Archive for September, 2010

to grub a shrub…

In the garden grows a hebe rakiensis that is about fifteen years of age. I am rather fond of these undemanding shrubs that bring their pleasing curved dome shape to the borders. However, age catches up with the best of us and this shrub is past its prime.


I have been judged and found wanting in the past – yes, Edith and Rosie, that’s you! – accused of being too soppy and sentimental towards elderly shrubs and so I hope to remedy this by being mean and ruthless and grub her out without delay.

I begin by lopping off the branches so that I can get to the roots. If this was a young tree I would leave the trunk to give me something to pull on but in this case the branches are best cut out.

hebe (2)

Next I start to dig the earth around the shrub levering up the shallow roots that grow just below the surface. The astute and observant will notice that my fork has a prong missing. I have to confess, with great shame, that I am the culprit having pushed the fork beyond its limits in a previous grubbing out exercise. I have kept the fork though, it works just as well, and now that it is less than perfect I can use it with abandon.

hebe (4)

The next tool to use is the grubbing axe. The broad mattock end is helpful for penetrating deeper into the surrounding ground and the axe end can be used to cut off any large roots that are growing out. The axe end needs to be kept sharp to be effective. It is easily blunted by stones in the earth but a file drawn over it keeps an edge.

hebe (5)

We are starting to make progress. Now that the earth is well loosened I can draw out the soil and gradually work my way underneath the root system. The earth here is quite dry. There comes a point when I feel it is worth trying the crowbar. Ramming it under the root system I pull the long end up and feel whether the root system is going to give or not.

hebe (7)

I must mention health and safety here. With all these pickaxes and crowbars flying around it is worth keeping curious children and other onlookers at a distance.

Please also look after yourself. If ever you are going to damage your groin or back then it is by grubbing out. I have learnt from bitter experience not to be so consumed with the work that I lose touch with my body. My back is quite happy to tell me when it is being pushed too far as long as I am happy to listen. Garden work like this is often slow and laborious and only fools will rush in feverishly and injure themselves.

hebe (6)

There comes a moment when you can tug at the root system and it shudders and you know that the end is in sight. With the crowbar rammed in, try kneeling down and pushing against the long end with your shoulder if you can. The longer the crowbar the better and in extreme cases I have used scaffolding bars in the past to lever against huge root systems.

If you are grubbing out a tree then you can try pulling on the trunk using your body weight to pull it over. If there is another tree or wall adjacent you can put your back against it and your feet on the tree to be grubbed out and use your legs and thighs to exert pressure. One can also use rope and pulley systems or the winching system of a land-rover.

hebe (9)

Eventually there comes the satisfying crunch when the shrub gives up its hold and keels over. The root system is then wheel-barrowed away along with any surface roots that have been dug out. The soil is dug over and a liberal amount of compost is applied. The shrub has been overhanging the lawn and so the damaged area will have to be raked over and reseeded.

A young robin pops out and inspects my work, snatches a couple of grubs and beats a hasty retreat.

hebe robin

All that remains is to put away my tools and have a well-earned cup of tea!

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The weather remains an unsettled hotchpotch of sunshine and showers. Summer has well and truly gone. Every sunny moment is a bonus and not to be taken for granted for surely we have had our allotted share already. The michaelmas daisies need no excuse to luxuriate in the last warm rays of the afternoon.




We have a fig tree that has been planted in the most awkward of places by one of the doorways from the kitchen garden into the main garden. It has to be kept well trimmed back if we are to be able to squeeze past. Nevertheless, this corner catches the sun and we always have a few figs to pick to the delight of my wife.


fig (1)


In the greenhouse grows a chasselas rose royal dessert grape that was planted five years ago and has given a good crop of grapes every year since.


grape (4)


The rain has caused the earthworms to the surface and the moles have come with them. Fresh brown mole-hills are to be seen on the verges of the village and in the cemetery and no doubt some will appear on our lawns sooner or later. Already Charlie and Bones are tuning the hair-triggers of their traps.

There was a time when I worked as a jobbing gardener for a mother and daughter who lived next door to each other. The mother was well into her nineties but still came out to help me in the garden. In the summer she would bring me cool lemonade and in the winter she would bring a mug of steaming hot cocoa with lots of sugar to give me energy. She always made sure I was well padded up to keep the cold out. She loved roses and I will always remember her smelling a bloom and raising her eyes to the heavens with a smile on her face. She adored her garden and was always appreciative of my help.

By contrast, her daughter never seemed to have the time to bring me a cup of anything. She seemed to be more concerned with the black-spot disease on her roses. I tried to explain that the pure Dorset air was lacking in industrial sulphur which keeps this disease at bay. I also talked of the need for watering well in the spring and to gather and burn the diseased leaves and disinfect the soil at the base of the rose in the winter. Her roses still gave fresh lovely blooms but I fear that she never really saw them, let alone smell them, so consumed was she by the sight of the black-spot on their leaves.

In truth, both gardens had their successes and failures, but the vision of one gardener gave great delight and the attitude of the other caused grief. When we look out of our window at the garden below all we ever see is ourselves.

A ‘speckled wood’ butterfly lands nearby, posing, teasing, before fluttering off elsewhere. A green wood-pecker flashes past and then lands and pokes around in the grass in search of ants.

I stop to enjoy the last of the ‘marjorie seedling’ plums whilst resting against a young oak tree. The sweet memory comes back to me of that dear old lady bringing me a steaming hot mug of cocoa and just for a moment the garden is filled with an intense and heavenly perfume…

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A robin lands on the wall whilst I am hoeing in the vegetable garden and he makes it quite clear that he resents my intrusion. His alarm call is sharper than that of the wren and more like a rattling geiger counter but nevertheless he keeps one eye sharp on my work just in case I dig up a jolly old earthworm.

The lawn that was the colour of death has turned to a fresh spring green. The herb rocket that grows in the kitchen garden has jumped the wall and is quietly romping through the border on the other side. Their yellow flowers attract the hoverflies and I cannot resist their pungent peppery leaves. The primroses are stirring from their summer dormancy and pushing out new leaf. Behind me an apple falls with a soft thud on the lawn below.

Three years have flown by since I last divided the bearded iris Jane Phillips with her sky-blue flowers that I admire so much. The centres have become congested woody plates that are easily lifted from the ground with a fork.


iris (2)


The young rhizomes growing mostly on the outside are prised apart and prepared for planting whilst the old centres are thrown away. The leaves are cut to about eight inches in a fan shape to prevent the wind rocking the plant and causing damage. The roots themselves are trimmed to about seven inches and then I cup them in my hand so that they lie in the same direction rather than all over the place.


iris (1)


Next I dig the soil over and dig in some of my finest compost or leaf mould if there is any to spare. Using a trowel I make a slight hollow in the soil and then tease the roots into the soil so that the body of the rhizome is left flush with the level of the soil. The hollow is then back-filled with soil so that the rhizome resembles a whale swimming on the surface with its back basking in the afternoon sun.


iris (3)


I end up planting ten irises about one foot apart and then water them in. The result looks rather like a fleet of sailing craft heading for the distant horizon.


iris - Copy


Is there a conspiracy going on? I set myself up to do some weeding on the borders whilst listening to the cricket on the radio. Firstly Charlie and Bones drive past on their tractors on the other side of the hedge singing their heads off, then the Duchess passes by and stops to discuss something or other, then the Red Arrows decide to put on an impromptu aerial display overhead and then the radio starts playing up and needs to be thumped a few times to get any noise out of it. Goodness, it’s a hard life for a poor boy long ways from home…

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laughing out loud…

My pronouncement last week of the departure of summer has proved to be rather premature. The fickle weather gods, no doubt chuckling gaily, have once more painted the skies blue with billowing clouds drifting to the ridge of the horizon.

The nights have grown cold though and we have thrown an extra blanket on the bed. The morning brings heavy dew that wets my boots as I make my way around the garden.

The grass is growing like nobodies business after all the rain and Charlie and Bones have their work cut out keeping up with it all. I am busy edging the borders. In my younger days we used heavy old edging cutters with stout wooden handles that weighed a ton so I am grateful for the sleek streamlined modern versions we have these days.

I was taught by an old timer to keep my right arm straight and just move my left arm to cut the edge. By doing so the lower blade of the cutter remains still and straight whilst the upper blade does all the cutting movement. This is supposed to give a straighter cut. It was the way I was taught and is the way I do it to this day.

Basket by basket the fruit harvest is brought to the kitchen door for inspection by Cook Jenny. Some is stored in the makeshift apple shed above the garage, some is given away and some is turned into jams, chutneys and pies.

One old apple tree we have in the garden is a Lord Derby which gives fine shiny green cookers with a red blush. The apples are falling off easily in the hand and are earlier than usual. This apple tree was developed by Mr Witham of Cheshire in 1862. It is a particular favourite of my mum and come the weekend I take her round a bag of them and she gives me a pat on the head and a jar of her special chutney for my labours.

apple lord derby

The parish council met last week and the decision was made to send a letter to three houses in the village pointing out to the owners that their front gardens are in a deplorable state and are an eyesore in an otherwise attractive village.

The news caused much mirth in the pub that evening when the three names were revealed.

The first house belongs to a chap called Arthur who accidentally raised his hand at the wrong moment during an auction and ended up taking home a job lot of second-hand Polish road signs. Not knowing what to do with them, he stuck them up in his front garden and for the past ten years it is where they have remained. According to his wife Betty he has become rather fond of these road signs and is reluctant to remove them.

The second house belongs to Billy who was born idle, has remained resolutely so all his life and sees no reason why he should change his tune at this late stage in the game. His garden remains unkempt and untended.

The third house belongs to Geoffrey whose colour combinations make Great Dixter seem bland and unadventurous. There is a story behind this garden that I would love to tell you one day if you are keen to hear. It involves a book, a topless dancer and the Woman’s Institute but I will say no more.

These tumultuous village events have left me wondering though, as I hoe the fast emerging weeds between the brassicas rows, whether or not we can judge or assess a man by the state of his garden.

One can imagine the scene. The defendant stands in the dock with the jury remaining undecided. Then the prosecution barrister leaps to his feet, his wig flapping around his ears, and produces his trump card: a blown-up photograph of the garden of the accused. A gasp of horror fills the courtroom at the sight of all those weeds and the defendant bows his head in resignation. The judge dons his black cap and the executioner begins to sharpen his axe.


I get back to my hoeing. The sun and the rain have inspired weeds to spring up just about everywhere but a good hoe will keep them in place. The secret is to keep the hoe sharp using a file to get a good edge. Inevitably a stone in the earth will blunt the edge and make hard work of what should be a relaxing job so I keep the file to hand and sharpen the hoe often.

A blue battered Volvo estate with the Duchess at the wheel and the Duke gazing happily out of the window sweeps past me down the gravel drive and through the ornate black wrought-iron gates. A moment later and I receive a text from the kitchen inviting me for afternoon tea. Cook Jenny has made a delicious apple pie with cream and Charlie and Bones and I tuck in unceremoniously. Afterwards, the subject of conversation is the three infamous front gardens of the village and we cannot help laughing out loud…

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