Tuesday 30 April 2013

Cleaning up after the Romans (Week 4, Tuesday)

Since I moved to the UK I get that a lot: where are you from? Italy? Oh, the Romans were great... or something like that, for example: do you see that weed, Smyrnium, the Roman introduced it to England... ;p

It would be fair to point out that not all Italians feel they are descendants of the Romans (that would be people in Rome) most of the rest of Italy was just conquered, as was England... if it makes any sense to attribute oneself an ascendancy at all, then it would be the ones they thought me in school: we people of Lombardy descend from the Germanic tribe of the Lombards. There, I've said it!

Anyway, I'm happy to clean after the Romans, if that helps. And that is basically what I've been doing since I came here. I'm talking about Smyrnium, of course.

In 2005 I landed in the UK and one of the first things I did was to take part in a volunteer day at Kew to clear this weed. One year later, I took part again. Look what I dug out of my archives.

Then, in 2007, I was looking forward to the event once again, but I was told Kew was clear of Smyrnium [disappointment].

Well. it's back, alive and kicking, and we are going to spend a few man-hours on it, before it gets too rampant.

I did a short research online. It appears that the Romans introduced so-called alexanders, Smyrnium olusatrum (a plant whose all parts are edible, apparently tasting of celery, and including the seeds as a substitute for black pepper). The weed we have a problem with, however, is the perfoliatum species (also edible but used as an ornamental because of the striking yellow-green leaves around the inflorescence).

And we thank goodness for the striking appearance of the perfoliatum, because it stands out and is easy to spot even from a distance and in long grass when we are after it. By the way, amidst the long grass and weeds, we found a couple of beauties of the Bufo bufo species: what a treat.

Monday 29 April 2013

Kew Herbarium

"Herbaria are collections of dried preserved specimens that document the identity of plants and fungi. They represent reference collections with many and varied functions including identification, research and education".
(Royal Botanic Gardens Kew Herbarium Collections)
Fascinating. Today we were taken on a tour of the herbarium by botanist David Goyder, who showed us some specimens and told us about his trips in Africa to get them.

The old storage room is itself redolent of Victorian explorers and scientists: discovering, preserving, studying... and it is a joy to look at. It was designed to make use of as much daylight as possible, as lighting + dried plant material preserved on paper sheets = big fire hazard.

When you take into consideration that the cupboards (here and in other more modern parts of the building, as this was filled to capacity shortly after being created) contain 7.5 million specimens, some 350,000 of which are type specimens, that is the "official" description of how a plants looks like for reference and identification, then you really feel how extraordinary this place is.

David talked to us about two recent expeditions he did in Africa, his geographical area of expertise, during one of which, in Mozambique, they discovered a full A4 page of species new to science.

Discoveries like that one are often presented to governments with conservation purposes in mind.

Then we were shown some specimens he has dried but not fully identified yet, as they are from his most recent trip to Angola. As expeditions are rather expensive, one has to concentrate on getting a representative selection of the local flora, collecting specimens and avoiding they get damaged (i.e. mould). All the rest can be done once you are back at the Herbarium, where you can consult previous collections to help you identify your specimens (redundant collections are welcome because they document the variety within and/or distribution of species) or any species new to science.

One of David's most recent specimens
David also showed  us an identified specimen from the expedition to Mozambique, and one of the reference specimens they consulted, from the collections, when identifying plants; it's by 19th century Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone (more about his correspondence with Kew).

Contemporary specimen
19th century specimen

I would go on talking about this fascinating subject, but everything is explained on Kew's website... I will tell you, however, that Kew has started digitizing the collections and some are already available to all through the Herbarium catalogue, as I find that rather amazing.

If you are into the expedition side of plant finding, I found Kew's Overseas Territories team blog that might be of interest.

For those interested in plant genetics, we might visit the Jodrell Laboratory at some stage, but for the moment, what I have learnt is that you might be able to find viable DNA material in specimens that have been dried quickly and are less that 20 years old. 

And on that bombshell...

Friday 26 April 2013

Pruning (Week 3, Friday)

Pruning is something I have never done much for various reasons so I am keen to learn more.

This early morning it was raining so we did not go out straight away, and I took the opportunity to try and sharpen my secateurs on my own.
 I popped into the toolshed and observed a colleague doing it, then I did it myself, first disassembling... then sharpening and finally reassembling the lot. I reckon I made the edge a bit too wide in the middle and a colleague said it might have been made sharper, but it was a good start.

Then, one of my fab colleagues spent some times explaining to me how to use the said secateurs properly - I know, it's probably basic stuff, but it is the little things that make a difference. She explained that the anvil blade helps protect buds when you cut over them...

... and that, if you need a neat cut, you have to use your secateur from the blade side, making sure you leverage on it, through the opposite handle, so as not to bruise the stem.

She also advised on a book on pruning that I have bought... my journey towards learning how to prune properly is ongoing, but every day I am realising something more.

The rest of the day I spent working with Rubus again, trying to apply my colleague's advice while cutting it back, in particular by avoiding leaving stumps that will eventually die back and be unsightly, besides being bad practice as in many plants they might lead to colonisation by fungus coral spot (Nectria cinnabarina).

This being what I have to deal with in terms of spines, it was a rather slow task to carry out, but by the end of the day I was really satisfied with my work and rather happy.

I think the before and after pictures below show it's totally worth all the scratches :)

Thursday 25 April 2013

Stripes and stars (Week 3, Thursday)

Today I went back to the Japanese Landscape: it was a gorgeous sunny day and the grass is starting to grow fast, so we had to mow the lawn. There is a specific department that takes care of the sward at Kew with ride-ons, but for the smaller areas we use lawnmowers.

My parents' garden was sizeable when I was growing up, and the lawn was mowed regularly, I probably even had a go at times. But it was just a matter-of-fact operation, to cut the grass short so that we could use the garden... here in the UK, however, lawn mowing is more of an art, and stripes are the height of perfection.

So, today I was taught how to mow a lawn the proper way, and, for the task, I had a real star trainer, who gained his experience on golf courses. With great patience on his part, and some frustration on mine, the morning was well spent, and I even had fun once I started getting the gist of it.

Here is how it turned out:
First attempt...

... and afterwards
What do you think? Well done, eh? A star performance! ;p

In the afternoon, I helped a colleague clear some leaves from a wooded area of the garden that I had never visited, and that turned out to be very pleasant with a selection of fragrant Magnolia species and a tree I had never seen, Azara microphylla, which gives off a chocolatey scent. 

Today was also the day of the first plant IDing test for me: I was very nervous as I haven't had much time to study - even if I have seen and memorised plenty of plants over the last three weeks... 

For the test, you are supposed to learn 10 plants a month, but every month you are shown 30 samples, because you have to recognise also the set plants for the previous two months... being my first month I was only supposed to learn 10 but I have recognised a few more - besides, even if I did not get them all right, I enjoyed finding myself in front of plant material and having to guess which plant it belonged to: it teaches you to look at plants more carefully, spotting those tiny details that make a difference... 

Wednesday 24 April 2013

Fireblight (Week 3, Wednesday)

The Rosaceae family of plants, and the sub-family Maloidae (those with pome fruits) in particular, are affected by fireblight, which is a disease caused by bacterium Erwinia amylovora; it affects blossom and shoots and may lead to the death of the plant.

Fireblight used to be a notifiable disease, and governments are still trying to keep it in check and confined to the already affected areas (in the UK, it is still not established in most of the isles). You can read more about fireblight on the Defra factsheet, or on the Missouri Botanical Garden and  RHS websites.

In our area we will have to identify and monitor the spread of the disease as it starts to flare up later in the spring. Any plant material affected needs to go to the incinerator.

By the way, here is how fireblight looks on a Photinia, just as if it had been scorched by fire. And inside the stem, there is orange-brown staining, sometimes in a longitudinal stripe, other times it goes around a ring in the stem (which may cause

Stone fruits, the plants in the Rosaceae family that do not get fireblight, apparently catch silverleaf instead, caused by fungus Chondrostereum purpureum.

By the way, do  you know an easy way to recognise a plant in the Rosaceae family? I was told it has five petal and five sepals to the flower, and two stipules for each leaf, like below.


Today I was on my own taking forward the edging and clearing of the South Canal beds, so I was assigned a volunteer to help. There are plenty of really nice volunteers that come and help us one day a week, and the volunteer that helped me was a gardener, studying garden design and interested in permaculture. While digging out a large patch of ground elder (aka Aegopodium podagraria) we had an interesting chat, and I mentioned to him hugelkultur, which I had learnt from @carllegge, who introduced me to permaculture. Here's an interesting short piece about it, discussing especially its sustainability. 

I had been thinking about it because soil at Kew is sandy and sand dries up quickly, and will research it better as soon as I have more time.

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Squaring the circle - reprise (Week 3, Tuesday)

Our teamwork today was again planting trees, something which I really looked forward to:

1. I had enjoyed it the last time
2. wanted to refresh my memory on the technique
3. the weather was good...

You can see the square hole, the planting hole, and the planted tree clearly in the pictures.

This time it was only two of us for each tree so I had the opportunity to take more active part, and I was working with a colleague who had done it dozens of time, who helped me perfect my technique. Using the tools felt less awkward the second time round: it is really a matter of "practice makes perfect", and we planted a really pretty little tree, Sorbus meliosmifolia (which, according to the great book one of my colleagues suggested, Gledhill's "The Names of Plants", means: having leaves similar to a meliosma).

It takes around an hour to plant a tree properly from scratch, so today I worked on planting five different trees, including the Sorbus. Two of them were planted on the bank of the lake where on my very first day I had pulled ivy out: it was good to see how that clearing work I did served to prepare the bank for planting new trees.

Well, another enjoyable day, and what gorgeous weather! 

There were plenty of visitors in the garden today, and an American garden designer stopped to take a picture of us digging the tree hole... we also provide entertainment for the kids, when we move around the longer distances on a tractor: they stare and wave at us.

As it was team working day, I had the opportunity to meet two different colleagues, one of which - like me, is interested in foodcrops and organic. It's a great bunch of people, fun and knowledgeable in their different ways and areas. By the end of the day I had been outnumbered by "the boys", who came out well in this picture, taken while finishing off the planting of the Quercus rotundifolia.

After work I went with some colleagues around the gardens, plant spotting: having a look at the plants we have to identify on Thursday - my first plant ID test!

Monday 22 April 2013

Kew's library (Week 3, Monday)

The highlight of the day today was a visit to Kew's library, which was born out of the Herbarium (which we will visit next week) and which is actually known as "Library, Art & Archives" because it does not manage only books... have you ever visited the Marianne North Gallery?

I usually prefer the outside, but on a rainy day we looked for shelter in the Gallery and it was rather amazing, with plants and animals in bright colours around you on all walls... I was personally also fascinated by the story of Marianne herself: what a brave woman, travelling the world in the late 19th century and painting plants...

But, back to the library: it might look like any other library, but it is pretty vast to start with (it contains more than 500,000 items, 90 languages), a maze of collections, with special thematic sections scattered across the gardens' buildings in Kew and at Wakehurst Place. You can read more on its history and significance. We got to see the first edition of Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" today: there is a special section of the library that contains all the oldest of books...

Everyone can access the Kew library, and you can search the catalogue online. I myself think I will have to go and have a proper browse on my own one day, as so much information can be overwhelming: I do not think I have taken it all in from the tour this afternoon...

The morning I spent edging the South Canal beds. While driving there in our tractor, my colleague showed me a tree, pointing out it was a champion. That was a coincidence! Over the weekend, in a visit to RHS Wisley, I had spotted the label you can see pictured, but had no time to investigate it further, so it was on my to do list.

Champion trees are the ones that are "exceptional examples of their species (Royal Forestry Society) and several of the UK & Irish champion trees are registered in The Tree Register.

On a totally different subject, today ended in a positive way, with me finding out that I passed Level 3 "The management of plant health". I'm halfway through that now...

Friday 19 April 2013

Zen and the art of leaf gathering (Week 2, Friday)

It was with some hesitation that this morning I made my way to the Japanese Landscape. It is a rather formal garden, and working on it felt pretty daunting.

Edging, which by now I can do fairly well, and picking up the magnolia leaves that the inclement weather has scattered all over the place the tasks for the day, together with re-doing the lines in the raked gravel that represents the flowing of water.

With magnolias, camellias, cherries and photinias in flower, the place looked really marvellous, despite the gray sky. The landscape has a fascinating history, built as it is around the Gateway (a replica of a temple in Kyoto) and attracts plenty of visitors, but somehow it also manages to retain a spiritual character. Which I found out when gathering and picking up leaves.

There were a few gusts of wind, and each one would scatter part of the light and somewhat sticky leaves I had managed to scrape out of the grass and bushes, while also blowing new leaves from the tree. Something that can be pretty annoying, as I'm sure you know. However, a thought came into my mind.

I remembered a book on mindfulness I recently flicked through, by Thich Nhat Hanh. The Vietnamese Zen monk suggested that happiness is only found in mindfulness and mindfulness in performing an action for the sake of it, by concentrating completely on it, bringing back one's attention every time it goes astray and observing and acknowledging one's distractions as they happen to avoid them being more distracting... this was a concept I had been familiar for a while, since I became interested in Hinduism while studying Religious Studies. It was guru Osho - if I recollect well - that said that our mind gets distracted by wandering into either the past or the future, preventing us from enjoying the moment. I think it is one of the reasons I like gardening so much: because it absorbs me completely in the task at hand, and I can relax.

So I thought of my leaves, and concentrated in picking them up for the sake of it. One leaf at a time, one handful at a time, one bucket at a time. It was refreshing and made me think that there's so much that is like picking leaves just to look them fall again. If you let it get at you, then you cannot but get angry and bitter. But if you keep carrying on as if nothing had ever happened before, or was going to happen again, then you are leaving in the moment, and can find peace.

All my phylosphical musings crashed suddenly into reality when the student I was working with suggested I learnt how to use the leafblower, which I did, after the by-now-usual feeling of awkwardness when starting to use a new tool around people.

Here is me, posing as a ghostbuster, before going in for lunch...

Thursday 18 April 2013

Going about one's business (Week 2, Thursday)

Another day of bed maintenance, which is what we are here to do!

I am now mostly self-sufficient in getting the tools together before starting the day, such a relief! :) When I first joined I had a locker assigned to me with a standard kit, then, over the last two weeks, I have collected a selection of other bits and pieces I need, like a hand-fork (can you believe gardeners' hand-forks are one of the most often stolen items if left lying around?!?) and a knee pad. There are other tools in the shed that are there for specific jobs, for example landscape and lawn rakes (the light ones you can use on grass because they do not rip it up as the heavier ones do), saws etc.

The bin bags are for the non-compostable weeds and also for all the plastic bits and foil wrappers that we keep finding stuck in between plants and pretty much everywhere in the beds.

Anyway, today we tackled Cotoneaster as well as Rubus. Here's a before and after pic (have to remember to take them from the same angle perspective in the in the future):


While cleaning up, I unearthed a millipede I had not seen before, which Paul Lee at the British Myriapod and  Isopod Group very kindly helped me identify as a flat-back millipede of the genus Polydesmus.  Apparently there are 5 species that look very similar in the UK, and you need to inspect the underside with a lens/microscope to find out exactly which is which. Fascinating, isn't it?

By the way, do you know which is the rough rule of thumb to distinguish centipedes from millipedes? Centipedes have only one pair of legs per body segment, millipedes have two. 

I was taught that centipedes, 1 pair of leg = good in gardening terms, as they are mainly carnivores. Millipedes, 2 pairs of legs = less good from a gardening perspective as they might feed on roots and seedlings even though they are mostly detrivores. But I am not endorsing any violence on them, I think a healthy ecosystem, with as many species as possible, is the best environment for plants to thrive in, and detrivores are really useful for the recycling of nutrients. The little fellow there was left to go about its business straight after I took the picture.

We, on the other hand, were stopped halfway through our work in the beds by a sudden thunderstorm, so had to head in in a rush.

After work, however, the weather was sunny again and, if anything, Kew looked more gorgeous for the shower, so I went on a plant IDing round... it's such a privilege to be here every day!

Wednesday 17 April 2013

Weedy Wednesday (Week 2, Wednesday)

A day that was mostly about weeding and edging.

My progress in edging consists in having learned how to straighten beds using a string. Also, I am becoming better at using my foot behind the half-moon when lifting soil. There are two main movements you have to learn with the half-moon.

  • First, it's pressing down the blade, keeping the tool vertical, in a continuous way along a line, so you do not get bitty cuts. 
  • Second, it's to lift the soil away from the edge, using your foot as a lever so that the half moon does not smudge the grass edge.
Here is the final cut along the line, cleaned of the soil and grass debris.

With regards to weeds, since I am spending time pulling them out, I thought I would take pictures of each specimen, so as to do a bit of IDing.

I have previously found it useful to identify wildflowers and weeds from illustrated guides and web keys (for example, I love BSBI wildflower key), but my colleague suggested I buy a proper botanical key. Which I did, and will use it to identify the pictures of the weeds I have collected so far.

We collect and compost the plant material we discard (except the infected material which is incinerate), and we compost erbaceous and woody material separately in the stable yard where we have our base.
There are huge compost heaps there, which can reach the toasty temperature of 60°C-104°F. In the mornings on a cool day you can see them smoking, and the peacocks like to wander around the are; you often find them on top of the heaps, crying out what sounds like a raucous call for help.

At those temperatures, partial sterilisation occurs. My books for RHS Level 3 said about soil that:

  • 45°C kills nematodes
  • 55°C kills insects and weed seeds
  • 60°C kills fungi (unfortunately including mycorrhizae)
Some weeds, however, are best composted in a plastic bag, as they are very persistent: they are bindweed, ground elder, Oxalis repens and bluebells - yes, everything can be considered a weed, weed is in the eye of the beholder!

On Kew's website there is a whole page dedicated to our compost heap, which is one of the biggest non-commercial ones in Europe, it also features an explanatory video.

Should you wish to start your own home composting, I found this quick guide by Garden Organic useful.

Tuesday 16 April 2013

Tree circles (Week 2, Tuesday)

Today was team working again, and we did tree rings on the Pagoda vista.

No, not the tree rings inside a tree trunk, which can be used to identify the age of a tree. I mean we weeded, edged and mulched the circular, grass-free areas around the pairs of trees that flank the heritage walk that is the vista, which - I am told - are "double-banked matched pairs", meaning they are pairs of the same tree, flanked on the outside by another pair of trees.

I was not feeling very well, haven't been since yesterday when I had to stay at home, so did not think of taking any pictures. However, a secret admirer took one of me working from a distance (no, I can't be seen, it was too far away, but that's the area).

Will have to go back and check on some of the trees we did, as they attracted my attention being Acer saccharum (sugar maple), and they must look pretty when they put out their leaves, although I suppose they really come into their own once it's autumn.

The technique to make round circles consists in tying your half moon to the tree trunk with a non-stretcheable piece of string, then working around the tree, so I had the opportunity to practise a lot with this new tool.

I was also told why we need to cut quite deep edges into the grass: I always finds that understanding why you are doing something helps to learn and remember. But it is surprising how few people are able to formalize their (especially practical) knowledge into communicable information, to explain how and why they are doing something. It's a rare skill, and as a former Knowledge Manager I have confronted - and had to bridge - this reality often in my career. I am lucky, however, to have found some people here that are excellent at sharing their knowledge.

So... because the grass roots expand sideways by rhizomes and stolons, they would start creeping into the rings and towards the trees. If, instead of soil, they find air, they stop, so you get a neat and tidy ring. Hence, you need to cut an edge that reaches down all the depth of the grass roots.

Incidentally, did you know that because of the root/shoot ratio principle, the length of the root is in proportion to that of the canopy? It is the principle at the basis of pasture management for soil fertility. When grass grows long, the roots grow long, then, when grass is mowed, a part of the roots die back, and remain into the soil as biomass; then it grows again and so on... if you want to know more about it you can Google "Joel Salatin", an American farmer who centres his farming on this principle.

... but back to our sward, we keep the grass quite short, and so are the roots, and that is how deep tree rings work by preventing the spread of grass towards the trees.

When mulching, you have then to take care to keep the mulch away from the edges (again to prevent grass spreading into it) as well as from the tree trunk (to avoid rotting).

Friday 12 April 2013

Day five: sharpening up

One of the things I had never done was to sharpen a pair of secateurs, so when a colleague said he was going to fix his and offered me to tag along I took the opportunity straight away.

After disassembling the nuts, bolts and the spring, we cleaned and sharpened the blade using oil and stone, then had to reassemble the lot. I look forward to doing it again to see if I can remember how to do it properly as I was shown... and in the meantime I will keep the official instruction for maintenance to hand.

After that, I spent the day finishing the jobs I started yesterday, and reflected on the past week.

There are several aspects of this internship that are helping me sharpen up my act too:
  • As the distances in the garden are considerable, it is best to carry all the tools you think you will need with you from the start of the day, so as to avoid having to go back to the toolshed. As my garden and plot are fairly small, I can access whatever I need at all time, but this new experience is a good exercise in planning your day ahead and general efficiency.
  • Because we work in contact with the public, we need to be particularly careful with health & safety, avoiding that our tools get in the way or endanger anyone, and we have to leave everything neat and tidy. That is also a good exercise for me, so I am getting used to planning my gardening tasks more carefully, finishing what I have started and leaving time to clear up.
  • Last but not least, I have started working in a team: I depend on others and others depend on me - although I have worked in teams in an office all my life and I'm well acquainted with the principles, it is a new way of gardening for me, and out there in the open, doing physical work, being able to rely on a team feels more... essential.
Have a good weekend all.

Thursday 11 April 2013

Day four: Rubus and Prunus

Today I went off to become more familiar with my beds and  we planned to manage a Rubus or two.

It was a whole day of gardening, me and the plants, which was good as I need to take in all of the changes that have happened in the last few days and adjust to the new pattern of my days.

We start work at 7.30 in the morning, which means that I have to wake up at 5, and by the time I get home I am so tired and my evening flies, but I am still studying my Masters module on Environmental ethics, so I have to stay up late.
Anyway, people that know me say it really shows I'm happy... and no wonder!

The weather is warming up a little bit, so the Prunus trees in my section are starting to flower. This Prunus serrulata 'Pandora' is one of the first, and is right next to where I'm working.

The National History Museum published leaflets on how to identify cherry trees,  and links to Kew's own cherry walk, which will be gorgeous to be in in a few days from now...

Wednesday 10 April 2013

Day three: in beds with Rubus

As I mentioned before, the South Canal beds, which I am taking care of, are the site of the Rosaceae collection, and Rubus figures prominently in them. Rubus is the Latin name for bramble, and also the genus of  the bramble-like family of plants.

There are some striking differences in them, some look positively gorgeous, some look weedy, others don't even look like brambles much, but all tend to sprawl  beyond their allotted space and to self-seed prolifically, so I'm going to spend time taking them back to where they belong over the next few weeks.

Today we worked with two bushes of "hairy" Rubus, one unspecified and the other called Rubus tricolor. They did not have thick prickles and spines as brambles usually do, but more of a thick mat of hairs - which, if I read the Angiosperm Phylogeny Website right, are still technically prickles.

I helped the student I work with to cut them back so they don't encroach on other plants around them. As this is a botanical garden, however, it is important that we do not spoil the natural habit of the plant.

Rubus tricolor

I am counting on learning more about pruning plants over the weeks, as that is something I would like to develop skills in.

Here is how the two shrubs looked like before and after we finished pruning back and cleaning from the leaves, edging the beds etc

While we were digging out roots, we also found this beauty: I had never seen a beetle like that, it's a Violet Ground Beetle (Carabus violaceus). It hunts slugs & invertebrates at night.

By the way, I cannot find my bearings easily yet in the gardens, so walking back tonight I got lost and it took me an hour to find my exit. I took the opportunity to take pictures of plants - there's a lot going on as spring might finally be starting... but gardening is good exercise already and the hour-long walk has completely knackered me!