Monday 29 October 2018

Trees as weeds

No woody weeds in Cathi's field
Self seeding trees are a real nuisance. They are nature’s first salvo in an ecological succession that might make your garden a wood.
They are a real nuisance when in a good year (for nature) they appear in their thousands in lawns, paths, nooks and crannies. They are quite tricky to control.

Unwanted rhus sucker
Even worse are certain trees such ailanthus and rhus which when chopped down produce copious suckers from the inevitable root cuttings made when the top is taken away. Reader Carol is having a problem with aspens which she writes about in my post about tree stumps.

Pull out this sycamore before it takes over
It is tempting to retain a few seedlings or suckers that transform into pretty saplings and eventually a small tree. Woe betide a new garden owner who wrongly thinks his tree was deliberately planted. Most gardens are too small to accommodate forest trees. 
For me my main problems have been sycamore and birch which have appeared in their thousands. 

Holly and yew saplings suppressed for years under such as rhododendron suddenly become a problem
More insidious has been holly and yew in my cemetery gardens.Their seedlings often sneakily shelter under a plant canopy - even for years - and you suddenly find you have husky young saplings

As to yew, Peter Williams now has a very fine hedge from a hundred yew seedlings and tiny plants I once garnered for him from a cemetery garden.
I have a less pleasant memory of spraying off abundant yew seedlings with MCPA and glyphosate to eventually find my employer had a vision of growing a yew wood!

Self sown birch might become too big
I do admit to enjoying nature's providence by letting a few birches make saplings in my cemetery gardens. It takes a decade or so for them to reach their full glory. If they have become too big I just chop them down. 
I used to find that these chopped down trees suckered to make lovely multi-stemmed trees. Some birch trees in Bolton Percy cemetery are now on their third cycle!

None of the trees in Worsbrough cemetery were actually planted

Not all woody invaders are unwanted
Chemical control of woody weeds
I omit today the treatment of tree stumps. Where herbicides are concerned the principles however are very similar.
Their are many ways to actually kill woody weeds. Its just that you need to remember to do it.
So often I see tree seedlings left to become a real problem.

Myriads of seedlings
Under an old sycamore thousands of seedlings might suddenly appear in Spring. If it has been a cold Winter their necessary cold requirement has been satisfied and should it be a wet season they thrive. 
In a small garden you can just hoe them away. In a very small garden you can just hand weed. 
My own problem is where I manage large tracts of cemetery garden. My routine maintenance spray of 360g/litre glyphosate at 1 in 50 just does not work! (It might if the seedlings are still very small)
One solution might be to use glyphosate a little bit stronger, perhaps 1 in 40. In practice against woody weeds - and this includes such as brambles I use a mixture of glyphosate and MCPA each at 1 in 50. I would not do this anywhere near delicate plants, only in larger ‘open spaces’ or areas I deem ‘rough’. 

Ivy is a very difficult woody weed. Either live with it or (best) physically remove it, or use repeated herbicide applications to kill it
Unlike glyphosate, MCPA  remains active in the soil for a few weeks so don’t replant for a while after its use
I buy MCPA as commercial product Agritox and have written about it for example to control nettles in grassland. It can be used alone against woody weeds but beyond young seedlings is not very effective. 
In a lawn woody seedlings just mow out thank goodness!

If tree seedlings are allowed to remain into their second year you need a real brushwood killer to kill them. I have used the commercial product Grazon for this purpose. (I also use it for ‘difficult’ lawn weeds). It is quite brilliant but a bit pricy. 
I have appended these notes on chemical control for those of you with large scale problems. For most of us for woody weeds physical methods are better

Mechanical control
Your problems start when you allow woody weeds to pass the seedling stage and develop into saplings.
Saws, loppers  and spades will have a place in your armoury. My recent post, ‘a curious incident’, indicates my distain for actually digging saplings out - huge effort, sore back, broken spades and damaged plants.
Frequently if pruned tight to the ground woody saplings will be killed. Some will regenerate, especially those that are older and larger. Do it again later, they soon will be gone for a fraction of the effort of digging them out.
If you are timely smaller saplings can merely be pulled out. Don’t use you back. Strain with your arms and if their is no sign of movement give up and go for the secateurs!

Peter’s field - a story

Brenda’s son in France inherited a supposedly grass field full of thousands of four foot high four year old ash saplings. Well beyond my puny efforts with secateur and saw. Eventually he asked his local farmer who in less than an hour flailed them all down. I think Peter’s two grazing horses did the rest and as far as I know the ash has never returned (although on the neighbours property it is now a small wood).

Cathi's soay sheep ate all the tree seedlings but not the nettles 

Friday 19 October 2018

Meadow without the grass

Candytuft - memories of my childhood
A new use for my vegetable garden - although I have kept the asparagus plus a few french beans

The most admired feature by this year’s garden visitors has been my big blob of sweet selling gaudy annuals.
Variously dubbed ‘meadow’ or ‘wild flowers’ it is neither. The flowers are all garden hardy annuals (with a few sneaky short lived self seeding perennials such as Verbena bonariensis and gentian-blue commelina). In the old days it would have been called a hardy annual border. Once popular amongst keen gardeners but found to be labour intensive they never really caught on.

Verbena comes freely from seed
On the contrary this year mine has been no trouble at all. I was exceedingly lucky in that at sowing time in early April the ground was still saturated with all that Winter rain. Better the rain continued for another ten days before the long Summer drought set in. I did not need to water despite in the next four months barely receiving an inch and a half of rain. An inch of that very fortunately came on a single night after ten weeks to revive the flagging flowers.

Just before raking off debris before sowing (I have allowed a few carrots)
‘Throw to grow’ mixtures now have the image of being naturalistic labour saving garden features. Unlike my experience this year this is not usually so! Many gardeners just can’t handle the weeds that out grow the annuals. They are fine for the first year but in the second they need further soil preparation and with an enhanced bank of self sown weed seed and sometimes strengthening nasty perennial weeds soon run out of steam.
Do not confuse this situation with that of a genuine meadow filled with perennial flowers and annuals such as yellow rattle that have evolved to favour agricultural meadowland. Unfortunately such lovely features reproduced in a small garden can be labour intensive too.

The corn marigolds in my new border came originally from seed from the farm field
Many of the annuals suited to my annual ‘border’ evolved to colonise regularly ploughed farmland and would compete with newly sown farm crops. Things like poppies and corn marigolds.
(Such annuals have usually been ‘improved’ and selected by plant breeders).

I have earlier explained how two years ago I took my bat home and more or less ceased to grow vegetables. My 200 square metres of vegetable garden suddenly became vacant. My first pilot year worked reasonably well and this year I decided to go the whole hog and sow the whole plot with a ‘throw to grow’ annual mixture from that excellent seedsman Mole Seeds.
As a no dig gardener my plot was ideal. There was little surface weed seed as my methods don’t bring dormant weed seed to the surface. As a user of glyphosate I have zero perennial weed. Couch, ground elder, mares tail and bindweed does not exist in my garden. My undug plot is settled and cohesive but if disturbed has an excellent crumb structure partly because there has been years of worm casting - not to mention regular surface mulching  of charcoal from my bonfires.
My plot is highly fertile, that is something not usually recommended for annual flowers. I thought my eighteen inch high annuals some flopping together looked rather fine.

A few weeks after broadcast sowing. Note absence of weeds
Early April is a good time to sow an annual mixture. My plot almost weed free, I made sure that any small weed seedlings were totally absent. In my case a quick spray round, although a light hoeing would do. My £20 seed packet was far too much for the site but I used it all anyway. With weed-seed free soil the flower seed was just scattered. As far as I remember I very lightly raked the otherwise undisturbed soil to cover much of the seed.
On my firm cohesive none dug soil I had no inhibitions that the surface was wet and it was going to rain. In fact it was welcome
The only further maintenance was to spot treat the very few weeds on my regular garden spray round. As my plants developed I moved to any necessary hand pulling.
That’s all that was needed.

The dominant flowers have changed as the season progressed
I don't know all their names - but white alyssum has pervaded a honey scent throughout
My reward has been nearly five months of flowers

Pictured in the farm field fat hen would have grown much more lushly in my fertile soil

The previous year I had been careless and let the odd fat hen and nettle set seed. Both can seed prolifically, particularly fat hen which as an ancient crop for thousands of years was grown for its grain. I needed to be very alert to pull out perhaps a total of a hundred fat young chickens over the season. I needed gloves for the nettles. At the back a few dense patches of nettle seedlings had to be mass sprayed. A total of about three square metres. The annuals soon covered the gaps

This lovely foxy grass seeds rather too freely in my garden
Although most of the annuals densely germinated at about the same time a few later and/or slower varieties filtered in later and provided some continuity as some early varieties faded. 
The beautiful honey like smell that pervaded this part of my garden for all of five months was alyssum. This was generous in the seed mixture and gave the whole scheme a lovely white backcloth. It was starting to fade as the severe drought cut in but revived strongly when three months into the project it did actually rain.

I love the name of this calendula variety - Oopsy daisy
There were a few ‘cheats’ where I welcomed a few self sown remnants of the garden's previous life. Verbena bonariensis came in as lovely purple curtains. The lime green flowers of edible rocket looked really nice and a lovely fox tailed grass whose name I don’t know looked superb - but might be a problem next year!
At the back of the border I still have my asparagus. It looked rather nice as escholtzia scrambled up into it

Late Autumn seeding
I do not know how many of the prolific seeds of the annuals will germinate next year. This will be a voyage of discovery. I don’t know yet to the extent that I will need to resow. 
A visitor asked what I will do with the prolific Winter dead vegetation. I expect it will more or less collapse and disappear. I am prepared at the turn of the year to rake off strawy remains. There will of course be no soil cultivation! No weed will be tolerated during this Winter period. My regular spray round will take care of that.

Looking back to July
I have already collected and scattered seed in other places where I have ongoing garden projects. Lyndi’s field needs more colour in Summer and the village plot has been denuded of some of its perennials by two Winter’s flooding. There is even a place in Cathi’s grass verge. 
Perhaps certain seed will not stand the cold of the Winter. I will hold some back to sow in the Spring

Only from mid August did nasturtiums come into their own
And annual lupins were pretty late too
I said at the beginning that it was flowers without the meadow. In truth I did sow thinly that lovely fine grass Chewing’s fescue. This was more in the expectation that I might use a few grass plants to later patch up my lawn. It was completely outgrown although there are a few lovely dark green grass patches looking nice on the fringes.
You can read about my exploits in the girl’s garden by putting Cathi or Lyndi into my search box. The search box is very efficient at digging out my previous posts such as wild flowers, charcoal, fescue grass, Mole seeds and named plants. 
Last year’s article on today’s topic gives more information

Now in mid October my annual display looks scruffy but nice  
New Link
For those of you returning to my 2020 article which adds another year's experience 

Wednesday 10 October 2018

Still a no dig gardener

A curious incident
Sometimes I think Roger is not all there
Recently I was party to a strange experience when I was advising on the maintenance of a garden. It was only when I got home that I thought that what happened might be untoward!
I have heavily disguised the circumstances as I do not wish to hurt anyone’s feelings (if I have not already done so). I can fairly safely write this as few of my friends ever read me. 
Two other very dear friends Mike and Isobel promise they will fit in a viewing of my blog into their very busy lives every time we see them.It’s now been six years.

The actors in this scenario were a longstanding friend, a friendly enthusiastic gardener and myself.

This particular sycamore is in Cathi's garden. Mea culpa, I am her gardener
Garden centric as ever and unaware of anyone’s feelings I pointed out a two year 18 inch high sycamore seedling in the middle of a sturdy clump of a herbaceous perennial. 

Suddenly I found myself with a spade thrust into my hands. So foreign is the idea that a spade had anything to do with this seeded tree I just thought I had (typically) lost the thread of the joviality of the occasion and muttered something about it being a very fine stainless steel spade.
It was grabbed out of my hand and my young friend with some purpose dug out the young sycamore. I took no exception admiring the vigour, enthusiasm and energy of youth. It’s only now I wonder.
How that thrust of that spade would have jarred my arthritic wrist! Any damage to the plant was incidental (but unnecessary).

The point of my story is that most gardener’s instinct is to dig something out. My own first choice in this case would be to cut it out to the ground with secateurs, if possible going below its juncture to the soil minimising the not unlikely chance of it regenerating later. Perhaps problem deferred but so speedy and easy. I might catch any regeneration on a future spray round or snip it again.

Had the sycamore been a little smaller I would have just grasped it at ground level and yanked it out using  an ascending controlled gradient of pressure with my strong arms and avoid straining my back. If it does not budge I would get out my saw or secateurs. Sprains take longer to get better at my age!

Leaving the soil alone
It’s this thing about gardeners constantly stirring the soil with attendant chopping out roots. As if it is the necessary thing to do. It isn’t. The more the soil is left alone and nature’s healing and building properties are left to get on with it the better.

To this end several years ago I posted about chopping unwanted trees down rather than digging them out or grinding them down. Of course such measures are occasionally necessary but in my life I must have sawn down hundreds of trees and left the roots in the ground
Not for me breaking my back and my spade. It seems to be a badge of honour to expend endless energy heaving things out. For me gardening should be gentle, un-intrusive and easy.
A gardening innocent once said to me if he did not dig out his small tree how could he dig!

This stump might take a long time to decay
My only regret about my previous post is I did not direct reader’s attention to the nuisance of stumps. Of course they can be sidelined into some pleasant garden feature but left alone they can be a serious hazard. The times I have cursed when I have tripped or stumped my toes is legend (no pun originally intended). Stumps don’t quite last for ever but might take several years to decay. For large trees decades. When my stumps rot too far I eventually knock them out with a single blow of a sledge-hammer.

The answer of course is to cut stumps sheer to the ground. A contractor will be reluctant to do so as soil contamination blunts his chainsaw edge. One way round is to use an old saw or chain for this final cut

It is only in recent years I have got wise. Rather late considering I invite garden visitors to walk wherever they want to! If you come on my Open day beware.

Read my earlier post to preserve your health and sanity

Monday 1 October 2018

Don’t fluff up your soil

Use it and lose it; show off your crumbly soil and its gone!

Blogger Sue Garrett took great delight in picturing me with a spade (Damn it I was digging up an alstroemeria for her)
My older readers have heard all this before but I feel today I need to reclaim my no digging credentials. In particular I want to challenge the crazy outmoded idea that regular stirring the soil around  established plants somehow aerates it.

It’s the wrong type of aeration. Instead of a network of channels made by natural causes such as roots, worms and natural cracking that facilitate air movement and drainage instead there is imposed a complete destruction of soil structure. Oxygen reaches the most intimate organic structures and oxidises them away. Soil particles are torn apart and exposed in tooth and claw.
Worse when settling out after this damaging process, wetting and drying impose rocklike hardness and it becomes necessary to cultivate again. The trouble with intensive soil cultivation is that although it provides excellent short term conditions for sowing and establishing new plants the effect fades away and a gardener or farmer needs to cultivate again. In particular fluffing of the surface soil turns  gardeners into soil stirring junkies.

Mangling roots and soil amongst growing plants is particularly stupid when extensive surface roots are just chopped away. Deeper digging is even worse and for example autumn disturbance in the herbaceous border kills the roots which sustain life over Winter when drainage is poor. Such cultivation is bad for both plant and the soil

Crumbs and soil particles
Intimate mixtures of particles, organic matter and living organisms are made in a worm's gut
A mystery to new gardeners, particles and crumbs are completely different. Particles are those indivisible particles of sand, silt and clay. You can see them as they settle or float when you stir a handful of soil in a beaker of water. They only change their nature over multiple thousands or millions of years. Don’t be taken in by those shysters who claim particles like ‘rock dust’ will improve you garden.(although of course large additions of silt, sand and clay can make for physical change, sometimes a bad one)

Millions of tiny clay particles all squashed together. Even here look at the benefits of worm action
Crumbs are aggregations of particles and organic matter. They are particles mixed together loosely combined by natural gums and glues and other beneficial organic manifestations. In the last couple of decades the significance of fungi in this binding together has been discovered. Strands of mycorrhizal fungi and their (relatively slow) breakdown product glomalin has transformed our understanding of soil structure.
Water stable crumbs are the gardeners dream. Clay rich soils come closest to making them

Worm casts at the  surface on stony undug soil in Worsbrough cemetery
Worm casts are not essential to form water stable crumbs but are often part of the process
Frost mould - just give it a kick
It is sometimes appropriate to make a seedbed. Traditional horticulture exploits Winter frost to breakdown lumps and clods A thwack with the back of the spade or a kick of the foot works wonders
Farmers these days sow all year round and have wonderful machinery to prepare the ground for them. Well actually brute force.
So too the gardener, although I do believe many gardeners prepare their planting tilth excessively fine and too often.
Tilth making is a delicate process and where followed by heavy rain or irrigation can damage the soil in the same way as soil is damaged  in the afore mentioned beaker!
Unfortunately tilths on certain sandy soils slake down in heavy rain and if followed by rapid drying form a hard cap.
The good news is that most UK soils are very resilient and occasional seedbed formation does little long term harm

Tilth and the no dig gardener
The settled soil in a no dig garden is firm and cohesive. It’s softer where the gardener uses extensive mulching of compost but this is not my way. Don’t confuse a settled soil with compaction and if the surface is disturbed by a light forking its lovely crumbly structure is revealed. Don’t do this to tell the world you will have a beautiful soil - exposing it induces its destruction. Don’t confuse soil with your childhood buckets of loose sand on the beach! Good soil should be a cohesive whole, not lots of loose granules.

After two years of no dig the surface heavy clay soil in Lyndi's field is starting to crumble
Although benefits of stopping to dig can arise after six months or so the real benefits arise over the years. The longer soil is left undisturbed the better. In due course the surface starts to reflect beneficial natural processes not least the action of worms casting their intimate mixtures of soil and organic matter. Should the gardener wish to make a seedbed all he needs to do is to lightly scratch the surface with a rake or for larger seeds make a drill with a stick or a hoe.
Not that the no dig vegetable gardener needs to make seed beds too often. For most vegetables it is best to raise plants and pop them in. (Do it yourself of course, garden centre plants might cost more than the value of the produce)

The seed of these annuals was just scattered and lightly raked in
No dig ornamental gardens only rarely need seed beds. Let plants seed themselves or just scatter them around

Can the no dig gardener hoe to control weeds?
Yes, but not deeply in the traditional way loosening all the soil surface. Just hoe the weeds severing them at or just below ground level and leave them to desiccate and die.
I generally control weeds with glyphosate but sometimes hoe in dry or windy weather.

I would find it very uncomfortable to use the hoe on the right
Unfortunately most dutch hoes these days are manufactured with turned up blades. Madness and totally useless. I cannot believe any owner of such a hoe, hoes at all! You need to find a traditional hoe

My own sandy soil grows luxuriant liverwort in wet weather. I treasure it around my pond and generally tolerate it in my borders. My friend Peter has a consuming hatred of it and in dry weather lightly hoes or rakes it away!

Dust mulch theory
This old idea that loose soil around plants conserves water is complete nonsense and was first discredited by research sixty years ago. If you want to know more about this read my article here

It is sometimes necessary to disturb the soil Keep it to a minimum. Let the quality of your plants tell the world what a good soil you have and what a good gardener you are.

I wrote about hoeing here
Thank you Sue Garrett for the opening picture. Sue visited my garden recently and made an excellent video of my acre garden. You won't find very much loose soil.

Despite my above comments I prefer not to look at too much of an open soil surface. Use my search box to find mulching and ground cover

I am starting to use Chewing fescue grass as ground cover in wilder parts of my garden

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