Garden Visit – National Botanic Garden of Wales

On a cold, frosty and windy Sunday in January I got up and set off early (well, early for me) for the National Botanic Garden of Wales, near Llanarthne, Carmarthenshire (https://botanicgarden.wales/). I’ve visited the gardens before, but never at this time of year, and I have to admit to wondering whether there would be enough of interest to merit braving the icy wind. Once there however, it didn’t take me long to forget my doubts.

It’s true that most of the perennial plants, as is this case in all gardens, had shrunk back into the ground, not to be seen again until the spring. And the deciduous trees and shrubs were devoid of leaves. But there’s something marvellous about seeing a garden stripped back to it’s structural elements; particularly a garden that is so extensive, varied, and beautifully laid out as this one. And despite the cold, the day was perfect; bright and sunny, with the winter light from the sun low in the sky making the water in the fountains and rills sparkle and shine. Backlit, and constantly moving in the breeze, the many species and varieties of decorative grasses that flow through the gardens were dynamic and bright. Continue reading

Winter Pruning of Fruit Trees

With the exception of Prunus species such as cherry, which are susceptible to silver leaf disease, free standing fruit trees are best pruned during the dormant season. You can do it anytime from late October through to early March, but I prefer to wait until the tree is fully settled into dormancy, and then get it done well before the buds begin to swell. Anytime during December and January is fine. Ideally, pick a day that isn’t too frosty or wet. Make sure your secateurs, loppers and saws are sharp and clean. I like to sterilise mine with diluted Jeyes fluid before and after, to avoid spreading any disease from one plant to another.

I’ve just pruned my quince tree (Cydonia oblonga ‘Vranja’). Quince fruits are about the size of, and a similar shape to pears. They have a downy coating, and a wonderful fragrance. They can be added to apple pies or crumbles to give them more flavour, or made into membrillo – quince paste – that is eaten with cheese. Apparently. But I know what you’re thinking – ‘who does he think he is; Mary Berry?’ Back to the pruning then, and the first question to ask is ‘why prune?’

The patient before surgery…


…not massively congested, but could benefit from some shaping

Quince makes quite a small tree – one of the reasons I chose it for my small garden – and although this specimen has grown fast during it’s four years in the garden, I’m happy for it to put on more height. I didn’t want to restrict it’s growth (more on that later) so I was pruning to improve the tree’s shape and to promote it’s health. Trees put out shoots in all directions, which can lead to them becoming quite congested. There were a number of shoots that were crossing each other. This is bad, because when branches rub together, they wound each other, and wounds can be entry points for disease. So those shoots had to go – I cut them back to their source.

There were other shoots growing in towards the centre of the tree. What you should be aiming for is an open shape. This lets light into the centre of the tree, which helps the fruit ripen, and allows for a good airflow through the canopy, which helps to prevent diseases. This was particularly relevant to me, as my quince suffered a bad bout of Quince leaf blight last year (Pulling Weeds Post 8/9/2017). So I cut most of the shoots that were growing inwards back to their source, opening up the canopy, and ensuring that all branches had some space around them.

Incidentally, when pruning fruit trees, you need to have an eye on the future. It isn’t quite so important for quince, which don’t tend to produce a huge harvest, but pears, and apples in particular, can be laden down with fruit, and it’s easy to underestimate just how much it will weigh down the branches. So when pruning in winter you need to think about the effect of the fruit, and whether branches will be bent down so far that they rest on the branch below, and prune to try and avoid this happening.

The next thing to consider is what’s generally known as ‘the three D’s’ – identify and cut out any wood that has signs of disease (such as canker), or is dead, or dying.

Finally, I pruned some of the rather spindly top shoots. How much you take off depends how much you want them to grow – perversely, the more you cut off, the more growth you stimulate. I really just tipped them to take off the thin, straggly ends – they should produce new, thicker shoots from the next remaining bud. Getting up to reach the top shoots can be difficult. My ladders weren’t tall enough to get me there, but I’ve found that you can grab the branch lower down and bend it down (gently – don’t risk snapping it!) until you can reach the tip.
The finished result – not a huge difference, but as I’ve said, it didn’t need that much pruning, and my general rule is that any tree that obviously looks as if it’s just been pruned is a tree that’s been pruned clumsily

My quince didn’t need a great deal of pruning, but for older trees, and particularly ones that haven’t been pruned for some years, it can be a different story. You may have to cut back large branches that are growing into the centre of the tree. If you need to reduce the size of the tree, I think it’s best to do it by cutting out some of the higher, leading branches back to their source, to maintain a natural shape, rather than lopping all of the branches to the height you want, leaving ugly stumps, which isn’t a good look. You should be aiming to shape a tree, not round it over. Bear in mind too, that if you cut fruit trees back too hard, they can respond by throwing out lots of long, straight shoots (known as water shoots) which won’t bear fruit, and which really spoil the shape of the tree. If a tree needs serious renovation to check it’s growth, then it’s best to do this gradually, over a number of seasons.
The prunings – as you can see, I didn’t need to remove a large quantity of material

One more thing to bear in mind – be careful up those ladders.

There was a young chap called Vince,
Who attempted to prune a quince.
But he dropped his saw, then fell off the ladder,
When he picked himself up you could see that he had a
Wound that would make anyone wince.

…Happy pruning!

Words and pictures copyright Graham Wright 2018

They Think It’s All Over…

…it is snow!
I’ve been gardening quite late on in the season this year, but the weekend weather could be a subtle hint from mother nature that it’s time to stop. For a few weeks now we’ve had lower temperatures than we’ve been used to before Christmas, and torrential overnight rain turned to snow on Sunday morning. Mind you, we’ve mostly got away with it here on the north banks of the Severn Estuary. It’s been bitterly cold the past few days, but the snow didn’t amount to much here, while I know of several people elsewhere in the country who have been snowed in, or stuck at an airport while the planes were grounded. Ours is an exceptionally mild part of the country. Although I do remember one winter a few years ago when we had thick snow on the ground for several weeks. And I’m wondering whether this winter is going to be a cold one too. And whether, if it is, my Australian plants are going to make it through to next spring. Continue reading

Gardens of Spain

With the summer gone, the sun ever lower in the sky, the days shortening, and our British gardens becoming ever more damp, from rain and from dew, ever more cold and forlorn, I was very fortunate to escape to Andalucia last week. Blue skies and 34 degrees centigrade really did feel like an escape.
Oranges ripening on the trees – the joys of a hot climate!
Continue reading

Autumn Gardening Tasks

It’s come round to the time of year when the lawn mower morphs from a tool for cutting grass, into a vacuum cleaner for fallen leaves.

Autumn seems to have pounced on us this year. I can trace it back to a day about a week and a half ago, when the air took on a chill, and the heavy dew on the grass lasted the whole day. The trees seemed to start turning in an instant response, with leaves colouring up and beginning to fall.

By then, the asters were barely into bud, but the sudden change seemed to kick them into action, and they’re now fully out and looking good. Asters are pretty much the last summer perennials to flower. When everything else is going over, their leaves are fresh and vital, their intricate daisy flowers in purples, blues, pinks and white, are pristine and vibrant – oases of shining beauty among a sea of decay. If you want to extend your garden’s flowering season into the autumn, you can’t do better than to plant some asters.(1)

Aster novi-belgii ‘Audrey’ – for the bad news, see note (1)

We typically think of autumn as a time of tidying and clearing up – clearing leaves, cutting back dead foliage and flower stems on perennials, pulling up spent bedding plants, taking out tomatoes and cleaning the greenhouse. But it’s also a busy time for more creative tasks. Now is the time to plant spring flowering bulbs, in pots and in the ground. Daffodils need to be planted as soon as possible, but most tulips can wait until November – in fact it’s best not to put them in the open ground until then, particularly if you have heavy soil. It’s a good idea to cover bulbs with wire mesh to stop rodents digging them up (easier to do with pots than for those planted directly into the ground).

Now is a good time to divide many perennials, although some people prefer to wait until the spring to do this, as there’s a danger that the reset plants could be killed by the cold weather. On the other hand, doing it now gives them a chance to establish a good root system, so they’re ready to get growing in the spring. And it’s easier to see what you’re dividing at this time of year, because by the end of the winter, perennials often don’t have much showing above ground.
Aster novi-belgii ‘Climax’ – again, see note (1)

And of course, autumn is a great time to plant roses, as well as most other shrubs, and trees. The soil is still warm (even if the weather isn’t) and reliably moist, giving them a chance to develop their root system so that, as for the perennials, they’re ready to start into growth the following spring. And woody plants can be bought bare-rooted, which is much cheaper than buying potted specimens – particularly relevant if you have a lot of plants to put in (say, for a deciduous hedge).

When it comes to the autumn clearing up, there are decisions to be made. Ideally, fallen leaves can be collected up and made into leaf mould. If you’ve got a lot of leaves, you can make a leaf mould bin by wrapping wire mesh around four wooden posts set out in a square. If you don’t have enough leaves for this, or anywhere to put it, you can fill a black plastic bag with leaves, tie it up, put a few holes in it with a garden fork, and leave it somewhere out of sight. Either way, you should have leaf mould by this time next year.

However, for some plants that are diseased, such as roses with black spot, apples with scab ,or quince with leaf blight, experts suggest collecting the leaves and burning them. The theory is that if you compost them, the spores of the disease may survive and re-infect the plant the following year. The problem comes where your leaves have blown about and intermingled – you can hardly sort them one by one!

The other decision is whether or not to cut back the dead foliage of perennials. Some people can’t bear to see them making the garden look untidy over the winter. Others think that they can look attractive, particularly when the frost is on them, or when they’re backlit by the winter sun. And they do provide homes for insect wildlife to spend the winter. Personally, I tend to wait until the spring to cut back the dead growth.
Canna Neubert, taken only a few days ago – who said the summer was over

(1) In what appears to be an ongoing scheme to make our lives difficult, botanists have recently re-classified some (but not all) asters, and given them the new name ‘Symphyotrichum’. Maybe they’re jealous of our ability to speak horticultural latin. Or perhaps they’re just trying to justify their own existence. It seems to be the later flowering novi-belgii group that have been renamed.


Words and pictures copyright Graham Wright 2017

If Trees Could Talk…

We’re not long into September, and I’d like to think it’s still summer, if only just. But it seems that many of the trees think otherwise. I can’t help feeling a little antagonistic towards them. It’s as if they’re trying to deprive me of what little summer is left; as if they somehow know there isn’t any more good weather to come, so they might as well get on with the autumn business of dropping their leaves. I have an instinctive sense that trees are wise, but in this case it may be less about being in touch with the rhythm of the seasons, and more about giving up regardless. If trees could talk, they’d be saying ‘we’ve had enough!’

My Quince Tree (Cydonia oblonga ‘Vranja’) has suffered a lot this year. In spring, its freshly emerged leaves were ripped to shreds by strong winds. Likewise its second growth. It’s lived through prolonged drought, excessive rain, vastly fluctuating temperatures, and now a long period of dull, humid weather. And now it’s losing its leaves at an alarming rate. Continue reading

Hedge Cutting Frenzy

The hedge cutting season is upon us. At this time of year you can swing your blades into the largest, most unruly hedge in the neighbourhood, without too much fear of disturbing nesting birds. The only problem is how to fit all that extra work into a busy gardening schedule. And with all the rain we’ve had recently, it’s not as if the grass has slowed down.
Hedge of variegated privet (Ligustrum) undergoing trimming. I find laying down plastic sheets makes clearing up easier.

In the past few weeks I’ve cut quite a few hedges. Some are more satisfying to trim than others. The laurels – common and Portuguese – tend not to look so good after cutting, as the edges of the cut leaves turn brown. They look better once they’ve grown out a bit. You can at least cut into the older wood to renovate a hedge that’s outgrown its allotted space, or grown into an undesirable shape. They may look bare for a while, but they will throw out new shoots, and look better for it. Usually. Though you can’t always be sure, particularly as there are some nasty diseases affecting laurel at the moment. Cut back beyond the layer of green growth on the outside of most conifer hedges, and they won’t grow back. One small slip with the hedge trimmer, and you’re left with a hole that can only be covered by the plant world equivalent of a comb over! Continue reading

Attack of the Killer Slugs

I’ve read that we shouldn’t be too quick to rid ourselves of all of the slugs in our gardens, because certain species predate other slugs. I’ve never really been convinced of this. Anyone who regularly goes out into their garden at night to search for (and eradicate) these slimy creatures will know that slugs will eat pretty much anything, from carrion to cat faeces. Kill a slug one night and you can almost guarantee to find three more feasting on it’s carcass the next. So while I have often seen slugs eating other slugs, I didn’t consider that to be proof of predation. Continue reading