Friday, August 31, 2007
AstilbeAs some compensation for the lack of cathedrals, good Spanish wine and excellent seafood in my garden, there is a current glory of Astilbes. The plant can be anything from a foot to four feet tall, depending on the variety you purchase, and is also known as False Goat's Beard.
In my opinion it’s an unbeatable plant for a damp border or pond-side – for several reasons:
1 – it’s good for almost the entire year, because the finely cut foliage looks attractive from early spring, and the flowers in shades of either cream, soft pink, or rich burgundy, are superb feather spikes that appear in early summer and will last until early autumn if the weather isn’t too hot. They all become a deep tobacco brown as the year fades, and you can leave them on the plant right through the winter, where they give some structural interest to otherwise empty borders, then before new growth appears in spring, you simply cut away any remaining flowers and foliage that remain and mew growth springs up strongly.
2 - you only need to buy one plant in each colour, assuming you want all three – because after two years, you can divide it and replant the pieces as a group, which looks very impressive. Even if you don’t want more plants (and why not?) Astilbe generally require division every four years or so, when decreased flower production tips you off that their roots are overcrowded. Simply dig them up in late autumn, divide by pulling clumps away from the main plant, making sure each new clump contains healthy shoots and roots. Plant the division, watering thoroughly and watch them spring to life!
3 – it’s almost pest-free, there’s virtually nothing that eats astilbe.
Saturday, August 25, 2007
The downside …Himself has a week off work, early in September, and guess what we’re doing? Quick trip to Madrid? Touring the English Vineyards? Enjoying the Indian summer delights of our home city – Brighton?
Nope, we’re filling a skip. This is the deep dark reality of gardening, the cold lower layer where the nasty things lurk that nobody tells you about when you’re skylarking around in the shallows, enjoying yourself and thinking the summer will last forever. (Cue the Jaws music)...
Because for summer to keep arriving, somebody has to get out there and be evil.
Here’s my list:
1. Prune back apple tree by eight feet (yup – the trees are at least thirty years old and were nearly twenty feet tall when we moved in. They are not productive and shade the whole garden but, unless we want to hire a tree surgeon, we’re stuck with them. If the previous owners had pruned properly we wouldn’t have such a mess, but the trunks are huge up to about twelve feet, so we’ve little choice but to keep taking off the tops and kidding ourselves that the two kilos of apples we get a year from both trees combined are worth it. Yeah, right …)
2. Remove wild rose (it wasn’t wild but it suckered out when I wasn’t looking and now it has whippy shoots about seven feet long and spines like a porcupine) wearing full protective clothing because it is vicious!
3. Get rid of Euonymus – we have three in the garden, two are great, the third is just a big, ugly green monster. We grew them all from cuttings about twelve years ago and I wish we hadn’t been so proud of our horticultural skills that we stuck them all in the ground. I’m a much more ruthless gardener now!
And that will just about fill a skip, I think. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t a gardener. I’d much rather be admiring the Gaudi cathedral and looking forward to paella ….
(skip picture by Mark Hillary used under creative commons attribution licence, 'cos my skip hasn't arrived yet!)
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
SlugsGuess what – we have a plague. The almost continuous rain, generally warm but not hot temperatures, and a shortage of sun have provided perfect conditions for slugs. Gardens and crops are said to be facing devastation. Much now depends on weather conditions in the next few months, according to Dr Bill Lankford, who is involved in a slug-watch programme for Bayer CropScience.
Why has it happened? Well a dry, hot period over the summer kills off large numbers of slugs – and really it only takes a fortnight of heat and relative dryness to reduce slug numbers faster than they increase, but this year has produced slug-breeding rather than slug-killing conditions and this means 50% more slugs are around than in previous years Some areas have been particularly badly hit - in parts of Gloucestershire there are 100 slugs per square foot. Yuck is the word that comes to mind!
What also makes an increase in numbers such a concern is the fact they eat twice their body weight every day. High numbers of slugs have the potential to destroy entire fields of crops. The current slug boom has already resulted in farmers' costs rising and this could soon be passed on to us, in increased vegetable costs.
So what can we do? Not a lot, in all honesty, unless we want to use slug pellets which are a bad idea for both environmental reasons and because you can’t eliminate slugs – they just move in from next door. Try some of these though …
Slugs don't like tough leaves, they like tender things to nibble on, like inner leaves and strawberries, and they are also fond of leaves that are beginning to wilt, so if you do some weeding, leave the weeds around for a few days as the slugs will eat those first.
Although it is possible that this will encourage more slugs into your garden, if you have a healthy population of other creatures that eat slugs, you will be providing them with food, and there will be a balance. Toads are ideal, but hard to convince to move in, frogs arrive more easily if you have a pond, and putting down a pile of logs (keep your large prunings in a heap in an overlooked corner) will encourage the two other big slug-feasters: birds and ground beetles. Slow worms love slugs, but they are rare creatures these days, sadly.
Because slugs have to produce mucus (slime) to move, they prefer not to move over anything dry, dusty, or scratchy. They need to produce so much slime to travel over gravel, sand, ash, or lime that they can exhaust themselves in dry weather (assuming we ever get any) and die. So to protect really beloved plants, put down a sand circle or ash circle around the plant and renew regularly. They also hate copper, so wrapping copper wire around pots can protect really susceptible plants.
Sunday, August 19, 2007
Geranium/pelargonium cuttingsBack to the geraniums, because this is about the last point in the year when you can take cuttings from your zonal pelargoniums to have new plants for next year. While my new plants look lovely in their special container, I want many more plants, some for the house, some for the front garden and some to give away!
While cuttings can be taken in either early autumn or late winter early spring, there is no doubt that the summer ones (taken in August or September) produce bushier and more easily flowering plants.
To take a pelargonium cutting, make a cut below either the third or fourth joint, then strip away all the lower leaves, flower heads that have faded and flower buds until only two leaves are left at the top. Make sure you nip out all the stipules (the little leaflike appendages at the base of the leaf stalks) with your fingernails.
Most important – this is the bit I always forget! Put the cutting s in a dry atmosphere for 24 hours to allow a corky skin to form over the cuts - this prevents them from rotting. It does, I know for a fact, because every time I forget, the cuttings rot! A windowsill is a good place for this if its not in direct and hot sunlight.
Then set the cuttings in a pot of 50 % potting compost and 50% sand in a greenhouse or on a windowsill. You may use hormone rooting powder or not as you choose – I haven’t found any difference in the plants’ responses to it. Keep the soil moist but not soaked and ensure reasonable ventilation is provided – pelargoniums don’t like humid and stuffy air.. When they are well rooted, they're gradually hardened off and planted outside in May or June. Pinch the tips of the main shoots to encourage bushy growth.
Thursday, August 16, 2007
New garden visitorsWe’ve had two new arrivals in the garden this month, and I’m not able to show you a picture of either of them; one because it only turns up after dark, the other because it move too fast.
The first is an owl, possibly a barn owl, although we only hear it, which means identification is a bit of a problem. The second is definitely a sparrowhawk, and not just one; we’ve seen both the male and the female of what must be a breeding pair, skimming along the edge of our fence, flushing out sparrows to take back to their fledglings. It’s very exciting (although a bit tough on the sparrows, I suppose) because when we moved here, nearly ten years ago, the garden was pretty well bare of wildlife – to have increased our garden population to include two top level predator species is quite something!
The other reason it’s exciting is that it makes the garden an area of suspense, twenty-four hours a day. We never know what will happen next. Will we hear (or see) the owl? Will one of the sparrowhawks appear? Is this the day we’ll discover a new butterfly species that hasn’t previously visited us, or perhaps the famously shy newts will put in a rare appearance? Add to these more random expectations the daily pleasures of coming across a frog hiding under a large leaf, the mayflies darting across the pond, the constant scolding from the sparrows as we trim plants near their hiding places … from a rather bleak and unfriendly space, the garden has become a home and haven for so many species that we find ourselves apologising for disturbing them by tidying up!
It wasn’t difficult. The first thing was to get the pond healthy and once that was done, we built log piles, became organic (nearly) and started the process of removing highly exotic plants and replacing them with more wildlife friendly native ones. We’re not purists though; I still have beloved plants that I will never get rid of – my tigridia, dahlias, ceonothus etc, and our log piles are tucked out of sight, so the garden doesn’t look too tatty. Even so, we’ve been amazed how things have changed and how the garden resounds with the various noises and movements of our native wildlife.
Photograph by kthypryn, used under creative commons licence.
Monday, August 13, 2007
DahliasFunnily enough, dahlias have been on my mind for any number of reasons, recently:
1 – a friend who recreates old recipes is trying to make dahlia flour – yes, flour, not flower! The first dahlia tubers arrived here late in the eighteenth century, from Mexico and were viewed as vegetables rather than flowers. So she’s been drying, grinding and baking dahlia tubers as part of her research project and I’ve been steadfastly refusing to eat anything she produces. By 1815, the Belgians had produced double dahlia flowers and the plant had become a herbaceous rather than vegetable border resident. By Victoria’s reign, thousands of varieties of dahlia had been created.
2 – I’m reviewing the novel Black Dahlia, for a magazine. Not the best bedtime reading, unless you like going to sleep with dismembered women on your mind. That, of course, led to finding a copy of the 1946 film, The Blue Dahlia, because it was possible that the victim Elizabeth Short, who became known as the Black Dahlia, got her name after the film was released. And that, in turn, led to a quick peruse of Red Dahlia, a book based on the case of the Black Dahlia but updated as a kind of copycat case. Phew!
3 – and the garden is full of … yes, you’ve guessed – dahlias! They are a late summer showstopper and will thrive in almost any location and in almost any soil, but for really good flowers dahlia roots need a sunny location – this means at least a half-day of sun every day, more is better, and you need to shelter them from wind. Even so you’ll end up staking them because they are surface feeders with a mat of light surface roots which means the plant can easily blown over by even moderate wind – and even if they don’t get blown down, breezes break the roots and stop the plant feeding.
For big blooms you also need to remove the two little buds either side of the main bud (called the crown bud) and remove the side buds/shoots at the next lower pair of leafs and again at the next lower pair. This will force the plant to concentrate all its energy into the remaining crown bud which gives you a whopper flower.
Finally, once the first heavy frost blackens their leaves, you need to dig up the tubers and set them upside down in a dry airy space for about two weeks to drain moisture from the remaining stem(s). After that, store the tubers in trays of dry sand or peat moss in a cool, dry cellar or storage area – don’t let them desiccate or they won’t flower next year.
Friday, August 10, 2007
Mythtakes version 2While I’m on the subject – mulches! You may be wondering why I’m in such a rotten mood, and the answer is simple, for complicated reasons I can’t actually get out into my garden to do any gardening, which makes me bad-tempered and when I get bad-tempered I find my garden thoughts turn negative which is probably why Dickens wrote, ‘He saw that men who worked hard, and earned their scanty bread with lives of labour, were cheerful and happy; and that to the most ignorant, the sweet face of Nature was a never-failing source of cheerfulness and joy.’ in The Pickwick Papers – it really can ruin your day when you can’t get out there and do a bit of weeding!
Anyway, weeding (or the lack of it) turned my mind to mulches and that reminded me of this sad effort. I blame television. Seriously, I do. If it wasn’t for all those gardening make-over programmes that show a happy bunch of gardeners making a ‘weed-free’ garden in twenty minutes flat, then we wouldn’t see pathetic gardens like this, where pebble mulch is being overrun by the world's worst weeds.
You see, simple statements like ‘Mulch your borders with a three inch layer of bark to prevent weeds from colonising’ sound jolly, don’t they? It seems as if all you have to do is fling bags of bark mulch around and your problems are over.
What you need to do before you get to the bark chucking stage of mulching is this:
1 - Remove annual weeds in the border by hand pulling or hoeing – in other words, before you mulch you have to be rid of any annual seeding plants like groundsel
2 - Lever up perennial weeds from the border with a hand fork or special weeding tool, ensuring every piece of root is removed – that’s your daisies, your dandelions, couch grass and bindweed. Note those seven words ‘ensuring every piece of root is removed’ because some weeds will punch through a concrete slab, let alone a layer of mulch.
3 - Scrape weeds or moss from between gaps in paving with an old knife – because otherwise they creep UNDER the mulch and appear in new places you never expected
4 - Cover large areas of bare soil with plastic, landscape fabric or an old roll of carpet to prevent weeds from germinating in spring, or pin down mulch fabric in perpetuity, cutting an X to allow plants to poke through. Note pin down – it means you have to staple the edges right into the soil, not just cover them in mulch and hope for the best.
Now you can fling your mulch … if you want to. Personally I prefer to take a hoe out to my soil and decapitate all the weeds. It means my soil remains sweet and friable, not damp and compacted like soils under mulch and it means I can dig in compost so the earth doesn’t become exhausted – you can’t do that with three inches of bark chippings in the way.
Tuesday, August 7, 2007
Taking the Myth ...It’s coming up to the time of year to plant spring bulbs: daffodils, snowdrops, crocus, chionodoxa etc. Assuming, that is, you don’t have squirrels. I’ve tried all the ideas I can (short of trapping, which is a nonsense as we have at least three parks within a mile of the house) to stop them getting my crocus bulbs and I’ll tell you now what doesn’t work.
1 – paraffin. Fine in the first year but by the second year the little grey monsters have either got used to the taste or it's worn off because they ignored all the newly-planted paraffin-dipped bulbs but dug up all the older ones.
2 – wire mesh. Yes it works, but you can’t dig your garden, or hoe to get rid of perennial weeds, the plants tend to grow distorted and skew sideways if they come up under a bit of mesh rather than a gap, and you have to lift it every two or three years, divide all the bulbs and put it down again, but don’t worry about the hassle of it all because long before then the grey menace will have worked out how to take the pins out of the edge and poached the bulbs anyway.
3 – pepper spray. Works for three days or until it rains and costs a fortune.
4 – distraction feeding. They take the peanuts and the bulbs.
5 - And the one thing that does work. Grow your spring bulbs in pots, mulched with slate chippings – for some reason the squirrels hate the slate – maybe it cuts their little paws, or the noise it makes is too much for them, but either way, this one (so far) is the business. The problem is though, that crocus in pots mulched with slate look downright weird.
So now I grow snowdrops only, and so far the grey beasts don’t like snowdrops …
Saturday, August 4, 2007
Sunshine at last ...June was grim, July the wettest ever, but finally August holds out some promise … or does it?
The holly is in berry, the rowans too, and some trees appear to be readying themselves for the change in colour associated with autumn? What’s going on? Wildlife expert Trevor Beer suggests the early arrival of the various fruits is due to the intense rain in July, which may have fooled the plants into thinking autumn has arrived early so they have begun to fruit for fear of missing the season.
Alternatively the early and warm spring may have pushed certain plants into an early autumn as their growing season is measured by weeks, not weather conditions.
Down in Devon, at the Royal Horticultural Society gardens, the ornamental acer trees have already started going through the autumnal colours usually associated with later in the year.
While weather experts insist that such localised and recent changes cannot be put down to global warming or climate change – because they don’t add up to enough of a trend yet to be measured - it is clear that weather extremes like these, and hurricanes, and flooding, and winters that aren’t cold enough to kill off garden pests, will all become a more regular occurrence.
This means the kind of container gardening shown in the picture may become more prevalent, as we learn to cope with the unexpected. Even so, this August you can expect to see the Dahlias come into their own – they are the princesses of late summer and along with other members of the daisy family such as the rudbeckias and heleniums they offer a riot of colour and form for otherwise rather tired looking borders. If you want something more permanent, the later blooming varieties of ceanothus give an azure bloom to the garden now, and hardy hibiscus are in full flower in shades of magenta and pink.
- Defrosting a garden pond safely
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