Saturday, 18 March 2017

Are organic fertilisers better than inorganic ones? - I say no

An excellent general fertiliser - buy this analysis for general garden use
I bristled when I read on a fine technical North American gardening blog that ‘of course organic fertilisers were best’. I only cooled down when I realised that over there popular gardening culture allows bulky organic material and manure to be defined as fertiliser. New gardeners over here often make the same mistake.

My argument today is about fertilisers which are legally defined as ‘a concentrated source of nutrients’ Such fertilisers might be either inorganic or organic Organic ones are derived from plant or animal sources - although in this mad world we live in, certain so called ‘natural’ inorganics are honorary organics too! 
Bulky manures such as farmyard manure also contain nutrients - even enough nutrients if used wisely to provide for most gardening needs. Such bulky organics do much more than merely provide nutrition and are excluded from my arguments today.
A few fertilisers defy precise definition and such materials as chicken droppings by virtue of concentration are best thought of as a fertiliser rather than as a manure.

Best treated as a nitrogen fertiliser (or for me not used at all)
It’s not my purpose today to decry organics (although for many I actually do). My aim is to explain why when I look to feeding my plants I personally always use inorganic fertiliser. Somehow gardeners have got the false notion that organics in some way are more worthy. There are no general grounds whether environmental, or of efficiency, precision, hazard, cost, safety, plant and soil health, crop quality, taste or yield where I agree that organics are better. Not even smell.

My tomatoes are high yielding, nutritious and tasty

There are of course individual exceptions. Some organics are excellent for specific needs and some inorganics (such as rock dust) are useless and some if misused might kill your plants.

Gardeners need very few different fertilisers. I suggest three. That would be a balanced nutrient general fertiliser, a slow release one  - only if they make up their own potting composts - and a good general liquid feed such as one sold for tomatoes. Some soils will benefit from lime and personally my own lawn enjoys iron sulphate.

I sometimes use lime

Yaramila

I have been using these blue granules for ten years now

I have argued before that you need just one general granular fertiliser. I use yaramila. There are others its equal but it is the right one for me. It holds all the six major plant nutrients (with NPK in fairly even proportion) and most of the trace elements. Your soil might not be deficient in trace elements, lucky you, but are you sure? The plant will take up the nutrients it needs and most of the remainder will enrich your soil and benefit future crops.
You won’t find yaramila at amateur gardening suppliers but it is readily available on the net or from a trade horticultural supplier. It comes in 25kg bags. You get the price benefit of scale when you buy such a big bag and for the average gardener it will last several  years - or you can split a bag with friends. My own last purchase cost £22. It is a hard nutrient prill that stays dry in storage.It is soluble and will quickly benefit your plants. It is not sufficiently soluble for conventional liquid feeding.

I illustrate my case today with how I use my yaramila. No organics for me do the job so well.
  • Most of my vegetables get a top dressing (scattering on surface), very little for some and rather more for brassicas. By careful placement I avoid contact with young plants.
  • I don’t generally use any fertiliser at all in my ornamental borders but it is becoming apparent on my very sandy soil that certain plants benefit hugely. With fertiliser my Cyclamen coum, monarda, rhododendrons do so much better and hungry delphiniums thrive. 
  • Outside tubs are subject to leaching and I top dress as appropriate
I was a little heavy handed with my recent annual application to my hippeastrum (at present inside the conservatory)
  • My house plants are top dressed too. Personally I find it more  convenient and just as good as liquid feeding. Even our orchids are so much better for a dozen granules every two months.
Brenda’s orchids have never done better
  • It works out so much cheaper to feed my lawn and I don’t need to restrict myself with wretched ‘three in one’
  • I make an early February application to my Autumn raspberries, rhubarb and asparagus
  • My National collection of dicentra is top dressed either in the ground or in pots
I grow my Dicentra cucullaria outside in litre pots. They are top dressed in September and February
  • When making up composts for lusty large plants such as tomatoes I use yaramila sparingly as a fertiliser base dressing. (I can top dress with more later). Never for delicate seed or seedlings - it is harmfully soluble. Not one for beginners! My scientist friend Peter recently made up a soil based compost using yaramila at 1 gram per litre which he calculates to be the same strength as a ‘medium’ commercial compost.. 
  • The complete analysis of yaramila  makes it particularly suitable for the nutrient charging  of my homemade charcoal which I am now using as a seed and potting compost.
A word about slow release fertiliser

Ideal in making up potting compost
Although some organics such as hoof and horn meal were the bedrock of a slow release source of nitrogen in old formulations of John Innes composts it has now been superseded by the coated inorganics. Variously described as timed release or programmed release they give up their nutrients in a very gentle way and as nutrient diffusion is temperature related give up their goodness when the plants most need it. In tubs, pots and baskets their gradual release of nutrients reduce leaching. Coated fertilisers have various analyses and you can choose one supplying all the major nutrients and trace elements. They are not cheap!

Are not all the rugby and soccer pitches on the television so healthy, green and magnificent right through the Winter these days? I wonder how many are using slow release inorganic fertiliser.

As stated yaramila is not slow or controlled release. I have previously used coated slow release when making up my potting compost as does plant propagator friend Peter but with my current methods I don’t.

Growmore is an excellent (but weaker) inorganic general fertiliser for amateurs but only contains NPK
I am not very keen on single nutrient fertilisers but this nitrogen fertiliser will certainly green up your lawn at 30g per square metre

Links
I have not given any evidence today why I actually think organic fertilisers such as blood, fish and bone, fishmeal, chicken droppings, seaweed extracts  are inferior to inorganic but In the past I have explained why I scorn bonemeal.

My previous efforts on fertilisers supplement this post. I made a case for yaramila here - and say more why I consider the use of special fertilisers for particular plants is usually a rip off.
I discuss using fertiliser in Winter.
I recommend using a general fertiliser on lawns
I have argued that proper use of fertilisers might improve soil structure and can be used to build up the fertility of a soil.
I describe how I charge up my charcoal with nutrient
I attempt to puncture the modern myth of rock dust as a nutrient source. 


Thursday, 9 March 2017

Things about snowdrops


Ironic that I start writing this post sitting in Madeira.There are no snowdrops here - no cold and no snow. 
The UK climate in contrast is so ideal for them that some think them native! In fact we have only had them since their introduction in 1600 and it was a hundred and fifty years later they were first recorded in the wild. How long does something have to be with us to be considered native?
Even now their presence is quite patchy. Although they are to be found in quantity in every part of the UK it seems to me that in most places their establishment has started with a gardener. In wild rural places his cottage might no longer be there.
They of course spread naturally for considerable distances. I am not really sure how far and would be delighted to hear from readers the whereabouts of isolated stands.
I would in this post like to consider snowdrop’s spread and garden establishment in some detail. Although in the right conditions they are able to seed freely I suspect much of their spread around a garden is mainly by vegetative propagation. I would be be delighted to be told of any galanthic gardens that show me to be wrong.
Soil and climate
They definitely like us.I know of no soils that are unsuitable in the UK. Some books will tell you that they don’t like very acid soil but that is not my opinion or that of Peter Williams. (Who denies that he is a galanthophile but is going that way). We both also find them to be extremely tolerant of poor drainage (but don’t plant in a bog).

Peter is growing some fancy ones in his greenhouse

And he has got Wendy’s gold
Snowdrops really love cold. Apparently they are able to generate heat at their tips to push through the snow.

Where to grow them

In a lawn 
Under a hedge 
Happy accidents. The snowdrops were there before my azalea
Pushing through ground cover
In forgotten places 
Grow them almost anywhere in your garden. Everywhere between full light and heavy shade. Mine appear all over. They may be in borders, untidy edges, under hedges and in my lawn. Classically they love deciduous woodland with Winter moisture and sunshine through the leafless canopy. I know most unlikely corners where they thrive even when severely overgrown.
When they have completely died down by the end of March without removing them other plants can take their place. It its easier for a none digger like me. Even in a herbaceous border they might clad the ground as long as very early  herbaceous cover does not smother them. Other than the lawn I never cut back and merely let the old leaves fade away.
Their potential in lawns is often overlooked. Best as clumps in a tightly cut sward where you can for the first Spring mowings skirt round them. Wait until they are severely yellow and brown before mowing them away. Perhaps less successful is to grow them in long grass.

If they are thriving in your garden never remove them unless you wish to propagate more. There is no need for transplanting and they go from strength to strength each year.

Establishment 
Vegetative establishment from bulbs is easy peasy providing they are not dry from a bulb merchant. Even then if you get your order in early they might be OK.

Pushed up bulbs at the surface, a crowded clump is divided and replanted

It is widely recognised that they are best planted ‘in the green’. What is not so widely promoted is this might be almost anytime! It may be when you can barely find them before they emerge in January, or when they actually appear, develop, flower or die down! Even when dormant in Summer and Autumn they are successful providing they go back into the ground more or less on the same day. If moving when in growth take a good root ball and disturb as little as possible.  Best in strong clumps of half dozen up to a spade-full. Fiddly separation into individual bulbs will succeed but can involve a slight check!
You might rightly protest you need stock to propagate from. It is always unfair on the new gardener! Many gardeners have existing strong clumps (or have good friends who do). If you take say a third of a clump you will never know they have gone and next year the clump will be better than ever.

The alternative is to dig into your pocket - for some varieties very deeply and buy pots from a nurseryman. Once started they will double up every year!

Varieties
There are perhaps twenty species and I found 711 cultivars in the The Plant Finder. Some are lost and are no longer available. I suspect their names have been lost rather than the plants not having survived!

Mine all look much the same

I prefer delicate single flowers

The doubles when examined are pretty ugly

But doubles look great in the ground
We know a well known botanist who tongue in cheek says there are four kinds of snowdrops - big ones and small ones and early and late ones! Perhaps he should add they might be single and double. (For none aficionados double flowers are those with extra petals or petal-like structures). 
Tell that one to galanthophiles who worry themselves silly about every fine detail. I think there is a happy medium.

One for the galanthophiles
Natural spread

Are they all identical?
Most of my own snowdrops have made rather large and varietally uniform clumps. In my cemetery gardens there are drifts of thousands which are not very diverse. 
I suspect - but am not certain - that vegetative propagation tends to be more significant than seed with reference to spread.
Vegetative propagation may come about in several ways
 * The bulbs just divide and push sideways ever further
 * Crowded together some get pushed to the surface and out of the ground. Animals, flooding and wind do the rest to disperse them.
 * Ground is disturbed by squirrelling animals and moles. Ditto above, the elements move them around
 *  In the garden the over enthusiastic soil cultivator unintentionally shifts them!

Undoubtably self seeding is also significant. Every time a new seedling grows it is genetically distinct and is in effect a new variety - although for none hybrid cultivars not a new species. They appear as flimsy crook-ended thin grassy threads. They might take three years to flower. Many seeds and seedlings won’t make it due to inclement weather such as early Spring drought. Numbers will be diminished when poor pollination conditions mean no seed is set in a particular year. Some snowdrop varieties are sterile and rarely or never set seed. Young seedlings need to compete with competitive plants not least their parents. Its all bit dodgy but its part of the process.

Growing from your own seed is actually very interesting albeit not the way to build up a collection! You will often fail to find seed because the ants got there first. You might know form my previous posts I have a soft spot for myrmecochory!  Galanthus seed has shiny white elaiosomes which are tiny ant nutrient treats. In nature ants disperse them to all kinds of  places.
Snowdrop stories
 * My friend Peter Williams found several snowdrop bulbs lying stressed on his soil surface. He potted them up and in Spring they produced exquisite tiny-tiny flowers. He took them to his Hardy Plant group sale with full explanation that they would be normal next year. The treasurer slapped a ten pound price on them and they flew off the table. Good for funds.
 * I have not yet dared tell you about my new project establishing bulbs in Lyndi’s quarter acre field. In January I raided my own and Cathi’s garden and dug up well more than a thousand snowdrop bulbs perhaps taking 20% from some of our clumps. That was about 35 full spade fulls subdivided to make clumps of about a twenty. It took all of two hours - a long time for me. Planting of the new small clumps took another 45 minutes. They looked great when they flowered but I have a long way to go to fill a very big field.
Bulbs for Lyndi

Three weeks after planting in Lyndi’s sprayed off field.(The rabbits dug some up but the snowdrops were fine when replanted)

 * Years ago I read in the Grower magazine about a nurseryman who propagated his snowdrops by rotavating the ground of his snowdrop patch in Summer. I don’t suppose they were ready for sale the following season nor do I know what proportion of his stock was so treated each year.
 *Before I left Madeira it occurred to me that I might have told you a porky about there being no snowdrops there. After all the island boasts numerous microclimates and a snowdrop’s cold requirement would be satisfied at altitude. We made several enquiries to knowledgable horticulturists but found none. The closest we came were snowflakes (leucojums) at Blandys and we also found daffodils in several places including our hotel garden at sea level.
Surely there must be snowdrops on the island. It only needs someone perhaps 500 metres high putting in an order to Parkers!


 *Still thinking about altitude I read that a famous snowdrop collection in Scotland at 500 feet high flowered two weeks later than a garden at ground level This set me thinking about how high snowdrops grow in the UK. I asked Peter about 300 metre high Buxton and he told me there were plenty there! Princetown on Dartmoor is 435 metres. I wonder?
I looked up snowdrop altitudes in its natural habitats in Europe. The highest altitude recorded was 1400 metres. Why that’s higher than Snowden! But then in Southern Europe it can be very warm.
My earlier request to my readers is to provide answers to some of my questions today!
 * It’s back! Last year I posted a picture of my four petal snowdrop. Unfortunately it is normal this year. However two other bulbs from the same provenance have performed instead.



Peter's made himself a two petal one
Thank you Peter Williams for many of the photographs today 

Links
Search RHS Plant Finder for snowdrops
More about myrmecochory

Snowdrops are at home in the cold


Monday, 27 February 2017

Elimination of ground elder and accompanying ‘annual’ weed.

Cathi’s grass verge, year 2 - weed control throughout 2016
A continuation of the saga of this developing garden feature - introduced for this year last month

No sign of the ground elder at daffodil time
Preamble
Imagine you were eliminating overgrown perennial weed by repeated glyphosate spraying on un-cropped land with the intention of direct planting when and only when that weed was completely eliminated. It would depend on the weed how long you would need to wait before any planting. I will assume, that the weed root system starts intact and you are not following failed attempts to fork it out (when it will take longer). I will also imagine that you start your project when the weed has strong growing foliage as did Cathi’s ground elder in May 2015.
 * Docks should be gone in a season although the soil will still have a large seed reserve
 * Cathi’s nettles were gone by mid summer but I have known it to take longer when the nettles were extremely well established. Glyphosate might need to be  a strong 1 in 40  dilution of commercial product. I often use MCPA instead
  • Couch grass is a breeze - give it three months
  • Brambles will take a couple of years unless supplemented by physical removal. (Cutting back helps if used a week or so after the first spray). Other brushwood killers or MCPA might be better. When rid of the bramble plants watch out in later years for the soil’s bank of blackberry seed ‘trying again’
  • Convolvulus (bindweed).  Timing of spraying is crucial - July might be ideal - and growth must be strong, soft and luxuriant. Roots need to be undisturbed and the glyphosate applied at 1 in 40. A single spray might then be sufficient to completely kill it. (Although a second application a month or so later in case some has been missed is advised)  Sadly most gardeners are temperamentally unable to take this advice and never get rid of this weed when they insist on just pulling it out.
  • You need to read my post on marestail and you will be doing well for it to be completely gone after three years.
  • Ditto  Japanese Knotweed 

Ground elder, the dominant perennial weed in Cathi’s border might be expected to be eliminated sometime in its third season. If not completely killed it is perhaps more insidious than any of the above weeds in infiltrating herbaceous perennials. Many gardeners find they have  given home to a menace when accepting an infected plant - a real Trojan horse - from a so called friend.
It might therefore seem highly foolish of me to have started planting for Cathi in the second year (2016) of the project. I do not recommend it for the inexperienced gardener or anyone who does not have total confidence in their precision use of glyphosate as I do!

 The fact that most of my planting was upright monocotyledons like this agapanthus makes it is easy for me to selectively spray. Note the withered ground elder that had been earlier sprayed

Three weeks after May 2016 spray. Note I have as yet done little planting where the ground elder had been thickest   
I attempt to present this post today in such away as to be of value to the gardener who is merely eliminating ground elder. Please regard my attempts to establish grass and plants in parallel as pure serendipity. Although you might watch in horror I am confident of my final destination. Details of the garden plants and the grass elements of the project will follow in a further post in a few weeks.

Weeds from seed
Please excuse my indulgence in the main title calling them in the popular fashion, 'annual weeds'. In truth they may be annual, biennial or perennial.
Whenever you have a project involving repeated spraying and your original target weed subsides, space is created for weeds from seed to establish in their place. Released from inhibiting influences to germination such as lack of light they germinate everywhere. You must increasingly turn your attention to controlling them too.
Soils contain enormous banks of weed seed. For those weed seeds more deeply buried some can remain dormant for many decades, others much longer! Generally if such weeds are not brought to the surface by digging those weed seeds already exposed under your sprayed-off canopy will be hugely diminished after a few years of sound weed control. Unfortunately the seed store is frequently refreshed by new seed that blows in or - more shamefully - those weeds you miss and let seed!  
Not for nothing the old gardeners’s dictum “one year’s seeding, seven year’s weeding”

The aim in all my own gardening is by keen attention to not letting weeds seed is to build up ‘a cycle of virtue’ with weed control becoming easier as each year passes.
Eventually in Cathi’s project ground cover grass and plants will also suppress newly germinated weeds.
Do I hear “dream on?”

Resumé of Year 1,  2015

I had waited until mid May to make sure that the ground elder and nettles could make a luxuriant top before my first spray. 
As anticipated most of the weed turned yellow and the tops died. Six weeks later there was fairly strong regeneration and I sprayed a second time.
For practical purposes this was the end of the nettles and the ground elder was so subdued that for the rest of the year it might have not been there. 
Any germinated weed seed and missed or regenerating perennial weed were picked off by a couple of later quick spray arounds - spraying only the weeds, no need to spray bare spaces.
Spring bulbs were planted in early September. Although at this time the ground elder was not superficially apparent if you examined below the soil surface numerous strands of ground elder roots were laying down fat buds for the next year's campaign. As far as possible when planting I avoided placing bulbs and plant divisions amongst ground elder.
There was substantial  popping in of plants throughout the Winter 2015/2016

2016 report
My last post about the progress of the project was in March 2016
By then I had been popping in plants since the previous October and continued right through the Winter when planting conditions were opportune. Just ten minutes here and ten minutes there. Perhaps a total of 15 man-hours as I raided my garden! The fact that the plants were mainly dormant at this period and were planted at the more weed free stations created no extra problems for weed control.
During the Autumn and Winter I had wandered in with my sprayer two or three times to catch those awkward annual weeds such as hairy bittercress, cleavers and epilobiums that insist on germinating at that time. By then I had merely added the verge to my normal weed control routine for spraying the whole of Cathi’s garden which I have been maintaining for three years now. In total the extra time was no more than a single man-hour spraying.

Just about ready for first spray of ground elder mid May 2016
Ground elder looking sick several weeks after spraying
It took a firm mental effort to not spray the re-emergent luxuriant ground elder too soon when it was too small. Before mid May would be too early and counter productive.  Although the border had looked good with a succession of snowdrops, crocus and daffodils it was by then very weedy indeed. A new gardener would have probably despaired and might have abandoned the project and started forking - how sad. Superficially the ground elder seemed as bad as when I had first started - and all those extra Spring weeds from seed too! Trying and inevitably failing to fork out out would reinforce future problems as lots of small ground elder propagules would be created. Forking out would create separate ground elder plants with little rhyme or reason as to the time and place of future emergence.
It took all my experience to selectively spray the border. It took more than an hour of low pressure selective spraying holding the knapsack nozzle almost touching and carefully directed. It was made easier that the new growth of ground elder followed a pattern as the still connected roots had sprouted together. I had previously mainly avoided planting within the ground elder clumps. Inevitably where the ground elder had spread into the already grassy part of the verge there was collateral grass damage. The consequent bare ground would facilitate spraying of persisting  ground elder that re-emerged in the same place later in the season.

For the rest of the year I just sprayed as necessary as part of  my normal spraying routine for the whole garden. No more than a total of a couple of man hours. For practical purposes the by then weak growing ground elder had become ‘just another weed’.
Although substantially weakened, some ground elder will sporadically appear in 2017. It will be zapped just like any other weed.
I have written before about when I eliminated half an acre of a monoculture of two foot high ground elder on the village plot nearly ten years ago. Each year I still find a rare sneaky specimen. 

I might give the  impression that my weed control is only spraying. For Cathi’s verge this is substantially true. I do reserve the right when popping-in plants or just walking and day dreaming to bend my back and pull a weed out or skim my spade or slide my boot to detach seedling weeds. There are so few it is pure pleasure.

A few further glimpses of last year

Only when these snowdrops have completely died down will I spray over them

Camassias are one of the few bulbs traditionally planted in grass. The forget-me-nots scattered after the very first spraying are proving remarkably persistent 
Spraying is a little tricky here

I took on a further ten metres verge last year. Self sown poppies appeared after my first spray

The same extended area. I am pleased how well the agapanthus planted a few months earlier established. The blue commellna are going to have a field day

Although tulips do not have enough vigour to naturalise in coarse grass I expect them to thrive here

With patches of ground elder still around my effort to establish fine fescue grass has been as yet only half hearted 

There is still interest in mid September. At that time I anticipated the imminent wet spell by making a more determined sowing of Chewing's fescue grass seed
Mid february 2017. Somewhat scruffy but even Brenda admired it when we drove down the road

Links
There is now quite a saga about Cathi’s verge in my theme column
My post on controlling Japanese knotweed
Marestail (equisetum)
Bindweed (convolvulus) scroll to the end of this post


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