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.

How to tackle an over grown garden

The first stage is to have a really good look around your garden and decide what you like, dislike or simply don’t understand. Look where gets the sun and when, are you over looked and to what extent; most gardens will be overlooked by some bedroom windows but in practice people spend little time looking out of their bedroom windows – so they are not as much of a problem  as a kitchen  or sitting room window. While you’re at it consider which plants you like and how much space large plants are occupying, but don’t be too quick to condemn; that large bush could be there to hide a hidden eyesore.

One of the problems with plants is that you are not really aware of them growing; they kind of do it sneakily behind you back, so you just don’t notice how big they are getting. This is where the new home owner’s fresh pair of eyes comes as a big advantage. Have a good dig, metaphorically speaking, in the back of borders; you could be surprised what you find. If nothing else you may well find a lot of underused space. While you’re at it take a good look at the trees in the garden because if these need attention now is the time to do it.

Are the trees appropriate for the garden? Are they going to, or have they got, too big for the garden? If you have large mature trees in the garden do they need a professional to look them over to check they are safe? If the trees need any major work it will both create a lot of upheaval and dramatically change the garden so it’s best to get it done as soon as is practical. Beware there are many very good professional arborculturalist (tree surgeons) but sadly there are also a lot of butchers out there. So check they have a proper formal training, carry appropriate insurance, get more than one written quotation and remember if a price sounds too cheap, and tree work isn’t, be suspicious!

One common problem is people buy Christmas trees with the roots on and then come the New Year can’t bring them to throw away a living tree they’ve spent the holidays keeping alive. Then comes the problem of what to do with it, so it gets planted in a corner of the garden. This all sounds nice and remarkably quite a few of these Christmas leftovers survive, looking quite nice tucked in the border. The problem is the type trees sold as Christmas trees are the type that grow quickly into big trees, which makes sense if you’re trying to produce trees that are sell-able at the best price. You can probably see where this is going, they sit quietly at the back of the border growing! These are not a good choice for a domestic garden. People get attached to trees. So you soon end up with what is in effect a large and growing arboreal pet in the garden. I’m afraid the only realistic solution is to remove it before it gets any more of a problem, or more expensive to remove.

How to clear the weeds from a bare piece of earth

If your find yourself faced with a piece if ground containing nothing but weeds the first thing you are going to have to do is to clear it. There are a number of ways to tackle this

Weeds
Weeds

problem all with their advantages and disadvantages.

    • Your first thought may well be to dig them out with a garden fork, and you set out into the garden, fork in hand, and a heart full of spirit. About 10 minutes later some of the shine is going to start coming off the idea! Digging a garden is slow hard work, you only have 24 hours in your day and a lot of things you need to do. If this, and the VERY painful back injury you will soon be suffering from is not sufficient the following may well be. If the weeds are established you will have things like dandelions and docks with long tap roots which break off when you try and dig them out leaving the end of the root to re-grow. In addition, you will have couch and nettles with spreading roots which snap off when you dig them out leaving little pieces which re-grow. A 1 cm piece of couch root will still survive and flourish if buried 40 cm deep. I could go on listing weeds which will fight back when you start to dig them out but I’m sure you will have got the idea now. Unless you are dealing with a very small area the odds are you are going to come off second best to the garden.

 

    • Cover it and hope the weed die from lack of light. If all you are dealing with are annual weeds and you have plenty of patience this will work but really this more a preventative measures than a cure. With perennial weeds the time taken to kill the weeds will in all probability be far longer than the covering with survive, any holes and gaps and the weeds will just grow out of them and flourish (as will also happen around the edges) and you have to factor in the cost of purchasing the covering and them disposing of it when you have finished.

 

    • Burning them off with a flame gun has largely fallen from popularity, largely I suspect as a result of the potential for a very large insurance claim! Flame guns only kill off anything above ground such as leaves and stems leaving any underground parts to re-grow the very next day. Their big claim always was that they killed any weed seed but this only holds true for any on the very surface as buried seeds will be protected. A word of warning  not only is there the very real danger of burning something that shouldn’t be (most importantly yourself!) but they are not always the easiest of things to get going and once lit take time to heat up to their operating temperature (I’m thinking particularly of the paraffin one.)

 

    • Reach for the sprayer. The garden centre and do-it-yourself stores contains a bewildering array of different garden chemical but in practice they are all just about a dozen different products presented in different ways. In fact the vast majority are based on one chemical, glyphosate. Why? Used correctly is safe, kills all different types of weeds including the roots and you can use the ground as soon as the weeds are dead. But; (and there is always a but) if you let the weedkiller fall onto any plants you what to keep it will kill them as well, so you need still weather. Also it takes time to act, so you need a period of dry weather so that it is not washed off before the plants take it in and then patience as it can take a couple of weeks for the weeds to die. Though it is a non-selective weedkiller (it kills all plants indiscriminately) it is more poisonous so some than others and things like nettle may take more than one treatment and large plants like brambles are best cut down and the once they start to regrow treat the young shoots.

 

The Concise British Flora in Colour by W. Keble Martin

William Keble Martin was an amateur botanist in the must noble tradition of amateurs. That is to say he was not employed as one but was every bit as skilled and dedicated as any “professional” botanists. He was formally trained as a botanist but instead of following this path chose to be ordained and spent his entire working life working as a parish priest.

Throughout his life though he maintained his keen interest in botany and over a period of over sixty years studied and drew over 1400 native British plants in exquisite detail. It was not until he was 88 years old was this collection first published. These days the work of botanical illustrators is over looked, having been pushed aside by the ease, speed and ultimately cost of photography. The draw back of this is that a photograph can only ever be one example of a plant on a particular occasion, but plants are far more viable than this. The blunt tool of the camera can never isolate and capture the spirit or soul of a plant in the way a skilled artist can. Therefore the simple skilled illustrations in this book gives the reader a far clearer understanding of what a plant actually looks like than a “modern” glossy book ever can. I don’t know what lead Rev. Martin t to paint all these plants but I very much doubt anyone will try to repeat his work partly because he has already done it and partly because as he working away, colour photography was evolving from a laboratory experiment into mainstream use.

What he left us was though a remarkable tool for identifying British plants. Some of the names have moved on but still the modern alternative can readily be found by cross referencing with new publications. Sadly this book is no longer in print but can be found ridiculously cheap on the second-hand book market. . In a perfect world a publisher would take these illustrations and re-publisher them with up-to-date names but I don’t imagine the economics of the book world would make this a practical proposition.

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.

Cutting back – the plan

Before reaching for the pruning tools you need a clear idea of what you are hoping to achieve and in the context of this post it is a healthy plant which fits both physically and aesthetically into its location in the garden. It must not overwhelm the area around it or in the end look unattractive to the eye.

Pruning is not the easiest of things to teach, partly because of the different requirements of different plants but equally because it is as much art as science. To start with a few preliminaries:

  • Plants don’t always respond well to pruning – not all plants will come again if you cut into old wood, this includes nearly all the conifers but also a number of others.
  • Those that do, don’t always do as you expect – often a plant will respond to pruning by producing a mass of soft shoots rather than one or two useful ones.
  • Once you’ve cut it off you can’t put it back – so if in doubt delay cutting and then take off a bit at a time to see how it looks
  • Think ahead to prevent accidents – you would be amazed at the number of people who actually cut off the branch they are sitting on!
  • Make sure you are suitably equipped – as you will never make a tidy job using poor/blunt tools.
  • Plan first, act second – have a really good look at what you’re tackling and how your cuts are going to affect the plant before you do anything.

 

Plants which should not be cut back into old (brown not green) wood include nearly all conifers. They resent being cut back beyond their green foliage, except for Yews which can grow away vigorously from old wood. Botanists insist Yews are conifers but try as they might, from a gardeners point of view, Yews are not very good at being conifers.  Most deciduous shrubs respond well to being cutting back but more caution should be used with evergreen shrubs and it may be better to spread the work over a number of seasons. Some such as lavender is not worth trying so it’s a case of live with it or replace it.

Thought should also be given to a shrub’s value be it sentimental or otherwise. With any attempt to drastically cut back a plant there is always the chance it may not be successful so consider “what if I lose it” and moderate your actions likewise. For example on the one hand a choice tree peony which is slow and relatively unusual would receive the minimal of cutting back while on the other hand a Berberis, a very good garden plant, which is readily available and grows quickly can be cut back very hard safe in the knowledge it will probable quickly recover and if not it is easy to replace.  I’ve seen Berberis cut down to ground level and recover.

Clearing out

Now we’ve given the garden a really good looking at it is time to get our hands dirt. Having studied the garden you may well have come to the conclusion some plants are just too big, in the wrong place or you just don’t like them. To start with the last first, because it’s the simplest, you’ve got one choice and that is to dig it out. At this point you may come to the conclusion that it would be just as easy just to cut it down to the ground and leave the roots where they are. This though has problems and first of these is that stumps take a VERY long time to rot. Not years but decades! You are then going to be left with a stump in the border to try to disguise, trip over every time you go into the border and hit with a spade when you try to dig in the border.

There is a further problem to this short cut because not all the fungi that will attack and hopefully rot down the stump are benign. Some will spread to adjacent plants and attack them and one such example is Honey Fungus. I’m not going to digress into details of this disease except to say once you’ve got it you have a serious problem.

Pedestrian Stump grinder
Pedestrian Stump grinder

This means, if at all possible, you are going to have to dig the plant out. This can be achieved in a number of ways and the easiest is often a stump grinder, or chipper, which grind the stump down to a heap of chippings. These come in a vast range of sizes from small ones you can hire to operate yourself and wheel around the garden to large self propelled machines which are supplied with a specially trained operator. An alternative is to use a digger to dig out the stump. These are rarely a good solution unless one is already on site for other reasons due to their size, cost, difficulty of operating and limited ability to dig out stumps – I’ve seen a JCB struggle to remove  relatively small tree stumps. Third way is winching out the stumps and the modern lever operated winches do make this a more attractive option than most people realise. They have though two Achilles heels. One they need a very secure anchoring point as how ever much force they pull the stump with they also pull what ever they are anchored to. The second is as they pull the roots out anything else near them, like drains, water pipes etc, tend to be pulled out as well. Finally you can grab the bull by the horns and just dig it out by hand. Be warned though this is very hard work. You will need to good spade, gloves, boots, axe and preferably a large steel crowbar.