Sunday 22 March 2015

A walk on the wild side

It must be a hundred and twenty years that Worsbrough St Mary’s churchyard burst its seams and opened a new five acre cemetery just up the road. Over the years new graves moved up the hill. It won’t be many years now before the cemetery is filled.

Old graves decline. No longer do villagers enter by the low gate and wander up through the grave yard. The magnificent gate is firmly closed. There are not many gravestones down at this old entrance. Perhaps many graves were unmarked by stone monuments and others were dismantled by vandals and stones thieved to make doorsteps. The lower site gradually became completely neglected and overgrown. 
Climax vegetation of unmanaged open space is woodland. The lower parts of the cemetery became a beautiful wood. Sadly barbaric brambles came too. At the start of my stewardship the understory was made up of solid six foot high bramble. Normal access was impossible. It’s amazing that the tens of thousands of snowdrops, bluebells and daffodils survived. Under the undergrowth no one could see them: barely surviving in poor light they had ‘gone to grass’ and had not flowered for many years.
When an old family grave was opened to lay the next generation it took days to cut a swath through the rambling  brambles. Families knew that within a few years they would be unable to place flowers of remembrance.

Bulbs in flower have returned with a vengeance! Access is easy now but you need to know the whereabouts of the two narrow gaps between the densely packed monuments and uneven ground.
No one  goes there! It is my own secret garden. Never have I seen anyone wander down to the bottom. Nobody says what a beautiful place.

Please take a walk with me

Please indulge me today by accompanying me around. It’s mid March and much of the Spring vegetation has not yet shown and clothed the ground. There is much woody debris and strawy evidence of my hurried maintenance. I cannot show you a manicured garden. It always gets the fag end of my attention.

We cross the grass path just beyond the Helleborus argutifolius to enter the wood. See the spoil where gravediggers distribute surplus excavated stone. I usually take a bucketful home for mulching my garden

Helleborus argutifolius has over the years self seeded many fine clumps

Below the central grass path is the old wooded area. It’s about 1.5 acre and triangular with the bottom gate at the apex

Cyclamen hederifolium has self seeded in the grass which is mown by a commercial contractor

Everywhere there are thousands of snowdrops. Not native, snowdrops have been brought back by soldiers from European scenes of battle ever since the Thirteen century. They were planted in churchyards to celebrate white Lenten purity.
Not these, which have resided here a mere hundred years. 

The littered ground here is covered with ivy and comfrey

Yew and holly seedlings litter the ground.

Over the years graveside snowdrops have spread to cover the ground. Although snowdrops undoubtably self seed, contrary to popular thinking, they spread to cover tracts of landscape mainly by vegetative propagation. Where snowdrop bulbs are crowded they are pushed to the surface and are scattered by wind and animals. My friend Peter a few years ago collected hundreds of tiny bulbs on the surface of his garden in June. He potted them up in dozens and they flowered in their first year. People wanted to buy his ‘dwarf’ snowdrops!

You might imagine the light green grass is a weed. People generally do, especially here in Birdwell! You will be surprised that it is self seeded Briza maxima, retailed as a very select plant.

Over the years my ground cover plants spread.

There are still a few fine gravestones in the oldest places 
An ancient woodland plant of deep shade - I think it’s dog’s mercury - thrives. 

The strawy Pheasant’s eye grass, Stipa arundinaceae has seeded all over. 
Formerly under a dense canopy of bramble it took about three years for suppressed daffodils to come back into flower.

My friend blogger Rick Nelson waxes lyrical about Stipa in his latest post.

Self seeded plants grow in the litter.

Rarely do I have time to clear fallen branches.

I make no apologies for gardening naturally with hybridised plants. The numbers of my self seeding primroses are ready for take off.

I originally scattered primula seed collected from graves.

I forgot to cut away the old leaves with my hedge trimmer in December. Happily  previous leaf removal ensures the old leaves are still disease free 

I am rather pleased with the contorted hazel I pruned last year.

The grass is not very special but much better than the eight foot high Japanese knotweed that eventually expired five years ago. 
I sometimes sow fine grass seed from a bowling green mix. 

We emerge from the undergrowth. You might think the top parts of the cemetery also look wild at this time of year.
Hedera ‘Paddys Pride’ was a small cutting fifteen years ago

Thursday 19 March 2015

Control of Marestail and Horsetail

Equisetum arvense
I am a little disingenuous when I include marestail in the title. Your real threat is almost certainly horsetail. The names are frequently confused and I regularly do so myself! Your weed will be horsetail which is an ancient spore bearing primitive plants that would be at home with the dinosaurs. It is very difficult to control in the garden. ‘Real’ marestail  (latin name Hippurus) is a weed of ponds and bogland. Hippurus is merely a vigorous small flowered aquatic plant.
Now by ‘common usage’ you can legitimately call equisetum either horsetail or marestail!

Hippurus vulgaris, the ‘genuine’ marestail to me is a harmless aquatic. You might not agree
In one sense equisetum is a weed that has been created by man. In nature it rarely achieves the ascendancy it does in gardens. Equisetum is an extreme survivor in disturbed habitats where in the absence of natural competition it can build up a seven foot deep root system with huge carbohydrate reserves and vast vegetative reproductive capacity. Once established it is extremely difficult to eliminate. Give yourself three years and unless you are extremely diligent you will fail. Beware hysterical adverts for chemicals that claim to eliminate it in five minutes. Such products might have a place in your armoury but do not succumb to their hype.

The herbicide of the spray train at Howden station has removed all competition and the equisetum has had many years to build up huge life prolonging resources

There are several methods which will eventually get rid of equisetum. They are not always compatible and often cannot be used in parallel. All share the need to keep ‘on top’ and not let strong new green leaves consolidate the weed’s grip.

The herbicide glyphosate is the weedkiller that is most likely to lead to success. 
I would never be persuaded to use sodium chlorate because of the extreme damage it will cause to trees and all desirable vegetation when it kills your neighbour’s garden as well as your own!

Glyphosate is a translocated weedkiller and reaches the roots via the leaves. Contrary to my earlier comment you must allow the weed to make a strong green top before you start. Such leaves will drink up your weedkiller. It is no good zapping young equisetum shoots as soon as they appear, there will be virtually zero uptake. It is no good either chopping out pieces: you will only create irregular shoot emergence which will interfere with later efficient spraying. 
There will be some skill in deciding when to repeat spray. There is little value in spraying yellowing dying leaves nor very young shoots. Perhaps from emergence new green shoots should optimally have two to four weeks before you respray. If you get your first spray right it might be several months or even next season before new shoots appear.

Case study 1: a client’s garden

When I used to have clients and considered myself an ‘up market’ jobbing gardener I had a customer with about twenty square meters of horsetail at the edge of a gravel path and at the base of a hedge. I made irregular visits, perhaps in Summer every five weeks. It was quite a small garden and did not need my knapsack sprayer. I took along a most unsophisticated one pint hand sprayer made up with glyphosate at about twice normal strength. A useful feature of many hand sprayers is that they give a fine spray and each visit I gave a light spray short of ‘run off’. It took all of five minutes. Should I have been treating the lawn with herbicide on my visit I would have used that instead! After three complete Summers it was effectively gone. A total of three man-hours but over three years.

Case study 2: my new garden at Seaton Ross

When we moved in there was a small ten square meter clump in the front garden and under the brick wall a further twenty square meters on the edge of the farm field. It was necessary to kill both sides to avoid future invasion. It was late May and the equisetum was in perfect condition to spray. It was lush and luxuriant and the previous occupant who was not a gardener had (fortunately) not touched it and the roots were intact to receive their poisonous translocation. Horsetail with its siliceous surfaces is notoriously difficult to wet. I sprayed it with a fine spray, short of run off, twice that day. For extra efficaciousness the second spray was MCPA or was it - I forget - Grazon 90?  My glyphosate spray was a strong one. It was a one in thirty of commercial strength 360 g/l glyphosate to water. Recently when I told the story to a visiting party I heard someone mutter, “no wonder it died”.
I did not expect anywhere near complete control so it was a  nice surprise it did not reappear that season.
As expected early the next Summer there was sparse and erratic horsetail emergence. Just as well it was seriously weakened because I had already done some temporary planting using expendable plants. To avoid damaging my plants I made up my one in twenty dilution (it might have even been  stronger) and used a paintbrush to thoroughly wet the horsetail leaves. If the pressure on my ‘back board’ caused slight abrasion all the better. I made two further applications that year as new shoots emerged. That’s all really! 

My normal routine weed control is accurate spraying with a much weaker directed knapsack spray. In year three there was some very weak equisetum emergence but only at the beginning of the season. Perhaps even in year four there was the very occasional shoot. Even now I sometimes pass the time of day to a lone delicate fine frond.

Case study 3: Bolton Percy Cemetery Garden

When I took on Bolton Percy cemetery forty years ago it was completely overgrown with weeds such as nettles, brambles, couch grass and horseradish. The latter had roots thicker than your arm reaching two spits down. I had other ‘fish to fry’ and was unconcerned about fairly substantial colonies of horsetail. I had no intention to make a garden and my scorched earth policy was to blanket spray the overgrown acre. Glyphosate was very expensive at that time and as a ‘tight’ Yorkshireman no doubt I diluted ‘commercial product’ at one in a hundred. As the dead weeds gave way to a thatchy mulch and eventually rich dark soil, I started popping in plants and changed to accurately spot spraying. The garden ‘happened by accident’ and ten years later the always open cemetery was ‘opened’ for the ‘yellow book scheme’.
I never consciously made any special effort to control marestail but my maintenance spraying that continues to this day has for all practical purposes eliminated it. There are places where my ornamental plants are so dense that I am unable to spray. Sometimes in one little corner I spot a few fronds of equisetum. Deprived long ago of its substantial deep carbohydrate reserves, amongst competing healthy vegetation it is no problem at all.

Case study 4: blackout.
A cultural control for weed is to smother the ground completely with black polythene. It takes a long time for horsetail to die. The principle is that if horsetail is deprived of the ability to photosythesise it will eventually exhaust its reserves. More organically inclined gardeners use cardboard and newspaper. It must be constantly replenished because in no circumstance should equisetum push through.
I have no idea how many years it takes to eliminate equisetum by this method. I have turned to the experience of  blog correspondent  Sarah Stu and below quote her verbatim.

Unfortunately I haven't been at all scientific with the horsetail battle. As well as the cardboard I've used glyphosate, ammonium sulphamate, lime, wood ash, plastic sheet, upturned plant pots and root removal. The cardboard has become my preferred option, as it doesn't require a daily check, it's not as ugly as plastic, and it is improving the soil. In terms of success, again it's hard to say. Apart from not having counted the shoots, I've got rid of lawn and paving where it could hide, and we've had some very wet seasons that seem to have encouraged it to pop up in new places. It was never a dense infestation, but it was spread over a big area, so counting would be the only way to check progress. So although I'd love to say I'm making a difference, I think it's going to take a bit longer before I know! 

Sarah, like me, makes it up as she goes along! I know that she will keep us up to date with her progress. It has been two years so far. I have suggested to Sarah that if she stands container grown plants on top of the plastic mulch they might look rather nice. 
I must add a disclaimer that feeding the horsetail with potash and lime will be no help whatsoever.
I know that Sarah will confirm that in no way should plants be planted through the polythene or cardboard. The horsetail will escape! Many allotments are graveyards of old carpets matted with copious ground elder, couch and marestail. Testament to innocence.

Case study 5: exhaustion by repeated hoeing

My only actual experience of eliminating a difficult perennial weed by this method is couch grass when I was home as a lad sixty years ago. The previous occupant of our new home had a peculiar method of ‘controlling’ his weed. He rotavated his garden once a year! What a wonderful way to propagate couch. The garden was a vigorous monoculture!
I gained my love of the soil as a result of the intimate relationship I developed when forking it out!
Forking half the garden was enough for me and I read I could eliminate couch by repeated hoeing! Not only can you exhaust it’s carbohydrate reserves if you are sufficiently diligent it also runs out of axillary buds! In the case of this particular weed, hoeing quite deeply to chop part of the rhizome helps. The key to my success  was being pathetically and pathologically motivated to not let a single blade of couch remain above ground for more than a week. It still took over a year to completely eliminate the couch.
I once told a former schoolfriend about this method. I saw him again after a gap of twenty years. “Remember when you said I could ‘get rid’ by hoeing, I am still hoeing and it’s still there!”.
Many York allotments are invaded by horsetail. Even if you do get rid of it, it comes back from a neighbour. 
I suggest that hoeing can work as long a you are as obsessively compulsive as I was with my couch! Hoeing is an enjoyable and speedy operation. I only recommend hoeing if it is done very shallowly and unless your general weed control is as pathetic as that of most people - who have a solid mass of germinating weed seeds - you only sever the weed and do not hoe the complete surface.  I have seen it recommended that at the start of your mission that an initial light forking-out helps. There is no need to remove the cut shoots when you hoe, they will not survive if cut at ground level. Consider your horsetail as a green manure that mines nutrients from seven foot down.

Case study 6: use of defoliant glufosinate-ammonium

A widely promoted ‘professional’ contact weedkiller is promoted to ‘curtail’ horsetail (my pun on the chemical’s commercial name). I looked up the dictionary definition and it defined ‘impose a restriction on’. Could this be the first case in history of accuracy in a pesticide name?
Now I have no experience of glufosinate-ammonium but I do know that like diquat (Weedol) it is a defoliant that introduces no active residue into the soil. Diquat is known as ‘the chemical hoe’. It rapidly kills plant foliage thereby weakening a perennial and killing most annuals. Its effect on a weed is no more or less effective than hoeing. Like diquat, glufosinate is not translocated down and does not kill roots. I am sure glufosinate-ammonium gives a spectacular kill of the leaves..... It just might be worth trying.

Case 7: Learnt at a Party in France
Added July 2015
Ammonium sulphamate – not to be confused with ammonium sulphate.

I recently met a lovely lady at a garden party and the course of conversation moved to mares tail. She had legally purchased on the WWW a supply of ammonium sulphamate compost accelerator. She had decided to use it a little early on her living mares tail.
She did not look like a criminal to me.

Although in the past ammonium sulphamate has been used widely for weed control by large organisations in conservation projects; 
and previously shown by The Henry Doubleday Association to be very effective as a translocated herbicide against mares tail - albeit not approved now for organic gardeners;
and is thought to be very environmentally friendly on account of of its almost immediate degradation into a fertiliser when it reaches the soil; 
it has now lost its Common Market licence as a herbicide.

Wikipedia emphasises that the licence withdrawal is nothing to do with lack of efficacy or safety. Wiki says nothing about bureaucratic bumbling and costs to a manufacturer of obtaining a licence.

No matter, ammonium sulphamate would appear to be at least as effective as glyphosate. My new friend waxed lyrical about it. She thought so highly she had also incriminated her neighbours. No use getting rid of horsetail at home if it creeps back from over the fence.

This would appear to be a parallel situation where in the UK it is legal to use iron sulphate on your lawn as a fertilizer but it is illegal to sell it as a mosskiller! (This suits the retailers very well).

Two garden reprobates you might wish to avoid

The scouring brush horsetail, Equisetum hyemale and the dwarf horsetail Equisetum scirpoides are actually sold as a garden plant and this idiot grows them. I use glyphosate to curtail it! It’s rather invasive. By my pond it looks rather fine and the young frogs that emerge from my pond love it!


To the right of the top pond the E. hyemale and E.scirpoides are confined by the water on one side and the lawn on the other.(Well almost)
Equisetum scirpoides 

Equisetum hyemale even intrudes into my giant gunnera

Spot the fine clump of Equisetum hyemale and look around and spot invading pieces

More on my suggestion that in undisturbed habitats horsetail is just a wild flower

You can’t see horsetail here in this view of Tignes in the French alps. Neither can I. It is actually not uncommon but nobody sees it

No, no equisetum obvious here either!

Where a habitat has been disturbed and weeds lack natural competition they can build up their resources 

This disturbed ground is still a strong stand of rose bay willow herb many years after the site has been abandoned.

I have NEVER seen equisetum in this section of Worsbrough cemetery garden. Formally under a cover of six foot bramble for more than forty years horsetail would not have survived

Dancing with horsetail spores
Thank you Sarah Stu for this charming and hilarious tube link
This video is the most amusing thing I have ever seen.

added July 2015
Several readers have expressed concern about the copious number of spores produced by their horsetail. As far as I am aware they are insignificant in spreading the weed in your garden. In nature establishment from spores is very slow and takes many years. Think how difficult it is to get fern spores to establish. Think also the number of spores that will float into your garden from elsewhere without establishing

July 2016
I can't resist publishing this picture from reader Alisonc. These are the things that can come up from seven foot down

June 2017
For what it's worth weedol mentioned above has changed into several new formulations and is now merely a brand name.
August 2017
I have written a new post

Thursday 12 March 2015

How to grow ipheion?

If only ipheon did not have tall straggly foliage, smell of garlic and hold its flowers sparsely  it would be a very fine plant. I can give it no greater insult as to compare it with muscari. My undeserved prejudice against muscaris was probably formed by pulling out hundreds of handfuls for a similarly deluded client!

Despite my acid comment, tubs of beautiful ipeionic starflowers viewed from our conservatory window have brightened our Winter.

I have grown ‘common-o-garden’ Ipheion uniflorum as a ‘bread and butter’ plant for several years. Very easy to grow, hardy and tolerant to green plants being scooped out with a spade and shifted around, it has flowered in my gardens for many weeks every March and April.

hardy Ipheion uniflorum
I have had the same stock of very hardy Ipheion uniflorum for forty years 

I now think I have in the past wrongly concluded that the lovely named varieties offered by bulb merchants were difficult and tender. I have now changed my mind and think these beautiful star shaped flowers when properly established might be just as easy as their neglected big brother. For years I have been popping in dry bulbs of named varieties and if they have grown at all they have not made it through to the next season.

In Autumn 2013 I tried something different. I got my Autumn bulb order in early and immediately on receipt soaked the dry bulbs in water for a couple of hours. I then planted clusters in half a dozen three litre pots. They were thoroughly watered and placed in my cold greenhouse. 
(Here in the UK ‘cold greenhouse’ is the term for a greenhouse with zero artificial heat and in Winter although giving protection can be very cold. Hopefully not too often much below freezing). 
By November the bulbs were sprouting but did not come to much and to my shame I cannot remember much about them! No memory of a flower. They died down in their pots in Spring but only after receiving full light and sufficient water as bulbs must at this time.
In August, still in the same pots, but top dressed with compound fertiliser, I restarted watering.

I stood my pots over a larger container. It would have be nicer to plunge them

This time things were very different!  Although dwarfer than my existing garden plant  they were really quite vigorous. When they started to flower in early January this year they were too nice to waste and I stood them outside where we could view them. We have had a succession of  beautiful flowers for a couple of months. Now in Mid March they are still make a lovely display although the beautiful strong  flowers are now interspersed with yellowing foliage.

Now in mid March the foliage is starting to yellow and the flowers are more recognisably pink!  

I suspect that they are rather like snowdrops and hate being out of the soil on a dry merchant’s shelf or in the bulb growers store. Snowdrops have an accurate reputation for transplanting ‘in the green’ and I think ipheions might be similar. Of course, if you can find them, snowdrops can be moved at any time if they are transplanted direct out of the ground. I suspect transplanting when newly dormant is the best way for ipheion.

I am captivated by their names. The common uniflorum is such a pale violet it nearly looks white. ‘Alberto Castillo’ has larger pure white flowers, ‘Rolf Fiedler’ is rich dark blue, ‘Wisley Blue’ is delicate pale, evocative ‘Froyle Mill’ is dark violet and ‘Charlotte Bishop’ is rosy pink. Pastel names for pastel flowers.

A dead ringer for Ipheion 'Wisley Blue' but was bought as a white one

‘Jessie’ raised from a seedling of ‘Rolf Fiedler’

Cultural notes
Ipheion will grow in a wide range of soils but prefers very sharp drainage. The common I. uniflorum has never been too fussy for me. It thrives in anything between full light and bright shade. Although I have never bothered to ‘split’ mine other than for propagation purposes, if it becomes really crowded it might be best to divide it. This will not be necessary for several years unless you wish to create large drifts. In the past I have just used a fork as if it was a normal herbaceous perennial.

Although I have found it successful to lift and divide a green plant it is arguably better to divide it when it is dormant. Here it has just been forked out of the ground

And pulled gently apart by hand

Don’t go to this extreme which I have done to demonstrate its small bulb, albeit twice the size of the one from the bulb supplier

I have planted these clumps in a gravel area I am developing. It is essential to keep them well watered with the dry March winds we are currently getting!

Ipheion has been one of those plants whose name I could never remember!
In our family it has been ‘the bulb that smells like garlic in the front garden’.

If you have arrived at this post via a search engine you will have found that it wanted to take you to iPhone! I never forget the name of my telephone plant now.
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