Monday, June 27, 2016

News from this Benighted Kingdom

I haven't written a blog posting for ages, having been very busy, and a holiday etc. But I thought I should write something about our recent disastrous political collapse – there is nothing else to call it. Many of the readers of this blog, most in fact, are outside the UK, and given the strong admiration so many feel for the English garden, and the strong anglophilia I know many garden and plant lovers feel, I know there will be many of you who will be asking “what the hell is going on?”. Not only have British voters rejected membership of what has been described (by the Observer newspaper) as “the greatest democratic achievement of the post-war era” and which has also been an immensely successful trading bloc, but also seen the most mendacious and irresponsible political manouevering at the highest level, and the collapse of the political left – to be replaced by a noisy and nationalistic populist movement. Friends of Britain must be puzzled and worried. For those of us who live here, it is a truly traumatic and frightening time.

Every country, as we all know, has a nasty, thuggish intolerant nationalistic element. In Britain it has been pretty small and apart from occasional eruptions, insignificant. There is though the so-called 'little Englander' way of thinking, in many ways no different to similar attitudes in every country. But the fact of being an island adds something, the illusion that we are apart, are different, that we can ignore our neighbours. One of the things which particularly incenses me is the way that so many people talk about 'Europe' as if it is over there, another continent which we are not part of. For heaven's sake, we are part of Europe, even if we were not politically so, even if we were as isolated as North Korea, we would still be part of the continent of Europe! Its a use of language which fundamentally betrays an island mentality, and a failure to understand our intimate connections with the rest of Europe.

One aspect of the 'little Englander' mentality, and this may be a rural rather than an urban aspect, is a paranoia that the EU is a kind of conspiracy, led by the French and the Germans to destroy Britain. I heard this from people during the foot and mouth disease crisis in farming 15 or so years ago – the EU response was regarded as part of a plot to wreck British agriculture. Far worse now is the racism, the growing hostility to the Polish and other people who have come here to work, and for the most part, have actually contributed to our national prosperity. That prosperity however has not been shared, and here perhaps is an important part of the problem.

Visitors to Britain, especially if they do not get beyond the garden-rich and rather genteel south-east and the Cotswolds, may not appreciate just how divided a nation we are. There is a lot of poverty, not real destitution poverty (starving children etc.) but a long-term grinding poverty in many of the old industrial areas, a cultural poverty as much as a material one. Whole towns without hope, their industries closed down, poor housing, second-rate education. A failure to modernise British industry in the 1950s and 1960s was followed by wholesale de-industrialisation under
Margaret Thatcher's government, which strongly favoured the finance industry. There was never an attempt to rebuild manufacturing industry. Whereas Germany has been able to re-invent its old industrial areas like the Ruhrgebiet, Britain never did. One of the ironies is that what regeneration there has been in these areas has often been thanks to EU money. Not that the voters paid any attention to that when they cast their votes last week. Voting for Brexit was just a way of protesting, against a succession of governments that have let them down.

The real culprit is perhaps the press. The popular British press is very right-wing, with lurid stories having being run on immigration for years; if you believe them you would think that we were about to overrun. This hostility, verging on outright racism, has been a drip drip of poison for years, despite the fact that the National Health Service (out most precious national institution) runs on foreign doctors and other staff, and everyone loves their local Polish builders and plumbers for getting things done. Immigration and all other problems are blamed on the EU. The anti-EU message has hammered home ruthlessly. Listening to the 'vox pop' on the television, poor badly-educated people, who probably have no idea of what the EU is about, mouth slogans about 'regaining our sovereignity' which come straight from the pages of the hate-mongering nationalistic press. They are a sorry spectacle, you feel sorry for them, but at the same time feel angry at their naivity and gullibility and the confidence with which they parade their ignorance.

There are silver linings to the cloud. The election of the first Muslim mayor in a European city, the Labour Party's Sadiq Khan, in London last month was a sign of a broad coalition, led by an increasingly restive young middle class, globalised and Europe-friendly but who are frustrated by rising inequality. Bristol ditto, with a Jamaican-heritage new mayor. Seen from this perspective, the anti-EU voters look like Trump supporters, the older, less educated, the 'left-behind' people. And then there are the Scots, who firmly voted to stay in the EU and who have seemed completely immune to the paranoias of the English. But then, the Scots were always better Europeans than the English. Many of us look forward to what must be their eventual independence.

We hope you'll still come and visit. The gardens of England, many of their plants of mainland European origin, their design frameworks often derived from Italian or French models, will still be looking lovely and rose-bedecked. You will still be able to have high tea in half-timbered houses or walk the green fields outside your country house hotel. But remember that you are in the front room, and that you may be hearing crashing and banging and shouting from elsewhere in the building as we become an increasingly fractious, divided, intolerant and badly-governed society. Just like all those politically unstable countries we used to sneer at from our stable and predictable island.

One of the best things I have read on the whole sorry tale is this from The Irish Times:

Friday, May 6, 2016

Spain - a rich territory for new ideas

A trip to Spain, for the first time in more than twenty years. In this time, I have spent 2 months in Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia and been to Mexico 3 times, so I am not used to hearing Spanish with a Castillian accent. Jo used to teach a course on the films of Pedro Almodovar, and so so I have seen most of his ouvre; the result is that in Spain, the sound of Castillian made me constantly feel as if I was in an Almodovar film, and therefore expecting to see all sorts of post-modern urban happenings - transvestite nuns making dramatic entrances etc.

Jo and I spent a week in the Alpujarra, the range of hills which act as foothills to the mightly Sierra Nevada in the south of Andalucia. It was disappointingly early for wildflowers, although we saw a lot of interest – this is one of the most floristically diverse places in Europe. At lower altitudes however there was plenty in flower. A good chance to appreciate the shrubby maquia flora which is so different to what I am used to, and in particular to see the range of textures its shows. There are so many differences between one micro-habitat and another – we may be thankful for our green and lush climate but at the same time it was interesting to be somewhere which did not have the same suffocating bright green grass on every piece of open land.

Spain is actually the highest country in Europe – in terms of the proportion of land at altitude. Which means that much of it has a very severe climate for gardening – a combination of Mediterranean and Continental, so winters are very cold, with icy winds and hard (but generally only overnight) frosts and very hot dry summers. The flora of stressful environments is often more diverse and richer than 'better' places to grow, a counter-intuitive fact I endlessly point out in my workshops. And of course Spain was less affected by the ice ages than northern and central Europe, so the flora is richer anyway. It really is very exciting botanically.
A Miguel Urquijo garden near Salamanca

So where is gardening at in Spain? Still very much undeveloped. Long a backwater, owing to its politics and poverty, it had a few years of prosperity (as good an argument for the European Union as any) before suffering an economic slump. Economic conditions in other words are not good. The garden world may be small, but has its bright stars. Two of whom I met: garden designers Miguel Urquijo and Fernando Martos. They are working in a similar genre, using plants appropriate to the climate, including many natives and responding to the landscape. They have both ditched the until-now-prevailing largely Italian model of clipped formal hedges, which “always look the same” in favour of clipped low shrubs and sub-shrubs and interspersed with perennials and grasses. If those of use from northern climes have an instinctive reaction against clipping then think of it in this way – there is not much weeding needed here, compared to what we do, and so frequent clipping is simply swapping one chore for another. 
Another Miguel Urquijo garden near Montfragüe

The clipped lavender, cistus, Pistachia lentiscus, etc. very much evoke the olive trees and Quercus ilex of much of the landscape, those endlessly repeated grey hummocks. Using a wider diversity of species is difficult as the nursery industry is very undeveloped and predictable in its offerings. More interesting plants have to be imported from Netherlands or France. There are though, according to Miguel and Fernando, a few Spanish nurseries beginning to be more adventurous, but they will only widen their range if they know they can sell the plants, so garden designers have to try to create a demand. Potentially a vicious circle if no-one buys new plants, it can become a virtuous circle if designers commit to buying new plants, so enabling other customers to see and experiment. It is a familiar story – the Oudolf story is like this – Piet and Anja started growing new plants themselves because no-one else did, and then retail customers liked what they saw, and the rest is history! Fernando tells me he is hoping to start a small nursery himself, so he can get what he wants. As an aside, I met my Chinese colleague Ye Hang in Sheffield this week, who tells me that her husband is back in China, setting up a nursery which is aiming to do the same sort of thing, growing plants of the Yangtze valley. 

I got the feeling that here is, possibly, hopefully, a whole new garden style, for a country that has one of the richest of floras. I feel very optimistic for the future of Spanish gardening. The other interesting thing about Spain, which really slotted in to place for on this trip, was just how relevant it is for us in Britain. For some time now I have been saying how the British climate has more in common with a Mediterranean climate than with the Continental one so many of our garden plants come from. We grow lots from both of course, but the number of days weather we have which is similar to that of a continental climate is quite limited, as we do not have their hot summers or cold winters. One could say that a typical day of a Mediterranean winter is like the typical British day – cool, bit moist - good growing conditions in other words. Mediterranean summers are so hot and dry that plants become dormant – in other words Mediterranean plants are in active growth in conditions which our climate replicates for most of the year. Add in the vicious cold winds and frosts of central Spain and it should be pretty clear that anything that comes from there is going to be both hardy and drought-tolerant. In the Alpujarra the very familiar Euphorbia characias was everywhere, often growing under trees in dry deciduous shade. A brief roadside stop in León revealed Stipa gigantea as a key part of the local flora, and Viburnum tinus lining woodland further back. A source of diversity for our gardens, but also a place to learn about how to use familiar plants as well.
A Fernando Martos garden near Guadalajara

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Friday, April 8, 2016

Gardener Abuse

Gardeners are underpaid. We all know that. They are also often not understood. All too often I have been involved professionally with a garden where garden staff are employed but those employing them only have the dimmest idea of what they do and even less of why they do it. Garden staff, of course, work outside – so tend to be in isolation from both any other staff employed or their employers. They work with living things in an environment which is never predictable, and which inevitably remains mysterious to those employing them. 

Of course people who are employed, outside, doing things which remain a mystery, they will get asked to do other things, which appear to those in charge to be a) more urgent, and b) less of a mystery. In my experience of working with both large garden owners and gardeners I have come across too many examples of what could be called 'gardener abuse'. This takes many forms.
In many cases this abuse is exacerbated by the problems caused by employers with TMM (Too Much Money). Just because someone has been very successful in their particular field, i.e. has made a pile, in no way reflects on their abilities in any other field. The extremely successful/wealthy are often dysfunctional and chaotic in fields other than that in which they have succeeded – indeed are often more so, or they marry dysfunctional and chaotic people, or employ likewise. Having lots of money and being D&C can produce some pretty spectacular results.

General Dogsbody
Its winter and there are pile of chairs in the great hall that need moving back into storage after that wedding party. There can't be anything useful the gardener is doing. Get him to move them. Ditto painting, odd DIY.
As any gardener can tell you, there are plenty of things to do in winter. Try telling the average employer-of-a-gardener that and their eyes begin to glaze over. You can see they don't believe you.

Waste Disposal
Gardens are big places, often big enough to bury, or at least hide, large quantities of unwanted building materials or other debris, which the local authority rather inconsiderately charge for removing. And of course there is the gardener who, because he/she spends all their time outside knows the best places to bury or hide them. Or burn them. I once had dealings with a nursing home (since closed down) where one of the gardener's weekly jobs was to take away and burn all the old incontinence nappies from the residents. Yes, really.

Vehicle management
One thing those afflicted by TMM tend to do is to buy too many cars. These need to be taken out every now and again and 'exercised', though not as much as horses of course. Some gardeners quite enjoy taking the Bentley out for a spin every now and again, but it is not exactly horticulture. Sometimes it all gets a bit too much. I once visited a garden where, in an out of the way corner, I came across a Hummer parked next to a Ferrari: all their tyres were flat, they were covered in leaves, and grass was beginning to grow on the tarmac around them.

Animal Husbandry
The gardener is outside all the time, as are the animals, so it seems reasonable enough for the former to look after the latter. Not all the time of course, just sometimes. Animals are sometimes bought and installed without much thinking through basic welfare provision, like access to water or food; inevitably it is the gardener who notices and has to deal with the situation. Animals tend to escape and if they are sheep or horses, tend to gravitate to the nice juicy vegetables or tasty perennials which the gardener has responsibility for, necessitating the gardener spending rather more time on fencing than gardening.

Packing the children off to boarding school may strike the rest of us as callous (and is something which tends to horrify non-Brits), but at least (these days) they are kept amused, safe and stimulated at school. Not always so if they are at home, especially home and alone. I sometimes think that many of the children of the extremely wealthy are so neglected there should be a charity especially for them, a bit like the charities that have been established in India to look after the children of drug-addicted western hippies. So it is the gardener they hang around, either because they are the only other human being on the premises, or because the housekeeper has had enough of them hanging around their ankles and sent them outside. Fine, if they can be gotten interested in what the gardener is doing and in some cases this can be the beginning of a great gardening life, but not so fine if they can't be. Or, if they are, as I have heard more than once, “psychotic spoiled brats” who actually have to be supervised if they are not to wreak havoc.

Actually this is not so much a problem for the gardener, as the garden designer or consultant, who is more likely to be seen as a social equal and therefore someone who one can pour out one's problems to, especially if one is a neglected spouse (let's face it, usually a wife), abandoned in a vast house, with no neighbours in sight, with a load of responsibility you never wanted (managing the gardener for a start) and an overstocked drinks cabinet.

Garden Design
The distinctions between what a garden designer does and a gardener does are pretty hazy to people who don't really know what goes on outside anyway. The gardener comes in every day, plants stuff, grows stuff, they can do something with that new bit half way up the drive can't they? One could get a designer in, but that would be expensive, better get the gardener to do it.

The other side of the story
There are the lucky few who garden for employers who they almost never see, but who pay them well, resource the garden well, let them plant what they want and trust them with property while they are away (which is most of the time). The gardener may feel a bit unappreciated but if they have the run of an enormous house, can have their friends round every now and again, have lots of expensive kit to charge around the acres in, who can complain?

Then there are the employers who are dedicated gardeners themselves, who work their socks off, the ones who go to parties painfully aware of the dirt beneath their fingernails they can't quite get out, but who are afflicted by hopeless gardeners, who came with good references and solid CVs, who interviewed well, but are actually.... well what do they do all day? Sacking them is difficult because of employment protection legislation. 

Finally, there are those, not that common, but oh so wonderful when you do come across them, employer-gardener relationships which are truly synergistic: mutual trust, shared interest, goals you both agree on and understand. These have made some of the very best gardens.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Don't grow your own; get your credit card out instead!

When I had a nursery business, back in the 1980s-1990s, one of my gripes was the problem of plants being sold at too low a price. Pricing anything is always difficult, and prices rarely reflect the actual cost of production; often its a case of 'what the market will pay'. Well, over the years, the price some people will pay for plants has certainly gone up, and although there is still underpricing and bargains to be had, there seems to be much more readiness to pay silly money. “A fool and his/her money are easily parted” says the old English saying, and it's as true in gardening as anywhere else.

Since my nursery days, there has been a huge increase in the sale of plants which in the past would have been available only as seed. I don't mean the bedding plants or veg plants which need a couple of months under glass before they can be risked in the big chilly world outside, I'm talking about easy stuff, like lettuce, and sweet peas, and cosmos. Partly I suppose this might be a reflection of many people living in places where starting seed might be difficult, but I can't help the feeling that this has been an opportunity for the nursery industry to make money through a process of de-skilling the amateur gardener. There are so many plants which are so easy from seed, and as many have found, there is a great deal of satisfaction in growing your own plants this way, right from the beginning. Today's gardeners seem to be increasingly tempted into buying ready-grown plants rather than seed. On a recent visit to our local garden centre (one of the Wyevale group) I was horrified by how hugely reduced the seed racks were. The message seemed to be, if you want it from seed, go online.

Going online in fact is where a lot of folk seem to be going anyway, for plants as well as seed. So I thought I'd take a look around and see what the gardener-customer is being offered for their money.

Crocus, the biggest online plant retailer in the UK are charging £7.99 for a 9cm pot of Angelica gigas, a biennial, so it'll be dead within a year and a bit, BUT it will leave you with lots of seed which if you can sow right away (and this will be the September of the year after spending your £7.99) and you can discover for yourself that the very plentiful seed comes up like the proverbial mustard and cress and you can try potting them all up and flogging them all at next year's church fete for £7.99 each. Good luck! (BTW, leave the seed til spring and none of it will come up!).

The Guardian Garden Centre (i.e. the newspaper's online retail wing) is offering 72 perennials for £19.99, as plug plants. A very good deal if you know what 'plug plants' are and can look after them appropriately. No definition of a what a 'plug plant' is though. “Up to 1 metre. Spread 45cms.” The list includes Armeria, which I think is a little bit, just a weeny little bit, less than this, along with some not-perennials, and I don't just mean the short-lived perennials I am always banging on about (although it is one of these, an Echinacea) which is the main image, but biennials like Digitalis or 'stagger into year two if you are lucky' annuals like Verbena bonariensis. Its an insane mix: including delphiniums, lavender, geum. I dread to think what this lot will look like when planted out together, probably with no reference to size, conditions etc.

Mind you twenty quid for 72 is not so bad, unlike the £11.99 they are asking for a “powerliner jumbo plant” (whatever that is!) of Lavatera 'Barnsley Baby'. I have looked for this variety online and cannot find any information about its size, the name of course suggesting that this is a mini variety of the plant that Rosemary Verey found in someone's garden in her home village in Gloucestershire, sometime in the 1980s. Well, mini and mallow family don't tend to go together and since 'Barnsley' grows at a rate of knots to 2m plus, I would be sceptical and cautious. Possibly not something for the pot on the patio which is what the advertising suggests.

I have found over the years that it is customary in many quarters to be rude about Sarah Raven's retail empire. Some of her prices are astonishing, four basil plants for £4.50! when you can go down to any supermarket, even the ones the proles shop at who don't buy their plants from posh Sarah Raven, and buy pots of live basil for much less. I just checked the Tesco website - £1.25 for a pot with a lot more than four seedlings in it; many a gardener pots these on to a bigger container and keeps their £1.25 plus a bit more compost and a second hand pot investment going all summer. A lot of this is to do with social cachet, as there is a certain type of customer who, so maintain street cred with their friends, would never buy anything from anybody other than SR. You can almost see them rub the Tesco label off the pot of basil on the kitchen windowsill as one of their friends arrives for lunch in a BMW crunching its way over the Cotswold gravel in the drive. “Got it from Sarah, isn't she a darling!”.

Actually, to give Sarah her due, what you paying for (some of the time, although not the basil) is her knowledge. There are zillions of dahlias, tomatoes etc etc and she does trial things thoroughly and her recommendations are the result. These are good plants, no doubt about that, and the website is very informative.

The sending of seedlings (SR's Cosmos 'Purity' are £8.50 for 10) is a big part of what people seem to be prepared to pay for when ordering plants online. With some plants this is entirely understandable. Every year I grow plants for Jo, and some of them, Antirrhinum and Ageratum for example are very small and fiddly, and die off at the drop of a hat – quite honestly only the experienced gardener would bother with them, but Cosmos! Big chunky things that come up in days, and can be pricked out practically blindfolded. I find it sad that so many people are passing up on the incredible satisfaction of growing easy annuals from seed.

Turning to vegetable plants, getting someone else to grow your pepper or tomato plants makes sense, as many people simply don't have the facilities to grow them, but carrots (four for $4.35 from the gardenharvestsupply (dot com) or, from the same company three “German Giant Heirloom radish plants” for $4.35! Of all veg., growing radishes from seed has to be the easiest. Apart from anything else, like the sheer stupidity of paying over a dollar a root, is the unsustainability of all this: the compost, the pots, all the packaging, the fuel for the UPS truck; all those resources that goes into sending this nonsense.

Many vegetables and salad crops bolt very quickly as a reaction to stress, so sending them through the post to grow at home or even buying them from the local garden centre can be pretty counterproductive. So imagine my horror last year, when down at the Royal Horticultural Society garden at Rosemoor in Devon, I find pots of mizuna seedlings for sale, can't remember how much; but - separate those seedlings and they are going to instantly bolt, and your little seedling mizuna might garnish a sandwich and no more. Selling plants that are bound to fail is bound to discourage the novice gardener.

It gets worse. The Tasteful Garden dot com sell arugula/rocket seedlings, “at least two plants in each pot” for, $5.95. Yes, nearly $3 each for the crop which after the radish, has to be the easiest seed to germinate, and which with a bit of summer heat (and they have quite a lot in the land of the dollar) gives up growing leaves and bolts, fast.

Breathtaking daylight robbery some of this. And sad, when so much growing from seed is so easy, and so life-affirming and empowering.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

What really stresses me out - weeding

Its the end of the winter and it has been very wet, and for the most part very mild. We have a long growing season here in the Welsh borders anyway, and the winter wet adds to the problem. A long growing season a problem? Yes, because it means weed grasses, and a few other things, like creeping buttercup, can just keep on growing continually, while the range of perennials we want to grow, both garden and native species, are dormant.

We have, in Britain, an incredibly aggressive flora of species, basically grasses, that are very effective at smothering the ground and most other non-woody vegetation, which if left unchecked they eventually eliminate. It is one reason why we don't have much of a problem with invasive alien species, as they can never get a foothold. But who needs invasive aliens when you've got invasive natives? They, and I basically mean tillering and rapidly spreading grasses, can grow at low temperatures and root very quickly into new ground. They are one reason for the low floral diversity of much of the British countryside (the other main one is the last Ice Age). In the garden they smother perennials, rooting into the crown and establishing a canopy of foliage before the perennial starts growing. This is also one of the reasons that so much of the British countryside has very low floral diversity.

The result of all this is that we, in the west of Britain, have a major problem dealing with weedy grasses. A major problem. Our own plot has a fertile soil, particularly rich in phosphorus, which grasses love, and it is quite heavy, so getting weeds, fine-rooted grasses in particular, out, is THE problem. I would say that weeding is our number one garden task, in fact I would say that it is equal in time and effort to all the other garden tasks combined. People who don't garden here probably have no conception of how problematic this is.

If I were a 'normal' gardener I would be less ambitious, plant densely and be do a lot of hand weeding. But because of my professional interest in researching diverse low-maintenance plant mixes, I've got a lot of ground to cover. I want to get a sense of how realistic it is for those who work with minimal resources, such as in public spaces, can manage, so I have to look at all weed control methods. And it is a conundrum.

In light soils this is easy and basically can be regarded as solving the problem. Here on our heavy soil it is every impractical until the soil dries out, as you end up with a barrow full of clods of earth, it being impossible to shake the soil off the roots.

'Traditional' garden practice involved a lot of hoeing, which detaches weeds from the soil, so they dry out and die on the surface. However, conventionally it went hand in hand with having bare earth between plants, which simply offers habitat to yet more weeds. I, like many other 'naturalistic' gardeners, aim at having as extensive a vegetation canopy as possible, which is one of the most effective ways of preventing weed growth. During the winter however, with most perennials dormant, the native weedy grasses can move in, from any seed left from plants which were not removed last summer. Hoeing amongst established perennial clumps is not easy, often ineffective and in our conditions weeds don't die on the soil surface unless we have a dry east wind – they actually carry on growing and then re-root!

Hoeing has many other disadvantages. Too early in the year and if you make a mistake, you decapitate a perennial. It is also quite destructive, of seedlings of desired plants and of the whole layer just above the soil surface - of decaying plant remains, mosses, small harmless creeping spontaneous plants – this layer being an important invertebrate habitat and therefore crucial for garden biodiversity. It, and hand digging, also disturbs the soil, bringing up yet more seed seed.

The idea of burning is an unorthodox one, but one which the prairie movement has introduced us to. It is the oldest land management tool: a great many tribal cultures around the world have used it to manipulate their environments throughout history. Out in the country, where we are, it is possible to cut down perennials, and then have a prairie burn with the debris. Not really very sociable if you have neighbours! And not legal in many places. The alternative is to rake off the debris, compost it or use it as mulch elsewhere and then go over with a flame gun.

Burning certainly knocks back weed grasses, so they are forced to regrow and by the time they do so, the perennials will coming on full stream. Burning will kill seedling grasses and a lot of other early germinating weed seedlings, such as goosegrass. However, if you have evergreen perennials, very early emerging ones, or bulbs, it has to be done very carefully.

Burning is a particularly good and fun way to get rid of grass debris. Molinias and Calamagrostis go up like fireworks, to the extent that if I were a public park manager in some places I would think twice about planting them. Miscanthus here does not dry out enough, although in the US I am told it goes off like a bomb.

Taking a flame gun solution to late winter weeds is a relatively new practice, widely promoted as an alternative to handweeding/hoeing or using herbicide. It is also increasingly being used in organic farming. It is of course is not particularly sustainable, even less so than Roundup, as propane gas is a fossil fuel. It, and prairie burning are also very destructive for the same reasons as hoeing – goodbye desired seedlings and ground level habitat. It also will not kill deeper rooted perennial weeds, or indeed most weed grasses when established. For persistent perennial weed grasses it is actually pretty useless.

Herbicide, i.e. Roundup
I am not organic (it won't feed the world) and Roundup comes in very useful for the most difficult places, or where I simply get to the end of my tether with weedy grasses, and it is a fantastic time saver. It is non-persistent and does have a good safety record, but we can never be sure, and research may yet show something up which may mean we should consider not using it. Many studies have been conducted over the years and it has come out well on the safety front (though it should not be used on sandy or stony soils which don't absorb it and allow it to be broken down by bacteria, as happens on humus or clay rich soils, and of course nowhere near water). Some recent studies have suggested it may be a carcinogen, but the jury is still very much out.

There is a bigger problem though, essentially a political one, as it is so impossible to have a sensible discussion with many people about Roundup, as they have made up their minds it is a creation of the devil, and that's that. The organic movement is a dogma after all. But the fact that to many people it is unacceptable is where we are at, so finding alternatives is important, which makes me all the more interested in researching a wide variety of non-chemical methods of weed control.

I think you could make out a good case that Roundup is the least invasive method of weed control, as it does not destroy the immediate above ground habitat, leaves mosses untouched, and there is, as far as I am aware, no evidence of a significant negative impact on animal biodiversity (I've just been through a load of scientific papers on this). It, like burning, also avoids disturbing the soil and so bringing up buried weed seed. But convincing many domestic gardeners of this is probably about as fruitless a task as persuading Donald Trump to believe in climate change.

Before I leave the subject of Roundup, if there is anyone still reading, I would like to make a parallel with agronomy. The Americans have, for some time now, been giving up ploughing, the practice that for many of us is somehow synonymous with arable agriculture. Ploughing is very destructive of soil structure, of soil life, and can encourage disastrous soil erosion. It is for this latter reason that the US Department of Agriculture has for some time now been encouraging 'no-til'. There are other good reasons too, as not ploughing soil means that the soil builds up its organic content, good for holding on to water, nutrients and sequestering carbon. In fact no til is being promoted as a major carbon dioxide sink, and therefore an important part of controlling CO2 emissions. The idea is beginning to catch on with British farmers too.

Trouble is no-til classically involves spraying weeds off with the dreaded devil's milk Roundup and then, a few weeks later sowing with a device which slices through the dead weeds into the soil and sows the crop seed very precisely. The alternative is a fossil fuel flame gun. There is no easy answer here.

Strategies for the future
Encourage ever denser planting.
As more and more species seed and spread my plantings are getting denser and therefore more weed resistant. However there are some perennials which do seem to be particularly prone to grass invasion of the crown and no amount of dense planting will ever solve this if there is a local source of weed grass seed.

Encourage ground level perennials which will deny spaces to weeds but survive the competition of the taller perennials.
Now this is a tall order! Primula vulgaris, P. elatior, polyanthus and other hybrid primroses are actually pretty good at this as they are more or less summer dormant and do most of their growth in the October to April period when the the heat-requiring summer perennials are dormant. Liriope too, but in our cool summer climate this spreads so slowly as to be almost useless. There is not a lot else.

Plant a matrix of weed suppressing evergreen ground cover and then grow taller perennials in it.
I tried this with the evergreen Carex glauca, and it was a total failure, as all sort of weeds from grasses to seedling Geranium 'Claridge Druce' moved in and took over. I'm now trying it with Phlomis russeliana which here is our most effective weed-suppressing perennial but which has co-existed well with several robust perennials for five years in some research plots. Any more suggestions?

Re-define what a weed is
This can be very fruitful. I have never understood why some people get so het up about lesser celendine which spreads like mad, flowers in March and then goes dormant. What problem is that? Creeping buttercup may be a pain but in with established taller perennials it soon gets overshadowed and can then be appreciated as a nice spring wildflower. I am debating about whether to leave it some of my research plots.
At the end of the day a weed is something which has the ability to out-compete and therefore destroy the plants we are trying to grow.

Use slow-to-decay mulch
This is what I am intending to do with those parts of the garden which are not research plots, where decorative impact is important and where weed grasses have been a particular problem. Many mulches simply rot down too quickly but council green waste seems to be much longer lasting, possibly because it is composted at a high temperature and is therefore almost charcoal like (on the way to being bio-char perhaps?). Weeds pull of out it nice and easy. So the plan is, buy a lorry load, and get it spread, creating a new and much more friable surface for weed control.

I think this weed grass control issue is so important, I'll do an annual update. Now, for having even mentioned the possibility of using Roundup, I'll sit back and wait for the death threats.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Hellebore troubles

Hellebores can make such a huge impact as they flower so much earlier than anything else. Try cutting them though and they hang their heads so limply as to put you off ever trying again. The only way to cut them is to float them in water as in the picture above.

They are easy enough but I find that many of ours are dying out. Given my interest in long-term plant performance I have been monitoring this and discussing it with other gardeners. The consensus is that from about ten years onwards many do go into a decline. This is not surprising as they seed (or can do) so extensively which suggests something which is not going to be with us for ever. So, all the plants I paid such good money for from Ashwood Nurseries and Wendy Perry all those years ago are now pretty well vanished. They initially seeded well – I dug a load up and planted them out, leaving many others to grow in the bed.

The seedlings I have left, i.e. next to their parents, have never really taken off. Despite it looking like initially they would smother everything else, they have never gotten that big and are now beginning to die too. All I can think is that they cannot cope with the competition of the roots of the overgrown hedge behind them. The very best ones are right up the top where the hedge is further back. Elsewhere in the garden we have a few magnificent plants, but always well away from shade or tree roots.

So, a bit of a crisis for something that was always such a feature of the garden in late winter. The seedlings I had dug up seven or so years ago have done well, breeding relatively true from seed, so we have had some good plants to move elsewhere or give away. It was interesting to note however the difference in vigour and how this was linked to flower colour (genes on the same chromosome?). I had set out the seedlings in order of size in a nursery bed, and all the largest ones turned out to be red, which actually is the least interesting colour of all. The picotees seem particularly lacking in umph. In looking at this lot the other day, I realise that there is only one in the nursery bed left which was worth doing anything with, a very spotty white. So I divided it, feeling as if I was taking the plant's life in my hands as they do not divide well, and you do end up doing terrible damage to them, crushing flowers and leaves as you do so. Hopefully the rather miserable looking divisions with a few leaves sticking out at odd angles will take. The roots are most active in the late winter, when they flower, so this is the best time to carry out this perilous operation.

These seedlings had originally been collected from around good plants, the seeds being so heavy that you can be pretty sure which plant a seedling has come from. I tried to find some more around good ones this year, but it is a struggle, and even when very small, the seedlings have very long roots and can be difficult to extricate from the ground.

I shall have to try to save seed again this year, but this is not easy, because as soon as it is ripe it seems to hurl itself out of the seed pods. I have tried tying little muslin bags (thanks to eBay I now have a whole packet of these) around the maturing pods but they are actually too small – I need the next size up.

Going to buy expensive seed from Ashwood or Jelitto or somebody is going to feel like a defeat, let alone having to take out a mortgage to buy new plants. So we shall have to develop a Hellebore Conservation Action Plan.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The aliens (might be) landing !

Rhododendron x superponticum dominating waterside habitat in Yorkshire. Maybe the otters like it for cover but I can't imagine much else does.
I wrote the following for Pro-Landscaper magazine, last year - i.e. for a British Isles audience. So please realise that issues may well be very different elsewhere. . . . .

The press love a good invasive alien story. Shades of martians landing and/or man-eating triffids on the prowl. There is often a hint of racism too, invasive plants almost inevitably come with national labels: Japanese knotweed, Spanish bluebells, and the language used to describe them is not unlike that used to discuss immigration issues in certain quarters.

The landscape industry is very much in the front line here, both in preventing the use and spread of invasive aliens and sometimes in their control too. But how much of a problem do we really face?

I would argue that the invasive alien story is in danger of being grossly exaggerated, and those of us who work in horticulture and landscape need to keep a cool head. First of all, we need to realise how lucky we are. While some countries battle enormously damaging invasive species, Britain faces relatively few real problems. We have an amazingly aggressive natural grass flora, which has evolved to benefit from the exceptionally long growing season we have – the result of our being on the north-west fringes of Europe, facing the warm waters of the Atlantic. Our wild grasses have an incredible ability to spread, propagate and suffocate most of what comes in their way. They may create problems in establishing garden or landscape plants but they are a great defence against invaders.

So what problems do we face? The obvious answer is Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica); the press love stories about it, and the government has responded by enacting legislation that potentially adds considerable costs to landscaping and construction projects. However, it does not seed, it is suffocated by trees, is easily killed with herbicide, eliminated by mowing and makes little headway against grasses. Neither does it kill small dogs (unlike, we are told, seagulls). It is a big problem in a very small number of localities. The main reason for its spread has been the moving of infected soil, something entirely preventable. It is important to realise it is not going to engulf the country.
'Perspective' is one thing which those who get very excited by invasive aliens find difficult to maintain. Particularly important is to recognise the difference between the spread of a species and it being problematic. Buddleia is a good example. Its appearance on buildings worries property owners (rightfully) but its extensive seeding into waste ground creates an impression that it has capacity to spread. This is liable to alarm those with a dogmatic understanding of ecology, who believe that only native species have a right to be here. Given time, buddleia gets suppressed by native grasses and in particular by our native brambles and shrubs. However even at its most vigorous it grows alongside other plants (and of course butterflies love it).

The plants we need to worry about are those that 1) do not get suppressed by our native vegetation, and 2) get the better of it, even though these may only be problems in particular places. Rhododendron x superponticum is a good example of something that does both of these; spreading even in the shade of woodland and suppressing almost anything which grows in its dense shade. Certain cotoneasters might be another, but only with regard to very localised habitats (cliff faces). With time many seemingly aggressive species decline, as local infective agents and pests discover them – there is evidence that this has happened with Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) in continental Europe. Given the costs and difficulties of eradication, keeping a cool head and focussing on identifying real problems, not headline-generating ones, is vital.

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