Thursday, 28 August 2014

Who will be coming to Open Day?


Boundary Cottage, Seaton Ross, York
Sunday 7th September 11am to 4pm


Boundary Cottage is scarcely a cottage and has very few boundaries. It is not in the village, just follow the large yellow signs.
It comes around again, my Open day on the first Sunday in September. It's a red letter day on my calendar when I show off my garden. Everyone rallies round. Marilyn and Dave drive up from Oxford to act as general factotums and organise the parking. Brenda has a long list of handy-man jobs for Dave, the only one in my family who is remotely competent. There are two changes this time. Brenda is doing the teas and Peter Williams is coming to sell his wonderful plants. He has a fantastic nursery as his passion is propagation and has hundreds of rare high quality plants that are desperate to find a good home. There will also be my usual five for £10 offer of my own smaller plants!

Hardy cyclamen are everywhere. There are sure to be some in my plant sale!

My brassicas are somewhat perforated. With little sign of caterpillars it is probably the snails. The super-sweetcorn called Lark is the best one to grow and is available from Mole Seeds and Marshalls.
I have cut the hedge with my wonderful new Husqvarna specially for you
I was a little disappointed to have only just over a hundred visitors on each of my two open days last year. This is why this year there is the only one. I have been opening my gardens nearly thirty years now and must admit how spoilt I used to be to get many hundreds of visitors when I lived in Bolton Percy which was nearer large centres of population. Now we watch approaching cars and hope some of them will stop!

Will anyone come?
Numbers vary greatly, very much depending on the weather. Poor Peter four years ago when he opened his own garden for the first time had four hundred visitors. Two years ago the weather was absolutely foul and his thirty visitors where mainly friends and relations! 
I have previously offered the opinion that he has one of the finest gardens in Yorkshire.

Brenda complains less about my shallow containers of alpines now that she has cleverly placed them
There may not be many of you but we love to meet you and talk about gardens and plants. We get many lovely surprises from who actually comes! Some folk come regularly. One lovely lady used to be  as regular as clockwork. We were always pleased to see her when she was always first to arrive with her husband and dog. She always made a beeline to the plant stall and he took off for a two hour walk in the country. She always remembered to reward him with something from the cake stand. Her husband I mean!

Cake will be served in our conservatory

When I started blogging I hoped it would help to promote my Open day. Silly me, most of you are too far away! My other innocent thought was that the Open day would promote my blog. That was rather naive of me too. We did however meet the lovely Little family last year who open their own garden and organise their own county yellow book scheme. Pauline now regularly makes very helpful contributions in my comment column.

Not many gardens sport hardy opuntias growing with a bog plant. The bog weed must be a blogweed!
Blogweeds are defined as weeds that arise in a bloggers’ garden when they are too busy writing!

We have bloggers who come too. Sue Garret and Martyn came last year and took many super pictures. Sue is quite a card. I apologise again Sue, for mistaking you for Zena Lovett and if you do come again there is a small clivia waiting for you!  

Sue might appreciate the problem with fallen bird seed from the bird feeder just over the wall on the edge of the farm field. These blogweeds are birdweeds!

It is always a thrill to meet returning visitors, former acquaintances, neighbours and clients. Perhaps best of all is to catch up with former students not seen for years. It is visitors who make the occasion.

I have just been pruning my golden Metasequoia glyptostroboides which has opened up the view.
Multi-million year fossils of this tree are found in the UK. Does this qualify it as a native plant?

The dicentra scandens has flowered profusely this year. Please help yourself to some seed

As my none dug soil is firm and settled you can walk anywhere. Please don’t stand on this rim or you will find yourself in the water.

All my tub plants are growing in soil
Please say hello or ask a question. If you just want to walk around or enjoy tea and cakes or look over the hedge at Cathi's garden we will not disturb you! Her rheas are still there but Spike is getting old and cantankerous and will have to be kept at a distance.
Twin-ponds. We have battled this year with water soldiers. Some remain as sentries. I sometimes need to drag out the duckweed.

All the pictures were taken ten days before Open day to give you a flavour.

If you want to know more about my garden put 'open garden' in the search box at the bottom of the blog. 


Saturday, 23 August 2014

Glyphosate roundup



More on using glyphosate

If you are new to using glyphosate you might wish to read these posts before reading this one. I do not recommend the advanced methods below for new gardeners who don’t know their plants.


For inexperienced sprayers if you just jump in you might kill your garden and for those of you who would not touch glyphosate with a barge pole this will confirm all of your prejudices. If you are in the latter category and read on out of curiosity it might make you shudder.

My notes today are more in the nature of updates, methods you might have missed in obscure posts and just a little new stuff.

My current brand of glyphosate is called Rodeo. A correspondent recently mentioned he had sourced Gallup! It continues to amaze me the names they dream up that evoke images of the old coral for this generic product.

Glyphosate always gets the blame
I always used to warn students. My own advice reared up and kicked me when I took early retirement and went freelance and had my own clients. Twice I jumped and resigned before I was pushed! (I proclaim my total innocence). I could tell you several amusing stories but dare not in public. Perhaps I dare mention an occasion when another gardener, the most careful and experienced of sprayers was killing grassy weed near conifers that the previous Autumn had been moved without adequate nursery preparation. The junipers were destined to die when it turned windy and dry in the following Spring. With exquisite timing the grass and the conifers turned yellow at the same time. Need I say more?
Even at college, a colleague would go around the borders and each year point out 'herbicide damage' on a clump of acanthus with chlorotic Spring foliage. These exact symptoms are due to inadequate iron uptake when the soil is wet and cold. It is a very temporary effect and is to be seen in gardens that have never seen weed killer.
I used to tell students that you could kill plants with impunity if it was by conventional means such as chopping up roots of plants by digging, by pruning or failing to water or almost anything! It was deemed just part of gardening.  However a few yellow leaves with transient herbicide damage was a mortal sin.
If you were to make a list of merely categories of causes of unexplained sickness or death of plants it would take several pages. You can be sure if herbicides are used in the garden they will always get the blame. I have even blamed them myself with my own spraying before the real cause of damage became apparent.

This is NOT glyphosate damage but looks really like it. These temporary symptoms happened  as a result of a cold sunless week after the very hot weather last month. The actual photo was taken on our holiday in Tignes. There was zero chance of glyphosate having been used within miles!
But accidents do happen
Over the last forty years I have had my share! The commonest happenstance is walking on sprayed weeds and then on the lawn. Herbicide footprints are very embarrassing and it will take a couple of months for the damage to grow out. 
An accident born of lack of understanding is when a knapsack sprayer is not 'sprayed out' to empty the diaphragm after using glyphosate and then is used for another purpose such as weed killing the lawn. I have done this once!
An incorrectly inserted or worn nozzle can sometimes cause inconvenient drips. 
The most spectacular damage I have seen was on my recent holiday in Costa Rica. A hotel gardener had a rip on the sprayer hose. There was a wriggly thin line on the grass verges of the complete campus.
It is more difficult for me to analyse the damage caused by the inexperienced or carefree sprayer. I can claim to spray the whole of my intricately planted acre garden without damaging a single plant. This might sometimes be less true when I visit my cemetery gardens and I find a patch overgrown with weed and I am prepared to accept a little 'collateral' damage when I speedily spin round more than an acre! Even here where I might cause some transient damage, unless I wish to do so, I never kill an established plant.  

Bolton Percy cemetery was weed free on this visit
And so was Worsbrough!
I cannot repeat often enough glyphosate is not of itself selective and successful spraying needs skilled direction and seasonal timing. It helps if you have an intimate knowledge of the susceptibility of your plants. The inexperienced sprayer will take too long to spray because he is far too careful, but at first, perhaps this is not a bad thing. As you become confident of your skill you can quickly get round.
It is perhaps worth mentioning that if a mature large well-established perennial plant just gets a tiny whiff of careless spray you will probably never even know. (Not true of some soft vegetables!) Strong plants have the metabolism to withstand small quantities of poison. This is in contrast with where you deliberately spray plants all over and exploit a large leaf area to deliberately kill them!

If using glyphosate is to be a significant part of your gardening it is well worth getting a proper professional knapsack sprayer. It will cost you between 100 to 200 pounds. It will be much better than cheap amateur versions and for most, but not all tasks, much more accurate than a small hand sprayer. 
I know I have described spraying round relatives's small overgrown gardens with discarded detergent sprayers but I do not really recommend it! Your new knapsack sprayer will last 'for ever': compare the cost with that of your mower! One final point, if you are as bad with flat packs as me, buy your sprayer already assembled! It is perhaps impossible to flat-pack a tank!

And what if you inadvertently spray a whole plant?
It might be more retrievable than if you had chopped with a hoe or a spade. If you are near a convenient water supply, immediately wash the spray horizontally away with a can. (Don’t let it sink-in in the immediate root zone). If not near a water supply, more desperately, covering with dry dusty absorptive soil may help to soak up the spray. 
For many plants immediately cutting off contaminated leaves may be a sure way to save it.

I had raised two Phygelius capensis plants  To my shame, not concentrating, I heavily sprayed this one six weeks ago.
In the interest of a bloggery I did this demonstration
Last week it was still sick but sure to recover
My other plant had been planted in Cathi’s garden and shows how the plant should look!
Note in this picture her thriving plant has been slit-planted into sprayed-off turf.
Some less usual selective methods
If you have a precious plant growing in a totally overgrown patch of perennial weed you can sometimes successfully save it by cutting off it's leaves and spraying the weeds - but I offer no guarantees.
Another alternative is to carefully lift a plant and pick off all pieces of perennial weed root and in extremis carefully wash the roots before planting in clean soil. Only return to its original place when all weeds are killed. 
I have sometimes covered precious plants with overturned plant pots before safely spraying around them.

Another demonstration. Not realistic here, it would be easier to hand weed, but if the weed happened to be couch grass the method might be relevant! The weedy soil is NOT from my garden (please don’t ask).
I can never understand why gardeners find common bindweed difficult to control when it is so sensitive to glyphosate provided it is an intact plant, has luxuriant leaves and ideally it is July! Some gardeners tease it out from surrounding plants and spray little bundles at normal dilution with a hand sprayer with the weed top isolated in a plastic bag. Too slow and fiddly for me. I have personally treated similar little twirled out bundles in herbaceous borders by merely pulling the bundles away from the precious plant and carefully spraying. Even more daring when it is clambering up old hedges, conifers or shrubs just carefully spray the bindweed with a hand sprayer. It will often provide its own screen of protection if rampant! Provided perhaps 80% of the bindweed is sprayed and your privet just gets only a smattering all will be well.

Another technique when for example well established perennial grass such as couch grows through a herbaceous perennial  - or even easier, a coarse shrub - is to wet your gloved hand with dilute glyphosate and just smear the weed. A student once asked why I just didn't pull it out. He was missing the point!
Modern dabbing techniques and gels are too time consuming for me!

And finally a story
A professor showed his horticultural students a picture of a huge weed that his herbicide had failed to control. He asked them what he should do and they offered all manner of alternative herbicide solutions. He then declared that they should just pull it out. My own attitudes to weed control are more well rounded than suggested in my glyphosate posts as I explain here. Only last week I spent a couple of hours in my Bolton Percy cemetery garden pulling out cleavers/goose grass and cutting  impatiens down with a sickle. If anyone finds a sickle in the cemetery, it's mine!

Update
Last year I posted about controlling Japanese knotweed. I described Peter William’s glyphosate injection technique and promised to report back this year. This August there is no sign whatsoever of any regrowth and we conclude it is dead. 
The green shoots in the picture are snowberry and montbretia and indeed the remarkable thing that over the whole patch all wanted plants are completely unharmed.



Bindweed extra

Bindweed, common convolvulus. If it was difficult to grow everyone would want it. 

No sooner had I finished writing the above post we made an unexpected visit to Steven in Folkestone. He has moved yet again! This time the house is built into a cliff on Sandgate Hill. Formerly a very fine garden, children and boxer dog permitting it might be again if we make enough visits! Almost completely neglected for 18 months although full of fine plants, it is completely overgrown! The ten foot curtains of bindweed were absolutely magnificent.

I was envious that in the balmy Folkestone sea-side climate that this fine Zantedeschia was established as as a perennial plant.
What a chance to put my money where my blogging mouth is. I have said often enough how easy it is to control bindweed given the right conditions and every time I metaphorically hear "this man is an idiot". 
I asked Steven whether he wished to keep this lovely plant. He was rather decisive that he did not!

Everything was right for a speedy and definite kill. The bindweed was completely intact and wonderfully strong growing and luxuriant. There had been heavy rain the previous night to perk it up even more. Now dry, it was a warm sunny day. Even better it remained hot and dry for the rest of the weekend. In my opinion July is the very best time to kill bindweed.
My weapon was a small, cheap, very accurate hand sprayer. The exercise was to clamber through the steep garden spraying all the leaves of the bindweed without spraying the plants. Amateurs excessively fear any spray might be misdirected onto their plants. It takes a very unskilled careless sprayer to harm husky privet, ancient griselinia, ceanothus, hebe, any conifer and almost any large vigorous shrub. 
You need to aim to cover at least 80% of the bindweed leaves. I managed 90% and made quite sure I did not miss a single weed. My spray was a strong one for me, 1 in 50, commercial 360g glyphosate to water - about three and a half UK  teaspoons in my litre of water.

Sprayer cost £2.40
Technique
Practice with pure water first. Take the nozzle very close to the convolvulus leaf and gently pull the trigger. For the sprayer illustrated move the trigger only part of its travel. A complete pull in little stutters will separately spray several individual leaves. This will be the most skilled parts of the operation. All the other variations will be quicker and easier.

I had to be careful over the rose. The conifer hedge would be almost impossible to harm!

Usually the canopy of bindweed leaves will be make its own cover over a section of your plant. Vary your direction of spray to wet them and not your plant! The bigger the drift of bindweed  the quicker you can be.

The convolvulus was so thick here I had to lift the draped curtain to reach more leaves below!
Usually bindweed binds very loosely! Un-twirl little bundles and pull them away from the host and spray them. Even in herbaceous borders you can do this if you gently pull out the clusters of bindweed away from your plants.

Wind a cluster round your hand
Often the position of the bindweed will help to make it easy and speedy to spray. If it clambers over soil, hard surfaces, walls, old ivy, or none-green shrubby bases it makes work very easy. Great curtains tumbled down over some of Steven’s walls. It was the work of a few seconds to spray tracts of a meter!

Vast swathes tumbling down
I had to be very careful where a few delicate plants grew under the shrubs and small trees. Twice I needed to pull herbaceous perennials away from the overgrown shrubs. On one occasion I cursed when I sprayed a hidden day lily. It thanked me when I tore off the few contaminated leaves!
It is most important to tackle every single bindweed plant. In Steven’s case I had to fight my way to and even beyond his boundary to get to all of the weed.

I had to stretch to reach over the pond
In the 300 square metres of garden there must have been at least a hundred vigorous clumps of bindweed. Steven tells me that after a week they were completely yellow and were  starting to shrivel. He will see them no more this year. I am completely confident that 90%of this bindweed will not appear again. The few plants I might have missed will be eliminated next year. It took me less than two hours for the complete operation. I needed one litre of diluted spray.

Was it my imagination that when we departed Sunday lunchtime that the convolvulus growing over the  jasmine was already starting to yellow?

Wear your normal garden clothing when doing this work. You might wish  to use waterproof gloves. Remember not to grab desirable plants with wet hands!

All that trouble and this idiot (me) at home is actually growing Ipomoea 

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

An old garden enjoying benign neglect


The Madhyamaka Kadampa Buddhist Retreat



Believe nothing merely because you have been told it. Do not believe what your teacher tells you merely out of respect for the teacher.
It is surprising what you find here in Yorkshire. As I write today in July, The Tour de France rides through York and rather less transient but more transcendental, The World Peace Café is just up the road. If we get into our car and drive for ten minutes up to Kilnwick Percy in the Yorkshire Wolds we find this beautiful placid place.
We live on the flat level plain which is the vale of York and a short trip to the the rolling Yorkshire Wolds gives us marvellous  panoramic views of extensive countryside (not to mention that if you choose your viewing point carefully, four former coal power stations which in their industrial ugliness now provide a grandiose beauty).
Our garden at home is on the very variable glacial geology of the flat valley is an alluvial sand/silt deposit of the river Derwent and we are locally privileged in that we can grow acid loving plants. A mile away a garden on the the same soil is alkaline because it receives spring-water drained from the cretacious chalk of the Wolds. The garden at the buddhist retreat is on a very different soil to my own.


The Peace Centre

Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.
The Madhyamaka Kadampa Mediation Centre was opened in 1986 and is on the site of an old and formerly very grand stately home. Previous to this it was an old Elizabethan Manor. The fine Tudor buildings are two hundred years old. The 42 acre site has all the accoutrements of former wealth. The surrounding parkland contains a small church and a six acre lake. The immediate grounds are home to walled gardens, converted old stables, former servant quarters, mixed borders and the World Peace Café.

Norman style Kilnwick church is now a listed building. How grand for the local church to be in your own grounds.

A beautiful place to visit

The heart is like a garden. It can grow compassion or fear, resentment or love. What seeds will you sow here?

We only discovered this delightful and genuinely peaceful place last year. We were aware of its existence and had often driven past enjoying the wonderful Wolds scenery. With my usual lack of curiosity I had not investigated further and thought it to be a private place of buddhist meditation.
In fact, it is open for 365 days of the year. It is manned by enthusiastic welcoming volunteers. No one coerces you or approaches you, yet they have all the time in the world to tell you about buddhism if you ask them.



This resident just might break away from his revery to tell you about the lovely actinidia and evergreen magnolia

There is is no commercialisation what-so-ever. Entrance to the centre is free and guided tours, courses and even bed and breakfast are modestly priced. If you go there in the week you seem to have the place to yourself.


The World Peace Café is actually very modest but provides wonderful cakes and coffee. Brenda orders her Earl Grey tea. We have never known the café not to be open but the courses, events and tours are on more limited occasions.
Cathi’s friend Lindy found the place for us. We now take all our friends up there to enjoy a walk round the lake or just around the more immediate grounds. But always the café. 

The café is rather a magnet. This very old  Phlomis russeliana is a very fine plant

The plants in the grounds
There is something special about old gardens. Superficially this garden is just a pleasant space between buildings surrounded by open countryside. The shrubs, trees and plants seem somewhat neglected and although rather pleasant somewhat incidental.
To the more discerning eye, here is a history of old gardeners and their plants. 
There has been a garden on this site for hundreds of years. There will be times when it has been skilfully maintained and generously funded and loved by many generations of owners. In other times there might have been very little maintenance at all. I don't expect the War Ministry who occupied the buildings for administration in WWII bothered much with the grounds.
Old garden plants have charm of their own. It is amazing how well some plants do if they like the soil and climate. Many plants familiar to us only as shrubs, over the decades grow into very fine trees. There is a kind of natural selection of garden plants that will thrive on neglect and go on to  make wonderful mature specimens.

Tough old hardy perennials

 
This sturdy un-staked free-standing herbaceous border seems to look after itself

Although I have a small Portugal laurel in my garden, I failed to identify it here where it is a magnificent tree.

One day someone will produce a coffee table book composed of pictures of magnificent plants in neglected places. I just wish I had used a camera over the last forty years!  

The walled garden

Cathi had had been muttering about the beautiful walled garden. We thought it rather pleasant but although we did not actually say so, not very special. We had failed to find it! On our last visit we were more adventurous and walked in the woods and  there nestled this charming place. A secret garden!

Lost in the woods

We did nor know all this was here

Grand houses and stately homes used to have walled gardens, perhaps typically between  two to ten acres, where gardeners and servants provided fruit, vegetable produce and flowers for the house. Some are still examples of fine Victorian horticultural technology. In some cases the internal structure of the walls were heated by fires at night to enable frost tender fruit to be grown. In very rich households pineapples and bananas were grown in heated greenhouses. 
The Victorians were very fine gardeners. If you were the cleverest boy at the village school in those days you did not become a banker or lawyer or computer  entrepreneur, you became head gardener at the 'big house'.
Over the last century many grand old houses have gone into decline. After WWII some newly impoverished owners tried to maintain their garden by commercial production of fruit and vegetables. In most cases not matching the acumen, specialisation and efficiency of true commercial growers they eventually failed. There were hundreds of thousands of such walled gardens in the UK. Many still remain and much creativity and imagination has gone into a myriad of modern uses. 
The kitchen garden at the Peace Centre would seem to have been converted to an ornamental garden perhaps sixty years ago. It contains two houses, I imagine they were  old gardener's cottages. The garden was skilfully designed and planted. It has now graciously aged and  is maintained by volunteers, no doubt with love but very little time and perhaps little gardening know-how. It is very weedy. You feel you want to get in there to sort it out but I am not volunteering!
Perhaps I do the staff an injustice, the garden is so lovely there must be a skilled guiding hand.

I had to turn away from this digging


The contorted hazel is twisting no more! I cannot blame the gardener! Why does the gardening press fail to tell gardeners that if they do not prune out these suckers they will get massive straight rods. It is not too late to save this particular plant!



So many hidden gems

Flattering words are but honey-coated poison

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Soil and garden compost as a bulky ingredient in seed and potting compost.

Amateur innovation versus professional exactitude

All the plants pictured today are grown in containers of soil that have no extra ingredients other than fertiliser and occasionally lime.

I am playing with fire today when I suggest unsterilized garden soil might be used in a pot! For forty years in my lectures I declared that you must never grow pot plants in soil from the garden! When we moved to Seaton Ross fourteen years ago I found that my soil to be an extremely fine water retentive sand. I tentatively started to use it as a substitute for regular potting compost and liked what I saw. It is very rare now that for other than very special purposes I use anything else.
When I started blogging I wrote a timid little post about this. It was called ‘Pot compost, breaking the rules’. My posts were edited then and I am grateful to Cathi who struggled a long time to make that piece intelligible. I don’t even know if pot compost is a proper name, but I rather like it! I will be more forthright today!
First for my American readers I must explain that strange word ‘compost’. In the UK we use it with two separate meanings. Most of us are besotted with ‘garden compost’ from garden waste that has decayed in a heap, unsightly wooden/wire structures, or in a bin. We also use the term ‘compost’ for mixtures in our seed trays, pots and containers and call them either ‘seed composts’ or ‘potting composts’.
Of course in ancient times garden compost and potting compost were exactly the same thing.
For my purposes today I am treating ‘garden compost’ and ‘soil’ as synonymous terms for these two bulky ingredients in a seed or potting compost. This is not quite correct as both can be separately used and are not the same! Garden compost is bulky material in various stages of late decay and might contain a little soil from the roots of composted plants. The organic matter will eventually decay away to carbon dioxide and water, beneficially releasing its nutrients, but not lasting forever! 
Actual soil can be used and reused many times. Unless garden compost is very well decayed it will be far too rich to be used exclusively as a bulky ingredient. My first choice material is organic-matter-rich fertile garden soil with a suitable texture.
(texture is the technical term that refers to the proportions of sand, silt and clay)



Loam in John Innes composts
Soil in compost has a very long history. John Innes compost has a fine pedigree and was the ascendant compost in horticulture for perhaps sixty years. More than 50% of the volume of this compost is sterilized loam. Loam was defined as a soil with suitable proportions of sand, silt and clay and fibrous material and it was prepared from lifted, stacked and decayed grass swards. This soil was sterilized with steam before making up the compost. Properly prepared John Innes was a wonderful compost. Modern versions are often a pale shadow of its former self although we do have the advantage  today of slow release fertilizers unavailable to its inventors Lawrence and Newall at the John Innes Institute almost a hundred years ago.
Loam for John Innes was sterilized with steam to control pest, disease and weeds. Because it killed almost all soil bacteria, the new micro-organism profile which developed in consequence enhanced the release of soluble nitrogen and this was at the time considered an advantage.
My comments today are about unsterilised soil. Some modern thinking is that an undisturbed micro-organism profile of fungi and bacteria in a natural harmony might be a good thing. Probably misguidedly, many gardeners today add mycorrhiza from a packet! 
The physical structure of specially prepared loam is not usually suitable when used alone for potting compost and the John Innes formula adds sharp sand  (more latterly grit) and granulated peat for water retention and aeration. Both are still superb ingredients for gardeners who make up their own soil based compost.
The slow release nitrogen fertilizer in traditional J.I. compost was hoof and horn meal which as it broke down acidified the soil. In addition with peat as a component, lime was required. This is less relevant now and if the pH of the soil in the ground is satisfactory the same applies when it is used in a pot. In my own all-soil compost if I judge to need lime I add dolomitic limestone.

Problems with amateur composts today
John Innes composts went out of fashion as they were expensive to prepare and soil supplies were limited and variable. Also, with the then available fertilizers, and as a result of the nutrient boost which was a consequence of sterilization, they deteriorated in storage. 
They were superseded by wonderful peat based composts which in particular were superior for propagation. I do not share many folk’s fashionable reservations about peat. I will not explain the reasons for my opinion today but I fully concur with the opinions here. Amateurs and some professionals never properly understood the water management of peat based compost and I do not miss dried out hydrophobic compost when I buy plants from  the garden centre.
There are some really excellent peat free composts nowadays but others are rubbish and present numerous management difficulties. As I never use them I am completely unable to advise which to buy. Many  potting composts today are based on commercially composted green wastes and the product is very variable. Perhaps you get what you pay for. Composted green waste has many legitimate garden uses but only that produced by very well controlled systems is suitable for potting compost.
I do not approve of shipping compost materials half way round the world to find substitutes for peat.

So what heresies am I advocating?
I cannot promote my own methods carte blanche to use soil in small pots and seed trays. My own soil, almost uniquely, has a satisfactory texture. Most soils, especially clays are completely unsuitable. Where I do part from conventional opinion is for growing plants in large containers, perhaps those greater than ten litres. A lady at the bridge club the other day asked me to recommend a compost for her bourgeoning olive. I was completely at a loss to give her sensible options but after quizzing her closely, discovered she had highly organic well drained garden soil. Eureka!
Visiting my son in Sorrento I noticed all garden ‘planters’ were filled with their native volcanic soil. 
Not all gardeners have suitable soil to use as the sole bulky ingredient in a large container, but in my opinion, very many do.
My comments today are relevant to any gardener who uses unsterilized soil alone as I do, or as an ingredient in a mixture.

The case against my methods

My ferocious cacti need some care when weeding! I use my secateurs as tweezers! The lily seedlings are also in soil.


Unsterilized soil may contain pests, diseases and weed seed.
Most soil is not as water retentive as traditional compost ingredients such as peat.
Many soils will be insufficiently aerated in shallow containers when wet.
Too much clay content will lead to unacceptable hardening, shrinking and cracking when dry.
Soil is highly variable in texture, structure and nutrient content and in no way is suitable for mass production methods that require uniformity.

We have rather exotic pests in Yorkshire. Poppy is nicking the nectar
So why do it?
Because I can!  My own garden soil has properties such as excellent water retention consistent with good aeration.

Where large containers with a deep profile are used the physical properties of soil in a container are similar to those in the ground.

I use huge quantities of compost and my method is almost free!

Soil can be recycled and is not wasted. If you must, you can return the soil to your garden and replace it with some more. Personally I am completely cavalier in reusing refreshed old soil-compost many times over.

If you are using your own soil you are not scouring the environment, driving to the garden centre for sometimes fairly dubious materials transported from all over the world.

Years ago, we used to compare the then new peat composts with loam based John Innes. The prevailing view, which I admit was disputable, was that JI compost was better for long term culture because of the loam. I tend to concur for plants that are to remain undisturbed for many years. Even peat decays and slowly oxidises away and containers need to be topped up. Not so with soil.

Yes I have weeds! I enjoy hand weeding my pots although in the case of large containers of certain plants I can lift up my nozzle and accurately spray them. My own methods in my garden attempt to stop weeds seeding and weedy perennial roots are not present in my soil. I can imagine some soils have so many weed seeds and are wick with wicken (bindweed) that my methods would be completely unsuitable. Plants bought from the garden centre in originally sterile compost are frequently full of weeds and users of ‘proper’ compost have the same problems as I do with liverwort and moss.

It would be foolish to use soil contaminated with for example, club root or white rot of onions - especially to grow onions and brassicas! Subsequent planting would spread these diseases around the garden. I have described how ‘damping off’ is not a problem for me and anyway as a disease of seedlings and not of mature plants, is irrelevant to our discussion today. I personally suffer no more or less with disease, unexplained plant death and sickness than I previously did when I used conventional compost. My plants in pots are just as healthy as those in the ground!

There are even more flowers on my agapanthus this year

There are a number of pests that do not like soil but love peaty and soft organic ingredients. The dreaded mushroom fly and vine weevil, a plague with organic composts, are unknown to me.

Although my soil is hydrophobic, if I water my compost when it has become dry, because of the container’s retaining rim the water soaks in and fully rewets the soil. This is in contrast with hydrophobic materials like peat that shrink when dry and water ‘runs through’.

Heaven forbid that I should neglect the long term nutrition of plants in my containers. Should I be so foolish, my plants, will survive better than those from the garden centre when their slow release fertilizer runs out after very few months.





Using mole soil
never thought I would write this! My fur coated helpers kindly leave neat piles of lovely soil on my lawn. I know my soil is of a suitable sand/silt texture and coming from turf will be high in organic matter. Tongue in cheek, I might add that my grey coated friends have carefully picked out the grubs. I am only too grateful to accept their bounty.
A word of warning, for most gardeners the suitability of mole soil is illusionary. The moles might appear to be magicians when they appear in our gardens from nowhere, but their magic is insufficient to turn clay into sand. It might look nice and crumbly but if the texture is wrong and without divine intervention it will turn rock hard in a pot!

And finally, a story!
My dear friend and colleague, Tony Thompson, would every year build, as part of his teaching, several loam stacks with the students for future use in making up John Innes compost. The method was to stack sods of turf in layers with manure. The principle was that after decaying for a year or so the decayed turf could be chopped up to a wonderful fibrous loam.
The lovely man who was in charge of compost could tell you the year each stack was constructed and we all accepted that when he lovingly described each vintage it was like ‘putting down’ wine.
This of course completely misses the point!  After all those years the benefits of root fibre and manure  would be completely lost.




If you have laboured this far today you will sympathise with my students when I tell you that it used to take me three forty-five minute lectures to cover compost!


You can read more about how I grow the plants in the pictures on these links


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