The Joy of a Plant Delivery

Eager to get the main structural plants for the garden in the ground and growing, we decided not to wait until the ground was prepared, but to order the plants straight away. Impetuous? Certainly. Foolhardy? Perhaps. We hope to be living in this house for the foreseeable future, so what’s the rush? We’ve already bought and planted the bare-rooted specimens – beech hedging, and six fruit trees for our mini orchard. A few days ago we received a delivery from Burncoose nursery

Actually, looking at the picture, it doesn’t look like that much! In fact, there’s the potential for a lot of plant material there. The plants were well packaged, arrived intact, and look like good, strong, healthy specimens. Two fastigiate (tall and thin!) beech trees (Fagus sylvatica ‘Dawyck’, and ‘Dawyck Purple’) will be tall focal points, giving the garden height, lush foliage, and great autumn colour. Two purple-leaved hazels (Corylus maxima ‘Purpurea’) will have large, dark leaves and can be coppiced every few years to provide hazel sticks for supporting beans, etc., or for fire wood. And, if we’re lucky, we might get some hazel nuts from them too.

A viburnum (Viburnum plicatum f. tomentosum ‘Mariesii’) will become a large shrub with fresh green foliage, horizontally tiered branches (a bit like a wedding cake tree) and will be smothered in masses of white flowers each spring.

Cornus kousa var. chinensis will grow into a small, spreading tree, covered in large white flowers (in fact, they’re bracts – the flowers are tiny and at the centre of the circle of bracts). It also has good autumn colour, and will make a great focal point, viewed through the metal pergola we’ve just finished putting up…

Of course the pergola will need plants to climb over it. So we got ourselves started with a chocolate vine (Akebia quinata) which has dark flowers that smell of chocolate (hence the name).

Akebia quinata (photo courtesy of Crocus on-line nursery)

Clearing spaces in the borders where these plants will go is going to keep us busy for a while. Here’s a large patch we did earlier. There’s plenty more to do.

And to end on a prettier note; the Viburnum x burkwoodii we brought with us in a pot is full of flower at the moment. The fragrance is delicious…

text & photos (except akebia) © Graham Wright 2020

Couch Grass

I’m engaged in a battle with a wily, wiry enemy. Just how do you get rid of couch grass? Unfortunately, there’s no easy way. This is what it looks like…

These are the rhizomes (a few of which have produced leaves) of couch grass – latin name Elymus repens – lying on the surface after some frenzied digging by yours truly. The area of the garden where we’re creating the main border is run through with it, and we’ve been digging out great heaps of the stuff. The rhizomes creep along under the surface of the soil, building up a tangled and extensive network. Nodes at regular intervals along the rhizomes can push new clusters of grass up through the soil. Quite impressive, really. But not very helpful when you’re trying to cultivate a garden.

There are a number of approaches to take. Spraying with chemicals is increasingly seen as an unacceptable option. Glyphosate, the main ingredient of most (if not all) weed killers available to consumers, has been linked to cancer (though the big pharma companies are doing their best to hide all evidence) and only has a limited effect anyway. You’ll need to spray a number of times, leaving a few weeks between treatments, to get on top of it. You can cover affected areas, ideally with something that won’t let light through; something like thick black plastic. Okay for a bed with no other plants in it. But you’ll need to keep it covered for some time (i.e.; months, or even a year). And even then, you might not have killed it completely. And, of course, we should be using less plastic!

Digging is an option, and the one we’re using. This is the area I’m working on at the moment…

You have to be careful to get all the rhizomes out, because any you leave in the soil will re-grow. Realistically, it’s not possible to do this in one go. Our thin, sandy, dusty soil makes the process as easy as it could be, but it’s still hard work. There are cultivated plants in the bed too; these can be saved, but it’s harsh on them, because to remove all of the couch grass that’s grown in among their roots, you have to remove pretty much all of the soil around the roots. This is a time of year when you stand a good chance of the plants recovering from the shock. As we salvage plants they get put in a temporary position in our nursery bed. Ideally, having dug a bed over, you should leave it for a few weeks and then dig it over again to find the bits you missed, which may well have sprouted – giving themselves away to you. This time it should be much easier, as the soil should still be loose from the first digging over. But this is not an ideal world, and time is short, so we will probably take a chance and put in some of the plants straight away. This should work, but it will be critical to keep on top of the situation and dig out any couch grass as soon as the shoots appear.

One more option I’ve heard is to bury the stuff. This probably works best where it’s matted together to form turfs – in which case you would stand practically no chance of separating the grass from the soil anyway. The theory is that with couch grass, if you can bury it in a trench, and put a foot or so of soil on top, it will die through lack of light (a bit like the black plastic option). That sounds risky to me though. A safer option might be to cut the top few inches off and create a turf stack. Pile the turves up with the green sides together, and over time they rot down to form good quality topsoil. Here’s one I prepared earlier…

In fact this is made from standard turves, without any couch (hopefully!) The canes and string are marking out the design for the garden. These turves are in what will eventually be a border. I dug a pit so that the stack is partially buried – it’s best to exclude light where possible. And I can make use of the topsoil that would otherwise be under the stack. After six months to a year you can go through the heap and remove any perennial weeds that haven’t rotted. In the worst case, if you’ve made a stack with couch grass turves and the couch rhizomes haven’t rotted, at least the problem weeds are collected together in the one place, rather than being spread all over your plot!

With couch grass, as with most weeds, it’s a war of attrition – by keeping at it you’re constantly reducing the weed population, and weakening those that you don’t destroy completely. In time, you should get the situation under control. But even then, don’t turn you back on it for too long – you may win some glorious battles, but in the long run, you’ll never win a war against nature…

Text & images © Graham Wright 2020

Gardening – cure for the corona virus blues?

As we’re entering a period when our lives are about to become more restricted than most of us have ever known, getting out into the garden could be our salvation.

It’s a difficult time. Many of us will have to work from home (that’s if we’ve still got a job). There’ll be no more going out to pubs, cafes, restaurants. No more cinema or theatre. No organised sports, either to watch or take part in. The internet will probably be overwhelmed, but you can only take so much screen time anyway. We could spend all our spare time watching TV, if there’s still access to Netflix, etc., but that’s not exactly good for you (again; you can only take so much screen time). Boredom could reach dangerous levels as we all steadily go stir crazy.

The answer – the way to free ourselves from the tyranny of enforced seclusion – is to get out into the fresh air, under the big, open sky, and to get gardening. It’s the perfect time:

– The long dark corridor of winter is coming to an end and we’re going into spring, so the weather is right (we’ve had some lovely days already this year);
– It’s safe; there’s no danger of the virus being transmitted over the garden fence;
– There’s plenty to do in the garden at this time of year;
– Gardening is great physical exercise, and has been proved to have psychological benefits too (Think you’re more of a city person and you don’t like plants? Think again – your sub-conscious mind knows better!)

Don’t have a garden yourself? Do you have a neighbour who has, and would appreciate some help – maybe a neighbour who’s elderly, or disabled? There’s no need for contact – they can leave the side gate open, and chat to you at a distance, perhaps through a first floor window. They get their garden done, and some arms-length social contact, you get out, get some exercise and fresh air. Maybe you can grow produce in their garden, and share it with them? Why not do some community gardening; transform that piece of waste ground with your neighbours (organised via social media, and carried out one person at a time, in shifts)? Try your hand at guerilla gardening.

Want some ideas of what to do in the garden? Order some seeds (mail order – no physical contact);

Dig up some of the lawn to create more flower beds;

Or turn over the whole of your lawn to growing fruit and veg, ready for when the shops run out of food;

Plant hedges. Make them prickly – pyracantha, holly or berberis to keep the marauding hordes at bay (or at least, to hide your veg patch from envious neighbours). Or maybe we should be kind, and share our produce with the community);

Let what’s left of your lawn grow into a wildflower meadow – beautiful, very much ‘on-trend’ and we can’t afford to waste precious petrol or electricity cutting grass anymore.

So, don’t go mad – get gardening, and stay safe. And keep away from crows and magpies – you don’t want to get the Corvid virus

text & images © Graham Wright 2020

Up the Garden Path

This is the back garden as it was mid December last year, when we moved in, laid mostly to lawn, and dominated by a straight central path cutting the space in two.

We’ve got a working plan now. It isn’t quite finalised, but I’m confident it’s close enough that we can prepare the ground where the trees will go before it’s too late to get them in. Trees are generally much cheaper when bought bare rooted, but this can only be done in the dormant season, and they have to be planted within a few days of being lifted out of the ground. The path had to go. Here it is after I was half way through taking it out (taken 25th Feb):

The bed on the left is also going, so I’ve been taking the plants out and moving them to the nursery bed.

Work has been progressing smoothly, as and when I can fit it in. As you can see here, the chickens have wasted no time in annexing the bare earth as a dust bath:

This was the state of play as of 7th March, with all of the concrete and gravel removed, and the paving slabs left loose for the time being, so we have something to walk on:

I had hoped the slabs and gravel were laid on membrane over compacted soil, but I was to be disappointed. It’s been a long time since the old pick axe has seen that much action, and I’m left with a huge amount of rubble that will need to be removed at some point (I may be able to use some of it under paths and patios elsewhere).

You may just have noticed we’ve planted some trees in the grass. The design I came up with has a mini orchard, set with six fruit trees – 2 apples, 2 pears, a plum and a damson. I’m aiming to turn the grass into wild flower meadow, with a mown path curving through the trees to a patio at the end, under the large birch tree. In total so far we’ve planted 9 trees, and 100 hedging plants. And there will be more to come.

I’ll sign off, for now, with this month’s centrefold; the lovely Lola, sprawled on a bed. Calm yourselves…

Text & Images © Graham Wright 2020

Nursery Beds

Most gardening books say you should live with a new garden for a full year before making changes. Until you’ve seen the garden in every season you won’t know exactly what you’ve got. It’s good advice as far as it goes, but frustrating when you want to get going on re-designing and replanting.

Plants take time to establish – particularly trees and shrubs. A year of doing nothing is a year added to the time you have to wait for trees to become more than sticks; shrubs more than a foot tall – another year before you’ll be picking apples, plums, pears; another year away from getting privacy from neighbours, from screening an ugly view, or providing shelter from a prevailing wind. It may be good advice, but in practice, it’s advice most of us won’t follow.

Late winter/early spring is when most bulbs begin to show themselves. In our new garden we’ve been delighted to see clumps of snowdrops (Galanthus) appearing. Had we been able to start rebuilding the garden in the autumn we wouldn’t have known they were there. But there again, if you dig carefully you should notice even small bulbs like snowdrops in the soil. Even if you’re not able to identify them, you can always pop them into a spare corner and see what they turn into.

This is just one of the advantages of creating a garden yourself, rather than employing landscape contractors, who are unlikely to have the time or the inclination to go to the trouble. When you re-build and re-plant a garden yourself it tends to be a transitional process. If you intend to re-use materials like paving slabs and gravel, you need somewhere to pile them up until you’re ready to re-use them. For plants, you need a nursery bed – a clear area of soil that can provide a temporary home for plants that need to be moved, but which you don’t have a permanent position for just yet. As we’re preparing and marking out the new design we can move the snowdrops, along with daffodils, tulips, etc. into the nursery bed, where they can stay until we can find permanent positions for them.

But what else to keep? Deciduous shrubs are not always easy to identify without their leaves, and many perennials have nothing at all showing above ground at this time of year, which means they can be easily missed. But unless the previous owners were exceptionally tidy, there’s usually some dead material from last year’s growth hanging around to give you a clue.

Evergreens, of course, are easy, as they still have their leaves. Rhododendrons are not my favourite plants, particularly as they struggle in most gardens (unless you happen to have moist, acid soil with lots of organic material in it). But this one is showing lots of juicy flower buds, so I’m sure we can find somewhere for it. At the moment it’s in a slate-mulched island bed, but our new design has this area as a mini orchard, with wildflower meadow. So it can go into the nursery bed for now. Along with…

This evergreen Euonymus (Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald & Gold’?) may need to be moved too. They make good space fillers, brightening up dark areas even in winter. You can see it’s reverted in places, producing solid green leaves rather than variegated. This will need to be cut out. And…

I’ll cut this rose right back before digging it out with as much of the roots as I can. I think it’s a yellow variety, and has been very healthy (though as you’d expect, it’s been hit by the weather recently). With little sign of rose black spot, it’s definitely worth hanging on to.

There’s more in the garden than it would appear at first glance, such as this large patch of Lithadora (probably ‘Heavenly Blue’), a plant that didn’t want to know in our last garden, but which has beautiful, vibrant, true blue flowers – a real asset to a garden.

I’m happy to see that foxgloves (Digitalis) seem happy to self-seed freely all over the garden. These free plants will come in useful for filling the gaps while the garden is getting established.

Starting work on a new garden can be difficult in the winter. So far we’ve been lucky with the weather. It’s been relatively mild, and often not too wet or too frosty to dig. But you never know at this time of year. If today is anything to go by we could might not be getting out there too often…

text & photos © Graham Wright 2020

Progress!

Last time, I posted a photo of our front ‘garden’, showing how we’d just begun to clear the thick covering of gravel to reveal the earth that once supported a garden. I’m happy to be able to report that the gravel is gone (well, almost, and only in the front garden – the bad news is there’s more in the back!) This is how it looks now…

And this is how it looked at the time of my last post…

We’ve put in two trees. The first is a Sorbus aucuparia ‘Eastern Promise’ (Rowan), which comes with a bit of a story. It looked very healthy, and came in a very large pot. It wasn’t until we took it out of the pot that we discovered it had next to no roots! It was obviously field grown. They’d lifted it (very badly; hence the lack of root) and put it in a large pot, and sold it as if it was pot grown. The tree is about 10 feet tall, with lots of juicy buds ready to break in the spring. I don’t hold out that much hope of it growing some roots in time to support that top growth.

Still, I don’t like to throw plants away, so I put it in and staked it well, and we’ll keep our fingers crossed. I complained to the garden centre we bought it from, and the good news is, they gave us a full refund. Who knows, the tree may even pull through, in which case we’ll have got it for nothing. Talking about getting plants for free; the other tree is a sapling of a field maple (Acer campestre) which set seed in our last garden. We potted it up and took it with us. Field maple is a small native tree, typically found in hedgerows, but attractive, and with good autumn colour.

The Field Maple – hopefully the chicken wire should deter any rabbits or deer that might think about having a nibble.

And we’ve planted a beech hedge along the front and side boundary. It doesn’t look much at the moment, but give it time. One hundred bare-rooted beech plants, mostly for the front garden, with some for a short stretch of boundary at the back. It’s the best way to buy deciduous plants. They’re field grown, and lifted during the dormant season, bagged up in bunches and sent off to the customer (in this case, us). There’s generally no soil around the roots when you get them, but they’re wrapped up in a big plastic bag, which conserves enough moisture to stop the roots drying out too much. Current thinking is that buying plants bare-rooted is more sustainable, because there are no plastic pots involved. It’s a shame about the plastic sacks they came in, but that’s probably a lot better than 100 plastic pots. It’s a cheap way of creating a hedge too – these worked out at 95p a plant.

In the spring, we’ll sow some grass – possibly wildflower meadow – to green up the rest of the space. So that’s the front garden dealt with for now. Next comes the back…

text and images © Graham Wright 2020

A New Challenge…

I started this blog to share some of the ideas, experiences and knowledge I’ve gained as a professional gardener. But having given up professional gardening, for the time being at least, does that mean the Pulling Weeds blog is at an end? Not necessarily. Having just moved house, I’ve taken on a new, larger garden. It’s got a lot of gravel and lawned areas, and not nearly enough planting. My plan is to redesign it; to create something special. And I intend to share the process through this blog.

I say ‘I’ – it will actually be a project shared between myself and my wife, Julie (it’s her garden as much as mine). This time I won’t be the only one pulling weeds!

This is what the garden looks like now, on a cold winter’s day. The planting is limited, with big expanses of grass.

The garden is dominated by a large, mature birch tree at the end. There are dead trunks of two others, one right in the centre and one to the side of the house.

There are some plants worth keeping; quite a few rhododendrons, and this magnolia. It looks mature, despite it’s diminutive stature, so probably a stellata. The buds are already swollen, ready to burst into flower in the spring.

The Rhodies all seem to have lots of buds – I’m looking forward to a colourful show in May.

As you can see from the above, a lot of the beds have been mulched with slate chippings, leaving the plants as isolated individuals in a slatey beach. There are a lot of clumps of ox-eye daisies, which need either splitting or, more likely, removing (the flowers are pretty, but the plants don’t really earn their keep). The weeding clearly hasn’t been kept up with, and some of the shrubs and perennials have been overcome by couch grass. Fortunately the soil is quite sandy, so the digging is easy.

There’s a fair sized pond – deep, too – which was used for keeping expensive fish (all of which left with the previous owners). The rockery and waterfall at the back will have to go, along with the extensive paraphernalia (2 barrel sized filters hidden behind the rockery, a powerful water-blower-cum-filter thing hanging from the bridge, and a large pump on the bottom). The levels need sorting out. There’s an overflow pipe which is keeping the water level well below the rim. Hopefully we can keep the pond, but make it look more natural – turn it into a wildlife pond. The rather twee bridge will probably have to go.

There’s an awful lot of gravel and paving in the garden, and to my mind, it’s taking up valuable planting space – most of it will have to go.

Talking of gravel…

This is the front garden (if you can call it a garden). It’s our first challenge, and as you can see, we’ve already made a start (does anyone want a lorry load of gravel?) The last residents used it as a parking lot, but google images shows me there was once a garden where the gravel is now. The vehicles have left the soil badly compacted, so it will need a good digging over. I’ll let you know how we get on (does anyone know a good chiropractor?)…

Text & images © Graham Wright 2020

The End of an Era?

I’ve been gardening professionally for ten years, first in Buxton, Derbyshire and then, from 2010, in Penarth, in the Vale of Glamorgan. But just before Xmas I moved up to North Shropshire, and I’ve hung up my boots, for the time being at least. I’ve been very fortunate to have had some lovely customers, and I’m sad to have left them behind, but there you are; nothing can last forever. In the end, as the poet (Shelley) said, ‘nought remains but mutability’.

My sadness at moving away from my customers is tempered by the knowledge that I’ll be much closer to my family. But I do have a dilemma – what do I do next? I could try to get new customers where I’m living now. But I’m not getting any younger, and I’ve been finding it tough gardening full-time. I’m just over half way through a post-graduate diploma in garden design. My first priority, while I’ve got some time on my hands, is to get that finished and see if I can get work as a garden designer – ideally freelance.

In the mean time I will need to get a part-time job to make ends meet. Maybe I’ll do some gardening. Maybe I’ll try something else. I’ve spent the majority of my working life in an office environment; I might try to get a part-time office job. After working outside in the elements I rather fancy that; nice and warm and safe (although I remember those paper cuts used to smart a bit). That’s if I can find a job. It isn’t easy these days, and not having been in that environment for a decade is likely to work against me. And then there’s my age. It shouldn’t be a problem, but I know that ageism is rife in the workplace.

But if I’m no longer gardening for a living, is that the end of Pulling Weeds? Not necessarily. In moving, I’ve taken on a new challenge. But that’s for next time…

Text & images © Graham Wright 2019

Welsh Olives…

Yes, it was a surprise to me too! I knew that olive trees grow in the UK. I knew they can produce fruit. But I didn’t think the summers were hot enough, or long enough for the fruit to ripen. But here’s the proof: genuine, full-sized olives from our own tree, growing outside, in a pot here in the Vale of Glamorgan…

This is the first year it’s happened. Having picked the olives, we then had to find out what to do with them. There now follows a long process of soaking them in salt water; it can take six months to a year before they’re ready. You have to change the water periodically, and at the end, you can add herbs, spices, garlic, chilli, etc to the salt water (or use vinegar or olive oil).

We only got a very small crop (this is it!) but then, it is a very small tree…

Only time will tell if they taste as good as olives grown in hot climates. I can’t wait…

text & images © Graham Wright 2019

Aberglasney Autumn Colour

Last Sunday was forecast to be a rare dry day in what has turned out to be a very wet autumn. We probably should have used it to work in our garden, but instead, Julie and I decided to treat ourselves to a visit to Aberglasney gardens in Carmarthenshire. Aberglasney is a very special garden to visit. The gardens are very beautiful, and there’s plenty of history there, going back to Tudor times at least, and probably beyond.

The mansion, seen beyond the stone walkway that surrounds the cloister garden. Cake alert – the cafe is just away to the left!

The sun may be out in the photo above, but despite the weather forecast, for the first hour of our visit it was overcast, light levels were low, and guess who didn’t think to change the ASO rating on the camera? Well, it’s an automatic. And the camera I normally use does it for you. Excuses, excuses! I was having trouble getting a decent quality shot, as you can see from the image below. It does at least give an idea of the range of autumn colours on show.

The surrounding landscape can play an important supporting role in the design, and the success, of a garden. Aberglasney is fortunate to be set in a beautiful, lush valley, lending a fabulous backdrop to the gardens. It does mean they have a lot to live up to, but that’s something they have very successfully achieved.

The landscape beyond, with a young Sorbus commixta colouring up nicely in the foreground

At this time of year there isn’t much flower colour around. Even the Symphyotricums (that’s late flowering asters for anyone who can’t keep up with the botanical name changes) were pretty much over. But there were still some flowers on show. I presume this Camelia is one of the varieties that flower late autumn to early winter (most flower late winter to early spring). Even so, it seems a bit early…

And this hydrangea was looking unnervingly perfect when all around it was in a state of decay. It’s Hydrangea paniculata ‘Unique’…

Talking of hydrangeas; this large specimen in a stream-side setting is a Hydrangea aspera (also known as H. villosa). Hydrangea aspera species are not your typical hydrangea. They make large shrubs, and while they can be a bit scrappy, at their best they are dusky beauties, with long, softly hairy leaves with a slight blue tinge, and cool, purple-blue lacecap type flower heads (and yes; I’m sorry about the poor quality of the photo!)

I suspect much of the ground at Aberglasney is slightly acidic. It’s a very damp area, which promotes lush growth. Like Bodnant in the north, Aberglasney has plenty of acid-loving plants such as rhododedrons and camelias.

Aberglasney has a fantastic collection of plants, and we saw many that weren’t familiar. This beautiful flower looks exotic; like an asiatic orchid. It’s unknown to me, and I couldn’t find a label. It was in a damp, shady spot, but unprotected from the weather. I should try to identify it.
Close by, these tall seed heads were also unfamiliar to me. Again, I couldn’t find a label…

If anyone knows, feel free to put me out of my misery (and ignorance).

When most of the flowers have gone, you start to notice other interesting features. I was struck by the finely drawn texture of the leaves of this next specimen, which is (according to the label) Rubus lineatus. Basically, a raspberry, but an ornamental variety – it’s not clear whether the berries are edible.

I didn’t need a label to identify the plant in the next photo. The seed heads of the evergreen Magnolia grandiflora are fascinating structures. The leaves too, look lush and exotic; shiny and green on top, with a (typically) bronze underside. They need some protection, and in this country are probably best grown against a sheltered wall. The downside is that to keep them against the wall you need to prune regularly, which means they produce less flowers (and the flowers are even more beautiful than the seed heads).

When it comes to autumn colour, I hear plenty of references to this plant. It’s Callicarpa bodinieri, and the variety usually mentioned is giraldii ‘Profusion’ (which is what this specimen is). I believe its common name is the beauty bush. The berries are certainly bright, and unusual, but I can’t say I like them much; to me they look garish and artificial, and just seem to clash with everything around them.

Against the tall stone walls apple and pear trees have been trained into a herringbone pattern

Close to the entrance and shop this huge cedar tree has a massive branch projecting out across the path at just above head height. There’s something primeval about this tree. Close up, it looks like some kind of giant, fantasy creature; sleeping, but at any moment it could wake…

Eventually the sun came out, and the sky cleared, with just a few clouds bubbling up in the distance. The rich, warm colours of the leaves of this Quercus palustris looked stunning against the blue of the sky…

Yours truly standing under the same oak tree. We’d walked around the whole of the gardens by this time, and it was lunchtime. Fortunately Aberglasney has a very good cafe restaurant, so we went and had lunch, followed by coffee and cake.

If you want to know more about Aberglasney, they have a website. They have a couple of holiday cottages, and we’re thinking that we might try to have a holiday there sometime soon, particularly as we’ll soon be moving up to Shropshire, which is a long way for a day trip.

Autumn is a marvellous time, but it’s getting a bit cold and damp now. I can’t wait for the spring…

Words & photographs © Graham Wright 2019