Sunday, 16 December 2012

A few words about my chopper (ladies need not avert their gaze)

In the same way that gardeners exchange notes about plants that perform well, there is also a friendly exchange of information about good tools. Gardeners love a good gadget or trick, whether it's a domestic size rotavator to help dig the vegetable bed, or something as simple as keeping your ball of string in a tin can (just punch a hole in the side for the string to stick out and it won't get tangled up).

A few years ago I bought a sinister looking thing from my local farm and smallholding store. Made by Morris of Dunsford (Devon), this goes by various names according to local modifications- it's best known as a slasher.
This is essentially a chunky grass hook on a pole and is effective in clearing scrub (brambles, nettles, thin saplings etc). It is light and easy to use, as well as turning heads when you're seen with it! Why would anyone in their right mind choose an old fashioned tool over a modern brush-cutter?
  • Cost- a petrol brush-cutter will cost you £100+, but you can buy a brand new slasher for less than £50.
  • Weight- a petrol brush-cutter is heavy and needs harnesses for safe and comfortable use, whereas this tool can be carried and used with only one hand.
  • Other bits and bobs- a petrol brush-cutter needs fuel, oil and a mountain of safety kit to operate safely, but all the slasher needs is a sharpening stone (which is small and easily portable) and possibly an occasional squirt of WD-40 to protect the blade.
Any tool you use has an element of danger in it- just ask anyone who's hit their hand when using a hammer! Safe operation is key, but operating powered tools does carry more risk than hand tools; although your chances of having an accident aren't much greater there is a greater chance of having a serious accident with a powered tool. Hit a stone with a petrol brush-cutter and the stone will fire off and possibly hit something (or will damage the blades), but hit a stone with a slasher and you'll just hear a 'dink' of metal on stone.
To operate a petrol brush-cutter you must wear face protection, as well as ear defenders, heavy duty gloves, harnesses etc. You can use a slasher with none of these safeguards, and merrily wage war on heavy duty weeds while listening to the birds singing, holding a conversation... 

Do not wear gloves when using a slasher! You must have a good grip on the handle while you're slashing at weeds and gloves won't give you enough grip- instead use your bare hands, and when you buy your slasher your must first take a piece of coarse sandpaper and roughen the handle.

This is a tricky one to look at when comparing the two tools. On the one hand your slasher will need sharpening while you're using it (very good opportunity to take stock of progress etc), but then a petrol brush-cutter will need to cool down and be refuelled from time to time. In terms of actually making progress a brush-cutter will make faster progress on a patch where the stems aren't too tangled up, and on an area where you don't have to work around plants/obstacles or on uneven ground, but where the scrub is established and the conditions underfoot are less than ideal, the slasher has the advantage; you can reach in under the brambles to hack their stems near ground level and then wrap the stems around the slasher and pull them out, all the time keeping your hands away from the thorns thanks to the long pole. If you have a pitchfork with you then this will help even more- you can wrap more brambles around it, as well as rake up prickly debris.

Which is better?
Well probably the slasher, for the following reasons:
  • Price (you'll need to cover a lot of ground before a petrol brush-cutter pays for itself)
  • Easy of use- both in terms of weight and manoeuvrability, and portability
  • Better for the environment- as well as not causing a noise nuisance, the slasher is a long lasting metal head on a wooden pole; if the pole breaks, fit another one. If a brush-cutter breaks down and can't be fixed economically it will have to be scrapped. Also the slasher does not need to burn fossil fuels to operate. 
In conclusion 
Buy this tool. For all but the biggest clearance jobs this tool will serve you well. It's enjoyable to use, and being able clear an area without the noise of an engine or being weighted down with safety kit is liberating. I'll be honest, it looks good too; either in the potting shed or out at work, you will admire this tool for it's rustic good looks and it's ability to get the job done with no fuss. Now, I'm off to find more brambles!

Friday, 16 November 2012

Forever autumn

"The summer sun is fading as the year grows old, and darker days are drawing near. The winter winds will be much colder, now you're not here...." Jeff Wayne, Forever Autumn (from The War of The Worlds), sung by Justin Hayward.

Autumn brings really mixed feelings- the days are definitely shorter and winter's 'dead' season is on it's way, but the autumn colours are so strong in that peculiar lazy light that we get at the end of the year. Autumn is known for it's golds, russets, ambers and reds, but don't think that this is the only group of colours to enjoy- make sure you add pinks, whites and reds to your garden in autumn too!

Camellias are well known for their bold and garish displays in spring, bringing shocking pinks, hot reds and crisp whites into the garden after the greys and browns of winter, but the autumn flowering species and varieties are still all to often overlooked.

The best known of the autumn Camellias are the varieties of Camellia sasanqua, and 'Narumigata' is a very fine choice, being fairly easy going and very happy to flower. Gardeners less than content growing the 'common' varieties can delight themselves with any of the 70-or-so varieties of Camellia sasanqua in cultivation in the UK (certainly as listed by the RHS Plantfinder).
Camellia sasanqua 'Narumigata
C. sasanqua 'Baronesa de Sautelinho'
The crisp white flowers of the sasanqua 'Baronesa de Sautelinho' are a delight; not very big, but each one is perfectly formed. 'Hugh Evans' has a large, more open pink flower.
Camellia sasanqua 'Hugh Evans'
Camellia sasanqua 'Cotton Candy'
Camellia sasanqua 'Cotton Candy' is a superb variety, similar to 'Hugh Evans' but certainly a more sought after variety- the flowers are sublime. C. sasanqua 'Rosea Plena' is unusual for it's double flowers and is well worth growing- a nod to the showy varieties seen in spring.
Camellia sasanqua 'Rosea Plena'
In recent years a new series of Camellias has been introduced from Australia, the 'Paradise Series'. Bred by the Paradise Plants Wholesale Nursery, these varieties have been selected to be either smaller growing (so suitable for smaller gardens) or larger and more vigorous to form screens and hedges (Camellia sasanqua hedges are popular in Australia but are largely untried in the UK, where growing habits can be quite different). Here are just a few Paradise Series Camellias:
'Paradise Glow'- vigorous upright variety
'Paradise Hilda'- vigorous upright variety
'Paradise Joan'- vigorous upright, early to flower/long season
'Paradise Vanessa'- vigorous upright variety
Camellia x vernalis is not as well known. A complex hybrid between C. sasanqua and C. japonica, this small group of autumn/winter flowering varieties contains one of the most eagerly sought of the late-season varieties, C. x vernalis 'Yuletide'.
Camellia x vernalis 'Yuletide'- one to seek!
With flowers of rich red and a boss of golden yellow stamens and backed by dark green leaves, 'Yuletide' certainly has a festive colour scheme. Seemingly no more difficult to grow than Camellia sasanqua varieties, and in a sheltered spot you might even see flowers at Christmas! 

The autumn flowering Camellias all benefit from a site in the garden where sunshine can ripen their wood before winter. Apart from that, site your Camellia out of morning sun in cold areas (early morning sun can damage frosted flowers and flower buds), and somewhere where you can enjoy their scent without having to wade through mud. There is some evidence that young plants of the autumn flowering Camellias don't appreciate too much feeding, so unless your soil is very poor it is probably wise to withhold fertiliser when planting. 
Oh, and just when you were confident about classifying autumn flowering Camellias as C. sasanqua or x vernalis varieties, here's Camellia 'November Pink', and autumn flowering variety of the almost exclusively spring flowering Camellia x williamsii varieties!
The odd one out- Camellia x williamsii 'November Pink'
Want to see more Camellia varieties? These pictures have all been graciously loaned by Jim's Camellias (so please don't steal them!). Click on the link to admire the diversity of Camellia blooms in cultivation, and maybe see a must-have variety. With so many different forms in a range of colours there is surely a Camellia for everyone...? Maybe you're convinced already and want to buy some new varieties for your garden... try here.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Rest in peace, dear friend

I was digging and splitting a huge Leucanthemum for my neighbour this afternoon. The whole thing must have been a good 4ft in diameter, and had been in for some time. The fact is that it did not want to move.

I didn't want to have to walk back to my van and get my heavy drain cutting spade and I thought I'd be OK using a combination of fork, spade and hard graft to get the monstrous thing out... until I heard a loud crack.

So my good trusty garden fork has fallen to the mighty Leucanthemum. I know that wooden handles are not the best for heavy work, but I will admit that I much prefer the feel of them, so I will replace this fork with another of the same type, but bearing in mind that the next one will also not be indestructible.

However all is not lost- I found that the metal end of the fork makes an excellent extra large hand fork for loosening soil under weeds, so at least there is a new life to come for my trusty border fork!

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Great Expectations

I work in a nursery in fairly rural location... picture the scene; I get a call to help a lady with an enquiry. The lady is looking for a climber for a north facing wall. Already the lady has found the evergreen climbing Hydrangea seemanii (which would be one of my suggestions) so this looks straightforward. It is then that the customer announces that the north wall is on a house 800m above sea level in the south west of France!

Initially I was quite taken aback- why ask for this kind of advice in a small nursery in a different country?! After a few seconds contemplation the realisation kicked in that this customer was waiting for an answer.

Somehow I managed not to look flustered at this unusual enquiry, and quite rightly so as this enquiry was actually no different from any other that I might answer during the course of the day. Every garden is different, and the growing conditions can vary even on opposite sides of a wall or fence, so asking questions is an important part of making sure that the advice you give to customers is the best possible. There are, however, difficulties when a gardener doesn't actually know what their conditions are... especially when the garden is in a different country! Still, advice was given, and the customer left happy.

All in a day's work.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Money money money, definitely not funny...

Working in the horticultural industry brings many rewards while at the same time can bring misery and uncertainty for those who work in it's various areas. Working with an enormous range of plants and in the open air is fantastic, even in the depths of winter when it's freezing cold or p*ss*ing it down. Likewise you get to enjoy working with a wide range of people from different walks of life, and indulge your areas of interest, whether it be the most complicated end of natural sciences or just the simple day-to-day logistics of running a garden or nursery/garden centre. Each day brings it's own rewards.

Horticulture also has it's downside; wages are poor and everywhere you turn you are looked upon as someone who has gone into horticulture because you are too stupid to do anything else. Once you get into horticulture you realise that it is challenging and requires great skill, but try explaining that to someone on the outside who sees manual work as degrading....

The impression of horticulture must be changed, and to do that we must all make every effort to show off our skills- maybe then we will be taken seriously?

The issue of wages is a more difficult one. Much like the food in supermarkets people do feel that plants have no real value. A cutting from a plant hasn't cost anything, a big bag of compost costs just a few pounds, so why should plants be more than a few pounds to buy? This has bred a 'bargain basement' culture in horticulture, where products and services have to be offered and rock-bottom prices to grab the customer's attention. You can offer plants at low cost by cutting production costs and growing more solidly reliable plants (which are less likely to suffer losses during the production cycle). By cutting back on costs nurseries will offer a smaller and smaller range of plants at ever poorer quality until they go out of business. This would be a disaster to the consumer, who would lose out on the enormous range of quality plants available in UK nurseries.

One of the biggest costs in horticulture is the people looking after the plants. These people are needed to care for plants at every point from young 'liner' plant up to saleable size, to make sure that each plant is given sufficient water and feed, as well as suitable trimming and weeding to make each plant the best quality possible. Nonetheless skilled workers are finding horticulture less and less viable financially each year. If horticultural staff moved on and worked in other industries for the better wages the horticulture industry would collapse very quickly, putting hobby gardeners and anyone who values our nation's parks and public gardens at great disadvantage.

For anyone in horticulture who gets into serious financial trouble there is help from the charity Perennial. Perennial provides free and confidential help for gardeners to sort out their finances, avoid getting into debt and generally get into a better position so they can practice their vocation to the best of their abilities. All this work needs support, and it is with this in mind that one man is undertaking a rather unusual challenge.

Phil Voice, founder of the Landscape Juice Network, is driving from deepest France to John O'Groats... on a ride-on lawnmower! Phil is hoping that the 1,250 mile trip will raise £10,000 for Perennial, so that it can continue to do it's valued work, especially needed during these times of financial uncertainty. Please donate any money that you can spare- let's help Phil reach (or even exceed) his target! For more information:

Wages must improve. The Government recently released the results of a study that said that in order to have a reasonable quality of life each person should earn around £20,000 a year. In horticulture people who earn £15,000 a year consider themselves lucky. The cost of living is going up, horticultural wages will probably stay the same.

So what can you do to help? Buy plants! Visit gardens! I'm not saying that you need to set a spending target, or you must spend money you really don't have, but if you do have a space in the garden then please do buy a plant. At least if you buy a hardy tree, shrub or perennial you can be assured of two things; that you are buying a plant that will last, and you are investing in the future of a very worthwhile industry.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Winter is coming- time to get planting!

For many gardeners autumn is time to wind things down in the garden. As the borders finish their displays and the fruits are all gathered from the trees and bushes the only thing left to do is catch some seeds as they fall and generally clean and tidy everywhere in time for the long dark winter. 
C/W from top left: Oxydrendrum arboreum, Cornus kousa 'Satomi', Acer rubrum 'Armstrong'
The garden itself is making quite a display; the display from summer's perennial plants is replaced by the pinks and purples of those stalwarts of then autumn border, the asters, or the long spires of colour provided by Persicarias, all to the backdrop of fiery reds, oranges and yellows in the autumn display of the deciduous trees. Ornamental grasses are going to seed, sometimes exchanging their more subtle flower heads for bold and long lasting seed heads; with good luck and no damaging autumn winds these will be decorative well into winter. There's a lot still happening in the garden, but certainly the feelings of most gardeners is that everything is drawing to a close.
Strobilanthes wallichii- a little-known but wonderful autumn flowering perennial
It didn't used to be this way- our horticultural ancestors had everything worked out just right. We rush around trying to plan, propagate and plant the garden in spring, where previous generations concentrated on sowing seeds for the year ahead and helping the plants as they emerge after the long dark winter. OK, if you raze your borders to the ground as was traditional practice you do lose the skeletons of the previous season picked out in dew and frost, but if you are not careful (or are unlucky with late winter/early spring weather) you will end up tidying the border at the point when there is too much else to do. Time is precious, so why try to do everything in spring?

Probably until the last 15-20 years it was practice to plan your garden in summer, get new borders and places for trees and shrubs prepared in late summer when the weather is fine for doing heavy work, and then plant in autumn. Spreading the gardener's workload through the year made sense then and it still makes sense now, especially with busy modern lifestyles.

There are advantages of planting in the autumn instead of the spring:
  1. The nurseries are often still potting most of their plants in spring, so a plant bought in autumn will be better established than a plant bought in early summer, having had lots more time on the nursery.
  2. Plants planted when they are going into dormancy are less likely to suffer from disturbance to their roots than plants planted in spring (when the plant is in full growth); this is very important with trees and shrubs but also applies to perennials.
  3. As your new plants are going into the ground after the [theoretically] dry summer they are less reliant on you for watering, saving you time and money irrigating your borders. This also means that you don't have to worry about watering your new plantings if you go on holiday.
  4. You can spend spring and summer visiting gardens, gathering ideas and sourcing plants in time for autumn planting.
  5. You are less likely to be duped into buying gorgeous plants forced into growth early in spring to satisfy garden centre demand which then suffer (or sometimes die) when they are put out in the garden. Also soft growth is more likely to be damaged by a late frost.
Cornus kousa 'China Girl'- not all autumn fruits have to be edible to earn their place
If you are buying more unusual fruit trees and soft fruits from a specialist you may still have to wait until the plants are lifted from the fields in autumn before you can plant them. Often fruit nurseries (and sometimes ornamental growers) will supply fruit 'bare rooted', meaning that the plants are grown out in fields and only lifted when their leaves have fallen. The plant is then sold to the customer with it's roots wrapped up rather than potted in compost. This has several advantages for the customer in that the plants have been grown in soil which is less likely to fall foul of the vagaries of irrigation than plants in pots, and allows a good strong root system to develop because it is not being contained. Add to this that the trees establish more quickly if planted after their leaves have dropped... just remember to give the tree a good solid stake and a strong tie to support it during winter storms.

Consumers demand their plants to be available in perfect 'in full growth' condition all year round, but it just doesn't work like that. The number of times I have been asked for bare rooted fruit trees in June, only to be told by the angry customer that if we can't supply them when he/she wants them then someone else will be happy to oblige. Good luck to them!

By gardening more in time with the rhythms and cycles of the seasons we will be much more successful in our endeavours- nature is a powerful thing, and a gardener will be much better off working with nature than working against her.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Opinion- Garden makeover shows

I thought the concept of the 'garden makeover' TV show was dead. 

It seemed that the hit BBC TV gardening show Ground Force, presented by Alan Titchmarsh, Charlie Dimmock and Tommy Walsh, had created the perfect concept and then flogged it to death. Ground Force was the garden makeover show.

If you are not familiar with the concept of a garden makeover TV show please let me explain: you find people who are going through profound personal difficulties (bereavement, illness, disability) but who have awful scraps of land as their garden, you send/lure them away from home while a team of gardeners and builders turn their patch of ground into a beautiful garden, and then you surprise them when they come home. Everyone cries, people's lives are made that bit better... everyone's happy.

I cannot fault the garden makeover concept, even though the formula had become very tired by the end of the final series of Ground Force in 2005 (Titchmarsh had already left the series by this point, knowing that the series had already run it's time); what I do not like is the 'a garden in a weekend' angle.
This garden has developed over several glorious years... Garden House, Devon

Gardeners will tell you a garden isn't made, it is matured. You can build paths, raised beds and ponds, and design and plant your beds in a matter of days, but it is only when things are settled and come together that you really have a garden. The enjoyment of gardening comes from the process of creation; finding out that one plant doesn't do well but another thrives, and that certain combinations of colour and form work well, and also the maintenance and development of your space.

I often tell people not to fill their whole gardens in one go. If you visit a nursery or garden centre and fill your garden with all the plants looking nice at one particular time you will find yourself with a garden that looks great for a couple of weeks at the same time each year. Large gardens with lots of different elements can get away with a border that peaks at one point, but in a small garden year-round interest is vital. Spreading your plant purchasing through the year spreads the cost of creating or adding to a garden and allows you to pick the very best plants through the different seasons; combining these plants well in your space will give you interest in your garden all year round. 
Centaurea montana and Persicaria bistorta 'Superba'-
not designed, a happy accident in my friend's garden.
The new series of the ITV programme Love Your Garden is following in the footsteps of Ground Force... in fact the concept and format are virtually identical, it is only really the crew (still led by Alan Titchmarsh!) and the theme music that has changed. I much preferred the last series where Alan visited people with existing gardens and helped them tackle challenging areas (like creating an attractive edge to a pond) where the gardeners weren't happy with the look and needed a little outside help; it seemed more... realistic. Each week's project was practical, achievable and could be useful to anyone facing a similar problem in their own garden. 

When I saw there was a new line-up, including a garden designer and a builder, I was really optimistic that this new series would be teaching us all how to be better gardeners, not just flogging a long-dead horse...

Sunday, 17 June 2012

All you could ever want to know about irrigation...

Plants in pots rely on us almost entirely to supply their needs- being artificially separated from natural soil means that they are unable to send their roots great distances in their quest for food and nourishment. Whether a plant is potted in a garden or a nursery it must be cared for with the same diligence that a person uses to ensure the well-being of an animal. Because plants cannot 'tell' us they are hungry or thirsty means that we must always be looking for the signs, and that we must be ready to act at very short notice.

Watering large numbers of plants by hand is very time consuming, so irrigation systems are installed to save time. Here is an explanation of the methods of irrigation that you will see on most nurseries, either as an employee or a visitor....

On the nursery we have lots of separate areas irrigated by a complex system of pipes and valves controlled by computers (see left); if an area is uniformly dry we assess it's requirements and, if necessary, run the irrigation for an appropriate length of time. Likewise if an area is expected to go dry (e.g. on a dry weekend) we can assess the area's requirements and set up the automatic system to water when we're not around. On a busy nursery the ability to water large areas overnight saves a lot of time and allows staff free access to tunnels etc. during the day without getting wet! Also being able to water areas during the night allows the irrigation cycle and hand watering activities to be spaced out sensibly over 24 hours, spreading water consumption out through the day, which in turn means that we don't need as much storage- this is crucial if you have no mains water!

All irrigation systems use broadly the same principle: run water through a section of the irrigation system (either sprinkles, drip lines or flood beds) for a period of time which has been calculated to allow each pot to receive the necessary amount of water. Let's take, for example, a drip system which delivers 1L of water in 10 minutes; if you need to deliver 10L of water into your pots to water them properly you will need to run the system for 100 minutes to make sure they are watered.

Most of the irrigation on the nursery is done by a network of overhead sprinklers which spread water over the plants from above. These are easy to install and run but are fairly wasteful of water, watering over access routes etc., and wet foliage is often a contributing factor with leaf diseases, where the drop of water on the leaf surface acts as the perfect environment for spores etc. to get growing.
The overhead sprinklers in action!

Overhead sprinklers in a tunnel- basically the same as outside but upside-down!
The more efficient watering technique is a drip line system. Here small tubes deliver water from a header pipe directly onto the surface of the compost, usually with a spike to hold the pipe in place, stop it getting blocked up (which it would do if the pipe was pushed straight into the compost) and guide the water to where it is needed. The advantage of drip irrigation in containers is that the water is delivered to exactly the place where it is needed at the roots, rather than onto leaves, access roads, straight into drains or onto staff! Also by watering straight into the compost the surface of the compost is kept drier, and this makes it harder for weed seeds to germinate. However, these systems are fairly expensive to install but work wonders for larger stock and any stock tied to lines, but on growing areas where plants are smaller and close together this system would just too complicated and unmanageable to be useful.
A typical drip spike...
Flood beds are a different way to irrigate; stock is growing in what is essentially a large watertight tray with a tap at one end and a drain at the other. To irrigate you simply close the drain, open the tap and fill the area to the required depth with water, leave the plants to soak the water up and then drain the area. The advantage of this system is that you can water a lot of plants from below, directly into the compost, without wetting the leaves. Staff can also work around the area without getting wet (unless they fall into the beds!). There are disadvantages though; these beds are fairly costly to put in, must be pretty well flat, and grow slippery algae on the floor of the bed and on the pots (which need to be cleaned before they are presentable for sale). In order to be efficient with water use the water drained from the flood bed must be collected, stored and cleaned to remove unwanted fertiliser or chemicals before being reused- for most nurseries this would be a horrendous expense for little gain.
Note the algae on the tunnel plastic- stray irrigation water can cause problems.
 Here's a table summarising the benefits and drawbacks of different irrigation systems when compared with watering by hand.

Drip lines
Flood Bed
Hand Watering
Easy set-up
mainly labour
Water Efficient*
Suitable For Feeding
Run-off problems?**
mostly no
algae problems
mostly no
Automatic Control
*   do not waste much water.
** excessive run-off can cause problems with mud and/or algae.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Urban myth- the unskilled horticulturalist

In 2011 our Prime Minister, David Cameron, made a speech about government plans to encourage people back into work after a long period of unemployment. During this speech he lumped the entire horticultural world into the 'unskilled labour' bracket, much like clearing rubbish and other so-called 'menial' jobs. The fact is that we need street cleaners if we don't want to wade through oceans of our own collective filth in towns and cities, and also there is no such thing as 'unskilled horticulture'.

From time to time I speak to customers with the same problem- they've hired in someone cheap “just to do a bit of tidying”, and these unskilled people have destroyed trees or shrubs, or pulled up emerging perennials, young bedding plants, and even in one case an entire area of runner beans already trained against their supports! These are examples of unskilled gardening... people who haven't a clue getting things very wrong.
The Square Garden at RHS Rosemoor- from design and planting, to day-to-day maintenance, 
this garden has been created and maintained by skilled people.

Horticulture is largely unregulated; although there are qualifications available you can still call yourself a gardener without ever having done any gardening before. Granted not everyone who does not have a horticultural qualification is useless (I myself am self taught, learning skills and techniques through working in horticulture rather from from a textbook at college, and would like to think I know a thing or two about horticulture...), but likewise not everyone who has passed their exams is a good/competent gardener. For anyone hiring a gardener to work on their property it is a real concern; is that person in front of them a skilled gardening expert or just someone with a few tools?! 

Every horticultural job needs well taught skills in order to be carried out properly, whether it be sowing a few seeds at home, or carrying out major tasks in a large public garden or nursery- 'if a job's worth doing it's worth doing properly', as the old saying goes. An example- on the nursery we do a lot of watering by hand (with hosepipes instead of just irrigating everything). Each batch of plants has it's own watering requirements; freshly potted plants need very little water compared with thirsty plants like Escallonia or Ceanothus, and also plants with large flowers (like Camellias for example) can spoil if they are irrigated and their flowers get too wet, so hand-watering helps to keep the crop presentable and hopefully thus saleable! Watering by hand also presents many problems- you have 'the usual suspects' that need watering every day when in full growth, and even within a batch of reasonably damp plants there can be a plant, usually at the back, which needs water. The tricky moment comes when you have to make a judgement; does the plant need watering now, or will it be OK until the next watering shift? That judgement is a skill that takes years of valuable experience to hone....
As these freshly potted plants grow they will need different care regimes and will pose different challenges.

Likewise with weeding; if you are going to clear weeds from an area of garden or batch of plants you must have enough botany under your belt to identify a plant, often from it's leaves and not flowers, and make a judgement call- friend or foe? Get it wrong with these jobs and your customer/manager will be... somewhat displeased!
 Friend or foe- don't get it wrong!

Alan Titchmarsh, that stalwart and banner-bearer for British gardening has stuck his neck out and challenged the Prime Minister's views. Quoted in The Telegraph, Titchmarsh referred to the Prime Minister's comments as not “particularly useful”, and went on to say "[that] the Prime Minister, and others, should consider just what part gardening can play in society. It impacts on those political hot potatoes, law and order, education and health."

To be done properly horticulture takes skill, and lots of it! Practical skills tending a garden or growing plants are every bit as worthwhile as being able to repair a car or speak another language, and it is the ability of gardeners (amateur and professional) and nursery people/retailers to apply their skills that gives Britain it's reputation as a gardening nation.

Long live horticulture!

Thursday, 24 May 2012

The perfectly legal pinching of plants...

Once plants are growing one of the jobs of a grower is to make them shine and be at their very best when they go out for sale. Nobody wants a thin and lanky shrub when they could have a strong, bushy plant instead.

To encourage certain plants to 'bush out' we pinch the tips of their stems; by 'pinch' I mean we remove the topmost growth, often about 3-4" but it can vary greatly according to the species and how it's growing. This action redistributes chemical messengers called auxins in the plants stems and causes dormant buds further down to break make the plant grow bushy.

Take this batch of Olearia traversii (left) and Olearia macrodonta (right)...
As you can see, they are growing away happily in the tunnel...
With each batch you have to 'go by eye' and pinch back the tops on each plant to the same level each time, leaving the whole batch a uniform size. For tough stems you need a pair of sharp secateurs, but most of the time you are pinching out very soft new growth long before it gets woody, so pinching out the shoots with your thumb and forefinger is the easiest, and most importantly the fastest, way to do it.

This all sounds a bit pedantic but is actually very important- can you imagine how annoyed you would be to plant a hedge where some plants were taller to start with than others?! Doing this at home it might seem even more pedantic, but planting out a group of plants of a roughly uniform size will be more aesthetically pleasing, so pinching out new growth to create uniform bushy plants is well worth doing.

The pinched plants are then loaded to be hardened off outside- the soft new growth has mostly been removed, so hopefully as the new shoots appear they will be tough enough to stand up to conditions outside the polytunnel.
Off they go- Olearia macrodonta pinched back and loaded on their trailer for the short trip to the outdoor
 growing area. The pot in front contains all the pinched shoots from this load alone!
Also on my 'urgent' list of plants to pinch back are the Camellias, particularly varieties prone to making long growths in spring at the expense of growing bushy.
Camellia 'Les Jury'- just admire that fabulous new growth... before I pinch it back! 
Still, as I pinch the new growth back I can squash these little sods before they become a plague! 
When it comes to garden pests prevention is better than a cure...


Sunday, 20 May 2012

Hidden details

When we're potting or handling plants at the nursery we very occasionally notice something interesting about the root systems of the plants that we're handling.

We're quite used to the lovely citrus smell of disturbed Magnolia root systems, but more recently a perennial plant to us gave us quite a surprise.

Kniphofias ('Red Hot Pokers') have fluorescent yellow roots that look like the result of some sort of experiment... take this young plant of Kniphofia rooperi:
And here's a close-up of it's roots:
Not the best picture as you can see, but just look at the colour of those roots! We're quite used to this feature of Kniphofias, after all we notice it every time we turn plants out of their pots to see if they're rooted.

Every so often we have a few plants of another South African, Wachendorfia thyrsiflora, and this has fluorescent orange roots. Again, here is the plant:
 And a close-up of it's roots:
I for one have no idea why these plants have evolved such brightly coloured roots, and would be open to sensible suggestions... all I know is that enjoying the little remarkable details of the plants we grow is one of the perks of the job.

If you would like to see this and other Wachendorfias in the wild I would recommend a quick look here.

I know, not very exciting but a bit of fun anyway.


Pots and Polytunnels- an introduction

After much deliberation I have now motivated myself to create a blog. As a professional grower for a nursery in Cornwall I get to learn a lot about the plants that I am growing, as well as a lot about the trials and tribulations of growing plants for other people.

A little background; we're a small team on a fairly big nursery. We grow trees, shrubs, perennials, the occasional bulbs... no annuals. Our stock ranges from the 'bone hardy' to the very tender, from the easy to grow through to bl**dy nightmares!

Primula polyneura- not an easy species if you don't have the right conditions.

I hope that sharing my experiences of growing plants commercially will prove interesting. Be warned though- I may shatter illusions of how plants are grown; nursery growing is hard work, everything is practical, everything is efficient... Here you will see how it is done.

One thing, though: this is my blog and does not necessarily represent the views of my employers- granted I often think they should agree with me... but views expressed here will be my own!

So time to get started.