Saturday 30 March 2019

What is the difference between horticulture and gardening?

Fair weather gardener - not when it is wet, windy or cold
I try in my posts to give definitive answers. I cannot do so today. Each word carries numerous inferences and some are the same.
For myself I regard myself as both horticulturist (what an ugly word) and gardener. Of the latter I am most proud albeit there might be doubt whether I qualify. At work I taught horticultural students about gardening and related sciences - and perhaps some horticulture too?
When I went home I was a gardener and gardened. It was rather different to the day job.

Some might suggest that horticulturist is a pretentious name for a gardener - and it might be. I wonder however if you advertised for a gardener and an applicant said he was a horticulturist would you give him the job?

Lets start at the beginning. Perhaps a gardener is defined as someone who actually gets his hands dirty and tills the soil. That might disqualify me as I am a no dig gardener - although I manage the first part - and farmers till? 

The rhubarb industry - a fine example of Yorkshire horticulture
Perhaps I had better say a gardener is someone who grows plants in the soil. But would a commercial grower be so described? I would tend to describe her or him as a horticulturist but that might not be true either.

Even if we can agree what it is to be a gardener how do we differentiate between a skilled knowledgeable gardener and someone who merely labours in the garden at home? My own parents worked very hard in their garden and it was a chore. They listened to Gardener’s Question time, laughed at the jokes and learned nothing.
Are television gardening programmes made for actual gardeners or just someone who sits on the sofa?
How do we compare a craftsman gardener who might show extraordinary skill in his growing yet has no interest in the wider world of horticulture - there I have used the word!

Some parks are fine examples of quality horticulture and some still employ gardeners
I remember a gifted craftsman gardener - a former dustbin man I worked with one summer. He had extraordinary skill at digging. When he dug the borders (ugh) of Hartlepool Valley gardens every sod was a precisely placed gem and all done at ninety miles an hour. I was tempted to put him forward as far remote from being a horticulturist but then I recall it was he who gave me a wonderful book by that great Japanese guru and pioneer of minimum cultivation Masanobu Fukuoka that influenced my own horticultural thinking. Jim taught me a great deal about life that summer - and I am being euphemistic. He was a philosopher gardener.

Let’s start at the other end and try to define horticulture. I think it suggests professional involvement in an industry associated with growing. Take landscape designers. I think they are horticulturists but many never get their hands dirty. The ones to employ are the ones who are gardeners too.

The height of success for a breeder is to raise a plant that looks good on a dutch tray
Some gardeners work in garden centres but not all employees are gardeners. Many might be horticulturists with a broad knowledge of their trade. Some garden centres don’t seem to want their sales staff to know much about gardening - they might spend too much time answering questions!

I wonder how many acres of brussels sprouts you need to grow to cease to be a gardener and become a farmer. How much produce do you need to sell to become a market gardener? 

Many aspects of horticulture are science based, perhaps those involved in research and teaching gardening and rural science are best described as horticulturists. It is a shame that these days there are few educational opportunities to learn to be gardeners.

I once had a lecturing colleague - a former Parks director whose passion was garden history. His small garden was an overgrown neglected mess. An eminent horticulturist but no way a gardener.

In contrast the long retired director of a local horticultural research station is an eminent national renowned horticulturist. When I myself retired and worked as  ‘an up market’ jobbing gardener I looked over my client’s hedge and found him doing the same! (In his case for a relative)

 Botanist Phil Orton is the one in the pink
Botanists are neither gardeners nor horticulturists by definition but at home often are. I swear I recently saw a picture of soil invaded by (woolly) lettuce root aphid illustrating a botany article on mycorrhiza. No gardener would be so mistaken.

Phil’s science colleague soil scientist and ecologist Stan Ridgeway had a fascinating garden entirely planted with weeds
I think it was a high level of gardening skill - unlike the afore mentioned Park Director. On the subject of Parks Directors I worked under Horticultural Superintendent Mr Grubb - does that make him an entomologist?
Perhaps I might mention my professor of horticulture was an entomologist  - but did many splendid things in horticulture.

Look it up!
All horticulturists, but their passion is gardening
My usual motto is when all fails read the instructions. I looked the words up in the dictionary.

Gardening ….the activity of tending and cultivating a garden, especially as a pastime.

Horticulture…the cultivation, processing, and sale of fruits, nuts, vegetables, ornamental plants, and flowers as well as many additional services.  I goes on to give other examples such as arboriculture
I hope I have covered all these examples today

Commercial horticulture can be a long way from gardening
Horticulture as a profession
May I end on a serious note. Because horticulture is so fragmented and because in so many quarters such as research and education it is so depleted it fails to have a strong voice as a united profession. When Government seeks guidance on horticultural matters who do they turn to? Hopefully not a TV gardener or some pushing entrepreneur or media star. How do we judge or better manage such  projects  as the failed London garden bridge for example?
My former boss educationalist  P. K.Willmot was conscious of this fifty years ago and through his career sought to funnel horticultural expertise through the ‘Horticulture Educational Association’. This evolved into the ‘Institute of Horticulture’ now elevated to  ‘The Charted Institute of Horticulture’
All grist to their mill


PKWilmott 1966

I am grateful to Frances who has sent me a picture of her father the man who taught me to question all things gardening.
She sent me this nice little story
I really liked the blog on the difference between gardening and horticulture. I was once asked to dance at a school hop and boy asked what my father did. I replied, “He is a horticulturist”. Long silence. Then, “Did you say that your father was a gardener?” The relationship went no further because he didn’t appear to understand the subsequent explanation and, I assume, was unable to work out whether I was of the “right” social group.

This takes you to my post about the docu-fiction book about Masanobu Fukuoka

Thursday 21 March 2019

My garden in March

March is a great time in the garden

Oh no not again

Wet start
My pure silt/sand soil lies over clay several metres down. The top to bottom fall of the garden is a metre and the fall from adjacent land is the same. The lower garden is wonderful in Summer when after heavy rain the lower parts receive drainage water and moisture loving plants thrive.
The deep clay layer which is almost impermeable to water is overlaid by wonderfully drained sandy soil.
Like all soils the soil moisture deficit  accumulates through the Summer as plants extract water which duly  evaporates. I estimate last very dry Summer the theoretical deficit was as much as five inches and roots penetrated very deeply.

My soil is effectively a sand filled basin. In Winter when transpiration and evaporation is relatively small water accumulates. By Christmas its deficit is usually restored and water starts to stand. If it is a wet Winter it floods.
I won't bore you with the as yet unresolved sad saga of my silted up drain. Before this I did not have a problem.
Last year in the very wet 2017/18 Autumn and Winter I had standing water January to late March. I reported how plants such as daffodils bravely came through it with no loss of quality. Most of my plants in that part of the garden are selected for water tolerance but even gunnera and astilbe did not enjoy the experience and several plants died.

I thought I had got away with it this year but the recent very heavy rains have flooded it again. I had settled down to water standing for perhaps a month. To my delight the recent persistent gales have evaporated much of the flooding away. (Coming from due west all the water was dropped over the Pennines)
Late amendment I no sooner wrote this and the wind changed to the south west and dumped more than an inch of rain! Ah well my newly  sown grass seed will love it


The daffodils needed a very thorough watering
The other side of the coin of extreme windy weather is that considerable evaporation means that plants with a large leaf area rapidly dehydrate and those in containers need to be well watered. Many gardeners, complacent that they have got through the Winter without watering their outdoor bulb pots at all do not understand this and wonder why their daffodils do not perform.

Corkscrew hazel

Corylus avellana 'Contorta'
The contorted hazel can be the most elegant plant in the garden or the most ugly. It all depends on the pruning. Those who recognise that this plant almost inevitably produces straight rods from ground level which must be ruthlessly cut away will do better.
Those who are brave enough to take out large pieces and give vent to their artistic vision will succeed.
My friend (I hope still), blogger Sue Garrett rejoices she did nothing and now has very fine pea sticks.

Inside our 'live in' conservatory

Christmas cactus
I had intended a post showing the continuity of flowering of six colours of Christmas cactus brought in in sequence from our frost-free front door glass lean-to. Maybe next year. The only week November to March without cactus flowers was Christmas week! Sod's law.

Hippeastrum, the amarylis lily
Six weeks ago this was a dormant scruffy almost leafless bulb in our frost free area. This is the sixth year it has flowered in the same large pot of soil compost refreshed each year with a top dressing of my Yaramila fertiliser. The conservatory is heated for our own comfort and when brought into warm conditions our 'lily' bursts into life.


Three years ago I splashed out on three new hellebore plants to extend  my colour range. Now more than a hundred seedlings have germinated under their parents and I confidently expect them in two years to make similar flowers

"Am I the only mad one round here"
Narcissus obvallaris, the Tenby daffodil
My front grass verge gets run over by traffic and yesterday some idiot trotted her horse across it but my rugged Tenby daffodils are tucked far enough back to escape.

Bulbs get into wild places
I asked Cathi if she had any pictures of a mad march hare and she sent me three Harry Poole photos

I wrote about Christmas cactus here
Hippeastrum here
Helleborus here

Wednesday 13 March 2019

Eucomis, the pineapple plant

This eucomis has flowered each year for forty years
Forty years ago I picked up a small pineapple plant at the lovely walled nursery at Buttercrambe. I popped it in what was then my fairly new Bolton Percy cemetery garden. Since that time and with no special attention it has flowered each year but I regret it now barely survives! So much so when I decided last year to try a piece of it on my sandy soil at home the plants’s roots were so entangled between two gravestones I dare not risk moving it! 

On the other hand at home I have been growing two clones of Eucomis comosum that I first raised from seed nearly twenty years ago. Since then I have propagated it vegetatively by division and now have a dozen or so clumps - some which have been in place more than a decade and contain up to 30 bulbs.

This, my strongest clump has looked like this every year for ten years now
My original seed stock came from a seed distribution scheme. It was sown in my usual way in a pot of compost on receipt in January in my unheated greenhouse.
Only three seeds germinated, all different. One got lost along the way, the other two distinct forms now go from strength to strength in four separate gardens.

After flowering six or more weeks my white one looks a little tired now
Garden visitors express surprise to see them and most have the silly notion that they are not very hardy. I suspect the idea arises because some modern fancy cultivars are only suitable for more delicate conditions (and lets face it a plant with a dodgy constitution suits the garden centres very well). I suspect most purchasers get small delicate bulbs or plants that have suffered the sales bench too long. This is an example of garden centre affliction and if you get through the first winter you might be home and dry.
My further evidence about the hardiness of eucomis is that all my plants (all outside) survived the double Winter of 2010 when the ground was frozen solid for a very long time.
My testimony applies to just three forms and I cannot of course vouch for the hardiness of all eucomis.

I find my own in-garden eucomis transplanting and division hardly ever fails. That is saying something as eucomis bulbs are so firmly attached to their deep strong roots in old clumps that I need the help of an axe. Some very dodgy sliced bulbs have survived! Eucomis is as tough as old boots with a fine constitution.

Demonstration of division

Remains of dead eucomis leaves when I propagated in February

Exposed deeply rooted bulbs exposed by scraping debris away

Roots are so firmly attached that hammer needed to knock spade in

A really rough hack out

It's beyond my strength to remove the stem structure beneath the bulb
Most gardening books give the (incorrect) mandatory advice to plant in well drained soil. In their native South Africa they dwell in damp habitats and in the lower parts of my own garden they survived last Winter’s flooding with the dormant clumps barely above the flood water for three months. The village plot suffered similar flooding and eucomis came through. They do really well in  wet parts of a garden (but not in a bog).

Well established eucomis bulbs emerging in Early April
Puzzling pollination
I believe some gardeners find eucomis seed themselves all over. As far as I know mine have never set seed.
I was alerted last month to the interesting pollination of a South African species by the delightful elephant shrew (apparently closer genetically to an elephant than a shrew) and cannot resist giving a link to the delightful video (below).
It would seem that eucomis pollinators are directed by scent and not colour. Most are pollinated by flies and specific wasp species which search for the nectar. The scent is variously described as boiled potatoes, sulphurous or foetid. I have never noticed.
This year I will be watching closely and even try some hand pollination. I might get seed to give to my friends.

The white one is my favourite but seems to have less vigour than my pink one

This clump is doing well on Cathi's grass verge in its second year after rather messy division
Both the eucomis and the ginger seem to do well together in one of the wetter parts of my garden

As I write the lawn is under water- just like January and February last year!
The  charming video of elephant shrew and eucomis from Botany One

Friday 8 March 2019

Biochar compost

Several barrow loads here
I wonder how many gardeners have been sucked into buying expensive products that litter the internet?
I wonder how many trees have been chopped  down to make charcoal to satisfy misguided carbon incentives? (Not here in the UK but in the big wide world)
I wonder how many UK farmers apply char to their land?

Biochar has wonderful potential and worldwide research continues and many successful schemes are up and running.
Never the less I am getting a feeling that our earlier high expectations will not be fulfilled.

Recent bringing together of research findings suggests that most UK agricultural soils are not responsive to biochar in terms of yield. Although char might be a basis for sound husbandry and healthy production it would seem that UK farmers however much you demean them are achieving maximum production already on the basis of present technology and adding char for most gives zero yield increase. Adding char is not inexpensive and would seem to bring no benefit to the bottom line.

In contrast worldwide where many soils are acid and lack nutrients and nutrient retention, yield increase might typically be 25% and sometimes very much more. It’s in tropical agriculture where there is the greatest potential.
Figures for UK forestry are rather better than farming and growth increases of perhaps 10% reflect the general starting infertility of land chosen for trees.

It took three continuous hours to feed the fierce fire when we restored Cathi's hedge
My own experience is that charcoal which is a very strong nutrient absorber has a negative effect if applied raw. My own homemade char gets at least a year with generous nutrient addition as fertiliser before I apply it. It stands outside in the rain to expose products of combustion to amelioration and nutrient absorption

I have amended my weathering technique from this. Much better to have a thick flat layer of char
It is the nature of many biochar experiments that they are done too soon when the char is still fresh. In my opinion It is a major requirement for early soil addition that it should be fortified with fertiliser. 
Many researchers resent having too many variables and I feel this vital priming is often either insufficient or even neglected. The ancients who over centuries laid down Amazonian terra preta in effect composted it when it was initially stored in their ancient middens. It was regularly applied to the soil in small quantities from what was essentially organic waste.

James Lovelock envisaged every farm having a pyroliyzer that carbonised organic waste such as woody prunings and residues inappropriate for direct soil application. It provides gaseous energy rich liquid in addition to conserving carbon as char.

My homemade char
The results of adding charcoal accumulates over the years. Included in the myriad of its recorded advantages it hugely encourages mycorrhiza that intimately attach themselves to char’s internal porous structure. Mycorrhizal  hyphae extract plant organic compounds (products of photosynthesis) which help nourish them as they infiltrate plant and soil. In turn their slow eventual decay produces glomalin which binds soil particles (and char) together. 

In our short term society long term research on biochar is stymied and a farmer might go under waiting for long term crop yield.

Five years ago I was certain that our local organic waste disposal unit would by now be charring the mainly woody waste product it processes. It’s not going to happen

Compost from the disposal plant quickly decays
My own experience

Char is now entering the amateur gardener domain
Readers will know I make my own char by dousing my garden-fire embers with water. I guesstimate that half the woody debris that feeds the fire is converted to char. (The rest burns away). I have two or three large fierce fires a year. I energetically feed them and they burn down in little more than an hour. What would otherwise take as much as a day to burn through is immediately extinguished.
It takes more than a year to prepare the charcoal by weathering and fertiliser addition. It is quite lumpy and I do not sieve it. No more than a thump with the back of a spade.  For some uses it would be better to sieve.
I do not know how my char compares to that produced in a commercial pyrolyzer - somewhere between slightly inferior to somewhat superior!
I now pity those gardeners who let their garden fires burn through. What a lost opportunity!

Some might disapprove of garden fires and some of you might be unable to have one. I make no apologies for here in the country having an occasional fire. Its environmental harm is probably no worse than so called green methods of disposal and in contrast it’s effect is hugely dwarfed by pollution caused by domestic wood stoves.The very long term conversion of wood to carbon means a little less carbon dioxide in the air.
My char fortified soil
I have been adding my homemade char to my vegetable garden for twelve years now. Mainly left on the surface or sometimes lightly forked in, essential planting and lifting and moles (!) have ensured that it eventually is buried. Not sure about the work of my prolific worms. I understand that an Amazonian species is an important part of historic terra preta formation.

Unfortunately I no longer grow vegetables and have reported that for two years now I have sown vulgar displays of annual flowers. Oh what a waste but the flowers grow wonderfully strong;y and from only a light scattering germinate freely. (Some research has suggested char might inhibit germination)

My home made soil/char compost gave me my very best tomatoes ever
I have changed my focus to using my char to make up my seed and potting compost. I have reported this elsewhere but might mention last year my tomatoes were my very best ever. Perhaps 40% char mixed 60% with my sandy soil was perhaps best but I have had excellent results with up to 80% char. My tomato compost gets eventually recycled to my other container grown plants. Just like my soil in the garden it is used to grow new crops endless times over.

My char based compost is quite lumpy for sowing and pricking out and is rough on the fingers! Surprisingly surface sown fine seed germinates rather well but for densely sown seedlings the compost is too coarse to other than patch out. Large seed such as tomatoes needs to be well covered and if sown thinly they  plant out really well. 
Needless to say my precise mix and fertiliser addition is somewhat intuitive! None of my char is used fresh and without prior long term fortification with my yaramila fertiliser.

You can now buy biochar compost
I understand serious research is looking at using char as a peat substitute in commercial composts.

 You might find it better to make up your (primed) char compost with slow release fertiliser rather than the rapid release yaramila I use
Char in composting (I mean the compost heap kind)
Although I am not a composter myself I think char has very real merit in making garden compost. The trouble with good compost is that it does not last long in the soil. Tops about five years before it decays away
In contrast the great thing about char is that it lasts for a century and in ancient terra preta very much more. I suggest as gardener’s start to use char in their compost they will find it lasts very much longer than before. 
I would love to hear any reader’s experience.

I have written about most of these things before! To read about char in more detail you will find my previous articles if you use  the search box at the top of this blog. Useful keywords include char, compost, terra preta, yaramila, glomalin, humus  and mycorrhiza

This is the very best and most explanatory article I have recently read about biochar

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