Garden School:

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

Friday, 30 December 2016

Garden Hygiene II: moving plants

I've already covered General Garden Hygiene, of self and tools, next time I'll be covering Disinfection, but for now we move on to the issue of moving plants between gardens.

This is a very large part of gardening: new plants are bought, old ones are lifted, split and given away, so there is a constant stream of plants coming in and out of the garden.

One of the biggest joys of gardening, to me, is the way that garden owners are so generous with their plants: I seem to spend a lot of time potting up divisions or cuttings to be given to neighbours, and of course, like all Professional Gardeners, I am forever bringing home poor sad orphans that I've been instructed to dig up and bin.  They are then nursed back to life and hopefully rehomed.

Also, if Client A is looking for a particular plant, and I happen to know that Client B has some, I can often arrange a swap.

So how do you avoid bringing pests, bugs, and diseases into your garden?

The first and most obvious is to always check incoming plants, whether bought or given, and in the case of plants which are particularly susceptible to problems, such as Box for hedging or topiary, put them into quarantine. Also, and I hate to say this, but if you know the garden from which they've come, and if you know that this garden has a particular problem, then consider if it is worth the effort to decontaminate the plant, or whether it is better to quietly "lose" it in the green waste bin or bonfire heap.

OK, "check all incoming plants", easy enough to say but what does this mean in practical terms?

When someone buys or brings in a plant, don't immediately plant it: take the time to have a good look at it.

Firstly turn it upside down over your potting table, or on the patio, and give it a good shake, to see if anything with legs falls out of the foliage.

Next, check the foliage: does it have notches (indicative of Vine Weevils) or brown patches which might be disease: are the leaves skeletonised, in which case there may be caterpillars still lurking on it: and so on.

Finally, de-pot it and look at the roots: are there any Vine Weevil grubs? Are there great gaping gaps in the rootball, indicating woodlice activity? Is it crawling with ants? Is it full of slugs? Is it so packed with roots that you can't see any soil at all between them?

Deal with these problems before putting the plant out into the garden, otherwise you are just introducing more problems. And when I say "deal with them...."

A. Things with legs fall out. Squish them. If they are Vine Weevils (matte black snouty things), scream loudly and throw the whole pot, soil and all, into the garden waste bin or onto the bonfire.

B. Damage to foliage. Assess it: notches = Vine Weevil, see A. Skeletonised leaves = caterpillars, check it very carefully and pick off all the little blighters. Squish them, or put them on the bird food table. Big 'oles in leaves and silvery highlights = slugs/snails, see B. Oh, this is B.Well, clean them off and squish them. Don't put them on the bird food table as slugs are quicker than birds. Well, you know what I mean - not "quicker" in the get-set-go! sense, but they'll have scarpered before the birds noticed they were there.

C. Depot and check roots. Vine Weevil grubs: see A. Ant infestation: see A. Full of slugs? See B, remove slugs. Ditto for woodlice - I really, really don't like them, but they don't (apparently) do much lasting damage to a plant, if you are about to plant it out in the garden. Although I would shake off as much of the soil as possible....

Right, you've checked the plant for nasty creepy-crawlies, you've discarded any that are polluted beyond redemption, and now you have either a nice plant, or a root-bound one. In both cases, I like to shake off as much of the original soil as possible. My reasoning is that the plant is going to have to get used to "our" soil sooner or later, and I'd rather it were sooner, on the grounds that if it's going to keel over, better to do it now, before I get emotionally attached to it. And if it's root-bound, then it will take forever to thrive if I don't help by unwinding and/or cutting off those gnarly, tightly-wound roots.

Box plants are a special case: now that Box Blight is running amok all over the country, you really don't want to accidentally bring it into your garden, so inspect Box plants particularly carefully. Look for any signs of brown patches on the leaves, or any spots or pustules on them - and don't forget to check the underside of the leaves as well. Push the branches apart so you can check the inner areas, too.

If you find any signs, look up "box blight symptoms" on the internet, and click on the Images tab, so you can see exactly what you should be looking out for.

Of course, there are things other than blight which affect Box - leaf miners, rust, to mention two - but frankly if you are bringing in Box plants to a garden, you are expecting to have them there for many years, so you really want to start with clean, healthy plants: so if they show any sort of damage to the leaves, reject them. Send 'em back! Demand a refund!

Even if they appear to be perfect, keep them in quarantine for a while - in the UK, the prevailing wind is from the south west, so put them in the north east corner of your garden, keep them watered and keep a close eye on them for at least 2-4 weeks, before planting them out. Why is the prevailing wind relevant? Because box blight is spread by spores: they splash up from infected soil onto the foliage, and they blow off and float away on the wind. So it makes sense to put the on the down-wind side of your garden so that any spores don't get spread across your entire garden.

These simple precautions should be enough to prevent unnecessary infections: there will always be something that slips through, but by checking, cleaning and quarantining, you should be able to prevent anything new appearing: and although it's easy to say "constant vigilance", but not so easy to do it, you can at least make it a regular part of your garden routine to walk round and look at your plants, to see if any of them are looking less than healthy.

The third and final part of this series, "Garden Hygiene III: first Sterilise your Secateurs..." is now published!

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Ferns: how to cut them back properly

It's the tail end of the year, the ferns are starting to look brown and 'orrible, so if you have not already done them, it's time to cut them back.

As with most annual herbaceous pruning, my motto is "do it once, do it hard".

Talking of which - slight digression here - it drives me mad when people chop the tops off their herbaceous perennials when they have finally finished flowering, leaving about 2' of stalk jutting up. Why? Why? It's halfway between dead-heading and proper pruning, it looks terrible, and you only have to go round and do it again. And when I say "you",  you know that I mean....

So just do it properly the first time: prune back the flowered stalks of your herbaceous perennials right down to the ground.  This includes plants like Asters (Michaelmas Daisy), Phlox, Japanese Anemone,  etc.  And even more than the dying 2' stem, I hate the knuckle-spearing 3" stems: you know what I mean, where people chop the stems, usually at a sharply-sloped angle, just at that height that, when you are instructed to clear out the debris, they can cause pain and anguish by stabbing your knuckles. Grrr.

This also applies to Ferns:  here is a classic case of a fern that was cut back not-quite-hard-enough:

I mean, what is this? It looks like nothing on earth: you can't see the new fronds, and the mess of dying brownery will attract slugs and snails for the next several months.

What a waste!

To me, one of the joys of late spring is watching the ferns beginning to unfurl those elegant, complicated new fronds (leaves), and the way they open up from a tight, unpromising brown knob.

How can you see that, with all this dead brown matter in the way?

In the case of this poor thing, (which is actually a photo from last spring) I had to spend ten minutes carefully and delicately cutting out those short brown stems without damaging the tender unfurling new fronds. Then I had to try to gently rake out the debris, again, without damaging the new growth.

It's an awful lot easier to just do the job right the first time: so when you cut back the dead or dying parts of your ferns, go right back down to the base before you make the cut. You won't hurt the next year's fronds, they are barely forming at that point - and no, they don't need frost protection unless you live in a really, really cold part of the country: and if you do, you would do better to flop the entirety of the dead fronds over the base, starting at the middle and working round and round, to at least make a neat bundle of it.

Here's one I did earlier, at the half-done stage:

 As you can see, on the left-hand half the old fronds are still attached, and on the right-hand half I have carefully cut them off, right down to the base.

This reveals the tightly-packed brown "knobbles" of next year's new fronds, safely wrapped up for the winter.

Doing this also gives me the chance to rake out some of that horrible moss and other rubbish that tends to accumulate within the centre of large ferns like this: and I'm a great believer in raking out the rubbish!

Here's the finished job, but before I tidied out all the moss:

Much better!

So there you have it: when your ferns start to look brown and tatty, get out there with the secateurs: cut once and cut hard: then sit back and wait for spring!

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Do we need to water new plantings in frosty weather?

I've had two questions on this subject in the last two days, and it's quite an interesting subject, so I thought I'd answer it in detail.

The first question was "With frost forecast for tonight, should I still water new plantings?" and the second was "Should I plant these newly-bought plants out now - late November - or leave them in their pots until spring?"

Taking them in reverse order - firstly, then, is it advisable to plant out new plants now, so late in the season?

Answer: yes. It is fine to plant out at any time of year, unless the soil is actually frozen. If you think about it, those plants in plastic pots are going to have cold frosty air all the way round them, on all sides, and on the top, but if you plant them in the garden, then they are protected by soil on all sides except the top - so on balance, plants are safer being in the ground, than being in pots.

Generally speaking I would prefer not to plant things out when we are in the middle of a cold spell, but it can be done,  as long as the soil is not frozen solid: a thin layer of frozen crust is not a problem, if the soil below it is still friable, and friable, in gardening, means that the soil breaks up into small crumbs. You can easily test this by trying to dig an 'ole in the soil: if you can't get the trowel in, or if all you can do is lever up one enormous wodge of solid soil, then it's too cold for planting!

However, if you break through a surface crust and find that the soil below is easy to work, then it's fine to plant out - there's a difference between a couple of mornings of frost, and that situation where it's been below freezing for day after day... that's what I would call permafrost, and there is simply no point trying to plant anything when the soil is frozen solid.

There is also a halfway house, if the soil is not really friable any more, but you still want to give them some protection : you can "plunge" them, which means putting the plant, still in the pot, into the ground up to the rim of the pot. The hole does not need to be a perfect fit, air gaps don't matter because the roots are still within the plastic pot, so even if the soil is horrible and hard, you can still chop out enough of a hole to slot the pots in, ramming the chunks back in around the pot as best you can.  This means that the sides and bottom of the pot are protected by the soil from frost, but they can easily be moved later, or next spring, into their permanent positions. Just don't leave them too long, otherwise they will root through the pots! Ask me how I know this happens...

...answer, a Client asked me to remove a large-leaved ivy when its supporting tree had to be cut down (hence the sawdust everywhere in this photo) and when I cleared away the mess, having cut off the top-growth, I found that it was still in a pot...

and when I lifted the pot, I found the ivy had completely shattered the bottom of the pot in order to get roots down into the soil!

Anyway, back to the questions:

Secondly, do I water new plantings when cold weather is forecast?

There are two aspects to this question, firstly there's the plant's point of view, and for the plant, it is usually best to water in new plantings, even on cold wet days, as the deluge of water helps to settle the soil around the roots, or around the pot-shaped root ball: air gaps are the worst things for plant roots, leading to root death, which is why we firm down the soil around them when we plant them.

They don't need as much water as we would use in summer, and generally speaking they won't need any extra watering over the first few days, as you would in summer, unless - when planting them - you observed that your soil is bone dry, in which case then yes, you will need to water the new plants for the next week or so. 

But if the soil is dark, and damp to the touch, then other than the initial "settling in" watering, no, you don't need to water them again.  (Although it's often a good idea to give them extra watering next spring, which is when they will start to actively grow.)

The second aspect of the question relates to the possibility of the water, if you have watered them, freezing overnight. Will this damage the plant? Answer, no: this early in the winter, even a hard frost will rarely reach more than an inch down into the soil, and most of the plant's roots are well below that level. 

We have all read that lovely suggestion about digging our vegetable plots over roughly in autumn and leaving the clods to be "broken down by the frost" which is absolutely true: the frost will freeze the water in those clods of soil, the water expands into ice and breaks up the clumps. But you will note that this only occurs on the surface of the soil, that's why we have to turn over the soil into colds, exposing it to the cold frosty air: and it can take all winter for there to be enough frost to work the magic. The plants, meanwhile, have their roots all a few inches further down, safely protected from the effects of the frost.

There, I hope that's answered a couple of questions: do please feel free to email me with questions, I love getting them!

As for the actual frosty mornings, I suppose you could look on it that when that frost melts, mid-morning, it does provide a bit of gentle watering for everything below!

Friday, 18 November 2016

BSBI: why are people not joining?

A few days ago I asked this question:

Here's a question for all fellow botanists out there: why are you not members of the BSBI?

I don't mean that in a tub-thumping "Why the hell aren't you a member!!" sort of way, I mean it in an "I know why I personally have chosen not to be a member anymore, but I'd be interested to know what other botanists, both beginners and improvers, think about it" sort of way.

Why do I ask?

Like many organisations, the BSBI (Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland) is failing to engage younger people, and failing to increase membership. They are trying to address this by updating their website to be more whizzy and modern looking, and by promoting themselves as follows:

"We support all botanists - beginner or expert, amateur or professional - as they identify, record and map what grows where"

So they are clearly interested in getting new and younger members, but they don't seem to have a clue about their own shortcomings.

Having asked this question, I received quite a few responses, including some slightly huffy ones from the BSBI themselves, so I do apologise to them if they thought I was being a bit rude about them!

There were several general themes which arose repeatedly.

One was the cost - well, everything costs, these days, and I don't think £30 a year is unreasonable, especially as they have a concession for students up to age 25 (25!! Still studying at 25!! ) which reduces it to just £12.

"They don't let you sign up online" was one objection, but that's no longer a problem, you can now sign up direct from the BSBI website, using Paypal or a credit card.

Then we had a whole raft of "The publications are too academic/dull". Well, fair point, but they do make it plain that the Journal (which is so intensely academic as to be of very limited interest to a more "general" botanist) is specifically an academic publication. The "lighter" publication was, when I was a member, called BSBI News:  it came out three times a year and contained what they called "notes", which appeared to be contributions that were not sufficiently academic for the proper journal. These were mostly, in my opinion, only of interest if they happened to be about a plant in which you were already interested, or which was your specialist subject. There were few that related to botany in general, very little that were of any "use" to beginners, and virtually nothing with a sense of humour.

When I first joined the BSBI I wrote suggesting that they should have a section specifically for beginners/improvers, with light-hearted, short, pieces:  they eventually replied that they considered the News to be perfectly appropriate for such people. I think they are wrong, and that if they really want to engage new and/or younger people, they need to create some sort of induction route, involving a section specifically for new people, and maybe a list of useful terms - which led on to the next point.

Several people commented that "the jargon is inpenetrable for beginners."  Well, I have to agree with this one, when I first joined, I simply could not work out what a monad was, or a tetrad (four monads?) or a quadrat or quadrant: it didn't seemed to be written down anywhere.  It's as though the BSBI expect us, having joined, to spring, fully formed, into being: au fait with their jargon, and ready to submit records! That could do with a bit of work.

"They're all old fuddy-duddies"  was, I'm afraid, quite a common response.  There is indeed a common perception that botanists are all silver-tops, but I have to say that the BSBI do seem to be trying to present themselves in a more modern way these days, and they are certainly plugging their Twitter/Facebook links.  I suppose the only real solution to this perception problem is to get nature rambles back on the school curriculum, and I think it would take more than the BSBI to do that.

One interesting comment was "What does BSBI offer members that they don't offer non-members?"  Well, if you check their website, they give a whole long list of benefits of joining, including the already-maligned Journal - yawn - and the  "News" magazine, which is now available online to save costs. Then there is access to an "expert" in the form of the VCR who can make a ruling if you are uncertain about a plant identification (well, good luck with that, hope you have more success in getting a response from yours than I did from mine), opportunities to submit records (which rather assumes that you already know how to do it), and they do offer training courses, and grants; the one overwhelmingly positive response I received was from a young chap who had just been given a grant. But most of their benefits relate to recording.

Other comments include the perceived emphasis on recording squares, rather than anything more ecological: a suggestion that they are selfishly restricting access to their scientific literature, which could all now be put on line: being orientated on field botany rather than other academic activities (? not sure what that person meant - perhaps they thought the BSBI should do research? GM? ), and a comment that "They'd be more useful if there was a convenient means of taking a floral formula and finding a list of taxa possessing that formula".

All of which is very interesting.

One final point to be made is that we keep hearing about this ageing membership, and that "all the experts are elderly".  Well, expertise is something you accumulate over your lifetime, so of course the experts are elderly. It would be more worrying if the experts were all teenagers, as one person so perceptively said.

It is true to say that there is not going to be a shortage of older people in British society in the foreseeable future, and it is true that for many, it's not until they retire that they have the time to devote to botany. So it is entirely possible that the membership of the BSBI, along with the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society), the RSPB (whatever that stands for, Royal Society for the Protection? Preservation? I checked seven pages of their website without finding it - but it's definitely Birds), and other nature-oriented groups, will continue to rise in line with the ageing population.

Going back to the recording issue, a couple of people - although not anyone from the BSBI, interestingly - bothered to ask me why I was no longer a member. The answer is threefold: 1) the BSBI seems to me to be entirely geared around recording; 2) it is only interested in wildflowers, and 3) I found it quite inaccessible for beginners.  Now, firstly, I am just not that interested in recording, so the main thrust of the BSBI does not engage me. Secondly, professionally, my botanical consultancy work involves having to identify plants (including trees, not just pretty flowers!) all year round, not for the brief period in which they are flowering: so the BSBI obsession with flowers does not fit into that aspect of my job.  And thirdly, I am passionately dedicated to helping botany "improvers" to move forward in their IDing,  and I could hardly bear to deal with a group who seemed, to me, to be utterly uninterested in people with only this level of knowledge.  So the BSBI really doesn't offer much to me: I realised that I was barely skimming through the News, and tossing the boring Journal in the recyling bin without even opening it, and it all seemed rather a waste, so I now donate that money to charity instead.

So there you have it: I didn't get a simple answer to the question, but I got some viewpoints, and some new questions, foremost of which has to be  "is it really that bad a thing, if your membership is weighted towards older persons, of whom there are an increasing number?"

Thursday, 10 November 2016

How to use bark as a mulch

Well, you'd've thought this one was quite straightforward, wouldn't you?

It says on the pack, “apply as a decorative mulch to help suppress weeds and retain moisture” so you wouldn't think you could go far wrong, would you?

However, having just returned from a Consultation session with a Client who was extremely dissatisfied with their present barkage (no such word, really!),  I feel it is worth mentioning a couple of minor points that will make using bark mulch just a little bit better, more efficient, less costly, and less of a disappointment.

Firstly, what type of bark to buy? I would recommend micro-bark if you can get it: the smaller the pieces, the less of it you need to use to get a decent coverage, and the better it looks. Really coarse bark always looks untidy: and it's hard to know when you buy it, just exactly what you are going to get, so anything with "microbark" on the pack will be the better quality stuff. If in doubt, look all around the pile of bags of bark - there are usually one or two bags which have been damaged during delivery or storage, so you can often find a sample of the contents lying on the ground.

Second: prepare your ground. This is a big subject, as the way you prepare has a huge effect on the results. Decide beforehand why you want to apply bark: in fact, this ought to be Second, as this decision dictates what preparation you are going to need. So, let's look at that one first - why do you want bark?

Some of the options include to suppress weeds, to look decorative, to protect roots from frost, to preserve moisture, to be an easy-care surface, or any combination of the foregoing.  Before we run through those five, here are some facts which will be referred to as we go.

1) If you want really good weed suppression, you will need to lay a membrane down, over the soil and under the mulch. You might think that any old plastic sheet would do for this purpose, but there is a reason that the garden centres sell so much landscaping fabric: the membrane has to be water-permeable, otherwise you end up with waterlogged mulch and dead (dried out) plants. In my experience, the most expensive membrane will not stop all weeds, and the cheapest will stop most weeds: the cheapest being those yard-square builder bags that lorries deliver sand and gravel in: cutting them up and spreading them out is a bit of a pain, but you can usually get them for free!

2) Birds will flick the bark about all over the place.

3) Bark will slowly rot away to nothing: you will need to top it up, probably every second year.

4) You will need to be generous with it: a skimpy layer of bark looks terrible, especially if you go for membrane, as you will see bald spots poking out through the mulch.

A. To Suppress Weeds.   if you want it simply to suppress weeds, there are a couple of points to be made. Firstly, there are two types of weeds: those that are already in the soil and those which float down as a gentle rain of seeds from above. Mulch will not prevent the latter!

Of there former, there are again two types: those which are already in the soil as seeds, and which need light to germinate. This sort of weed can be successfully controlled by membrane and bark.

On the other hand, we have the sort of weeds that are already growing in the soil: deep-rooted perennial weeds such as dandelion, nettle and bindweed. Unfortunately, no amount of mulch will suppress them, they will just grow right on through it, and even a top quality membrane (see point 1) will struggle to keep them under control. Often, you will find that such weeds will sneakily grow along through the places where the membrane sheets overlap, popping up far from their original roots. They can be dealt with by spot weedkilling: but if you try to pull them up, you will find that you pull up whole sections of the membrane, which ruins the effect and means that you have to rake off all the bark (which is, by now, semi-composted), stretch out the membrane again, peg it down if necessary, then re-spread the bark. This is a lot of faff. If you have perennial weeds, it is far better to get rid of the weeds before you think about laying bark: either a determined weeding session, or a season of constant vigilance with the weedkiller, will be necessary.

And once all that is done, you will still need to be aware of points  2, 3 and 4.  This is where the disappointment comes in: if someone told you that a layer of bark will suppress all your weeds and look lovely for evermore, they are lying!

B. To Look Decorative.  In this case, a light scattering of bark can be made, as long as you appreciate points 2 (birds) and 3 (it will disappear).

C. To Protect roots from frost.  For this, you will need a deep layer, at least a couple of inches, which takes up more bark than you would think... and do bear in mind that many plants, such as roses, trees, anything with a main "trunk", will not flourish if left sitting up to their necks in a deep layer of damp bark - they will rot.

D. To Preserve Moisture: this is a valid use, but you must remember to water the bed very thoroughly before you apply the membrane/mulch, otherwise the mulch will act as a thatch,  preventing water from getting down to the roots of the plants.

E. To be an easy-care surface:  well, I guess bark does fulfil this function, as long as you realise that it is not a wholly weed-free surface. It does make it easier to walk on the beds, if they have a good layer of bark on them: your boots don't get all muddy, but too much foot traffic will compact the bark down into a sort of woodland path effect, which is less good at allowing water through for the benefit of the plants.

So, having decided why you want bark, having bought it, prepared the ground by weeding, weed-killing, and/or laying membrane, now we come to the actual application.

Bark arrives in compressed form, in large bags.

 Here is a typical bag, it just about fills the wheelbarrow, and I can just about lift one of them into it.

Having trundled it round the garden to where I want it, the next job is to cut the bag open.

Don't rip into the middle, as though you were a dinosaur devouring a gazelle (or whatever tender fresh morsels were around 70 million years ago, I'm a Botanist, not a Paleontologist): cut open one end or the other. There are two reasons for this: if you cut the end, you can re-use the strong bag for any number of purposes in the garden - you can turn them inside out to make them plain black, if you don't like the jazzy printing - and because if you rip into the middle, you will just spill it everywhere and waste it. As well as wasting the bag. And I don't like waste.

This - right - is the sign of a GOOD bag of bark. It is so compressed that, even though I've cut the bottom off altogether, the bark is not falling out all over my feet.

It is also dark and moist, this means that, although it makes it heavier to move, the bark is already damp, so it won't "steal" moisture out of the soil. Nor will it create a dry, water-repelling layer, thus depriving plants of the next rain shower. (It also looks much nicer, but that's just an aesthetic consideration.)

 Having opened one end, tip out half of it into the wheelbarrow.

Now fluff it up, by hand: lift it, stir it, break up the lumps, get some air into it. The volume will expand dramatically - this is half a bagful, half of the bag that filled this same wheelbarrow, and you can see that it nearly fills the barrow, even though I've only used half of it.

Fluffing up the bark gives much better coverage: instead of having half a dozen great solid dollops, which crush anything they land on and make the bed look like the surface of the moon, you now have enough to make a good, even coating, without damaging the plants.

Best of all, as you can see in these photos, this bark is not already covered in a layer of white mould. Damp wood chip is a very attractive to fungus, and often you will open a bag to find a lot of white cottony stuff, or long white threads, in some or all of the contents.

Don't panic: it will be one of the many types of fungi that live on rotting wood: no, it's not honey fungus, no, it won't hurt the plants, no, it won't hurt you: it's perfectly natural, the spores are all around us in the soil, in the air, and all that happens is that the fungi help the bark to decompose, thus returning nutrients to the soil. They are, in fact, helping the bark to become composted.

Personally I don't find fungus to be at all attractive, so if a bag of bark does not arrive pre-fungussed, then I am happy! But if it does, no matter, I just fluff up the bark and fling it around anyway.

Now we come to the application: take a double handful of the fluffed-up bark, and throw it along the bed. Don't drop it from above - use a bowling action, and aim to skid the handful sideways onto the surface. This has the dual benefit of making it go a lot further in terms of coverage, and of preventing damage to plants. It often surprises my Clients, if they watch me doing this, that I can "bowl" great handfuls of the bark over perennials without damaging them, and without having to go round every single plant afterwards, shaking the leaves free of a heavy layer of bark.

This fairly small bed took one and half bags of bark to make a good, deep layer: I had prepared the bed by digging a deep gutter all the way around the outside, so that the bark could fill the gutter, rather than spilling over onto the grass.

I know that the birds will still flick some of it about, and it can be a bit of a nuisance when I am edging, but the effect is very nice, and was much admired by the Client.

Job done!

Old techniques for lanky roses

Some time ago, one of my elderly ladies gave me an ancient gardening book, which caused me much amusement: some of the things they used to do in their gardens are, shall we say, out of step with modern life, involving strychnine and arsenic on a regular basis.

But one section caught my interest - the technique of reviving an old rose by tying it down to the ground, in order to promote new growth. Not something I had heard of, and not something I had ever seen done!

This is not the same, by the way,  as pegging down lanky growth, which we do to make domes or fountains of roses: this is specifically for when an old rose gets so hard and woody that it has barely any flowering growth, and where the only real treatment is to dig it up, throw it away, and buy a new one.

How does it work?

It's a simple principle: lay the rose down until it is nearly horizontal, tie it firmly in place, and leave it there until it is forced to put up some new growth.

As luck would have it, last year I was asked by one of my ad hoc Clients about a rose in her garden: it was an old one, had been there for donkey's years, and it only had one upright stem, five feet tall, brown and stout, with a tuft of flowers on the top. Not very satisfactory! I suggested the dig-it-up-and-throw-it-away solution, but the Client said it had sentimental value, and was there anything we could do to keep it?

As I told her, the usual answers are firstly to take cuttings from the newer growth, in order to grow on a new plant, but that can take years to get to a decent size: or to prune the rose hard, in order to promote growth lower down: I've done both of these with success.

But this rose had just one single stem, and if we cut that down to ankle height, well, it would probably give up the ghost and die.

So I suggested that we try this technique, and bless her heart, she was brave enough to give it a go.

When I took hold of the rose,  I found that it was actually quite wobbly, it had done that trick where they seem to rise up out of the soil,  so it looked like a good risk to take.

The actual bending was quite nerve-wracking: what if I broke the stem? What if it split?  To my relief, it went straight down like a slow-motion skittle:

 ... so I tied it to a handy stump to keep it in place.

I didn't prune off any of the top growth, I just left it there, lying on the ground.

 Here's the close-up of the base of the stem, showing that there is just one stem, and it is now bent right over.

Last week I was back in that garden again, nearly a year to the day later, and look!

 Lo! and behold, the rose had put up two lovely strong new shoots, one from right down at the base (“perfect!”), the second one from about a foot further along the stem.

Not the best of photos, but I hope you can see it: the first stem is on the far left, right where the brown arching stem leaves the ground.

The other is a little to the right, and both of them are strong, stout, and shooting straight upwards.

They had each flowered nicely, at about 4' off the ground: had I been there through the summer, I would have dead-headed them both very hard, probably back down to knee height: I might even have bent the two of them over and tied them in to the original stem, to get them to produce more new shoots.

Interestingly, the "old" growth did nothing: no flowers, no new shoots, all the energy went into these two new stems.

Here's a closer view of the two new stems: quite impressive!

As it's well into autumn now, I have left the old stem tied down for one more winter, and have instructed the Client to cut it off early next spring, as close as possible to the new shoots, which should also, at that time, be cut down to about knee height.

I have also suggested that they cut back the Thuja hedge a bit more forcefully, to give the rose some more room - and to water the rose well in spring, to promote new growth.

If it were mine, I would probably keep just the far left-hand shoot, the one nearest to the root of the plant, on the grounds that it will make a more natural-looking new bush: although it is possible that when the original shoot is cut off, the stump might well "spring" upright, which would actually be a good thing. The second shoot will quickly straighten itself out - at first, it will appear to be growing at a very odd angle! - and the rose will then be well on the way to creating a good new structure for itself, with branching much lower down than before.

Hopefully, next year there will be more strong new shoots, and this rose will be revived: so there you go, an interesting old technique which certainly does appear to work!

Saturday, 29 October 2016

How to water plants in pots that have dried out.

This is a question that keeps coming up, mostly in relation to Salix Kilmarnock trees grown in pots, but it applies just as well to any other plant which is grown in a pot: it also applies, on a smaller scale, to plants which are still in black plastic pots, and which haven't been planted out yet.

With smaller pots, you know if they are drying out because the plant starts to wilt, and when you pick up the pot, it weighs nothing, so that's easy enough.

Large pots, though, are much more difficult. To check, tip some water onto the surface of the pot. Does it sit on the top, like blobs of mercury? Your pot is bone dry. Does it disappear immediately all round the edges of the pot, then run out on your feet? Your pot is bone dry, and the soil has shrunk away from the sides of the pot. Does it disappear down, apparently through the soil (rather than round the edges) but still run out on your feet? Your pot is bone dry.

In all these cases, what has usually happened is that the compost within the pot has dried out: natural soil is much better at holding water than shop-bought compost, but shop-bought compost has many advantages when putting plants in pots - it's clean, it's sterile with no weed seeds, it's lighter than our heavy old garden soil, it doesn't contain sharp stones to hurt our hands, it's simply "nice" to use - so in most cases, that is what we use.

Also, there is a misconception that shop-bought compost is full of nutrients, and we have been brainwashed by the suppliers into believing that our own garden soil, or home-made compost, is somehow inferior to their heavily-processed compost: even though it does state clearly on the packs that it contains all the nutrients your plants need for the first six weeks.

What it doesn't say is that after six weeks, your plants have used up all the nutrients in the compost, and are now totally reliant on what you give them.  In real life, this means that most potted plants are having to survive on whatever nutrients the rain brings in!

Now, anyone who uses shop-bought compost will know that it is very difficult to re-wet it once it has dried out.  How many times have you found the tail end of a bag of compost in the shed or garage, and opened it only to find that it's turned into something like dust? Well, that's what has happened inside your pot.  The problem is that pouring more water onto it simply doesn't work - it just runs out over your feet again.

So what do we do?

Going back to that old bag of compost, the only way to re-wet it is to tip it onto a potting bench or, to be more comfortable, into a plastic potting tray - here's my battered old one:

...then add some water, and use your hands to mix and stir it in, running it through your fingers repeatedly until it is evenly moist.

If you've ever made cakes, it is EXACTLY the same set of motions as rubbing the butter into the flour: lifting it in your hands, letting it drop back,  until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.

Clearly, this is not possible when the compost is firmly and irretrievably tucked around the roots of your plant.

Instead, the only thing to do is to "plunge" the pot, which means putting the whole pot into a big bucket or tub, filling it with water, and giving it time to soak.

With a small plastic pot, the sort that you buy from the garden centre, put the pot into a bucket, then fill it halfway up the pot sides with water. If the pot immediately bobs up like a rubber duck, then you know that your pot is absolutely 100% dry! Weigh it down with some bricks, and add more water until the level is just over the top of the soil. If the soil level is - as it should be - an inch or so lower than the rim of the pot, then you will need to tip the last of the water onto the surface of the pot, not alongside it.

Now, take a look - is it blowing bubbles? This is good, it means that the water is finding and filling all the air-filled holes inside the root ball of the plant. Keep adding water to the top of the pot, as the level drops, until it stops blowing bubbles. Make sure it is weighed down, then leave it to soak for an hour or so.

When you lift the pot from the bucket, let it drain for a moment or two, and while you do so, think about how heavy it is. This is the weight of a waterlogged pot - you will remember how little it weighed before the plunging, and the ideal weight is about two-thirds between the two, leaning towards the heavy side, rather than the light side.

Now that the pot is re-soaked, you can water it in the normal way (preferably slightly more regularly, as apparently you have been neglecting it a bit) and the water will all be absorbed, instead of running straight through the pot.

So now we move on to our "big" pots: in their case, it's not usually possible to find a tub big enough for total immersion, and even if we could, we'd need a fork-lift truck to get them out afterwards, so we have to be more practical.  Instead of a tub, sit the pot on a deep tray or a large pot saucer - the biggest one you have, and the one with the deepest sides. (Health & Safety note: if it's a heavy pot, get someone to help you lift it!) Water the top gently, until the saucer is full of water. Go away and leave it. After a while, check the saucer, the pot should have soaked up at least some of the water. Add some more water to the surface until the saucer is full again. Repeat several times.

Try to lift it - if it now feels really heavy, then well done! You have successfully re-soaked your pot.  Water it one more time, this time with some liquid feed. Leave it for a while, overnight if necessary, until the water in the saucer has been absorbed one last time - as this water will contain the liquid feed - then get your assistant to help you remove the saucer.

If this happens regularly, or if you find it a real chore to do it, you might consider leaving the large pot sitting on a saucer permanently, which will make it easier to water, as the water can run down into the saucer then be absorbed back upwards.  However, if you do this,  you will have to take care not to leave it sitting in a puddle of water, so if the saucer is still wet after an hour or so, you will need to tip out the saucer and not water it again for a while. And in winter, you will need to either take away the saucer or put up on feet to prevent it getting too wet while it is not actively growing.

As a general observation, to test if a plant in a pot is drying out, touch the pad of your finger lightly to the surface. Your finger should come away with just one or two tiny bits of soil sticking to it. If no soil comes off, then the pot needs watering: if your finger comes off covered in mud, then the pot is too wet and needs more drainage.

Of course, this doesn't work if you have a decorative mulch of stones or gravel on the pot!

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Gold Leaf Winter Touch Gloves: essential for winter working

For years I've been recommending Gold Leaf gloves, and in particular the Winter Touch ones: they are waterproof, thermal, and yet thin enough to work in. They're not cheap, at £25 a pair, but well worth it.

Or at least, I thought so, until this year, when I had a bit of a hiccup.

Now, I go through my gloves in the same place each time - the tips of the fingers on my left hand, usually the first or second finger. It's annoying to wear out always the same glove, and I have a large box full of right-hand orphans, in the hopes that one day I'll meet a fellow gardener who wears out her right-hand gloves, and we can come to some arrangement...

Here's my current left-hand (ie worn out) glove collection, from last winter: I know, I know, why do I keep them? I don't really know.

I've tried mending them, by cutting off the outer layer of a "good" finger and stitching it over a damaged finger - yes, these gloves are THAT good, it's worth trying to extend their life - but it was never successful, and usually the new finger would fall off after a day or two, or it would feel so lumpy and clumsy that I would just go out and buy a new pair.

But then there was this pair, from the very end of last winter:

This time, they came apart at the seam down the inside of the thumb.

Why couldn't it have been the right hand glove? Why! Why! I have a dozen spare rights! But no, it had to be the left hand that went, curses.

Unfortunately, I'd bought them as part of a batch a couple of months earlier, so although I'd only used them a few times, the receipt was several months old, and the shop were not interested in replacing them.

They were thrown into the "Dead Gloves" box at the time, and have remained there ever since, and no, I haven't bought gloves from that particular garden centre again.

As they were my last pair, I rushed over to a different garden centre, and bought a new pair. Within just a week or two, they'd gone through at the fingers, but on the RIGHT hand, so I took them back and complained, taking along a couple of pairs of my older ones to show that I always wore out the left hand, not the right, and that therefore there must be something wrong with their quality.

The garden centre manager agreed, and replaced them.

By then, it was spring, and too warm to need them, so the new pair went straight into the cupboard.

Earlier this month, out they came, and off to work we went: it's always a proud moment, the first day of wearing beautiful brand new yellow gloves. They don't stay that way for long...

Day One: 11th October. They got quite wet, so here they are drying on the radiator rack along with the Showa Thermos.

Day Two: 12th October, drying on the rack again after a second day of wetness and mud.

 Day Three: 19th Oct. 19th? Yes, they aren't needed every day, and they are sufficiently expensive that I don't wear them unless I actually need them!

Oh ho, what's that? Holes????
 Horrors! On their third day of wearing, there are already holes!!

Please note this is in the third finger, which is quite unusual - mostly, I go through the first and second fingers.
 Here's a gruesome close-up of the damage: not rips or tears, I should stress, they are simply worn through.

And I wasn't even working particularly hard!
Alas, having no others, I had to wear them again two days later, so this is Day Four of wear, 21st Oct. The two little holes have now combined into one big one, and these gloves are now in the Dead Gloves box.

Four days!! £25!!

I contacted Gold Leaf, and I'm happy to tell you that I received a very full and informative response from Kelly Cooney, one of the owners: they have assured me that there has not been any lowering of standards, and that they are very concerned about the problems I have had.

They sent me a postage-paid label, so I could return these ones, and the pair where the thumb seam ripped (it was tempting to send them back the entirety of my Dead Gloves Box but that would have been a bit unfair!) and they duly replaced them, which is excellent news.

Even better news, they have a new style of glove, a cotton one with double-dipped fingers, and they have sent me a pair to trial and report back on: I've started using them, but now the weather has turned suddenly cold, they've been put on hold for a while, but  I will add a link to the Product Review for these new gloves, once I've assessed them.

Kelly took the trouble to point out that Gold Leaf do a whole range of gloves for different conditions, and of course I already know that: I have a pair of their Dry Touch, which are as waterproof as the Winter Touch but don't have the super Thinsulate lining, so they were intended to be worn on the many wet days when it was too mild to wear the full-on super-warm Winter Touch. I wore them a couple of times during the summer, but not enough to review them properly. Watch this space, I'll review them next year, and I'll come back to this post and put in a link, when I do.

Additionally - as I said, it was a very full email! - Kelly mentioned that another customer has successfully wrapped duct tape around the worn-out fingers to extend their use: this sounds a lot quicker and easier than trying to transplant an entire glove-finger, and somewhat less Frankensteiny, so I might well give that a go.

As I said above, these gloves are just so good to work in, that it's worth trying to extend their life!

And in the meantime, if anyone out there wears these gloves, and always goes through their right-hand glove first... get in touch!

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Garden Hygiene Part I: Tools

Coincidence is an interesting thing, isn't it? I had an email the other day from Corine *waves enthusiastically* asking about reducing the risk of spreading diseases/pests from one garden to another.

As a Professional Gardener, obviously this is very important to me, and the coincidence occurs because I have been researching into the sticky (literally!) question of tool hygiene, with particular reference to fruit and rose pruning.

It's one of those issues on which everyone has an opinion, but virtually all of them are actually wrong.  More of that later.

Firstly I'd like to split the question into three parts - this one deals with general hygiene for gardeners, Part Two will deal with moving plants, and the third part will cover the thorny question of disinfecting tools, particularly relating to fruit and rose pruning (did you see what I did there? "thorny" question, regarding roses? No? Oh well).

And within each part, the first point to make is the difference between "cleaning" - which means physically removing the dirt/germs/bugs - and "disinfecting" which means killing the germs.

Right, general garden hygiene, then. If you ("one") work in more than one garden, it makes sense to take some basic precautions, and that means not transferring mud/dirt/debris/bugs from one garden to another: this is "cleaning". I am assuming that you, like me, have your own tools: if you use the Clients' tools (something of which I disapprove, for several reasons!) then obviously you don't need to bother too much, although it is polite - if nothing else - to leave tools cleaner than you found them.

During the last outbreak of foot-and-mouth, things were much more serious, and I chose to have two sets of tools and footwear, swapping them over at lunchtimes, and decontaminating (ie cleaning and disinfecting) both sets every evening. I found this was more efficient than trying to rush through the cleaning during my lunch break.

Phew, it was hard work!

Was it necessary? Well, probably not, but I thought it was better to be safe than sorry.

Since then, we have reduced to Hort-Com 3, as it were, and I went back to my normal routine of merely "cleaning" tools and boots off at the end of each session - I should say that I mostly do only two jobs a day, but if you do three or more, then all comments will obviously relate to each gap - and after working in the one garden which I knew to have honey fungus, I was particularly careful about cleaning tools and boots thoroughly.

"Cleaning" means scraping off all the mud/dirt/debris. Starting with the larger tools, ie fork, spade, and trowel, I use a smaller tool, usually the good ole' Daisy Grubber, then a wipe over with a gloved hand. If your tools are ancient, rusted and pitted, then you are never going to get them clean, so buy some nice modern lighter weight stainless steel ones!

Next is cleaning the boots, again with the Daisy Grubber: turn up one foot at a time and scrape through and through the cleats (the knobbles on the sole) then once vertically all round the edge. It's always easier with one hand than the other, but learn to do it with both hands, although not at the same time, obviously! Remove any remaining soil with a stiff brush or a damp cloth.

Once everything else is done, the Daisy Grubber gets wiped on the grass then on the glove, and finally the gloves get brushed together vigorously to shake off the loose stuff, then put aside to dry.

This may sound like a lot of faff, but you can make it easier for yourself by being efficient: try to do all the digging for each session in one go, then clean the fork/spade just once. If it's a wet sort of day, I'll usually leave the cleaned tool standing out to dry, then wipe it over with a glove just before putting it away, as it's often easier to remove the last dribs and drabs of soil once it has dried out.

As for the boots, I plan out my work so that I stop working on the soil about 20 minutes before the end of the session, to give me time to clean out the soles of my boots - as described above, with the Daisy Grubber - then I can walk about on their grass to get them perfectly clean before I leave. This might sound a bit mean, but the principle is that their earth (and any nematodes, disease etc it may carry) stays within their garden: and I don't waste that last 20 minutes, I use it to do the final wheelbarrow emptying run, collecting up of tools etc then some easy light work such as deadheading or weeding while standing on the grass, ie not treading on the borders again, to keep the boots clean. I find that ten minutes or so of walking on wet grass is enough to get all the mud off, and this removes the need for stiff brushes etc. If the grass is dry, then generally speaking so is the soil, so it's not clinging to the boots in the same way, and I can usually find an area of grass that is out of sight, so I can "scrub" my boots across it a few times.

On wet days, once the boots are clean, even a short walk across hard standing will allow them to dry, so by the time I have done my paperwork and returned to my car, they are clean and dry and I don't need to worry about transferring anything nasty to my car mats.

All that leaves, for the end of the session, is the Daisy Grubber and the gloves: and I have so many pairs of gloves on the go that it's very simple to drop the "dirty" pair into a plastic bag to be taken home in quarantine, until they can be spread out to dry.  See? Not such a chore, after all.

Now, moving onto specific garden pathogens such as honey fungus and phytophthora: the former has air-borne spores, the latter has some types which are air-borne, but is mostly spread by water-borne spores.

Honey Fungus:

Some basic research into honey fungus reveals that virtually all gardens have the spores present: spores have been found up to five miles high in the atmosphere, so they pretty well blanket the entire country. Honey fungus is really only a problem with susceptible plants, by which I mean plants which are sickly, stressed, ailing etc. Strong healthy plants are not bothered by the presence of honey fungus: which stands to reason really, otherwise anyone who found honey fungus in their garden would shortly have a totally barren dustbowl instead of a garden, and that is clearly not the case.

So there is not much point in trying to disinfect boots and tools to prevent that sort of disease.


This particular blight spreads mainly by 1) water and 2) human activities. Rain and irrigation wash the spores off infected plants and down into the soil: and boots, tractor tyres, animal paws etc pick up damp soil containing these washed-down spores, and trample them from one place to another.  Thus, it spreads.

So, there is every reason for cleaning soil - mud, dirt, debris - off your tools and boots between sites.

As an aside, when I get in my car I have a pack of wet-wipes, and use a couple of them to remove excess mud from my legs and arms: not that I seriously think that any germs would be transmitted that way, but more to keep my car relatively clean! Don't buy expensive Wet Wipes at £1 for a tiny pack of 10:  go to your supermarket's baby section, and buy the cheapest own-brand wipes. They are more like 50p for a pack of 80 or more, so you can be generous with them. On hot days, they are also perfect for wiping a sweaty face and neck! They are not particularly sound on the recycling front - but I stuff my not-very-dirty used ones into the cupholder in my car, and as they dry out they get used again for cleaning bird poo off the windscreen and bodywork, before finally being put in the bin.

Getting back to Garden Hygiene, as far as sensible daily hygiene goes, the trick is definitely to Let Things Dry, and this is the point of doing the detailed mud removal.  Most germs/bacteria/bugs die without a damp environment, so if you can allow tools and boots to dry thoroughly between use, you are unlikely to be moving contaminants around. So it's well worth buying extra boots and gloves, so you can change at mid-day: and it makes them last longer as well, if you can give them a rest and let them dry out properly between wearings.

So, in answer to Corinne's question about inter-garden hygiene, the answer is to remove as much of the loose mud and debris as you can: wipe off the rest: allow tools and boots to dry between sessions, and don't allow a build-up of soil.

Part Two will deal with moving plants, and then on Part Three we get to the knotty problem of disinfecting tools: exciting stuff, eh?!

Tuesday, 4 October 2016


I've been to this garden once before, on a rainy afternoon (my favourite time for garden visiting, as it reduces the competition!), but only briefly, so I was looking forward to seeing it again, and having time to see all of it, and a few weeks ago I finally managed to get back there.

This time, I managed to drive directly to the car park entrance instead of having to drive all through the park, which was a good start: but on reaching the payment booth, I encountered a seriously grumpy woman who wouldn't smile, didn't respond at all to my friendly greetings, and who, when asked for a map of the garden, snarled "it's in the guidebook, £3."

Charming! I do consider that a map of the gardens is essential when garden visiting: how else are you going to know that you've seen everything? But to charge for one? Huh! *rolls eyes*. Virtually all gardens give you a map: sometimes you are loaned a laminated one, to be returned on the way out, which is an excellent way to do it - after all, what use is the garden map once you leave? - and sometimes you are handed a simple A4 paper map, that's all it takes, but no, not at Sezincote, you have to buy the guidebook.

Trying to look gracious instead of pissed off, I bought the guide book: this time, I intended to see the whole thing, so I grudgingly paid the extra money - in cash, incidentally, as they don't take any form of electronic payment. How very odd! In this day and age, they insist on cash! Makes you wonder if they are declaring all their income, doesn't it? I can't imagine how you can expect to run a business, sell tickets and indeed sell teas and cakes, without taking any form of card payment.

Anyway, turning to the rather slender guide book, I unfolded the paper map and guess what, on my previous visit I had indeed seen all of it. It's not actually that big! Oh dear. Well, let's check the guide book then: oh good, it has a brief history of the house, then it goes on to a Garden Tour, so I followed their suggested route.

The first thing I have to say is that the gardens are weirdly dislocated from the house. The "tour" starts by directing you up to the house, where there is a small area of formal garden to one side: it has a moderately nice water feature (which I would not describe as a "canal" as you can easily step over it), and a lot of my pet hate, Irish Yew which has been tied up with wires and chopped with hedgetrimmers in order to keep them slender. The guidebook explains that the design called for Italian Cypress, but they would not be reliably hardy in this position, so they used Irish Yew instead. I suppose that makes it ok....

Above this rather soulless and empty area, there is a long Orangery: anyone know the difference between an Orangery and a Conservatory? Nope, me neither. This is where the age of the guide book started to be felt, as the description of the plants within it did not fully match those in existence - plants don't live for ever, and clearly some have had to be replaced over the years. But at least I did get to see a Fatshedera in real life: a strange "why did they do it?" hybrid of Fatsia and common Ivy, which creates a semi-climbing shrub with leaves that are more like Fatsia than Ivy: and is as good an argument against genetic modification as any that I have heard.

A quick stroll around the "wildflower meadow" proved yet again that it may be trendy to have a wildflower meadow, but it's not always a great success: theirs, in August, looked like nothing on earth, just tatty grass, with dead stuff in amongst it, a ton of Wild Carrot (which looks exactly like Cow Parsley to non-gardeners) with a few tiny bits of Lotus corniculata (Common Bird's Foot Trefoil) scrambling at the edges.

Following the instructions in the book, I took the pleasant stroll on mostly grassy paths across the hillside, thinking as I did so that it would be dreadful on a really wet day... and passing on the way a set of three interesting little stone niches: not quite grottoes, not quite an ice house, not quite big enough to walk into it, but deep enough to be intriguing. Alas, no mention of them in the guide book.

On reaching the top pool and fountain, I took the time to read the guide book and to try to locate all the planting it mentioned.

Hmm, 12 years is a long time in a garden, and evidently a lot of the planting has been replaced over the years!  Still, it's pretty enough, and leads you into the rest of the garden, which are basically in a linear strip running down the side of the drive. The planting is lush, and there is plenty of it along the stream which babbles its way down the hillside, through a larger pond with a bridged island, to a terminal pond which was clearly being renovated, as the banks were scraped bare, with evidence of Mare's Tails being killed off.

I think what I enjoyed most about this garden were the lovely mature specimen trees: not all the ones mentioned in the guide book were to be found, but I managed to locate  and indentify most of them. I think I must be having a bit of a purple craze at the moment, as the one I liked best was an enormous purple hazel, not exactly rare! Oh, and the saddest find was a recently-planted nearly-dead purple-leaved Birch, which you hardly see anywhere: the few surviving leaves were a fabulous deep purple colour, but an awful lot of the branches were quite, quite dead.

At this point I have to have a grumble: I've mentioned this before, and I'll no doubt do so again - why on earth do these paid entry gardens insist on using power tools during opening hours? This place only opens on Thursday and Friday afternoons (and Bank Hols) so why can't they cut the blasted grass on a Monday, a Tuesday, or a Wednesday? It's hard to appreciate the beauty of the views with a pair of hideously loud ride-on mowers cantering up and down, and throwing up dust. It also meant that there were no gardeners to be seen, so there was no chance of asking any questions.

Apart from that, it's ok, but a bit small for the money. I was quite disappointed to find that I had indeed managed to cover it all the other time I visited, and I probably won't be going there again, as there was nothing that felt particularly special. 

The grumpy woman on the entrance booth told me that they have a new Head Gardener, so maybe some changes will now be made: I did find one piece of new planting:

 ...and I have to say, it was like a breath of fresh air against the rather oppressively top-heavy growth elsewhere in this garden.

Makes you realise that "mature" planting is not always as desirable as it might sound! And I have to say, in my own gardening, I have noticed that my tastes have changed over the years that I've been gardening professionally. Fifteen years ago, I would not have "allowed" any bare soil to be seen - it was all about filling the beds.

But now I find that I prefer a little space around my plants: I like to see the structure of each one, I find it calmer and more peaceful to be able to see each plant in its own right, rather than stuffing the beds full of plants.

It's also healthier for the plants, allowing free airflow around them: it reduces the number of slug and snail refuges, and it allows the gardener (that's me) to move around the bed for weeding etc without trampling anything, or falling over whilst balancing precariously on one leg, trying to find a safe place to put the other foot down.

Overall, I would say that this garden is quite a nice way to spend an hour or so: not suitable for children as there is a lot of water, and in order to follow the route you have to negotiate the very exciting stepping stones under the bridge. These are not so good for wobbly Seniors either, I had to assist one lady who lost her nerve half way across!

There is also a fair uphill walk back to the car park, and it's a lot longer on the way back... you would have thought, with all those acres of fields, that they could allocate a parking area rather closer to the garden entrance? You do sometimes wonder why these people bother to open to the public, if they are not going to embrace the situation and truly welcome their visitors - I have a theory that there is some sort of tax advantage to being "open to the public", so they pay lip service by providing the things that make money, ie an entrance booth, a tea shop and (usually) a gift shop and/or plants for sale, but without really committing themselves to the experience.

What do you think?

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Phormium: How To Split Them

We've all had days like this: the Phormium, which is a lovely plant for all-year-round architectural shape and colour, gets so big that it starts crushing other plants, and at the same time starts to look somehow rather tatty.

The answer, as with many garden plants, is to split it.

The great thing about Phormiums, as opposed to monsters like Yucca and Cordyline is that they are not one gigantic stalk or trunk: they spread by forming new plants around the old one. So it's actually quite easy to lift, split, trim and replant.

Here's a typical example - it's been lovely for several years, but now it looks tatty, and it is encroaching on the plants around it.

So, first  job, get a fork and loosen the soil all around it. If the Phormium is in a very floppy state, you can either cut off the outside leaves, or tie the whole thing up into a bundle to make it easier to deal with.

Having loosened the soil, dig in with the fork, get underneath it, and lever it out of the ground.

At this point, you will probably see that it will start to fall apart into clumps:

If not, use a hand tool (here is my faithful Daisy Grubber, £2.50 from a cheapy shop and still going strong after two years of daily use, who says you need to buy expensive tools?) to winkle your way in amongst the roots, and prise them apart.

Shake off as much soil as you can - it's much easier to replant them if you can spread out the roots, and to do that, you need to be able to see them.

Here is about a third of the clump in the first photo - as you can see, it split up easily into a large number of plants.

For ease of replanting, I take each clump at a time, and trim off the outside leaves as low as I can get them.

These new plants are rather two-dimensional, like a fan of Iris leaves, which makes it easy to see what you are doing.

After trimming off the outside leaves, I then cut down the remainder of the leaves to about ankle high - if you don't do this, the plants will fall over when you try to replant them.

Here are a handful of the new plants, trimmed and replanted elsewhere.

As you can see, they now become a number of neat clumps, which can establish themselves quickly.
Getting back to the original, having dug it all out I was able to dig over that area of the bed, clear out some unwanted weeds and fluff up the soil. I added some home-made compost while I was at it, more from habit than because I thought the soil needed a boost...

And then I replanted one of the best sections of the original plant, spreading the roots out sideways as much as possible, and firming it down well. 

Add a good watering, and off it goes!

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Dead Dog Rose: can anything be done?

Today I received this rather alarming picture:

along with the question, can anything be done to retrieve an apparently dead Dog Rose?

The worried owner had been away for the past few weeks, and came back to find this waiting for them - oh dear!

Well, bearing in mind that I haven't seen the plant in question, and that I am working entirely from this one photo, the most likely reason for this catastrophe is lack of water - although it has not been a hot summer, it's been very windy, and wind is very drying.

It would seem unlikely that one of a pair of more-or-less standard Dog Roses could die of an infection while the other remains perfectly healthy, so I have to assume that it's a simple case of Death By Dessication.

In this case, the obvious thing to do is to rip out the dead one and replace it, (or, to take the opportunity to plant something different): however, as you can see, it is one of a matching pair, plus there is the question of Rose Replant Sickness.

So what would I suggest?

Well, in most cases, I would suggest giving the "dead" plant one last chance.

Firstly, I would suggest carefully removing all the dead foliage - depending on how long it's been brown, you may find that shaking it is enough, or you might have to comb through it with gloved hands.

Rake up and discard all the dead material (don't compost it, just in case), then water the dead rose. Water it slowly and gently - a watering can is often better than a hose for this job - and keep going until the water sits on the surface. Repeat this gentle drenching every evening and every morning for a week or so. If you are lucky, there might be signs of revival - if you are very lucky, new buds might appear all along the stems, which would mean that the whole plant would recover. If you are lucky, but not THAT lucky, the upper part might be a goner, but new shoots might appear from ground level, in which case it will look somewhat unbalanced for a year or so, but will eventually recover.

If no new shoots appear, and no new buds appear, then we will have to accept that this plant has, as they say, shuffle off this mortal coil, and will have to be replaced.

The problem with replacing roses is that of Rose Replant Sickness, a problem which makes it very hard to establish a new Rose in a place where another Rose has previously grown, or particularly, has died: the theory is that over time, soil-borne pathogens build up to a level which will kill (or fatally weaken) any new Rose.

Some sources suggest that this build-up of pathogens will only kill small plants, whereas the older plants are more able to tolerate the build-up: but what about all those Rose borders, where the same plants have been growing for decades, perfectly healthily? The problem is not yet fully understood, but it is definitely a real phenomenon.

Information on the internet is contradictory, to say the least: but I think it is fair to say that all Roses, without exception, are "greedy feeders" and will have sucked all the "goodness" out of the ground, regardless of any pathogen level, making it harder for another plant to set up shop in the same position.
So whenever I am asked to do anything with Roses, the first rule is to dig a jolly big 'ole, and to replace most of the removed soil with a combination of fresh organic matter - well-rotted manure is good - along with a barrow-full of home-made compost, some leaf mold, some soil from another part of the garden, even some bought-in compost, although not too much - "multipurpose" compost is not very good stuff for using in the garden, it tends to dry out too easily, and it is so "light" in texture that it doesn't offer much support to growing plants.  Set aside a couple of bucketfuls of this "new" soil mixture.

(As an aside, I worked in a terrible garden for a few weeks, many years ago: the beds were created entirely with multipurpose compost which was just plonked, two-three feet deep, with no attempt to dig it in, at all. Everything the owner planted fell over. Or died of lack of water. End of aside.)

Having dug well (which includes, of course, removing all the roots of the previous Rose), add a couple of fistfuls of bonemeal, and dig that in as well, firm the whole lot down, and water it well to settle the soil.  Meanwhile, take your new Rose, and soak it well for a couple of hours before planting. Find a stout cardboard box that is big enough to take the rootball with ease, dig a hole large enough for the box, and plonk it in the 'ole. Water it well, (make sure to take off all plastic tape, labels, etc, and don't use a shiny one, use the plainest, matte brown one you can find) until it is good and soggy, then plant your new Rose inside the cardboard box, using the couple of bucket-fulls of "new" soil that you reserved earlier. Sounds daft, eh? The theory is that by the time the roots of the Rose have reached and penetrated the cardboard box, the plant is sufficiently well established to be able to resist the pathogens.

The latest trendy answer is, of course, to use beneficial mycorrhizal fungi, which can be bought by the sachet, and which might be provided by the Rose seller. Manufacturers claim that they solve the problem: personally I haven't carried out my own trial yet, so I'm sticking to the cardboard box method for now.

After planting, it goes without saying - but I shall say it, anyway - that the new Rose needs to be watered deeply and regularly, and will benefit from additional feeding, and to be honest I'd also recommend spraying it against black spot/fungus/bugs etc to give it the best possible chance of succeeding.

So there you go: when faced with a dead Rose, you can either rip it out straight away, or give it One More Chance....

Friday, 19 August 2016

Salix Kilmarnock question: brown leaves.

Another Salix Kilmarnock question arrived in my in-box last week:   Trevor sent me this photo:

...along with the obvious questions, ie what's wrong with my willow and why have the leaves turned brown?

I don't know whereabouts Trevor and his willow are, but if you are anywhere in the UK then the simplest answer is the obvious one: it hasn't rained for weeks, and they need more water.

One of those leaves looks as though it might have had a leaf-miner in it (see Bugs, later) but another has a brown tip, so on balance I think the problem here is lack of water.

Willows are very water-dependent trees: they soak up a lot of it, and when grown in a pot (and I think I can just about see the edge of the pot) it is easy for them to dry out, especially when it hasn't rained for several weeks.

Even though it has not been particularly hot, it's been windy, and wind is very drying. After all, that's why we still hang our washing out on the line, even in the middle of winter! It's the wind that dries them, more than the general temperature.

To check, tip some water onto the surface of the pot. Does it sit on the top? Your pot is bone dry. Does it disappear immediately all round the edges of the pot, then run out on your feet? Your pot is bone dry, and the soil has shrunk away from the sides of the pot. Does it disappear down, apparently through the soil (rather than round the edges) but still run out on your feet? Your pot is bone dry.

In all these cases, I would suggest firstly giving it a good soak, then adding some liquid feed to the water and giving it another good soak, and finally, keep watering it every day for a week or more, even if it is raining, and with luck it will recover.

Willow are remarkably resilient, and dropping leaves is, for them, a very easy way to cope with the first few weeks of drought: as soon as the rain returns - which means, in this case, Trevor and his watering can - they will produce a new flush of leaves.

Oh, and about the Bugs: check out this post on another Sad Looking Salix Kilmarnock, for details and more information about watering and feeding.

Trevor, I hope this helps!

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

How to: Cut back Primroses in summer

A simple task, but a surprising number of people are unsure how to deal with their spring flowered primroses now that we are in mid-summer (says she, with wry face, looking at the rain streaming down the window pane).

The answer is simply to chop them right back!

Here is a typical small group of Primrose plants:

 the leaves are yellowed, limp and floppy, and they look rather a mess.

If you get down on hands and knees and look closely, though, you will see that new, fresh green leaves are already starting to push through, but of course they are completely covered by the wilting foliage,

So, what to do?

The procedure is remarkably similar to that in my earlier article about Cutting Back Aquilegia: you can either spend a lot of time carefully snipping off the dead leaves individually, or you can take hold of the entire clump and sever them at just an inch or so above ground level.

Here's one I did earlier, as they say: more accurately, here is the same clump two minutes later.

The actual process is to ruffle through the foliage to work out where each plant is, then round up all the leaves in one hand, pulling them upright: then with the other hand, swoop across with the secateurs and chop the lot.

Yes, there is a risk that you will chop off a couple of quite nice new leaves, but they will soon regrow, especially if you water the plants afterwards : even if it looks like rain, a good drenching will help them get growing, and many primroses are growing in quite shaded locations: this little group are sheltered by a dry-stone wall, and are underneath a plum tree, so they won't get much "natural" watering unless it really pours.

Having chopped off the leaves, I then use my faithful Daisy Grubber to gently rake through the stumps to pull out any dead matter,  then to fluff up the earth around the plants (which breaks any surface pan, allowing your watering to have the best effect instead of running off and into the lawn) and tidy up the newly-revealed edge of the grass.

It all takes just a couple of minutes, but the result is quite impressive: and in a week or two, when the new leaves spring up, it will look great!