Saturday 28 September 2013

Don’t be afraid to remove large branches when you prune

I prune Betula jacquemontii, magnolia and a variegated tulip tree.

I squirm when I hear gardening commentators advise “give it a haircut”. This implies to me pruning out tiny pieces at the edges. Invariably wrong, unless you are cutting a hedge! I know less confident pruners than me will want to go carefully when they prune a large shrub or small tree - you cannot put a severed branch back - but as you gain confidence a few judicious surgical removals is often all you need. It may be that a nervous pruner needs someone to stand back from the tree and advice “cut that branch there”. Pruning after all is an artistic activity and one person’s artistic triumph may be another’s horrible mess. The pruning I show you today might in your opinion, be in the latter category! The biggest compliment I wish to receive when I prune Is that no one notices I have chopped out half a tree! When the arduous task of removing the severed limbs from the site  is completed I am delighted if the casual observer does not detect any pruning at all!

When pruning a shrub or tree there are many considerations apart from the individual plant. Of course the plant should look natural, open and airy, healthy, disease free and in many cases smaller. Pruning should also accommodate the needs of other plants and overall garden design. You do not want adjacent plants to compete with each other or suffocate and hide underplanting nor cut out a lovely view. Compromises need to be made for the sake of the overall beauty of the complete garden. You do not prune a plant in isolation.

Pruning Betula jacquemontii

As a result of several veiled hints from management (Brenda) that our  ‘small grove’ of ‘jacquemontii’ were getting somewhat out of hand, last month I got out my triangular saw with it’s recently replaced sharp blade, my ratcheted loppers, my ordinary loppers (I hate the telescopic type that always seem to come loose!) and my felco secateurs. I made a few quick cuts. There were a few larger branches that were growing in the wrong direction and a few wispy growths that would eventually make crowded branches. It took thirty minutes to prune and an hour to clear all the debris.

Too many crowded small branches here.

Same tree five minutes later. Perhaps I have been a little severe 
This tree has made a strong leader that is getting too high and making it look top heavy
Note the red line where I am about to make a cut 
Just one near horizontal cut to prune the whole tree. That large cut will soon heal over. I might rub a bit of soil on the wound so Brenda does not notice! I won’t worry the cut is rather horizontal, it has sufficient slope not to collect water 

Pruning my magnolia 

My acid border was getting out of hand and the magnolia, liriodendron and cut leaf maple are fighting. I anticipate lovely autumn colour on my blueberries below but they are  overgrown, hidden and shaded .

It looks a bit crowded 

Magnolia prunings. 50% of the tree gone. The loppers and saw was all I needed.

Pruned magnolia
You can do this pruning at any time. Note the fat autumn flower buds. Only the ‘hair cutting brigade’ who remove all the flower buds each time they prune need worry that there will be no spring flowers 

Pruning my variegated liriodendron (tulip tree)

Liriodendron is very crowded and has two competing vertical leaders 

Note the horizontal cut where I have removed a rival leader. I have crown-lifted by completely removing some low branches. The liriodendron and magnolia no longer crowd each other

Pruned liriodendron. Examine the leaves and see why it is called a tulip tree

Pruning a cut-leaf alder 

The cut leaf alder at the bottom of my garden is getting very heavy and is causing dense shade. Many branches threaten to make large limbs in unsuitable directions

I have cut a lot of wood away but have retained the height of the alder
And one more clip
Just a little job. Call myself a gardener to let this vertical sucker on my small contorted hazel get so long. It needs just one snip.

I have enjoyed all that work pruning and when I burn all that wood in the farm field at the bottom of my garden I will have another barrowload  of ‘charcoal’ for my terra-preta bed!

Search my blog for pruning
I now seem to have a small collection of pruning posts. To find them all you need do is insert ‘pruning’  in my search box and see what you find. I found these.

When I finished pruning I was a little concerned that on the tulip tree and the alder I had two high exposed leaders which now lacked the protection of surrounding branches. I hoped there would be a few weeks of kind weather for them thicken in response to wind stresses. The following weekend we had sixty mph gales. I need not have worried my trees are fine.

Sunday 22 September 2013

Snaps from the children’s photo album

I promised on my recent rhea roundup to let you have some of Harry’s pictures of the bouncy baby birds. I was today both astonished and astounded at the superb pictures that Cathi dropped into my dropbox! Even for Harry, they are of exceptional quality. I am am sorry to be a tease but I am going to post them in a Christmas extravaganza!

Please write me a caption

As a taster here is a short video of one of the baby rheas. Also two pictures. For identification purposes I have given them a bland caption.The reason for this is that some of you might like to suggest a funny, evocative or poignant label for any or all of the three items. There is no prize other than a promise that I will update this post with the winners’ names and captions!

back to back

looking in

I recently published these pictures as a tribute to Harry

Thank you to everyone who submitted captions

Poppy Murray     Can’t figure out what to do with my feet

Sue Garrett      I’m taller aren’t I mum?
Janneke     You watch that side, I’ll watch this 
Anon       I’m the tallest…..I’m the cleverest

Jo       Rhea window 
Janneke     Heloooo, can I come in
Jo’s hubby     Oi you, over reah
Sue Garrett     I don’t like to see them in cages
Derek     I can see you eating in there
Walker/talker     Can Piff come out to play?
Clara     Is tea ready?

Arthur Negus     Rhea end

Friday 20 September 2013

Bolton Percy Village Flower Show

Not just flowers but vegetables, fruits, cakes and preserves. It’s good that village traditions live on and a small village show has about 300 entries in about sixty different classes. Each year former colleague Mike Ashford and myself are invited to judge the fruit, veg and flowers. It is a very pleasant and in no way arduous task but we make quite sure we are gone before the public arrive; they might not like our choices!
All the entries are in and registered in the parish room by 11am. They are still serving coffee when Mike and I arrive.
The old school yard
The parish room is the old village school closed seventy years past.The parish room yard is the old playground with the original and now much-cracked tarmac surface. It acts as a wonderful mulch covered with years of leaf litter which is now soil. Just at look at the Japanese anemone that I planted through the broken tarmac thirty years ago (don’t let anyone tell you that herbaceous perennials must be planted every three to five years!).  It is six foot tall, twice the height of the same plant in my own garden!
Bolton Percy village green
Inside the marque on the village green it is by now a hive of industry as volunteer ‘officials’ attend to the judging. The lady who judges the cakes observed that she had to taste all the produce. Was this a complaint or was she just gloating?
It’s planned like a military operation
Mike and I do the judging together. We are not experts in the rules of judging but for a small village it is not appropriate to be too severe and the classes of produce are quite simply defined.
I need my cup of coffee
One of the most important factors in judging the quality of the frequently specified three items of produce is they are of uniform size. The biggest are not always the best. This year it worked out that the first, second and third prize for three courgettes was in the reverse order of size. We always have a minor crisis of conscience when judging the runner beans. We are torn between the small young tender beans like we eat at home or the large long uniform ones that look good on the display bench.
Can’t you just smell the winning entry for the best scented rose?

A fine entry in the children’s section

I wonder if he had any help?

The lovely orchids look a bit crowded

It’s been a good year for sweet corn
Clutching a bottle of wine, by 12.30 we are on the way home.

Sunday 15 September 2013

Can I use general compound fertilizer on my lawn?

Yes you can.

One of the better bits of my lawn
Essentially there is no difference between a lawn fertilizer and a normal fertilizer. If your fertilizer is suitable for general purpose use in your garden it is suitable for your lawn. A granular fertilizer is no more or less likely to scorch than normal rapid release lawn fertilizer. Scorch is easily avoided by applying fertilizer immediately before reasonably heavy rain.
Should I use three-in-one?
The ‘rest of the world’ seems to use this combination of fertilizer, moss killer and weedkiller. Not me. The moss killer is usually iron sulphate and is itself a valuable lawn nutrient. I prefer to fertilize, moss kill or weed kill as a separate operation where and when and if I need to. Using three in one is perfectly sound practice but count me out. 
Do I need to use a fertilizer spreader?
No. It might be convenient for professionals to use a high quality spreader on a large scale but in the home garden with a little practice you can spread very evenly. Sometimes a badly adjusted spreader can cause more scorching than hand spreading! I tend to rather energetically fling my fertilizer. This would be inappropriate with ‘three in one’ as any flying on the borders might damage the plants!
How often should I fertilize my lawn and how much should I use?
This is a little beyond the scope of my article today. Once a year in Spring will be enough for most people although there is some merit in applying smaller doses but more often. If you box off your mowings thereby taking nutrients away there will be more need to fertilize. I mulch mow and take the unfashionable view that too much nutrient means much more mowing! For the record I applied 15gm/sq.meter of 20:10:10 agricultural fertilizer last month. It was my first fertilizer application in two years.

Which fertilizer should I use to feed my lawn?

‘Three in one’ purchased at a garden centre is relatively expensive but for a small lawn lawn the high cost is probably insignificant, For a large lawn the cost can be considerable. I have previously written about buying a 25kg bag of general fertilizer and using it generally! If you have a very big lawn you can achieve the same economy of scale by buying 25kg bags of sports turf fertilizer from a professional horticultural supplier. (Do not be persuaded to buy their amateur products, some suppliers on the net  have an expensive amateur section. Your money is as good as that of any professional!)
I have prepared a table of the relative costs of fertilizers you might sensibly use on your lawn, I have related the rate of application to the one recommended on a packet of ‘three-in-one’ that I examined at a garden centre. I have adjusted the rate of application of each fertilizer to provide the same amount of the most significant nutrient, nitrogen to that of the garden centre product. This will often in practice mean that more phosphate and potash will be provided by the fertilizer than from a normal spring/summer lawn fertilizer. For my sandy soil this suits me fine.
I have assumed for my calculation that you have sought out 25kg bags at a keen price. My figures are heavily rounded. 

Cost of fertilizer for a 1000 square meter of lawn

20:10:10                     20gm/sq.m      £20  
sulphate of ammonia  20gm/sq.m      £25
13:13:20                     30gm/sq.m      £30        
Yaramila complex       30gm/sq.m      £35
Professional sports turf fertilizer         £35
Growmore                  60gm/sq.m       £45
Gardencentre 3 in 1   30gm/sq.m      £100

The 13:13:20 was the general fertilizer recently applied at 12.5gm/sq.m by my expert friend Peter Williams.
I sometimes recommend sulphate of ammonia even though it does not contain phosphate and potash. On some soils it’s sulphur content may be very beneficial.
The garden centre ‘three in one’ was for sale in 7kg bags at £20. Its analysis was 14:2:4
Yaramila complex is the complete all nutrient fertilizer I generally use and it’s NPK content is 12:11:18.

A small trial.
In the interests of bloggery I added a few variations to my fertilizer application. Most of the lawn was fed in mid August with 20:10:10 at 15 gram per square meter (a very low rate but suitable for late summer). For a hundred square meters I doubled this amount and for a further hundred square meter trebled it. The anticipated rain arrived and there was zero scorching on all treatments. Unfortunately it then turned very dry and I cannot therefore show you pictures of an amazing green lawn! I think I can look forward to more benefits of the nutrients when it turns wet. The lawn has been improved by all the three rates of application with at the present time little discernible difference between the three rates. There has been a distinct increase in the need for mowing!
It is too late now in mid September to apply the high levels of nitrogen given by the rates of application in the table. I would not use 20:10:10 until March although low rates of an even balanced fertilizer like growmore would be alright. I think for most lawns in the UK autumn fertilization is of limited value.

Investigating scorching
A few days after fertilizing and when it had turned dry I marked out two squares of one square meter each and applied 20:10:10 and Yaramila complex both at the very high rates of sixty gram per square meter. This was deliberately done when the surface was dry and rain was not anticipated. It was a very hot spell and it did not rain for four days.The August dews were heavy. I imagine dews in the absence of rain are likely to increase the danger of scorching. You can see from the picture that the 20:10:10 did scorch.The Yaramila did not. Although the scorch has now grown out - after a month - and the grass is again green my demonstration does show that the rapid release of nitrogen from 20:10:10 can cause a problem. (I recently described it as lethal in inexperienced hands). Although the Yaramila would have also added a lot of nitrogen  it would seem that its formulation does release its nutrients more gently.

A very high rate of fertilizer

The high nitrate in a heavy dose of 20:10:10 did scorch

The two dark squares are one month after applying heavy doses of yaramila and 20:10:10.

Supplementary notes for lawn nerds
I was prompted to feed my lawn because patches of red thread disease had appeared and was getting worse with heavy autumn dew and very dry soil. This is a disease of underfed closely cut lawns. On the other hand beware using excessive nitrogen rich lawn fertilizer as this predisposes the grass to a worse infection, fusarium! You can’t win!

Red thread disease. Now, four weeks later we have had a period of wet weather. I am pleased to report the fine grasses are making strong new growth
I have ignored in this review the use of much more expensive slow release fertilizers which can give a lovely green sward for very long periods. 

You might be interested in these posts

Tuesday 10 September 2013

A grumpy rhea and delightful blackcurrant eating soay sheep live next door

Mr Angry
Brenda tells me I am a grumpy old man! She says living with me is like living on your own but different. We really do have a grumpy old man next door. He’s called Spike.
Spike has taken a dislike to me. When he sees me from across Cathi’s field he puffs his feathers, doubles his size and charges. Fortunately the squared wire fence stops him in his tracks. He angrily attacks, tries to swallow the fence, eventually threads his long neck through the gap, all the time hissing and viciously pecking. He can stretch a long way! It’s getting quite weedy alongside the fence now! Anyone who wears a cap gets similar treatment. He thinks it’s a beak.
I have to be honest with you. His mind is starting to go. He might be regarded as just a little senile. He has not improved with age. He could be described as somewhat dotty. Rather like me.

Spike is not pleased to see me
Ten years ago Harry and Cathi bought three rheas as pets, two male and one female. They came from a deprived home but got lucky when our neighbours found them. Sadly after some years Phylis died. She did live long enough to raise a family! Actually with rheas it’s the males that do most of the hard work rearing - although in this case most of the workload fell to Harry!
When Phleas came to his new home our friends named her Aphelia. When they discovered she was a he they amended the name. Quite appropriate really, for when Phleas arrived he was covered with fleas. In their loving care the fleas were soon gone.
With minimum help from the rheas, Harry and Cathi hatched two delightful chicks and raised them in their garden, not in the field where they might have been trampled. Frilly was pure white. Her brother was named Sausage. They were particularly sweet when no bigger than hens they played with the hens! The chicks were quite an attraction on my Open day two years ago. As they got bigger they inappropriately fertilized the lawn!
Sadly last year Frilly died. Cathi now has three males Spike, Phleas, Sausage and no eggs! They are all loved dearly. Even the grumpy old man twines his neck lovingly around Cathi!
Cathi has promised to dig into her family photograph album and let me have some pictures of the children as they grew up. I will post them soon.

Eyes of Phleas 
Mr Gentle

What a shock!

Soay sheep.
This hardy breed is very low maintenance. Calling the vet is a rare occurrence and they do not need shearing, the wool just drops away and for a while in Spring they look a little tatty. Kept as pets they will never be eaten. They presented Cathi with a new lamb this year.

The sheep help in the garden! I recently pruned Cathi’s black currants. They  eagerly devoured the prunings extracting every ounce of goodness from them. The other morning when I approached them they looked quite crestfallen and walked away sulking. They thought I was empty handed but as soon as they realised I had some willow prunings to give them they scurried back. Willow bark contains salicylic acid, a precursor of aspirin. I am not sure what is the opposite of having a headache!
Its better than Ribena!

Better have an aspirin for the hangover

Thursday 5 September 2013

Don’t let the roadworks stop you coming to my Open Day!

Open September 8th

It’s called Sod’s law. This week they are digging up the road that leads to my garden. We live on a long straight road. You can access my garden and the usual ample parking from just one direction. If you approach from Seaton Ross village follow my Open Garden signs, you have an extra mile and a half to drive!

At my last Open garden another nearby road was closed. Many miles before Seaton Ross there were signs 'road ahead closed'. It was not closed unless you were going to Howden! If the idiots do this again ignore these signs. The last leg of your journey might say “no through road”. Ignore it, the road Is clear all the way to my garden! I use the word ‘idiots’ advisedly. I added the insult after their signs mucked up my visiting party last Monday! Could someone explain to the council in words of one syllable that ‘no through road’  or ‘road closed’ should say ‘local access only’.

If you are coming from Howden or York on the B1228 your route will be completely as normal. If you are coming from Hull direction follow the normal ‘yellow book’ directions. You will see my Open garden signs and probably not realise that you are being diverted. 

My previous Open day
It was the hottest day of the summer. Thank you to the 120 lovely people who came. Unfortunately it was so hot I think most people stayed at home!. I think because of the heat  and the soporific hot humid conditions nobody entered my photographic competition!
We did notice a tall handsome man and an elegant diminutive lady enthusiastically snapping away. Blogger Sue Garrett and husband Martyn from Green Lane allotments later introduced themselves! They have produced two very fine posts with beautiful pictures of my garden. I am still pondering whether I should give them the prize……

Sue Doherty The Chicken Whisperer was in attendance as ‘the artist in the garden’. She did some beautiful pastel sketches. The winner of her caption competition was Sally Walker from York. Sorry about the delay Sally, Sue’s book, ‘Talking Chickens’ will soon be on its way.

Sorry Sally, your card got crumpled and we rewrote it and failed to correctly spell ‘leggings’

Just a thought
A lovely couple arrived for my Open Day a week early! They had come from Halifax and had stopped at Bolton Percy churchyard on the way. What a good idea. Anyone coming from the West Riding could call!  The churchyard garden is always open and is across the road from the church. Be sure to see the amazing millenium window.

You might like ‘Why visit gardens’

Last minute traffic information
I spoke to the foreman. He said they don’t work on Sundays and they will be letting traffic through from BOTH directions. If this is true it will be clear from my yellow open garden signs. I will be placing laminate yellow posters over their ridiculous ‘no through road’ signs!  They say ‘local access to Roger Brook’s garden’!

Sunday 1 September 2013

Propagating and Growing Agapanthus

Just about the toughest plant I know
Although agapanthus has a reputation for being ‘difficult’ in the North of England, here in York the deciduous types thrive. I have grown large clumps for the last forty years. On different soils in Barnsley, Bolton Percy and York they have proved  completely hardy. I had a slight hiccough in the double winter of 2010 when in January we had 18 degrees centigrade of frost for many days in the worst winter for fifty years. The cold was later exceeded in the Winter that started in December of the same year! A few of my agapanthus in exposed positions did receive a setback but all but one survived.

Unfortunately this was not true of my agapanthus in pots. We all learnt a hard lesson in 2010 when a number of less-hardy plants in pots failed to survive in unheated greenhouses, yet in the open ground they came through. The problem was that in containers roots are more exposed to intense cold. The cold was so prolonged that inside unheated greenhouses it was just as cold as outside.That year I lost all of my potted agapanthus. Fortunately I had plenty of new stock in the ground.

Agapanthus propagation
My large drifts of agapanthus have come at very little cost. For some years my original stock, either from seed or divisions from gardening friends, were re-propagated each year. An existing clump would have a chunk chopped out with a sharp spade. Sometimes each chunk would be chopped in two. I would do this either in autumn when they started to die down or in spring when they started to sprout. I would even divide them in winter if I could find the dormant roots! After one year a single clump would become three. After another year I would have six plants. The next year nine! Eccentric or what? I write this with somewhat rose coloured spectacles, I would never quite achieve such a perfect mathematical progression, but you get the idea. I am very patient! Had I carried on much longer my cemetery gardens would now be completely blue! I do find that inexperienced gardeners are scared to treat their plants so brutally. They should not be scared.

It is even possible to propagate agapanthus in summer. These pictures show ‘proof of principle’ and are not a general recommendation unless you are moving house or want to urgently give some plants to a friend. I currently have a planting project in Cathi’s garden next door and now in mid August have transferred two very large clumps of agapanthus over the hedge to her garden.

clump with piece chopped out
Chopped up

Potted plants two weeks later

Agapanthus can easily be propagated from seed, last week I lifted and potted-up clusters of self sown seedlings

Agapanthus care - cultural requirements

They are tolerant of a wide range of soils. I find they will grow almost anywhere if they have good light. Clumps need space to themselves and must not be crowded by other herbaceous plants or weeds and should not be heavily shaded by trees. I find that agapanthus are tolerant of poor drainage. I see pictures on the net of them growing in ditches in New Zealand. Tender plants are often more victim to winter cold if the soil is not well drained so I do not suggest in our climate you go so far as growing them in a bog! A soil that is water retentive yet well drained is ideal.

I do not stake my agapanthus, but should perhaps mention that I rarely support any herbaceous plants. If a few agapanthus infloresenses spread out a little or even droop gently across the lawn it might even add to their attraction! I would rather cut away a few horizontal flowers and put them in a vase than stake. There are so many flowers I can spare a few, they are so prolific.
Don’t let anyone tell you that they flower better in pots. They don’t.

Planted in spring 2011, 40 lovely white inflorescences
Growing Agapanthus in pots
For impressive displays use large pots, not fiddly small ones. My own tubs are about 40 cm in diameter. They were originally planted with strong plants from the open ground. They are in good soil fortified with fertilizer. I top-dress at least  three times a year with my NPK granular fertilizer. It is essential to use fertilizer for the long term culture of plants in tubs where leaching conditions invariably prevail. Many gardeners choose to provide these extra nutrients with a liquid feed.
Every gardener knows that letting agapanthus be crowded in their pots promotes flowering. Personally I don’t believe it and find that my strong plants potted up from the ground  usually flower even in their first season. Undoubtedly agapanthus are capable of flowering prolifically when crowded in their pots but I would argue that they also do so in open ground where there is no root restriction. 

Planted spring 2011 and rather crowded, they made only 5 inflorescences.  Of course these last two pictures prove nothing.
I think what makes them flower well in pots is good nutrition, a light open position and skilled watering. Give them plenty of water when they need it. Knowing when to water a plant is a hugely significant and rare gardening skill. In hot windy weather generous watering might be as often as every day. In dull wet weather it might be as little as once a week. Some gardeners make the mistake of thinking that because it has rained their tubs do not need watering at all!

Evergreen agapanthus

These are even more magnificent than the deciduous types. Other than being significantly less hardy than deciduous varieties the information above is relevant to their culture. They are not sufficiently hardy in my region for overwintering in the open ground. Grow them in tubs which from the end of December to late March can be shifted to a protected and almost frost free place. In a normal winter an unheated greenhouse gives sufficient protection. Since my unfortunate experience in 2010 I have overwintered mine in my almost frost free garage. It does have two large double glazed windows and my plants are not in the dark! Even the shelter outside of an adjacent building or under an evergreen tree might be sufficient winter protection.In such circumstances be very alert in an extremely cold spell to bring them inside! 

On our levada walk in Madeira in January this year loose white evergreen agapanthus roots were for sale at a wayside table. I potted up the rather chlorotic pieces and placed them in my frost free porch when we returned home.

Will they really be white when they flower next year?
Ready for potting in mid August. They have made so much root I have had to cut the plants out of the pot 

Potted and well on target to flower next year but will they be white?  
2018 addition They flowered magnificently and continue to thrive

Visiting party
Last week a visiting party of gardeners from Flaxton visited my garden. They generally marvelled at the quality and quantity of my agapanthus. Good for my ego. They almost unanimously  thought that agapanthus are difficult to grow. I don’t know why. Perhaps they have been trying some delicate fancy varieties. Perhaps Flaxton soils are very heavy clay and because of poor management and too much digging are not very well drained. Horror of horror perhaps they dig over their borders in autumn and chop up those lovely fleshy white roots! Perhaps they have bought small delicate plants grown soft in a tunnel or stood too long on a garden centre bench? Perhaps they have planted an evergreen type outside? Sometimes it might help with small plants to overwinter them for their first winter in a greenhouse.
None of them could bring themselves to chop up agapanthus with a sharp spade!

I just do not understand it, agapanthus are so easy
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