Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Pond life

Water works

On a recent open day
When the Folkestone Mills came for Easter little did I realise that they would provide me with two posts for my weekly whim series! Last week dad’s drone. Now Billy’s frogs.
Although my pond is crystal clear - well on a good day when Brenda is not fretting about duckweed or when water soldiers are marching or water bean invading - I am blind to what goes on in the water. When my friend Rowena or Billy visit they always find something interesting. Twelve year old Billy almost pushed my head into the water to make me focus on four salamanders!

If water soldiers were not occasionally dragged out with my scarifier they would take over

The pictures of the frogs and the tadpoles were taken by Steven on his all singing dancing brand new iphone!





My ponds has several unusual features  - even that I have twin ponds together, they are bigger than in most gardens and I dug them out, laid a liner and planted them myself fifteen years ago. They have no modern contraptions such as pumps and filters. They have never been emptied and cleaned. Perish the thought, although I do regularly drag out excess pond weed and Autumn leaves from the water with my scarifier. 

Perhaps I should call this frog island?
My fish are never fed. We have had several attempts with them, each before visits from a heron. In 2014 Peter was clearing out his own pond and gave us a bucketful of goldfish. They promptly disappeared in the water weed and we thought that we had lost them! It was a whole season before they gained enough confidence to swim at the surface. I now seem them basking almost everyday.

I am hoping they will breed this year

 Bulrush in my more formal front garden pond. I will be featuring the cut leaf maple next week

If I might introduce an element of gentle debate. I am a regular and enthusiastic user of glyphosate all year round in my garden. I even use it to manage invasive plants such as glyceria and dwarf bullrush with great success in my ponds. 
I find certain visitors whose heads are full of airy stuff about weedkillers expect my gardens to be sterile! The truth is I have hundreds of frogs, crested newts thrive, my borders team with bumblebees, honey bees and butterflies and the air sings with birdsong.
That’s not to mention the rabbits, the deer and the moles - or the heron!

I love my bog plants

Fritillaria meleagris loves moist soil and self seeds

Some plants have not read the instructions in gardening books and don’t know whether they are a bog plant or an aquatic

I must not forget the snails
Frog life



Links to my previous watery posts

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

The creation of Water Haigh Woodland Park

Oldies day out, Visit to a restored pit heap


After the joy of the rhubarb farm the main attraction was to see the site of an old Yorkshire slag heap forty years on. After all Peter Williams the restoring genius was one of our number.

All his own work - not quite but Peter Williams’ research and development input was pivotal 

Peter was guided by Mike Chadwick, a world authority on reclamation and author of the then standard work

A political decision had been made that as new motorways extended to the north they should show a better image of our great northern counties. Without major investment more than a hundred years of landscape despoilment would be somewhat revealing.

It is not easy to make plants grow on colliery waste. Acidifying sulphur can lower pH to to as low as 1.5. In contrast garden soils rarely go down to pH4. The heap in question was subject to spontaneous internal and surface combustion. Slag lacks organic matter and organic life. It is devoid of many nutrients significantly nitrogen and phosphate whilst certain minerals  such as iron are present in toxic amounts. It is not water retentive. Steep slopes are susceptible to run off and erosion and have very poor rainwater absorption.

It’s an achievement to grow grass in this material 
Man has extracted minerals for thousands of years. On many sites nature has pointed the way to landscape restoration but it takes a very long time. Unlike extraction of china clay, gravel and stone many mined minerals leave toxic residues and can cause pollution. 

A catchment ditch at the base of a steep slope. The rusty ochre, described as ferruginous run off, is harmless but if not impeded might colour surrounding water

Restoration; Peter’s project

Plant growth is the key to turning slag into what passes for soil. Organic matter in the soil holds nutrients and water, supports soil life, helps mineral particles stick and clump together, improves structure and aids root, air and water penetration. In turn as a soil develops there can be a succession of improving and aesthetically pleasing vegetation. A virtuous cycle is eventually created.

Nature takes over 

But it is a hard path to follow
The best way to get vegetation going is to add organic matter! The best way to add organic matter is perhaps to cover with soil. Financial restrictions left no room for this option. Nor did the budget stretch to providing irrigation. Success would depend on achieving sufficient plant growth.

Even now there is still a need for organic matter

Iron pyrites in coal slag is tremendously acidifying. Heroic amounts of lime were needed in the first few years of the project. A gardener such as me has no comprehension of the vast quantities needed, the amounts used were off the top of any gardening scale.

Nitrogen is the key to strong plant growth. There were two practical ways to provide it, high nitrogen fertiliser and nitrogen fixation. Both were needed.

Use of fertilisers
I have argued before that fertilisers by virtue of maximising the production of organic matter improve fertility when all the organic matter is returned back to the soil; in this case direct from the plants. Because nitrate is readily leached from the soil, nitrogen rich general fertiliser needed to be regularly applied over several years. As organic matter builds up it becomes the soil’s nitrogen store.

Peter’s guiding professor was very fond of using this picture in his public lectures to illustrate the benefits of adding nitrogen
Part of the project was to restore some of the site back to agricultural grazing. It was only when reluctant farmers were persuaded of the necessity of fertilisation that grass establishment really succeeded.

Nitrogen fixation
Where legumes such as white clover can be established they host nitrogen fixing bacteria that can provide an ongoing substantial supply of nitrogen to the soil. Clover needs sufficient phosphate and lime to be really successful. Grassing down mixtures included several nitrogen fixers and plants with deep penetrating roots.
I know it is Winter, but I don’t see white clover or rich flower herbage. I have my suspicions that there is now little use of fertiliser
Nitrogen fixers like lupins, tree lupins, gorse and broom grow very well on infertile nitrogen deficient embankments and such plants were seeded too.

Site preparation
Planting and seeding followed substantial slag redistribution. Suitable gradients and new drainage patterns needed to be created. Steep embankments would be subject to water erosion. Where possible water should be absorbed into the ground.
An unusual feature was that because the slag contained combustable material it needed to be consolidated to exclude penetrating oxygen as it was graded down.

The trees
Much of the site was intended to develop as woodland. Planting would start a natural succession. We saw on our visit how this had proceeded with time. You can never really know which species will be really successful and plots of several species of one and two year old trees were tried. No doubt the better prospects such as birch were planted in greater numbers. The greatest successes were birch, whitebeam and black Austrian pine.

There is a nice range of species diversity

On our visit we witnessed beech and oak only now starting to establish.
Although such plantings are intended to grow into seemingly natural woodlands suitable species are limited and projects will be most successful if they use plants that grow naturally in similar habitats wherever they come from. It would be foolish to insist on only planting so called natives.

Native beech is now starting to establish but native blackberry came in very early! Pinus nigra is native to Austria! 

Thank you Peter taking us to this fascinating country park and for all your explanations. There are still many more questions I want to ask you. There are some things I still want to discover such as, what is it like in Summer, what is the herbaceous understory - are there any bluebells, why on an acid soil (now about pH5) are there no rhododendrons and what is the current management?
I think another post will be needed! 

Cathi, how did you keep your boots so clean? Organic leaf litter over the years tends to move down the slope and the soil becomes more organic - and water retentive!

Are they pondering the gentle ground grading or are they just not sure where to go?

Cathi wondered if the infertile soil contributed to the gnarled bark on the birch

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Garden design from a drone

Notes from on high
The folks from Folkestone were with us for Easter. Brenda’s son Steven has got a new toy.
We have many memories of children with flying contraptions. Brenda has suffered putting the wretched things together, witnessing their failure to fly and soothing distraught kids when their models crash and are shattered on their inaugural flight!

Not any longer. Steven’s has bought himself his own Easter present -a drone. Immediately on their arrival it was parked on the lawn. One click on an iphone control panel and there was a smooth vertical ascendance.

An hour later there was a video and photos of my garden transferred to my own computer. Thanks Steve for the opportunity to show my readers a different perspective.

These pictures enable me to show you some features of my garden’s design. Yes it really was designed!  Not on paper, I am quite incapable of that. I worked to vague notions in my head and the garden organically grew. One thing leads to another…


You can see Boundary Cottage has no boundaries, nor is it a cottage! We are lucky to live in the country and have wide ranging views. From our level landscape you can see we look out onto the Yorkshire Wolds. Some people chose to enclose themselves behind high hedges. Not us. You design your garden for your own private needs.

You can see the Mills family sitting under the pergola. The man in red is controlling the drone! In summer grapes hang down from the pergola. They provide food for the birds.

The border in front of the garage is a bit of a dog’s breakfast. You can see in the garage window my aeoniums overwintering. I will soon be blogging about the orange cut leaf maple in front of our bedroom in our ‘granny anex’


The birch tree at the bottom of the picture is one of the few trees original to our garden when we moved in fifteen years ago. One of the first  garden features I developed were the twin ponds under that tree. The ponds  are only cleaned out when I use my scarifier to hook out weed and leaf debris. There is no filter but the water is crystal clear. It is full of animal life which I will show you next week.

To the right of the two greenhouses is my vegetable garden. After nearly ten years of adding my homemade charcoal it is starting to change colour. In another fifty years I might claim it is terra preta

The far corner of the farm field at the bottom of the garden floods in winter. Somehow some of my own bog plants have found their way over. The soil in my garden is almost pure fine sand/coarse silt. Six foot down is a natural basin of clay. The site receives ample drainage water but has a huge two hundred year old land drain that takes surplus water away. It’s a perfect combination as it usually retains moisture throughout the Summer.


Cathi lives next door in Melbourne! The boundary is a low one. I clip the privet hedge  - which was formerly 12 foot high - narrow and low.
You might discern that I have been somewhat opportunistic in exploiting edges of my garden that are not strictly my own.
The farmer leaves me quite a wide edge that I prefer to contain flowers rather than nettles and marestail. I have been lucky to be able to eliminate perennial weeds from the outside. I feel sorry for those gardeners who eliminate their own weed and then weeds such as ground elder comes back in from a weedy neighbour!
There are a couple of projects on the edge of the farm field that I have not yet revealed! The edge is starting to look a little more grassy and something is happening in that block of grass at the entrance to the farm field….
The picture also reveals the location of Cathi’s grass verge which as readers know is my current horticultural enthusiasm.


It looks very stark in Winter as most of my plants are herbaceous perennials. I can’t wait for Steven’s next visit!
I have tried to make the lines of my borders smooth ones!
In March my lawn is in less than in perfect condition. Grass is the connecting element as you walk round. It takes about an hour to mulch mow. It would be more if I boxed off my mowings. Edging with long handled edging shears takes rather longer – as much as three hours. In Summer I mow about once a week and edge very infrequently!
My garden is designed to give long extended views. Without even trying the garden’s natural development has achieved the frequently reccomended ‘element of surprise’.

You might like to watch this video to fly round my garden!





Sunday, 10 April 2016

Is adding crushed rock to your garden as a source of nutrients a complete waste of time......

.....or is there something in it?

Adding rock dusts, grits, sands and gravels to your soil is a time-honoured and relevant practice to change the physical nature of your soil. Can any legitimate claim be made that they add appreciable nutrient?

Rock dust is a generic name for fine mineral particles - usually wastes, from quarrying stone. My comments today are not directed at any single product. 

There are thousands if not millions of different rocks worldwide. Some - a very few - when crushed very finely, release their nutrients and are used as fertilisers. 
Rock phosphate is a classical case. When treated with acid it is used to produce superphosphate. In tropical agriculture crushed rock phosphate is used directly on the soil. 
It has recently become the darling of organic gardeners. Although completely inorganic  by any sensible measure, it is regarded by organic gardeners as organic and therefore legitimate in an honorary way. 
Some soils are formed on a bedrock of limestone or chalk and some of their soil’s sand fraction is calcium carbonate. These soils in practical terms are irreversibly alkaline. When crushed finely chalk or limestone is lime.

Many rocks contain no useful nutrients at all. Most particles in the soil, the silt and the sand component, contain no nutrients whatsoever. Sand and silt particles are merely little pieces of rock!
When the soil’s inherent sand and silt do contain nutrients they are insoluble and are usually no use whatsoever to the gardener. They are locked away as part of the rock’s structure.

Some gardeners wrongly imagine that a pile of stones somehow releases nutrients

My scillas receive numerous advantages from my gravel mulch. They might even be enabled to absorb nutrients more efficiently. I wonder where the moss gets its nutrients? Not from the stone, the sources are external

My mulch might look pretty but it does not release nutrients

It may therefore seem paradoxical that the the main source of soil nutrients came originally from rock and that they are now endlessly recycled. They were released over periods of geological time. 
I never know when talking to gardeners whether to present my units in terms of thousands, hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. My usual mission is to explain to new gardeners that whatever they do to their soil that the sand, silt and clay will remain exactly the same. The particles might clump and stick together but internally they do not change.
Even if the mineral particles are of an igneous rock such as granite, no appreciable nutrients dissolve away.
Clay is slightly different. It is not the parent rock. It is a secondary mineral. The parent rock has changed. In this case I can safely use my unit as millions of years! Clay has internal and external surfaces that temporarily hold nutrients as a result of their negative electro-static charge. It is a wonderful store of available soil nutrients.

Last month I attended a lecture at Peter’s gardening club in Leeds. It was given by Ken Thompson, formidable debunker and myth buster and that was to be his subject that day. Before the talk a former acquaintance asked me my opinion of this new wonder product that in their previous talk they had been told was about to transform the world of gardening  and rejuvenate agricultural yields by correcting an alleged worldwide problem of trace element deficiency. I informed him that I had no experience of rock based fertilisers and trotted out my usual explanations in terms of rock stability and periods of time.
Perhaps we should ask our visiting speaker about it? It always helps to be armed with a question!

No need. It was his myth of the day. If I say he was somewhat scathing it would be a huge understatement. Very limited research showed powdered granite to be of no use at all!
I know that purveyors of dubious concepts such as homeopathy have no need for research, it gets in the way. Same with gardening magic; why let the facts spoil a good story? 
(I wonder why homeopathy came to my mind? Perhaps because it is about things vanishingly small).
I later turned to the net to find any research data. Nothing appeared!

It was then that I started to doubt my own sanity when I read hundreds of endorsements for rock dust. Huge crop gains are claimed. People declare that their agricultural and horticultural holdings are transformed. Growers have achieved huge benefits over the years. Forests flourish with this wondrous material. When trees get a sniff of it you can barely hold back their extension. Deserts are transformed. Pest and disease fades away. It corrects crazy problems such as damage from radiation. It transforms soil wetting and saves on irrigation.
Could botanist Ken, soil scientist and microbiologist Peter and me be wrong yet again? 
I am very often! Wouldn't it be wonderful to have egg on our face when gardening is transformed. Watch this space!

Further thoughts
If granite dust is to transform your garden you probably need quite a lot of it. If it contains any nutrient at all it is well below sufficient to legally call it a fertiliser. You will need to buy a very big bag.

Last year I supped with the devil and accepted a free load of municipal compost. I have found it quite useful 
There is a Scottish couple who have recreated the soil on their nursery by making a 50/50 mixture of granite grit and municipal compost. I wish them well and for what it is worth, I fully support them. I do believe that good gardeners can transform their soil or even create a new one by suitable inputs and skilled management. I would argue in this case all of the nutrients have come from the compost and that the granite provides a perfect physical contribution to the mixture but adds almost zero worthwhile nutrients.


In my days at Askham Bryan we made John Innes Compost. The silver sand component in our area was in short supply and somewhat expensive. We used Shap granite grit instead. It was the kind that grades up to an eight of an inch size. We used it for years and were very satisfied with it. No one ever suggested it might supply nutrients


My own soil is virtually pure fine sand. If you want to quibble it’s also coarse silt! It depends on which classification system you use! Chemically both materials are exactly the same and are a natural alluvial deposit from a former meander of the River Derwent The sand/silt contains zero nutrients. My soil has grown plants for hundreds of years and contains natural organic matter as well as any I have provided. There may be other bits and pieces. It is a very excellent soil. Its nutrients are contained as part of the organic matter or held electro statically on the organic surfaces.

If I go down deeper than 20 inches I find pure silt and sand

It occurs to me that there is a parallel between my own topsoil which is about 90% sand/silt - with most of the rest mainly natural organic matter - and the Scottish nurseryman’s 50/50 grit/compost mixture. I would venture that my organic matter is more stable than the stuff from the organic recycling plant. I presume that they need to regularly top up with their compost?
I don’t.


There might be a few nutrients dissolved in surface moisture but they are not from the sand


Monday, 4 April 2016

Off the wall

My object of interest
As I am 74 today and entering my second childhood - without any intervening phase from the first one - I thought I would try something more zany today in my new weekly whim series. It might be fun if I wrote something ‘completely off the wall’ ...... for a change? 
It then struck me that my subject was on the wall sitting right there before me. My sempervivum!

Not the houseleek in question! This one sits firmly on a farm wall on Holy Island

I have posted before about this hardy, drought loving, easy succulent plant.  I called my previous post ‘houseleeks live-for-ever’. This is a pairing of its two common names. The second name particularly pertinent today!

My inspiration is the plant in a pot that we have had several years now. The pot was a gift from Barbara Wood who lives in our village and who frequently attends my Open Days as ‘artist in  the garden’

Barbara Wood is an artist and a potter
My inspiration today actually sits in a series of sunny places as it gets shifted around! It’s always there to brighten up an outdoor table or corner! It grows in Barbara’s pot that has a small and essential drainage hole and the compost is my own sandy soil. It is completely neglected and never fed. I don’t even water it - other when in a very hot spell quite unnecessarily I vaguely squirt my hosepipe in it’s direction in a probably misguided act of kindness!

I have grown it so long it is now bearded
When it comes to the crunch I have got sempervivums all over the place! Well drained sunny positions for all of them! Most are completely hardy but not all. Mine are tried and tested by an evolutionary process that they survive or die. So easy to propagate from any kind donor or acquired by an impulse buy at the plant centre or horticultural show.

I will no doubt be selling some on my open day Sunday 11th September
My only problem with my sempervivums is that the birds love them and playfully pull them out of the ground - or perhaps more pertinently ‘off the roof’. They are traditionally grown in walls and in roofs threading between loose tiles or within ancient thatch. Hidden in cracks where the birds less easily find them they thrive. Fully exposed on a roof our feathered friends often destroy them!

The birds leave them alone in the mountains at Tignes
My roofless roof garden. Not many liveforevers survive! Damn birds
I have another eccentricity which I call my ‘roofless roof garden’. When we moved in real roof gardens were deeply trendy - or perhaps more accurately, shallowly trendy. My garden suffered several deep patches of impenetrable concrete. Probably the bases of old hen houses and agricultural contraptions. At the bottom of the garden was a particularly thick and solid structure, perhaps laid as a cover to an old well. These days I would hire a man with a machine to remove it. It is only recently that have I at last outgrown my natural frugality and realised I cannot take my money with me.
I covered the concrete with old carpet and a thin layer of soil. I don’t think the carpet was really needed! I mulched with my lovely mulching stone that I bring back from my maintenance visits to Worsbrough cemetery. It is apparently the worse place to dig a grave ever. The soil consists of rocky rubble. Even in Barnsley where they are rather tight fisted the gravedigger has recently acquired a mechanical digger!
A stone mulch of course would be too heavy for a real roof!
I planted my roof garden with succulent drought resistant plants and included sempervivums. 


I love sempervivum flowers that look good for a couple of months. When they start to look tatty I cut the flower  back and even remove the rosettes of leaves which are monocarpic and are destined to die. Just the single rosette. The rest of the plant lives forever

This one is my real favourite. It has sat in a tiny patch of moss on top of the side of a concrete container for several years now. The plant I actually planted has withered away!
This post takes you a site where you can see named varieties of sempervivum
This link takes you to my own previous effort
And this is about I have grown plants on stone
I also posted about gravel gardens



Sempervivums are very versatile
In my gravel garden



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