Friday, 26 January 2018

A man and a daffodil; still going strong

Back home
Although David Willis and myself were colleagues at Askham Bryan College it is only recently have I learned of his quiet lifetime contribution to horticulture and an unexpected overlap with my own history. 

My friend Peter Williams recently wrote this lovely piece about David which was published in the newsletter of the Beverley group of the Hardy Plant Society. He has given me permission to republish it here.

What links a Silver Swan, a church in County Durham and the most famous daffodil of the 1800’s?
David Willis
One day in the early summer of 2015, I was asked by my friend Roger Brook if I would join him and a group of his retired professional horticultural colleagues for lunch, and then allow the group to visit my garden. I immediately agreed, but as the day of the visit approached, I became increasingly nervous. Although I am normally quite confident showing visitors around my garden, I had never before entertained a group of professional horticulturists. However, within minutes of their arrival, my fears evaporated and I started to feel comfortable simply chatting about plants and enjoying the relaxed, good-natured company of fellow gardeners.
When we looked around my polytunnel, one of the group identified Euphorbia characias ‘Silver Swan’ that I had propagated from cuttings and asked whether I considered it to be a worthwhile variety. I replied that I thought that it was a superb plant that looked good all year around. I explained that I was so impressed by its performance that I had propagated new plants to extend my initial planting. The questioner replied that he was very pleased that was the case because he had in fact, discovered the plant and was responsible for its introduction into commercial horticulture. Panic returned immediately because I knew that the variety was subject to Plant Breeders’ Rights and I thought that I might have broken the law. Was I in trouble? Well of course not. I was not trying to sell the plants, but was simply producing a few more for my own enjoyment. The discoverer of ‘Silver Swan’ was Dr. David Willis and I was so pleased to meet him that I asked if I could take his photograph with my original ‘Silver Swan’. David agreed with great good humour and posed with his discovery. 

"Little does he know I have lost mine"


I thought no more about the ‘Silver Swan’ incident until I heard from David the following spring. He asked if I still had a specimen of ‘Silver Swan’ in my polytunnel that I could spare. He explained that his own plant that had been grown in a container had died because it had been waterlogged during the very wet winter and spring. David went on to say that that the company to which he had granted his PBR licence had become insolvent, and the variety was temporarily unavailable 


I had actually planted out all the ‘Silver Swans', but was absolutely delighted to lift one, and return it to its discoverer. David had told me that when he first found the variegated shoot that became 'Silver Swan' on a green plant of E.characias in his garden, he had a few sleepless nights because he could not decide whether to let it grow further, or to immediately take it as a cutting and try to get it established as a plant on its own roots. David took the latter course and the new variety was created

Isobel "that's David Willis"
June 'yes I am married to him"
A little while later, David contacted me to say that he wanted to return my favour and had a few ‘odd’ daffodil bulbs that I might be interested in growing. These turned out to be very special indeed. There were five bulbs of Narcissus ‘Empress’ and five of Narcissus ‘Weardale Perfection’. The hand-written label that accompanied the bulbs informed me that the former was raised by William Backhouse in 1865 and was the first triploid cultivar, and the latter, also created by William Backhouse, was the first tetraploid narcissus and had flowered for the first time in 1872.
When the bulbs flowered in my glasshouse the following spring I was delighted by both daffodils but especially by ‘Weardale Perfection’. This truly lovely daffodil was tall, elegant, delicately bi-coloured and held its flowers strongly above the foliage. My delight turned to astonishment when I discovered the history of this cultivar and the story of its loss and rediscovery and the key role that David had played.

Weardale Perfection
William Backhouse was a Quaker and wealthy Darlington banker and the leading hybridizer of daffodils from 1855 until his death in 1869. His country home was at St John’s Hall, Wolsingham in Weardale, County Durham. During the flowering season he undertook his plant breeding in the early morning before catching the train to Darlington to start his day’s work. 


Ready for work
Unfortunately, William died before the cultivar that was to become ‘Weardale Perfection’ first flowered in 1872. His sons witnessed the event and the variety became a sensation. In the 1900’s a single bulb cost ten guineas, equivalent to almost £2000 today. This makes even the current craze for snowdrops look quite sensible! 

Despite its cost, the variety became distributed widely amongst daffodil enthusiasts and an article in a Sheffield newspaper in 1899 indicated that when ‘Weardale Perfection’ was displayed in Totley Hall (a C17 mansion owned by fellow daffodil enthusiast W.A. Milner for whom William Backhouse named another of his crosses), some local workers were given time off to go and see the amazing new daffodil!

William's son and daughter-in-law Sarah went on to be prolific daffodil breeders 
The outstanding characteristics of ‘Weardale Perfection’ meant that it was quickly used in daffodil breeding programmes and many excellent new cultivars were developed. But as so often happens in horticulture, the swarm of hybrids replaced the parent and by the 1930’s ‘Weardale Perfection’ had disappeared from the bulb catalogues.
When I first met David I realised that he was an expert horticulturalist but it was not until I received the bulbs that I discovered that his real passion was daffodils and that he was one of the UK’s leading authorities on these plants. David knew the story of ‘Weardale Perfection’s origin and subsequent demise because he had studied breeding records of early daffodil cultivars. Indeed, for a number of years he had been looking at catalogues from around the world and had tried without success, to obtain a specimen.
The story advanced when a Wolsingham resident Margaret Keyte read about ‘Weardale Perfection’ and thought that an excellent Millenium project for the Weardale Society might be to find the daffodil and plant it in the churchyard where William Backhouse was buried. David was approached and asked for help with the project in 1998. 
The idea was to visit sites in the Weardale region associated with the Backhouse family to see if the daffodil was still growing. The aim would then be to isolate and bulk up stock that could be planted out for the Millennium event. Searches of likely sites did not reveal any plants that David could be certain were ‘Weardale Perfection’ but then there was a breakthrough.

 Margaret Keyte heard that the cultivar was still growing in a house in Wolsingham. The house had previously belonged to the district nurse Jessie Young, who had been known to grow the daffodil in her garden. The present owner was convinced that there was a single bulb of ‘Weardale Perfection’ growing in a mixed tub of bulbs but the flower had long-since faded, and identification was impossible. She kindly offered the tub to David and he moved it to his home in a village near York. 
The following spring disappointment resurfaced. Daffodils appeared in the tub but not ‘Weardale Perfection’. However, in spring 2000, a flower was produced that David was convinced was the cultivar he sought. It matched his list of 21 criteria put together from a study of descriptions found in old catalogues. Whilst David was virtually certain that the bulb he obtained from Nurse Young’s garden was a true ‘Weardale Perfection’, he was delighted to be supplied with information in 2008 that removed any trace of doubt. The evidence linked Nurse Young to the garden of Bedburn Hall where ‘Weardale Perfection’ was known to have grown (and probably still does). The source of the bulbs at Bedburn Hall is thought to have been Charles James Backhouse who actually named the variety ‘Weardale Perfection’ after his father’s death. Charles, along with other prominent Weardale Quakers, were known to have visited the Hall for Sunday lunch in the latter parts of the Nineteenth Century and probably brought the bulbs as a present on one of these occasions. The owner of Bedburn Hall, Mrs Bonas, had known Nurse Young from childhood and had employed her to help with her own children when they were born. She had remembered Nurse Young admiring ‘Weardale Perfection’ in the garden at Bedburn Hall and being given a few bulbs




After flowering in David’s care in 2000, the daffodil grew well and when the bulb was lifted in summer of 2000 it had produced a detachable daughter bulb. This daughter bulb was used for twin-scaling (a rapid propagation method that involves taking slices of the bulb with a section of the basal plate and at least two segments of bulb scales) and by November of 2000, David had ten new bulbils. Over the next few years further twin-scaling was performed and in September 2007, five-hundred bulbs were planted out in the grounds of the Parish Church of St. Mary and St. Stephen in Wolsingham. The project had missed its Millennium target but the date coincided with the 200th anniversary of William Backhouse’s birth. I was so taken with the story of this remarkable bulb that I visited the church in April 2017 and the photograph at the top of this post shows that ‘Weardale Perfection’, is doing really well. 

This story also had another fascinating and totally unexpected outcome for David. He had been researching his family history and discovered that in the 1700’s, three generations of his family had been baptized, married and buried in the Parish Church of St. Mary and St. Stephen in Wolsingham. His great-great-grandfather’s grave is only fifty yards from the drift of ‘Weardale Perfection’ daffodils that David had propagated.

I would like to acknowledge David’s help in providing information that allowed me to write this account and for reading the first draft.
The detailed story of David Willis’s involvement with ‘Weardale Perfection’ and the genetics of daffodil breeding can be found in an authoritative article David wrote for The Daffodil Society Journal in 2008. If you wish to look even further into the history and breeding of daffodils David has made his book ‘Yellow Fever; A prospect of the history and culture of daffodils‘ available on line. (slow to load)
And if that wasn’t enough! – many of us have for years used the general fertilizer Vitax Q4 that was formulated by David Willis in the 1960’s. It was the first general fertilizer to contain trace elements and has been a best seller for 50 years. 
                                           —————-


Still an excellent fertiliser
Peter omits to mention a detail of David’s invention of Q4. At that time National Growmore was the only semi decent fertiliser available to amateurs and David had the simple idea that if a general fertiliser was gently formulated in a granule with all the necessary plant nutrients, nitrogen, potassium, phosphate, magnesium, calcium and sulphur plus several trace elements it would have a ready market.
He was correct and Vitax Q4 has been continuously marketed for fifty years.  The nice thing about this story is that although David had had no contact with the manufacturer for decades they recently sought him out to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of this fertiliser. David and June were ferried over to Cheshire and were guests of honour at a celebratory lunch. How many modern companies would show such appreciation?

David has a curious overlap in my own gardening history. My old Hartlepool grammar school - which did not even teach biology - were horrified at my own career choice to go into gardening! Grammar school boys didn’t do gardening! It emerged and perhaps the story was meant to be salutary, that several years earlier a somewhat cheeky -  and in his own words, bolshie - pupil had made the same career choice. Indeed he then worked on a nursery at the bottom of Westbrooke Avenue where I lived. I never met him at the time and it was nearly sixty years later that I learned we both started out from the same school.
Links
In searching for a picture of William Backhouse I stumbled on this very fine article about daffodil history. The blog carries many fascinating articles on themes of garden history.
I also found a collection of old Backhouse daffodils in Scotland







Saturday, 20 January 2018

A tribute to Harry - republished from 2013


Harry Poole



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!”

Pratia - the joke's on me
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! Not Brenda, she gave up long ago. 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 both 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. 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 inside to do some trivial 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  2013. 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
New editions

I have just discovered I can republish old articles! Merely by cutting and pasting the draft of the old post - and where necessary subsequent editing. I fear that I am going to trouble you with some future repetition. Fear not I threaten to keep up the number of new posts.

For the record I have changed my policy with wellies and now buy really good ones like Harry. They last so much longer it is worth it. Wonder of wonders my mower is still working

There were some lovely tributes to Harry in the original article   that you can read here.You can read more posts about Harry and see more of his pictures by merely inserting Harry or Harry Poole in my top search box.
My more recent readers will have seen Harry's pictures of his baby rheas  They have been in my weekly top ten for almost two years now! These Harry Poole pictures are quite a contrast.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Bog blog. Love your wet soil

Make the most of wet soil

It's not so much about this
It's more about this....
....and  flowers that love wet soil
New reader Carol has a very wet garden which receives drainage water from all directions. I was concerned she would want to know what to grow. A very good question but a devil to answer.
To my relief her comment column query arose from her realisation that the very best way to prepare a wet site is not to damage wet soil by cultivation but to eliminate weed by glyphosate spray.
She was worried that there was a stream over the wall in the neighbour’s garden and would she be a cause of its pollution. Although we might have a conversation about spraying vegetation alongside a running stream I was able to reassure her that in her case there was no danger whatsoever. Indeed around isolated water really difficult invasive bog weeds can be quickly, effectively and safely controlled - to the huge benefit of a surrounding ecology.

This post is intended to say how Carol’s problem site might very well be an opportunity to have a wonderful garden. This post is not so such about making a pond with an attendant bog garden or a treatise on how to improve drainage. It is just about making the best of a wet site.
As to a post about drainage. I have done that before before - and my pearls glugged down the drain.

The nature of soil wetness
In simplistic gardening literature moisture loving plants are either aquatic, bog or like ‘well drained moisture’ - whatever that means. By contrast in nature there is a complete gradation from free water all the way to severe drought and where for example iris on the water’s edge grows out into the water or the aquatic water bean scrambles onto the embankment or where the swamp cypress on the bank can have root appendages called pneumatophores growing out of a lake. (Apparently in this case nothing to do with acquiring oxygen as do genuine aerating pneumatophores)

This corner floods in wet weather
Often soil wetness varies with season. Nature - and gardeners - have to cope with Winter wet and Summer dry. 
I sometimes see garden centres selling those bog plants that love the wet water’s edge under the guise of aquatics. They survive in the water dying only slowly in Summer and failing to get through the Winter. Things like thuggish mimulus and expensive osmunda fern and zantedeschia lily just fade away in the water.


Not in the water but on the edge
And yet I know fantastic zantedeschias thriving all year round in very shallow  slow moving steams, osmundas on only slightly elevated embankments or water islands and mounds, and mimulus taking over gardens that are more  under water than they are dry


Because the water is moving it is aerated and zantedeschias thrive
My point is that nature is ever so subtle in the gradations from wet to dry.

Plant root's need for oxygen
Every plant cell needs oxygen to survive. Normal plants growing in waterlogged soil, or worse completely ‘saturated’ soil die for lack of root oxygen. In such conditions most or all of the soil air is displaced by water. In addition gaseous natural toxins fail to disperse.
Aquatic plant roots growing in open water extract dissolved oxygen from the water. Rain is also charged with oxygen which might give waterlogged susceptible plants a temporary respite. Unfortunately water in long term bog has zero dissolved oxygen.
There is huge variation in plant’s tolerance to very wet  conditions and there is huge variation in soil water absorption and duration of wetting. What is death for one plant is heaven for another. Huge opportunities for a good gardener. Some of the very best gardens are wet ones!

Site preparation


I have created undulating soil levels and in this case have sunk a small rigid plastic pond
I call this an up and down pond - sometimes wet - sometimes dry
Site preparation might be doing nothing at all and if the ground is not level to keep natural contours to maintain natural drainage patterns and to retain dips and mounds that give different planting opportunities. Keep soil movement to a minimum but it might be appropriate to either enhance soil height variation or to create slightly raised borders perhaps surrounded by lawn. Importing extra top soil might work very well but beware that soils of different textures frequently inhibit natural drainage when they lie together.
It might be appropriate to dig out a pond and use the extra soil to raise levels and at the same time create low boggy areas. Best use a spade than heavy machinery which might destroy soil structure.


The oval border with the birches and beyond is the really wet part. Now in mid January you can just make out water standing on the grass
Half an acre of my own garden is naturally a metre or more lower than the high parts and as I will explain later it can lie wet for extended periods. I have frivolously presented my posts about burying newspaper and (separately) burying woody prunings and hedge trimmings but I am deadly serious about the planting opportunities it has given me when I have raised soil levels. Only now after nye on twenty years of burying wood, newspaper and stones have I ceased -  citing ano domini. As a none digger such buried materials will not be disturbed!
Wood enhances soil fertility and in due course improves soil structure. Paper lasts an extremely long time and and charged with Winter water preserves a buried water resource to provide moisture in the dry of the Summer.

I am not enamoured to lining a site with plastic to create boggy conditions. It is fine at the edge of a pond if the pond liner is so folded that soil capillary contact is retained with the water even when pond levels fall in dry weather. If not the lining can easily create a barrier to roots going deep in the soil to find water when the surface becomes dry.


The raised edge lies over the plastic entity of the pond and water wicks up as long as the water level is high
The plants
Not only are wet sites very diverse in their nature so are the plants that have evolved in such boggy conditions. For instance monarda which likes wet - but short of boggy - always fails for me although my wet conditions are reasonably well drained. It’s best to experiment and grow what likes you and give up on the rest.


Now in a very wet January these daffodils are sprouting in the grass and have been flooded for two weeks. I am confident they will look like this in April
Many plants are generalists and have evolved to survive in a wide range of conditions. Often garden plants are hybrids and combine genes from plants with very diverse natures. Many gardeners have drainage problems and many popular plants have been unwittingly selected to survive wet conditions! My point is that many plants not promoted as bog plants will stand - and enjoy - varying degrees of wetness. Most daffodils and snowdrops do very well in wet sometimes flooded places. Fritillaria meleagris has evolved in marshland conditions where it naturally thrives. Phlox paniculata loves summer moisture and so does agapanthus which in its native habitat is often to be found on stream banks.
The boot is on the other foot with certain so called bog plants that given well drained moist conditions do even better than in waterlogged soil. Astilbes for example must have summer moisture but invariably fail if they stand in winter water.
For the rest of this chapter I will let the pictures of the plants do the talking

Although only an idiot would plant hellebors in bog all my best ones are in well drained moist soil which is sometimes flooded
Many large ornamental grasses like water meadow conditions
Gunnera survives winter wet with this huge overground food store. Its shallow roots at that time make it easy to divide!
Two vigorous thugs that love boggy conditions
Good for bog at the edge of the pond
Dwarf bulrush grows as an aquatic in my 'formal' pond. I have been dividing it to try some pieces at the base of my up and down pond
Hostas are very versatile and love wet or dry
Birch and dogwoods do well where it is wet
The soil habitat changes with level
The planting around the pond in the dry part of my garden are just normal plants
The background story of my own wet garden
You would not recognise the wet lower half of my garden as a bog garden. Just like the rest it is island borders and features set in lawn. Near the very bottom there is a 300 sq. metre oval(ish) area which only by dint of a narrow mown grass path at its rear is an island border at all. In this area and the raised strip beyond, the water table rises and falls like a yo yo for most of the year! The other borders have varying patterns of wetness in which ‘normal plants grow. I have just had to learn by dint of many failures what will grow where!
Similarly with trees. Those that don’t die grow very well.
   
In truth I am really lucky. My deep sandy soil lies on a basin of clay that is more than two metres down. My lower garden receives drainage water from all directions. When heavy rain falls on distant hard surfaces it finds it way to me. This is wonderful in summer but not so good in winter.
My saviour is that a single ancient huge agricultural drain - its bore is 14 inches - runs into the slope of my garden and takes much of the surplus water away. At the bottom it is two foot down and where it hits and goes under the road at the top is seven foot below the soil surface. Beyond the road the land dips away to a distant ditch. When water temporary stands in my garden after really heavy rain I can discern surface flow towards the drain and hear gurgling. After a few days most of my soil returns to drained normality and aeration. But not all! 
When we moved in I dug out two adjacent huge ponds and removed 200 barrowloads of sandy soil which over a period of nearly six months I deposited round the wetter parts of the garden creating raised areas. We designated our new e-mail address twin ponds!  
In the lower half of the garden the two lined ponds were deliberately located where water does not stand. I did not want my fish, tadpoles and crested newts swimming away during temporary flooding. I did create a narrow edge of raised soil coming out of the water which is always well wetted by capillary action. Brenda is a stickler for keeping the ponds full of water. 
My ponds are effectively borders surrounded by lawn.

Most of the rest of the story is a chequered history of discovery. In the really wet large oval border I created a series of small ponds and a stream. I called them ‘up and down ponds’ as they rose and fell with the water table. The idea was that they would take the brunt of temporary flooding, create new niches of wetness and dry and look rather nice. Unfortunately they were dry more than they were wet and I lined their bases with plastic held by landscape staples. It looked rather like an inverted skull cap. Mainly due to my incompetence they looked rather ugly. Another failure.


My up and down stream two years ago before I filled it, lining and all, to make an up and down bog!
For two ponds I removed the plastic liner. The lined stream I merely filled in with soil and so called compost from the local waste disposal plant! The stream is now a very fine bog!

Links
My efforts burying wood
Readers thought me crazy burying great wodges of newspaper
I tried here to explain some scientific principles about soil water. It fell on deaf ears despite Cathi telling me it was too risqué to publish
Someone might be interested in my crested newts




Friday, 5 January 2018

Iron sulphate for lawn moss control revisited


If a search engine has found you seeking the nuts and bolts of how to control lawn moss with iron sulphate you need to go here for the real deal. My previous post has now been read 78,000 times and has a life of its own. 
My effort today is more chatty and takes up a few points raised in the huge compendium of comments and questions on my original post.

Much more than just a moss killer
There has been something about iron sulphate in my history. For fifteen years I wrote a gardening article for Bolton Percy Parish magazine. It seemed to me that hardly anyone read it. There was never a single question. At best a dozen villagers must have dipped into it - and probably a dog or two chewed it over. And yet 25 years later I gave a lecture back in the village and someone commented how he still remembered my ‘witches brew’ of a near saturated solution of iron sulphate dispensed in a watering can from my dustbin and how he was still successfully using iron sulphate to maintain quality in his lawn. Iron sulphate does so such more than merely control moss!
When I started blogging Cathi suggested she might photocopy my 200 faithfully preserved magazine articles. It was easier to write new ones and Brenda threw the old ones straight in the bin! 
I remember the horror of one of my early blog readers when I posted about iron sulphate discouraging worms - up to then she must have thought me truly organic


H
No more worm casts - they now  benefit the flower borders
Homebase days
When I retired from teaching one of my numerous activities was to lecture to garden centre staff at Homebase. In those days the so called ‘sheds’ took the view that their staff should know something about gardening and knowledgeable gardeners gravitated to work in their gardening departments. I remember one worker in Newcastle was a retired agronomist. He informed me that my own garden in York was on an alluvial sand deposit of the River Derwent. He also mentioned that my old college was built on a glacial terminal moraine.
A former water board employee in Wakefield told me about all the nitrate in my tap water and how it would encourage waterweed in ponds. 



Those were the days and most of the sheds now demand of their staff complete product versatility and some even prefer those horticulturally ignorant who won’t talk too much and don’t know that the tree paint they sell is utterly useless and harmful.
A lovely lady Homebase employee at Droitwich listened to me waxing about iron sulphate…
….  "Chemical control of moss is a very confused grey area arising from the Pesticide Regulations. A curious and utterly stupid anomaly in the regulations is the status of iron sulphate. An anomaly that suits garden centres only too well. Iron sulphate is the very best way of a speedy kill of moss but it is not registered by any manufacturer as a pesticide. Licensing costs too much and firms choose to register their own products whose active ingredients are various formulations of iron. 
Iron sulphate is also wonderful fertiliser. There are no inhibitions to using it for this purpose. It logically follows that you can fertilise your lawn legally to make the grass grow but not to kill moss. Is that stupid or utterly daft? It is certainly a convenient fiction that enables sellers to direct you to their expensive moss killer".
… My lovely lady in Droitwich used the iron sulphate and was thrilled with the result on her lawn. She put up a notice on the Homebase staff notice board. I understand Droitwich now has some very nice lawns.


It says nothing about it being a moss killer
When I talked about iron sulphate to the Newcastle group my agronomist friend suggested that its delicate long term grass greening might be due to the sulphate rather than the iron. He reminded me that decades after clean area legislation some UK soils are deficient in this essential nutrient. Although iron is classed merely as a trace element it is a really significant nutrient for grass as is the macro-nutrient sulphur. Both are involved in chlorophyll production. No wonder iron sulphate makes the grass go such a lovely green. (Don’t confuse this with the not unattractive temporary grass darkening immediately after application - and new users are amazed at how quickly the moss goes black when iron sulphate is applied in water)

Issues raised by my previous post


Definitely moss
On re-reading my old post I can see that I have already repeated myself numerous times and even used the same phrases. What else would you expect from a former lecturer?

It would seem from the comments I must have lost readers in droves who were horrified that a worm lover should use a worm killer. In point of fact it is only the surface casting worms effected and they are not killed but merely encouraged to go away. I am really quite free of lawn worm casts these days but there is piles of evidence  - literally so - that there are myriads of worms active down below. 
I have been plagued by Moles! I am constantly treading down raised turf and failing to make the moles go away. Elsewhere in my no dig garden(s) worm casts are a fundamental advantage in mulching the soil surface and making excellent seedbeds.
No worm casts but the moles tunnel to find the none casting worms.
I wonder if any of those readers who were disillusioned with me using iron sulphate use ‘three in one’ lawn treatment? This of course contains iron to act both as a nutrient and for its moss killing properties. I now see some offer a ‘four in one’ with a next to useless trendy extra ingredient. Whatever next?


I feed my lawn very sparingly with general fertiliser and recycle nutrients by not boxing my mowings
As to the more acid conditions created by iron sulphate and the inducement of finer grasses this is absolutely true but unfortunately it does not eliminate the coarse ones. I get up to all kind of tricks to promote my fescues but my lawn is still no more than ‘a work in progress’
There were a few comments from the USA where it does not seem iron sulphate is much used and gardeners are more concerned that soil acidity might be a problem. This is not my experience but concede not all grasses are acid lovers.

One of my earlier activities after retiring was as an editing  reader for Gardening Which. (An early triumph was spotting ‘forget-me-knots’). I jumped on the recommendation that iron sulphate was used at up to an ounce per square yard. “Far too much, a clear error, it is used at a quarter of an ounce and will scorch when so strong.” I now know I was wrong! 
I did mention in my earlier post that I deliberately apply more of my iron sulphate where moss lies thickest and rather less to areas where moss is less apparent. (In summer I apply it more evenly in consideration of its other benefits). As I have become more confident in my flinging technique, really mossy bits probably receive the full ounce! A very thick moss cover needs it!  
Although I have not applied iron sulphate for three months now in early December my lawn looks moss free. It won’t last. And it didn’t as you can see from the Christmas time pictures below.

Although most gardeners with small lawns will prefer to apply iron sulphate from a watering can, I do love my flinging technique. If you have had the misfortune to buy a sack that is lumpy and not powdery and do not have the time or courage to take it back and complain it might be best to dissolve it in water. I curse if I need to break up lumps.
Last week I replenished my stock of iron sulphate and my supplier offered me a more expensive lump free formulation manufactured for liquid feeding. By the time I returned home I regretted my parsimony 

And when I opened the bag on Boxing day I regretted it even more
It is sometimes suggested that iron sulphate kills lawn weeds. For this it is utterly useless and the weeds do not turn a hair - other than the obvious - that moss itself is a weed. Nor does iron sulphate harm my border plants when I fling it with abandon. Although I would not dream of drifting it near delicate young vegetables or seedlings or when soft plants are heavy with dew. I have never  had any problem with scorching my plants. The worse that will happen is if you use a cheap and nasty fertiliser spreader that spills a great dollop - as they invariably do. It that case the grass will go black but a week or so later you would never know.

Boxing day fun
Aware I had insufficient pictures and with little to do in the garden on a sunny frosty Boxing day morning I got my gardening fix with a small demonstration of applying iron sulphate from a watering can. It's the most accurate method but much slower than my flinging technique




I stirred the illustrated amount of iron sulphate into my can - and half as much again - to make a near saturated solution.
(If all the iron sulphate does not all dissolve you have gone past saturation and the watering rose will clog)






I contorted myself to take this picture. You can reduce the rate of application by walking quicker and speed up the process by holding the rose higher


I walked slowly and applied a near saturated solution



Foolishly I got carried away by demonstrating the moss kill on my drive



With 600 square metres of lawn it would have taken two or three hours to complete the job with a watering can and I ended my demonstration and finished the job by half an hour of flinging. Any going on my borders - safe at this time of year - will nourish the plants and kill moss there too. 



Warning. You might be concerned that I applied the iron sulphate when it was frosty. Be aware that under rare conditions walking on frosty lawns can cause scorching



I give my lawn obsessive attention. One day someone will notice.

Links
My original moss post
I pay homage to worms
I explain why I bodge gardening recipes



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