Saturday, 12 April 2014

Garden myths discussed: do you need to clean dirty pots?


I also make special reference to damping off disease.

Blogger Sue Garrett recently challenged fellow bloggers to publish pictures of less flattering parts of their garden. If you believe this picture was specially staged you are wrong!

I try in my blog to provide correct factual information. When I fail to do so please let me know. Inevitably in some cases there is a degree of speculation and opinion. You might decide that is the situation today. My scientist friend Peter Williams agrees with the thrust of my submission  and agrees dirty pots are essentially the same with regard to plant health as putting new plants harmlessly into outdoor  soil.  He is adamant however that he will continue cleaning his pots although I don’t think he actually goes so far as washing them.

I am indebted to blogger Rick Nelson for alerting me to this myth. He empathised with me when I  previously described washing clay pots outside on a cold winter morning when I worked at Hartlepool Parks and Recreation Department. In those days pots were scrubbed to remove algae and lime. New pots were also soaked and washed to remove salts left from manufacture. Attitudes change, and I remember displaying Dicentra cucullaria in a large clay pot at the Harrogate Spring Flower Show. The dirty earthenware pot was covered with white lime and algal green. It was a star.

It is now fifty years since I washed a pot. I cannot remember even giving a pot or container as much as a light dry clean. Most, but not all, of my pots are plastic and have been reused numerous times. I do recommend  to gardeners to have a store of pots and sturdy seed trays to re-use several times rather than buying new fiddly flimsy containers and modules.
I had thought not cleaning my pots and seed trays was part of my slovenly nature. I am grateful to Rick for informing me that I am not unique.

Ammi was all over the place at a rather hyped flower show last year. I have succumbed to fashion.
Plant health is an essential part of plant management. There will be rare occasions when a dirty  plant pot harbours pests such as root aphid or root mealy bug. Heaven forbid, vine weevil larvae may lurk in some peaty compost. You might have even grown cabbages with clubroot . Perhaps your plants were dripping with red spider mite and some have gone into hibernation round the rim of your pot but I doubt it. In none of these events would I clean the pot. I would go further and throw them away.

You may be worried about the fungal fungus disease of seedlings called damping off when the contents of an infected seed-tray keels over and dies. This disease is associated with dirty conditions and unsterilised soil. I have unconventional views about this very important and ubiquitous disease.

We used to teach our students that damping-off was an infectious disease and not merely a disorder caused by bad management. We used to emphasise hygiene, clean pots, clean irrigation water, no drips from the glass and to always use sterile or sterilised compost. The principle was if you avoid the infection it will be impossible to get the disease. This is the conventional view. It is successfully achieved in commercial horticulture where potent chemical help is at hand.

For most of we ordinary gardeners the water carried spores of this disease are almost everywhere - albeit not in the air. In spite of this I think that the disease will not be a problem if we grow our plants well. I argue that It is impracticable to avoid infection by such things as washing pots, the disease will find another way in. The significant factor is that only If the plant is in a susceptible condition will it succumb to the disease.

Gardeners can do dreadful things to their plants. They sow them too early with excessive artificial heat when there is inadequate light to support them. Some even imagine that small plastic mini greenhouse-like structures standing on a shelf or only slightly better, on a  light windowsill in the house, are somehow suitable for seed-propagating plants. Gardeners are advised to cover their seedlings with a sheet of glass, all that humidity, no wonder they get drawn and keel over with rot!
The worst mischief is poor watering, This is a real problem because to the inexperienced gardener it is easy to go wrong. Knowing how much and how often to water is not always obvious. Too much water and high humidity are the conditions where damping-off thrives.

It is not always practicable for certain difficult plants but for all of the many plants I personally grow from seed the germinating seedlings are fully open to the air and I do not cover them. Very high humidity can be fatal. I thoroughly water at first sowing and for very small seed actually water the compost before scattering the seed. For other than very fine seed like antirrhinum I like the compost surface to get quite dry before I thoroughly water again. Damping off really does thrive when it is wet and humid. There will be some infrequent occasions where for very small seed a compost is dry at the surface and yet wet below. In these circumstances a light watering rather than a thorough soak may be in order but not every day!

Some gardeners do not realise that very thin layers of compost lie very wet after drainage and damping off may be more likely to occur.

There are two kinds of person when it comes to our own domestic hygiene. Some are constantly cleaning and every surface is regularly swabbed with some useless anti-bacterial product. Any food falling on the floor goes straight in the bin. Others amongst us are more cavalier and like to keep our immune systems primed. Some people wash pots and others don’t.

Healthy Corydalis lutea seedlings have ‘volunteered’ in my seed tray of recycled ‘compost’. I have now weeded them out and the germinating seedlings of Dictamnus fraxinella are now doing very well.


Superb dwarf Lilium formosanum pricei was sown six months ago in my unheated greenhouse. I will have hundreds of dwarf lilies flowering next year.

Sown two years ago, fresh seed of Fritillaria meleagris  germinated last February and were grown-on undisturbed in their tray. They are sprouting again. 
I have now patched them out on the village plot. The inevitable liverwort has not done any harm.


Addendum, do we have another myth?

Since penning this post six weeks ago I have agonised as to why our students when raising plants in college greenhouses for their plot projects almost always suffered from damping off! (The plants not the students). I have not personally seen the disease since I ‘retired’ from college more than twenty years ago and as this post makes clear my conventional plant hygiene is appalling! (I will however explain in a future post that in some aspects of plant hygiene how I am extremely strict). You will have gathered by now that not only do I not wash pots, I also recycle compost and soil!

I have now remembered that the students, who I hasten to add, were not under my charge, almost invariably covered their glasshouse sown seeds with polythene or glass. I have now seen the light and am certain that covering was the cause of their problem. Instructors ensured the students exerted the most extreme hygiene you could imagine yet the seedlings constantly keeled over.

Plants sown outside in the garden, either by the gardener or nature are almost never covered by anything but soil. You (normally) never get damping off outside. It suddenly dawns on me that covering glasshouse seed with plastic or glass is normal practice for many gardeners. I had somehow cut myself off from such technique and perhaps I have even regarded my own methods as rather more primitive. I now notice in magazines and gardening blogs people envelope seeds with plastic covers much of the time. How strange, I even spotted someone covering brassica seed with a glass sheet!

As is my wont to take things to extremes, for the last six weeks I have tried to get my uncovered seed and seedlings to succumb to damping off. I have watered some more often than normal, some with heavy drenches others with daily light trickles. As usual I frequently fail to find find my rose. Perforce they were unwatered for the five days when we were away. The only watering sin I could not bring myself to do was to leave my seed trays standing in water all day! 
Not a seedling has died and I have got healthy seedlings aplenty. 


Cathi came round last night and pointed out  that I was not a proper scientist and I did not even have the experimental control of actually covering any of my seed!  Shame on me but this would have been a bridge too far!

Saturday, 5 April 2014

How to grow Cyclamen coum


A mark of success is to have large drifts of Cyclamen coum all over the garden. On my sandy soil I fail, my own are fairly insipid. Quite galling really, when I pass my old garden at  Bolton Percy, fifteen years after my departure they are quite magnificent. Not my old plants but from their self-sown seed, the original plants were dug up a long time ago by a man with a spade. They are now to be found under hedges, in otherwise scruffy neglected corners and on the grass verge by the road. I wonder if the seed was taken there by the ants. I wrote about myrmecochory - I just love that word - in last year's post on Cyclamen hederifolium the easiest of all the hardy cyclamen to grow. 

I have some nice Cyclamen coum in my home gravel and rock gardens but they do not spread very well.

Although the ants have been busy
On the more loamy soil at my old home Cyclamen coum is very easy to grow and provides a lovely carpet of colour in early Spring. It has particularly thrived in this year’s warm February days. My friend Peter Williams made an interesting comment when he noted that you struggle for years to get drifts going and suddenly they reach a critical mass and you can’t stop them!

Cyclamen coum looked good in my old garden

It was struggling a bit in Bolton Percy churchyard
Collecting seed
I feel sorry for new gardeners who want to grow these lovely self-seeding cormacious plants. If you buy a packet of seed not only are they expensive you get very few seeds and not many germinate. Failing having a friend who grows them, the best way to build up your numbers eventually to hundreds is to buy a plant and save your own seed. Peter Williams whose fine plants I feature today, bought a rosy red one and a pale pink one at Anglesey Abbey National Trust nursery several years ago. He collected the seed, he got there before the ants and each plant gave him more than two hundred seeds. If not cross pollinated the seeds come fairly true. When eventually you become a  cyclamen connoisseur you will have so many seedlings  that you can start to become selective and save only the plants with the best foliage markings!

Get there before the ants. I always think of Zebedee in children's TV programmes when I see these coils unfurling many months after flowering 

Lovely foliage markings
You can select the best markings
The main secret of success  with seed is to sow them fresh. Best on the day you collect them.
The secret of failure is to buy dry corms. Always buy a plant that is growing! 

Success in a pot

Peter’s pots, home and away
I am particularly thrilled this year by the large pot of Cyclamen coum I feature. Guess who gave them to me last December! They have stood outside my conservatory and have been a mass of colour for more than three months. They are in Peter’s compost and all I have done to them other than watering is to give them a light top dressing of fertiliser in January. Absolutely magnificent and I now relish the prospect of collecting masses of seed. Peter tells me, much to my surprise, that each pot contains only six corms!

Peter has sent me some cultural information that I am passing on almost verbatim. Of course the Reading method  he describes is tongue in cheek. Who would go to that trouble or really believe that such precision is needed for success. Even Peter’s own method is too finicky for me. If seed fall to the ground and germinate as well as they do, they must be easy to grow. I used to propagate my (rather easier) Cyclamen) hederifolium at my old home by sowing 200 or so seeds in a seed tray of multi-purpose peat based compost on the day I collected them in September. They germinated within six weeks and overwintered outside at the base of a sheltered wall (I had no greenhouse then). They looked so sad when frozen solid on a cold Winter’s morning! 

Peter’s Cyclamen hederifolium have sown themselves in his gravel road

Essentially my present method  of propagation is the same as Peter’s below. Without the frills I still get the thrills. Don’t let his commentary put you off because it sounds difficult. If you collect fresh seed and sow them straight away you cannot fail. I have to tell you that when I collect seed from Peter’s fine plants I will sow them in trays in a mixture of my garden soil and and composted green-bin waste given to me recently to keep me sweet, by the municipal composter who operates up the road. If I told you what goes into his green waste product you would question my sanity. From the ridiculous to the sublime you might prefer Peter’s middle way!

Peter Williams' notes on propagating Cyclamen coum

Germination: difficulties expressed by members of Cyclamen Society – They refer to the Reading System. Quote from website “Members write to the Journal more often about seed sowing success and failure than about any other topic. Many of the contributions below describe the experiences of Society members in the light of the University of Reading's work for the Society on seed germination. As reported in the Journal (June 1993, p2), this "Reading method" showed that for at least C. hederifolium and C. graecum success depends on complete absence of light for 15 to 26 days, a temperature of 15°C (59°F) and certainly no higher than 20°C (68°F), and a constant supply of moisture without flooding, drying out, or even minor fluctuations.”

Peter's system – Fresh seed – sow immediately the seed pods split open – June,July/August/Sept depending on which species I am growing
Compost: 80% fine peat:20% horticultural sand.  To the peat component I add 2g per litre of dolomitic limestone and to the whole compost (peat + sand)  I add 1.5g per litre of micro granule slow release fertiliser  6-9 month release.
I usually make a batch of the peat/sand + chalk base mixture and then take out say 1 litre and add the slow release fertiliser when I need it.  The base mixture keeps indefinitely. I use a plastic measuring jug to measure the volume of compost and on electronic kitchen scales (most will weigh as little as 1-2 g) to weigh the chalk and fertiliser.
If I store the seed over winter I rehydrate by soaking in tap water for 24 hours before sowing. I do not wash fresh seed but many growers do to remove the sticky ant attractant. (no danger of ants pinching the seed that way!)
I sow the seeds and cover with a few mm of compost and then a few mm of alpine grit.
The seeds will germinate equally well in a slightly heated propagator (at 10-20C) or in a cold glasshouse (or outside) but they germinate somewhat faster in the propagator. Germination  occurs 3-6 weeks after sowing.
I leave the seedlings in the seed trays for the whole of the first year and occasionally give them a feed with tomato food. They are not pricked out. The seedlings become dormant over the summer and I repot into individual pots in August – essentially after 1 years growth.
Potting compost for the older plants is 3 parts peat or recycled compost – any that I have : 2 leafmould : 1 alpine grit. I rarely use new peat but if I do I add 2.0 g dolomitic limestone per litre of peat.  To the whole compost I add 3g litre of 12-14 month slow release fertiliser.  Again I make up a large batch of the base compost and only add the slow release fertiliser just before I use it. 
A few plants flower in their second growing season and all within 3 years.  
Seed sowing in Peter’s greenhouse trays
One year after sowing. Soil scraped away to show corms ready for potting
Commentary on flexibility of horticultural method
I am immensely grateful to Peter for his valuable and precise information. It is specially valuable to those who like to make their own compost - and lets face it there is an awful lot of commercial rubbish around. I make my own compost too, but I use my own garden soil and measure ingredients in dollops and slack-hands-full rather than with precision. I have commented before that the difference between John Innes 1 and 2 is 100% in strength and yet it is often a marginal decision which to use and one partly dictated by likely subsequent management. Peter shows his own flexibility too when he mentions reusing the cyclamen seed compost when he makes up his stronger potting compost in the second year. Who knows, growth of beneficial mycorrhiza might have got underway! Peter’s mixes are precise but I am certain that if a current mix is suitable for a different plant he will use it.
If a plant such as cyclamen sows itself in the ground so readily it must be easy and the methods of growing are legion. I have often pricked or patched out self sown seedlings and potted then up for friends at any time of the year. Strictures against dry corms are about those out of the packet or the garden centre bench. Soil-to-soil movement of plants is much more successful. When I used to have seed trays of hundreds of crowded corms one year on from seed - like in Peter’s picture - I would sow them like peas on my vegetable garden to grow on for their second year.
Peter also has a wonderful display of different species-cyclamen in his cold greenhouse.


Saturday, 29 March 2014

A Sensual Garden Creating a Place for Being in the Present Moment by Shenandoah Kepler


I was honoured and delighted and not a little scared when a famous blogger, Shenandoah of Fleeting Architecture e-mailed me and asked me to review her new book, What if I did not like it or was unable to relate to horticulture in another climate and culture? 
I should not have been concerned. It is a lovely book with a catchy title relevant to gardens everywhere! Even better her US climate zone does not look very different to that of my own  garden and her very fine photographs almost all taken herself, are of plants I can grow and some I actually know.
The theme of the book is the myriad of sensory routes that plants in a garden have into our lives. I used to do a lecture to amateur gardeners called ‘Colour in the garden all the year round’ where I used to argue that there was more to colour than just flowers. Shenandoah’s beautiful book goes much further and gives numerous well illustrated examples of how all our senses, sight, hearing, touch, taste and sound respond to plants. It goes deeper and looks at the effect on our wellbeing and mood analysing the psychological and physiological processes involved .

I refer you to Shenandoah’s blog for a description of why and what she tries (and succeeds) to achieve in her book. You will also find details of where and how to read the book and indeed download it for free if you join her website. It is a very modern e-book with interesting references to click on to when you want detailed explanations. I would describe it as a ‘coffee table book’ even though it’s on the computer. As an old stager myself I have just been reminded that on a pad or a kindle it is a book!
You will learn many new plants, landscape design principles and much about yourself. Shenandoah’s fertile mind gives so many examples of how plants please and when she shares her original thoughts you need to pause for breath and think. That’s why the book is so good. There is too much to miss if you try to read it in one go! 

The book

The only way I know how to review a book is to recount responses it evokes in my head and I can tell you that I know much more now how to respond to a garden! 

I related to references of odours that bring back childhood memories. They are not always the plants! In Mrs. Kepler’s case it was smells of the farm. In my own case it is the bouquet  of the soil. It is earthy smells when digging(!) and clean fungal odours of compost and log piles. Some of the strong essences Shenandoah remembers you might not be terribly fond of. Brenda recently complained to her son Peter that his stables were smelly with dung. He replied, “Mother it is a beautiful aroma”

Catching thoughts about aromas, not all plants smell nice. I personally hate the stink of sorbus flowers. Shenandoah says she rather savours the bold odour of box. To me it smells like cat’s pee!

Much is written about beautiful scents and the book describes many  plants you will want to add to your own garden. It recommends subtle placing of such plants often near to the house. Brenda constantly demands to know why I fail to do this. I tell her that I have an acre to fill. She cannot have every special plant outside her window or next to the door. She does not seem to agree.



Although many plants and especially flowers have beautiful scents they are not always very long lasting and often are sometimes not very strong. I love to put my nose into a flower but really prefer those fragrances so powerful that you do not have to work hard to detect them. Two of my own favourites are sarcococca and cercidopyllum. Both have long lasting pervading smells which you can enjoy even on a windy day. The common name of sarcococca is Winter box. Rather ironic in view of my earlier comment about buxus. Brenda regards sarcococca as rather sickly, I can’t win! At least she agrees that the candy floss smell of cercidophyllum autumn leaves is stunning!

The wind snapped my outdoor hyacinth. Its delightful smell graced our conservatory for more than a week.

My own Daphne 'Jaqueline Postill' has a very powerful smell

Pleasant odours of plants may be the same ones as food - if one should imagine candy floss to be a food, I sowed my own cherry pie (heliotrope) today! Mrs Kepler actually promotes edible fruit and vegetables to be dispersed in the garden for their beauty, odours and taste. She mentions tomatoes. I agree that tomatoes have a first transient attractive smell. but if  you have ‘twisted and side-shooted’ tomatoes and ended your working  day in a commercial glasshouse with black stained hands you might disagree.

Different senses reside in separate chapters. There are sound thoughts about sounds. Shenandoah explores how to ameliorate unwanted noise and reminds us of the murmurs of beautiful breezes that drift through the plants and crunching sounds on gravel paths. She mentions wind chimes. I find them somewhat repetitive - to put it mildly - like the one in Worsbrough Cemetery garden hanging on a tree. One person’s charm is another’s irritation. I regret to inform you that for a short while in Bolton Percy I had a wind chime  myself! My poor neighbours!

The chapter on touch is touching. I enjoyed Mrs Kepler’s feelings about feel. I was reminded of Brenda’s tendency to touch plants and being screamed at at by a stand holder, “you cannot do that!”

Shenandoah's avatar

I think Shenandoah is a more spiritual person than me. Gardens are places of emotion. I remember a garden visiter to Bolton Percy cemetery in tears at he sight of beautiful plants growing over graves. My eyes watered too. Much pleasure is obtained in a garden and it is not all horticultural! The calm of a beautiful garden has influenced love, poetry, music and great human beings walking thinking great thoughts and making historic decisions.

I liked the references to enjoying the gestalt of a garden. Gardens are places for meditation. Although I sometimes do yoga and stand on my head I cannot myself relate to sitting and contemplating in a garden. Until I met Brenda I did not know what garden seats were for. Now they are everywhere! I do recall the contentment an old man who regularly sat on a bench in Bolton Percy cemetery and thought thoughts.

My own failure to relate to meditation in a garden is that I meditate all the time! Most people call it day dreaming and lack of attention. I have a peculiar ability to switch off and not hear what is going on around me. Brenda cannot stop herself listening to every word uttered by a stupid DJ! When I garden I am in my own little world. Sometimes these days I am writing a blog in my head! My serious point is that we are all different and derive numerous but very various pleasures from contemplation.

Although Shenandoah explores how the well being of the body and mind is enhanced by psychological processes she might have said more about the direct physical effect on our bodies of being outside. There is much modern research suggesting that plant biochemicals released into the air have very beneficial effects. Fresh air has powerful anti-bacterial properties and sunshine has very significant effects on our health and mood as well as providing vitamin d. The latter compound will do more for our health and wellbeing than most over-hyped pharmaceutical products.

Rather counter to my suggested omission, Cathi was round for a meal last night. She was relating how our limbic system responds to tastes and smells and how one can recall deep-seated  memories. I was able to say “I know, I have read Kepler!” As my blog-meister she was delighted to learn I was reviewing Shenandoah’s book!

Perhaps the most lasting thought that this lovely book has left with me is that I should live more in the present. I should savour the pleasures of now. I tend to be be thinking of the immediate future and the tasks and pleasures to come in the day. I should learn to enjoy ‘nowness’ and the  immediate sensations provoked by my garden and plants.


In her latest post Mrs.Kepler says a great deal about herself, her philosophy and more about the book. Thank you Shen for the book and your kind permission to show some of your pictures.

These are two of my earlier book reviews
Chillies by Jason Nickels
Wild flowers on the Edge by Margaret Atherden and Nan Sykes




Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Growing our calamondin orange


Bought at Homebase ten years ago. It was a little careworn and had been on the shelves rather long. Nothing that a little tender love and care would put right, it had been reduced from £40 to £10! What value for a then 18 inches high (and bedraggled) evergreen glossy leaved plant that would give us scented delicate white flowers and perfumed long lasting edible fruit every year. Restricted by annual pruning our plant is now maintained as a sturdy shrub five foot high.

Citrofortunella micocarpa is a multiple hybrid between varied species and genera of citrus plants. Its exact origins as a sub-tropical edible fruit are lost in antiquity. It is one of the easiest citrus to grow as a conservatory plant in temperate climates such as the UK. Our stately homes have a long tradition of orangeries where citrus plants were brought inside to overwinter.

Our conservatory faces east and gets substantial morning sunlight. It is heated to suit our own comfort. Today in late March our orange carries over a hundred small fruits and looks quite superb.



Growth tends to come in flushes and will be strongest in Summer. Such growth will often, but not always carry new flowers. To some extent fruit formation is therefore staggered becoming apparent in December, the plant increases in beauty throughout winter and early Spring. It is orange with fruit for almost five months. 




Our plant in December

Calamondins will survive several degrees of frost but because it looks so nice inside I am in no hurry to put it outside for Summer when it is still beautiful inside. It will stand outside in what we pretentiously call our courtyard from early June to first frosts in early October. It is a convenient time to prune it when we bring it in at that time. Let me remind you that your pruning should look natural and not be apparent to the casual observer!

Standing outside in Summer in it’s previous earthen-ware pot 

Calamondins do not make a good houseplant if rooms are dingy and if they are not put outside in full summer light that lasts at least part of the day. Otherwise they are easy and I fully recommend them. Ours is now in a fifteen litre, square plastic pot. We have gone plastic because it is lighter and as we get older feel less inclined to heave inside its previous heavy earthen-ware container. 

All my conservatory plants (other than the orchids) are in our own sandy soil. I know many gardeners need to use compost because their own garden soil is unsuitable. For large volumes of soil in a tub, I believe more gardeners have a more appropriate soil than they think. I generally recommend they add slow release fertiliser and sometimes dolomitic limestone or chalk when preparing such soil. In my own case I know I will be top dressing the calomondin with my yaramila fertiliser four or five times a year and sometimes omit the more expensive slow release stuff. As I have suggested in a previous post, plants like calomondins that make substantial new growth through the winter need generous feeding at that time despite what some of the books say. 

I have nothing against liquid feeding, it is normal sound practice. I take the easy way and top dress by scattering fertiliser on the surface instead. Every time I water some of my granular fertiliser washes in. My  yaramila compound fertiliser contains NPK and the other major elements calcium, sulphur and magnesium and all the trace elements. Every nutrient my plant needs. I generally recommend to those who liquid feed  to use a proprietary tomato liquid fertiliser. I don’t recommend taylor made ‘special’ citrus feeds.

You will see that my calomondin  looks a little chlorotic.Leaves on  evergreen plants do become senescent at certain times of the year and some leaves will fall. Do not imagine that this will always indicate your plant needs a special feed.

I think I have only repotted my calamondin three time in ten years. First when it came to its new home base, second, when it needed a bigger pot and latterly when we moved to a square plastic  pot from a round one!

In its new pot

When grown in the open ground in warmer climates calamondins are known to be tolerant of a wide range of soils but are sensitive to poor drainage. Same in a pot, never let them stand in saucers of water other than when a little run-through soaks back in a couple of hours. Water them generously on the occasion of watering but wait until the compost or soil looks distinctly dry at the surface before watering again. Outside in Summer they will need generous watering when dry - even if it has rained, unless you have had an absolute downpour!  Plants can dry out very quickly in warm windy conditions, beware. 
As long as your growing media drains freely do not worry that in extended periods of heavy rain your soil or compost is repeatedly watered when it is already wet!

Beautiful blue ball

You might be intrigued by the blue watering device standing in our pot and might be thinking it’s really not quite my style! You would be right and as for actual irrigation it is pretty useless!
It was given to us by a particularly dear friend -  and a regular post peruser so I am trying to be  diplomatic. It has a place in our hearts but merely as an ornament. On a technical note a typical single watering with my watering can when inside, or hosepipe outside, will be ten times the blue balls’s capacity.




We are sometimes asked whether we eat the fruits. My usual reply is that they look far too nice to spoil the plant’s beauty by picking. Last year however when the fruit was getting really ripe we did pick some and Brenda made the best marmalade ever. Billy, Brenda’s grandson regularly sucks a lemon. She cut one of our citruses for him to try. He never asked again! The flesh is apparently rather tart but the peel is sweet. Apparently they are very nice cut in two and frozen and used as an ice cube with drinks. So maybe the next time we serve dinner to friends in our conservatory we can savour it’s flavour!
It has only just dawned on me - I am pretty slow on the uptake - that if this year I collect a few seeds I can raise some more plants. I don’t know what I will do with them but it will be fun.

There will be ripe seeds in these fruits

I have written before about conservatory plants that we put out for the Summer.


Tuesday, 18 March 2014

You do not have to dig up tree stumps!


Reasons not to dig


Not a pretty sight?
Some gardeners will be unable to follow my advice today! It is not in their make up. They may be tidy and cannot abide letting nature take her course. They want immediate results. They want a challenge and prove their virility by extracting every stump. It might mean a few broken spades, worse a strained back or a few sprains. They will get those roots out! No matter what harm their effort may do to the natural ecology of the site. Worse, weasel words will have suggested that this is something they must do. “You will get armillaria and other unspecified pest and disease, the dead stump will be ugly as it decays, it will be there for years, it will sprout and grow again, you will not be able to dig

Visitors might trip over

This is coral spot which also attacks sick woody plants. Fear not, your shrubs are no more likely to be infected than from normal ubiquitous air born spores

Many fungal infections of both living and dead trees are rather ornamental

I have deliberately followed my last post in which I promoted the idea of hugelkultur and today suggest that a dead stump in the ground will give the same horticultural benefits as this method of growing when the wood decays. All that heat of decay warming the soil, all those slowly released nutrients, all that microbial life and interesting beetles. Even better as dead roots deep in the ground decay the ensuing open channels will facilitate water penetration and drainage.

My Cercis ‘Forest Pansy’ has enjoyed the company of this stump

I recently looked at a gardening internet forum where an inexperienced gardener had found a dead stump in his garden. Dammit, it had been there for years and he had only just found it. One member rather guiltily suggested he disguise it by planting a shrub next to it. Excellent advice, the shrub would benefit hugely by this source of nutrients! The general opinion was no, the stump had to go and all manner of weird advice was given about what he should do it. Give gardeners a chance to be natural and they fail at the first hurdle when there's a threat to the look of their loosened tarted up soil.

This stump is well camouflaged most of the year

In a moment of weakness a few years ago I watched a TV gardening programme. After keen deliberation the ‘team’ advised a gardener to remove a a fairly large shrub. I would have had it down in less than five minutes, albeit rather longer to take the top away and process the wood. The programme ended with an army of family members carrying their buckets and spades, machetes, axes, saws and crowbars marching down the garden to toil for the rest of the day removing every last piece of the poor plant. TV producers have a lot to answer for when their spectacular ‘shot’ creates it’s own false narrative. They have a lot to answer for, when dubious content is inserted to ‘make an entertaining programme’.

But stumps are ugly!
They don’t have to be. They can be cut flush to the ground and either just left or covered with soil or a mulch. There is a slight problem with chain saws as soil can easily blunt them and unless asked chain saw operators tend to cut higher. 
I once had a very large stump in my old garden in Bolton Percy (The one that fostered the tame armillaria in my recent post) and it became an ornamental feature covered with climbers and ornamental variegated ivy. In that same post I confessed to the fact that my lilac at Boundary Cottage might have been checked by armillaria. If it does die the ivy covering the stump is already there!


I recently freshened up my gravel mulches and decided to cover this stump. In the end I just gravelled up to it and left the top exposed 

Some gardeners  leave the trunk and a few branches of a dead tree as a support for a vigorous climber such as Clematis montana. After many years it will eventually blow over but so will a pergola or fence!
A local ‘Open Garden’ had a beautiful garden feature where the roots of a dead tree on a bank were cleared of soil and washed clean to reveal rivulets of gnarled roots which were planted with dwarf plants.

Roots on this birch growing out of an old concrete foundation on the village plot are not unattractive

The ants sowed my hardy cyclamen in this stump

This stump acts as a stand

My former neighbour Mick Needham carved this cat on Cathi’s stump

If, heaven forbid, this shrub in an Oxford garden died you would want to keep it

What if the stump sprouts?

Many trees and shrubs such as conifers don’t sprout. Some plants make a weak effort to survive  and others if unattended will grow back strongly. This might be a good thing. Sometimes supposed dead shrubs and trees regrow to make rejuvenated plants. For some woody plants cutting back to the ground is a method of pruning. My multi stemmed birch in my cemetery gardens used to be chosen by photographers as photogenic features. When original self sown saplings had outgrown their position I would cut them back and let them regrow with multiple trunks.

If a stump does make unwelcome new growth, cut it away. Initially you might have to be quite persistent but the effort and time will be a fraction of that to dig out the stump. Many gardeners who refuse to use herbicides pull out couch and convolvulus for ever more. What’s a few extra sprouting shoots?

The sprouting shoots need attention. My neighbours to the cemetery garden have been quite original!

Sprouting stumps can of course be treated with brushwood killer. Some gardeners seem to have a curious ‘disconnect’ with this and are prepared to use this type of herbicide. Somehow it is not so evil as spraying!  And of course regenerating growth can be conventionally sprayed as I sometimes do. Glyphosate in general is not very good and I use, albeit rarely, MCPA. This is a ‘lawn weedkiller’ which is also used to kill brushwood.

Should any plant be dug or pulled out when it dies?

I am thinking here about things like old haulm of Brussel sprouts, tomatoes and annual plants. As a minimum cultivator I cut them close to the ground and sometimes shred the tops. I use my loppers to cut still green brassicas before cycling them to Cathi’s sheep and rheas next door.(But not poisonous tomato tops). What a treat and I get much joy when they come running expectantly towards me. Most gardeners who are tidier than me will of course take such things away for composting or diggers will dig them in. Anything is better than throwing away valuable organic matter in the wretched green wheelie bin.

But why yank them out when they can be cut away to leave all that good root and attached soil in the ground?



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