Sunday, 21 April 2019

Lightening my Spring bulb load - plastic tubs reduces heavy lifting

PeterWilliams's gold standard 
As I write this, there is a colourful display of bulbs outside our conservatory window. Its not for want of Brenda constantly reminding me how Peter’s display is so superior. This year I have taken the challenge and splashed out on a sequence of bold displays of snowdrops, narcissus, tulips and (yet to flower) lilies. The snowdrops came out of the ground and I splurged seventy pounds on 150 Tète a Tète daffodils, 200 tulips and 36 lilies from Parker’s Wholesale.

Heavy containers
Lugging large tubs backwards and forwards palls as a gardener gets older. We have plenty of fairly large hardware containers but they aren’t half heavy and to challenge Peter I need very large ones. These days I am prepared to go plastic They are so much lighter and nowadays so much improved and quite tasteful. I purchased two huge ones, perhaps forty litres and four more not much smaller. For the lilies I made do with my existing smaller hardware tubs.
I still had the problem that my soil/char compost is rather heavy.
Some gardeners bulk up their large pots and economise on compost with light polystyrene granules at the base. I hate this practice and of course my homemade compost is free.
At bulb planting time I have copious Autumn leaves. Why not pack them under the compost? I hope the pictures show that this was very successful and the bulb roots penetrated quickly and densely - a large water reserve unlike horrid polystyrene.
I can report the method worked superbly well. As expected there was slight  shrinkage by Spring but not such you would notice.
I think that this method would also work for Summer bedding but continuing leaf shrinkage would be too severe for long term planting without further refreshing.

Follow my efforts in pictures
Large plastic pot two thirds filled with fresh Autumn leaves
Although plastic pots filled with light compost can be too light and top heavy not with large low containers. Yaramila multi-nutrient fertiliser has been mixed in - improvements to current years flowering will be small but will help make strong bulbs for next year.

After tulips were planted
A quarter filled with my soil/char compost after leaves' sinkage. All the pots permanently outside on standing area. Tulips deliberately sown late at end of November. Early planting gives too much time for accidents and has no merit.

Root system on early September planted daffodils
On the other hand early planting and time to make a healthy root system is essential for daffodils (And many Spring bulbs, especially hyacinths). At this stage I had not acquired the final display containers.
On the same day I planted the tulips I plunged the knocked out pots of daffodils into their containers prepared the same as the tulips

Change of plan - bulbs plunged again!

Several weeks later management intervened! Brenda insisted that this hardware  container must be planted. I did have two spare large plastic tubs and invited her to do it herself. Already the under leaves were flush with new roots and there would be inevitable damage.

The snowdrops were first in the display
These are the heavy pots we find so difficult. Perhaps I should have lifted a more generous filling of snowdrops?

Daffodils and Corydalis flexuosa
On a whim I tried one daffodil pot with corydalis. Failure, the daffs completely outgrew them. They might as well not have been there.

The early daffodils did really well
Now in the display area the tulips sprouted in early February
I write now at the end of my Spring bulb season and my bulbs have surpassed our wildest expectations. Brenda shuffles the bulbs around to make lovely large displays outside our (live in) conservatory windows and they have given us much joy from mid January to mid mid April.
In particular the tulips have been a revelation. Their colours are so bright and strong and massed together are strong and free standing despite persistent windy conditions and some stood high on a table.
I tend to think of tulips as rapidly going over on warm Spring or early Summer days. Not these (yet). Each of my six varieties have elegantly merged their continuity to give us six weeks of continuous flowers and as I look out today on Easter Sunday all massed together still make a fine display. No single variety has give us less than a month’s strong flower.
It has been unusually windy and dehydrating  and through the last month they have needed generous watering  every three to five  days. Many new gardeners overlook this - it applies to tub planting but not in the ground.
As to sinkage of the underlying Autumn leaves, after a small initial drop it has  been barely discernible and a slightly deeper rim completely disguised by strong leaves gives room to water.

Enjoy the tulips

The one at the top was first to flower
Corydalis flexuosa was a little late this year and as ever thrived on its own

Peter's tulips
I popped down the road to view the opposition. Thank you Peter Williams for your very fine pictures

With Pete's help our owl has now flown to the top of the wall
I must try harder

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

More on hot composting

Ready to go
Picking up on Peter

I think Peter Williams’ recent article on hot composting was a major contribution to the literature on making garden compost and what you do with it. It was a long article and some of its content is worthy of further examination - in particular to answer any digs at my own methods. These of course are just part of the friendly rivalry between us.
You might have twigged that the John McEnroe quote ‘you cannot be serious’ in Peter's title was my own repost to the very idea of all that effort. I have teased before that some gardeners live to make compost.
Regular readers will know that although I do not usually make garden compost I do recycle all my organic matter - whether by letting weeds desiccate on the surface, letting leaves and debris lie, mulch mowing, burying small prunings and newspaper, and burning waste wood to make charcoal. 

Unlike Peter, for me, nothing goes in the municipal green bin.I was surprised that Peter claims to put weeds in the said bin. The truth is that his weed control is nearly as good as my own.(In some cases it is my own - I have an arrangement that he does handyman work for Brenda and in return I spray parts of his garden). It is probably only perennial weed from distant fringes that Peter so cycles.

Look how hot it got
Peter’s own figures of the very high temperatures achieved in his heap is evidence that all weed seeds will be killed - such as grass seed inevitable in his mowings - and other than perennial weeds he could safely include weeds when making compost.
He did mention to me that the only weed seed that emerges from the compost he makes are those blown in on the wind

Peter made an aside about how in natural woodland an organic layer forms and goes on to explain that this does not happen in gardener’s soils which are mixed by cultivation. To an extent organic layers might develop in his own wood when he mulches on the surface. He mischievously suggests that less mixing might occur in my own no dig garden.
I adamantly declare that my huge population of earthworms ensures this is not so and for me this is a very good thing (His own acid soil might reduce worm populations)

Readers might be aware that in some natural landscapes, especially in the USA, introduction of earthworms is a very bad thing. In such places native vegetation better survives in undisturbed unmixed soil.

A fascinating aspect of Peter’s explanation of decay is that it is not just a breakdown process but also one of building. Most raw compost ingredients as part of their complex journey becomes a bacteria, a fungus, an insect, an arthropod, a worm or whatever. Often several in turn.
I loved his Walter de la Mare quote about Miss T - everything she ate ‘turned into Miss T’ . He tells me that in his microbiology degree finals a complete paper asked him to explain the significance of the poem to the microbiologist. Oh for such subjectivity in education now rather than soulless unchallengeable objectivity

Peter correctly states that speed of decay is more rapid when the carbon/nitrogen ratio of the compost ingredients is low. Most gardeners including myself are in accord with the idea that adding nitrogen nutrient such as urine speeds decay.
I am somewhat embarrassed about this as I did a post based on very credible research that adding nitrogen fertiliser does NOT increase the speed of decay of compost ingredients such as strawy material which starts with a high carbon/nitrogen ratio ( - as opposed to getting a favourable ratio by mixing varied ingredients). Ah well you can’t win them all. No wonder we have so many gardening myths.

I have been burying newspaper for more than forty years
Peter mentions that the wide carbon/nitrogen ratio of paper and cardboard gives it an extremely low breakdown if added to a compost heap. I can certainly vouch for this and some of you will have read my post about burying reams of newspaper for long term water conservation. It hardly breaks down at all and a decade later you can still decipher the print. Be careful what you bury!

Geeky stuff

Pure pleasure
I confess to editing out Peter’s thoughtful theory about the ‘dark’ component of photosynthesis proceeding in his mowings - now quoted. His post was getting a bit long! I have not been unafraid to quote speculative stuff such as my friend Alan Warwick’s theory about how water gets to the top of very tall trees or my own sympathy with Eugene McCarthy’s suggestion that pigs might have a place in our very early ancestry. I find Peter’s hypothesis is pretty plausible. 

“Freshly mown grass cut in summer heats up surprisingly quickly and this has always intrigued me. If the grass box of even a small mower is not emptied, the temperature will rise to approximately 40 C in just a couple of hours. The same goes for grass cuttings tipped into a storage bay. The high temperature is only short lived and falls to the ambient air temperature in a day or so depending on the size of the pile. What I find intriguing is why the clippings heat so rapidly. Even accepting that the cut grass leaves will be coated in microbes, I would not expect decomposition or fermentation processes to occur so rapidly and almost without a lag phase. I have wondered whether this initial temperature rise is due, at least in part, to the ‘dark’ or enzymatic reactions of photosynthesis that must be occurring very rapidly in full light in summer. The temperature rise of stored, cut grass is noticeable lower in winter. This might simply be because the ambient temperature is lower or just perhaps, because in the dim (i.e. low intensity light), short days of winter, the ‘dark’ reactions of photosynthesis are progressing very slowly. Perhaps I will investigate this phenomenon as a small project. (As a preliminary experiment, I mowed an area of grass early this week (January) and deposited it in an empty bay. There has been a negligible temperature rise)”.

In Peter’s discussion about how he uses his compost he casts doubt about the water conservation reputation of mulching with compost. Although he works his away round to conceding that the overall effect of organic matter is to conserve water he casts doubt about the benefit of an ultimately dry layer of water absorptive stuff on the surface. In dry spells it keeps rainfall out - at least until roots grow into it, which when wet they surely will.

Even light showers filter through
I have long thought mulching is overrated for water conservation when the mulching material itself is water absorptive. I have written before how in contrast gravel, small stones or unsealed paving are superb for water conservation and repeatedly act like one way valves for water from even very light rainfall through long dry Summers."

Compost as an ingredient in compost!

I am sure this garden compost would make very fine potting compost
Apologies to our friends over the water. In English english compost has two meanings - that from a decayed heap and the stuff used as a mix!
A renowned USA scientific gardening blog professes that for reasons of hygiene the first should not be used to make the other! Absolute rubbish. (I mean the concept not the compost). Peter has no problems whatsoever with the wonderful stuff he mixes (although I did overlook he uses peat for his seed compost).
After all in Victorian times compost and compost were one and the same!

My own tomato compost is made up from homemade charcoal and soil 
If you have not read Peter’s clear thinking you must do so now. I do not propose to stop making my own seed and potting compost with my own sandy soil and often my homemade ‘charcoal’  and I will still attempt to recycle my garden debris in situ but I have suddenly become sensitive to Brenda’s constant complaint (and I am sure Peter’s private opinion) that my garden is scruffy

Those who have seen my huge herbaceous borders in Summer are shocked by the mulched debris in March
I have no problem with my buried newspaper having a wide carbon/nitrogen ratio. I don't want it to decay

If you missed Peter's article on hot composting go to it here

I was pleased about my article on nitrogen fertiliser failing to speed composting - even though it fell on deaf ears and my original source completely forgot he had ever mentioned it!

My own tour de force on mulching

Saturday, 30 March 2019

What is the difference between horticulture and gardening?

Fair weather gardener - not when it is wet, windy or cold
I try in my posts to give definitive answers. I cannot do so today. Each word carries numerous inferences and some are the same.
For myself I regard myself as both horticulturist (what an ugly word) and gardener. Of the latter I am most proud albeit there might be doubt whether I qualify. At work I taught horticultural students about gardening and related sciences - and perhaps some horticulture too?
When I went home I was a gardener and gardened. It was rather different to the day job.

Some might suggest that horticulturist is a pretentious name for a gardener - and it might be. I wonder however if you advertised for a gardener and an applicant said he was a horticulturist would you give him the job?

Lets start at the beginning. Perhaps a gardener is defined as someone who actually gets his hands dirty and tills the soil. That might disqualify me as I am a no dig gardener - although I manage the first part - and farmers till? 

The rhubarb industry - a fine example of Yorkshire horticulture
Perhaps I had better say a gardener is someone who grows plants in the soil. But would a commercial grower be so described? I would tend to describe her or him as a horticulturist but that might not be true either.

Even if we can agree what it is to be a gardener how do we differentiate between a skilled knowledgeable gardener and someone who merely labours in the garden at home? My own parents worked very hard in their garden and it was a chore. They listened to Gardener’s Question time, laughed at the jokes and learned nothing.
Are television gardening programmes made for actual gardeners or just someone who sits on the sofa?
How do we compare a craftsman gardener who might show extraordinary skill in his growing yet has no interest in the wider world of horticulture - there I have used the word!

Some parks are fine examples of quality horticulture and some still employ gardeners
I remember a gifted craftsman gardener - a former dustbin man I worked with one summer. He had extraordinary skill at digging. When he dug the borders (ugh) of Hartlepool Valley gardens every sod was a precisely placed gem and all done at ninety miles an hour. I was tempted to put him forward as far remote from being a horticulturist but then I recall it was he who gave me a wonderful book by that great Japanese guru and pioneer of minimum cultivation Masanobu Fukuoka that influenced my own horticultural thinking. Jim taught me a great deal about life that summer - and I am being euphemistic. He was a philosopher gardener.

Let’s start at the other end and try to define horticulture. I think it suggests professional involvement in an industry associated with growing. Take landscape designers. I think they are horticulturists but many never get their hands dirty. The ones to employ are the ones who are gardeners too.

The height of success for a breeder is to raise a plant that looks good on a dutch tray
Some gardeners work in garden centres but not all employees are gardeners. Many might be horticulturists with a broad knowledge of their trade. Some garden centres don’t seem to want their sales staff to know much about gardening - they might spend too much time answering questions!

I wonder how many acres of brussels sprouts you need to grow to cease to be a gardener and become a farmer. How much produce do you need to sell to become a market gardener? 

Many aspects of horticulture are science based, perhaps those involved in research and teaching gardening and rural science are best described as horticulturists. It is a shame that these days there are few educational opportunities to learn to be gardeners.

I once had a lecturing colleague - a former Parks director whose passion was garden history. His small garden was an overgrown neglected mess. An eminent horticulturist but no way a gardener.

In contrast the long retired director of a local horticultural research station is an eminent national renowned horticulturist. When I myself retired and worked as  ‘an up market’ jobbing gardener I looked over my client’s hedge and found him doing the same! (In his case for a relative)

 Botanist Phil Orton is the one in the pink
Botanists are neither gardeners nor horticulturists by definition but at home often are. I swear I recently saw a picture of soil invaded by (woolly) lettuce root aphid illustrating a botany article on mycorrhiza. No gardener would be so mistaken.

Phil’s science colleague soil scientist and ecologist Stan Ridgeway had a fascinating garden entirely planted with weeds
I think it was a high level of gardening skill - unlike the afore mentioned Park Director. On the subject of Parks Directors I worked under Horticultural Superintendent Mr Grubb - does that make him an entomologist?
Perhaps I might mention my professor of horticulture was an entomologist  - but did many splendid things in horticulture.

Look it up!
All horticulturists, but their passion is gardening
My usual motto is when all fails read the instructions. I looked the words up in the dictionary.

Gardening ….the activity of tending and cultivating a garden, especially as a pastime.

Horticulture…the cultivation, processing, and sale of fruits, nuts, vegetables, ornamental plants, and flowers as well as many additional services.  I goes on to give other examples such as arboriculture
I hope I have covered all these examples today

Commercial horticulture can be a long way from gardening
Horticulture as a profession
May I end on a serious note. Because horticulture is so fragmented and because in so many quarters such as research and education it is so depleted it fails to have a strong voice as a united profession. When Government seeks guidance on horticultural matters who do they turn to? Hopefully not a TV gardener or some pushing entrepreneur or media star. How do we judge or better manage such  projects  as the failed London garden bridge for example?
My former boss educationalist  P. K.Willmot was conscious of this fifty years ago and through his career sought to funnel horticultural expertise through the ‘Horticulture Educational Association’. This evolved into the ‘Institute of Horticulture’ now elevated to  ‘The Charted Institute of Horticulture’
All grist to their mill


PKWilmott 1966

I am grateful to Frances who has sent me a picture of her father the man who taught me to question all things gardening.
She sent me this nice little story
I really liked the blog on the difference between gardening and horticulture. I was once asked to dance at a school hop and boy asked what my father did. I replied, “He is a horticulturist”. Long silence. Then, “Did you say that your father was a gardener?” The relationship went no further because he didn’t appear to understand the subsequent explanation and, I assume, was unable to work out whether I was of the “right” social group.

This takes you to my post about the docu-fiction book about Masanobu Fukuoka

Thursday, 21 March 2019

My garden in March

March is a great time in the garden

Oh no not again

Wet start
My pure silt/sand soil lies over clay several metres down. The top to bottom fall of the garden is a metre and the fall from adjacent land is the same. The lower garden is wonderful in Summer when after heavy rain the lower parts receive drainage water and moisture loving plants thrive.
The deep clay layer which is almost impermeable to water is overlaid by wonderfully drained sandy soil.
Like all soils the soil moisture deficit  accumulates through the Summer as plants extract water which duly  evaporates. I estimate last very dry Summer the theoretical deficit was as much as five inches and roots penetrated very deeply.

My soil is effectively a sand filled basin. In Winter when transpiration and evaporation is relatively small water accumulates. By Christmas its deficit is usually restored and water starts to stand. If it is a wet Winter it floods.
I won't bore you with the as yet unresolved sad saga of my silted up drain. Before this I did not have a problem.
Last year in the very wet 2017/18 Autumn and Winter I had standing water January to late March. I reported how plants such as daffodils bravely came through it with no loss of quality. Most of my plants in that part of the garden are selected for water tolerance but even gunnera and astilbe did not enjoy the experience and several plants died.

I thought I had got away with it this year but the recent very heavy rains have flooded it again. I had settled down to water standing for perhaps a month. To my delight the recent persistent gales have evaporated much of the flooding away. (Coming from due west all the water was dropped over the Pennines)
Late amendment I no sooner wrote this and the wind changed to the south west and dumped more than an inch of rain! Ah well my newly  sown grass seed will love it


The daffodils needed a very thorough watering
The other side of the coin of extreme windy weather is that considerable evaporation means that plants with a large leaf area rapidly dehydrate and those in containers need to be well watered. Many gardeners, complacent that they have got through the Winter without watering their outdoor bulb pots at all do not understand this and wonder why their daffodils do not perform.

Corkscrew hazel

Corylus avellana 'Contorta'
The contorted hazel can be the most elegant plant in the garden or the most ugly. It all depends on the pruning. Those who recognise that this plant almost inevitably produces straight rods from ground level which must be ruthlessly cut away will do better.
Those who are brave enough to take out large pieces and give vent to their artistic vision will succeed.
My friend (I hope still), blogger Sue Garrett rejoices she did nothing and now has very fine pea sticks.

Inside our 'live in' conservatory

Christmas cactus
I had intended a post showing the continuity of flowering of six colours of Christmas cactus brought in in sequence from our frost-free front door glass lean-to. Maybe next year. The only week November to March without cactus flowers was Christmas week! Sod's law.

Hippeastrum, the amarylis lily
Six weeks ago this was a dormant scruffy almost leafless bulb in our frost free area. This is the sixth year it has flowered in the same large pot of soil compost refreshed each year with a top dressing of my Yaramila fertiliser. The conservatory is heated for our own comfort and when brought into warm conditions our 'lily' bursts into life.


Three years ago I splashed out on three new hellebore plants to extend  my colour range. Now more than a hundred seedlings have germinated under their parents and I confidently expect them in two years to make similar flowers

"Am I the only mad one round here"
Narcissus obvallaris, the Tenby daffodil
My front grass verge gets run over by traffic and yesterday some idiot trotted her horse across it but my rugged Tenby daffodils are tucked far enough back to escape.

Bulbs get into wild places
I asked Cathi if she had any pictures of a mad march hare and she sent me three Harry Poole photos

I wrote about Christmas cactus here
Hippeastrum here
Helleborus here

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Eucomis, the pineapple plant

This eucomis has flowered each year for forty years
Forty years ago I picked up a small pineapple plant at the lovely walled nursery at Buttercrambe. I popped it in what was then my fairly new Bolton Percy cemetery garden. Since that time and with no special attention it has flowered each year but I regret it now barely survives! So much so when I decided last year to try a piece of it on my sandy soil at home the plants’s roots were so entangled between two gravestones I dare not risk moving it! 

On the other hand at home I have been growing two clones of Eucomis comosum that I first raised from seed nearly twenty years ago. Since then I have propagated it vegetatively by division and now have a dozen or so clumps - some which have been in place more than a decade and contain up to 30 bulbs.

This, my strongest clump has looked like this every year for ten years now
My original seed stock came from a seed distribution scheme. It was sown in my usual way in a pot of compost on receipt in January in my unheated greenhouse.
Only three seeds germinated, all different. One got lost along the way, the other two distinct forms now go from strength to strength in four separate gardens.

After flowering six or more weeks my white one looks a little tired now
Garden visitors express surprise to see them and most have the silly notion that they are not very hardy. I suspect the idea arises because some modern fancy cultivars are only suitable for more delicate conditions (and lets face it a plant with a dodgy constitution suits the garden centres very well). I suspect most purchasers get small delicate bulbs or plants that have suffered the sales bench too long. This is an example of garden centre affliction and if you get through the first winter you might be home and dry.
My further evidence about the hardiness of eucomis is that all my plants (all outside) survived the double Winter of 2010 when the ground was frozen solid for a very long time.
My testimony applies to just three forms and I cannot of course vouch for the hardiness of all eucomis.

I find my own in-garden eucomis transplanting and division hardly ever fails. That is saying something as eucomis bulbs are so firmly attached to their deep strong roots in old clumps that I need the help of an axe. Some very dodgy sliced bulbs have survived! Eucomis is as tough as old boots with a fine constitution.

Demonstration of division

Remains of dead eucomis leaves when I propagated in February

Exposed deeply rooted bulbs exposed by scraping debris away

Roots are so firmly attached that hammer needed to knock spade in

A really rough hack out

It's beyond my strength to remove the stem structure beneath the bulb
Most gardening books give the (incorrect) mandatory advice to plant in well drained soil. In their native South Africa they dwell in damp habitats and in the lower parts of my own garden they survived last Winter’s flooding with the dormant clumps barely above the flood water for three months. The village plot suffered similar flooding and eucomis came through. They do really well in  wet parts of a garden (but not in a bog).

Well established eucomis bulbs emerging in Early April
Puzzling pollination
I believe some gardeners find eucomis seed themselves all over. As far as I know mine have never set seed.
I was alerted last month to the interesting pollination of a South African species by the delightful elephant shrew (apparently closer genetically to an elephant than a shrew) and cannot resist giving a link to the delightful video (below).
It would seem that eucomis pollinators are directed by scent and not colour. Most are pollinated by flies and specific wasp species which search for the nectar. The scent is variously described as boiled potatoes, sulphurous or foetid. I have never noticed.
This year I will be watching closely and even try some hand pollination. I might get seed to give to my friends.

The white one is my favourite but seems to have less vigour than my pink one

This clump is doing well on Cathi's grass verge in its second year after rather messy division
Both the eucomis and the ginger seem to do well together in one of the wetter parts of my garden

As I write the lawn is under water- just like January and February last year!
The  charming video of elephant shrew and eucomis from Botany One

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