And the garden

When modern architecture goes outside


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Ten Great Gardening Gifts under £15

I’m afraid my robust stance on what NOT to get gardeners has not softened in the intervening two years.  If anything, I have become more set in my ways.  Here is a list of stocking fillers, all of them under fifteen quid, that any keen gardener would be very pleased to get.

  1. Jumbo kneeler

    Yes, those ads in the back of Sunday supplements are accurate: garden kneelers are useful.  No, not those leather/chintz/Harris tweed covered ones, aspirational and pretty though they be. They all share the same fault: way too small, with only space for your knees side by side. If there’s something just out of reach, you have to get to your feet, move the kneeler 20cm and then get back down again, which over the course of a even a few minute’s gardening becomes irritating (even for those less prone to irritation than myself). I wound up never using mine, unless it was really cold and wet underknee. Then, clearing out my father’s toolshed earlier this year, I came across a giant, garishly coloured slab of foam: a vastly outsized kneeler. I commandeered it, brought it back with me to Scotland and have used it almost every day since. The kneeler I suggest you buy is even larger than my own, at a wildly generous 98cm by 39cm, and is truly a brilliant present for any gardener.  Its only downside is that it won’t actually fit in the stocking.At £10.95 from Harrod Horticultural

  2. Blade sharpening kit

    This duo from Darlac is brilliant. I have a similar little steel that I have to hand – so useful for a mid pruning-session sharpen of the secateurs.  And if you wanted to bowl your recipient over with your thoughtfulness, you could bung in a can of WD40, a couple of Brillo pads and possibly even a rag. Pop the lot in a shoebox and that’ll keep your gardener happily occupied through the bleak January days, productively sharpening every blade in the shed in keen anticipation of the coming spring.At £12.99 from Two Wests & Elliott
  3. Plant rings

    These little plastic coated wire rings are incredibly useful. I never throw them away, they last forever, and you can use them again and again.  I always have a few in my pocket for when I notice that something has flopped away from its support or the twine has broken – or the plant has grown and the point at which it needs attached has changed – and I don’t want to go back to the shed and get the full works. I use them to to secure tomato and cucumber plants to bamboo canes, to train the young branches of trees, to secure delphinium spikes onto canes, to train my climbers to their wires. I realise that as presents go they lack a certain wow factor, but you can’t have everything.At £1.99 from Kingfisher, available from all garden centres and Amazon
  4. Proper gardening gloves

    Be suspicious of gardening gloves that look pretty. A gardening glove should have a purpose: it is either a leathery gauntlet to protect your hands from being scratched by thorns, irritated by sap or burnt by fire; or designed to keep soil particles away from your skin and nails. I do not subscribe to the view that true gardeners love to feel the soil with their bare hands. When I see presenters on Gardeners World plunging their ungloved hands into the earth I physically shudder at the memory of running microscopically roughened hands over fabric and the unpleasant snagging sensation that ensues. So for standard garden work use these from Showa, and for anything requiring greater precision use these medical latex or vinyl ones. As well as also coming in very useful for kitchen use when chillis need chopped, you can snap them at the wrists as you put them on and waggle your eyebrows suggestively. That may be just in our household though.At £3.10 a pair from Just Work Gloves and others
    From £3.60 for a box of 100 gloves from Just Gloves
  5. Decent hand scrub

    My father, who started out as an engineering apprentice, swore by Swarfega, and always had a pot or ten about the house. I swear by Jo Malone’s Geranium and Walnut Scrub, but let’s face it, no way is that one going to meet the £15 criterion of this list. However, a genuinely good alternative that does is the Gardener’s Hand Scrub from Nutscene (also containing geranium), which is a delight to use and smells lovely.  Don’t wet your hands first: all three scrubs work (and feel) best when applied to dry hands, slowly massaged into the palms, backs of hands and fingers, then rinsed off with tepid water. Nutscene makes an equally good accompanying hand cream – I’m quite picky about products (but you already knew that) and I rate it.From £7.63 a 500ml pot, from Amazon
    At £40 for 200g from Jo Malone
    At £8.99 for 150ml from Nutscene
  6. Seed Voucher

    That thing about sitting by the fire when it’s lashing down outside, poring over seed catalogues? Never happened to me, I do my seed salivating in the evenings in front of my computer, but it doesn’t diminish the joy in knowing you have a voucher with an interesting seed company and you get to choose whatever you like. Free seeds, hurrah! You could get six or seven packets for a £15 voucher, and the firm will send you their list or catalogue too if you like. You cannot go wrong with a voucher from any of the following:Chiltern Seeds
    Special Plants
    Franchi Seeds of Italy
    Real Seeds
  7. Thermometers

    I’m going to recommend two types of garden thermometer, both of which I use (indeed I have two of each type and can always use more). Digital examples of both do exist, but I haven’t yet tried them so I can’t comment firsthand. The first type is a straightforward soil thermometer, robust and with a bright red ball on the top which means that when you lose it under the rush of spring growth, come autumn you stand a good chance of finding it again. Thanks entirely to this attribute, I’ve had my current one for over 15 years and three gardens.
    The second type is a minimum/maximum temperature recorder. I have one in my polytunnel and one outside so that I can nerdily compare the difference. Even more nerdily, I then record the temperatures in my garden notebook (see next item on the list).At £12.99  and £14.99 respectively, both from Two Wests & Elliott
  8. Garden Notebook

    See previous point. Any committed gardener needs a notebook, for all sorts of valid and not at all nerdish reasons. I jot down what I sowed and when, garden ideas, to do lists, plant wish lists and planting combination ideas. It is a calamity to visit another garden without a notebook, because the back of a scrap of paper jottings you make will inevitably be lost or put through the wash. My favourites are medium-sized lined hardback notebooks that stay in the polytunnel or shed, and smaller unlined ones that can be slipped into a pocket when out visiting.  Both from Moleskine.
    *** I am positively giddy with excitement having just learnt that for an additional £5 you can have your notebook personalised with your name or the name of your garden. “Gray House Garden. 2017” Deep breaths.***From £10.95 from Moleskine
  9. Root trainers

    These are the bee’s knees for sowing individual medium sized seeds like sweet peas or sweetcorn (broad beans are just a tad too large), or for propagating cuttings. As well as encouraging excellent root development, you can open up the sleeve without disturbing the roots to see how things are doing. After a number of uses the plastic sleeves do start to rip, but I’ve kept mine going for years.At £10.95 (currently £6.99, you could get two sets!) by Haxnicks from Amazon
  10. Pot of indoor bulbs

    Yes yes, I know I should have ordered my bulbs for forcing in September when I did my annual tulip order, but I was so profligate with the tulips and lilies that I had to cut something, and that’s what went. And now I am forced to buy my hyacinths and amaryllis in pots, already in growth (and I’m noticing that once you allow for the pot and the time, there’s not that much in it, pricewise). There is something so utterly cheering for the gardener about spring bulbs, tangible proof that spring and summer will come again. Any supermarket will have those baskets of three hyacinths – white or blue please, not pink, and none of your sparkly ‘decorations’ thank you very much – but M&S are doing a particularly charming range of muscari in little milk jugs which I think must be instore only, because I can’t find them online. Three of those would be just dandy.

Whatever you choose to get the gardener in your life, I wish you and them a very happy Christmas and a lovely start to the eagerly awaited new year. Come on 2017!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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How to Pleach

It seems as though every article I read about pleached trees includes the nugget of information that the word comes from the French word plechier or plessier, meaning to plait or weave.  Gormlessly, I accepted this at face value, despite having grown up in then French-speaking Brussels; despite having spoken French rather well at one point; despite having plaited my hair as a schoolgirl and discussed this – in tedious detail, as one did – in French with my francophone friends; despite my never ever having encountered either variant of the word before.  Someone, somewhere, made this up (or dug it out of an obscure French equivalent of Chaucer), and it has been repeated, unquestioningly, ever since.  The correct term is ‘palissé’ or ‘en espalier’.  So there.*

Whatever size trees you start with, you will first need to make your structure.

If you are starting with young trees that you will train from scratch, you need tall posts set in concrete at regular intervals (5m apart or thereabouts) with tensioned wire making up the horizontal bars between them (four or five bars is usual). Later this year in the courtyard garden I will be doing this too, with seven crab apple ‘Red Sentinel’ that I had to buy young (oh the satisfaction of ordering something on the right rootstock so that its ultimate size will be just right for my purposes).  I have heeled them in beside the garage and will train them myself because I am looking for the lowest bar of the pleached branches to start lower than is usual with nursery supplied trees.  And because it is much much cheaper.  I will teach myself how to do this and post about it in due course.

This post however is about how to treat mature trees which have already been trained individually in the nursery: how to create a structure that links them together; and how to train them to it.

rootballed limes in situ

We planted six small leaved limes (Tilia cordata) in April 2014.  By rights we should have done it a little earlier in the year (the trees were just starting to come into leaf), but although these were field grown trees they were dug up one day and transported to my garden the next, and they were to receive the very best of care, so we risked it.  Their planting holes were large, the backfilled soil mixed with generous amounts of organic matter, and their rootballs sprinkled with liberal quantities of root growth enhancing mycorrhizal fungi (Root Grow, I SWEAR by it).  They were tethered against windrock by an underground guying system (the excellent Arborguy from GreenBlueUrban), which means we didn’t have to have unsightly supporting posts, and each tree had a circle of perforated drainage pipe looped around its rootball with the end sticking up out of the ground, so that I could water them copiously (but only every now and then).

With a lot of hard work, we got them into position. I will not dwell on how unpopular my insistence that the trunks line up with the distant window breaks made me, nor how no one, myself included, made the leap of logic that suggested that a telegraph pole would indeed have an underground cable leading to it, which we promptly dug through.  Once in position, I proceeded to do absolutely nothing to them (except water them and keep them weed free) for the next year.  Mainly because I thought that they needed time to settle in before I started hacking them about, but in part because I didn’t really have a clue what to do next.

limes in leaf year one

They passed an apparently happy summer (see photo above), coming into leaf and putting on lots of new growth while I bided my time and googled.  Monty Don had what seemed to me to be sound advice, and equipped with my magnificent tripod ladder from Jake Hobson, my trusty Felco secateurs, a ball of twine and more bamboo canes than I imagined possible, I set to work in February 2015 to link these six disparate trees into a coherent whole.

limes - six distinct trees

Tip: wrap up warmly and wear wraparound glasses – being poked in the eye while balancing up a ladder in a howling gale is best avoided.  Also, cut the twine into lengths (short bits of 35cm and longer bits of 80cm) while still in the warmth of the house, and stuff the different lengths into different pockets before you go up the ladder.

limes - building the bamboo structure

I found it was best to split the job into two parts: creating the new structure first and only once that was complete tying the branches onto the structure. My trees each had four bars of bamboo to which they had already been trained, so the first thing I did was to run new bamboo canes across the gap between the trees, weaving the canes in between the bamboo uprights and the trunks of the trees, and tying them securely into place to the existing bamboo bars with twine in at least four points along their length.

Once I had a solid – if slightly wavy – line of canes along each of the four bars, I then extended the structure out at either end with more canes, one end tied into the bamboo structure, the other reaching out to the point I wished to grow the foliage (above but abutting the datum).

limes - lining up edge with datum

Because the shape I am going for is a sort of shoebox on stilts, I want to train the branches of the two end trees to form right angles and meet in the middle.  I therefore connected the two rows of trees with four horizontal canes (which I also braced with verticals in the corners for strength).  By now the trees had more bamboo in them than they did tree (and over a week had passed), but I could finally start tying the branches to my bamboo structure.

limes - lining up the end structure

Although the trees were quite twiggy and it had been fiddly to get the bamboo canes in place, until this point I had restricted myself to only pruning out the deadwood.  One never knows when a branch will come in handy, and I learned that small leaved lime is amazingly bendy, which, it dawned on me, explains its popularity for this purpose.  (I will have to be a lot more gentle with the more brittle crab apples when I come to train them.)

limes - back row pruned front row unpruned

I tied in whatever I could to the horizontal bars, and then marshaled my quailing resolve and pruned out everything that was not in the right place for the shape I wanted, some branches back to 4-6″ or so, some right back to the branch bark collar with the trunk or main stems.  I removed most of the new growth, as illustrated in the above photo showing the pruned back row and the unpruned front row (I started with the least visible bit until I got my courage up).  The photo above also shows how we really should have thought at the outset about placing the six trees according to their straightness of stem, and hidden the one at the front on the left which has a backwards lean to it in a far less prominent position.  I have built the structure to compensate, but I will have quite a job to train the bushy new growth out so that the vertical face of the ‘green box’ appears straight.

lime branches before being tied into line   lime branches tied into line

The two photographs above are before and after.  And although I suspect that I might not have been ruthless enough, I will be very relieved come Spring to see them come into leaf.

limes with weights

The above photograph shows the end result. I am very pleased with it, but looking at it now I think I will have to get back up my ladder and lop the tops of the vertical bamboo canes that break the lovely horizontal lines.  The two orange bags hanging from the branches are mesh bags that some of my Peter Nyssen bulbs arrived in (see?  I knew they would come in useful), weighted with rocks and tied to joins that had an upwards arc to them, to try to bring them slowly into line with the horizontal.  My husband finds them vaguely unsettling, reminiscent of a medieval display of the heads (or worse) of one’s enemies on spikes .  I can’t see it myself, but there’s a novel idea for a show garden at Chelsea if ever I heard one.

* I blame Anne Wareham for my pugnacious tone.  I have just finished reading ‘The Bad Tempered Gardener‘ and I am feeling inspired.


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Christmas Gifts for Impossible Gardeners

When buying presents it is always a mistake to aim – unguided – at the recipient’s main interest, whatever it is.  So far over the course of his life, my husband has been given enough random or whimsical golfing paraphenalia to start a small shop.  Had we but kept it (Ahem).  My much loved late mother-in-law was prone to this and absentminded with it, and I have very fond memories of the look on my husband’s face as he unwrapped – for the second year running – the little framed cartoon depicting some humorous egg/golf ball confusion.

Gardeners are terrible people to buy presents for, unless you are a gardener yourself, and, moreover, an equal or better gardener than they are.  What follows is harsh, but true.

Do not give them a book about gardening.  The book you give them will be the equivalent of giving ‘How to read Music’ to James Levine, or ‘My First Cookbook’ to Mary Berry.  If by some stroke of luck you do give them a book they really want, they will already have it, having bought it themselves, being unable to wait.

No you may not give them a plant.  Not unless you collected it from the wilds of Tibet yourself (or you know someone who did).  They struggle enough with where to put the plants they bought themselves on impulse, without having to place your offering.  It will sit with the other plants in their pots in the corner of shame – every garden has one, usually by the garage – and deliver mute, root-bound reproach to the gardener whenever they walk past.  And there’s the worry you might ask about it, next time you visit.

You especially may not give them a houseplant.  Just because the Poinsettia is one of the few plants you can recognise and name, doesn’t automatically mean your gardener will welcome it.  They may not be very good with houseplants [blushes]. Unlike cut flowers, one is supposed to keep houseplants going year after year, for diminishing returns (and I include the entirety of Orchidaceae in that).

That garden-motto’ed mug with its special compartment for the biscuit?  It will make good crocks in the bottom of a pot of bulbs, but that’s probably not what you intended.

You are perhaps feeling a bit less charitable now towards the gardener in your life (or towards me.  Hopefully just towards me).  If you haven’t been put off by this glimpse into the blackness of our hearts, anything on the following list is certain to be received with unalloyed appreciation by your gardening friends and family.

Ten Presents for Picky Gardeners

1.  One tonne bag of fine bark mulch.  Providing your gardener has space to put this outside within reach of a tarmacked road, this is a perfect present.  No one ever has enough mulch to spread on their borders, and the bags that one buys in garden centres are expensive, heavy to hoist into the car, and disappointingly small.  From £75 per bag, delivered, from people like Scotbark.

2.  Felco secateurs.  The best secateurs in the business.  Models 6-12 are all good, £40-£55.  From Felco.

3.  Plant voucher.  A plant voucher from a good nursery that delivers mail orders to your country.  My favourites in the UK are Ashridge, Victoriana, Jacksons, Junkers, Kevock Garden, Peter Nyssen and the ever reliable Crocus.

4.  Root grow – 2.5L.  Mycorrhizal fungi that you sprinkle on the roots of trees and shrubs to help them establish and grow faster than they otherwise would.  Recommended by the RHS and in my own experience this makes a huge difference £45, a tub is a great luxury but small sachets also available for stocking fillers, £2.25.

5.  Solar powered/wind up radio.  Very handy to take around the garden with you – never miss the afternoon play because you’re gardening.  Lots, but here from £25.

6.  Landscaper’s rake.  They make have a rake.  Bet they don’t have a rake this good.  It’s twice the width of a usual rake, light as a feather and invaluable for creating a tilth and other wierd things gardeners do. £40-£50

7.  Niwaki tripod ladder.  This one is pricey.  Maybe for Christmas and birthday combined?  A joy to use, weighs nothing at all and the tripod design means it’s super stable and you can position it anywhere without squashing your plants.  I love mine.  From £160 to £300.

8.  Twine.  One can never have enough, and it’s handy to have tins of twine in different places.  £7, from Nutscene, the best.

9.  Jiffy pellet seed trays.  Brilliant way of sowing seed – get Ref R-JPT38PK2 which gets you two trays with 60 cells,  each with a pellet that swells on contact with water.  Some spare pellets (R-J7C42PK), the whole set should come in around £30 from LBS Garden Warehouse.

10. Neom Organics bath oil.  Taster set of six £20, probably for the she-gardener.  Heavenly smellies, just right for relaxing after a cold wet day’s digging.

 

Perhaps as a result of being bludgeoned with their respective hobbies for so many years, my husband’s family now circulate lists of the stuff they really want (by email, with the links to the online item).  I found it surprisingly easy to get over my initial disapproval.

Update: Christmas 2016 list of 10 gifts for gardeners, all of ’em under £15, can be found here.