Garden School:

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

Saturday, 22 July 2017

How to manage Opium Poppy - Papaver somniferum - in the garden

I love the huge annual Opium Poppies - Papaver somniferum - and in one of my gardens, I have a large swathe of them across a small area which we laughingly call the Wildflower Garden.

I sowed them from seed earlier this year, they've done tremendously well, but now:

well. they're not so pretty anymore, are they?  This means that it's time to pull them out.

However, before I do that, I'm going to collect some of the seed so that I can re-sow for next year, and also so that I can sow them in another part of the garden.

This is something I do every year, with many plants, but someone asked me about it the other day, which made me realise that the phrase "just collect some seeds your annual poppies" is not quite enough detail.

So what do you do, if  you want to save seed?

You will need:

A large paper bag, or an old used large paper envelope - A4 is fine, and it doesn't matter if it has a clear window in it.


Somewhere warm and dry to hang them.

Right, here's How To Do It: Cut down the stems, quite low down, and tie them together in loose bunches. Pull the paper envelope or bag over the seed pods, and tie it around the stems.  Then hang the whole contraption, upside down, somewhere warm such as a shed or a garage, or a sunny porch. As the seed pods dry and ripen, the seeds will fall out and will be caught in the envelope.

Nothing complicated about that, you might think.

However, how do you know if the ones you are picking still have any seed left in them? Answer, look closely at the seed pod, just under the flat lid, to see if you've left it too late. It's not the colour you are looking for, it's whether the pod has opened or not.

Here's one which has opened - can you see those chutes, or flutes, just under the upturned lid? That's how the seed gets distributed: the wind blows the stems around, which shakes the head, and the tiny black seeds come out of those chutes.

When the stem eventually breaks, the seed pod will end up hanging upside down, and any remaining seeds will then fall  out.

Simple, and elegant.

Here is one which is unripe: can you see how there are no holes, no chutes: no way for the seed to get  out.

This is the sort of seed pod that you want to select, and the fatter it is, the better.

If you wait until the seed pod goes brown, you will probably lose most of the seed, so it's better to pick them while they are still fairly green and - importantly - still sealed up.

They don't take long to dry, maybe a couple of weeks, but it doesn't matter if you forget about them and they stay there in the shed until next year: the seed will fall out, and will be collected by the envelope.

It's always a good idea to write on the envelope the date, the name of the plant, and what colour the flowers were - otherwise you'll forget, and then you'll end up with a box in the shed filled with envelopes of mysterious seeds....

Then, next spring, you can scatter the seed wherever you would like Poppies to appear, and there you go! Easy peasy!

Now, before we leave the subject, I might as well add a quick comment about the final aspect of this: how to clear up the rest of the mess.

Once you have harvested the best pods for drying and seed-saving,  what is the best thing to do with the rest?

Firstly, go round again and chop off all the old seed heads, collecting them as you go - here's a bucketfull that I collected from the garden above.

These are the ones which are already open, are partially open, or are not plump enough to be worth saving.  I always cut them off first because this material goes on the bonfire heap (or in the council green-waste bin if you don't have a bonfire). I don't want this stuff on the compost heap, as it contains a lot of seeds - duuuh, obviously!! - and I don't want little poppies pop-pop-popping up everywhere I use the compost.

Also, and less obviously, I don't want to have a constant shower of tiny poppy seeds down the back of my neck and in my ears while I am removing the rest of the foliage...

... so I cut off the seed heads and dispose of them, then I go round again and pull out the remainder of the plants, which can then go on the compost heap.

Simple. Of course, the garden always looks a bit bare when you've just done it... but you might well find that removing the old poppies reveals a few late starters, young plants which will flower in the next couple of weeks, to remind you of how lovely they were!

Saturday, 8 July 2017

What to do when water puddles on the surface of the flower beds.

Earlier this year I helped a friend to set up some new flower beds in her back garden: she'd had the garden completely landscaped with new raised, shaped bed edges, a beautiful summerhouse to sit in, new turf lawn, and a super new patio.

The builders had piled the old soil back into the beds, but of course had left all the weeds, and had trampled it all down flat, so our first job was to dig over all the beds, digging out the roots of the perennial weeds (couch grass mostly) and aerating the soil again.

We then replaced the plants which had been temporarily potted up, and my friend bought a whole lot of new plants, which we planted: it all looked lovely, and I left her with strict instructions to water the new plantings, even if it rained.  And a good thing too, bearing in mind that we've had the driest spring/early summer for years, and the hottest June in decades!

However, there's a problem: when watering, the water is now forming puddles on top of the beds.

This is not a big problem: it is absolutely typical of "old" soil in a "new" garden, for a couple of reasons. Well, three main reasons, anyway!

Firstly, the builders: obviously they had to stand on the ground both inside and outside the beds while they were laying the walls, causing compaction. Having built the walls and levelled the lawn area, they threw all the excess soil into the beds, not worrying about getting topsoil on top and subsoil below it, just mixing it all up and very probably walking all over it again while they laid the turf.

We dug it over to a depth of a spit and a half (nothing to do with expectorating, that means one and a half times the depth of a spade) which aerated the soil again,  but there will still be some compacted soil underneath, and the "soil" will be mixture of topsoil ("good") and subsoil ("horrible") which will make the soil less free-draining than it could/should be. This is not necessarily a bad thing: the normal action of worms and bugs will eventually sort it all out, and in the meantime at least the soil is not immediately drained of all the water!

Secondly, the soil was already a bit "tired": the house had been rented for many years, the various occupants were not really into gardening, and they would have not have been adding manure, digging in compost, mulching, moving plants (thus aerating the soil) and so on every year. It takes a while to get back on track, but the sooner you start, the sooner  you'll get there, and you can tell the quality of your soil by the colour: it should be brown, and preferably dark. If it's kind of grey, then it is "tired", or what gardeners call "lacking heart".

It's easily remedied:  just add organic matter. Make this an ongoing part of your garden routine: do it now (whatever time of year you are reading this!) and aim to add more as often as  you can - at the very least, twice a year, in spring and again in autumn: but frankly I'd add organic matter whenever I came across any.  Don't worry if you already have plants in place - just add the organic matter on top of the soil, taking care not to pile it against the stems of the plants,  and let the worms do the work in pulling it down into the soil.  You can help them by gently digging it in - use a small hand tool and just turn over the soil enough to mix the new - which will be delightfully dark - and the old - which will be pale and grey.

When I say "organic matter" I mean any of the following:

- Home made compost from your own bins. Usually  lovely rich stuff!
- Horse manure: if you have a friend with a horse, they will usually welcome you with open arms if you ask for some, although  you will probably have to go and dig it out yourself. This is a good thing, as it means you can get the well-rotted manure from the oldest part of the pile, which is the best stuff.
- Cow/chicken/pig/anything else manure: again must be well-rotted. See below.
- Bought-in manure in bags from the garden centre: expensive, but lovely stuff.
- Leaf mould: does not add much in the way of nutrients, but is fantastic soil conditioner, for improving the texture and the water-holding capabilities.

Now a quick word about manure and the phrase "well rotted": it's essential to get well rotted manure, as fresh manure is not good for the garden, for several reasons. Firstly, because it needs to absorb nitrogen in order to rot down. We don't want to give any of our precious nitrogen away! We want more of it, not less! Secondly, too-fresh manure can also "burn" the stems of plants, as it creates heat as it rots. This, in combination with the concentration of nutrients, can dehydrate plants. Thirdly, most fresh manures are high in nitrogen (N, for lush green foliage) whereas most of our garden is filled with flowers (requiring P,  Phosphorus, and K, Potassium) so it always better to wait until the manure is mature, as it were, then it can be mixed with the soil. Fourthly, fresh manure is very prone to forming a crust or pan on the soil, if you spread it on too thickly: just think of a cow pat. You wouldn't want a continuous sheet of cow-pat on the beds, would you? And fifthly, if there is such a word, fresh manure is STINKY!!

So how do you  know if what you are being offered is well-rotted? Two ways: if it is STINKY then don't touch it. And if you can see "clods" then it's not ready: just like our home-made compost, if you can still recognise any constituent parts, then it is not ready for use. Of course, if you have a largeish garden, you can accept any sub-standard manure, stack it out of sight somewhere and in a  year's time, it will be well-rotted and ready for use. Don't add it to your existing compost heap, just leave it to rot down by itself.

Where were we? Oh yes, the soil:

Thirdly:  due to the dry spring and hot early summer,  all garden soil everywhere became very dry earlier this year, and it takes a long time to "re-wet" it thoroughly. You would think that a bone dry soil would just suck up all the water, wouldn't you? Well, no it doesn't: normally, when you water a bone-dry soil, the water disappears like magic but it is not making the top soil wet, it is actually vanishing down cracks in the soil, and it's not doing the plants - whose roots are in the top 4-8" of the soil  - any good at all.  The other end of the same problem is when the too-dry soil forms a pan or crust on top, such that the water can't get in, and sits there on the surface, sulking.

Normally, "one" would have been watering the garden throughout the dry spring, but as my friend had builders trampling about, the garden was not watered at all - so the soil has no water banked, as it were, and very dry soil, like shop-bought compost, is hard to "re-wet".

Right, we now know what conditions can lead to water puddling on the surface: compaction, mixing of sub-soil, tired soil, over-dry soil. So how can we fix it?

Firstly, water gently: only turn the tap enough to get the water coming out the end of the hose, not so fast that it sand-blasts everywhere. Think of the phrase "it droppeth like the gentle rain from above" and hold the hose pointing upwards, so the water falls on the plants from above, not from the side: you can also shake the hose nozzle, to create a light shower of big drops.  Move the hose from side to side in elegant sweeps (pretend that you are a sprinkler), so that each set of droplets has time to soak in before you get back to that section. Watch for the water to soak in - as soon as puddling starts, stop watering that area - move the hose on to the next area.

In between waterings, use your hoe to break up the surface: this will prevent a crust or "pan" forming, as crusts make puddling much worse.

As mentioned above, add organic matter whenever you can - your own compost, or well-rotted manure or bought in bags of farmyard manure. Don't add "multipurpose compost" as that doesn't really improve the soil. Over time, this will enrich the soil and will make it hold water better: new rainfall will soak in quickly and evenly, and it will stay moist for longer.

So there you have it,  what to do when water puddles on the surface of the flower beds!

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

How to manage your block paving drive

Do you have one of these block paving drives? Does it no longer look quite as beautiful as it used to when it was first laid?

Are there tiny weeds growing in the cracks? Moss? Nasty black lines where the joins go?

All these are signs that you need to do a bit of maintenance now, before things get out of control.

Why? Because even the best quality block paving is usually only laid on a hardcore and sand base, they are not cemented into place - the reason being that the individual blocks need to be able to move very slightly as cars drive over them, otherwise they would crack: and it also allows drainage of surface water. The edges may well be cemented in place, to stop them drifting apart - but not the main area.

You might think that a bit of mud or moss on the drive is not a problem, or that you don't really mind the odd weed or two: but the problem is that weeds tend to get bigger and bigger until the point where they start to force the blocks apart, leading to all sorts of problems. Also, any plant growth between the blocks will catch any wind-blown debris such as litter, or leaves, instead of letting them blow clean across and away. This material then rots down, creating more organic matter to feed the weeds.

Even a layer of moss along each join will catch water like a sponge, creating a nice planting environment for weeds.

So, what to do? Get yourself a long-handled wire brush, the sort that is sold for cleaning patios and drives. You can do this on your hands and knees, using a daisy grubber or an old kitchen knife, but a long-handled brush really saves the back...

Wait until we've had a few dry days, then start at one corner, facing outwards, and use a to-and-fro scrubbing motion along the join. Annoyingly, most of the best block paved drives are laid in a herringbone pattern, so each join is no more than one and a half blocks long.. so you don't get a chance to build up a good rhythm. Ah well, such is life. Scrub along the join. Take a small step to the left or right - scrub the next join. Take a small step... scrub the next join.. continue until you reach the end.

Change the brush to the other hand, take a half-step backwards, and scrub the join at right angles to the last one you did. Take a small step to the left. Scrub the join....

Continue doing this  until you are demented with boredom and can't take it any longer. Put down the scrubbing brush, go and get a normal yard broom or household (outdoor) broom, and sweep up all the loose bits. Then go back and scrub another section.

The reason for starting in a corner and looking outwards is so that you are not treading on all the loose bits, by they way: there's no point scrubbing them off, just to tread them all in again!

Here's one I did this week: the top (right-hand) half has been scrubbed but not swept, and I swept a small strip to make the difference more obvious: can you see where I've been?!

This was quite a large drive, so I did it in instalments over a couple of weeks.

When I'd finally finished, the result was spectacular, it looks just like new!

Having de-mossed and de-weeded it, the final job is to spray it with a residual type of weedkiller (Pathclear is the usual brand name, or something clearly marked "For paths and patios") to help prevent seeds from germinating and starting the cycle all over again.

So there you have it - how to keep your beautiful block paving drive looking like new: once a year, scrub it and sweep it!

Monday, 19 June 2017

Using Salt as a weedkiller

I came across this little oddity the other day: someone was seriously suggesting using salt as a weedkiller in the garden.

After screaming "Are you crazy??!!??" at the screen, I decided to do a little research to find out why anyone would suggest such a daft thing, and it transpires that it's part of the whole eco-warrior "we don't use chemicals" and "Monsanto [makers of Glyphosate] are the Devil" dippy hippy thing.

As you can tell, I'm not a fan of that type of thinking: it's fine when you only have yourself to think of, but if  you are growing food to feed the masses (who all want perfect produce, cheap), or if you are paid to produce a beautiful garden within strict time limits (in most cases, I'm only there for half a day a week), then sometimes chemicals - judiciously used - are the only answer.

So why do I shriek in horror at the suggestion of using salt as a weedkiller? Does it not work? Oh, it works all right: it works superly. It will kill any plant or gastropod within range: if you put salt on a slug or on the stem or leaf of a plant, the salt will allow all the water inside the body of the slug or plant to move outside, in a rather drastic manner. This is why slugs and snails "foam" if  you put salt on them: the salt draws out the water on the skin where it touches it, and the water inside the creature rushes outwards to fill the gap, gets drawn outside, so more water rushes out... so the creature dies, howwibly. *maniacal laughter in the background. Yes, I know they are all god's creatures, and that I am supposed to be kind and nice to everything, but news flash, a) I am not actually all that nice, and b) sometimes in life we have to make choices, and I would rather have undamaged greenery than have a huge population of gastropods. So there.*

This process is called Osmosis, and you can look it up for  yourself if you are interested: in layman's terms, the salt "pulls" the water out of the slug or plant.

The bad news is that salt stays in the soil for ages - not quite forever, but nearly.  Do you remember your bible lessons? The bad guys used to "sow the land of their enemies with salt". This means they would scatter salt on the farming land to kill all the crops, and to prevent any new crops being grown there for many years. The "enemies" would die of starvation, or would have to flee the area. It's not an allegory, it was how they actually did it.

So unless you want a garden in which the only things to grow are salt-hardy Oleandar, Rosemary and Butcher's Broom, you do not want to add salt to your soil.

This also goes for killing those slugs and snails, by the way - don't ever sprinkle salt on the ground, or on the critturs: pick them up (if you are squemish, wear latex gloves, or use tongs) and pop them into a jar or pot with some salt in the bottom. Every so often you can empty the shells out into the bin. Do not put them on the compost heap!

There's another reason for not sprinkling salt on the garden to kill slugs and snails: the eco warriors (or "eco worriers" as I think of them) say that it's very efficient, and unlike the blue slug pellets, does not leave any residual poison in the creatures, so they can be eaten by birds or vermin without ill effect. Not true! Just as too much salt in our diet is bad for us, highly salted gastropods are very, very bad for birds, and although I can't find any firm information on this one, I can't imagine that they'd be very good for moist-bodied frogs.

Although I would say that from time to time I empty out my salt pot onto the rough grass in front of my house, and within a night or two, the whole lot have invariably gone, shells and all: so presumably there is something with four legs that likes crunchy, lightly salted, snails.

As an even further aside, when doing the three-yearly re-blacking of the bottom of a narrowboat, I asked what we should do with the masses and masses of barnacles that we scraped off before we could get to the paint. "Oh, just leave them there, on the ground," said the marina's manager: "they'll be gone by morning."  And sure enough, they were, shells and all.

Anyway, back to the salt issue: even if you really, really don't want to use "chemicals",  what do you think table salt is, scotch mist? It's mostly sodium chloride, but if it comes from brine (ie "natural" sea salt, obtained by evaporating salty water such as sea water or salt lake water) then it will also contain greater or lesser amounts of magnesium chloride, magnesium sulfate, calcium sulfate, potassium chloride, magnesium bromide, and calcium carbonate.

If you choose to go for "table salt" then you should be aware that it has several additives: potassium iodide for one, to give us protection against thyroid disease: plus magnesium carbonate, calcium silicate, calcium phosphate, magnesium silicate, and calcium carbonate.These are added to prevent clumping, and to prevent it from absorbing water.

So it's not exactly "chemical-free", is it? And it's terribly bad for the soil, so just don't use it on the garden: either use the minimum amount of commercial weedkiller - which has been carefully tested, and calibrated to be effective - or just get out there with a daisy grubber and weed by hand or by hoe!

Saturday, 10 June 2017

How to move a rose - yes, it can be done!

Recently, a friend asked me about a problem she was having:  some mature roses were in the way of some unavoidable construction work. She asked if it was possible to move the roses, so that they could be replanted once the builders had gone.

The answer is "yes - probably!"

And by coincidence, I found myself doing exactly the same thing a couple of days ago, so I took some quick photos as I did it, on the basis that a picture is worth a thousand words, and it would save me quite a lot of typing if I could illustrate the job as we went.

Right: first job, cut down the top growth of the roses in question. Why? Firstly because any large transplanted shrub is going to struggle at first, so it is a kindness to remove some of the burden of foliage. Or, to put it another way, it will probably panic and drop a lot of its upper foliage anyway, on the grounds that all those leaves are just too much to support: so we might as well do the job for it. Secondly, for the comfort of the poor gardener who is being asked to dig it up: roses have thorns (technically, prickles, but I am not wearing my Botanist hat today, so we'll let that one go) which can make it extremely unpleasant to work close to them.

So, firstly, cut back a lot of the top growth. Aim to end up with something about knee height and yes, you are going to lose all those lovely flowers, so take them inside and put them in vases! Cut off enough of the outside "ring" of branches that you can get fairly close to the roots without being slashed to death.

Don't waste the bits you cut off, though: you can use them for cuttings. Look it up online if you're not sure, but it's basically choose pencil-thick sections, push five or so cuttings (each a good 8" long) around the edge of a pot of soil/compost, water them gently, let them get on with it for a year or so. Keep the pots watered, but not soaked.

Take a lot of cuttings from each rose: two pots of five cuttings I'd say, and don't forget to take photos of the roses and label the cuttings according to the photos. If they have name labels, so much the better, but if not, use your imagination: at the very least, identify what colour they are. This will be your back-up, in case moving the plants is not a success....

Here's what I was presented with: a climbing rose which had sadly lost its supporting tree, and was far too big to be allowed to regrow in this position.

Most of it had been cut off when the tree fell, but it had regrown a lot of whippy shoots -and a fair amount of weeds, as you can see!

In this case, my first job was to chop off the wildly long growth so I could get close enough to weed it.

 Here is phase two: weeds removed, growth cut back to something manageable.

Now we get the spade out, and cut vertically downwards in a circle around it.
 As soon as I started, I realised that there was one stout branch that was still too long: I'd retained it because it has three or more good strong shoots coming from it. But it was no good, it was in the way, so it had to go.

Here you can see me starting to dig in a circle around the plant.

Dig straight down with the spade, a full spade depth, or more if you can. Then start working across, under the rose: try to get as big and complete a rootball as you can.

Use loppers/secateurs to cut off roots as you meet them: you are not going to be able to get all the roots out, so it's better to cut them cleanly than to try to lever each plant out, ripping the roots as you go.

Having removed this one, normally you would carefully retain the root ball: but in this case there was a lot of couch grass running through it, so unfortunately I had to shake off all the soil in order to get the roots of the couch grass out.  This is sub-optimal, as it exposes the roots and damages the fine ones, but there's no point trying to replant something which is infested with a perennial weed!

Here is the plant in my bucket: please note that I  have brought along the labels as well -  it's always good to keep the labels with the plants!  In this case I only had the one to move, but if you have several different roses to move, then write out labels and tie them to the remains of each rose as you go.

As this one has  been cruelly stripped of the soil, I filled the bucket with water and left it to soak for 20 minutes or so - which also gave me the opportunity to check that all couch grass roots had been removed.

Then it was time to pot it up and water well.

It will now sit outside somewhere safe, until needed: the owner will keep it watered and, with luck, it  will survive.

If you are simply moving the roses, then obviously you don't need to pot them up, they can go straight to their new home which you will have prepared before digging them up: clear the ground where they are going to go, dig it over well, make sure you have removed any nasty perennial weeds such as bindweed/ground elder/couch grass etc: dig in some home compost or some well rotted manure in preparation and dig the hole ready, so that as soon as you lift the rose, you can trundle it straight over the the new place, and plant it. Water well, and keep an eye on them for the following few weeks, watering as necessary.

Although generally speaking, it is always best to have plants firmly in the ground, in some ways, it is not a  bad thing if you have to pot them up: it gives them the time to die, if they are going to die, before you expend the energy to replant them: and it's often easy to forget about a transplanted shrub, whereas if they are in pots, you will be more likely to keep an eye on them.

If you do have to pot them up, here are two Tips for watering: having radically pruned and root-pruned them, they will be a bit delicate for a while, so water them gently, don't drench them - get some drip-waterers, those gadgets which you fit onto an empty squash bottle, and which allow water to penetrate slowly and gently.

Second watering tip, get a squirty spray bottle, and when you've filled up the water bottles each day, "mist" the foliage with water. Don't feed them at this time, just let them re-establish their roots in the pots.

 If the potted ones fail, hopefully you'll have cuttings: if the cuttings fail, hopefully you'll have some of the potted ones: and if all else fails, well, time to buy new ones.

But it is well worth the effort to try and keep them.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

A new Fedge!

Back in February I spent a very productive morning installing a new Willow Fedge - straight and simple, nothing complicated, but hopefully it will be the start of something much bigger. More of that later...

Right, first things first: what's a Fedge? It's a cross between a fence and a hedge. Usually made of Willow, sometimes referred to as Living Willow. The concept is very simple: you plant a row of willow wands (or "branches"), you weave them together, and you end up with something as good as a fence, but which is as alive as a hedge. Each year you cut them right back to the bone, to reveal the original framework, so in winter you have something decorative, rather like an ornate trellis. And in summer you have a wildly fluffy, green hedge. What could be simpler?

What is the secret of making a good Fedge? As with many things in the garden, preparation is key, second only to "start with decent materials" and then followed by "ongoing maintenance".

The preparation means lifting a strip of turf - it's best to remove all the competition, and grass is hungry stuff - and laying down a strip of water-permeable membrane. This helps to suppress the growth of weeds, and the re-growth of grass.

Here is my Client, measuring carefully and making slits in the pegged-out membrane, at regular intervals.

She bought a "kit" of materials, having simply told the supplier how long the Fedge was going to be - and they calculated how many of each thickness would be required. Very easy!

On arrival, the willow wands were unpacked and stuffed into a dustbin of water, cut ends downwards. This keeps them fresh and alive until you are ready to install them: obviously, the sooner after delivery the better.

In go the first row of stout uprights.

It's very easy - you literally just push them into the ground, through the membrane.

Once you have done all the uprights, the instructions on the kit tell you to tie a row of "binders" along the top at head height. This keeps the  uprights all the same distance apart, and helps to keep them upright once you start the weaving.

When I am making Fedges, I prefer to do the weaving before the binders, as it's a lot easier to do the "over under, over  under" routine with the loose end of the weaver being able to slide inbetween the uprights, rather like those agility dogs you see going between the bendy poles.

But it is a lot harder to keep the Fedge upright if you do it that way: easy for me, because I have done any number of them, but much less easy for a beginner and as, this time, I was demonstrating how to do it so that my Client could do other Fedges by herself,  I thought it best to follow the instructions and do the binders nice and early.

Having done the binders, we start the first row of diagonal weavers.

"Over, under, over under!" we chanted as we worked.

Yes, it really is that easy.

The tricky part is getting to the end and coming back the other way - it's easy to get "lost" in the over-unders, and ending up on the wrong side of an upright.

Frankly, this isn't critical: by the time the leaves have arrived,  you won't be able to see any minor mistakes in the weaving.

When all the weaving was done, then came the job of tying in all the joins, where they cross: this helps to strengthen the Fedge for these first few weeks, while it is starting to grow, and it helps the branches to graft themselves together, which is what gives a Fedge its strength. Yes, those individual thin willow wands will "glue" themselves together where they cross, and as they grow the Fedge will become stronger and stronger.

Tying in is our chance to even up the lattice, making the gaps as regular as we could. And that's all there is to it. A bit of snipping of odd sticky-out ends, one last check that all the junctions were tied, and time to clear up the debris and have a cup of tea.

And here is a photo of the Fedge in  April, greening up nicely! 

As you can see, the Client has installed an additional chicken-wire fence - this is to keep the chickens on the grassy side, until the Fedge has thickened up enough to work as a hen-proof fence. I know it doesn't look as pretty, but it's only for the first year or two.

So what were those three points again? Firstly, start with decent materials: don't think that you can chop a few branches off a handy Willow, and make yourselves a beautiful Fedge for free.

The kits that you can buy online are from the "right" species of Willow, which is long, thin and flexible. Buying a kit ensures that it all the same species, so it all grows at the same rate - if  you chop a few bits off one Willow and a few off another, you'll end up with something of a mish-mash, with some sections growing tall and thin, with others trying to grow bushy. Plus they might well be different colours, although that is not a bad thing in itself. More to the point, it is very rare to be able to find "free" Willow wands that are both long, and thin: the frustration of trying to weave over-stiff branches quickly makes you realise the value of buying in the right materials. And of course it becomes a crop: you buy them once, and for ever afterwards you get an annual crop of prunings which you can use to build more Fedges, or to make willow sculptures, or to weave plant supports: you could easily recover the cost of the materials over the next few years!

Second point, Preparation: clear the ground in a strip, and make life easier for yourself by laying down membrane, which helps to suppress weeds around the very base of the willow.

Third and final point, "Ongoing maintenance". At installation, water it well. For the first year, water it well. Willow is thirsty stuff, and the more you water it, the quicker it will grow.  Keep the base as clear of weeds as you can: not only does that reduce competition, allowing the Willow to use all the water and nutrients available, but it looks nicer!  The "ongoing" part is the annual maintenance: at some point over the winter, go over the whole Fedge with secateurs and trim off all the long new growth, leaving just the original lattice. I know these seems cruel, but it's  not like a tree that we want to grow and grow: we want it to stay more or less the same size. Left  unpruned, every single wand will turn into a tree, which would be a bit overwhelming in a garden. 

Having pruned off the new growth, inspect the lattice to see if there are any dead wands: it's perfectly normal for a few of them to fail to grow,  or to grow well at the bottom, then die off a bit higher up. When you spot one, all you do is take one of then pruned-off wands, and slide it through the lattice to take the place of the dead one. Work it right down to ground level and push it as far in as you can, water well, and with luck it will "take" and will replace the dead one. I reckon to do a dozen or so replacements every year for the first few years, it doesn't take long and you don't have to buy any new willow, as you have your own wand-producing factory already in place!

And as mentioned, all those leftover wands can be used for other projects. In the first year, they are likely to be quite spindly and not very long, but after the second or third year, you will be getting a crop that is equal in size and quality to the wands that you originally bought.

You can let the top grow a little higher, if you want more shelter or privacy, but don't let it grow unchecked otherwise you end up with a hideous mess like this one:

 This train-wreck of a fence (which adjoins one of my Clients' gardens) has not been trimmed every winter for several years, all they do is lop off the top growth, and they don't bother to check the lattice at all.

So instead of winter giving us an attractive trellis-like thing to look at, we have this rather  ugly, top-heavy thing with huge gaps in it.

And of course it gets worse every year, as the top knobs get stronger and stronger, while the lower growth gets weaker and weaker. They are, in effect, pollarding it so in a few more years, they will have a line of single willow trees, instead of any sort of fence. What a waste.

So there you have it: how to install a simple willow Fedge, how to maintain it, and how to enjoy a living fence in summer, an attractive trellis in winter, and an ongoing source of free willow!

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Irish Yew: reversion

I've written about Irish Yew recently, and now another strange case has come to my attention.

A Client of mine has a beautiful double avenue of slender Irish Yew:

 ...there, aren't they lovely? Marching down the grassy path, with a solid ordinary Yew hedge at the end, and an arched doorway cut in it.


It doesn't get much better than this..

But I noticed something odd about one of them.
 Uurgh, what's that untidy growth at the bottom?

They are not supposed to do that!

Close inspection showed that there were two stout stems arising from the base of the tree, which were not Irish Yew but were ordinary English Yew.

It's quite a good illustration of the difference between them: they are both Yew, but the English Yew branches are sprouting off in all directions, and even in this photo, you can see that the individual leaves are not crisply curling, the way that those of the Irish Yew are.

This is not the first time I've seen this: I was visiting Snowshill Manor a year or two back (don't bother: there's hardly any garden worth the word, people go there to look at the house and the eclectic contents, apparently)  and found this:

Doesn't that look familiar?

It's exactly the same problem, a fastigiate Yew with a sprouting bunch of "ordinary" Yew at the base. I'm sure I've seen another one somewhere else, at another public garden, but I can't find the photo.

Anyway, you see the problem: the "wrong" plant is growing at the base.

And the entirely "wrong" way to deal with it is to do what the useless gardeners at Snowshill Manor did, and attempt to clip it into the same shape as the fastigiate Yew.

As an aside, this is something that (professionally) drives me mad: paid gardeners not doing a proper job. It's perfectly ok for the owner of a garden to bodge it up in any way they please: it's their garden, it's their time, they might do something which I consider to be horticulturally inept, but I am most likely to just laugh a little bit (sometimes behind my hand, to be polite) and let them get on with it.

But it's a different story when a gardener is being paid to work there, and - in my opinion - should be expected to know the difference between plants, and how to deal with problems like this. Not to take the easy option of running the hedgetrimmer over it.

OK, enough of me grumbling: what, then, is the "correct" way to deal with it?

The "correct" way is to remove the "wrong" shoots as soon as you find them, long before they turn into an eyesore and need repeated clipping for the rest of their life...

Here's the sequence of events:

1)  Assess the situation.

Here's my slender upright Yew, with tufty-tail at the bottom. Taking hold of those branches, and pulling them gently outwards, I could see that there were two individual branches of the "wrong" Yew, springing out from below soil level at the base of the tree.

I tried to clear the soil away from them, to see if they were individually rooted, or were just suckers off the original tree, springing out from just below ground level - a lot of grafted plants do this, it's very annoying and needs to be dealt with firmly by removing those suckers from as low down as you possibly can. Just cutting them off at ground level won't work: the stumps will send up more shoots than ever. You have to rip them off from their base: sometimes this is easier said than done.

 Here's the first one: it seems to me that this is a separate plant, it has a thin root going sideways as well as a big thick one going downwards.

But I couldn't get it away from the main roots.
 Here - right - is the same root from the other side, and you can see "wrong" shoot number two, between it and the thick original trunk.

Again, I can't separate the roots - I can't find a gap to push the daisy grubber into.

On the one hand, this could indicate that the "wrong" shoot is a reverted sucker: it could equally well indicate that it's a seedling which has become grafted to the original tree's roots as it grew.

 As I can't get the shoots to pull away from the original trunk, all I can do is saw them off as low as possible, and here are the two front shoots, newly sawn.

I will now keep an eye on them through the next season or two, looking out for regrowth, and removing any that I find.

If I knew for certain that they were separate entities, I would dab some glyphosate weed-killer on the cut faces of their stumps, but as the roots do seem to be welded together, I can't risk doing that.

So, where does that leave us? The row of fastigiate Yews now looks correct again, with no rufty tufty English Yew trying to push its way into the arrangement: and I will be checking it every so often and removing any regrowth that I find, until those "wrong" shoots run out of energy and give up trying.

The question I am left with, though, is this: are these non-fastigiate shoots a case of the plant reverting, in the same way that variegated shrubs often through out a plain green shoot or two? Or are they actually seedlings which have dropped very close to the parent (fastigiate) Yew, and haven't been noticed as they grew?

I'm definitely in favour of the seedling theory.  I know that Irish Yew trees are very nearly all female: they bear the berries, which is how you can tell, but this means that they are normally pollinated by English Yew. I know that they rarely if ever come true from seed - the seedlings are overwhelmingly ordinary English Yew. I know this from my own experience, as well as from researching it, as I have weeded out about a million Yew seedlings from around the base of Irish Yew, and not one has ever grown into Irish Yew, they have all grown into normal English Yew.

So, in my opinion, it seems quite possible that some of the seeds will fall very close to the trunk of the Irish Yew, and would easily be overlooked when it came to weeding, to the point where they look as though they are shoots from the original tree. This is what I think happened here, but I can't tell for certain as all the roots are intertwined.

So now I am on the look out, every time I see Fastigiate Yew, for small shoots of the "wrong" Yew, small enough for me to be able to pull them out by the roots, if indeed they are on their own roots!

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Irish Yew: middle aged spread

Here's an interesting little conundrum about Taxas baccata 'Fastigiata', otherwise known as Irish Yew.

In case you didn't know, Irish Yew is a mutation of the normal Taxas baccata, where instead of becoming a stately, spreading tree, it grows very strongly upright, and the individual leaves are slightly curled all the way round the twig, giving it a lush and bushy appearance while remaining a very tightly upright tree.

And yes, it was first found in Ireland, hence the name.

It  has many uses,  being as strong, hardy, long-lived and tough as normal Yew,  and it is very handy for instances where you wanted a line of Pencil Cedars, much  loved in Italianate style gardens, but the weather isn't mild enough!

They start off as skinny little things, but if left along for long enough, they get bigger and bigger, and turn into massive upright columns.

At this point, the owner  usually - cursing their ancestors who planted the darned things - resorts to massacre with a chainsaw.  Sometimes you get an interim measure, if they have a half-way decent arborist (formerly known as "tree surgeon" but honestly, what a pretentious name for it: "surgeon") who will strap the tree horizontally with bands of wire to keep the growth tight against the trunk.

Personally I hate this, but not as much as I hate seeing people use hedgetrimmers on the upright sides... but that's just my personal opinion.

Anyway, back to the massive columns: what people normally do is just lop the top off, like this pair of unfortunates at Rodmarton House (left).

I suppose it does reduce the overall looming-ness of them, but it's still a squeeze to get along that path.

Being Yew, they take this as a challenge and immediately start growing again on the top, where they've been cut.

Yew is one of the few conifers who will do  this - will grow new green leaves from bare old wood from inside the canopy, and this is one of the reasons it is so enduringly popular!

With these two, I could see that they were growing around the rim - you can see the tufty new tips quite clearly.  But would they grow inside the canopy, I wondered, in the way that normal Yew does?

As there was no-one around, I hopped up on that low wall, leaned over, and took a photo of the "inside" of the tree.

Look!  Growth!

Lots and lots of it.

So now, I wonder, if we have established to our satisfaction that Irish Yew will indeed spring renewed from bare old wood if you cut it.. why don't people with overweight Irish Yew columns cut off the outside branches, as well as lopping off the top?

Logically, this should work: expose the original trunk all the way down to the ground, and it should all sprout new twigs, thus creating a much slimmer shape than just lopping the top off.

All I need now is a trusting owner who will let me have a go at doing it!!

Monday, 1 May 2017

Garden Hygiene III: First, sterilise your secateurs....

This is the third of three articles on the subject of Garden Hygiene: the first one covered general hygiene and sensible cleaning of tools; the second covered the hygiene aspects of moving plants: and this one deals with that common advice to Sterilise Your Tools.

Ever read this advice? I have - nearly every book or internet article mentions sterilising (or sterilizing if you can't spell properly) secateurs and other pruning tools "to avoid spreading disease", particularly when pruning roses and fruit trees.

How many people actually do this, I wonder?

Certainly, if you are only gardening in your own garden, then there is no particular need to sterilise at all: and as a general observation, I would point out that a garden is not exactly an operating room, and that spores are in the air, in the soil, on your clothes, on other plants, on passing birds, on the dog...

It's fair to say that if you have one plant which suddenly develops something nasty, then there is definitely a point to cleaning any tools you use on it: but do you also extend that care to the wheelbarrow that you carted the bits away in? The gloves you were wearing as you handled it? The clothes that brushed up against it? How far, exactly, should "one" go? Well, most of us don't worry too much about the peripherals such as gloves and wheelbarrows, but most of us agree that the cutting tool should be sterilised between uses, so as to prevent spreading of diseases from one plant to another. I think the worst advice is for fruit trees, where you will often read that the gardener must "sterilise the blade after each cut". Yeah, right, tell that to someone faced with 500 yards of espaliered apple trees to be pruned. Twice a year.

I did some research, asking my fellow PGG members (Professional Gardeners' Guild) what they did to sterilise their tools: I also asked local gardeners,  people on twitter and facebook, etc, and had some interesting replies, which I'll run though in brief:

1) Wet-wipes: alchohol wipes/detergent wipes/medi-wipes. They seem to be popular, especially among people with  500 yards of espaliered apples, as they are very convenient. Personally I'm really not keen on them, as a one-use non-bio-degradable wipe seems to be about as non-eco as it's possible to get, don't you think? But that's a different discussion.

2) Dipping the blades in a solution of bleach: guaranteed to rust the blades, but no guarantee at all about killing off any pathogens: there seems to be no solid information out there about what strength of solution is required, how long the blades need to be immersed, etc. Some people said a quick dip is enough, some said they left the blades soaking overnight.

3) Dipping the blades in Dettol:  see above.

4) Wiping with Jeyes Fluid. See above.

The funniest response I've had so far is "I stick them under my arm, clamp down and pull forward with an upward arching motion."

Seriously, though, it seems as though everyone has an opinion on this, and I was surprised how many of them said that I "must" do whatever they do, or that their way was "the only" way to do it, or "the only thing that works is..."  although when questioned, it quickly became apparent that not one of them has done any research on it, at all.

It also seems that there is a lot of confusion between cleaning and sterilising/disinfecting: a lot of people use the terms interchangeably, but they are two quite separate actions. "Disinfection" or "sterilisation" in this context is the killing of germs, whereas "cleaning" is the physical removal of germs.

For instance, getting back to those wet-wipes, did you know that you need to use them properly, which means taking the time to actually read the instructions. Disinfection requires the product to be on the surface for between 4 and 10 minutes. It says so on the pack. That means you have to keep re-wiping the surface with more and more wipes, in order to keep it wet for the required length of time. Then you have to let it air dry.

Further research turns up this little gem: articles to be disinfected need to be cleaned first.

What's the difference? I'll keep on saying this: Cleaning means "removing" germs. Disinfecting means "killing" germs.  And if your germs are lurking under a thick layer of organic matter, ie sticky sap, mud, crushed lily beetles and so on, then you need to firstly clean the blades by wiping off all the gunk ("hot soapy water" is usually recommended, but who can find hot soapy water in someone else's garden?), thus cleaning away the majority of germs: and then when the blades are clean, you can disinfect them.

Some sources say "Equipment should be immersed in disinfectant for at least 15 minutes, or according to manufacturers’ instructions" so there does not seem to be any firm answer as to how long it takes to disinfect a tool.

And then there is the vexing question of "how strong is your disinfectant"? Methylated spirits will be effective if it is made up fresh daily and diluted by adding about 3 parts meths to one part water (e.g. add 750ml meths to 250ml water). 70% isopropyl alcohol should be used undiluted. Which one are you using? Do you "make it  up fresh" every day? And what about all those other, "own brand" disinfectants?

The answer is to have a look at the bottle and find the active ingredient. Benzalkonium chloride and cetrimide are common active ingredients in what are called "quaternary ammonium compound disinfectants" or quats for short. If you are using a quat, choose one where the active ingredient is at least 5% concentration and use at least one part disinfectant to 20 parts water. (If the active ingredient is less than 5% you will need to use a lot of the product for it to be effective.) You don't need to take my word for this, just look it up on google for yourself.

So how many types of "Disinfectant" are there? We all tend to say the word, without really knowing what we are meaning by it. You may be fascinated to learn that there are seven main groups of chemical disinfectants, as follows:
  • Phenolics such as Lysol or Sudol - these are very effective against bacteria but some are unpleasant to handle or are strong smelling.
  • Hypochlorites such as bleach - these are effective against bacteria but may be corrosive to metal. (Remember what I said about dipping your secateur blades in bleach? That's why.)
  • Iodophors which contain iodine - these are effective against bacteria and some even contain detergents.
  • Alcohol such as methylated spirits - these are effective against bacteria and are generally "fast acting" although it's hard to get a firm answer to the question "how fast?".
  • Quaternary ammonium compounds (quats) such as Savlon - these are generally less effective disinfectants but better as detergents.
  • Diguanides such as Dettol - these have a limited anti-microbial activity and are not suitable to disinfect equipment.
  • Pine fluids such as Pine ‘o’ Clean - these have very little disinfectant activity.
Everything I have read on the internet repeats the advice that "All disinfectant solutions need to be made up freshly each day" so we have to assume that contact with water starts them deteriorating - and for an unstated reason, "tools should not be left soaking in disinfectant".

This is all very confusing, so I decided to stop researching general internet stuff, and go for some proper scientific research.

First I found a scientific Safety Manual which specified recommended disinfectants for laboratory use, which was very interesting: their list of suggested disinfectants only had three entries:

1) Hypochlorites (such as bleach) - Inactivated by organic matter. Corrosive to some metals. May damage rubber. Not compatible with cationic detergents. Working solutions need to be changed daily

2) Alcohols (e.g. 70% industrial methylated spirits) -  Poor penetration of organic matter, and should only be used on physically clean surfaces.

3) Quaternary ammonium compounds (QAC or quats) - Inactivated by protein and some plastics.

See - they also make the point about disinfectants being inactivated by organic matter, and they agree that fresh solution should be made up each day.

After Scientific laboratory research, I made the logical leap to medical recommendations, and took a short tour of their rules and regulations.  Interestingly, the medical world consider the quats (the ones we are most likely to get hold of) to be merely a low-level disinfectant: they are described as "Limited use as disinfectant because of narrow microbicidal spectrum."  They, too, specify that disinfectants must only be used only on clean, rinsed and dried instruments/equipment, because "Protein material, detergent and soap will inhibit some disinfectants." They must also be used in the proper concentration, and within the stipulated lifetime after dilution.

This reinforces our lesson that you have to clean (ie de-gunk) your tools before you even start to disinfect them.

Other lessons learned: The rougher the surface, the longer the contact time required for disinfection (crevices, hinges, worn and pitted surfaces). The number of micro-organisms present will lengthen the time for effective disinfection to take place. In general, higher bioburden requires more time for
disinfection. ("duuuh")  Some micro-organisms are more resistant to disinfection than others. The generally accepted order from the most resistant to the least resistant is: bacterial spores,
mycobacteria, hydrophilic viruses, fungi, vegetative bacteria, lipid viruses.

When it came to trying to find a "best" disinfectant, all I could find was gobbledegook like this:

"Many disinfectants are broad spectrum; that is, effective against all or most forms of microbial life. Some broad spectrum disinfectants include glutaraldehyde, sodium hypochlorite (bleach), and hydrogen peroxide. Non-broad spectrum disinfectants include phenolics and quaternary ammonium
compounds. Alcohols lie somewhere in between these two."

Not so helpful, huh?

Then I read this bit:

"Resistance of micro-organisms depends on the type of disinfectant used. A particular micro-organism may be more resistant to one type of disinfectant than another. For instance, alcohol (isopropyl or ethyl) is effective against vegetative bacteria and most lipophilic viruses, but is not effective against bacterial spores or most hydrophilic viruses."

So what do we actually want to kill, when we sterilise our secateurs? Unless you know what you want to get rid of, you are probably using the wrong product: and either way, you are wasting your time with antiseptic wipes and so on.

One definitive statement is that higher temperatures increase the killing power of most disinfectants, whereas lower temperatures may slow the killing power of most disinfectants, which is no help at all to those of us who work outdoors.

Then it occurred to me that I didn't actually know the difference between "antiseptic" and "disinfectant" and I had been using the two terms interchangeably.

But they are not the same at all - an antiseptic is used on living tissues and cells to destroy any types of infections which may be living on the tissue. Disinfectants are meant to destroy microorganisms which can infect nonliving objects. Common antiseptics include mouthwash, TCP, Dettol, Savlon, Germolene etc.  Things we apply to our bodies.  Disinfectant is stuff like alchohol, the quats we encountered earlier, formaldehyde, chlorine, Hydrogen peroxide, Iodine etc, (although apparently TCP can also be used as a disinfectant) and are the things we use on worksurfaces, floors etc.

This led me onto Dentistry, as a sub-division of "medical", and I found a study on disinfecting toothbrushes, which showed that Hexidine, 3.0% hydrogen peroxide and Listerine all showed 80-90% efficacy, whereas Dettol showed only 40% effectiveness in decontaminating the toothbrushes. Water, as a control, showed the least effectiveness in cleaning the toothbrushes. So if you want a clean, healthy mouth, soak your toothbrush for 20 minutes in Listerine once a week, then let it air dry. So much for using Listerine as a mouthwash!  My dental hygienist has always said that all mouthwashes are utterly pointless, and this certainly supports her: so rather than using it as a rather ineffective antiseptic, it is actually a quite effective disinfectant (ie to kill microorganisms on things around us).

Oh, and you should replace it - the toothbrush - every 3 months anyway, as the germs will build up on it in that time, to a maximum level.

How is that relevant to us gardeners?  The relevance is that if you are currently using Dettol to disinfect your secateurs, you are wasting your time, change to Listerine!

And what of that old favourite, Jeyes Fluid? It's a disinfectant for outdoor use (according to Wikipedia) and contains: *deep breath*   *outbreak of coughing - it's strong stuff!*

CRESOL -meta
CRESOL -para
Oh, and Tar Acids.   Yummmm, lovely.

Unfortuately, the Jeyes website would not let me see any of their data sheets, but I managed to find them anyway by googling "jeyes fluid data sheets" hehehehe, go on, try it yourself. It's scary stuff, designated as "acute toxicity"  plus warnings about damage to skin, eyes etc.  and whatever you do, don't heat it up and inhale the vapours ("duuuuh!"). However, I can't find any proof of what it actually does, other than the hype on the website with the claims about killing 99% of all known germs, and the claim - concerning the outdoor wipes - that they "provide anti-bacterial protection for up to 24 hours".

Don't forget that the phrase "up to" always includes the possibility of "barely .0003 of a second". And they imply that a single swipe with their wipe will do both of these tricks: kill 99% of the germs, and last for 24 hours.

I like the loose use of the word "germs", by the way - "germs" is the catchall name for microorganisms ("tiny things") such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa, some of which are harmful to us and/or our plants, most of which are essential for normal life.  They act in different ways, they live, breed and die in different ways, and unless we know which type of microorganism we are wanting to kill, we may well be going about it the wrong way. The only thing they seem to have in common is that they flourish in damp environments and die in dry ones, hence the emphasis on letting tools dry out properly.

While we're digressing, let's just ponder for a moment on the likelihood that a wet-wipe of any sort could offer 24 hours of protection.

I have to admit that I get a bit shirty about wet wipes in general (although I use them to clean my hands before I drive off in my car) because stupid people will try to flush them down the loo, where they won't dissolve, and where they clog up the drains. Put Them In The Bin!! Or better still, let them air-dry, then use them again as general wiping-rags. (Stop shrieking about the germs: as just mentioned, germs need a moist environment, so if you let the wipes dry out, they become inert and can be used for all sorts of things in perfect safety.) (no, I wouldn't blow my nose on them,  but they're perfect in the car for cleaning windscreen wiper blades, number plates, lights, etc.)

 The Royal College of Nursing's own document "Wipe It Out" , dated June 2011, investigates the role of medi-wipes: these are non-skin wipes used for the cleaning or disinfection of the patient environment or equipment (detergent or disinfectant wipes) and these are easily available to the general public.

This report said:

"Detergents are essential to the cleaning process, acting to release dirt from a surface.

"Wetness: the ability of the wipe to leave a layer of liquid disinfectant behind on the
surface it is applied to.

"Disinfectant efficacy: once the wiped surface dries, all disinfectant activity stops and,
should any residue of disinfectant be left behind, it will have no effect on further dry
contamination such as microbes (including spores) in dust, which will inevitably settle on
it or be transferred to it soon after cleaning."

Note that they they distinguish between the need for detergent, to clean the surface, and the disinfectant, which needs to be left behind in a layer of liquid.

They comment that the currently accepted European Committee for Standardization (CEN) tests involve a suspension of microbes which is commonly exposed to a disinfectant for up to 60
minutes (the contact time) before looking for an effect. 60 minutes! So if you are relying on a statement in the advertising material of your wet-wipes, which mentions compliance with a stated CEN test (sorry, what was that, your wet-wipes don't comply with any sort of standard? Well, they're going to be pretty useless then, aren't they?) then you need to understand that the CEN test expects your secateurs to be in contact with  your wet-wipe for 60 minutes of wetness to achieve whatever level of germ-killing they are claiming.

Food for thought, eh?!

The report goes on (I did warn you this was a long article, didn't I?):

"As disinfectants in wipes will only work while wet – in other words before they dry on a
surface (usually only a matter of seconds) – the contact time in some tests can grossly
overestimate the level of disinfection that will be achieved by the wipe in practice.
Other tests for wipes can use repeated wiping so that a surface is wet for far longer than
will occur in real-life use. This too will greatly overestimate performance in everyday use."

So, some of the wet-wipe manufacturers cheat in their tests.  Good to know.

"The most common disinfectants used in wipes are chemicals such as alcohols or surface
active disinfectants – quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs) or triamines. These
biocides will achieve limited disinfection (that is with nil or minimal sporicidal activity
or activity against non-enveloped viruses such as norovirus) within the exposure times
that are achieved in practice (typically a few seconds). It should also be noted that the
microbicidal activity will be further compromised if soiling (dirt, vomit, blood, faeces, etc.)
is present.

"Other wipes, usually substantially more expensive, can contain chlorine dioxide or
peracetic acid. These may have activity against spores and non-enveloped viruses, but
again their efficacy will be limited by exposure time, how well the disinfectant is applied to
surfaces (coverage), and the presence of contamination."

The result concludes:

"Wipes are increasingly being used to decontaminate low risk patient equipment or
environmental surfaces. Currently there is no guidance available to support users
or purchasers of wipes and little evidence to support wipes as an effective infection
prevention intervention."

I have read any number of adverts for medi-wipes which say "Kills 99.9% of all germs in 30 seconds and keep working on the surface for up to 4 hours."

In view of everything I have read in the past couple of weeks, I would put forward my opinion that this is simply not true. The 99.9% bit might be, but not the "30 seconds" bit, nor the "keeps working for 4 hours" bit. The data sheets on the individual chemicals are quite clear: in order to kill germs, the surface needs to be clean beforehand, and has to be wetted for 15-30 minutes, and as soon as the surface dries, the killing action ceases.

So, where does that leave us?

Firstly, cleaning your tools is more important than sterilising them:  if you clean off the sap and mud, there is no-where for the germs to lurk.

Secondly, if you really want to sterilise tools, there is no point using a convenient wet-wipe: the blades need to be "wetted", ie immersed in the solution, for the required length of time. The rules are:

1) Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to ensure that the correct (optimum) dilution is used.

2) Make up fresh solution each time, and throw it away once you're done.

3)  Check expiry date of the solution. The date should be clearly marked on the container. There is no point using out of date chemicals, they won't be fully effective.

4)  The dunking container must itself be thoroughly cleaned or sterilised every time you use it.

5)  Don't leave containers of disinfectant open - close them asap, and check the pack/bottle to see how long after opening the product is still effective.

6) Always thoroughly clean articles before disinfection, i.e., remove any substance such as dirt, sap, squashed worms and other biological materials.

Thirdly, there is a strong case to be made for not using any anti-bacterial products at all, due to the very real and already existing problem of "super-bugs", ie germs which have become resistant to the anti-bacterials, due to over-exposure. Just type the phrase "Quat-resistant bacteria have been detected in homes routinely cleaned with antibacterial products" and you will find website after website banging on about this issue. OK, most of them are cutting and pasting from each other, but the point remains that using strong chemicals incorrectly (ie not soaking for 15-30 mins) is no use at all, and using them unnecessarily does more harm than good.

So what do I do? I quite like the principle of  "I stick them under my arm, clamp down and pull forward with an upward arching motion"!

But seriously, in real life, what do I do?

I keep my secateurs (and that includes loppers, choppers, bowsaw, pruning saw, knife, shears, etc) clean  of mud, sap and other plant material. If they get mucky while I am working, I use a handful of grass to wipe them clean. If any of your gardens  are infested with Mare's Tails (Equisetum), by the way, then just use a small handful of these: their stems contain silica and they are nature's brillo pad.

If I have been cutting some material that is clearly infected, ie coral spot, any sort of mildew or powdery fungus, or if I've been cutting back plants which I know to have that sort of problem, ie Hellebores, or Roses, then after wiping with grass, I run them under the tap and dry them, before moving on to other plants.

In addition,  I have any number of pairs of secateurs on the go at any one time, so if there isn't time to wash and dry them thoroughly, or if I've found anything nasty in one particular garden, I can put aside that pair for proper cleaning and drying when I get home.

So there you go, phew, that lot took me months to get together, and although in a way it is depressing reading (ie you're doing it wrong, wet-wipes don't work, and doing it "properly" is a right faff) it is better to know the facts than to blithely continue with a regime that is ineffective.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Where there's a Willow, there's a Way...

Yes! Fedge building again!

I love building Fedges - or should that be planting Fedges? *pause while I consider the question...*  Well, it's planting, obviously, as they are live plants - but there is an element of "building" as they have to be structurally sound, and they should have a pleasing aesthetic appearance. No-one wants a Fedge that flops over, or is lumpy and irregular.

As a reminder, a Fedge is a cross between a fence (dead wooden slats) and a hedge (live woody plants), made out of Willow,  which elegantly combines the best elements of both: it works as a fence to delineate and separate areas, creating a physical and visual break: but as it is a living thing,  it provides change throughout the seasons, with leaves in summer, often with catkins in spring, and a completely different look in winter when the leaves fall and you can suddenly enjoy the shape of it again.

It's created by planting rows of willow stakes, or wands, interweaving them so that they graft together to form a rigid, sturdy construction.

A Client from several years back contacted me a few weeks ago, and after some general gardening work and some design consultation, she decided to use a Fedge to split her vegetable garden extension from the rest of the garden. The idea was to enlarge the veg area, but without using heavyweight ugly fences.

This is where it starts:

We marked out the straight lines, I lifted the turf to remove competition for the new willow trees, and then we pegged out the water-permeable membrane.

Here's my Client, carefully measuring and marking where the Willow was going to go.

Having marked out the gaps, we then cut slits in the membrane, made a hole for the first row of willow, and pushed them firmly in - you need to get them at least a foot underground, to give them a good chance of rooting properly and being stable in the meantime.

Once the uprights were in place, then came the tricky bit, planting and weaving the diagonals.

It's not rocket science, it is mostly over-under-over-under but, like many things, it's not quite that simple, and it's worth taking a bit of time to get the diagonals all going at the right angle.

First we went from left to right, then from right to left... and lo! and behold, there's our basic Fedge.

Finishing touches include neatening up the top, so they are all more or less the same heights: and tying in the crossings, to help the stems to graft together. The sooner they graft, the better, as it gives the Fedge strength as well as stability.

The next step for my Client is to install a run of chicken-wire fence close to Fedge, to stop the chickens pushing through it into the main garden.

Here's a photo showing progress just two months later: you can see, the willow wands are all growing fantastically, and the Fedge already looks pretty!

The chicken wire fence is in place, and will have the added benefit of preventing the chickens from scratching around at the base of the Fedge (they will be on the grassy side), which might have damaged the growing stems.

Maintenance is minimal now: a bit of care with watering in the first year or two will help them to establish good roots, and there will always be the annual pruning in late autumn, where we will take off all the new growth, taking the Fedge back to the original framework.

For the first year or two, this autumn work is also a good time to look closely at the Fedge and check if any of the wands did not root properly: I often find that a couple of them fail to take off, in which case all you have to do is take one of the prunings, and weave that in to take the place of the one that died - you certainly don't have to go and buy more willow!

Best of all, as I always say when talking about Willow Fedges, in further years, the prunings will become bigger and stronger (they are often a bit thin and weedy for the first year or two) and can then be used to build more Fedges or other structures.  In this garden, we were thinking of creating a willow dome to be a playhouse: and I suggested making a second line of Fedge about a yard inside this one, but instead of making another upright Fedge, we could bend the woven wands over to make a low tunnel.

Think what fun the children, and the chickens, could have with a tunnel to scramble along!

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Primroses: spring tidy

Here's a quick and easy job to do, now that the Primroses are flowering: go round and remove all the dead and dying leaves from last season.

It's simple to do: just take your secateurs, or a pair of old scissors: locate each clump and snip off the over-large dead leaves.

They are the ones laying flat on the ground, forming a tatty ring around the more upright rosette of fresh new leaves - so it's easy to tell the difference, and easy to get hold of them!

Here's before:

and here is after.

There! Simple, eh? Five minutes with the scissors (ok, in my case, secateurs) and they look so much better.

It's not just for the look of the thing, either: those dead leaves form a combination of shelter and running buffet for slugs and snails, so get out there and snip off the dead leaves!

Friday, 17 March 2017

How to remove Arum Lilies.

Firstly, what exactly are Arum lilies? Proper name, Arum maculatum, improper names include Cuckoo Pint, Lords and Ladies, Jack-in-the-pulpit and, when I was at school, Waggling Willies. It was not a particularly “good” school... but at least we had Nature Rambles!

And secondly, why would you want to remove them? Answer, mostly because they are devilishly generous with their self-seeding, and if you take your eye off them for two minutes, you find that you are over-run with the darned things! The other reason is that the seeds are very unpleasant: they are poisonous, but luckily - well, sort-of luckily - they are filled with saponins, which have needle-sharp crystals, so that if anyone starts to eat them, their lips, tongue and throat immediately hurt and swell up. This is very nasty, but at least it means that "one" is unlikely to choke down enough of the things to actually kill yourself.

Oh, they have their place: if you have large woodland areas to cover, they do a great job, and there is a certain ebullience to their startling orange seeds, later in the year. There is even a garden variety, Arum italicum, with elegantly marbled leaves which can be considered quite desirable.

But for most people, it's the common one that is causing the problems. They are popping up their green leaves at this time of year, shortly to be followed by an elegant wrap-around greenish-white confection, known botanically as a spathe, which is pronounced “spade” with a lisp. No, a lisp at the end, not at the beginning.

The actual flowers are hidden deep inside this spathe, and later in the year, the spathe and leaves will disappear, leaving a stout stalk topped with a cluster of green pea-sized seeds, quickly turning to bright orange. They are incredibly fertile, as anyone who has this plant in the “wrong” part of their garden will know - you start with just one or two, and the next year you are over-run with the darn things.

And there lies the problem - they proliferate too successfully, and they are very hard to remove, due to their structure. Each plant has a long, fleshy stalk which is attached - but not very firmly - to a knobbly, light brown tuber with fat white hair-like roots. This tuber can be as much as a foot underground, in mature clumps, so unless you can dig a hole that deep, it can be impossible to get the tuber out - and of course, if you don't remove the tuber, the plant will grow back next year.

How do I deal with them? Well, if they are not surrounded by other plants, I get out my fork and I dig, dig, dig: the trick is to get your fork in deeply, before you start to lever the plants out, otherwise that fleshy stalk just snaps off the tuber, in rather the same manner as a lizard dropping its tail: ie, no harm is done to the tuber, and it WILL regrow!

If the Arums are in amongst other plants, and large-scale digging is not possible, then it's down on hands and knees I go, with my faithful daisy grubber:

...the technique here is to insert the daisy grubber vertically, just to one side of the target. Push it in as far as it will go, then lever out. With luck, the tuber will be attached, if not, I might have to rootle around for it in the loosened soil.

Here's a clump I dug up specially for you - and there's the daisy grubber to illustrate how deep the tubers are (as you can see, the daisy grubber was only just long enough to do this clump) and to show where to insert the tool, in relation to the clump: vertically, close to one side.
Here's a close-up of one of the plants, showing how the stalk - white, where it's been underground - attaches to the tuber at right angle.

This is the part that snaps off cleanly, lizard-style.

It also shows the lovely tangle of stout white roots which help to keep the tuber anchored firmly in the ground.

From the other angle, you can see that the white stalk ends very abruptly, and that's why it can so easily snap off when you try to weed them out.

 In the very worst cases, where you simply cannot get at the tubers, then don't waste time: use a hand tool to loosen the soil a little, if you can, then just pull up the top growth and don't worry about the tubers. It will take them a year to re-grow, and if you do it again next year, and the following year, then eventually those tubers will run out of energy, as you are depriving them of all their chlorophyll-containing leaves before they get a chance to restock. Eventually, even Arum will get exhausted!

The most important point, though, about getting rid of Arum, is to never, EVER let them set seed. As soon as you see the first hint of orange, pull up the stems immediately, and put them either on the bonfire heap or in the council green-waste bin: don't ever put them on the compost!

 So there's the answer to the Arum lily problem: constant vigilance, never let them set seed, and if you can't dig them out, at least pull their tops off, and don't be surprised if it takes you a couple of years to beat them - but beat them you can!