Friday, 5 December 2014

Couch Grass (Elymus repens) Removal.

The Dangers of Wheely Bins
Beware The Bin - it can turn nasty.
      I know from talking to friends that climbing into wheely bins and jumping up and down to compress its contents is not an original idea. On the face of it you would think it was rather a good one, enabling you to get more in. However I feel a responsibility to let the public know it is a recipe for disaster: In my case, the bin was situated against the wall on the narrow path between our house and next door's fence. The bin men weren't due for another week and I'd got a lot of prunings to get rid of. I didn't fancy the monotony  of feeding them individually into my shredder, so the bin was a good alternative. It was about quarter full when I decided it'd be relatively simple to get myself in and do a bit of compressing.

      One unfortunate thing about wheely bins is that they are pretty high, so getting one leg in first, then manoeuvring to get the other one in resulted in elevating my voice a couple of octaves.
Anyway, I recovered from the near sex change and tried the first tentative compressing jump, Unfortunately, the wheels  were situated about a foot away from the wall and the movement caused the top edge of the wheely to press against said wall. Interestingly, this set of circumstances proved that law of Newton's - for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction - I never really understood it til then. The wheels trundled across the path while the top stayed in contact with the wall. The whole contraption, with yours truly in it, jammed horizontally across the path with the wheels against the fence and the lid pressing me further into it. My head was sticking out at an extreme angle and the edge of the bin was giving a fair idea of what being garroted feels like.

      My immediate reaction was to shout "er, help!" in a strangulated voice resulting from the pressure on my larynx. This brought no rush of rescuers footfalls and a few moments thought gave me the realisation that this was a good thing. The amount of help I'd have got from my wife or caring neighbours ('quick - get the camera- the daft bugger's up to his tricks again'), and the months/years of mickey-taking, made this a bad idea. On the other hand, waiting for the bin men to turn up and try to empty me into the back of their grinding monster was equally unappealing.

      Being jammed in a wheely bin is extremely debilitating:  You are completely helpless. This led me to think of  the old westerns where John Wayne or someone would tie up the outlaw with a couple of quick turns of the rope that could be easily negotiated by a two-year-old. A wheely bin would have been far more effective. However the saving grace in my situation was the fact that one arm was free, After a short period of peacefully lying there thinking about it, I was able to awkwardly push sideways against the wall with one hand, In this way, bin and me eventually became at an angle on the path and I crawled out like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. My wife would have changed the simile to a bluebottle coming out, but I never gave her the chance and, to this day, she never heard about it.
Uprooted couch grass

      The dangers of wheely bins are outweighed by their usefulness and brings to mind couch grass (Elymus repens) as a good example. Putting the roots of this stuff on the compost heap is a recipe for disaster. Unless your heap heats up very efficiently (and a lot don't), you will end up with bits being spread around the garden when you use the resulting compost. Far better to let the bin men take them away to where they will be killed off by the extreme temperatures in the council recycling unit.

      Chemicals based on Glyphosate (look on the container labels and the constituents of weedkiller or pesticide will always be displayed in small print even if they are not reflected in the trade name) will kill couch. However the problem is that it is not selective: if the grass is growing through herbaceous plants it will kill them as well, so a way round this is to remove the base of a pot, place it over the grass and spray inside. The best time to do this is in the spring when the grass is growing vigorously and so the chemical is translocated throughout, killing the whole root system.

      I've approached the problem in a front border by removing all the herbaceous plants and diligently forking out the shallow growing roots of the grass. This is hard work in a heavy clay soil but my garden is light and sandy, so the job is relatively easy. I will now go over the bed once every few weeks, forking out any new growth from remaining bits and, in the spring, I'll replace the herbaceous plants, having diligently removed any couch lurking among their roots.
Bed awaiting regular forking to remove remnants
      With pernicious weeds like couch and marestail it pays to remember that removal of any green growth as soon as it pops up will prevent photosynthesis taking place. This puts paid to the subsequent build up of sugars which are stored in the roots as growth energy. By starving the enemy in this way it will eventually disappear. I've made that sound very easy, but it takes real dedication to carry through to the end. I've even managed to get rid of marestail (Equisetum arvense) in this way. The problem with this system occurs when weed growth is coming under the fence from next door's garden. In this case the only thing to do is shoot the neighbour. It won't kill the weeds, but you'll feel happier.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Late flowering Dahlia

Sat.Navs and Dahlias
Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff' in November
"Daaaad", my stomach sank as the voice emerged beseechingly from the phone. My daughter Laura: "I'm stuck in mud in a field miles from anywhere and the car is broken"

At least she wasn't dead ( this thought missed the point that ringing me probably wouldn't be an option if she was).

"Where are you and what do you mean, 'the car is broken'?"

"I told you - miles from anywhere. I was going to a course and the stupid sat. nav. sent me down this narrow road which became a farm track full of ruts and now the car won't move. There's a smell of burning rubber and a crashing noise when I try to drive out. The R.A.C. say they won't come out because I'm not on a recognised road. I want you to Google for the number of a local garage, then I'll ring them to come and get me out."

I sighed, aware that if the sat. nav. instructed Laura to drive off Beachy Head she would comply and probably ring me during her descent.

"Okay, where's the nearest town?"

"Ramsbottom". The same thought always comes to me when I hear that name: who originally came up with it? No doubt someone who didn't live there. A name like Giggleswick is acceptable because it has some humour about it but who wants to live in a place likened to a sheep's arse?

I hung up and quickly did some research into local garages then rang her back with the information, wondering how they'd find her. She's very philosophical about these sorts of situation because her next comment was: "you'd like it here",


"I can see a kestrel hovering just in front of me and a long, brown, furry animal just ran across the track. A stoat, I think." This reminded me of a conversation we'd had some years earlier when she'd rung to say she'd been in a road accident but she was okay. She'd chatted peaceably for a while about the lovely area she was in  before suddenly terminating with "sorry dad- got to go. The fireman's here to cut me out." I had hair before then.

"That smell of rubber'll be due to the tyre burning because it's not gripping and the crunching is probably stones being thrown up at the bottom of the car," I observed. "Anyway, I'll leave you to ring the garage. You know it'll cost a bomb don't you?"

"What! How much do you think?" The 'isn't nature wonderful' dreaminess had left her voice.

"Well, in the hundreds I should say".

We hung up and then five minutes later she rang back.

"I've managed to back out", she said, "I must have been pressing the accelerator too hard and when I did it gently the car started to move. Anyway, I've got to get to this course now". There was no mention of kestrels or stoats before she hung up.
Large white caterpillar wreaking havoc
Just as Laura had no idea where she was, so I haven't the foggiest where Llandaff is, although the double 'l' probably indicates Wales. What I do know is that they must have a pretty impressive bishop. My Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff'' has been flowering for months and now. Into November (and with the benefit of frequent dead-heading), it continues to soldier on. Before embarking on dead-heading, bear in mind that the new flower buds are round, whereas the finished ones are elongated. The corms only need lifting and taken into shelter when the top growth blackens with the first frost and the news that British strawberry growers are hoping to continue cropping until December (admittedly under cover) leads me to think that may be some way off.

The garden usually sinks into a sort of peaceful torpor at this time of year, the various warring factions scurrying for cover from extreme conditions. This time however not only plants seem to be benefitting from warmer conditions, the accompanying pests also continue to do their worst: close scrutiny of the Bishop discloses leaves and flowers damaged by small arms fire by snails; my nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) are blitzed by cabbage white caterpillars and a patio rose is being vigorously attacked by some sort of sawfly larvae I've not been able to identify. I'm especially annoyed about the nasturtiums, because they had been devastated earlier in the summer by a slug and snail onslaught which had led to me cutting them back to ground level. I then watched a pristine swathe of new growth emerge from the devastation with the promise of more flowers, until the caterpillars put the kibosh on that.

My solution to these attacks is to pick off the enemy like an efficient sniper, and squash them. The cabbage whites then ooze green blood which I suspect consists mainly of chlorophyll from my nasturtiums.

Just thought you'd like to know that.

On a more cheerful note, my Fatsia japonica is alive with bees - you hear it before you see it. This isn't unusual and the few regularly late flowering subjects, like the closely related ivy (Hedera), always attract these hangers-on.

That said, I'm now off to spill some more green blood.
Fatsia japonica - bee magnet

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Fletcher Moss Gardens

A Word About Parks
Fletcher Moss at its best
      Fletcher Moss Gardens is a Manchester city park situated in the leafy suburb of Didsbury. It once purported to be 'botanic', displaying an impressive labelled collection of trees, shrubs and alpine plants and exchanging seeds with similar gardens throughout the world . However it has suffered the cuts (sorry - 'savings') commonly experienced by parks and is now a shadow of its former self: the seed exchange system is long gone; vandals have consistently ridden mountain bikes down the unique rockery, destroying bulbs and the artificial stream beds in the process; weeds have begun a reversion to wilderness, and untended trees and shrubs have added to this endeavour.
Worth saving?
      On the face of it, everything isn't quite as bad as I've painted, because a grant has been obtained in an attempt to reestablish former glory: low railings are being installed to impede the mountain bikes; the stream beds restructured; paths widened and relaid to enable better wheelchair access and  plants ordered to replace those which have fallen foul of the joint onslaught by vandals and neglect.    

      Unfortunately, although all this is very desirable, it overlooks the point that, where at one time a team of eight gardeners ensured standards were kept up, this task is currently undertaken by the selfless dedication of one warden (Colin, with responsibility for a range of parks) and a band of heroic volunteers working one day a week. The addition of visits once every six weeks by contractors only marginally improves this state of affairs. With this in mind, Fletcher Moss could look like Kew gardens for a fortnight after the current work and be back to rain forest in a very short time unless ongoing funding for gardeners should emerge (what chance when politicians cheerfully flourish the promise of tax cuts: "how will you pay for them?"  "oh, you know,er, - savings"). 
'The Croft' in Fletcher Moss - birthplace of the R.S.P.B.
      The Friends of Fletcher Moss is an active group with an important input towards preserving a place of beauty. They are always happy to welcome new members. To find out more about them tap on Although this is specific to a small area, there are Friends groups around the country and if you have an interest in preserving a local park or garden they will usually be found on the Internet.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

The Garden as a Teaching Tool

How Important?
      'Kindergarten' comes from the German meaning 'garden of children' and, of course, refers to the first organised schooling our kids are exposed to. That 'garden' should have been used by the educator Friedrich Frobel, the bloke who came up with the name, is most fitting, This is  because a garden can be the most useful learning tool we have. Fred was using it in the context of treating children like plants, giving them the right growing conditions to develop into healthy fruiting specimens. However we can also look at it in an equally creative sense: the garden has the potential to yield some of the most important guides to understanding our world.

      Ask anyone what the most important equation in science is and you'll get Einstein's theory of relativity, Newton's Laws of motion and various others pulled out of the bag. Personally, I'd go for photosynthesis: 'where does the wood for the table start out, kiddies?' That's right - a tree. And how does the tree grow there? By the process of photosynthesis. That plastic chair. The plastic comes as a by-product of coal tar and where does coal come from? whoops, we're back to trees. And lunch - obvious where the vegetables came from isn't it? but what about the meat? No, the cow didn't photosythesise, but guess what it ate to become big.

      Take a deep breath. Now think about where the oxygen we need to stay alive comes from. Yep, right again, it's the waste product of the plant factory where photosynthesis takes place. And hey, look at that cloud in the sky. The plants needed water to carry out photosynthesis but they took in too much and pumped it out as vapour (a big oak can move 150gallons a day) which became  clouds that will eventually give us rain.

      Now look at that insect. It's a greenfly and a clever man called Stephan Buczacki worked out that, because they breed so fast, one landing on your roses in early June could give rise to two thousand billion by the end of August. This means that we could be over our heads in greenfly (imagine drowning in them), but it never happens. The reason it doesn't is that bluetits, wasps, hoverflies and many other species save us by having greenfly for dinner. And this leads us to discover that all of nature is a web of life - even despised animals like slugs are beavering away eating dead plants and returning the bits back into the ground so that other things can grow.The important lesson in this is that, the more you look at each living thing, you see that it plays a part in making planet Earth work, we are a small part of this and should do our best to fit in: break too many strands of the web and it falls apart.

      Ok. So, back into the stuffy schoolroom, kids. But don't forget what's outside the window.

Honey bee playing its part


Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Water problems and sexton beetles

Common sense and undertakers
      A lot of gardening problems can be solved using common sense. A bit of careful thought is often more rewarding than waiting for the Gardener's Question Time team coming up with the answers: I've got this ornamental grass Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola', growing in an urn at the end of the garden. During the recent hot spell I noticed that there was something different about it and a closer examination showed that the leaves had shrivelled, leaving almost a skeleton. Seasoned gardeners will immediately recognise the signs of water deprivation but newcomers may be tempted to think that some dread disease has taken hold and dispatch it to the compost heap.
Hakonechloa before watering
A few hours after watering
      When many plants are stressed due to water shortage, the initial reaction is to decrease the size of the leaf pores by shrivelling, lessening the transpiration of water into the atmosphere. This is done in the hope that it will either rain soon or the guy in the silly hat will come along with a watering can. In this case the latter occurred and you can see the result in the pictures.

      Although the Hakenochloa can grow in some pretty dry areas of woodland and mountain in Japan, it has the potential for its roots to explore for water over a much larger area and depth than a pot allows it. This is a limit many plants suffer in the artificial environment of a container and knowing it can be the difference between good and bad results: for example, growing Hydrangeas in pots can be rewarding but success is dependent on recognising that they are water junkies and need daily replenishment. A compost rich in organic material helps, acting as a sponge to retain water, but the fact that leaves and flowers form an almost impenetrable barrier to rain getting through means that they need as much help from you as possible. And don't forget plant nutrients, these are soon exhausted by big roots in a small pot, so a bit of  fertilizer every now and then will be well received. One with high potash content, like tomato or rose food is best for encouraging more flowering.
Hydrangea macrophylla - a water junkie
      So, the difference between a good gardener and the one who freely professes to 'kill everything I plant', is often just a matter of how much thought is applied. Maybe we can't all become Titchmarshes but we can avoid a lot of death in the garden. And this brings me to another aspect of dying: the afterlife.

      I was walking with a mate near Malham, in Yorkshire, when I spotted a dead mouse on the path. This may not seem particularly exciting but there was something strange about it. When I bent to look closer, I could see that it was rather flattened and in the same category as Monty Python's parrot but then........"It moved", I bellowed, "the bloody thing moved".
Sexton beetles
      Sure enough, the body was making some sickening undulations as if trying to rise from the dead. I'm not frightened of mice, but deceased ones coming back for another go take a bit of getting used to. However I needn't have worried because the causes of the resurrection suddenly emerged from under the body - beetles, big orange and black ones. These were sexton beetles and they are attracted by the smell of corpses. It seems they sometimes work in a group, digging under the body until it sinks into the hole they have made. After exuding antibacterial and antifungal secretions over it to prevent the smell attracting rivals, they then cover it with soil and the females lay eggs either into the body flesh or just under it. The larvae which then emerge eat their way to adulthood, feasting on what their parents have left of the meat. 

      This is the perfect topic for an after-dinner speech if you want to find out what everyone's had.



Saturday, 2 August 2014

Veg. in the herbaceous border

There ain't no rules
Corny idea?
      Gardeners should be willing to try something new, something outside the prescribed layout which gives an added interest even if it's a querky one. I went into a toilet in a theatre the other day and was captivated by the plumbing: when I went to turn the tap on to wash my hands it didn't work; it had a sort of lever on it and when I pushed it to the right - nothing, then left - nothing. The only thing remaining was to move it vertically but this also brought nothing - not a drip.

      "No mate, you do it like this", said a bloke who had been smirking at my performance, and he moved his hand across the sensor (which was cunningly disguised as an overflow), causing the water to make its appearance.

      'What next', I thought, envisaging brain implants which would enable  us to think the tap on. The point is, I've forgotten  many hundreds of toilets, but I remember that one. Same with the garden, try something new and it may well give you something to remember:

      My eldest son and his girlfriend  have taken to sowing seeds of just about everything in pots on their flat window-ledge. This worked out fine with subjects like lettuce but it quickly became apparent that sweeetcorn, which can reach a height of eight foot, was not really ideal for a window ledge unless you had a wartime fetish for blackouts. So, in spite of my protestations that I hadn't got room, they brought a couple along to me and, not wanting to waste them, I bunged them in the herbaceous border.
Colourful Chard
      In retrospect, this doesn't seem such a bad idea: the young foliage forms an architectural contrast with the more floriferous subjects and the thought of possibly getting a bit of a crop is attractive. They are normally planted in blocks to enable good pollination, the reason being that a wind can blow the pollen away before it can drop from the tassels at the top of the plant and onto the female stigmas below. However, if I can catch the them on a still day, a quick shake will do the job equally well. Whether the things will look daft when they tower above everything else remains to be seen. I'll report on this in a later blog.

      This isn't a new idea of course - combining the aesthetic with the functional is carried out in many gardens and allotments. Seemingly mundane subjects like carrots have pleasing ferny foliage which contrasts well with purplish beetroot leaves. Equally, chards, with their varying attractive stem colours, are worthy of more than just a place on the dinner plate. Asparagus, apart from providing the spears (expensive in the shops) go on to produce attractive foliage which will be at home in any self respecting flower arrangement. Thoughtful planting of a wide range of vegetables can create an attractive feature in a garden but I draw the line at the ornamental cabbages: I think them garish and, in my experience, they taste horrible. Still, whatever turns you on.
Matter of taste?
      Coming back to my lavatorial experience: having washed my hands I went to dry them and, instead of being confronted by one of those things that blow heat out at a rate which dries in about three days, I found one of the newer type. For anyone unlucky enough not to have encountered one of these, they look a bit like a trouser press. You move your hands up and down in them for a few seconds and they blow so hard that you can see the skin wrinkling like waves up a beach. I've fallen in love with them and want one for Christmas. It'll be great for drying socks in.

For more thoughts on being adventurous go to link

Monday, 14 July 2014

Galega officinalis (Goat's rue)

Goat's rue
Goat's Rue
      Goat's rue (Galega officinalis) is apparently so-called because of the way the foliage smells when bruised. Someone once left a billy goat in Wythenshawe Park when I worked there, presumably with the thought that he'd be absorbed into the farm stock. I made the mistake of patting its head and the stink which adhered to my hand was indescribable and took a good time to get rid of. It seems they urinate in their beards to strengthen the smell - an athletic feat comparable to the exertions of gifted small boys against lavatory walls (I remember Raymond Taylor doing it right over the top of the school toilet wall and hitting a passing teacher - bet Offsted 'd have loved that - like Ray, they're into targets, but a lot of theirs are even dafter). I can't begin to understand what the females goats see in ponging males, but I suppose it's a matter of what turns you on.
Flowers close-up
      Anyway, Galega is a relative of the pea and shares that familiy's characteristic of having root nodules. These are caused by bacteria which live in the root and have the ability to extract nitrogen from the atmosphere. Some of this is then donated to the plant like a lodger paying the landlord in kind. The landlord, appreciating this contribution towards the day-to-day living, reciprocates by bunging some plant sugar downstairs to the bacteria, who obligingly consume it for pudding. This, of course, is why we should always dig in the roots of harvested peas or beans, enriching the soil with nitrogen which will benefit the next crop. Farmers once used this knowledge by sowing clover then letting the field lie fallow for a year before ploughing it in. Organic growers still follow a similar procedure and a number of crops called 'green manures' are used on allotments to replace the soil structure and nutrient removed by cropping. Gardening with nature like this is actually common sense: if we grow a crop then take it away, it is obvious that the nutrient it has used in growing should be replaced - just look under a privet hedge - the soil is usually like dust, with all the structure and nutrient extracted by the plant in producing the leaves which we've clipped off and removed. The ultimate example of this occurred in the dust bowl of central United States in the thirties: winds removed the dusty topsoil and farmers were forced to abandon the land and move on. Steinbeck's story of the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath was based on this.
Root nodules clearly visible on seedlings
      The name Galega originates from the Greek 'gala', meaning 'milk', implying that the plant aids its production. The truth of this was proved in 1873 by French research which showed that cows fed on it increased milk yield by 35 to 50%. It can also be used for improving lactation in humans. The racemes of small pea-like flowers render the plant a pretty addition to the herbaceous border and it seeds itself generously, so once you've got it there is no need to be without. Division is another easy way of propagating the plant in order to prevent it becoming too large. The fact that it can occasionally reach a height of 1.5 metres means that a support of some kind will help to keep it within designated bounds.

      In closing, it's worth mentioning that if they ever introduce an Olympic event on elevated urinating, watch out for Raymond Taylor's name.

For more information about herbs and their uses go to

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Poisonous Plants

Poison in the Garden
Ragwort (Senecio jacobea)
      It seems to me that you can overdo it when it comes to safety and poisonous plants. I've heard of people removing a Laburnum tree from the garden because their child may eat the seeds. This ties in with the wrapping- in- cotton- wool philosophy which ignores the learning potential in their own garden. What happens when the child plays in the park or friend's garden where the tree hasn't been taken down? The warnings and explanations which could have been gained at home have been lost. Many of the common garden plants are poisonous, including Rhododendron, Pieris, Hypericum, Euphorbia - the list is endless. And, because a plant is classed as poisonous, doesn't mean you are going to drop dead after a mouthful: apparently yew (Taxus baccata) which is widely known to be toxic, only carries out this promise after you've eaten enough leaves to stuff an average sized sofa. Maybe it should still be seen as dangerous but it isn't in the same class as telling the truth when a woman asks 'does my bum looks big in this?'

      I once suffered from mild poisoning when I'd taken the advice of a 'free wild food' book and tried chickweed, which is recommended as being fine in salads. I'd picked it in the garden and inadvertently included some sun spurge (Euphorbia helioscopia), which looks vaguely similar when you haven't got your glasses on. The Euphorbia had the effect of numbing my mouth and tongue so that I could hardly talk. At this point my wife, always sympathetic, said it was a good thing because it shut me up. There's a similar effect accompanying the consumption of the houseplant known as dumb cane (Dieffenbachia spp), the sap swells the tongue and justifies the common name. This is well known, but I pride myself in having personally carried out the ground-breaking research on sun spurge.
Choosey diner
      On the whole, animals seem to have an instinct which prevents them eating plants which may be harmful (although goats seem to be an exception to this). It's widely known that horses are poisoned by eating ragwort (Senecio jacobea) but they rarely eat the growing plant - only that which has been cut and lies unrecognised when mixed with  hay.

      Cows seem to be victims of other aspects of danger in plants: I was fishing on the River Dane opposite a fifteen foot high clay bank, when a cow appeared at the top of it and peered longingly at a patch of grass and wildflowers growing on a narrow ledge some distance below the lip. It disappeared and I thought it had decided to make do with the thirty acres of grass in its field, but a couple of minutes later it came back and repeated its thoughtful perusal. Then, overcome with longing, it stepped gingerly onto a bulge of eroding bank with the obvious intention of working its way along the face to where dinner beckoned. It got further than I'd have thought possible before the clay suddenly crumbled.

      I've always thought cows' faces were pretty mild and expressionless, but this one proved the exception as widening  eyes and gaping mouth conveyed a definite impression of surprise and horror. The accompanying bellow completed the bovine version of OH SHIT! before cow and large section of banking obeyed gravity and plunged into the river.

      I don't know how much a cow weighs, but it certainly displaces enough water to give Archimedes a 'eureka' moment. The resulting tsuname headed my way as I sat peacefully fishing and I sprang into action too late to stop my ham butties and half my tackle  disappearing into the torrent.

      I didn't catch anything after that.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Simple Planning Techniques

Engaging the Grey Matter
Monkey puzzle in the wrong place
      An old rant of mine concentrates on the lack of creative thought that goes into a lot of gardens; Most people spend much time looking at the way the living room is set out, giving careful consideration to the ease of viewing the telly (for many years now the usurper of the fireplace as the main focal point of the room), the way the curtains match the carpet, the placing of pictures and so on. Then they get to the garden and this suddenly becomes the territory of the expert, with the average Joe thinking of himself as out of his depth because he doesn't know any Latin names (don't worry, Mr Gove will put it back in the National Curriculum) and relapsing into the 'see what next door's done with it' method. This leads to a monotonous continuity of square front lawns. These are surrounded by beds occupied by black-spot infested roses subtended by the occasional bedding plant and a lot of bare soil which may as well have a sign up saying 'vacancies - weeds welcome'.

      My point is that many elements of planning the garden are exactly the same as planning inside the house. It comes down to common sense: if we want plants for winter interest they are best enjoyed when positioned in full view of the house because weather often keeps us in at that time of year; if we leave areas of bare earth in the beds, weeds are going to move in; a graceful curve to the edge of the beds is more satisfying than the neighbour's straight edges; a thoughtfully placed tree or shrub can hide an eyesore. See? - it's not rocket science, is it? Any fool can manage the basics, with results that encourage further exploration.
Leyland cypress can get out of hand
      Avoiding pitfalls is often easier than you think ('think' being the operative word). It may seem a good idea to put a monkey puzzle tree in your ten foot front garden but THINK! it's a tree and, guess what, trees get big. That particular one can get to 80ft. high, with a spread of 30ft. The only possible justifications for planting it in such a daft place are a. you are so old you will snuff it before the living room goes dark or intend to sell the house (preferably to someone you don't like) before that eventuality. THINK before you plant a leyland cypress hedge - they are excellent for that function but, at the end of the day, they are trees and will need regular clipping. The plant gets a bad press but it's the silly bugger who plants it then goes away who really deserves it. On the other hand, it pays to be aware that you can be too enthusiastic about cutting back a hedge of this sort: it won't regenerate from old wood, so if you go too far, you end up losing any privacy it provided, create brown, unattractive patches, or, more extremely, killing it. The answer is to prune it little and often. If that's going to take up too much time, plant something slower growing, like box or holly.
Narrowing grass walkway at Hidcote
      There are techniques for making an area look bigger than it is: I was at Hidcote Manor a couple of weeks ago and here a  grass sward between an avenue of trees has been made to look more impressive by planting the trees gradually closer together towards one end, creating the illusion of distance. The effect can be improved further by employing dwarves to walk around at the far end. If you don't happen to have a manor, you can replicate the idea by making your borders wider at one end of the garden than at the other. Curving the edges, replacing the common, boring, straight line, gives the eye further to travel and the  simple practise of planting stronger colours close to the main viewing point, and more pastely shades further away adds to this effect. Taking chunks out of an existing lawn in order to create curves can seem a bit daunting at first. The job can be messed up by making them too small so that, when you stand back, they are over- busy, resembling the serrations of a knife edge. To get round this, lay a hosepipe or washing line where you are going to remove the turf, then step to the end of the garden to check the foreshortening effect. Keep adjusting this till you are happy, then spade out the scallops secure in the knowledge that it'll look right. I would suggest that blokes don't mention the washing line bit to their wives - I found they can be touchy about such things.

      Another simple thing you can do is create secrets in the garden. A site where you can see every feature from one point is usually pretty boring. If you create a bed which curves out of sight, perhaps behind a shrub or tree, a viewer will be tempted to step out into the garden just to see what's out of sight. It doesn't matter if there's a brick lavatory there  - the object will have been achieved and the garden will be more interesting.

      Come to think of it, with the state of my bladder, a lavatory wouldn't be a bad idea.



Saturday, 7 June 2014

Viburnum Beetle

Making Life Easier
Psychological approach?
      I've come to the conclusion that the apparently peaceful pastime of gardening is actually do-it-yourself warfare: the more we try to control nature, the more bloody minded it gets and the greater the need for creative thinking:

      We recently spent a few days at Stratford Upon Avon and I made what is becoming a habitual visit to Hidcote Manor gardens. As usual, the gardens impressed but something which caught my eye was an area signed 'The Poppy Border'. As a gardener plagued with the pretty but uncontrollable Welsh poppy, I recognised this as a masterpiece of adaptation - the psychological approach to a problem using the 'if you can't beat the buggers, join 'em' technique. I've been thinking of employing the same strategy by creating 'The Dandelion Border', 'The Willow-herb Bed' and maybe even 'The Marestail Bank'. This would be achieved with a complete lack of effort on my part except for the making of the signs. However, gardening being what it is, I can almost guarantee that the dandelions would suddenly and inexplicably be over-run by Dahlias, the willow-herbs by Phlox and, for the first time in history, the marestail would inexplicably disappear.

      If the Hidcote gardeners were allowed to sit back with satisfied smiles, it wasn't for long because the enemy was advancing along another front: I was trying to identify a large and, I thought, exotic shrub with amazing lacy leaves when it became apparent that it was simply the common Viburnum opulus. The Viburnum beetle had reduced the foliage to a tracery of veins and, when I looked closer, I could make out the tiny caterpillar-like larvae wreaking their havoc. When I listened carefully, I swear I heard munching.
Viburnum beetle damage
Viburnum beetle larva
      The larvae feed in late spring (mid April to early May) and that's the time to zap them. Pyrethrum is the best organic spray, although the adults, which turn up to feed later in summer, are most effectively controlled using something like Bayer Sprayday Greenfly Killer. However, in my experience, it isn't easy to spot the adults and, as the main damage is already done by the time they turn up, early application of Pyrethrum is the best bet.
Hosta sieboldiana - off the menu?
      The chemical approach to a lot of pest problems brings to mind the open stable door and lack of horse scenario and it's much easier to grow plants which have a natural resistance to the main enemies: a big problem with gooseberries is American mildew and varieties like Invicta, Jubilee and Pax (among others) are fairly impervious to its ravages. Similarly there are blight resistant potatoes, club root resistant cabbages and cauliflowers, carrot fly resistant carrots, and many others. Even slug caviar - Hosta, has some varieties which, though not completely immune, seem to be far less palatable than others. Those with blue, thick and puckered leaves fit well into this category.

For more about slug control go to Organic control
For more about carrot fly problems go to Carrot fly problems

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Saving Water in the Garden

 Bring On The Rain
Water butts and hose to pond
     I used to work in an office surrounded by a small wood. In winter, there was quite a substantial pond among the nearby trees  but in the summer, even if it rained, the water would slowly subside until it completely disappeared. This left a colony of disappointed looking frogs (ever seen a disappointed frog?) scratching their heads and no doubt ruminating about how the moon exerts a strong tidal pull in Manchester. The correct explanation, of course, was that, as soon as the trees put on their leafy summer dresses, they started taking in water and exuding much of it into the atmosphere in the process of transpiration. The amount they disposed of in a relatively short period of time was quite staggering and leads me to draw a bit of a parallel with my garden pond:

      We recently went on a water meter. This led me to look at the water consumption related to the garden and I realised that a large part of this could be put down to topping up the pond. Even with the best construction there is a loss to the atmosphere due to simple evaporation and transpiration from plants. This was a bit different to my woodland scenario, because tree roots have no effect through a pond liner. However there are plenty of marginal plants sitting in the shallows, happily breathing out water vapour and creating the same result. The lowered water level leads to the visibility of artificial liner and a general unattractive torpidity. So I regularly top up.
Full pond
      Unfortunately, tap water is rich in nutrients required by the algi which frequently destroys the clarity of a pond. Apart from considerations of cost, this is the equivalent of whitewashing the TV screen: the programmes are still there, playing invisibly, but what's the point? I suppose the answer to this is the fact that our pond is probably still providing habitat for more life forms than the rest of the garden put together. However, part of the attraction is being able to watch them and it's a bit frustrating being blindfolded. If we were to add nutrient - free rainwater instead, this would put a few algi on the breadline.

      At about the time we made the change to metered water, I saw Aldi's special offer of 100 litre water butts advertised for ten pounds, complete with kit for attaching to drainpipes. We have a flat roof which covers part of the living room and kitchen, so I invested in two butts, thinking this may be a useful source of run-off. Then I set the barrels up to catch what was available. The result was amazing - both barrels filled during the first heavy downpour and I found myself with a free source of water. The problem with this lay in the fact that to transport the water to the pond would require a half day of carrying buckets along about sixty foot of garden and a resumption of my hernia.
The greenhouse - a further source of water
      It didn't take a genius to come up with the idea of fixing a hose from butt to pond: one barrel is now used for watering purposes and  the other one constantly overflows into the pond. A minor snag with this is that the hose has to run across the path before disappearing into the obscurity of the back of the border and eventually reaching the pond. A hose across the path is seen as a challenge by my wife: she has to catch her foot in it and thoughtlessly damage my carefully laid paving by crashing down on it, so the attachment is only made when it is raining and she is safe indoors. The rest of the time I leave it coiled out of sight and awaiting action under an obliging Fatsia.

For more on ponds see water fern,
water lilies
marginal plants
making a waterfall
pondside plants

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)

Any Fairies Around?
Foxglove and Sedum
      Foxgloves are normally a biennial plant, meaning that they produce a rosette of leaves in the first year, flower in the second, then snuff it. However, they've not all read the books, so you inevitably get some which decide to go on flowering over the next few years. Perhaps that's just a stage in their evolution or maybe they've always varied like that. Anyway, the point is, that I've usually seen them as a nuisance and a weed when they pop up where I don't want them and this year I gave them a bit more thought: they're an attractive flower and when one appeared growing adjacent a Sedum spectabile I decided to leave it because it flowers early and can be removed when they finish, leaving the Sedum to present its display unimpeded later in the summer. This should be a major rule in gardening: maximise the use of the space you have, so that there is always something of interest.

      The flowers on foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) open first at the bottom and work their way up over a period of weeks. The reasons given for this are twofold. Firstly, it gives security against bad weather which will keep bees, their main pollinators, in bed until it cheers up and secondly, its normal habitat is in areas where tall grasses and other plant are liable to grow up around it and hide the flowers from bees, so later flowering to the tip of its spire ensures they will still be seen. Nectar is secreted at the base of the flower, attracting bees which follow the 'runway' marked out with spots. They have to force their way down the flower to the nectar and, in so doing, rub past the anthers, picking up pollen which gets transferred to the next plant they visit.
Getting Pollinated
      Reasons for the name foxglove remain debatable. One which I may have mentioned before is the closeness to 'folk's gliew', the 'folks' referring to the little folks or fairies and 'gliew' to a Saxon musical instrument made of small bells - fairy bells. I like this explanation but it is poo- poo'd by the experts who maintain that, in Old English, it was called foxes glofa. This may well be, but the fact that it has a number of names, including fairy's thimbles, dead men's thimbles, tod-tails, floppy dock, fairy gloves and fairy bells, suggests to me that it seems reasonable to assume that it was always called a few things. Therefore the choice of foxes glofa proves nothing except that no one really knows the truth of the matter.
Yellow foxglove (Digitalis grandiflora) which arrived uninvited
      The history of medicinal use of the foxglove is quite interesting: a bloke called William Withering, a physician in the mid eighteenth century, came across a remedy for dropsy which contained foxglove. Knowing that heart failure often caused dropsy, he did careful analysis and came up with digoxin, which is still widely used for heart treatment. This finding is recognised as the tipping point from folk medicine into scientifically based modern treatments. I'm always interested in the derivation of names and like to think that Bill Withering's came from a facility to belittle someone with a look rather than a propensity to kill plants.

      As it is throughout life, you can have too much of a good thing and poisonous foxglove is a case in point: the right amount can save your life, whereas a bit too much can lead to the funeral insurance being cashed in.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Caltha palustris

Heron on nest
      I've always seen wildlife as an important part of the garden, something that transports it from being a clinical product of my efforts, like a newly painted kitchen, to a living entity - a lesson in how all living things are interdependent. If clinical is what you want (and some do), try silk flowers and a plastic lawn, they'll give you the body but not the soul. High fallutin' eh? The reason I mention that is because it gives me the excuse to use my 'gardening' blog to branch out a bit.
      I walked around Queen's Park in Rochdale last Saturday morning with my daughter and watched herons both in their nests and balancing precariously on the pinnacles of conifers before soaring off like some prehistoric pterodactyl, with the object of relieving someone's pond of its koi carp inhabitants. The River Roch runs immediately adjacent the artificial lake which surrounds the nesting island and a quick flash of white caught my attention on stones near the far bank. It was a dipper, a small bird with a white bib, so called because it, er, dips. Getting a photo was difficult because every time I clicked, the damn thing ducked and most of the photos are of a bum sticking out of the water. Although they are light and fluffy, they have the amazing ability of being able to walk along the bottom of a fast - flowing stream, catching small fish and insect larvae (especially those of caddis fly and mayfly). They do this by opening their wings underwater, angling them so that the flow works to press downwards. Then they close the wings and bob to the top, sometimes thirty seconds later. You'll often see them bashing something on stones at the streamside and that'll be caddis fly larvae which protect themselves by sticking a 'coat' of small stones around their body. Not liking crunchy larvae, the dipper knocks off the stone before dining.
Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris)
      Also on the bank, and bringing us back to something we can enjoy in the garden, were the bright yellow flowers of marsh marigold (Caltha palustris). In the wild, the flowers tend to be single, meaning that they have a single row of petals but breeders have come up with 'Flore Pleno' - a variety with double flowers. I prefer the wild form because it brings to mind the river or pond bank and, after all, that's what a garden pond is attempting to emulate. I don't know about the double form of marsh marigold, but some of the garish bedding plants commonly seen may attract the human eye but are unable to produce pollen. These are one step away from plastic and so don't attract insects, taking the gardener's philosophy back to that of the newly painted kitchen.

       For more about the wild garden, go to Heartbeat and Wildflowers in the garden.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Horse chestnut scale and azalea gall

Slightly Unusual Problems
Horse chestnut scale
      I was looking at my picture library and a couple of things stood out which may be worth a few words: the first one is horse chestnut scale (Pulvinaria regalis). The poor old conker tree, which is currently suffering attacks by a number of enemies, has lent its name to this one although lime, sycamore, cornus, elm, magnolia, acer and bay laurel are also prime targets. It is an unwelcome immigrant from Asia, probably introduced on plants, and is most common in urban areas. Apparently the reason for its prominence in these parts is down to the fact that gardeners and park-keepers sweep up leaves and, lodging on them, the pupae of a tiny parasitic wasp which influences the spread of scale - a case of babies and bathwater in the cause of tidiness. On occasion a whole trunk can be covered with the females shown, giving it a mottled appearance.

      The females shown in the picture breed by a process of parthenogenesis - don't mate with males- so that a close look shows them looking pretty bored. The white 'skirt' is where the eggs are, about 2,000 per scale, and mother dies when she's finished laying. The corpse remains attached to the egg sac, giving some protection to the contents but presumably not much satisfaction to mum.

      All scale are sap-suckers but usually the host plant is so large that there is little real damage apart from aesthetically. This is good because controlling the problem on a large tree, short of burning it to the ground, is next to impossible. This brings to mind the old Benny Hill sketch where he pulverises a tomato plant with a large lump hammer:

      "Don't do the tomato much good", he says with a cheeky smile and what I take to be a west country accent, "but it gets rid of the greenfly". For more about horse chestnut problems go to this.
Azalea gall
      The second thing worth a word or two is the Azalea gall (Exobasidium vaccinii). I first saw this many years ago on an evergreen azalea at Bodnant Gardens and, in my ignorance, thought it was a fruit. However it turns out to be a fungal problem and it fairly quickly becomes white with spores which are thought to be passed to other plants via rain splashes. From what I can make out, the one in the picture is fairly unusual in the regularity of its shape - usually it is far more lumpy and can look a bit like peach leaf curl.  Flowering can be reduced, so the galls are best removed before reaching the white, spore spreading stage. I have seen a recommendation that the infected plant should be sprayed with Bordeaux mixture early in the year, but have no experience of the efficacy of such treatment, so retain an open mind.

     The main thing my researches have come up with is the fact that no one seems to know a lot about the problem so, if you're really worried about it, try growing spuds.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Marigold and Rue

Marigold (Calendula officinalis)
From our supermarket - stocked citadels we tend to see marigolds as simply a pretty flower providing a splash of annual colour in the garden. However, there's a bit more to them than that:

The common name comes from 'Mary's Gold', as it was so called in honour of the Virgin Mary. Why this should be is open to conjecture, but the scientific name, Calendula officinalis is a bit easier to explain: 'Calendula' comes from the Latin 'Calendae', meaning the first day of the month and possibly refers to the fact that, in its native Southern European and North African habitat, it can often be seen flowering throughout the year; 'officinalis' applies to plants with perceived medicinal properties. Dipping a leaf in boiling water for a second, then bruising and applying it to a wound controls bleeding and speeds the healing process. When you hear a fact like this, there's a tendency to think this would be really useful if you were to injure yourself in the countryside. However, if you think about it, the presence of boiling water on the spot is about as unlikely as a comfrey plant growing next to the nettle that stung you. (I think it probable that no one is absolutely sure whether comfrey eases nettle stings, because by the time you find some the pain has naturally dissipated or you've died of old age).

Herbalists also use marigold internally for a bewildering list of ailments ranging from colitis to athlete's foot and as if its medicinal properties aren't enough, the plant has numerous uses in the kitchen: a complete flower dropped into a stew will add a pleasing flavour, while the petals have a similar effect in salads and soups. It also provides a pretty good substitute for saffron because, when soaked in milk or water, it can be used as a colouring for rice, cakes and puddings.
Rue (Ruta graveolens)
Not all plants are as benevolent as the marigold: rue (Ruta graveolens), derives its name from 'graveolens', meaning 'heavily scented' and 'rue' refers to 'bitterness' or 'unpleasentness'. The latter feature manifests itself through its powerful oils. In contact with the skin, these render it sensitive to sunlight, resulting in eruptions similar to those caused by giant hogweed. In nurseries the gardeners wear protective gloves which cover to the elbows when they are dealing with the plant. Although seen as a tonic and stimulant to digestion in small doses and chewing a leaf may relieve tension headaches, it is toxic in stronger solutions, so should be used advisedly. Sprinkled dried and powdered over seeds as sown, the herb protects against seed - eating birds and insects who presumably don't like the potential skin eruptions or death which it promises, and, rubbed through the coats of dogs or cats, it repels fleas.

The variety 'Jackman's Blue' is readily available in garden centres and the 'blue' the name offers gives a nice evergreen contrast to a bed, or, at a height of about two foot, provides an attractive low hedge round a border. Apparently neither rue or basil will thrive if planted close together, although this is a problem I've not personally encountered.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Deep Bed System - Why Dig?

Why Dig?
Artificial digger
      I used to think that bastard trenching was about burying someone you didn't like. College rectified this impression by pointing out that the term refers to a system of digging whereby the soil is turned over to a depth of two spade blades. Well-rotted organic material is incorporated into the bottom layer and the overall effect is that of aerating and enriching the soil as the series of trenches march across the plot, the soil from the next one filling its predecessor.

      All this seems very logical until someone asks the seemingly daft question 'but why dig at all?' Think about it: untold billions of acres of land have never been touched by a spade but are populated by a profusely growing collection of trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants and annuals. So why do we spend so much time breaking our backs under the impression that our way produces better results than nature? The answer to this conundrum lies in the simple fact that we walk on the soil, compacting the crumb structure and excluding air. Plants respire - a process which involves roots converting sugars into growth energy and one of the raw materials necessary for this to take place is the oxygen our size nines have squeezed out.
Natural digger
      One way round this problem is to adopt the deep bed system of growing: by creating a bed about four feet wide we present ourselves with an area we can reach across to cultivate plants without walking on it. An annual top dressing of a couple of inches of well-rotted organic material will then be incorporated into the soil by worms, mining bees and various other organisms. Their digging activities allow air to the lower levels, at the same time as incorporating a natural drainage system to cope with excess water. Creating a good crumb structure is what it is all about. Healthy soil crumbs will have spaces between, allowing water to drain and giving access to air. The crumbs themselves will contain a balance of organic material which acts as a sponge to retain enough water and nutrients for plants to thrive and the hard, impervious, mineral particles also do the drainage bit.

      By using a deep bed system we are working with nature, enabling natural soil inhabitants, of which there are millions per cubic foot, to beaver away at doing what they do best - breaking down organic material. Picture the scene: a leaf falls from the tree and a nearby worm, leaning on his mini Spear & Jackson stainless steel spade, wipes the sweat off his brow, grabs the stalk and starts dragging it into the cave he's just excavated. Easy, isn't it. Out with the deckchair.
Mining bee excavation between drive bricks
Mining bee
For more about worms go to composting - worms.

Saturday, 15 March 2014


More to a herb than meets the eye.
Willow Catkins
We've got some friends in Knutsford and, when we go round to see them, they always seem to have a bowl of some new recipe of crisps for us to help ourselves from. On one memorable occasion, I tried a good handful and found the taste disgusting.

"I'd complain to Booths about these, if I were you", I said to our hostess as she came into the room,  "they taste like scented cardboard"

"That's probably because", she replied with admirable constraint, "you're eating my pot- pourri".
And that's the thing about herbs. They aren't just the pretty selection of plants which fit happily in the bed under the window - according to the dictionary definition, they are 'plants which can be used for scent, insecticides, medicine and culinary purposes'.

If you're going for the 'scent' bit, it's easy to make a pot-pourri using this recipe I spotted in a Dr.D.G.Hessayon book: add 1oz dried orris root, 1/2 teaspoon allspice, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, and a few drops of flower oil (rose or violet) to a quart of dried flower petals. Shake them together in a plastic bag and leave the mixture sealed for about three weeks before putting it in a dish or pomander. Apparently only rose, lavender and carnations retain their scent after drying, so forget some of the obvious things like cornflower and marigolds unless you want to add some different colours.

Even some trees come under that general definition: in days of yore, a person with a head-ache would chew a willow or poplar bud to ease the pain. Relatively modern science  laughed at this as an old wives tale but then looked suitably embarrassed when it was discovered that the buds and bark of these trees contains salicin which, in the human digestive system, becomes salicylic acid - a major component of aspirin.
Hop (Humulus lupulus)
Similarly, herb pillows, much recommended in the old days as remedies for all sorts of things, were suddenly discovered to often have well-founded scientific reasons for their efficacy: King George 3rd had difficulty sleeping to such a degree that he was ready to hand over the crown to the Prince Regent. Fortunately, one of his mates suggested he try a hop pillow. The pillow is simply a muslin bag containing the dried herb which is placed in your own pillow, allowing  the heat from your head to release the volatile oils. Anyway, Georgie boy suddenly found he was sleeping properly and, after a few successful nights, decided to continue with his duties as king and dispensed the poor old Prince Regent back to the world of opening supermarkets or whatever it is they do. The Latin name for hop is Humulus lupulus and lupulin is a known sedative.

Verbena, used in a herb pillow, is popularly recognised as an aphrodisiac. A potential problem with this is that, should any hardened stalks be left in the pillow, there is a danger of one penetrating the eardrum at a moment of erotic bliss. This, I feel, is the source of the belief that too much of certain things make you go deaf.
      For more on the unusual uses of herbs go to this.