open from 2-5pm.

The two gardens are only a hundred yards or so apart, and are both interesting in very different ways.

Jasmine Cottage is owned by a very nice lady called Jill, who has all sorts of interesting plants in her garden. Last time I went round it, nearly all the plants were labelled, which is always an added layer of interest to gardeners: and I must add a plea at this point, to visitors: please don't pinch the labels! If you want to remember what something is, write it down!!  (I have no patience with visitors who steal labels, tread on the beds, or take cuttings or seeds, and anyone caught doing so will be publicly shamed by me shouting "Oy!" loudly at them, then ejecting them from the garden, so be warned!)

The Mulberries is one of "my" gardens, it is quite large, and has some interesting artwork, as well as a huge Mulberry tree - unsurprisingly - and a lot of quite lovely plants.

It also has the Possibly Prettiest Garden Seat in the West, as written about, so you will have the chance to see it for yourself.

If you are in the area on that Sunday, do pop in to have a look round and to support this very worthwhile charity: there will be plants for sale at both gardens, and I will be there with some of my Miniature Pot Gardens as well.



Sunday, 24 May 2015

Baby birds in the shrubbery.

Yes, it's nesting season, and I was clipping the lawn edges around the shrubbery the other day, when I distinctly heard the sound of little birds cheeping - but it was coming from close in front of me.

Two minutes of panther-like stalking around the shrubbery and I had located the nest: inside a garden sculpture!

There it is, "Dior", surrounded by Peonies and other shrubs, and emitting shrill cheeping sounds.

The parent birds - Great Tits - were shuttling to and fro while I worked my way along the border, and each visit was accompanied by hungry cheeping.

Here is a short video - you will need your sound turned up to hear them cheeping. I wasn't able to get a video of the adults because, as I hope you appreciate,  I was working at the time, so I couldn't take the time to stand there and wait for them. But they were in and out every couple of minutes, non-stop.


I have no idea why they have not been flooded out, as the sculpture is open at the top, and it has rained quite heavily in the last few days.

Hopefully, they will survive!

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Field Guide to Identifying Speedwells in the UK

"Oh no!" I hear you say.

"Not another plug for another Field Guide!"

Yes! Yet another Field Guide has been published, this time dealing with the confusion that is Speedwells, or Veronica as they should be known.

They are those little blue-flowered things that are "not Forget-me-not": Forget-me-not have five petals, whereas Speedwell all have four, so that's quite a good start.


Here it is, available now on Amazon Kindle, free if you belong to Amazon Prime or the lending thing.

I still haven't quite figured out how that works, but it seems that you pay a subscription, and you get to "borrow" ebooks for free. I don't know if they are automatically wiped after a set time, or whether you get to keep them (in which case it's not exactly borrowing, is it?), but they are free.

If  you don't belong to either of those services, don't worry, you can download it for FREE this very weekend. Saturday and Sunday 16th and 17th May.

So go on, give it a go: let me know what you think about it, and if you like it, leave a good Review on Amazon.

Coming soon... Umbellifers. Yes, they are not all Cow Parsley!

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Wheelie Bin storage..

... fail!

No-one likes having to look at the hideous plastic wheelie bins, so most people hide them behind a screen of some sort.

Everyone does it like this:


 ...which makes it easy to lift the lid and put things in, but then when it is time to wheel it outside for collection - oh dear, the handle and the wheels are now at the back.  So you have to lift up the front lip and drag it forwards, before wiggling it around so you can get hold of the handle.

And it weighs a ton, because it is full.

Instead, position the storage/disguising bays across the front of your garden facing out onto the street. Or sideways on to your drive, with the panel on the drive side.  Put a stout post at each end, and make the long panel hinged.

Fill the bins from the garden side, easy to lift the lids.

On bin day, swing open the hinged panel, grab the handle, and trundle them straight out onto the street.

Easy.

Incidentally, don't put your landfill or recycling bins out unless they are nearly full. Neither of them should have anything remotely biodegradable in them, so they shouldn't start to smell: and by putting out a quarter-full bin every fortnight, you are increasing the time taken by the binmen to do their round.  It takes no longer to empty a full wheelie bin than to empty a nearly-empty one.

If everyone in a low-waste household did this, it could cut the time taken for the trucks to go round, thus reducing the frequency of us getting delayed in going to work because the bin lorry is clogging up our streets. It might even give the bin men enough spare time to pick up the mess they make! OK, separate issue....

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Compost: you know you've got it right when...

... passers-by stop to admire it.

Recently, one of my Clients told me they'd had a wildlife group visiting the garden, and on their way around the garden the group stopped dead, transfixed by my super-neat compost.

Admittedly, it was looking very nearly at its best, with the sharply-cut edge showing just how thick, dark and peaty the contents are.

Apparently they stopped and stared in awe, then asked how it was done.

My Client, bless them, told them it was all down to their wonderful gardener *blushes* and the group walked on, muttering amongst themselves in envy.

It always makes me laugh when people admire this particular compost heap, as it breaks all the rules: it has a solid slab bottom, solid sleeper sides, no aeration, no contact with the soil for worm access, and I never, ever stir it, mix it, turn it, add activator or anything.

All I do is pile in the herbaceous material, and stand over it with a sword to prevent anyone else adding any forbidden material such as perennial weed roots, citrus, egg shells (yes! don't put egg shells on your compost, they don't rot!) meat scraps and potato/tomato. And non-organic matter, of course.

I also ask my Clients not to put those horrible corn-starch bags in the compost: there is a huge difference between bio-degradeable and compostable, and corn-starch bags will not rot in a domestic sized compost heap - they need the huge scale of the industrial facilities in order to decompose.

(I wrote about these in my three articles on garden waste,  on kitchen waste,  and in case you are interested in reading about the full set, about general recycling.)

I also, as you will remember if you read this blog regularly, take pains to "manage"  my compost heaps: in a nutshell, that means build rectangular pens (throw away those horrible plastic daleks!) fill all the corners, don't make a pyramid in the middle, not too much grass at once, and don't ever cover them with carpet.  And, to make it all really simple and easy to operate, have three of them on the go, and make them at least a yard square. Size really is everything, when composting, and too small simply won't work.

So there you have it: when passers-by stop to admire your compost, you know you are doing it right!

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Ground Elder removal

Ground elder.. even saying the name makes me grind my teeth together.

If Gollum had lived in Oxfordshire, I am sure he would have been heard to say "ground elder - we hates it, my precious, we hates it."

I've written about removing ground elder before, but here it is again: I was recently asked to retrieve a bed which had become completely infested with ground elder.

See? I am not exaggerating, it was completely infested. You can see where I have started digging it out, removing the top inch or two of soil.

How to deal with this situation?

Firstly, ask the Client if there are any precious plants in the bed.

You usually get the answer "Well, there used to be some lovely Xxx but we haven't seen them for the last couple of years.."

Not surprising, eh? They will have been completely swamped by the ground elder.

In this case, the answer was that there were some Peonies there, once upon a time, and would I please rescue them.

(Drat! Much easier to just dig over the whole thing!)

This entailed a hands-and-knees search for any sign of Peony buds, which revealed one tiny emerging bud.

So that was carefully dug up, all scraps of ground elder root were gently removed, and the Peony was set aside to be replanted later.

Then it was onward! Dig for victory!

I apologise that there is no easy answer to this one, you just have to Dig Once, Dig Twice, Dig Thrice.

Dig Once - dig out as much of the rotten stuff as you can. My technique is to insert the fork and lever it about halfway up, but not so far as to start tearing the roots. Then remove it, and reinsert a couple of inches away, and repeat. By loosening the soil in all directions,  you will find that you when you go back to the beginning and lift a forkful, the roots will "run" out of the loose soil, so  you get great long streamers of roots, instead of constantly breaking them off.

This is weirdly satisfying, in a funny sort of way.

Dig Twice - having gone over the entire patch as above, go over it again, this time methodically, starting in one corner and working your way across and back. This time, dig in the fork, lever it up, and "bounce" the soil on the prongs of the fork. A surprising quantity of ground elder roots will then appear, as the soil is jiggled off of them.

As an aside, I have still not decided if it is better to dig from the back to the front, which means that you are treading on the bits you are about to dig, thus compressing the soil and making it harder to dig - or should you start at the front, which means easier digging, but once you have finished, you have to go over the whole thing again to dig over your footprints?  I have no answer to this conundrum, and would welcome all comments on the subject.

Having done that, you then have to Dig Thrice to get all the bits you missed. 

Trust me, if you were to go over it a fourth time, you would still find bits of roots, but you have to draw the line somewhere, and I think three times is enough, if you do it thoroughly each time.  There will, inevitably, be some re-growth of the weed, whether it is ground elder, bindweed, or couch grass (all three require the same regime to remove them) but at least any regrowth will be from short, isolated pieces of root, which will be easy to remove as soon as they sprout leaves, as they don't have the massive interconnected root system of the original infestation.

I should add, at this point, that if your weed-infested bed has plants in it that are worth saving, you should put them aside - I usually spread out a large piece of plastic to protect the lawn, and toss any possible savings onto it - and at the end, go back and sort through them. Shake off as much soil as you can, and gently pull the weed roots through and out. Again, this applies to the Big Three of weeds: ground elder, bindweed and couch grass. If a clump is so badly infested that  you can't easily get the weed roots out, then bin it. There is no point spending half an hour trying to winkle out the weeds, then planting it, only to find that a fortnight later it is an island of weed in your lovely clear bed. Don't waste your time, bin it. If something is particularly precious, dabble it in a bucket of water to wash all the soil off, then try again to pull the weed roots through and out. 

If all else fails, and you really, really want to save the plant, pot it up and give it a couple of weeks to see if it is "clean" before you replant it. Or, if it is a herbaceous perennial, try splitting it up into several smaller plants: by breaking up the rootball you may be able to extract the weed roots. In all cases, don't just yank at them until the snap, that will do no good at all - you have to be able to pull them gently all the way through and out.

I should also, at this point, remind you not to attempt to compost the weed roots you have removed, or the rootballs of any perennials that have proved to be unworthy of saving. Don't compost them! If you do, you will end up with a compost heap full of weeds!! Burn them, or put them into your Green Waste bin where they will go off to the local Council waste treatment site, where they will be composted at a heat which is sufficient to kill them. If you don't have a Green Waste bin or a bonfire, the only option is to spread the infested material out on plastic sheets and leave it in the sun to dry for a couple of weeks, to ensure it is really dead, before you compost it. And even then, I would recommend putting it in a separate compost bin, so that if it is not dead, at least it won't have contaminated your main compost bins.


And here it is, all dug over thrice, with a handful of rescued Iris heeled in roughly to keep them alive for now, with the Peony scraps as well.

Hopefully the Client will remember to keep them watered for a couple of weeks... I always suggest, as mentioned above,  leaving a newly-cleared bed for at least a fortnight, to give those roots a chance to show themselves before we replant the bed.

It is then very easy to lift out any tiny scraps that have the nerve to re-grow.


In this particular bed, I found a considerable quantity of rocks, crocks and broken glass: apparently that bed was used by former occupants of the house as a rubbish dump, and all sorts of bits keep turning up in the soil.

It's amazing to think that only a generation or two ago, householders thought it was perfectly acceptable to throw out broken crockery and bottles, tins and old bits of metal, simply into a heap in the garden.

I can only assume that they weren't trying to grow anything on this side of the garden, at that time. The reason for collecting this rubbish in a bucket, by the way, is that the Client asked me to keep all "findings" aside for them to check through, as they display all interesting bits and pieces. Sure enough, there was quite a lot of what is called contemporary glass and crocks - as always, lots of blue and white "willow pattern", some rather 50s-looking dark cerise pottery with gold banding, probably a coffee cup, and some rather lovely green-on-white transfer printed crockery. Oh, and an enormous old key!

The best items were added to the display, and the rest went off to landfill: the weeds went off to the bonfire heap, and the Client announced it was time for a cup of tea after all that hard work. As for me, I finished off the border, tidied up a couple of shrubs and headed home for my own tea...


Saturday, 2 May 2015

Bramble Removal: invaders from next door.

My original article on Bramble removal: How To Do It is now getting very long and complex, with lots of questions and discussion, so I thought it was time to start a new one.

Mike asked about how to deal with a situation where you share a boundary with a bramble-infested patch.

This is a really difficult situation, whether it is "rough" land that no-one maintains, or whether it is a neighbour who refuses to do anything about their invading jungle.

Firstly, to clarify, brambles don't so much "destroy" fences, as invade over, under and through them: in this respect they're not quite as bad as ivy which forces a way inbetween the slats/panels/bricks, then thickens up the shoots until the fence or wall is literally split apart.

Bramble are less damaging - they only live for 2 years (that is, each individual "cane" or "stem" only lives for 2 years: they last for years when dead, and there are new ones appearing every year) so they don't have the ability to squeeze through gaps then thicken up and destroy the fence.

However, they will reach their limbs over and grab at you as you pass: and of course they will be setting seed, ie blackberries, which passing birds will gleefully drop on your side of the fence, so you will have to be constantly alert for tiny seedlings.

In my experience, if you have brambles invading over or through a fence, the worst thing you can do is chop them off as soon as they get within reach.

Nearly all plants respond to chopping - or "pruning" as they see it - by sending lots of growth hormones to the cut stem and sending out a whole bunch of new stems from the damaged one.

This is how grass gets thicker, the more we cut it.

So if you cut a bramble stem, the cut end will branch out and grow several thinner stems, with huge energy, in a rather hydra-like way, so you will end up with an even worse problem.

The answer - and this is particularly appropriate and rather amusing with the "bad neighbour" scenario - is to tuck the new growth back to their side of the fence. If the stems are long and whippy, flick them back over the fence until they catch on their own lower growth. If they are short and stout, and have only just started encroaching, tuck them firmly back on themselves, behind the fence.

This works for ivy, as well.

That way, they continue to grow at the standard pace, as opposed to the "I've just had my tip eaten so forward, troops! Grow, quickly!" pace. And they are growing on their side, not your side.

If they are coming through gaps in a slatted wooden panel fence, what you need to do it to stuff them back through to the other side: cut them off so there is only about 4" on your side, double it over and push the cut end back through the same hole in the fence, then push the whole loop back until it pops out on their side.

I use my trusty daisy-grubber for this job, as it is thin enough to slide between fence slats without damaging them.

Often, you will find that by pushing the stem back, the fence slat will "pop" back into place, so you know you've done it correctly. The point of cutting the stem off to about 4" is only to make it easier for you to manage, by the way - and yes, I usually pop the offcuts back over to their side. *evil laugh*. Well, it's their plant...

So, what would I recommend for Mike's situation? The brambles from the green belt land next door are 8' high and invading: they destroyed an earlier fence, so the previous owners put up a wire fence, which is just about the least useful thing you can do with brambles, as it offers no resistance at all.  Mike would like a "green" solution, and asks if any hedging would be bramble-resistant.

Right, last point first: No. No hedging will put up the slightest resistance to brambles: brambles will go straight through anything you plant, and will in fact enjoy the protection of the hedging, as it will be impossible for you to keep them at bay.

"Green" solution: access the land from the other side, then invest a bit of time to go round there with a machete and chop back a strip of brambles 3-4' from your boundary. If you can't get round from the other side, lean over your wire fence far enough to clear a foot or so beyond the fence, and once you have enough room to work, you can clamber over and work your way all along the other side of your fence.

Cut off the top growth and get rid of it (naughty suggestion: toss it futher back into the green belt land. If no-one is watching) then go back over the strip and cut every stem down to just below ground level.  Why? read on....  This would create an exclusion zone keeping them off your fence: if you made a gate or opening in your fence, you could mow along this strip once a month or so, all year round, to cut off the regrowth. Aha, now you see why I said cut them to soil level - so you don't spoil your mower.

If you don't want to mow, you will have to spend more time and energy in digging out the roots, as per the other bramble post, so you might prefer to accept that they are going to regrow, and run the mower over them as often as is needed.

The benefits of the exclusion zone are:

It gets the brambles off your boundary, so you can put up whatever type of fence you want.

Disadvantages: depending on who uses the green belt land, it might remove a superb anti-burglar barrier.

Once you have done it, you can plant a hedge on your side so you don't have to look at the ugly wire fence and the backdrop of brambles: but on the other hand, once you have controlled them, it might be nice to be able to see the flowers, and the bees, and the blackberries. Your choice.

Oh, I suppose I have to say it: once you have made an exclusion zone, you could, if you wished, lean over the back fence with a weedkiller spray a couple of times a year to keep it down. Please note that I am not recommending that, just saying it. *laughs*

I suppose that if it were my garden (bearing in mind I don't know how big it is) I would clear the exclusion zone, make a gateway at one side or the other, then plant a hedge in two overlapping parts; oh blow, I need to do a sketch, hold on:



Hilarious, there you go, instant "back of an envelope" sketch, annotated.

So the hedge runs inside the fence, with one long section, overlapping a shorter section, which hides the gate, the compost bins, the leaf mould pens, the grass piles, or even a garden shed, who knows. The gate lets you get out to maintain the exclusion zone.

This works equally well if the land is at the end of the garden (which I have sort of assumed) or at the side. I would, if it were mine,  probably plant a couple of small ornamental trees within the hedge line to give a bit of height.  Talking of height, how high would I let the hedge grow? Hmmm, high enough to hide the brambles, I suppose.

What sort of hedge? If the idea is to hide an ugly view, I'd plant an evergreen hedge, something that flowers like an escallonia would be lovely: or a Viburnum, again, you get flowers: or a variegated laurel, Aucuba japonica , which some people hate: I quite like the golden-variegated ones for a splash of colour, but they do tend to look the same all year round. Laurel can easily become a looming, overbearing presence but it's thick, glossy, can be cut back really hard if it gets away, and hides things all year round.

Or even Beech: looks lovely in spring, pretty enough all through the summer and, if you keep it clipped and down to less than about 6', it will hold the dead leaves all over the winter, so it never goes really bare. Personally I'm less keen on looking at dead leaves all winter, but that's just my opinion.

So there you go, Mike, hope this has answered a few of your questions and has given you a few things to think about - and do let me know how it works out!