Monday, June 10, 2019

Painting Your Lawn Green and Rhododendon Pruning

Did you know you can spray your lawn green if it gets scorched in the sun ? 

It’s not something we think about doing in Inishowen as our lawns don’t really suffer too much in dry weather and do stay greenish even in the driest of spells. True, this could be due to an excess of moss, but they’re still green.

The same can’t be said of some American states where it’s actually the law to keep your grass green. This is made difficult due to the water shortages and restrictions, especially in highly populated areas such as California.

Hence the rise of the garden spray painting companies. 

They’ll come along, get their knapsack sprayer out and with a lance similar to a pressure washer cover all the grass with a green powdery liquid which when dry can keep the lawn green for up to three months.

The paint used is mostly made from natural plant based green dye and mixed with a clay called Kaolinite which is a silicate material and sticks to the grass leaves when dry. You can make your own solution from Epsom salts, fertilizer and food colouring but I wouldn’t recommend it as it could poison the ground and doesn’t work as well.  

Kaolinite is found in loads of our daily items such as porcelain, toothpaste, cosmetics and paint. It’s also used as an organic crop spray to deter insects and stop our apples getting sun scorched so we are well used to it in our daily lives.

The grass paint won’t discriminate from covering any surface though, so you have to mask off anything you don’t want turning a chlorophyll green colour, your house, pathways, cars, dog and yourself will need protecting. 

The grass will still need a bit of care though even though it looks healthy and this could be forgotten. Golf courses and amenity areas have been touching up brown patches like this for years, now whole lawns are being done. 

There are suggestions that the idea of lawns is a dated concept and they just don’t keep green like they used to now areas are becoming hotter and dryer. They are not a viable option for residential areas that have long periods of drought.

I actually don’t mind grass looking parched in summer as it’s an indication of a pleasant, warm, dry spell after which the grass will green up again when it rains.  Others in hotter climates see it as a signal that we need to start addressing the wider, more important crisis of climate change instead of applying a thin veil over the issue with paint. 

Rhododendron Care
I’m often asked about pruning rhododendrons. There seems to a resistance to cut them back leading to them getting out of control, but if you treat them just like a regular shrub they can be kept in check.
We’ve had a wonderful display of flowers this year from both garden and wild rhododendrons and unlike the wild ones which can take over whole woodlands we can do something about the ones in our gardens.
Generally it’s a wise idea to plant shrubs in areas where they won’t get too big for their space. You can get smaller growing rhodo’s and also azaleas which are in the same family but more than likely you have a whopping shrub just waiting to take over the garden and make its way into the house.
Pruning is more of an art form that a science and there’s no hard and fast rule, it all depends on how you want the shrub to look and behave. If you just need to deadhead the shrub then all it takes it to either snap off the old flowerheads after the petals drop or cut back the stem until the end of the flower stalk.
If you need a more drastic reduction in size you can work on a three year plan of taking out all the old dead/weak wood, then cutting back in stages where it’s not so much of a shock to the plant.
One year I worked at St Columb’s park house in Derry removing the invasive rhododendrons that had gone really leggy. We unceremoniously cut hundreds of them down to ground level in one winter. They have all survived and grown back again, looking healthy and compact.
They are a hardy shrub and in the wild they are used to being burnt to the ground and rejuvenating themselves all the stronger for it.
After flowering has finished is a great time to reduce the plants in size and if you do it in stages there will always be flowers in the following year.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Cacti and Tigernuts

 Cacti and succulents go outside

My tigernuts have germinated…Yay!  I’d almost given up on the sedge grass sprouting but the sunny weather and heat has prompted them into life.  

I’m still not sure what to do with them as they can be invasive so I’ll probably put them in large pots for now and wait for the sweet, juicy corms to mature so I can have them as a snack. If I keep them in containers they hopefully won’t end up like the perennial nasturtiums and join the long list of plants that try to take over the garden. 

The warm weather has also prompted the salad crops into life. Lettuce is ready for picking and we’ve been eating the green shallot leaves for a while now and they really liven up a salad and enhance a stew. 

As the chance of frost has gone I have put the potted succulents and cacti outside. They have been on a sunny windowsill in the house all winter and spring and are starting to find life a little bit too easy as some of them are getting a bit spindly. Without the regular hardships the natural world has to offer such as wind and rain they don’t toughen up. I like the plants to show their battle scars as it adds to their personality so after a month or two outside they should toughen up and be more like the types of plants you see growing in Mediterranean climates. 

Being open to the elements will also help them fight off pests and disease as their skins will be tougher. I’ve a free draining soil in the pots so they shouldn’t get waterlogged. I’ll just have to remember to bring them in before the first frosts.

Jobs to Do in June

As I mentioned, the chance of frost will have now hopefully passed, and young bedding plants that has been grown on under protection during spring can be planted outdoors ready for those beautiful displays, or into summer hanging baskets and containers.

When using containers or hanging baskets remember not to fill them right up to the top with compost but leave a small gap so that when watering it will soak in and not run over the edges. I have tried the upturned plastic bottle method of watering but still find a good soaking for ages with a hose will do the job. If they do dry out put them into a large bucket of water and let them soak up the water. You’ll know it’s full when it sinks!

It will also prove very beneficial to give your potted plants a weekly/monthly liquid feed to improve growth and flowering. I was going to make my own comfrey/nettle mix but settled for an organic feed discounted to 1 euro in the local garden centre. It’s far less smelly.

When planting out debud/deflower the plants as this will encourage them to grow a better root system and produce the required flowers. I am taking cuttings of creeping thyme this week and to ensure the cuttings root I have had to nip out all of the flowers from the end of the stems to redirect the energy into the root development. This also helps the young plants thicken out as just one stem looks a bit weak.

A number of young plants would also benefit by having their shoot tips pinched out which encourages branching. Most bedding plants can have their tips taken out and ones such as begonias and busy lizzies and petunias root easily, even in a glass of water in the windowsill.

By pinching out the shoot tips bushier plants develop along with more stems leading to more flowers.  I made the decision to nip all the tops from my catnip the other week and the results – although drastic at the time- have really paid off as the plugs are multi-stemmed, thick and bushy. The local cats should have a great time rolling around in them when they get a bit bigger.

In the Veggie Garden

Hopefully the weeds are under control in the veggie garden. If not, ignore the suggestions below and get weeding. If you have clear areas ready for planting then read on….

Plant out greenhouse raised brussels sprouts, cabbage, celery, courgettes, cucumbers, marrows, runner and french beans.
Beetroot, carrots and lettuce sowing can be continued.
Remember smaller crops will be produced when over-crowded sowings are made, any unwanted seedlings can be carefully removed and in the case of salad crops, eaten.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Groundcover Fabric

 One year old budget groundcover fabric

The budget groundcover fabric I put down a year ago is surfacing from just under the soil. It’s not appearing in a complete sheet either as it seems to have broken down into small pieces. It could be the damp or it could be the UV rays but as its polypropylene it’ll probably just keep breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces and never really go away. I put it down so I could plant courgette plants in it and not have an issue with weeds. The courgettes are long gone but the membrane remains.

I shouldn’t have bought it really but I thought it would be a better solution than the cardboard I usually put down.

I have used a lot of different materials over the years to either prepare beds by smothering weeds or covering the ground to stop weeds with differing degrees of success.  Paper and cardboard are effective temporary covers and also give the worms something to nibble on. There isn’t really any such thing as a no maintenance landscape and if you have ever put a foam or nylon backed carpet on the soil then tried to remove it after a few years you could actually be making more work for yourself than hoeing every week. 

I’ve found that using the weed block on permanent planting schemes such as gravel beds makes far more sense than a veggie plot. Landscapers use it at least 80% of the time when doing new beds and borders (that’s a random percentage I picked out of the air but probably pretty close) as most customers want a maintenance free planting scheme. The membrane works well stopping things from coming up through the soil but can’t work for things that fall on top of it. Dust, leaves and other deposits eventually build up and make an ideal spot for weed seeds to get a hold. Tap roots have a difficulty establishing and can be easily removed but most other weeds will eventually take over after only a couple of years if the area isn’t tended to. 

There are some great images where nature has taken over places because of neglect, whole motorways and city buildings soon return back to the wild if left alone and the garden is no different.
I would much rather do away with fabrics or weed cover altogether. I prefer to create living soil planting areas that are mulched and tended rather than being covered and forgotten. However, some areas are simply too large to apply this method to and time is also a factor. 

Pros and Cons
Spraying with herbicide will take care of the weed problem. However, this does nothing for the soil.
Small gravel is difficult to maintain and you won’t be able to use a leaf blower do get rid of leaves.
In many cases this can actually be easier to take care of stone covered areas without a membrane as it can easily be picked up and replaced every few years. This will keep your landscape always looking new and cared for.

If you do use the polypropylene types of material you get what you pay for. The cheaper ones are good for a year or two if undisturbed. The more expensive types can do the job for up to twenty years. I had some mesh webbing on the floor of my tunnel at one time and even after six years of heavy traffic there were no signs of fraying or wear.

You might want to go down the eco-friendly route. 

The cheapest (and some say best) is the aforementioned cardboard and newspaper, then natural carpets with no plastics in them which are both ideal for temporary cover in the veg patch. Then you get onto shop bought items such as the biodegradable, lightweight paper mulch that helps control weeds and is environmentally responsible alternative to black plastic. This can just be dug into the soil the same way as the free paper and card.  

Going up the cost ladder we have a woven mulch sheet which is made with 100% straw fibres, no adhesives or chemicals added. And the latest product comes from a French company called Geochanvre who have developed a  hydro-weaving process, which transforms hemp and other straws using water and pressure only. They use locally sourced hemp grown without pesticides, and the process is free of all adhesives or other additives. Again this will be perfect for areas that only need temporary cover or they could be cut up and used as a moisture barrier on the top of plant pots.
All of these materials are great for providing the initial help we need to keep certain areas under control in the garden. 

Like most things in life though it always comes down to us having to pay attention to it for it to thrive.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Tunnel Shading

 A shady spot in the garden

It’s an ‘in-between’ time for me in the garden this week. One the one hand I am offering my plants up to the sun in the hope they will grow strong and healthy. Then on the other I am putting up loads of shading because the intense heat of the day might shrivel the leaves. 

It was this time last year I lost over 400 chamomile plants because they all cooked in the cell trays I had them in. The dark plastic absorbed the heat and the roots couldn’t cope with the burning temperatures. I don’t want to make the same mistakes again this year so I have taken a few pro-active precautions.

I had some more mature plants in the polytunnel so I have made a space for them in an area outside that gets about 3 hours direct sun mid-morning before trees obscure the rays. That way by the time the real heat of the day hits them they are in shade and keeping cool. The less mature chamomile plants will be staying in the tunnel for a few more weeks yet and I have devised some (I say) ingenious shading methods. 

The first and most obvious is by putting shade netting up. Then I have some white fleece along with a couple of cotton sheets (Taken from the painting and decorating shelf)

I was using some large 8x4 aluminium foil covered sheets of Kingspan floor insulation as a type of reflector of the sun and this worked well over the duller days but now they are acting like spotlights which are heating up the plants even more so they will be repurposed at some point. In their place I now have large rolls of 2mm unused foam and foil undrlay which was left over from a wooden click floor installation. This is lightweight and so I have slotted it under the metal bars and plastic on the tunnel. It runs the whole length of the tunnel and can be rolled up when it’s cloudy and rolled down when the plants need a bit of shade. Ingenious if I do say so myself and free too which is an added bonus.

I’d eventually like to get one of those polytunnel covers that has a green mesh at the bottom and when you can roll up the bottom metre when the weather gets warm. This improves ventilation keeping the air flowing through the plants reducing the chance of fungal diseases. The extra air also helps to give some resistance to the plants leaves, firming them out and helping to keep them compact and less likely to go leggy. 

So far my improvisations seem to be working. I do need to water a couple of times a day when the sun is out a lot, but at least last year when I watered the cells, I swear I could hear hissing noises as the water was evaporating with the heat.

There are a couple of areas in the garden where I am happy not to have much sun at all as the display of shade loving plants looks wonderful. It’s a simple display of just three plants but they really complement each other. At the back I have the feathery leaves of a fern, in front of this I have a lime green hosta just about to flower and underneath them I have Ajuga reptans 'Atropurpurea' with its deep purple leaves. It’s a great combination and totally unplanned which is sometimes the best way to go. 

Catnip Capers
My Catnip venture is on a go slow at the moment. I did grow the mint from seed and thought about putting it for sale but I wasn’t happy. The plants were just long, single stemmed plants and looked a bit weedy in their 4cm plugs. I made the decision to chop them all back to near ground level so they now have a chance to bush out on multi stems. I’ll be a lot happier selling something more substantial and sturdy looking so I will now need to wait a few weeks for them to mature. 

Catnip is extremely popular and is widely available in pet shops and supermarkets. I have it on good authority that it has fallen under the ‘Psychoactive Substances Act’ which bans anything psychoactive other than alcohol, tobacco and caffeine, so therefore, since catnip has mild psychoactive properties, it has been banned by default. 

I’m not sure if anyone will take the time and trouble to track down and arrest gardeners who supply their cats with the dried leaves, but it’s just another reason why gardening is such an exciting hobby.
Hide the catnip plants in a secluded spot next to the also banned St John’s Wort.

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