Garden Myths: Number 11

Peonies will not flower for years after you move them.

I have moved peonies at all times of the year and they have continued flowering without interruption; and I am not alone in this observation. They do object to being planted too deeply, and this will stop their flowering; so care should be taken to ensure when planting them to ensure the new and existing soil levels are matched up.

Garden Myths: Number 5

Slugs and snails can be kept off Hostas by raising them high up or setting them in gravel.

Hostas are a versatile and attractive genus of garden plants; used and loved by gardeners. Unfortunately the large succulent leaves that make them so attractive are also irresistible to slugs and snails. This has led to an all-out war between gardeners and gastropod, with peace loving elderly spinsters turned into pathological nocturnal hunters. In an attempt to keep the Hostas safe many ploys have been tried, including raising them off the ground. It doesn’t work, I’ve seen snails more than 2 metres up vertical brick walls. Sadly gravel is no more effective and so far the only reliable way I have found is regular use of chemicals.

Autumn Tidy Up

A leaf on a lawn covered by frost

A leaf on a lawn covered by frost

With the arrival of dark mornings thoughts turn to tidying the garden up for winter. The first frosts will soon finish off the annuals and tender perennials, while the hardy perennials die back for the winter and the deciduous trees and shrubs will take on their autumn colours before dropping their leaves.

Any tiding up will invariably create a collection of rubbish and gardening is no different. It’s often said “one man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure” so what treasure can we find before glibly throwing everything in a skip. Not everything is going to be re-usable; if you come upon what might be asbestos sheets, then only option is to contact your local authority for some specialist advice. That aside in most cases the limiting factor is your imagination.

Once you get rid of the bits of broken glass and rusty metal, which only the most artistic gardeners will be able to find a use for, you are left stones, rubble, lumps of wood, leaves, weeds and  other bits of greenery, and soil. As a rule its best to keep any topsoil you find surplus to you immediate needs. Small amounts of topsoil often come in handy for filling stump holes and the like but, due to its weight small quantities are hard to come by and expensive. Even if you have nowhere to store it, you can lose it by spreading on to the borders. If you think this is going to cause problems consider 50 kg of topsoil (the same weight as 2 bags of cement) will cover a patch 1.5 m by 1.5 m with a layer only 10 mm thick.

Shrubs in Autumn

Shrubs in Autumn

 

The green material will make good compost so long as care is taken when making it, and you have a little space for a compost heap/bin. Any woody material, like rose prunings, are best off shredded if they are to breakdown in a reasonable time. If you do not have the space, or time, our local authority will have a green waste composting service which will do the work for you and provide a quality controlled produce you can buy back from them when you need it.

It you have a lot of trees and shrubs you a likely to find, come autumn, you have a lot of dead leaves in the garden and these make an excellent soil improver in the form of leaf mould. Its worth considering that evergreen plants also shed lots of  leaves through the year, just take a walk through a conifer wood one day! Leaves tend to rot down more slowly that most of the green waste that goes into compost, so it’s often better to separate the leaves out. The leaves can be heaped up into a simple container made of course wire netting supported by posts or canes, just consider how you will get the leaf mould out again. As the leaves of different plants will rot down at different rates is best if the tougher leaves are shredded to help them brake down, and some people recommend adding some grass cutting to help the process along. The heap should not be allowed to dry and will need turning at least once. After a year you will have a very useful soil improver but ideally the heap should be left for two years.

Species

The species is the basic unit that we divide living things into and originally species were seen as clearly distinct from one another. What puzzled scientist was how species appeared in the first place? The answer was species evolved from other species as a result of a battle for survival; as carefully argued in Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species by Means of natural Selection or, The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”. As is often the case the answer to this question produced a second question; if species appear as the result of a gradual change from one species into a second, where does one species stop and the next start. This argument will keep taxonomist in work so long as there are species to classify!

Clearly this makes a precise definition of what a species is impossible and whether a plant belongs in a separate species to another is the result of a consensus being formed. This consensus though is not fixed and has to be open to debate.

Species is also the basic unit of plant and animal scientific names and the name of a species is the combination of both the genus and species names. The rules for how a species name is structured is defined by International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (as it is now known) and this goes into great details; but some of the important rules are:

  • With in any genus no two species can have the same name or one that could cause confusion with others.
  • For plants; the species name cannot be the same as the genus it belongs in, unlike animal names. So Rattus rattus, the black rat, is a valid name for an animal but the style would be unacceptable for a plant.
  • Importantly the species is always begun with a lower case letter,
  • The genus should be written immediately before it (the genus can be abbreviated to its first letter if it does not risk causing confusion) and both the genus and species should be in italics or if not practical underlined.

Cutting back – the call to arms

Pruning is cutting back for the plants benefit while cutting back is pruning for the gardeners benefit so certain rules apply to both. First remove dead and diseased material, second remove crossing branches and finally shape the plant.

Any dead or diseased parts of the plant are going to be no benefit to you or the plant. Yes that branch may be in just the right place for what you wanted but if it not healthy it’s never going to look right and will end up causing problems further along the line so cut it back to healthy growth just above a bud or close to where it branched off a larger part. If it’s a larger branch do it in three stages to prevent it damaging the rest of the plant when it breaks away from the plant. Work methodically, starting with the larger branches so that any damage caused by removing them can be cleared up as you go.

How to cut off a large branch

How to cut off a large branch

Once we’re left with a collection of healthy branches we can turn our attention to any which are crossing through the bush. This is not a hard and fast rule as the first but  there are reasons for it. First such branches almost always end up rubbing against one another as the plant moves in the wind. This causes the bark to be worn away at these points and it is the bark which acts as the plant’s main defence against diseases getting in. This means that sooner or later these places will be where problems are going to occur. The second reason is that plant diseases tend to benefit from a still moist atmosphere and this is more likely to occur in a tangle of branches than a nice open structure which the air can move  through freely. Finally it tends to be more visually pleasing not to have a lot of branches crossing through.

Now we can come to shaping the plant and this is much more a matter of personal taste. There are though a few things to consider. If by nature it’s a big plant and you are going to cut it down a long way , then it will quickly re-grow and you will soon need to repeat the process. Should you allow it more room or is it simply not in a suitable place? If you are trying to lower the height of the plant, remove the tallest branches completely low down where they divide and allow the shorter branches which are left to form the new top. Nothing looks worse than just choosing a height and cutting everything off in a level line at this height, but you regularly see this done and often by people claiming to be professional. Once done the plant is very unlikely ever to recover aesthetically.

The important thing is to take your time and regularly step back to get an overall view of the job as you go. Whatever plan you start with you will have to fine tune it as you go as the job progresses and new ideas occur.

Genus

This is a collection of very similar species and forms the first part of a plant’s scientific name. For example Alchemilla in Alchemilla Mollis and as such it is very important in the naming of plants. Ideally it would be best to have a clear definition as to what constitutes a genus and the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants goes into great detail as to how a genus should be named. It does not though make any attempt to nail down what actually constitutes a genus and for a very good reason – you can’t. In practice it would be impossible, plants evolve into genera in what ever way evolution takes them and only much later to people come along and try to group them into genera, species, etc. In the end a genus is a collection one or more species which a consensus has been arrived at that they should be placed together because of there botanical similarities.

Variety

This is classification of plants below the level of species which share common characteristics but would freely interbreed with other varieties of the same species if the opportunity arose. For this reason different varieties are often separated geographically. When writing the name of a plant the variety name is written in italics or underlined, is immediately preceded by var. in normal type and this follows the species name. There tends to be a lot of confusion between variety and cultivar but the former only relates to plants which originate in the wild and the latter to plants which originate in cultivation.

Cultivar

This is a plant which has been selected in cultivation because of specific characteristics it shows which separate it from its wild origins and other cultivars. The rules regarding what is a cultivar, how it is named and how the word is used are laid down in the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants. Only plants which are not found in the wild can be called cultivars and to show that they are the cultivar name is written in normal upright letters and enclosed in single quotation marks.

Soft Landscaping

This loose term is more frequently seen used within professional horticulture but simply means the soft things that grow ( i.e. plants) and the soil or compost they grow in. So it includes trees, shrubs, hardy perennials, grass, etc.. It generally doesn’t include vegetables grown purely for consumption, there are a number of very ornamental vegetable that would then be soft landscaping, as commercially a landscaper would not normally be involved in vegetable growing, just providing space for their cultivation in a garden. Commercially vegetable growing would be something undertaken by a market gardener which has nothing to do with landscaping.

Nutcutts Book of Plants

It may seem strange to include in this list what is to a large part a nursery catalogue, and it is unashamedly in a part an advertisement for Nutcutts. The thing is it is a treasure trove of information on garden plants presented in a concise and assessable style. Thought the content is about the 3000 plants they grow; that range is sufficient to cover most plants you will encounter in the average garden and the plants included come with wealth of pertinent information regarding a plants size, features and where to plant it.

Divided into 5 sections, of which the second and fourth are the most valuable. The first deals briefly with Nutcutts history and present services but the second section provides a vast wealth of information set out as short detailed notes on a vast range of plants grouped under trees, shrubs, climbers, etc. The third section extends this range by treat a range of that plants they sell but do not produce themselves in the same way.

The fourth section though provides a collection of lists. Each list provides a range of plants suited to specific locations and/or uses. These lists can be cross referenced with one another and the descriptions in section two and three to provide a very powerful tool for gardeners to build up a list of possible plants for a specific location and/or use in the garden. Equally they will though up suggestions that you have not heard of or that had simply slipped your mind.

The final short section provides a range of tips and advice on the establishment and care of plants.

As it is a small book the depth of information and the range of plants covered is very limited, but it still covers most of the plants found in gardens and garden centres, or at least a close example, making it invaluable when first point of reference when trying to decide what to do with a particular plant or part of a garden.