How to prune plants

Cornus alba "Elegantissima"
Cornus alba “Elegantissima”

Pruning plants causes a lot of heart-ache amongst gardeners and a great deal is written about how it is done, often with little thought as to why it is done. It must always be remembered that all plants are either originally wild or descended from the wild  and nobody prunes plants in the wild. Before you start to prune a plant first ask yourself do you need to and if so why, what are you hoping to achieve. If in doubt, do nothing, if you do go ahead then be bold.

Reasons to prune:

  • Control size – often indicating the plant is in the wrong place.
  • Improve the flowering/fruiting – most fruit comes into this category, but many ornamental plants also respond to this.
  • Improved foliage – can apply to the shape, size, colouring or a combination of these.
  • Control disease – this can be preventative or to control a problem.

Reasons not to prune:

  • Make it look “tidy”
Hydrangea macrophylla cultivar
Hydrangea macrophylla cultivar

The basic rules.

Some things really apply to all pruning:

  1. Remove any dead or diseased branches – while trees can survive quiet happily with large amounts of dead and even rotted wood in there core; in most cases if the branch is dead or worse still diseased it need to be removed. Any shoot with  Coral Spot needs to be cut hard back as the disease will already have spread well into the living tissue below the characteristic red fruiting bodies.
  2. Remove crossing branches – these will end up rubbing against other ones, damage the bark and provide an entry point for disease. Also they crowd the centre of the plant, creating still air which favours pests and diseases.
  3. Make all cuts clearly and if back to a branching point don’t cut flush to the trunk, leave the swelling where the branch grows out of the main one.
  4. Don’t leave stubs – they look unsightly and are a entry point for disease.
  5. Bear in mind the larger the branch you cut off, the larger the wound and so the longer it will take to heal.
  6. Cut off large branches in stages.  Large branches have a tendency to break off before they are cut though and tear off the bark below the cut. Large branches can also be very difficult to remove from the plant once cut off.
  7. Cut back to an outward facing bud to encourage on open branch structure.

Wound paints.

Years ago it was the norm to treat all pruning cuts with a wound paint. This fell from favour and the accepted wisdom became that all they did was seal the diseases in nice protected environment so their use has stopped. The accepted best practice is now to avoid painting anything on pruning cuts and allow the plants natural healing processes to act.


The only tools needed are:

  • Secateurs – pick a well made pair that are comfortable in your hand and keep them clean and sharp. These will do most of you pruning.
  • Loppers – sometimes called parrot bills due to the shape of the cutter on some models. Used for branches too thick for secateurs but too thin for a saw. Looked after a good pair will last many years.
  • Pruning saws – these come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Pick one that feels comfortable and replace it when it becomes blunt. Do not try to cut too thin a branch with a saw, if you can cut it with a pair of loppers use them. If you are doing a lot of pruning the battery powered reciprocating saws with a green wood blade make very good pruning saws.
  • Pole loppers – these are loppers on a long, sometime telescopic pole, and they allow you to cut high branches from the ground. These come into there own when pruning fruit trees.
  • Chainsaws – it will be rare, if at all, that one of these will be needed as they are for cutting large amounts of thick timber. They are expensive to both buy and maintain, as well as being very dangerous pieces of equipment. If you really think you need one make sure you are familiar with there safe operation.

Hedge cutters

These are possibly the most dangerous tool in the garden. They are designed to prune hedges, just hedges, and where there is large area of formal hedging to be kept in shape they save a lot of work. That said some of the most extensive and impressive formal hedging you will see is in formal French gardens and I have never seen a powered hedge cutter used there, just hand shears. Anything else the French view as sacrilegious.  The problem is when people get into their heads that they are a pruning tool. They are not! I have sadly seen some dreadful examples of butchery as the result of a hedge cutter wheeling gardener.

Clematis "Multi Blue"
Clematis “Multi Blue”

Pruning table

As a general rule:

  • Spring and winter flowering trees and shrubs tend to flower on the previous summer’s growth so prune immediately after they finish flowering in spring.
  • Summer flowering trees and shrubs tend to flower on current summers growth so prune them in winter when the plants will not be encouraged to produce soft growth which will be susceptible to frost damage.
  • Be cautious cutting into old wood as not all plants will produce new shoots from it.
  • If you have to remove large branches bare in mind their cuts will take longer to heal.
  • If in doubt phase drastic pruning over time.

Below is a table of some common plants with details of there specific pruning needs.

Plant Frequency Timing How
Berberis - deciduous When too large or congested. Can be thinned after flowering, but best pruned in February. Thin congested branches and shorten them to a where they branch. Will generally come away from old wood.
Berberis - evergreen When too large or congested. Can be thinned after flowering, but best pruned in April. Thin congested branches and shorten them to a where they branch. Will generally come away from old wood.
Buddleja davidii Annually for best flowering. March. Cut back hard.
Clematis – large flowered hybrids which are expected to flower their main flowering before mid-June Annually. February to March when the buds are plump and green. Cut out any dead wood and shorten the remaining vines to the first pair of plump buds.
Clematis – main flowering is after mid-June Annually. February to March. Cut all the shoots to 1 metre or less above ground level.
Clematis – spring flowering Only if space is limited. Immediately after flowering. Cut out all the shoots which have flowered.
Cornus - grown for their coloured winter stems Annually, for best winter stem colour. Early spring. Cut back hard.
Cotinus When too large or congested. Early spring. Cut back to within 2 or 3 buds of old wood.
Cotinus "Royal Purple" - if grown for large foliage Every one or two years Spring Cut hard back to near ground level.
Deutzia Annually for best flowering. Immediately after flowering. Cut out some old wood lose to the ground to encourage new growth.
Escallonia Annually. After flowering in autumn. Cut back old flowering growths. Can be hard pruned at the same time if too large.
Eucalyptus gunnii – grown for its round juvenile foliage Annually Once frost have finished in early spring Cut hard back to near the ground level.
Ficus carica (fig) – fan trained Twice a year End of June and November End of June: Pinch out the growing tips of the young shoots on the frame work of branches. Tie in the resulting shoots. November: prune back half the fruited shoots to 25mm. The remining shoots should be tied in parallel to the wall, spacing them 20 to 30cm apart. Do not allow the framework to become too crowded as the young growth and fruits need plenty sunshine.
Forsythia Annually. Immediately after flowering. Cut back flowered shoots to encourage strong new growth lower down which will provide next spring’s flowers. Aim to remove about 20% of the old wood.
Garrya elliptica When it is becoming too large. Spring Cut back as necessary.
Hydrangea paniculata and H. arborescens Annually. Spring For more prolific flowering prune prune back to a healthy pair of buds 25 cm above the ground level (up to 60 cm if you wish to form a taller bush).
Hydrangea – climbing Annually. After flowering. Cut back over long shoots but try to retain the top grow as this is where most of the flowering occurs. Drastic pruning should be done over three or four years to minimise the reduction in flowering.
Hydrangea – shrubby Annually. Late winter to early spring. Cut one or two of the oldest shoots to the ground to promote new growth. Mopheads are best dead headed in spring to protect the terminal buds but Lacecaps can be dead headed immediately after flowering.
Hypericum calycinum When looking tired. Winter Can be cut down to the ground and top dressed with a general fertilizer.
Hypericum “Hidcote” When it is becoming too large. Winter Shorten outermost shoots back to sides shoots to hide cuts.
Lonicera - climbing and flowering later, on the current seasons growth When it is becoming too large. Spring. Cut back any shoots which are becoming too long.
Lonicera – climbing and flower early on the previous seasons growth Annually. Late summer immediately after flowering. Prune back by a third.
Lonicera – shrubby ones used for hedging Three times a year. Spring to autumn. Trim to maintain shape. Neglected specimens can be cut hard back to 150mm high.
Lonicera – winter flowering When too large or congested. Late spring immediately after flowering. Prune shoots flowered shoots to new growth and remove about a fifth of old wood to promote new shoots.
Mahonia When too large or congested. Once flowering is finish in spring. They flower on the ends of shoots so shorten them to bring the flowers nearer to the ground. Come away from old wood well.
Malus domestica (apple): Bush – spur bearing Annually. November to early March. Shorten last season’s shoots by one third.
Malus domestica (apple): Bush – tip bearing (e.g. 'Blenheim Orange', 'Bramley's Seedling', 'Discovery', 'Lord Lambourne', 'Worcester Pearmain') Annually. November to early March. Cut back a proportion of older fruited branches to a strong younger shoot positioned closer to the to the main trunk or higher up the branch. This will reduce congestion and prevent branches becoming too long.
Malus domestica (apple): Restricted as cordons, espaliers, etc. Annually. Mid to late August, when the bottom of the new shoots are stiff and woody. New shoots are stiff and woody along their bottom third, with dark green leaves and a cluster of leaves at the base. 1. Cut back new shoots (laterals) more than 20 cm (8 in) long growing from the main stem to three leaves above the basal cluster of leaves. Do not prune new shoots that are less than 20 cm (8 in) long as they usually terminate in fruit buds 2. Cut back new shoots growing from existing side-shoots (sub-laterals) to one leaf above the basal cluster 3. Remove any upright, vigorous growth completely 4. If secondary growth occurs after summer pruning, remove this in September. If this is a persistent problem, leave some longer shoots unpruned as these will draw up the sap and grow at the expense of secondary growth elsewhere. Cut these back to one bud in spring, as well as any vigorous growth projecting above the level of the supporting wire.
Osmanthus When it is becoming too large. After flowering in spring Shorten outermost shoots back to sides shoots to hide cuts.
Populus × jackii 'Aurora' Annually. Late winter. Prune hard to promote new shoots with larger variegated foliage.
Potentilla When too large or congested. Spring. Cut back to tidy up, but remove avoid cutting into old wood; apart from the odd shoot to encourage new growth.
Prunus avium (Cherries: sweet) Annually. Early to mid-summer. Fruit on one year and older wood so aim for a balance between existing fruiting shoots and their replacement. Do not winter prune to reduce the risk of silver leaf and bacterial canker.
Prunus cerasus (Cherries: acid) Annually. Late summer. Fruit on previous seasons wood, so aim to balance last year’s fruiting wood with this year’s growth which will be next year’s fruiting wood. Do not winter prune to reduce the risk of silver leaf and bacterial canker.
Prunus domestica (plum) When the crown needs thinning. Spring. Cut back as necessary.
Pyrus communis (pear): Bush – spur bearing Annually. November to early March. Shorten last season’s shoots by one third.
Pyrus communis (pear): Bush – tip bearing Annually. November to early March. Cut back a proportion of older fruited branches to a strong younger shoot positioned closer to the to the main trunk or higher up the branch. This will reduce congestion and prevent branches becoming too long.
Pyrus communis (pear): Restricted as cordons, espaliers, etc. Annually. Mid July, when the bottom of the new shoots are stiff and woody. New shoots are stiff and woody along their bottom third, with dark green leaves and a cluster of leaves at the base. 1. Cut back new shoots (laterals) more than 20 cm (8 in) long growing from the main stem to three leaves above the basal cluster of leaves. Do not prune new shoots that are less than 20 cm (8 in) long as they usually terminate in fruit buds 2. Cut back new shoots growing from existing side-shoots (sub-laterals) to one leaf above the basal cluster 3. Remove any upright, vigorous growth completely 4. If secondary growth occurs after summer pruning, remove this in September. If this is a persistent problem, leave some longer shoots unpruned as these will draw up the sap and grow at the expense of secondary growth elsewhere. Cut these back to one bud in spring, as well as any vigorous growth projecting above the level of the supporting wire.
Ribes - flowering When too large or congested. Immediately after flowering. Remove any weak shoots and prune some shoots hard down to ground level to encourage strong new growth.
Ribes - foliage Annually or biennially. Early spring. Cut hard back.
Ribes uva-crispa (gooseberry) - bushes Annually Winter Remove dead and low branches. Prune side shoots to one to three buds and shorten branches to one third.
Ribes uva-crispa (gooseberry) - cordons Twice a year Early June to mid-July and then Late Autumn or Winter Early June to mid-July: cut the side shoots back to five leaves and tie in the leader to its cane. Once it reaches the top of the cane at 1.7m cut the leader back to five leaves back from the end of last year’s growth. Late Autumn to Winter: after the leaves have fallen cut the side shoots back to one or two buds and cut the leader back by one third until it reaches the end of its cane. Once it does cut the leader back to one to three buds back from the start of last seasons growth.
Rosa: Shrub, standard, climber. Annually. February to March. Reduce by two thirds. see How to prune a rose bush.
Rubus fruticosus agg. (Blackberry) Annually. Winter. Remove the fruited canes and tie in the new ones.
Spiraea - spring flowering e.g. S. ‘Arguta’ When too large or congested. Immediately after flowering. Cut back the shoots that have flowered while retaining as much of the new growth as possible as this bares next spring’s flowers.
Spiraea - summer flowering e.g. S. ‘Anthony Waterers’ and S. ‘Goldflame’ When too large or congested. Early spring. Flower on current seasons growth so cut back to within 2 or 3 buds of the old wood.
Syringa Annually Immediately after flowering Remove old flowering wood. It may be necessary to pinch over vigorous shoots in summer and remove suckers from grafted plants.
Viburnum – grown for their berries. (e.g. davidii) When it is becoming too large. Late winter. Reduce as needed.
Viburnum – spring flowering (e.g. x burkwoodii carlesii, opulus and rhytidophyllum). When too large or congested. Late spring or August, but not so late that new growth will not time to ripen before winter. Remove weak shoots and shorten others back to a manageable size.
Viburnum: winter flowering When it is becoming too large. Spring. Reduce as needed.
Weigela hybrids Annually. Immediately after flowering. Thin crowded bushes and remove a couple of old branches to ground level to encourage new shoots.

For more information on specific plants see:

  • Clematis by Christopher Lloyd
  • The Old Shrub Roses by Graham Stuart Thomas

How to Plant up an area with grown cover shrubs

Hydrangea macrophylla 'Merveille Sanguine'
Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Merveille Sanguine’

The secret to making a low maintenance garden border is to start off with no perennial weeds, after that the maintenance is no worse than a lawn in the first couple of years and far less thereafter. When creating a border most people make the mistake of making it too narrow, a 300mm (1 foot) deep border will just not work. If that’s all you can manage your better off with climbers or wall shrubs. 1.5 to 2 metres (5ft to 6ft 6inches) is the sort of depth you should be aiming for, not all gardens may be able to accommodate this but the closer you can stretch to this the better. In a very small garden you may do better having one deep border at the bottom of the garden and climbers and wall shrubs on the other walls.

Urtica dioica (Stinging Nettle)
Urtica dioica (Stinging Nettle)

Once you’ve chosen your area you need to remove any perennial weeds before you start to plant. Removing them once the plants are in and growing is far harder and the reason many peoples’ borders fail to work. Weeds like couch (Elymus repens ), ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria) and stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) have a spreading root which can quickly grows through the root ball of newly planted shrubs making the weeds extremely difficult and sometimes impossible to get rid of. Where the area is an established lawn these weeds will have not been able to become established because of the regular mowing. Here the grass can be stripped off but some weeds will be left behind such as dandelions (Taraxacum species) with their deep tap-root. The most reliable way is to kill off all the vegetation with a glyphosate weed killer (sold as Roundup, Gallup and other brand names). Leave the weeds to die down, this

Elymus repens (Couch grass).
Elymus repens (Couch grass).

can take a week or two and then turn the ground over with a garden fork, removing any roots and large stones. If the border is edged by a lawn, tidy up the edge to form a clean line and spread 25 to 50 mm (1 or 2 inches) of organic matter and use a garden fork to combine it into the soil. If the soil is very sticky with clay, mix some sharp grit (about 1 to 4mm) to open the soil up making it better draining, easier to work and with more air in it.

The source of the organic matter is not important so long as it’s free from contamination and weeds, your choice can be bases on price and availability. Well-rotted garden compost is ideal but few gardens have a large supply of it, peat was the traditional alternative and although it is a good soil improver these days its environmental cost makes it undesirable. Many councils now sell recycled waste as compost and these are normally well made, just don’t pay a premium for an “organic” label it does make the compost any better; just allows the seller to claim a higher price! If you live in a rural area you may be able to get farm yard manure and if rotted down this is very good, but in practice farms don’t want to leave the manure heaped up for a year or two to rot down so if you are going to use it you may have to except you must leave it to rot down before you can use it or the rotting straw can soak up any available nitrogen.

Photinia 'Red Robin'
Photinia ‘Red Robin’

You are now ready to plant the border. Choose shrubs which have a good dense canopy of leaves in summer so they smother any weeds before they can become established. Being evergreen is not important in this context as weeds germinate doing spring and summer, but some will provide some interest during the winter. Try not to focus on what’s in flower at the time as you want as long a period of interest as possible and bear in mind foliage lasts a lot longer than flowers. When walking around the nursery or garden centre make use of the labels and staff, if they’re not helpful go somewhere else! A good supplier will take pride in their stock and gave a good knowledge of it. Deciding how far apart the plants should be is tricky and it can be very difficult to visualise how big a plant will be in a few years’ time. The tendency is to over plant, especially in small areas so have a look at the label and ask if in doubt. Also bear in mind a 1.8 metre (6 foot) high plant is generally going to end up as wide as it is high.

Skimmia japonica 'Bowles's Dwarf'
Skimmia japonica ‘Bowles’s Dwarf’

Once you made your choice and paid for them pack them in your car carefully, DO NOT have them sticking out of sunroofs and windows, they will travel perfectly well laid on their sides; even if some end up gently laid on top of one another. When home get them out of the car as soon as possible, stand them in a sheltered corner and water them well. Like this, so long as they are keep watered they will be fine for up to a week if you run out of time.

Planting can be done on any frost free dry day and start by setting out your plants in their intended positions. Now is the time to make any last-minute adjustments to the arrangement before planting.

Viburnum davidii
Viburnum davidii

To plant use a garden spade to dig a hole larger than the plant pot, remove the pot, place the plant in the hole and firm the soil back around the root ball with your heel, making sure the top of the compost is level with the border soil. To remove the pot grasp the plant where it emerges from the compost and give the rim of the pot a firm tap with the palm of the hand. After all the plants are in rake over the surface to tidy up and water the plants really well, in part to settle the soil in around the root ball.

Give the borders a quick check over once a week for any weeds emerging, and remove them; most weeks there will be nothing to do and the next spring feed them with a general fertilizer.


Of all the landscape parks of England, Stowe is perhaps the most typical of the tradition which it represents

–Dame Sylvia Crowe,  Garden Design

Stowe - The Temple of Venus.
Stowe – The Temple of Venus.

Stowe is rightly regarded as a defining example of an English Landscape Garden. Though not as beautiful as Stourhead; it is better than any other garden at capturing the spirit of this school of garden design.  It was effectively constructed in the 18th century and was the product of the century’s great garden designers. Sadly, subsequent development has meant the garden can no longer be truly seen as its creators intended but its structure still shines through.

This is a garden built to impress, and it does! The approach to the house starts proper at the village of Buckingham two and a third miles from the house with the one and half mile long, dead straight, tree lined Stowe Avenue. As you approach the house up Stowe Avenue the view of it through the Corinthian Arch changes as the road follows the undulations of the countryside and having arrived at the arch the visitor can view the vast house across open country and a lake but, true to the spirit of the English Landscape school, they must wait to explore this Elysian Field. Instead they were taken west around the outer edge of the garden only being allowed glimpses of the house and garden as they are taken in a long arc to the house entrance at the north. Unfortunately, and annoyingly common, you no longer approach the gardens as the creators intended but this access can still be walked if you feel energetic or followed on Google Street View if you’re not. You now approach the garden by turning east at the Corinthian Arch and enter though the New Inn where the National Trust has set up its carpark and shops before walking down to an entrance by the West Pavilion.

Stowe - the house viewed over the lake.
Stowe – the house viewed over the lake.

This is the problem with the garden, the garden is no longer approached as intended, the house and some of the grounds have be taken over by a private school with its own needs and a large chunk of best part of the garden has become a private Golf Course. In a perfect world, the whole house and garden would be reunited and the approach reworked to return it to much nearer to the original intention. This is unfortunately unlikely to happen as the National Trust is hard pushed to fund the upkeep of what it has at Stowe

The idea behind this school of design was the creation of the Elysian Fields by the subtle manipulation of the English countryside which was then presented and viewed in a controlled way. So, successful was this at Stowe it is now often to distinguish where nature stopped and man took control. It was a rebellion against the more formal French style and lead to many fine examples both in the UK and the continent being destroyed, but far better suited the English countryside in which it was situated. It also reflects a growing confidence in England with greater political stability and economic prosperity.

Stowe - The Palladian Bridge.
Stowe – The Palladian Bridge.

This great wealth allowed gardens to be created on a truly lavish scale and Stowe was furnished with a very large number of garden buildings and ornaments; nearly all for pure decorative purposes and those from necessity were lavishly ornamented. This is perhaps the problem with the English Garden School; however beautiful and well-crafted a Greece temple has no place in an English countryside. It clearly looks contrived. Beautiful, stunning: but still contrived. That is not to say Stowe is not a great delight to walk around and marvel at: it is without question. It can never though totally blend in with its surrounding countryside and its reliance on quite a narrow range of plants lead to the style giving way to a more plant centred one as the Victorians looked to show off the new plant introductions flooding into the country from the rest of the world.

How to look after a pony paddock

By a pony paddock I am referring to a small field used to keep one or more horses or ponies in usually under a couple of acres.


  • Chain harrow
  • Roller
  • Fertilizer spreader
  • Quad bike or compact tractor
  • Pasture topper

Annual routine:

Once the grass begins to grow in spring, chain harrow the grass and start to feed it, a little at regular intervals over the summer is far more efficient as it reduces the about of fertilizer lost to leaching. As the surface of the grass becomes pitted by the hooves it needs rolling and when the grazing starts to have clumps of course grass and/or weeds go over it with a pasture topper. Any poo picking should be done prior to chain harrowing and pasture topping to prevent it being dispersed over the field.

Rejuvenating a paddock:

Start off by getting a professional soil analysis so you can see what fertilizer and lime the soil needs. While you are waiting for this to come back have a good walk around the paddock and check for drainage problems (often indicated by clumps of course sedge), damaged or missing fencing, the condition of the water supply, check and treat any ragwort and if the grass needs to be cut back with a pasture topper.

How you tackle a drainage problem depends on its course, an isolated area could be a broken or block land-drain which needs to be dug out and repaired, but if on digging down you may find a spring then it needs to be lead away to drain if possible. Excessive damp around a pond could well be caused by the pond overflow being silted up and needing clearing out. Generally, poorly draining land will have to be drained by land-drains which leads the water to somewhere it can be disposed of.


Once you have sorted out these problems you can chain harrow the grass and over-seed the paddock; prior to starting the fertilizer regime recommended by the soil analysis. It will take time for the grass to start to come right and if there are a lot of weeds such as dock and nettle you will have to repeatedly cut them back until they weaken and die out or use a selective weed killer if practical.



The grass being grazed is constantly losing nutrients by several routes: the most important being the removal of the plants by grazing, exasperated by the necessary practice of poo picking to reduce the parasite load, and leaching, as the rain washes the nutrients down out of reach of the plants. As the quantity of available nutrients in the soil becomes less not only will the growth of the grass, and therefore the available grazing, fall also the grass will become more susceptible to competition from weeds but also it will become more susceptible to pest and diseases. It follows then that if an area is to provide good grazing it will need to have the lost nutrients replaced.

The only way to find out what nutrients a soil is short of and therefore what fertilizer it will need is to chemically test the soil. Most companies that specialise in selling the appropriate fertilizer can arrange to have a sample of your soil tested at a laboratory for a fee and will provide a recommended fertiliser treatment for the field. A great variety of do it DIY kits are also available but none of them will provide the accuracy of one undertaken in a soil science laboratory and you still must work out what fertilizer you need to apply.

The report you will get back will give to the levels of the important soil nutrients, their recommendations for the fertilizer to apply and when, the pH of the soil, their recommendations for any lime needed and possibly also the soils cation exchange capacity. The last of these is a measure of how well the soil can hold nutrients and is for information only as it cannot be altered. The lime requirements are essential as this affects the soil pH which in turns affect if the nutrients in the soil are available to the plants.

The easiest way of applying the fertilizer is by using a spreader towed behind a quad bike or compact tractor. These normally work by allowing the fertilizer to run out of a hopper onto a rotating disc which flings the fertilizer out in an arc behind the machine. The rate of spread is controlled by adjusting the opening at the bottom of the hopper and the speed the machine is traveling at. They normally come with instructions for setting for a range of materials.

Chain harrowing:

Chain harrows
Chain harrows

This is the same process as scarifying a garden lawn and is to clear dead grass from around the base of the grass plants so improving the movement of air and moisture around into the base of the plants and between the air and the soil. It is normally done in spring and autumn by dragging a set of chain harrows over the grass.

Chain harrows are a very old piece of agricultural machinery and normally come in sections which hook into a bar which is pulled by a machine. The sections are made from steel rod folded and worked to form a mesh, not unlike chain-link fencing, with regularly shaped spikes pointing down from this mesh. These spikes slope slightly back from the vertical when the harrows are pulled forward.

They are simply pulled over the grass at about 2.5 to 5 mph (4 to 8 kph) but care should be taken and you need to plan ahead before you start. First of all, you cannot reverse with them, a few models come mounted on a frame which can be lifted on a tractor’s 3-point hitch – but they are the exception not the rule! Therefore, make sure you can always drive forwards out of where ever you drive into. Next, they turn tighter than the vehicle pulling them so when you turn at the end of a pass you cannot immediately follow the edge of the previous pass. This tendency also means if you turn too tightly the bar at the top of the harrows will catch on the back wheels and can end up joining on the machine! Finally, like rollers they tend to be wider than the towing machine so they can catch on trees and posts.


This is done with a roller pulled behind a tractor or quad bike at about 2.5 to 5 mph (4 to 8 kph). The rollers are normally a hollow cylinder with a screw in plug to fill them. Move the roller until the plug is at its highest and fill with water using garden hose before refitting the plug. The manufactures often recommend water or sand, but how you are supposed to fill one with sand is beyond me!

When using a roller, the moisture of the soil is critical; too damp and the roller will leave ruts at its edges and can even become bogged down, too dry and the hoof marks will be left. The ideal level of moisture will vary widely depending on the soil type and needs to be found by trial and error.

When pulling a roller pay careful attention to the sides of the roller as they are wider than the machine pulling them and will have a tighter turning circle. This is particularly important when working between trees as the roller can catch tree trunks and even suddenly yank the machine pulling it to one side. Also, if you cut the corner too close going around a tree, or similar, you can end up with the obstruction between the pulling machine and the roller. A situation which it can be very difficult to get back out of.

Pasture topping:

Horses are notoriously picky eaters only taking what they view are the best from the grass and leaving others. This leads to the courser grasses getting left and being allowed to outgrow the better ones. To counter this, it is necessary to cut down these courses grasses at regular intervals with a pasture topper. In practice, these are either rotatory or flail mowers powered by a tractors PTO shaft or a motor mounted on the machine, though for small areas a small flail mower can be hired in. There is considerable debate over the relative merits of flail verses rotary but in practice there is probably little real difference except that if you are likely to hit stones, tree stumps, bits of wood and the like a flail mower is a lot less likely to be damaged.


The range of plants that make up the grass in an area of grazing can deteriorate with time and neglect. To reverse this the area can be over-seeded by spreading a new seed over the existing grass where it will germinate amongst the existing grass and fill in any gaps. This is cheaper and quicker than replacing the grazing and starting again. It is important to choose a suitable grass seed mixture from a firm which provides specialist agricultural grass seed mixture as they have become very sophisticated over the last 30 years or so. The grass seed should be sown when there is no risk of frost and ideally when rain is imminent.

Selective weed killers:

These are chemicals designed to kill weeds growing in grass and rely on the board leaved weeds being more susceptible to the chemical than the grasses. This means the rate the chemical is applied is critical as too little and nothing will be killed but too much and the grass will be damaged and even killed. Most of these chemicals are designed for professional use and must be applied by a sprayer. A further problem, and possibly the greatest, is that it is often preferable to have broad leaves plants in the mixture of plants that make up the grazing and any selective weed killer will kill these as well as any weeds.



How to build a sleeper raised bed

As well as retaining walls timber sleepers can be used to create raised beds. A great variety of shapes can be created using these, but the shape of the sleepers only really work well with shapes based on right-angles. This though still provides great scope by interlocking  the basic squares and rectangles,  and varying the height of different sections.


  • New railway sleepers
  • 200mm/8 inch Timberloc screws or similar
  • Granular sub-base
  • Battery drill/driver
  • Circular saw with at least a 65mm/2½ inches max. depth of cut
  • Sledge hammer
  • Topsoil



  1. Mark out the outside edge of the raised bed
  2. Dig out the strip of ground the sleepers are going to sit on, making it 50mm/2 inches wider than the sleepers.

    The base dug out for the sleepers.
    The base dug out for the sleepers.
  3. Level the base of the trench with a minimum of 50mm/2 inches of granular sub-base and tamp it down with the head of the sledge hammer.

    The sub-base foundation for the base of the planter.
    The sub-base foundation for the base of the planter.
  4. Lay the bottom course of sleepers in place, leaving a 25mm/1 inch drainage gap between the ends.

    The first whole sleepers laid to form the bottom course.
    The first whole sleepers laid to form the bottom course.
  5. Level this course by adjusting the sub-base under them and knocking them down with the sledge hammer.

    The first course of the planter with the cut sleepers fitted in.
    The first course of the planter with the cut sleepers fitted in.
  6. Lay the next course on top of first making sure to overlap the joints and butting the ends up close together.

    The second course of sleepers.
    The second course of sleepers.
  7. Secure the two courses together with the Timberloc screws, making sure all the pieces are screwed together.
  8. Lay the next course on top, screw down and repeat until the desired height is reached.

    The first four courses of sleepers.
    The first four courses of sleepers.
  9. Fill with topsoil.

    The completed raised bed filled with topsoil.
    The completed raised bed filled with topsoil.

St. Nicholas Gardens

St. Nicholas - The Long Border.
St. Nicholas – The Long Border.

This is the garden created by The Honourable Robert James and Lady Serena James at Richmond in North Yorkshire. Bobbie James was an avid plant collector and member of The Garden Society, an exclusive group of Fellows of The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). He was in the same social circle as Lawrence Johnson, of Hidcote fame, who was a fellow member of The Garden Society, Fellow of the RHS and both men sponsored some of the same plant hunting expeditions. Bobbie James, as he was known, moved to St. Nicholas in 1905 with his first wife Lady Evelyn, two years prior to Johnson moving to Hidcote and it seems most likely that both men were aware of the developments of the others’ gardens.

Following Lady Evelyn James death in 1922 Bobbie married the much younger Lady Serena Lumley who was a keen gardener in her own right and she continued to care for the gardens after her husband’s death in 1960 until her own in 2000. After her death, the property remained in private hands and is presently open to the public a few days each year.

St. Nicholas - The Rock Garden.
St. Nicholas – The Rock Garden.

Bobbie James was very much a plantsman and his garden reflected this, a factor which caused his widow a great deal of problems and regret as she was unable to find suitable staff to maintain a garden full of rare plants. Sadly, when a garden is neglected it is the planting which tends to suffer the most and this has been a long-term problem for this garden. About 30 years ago Lady Serena showed me around the garden and back then she was struggling to maintain the garden. This shows; many of the paths and steps require maintenance and much of the planting is missing, repetitive or of poor quality. Some of the original planting does survive, such as Rosa ‘Bobbie James’ which rambles over the front of the house and Lady Serena was very proud, but little is made of it.

St. Nicholas - Gate into the Herb Garden and Privet Allee.
St. Nicholas – Gate into the Herb Garden and Privet Allee.

There is though still a lot of the structure of the garden, particularly the walls and hedges which divide the garden into separate areas. This was a popular design style at the time the garden was being created and allows the garden to have a number of separately themed areas. These allow them to show off different types of garden and plants but Bobbie James was unable to draw the surrounding countryside into the garden layout.

St. Nicholas has a long history and a place in the history of plants and gardens but needs a lot more work before it’s ready to be open to the public. The potential is clearly there and with time and money it could be a great garden, but it’s future is unclear as it was placed on the market again in May 2017.

How to fix trellis to a wall

Fixing trellis onto a wall.
Fixing trellis onto a wall.

Trellis is a very effective way of training climbers against a wall and can either be bought or made from scratch. Fixing it to the wall though can present problems but with a little care result can be both durable and effective.


  • Drill driver
  • Heavy duty SDS masonry drill and bit
  • Plastic wall plugs
  • Wood-screws
  • Spirit level
  • Claw hammer


  1. Choose a wood-screw about 50 mm thicker than the trellis, more if the wall is rendered, and some plastic wall plugs recommended for the size of the wood-screws.
  2. Fit the masonry drill with a bit the recommended size for the wall plugs, you may want to hire a drill in (a 4 Kg drill which takes SDS drill bits will be sufficiently large).
  3. Position the trellis where you plan to have it and drill through the trellis into the wall. Chose a place half way across the trellis and near the top. Always aim for the centre of a brick or stone, avoid mortar joints.
  4. Move the trellis and tap a wall plug into the drilled hole. Put the trellis back and thread a wood-screw through the hole you drilled in the trellis and into the wall plug. Tap the screw head to start it off and drive it almost home with the drill driver. Check the trellis is level and vertical, the first screw will support it, and tighten the screw until it is flush with the trellis surface.
  5. Drill a second hole through the trellis vertically below the first and near the bottom; checking the trellis is still level and vertical. Push a plug into the hole, there is no need to move the trellis, and use a wood-screw and hammer to drive the plug into the wall until you feel the screw bite into the plug. Tighten the screw with the drill driver.
  6. Carry on repeating the process in part 5 above so that the trellis is screwed to the wall every 600 to 900 mm, checking the trellis is firmly attached to the wall.

Biddulph Grange

Biddulph Grange, looking over towards the china garden.
Biddulph Grange, looking over towards the china garden.

The gardens at Biddulph Grange were the creation of James Bateman (1811- 1897), though what you see today is the product of one of  the greatest garden restoration programmes undertaken. James Bateman moved into the property in 1840, two years after his marriage to Maria Egerton Warburton, and was in the fortunate position of starting with a blank canvas. On this site, he created what was at the time a truly original garden. He divided up his grounds into a series of separately themed gardens show casing a range of themes. The rear of the house faces roughly south of south-west and as nearly all of house has been divided up to flats and sold off the garden is entered via extreme west end of the house and into the Italianate garden. This starts a journey through a whole range of garden styles.

Biddulph Grange china garden detail.
Biddulph Grange china garden detail.

This was more though than just experimenting with styles; it was about Bateman’s vision of creation and man’s place in the order of things. Like many of his generation he was a creationist and passionately believed heaven and earth were the creation of God for Man. Though rightly a highly-regarded botanist he could never accept Darwin and Wallace’s theories of evolution which burst onto the world in 1859. The garden was originally entered through a corridor at the east end of the house and this was decorated to show Bateman’s vision of how the emerging knowledge of fossils could be blended with the account of creation in Genius.

His belief in God’s divine order is further reflected in this desire to place the new plant introductions he filled his garden in appropriate locations with a Himalayan garden for rhododendrons and Chinese garden for plants from the orient. This leads to a garden of individual areas or zones each with its own identity; at the time, a new original approach to garden design.

How to make trellis

All of the pieces of the trellis in place and showing some of the screws which hold it together.
All of the pieces of the trellis in place and showing some of the screws which hold it together.

Trellis can be purchased ready made from garden centres and DIY stores but it is in a limited range of sizes, you only have one spacing for the lathes and it is often quite light weight. A far better way is to make it yourself from pressure treated timber and you can chose any sizes and the spacing of the lathes. Closer together for more screening or to provide a wind break they can be spaced to give you the 50% optimal permeability.


  • 50 mm x 25 mm Tannalised softwood (tile lathe)
  • Wood saw
  • Battery drill/driver
  • 40mm x 3.5 mm countersunk woodscrews
  • Tape measure
  • Set square or combination square


  1. Decide on the overall height and width of the trellis panel.
  2. Enter the dimensions into the table below.
  3. Adjust the the spacing of the lathes to get the spacing you would like. For a wind break a trellis density of about 50% is idea.
  4. Cut the length shown at the bottom of the table.
  5. If you plan to stain the trellis do it now before you assemble it.
  6. First vertical pieces of the trellis.
    First vertical pieces of the trellis.

    Take two of the pieces which are to be the vertical parts of the trellis on a level surface the width of the trellis apart.

  7. First horizontal pieces added to the trellis.
    First horizontal pieces added to the trellis.

    Connect the ends with two of the horizontal, fixing them with width a wood screw.

  8. Trellis showing the first intermediate verticals being added.
    Trellis showing the first intermediate verticals being added.
    Trellis with all the vertical pieces in place.
    Trellis with all the vertical pieces in place.

    Arrange the remaining vertical pieces under the horizontal pieces attached in part 7 above.

  9. The spacer piece used to set the gap between the pieces of wood.
    The spacer piece used to set the gap between the pieces of wood.

    Cut a piece of wood the length of the distance between the vertical pieces and use it to space them. Adjust if necessary and secure to the top and bottom pieces by screwing through them into the ends of the vertical pieces.

  10. The trellis showing the first horizontal pieces in place with screws.
    The trellis showing the first horizontal pieces in place with screws.
    All of the pieces of the trellis in place and showing some of the screws which hold it together.
    All of the pieces of the trellis in place and showing some of the screws which hold it together.

    Arrange the horizontal pieces between the top and bottom pieces, spacing them with a piece of wood as in part 8 above and secure them at ever intersection.

The different parts of the trellis which relate to the form for working out the spacing and quantities.
The different parts of the trellis which relate to the form for working out the spacing and quantities.

Vertical Lathe Spacing

Overall width of the trellis (a): mm

Width of vertical lathes (b): mm

Number of vertical lathes (c):

Gap between the vertical lathe (d):

Horizontal Lathe Spacing

Overall Height of the trellis (e): mm

Width of horizontal lathes (f): mm

Number of horizontal lathes (g):

Gap between the horizontal lathe (h):

Trellis density:
% (The higher the density the less you will see though the trellis.)

Cutting list:

  • vertical lathes
    mm long
  • horizontal lathes
    mm long


How to make compost

Plastic compost bin
Plastic compost bin

All gardens produce some waste be it weeds, grass cuttings or dead flower heads and virtually all have soil which benefits from some additional organic matter. The local authority will take it away, often for a charge, or you can recycle your garden waste as compost and reduce the amount you have to buy. The problem is there is a little more to it than just making a heap of garden rubbish and hoping for the best. People complain that that they end up with a foul smelling mound and this is always the result of believing that just heaping up all the grass cutting will make compost. It doesn’t! To be a success a compost heap needs a varied diet.

The way to start is to create an area for the compost and decide how you are to contain it. The easiest way in a small garden is to buy one of the plastic compost bins, they come in various sizes and can be place in a discreet corner out of sight. They need no base to sit on, if anything they are better placed straight on to the bare earth. Larger gardens may need something a little more ambitious but here it need not be very fancy. Some cheap fence post with strong netting stapled to them will do, the kind sold for pig netting should do. Now the important part filling it.

Home made compost bin
Home made compost bin

A lot of research has been done on composting and it has been found that a successful compost heap starts with 30 times as much carbon in it as nitrogen but a lot of things you want to compost do not have that golden mix of carbon and nitrogen. Some things like grass cuttings have a lot more nitrogen than this and some like cardboard have a lot less. Now in addition 3 more things are important the temperature, the amount of water and the amount of air.

In the UK the outside temperature is going to be beyond your control and in practice is of little importance. How moist the heap is also usually not an issue unless you add a lot of dry material or we have a long dry spell. In practice as long as the heap is moist, not sodden, you should be alright.

This only leaves the carbon to nitrogen ratio. In practice though this can be simplified by dividing material into high nitrogen, generally green, waste and low nitrogen, generally brown, waste and mixing them in the ratio of 2 green waste to 1 brown waste.

Green waste is things such as grass cuttings, weeds, plant clippings, manures and vegetable scraps.

Brown waste tends to be leaves, hay and straw, sawdust, wood chippings, shredded paper, old compost.


Some brown waste, such as dry leaves, can be very bulky so try to imagine them pressed tight together when gauging how much your adding.

Try to mix the different materials to stop dense layers forming, grass cuttings are particularly bad for this. If you have a lot  of grass cuttings you may be better taking it to the council recycling centre and letting them compost it.

Don’t get too hung up on the proportions; the natural course is for things to breakdown, you’re just encouraging things along. Just make sure the heap gets a varied diet.

If the heap starts to look dense and slimy with a smell you need to mix in some brown waste like shredded paper, compost heaps shouldn’t smell!

If the heap looks dead and dry it needs some green waste, compost heaps hardly ever need to have water added to them.