Saturday, 24 November 2012

Making Compost

Composting – Part One

Compost should always be well rotted. The wisdom of this was classically illustrated a good few years ago at a time when my wife and I were in a folk group: we stayed overnight in a bed and breakfast somewhere in Yorkshire, near where we’d done a gig the night before. Unfortunately, the thin walls of the bedroom, combined with the noisy activities of the people in the next room, led to a sleepless night. They appeared to be working their way through the Karma Sutra and, by the sound of it, merited a place in The Guinness Book of Records for managing the whole lot in one go. However, the disadvantages of the place left my mind as we were leaving, because a sign on the wall outside offered free horse manure. Any serious gardener will recognise that my bliss on discovering this was greater than that of the bloke in the next bedroom. The owner gave me a large number of plastic bin bags which I filled and stored in the back of the Renault Estate. Then we started for home.
Compost supplier

The timing of this event could have been better, because it coincided with the hottest day of the year. This caused the compost to react with unnecessary vigour and my wife threatened divorce as, even with the windows open, we levitated along the M62 in a blue haze. Eventually I gave in, stopped the car and dumped the compost at the edge of the hard shoulder. I often think back to how subsequent motorists, seeing that steaming heap, would think it must have been a bloody big horse that did it.

The point is, compost should be well rotted before adding to the soil – the bacteria which break it down initially need nitrogen butties to give them the energy to work and they take them from the surrounding soil. This leaves nearby roots short of that nutrient and the plants exhibit symptoms of deficiency, like browning leaves. Gardeners refer to this as ‘burning’ and death can follow (of the plant, not the gardener). Well- rotted compost doesn’t smell. It is also black and crumbly.

With the best will in the world, people often start a compost heap and don’t recognise that something isn’t quite right until they end up with a towering, unstable pile. This may be rotted at the very bottom but certainly isn’t at the top and the only way to get the good stuff out is to risk an avalanche. The obvious answer is to have two heaps – one covered with old carpet or plastic bags while it breaks down and the other open for new additions.
One heap breaking down, the other being built up

The covered heap should be insulated as much as possible to keep heat in, while also allowing oxygen access. It should be moist, though not too wet and there should be a good balance of green, leafy material and woody stems. It should also be turned occasionally, allowing the outside to get rotted.

Composting is an inexact science and a bit like baking, in that sometimes the cake inexplicably doesn’t rise. There’s a lot more to it , and part two will look at the role worms sometimes play. It will also feature their sex lives. Calm down.
Kitchen waste bin next to door


If anyone has questions about composting, or other aspects of gardening, don’t hesitate to ask.


Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Cherry Tree problem

Sasha, a visitor who has a really good craft blog, has left a question: we have a cherry tree at the bottom of our patio. We didn't plant it, it grew from a seedling to a twenty foot tree in just  six years!! Anyhow, in May this year all the lower leaves shrivelled up and dropped off!! Do you think it could be diseased?

Your cherry tree could be suffering from a couple of things, Sasha: the worst is a fungal disease called wilt, and there's nothing you can do about it except wait and see if it spreads and kills the whole tree. However, wilt usually occurs later in the year and another possibility is that the roots have been damaged. Cherry roots tend to be near the surface and often get caught by mower blades, or  spades if you dig in the locality.

Another thing that struck me is that you said 'it is at the bottom of the patio' - does it have enough room for the roots to spread? If it is very confined, there is a chance that this is causing problems. If you think the roots are suffering, try a little t.l.c. : a two inch dressing of well-rotted compost in a radius of about five feet all round the tree, supplemented with a sprinkling of blood, fish and bone in spring.

Finally, very dry conditions (not likely last summer), or overly wet soil can be a problem. It's not in a boggy area is it?

I hope this helps. Please feel free to ask further about this or any other gardening questions.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Cowslip (Primula veris)


      I like cows. They seem to like me as well. More often than not, a cow’s first reaction on seeing me is to lumber away fearfully. However, before getting too far, curiosity takes over and she stops to look over her shoulder, fluttering those Marilyn eyelashes with a ‘come hither’ look. Ignore her and she won’t be able to resist coming a step back for a closer look. I remember patting the neck of an especially inquisitive friesian. This caused her to shake her head and deposit a foot long rope of snot across my face in what I assume was a display of bovine comradeship. A herd of bullocks has, on a couple of occasions, been so intrigued by my presence that they’ve surrounded me while providing an escort to the edge of their field.

      And this reminds me of the cowslip Primula veris – not a sexy something from Daisy’s wardrobe, but a plant which frequents the same meadows. According to Wikipedia, it got its name from the old English cowshit , however, The AA Book Of The British Countryside, which is obviously aimed at a more refined market, says it came from cowslop, in each case  the name is a reference to its habitat. ‘Cowslop’ (and certainly cowshit) doesn’t have a poetic ring and it was probably for this reason that it metamorphosed to the ‘slip’ version we recognise today. Seeds should be subjected to a period of cold which breaks down the mechanism (dormancy factor) preventing germination. In effect this fools the plant that winter has been and gone, so it is time to grow. It’s easily achieved by sowing in pots in autumn and leaving outside overwinter so that frost can do its job.

      I wouldn’t see the cowslip as a plant for a main border but it is ideal for a grassy hedge base where it will tend to spread if cut back in late summer. It is often included in wildflower seed mixes and, from becoming relatively rare, has made a bit of a comeback along roadside verges where transport authorities have an eye for the environment.

      Coming full circle back to cows: their flatulence is causing a bit of a problem in the environment. Apparently one cow can exude as much as 100kg of methane per year in the form of farts and this is far more damaging to the atmosphere than the carbon dioxide generated by cars. In addition to this, providing enough grazing land to support the massively growing demand for meat is leading to deforestation on a frightening scale. Logically I suppose, we should be limiting its consumption and eating more vegetables.    
Guilty Look?

      I have a theory. You know the nursery rhyme about the dish and the spoon followed by the cow jumping over the moon? Well, if that particular bovine had, for some constipatory reason, retained its output of methane for a year, then suddenly let it go, this could be the reason the cow got there before Buzz Aldrin.

Sunday, 11 November 2012


Garden Ramblings

      I have a theory that, at any one time, about a fifth of the world’s population is standing in its  bedroom, scratching the collective head, and thinking ‘what the hell did I come up here for’. Which gives rise to the old joke about the high speed chair lift that’ll get you up there before you forget what you’ve gone for. It also leads neatly into the subject of forget-me-nots: there are a number of stories about how the plant got its name and probably the most prominent of these is that of the German Knight who picked a bunch of them for his beloved then slipped into a river. His metal armour was dragging him down but, as he surfaced for the last time, he was still holding the flowers and threw them to the bank, shouting ‘forget me not’. This seems unlikely to me, a more believable request, as she romantically bent to pick them up, being: ‘sod the flowers - toss the lifebelt’ – a phrase probably mis-translated by some failed German student. Whatever the truth of the story, it certainly presented a strong case for armour that floats.

Forget-me-nots at Arley Hall

      The forget-me-not (Myosotis sylvatica) happily seeds itself after flowering in spring and the old plants can be removed to the compost heap. Clumps of the soft, hairy, leaves of new plants quickly appear after rainfall and shouldn’t be mistaken for weeds as they will guarantee a wonderful show the following spring.

Frost On Greenhouse Glass
      A lot of beauty in the garden comes only indirectly from your own work. As we’ve seen, the forget-me-not (and a number of other plants like Verbascum and foxglove) will perform the same unsolicited display feats as long as we don’t get carried away with the control- freak approach to gardening: hoeing out everything that we didn’t actually plant, on the basis that it must be a weed. Which brings me to another aspect of gardening: looking. Look at (or listen to) a great work of art and you'll find something new each time; concentration reveals hidden depth. The same with nature’s art in the garden. There’s a trick in looking, and rather than seeing the next job, appreciating what’s already there. The temporary aspects of nature give it an added zing, because what is there now may soon be gone forever.
Colour Pallet

       The trouble with common names is that often different plants get called the same thing, whereas the scientific one cuts through confusion by only referring to one subject. 'Forget-me-not' has a more romantic ring than 'Myosotis sylvatica' but, in fairness, Myosotis (meaning 'mouse ear' and referring to the appearance of the leaves) and sylvatica (meaning 'liking woodland') actually comes closer to telling you something about its appearance and natural habitat. Just when all this starts to make a bit of sense though, the botanists will sometimes step in and change the scientific name. They have good reason for this, but it gets steam coming out of gardeners' ears, so I'll explain it in another blog. I got the idea of adopting this 'next week' technique from the Saturday morning serial at the pictures: Buck Jones has just gone over a cliff on a waggon when the announcer's voice bawls out that we can 'see the next thrilling episode at this theatre next week'. The following week we find that Buck (who we definitely saw disappear over the edge) actually jumped off just before he got there.


      Another German legend about the naming of the forget-me-not concerns God: he was handing out names to all the plants when the Myosotis, concerned about being left out, shouted ‘forget me not’. At this, God, who was a bit knackered by this time (have you seen how many plants there are), boomed ‘ok, that does it for me’. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Bark Interest

 Winter Wonderland  

As the autumn colours migrate from the trees to the ground, there is a general feeling that that’s it - garden gone to bed for a while, hedgehogs hibernating, and so will we. However, although we won’t be out there doing the jobs and enjoying the (rare) summer sunshine, the garden is still with us via the windows. This factor tends to be overlooked when we plan our planting schemes but, if we bear it in mind, the daily view needn’t be of sad, empty beds and the soggy remains of herbaceous past glories: a visit to see the winter gardens at places like Dunham Park or Harlow Carr will provide the inspiration to choose plants which can be positioned to lift the spirits when we glance through the winter window.

      Gardening is similar to home handymanning  in that  positioning, and  seeing potential pitfalls, plays a large part. In the case of the latter, I could site numerous catastrophes which could have been avoided with a bit of forethought. For example, I once decided to adjust the carburettor on the car because  the engine  was running unevenly: I set out my whole toolkit on top of the radiator (to take this as an indication that it was a big radiator would be a mistake. It was a small toolkit. In fact, I only had a pair of pliers and a plastic handled screwdriver that I’d backed the car over, so that it was only half a plastic handle), anyway, I left the pliers on the radiator while I adjusted various screws on the carburettor. There were a lot of them and it seemed that most of them didn’t do anything. In fact a tiny one had come out and fallen down a crack in the road, but the engine kept running. Eventually though I found the one which came up with the goods and the engine revved accordingly. This caused a bit of vibration, which was a shame really, because it caused the pliers to fall off the radiator. In itself this wouldn’t have been a problem -the crack in the road wasn’t big enough to accommodate the pliers as well - no, the real problem occurred when they hit the fan during their descent. The fan then flattened its blades while in the process of blasting fifty per cent of my toolkit through the radiator.
Prunus serrula (Holehird Gardens)
Acer griseum (Hyde Hall Gardens)
      Equally, thinking about positioning in the structure of the garden is important: no point in putting winter flowering plants, or trees and shrubs with bark interest, out of the line of view from the window. That may not have the same destructive potential as the pliers, but it negates their usefulness on cold wet days when we won’t stray out there : position them in what looks like a good spot, then nip into the house and observe the effect. One of my old bosses had me spend most of a morning positioning and repositioning a large stone in a rockery, until we got it just right. I could have cheerfully buried him under it at the time, but in retrospect, I recognise that he was following a prime rule of gardening.
Cornus alba 'Sibirica' (dogwood)

The Winter Garden (Harlow Carr Gardens)
      Bark interest can come to the fore in winter. However, if you haven’t got room for trees like Prunus serrula, Betula jacquemontii, or Acer griseum, dogwoods offer a variety of different colours which, together with varieties of willow, can be cut hard back each March to occupy a smaller space while offering equally impressive impact. Add these to various winter flowering plants like Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’, numerous  Hamamellis varieties, Erica carnea selections and Cyclamen coum among snowdrops, and you have a potential winter wonderland.