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Archive for February, 2011

This is a decent bit of weather we are having. At least we can go home not soaked to the skin or with frostbite. I spend some time tidying the beds, pulling the first of the weeds and the last of the beech and oak leaves. Some precious leaf-mould is then barrowed out and forked onto the beds.

The wisteria has been pruned, the winter growth cut back hard to two or three buds to produce more flower-bearing spurs. The old gardeners always talked of two and sixpence, meaning that the wisteria is pruned in the second and sixth month of the year. If you prune them much later then you risk damaging new buds when you clamber around on the jolly old ladder.

The ground roses have been pruned too. So many books have been written on the subject over the years and I have no desire to add to the list. All I can say is that you need courage, intuition and a sharpened pair of by-pass secateurs. There are guidelines to follow, such as cutting out inward-growing and crossing branches and reducing the height, but really each rose is unique and has its own way of being pruned. There are no golden rules.

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There is still an edge to the wind and I have my faithful woolly hat on. It has seen one or two seasons and rather lost its shape having been through the washing machine too often. I am rather fond of it though. I like to think it makes me look chic and bohemian but my wife assures me that it makes me look daft. A branch mischievously snags it as I walk past and the hat is left dangling in the air. I can hear the trees sniggering at me.

Mole-hills are appearing everywhere and the breeding season will be upon us soon. Grumpy George reckons there are more moles living in the village than fish in the sea. The church has not a grave-stone standing straight because of the mole tunnels running underneath.

Charlie is in the stables tuning the traps so the trigger will go off at the slightest touch. He has a way with catching moles that he learnt from his father. He does not set the traps where the mole-hills are but rather he finds where the mole nests under a tree or shrub nearby. He seems to know just where the tunnel is and as quick as a whistle he has dug into the tunnel and placed the trap and covered it with turf again.

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Charlie’s father earned a penny or two catching moles on the neighbouring estates in his time. Farmers resented their pastures being ruined or their agricultural implements being damaged by the mole-hills. Then he would sell the velvet skins to the glove-maker in town and make a few pennies more which were all appreciated in those lean days.

All of a sudden there is a loud hollering coming from the stables. Bones has gone to pick up the traps but one of them was still primed. He stands there holding up a blue throbbing finger, shouting all the profanities under the sun and then some more.

It is not good to laugh at another mans misfortunes. So Charlie and I begin to giggle hysterically instead. Bones is not amused…

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sudden death…

 Like many blokes I tend not to go to the doctors until it is too late. The four wheels may have fallen off my wagon but I’ll keep trundling along, happily hoping that my total ignorance of the medical world will keep me immune from every sickness.

I have the same attitude to plant disease. I glance occasionally at the garden periodicals noting the latest virus or bug that is set to sweep the horticultural world. Down here in sleepy Dorset in the south of England the worst of these ravages seem to pass us by, and besides, none of us can pronounce or spell their nightmarish names anyway.

Yet one alarming disease seems to be coming our way which may have disastrous consequences. Sudden Oak Death has the sinister scientific name of Phtophthora ramorum and is attacking our trees.

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The disease, that causes cankers with seeping black fluid, has spread to a number of European countries including the UK. The West Country has been affected and the disease has crossed species affecting larch, beech and rhododendron. On the Quantock Hills thousands of larch have been felled on National Trust property and chipped to be burnt in power stations. By culling this number of trees it is hoped that the airborne disease will not spread next spring.

The stout and hearty oak remains part of our English heritage. We have many ancient trees that have survived hundreds of years of turbulent history. To lose such majestic trees would be a solemn tragedy. We must hope that this infection will pass, that a resistance will be built up and that a cure may be found. This is one epidemic that we cannot ignore and hope it will go away.

This virulent disease was first noticed, I believe, on the west coast of California where it has killed millions of oaks. If any of my readers from the USA have experienced the effects of this disease on their forests we would love to hear from you.

On another front, last week we marked the tenth anniversary of the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease that brought the countryside to its knees. The image of cattle stock being incinerated on such a scale still broods in our memories. Although the disease is still rampant in other parts of the world we remain free from new outbreaks and we thank the heavens for that. And the news this week is that research into a practical vaccine for bovine TB may be progressing. We can but hope.

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The weather this week has been a tumbledown mixture of rain and clouds with one or two beautiful spring sunny days that warm the soul and cheer the spirit. With winter fading away for the moment one runs out of excuses for leaving the garden untidy. Weeds are already emerging and a few hours spent on our knees are needed to make the beds presentable.

In the morning the blackbird sings his delightful song to the four corners of the earth despite the rain. Up in the sky, two crows harass another crow hoping he will drop whatever he has in his mouth but to no avail. In the orchard, five crows slink away mischievously. Pip the dog runs from one end of the field to the other and then round and round in circles just for the fun of it.

 

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Stourhead Gardens lie just down the road from us. Five sweet chestnuts line the drive to the house and could be as old as 700 years, pre-dating the construction of the house and gardens. Their curious gnarled shapes are fascinating to behold.

 

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one of the other trees

 

Sadly a large limb from one of the sweet chestnuts split from the trunk of the tree in the middle of the night. The gardeners had been worried about this limb but were unable to support it in any way. Water had collected and frozen and unfrozen causing the tragic split.

 

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According to their WordPress weblog the gardeners intend to remove two remaining limbs to stabilise the trees.

 

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Towards the end of the week the weather turns quite clement. I am busy pulling out brambles from the base of the beech hedge. The soil is light and soft after all the rain and so they pull out quite easily. And then a bramble turns round and bites me on the nose just to teach me a lesson…

 

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one of the other trees curious growth

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In England during the summer months, horticultural societies and villages host a succession of garden shows where keen amateurs exhibit the most perfect bloom or the largest vegetable.

A good day out is guaranteed for all, even if a rogue shower should send everyone running for the marquee. Yet behind the cream teas and camaraderie lies an intense competitive spirit to win the cosseted rosettes.

None-more-so than in the vegetable section where gardeners vie to grow the largest vegetable, whether it be leek, parsnip or the humble potato. Great lengths are taken to produce the very best. Treasured growing secrets are handed down from generation to generation. Techniques are closely guarded. Horticultural espionage and sabotage are not ruled out. Vegetables are grown under a veil of secrecy, well out of the way of prying eyes and night-time vision binoculars.

The headlines of the Blackmore Vale this week caught my eye. An article covered the story of Mr. Stirzaker, a keen amateur gardener. Over the past four years he has won major trophies in the North Cadbury and District Horticultural Society’s gardening show.

However, Mr. Stirzaker, freshly returned from a trip to New Zealand, was astonished to receive a letter from the society asking him not to enter exhibits in this years show. They feel that he has so dominated the event with his gardening prowess that he has put others off entering themselves.

Mr. Stirzaker was reported to be rather angry with this decision. He said that he is always happy to share his knowledge with others and it is for them to strive to improve and catch him up. The society was not commenting but they are having another meeting to discuss the matter.

Such is the nature of horticultural competition! Your comments are welcome….

 

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Tuesday is the first glorious spring sunshine day of the year. And then everything turns topsy-turvy and we have a mixture of damp and windy weather again. But that one day of sunshine makes it all worthwhile.

The woodland area is awash with snowdrops. One has to admire their tenacity in poking their heads above ground in this weather. Their history is often debated in horticultural circles: some say they were a gift from the Romans or perhaps brought back from the Crusades or possibly introduced in the sixteenth century by Benedictine nuns or maybe they are a native wild flower, who can tell, but we gardeners like to argue with each other as much as the next man. Certainly they have religious connotations and their white flowers are a symbol of purity and innocence, being gathered for Candlemas on the second of February.

The Duke loves gadgets and reads from cover to cover those booklets that fall out of the television guides that contain hundreds of labour-saving essentials for the modern life. He’s pacing the terrace with his latest acquisition: a pair of binoculars that fit into the palm of your hand complete with a built-in compass and a whistle in case one should get lost. No doubt this gadget will be extremely useful on his next outing. They have finally decided to head off to Rajasthan in north-western India.

 

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The house is in pandemonium with the Duchess running around packing suitcases and shouting orders and profanities at the domestics, and Cook in the kitchen preparing enough sandwiches to last the entire journey and back again. A taxi turns up at the front and the countless number of suitcases is piled in the back.

There is a moment of panic when it is realised that the Duke is nowhere to be seen but eventually he is found and led to the waiting taxi with the Duchess holding the door open and glowering threateningly. Finally they are gone and everyone gives a sigh of relief and word goes round that its teas all-round in the kitchen to celebrate.

 

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Whilst the Duke and the Duchess are away on their tropical cruise the staff are more relaxed than usual and no-one is in any hurry to get back to work so we have another cup and a slice of cake and sit around the large kitchen table nattering.

Cook Jenny, more charming than usual, asks me how I first started gardening and I begin to reminisce of the first postcard I put up in a post-office window offering my services, and the first job I undertook, with a pair of secateurs in one hand and a pruning text-book in the other. I’m afraid that I learnt the hard way, by making mistakes and hopefully learning from them.

Eventually I found work with a large established estate. The head-gardener, a gentle and quietly spoken gentleman in his seventies, came from the old school of gardening where tools were not considered expendable but cherished and well looked after. He insisted that twenty minutes before the end of day we would bring the tools we had been using to the potting shed where the mud would be brushed off in an old water trough and then dipped in a barrel of sand soaked in old tractor oil. The tools themselves were hung gleaming on the wall, many were so old that Cain had fashioned them himself!

I look back sometimes and wonder if maybe I should have done this or done that – sadly I’m too much of a dreamer, some gardening friends of mine have been far more ambitious and have gone on to greater things – but what I chose is what I chose and sometimes I go to work and wonder for the first half an hour how I can endure the wet and the cold but then I warm up and begin to remember that it really is the very best way of making a few pennies in the whole wide world.

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for whom the bell tolls…

Slugs and snails are my worst enemies in the vegetable garden. Much as I am happy to share some of my produce with the local wild-life there is a limit to how much I can afford to donate. The slugs and snails have voracious appetites for the same sort of things that I eat.

There are many methods of defeating them. And they have all been tried over the years. Beer traps, egg shells, nematodes and copper rings have all been given a go. Oh, and the catapult. Yet as fast as I fling the blighters out of my garden they parachute back in again. Quite inexplicable!

Cook Jenny has put a stop to the beer-trap method. The raucous intoxicated gastropod chorus has kept her awake in the past. And the last gardener to venture out in the middle of the night to round up slugs under planks of wood had the dogs set on him.

Enter the Slug Bell! Michael Messina of www.slugbell.com produces a hand-made painted bell on a spike. A mesh cage nestles under the bell. The slug pellets, either organic or conventional, are placed in the cage out of the way of children, pets or wildlife. The bell prevents the pellets from being washed by the rain into the soil and hence into the water-course. The slugs and snails are attracted by the odour of the pellets and climb up the spike to their doom.

 

slugbell

 

I received my complementary bell this morning. They come in all sorts of attractive colours. I wondered which they would send to a rough-and-tough macho gardener like myself. I got the pink one.

Unfortunately I am unable to give you a performance report. My resident gastropods are still on their winter hols, basking no doubt on some Bermudan beach, lounging on deck-chairs and toasting my good health, the cheeky blighters.

But my Slug Bell is now an attractive addition to my garden waiting for their return. And vengeance will be mine!

The slug bell may be purchased from the attractive and user-friendly website: www.slugbell.com

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The Duchess purchases numerous garden periodicals every month. She spends her days marking them with a red pen, highlighting a plant she feels the garden needs or a task that simply must be done poste-haste. She then leaves them in a neat pile in the boot-room for me to collect.

The magazines inevitably leave me feeling guilty, wondering how on earth I am supposed to compete with the perfection of the gardens illustrated. The ‘what to do this month’ articles are always helpful reminders of what needs to be done. Since I don’t receive the magazines until the end of the month, that means that many jobs are done one month later than elsewhere but the garden survives never-the-less.

 

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A parcel of bare-root roses has arrived. I have bought many roses from Peter Beales over the years and they have always arrived in first-class condition and this time was no exception. The ground has already been prepared beforehand to allow the soil level to settle down. The sacred law of roses is to plant them with the union – where the branches leave the root stock – below the ground to protect this vulnerable area from frost.

I have planted five roses – including my favourite Empereur du Maroc – in a quarter-circle around a plum-leaved ‘Prunus pissardii nigra’ I will hopefully show photographs later. The last task is to prune them down to buds roughly six inches above soil-level to encourage low shoots to grow and keep the rose compact rather than leggy.

A dead branch on the old sweet chestnut has caught the attention of a great spotted woodpecker. I wish I had binoculars or a camera with a long lens but alas I have neither on me. I can see the woodpecker though, his head rattling away like a pneumatic drill. It does rather remind me – and I share this with slight embarrassment – of my adolescent youth spent head-banging to rock music with my long locks flailing in the air. This was all rather good fun at the time. We probably caused irreversible neurological damage to ourselves, but one is eternal when one is young.

 

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I still have a couple of trees left to plant. I cannot stress the need to get the soil gently placed within the arches of the roots so that the roots are in contact with the soil rather than left in air-pockets. And then before piling the soil back in and stomping down I like to step back and see if the tree is upright. To be honest the trees from the nursery will never be perfectly straight. They have been grown outside in the elements rather than in a test-tube. Compromises will have to be made. But by looking from all four corners one can put the tree as straight as possible and then replace the soil.

Whilst planting the trees I have forgotten a tool and have to traipse all the way back to the stables to get it. Upon arriving at the tool-shed I realise that I have not the slightest notion of which tool I have forgotten. I stand there for a good few minutes like a sad fool. Shaking my head I return to the other side of the garden where I am planting the trees. And then I remember that I needed a knife to cut the twine that holds the tree branches together. I make my way back to the stables again. It is not easy being a gardener sometimes.

 

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