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

Caligularia dentata

This beautiful yellow daisy, with visiting bee, is a Ligularia – Ligularia dentata ‘Midnight Lady’. I’m not great at remembering latin names, so I like to use associations as prompts. My way of remembering this one is to think of the infamous Roman emperor. Unlike Caligula, Ligularia is thoroughly principled (despite the ‘Midnight Lady’ moniker).

I read somewhere that ligularia is grown more for its leaves than for its flowers, which appear quite late in the summer (these have only just come out).The foliage is impressive – large, heart-shaped and dark (darker still on the undersides) – but as you can see from these pictures, the flowers are well worth waiting for. Ligularias like plenty of moisture (the RHS say ‘moist but well-drained’, but then, they say that for everything). Like hostas, they’re recommended for water-side locations, but as for hostas, they are fine in a border; though they can sulk a bit during dry spells. And they’re martyrs to slugs and snails; as you can see from the picture below.

It’s a shame to see those fabulous, lush leaves unfurl, only to be lacerated by molluscs. This plant is by a pond, but unlike the hostas, doesn’t seem to be protected by the resident frogs. At some point during mid-summer Midnight Lady gives up the battle and learns to live with her tattered clothing; a sorry, defeated character. Or so it would seem. In fact, she’s conjuring up a spell, raising candles into the firmament. When those brilliant orange-yellow blooms appear, even on the darkest day, it’s as though the sun has come out.

Words & images © Graham Wright 2019

Recyclable plant pots

It took governments and businesses a very long time to wake up to the environmental damage caused by plastic. And it seems to be taking them just as long to get off their proverbial backsides and do something about it. It’s good that nurseries are beginning to move to recyclable pots. I could say I’m not convinced this is quite the clever environmental ‘fix’ it’s been sold as. But what I’m really wondering is: am I alone in the universe?

The quote below, from the Horticultural Trades Association, might give you the idea that this is old news. But bear in mind that today, more than a year after this report, most of the pots I see in garden centres are still the old, supposedly non-recyclable black ones:

The HTA (Horticultural Trades Association) reported that; “On Thursday 19th July 2018 a group of leading HTA grower members met to discuss the issue of the garden industries reliance on single-use black plastic pots, that can’t currently be recycled, with the aim of agreeing to move to a new alternative as soon as possible that can be widely recycled through kerbside recycling schemes.
A taupe-coloured polypropylene pot was selected by the group as being capable of recycling through current UK kerbside recycling systems and easily identifiable by consumers.”

The reality of the situation becomes apparent when you discover that to say the current pots can’t be recycled is at best misrepresentation. The problem isn’t that they can’t be recycled (they can) but that the optical readers in the machines that sort materials can’t sense black plastic. There have actually been schemes around to recycle these pots for some time, but they have to be collected separately, and while some garden centres and nurseries have made the effort to do this, the industry as a whole, and government too, weren’t prepared to put in the extra effort required.

It gets worse when you consider what the HTA calls ‘the garden industries reliance on single-use black plastic pots‘. As if they were only using black plastic pots because they had no alternative – as if the poor dears were desperately waiting for science to come up with an alternative. And finally, those clever scientists came up trumps with the ‘taupe’ (basically a rather dull beige) pot. But the reality is that the industry has been using plastic pots in a whole range of colours for as long as I can remember. Particularly prevalent is the terracotta coloured plastic that attempts to replicate old-fashioned terracotta pots. All of the ones I have in my extensive collection of so-called single use plastic pots (which I reuse over and over again), except for the very oldest, have the recycling symbol on the base.

So, to recap:

– The garden industry, for reasons known only to them (but most probably because they didn’t give the idea of recycling any consideration) has for years been using plastic pots that are difficult to recycle.

– Having chosen pots that are difficult to recycle, the industry largely wasn’t prepared to put in the effort to recycle them.

– It appears that, having been found out, the industry then concocted a publicity campaign to try and convince everyone that they had no alternative; that recyclable plastic pots weren’t available (even though we all know that they were). This yarn was spun out still further with the pretence that our heroic industry had actually created an all-new type of pot that could be recycled, because they love the environment more than their profits (though curiously, these new magic pots don’t seem to have been widely adopted by the industry).

Of course, we’re not daft enough to be taken in by this. Are we? Are we? It seems like the media (including the dear old BBC) has swallowed it hook, line and sinker.

Maybe I’m missing something. Or perhaps I really am alone in the universe…

text & images © Graham Wright 2019

Geraniums – Old or New?

Geranium ‘Rozanne’ was voted plant of the century at the 2013 RHS Chelsea flower show. Which seemed somewhat premature, considering there was another 87 years of the century yet to come.

Geranium ‘Rozanne’ – lauder by the horticultural elite

Why was Rozanne so successful? Traditional blue perennial geraniums, such as Johnson’s Blue (Geranium x johnsonii ‘Johnson’s Blue’) flower prolifically for a period in June, and then are over, leaving just the leaves (which generally then become tatty, and often diseased). Rozanne was a new variety that flowered continuously through most of the summer. Which sounds perfect. But having grown this modern variety for a few years, I think I prefer the older varieties. Why? Well, Rozanne may flower continuously, but it doesn’t flower consistently. After the first flush, the blooms keep coming, but there are less of them, and the plant becomes straggly and tatty. It’s one of those situations where you know you should really cut the plants back, but it seems a shame to forgo the few flowers that are still appearing. The older varieties don’t give you that dilemma. They flower once, and then you know there won’t be anymore. However, they bloom with more intensity. While they’re doing their thing they have more flowers and are more impressive. And if you cut the foliage right back after flowering, they produce a new flush of fresh foliage, and will often flower again too.  

An unknown older variety, courtesy of one of my customers. I wouldn’t like to speculate on the actual variety, but it’s similar to ‘Johnson’s Blue, which I’ve grown before. Thriving, despite being in a not entirely appropriate situation. In my customer’s garden it looks spectacular.

For Rozanne, Crocus say ‘In midsummer, rejuvenate plants that are beginning to look jaded by removing old flowered stems and leaves.’ So basically; cut them back as you would the old varieties, to promote new leaves and (hopefully) flowers. In which case the only difference is that with Rozanne (as well as some of the other new varieties), if you don’t get around to cutting them back, you’ll still be getting a few flowers on the straggly growth that remains.

This year, in my garden, Rozanne formed a mound nearly a metre high, and then flopped to a sprawling mess once the rains came; all before producing a single flower. Add to that the fact that I’m not so keen on the foliage, which is rather an odd shade of green with an unattractive mottling, and I think I’ll be going back to the old varieties. Johnson’s Blue was popular for a reason.

Text & images copyright Graham Wright 2019

Palm Springs – Presidential Hospitality, and being scalped by Indians

The presidential hospitality came from the Annenbergs’ Sunnylands estate, which has hosted summits between American presidents and other world leaders. More of that later. The less than hospitable welcome came on our visit to reservation land on the edge of Palm Springs. OK, so we weren’t actually scalped – I was using poetic licence. Although our supply of cash took a significant haircut.

I was actually nervous about using the term ‘Indian’, as I’ve been told it isn’t politically correct. But it’s used on the website of the ‘Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians’, so I guess I shouldn’t get into hot water. Just as well, as the reference to all those old (politically incorrect) Westerns wouldn’t have worked as well with ‘Indigenous Americans’ or ‘First Nations people’.

So what’s my gripe with the indigenous peoples of the Palm Springs environs? Well, being keen walkers, when in Palm Springs last month we were keen to do a hike (as our American cousins call any walks that involve anything other than smooth tarmac). We selected a trail a short distance out of town, up Mount San Jacinto. Unfortunately, due to rain the previous night (how unlucky were we – it hardly ever rains in Palm Springs!) that trail was temporarily closed. We were directed to another, which was still open.

We parked the car, and then headed up to the start of the walk (hike), where we had to join a queue. For a walk! (I mean hike). I don’t think I’ve ever had to do that before. We queued for 20 minutes to get to the counter, where we had to pay a fee. To do a walk! (I mean hike). The fee for the one we’d planned to do was $8. For this one, it was $12.50 each. For a walk! (I mean hike). Eventually, we got to walk (I mean hike) the trail. All 1.5km of it (I believe that was there and back). It was a nice little walk, up to a nice little waterfall. Except, it was like Oxford Street on a Saturday morning. So we queued for 20 minutes, and payed 50 bucks, all for the privilege of a 30 minute walk (I mean hike!) through crowds of people.

Now, I have two problems with this. The first is the price. I understand that walking (I mean hiking… sorry – is this becoming annoying?) trails need to be maintained. But how much work is involved in cutting back a few branches or consolidating an eroded path now and then? For not too much more than what we paid, in the UK you can spend the whole day at Chatsworth, looking around the huge mansion, finely manicured gardens, and large areas of parkland. Imagine how much all that must cost to maintain – you can really see what your entry fee is paying for.

The second problem is more to do with freedom – the basic human right to exist. Centuries ago, in the UK, there was such a thing as common land. And then the enclosures began, and the wealthy annexed the land and denied access to the common people. Later, in the 20th century, we finally won the ‘right to roam’. It doesn’t get us in everywhere, and most of the land is still owned by a few wealthy individuals (apparently half of England is owned by 1% of the population), but there are large areas of what we call wild land (even though it isn’t truly wild) where we can pretty much roam freely.

There’s a principle here, espoused by people such as Marion Shoard, in her book ‘This Land is Our Land’; that the countryside shouldn’t be fenced off from the people. We shouldn’t be restricted to towns and cities, and to the narrow corridors of tarmac that join them, just because we aren’t fortunate enough to have been born into the right family, or to have made a fortune. We’re free-born animals, and we should have the freedom to move about freely in the natural environment. To quote Billy Bragg: ‘this land was made a common treasury for everyone to share’ (I take issue with the word’ made’, but I appreciate the sentiment). This land is our land!

You’ll say, of course, that I was only a visitor, that it isn’t actually my land, because I don’t live there. But those who do live there have to pay too. And in what kind of a land is it customary to fleece (or scalp – I’m mixing my metaphors) visitors, rather than offer them hospitality? And in any case, aren’t we all citizens of the world?

Now, I know that their ancestors were violently displaced by invading Europeans. But I’d say that what happened in the past, many generations ago between ancestors of different sets of people to whom I have no relation, isn’t my responsibility. I’m more interested in the here and now. Wherever you are in the world, whatever your ancestry, it’s the poor who are denied opportunity. Always. To me, it doesn’t make any difference who owns a tract of land. It might be someone who received it, down the line, from a distant bloodthirsty ancestor who invaded a country and took it by force (such as the Duke of Westminster). It might be owned by someone who made a fortune through their own business activities, or those of their ancestors, whether from coal, steel, or slavery, and who used it to take possession of the countryside. Or it might be a group who claim possession by virtue of the fact that their ancestors once lived there, before being displaced and treated most cruelly. Whoever they are, and however they came by the land, if they deny access to open countryside, or demand a fee for access (particularly such a high one) then they’re tyrants who are denying the common people a basic human right.

All that land sitting there doing nothing, and they only give us access to a few short trails, and charge us a fortune for the privilege! Reading between the lines, I get the impression that if you know your way around you can find trails to walk without having to pay. But in Donald Trump’s ‘we don’t dial 911’ USA, poking around where you might not be welcome could be a dangerous business. As a visitor, I suppose you could say it comes down to hospitality. The mean-spirited hospitality of the Agua Calientes can be contrasted with the generosity of the Annenberg family, who own the Sunnylands estate in Palm Springs. I’ll tell you about my visit there in my next post, for which I promise lots of beautiful photographs, and far fewer words…

The waterfall and pool – heavily cropped to avoid the large crowd of people gathered around the waters edge.

text and photographs © Graham Wright (although the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians will probably expect royalties)

Slugs on the March

It’s easy to imagine that what’s left of the slug and snail population, having been decimated by the cold and the frost, is holed up somewhere, sitting it out until spring. It’s tempting to think we can sit back and relax for now, secure in the knowledge that our emerging plants are safe from attack. Tempting, but sadly mistaken. I don’t know how they do it, but the little blighters seem able to take anything the weather can throw at them. And on any mild night, while we stay indoors wallowing in complacency, an army of molluscs sets out to graze on our plants. The new shoots of perennials are particularly at risk. Now is the time to wage brutal war on slugs and snails, before they start breeding in earnest [1.]and the population gets out of control.

With this in mind, I put out slug traps the other day. I should have got out to do it earlier, because there’s quite a lot of damage. Sometimes slug and snails are so quick to eat the shoots of perennials that you never see them coming through. It gets later and later, and still a plant isn’t shooting. It’s then you realise the plant has been trying, but its shoots are being grazed off almost before they are visible. That kind of treatment can seriously set back or even kill a plant.

You can see from the photo that my beer traps have ensnared large quantities of slugs. At this time of year the really large slugs don’t seem to be very active, but the small ones can be equally damaging – below ground, where they munch on roots, as well as above. I use beer traps because it’s a safe, environmentally friendly method. Despite the brave talk of waging war, I actually don’t like killing these creatures. But it’s them or the plants, and as a gardener, the plants are my responsibility. At least the slugs die happy this way!

On a cheerier note, the hyacinths that had been over-wintering outside have now really come good. We put them into a slightly larger pot, with some fresh compost, in December. These were bought as forced bulbs, to be brought into flower indoors in Xmas 2017. I’ve decided they’re better grown outdoors. The flowers might not be quite as showy, but they’re still good. And it’s a lot less hassle than keeping them in a dark place for a prescribed time, taking them out and putting them somewhere cool, before moving them to where you actually want them… and finding the flower spikes flop about and need supporting… and they don’t last very long… and when they start to go off, that lovely fragrance starts to turn a bit nasty…

  1. …reminds me of the joke about the two worms, who were making love in dead Ernest.

Text and images © Graham Wright 2019