To drain or not to drain that is the question.

When faced with an area of waterlogged garden the solution put forward is always to put a drain in, as if digging a trench and putting in a length of perforated pipe will magically make the problem go away. If only life was so easy. If you are going to drain a piece of ground you need to address two questions, one you may not be able to answer, the second your are going to have to.

The first question is what is coursing the poor drainage, this can have answers and sometimes the reason is never actually found. It is still important to try and understand the circumstances behind the problem if an effective means of tackling it is to be found. Possible courses are:

  • A buried layer stopping or slowing water percolating down to the water table
  • High water table
  • Springs
  • A depression blocking the natural drainage
  • A vertical structure blocking the natural drainage down a slope

The second is where you are going to drain the water to. This is the thing people always over look; they will happily stand looking at the problem debating the cause while never considering what they are going to do with the water once they have got it into a land drain. The bottom line is if you are going to drain an area you have to have somewhere to drain the water too. The problem is if the water isn’t draining away it may be because there is nowhere for it to drain to.

Before going any further down the drainage route the question needs to be asked; “is drainage the best solution?”

  • Drainage is expensive and a big upheaval
  • Persistently wet ground opens the opportunity to grow a range of different plants
  • Drainage isn’t always practical

What’s involved?


If you are going to drain an area of garden you have to consider the practicalities, you are going to have to dig a  trench – lots of trenches possibly –, bring in gravel and dispose of a lot of now unwanted subsoil. You also have to find somewhere to drain the unwanted water too, clean up all the mud (you are digging out very wet soil) and make good the area so that it once again looks like a garden and not the morning after the battle of the Somme!

Alternatively you could except the situation and fill the area with suitable plants. It is always far easier to plant with the prevailing conditions than try to fight them. Once you have accepted that this area is water logged and you are going to have to live with this it opens up whole new palette of plants to work with. Have a good look at the area and live with it for a while, at least a year, and seen how much sun it gets and when, is it wet all summer or just in winter, is there standing water in the area and how long for, all year, all winter or just when the weather is very wet. How big is the area affected and how does the area change over the course of the year. This way you can build up a mental map of the area so you appreciate which areas are going to be water logged just during winter, which all year round, which are going to be a bit wetter than ideal and which are going to be covered with standing water most of the year. These different areas provide you with the conditions needed to grow plants which would otherwise be very difficult otherwise. If you are prepared to spend a little time and patience you can turn what at first appeared a problem in to a real asset to you and your garden.

Finally not everywhere is going to be appropriate for this treatment and if the waterlogged area is your main area of garden then you are probably going to have to find a means of draining it; but for a small part of a garden, or even a large part of a very small garden, you may well be better seeing the possibilities of your garden and using them.

Buying for the garden

One of biggest problems that retailers selling to gardeners have is names. Plant names, chemical names, compost names, what ever they try to sell to gardeners there always seems to be some impenetrable name between the product and the customer. How the shop handles this divides the good from the rest. For it is not an insurmountable problem but it does call for a real investment in their staff, not just in monetary terms, the culture within a workforce is what makes the biggest difference irrespective of if it one small shop or a national chain. A happy motivated worker is going to make the effort to understand the things he is selling and a good employer is going to make sure they have the support to make sure they have the time and the opportunities to keep that knowledge up to date. This is because the thing that makes a good garden supplier stand out is product knowledge and if you walk into the shop and is greeted with an absence of clear and well informed advice turn round and walk out. The good ones, and there are plenty out there, need your support if we are to keep them.

The great grass seed swindle!

In about the last 40 years grass seed has undergone a revolution, when I was an undergraduate perennial rye grass was the tufty grass you tried to avoid in anything but the areas of long grass due to its course nature and inability to tolerate close mowing. Suffice to say things have changed a lot with the discovery that you can selectively breed grasses and so dramatically alter their nature, particularly the case with rye grass. Now very few commercial grass seed mixtures contain no perennial rye grass cultivars in their make up. This is because modern perennial rye grass cultivars still have the good wear resistance of their wild type but the nature and tolerance to close mowing of the traditional finer grasses. This has lead to a proliferation of hundreds of different grass cultivars each with their own characteristics, strengths and weaknesses. Every year the STRI (Sport Turf Research Institute) and the BSPB (British Society of Plant Breeders) publish a buyer guide to the available grass seed varieties and the 2012 edition runs to 32 pages! With all this variety how are you going to the right choice? Lucky this is done by the seed merchants and all grass seed is now sold in mixtures. Now comes the problem, because how good these mixtures are can be very variable.

Can we trust the packaging

Mixtures from the big seed houses are very good as they are supplying the professional market and have a wealth of specialist knowledge to back up their choices. You only have to look at recordings of a late season football match from the 1970’s and compare the pitch to a late season match now. Unfortunately you are unlikely to see these on the shelves of the local supermarket or DIY shed, and even if you did you the name would nothing to you as they sell to people like golf and football clubs, and landscapers who buy grass seed in multiples of 25 Kg sacks. The people at the STRI began to wonder if all the advances made in turf culture over the years had filtered down to the domestic market so in 2009 they started to investigate the quality and performance of the grass seed mixtures which were aimed at the home gardener. This wasn’t greeted with enthusiasm by some of the retailers, claiming as the seed mixtures changed from year to year by the time the trials would be completed the mixtures would have changed so the results would be out of date. Fortunately the STRI pressed on sighting the argument that trail would show if the mixtures matched the description on the packet they came in. Unfortunately for the consumer STRI are not Which, consumer protection is not what they do, it was fortunate for the retailers since they would not want the trial results given the kind of press coverage Which would have given them. They were not good.

Does it do what it says on the box?

By their own admission the trials are in an early stage but in their April 2010 Bulletin they had already come to the conclusion that the quality of the mixtures was VERY variable and the price on the box was no indicator of the quality of the content. The mixture appeared to be made to price not purpose so the consumer had no way of knowing if the mixture was really suitable for them. In any walk of life this would have coursed a public outcry and the retailers would have had their PR people running round like scolded cats. The STRI is a professional research organisation for the horticultural industry so sadly no one noticed the damming report they produced, and I’ve read a few research bulletins but none I can think of which were this bad!

The mixtures ranged from reasonable to ones which were only really suitable for a farmer’s field, I know self sufficiency is coming back into fashion but keeping a house cow might be a step to far.

So what to do?

From the report and the deafening silence that has followed it I think it fair to say buying your grass seed from a supermarket, DIY shed or most large garden centres is going to be at best the horticultural equivalent Russian roulette. So what would I do? Well head to an independent garden centre or similar place and have a wander about. Look to see if the grass seed is in nice shiny little boxes on the shelves. If it is I’m afraid your best bet is to keep looking. On the other hand if the grass seed is being dolled out of large paper sacks in the floor and the sacks are rather plain you are in a much better position. Have a look at the brand name, ask the staff about it, google the name and see if a big specialist grass seed company, do a bit of research, you are going to be living with this mixture for many years to come. That way you should get a grass seed mixture which reflects the quality out there and not left with the stock room floor sweepings. Clearly a case for “Caveat emptor”!

Is Chelsea 2012 Still About Gardening?

Chelsea is over for another year and this year it was blessed with excellent weather. I haven’t been this year but I’ve watched the coverage on the television and while you miss some of the atmosphere the camera crews get far better access to the gardens than joe public. There is an element of garden snobbery that you HAVE TO GO TO CHELSEA! The reality is though it’s a very well orchestrated publicity show for gardening. Now that isn’t entirely a criticism; the RHS manages to get a great deal of publicity for gardening through this show with hours of T.V. coverage and acres of print which is all for the good of horticulture, but it is make believe. The days have gone when wealthy patrons bought a display garden and had it recreated in their own gardens. These days the gardens tend to be about promoting the sponsor and/or a theme. Some of these themes are very laudable but to what extend is promoting say caravanning connected to gardening? The truth is an awarding winning garden in the country’s premium garden show is guaranteed a lot of media coverage and not just in the UK.

This means that Chelsea gardens are now dominated by “Theme” gardens, created at great expense for corporate sponsors, which will all be vying for the judges’ and journalists’ eye. The cost of individual gardens is a closely guarded secret but it reckoned £250,000 is probably about average and some end up a £million plus. That’s very nice for the contractor and designers who make these gardens magically appear in the grounds of The Chelsea Hospital every year but just how relevant are these gardens to the average gardener.

I’m not saying don’t go, I believe everyone interested in gardening should go at least once, but not every year and don’t panic if you haven’t the time (or the money to spare). There will always be next year. And when you do get there expect to be in a big crowd with queues to see the display gardens and when you get to the front of them the view will be limited, but you can always watch them on T.V. when you get home! Once you’ve had your fill of them have a wander through the trade stands, there are a lot of them, but they have an important part to play in the financing of the show, and head for the marquees. This is where plants and nurseryman still hold sway and real horticulture is on show. This is the real heart of Chelsea Flower Show where stand after stand of nurseries of ALL sizes can exhibit. And if a plant catches your eye someone from the nursery, who knows the plant, will be on hand to explain it nature to you and provide you with a catalogue so you can purchase it and grow your own bit of Chelsea at home.

Bees need sound arguments not sound bites

A lot of publicity was given to the Friends of the Earth’s demonstration outside of Chelsea Flower Show this week highlighting the recent report commissioned by them on bees. The message of the demonstration was to get pesticides banned and they maintained their report supported this. Now peaceful demonstration is a fundamental right of everyone in this country, and quiet rightly, but are things as simple as banning pesticides going to aid bee populations recover? If you actually read the report, which credit to them, they have made available as a free download from their website things are far from that simple. There is a very complex interaction between food production and wildlife.  Now let’s get things clear, each generation has a moral as well as practical obligation to leave the world in as least as good a state as we inherited it – it is our children and grandchildren who will have to live on it after we have gone. The problem is that the environment is a very complex thing – I mean REALLY complicated! You think the instructions for the flat pack wardrobe are bad, that’s nothing! Thus the environment has this nasty habit of not reacting to our help as we expect it to. Not because it is just being difficult but because we really don’t understand it all that well. So say we ban pesticides, now what?

Of course we don’t actually know and that’s in part because the effects aren’t going to be just environmental. For one thing it’s going to have economic implications and economics is another very complex area we just don’t understand very well, just ask a European Central Banker! Whilst removing pesticides would mean the end of shelves of unblemished produce; people could be educated to accept that, the supermarkets managed to brainwash us all into believing the odd blemish was something dreadful. But we rely in a large part on pesticides to allow modern agriculture to provide us with the abundant supply of cheap food we find in our shops. The organic food we find in our shops, which is produced without pesticides, comes at a hefty additional cost which is at least in part the result of not using pesticides. Set this against the background of what has been described as an obesity time bomb caused by the bad diet of the developed world and we have a conflict. On the one hand the government what’s everyone eating more fruit and vegetables because of the cost to the NHS of our bad diet and the other we need to ensure the ecosystem and therefore ourselves survive long term.

Surely what is needed is a balanced measured approach which relies on known facts. The environmental lobby, as do all lobbies, has a habit of over simplifying things and relying on reducing things to sound bits. But the danger of this is you end up leaving people with the idea that there are simple solutions to very complex problems. Of cause what happens next is people try to implement the simple solutions and find all they end up with is an even more complex problem. So say you do just ban pesticides, what will happen next is the food industry, the environment, the retails and the consumers are all going to react to this and all these reactions are going to interact with one another. Whatever the outcome, and its not really possible to any more than guess what that will be, there is no guarantee the bees will come out the winners!

So how is a plant name constructed?

A diagram of a simple plant name
A Simple Plant Name

A basic plant name consist of a genus which starts with a capital letter and a species which does not both of which should be written in italic or underlined. This is to make it clear you are looking at a proper plant name. Good as this simple system is, and if that was it live would be a lot easier, often this is not enough and other bits get added. The most common for gardeners is a cultivar name (abbreviated to cv.) and this particularly good form of a plant which has been selected e.g. Photinia ‘Red Robin’ is a particularly good form of Photinia x fraseri and the cultivar name is written in normal type but enclosed in single quote marks.

So what is a genus? This is where things get messy. There is no nice neat definition of what actually constitutes a genus or a species. There are to lengthy codes lying down what is or is not a valid name, the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature and the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants, both at which carefully avoid any definition of what constitutes a genus or species. In practice its all down to what people can agree on is a genus or a species. Guess what botanists often don’t agree and this leads to plant names being changed as people argue is this a genus or a species in a genus and so on. This is turn leads to the frequent complain that ‘they keep changing the *@*!* name’. The real problem plant names assume that all plants are related by evolution and the names should demonstrate this. So a group of genera will be placed in a family all of which have a common ancestor they evolved from. But this common ancestor is now extinct and lost to us. It’s rather like trying to work out if your neighbour is related to you with out any historical documents to refer to relying on appearance alone!


What you need of course is some sort of definition to tie down a genus and in practical terms a genus is a group of closely related species. This can on occasions be a group of one, but then is generally believed that there were other members but they have died out and become extinct. Similarly what a species is not that well defined. Traditionally a species was said to a group of plants which could breed with one another but then two different species could not be successfully crossed. This has a problem as gardens, and to a lesser extent the wild, are littered with plants which are the result of two species being crosses. Not to mention the number of plants which are the result of different genera being crossed! Really a species is a group of very similar plants, more similar that those included in the same genus, which look the same but are not genetically identical.

How many a dispute could have been deflated into a single paragraph if the disputants had dared to define their terms.
Greek critic, philosopher, physicist, & zoologist (384 BC – 322 BC)

Introducing plant names

I should really start off by saying something about plant names, as this is a real bugbear amongst gardeners. I thing just about everyone who has worked professionally in horticulture has been asked, generally in a tone of exasperation, why do we insist on using these weird names in a language of a people how died out centuries ago. This usually is answered by some mumblings about it avoiding different countries arguing about which language to use. This is actually more the reason the system is retained, along with the impracticality of changing it now! The real answer is far more complex, goes back at least to the conversion of Rome to Christianity and wends its way via the middle ages roman catholic church, Charlemagne and the use of Latin to control access to knowledge. That story is too long to delve into but by the time Carl Linnaeus set about creating his system of naming if he was to be taken seriously as a man of learning, and he certainly did, then he had no choice but to use Latin.

Carl Linnaeus is the man credited, some might even use the word blamed, with the naming system we use. In fact what may seem the two most obvious aspects, the use of Latin and using two words to name the plant, weren’t unique to his system having both been used in other attempts to place nature in a sense of order. His big idea was that the name didn’t physically describe the plant, it was just a label. The name John Smith only tells you that person is called John Smith and he has close relatives who last have the surname Smith. It does not tell you if he has dark or fair hair, or if he is tall or short. Try to give some one a name which describes them would be unworkable and so it proved with plant names. Therefore Garrya elliptica in itself tells you that the plant is related to other plants called Garrya and that is about it.