Thursday, 1 December 2016

Mighty Mole Seeds

Sparkle looks for his seeds

It came back that our old house Betula in Bolton Percy had sold for a third time. Apparently the new owner was an agronomist and worked for Mole Seeds. It gave me a warm feeling that the new owner was involved with the land.
I was even happier when Jim who had put his spies out to alert him to my next visit to the cemetery came round to say ‘hello’. He invited me back for a coffee. It was great to have a tour of my old house and garden. After ten years how they had changed! The house for the better!

Jim and Mr Mole (And Peter) at Four Oakes trade fair
It later emerged that Jim was a keen gardener and recently as a keen birder he contributed to my recent post about birds in conifers. Last year Peter Williams and I visited the annual Four Oakes Horticultural Trade Exhibition near Jodrell Bank in Cheshire and met him on Mole Seeds fine stand.
Jim is now a keen member of the cemetery ‘C team’ who help me with cemetery development and maintenance!

Mole Seeds was just a vague name to me. Jim informed me that they were substantial seed suppliers to the UK Horticultural Industry but that they also concerned themselves with keen amateurs.
It is very easy these days to buy seeds on the net and most seedsman have excellent and easily navigated websites. Although I still browse catalogues and mark my future buys I now almost invariably place my order web-wise. It is so much easier to order for someone like me who cannot add up long lists more than once and get the same answer!
I was impressed and surprised that a large wholesale supplier such as Moles have a ‘Minimum Order’ as little as £7-50 pre-vat.

I found that their cheapest seed packets for my kind of seeds - at that stage just vegetables - was between £3 and £6. I have explained before that I am a tight Yorkshireman and that works out a little expensive especially with VAT. I am so mean that I am amazed that seedsman’s catalogues give you space to order more than one packet of an item! One packet is surely enough for any gardener like me?
This shows my age! Some seedsman put so little seed in a packet you can price them almost for individual seeds! It also shocks me that some people pay good money to buy actual plants! This might be sensible for things difficult or needing very early sowing in heat but for lettuce, tomatoes and cabbage - well I ask you! Half the fun is sowing your own seeds. Some people’s so called ‘home grown’ vegetables come very-very expensive and pay little tribute to their personal skill!

Last year’s tomatoes

We love the large Albenga, a disease free Marmande tomato. This year a single fruit filled this same bowl!
So why have I deserted the excellent Marshalls about whom I have previously posted? Well they are still on my list and so are Chilterns about whom I waxed lyrical. Chilterns offer such a wide range of rare ornamentals and vegetables and have no rival.
For three years now my main order has gone to Mole Seeds and it’s working out cheaper! I now receive their wonderful large catalogue packed with a huge range of seeds and technical data (on their website) about how to grow them. Not so many gimmicky sundries either although professional growers are not immune from silly notions and expensive solutions. Moles’ sundries are limited to clips and labels and include a decent water proof pen.
There are various pluses for Mr Mole. He is speedy and efficient. The seed packets are large and metallic. Unopened the seeds probably last a little longer than those in paper packets. Opened there is plenty of room to fold over to stack in a box and keep them for next year. 

The seeds are sometimes treated with protectant fungicides and similar. Some packets contain prilled seed which makes small seed easier to space-sow. Like most seedsman the packets often contain inner small paper packets. With certain seedsman it helps to find the seeds which are so few! With my velvet friend you always know how many seeds to expect.
Some of the seed is even ‘organic’. Suitable for the innocent and those nurserymen who wish to maintain their own organic marketing integrity.

The results are only as good as the operator (me)
                        My kale looks a little better (link)
The real bonus is the quality, range and quantity of seed. There are packets of fifty F1 peppers and tomatoes and that is the smallest size. You can if you are big, buy by the kilogram!
The large number of seeds in a packet is the problem but one that provides its own solution. Keep the seed for the future. Some seed like tomatoes in my own experience will last if cool in a packet for ten years and more. Very few seeds will not keep for at least one extra year. 
This is why my seed order is cheaper, the packets I buy last me two or three years!
(This advice does not apply to many ornamental seeds you might collect in your own garden and need to sow straight away)

My Florence Fennel is somewhat ‘past it’ 
More on longevity of seed
Although longevity is botanically extremely complex, for practical purposes as long as old seed is viable it will give plant quality as good as fresh seed. Until someone shows otherwise  - in these days of epigenics - I can say with confidence that the plants are genetically unchanged!
With age the main change in nurseryman’s seed is depletion of its stored resources. If within widely circulated storage times the only effect you will notice is a slight fall off in percentage germination.

My old colleague Bruce Rigby used to give his students a handout of a long traditional poem about gardening lore that amusingly and memorably reviewed seed storage times. I have spent several hours trying to find it on the internet. I would be immensely grateful if any reader, perhaps an old student can help me!
There are of course several useful lists that you can google. For what it’s worth I provide my own summary.

  • Parsley, parsnips and perhaps even onions will be a bit of a gamble. These represent two families, the umbellifers and the Alliaceae that do not  tend to store very well. No more than two years for leeks and three years for carrots.
  • I tend to shy away from storing large seeds. Published lists do never-the less give peas and beans three years. I felt I was pushing the boundaries to sow one year old sweet corn this year but it did very well. To my surprise the cucurbit family including marrows, squashes and cucumbers are good for four or five years.
  • The brassica family are a huge group including cauliflowers, cabbage, collards and turnips. All the well known examples are good for four years
  • The above recommendations are very conservative. If you have very old seed that looks ‘interesting’ just give them a try. If it’s something common harden you heart and throw them away.
Moles' flowers

We threw and grew

It was foolish of me to originally limit myself to vegetables.The Mole catalogue has a fat 160 pages of flowers. Everything that possibly can be raised from seed and that can be found at a garden-centre  will be there. There is a fantastic range including many little found treasures such as Nemophila ‘Penny Black’ that I recommend to naturalise in the garden. As holder of the National dicentra collection I don’t need true breeding Dicentra spectabilis and Dicentra spectabilis alba but at £4 for 25 seeds you might.

The main difference to catalogues with which you might be familiar is that they offer a wider range of cultivars rather than species. They offer perhaps only a dozen different primula species but for primroses and polyanthus and hybrids the choice is large. The same for pansies and violas and many more. 
I was spoilt for choice when I bought my sweet peas.

There is plenty of seed for the flower arrangers among you. I indulged in everlastings such as statice and limonium last year. 
They have a huge range of ‘Throw to Grow’. You can also buy named wild flowers in very generous packets.
It was when I turned to the flowers that I realised how cheap some of their packets can be. In the flower section some of the prices fall to £2.
They have a very wide range of fantastic ornamental grasses. If your taste in grasses is limited to your lawn you can buy them too - in mixtures. If you want individual lawn-grass species and cultivars you will have to wait for my next but one post!

Rhyme not really found
Peter has come up with this verse written by historic organic garden guru Lawrence Hills in mock old English style. It’s very good but not as good as Bruce’s

You have in your drawer since Christmas Day,
All the seed packets you daren't throw away.
Seed Catalogues cometh as year doth end.
But look, in ye drawer before money you spend,

Throw out ye Parsnip, 'tis no good next year
And Scorzonera if ther's any there,
For these have a life that is gone with ye wind
Unlike all seed of ye cabbagy kind,

Broccoli, cauliflower, sprouts, cabbage, kale, 
Live long like a farmer who knoweth good ale.
Three years for certain maybe five or four.
To sow in their seasons they stay in ye drawer

Then fillen ye form that your seedsmen doth send.
For novelties plentie, there's money to spend.
Good seed and good horses are worth the expense,
So pay them dollars as I paid in cents.

Relevant links
Mole seeds at Four Oakes exhibition

Birds and conifers  - includes Jim’s pictures

I did a guest post about Marshalls here

Link to Chilterns recommended here

Don’t forget you can get seeds and plants from Japan

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Garden myths

What are they?
Peter described them as truths, half truths, damned lies and magic.
They are certainly slippery creatures and refuse to die.

Take the old hospital practice of removing flowers from a ward at night; silly nonsense based on the idea that although plants make oxygen in the day they use it up at night when they respire – the image is worse these days, they make carbon dioxide! Of course the amounts are small. A single human breath will emit more carbon dioxide than a plant will make all night.

Or perhaps removing flowers was an old fashioned practice, the reasons born in antiquity seeking a new explanation! Garden myths and even garden truths frequently have their measure of pseudo-science.
If I were in an argumentative frame I might even find reasons to justify removing hospital flowers.
Perhaps some flowers will shed pollen or even smell. Allergies seem to be very common.

I fear I might not be doing you a service today when I attempt to destroy your illusions.
Take a real horticultural example. Many gardeners believe that evening or night is the only time to water plants. There are reasons - some of them wrong and others insignificant. It is unfortunate however that the belief extends to not watering at all in the day. I shudder at the thought of a plant dying of drought in the morning and the gardener waiting to water later.

This koheria is wilting of drought - I have checked it is not wilting by water logging - I will water it immediately

I shall continue to benefit from high water pressure from the tap on a Summer morning when it’s a mere piddle at night when everyone else is watering.
Of course if watering in the evening is a pleasant and relaxing end to the day do carry on!

I sometimes fear that when I write about myths that no one has ever heard of I do my bit in keeping incorrect notions alive!
It used to be believed that soil cultivation was needed for numerous reasons and that this was essential to grow plants. It would seem that although there are sometimes good reasons to stir the soil that if you can control the weeds – usually with herbicides in the case of commercial production – there is no need to cultivate at all. In the old days it used to be believed that cultivation was needed and for example hoeing conserved water.  Agricultural research showed this to be wrong.

Where do myths come from?
Their provenance is legend. Here are a few examples
  • They arise from trivial convenience and with time are elevated to need. It is convenient to add egg shells to compost but they are no value at all as a source of calcium. Un-decomposed egg shells are found in Archeological digs!…..scientist Peter Williams, (henceforth PW)) says you would need very strong acid to dissolve egg shells.
  • They arise from common sense. Common sense apart from not being very common is frequently wrong. Painting pruning wounds with sealants satisfies all our instincts and yet has repeatedly been shown to be harmful. This myth persists for too further classical reasons – it is often stated by authoritative figures and we tend to look for ‘special cases’ - note apple canker is NOT a special case.
  • Seeking explanations of actual problems – often by the means of misunderstood science. Leaf scorch is a genuine phenomenon although much less likely than people imagine. It is widely believed that water makes water droplets on leaves concentrate sunshine. Utterly wrong.
  • More mis-appliance of science. Mycorrhizal fungi can be hugely beneficial to plants. Levels of bacteria can influence or indicate soil conditions of life or death. It is almost invariably useless to add such organisms to the soil from a bottle!
  • Myths embedded in belief systems. Organic fertilisers are not generically better than inorganic ones. In my view they are frequently grossly inferior. This does not mean that any specific fertiliser cannot be better for individual tasks. There is a belief that fertilisers are bad for soil structure. Although fertilisers’ growth stimulation can hide other bad practices, when properly used they can bring huge improvements to soil fertility.
My inorganic Yaramila fertiliser provides all the necessary plant nutrients and in no way damages soil structure

  • Whims of famous people. I have written about the nonsense that rhododendrons exude natural plant toxins. It arose because the idea sounded plausible and it was repeated at a Conference.
  • Many garden gurus are not practical gardeners and many know no science! They often carry godlike authority. One once said that tomato/potato blight spores cannot properly penetrate into a greenhouse and that was the reason why greenhouse tomatoes are less susceptible to blight than those grown outside! I won’t insult my readers by explaining why his explanation is wrong. On another occasion a ‘personality‘ said that a banana was a herb. True in a garbled way!…. whoops  it was the same gg
  • PW who is an avid watcher of TV gardening describes one programme as  ‘a school of myths’
  • Editors! They like a good story! They don’t like it however when one that they have used repeatedly is shown to be wrong. Apparently recommendations to grow nettles in your garden to encourage certain butterflies is misguided. Insects hosted by nettles prefer real strong stands in the wild. Only very rarely are the said butterflies seen on nettles in a garden. When one ecologist conntributer reported this embarrassment to an erudite journal it was edited out. 
  • Claims that will make money! There are a lot of gullible gardeners around.  There are plenty of snake oil vendors too. For many products scientific evidence of efficacy is zero and any research is inconvenient. The gullible actually pay good money to put powdered rock on their garden.
*  Wrong conclusions drawn from sound gardening practice! I frequently promote all the advantages of recycling organic matter. There is a whole cult of biodynamics. This claims that nutrients can be ‘mined’ by deep rooted plants. It is true that certain elements can be brought up from considerable depths. Indeed trees have been shown to indicate mineral deposits below. In your own garden levels of nutrients are minimal below the topsoil. Your most fertile organic debris received its nutrients from roots near the soil surface. By all means compost your comfrey or hoe and recycle the tops off your marestail. They are all good organic matter but don’t bother your head with thoughts about  dynamic accumulation…. whoops I noticed on my old post about green manuring I told this porky myself.
  • Recycled old technologies. The old and still invaluable ‘hormone type’ lawn weedkillers such as MCPA and 24D were sometimes thought to be most efficiently translocated to the root when a weed was about to die down in Autumn. I frequently see the same principle claimed for the translocation of glyphosate. In my own experience the best time to kill a difficult weed with glyphosate is when it is large and actively growing. Even this maxim is not consistent with gardeners being told in every gardening article they care to read about lawns, that they must use their lawn weedkillers before the end of September. I prefer to weed-kill my own lawn in October or November
  • I heard a good one on the local radio gardening ‘phone in’ yesterday. The pundit earnestly explained that roots in wet soil in pots in Winter are physically damaged when frozen water expands. It is common knowledge that plant roots in pots are frequently more vulnerable to freezing than those still in the ground…but this is not the reason
Reading about Myths
I titled my early posts about myths ‘Garden myths debunked’ This was rather pretentious but easy to do for  myths that were so obviously wrong. I soon changed to a title that more reflected myths’ occasional part truths. You can find  links in my theme column. Unfortunately Google only brings up the latest ones from any long list – hence my sub-divisions of their titles.
Most of the myths I have written about such as those that say you should not apply glyphosate or fertiliser in Winter  are separately titled!

I must thank  Canadian blogger Robert Pavlis for some of the myths I mention today. Over the pond the American market would seem to be saturated with false claims. (In the USA they have shown recently their susceptibility to lying). Robert is tenacious in tracking garden myths down and explaining why many are nonsensical. Not only does he do his own practical demonstrations, his articles are widely researched, plainly explained and sources are precisely linked.
Apart from tackling trivial misunderstandings he is prepared to take on major issues. He recently took to task a famous Ted Talk. Widely circulated the talk makes highly inflated claims for the benefits of plants in buildings.
The talks’ flagship propaganda is a famous building stuffed with plants. The benefits claimed for the plants are more likely the result of the building’s specially installed air purification system!

Although I have suggested elsewhere that organic gardening is itself based on the nonsense that things inorganic are inferior to those ‘organic’ I am a great admirer of organic gardener Charles Dowding. I reviewed his book about myths. He challenges much of traditional garden lore and is well worth reading.

The Garden Professors do not seem to publish any more. If you locate their old site you will find very interesting reading about misguided and over rated gardening practices.
Unfortunately their prime mover was sacked from an American university extension department because she spent her time informing amateurs rather than churning out  money-raising research.
Linda Chalker is still very active on Facebook and the site is a very good source of information. They have a policy that technical data quoted by followers is based on ‘peer reviewed science'. The idea is to keep out the nonsense.
I do have my own reservations. Wrongly interpreted science – in the press a very common occurrence – leads to the greatest myths of all.

Links to relevant sites
Garden Profs. Go to this link and scroll town the left column – beyond the dated entries - to find a trove of information. Try the title ‘skeptics’

I review Charles Dowding

Poor Poppy (RIP) devoured the book

Robert Pavlis  tauntsTed

Will this purify the air?
Robert knows a lot about ponds

I am taken in by bio-dynamics

I read in last week’s  New Scientist a serious article about the problem of city air pollution. The article concludes with six bullet points of suitable measures that might be taken. The last one is to get a house plant!
I ask you!

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Will Roundup damage my plants?

How careful do you need to be when using glyphosate?

There may be blemishes in my Spring garden but none are caused by misdirected glyphosate

The answer to the above question is very careful. If you are one of those people who think you can dangle a sprayer and somehow your weeds will be killed and your plants won’t, you are wrong.
Glyphosate is one of the best herbicides ever invented but it does not know the difference between a plant and a weed!

Although knowledge and caution is required to use glyphosate some people  are excessively careful. It always amuses me when gardeners earnestly tell me how they bravely tangle a convolvulus shoot in a beaker of dilute spray for example! If you have a garden full of this weed that way takes for ever. With skilled use of a hand sprayer you might treat all of the bindweed in a small domestic garden in the time that others treat the weed growing over a single plant.

This canopy of bindweed growing over an old shrub provides its own curtain and can be carefully sprayed with a small hand sprayer

You can take a minute to cut this back to the ground and it will be back in a fortnight.
You can spray it with one in forty dilution of 360-glyphosate in five seconds and it is gone for ever
I confess I have been known to do fiddly things spraying such as to place inverted pots and tubs over a friend's delicate plants when surrounded by a jungle of perennial weed!

My example is a little ‘potty’ but if a treasured delicate plant in the garden is surrounded by a mountain of perennial weed this is worthwhile
My article today looks at the balance between over scrupulous care and confident use
You really need to read all of my glyphosate posts to become expert but today I would like to explore how far you can go.

A word of caution for experts
You may know that if working for clients that you can save them a shed load of money and hugely enhance their garden by using glyphosate. But beware. People who are doubtful about chemicals can be hugely sensitive to even one yellow leaf on a plant. You can kill client’s plants with impunity as a result of gardening  incompetence, ill timed pruning and inappropriate soil cultivation. Plant death as a result of shredding surface roots or chopping dormant plants by excessive digging might be regarded as 'just one of those things'. 
If glyphosate has been used anywhere  in such a  persons’s garden it is sure to be blamed. 
Plants are routinely sick and die for all kind of reasons. I have even seen glyphosate wrongly blamed  for leaf discolouration in places of higher horticultural education!

I can say with confidence this dahlia in a mountain village in Tignes has never seen glyphosate
Some clients are extremely happy to pay you for toiling away repeatedly pulling out couch grass rhizomes. Some gardeners are very happy to take their money.

But accidents do happen!

It is worth getting a good knapsack sprayer
These days I only use hand sprayers when visiting friends
I have used glyphosate for about forty years and must have used a fifteen litre professional sprayer more than five thousand times. Other methods of application such as hand sprayers almost as often. Most of the following have happened to me, not all and not very often.

*Walking on sprayed weed and then walking across a lawn.
*Not spraying a knapsack diaphragm dry of liquid and next using a lawn weed killer. You will only do this once!
*Using a leaky sprayer

In an old post Harry describe my plumbing as ‘bodge extraordinaire’

*Spraying when it is too windy, particularly if the nozzle is held high and the pressure too great
*Attempting to spray at a constant pressure when you should be adjusting your pressure to the changing conditions.
*Using a cheap knapsack sprayer. If you are serious get a proper one at up to £200. Think how much more you spend on your mower!
*You might be aware that is safe to spray over the top of dormant bulbs and dormant herbaceous plants but neglect to observe they are starting to sprout. Some Michaelmas daisies and phlox are very sensitive to consequent short term damage.

Levels of skill
What a gardener attempts using glyphosate in his garden should depend on his plant understanding and level of practice. I have just made up the lists that follows but it might indicate a measure of what skills he needs and what he can trust himself to do.

Spraying paths and open areas devoid of garden plants. Spraying fence lines and around artefacts in weedy areas.
Spraying under trees and large shrubs
Eliminating weed in garden areas that are yet to be planted 
Using garden centre gels

Slightly more experienced

You do not need to be very expert to quickly and safely spray this border

Spraying under hedges, under woody fruit and in shrub borders, especially when garden plants are dormant
Spraying where bulbs and herbaceous perennials are dormant
Spraying weedy patches between successive crops


You will need to recognise weeds  here and might cut a few corners 

Selective spraying that might depend on timing and extreme accuracy

Using glyphosate routinely as a principle method of of weed control in flower and shrub borders
Recognition of circumstances when plants are extremely sensitive to mishap and  knowing when to use alternative methods of weed control
Good weed identification skills
Able to make 'management decisions' whether plants should be regarded as a plant or a weed!
Can maintain focus and care when spraying

The poached egg plant is a self seeding annual. You can ‘spot treat’ a rare individual weed that penetrates the canopy. If you have a real  problem you can get a clean start when it naturally dies in July. If excessive seedlings germinate in August and spread too far regard them as weeds!
Advice for users of knapsack sprayers when spraying between plants
This is a list of the kind of tips covered in my previous posts

   * Normally spray commercial glyphosate diluted at between     1in 50 and 1 in 80.
    * Usually your pressure will be a result of between four  pulls on the handle and as low as one. I have even used gravity flow for a mere trickle. 
  • Your nozzle should usually be pointed down and sometimes as low as an inch from the ground. More usually a few inches although as much as a foot above large densely weedy spaces. 
  • Learn to angle your nozzle away from a plant and direct it at the weed. Sometimes place your boot between the plant and a weed. I personally prefer to use a cone nozzle for spraying amongst plants

  • When spraying in tricky situations or where the weeds are sparse you will be using your trigger like a yo-yo. In other situations you will maintain continuous flow.
  • Realise that soft new growth is very sensitive to misdirected glyphosate. Be particularly careful when garden plants are small and when spraying amongst clumps of herbaceous perennials in Spring and early Summer. Recognise when to not even try. Not between your vegetables. Even shrubs that are relatively tough have sensitive leaves if making a new flush of soft growth.
  • The other side of the coin is that tougher stems of more mature plants or the barky bases of shrubs (not green or sprouting) normally suffer no damage whatsoever from minor inaccuracies in direction.
  • In as much that glyphosate is a very poor choice if you actually want to kill shrubs you have to be a very bad sprayer indeed to do shrubs and trees any harm. There are exceptions. Elderberry leaves are amazingly sensitive and even though you need several goes at killing brambles, garden blackberries and related climbing hybrids are very easily damaged. You will never harm ivy!
  • Although if you want to effectively kill a difficult perennial weed such as  ground elder you let it grow vigorously and then spray it all over this is not the same situation to when a sturdy herbaceous perennial receives just a tiny amount of misdirected spray. A large plant usually has the resources to just 'shrug it off' with no damage at all.
  • When herbaceous plants are completely dormant when they have died down you can spray over them and if difficult weeds growing among them are still green it is an opportunity to tackle them. The same opportunity arises when deciduous shrubs have dropped their leaves. Most evergreens with tough shiny leaves are unlikely to suffer harm when you spray under the canopy. You can be very bold indeed when dormant ground covering conifers such as junipers are entangled with weed.  Even some sturdy evergreen herbaceous plants such as Helleborus orientalis  and Cyclamen hederifolium are surprising resilient.
This would be an excellent time to spray still green and vulnerable couch grass. I never need to!

I have hundreds of self sown hellebors in my gardens. If weedy I point the nozzle down close the ground and they are unharmed

You would have to be really incompetent for your spray to harm this juniper. Note you will never eliminate the couch grass if you just pull it out!

Although misdirected glyphosate will not harm this conifer you might just as well pull this weed out

When I spray this area in Worsbrough cemetery the wild fescue is a plant, not a weed

My most useful posts for anyone contemplating using glyphosate selectively are ‘selectivity by direction’ and ‘selectivity by timing’
More than a dozen glyphosate posts can be found in my theme column
I described how I eliminated bindweed from Steven’s garden in a single morning. It never returned
(scroll to end of this post)

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