Thursday, 18 August 2016

Tree Work

A not so peaceful day in Bolton Percy Churchyard


I knew that villager and very fine arboriculturist Jason Brown had submitted a very generous tender for extracting four very large trees from the cemetery. It was by complete chance when I arrived for my monthly stint - a little early at nine  - to find the road cordoned off and Jason swinging like a monkey halfway high up the enormous Leylandii. Already it had lost the bottom half of its branches? Neatly cut and precisely dropped direct to the road.


Could I get in to spray? Jason’s two lads in perpetual motion were dragging and thrusting  branches into the shredder. They stepped aside to let me enter through the squeaky gate. Not that you could hear it today. The chainsaw and shredder created quite a cacophony.
Immensley  professional, Jason was safely strapped to a strong secure sling on the tree. I was later impressed how he zipped up and down the fifty foot monster. I could barely climb that high if I had the rest of the day.

I later confessed it was I that had forty years earlier planted the tree! Not only that but I had rooted the cutting on my allotment. That year I was very keen on the rooting properties of horizontal shaded polythene laid over cuttings inserted direct into the ground. I had propagated hundreds of plants - fortunately very few were Leylands! Three had gone into the cemetery and their removal was Jason’s task for the day! A passer by overheard my admission and enquired if I felt at all sentimental about the tree’s demise. No, I was absolutely delighted.
It had been very foolish of me to plant them at all. No one should plant such potential monsters in a cemetery. I recently blogged about conifers as a habitat for wildlife and suggested that gardeners might plant certain varieties and be prepared to fell them several years later and plant some more. 
But forty years that’s ridiculous! Perhaps I should offer to pay? I hope my forty years maintaining the garden will be my contribution.

Blogging in mind I took a few pictures of the rest of the garden. Unfortunately the sun was  very strong from the wrong direction. I remembered when Marianne Majerus came to photograph the garden she was up at six in the morning to get the light the right way. Ah well I would get some more next month and publish later. I would have pictures of the finished job....

Every year Clematis fargesioides and wild honeysuckle are in friendly combat
The agapanthus has been there longer than the Leyland Cypress
Garden plants grow naturalistically
I received an e mail that evening. Unfortunately two of the other trees housed wasp nests that would need to be destroyed and a pigeon had a nest... somewhere. Tree work can be dangerous enough without wasps buzzing around you! The job is partially completed. Progress was slow as the gravestones are a real problem. The first tree will remain for a while as a totem. I will publish today and add pictures of the finished job later.
We will be left with some fine planting opportunities  - so much more light and moisture.  The thirty year grouping of Rosa ‘Nevada’ that has been in steep decline as the Leyland has got bigger will rise like a phoenix.


We are going to be left with a wonderful mulch pile. A job for the ‘C team’!

Tree work in pictures


Large trees need to be dismantled. Not just chopped down. This was the stage when I arrived - about half an hours work


The lower branches were dropped in the road


The shreddings will be used for mulching in the churchyard. They will reduce weeds from seed and not in this case be composted
This Leyland cypress is the next one to come down
You can see the large thuja down the churchyard path. It is probably a hundred years old. It has grown very little in my time and is becoming unstable. Due to its venerability and species it has a better public image than the Leylands and will only be beheaded! 


Forty foot high Jason is safely secured


I was intrigued how they would take the head off the Leyland and would need a picture. Sadly the operation was done so quickly I missed the opportunity! I could not envisage that an arborist’s accuracy is such that they can drop a trunk on a pin head. A few deft cuts with a small chainsaw and the top fell precisely into the road. 
I was getting my camera out, Jason shouted “ten pence for the picture” as the top fell. I dared not tell him I had missed it!


Ten seconds later I was ready!


Even Jason surprised himself at the size of the tree
I wonder if this totem will be there for my next visit. I would have liked to have seen  the trunk sections coming down,

I left for home at lunchtime. The two rounded tops of the thuja are now gone

Open day announcements
As a working churchyard the cemetery garden can be visited at any time.
This notice is about my own garden at Boundary Cottage


Tuesday August 23rd. Next week! Open in aid of Yorkshire Arboretum. Open all day including evening. Refreshments only served between one and four. Peter Williams has agreed to open his very fine garden down the road (from 1pm) and no doubt his wonderful plants will be on sale. For those without the bumper all garden ticket from Yorkshire Arboretum the entrance will be five pounds. It will cover those who want to add Peter’s garden


Boundary Cottage yellow book Open Day is on Sunday September 11th. Directions are on the NGS website

NGS directions to Boundary Cottage

NGS directions to Peter's Garden  Weathervane House
(You have missed his NGS Open day!)

Link to Yorkshire arboretum website

My recent post about birds and conifers

My post about Marianne Majerus's visit and a route to her own website with pictures of cemetery

The cemetery 'C team' gets to work 

Boundary Cottage this morning





Friday, 12 August 2016

The things they say

Finding out about no dig


I said recently that I do not like to repeat myself. Well not very much. I have written extensively about why I don’t dig and good and bad reasons why others do.
People might come to my website to read a man who calls himself a no dig gardener and find very little about no tillage. My purpose today is to tell you where to go - in the nicest possible way by following links! 
I do this by discussing what people say when they come to my garden. Relevant links are at the bottom

“The garden must have been dug when you started?"
Some visitors barely accept that I don’t need to turn soil over and have no concept that when I made the garden I did not need to dig it at all. 
Actually that is a small lie. In limited places paper, wood and stones have been buried and to attain levels some soil has needed to be shifted. For instance previous owners did the typical amateur thing in cutting out borders lifting away turf or perennial weed creating sunken ill drained litter-collecting formal rectangular hollows. The best soil was in piles littered everywhere even in the field over the wall. At least it had not been thrown away in the wretched green bin!
I cannot guarantee that previous gardeners never dug  but sixteen years ago the overgrown weedy mess had not been cultivated for years.
I agree the true amateur would be unable to make any inroads into making a garden without seriously disturbing the soil. Those who are more knowledgable but who misguidedly reject spraying with glyphosate also find it very difficult to avoid cultivation. Although it is not impossible, I doubt that they would manage on my own ‘industrial’ scale.

All the glyphosate stuff can be referenced from my theme column. I recently posted about starting out on Cathi’s overgrown grass/nettle/ground elder verge using glyphosate with no soil disturbance at all.
I have previously written how digging or ploughing or rotavation speeds up converting an overgrown patch to something visually pristine. But at a cost of future perennial weed problems. Not to mention that digging is very hard work.

My stainless steel border spade

“But you have a sandy soil”
There is an alternative to this...
“I can’t do no dig because I have sticky clay”

No dig has least to offer on sandy soil. Because sand has a coarse texture you will cause little damage if you walk on it or work it (perish the thought) when wet. As long as you don’t drive over it with a bulldozer. 
My own sandy soil has a peculiar property, it is hydrophobic and repels water when dry. Worse from my own point of view as a no digger if a border is raised and uncultivated loosening the surface actually aids rain penetration. I confess an argument for digging! I have written before about how I prevent my own water running away. My fine sandy soil is actually very water retentive if thoroughly wetted. It ‘wets up’ nicely when the soil is contained in a rimmed container.
This fern has thrived in a plunged twelve litre pot of my sandy soil for four years now
This Spring I planted some more
And disguised the pots with a mulch

No dig has most to offer on heavy clay.
Clay soil brings all its problems when it is regularly cultivated and an endless cycle of breaking up exposing it to the slaking action of rain (not to mention the oxidisation away of binding organic matter) and subsequent rock hard setting or in wet weather the formation of doughy clarty mess. The problems are caused by cultivation which leaves structure exposed to damaging rain separating out fine clay particles red in tooth and claw. I have compared this to a junkie getting his fix but going nowhere.
I once developed several very large borders for my friend Jackie Barber. She lived in Pottery Lane and neighbour Roley made the finest clay pots from their extremely sticky clay.
I just sprayed out the borders in her grassy paddock and in this case mulched with her copious supply of mushroom compost. Thanks to Jackie’s superb design skills and lovely plants from her nursery you have never seen better borders. Other than very small planting holes there was no soil disturbance at all. After a year or three the soil developed a beautiful black honeycombed crumbly structure. You could walk on the border and even plant after heavy rain.

I do sometimes go a little far in deriding veg growers on clay soil who dig. Where allotment holders really go wrong is where plants are exposed to a soil regularly degraded of organic matter by excessive cultivation and dubious removal of vegetation and not adding very generous amounts of bulky manure, compost and recycled green.

“Its compacted”

He approves of loose soil
Gardeners do not understand compaction. Nor do much of the horticultural world!
Compaction occurs when loose soil is compressed when wet. It occurs most commonly as plough or rotavator pans but also anytime when wet soil is driven on by heavy machinery. Clay soils in gardens are the most adversely effected by compaction which is caused by the gardener walking on loose wet soil or worse cultivating wet soil.
Compaction should not be confused with the settling of a soil to a natural density. All my no dig gardens gardens have soil which is firm and cohesive to walk on and unharmed by normal compression.  Even when wet. When examined (with a spade!) they are honeycombed with channels and spaces made by roots, natural cracking and worms. Their drainage and aeration although as always limited by soil type and site conditions is superb. If further disturbed they break into beautiful crumbs. Of course your demonstration speeds their destruction.

Undisturbed for decades the soil at Worsbrough cemetery crumbles when dug with a spade
After a few years none dug allotments although similarly firm and settled (no need for silly raised beds) are black with organic matter and as a result of accumulated worm casting make superb seedbeds. I do argue the benefits of planting plants rather than sowing seed direct but for such as carrots I can even broadcast-sow as few weed seeds are brought to the surface by digging.

My leek seeds do not need to be sown in rows to facilitate weeding

“You need to aerate the soil in your borders”
You will know this if you read gardening articles written by apprentice journalists given the gardening column on your local newspaper.

The worms do it for you
It always amuses me that in ornamental borders to give extra aeration you are told to loosen the soil and in effect to chop up the roots. This is no joke in Autumn - especially if your drainage is dodgy - when surface roots are a lifeline when deep roots die in Winter because it is too wet.
I repeat if your surface soil is compacted it is a consequence of frequent excessive past cultivation and is not a result of failing to cultivate at all.
It is a moot point wether stirring such compaction lets more oxygen get to plant roots. It certainly lets more oxygen into intimate contact with broken up soil aggregates such as soil crumbs. Ergo binding organic matter is lost as it is degraded by oxygenation.
I won’t bore you again with the lovely soil structure with it’s own air delivery system and micro-piped drainage that develops when the surface soil is left alone. Plants grow and their penetrating roots infiltrate the soil.The soil receives organic matter from plant debris and root exudates of organic liquids. No-diggers never have problems with poor aeration.

“How do you get organic matter into your soil without digging?”
It’s the worms dear boy, it’s the worms.



None dug soil can be mulched with compost, well rotted manure, bulky organics and recycled fresh vegetation. Nature incorporates it for you.
In actual fact as long as nature’s on site organic products of photosynthesis are recycled  directly or indirectly as compost after several years of none digging the soil will be black with organic matter without importing any organic matter at all. 
It is a common delusion that gardeners need to improve their soil by buying in organic matter. In truth they are often replacing the organic matter they have destroyed or taken away. That is not to say that gardeners converting to no dig cannot speed up the process by mulching with imported bulky organic materials. 

Links to previous posts that discuss matters ‘in depth’
Sorry about the pun. ‘Dig in’ to these articles at your leisure!

I develop a garden on Cathi’s verge without digging 

Converting to no dig


Root damage by digging

Cultivating brings weed seeds to surface

No dig makes for healthy plants

Preserving mycorrhiza

Myth about aerating soil

Digging for a quick result

I jump on wet soil


Exposure of soil to frost

I dug in manure at Christmas

Explanation of difference between soil structure and texture


No digging on Foggathorpe clay

Wonderful worms

Plant establishment without digging

Planting on wet soil


Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Attracting bullfinches to the garden


Po wants them to come to his bird feeder and Peter watches them return every year to eat his mourning widow seeds. (Geranium phaeum)

 Seeds are not yet ripe
Mourning widow geranium

It would seem from Po’s video (below) that they are happy to come for his sunflower hearts. At the time of writing we are hoping that they will return to Peter’s garden for him to get some pictures.
We wonder what is going on.
It's somewhat ethereal
I must warn you that this post written in anticipation ends with a damp squib


About bullfinches
A secretive bird, they are shy to come to the bird feeder. They have an omnivorous diet eating insects and plants. To some they are not wanted munching fruit tree buds and because of their partiality to devouring soft fleshy seed-rich raspberries. Their liking to blackberries is less of a problem in the countryside than it is in the garden. No doubt they spread bramble seed around.
If you are good at growing nettles, docks, ash, birch and honesty they might very well love your garden. No hope for me then except that I do have  - to Brenda’s derision - prolific Geranium phaeum at home and in my cemetery gardens a great deal of honesty.
I never see bullfinches, but then I am not good at looking!
They inhabit light woodland fringes. Much of Peter’s garden is wooded. This might be behind our story today about their liking for the seed on his Geranium phaeum. The small mystery is why bullfinches love his widow’s weeds and then when we ask all our birder friends no one else has noticed. Have Peter’s bullfinch learned about phaeum and passed the information on to their chicks? They return every year.
About Geranium phaeum


It is a beautiful geranium but perhaps best in a picture. Unless you look closely in the garden you miss the gorgeous small dark cranesbill flowers. An old slide in my cemetery lecture was metaphorically drooled over by audiences for thirty years! I mentioned recently that blogging concentrates the mind. In this case I now notice that it is gone from the cemetery but in my own garden it is taking over. Hence Brenda’s ire. It is ridiculously easy to propagate by division at almost any time of year. It will be returned to the cemetery in large quantities this Autumn and already several cut back clumps now nestle in Cathi’s garden.

Geranium phaeum
As a keen birder Cathi just has to have Geranium phaeum in her garden

Chopped back and planted last month they will flower profusely next year

Although the dusky cranesbill - also dubbed the black or mourning widow - often seeds itself around, some varieties are shy seeders which is no good for the bullfinches. It is a case of where natural species are better than hybrids. Or perhaps not if you just want the flowers or your local bullfinches do not know about the seeds.

These seeds are not quite ripe. Note how the bill splits along its length when it throws out its seed

In the past I have cut back my early Summer geraniums tight to the ground with my hedge clippers (I do not have a strimmer). They rejuvenate a tight mat of new leaves within a few days and remain as nice ground cover for the rest of the season. It is the recommended way. It is no wonder that if cut back they are not on bullfinch agenda.
Is it worth keeping the dead tops for an extra month just for the birds?

Cut back ten days earlier. Some varieties of Geranium phaeum have attractive leaf blotches - better than this one!
I am on a learning curve and am watching the dead heads on my geraniums. They look pretty scruffy. Not all the flowers have set seed and the pointed dispersal bills look very small. I read that the seeds mechanically disperse. At what stage do the bullfinches take them? What does the seed actually look like? Do birds like the seeds of other geranium varieties - some look plumper and more inviting?

Without any success I tried a bunch on Brenda’s bird feeder!

Thinking aloud - pondering about animals learning
Remember when milk bottles had silver tops and a lovely yellow cream line. Now that questions are being asked about homogenisation's effects on gut bacteria and cream is about to be reinstated as a healthy food perhaps they will return. Dream on.
Every tit in the land knew how to burst the tops open to get to the cream. First observed in 1921 after several decades it became almost universal bird practice to wait for the milkman.
I wonder if we started to use silver tops again how soon they would relearn?

Animals do learn and pass on information. I see on our bird feeder ever more varied contortions as birds twist and contort and pigeons stretch up from the wall to the seeds. Birds never designed to flutter and hover seem to get to the food.

My garden has no boundaries and at Seaton Ross I have always had rabbits. In fifteen years they had never discovered my astrantias. They have now! 
So much for my skills of identification! I just assumed that my astrantia’s lack of progress was persistent snail feeding in this very wet season. It has now dawned on me that my astrantia’s repeated decapitations with clean secateur sharp cuts is the wretched rabbits munching. They all seem to know.

Fairly moderate chomping

 Astrantia should look like this

After been cut to the ground several times, in desperation I lifted and potted the plants that had survived

I did not see these flowers this year

Peter’s bullfinches have learned about the dark lady and have passed it on to their children. Not many gardeners grow phaeum. Not all phaeum sets seed. Gardeners are too tidy and cut back prematurely. I fear that Peter’s secret will be confined to his garden.
So what should I put on my bird-feeder to bring in the bullfinches?
I actually tried a few bunches of phaeum heads on Brenda’s bird feeder. No joy there. Perhaps as Brenda is less assiduous in stocking it when there are so many seeds in the field few birds are coming?
I wonder how many gardener’s provide their own seed heads for their bird table rather than buying imported seed?

I have noticed over the years how birds in one garden strip seed and eat buds and leaves and not in another. They don’t seem to know and some gardener’s plants are left well alone. It might be that some varieties are less tasty, local bird populations may be low or more tasty temptation is available elsewhere?
For years birds left my beautiful red currants. It was about the time Brenda decided she would like to start using them in the kitchen when my birds started to strip them. Ah well we had the blackcurrants! Not this year, my beautiful ripe black fruit was gone overnight. Now the secret is out they are probably doomed. They have told Cathi’s birds and she has no blackcurrants either.
My pigeons have gradually learned that my brassicas are tasty all year round and not just as small plants in Spring. I now cover them with environmesh for the complete crop. I wonder how long before they learn to crawl under?


Po Simpson who has kindly provided me with the bullfinch pictures and videos has recently noticed that his goldfinches have a new way of eating the niger seed from his feeder. Instead of pecking a seed at a time they have learnt to initiate a more fulfilling flow! I wonder if he has made a video? He has made several videos of normal goldfinch feeding which at the present time can be viewed by pressing the u-tube link at the top.

Learnt on a steam train
Last week we ate dinner on the North Yorkshire Steam Railway with friends Mike and Isobel. They had noticed this year that the bullfinches in their garden had taken a liking to the persicaria in their herbaceous border and had provided them with much pleasure watching them eating the seed.

Polygonum persicaria is a very easy herbaceous perennial

The rabbits have not yet found these astrantias

About to pounce on Mike's  currant plants?

Mike as a keen fruit grower added a new dimension to the discussion when he lamented how bullfinches every year return to eat most of the buds on his red and blackcurrants. They come in mid Winter when the top is off his fruit cage because of the snow. I asked him as a botanist whether the tastes and flavour of the fruit may also be present in the buds. He thought so.

A big let down
If the bullfinches returned this year Peter was sleeping! His Geranium for some peculiar reason set very little seed. We do hope his bullfinches remember and come back next year

Po’s video’s

Bullfinch Take off



Bullfinch on feeder






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