Wednesday 28 September 2016

Good gardeners don’t have to be organic

We all like the worms
Some people imagine I must be ‘organic’ and then read on to find I use ‘Roundup’. When they delve further they find me somewhat scathing about organic mores and I suggest the word ‘organic’ to be the territory of snake oil salesman and wide eyed innocence. 
It is not my purpose today to debunk organic growing. Indeed some of the very finest gardeners are organic. It is more that I wish to find common ground that good gardeners share.

People used to ask why hostas in Bolton Percy cemetery garden were slug free when in that garden I have never used insecticides, fungicides or slug pellets

I must first briefly explain my own stance. I am no longer perplexed by the ancient meaning of the term organic to describe some substance ‘that has lived’ and to have been animal or plant. Even in the face of the organic movement regarding certain inorganic chemicals ‘organic’ if they are ‘natural’ and dug out of the ground! Organic in a kind of honorary way!
The modern meaning of ‘organic’ is to describe materials that contain carbon and are the ones you might have studied in organic chemistry at school. (It might appear on the syllabus as biochemistry today!) 
Most of the vast array of modern  chemicals of everyday life are organic when defined in this way. Perish the thought - if you are an organic gardener - that glyphosate is an organic chemical! We have as gardeners learned to deal in both currencies of meaning.
Cathi’s neglected rose would qualify as organic if I did not use glyphosate

I refuse to accept that modern synthesised chemicals are less safe or less effective than those naturally derived. Frequently the reverse. Take fertilisers. A modern balanced fertiliser containing almost all the plant nutrients in balanced proportions and sometimes slow release is far superior to such as bonemeal. Even useful ‘organics’ such as seaweed extracts need to be inorganically fortified to be really effective - and don’t get me going on to scouring the natural environment to find commercial organic products for the garden.

If you use a complete fertiliser like this not only will your soil build up its nutrients from year to year so will your perennial plants
I fail to understand why people who are happy to use a whole array of modern chemicals, not all safe ones, in every aspect of everyday life, refuse to accept the same in their garden. Thousands of manufactured chemicals are used to cover our bodies, ingest, clean our houses, maintain our cars, provide recreation and keep us alive. Some people actually smoke.

You might be surprised the hear about chemicals I don’t use! Not that I fear them although for example certain cosmetics that you might plaster over your body to make you smell or look nice are almost always far less safe than manufactured chemicals you might use in the garden.

Both organic or inorganic insecticides are bad for the bees

With my little rant over I now want to examine what might constitute natural and ecologically/culturally sound ways to manage a garden. Labels as to what kind of gardener you are mean nothing to me.

What good gardeners share

Soil health
All good gardeners care for their soil and many organic gardeners lead the way with the notion that the best way of doing this is to leave soil alone and adopt minimum cultivation. We both agree that bulky organic matter will vastly improve soil structure. We agree that organic matter produced on a site should be preserved and recycled. Eve Balfour that great founder of the organic movement was adamant that other than her crops no organic material should leave her farm. Our own gardens don’t share a traditional farm’s diversity but in my opinion everything entering the green disposal bin is a mark of failure. It is not necessary to buy in manures and bulky organic material - but it does help. I recently purchased two lorry loads of bark mulch for my borders…
I am not sure the meaning of organic gardeners desire to ‘feed the soil’ but I emphasis that the organic content of organic fertilisers (as distinct from bulky manures) is far too small to make any difference to the soil store of organic matter. I don’t understand anyone’s objection to adding valuable nutrients as fertilisers (organic or inorganic) that feed healthy plants which in turn return organic matter and nutrients to the ground. Either as compost or directly returned.

I write all the time about preserving a soil’s organic matter by such as not oxidising it away by too much cultivation, by covering the ground with plants all year round  which helps to maintain good structure and all things that encourage beneficial soil life. In the case of the latter I am fascinated by the contribution of beneficial mycorrhizal fungi and their production of long lasting glomalin that binds soil particles together. Alas fertilizers inhibit mycorrhiza. There are many parts of the garden that do not need fertilisers at all.

Neither of my cemetery gardens ever receive fertiliser

Healthy plants resist pest and disease
Some pests and diseases are so virulent that this is just not true. In the majority of cases however if you are a good grower and can ensure that your plants are well grown with avoidance of stresses such as inappropriate nutrients, excess or insufficient water, too much or too little heat and light, I firmly believe that your plants will resist weaker pathogens such as aphids, moulds and mildews.
Organic growers sometimes claim they never get aphids with their highly organic soil. Neither do I - except perhaps on a stressed house plant in Winter and I don’t grow lupins and...

Maintaining plant diversity in a garden increases natural control of pest and disease
This goes together with providing healthy habitat for predators and parasites and not slapping on insecticides all over the place. My cemetery gardens have never been treated with insecticide or fungicide. I might get my hand sprayer out in my own garden two or three times a year. Brenda sometimes applies a few slug pellets very lightly under the hostas. In a diverse garden, plant health is the norm. My frogs, other amphibians, birds and invertebrate predators and parasites control most of my pests for me. I think organic gardeners and I sing from the same hymn sheet.

Let them get on with it

Cultural pest and disease control
I have written before about the huge array of cultural wrinkles such as pruning out aphids for example on broad bean tips. No quarrel with organic gardeners here.

Green manures
I have my own take on this and include retaining plants on my vegetable garden all the year round. I agree with organic gardeners that plants are good for the soil

Naturalistic Gardening

It's been a poor year for butterflies
Many folk imagine me to be organic because of my naturalistic methods that allow plants to establish themselves and generally seed and vegetatively spread around. ‘Take care of the weeds and the plants will take care of themselves’ is my motto. A weed is a plant in the wrong place and many traditional weeds are also wild flowers. I completely agree. There is too much to say about this for my article today but I emphasise that in my opinion naturalistic gardening is not the exclusive domain of organic gardeners

Are you organic?
Many gardeners casually claim to be so.
If you do any of the following you are not.
Use proprietary liquid feeds such as tomato feed on you house plants.
Spray or water your house plants with generally available pest killers
Use insecticidal, fungicidal or bactericidal domestic products in your home
Use growmore
Use lawn weed and feeds. Especially those that kill lawn weeds!
Use harsh chemicals to clean stone surfaces
Treat path and road surfaces with proprietary herbicides to clear weeds
Use slug pellets (be aware that the none metaldehyde types are NOT more environmentally friendly than the normal kind)

Buying Vegetable and Fruit produce
A small grower in the next village has polytunnels in which he grows fabulous strawberries and raspberries - the latter, I imagine mainly outside. Other fruits and tomatoes too. Through the Summer he has a covered ‘help yourself stall’ at his gate. His strawberries come in a wide range of delicious varieties, are blemish free and taste vastly superior to the ‘turnips’ at the supermarket.They come over a very long season and other than cheap supermarket ‘offers’ are priced the same.
The small-farm lady in the village buys-in vegetables from local, or not so local, producers to sell at her little farm shop. Her onions are firm and huge and far superior to anything I could ever grow. Her very large almost red ’dirty carrots’ are superb. The grower sells most of his carrots ‘for processing’  but those she buys-in have not yet been harmed. 
Swedes never do very well for me and I can’t really be bothered although I really do love to eat them. Rejected by supermarket grading systems they come to my lady in a wide range of sizes but are priced the same for each ‘turnip’. You will divine that I buy the huge ones. The cauliflowers are fresh and come over a very long season. Those in my garden all come together and tend to be misshapen and blemished.
None of the above vegetables are claimed to be organic. Nor are they or do they need to be.

His produce is perfect
A few weeks ago I was shopping in Sainsburys and noticed that cucumbers were 35 pence each. Next to them were organic ones at £1.10 which looked exactly the same. The organic ones were imported and carried several air miles. Had I had not prolific home grown ones you can guess which I would buy.

My home grown tomatoes are wonderful and have never been sprayed
Some of my very early posts are still relevant today
I had aphid on my peppers

Benefits of worms

Saturday 17 September 2016

Wild about weeds; when weeds are wild flowers

I wander through the weeds

A weed is a plant in the wrong place. Frequently that wrong place is your garden. I defend to the hilt a gardener’s right to choose what he grows although I do not take kindly to a tall Leyland on my boundary or strong clumps of ground elder or equisetum just over the fence. Mea culpa when I grow the bee bum plant, Impatiens glutinosa in my garden, albeit a dwarf form. There are genuine Himalayan balsams that I allow to grow on the village plot. 

I used to have the Hymalayan balsam in Bolton Percy cemetery but the c-team got carried away weeding.
Having eliminated a quarter of an acre  of Japanese knotweed in the wood at Worsbrough cemetery I remembered how Victorian gardeners adored it. It crossed my mind that as I am not legally allowed to plant it I might get away with allowing a small isolated clump to regrow. It is perhaps fortunate that I could not find any.

A long time ago I might have said even nettles had a place - as long as they are not in my own garden. Now they are deeply trendy. Famed flower arranger George Smith had a very small clump in his wood when we visited his marvellous garden this June. Pocklington landscaper Martin Smith had a few in his gem of a small garden. Brother-in-law Dave Smith has fine specimens on his allotment. On second thoughts this might not have  been planned. Dave I jest, I think your vertical wildlife cypress pinnacle in your tiny front garden is a work of genius and so do the birds. Not the lady next door.
An Open garden we know has a large wooded area of nettles with strimmed paths running through. Labelled ‘wildlife area’ we wonder if this is a case of a necessity transformed into  virtue.
Brenda, like me, is very scathing about growing nettles. She says its not as if they were endangered, lacking natural habitat or even nice. I wonder how many who claim this garden thug as a home for butterflies and their caterpillars actually find them.

A former ecology colleague grew only weeds in his garden. I never saw them but I am told wildlife thrived. The best treatment of wild flowers that I have personally seen I described in my recent post about Jervaulx Abbey. There, wild flowers - actually mainly common weeds - make a wonderful display over the stones.

Thirty years ago my colleague Barry Potter moved the college bee hives on to a lawn adjacent to a small wood. He let the grass grow long and encouraged thousands of dandelions to grow. (I have always thought that if dandelions were difficult everyone would want them). The bees loved the dandelions which really looked lovely. Colleagues turned up their nose when they seeded around. Barry arranged for the then innovative differential mowing and visitors walked the grass paths.
Our language has changed and to call the area ‘wild’ was at that time something of an insult. We were starting to use warm words such as ‘ecological’, ‘natural’, ‘naturalistic’ and ‘back to nature’. A visitor gasped at her own folly when with a slip of the tongue she asked a question about the ‘overgrown lawn’.

Brenda’s son’s buttercups in France look good in his meadow
This Spring I enjoyed the yellow cover of dandelions and later on buttercups in Cathi’s developing grass verge. I retain the right to limit their numbers but I will certainly keep some. 
For several years now I have grown drifts of upright bulbous buttercups in lightly wooded areas of Worsbrough cemetery. There are a few in my miniature glade of four Betula jaquemontii in my own garden. 
Today I felt Brenda’s ire when she weeded excessive self sown campion and white Herb Robert and even to me too many volunteer red ones!

I don’t let Brenda’s zeal propel me to pull out the volunteer foxgloves

Several poppies have decided they like Cathi’s garden
I allow celandine in parts of my lawn
I love all the wild flowers in my cemetery gardens. Plants such as violets, campion and primroses thrive. The late Spring golden carpet of celandine at Bolton Percy is a joy to behold. Celandine is so well behaved It makes nutritious bird forage from February and then suddenly in June it disappears for the rest of the year.  Can I claim the Spanish bluebells in the cemetery are wild flowers? They are certainly not weeds!

Bluebells in Worsbrough cemetery
Cathi’s bluebells are so stately I doubted my identification
It had not dawned on me that Cathi’s bluebells were the true native ones. I transferred a few hundred that had been dug up by the rabbits to her new verge. I was really quite surprised at how strong and sturdy they were. Really quite superior
Blogger Sue Garett has pointed out that the above picture is not the wild bluebell and is no doubt a hybrid. I like hybrids and will think just as highly of this plant's wonderful constitution No doubt hybrid vigour.
We enjoyed a walk round the wonderful Yorkshire Arboretum at Castle Howard last week.
They have left the magnificent skeleton of a large dead tree for its atmospheric outline and as a wildlife haven. For safety reasons the tree is surrounded by old sheep hurdles to keep the public away. Overgrown with thistles and nettles they make their contribution as an impenetrable barrier!

What’s this? If you don’t recognise it, it will take over
Ragwort ticks the right boxes as a host for the startling red cinnabar moth. The moth’s colours are a warning to predators that it is full of deadly ingested ragwort toxins. The handsome yellow weed is legally classified as noxious and it is beholden on landowners to control it. It is old legislation and few take any notice! Our local hedgerows are a brilliant yellow. The weed is deadly if ingested by herbivores and is particularly insidious when dry.

Cathi’s developing grass verge continues as un-mown grass along the length of the road. I thought the yellow plant just beyond our jurisdiction looked rather nice and I had left it. (I am somewhat relaxed about matters proprietorial).
Last week I met farm worker Michael by Cathi’s green bin. He was depositing a very large neatly dissected ragwort. He is very conscious of ragwort danger. His employer keeps very  expensive racehorses. Michael is the man who has Foggathorpe clay. When on another occasion I had been down to Foggathorpe I looked for number four. There were four number fours - in the same street. Down there they are funny that way.

I notice some bloggers are starting to boast their cavalier attitude to weeds. It is almost an emblem of pride that they do very little weeding.
I think they will come to regret it.

Some places have very nice weeds
In a sense there are three weeds here. Only an idiot like me would plant mares tail and the orchid has sown itself

This dactylorhiza on the moist bank was planted. I wonder why we call plants in the water water-weeds?

Weeds like these grow in disturbed landscape in Tignes in the French alps. Suppressed mares tail normally contributes to the mountain landscape and the dock is a relic of an ancient local crop
I will be blogging soon about controlling rosebay willow herb 

But as a garden plant it is beautiful
The nicest of the two epilobiums (willow herbs) that infest every garden 

The alien plant zealots might regard this solidago as a weed in the Welsh hills

If convolvulus was difficult to grow everyone would want it

An innovative scheme that mixes wild flowers and garden plants. Unfortunately such schemes are difficult to manage and are labour intensive.
Links to related posts

Wild flowers in Tignes

Control of equisetum

Convolvulus is very easy to control if you do it right. (Scroll to the very end of the post)

A lot of pictures at Jervaulx

My opinion on introduced plants

Wednesday 7 September 2016

Peter’s pictures

I asked Peter Williams for some recent pictures of his garden to supplement a post I was intending to write and promptly lost my own contribution in the wilds of my computer! It would be a pity to waste Peter’s lovely pictures. Here they are with a few of my own captions
This plant is a 'must' for any garden. It provides golden colour all of the year. When in flower the orange blossom scent is gorgeous. It needs to be in full light to perform. In shade it is green
Jack Frost is better in Spring. My friend David Willis is the breeder of 'White' Swan' which is nationally popular. David's plant recently died and Peter gave him a new one!

Note the smooth line of the lawn and shallow easily maintained edges

Peter has help with his garden design by his former student and friend Julie. She is the one who described his former planting 'Morecombe and Wise'

I have in my own garden a strong stand of The Bishop of Llandalf series. Fortunately no early frost is forecast before my Open day this Sunday

Choose your varieties of kniphophia carefully and have flowers right through the Summer
You will find no stakes in Peter's herbaceous borders
Is the lily a 'volunteer' in the middle of the rudbeckia? I don't think Julie will approve
You might have missed this Peter Williams post and a picture of Julie
Other Peter posts can be found under Peter Williams in the themes column.

Final Reminder!

It is my Open day on Sunday. This NGS link provides the details

Sunday 4 September 2016

Use of a Dutch hoe

Hoe hoe hoe
You might not expect a no dig gardener who sprays his weeds to have much use for a hoe. You would be right but there are occasions when I find a hoe an invaluable tool.  For many vegetable growers and Dutch gardeners on their sandy soils - the Dutch are proper gardeners - it is the weed control tool of choice. I remember a cycling holiday in the northern Netherlands. Early in a Summer evening everyone was out in their gardens relaxing hoeing with shiny hoes.

I used my ancient hoe blade on a broken shaft for several years in preference to a useless modern one! Handyman Chris has now shafted me. (Just joking Chris)
It is rather a challenge to write about hoeing. There is so much to say but most people are not very interested. It’s not very sexy. You do not read about it in gardening magazines. Not many will bother to read this either!
Hoeing does not have much going for it! It is only suitable for small and medium weeds and is best against those from seed. It is of little use in Winter because the soil is too wet. In Summer it is restricted to hot sunny weather and dry windy days. Preferably both. Not much good then for Harry and Rowena who live in Preston - you always need an umbrella when going to visit them. Worse most dutch hoes generally on offer are not fit for purpose - they are the wrong shape. OK for a mindless series of uppercuts and next to useless for shallowly and horizontally slicing through the soil or tightly undercutting a weed where the stem meets the root.

If I hold the shaft high enough on a modern hoe to meet the soil at the right shallow angle I nearly break my back when I push! This green one points up in the air!
Because I never use my modern hoe it is rather rusty. A good hoe regularly used is shiny and self sharpened
I will try and make reading my post today less painful by presenting bullet points that can easily be skipped over.

  • Hoeing should detach weeds from their roots and leave them on the surface to desiccate and die and subsequently enrich the soil.
  • Where possible only the weeds should be hoed - and very shallowly. Not an overall cover disturbing all of the soil.
  • This will sometimes not be possible for those whose allotment soils contain multiple thousands of weed seeds with their emergence aggravated by bringing new ones to the surface by previous digging. With dense weed germination hoeing every inch between the plants will be necessary.
  • The smaller the weeds - as a result of frequent hoeing - the better. Larger weeds such as groundsel must not have chance to ripen seed as they die!
  • It used to be believed hoeing was a water conserving operation. It is not. You can read my old post about this.
  • Hoeing is perhaps of limited value against established perennial weeds. They don’t die and many re-root! Even here very regular hoeing - weekly in Summer - can be used as a long term strategy.  It takes several years to eliminate marestail  - as long as it does not keep creeping back from your neighbours! I once banished couch grass in a single season. In this case my hoeing was every five days and deeper than normal bringing rhizomes to the surface. In neither of these two examples should you denude the soil by removing the hoed weed.
  • Now my wrists are a little arthritic and for weeds such as liverwort and moss I sometimes use a small border spade as a hoe. (My back is still very supple and I go to pilates!) A spade is a little heavier than a hoe and its use has more momentum and jars my wrists less. I recently tried with a shovel! It actually presents its face to the soil surface at a much better angle than a pesky modern hoe. I have recently been using the very sharp corner of a shovel to ‘nick out’ course grass weeds from my lawn. (Some of us are a little strange with regard to our lawns). 
  • Don’t have any inhibitions about the angle you present the hoe blade to the soil. I sometimes hold the blade vertical and scrape - especially if a weed is very close to a plant. You are generally advised to use a dutch hoe working backwards. This is perhaps true but I tend to wander in any direction!
  • Hoes are great to get to weed under a plant cover. Do not desist however from bending your back to hand pull a weed in the middle of a clump. Throw that weed back on the ground too.
  • A regularly used hoe keeps itself sharp and shiny
  • Remember hoeing is to control weeds. If you choose to use it to fluff up the soil for cosmetic purposes like my friend Elaine that’s your own funeral.
Just a shallow undercut is all that is needed. Hoe too deep and the weed won’t die! You might be surprised at my shallow shaft angle
My hoe is well worn and I treasure it like an old teddy bear
Recently on a dry summers day I had a very light cover of weeds in my acre garden. (You all know that normally I am a glyphosate sprayer). I wanted to ensure the few weeds did not seed and to reach those sneakily hiding under ground covering plant canopies. It would also impress some visitors to find no weeds two days later! I worked my way round with the hoe in about two hours. I only hoed the weeds and did not otherwise disturb the soil. It is a great way to get a close look at your plants.

I hoe my vegetable garden when it is inappropriate to glyphosate spray. My policy has always been ‘don’t let weeds seed’ and I have been at Seaton Ross fifteen years now. I don’t dig seeds to the surface and I frequently hand pull weeds when I walk round. I refuse to add weed seed in mulched manure and such things. My weeds are sparse and as a result my hoe only comes out a few times a year. I zip round the veg garden in about ten minutes. For vegetable gardeners who rely just on the hoe I recommend whipping round weekly in Summer.

Relevant links
I write about the defunct dust mulch theory

I write about how a good weed control policy should ring the changes between several methods

Onion hoe anyone?
I managed to find twenty five uses for a spade

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