Earlier this year I celebrated my sixtieth birthday: since then the NHS has taken a particular interest in my health with a postal bowel cancer test and a Well-man Clinic. Essentially they have given me a health MOT. In the garden we also have plants that have reached the age when we need to do something with them. Looking at hardy perennials first, as the plant grows up, we can see the centre is looking tired and good strong growth is at the furthermost edge of the plant. Now is the time to dig up these plants.
First dig the plant out and shake of the majority of the soil. In sections, dig out the whole plant retaining some of the younger outside growth and discard the solid wooden centre. If replanting back in the same position, you will need to add some well-rotted compost or a bag of soil conditioner. It would also be advisable to add a good general powder fertiliser to the area. The new growth should be divided into manageable sizes and replanted. You may also find that you have sufficient new material to share with another gardener, or you could plant up an empty patch in your borders. You can then improve the area of the old plant as per above and next year plant annuals in their place. This gives you the opportunity to remove any perennial weeds that have popped up in the knowledge that all the annuals will be removed at the end of next year. At the end of next year you can plant up this area with more divided perennials so the border can be continually managed and improved without the need to consider rejuvenating the whole border.
Elderly shrubs also get congested and overgrown and these can be rejuvenated by what at first appears a harsh approach. Cut the whole shrub down to around six inches (15cm) in a process known as coppicing. Most shrubs will respond by sending out vigorous new growth than can be thinned out as it grows away. Should the technique fail, and sometimes it does, then see it as an opportunity to replant with a new shrub. Again whether you coppice or replace, take the opportunity to improve and feed the soil. Roses in particular just get old with poor shows of flowers and either straggly stems or old rotten wood, the kindest action is to replace them. Replant in a different part of the border. With roses I would never plant a single plant in one place: for greater effect try planting three roses of the same variety no more than 300mm away from each other. The three will grow and look like one plant and the scale of flowering will not disappoint. As for my health MOT I received an advisory, when I need a snack I should replace the award-winning Helmsley pork pie with some dried fruit and nuts. I will try, honest!
Mike I’Anson September 2016
Kitty is a traditional Jack Russell and a daily garden visitor who swiftly learnt that she could get a biscuit treat at the kiosk on her way in. Doggy intuition meant it didn’t take her long to realise she could get one on the way out too. We often start off gardening by intuition: we look at a plant and try to assess what is required. It may be to cut back a shrub so we can walk along a path but we soon realise the need to cut further back than to the path edge as the shrub will continue to grow from where we cut back to and can look unsightly. Similarly, with perennials we cut back in autumn when we see the top growth has died and the next year’s new growth is appearing at ground level.
But intuition will only get you so far and usually only when the action is obvious; the next stage is to seek advice from others. This can be from friends, family or neighbours; but again could be no better than collecting their intuitive gardening techniques. I reached the point where having taken on a new garden I needed some formal training and was fortunate enough to have the time and funds to undertake four years of training as Askham Bryan College. Here we poured over the theory and techniques and I found a collection of core gardening texts that I would initially refer to a lot but then less so as time went on. So when the fruit tree in front of me required pruning and didn’t look like the drawings in the book, I found I had to revert back to assessing it rather than copying the book. I know an espaliered apple tree will respond to the modified Lorette system of pruning and that it advises the cutting back to four buds on the laterals and two buds on the sub laterals. But if I apply this to all varieties of apple trees without thought, the difference in length of laterals between buds means the gaps could be overly long or short leading to congestion of fruit and smaller apples.
So having had done my study I now find myself reverting back to intuitively reading an apple tree to see how it has grown previously and anticipating how it will grow in the coming season. It helps to have been working on the same apple trees for a number of years so I can see and read the impact I have had. We all have experience of undertaking the same routine but being able to understand what impact your actions have on a plant takes you intuitively further. We start our apple pruning here at the garden this month. It will take two of us close to two months to complete. For Kitty, she has been reduced to half a biscuit on each visit to the kiosk: we wait to see how she reacts to this.
Mike I’Anson – August 2016
How do you protect your cabbages from the prolific cabbage white butterfly? There are actually two types, the Large White Pieris brassicae and the Small White Pieris rapae. Both overwinter as pupae with the Small White appearing in spring, slightly earlier than the Large White with a second generation emerging in July. The Small White lays a single egg whilst the Large White lays in batches of ten to 20; eggs hatch about a fortnight later. The eggs and caterpillar will often be underneath the leaves only becoming obvious as tell-tale holes appear. The Small White caterpillar tends to eat its way to the heart of the cabbage. Both species feed on the cabbage for a month or so before leaving the plant to pupate. They overwinter in secluded areas and the life cycle repeats itself.
So how can we stop them? Getting rid of the pupae is tricky as they will often be outside your own garden. We can try and stop the butterflies from landing on the cabbages but to do so requires a frame and netting with the netting holes needing to be no larger than 7mm square. It needs to be large and soft enough to drape over your framework and the framework has to be tall enough that as the cabbage grows it does not touch the netting. If your cabbages touch the netting, butterflies will land on the net and lay eggs through the holes. The net needs to have a good 150mm overhang and must be well pinned down. Laying down the odd brick is insufficient. I have seen cabbage whites walk along the soil under poorly pegged down netting to reach a plant and lay eggs.
Having done all this you can you can still expect on a hot August day to see cabbage whites under your netting. You’ll need to remove the netting to get rid of the butterfly and search for eggs. In the hope of not having to remove netting, I have seen gardeners lose their sense of proportion and get into all sorts of contortions with garden canes to try and kill the trapped butterfly. Poorly applied netting can also trap birds and kill them.
Caterpillar eggs take two weeks to hatch and removing them by rubbing them out with your fingers is very satisfying You can do the same with small caterpillars, wearing gloves if you’re squeamish. Removing large caterpillars this way gets a little messy and I prefer to collect them in a jar sometimes by removing a leaf, and then put them on the bird table. The cabbage white also lays eggs on nasturtiums so a good bed of these can be used as a sacrificial crop. You’ll need to check your cabbages regularly and for most of us with busy lives, a few holes in our cabbages will be likely. But there’s nothing to beat a cabbage freshly harvested from your plot so go with nature and give brassicas a go.
Mike I’Anson – July 2016
June usually sees the first sweltering day of summer, the day when the air is still and the temperature is in the low 20s. All the annuals and vegetables are sown or planted and we can settle down to enjoy the garden. It is also likely to be the day that the bees swarm. We have three hives of honey bees in the garden and despite a number of strategies employed the bees still swarm. This is the natural way to reproduce at the colony level.
For some weeks the old queen has been laying eggs at the rate of a thousand a day and as the colony grows the worker bees decide it’s time for the old queen to move on and start to develop a new queen. After eight days the workers seal these queen cells and this is the signal for the old queen to leave. She leaves taking with her all the flying bees and leaving the nurse bees to look after the developing virgin queens. This primary swarm departs the hive and usually gathers close by on a post, shrub or tree, there the colony sends out scout bees to identify a new home. This is the time for us to capture the swarm and rehouse it in a new hive. Back in the hive the first virgin queen emerges and she has two choices: she can move around the hive and kill the remaining developing virgin queens or she can take half the remaining bees and leave the hive to form a new colony. These swarms are known as casts and are noticeably smaller than the primary swarm. As the next virgin queen emerges she then has the same two choices, sadly it is possible for a colony to cast itself to death. During the season we will capture swarms, settle them and merge them back into the three colonies, all the time hoping that we are securing enough honey for the bees but also a little surplus for ourselves.
It is often reported that bees are good for gardens but it is probably truer that gardens are good for bees. Bees not only collect nectar but also pollen collected in sacks on their back legs. This is mixed with the nectar to provide food for the new brood. In spring they pollinate the blossom on the fruit trees which leads to the fertilisation of the apple seed, which of course is surrounded by the flesh of the apple. But in summer the bees pollinate the flowers, again helping set seed. As with the apples, once the seed is fertilised the flowers die. As gardeners we need the bees in spring to help produce apples but as a display garden they cause flowers to go over, regular deadheading will see replacement flowers on most species. We would not be without our bees but there are times I am grateful that they leave our flowers, preferring to visit the Himalayan balsam along the riverside.
Mike I’Anson – June 2016
At Harrogate Flower Show I found an old gardening book written by Cecil Henry Middleton. Mr Middleton as he was known, was the celebrity gardener of his day with a radio audience of some 3.5 million who listened avidly to his weekly programme’ In Your Garden’. He went on to become the BBC voice of the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign. In May he recommends sowing a variety of French bean called Dutch Brown. This is a bush or dwarf type bean that can be eaten as a young pod, a young bean or grown on and dried as a haricot. I discovered some of these beans on a heritage website last year. I managed to get ten beans to sow and grow on for a crop I could then sow for a harvest I could dry and use for soup in the winter. Whilst dwarf beans are the most frequently grown there are some climbers as well.
The title French bean however is an adopted name as this vegetable originates from South America. It is a half hardy plant that does not tolerate any frost. The earliest you should be thinking of sowing direct into the ground is probably early June. But if you have a greenhouse, cold frame or sunny porch you can get them started in pots in May. The vegetable can also be decorative with flowers that can be white, pink or red and some of the pods of certain varieties can be yellow or purple although they do turn green when cooked.
For successful growing your soil should be free draining and light, plant in full sun if possible and avoid cold winds, apply a general granular fertiliser to the soil some three weeks before planting or sowing. Plant or sow as late as you dare bearing in mind most bush types mature fast in around sixty days. A June sowing should be available to eat from late July into August. Successional planting at two week intervals could provide you with beans into October.
Harvesting young pods can start when they snap easily. For haricot beans allow to dry on the plant and collect when pods are brown and starting to open, if picked late in the season place in greenhouse to aid drying.
The climber I’m going to grow is another heritage vegetable called Carter’s Polish. It has a mottled purple coloured pod that is grown for drying and I’ll be growing it here amongst the cottage flowers. A good starter bean is a climber called Cobra. I’ll also grow Blue Lake, another climber. For bush varieties try Safari or Purple Queen, both do well.
Mr Middleton’s most famous piece of advice during the Dig For Victory Campaign involved using mortar from the site of bombed buildings to use as lime on your garden soil. But he will be remembered most for his contribution to allotments and grow your own. If new to gardening then growing French beans in summer is a great start.
Mike I’Anson – May 2016
Growing and harvesting asparagus – March 2016
Michele and I recently celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary with a holiday in Madeira. Not having had a honeymoon, we pushed the boat out with a four star hotel and junior suite. This of course brought us into contact with posh vegetables so let’s look at growing asparagus.
This is a luxury crop as it’s a perennial plant that can take up a lot of space in the vegetable plot and only has a cropping season of about four to six weeks. Asparagus needs well-drained deep soil, its roots can extend up to one metre in the ground, so for this reason a raised bed can be beneficial. The plants can be productive for 20 years or more so it’s worth spending some time on bed preparation.
It takes three years for the plants to mature enough for a full crop to be taken. The soil should be free of perennial weeds and deeply dug with compost or manure well-incorporated. It is possible to grow asparagus from seed but this extends the length of time to cropping. Usual practice is in early spring to dig out a trench to 200mm deep and 300 wide and plant one year old crowns. Mound up the soil inside the trench so that the crowns lie over the mound. They are a delicate plant so sift soil over them to a depth of 100mm. The remaining garden soil can then be added. Do not tread down.
Don’t take any spears in the first year, feed the plants by applying a top dressing of general garden fertiliser. Support the foliage if required, the frond-like leaves create energy through photosynthesis, feeding the plants and creating healthy strong roots which in turn creates healthy strong spears. Once the foliage turns yellow they can be cut down. In the second year after planting, you can harvest no more than one or two shoots from each plant and continue to feed the plants.
Full harvesting starts in the third year. When the spears are 100mm above ground, sever them 75mm underground using a serrated knife, cut every spear this size. If you do not have enough for a meal, place the cut spears in iced water for a few hours and wrap and store in the fridge until you have sufficient for your needs. On a large bed you can be cutting almost daily. If you allow them to grow taller they can start to open and lose their delicacy. In year three I would not harvest beyond three to four weeks. If the new spears start to become small and spindly you have probably over-harvested them. You have to leave some good spears to become good foliage to feed the roots for the following year. As for varieties, a popular one is Connover’s Colossal but I find this too large and only suitable for soups. Try Ariane or Mondeo both of which are male varieties that ensure the bed remain true to type. Globe artichokes yuk.
Mike I’Anson – March 2016
All gardeners are currently working with very wet soil and sadly some are dealing with flooding. There are different ways water can affect soil. There is the sudden deluge causing temporary and localised flooding before draining quickly away. Pooling of water is limited and soil is not immersed in water for long. This means it stays aerobic, containing oxygen in its pores and maintaining good levels of soil bacteria. Give the soil a feed with a general fertiliser in March to replace nutrients that have been washed away.
Another affect, and one I suffer from at home, is the raised water table. Here the water level rises and can’t drain away. You can’t put in drainage because the water has nowhere to go. You have to wait until rivers, becks and fields drain – sometimes miles away – clear away before the water table drops. Here pooling is problematic because if the pool stand for any length of time, oxygen within the soil is replaced by water. Within a couple of weeks the soil becomes anaerobic, the bacteria changes and the roots of plants die.
Once winter has passed and the water has receded you will be able to turn over the soil, add well-rotted organic matter to reintroduce good bacteria, and feed with a general fertiliser. If this is a regular event this land is more suited to growing annual summer crops of flowers of vegetables. In rural areas, flooding is often an annual event lasting a variable amount of time, not necessarily causing anaerobic soil conditions but bringing excess silt and debris with it. The silt needs to be removed otherwise over time your soil texture will change, leaving a poor sand and silt soil. Improve it with organic matter and apply a general fertiliser in March.
Then there is the serious flooding that we have seen in our urban areas. This flooding devastates homes as it usually carries with it sewerage that contaminates not only homes but also soil. But here our friend, good bacteria can help us. Flooding in urban areas is tackled swiftly and is unlikely to be for such length of time that the soil becomes anaerobic. Where you can dig the soil, aim to bury anything you think is contaminated. This breaks soil into smaller particles presenting a bigger surface area for bacteria to feed on. Add fertiliser, particularly nitrogen as bacteria grow on nitrogen. The bacteria will break down the organic matter in the sewerage eventually turning it into humus. Where soil that cannot be turned over, apply a general fertiliser and put a mulch of organic matter on top. There is less surface area for the bacteria to work on so it will take a little longer to recover, but any spoilt soil is covered. I personally would not grow root vegetables for at least one year. One final word of advice, stay off the soil whilst saturated as you will only compact and damage the soil structure. Waiting and allowing gravity and the March winds to dry it out will help your land recover.
Mike I’Anson – February 2016