Wednesday 28 August 2013

Gardening transformed. You can work on wet soil

Reasons not to dig 2 revisited

It’s not that I have run out of reasons not to dig, it’s just that people just don’t seem to believe my previous exhortation that no dig gardening facilitates working on wet soil. I imagine I am perceived as just an eccentric old man who jumps on his soil! Today I am not pussyfooting around, I want to make my point with some force. The gloves are off.

Glove-less eccentric old man
Gardener’s learn on their metaphorical mother’s knee that they cannot go out and garden after heavy rain. For many gardening tasks this is true in a garden composed of loose fluffed up soil! I mean the kind promoted  by most of the media. Some people have not progressed beyond making sand pies on the beach.Their mental image of good soil is one worked with a bucket and spade. They believe the more they cultivate and crumble, the more fertile their soil will be. Wrong, fundamentally wrong.

Of course you should not stand on such a loosened soil when it is wet and least of all, horror of horror, work it. Your feet will sink in and and cause  structural damage. The children’s tyre marks won’t look very good either! Walked on wet cultivated soil will become compacted. Most broken up soils, especially clay ones if worked on when wet become a sticky clarty mess. The children might like to hold a clarty party. The seeds of my love of gardening were sown when making mud pies when I was two. Many wet compacted soils later become hard and  rock-like when dry. Whilst still wet, compacted clay soils may even retain surface standing water which is unable to penetrate into the ground. When I see loosened wet soil I do not see fertility and beauty. I see a disaster about to happen. If the rain is very heavy the disaster may already be underway as the soil slakes down or even starts to erode.

An un-dug soil that carries vegetation is biologically rich and benefits from healthy worm and root action. It takes many months for a soil damaged by cultivation to return to it’s natural healthy state. Rather like a junkie breaking his habit, it takes some effort to revive a soil that has been excessively stirred. I discuss the problem in this post. 
With the passage of time, with enlightened management and no digging, soil becomes settled and cohesive. Your boots do not sink in! If such a none dug soil is investigated with a spade, below the firm surface it is found to be honeycombed with aerated channels which provide  excellent root penetration and drainage. Most of the gardening world thinks that a soil which is firm at the surface is compacted. They are wrong. When I look at settled soil in my borders, in my cemetery gardens and on my vegetable plot, in my minds’s eye I see healthy soil. I do not have to disturb my soil (and thereby damage it) to show the world that below the surface my soil is in fine fettle.

How being able to access wet soil fundamentally changes one’s gardening philosophy.

After heavy rain you can plant. In summer if it pours down all night I am delighted! I can fill my car boot with plants to take to my cemetery gardens or village plot. I can get those brassica plants in on my vegetable garden. When the soil wet - best very wet - it is  ready to encourage rapid root establishment and holds sufficient surface moisture to avoid constant watering.The atmosphere also figures to be humid and the plants will not quickly dry out.
At the time  of writing (mid August), I would love a week’s deep meteorological depression so I can do some serious planting of new borders in Cathi’s garden. Her soil is settled, it has not been cultivated for years. Over the last five months I have by repeated spraying eliminated all of her weeds. I just need to wait for some heavy rain to get planting.The plants will be slitted in or inserted in small holes. I expect the soil to crumble as I plant with my small border spade. They will be trod in with a firm boot. The process will be speedy and 95% of the soil will be undisturbed. I am reshaping the line of the margins and a few square meters of soil will be lightly scratched with a garden fork to scatter grass seed. One hundred square meters of border will take two or three hours to plant and that time  includes lifting a substantial number of divisions from my own garden. All these tasks will be done on very wet soil. If it rains for a few more days I will be in heaven. If it stubbornly turns hot and dry I will be out with the hosepipe, it will only take a few minutes as I will only be watering the planting holes. If Cathi thinks the soil surface looks a little untidy we will later put on a mulch.

After heavy rain I love to go to Bolton Percy to make my maintenance visit and spray glyphosate. When wet, the soil is unsuitable for hoeing, weeds will reroot. As long as it’s stopped raining it is ideal for chemical weed control. Often on my visits I see people walking round. The fact that they are walking on wet soil is of no consequence to the health of my plants, nor will they unduly dirty their footwear. I always invite garden visitors on my open days to walk on my soil to closely inspect plants!

I can plant, I can prune, I can weed, I can harvest. I can walk on my wet soil without damaging it at all. I don’t quite understand why gardeners create raised beds so that they can walk around them. The whole of my former un-dug allotment in Bolton Percy was as fertile as any raised bed. I could access it at any time.
Wet soil never stops me going out in my garden.

Words for the doubters.
I can hear. “Roger you have a sandy soil. Any fool knows that you can access a coarse textured sandy soil at any time. If you damage the structure it matters little on sand”. I confess this is true (ish). My ‘other’ gardens do have a fairly heavy textured soil and over the years in my former gardens and working for clients I have frequently worked on un-dug  wet heavy clay. I stand by what I say.

Things never work out quite as planned. I have been planting Cathi’s border over three weeks now. Some wet weather materialized but not as much as ordered. I have popped over the hedge on several occasions and each time have planted about a dozen divisions. I am nowhere near finished but a hundred hunky herbaceous plants are now established and will have time to make magnificent plants next year. The lifting, planting and watering so far has taken about six man hours.

Not a thing of beauty but it soon will be

Friday 23 August 2013

Wildflowers on my edge

More about corn marigolds

View from our conservatory window
My neighbouring farmer calls it his ‘garden field’ because it’s only five acres! I am most grateful to him when each year he fails to use his herbicide on a strip of his ‘corn’ on the edge of my plot. I don’t know why he does it, but I would like to publicly thank him. Perhaps, like me, he loves to see the beautiful corn marigolds, perhaps he gets a grant to leave a strip of wildflowers or perhaps he is just scared that I might get cross if his spray drifts on my garden! It really is quite startling to think how beautiful his field would be if he did not spray at all - and how that would decimate his yield!

She takes more than her share

Corn marigolds have self seeded into my garden
Reciprocal arrangement
The corn marigolds had been flowering all of eight weeks when the two pictures below were taken. I wonder if I should now collect some seed to scatter elsewhere. (I offered some to a visiting party last night but they were too shy to step into the field!). Corn marigolds will grow in any open sunny situation. 

From the field looking in, the edge of the field is planted with six foot tall Helianthus.It is completely hiding my dwarf brick boundary wall. When we moved in the edge of the field was lined with nettles and marestail. Divisions of my garden plants have  somehow replaced them! In my dreams it would be wonderful if it was normal for fields to be lined with garden flowers. Of course it should not be at the expense of wildflowers but it is starting to be realised and supported by research evidence that bee and butterfly friendly garden plants  at the edge of fields helps to increase insect populations.

With apologies for pinching  and amending their title to Nan Sykes and Margaret Atherden authors of ‘Wildflowers on the edge’.
Link to my review of Wildflowers on the edge.

Sunday 18 August 2013

Benefits of clay soil

What are the advantages of clay soil? Clay soils can be the most fertile of all

I am frequently irritated when gardeners tell me that my ideas about minimum cultivation are very interesting but on their own heavy clay soil my methods will not work. If they read more carefully they might be persuaded that minimum cultivation methods have a greater contribution to make to the structure of clay soil than to any other. It’s just that the real and substantial merits of ‘no dig’ take a year or two to come through. Gardeners with heavy clay soil put the clock back to zero every time they dig. The damage they do by digging  - gaining apparent and very short term improvement -  repeatedly recreates the conditions that lead to of a rock hard soil in a dry summer and a podgy mess when very wet.

This is not to deny that some gardeners have inherited a site with little topsoil and with an almost pure clay subsoil and conditions at depth where drainage water has nowhere to go. Such unlucky people really do have a problem but digging will not help. 

My intention today is to proclaim the benefits of clay when it occurs as a constituent of soil.

A smidgeon of soil science 
Most soils are ‘mineral soils’ and are composed of mixtures of horticulturally indivisible particles of sand, silt and clay.
Soil classification systems define sand, silt and clay by the particle’s size. A clearly visible particle of sand is some order of magnitude larger than clay. Although the identification of a  mineral particle is based on size, particles of clay are physically and chemically different from sand, For example unlike sand, clay absorbs water and holds plant nutrients. 
A desirable mixture of particle sizes occurs in a ‘loam’. A loam is loosely and not very precisely described as a soil  composed of one third of each of sand, silt and clay. In practice these values are skewed and there is a range of soil textures which are correctly classified as loams.
Texture is a very precise scientific term that refers to a soil’s mix of particles. In normal practice it is an unchangeable characteristic of soil. Adding small amounts of sand, silt or clay makes very little difference to texture and if concentrated in pockets added minerals can have unfortunate cultural consequences. To change soil texture vast amounts of a foreign material needs to be imported. It is not only impracticable, it can easily lead to horticultural disaster!

Difference between soil texture and structure.
Please excuse a small indulgence. As a former lecturer teaching horticultural students the meaning of these two terms could be difficult. It was an easily predicted exam question but never-the-less a few students never quite got it!  Similarly much of the horticultural press  which is written by unscientific journalists don’t get it either and misuse the term. Worse I sometimes read garbled explanations….

Structure defines a soil’s condition. Structure can be easily changed by the gardener. For good or for bad!  Walking on wet soil loosened by cultivation compacts it. Compaction  is just one of many examples of poor structure. My previous posts are littered with examples of how good soil management - often by leaving it alone - improves soil structure.

Benefits of clay. 
Clay particles hold water within their porous matrix. Being very small, plenty of water is also held on their surface by capillarity. Other than non-mineral  reclaimed peat soils, clay soils can hold a greater reserve of water than any other soil. 

Provided that clay occurs in suitable proportion with other minerals and is well managed it helps to give soil a stable structure. For example soil crumbs hold well together and worm and root channels do not easily collapse. 

Clay intimately mixes with organic matter. Decayed organic matter forms relatively stable mixes with clay. Natural uncultivated clay soils have a very high level of organic matter.

Because the internal and external surfaces of clay have a negative electrostatic charge it hold positively charged nutrients such as potassium, calcium, magnesium and most trace elements. This is very significant as these nutrients are held against leaching and yet at the same time are readily absorbed by the plant. It is not for nothing that clay soils are often proclaimed ‘the best’ for roses and many other fine plants.

Provided clay soils are not compacted, an unlikely occurrence in the none diggers garden, they absorb water very well. I frequently curse my own sandy soil which is quite repellent to water when it has become very dry. I go to Bolton Percy and my watering immediately penetrates in...

Two major disadvantages of clay
Contrary to the last stated advantage of clay If heavy clay soil is broken up by cultivation and later subsequently compacted when wet it can become impermeable to water. Really wet  surfaces subjected to heavy pressures when wet can be so bad that water stands on the soil surface even though it might be perfectly drained below. The same principle is seen in action when ponds are lined with puddled clay!

Some, but not all clays (there are many different types of clay) swell when they absorb water. Your building insurance will cost more if your soil texture is clay!

I get stuck again in 2015

Tuesday 13 August 2013

Chickens returning to roost!

Update on open ground semi ripe cuttings

Nine months I wrote ‘Casino time  at Boundary Cottage’ when I described how I ‘threw’ into  the open ground in October about 150 semi ripe and hardwood cuttings. I wanted to show how cuttings with no preparation other than selecting the appropriate current year’s shoots  could easily and cheaply give you new stock. Even my selection process sometimes involved several shoots taken with a single cut of the secateurs. I wanted to demonstrate that a surprising range of plants would respond and even if as little as one in ten rooted the process was so quick and easy that it was worthwhile. You may remember I used no rooting hormone, was unconcerned about cutting at nodes and on the leafy cuttings - the majority - I did not remove a single leaf. They  were of variable size between about 5 - 10 inches, approximately cut to lengths appropriate to each plant . After insertion only the tips showed out of the ground. The whole process took little more than an hour but writing the blog took a great deal more! In truth I was describing my normal method of taking open ground cuttings. Those of you who have read about my methods of propagating pelargoniums will know that they are not much more refined.

I foolishly promised to report on how these cuttings grew…..

Cuttings  deeply slitted into the ground last October on a two square meter patch of my un-dug vegetable garden. 
The wet conditions last year were particularly conducive to getting cuttings established. The soil was wet when the cuttings were inserted and it continued to rain and the weather was humid. I was off to a good start but of course most of the cuttings would not have roots until spring or early summer.
Sometime in March the metaphorical tap was turned off and around here the sky forgot how to rain! None-gardening friends do not notice these things but the soil surface started to become very dry. We had particularly bad spell of cold drying and sometimes freezing winds over a period of about ten weeks. In the spirit of good experimentation I did not interfere and water or provide any cover. I lie, it was just too cold to bother! Had I heavily watered I suspect my results would have been better.
I was very disappointed this year with some of the herbaceous plants such as penstemon and Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’. These are normally bankers for new stock but not this year. Although I was disappointed with my overall results I exceeded my forecast of rooting success by seven!

Plenty of successes but a whole lot of dead bodies!
Detailed results - rooting successes and failures!

Dwarf Hebe, 11/11, Hebe ‘Silver dollar’ 6/6. Hebes are so easy they hardly ever fail!
Santolina 3/6. They have quickly made quite large plants.
Lavender 3/5.
Euonymus 7/7.
Salix fargesioides 2/5. Although willows are often easy and some can even be rooted from six foot rods, a surprising number of species are actually quite difficult.
Rose, I call it Tony’s rose after the friend who originally gave it to me, 1/5. Well worth it as I know it to be a very fine plant.

I prefer my roses on their own roots, any suckers make for a nice sturdy plant.
Unknown evergreen, I have quite forgot what it is. It remember it was from a friend’s garden, it will be quite a surprise when it flowers, 4/4.
Pink cistus, 3/7. Golden leaved cistus, 0/7, damn it has failed to root again!
Phlomis fruticosa, 3/7
Purple sage 0/4, normally very easy.
Perovskia 0/5, a real stab in the dark.
Variegated honeysuckle 0/5, might have been better if it had been riper wood.
Variegated snowberry 6/6.

Rare variegated snowberry. Cynics sometimes say that some plants are rare because nobody wants them! 
Weigela florida variegata, 3/7.
Variegated golden privet, a very fine form, 5/7.
Variegated philadelphus, the jury is still out on two of the cuttings, optimistically 3/7!
Variegated cornus mas 0/7.
Variegated erysimum, 1/7, at least the one success is a very sturdy plant!

I am pleased with these.

Thursday 8 August 2013

Garden myths discussed 7: Plants need there own special fertilizer.

Not really a myth, and this notion is not generally acted on by experienced technically minded gardeners. It is just a gentle deception ‘sold’ to the gullible public that helps to keep the garden centre tills ringing. 
Over the years I have noted on the gardening shelves of aunts and uncles - when I have been pressed into some gardening chore - lots of tiny packets just sitting there, never used, of all sorts of special concoctions for every plant they grow.
There is not usually anything wrong with these mixtures and they are certain to be much better than bonemeal. Rose fertilizer for example has a suitable balanced analysis that will be suitable for almost all of your plants.

My balanced granular fertilizer. Granules facilitate ease of spreading. They are NOT slow release

John Innes composts

Before William Lawrence and John Newell developed John Innes compost at the John Innes Research Institute in the thirties it was generally believed that every plant needed it’s own special compost together with its own special nutrients. Recipes were closely guarded secrets of head gardeners and often went with them to the grave. Lawrence’s great contribution was that he showed that a simple series of composts could fulfill, almost, but not quite all, plant requirements. The four  composts he developed were named J.I.Seed and J.I.Potting Compost, One,Two and Three. The only differences between JIP1, 2 and 3, was the strength of the fertilizer and lime, which increased three-fold between JIP1 and JIP3. It started to be whispered that these new fangled composts were much better than any of the old ones.

Unfortunately John Innes composts are not patented and any old rubbish can be sold as John Innes today. Modern mixes use more up-to-date fertilizer ingredients rather than the original formulae and there is nothing wrong with that. Plants that make vigorous growth and/or have a high nitrogen requirement are planted in the richer mixes. Delicate young plants must always be started in weak compost. J.I.Seed is now largely superseded by loam-less seed compost but J.I. Potting, if from a reputable supplier and certified by the John Innes Manufacturers Association  gives excellent results. Alternatively you can mix it from your own from basic ingredients.

The point I am making with my long winded digression is that when it comes to giving nutrients to plants, simplicity is best.

Why I use just one general fertilizer and reject ‘special mixes’
  • If  general fertilizer has a fairly even balance and contains all the plant nutrients including trace elements, the plant will take from the soil what it needs.
  • It is much cheaper to buy a large bag of a general fertilizer than buying lots of expensive little bags.
  • It is easier and less time consuming.
  • There is less wasted fertilizer when all those separate bags deteriorate on the shelf.
  • There is no guarantee that special fertilizers are better for your plants. Their analysis might be due to popular fashion and is just as likely to be formulated by an adman or bean counter than a proper soil scientist.
  • How do they know what nutrients my plants need? Does it not vary with the nature of the soil, season and weather conditions?

What about nitrogen?
In the wild plants greedily seek out nitrate because in natural soils it is usually in short supply. When fertilizer is used there is a danger that certain plants will absorb too much nitrogen and make unbalanced ‘soft’ growth susceptible to pest and disease. I avoid this problem because my general fertilizer has a fairly even nutrient balance. Where plants like brassicas and grass need higher levels of  nitrogen, I merely apply a greater amount of my balanced fertiliser. It is much cheaper that way and any unused potash and phosphate remains in the soil for a future crop.
A much admired former horticultural colleague and very keen vegetable grower, in addition to his balanced fertilizer had a high-nitrogen fertilizer in his arsenal, the dreaded 20:10:10. Much used by farmers, it is horticulturally lethal in inexperienced hands!

Do you need to use any special fertilizers?
Slow release fertilizers may be appropriate if you are making up composts or preparing soil for tubs.
Certain nutrients can be ‘locked up’ in the soil. For example iron is frequently in short supply for acid loving plants grown in an alkaline soil. Some gardeners might need to supply trace elements in ‘chelated form’ (usually marketed as sequestrene).
Regular readers will know I am very partial to iron sulphate for my lawn!
The only liquid feed you need is a ‘tomato’ liquid feed. It is suitable for any of your plants.

What about lawn fertilizers?
I actually use my general fertilizer on the lawn! One hardly ever sees a lawn fertilizer these days that does not have added weedkiller or moss killer. Most lawn fertilizers are high in nitrogen which gives rapid growth of vulgar dark green grass. Personally I do not want to cause rapid grass growth. By all means use branded lawn fertilizers, but do not include me! I do not see many economies of scale when I see their price in the garden centre!

But don’t commercial growers use special fertilizers?
Many growers are specialists and grow very large quantities of a limited range of crops. They frequently have intimate knowledge and have technical advice as to their own plant’s precise and varying nutrient requirements. They have economies of scale when they buy. They are not paying premium prices for small bags! It makes sense for them to purchase exactly what their plants need.

I currently use this general fertilizer which I buy from a local horticultural supplier. A 25kg bag lasts me about two years.

I discuss my own take on compost in ‘Breaking the rules’

Saturday 3 August 2013


I misunderstood a blog comment from Sue Garrett and apologised, “I am an idiot”. She flashed back “yes I know, I met your bother-in-law at your recent Open Day. I only need  say two words, wellies and mower!”


Wellington Boot 
Outside, wellies are my uniform. I use them all of the time, even wearing shorts! I buy what at best might be called ‘bog standard’. They are at least one size too big. I like them that way, they slip on and off easily. I wear them to death. Eventually holes become apparent when I discover they squelch if I stand in a puddle. That is the signal that I need to be more careful where to put my feet. I like the extra ventilation. Eventually holes and tears become so bad someone gently inquires if I know I have a hole in my boot! It’s not Brenda, she has given up! Eventually and reluctantly I have to throw them away. If, by my own low standards, a single boot is still wearable, I store it on my garage shelf. I might eventually have one to accompany it? There are three left boots waiting...

Harry next door would go about his work. No, not gardening, only rarely and reluctantly. He would be tending his animals, working on some machine, do-it-your-selfing, taking wildlife pictures, computing, or more significantly, helping all and sundry when something went wrong. He was a brilliant and gifted engineer and craftsman. Although usually casual, he always wore the best. In contrast to my ten year old cheap t-shirt, his cloths were immaculate and of high quality - as were his wellington boots. 

We were regular visitors to each others homes when we would wander round for a chat and a coffee. Each time Harry came round, by his second or third coffee he would have diagnosed and repaired some household fault. In ten years he virtually rebuilt our home! We would always remove our wellingtons at the door.

Harry had recently bought some new wellingtons from an up-market e-bay supplier. A week after his purchase he mentioned to Cathi that he was afraid they were not of the usual high quality. They noticed a small hole. They muttered about falling standards. During the next few days they became increasingly critical of the boots. They got themselves into a bit of a lather. When Harry found another small tear it was just too much. Cathi, who is a publisher and a former journalist, can be pretty acerbic! She shot off a formal complaint. I can imagine how curt and incisive it would have been. No sooner had she released her epistle into the ether, the penny dropped. Was it just possible…. Could it be that Roger?… He always takes off his wellies when he comes in...

Harry came round on a mission. ‘My’ boots were conveniently parked by the door. They were his! I think gentle Harry was really quite cross! I could imagine when Cathi would later come home, what she might say. My ears burned. They were obliged to eat humble pie and explain to the e-bay supplier that their boots were really quite perfect. They rightly blamed the idiot next door.

Harry and Cathi wrote a blog post on Brenda’s wellies. They called it

Pest Traps

Forticular auricularia hibernaculum. Common name: Earwig haven! Or more commonly referred to as Brenda's Wellies! 

Unloved mower
I mulch mow my lawn. My Mountfield rotary mower has a sturdy engine and a plastic blocker at the back. All my mowings are shredded and fall to the ground. One day my engine seemed to be faltering and it’s tone unnervingly laboured up and down. Harry immediately came round. As an engineer he could not bear the grating engine. He took it back to his workshop. He was good like that.

On another occasion my mower’s forward drive connection ceased to connect. It would need a new expensive part. I took it round to Harry. He had already seen me, red faced, pushing the wretched machine around. He cobbled together a ‘Heath Robinson’ contraption. He said if it failed he would try a different ploy. With my funny shaped lawn I do more adjusting of the drive than is normal and, sure enough, six month later I was back at his door. Eighteen months later, his Rolls Royce mark 2 invention is still working.

Quality botch -the genius of Harry Poole

Harry loved my mower. After all he knew it intimately. When he saw it seemingly abandoned on my front verge, not wishing to disturb us, he took it home. It was all Brenda’s fault! What had happened was, when I had just finished mowing she had urgently summonsed me to do some chore. I completely forgot my mower was outside.

Harry, ever critical of my powers of observation and even doubtful of my sanity, decided to test me. He left my mower standing on his lawn, clearly in full view of my garden. He wondered how long it would be before I noticed. After three days he was starting to despair!

Dave, the aforesaid brother-in-law, was up for a visit. Harry let him in on the secret and enrolled his help.

“Harry seems to have a new mower”. 
“ Yes, I have seen it, its a bit like mine”
(Next day).
“Harry’s mower looks very like yours, Roger”
“ Yes, but mine’s bigger, wonder why he wants one. Perhaps he wants to mow his edges where his ‘ride on’ won’t go?”
(Next day)
“Is there any chance it is your mower, Roger” 
“No of course not, why should my mower be there? Mine is in the garage. His is rustier than mine anyway. It’s most unlike Harry to leave something lying around.”

They both threw in the towel. Harry pushed it home again. He declared, “I rescued it just as a passing white van had stopped to inspect it!”

Sometimes I think I am not all there.

Anyone want a mower
Loss of a dear friend and neighbour

Harry Poole was full of fun and mischief. I am sure he would approve of this frivolous post. Sadly he died on April 4 this year. Life is not the same.

Cathi has now mastered his large mower. The sprayer that Harry repaired so often has been put to good use and there are no weeds in his garden. The two-stroke hedge trimmer he mended and showed me how to start, has cut his side of the hedge. I am embarking on new planting. A memorial pear tree is waiting to go in. Part of Harry’s legacy was a huge pool of love and goodwill. Everyone has rallied round.

Cathi is selling the old Lotus Europa that Harry restored. It has been parked, unused, in his garage for the last 15 years.

Our own life has changed. Brenda has renewed the maintenance contracts on the heating and burglar alarm systems. I am fretting over the mower forward drive repair and handling my sprayer with extra care. I am wearing Harry’s wellingtons.

No words needed

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