Thursday, November 29, 2007

Out with the old...

...and in with the new. Having lost my lovely woodland garden in the hills, I've been able to say "yes" to a new client, someone who's been very patiently waiting for me for nearly a year now. So I have a new garden to look after - always exciting as you come across something you haven't dealt with before every time.

I'm starting for her regularly in the New Year, but I went in for a half-day clear-up the other day just to get a feel for the garden. My new charges this time include an unbelievable climbing rose, at least 20 years old and with a trunk the thickness of a small elephant's leg. They've had a problem with it as it was tied a bit haphazardly to the front of the house and blew off in the wind, so is now rather butchered to keep it within bounds. Time to get out my drill and vine eyes, and do a lot of persuading that this time it will work (honest, guv...)

The other large and very old shrub I'm looking forward to caring for is a Japanese quince - I'll try to take a photo of it and post it in spring, as it's the biggest Japanese quince I've ever seen, too.

I spent a while thinning it out as there was an enormous amount of dead wood in the middle - these are quite untidy shrubs when they're just left to grow, so they're usually trained to a wall, but in this case I can see why the client didn't want to as it's clearly going to be absolutely spectacular in flower. It had spread quite widely out from where it was meant to be so the clump needed reducing a bit. Hopefully though I haven't done too thorough a job, and it'll still be able to wow us all next year.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Rake's progress

My desert-island garden tool - the one I'd never be without - is of course my pair of Felco secateurs, which don't often see the toolshed as they're almost always in my back pocket.

A close second, though, has to be my bamboo spring-tined lawn rake. Now, you'd have thought a spring-tined rake with a wooden head has to be in the same category as the chocolate teapot in the ideas stakes - but actually it works beautifully.

It's not as rough as a metal spring-tined rake, so you can collect leaves from lawns without actually pulling up the lawn itself while you're at it. And you can use the flexible bamboo hooks on the ends of the tines to tease leaves out of the crowns of shrubs, where otherwise they'd form a noxious rotting mess by spring, without actually damaging the shrubs themselves at all. Plastic ones come close for effectiveness, but quite apart from the aesthetics - I do hate plastic garden tools - I've never found one that doesn't crack after a few seasons' use. Yet my humble wooden one is still going strong after seven years of hard labour.

I was given mine, and have since found that none of the main manufacturers in the UK make them - the honourable exception being JB Bentley's Traditional Tool range. I have to say though mine is a bit better looking - you can see a pic of one just like it here. It may look a bit retro, but it really is the biz.

Friday, November 16, 2007

First frost of the year

We had the first really hard frost of the year last night - down to minus 7 degrees, which is pretty low for any time of the year in this part of the world. We've had a couple of minor ground frosts in the last few weeks, but this one has really sent temperatures plummeting.

I love frosty nights, mainly because they're almost always followed by a day of glorious winter sunshine which makes the garden sparkle as if it's been dusted with diamonds. I've left as many of the seedheads on this year as I felt I could, and it's in these conditions that they really reward you for it: the ones in the picture are Helenium "Moorheim Beauty", which were beginning to go a bit soggy and brown but have been transformed this morning by their frosting of mini-icicles.

Leaving seedheads on à la Piet Oudolf can be a bit hit-and-miss, I find. Some are strong enough to cope, but others (even ones Mr Oudolf recommends) collapse very quickly into a rather uninspiring mass of damp bobbles. A client of mine has an otherwise lovely clump of Rudbeckia, which are supposed to stand most of the winter, but despite my exhortations to last at least until Christmas I think I'm going to have to tidy them up in a week or so as they look just awful at the moment.

The lovely fluffy puffballs that adorn my cardoons (Cynara cardunculus) on the other hand have been wonderful - the birds think so, too, as everything from great tits to starlings have been tugging great clumps of fluff out of them to line their winter quarters with. I've got another flock of bluetits which have been stripping the seeds off the Stipa gigantea (which has been truly gorgeous this year - you can see why everyone raves about this fabulous grass). They also perch precariously on the wildly-waving bobbles of Verbena bonariensis to feast on the seeds inside: now this is one plant which stands bravely no matter what the weather, though I think mine are about to lose their heads if the birds carry on the way they are. It may be winter, but it's not boring.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Autumn mulching

At this time of year I get nothing short of obsessed by leaves. And I don't mean just the lovely autumn colours - and this is a particularly lovely autumn, with oranges, reds, yellows and golds gleaming in the sunshine.

Leaves are my no.l free resource in the garden, and I'm constantly amazed how many people still pile 'em up and burn 'em. Leafmould might take a couple of years to rot down - but all the best things come to those who wait, and when you unwrap that old leafmould bin that's been sitting in the corner of your garden doing nothing for I don't know how long, you remember why you did it.

I've been doing just that this week in my garden, with a bin I've had stewing now since 2005, and my goodness it's beautiful stuff. Dark, crumbly, and smelling of the forest floor.

Leafmould is a low-nutrient organic matter, which means you can safely use it at this time of year without worrying about stimulating plants into new growth just as the frosts arrive. You can mix it in with compost and sand to make a home-made potting mix, but I find that all a bit fiddly (even though it does save lots of money). I prefer just to use leafmould as an autumn mulch, tucking in my plants for the winter and keeping any stray annual weeds at bay (yes they do keep germinating even through the coldest months of the year). As well as looking great, it'll be pulled down into the soil by the worms and bulk out my sandy loam - so it can hold in moisture more efficiently next summer, too. And people burn this stuff?!
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