Monthly Archives: February 2010

It won’t stop raining!

Well I felt a bit better today and just needed to get out of the house after two days stuck indoors. With all this greyness around at the moment I was in search of some colour to share with you. So I packed the family off to our local In-Excess and garden centre. Picked up some bargains in In-Excess, packs of summer bulbs (Dahlias and Gladioli) for 95p, seeds (Summer Squash, Autumn/Winter Cauliflower, Rudbekia) for 50p and some more marigold seeds for 25p. Well worth a visit, they have stores in Salisbury, Ringwood, Bournemouth and Christchurch.

The garden centre we went to was quite small but had some welcome colour.

Some nice Polyanthus.

Beautiful primroses and some daffs.

Back home just a bit of sowing and pricking out to do really as the plot is unworkable with this heavy rain. In the greenhouse growing on are onions, cauliflowers, calabrese, tomotoes, sunflowers and marigolds.

On the windowsill indoors are leeks, pepper, chillies and little gem lettuce. No real signs of life on the plot yet, the broad beans haven’t come up so I have some in pots as back up. Garlic, shallots and onions are still dormant and nothing off the PSB yet. Hopefully we’ll get some sun and warmer weather in the next couple of weeks.

A couple of bursts of colour in the garden. A nice clump of winter heather and some Crocus (I think) almost coming into bloom.

Confused about pruning apple trees?

Finally found my notes about pruning apple trees from one of the talks my local Horticultural Society hosted. What a confusing subject as you’ll see from my earlier post! I’ll try and outline the basics.

General Principles
Pruning in the winter months will promote mainly vegetative growth which once two years old will start to develop sexual buds on the lower part of the stem.

Pruning in the summer months, mainly July and August, will promote sexual growth. Also pruning at this time of year will slow the vigour of the plant.

You need to determine whether the tree is tip or spur bearing as the pruning methods for these trees are very different.

As with all pruned trees and hedges it is important that regular feeding is taking place.

The bud of an apple tree is a condensed shoot which will develop into a vegetative or sexual growth. You need to get the right balance between the two. Most often apple trees lack sufficent sexual buds so careful pruning is required.

In older trees there may be too many sexual buds meaning reduced vegetative growth. It’s possible to carefully remove the sexual bud allowing a vegetative bud to develop.

Spur Bearing Trees
There must be a leader shoot on each branch, this leader shoot is cut back by one third of the growth made in that year to an outward facing bud.

The same branch should have a replacement leader which will normally be located back into the base of the branch. The replacement leader will prevent the tree becoming too large as in future years you can prune to this replacement leader keeping the tree in a well defined shape.

Generally leaders should be spaced about 30cm apart.

Once the leader and replacement leader have been selected and pruned the majority of the small lateral growths can be pruned back to 4-5 buds to create new spurs.

Tip Bearing Trees
The majority of the fruit buds will develop near the end of the branches on two year old wood.

The aim is to stimulate new growth and still maintain good fruiting. To do this you need to consider the tree shoots in thirds. Each year for years 1,2 and 3 cut back one third of the shoots to 2-3 buds. The tree will continually regenerate over a three year period with the best fruit being on two to three year old growth.

That’s it, simple really?!? Best of luck out there!


It’s not been a great 48 hrs for me being laid up in bed with gastric flu and facing the prospect of a weekend without getting into the garden; hopefully it will pass soon. But it’s given me a chance to do some reading and I have to say I now realise just how confusing this pastime of ours can be.

You may have seen my earlier posts about the excellent advice given by Ray Broughton at a series of talks to members of my local Horticultural Society. One of the potential minefields we navigated through was pruning. Now this was useful for me as either side of my garden there is a long hedge, one side beech and the other conifer. One other thing that stuck in my mind was how to successfully remove reverted shoots in a variagated shrub as I have a few of them dotted about.

So I checked in my RHS Garden Enclyclopedia which says cut out the reverted shoot back to the variagated growth. But according to Ray that is the worst thing you can do. Pruning promotes vigorous growth so cutting out the reverted shoot entirely will just give you more reverted shoots. The reverted shoot is the dominant one so in order to remove its’ dominance you first remove the tip of the shoot. Then three months later return and cut the shoot back to the variagated growth. Over the three months the dominance has completely gone from the reverted shoot as the tip has been removed. So only variagated growth should now shoot keeping the integrity of the shrub.

Confused? I know whose advice I’ll be taking.

It’s three years since we moved into this house and I’ve randomly pruned the hedges and various shrubs at whatever time I got round to it. The only time I avoided was spring when the birds are nesting. So when I learnt that between July 20th and August 20th is the ideal time to prune I realised I’d been getting it wrong. As I’ve said pruning promotes vigorous growth which is the last thing you’re after when clipping a hedge, unless you fancy doing it three or four times a year. Apparently low light levels promote vegetative growth whilst the high light levels of midsummer are dominated by the plant’s sexual hormones. So the best time to prune is midsummer if you want to avoid vigorous regrowth.

Another confusing thing in my books is the pictures of sloping cuts all over the pruning sections. Another wrong turn, just cut straight across according to Ray, less surface area to expose to disease and also there will be a perfect ring of cadmium cells around the wound which will help the healing process. Getting a bit technical for me but it makes sense. More on pruning later in the year.

Confusing this gardening lark? Still I can’t wait to get out there this weekend and make some more mistakes!

Quick Cook Compost Method

I wanted to get this post out to you now as this may be a project you’d like to start before the main business of sowing in earnest gets underway in a few weeks time. I am hoping to start a really viable composting regime off this year. My ‘council bin’ is OK but quickly fills up and takes a good year to turn the mixture of kitchen/garden waste and cardboard into a compost that is usable for the veg plot. I need something quicker that makes compost good enough for sowing and potting on. I’m trying Ray Broughton’s method which I first heard at a free talk on growing veg that my local Horticultural Society hosted last year that around 80 people attended. So no pictures as yet, but when I get this up and running I’ll post them to let you see how I get on.

The advantages of the quick cook method are:
1) Pretty much all plant material can be placed on the heap including woody material up to a diameter of 1cm.
2) No turning needed.
3) Due to the heat generated plant pests, diseases and weeds will be killed by this method.
4) Vermin will not be attracted to this heap (I’ve had rats in my black council bin before so this will be interesting to test out).
5) Compost should be ready in 3 to 4 months – just what I’m looking for!

The heap can be built up over a period of time but for optimum efficiency it should be no longer than 3 months. Now here’s the important bit – the heap has to have a solid base of paving slabs, we don’t want nutrient loss or worm activity with this method which is what you do get with a standard black council bin-type method.

Bacteria and fungi will break down the plant material into humus which will hold onto the plant nutrients. The heap should reach temperatures of 80 degress centigrade killing off pests, weed seeds, rhizomes etc.

You need to construct the sides out of wood or other suitable material to contain your heap, the best size is 1.5 metre by 1.5 metre. It is important that oxygen is present but you only need a relatively small amount as the material going into the heap is bulky and will trap air. So drill some small holes into the sides. Remember this must be on a solid base. I am going to use old pallets and plywood offcuts for mine and construct two bins side-by-side so I can start filling the second one whilst the first ‘cooks’.

Ok once you’ve built your compost bin, start filling with plant material, you can put pretty much anything in from the garden up to 1cm diameter, including weeds, lawn clippings, and the usual kitchen peelings etc. Fill to 1/3 of the height of the bin. At this stage place two shovel loads of good quality soil over the heap and two handfuls of nitrogen fertiliser (e.g. hoof and horn). If you use organic fertiliser make sure it is ground into a fine powder (amounts quoted are for a 1.5 x 1.5m heap).

Add more material until you are up to the 2/3rds mark. Then add one shovel load of ground limestone (calcium carbonate). This is essential as it prevents the heap from becoming too acidic which is a common problem. Carry on filling and when you reach the top add soil and fertiliser in exactly the same way as you did at the 1/3rd stage. That’s it, there’s no need to cover the heap, and then it’s just a waiting game until the heap cooks down.

This method should be fast and efficient but it’s important you follow the instructions above. If you’re adding your compost directly to a clay soil use your compost before it’s completely broken down to help with aeration and drainage. Sandy soils will prefer well rotted compost containing a high proportion of humus which will help attract water and nutrients to these soils. See my earlier post on soil type, structure and pH for more info. I am hoping this will give me good enough compost for potting on my plants and save me money each year that I would normally waste on shop bought multi-purpose.

Best of luck, happy composting!

Sowing seed

I recently attended another excellent talk by Ray Broughton, hosted by my local Horticultural Society. Ray shared his tips on how to sow seed which I will attempt to explain in detail in this post. I’ve been pretty successful sowing seed in the last couple of years but found myself learning a lot from Ray’s advice.

Firstly you need to make sure your compost has the right moisture content. Take some compost and squeeze tight in your hand. If, when you open your hand it crumbles away and falls on the bench it is too dry. Conversely if it drips water when you squeeze it’s too wet. If it stays together in the palm of your hand then you’ve got it about right. Just keep mixing until you’ve got the moisture right and you won’t need to water after sowing and risk disturbing the seed you’ve just sown.

Secondly seed compost is relatively expensive so don’t fill your tray up with it. Use cheaper potting compost for the majority and the more expensive seed compost for say the top 1/4″. For germination the relatively sterile, nutrient poor, seed compost is ideal but to support early growth seeds require the nutrients they will get when the radical pushes into the main body of the standard potting compost.

You will need a collection of sterilised convection trays. Convection trays have the holes on both the raised and depressed surfaces on the bottom of the tray. This allows the tray to draw up water through the holes flush with the bottom of the tray whilst allowing water to drain from the holes in the depressions on the bottom of the tray so preventing the seedlings from ‘drowning’.

There are different methods for sowing fine seeds (e.g. marigolds) as opposed to medium sized seeds (e.g. lettuce). Firstly fine seeds. Fill your tray 3/4’s full with standard potting compost. Then generously mound your seed compost over the top well over the top of the tray. I made a simple tool out of plywood to match the inner dimensions of my trays for the next stage (not sure of the proper term for these).

Using this tool held vertically carefully scrape the excess compost off the tray. Now with the tool held hoizontally press down firmly with your weight evenly distributed. This firms up the compost ready for sowing.

Now for the seeds. With fine seeds never handle them. Put enough seeds into a plastic cup to cover an area of a 1 pence coin. Now add silver or sharp sand to an area roughly the size of a 2 pence coin and mix together by shaking the cup gently. The sand makes it easier to see the distribution when you sow onto the darker compost. Sow directly from the cup as evenly as you can across the tray. If you oversow and get a large blop of sand in one area there is a nifty trick to pick up the seed. Here’s the science bit, not sure if I can get this right. Seed has a negative charge (or is it positive?). Rub an ordinary bic biro pen a few times on your clothing giving it a positive charge. Put this over the area of sand that has been sown too heavily and the seeds will leap up onto the pen. As soon as you re-adjust your feet you’ll earth the charge allowing you to brush the seed off the lid of the biro onto the area of compost you want them. Genius really! The picture didn’t come out to well but you get the idea.

Now once you are happy with your distribution of seed that’s it, no need to cover fine seeds. If you’ve got your mositure content of the compost right there should be no need to water in. Keep an eye on the moisture level say at day 3 and use a fine rose or mist spray if needed, by this time the radical should be on it’s way (the radical grows before the shoot) and the seed is therefore ‘rooted’ in the compost and shouldn’t be disturbed by your watering as long as the rose is fine enough. A couple of tips here as watering can roses are expensive. Why not use some cheap flour seive material cut out and fixed around your rose to get a finer spray. Or cover your tray with fleece and tuck underneath the tray, then water with as fine a rose as you’ve got. The fleece will make the spray finer as it goes through to the compost.

For medium sized seed there’s no need for sand and you can handle them as they are more robust than the finer seeds. You can add flour if you want to lighten the seed so you can see it better on the dark compost. Put the seed in the palm of your hand and tap lightly as you move your hand around the tray. Place paper around the tray so you can catch any seed that misses the tray. Remember seed is relatively expensive so it’s worth taking time over this part of the process. And if you have oversown an area use the biro trick to pick up the excess seed and re-distribute.

Unlike the fine seed the medium sized seed needs covering with compost – as a rule of thumb only enough compost to cover the thickness of the seed is needed. I have been using far too much in the past and burying seed. Place some compost in a 2mm sieve, as I’ve said you don’t need much. Hold the sieve level with your mouth and move the seive over the tray. Start and finish outside the edge of the tray, you can sweep up the compost off the bench afterwards, it just means you get an even covering right to the edges of the tray. The reason you hold the seive so high is so you can see what’s happening on the surface of the compost. Hold the seive to low and you haven’t got a clue how deep you are burying those seeds. Once the last seeds disappears stop, that’s all you need. Again no need to water in if you’ve got that moisture level right.

You can use vermiculite or perlite as a medium for sowing onto. Advantage here is that both take on, and retain, water and are sterile mediums. Vermiculite is more expensive than perlite but you can get a lot of dust with perlite which you need to be wary of unless you sow in a well ventilated space. Vermiculite will expand with water up to 10x its’ size and will bond to the surface of the compost. I have used vermiculite before sucessfully, it is derived from organic source but is not strictly organic I suppose as it has been processed. For fine seed you can sow directly onto vermiculite on top of potting compost. As with the compost method press the vermiculite down creating a flat area to sow onto. You will struggle to see the light seed against the vermiculite, if this is a problem dye the seed in beetroot dye, it will stay red once dry so you can easily see where you’ve sown.

One last thing that I didn’t really think about until now is hygiene when sowing seeds. How many times have I been messing about with the compost or manure and then gone straight in the greenhouse and sown some seeds transferring I don’t know what disease across. Always wash your hands thoroughly before sowing to prevent this from happening, latex gloves aren’t a bad idea either.

Well that’s it, hope you’ve found this useful and best of luck!

What a pile of ……………..

I took delivery of this pile of chicken manure yesterday. I’m fortunate to have an agricultural contractors just down the road. I think they have contracts to clean out chicken houses and enough land to pile it up and let it rot down without upsetting the neighbours! This stuff is rotted down nicely, it looks just like soil really until you get up close. I’m a bit late as I should have done this in Autumn but better late than never I say. This stuff will be dynamite and its’ acidity will suit my soil which I tested the other week at pH7.7, too alkaline.

So guess what I’ll be doing for the next few days. What I don’t need now I’ll bag up for the Autumn.


I’m quite pleased with these snips.