Wednesday, December 19, 2007

On the vine

Ornamental grapevines are among the loveliest climbers you can plant. There's something so luxurious about those sculptural leaves draping themselves elegantly over balconies or walls. The grapes themselves aren't much to write home about: they're edible, but quite "pippy" so a novelty rather than a delicacy. But if you choose one of the ones with spectacular autumn colour, like Brandt, you'll be rewarded with wine-dark leaves which glow in low sunshine before tumbling to the floor to be used, pressed flat, in children's autumn collages.

One of my clients has a (non-specific variety) grapevine trained around a double patio window at the back of her house, which is a lovely way of using them as it frames the otherwise rather harsh contours of the window quite nicely. I was out pruning it yesterday: another of the lovely things about grapevines is that they're simplicity itself to prune (I'm talking here about ornamental pruning, where you're not so fussed about the size of your grapes - edible grape pruning is a science in itself, and though I plan to master it some day, it won't be today.)

This is one of the few pruning tasks which you have to complete at the right time. Leave it till much after Christmas and the sap will start rising again - meaning every cut you make will bleed profusely, weakening the plant badly and in a bad case even killing it. I try to prune ornamental grapevines in early December, though it can slip till the end of January in a cold year and you'll be fine.

Then you just work your way along each main stem and take back sideshoots to 2-3 buds. And... er... that's it! You can tip out the main stem too if it's grown as big as you want it (just take it back to about 3" before where last year's brown wood changes to this year's green new growth). It's so satisfying, and the grapevine looks very sculptural after you've finished - if you're feeling festive, hang some baubles or tinsel off it for an instant outdoor Christmas decoration!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Keeping trees in check

I spent a happy hour or two with the chainsaw the other day, converting an ill-advised pollard into a coppice in a client's garden.

The difference between pollarding and coppicing is pretty straightforward, though people tend to get a bit confused in a "stalactites and stalagmites" sort of way. Pollarding is when you allow the tree to develop a single trunk, and then when it's got to the height you want, you cut the leader to that point and allow it to grow new shoots from there. It's good if you want to limit the height of a tree yet allow it to provide some screening too.

Another client has a row of pollarded lime trees growing right the way along the length of her garden: very elegant, and with a little judicious pruning of the inevitable wispy sideshoots that sprout from the trunk from time to time, it's easy to keep them good-looking all year round. Willow also makes a good pollard: a local willow producer grows pollarded willows all along the streams in the field behind his house and harvests the stems each winter for use in basket-weaving.

It doesn't work for all trees, though. The client I visited the other day had tried to pollard a hazel tree, which doesn't lend itself to the process well at all. Hazels sprout like crazy from all up the trunk and from the base as well as soon as you try to limit their growth, meaning you quickly get not an elegant column but more of a bizarre upright hedge effect. In this particular case, the client had allowed one or two of these shoots to develop and pollarded those too, so you ended up with a multi-stemmed pollard, complete with wild beardy clumps on the trunks, if you can imagine such a thing: not a pretty sight.

With hazels it's much better to exploit the naturally multi-stemmed habit and coppice them. This involves cutting the whole tree down to about 6" above ground, which looks drastic, but then next spring it produces a lovely spray of even, whippy shoots to the same height all round, giving a shapely shrub-like effect. You allow this to grow on for 2-3 years, and then do it all over again (and use the wonderful straight stems for beanpoles while you're at it). An alternative, if you don't fancy losing your hazel completely every 3 years, is to take out a third of the stems each year - choose the thickest or any which cross other stems or grow in the wrong direction. That way every three years you'll have rejuvenated the whole coppice anyway.

The coppicing technique can be used to keep otherwise wayward trees like eucalyptus in check (the young leaves it produces when treated this way are fabulous too). And if you coppice willow and dogwood, you'll make the most of the vibrant coloured stems they produce in winter. Pretty and practical, too!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Cruelty to plants

Look what I discovered when I was clearing a neglected bit of shrubbery at a client's garden the other day.

Now, call me soppy, but I really wince when I see plants in pain like this. What's happened is that a little sapling of some pretty little ornamental tree has been planted and then, quite correctly, supported with a stake and a proper tree tie.

Trouble is, nobody came back to visit it. For years, from the looks of the poor thing. It was half the size it should have been, and then there's that awful scar.... Well, I had great pleasure from tearing out that tree tie from the groove it had gouged in the bark, and imagining the sap rising at last (well, next spring anyway) free from such terrible restrictions.

So let this be a lesson to us all: go and check your tree ties! Loosen them gradually if they need it, though trees shouldn't need supporting after the first two or three years so you can take them right off (and remove the stake) after this length of time. Your trees will thank you.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Plant of the month - November

Cynara cardunculus


In the depths of winter when there's little else to entertain, this is a marvellous change from the usual evergreen blobs. Massive architectural stems hold aloft these sculptural pincushions right through the worst of the weather. Even better are the downy tufts of golden fluff that sit inside, adored by the birds for winter nest material, and beautiful when the sun catches them, too. They're mostly gone by this time of year - though you can see some of the effect here:

As you can see, the resident flock of bluetits (and sparrows, and starlings, and robins...) have had their chunk, but isn't that butterscotch yellow gorgeous against a blue winter sky?

As if all that wasn't enough, cardoons hold a rosette of serrated, sword-shaped slate-green leaves at the base all winter, which then develop into even more stately beauty next year. I love cardoons at any time, but now they take centre stage and I appreciate them more than any other plant in the garden. You can't ask for more than that.

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