Friday, 28 June 2013

It's raining on prom night (Week 12, Friday)

Coming to work to Kew has made me want to sing, something I had not done for a long while. Since I am driving for a minimum of 1.5 hrs/day, that's been a good opportunity to practice in an isolated space, where my out-of-shape, shaky voice, that could not reach up to high notes any longer, was not going to disgrace me in the eyes of anyone :) After trying out a few CDs, I have stuck with Grease the musical pretty much throughout the three months, so I now know it all almost by heart, hence the idea for the title today.

Not really to do with prom nights, but it is my last day on the South Canal beds (at least for a while), but it was raining today, which slowed me down considerably even though I was working under cover of some trees. As a result, I have not finished what I was planning to do, and, even though I did not end up with flu (as the song goes), I felt a bit like the 'cruel force of nature' was doing it on purpose to spoil my plans! Anyway, we desperately needed rain and it is highly likely I will come back to the South Canal beds after my stint in the nursery, so not much of a deal, really.

Weeded out Cotoneaster
It was mainly about clearing bindweed, the last of the garlic mustard from the other day, overgrown Rubus, and a couple of large bryony (Bryonia dioica) and bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara) plants. Oh, and the usual self-seeded Cotoneaster, grown to shrub size, unnoticed in a hidden spot.

Here are some before and after pictures:

Front, before

Front, after

Front, panorama (click to enlarge)

Back, before
Back, after
Back (2), before
Back (2), after

I seem always to find something that fascinates me, when I work with plants, even in the more mundane of tasks, like weeding and cutting back. Today, I found this Spirea leaf, and then a few others like it. Something obviously went wrong when cells were dividing to make the leaf lobed and dented, which is obviously not a simple pattern, as any of you that are knitters know (casting on and slipping stitches...). The leaves (like a bad knitter might do) seem to have produced too much tissue, which got grafted in the required shape, with all excess just curled up underneath the leaf...

Thursday, 27 June 2013

The work experience lad (Week 12, Thursday)

Back from my study leave and RHS Level 3 exam (that was a long day, as I was taking the first part early in the morning and the last one in the afternoon) I knew I would have to take care of a work experience lad for the day.

My main objective for the next two days is to finish weeding and bringing plants back to their allotted space in one of the middle beds, so that on Sunday I can come in and finish my stock-checking exercise. I am under a bit of self-imposed pressure because I want to finish it all. That is because for the next two weeks I have been given the opportunity to work in the arboretum nursery (something that is not normally on the interns' training plan, so I'm rather proud of it).

Anyway, weeding is what needs doing at the moment so I asked the lad to help with it. To give him something a bit different to do I had also saved a Rubus for pulling out - it had grown into another one, difficult to spot even though the leaves of the species were quite different, but, at this time of the year, one was in flower, while the other one was fruiting already. So I asked him to have a good look at the plant and see if he could spot anything strange, and he did! 

A lad with an eye for plants, and showing more interest than others we have had working with us, deserved full attention, so I tried to keep his interest going and it was good that I had all my botany fresh from the exam. 

Circaea lutetiana
In an area with a lot of suckering plants, we talked about suckers and how they take good energy from a plant and therefore need to be cut back, especially when the plant is grafted and it is the rootstock that suckers: just recently we found two Crataegus in my area where the rootstock had taken over and the scion had died. 

When digging out enchanter's nightshade (Circaea lutetiana), of which there was a large patch engulfing a couple of Spiraeas, we discussed rhizomes being underground stems and how if any is left in the soil they will come out again.

As we run into a bunch of mushrooms in the mulch, and he wanted to hoe them, we had an opportunity to talk about micorrhyzae and how they are useful to plants, and some nettles covered in aphids were the opportunity to talk about biocontrol by attracting beneficial insects, and parasitoid wasps Aphidium and Aphelinus and midge Aphidoletes that use aphids as their egg-case.

I enjoyed talking about plants, and the lad did notice (and remarked) how passionate I am about them!

Friday, 21 June 2013

Tipping the trailer (Week 11, Friday)

The reason why you may not see all the diary entries published online yet is that I am preparing for my RHS Level 3 exam next week, not that I am working or learning any less (or having less fun).

I am still clearing the middle bed of dead wood and overgrown plants, so that I can complete the stock-checking with some accuracy. I am so engrossed by the task, and on such a tight schedule at the moment, that I forgot to take a "before" picture, but here is the panorama view of the "after": in front of the tractor is where I finished, behind the tractor, where I still have to work.

(click to enlarge)
And, from the front of the bed, you can now make out the individual plants: two Spirea on the left, two Prinsepia on the right, and the Spirea in the centre at the back, instead of an undifferentiated mass of greenery.

Going to and fro from the yard with my loaded tractor today, I thought it would be nice to talk about tipping the trailer, especially as several of my friends (girls in particular!) have been almost as excited as myself about my driving a tractor. 

In the yard  (where our compost heap is), we sort our loads in two groups: the green and the woody, which will be turned into soft and woody mulch respectively. Today I was tipping woody material. 

Before driving into the enclosed compost heap working area, you have to wear a hi-vis vest, so that any moving vehicle can see you. Of course, if there is any moving vehicles, especially the big tractors, or when our colleagues are working on shredding wood etc, you have to wait at the entrance until you are waved in, for safety reasons.

Once you drive in, you approach the relevant heap area and reverse your trailer as close as possible to it. Then get off and a. open the back flap (when the load is not too high and likely to slide through it) b. remove the back flap, as I did, my load being quite big and full of branches that would get stuck.

At that point, operating a lever will get the hydraulic hoist to lift the trailer, ready to dump. Once the trailer is up, driving backwards and forwards a little bit with great care (a lifted trailer is easily overturned, so you have to make sure the wheels are both safely level on the ground) will cause the load to slide off, in a neat, contained mound. Well, sometimes you have to help it along, as some branches might get stuck... they did today. What you should not do is just drive forward, as you would scatter the content all over the place.

Then you lower the trailer, before replacing and fixing the flap, and driving off: mission accomplished!

Incidentally, today I realised that, if you are interested in compost making at Kew, including us tipping tractors etc, there is a raised platform for visitors to watch all the proceedings live :)

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Gallium aparine (Week 11, Thursday)

While pulling the Alliara, I found myself covered in cleavers (Galium aparine), another weed whose name I have just learnt, despite being familiar with the plant from the plot at home.

Amazingly effective, cleavers, in, well... cleaving to whatever is at hand. Seed are not the only part of this plant of the Rubiaceae family endowed with hooked hairs either. The stems are covered with them and so are the leaves, which make for the perfect climbing arrangement.

Try and disentangle it from a Spiraea as I had to do today and you will know: perfect adaptation, it is...

The plants itself is rather pleasant with its whorls of bright green, oblanceolate leaves on four-angled stems and dainty white flowers (if only it was not that invasive) and edible (which could help keep it in check as a weed)

I was starting to think it would take me all day to get rid of the seeds from my shirt, when I felt as if something was tapping me on the back. Then again.

It was then that I realised it was the robin that had been following me, while I was weeding in between the shrubs in the middle of the bed, from a couple of metres' distance.

She had become bold, and started using me as her bird feeder. Not that I minded, so I kept weeding in the area, under the canopy, until she had had enough.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Garlic mustard (Week 11, Wednesday)

The front of the bed

Weeding week this week, and having done with the front of a bed, I decided to step inside, behind a wall of Spiraea... where I found what I can only define as a plantation of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) aka Jack-by-the-hedge!

Just behind

It was actually quite something:  I had never seen so much garlic mustard together, and certainly not leaves larger than my hand; definitely thriving back there in the shade.

I have never made use of this herb of the Brassicaceae family, which is said to taste of garlic and mustard. It certainly smell garlicky when being pulled out.

First year's leaves

It is a biennial, with the first year's leaves reniform, auriculate at the base, crenate at the margins.

Second year's stem and leaves

The second year's leaves are alternate on the stems and cordate. The flowers, with four petals as it is the characteristic of the family (previously called Cruciferae because of the cross-like shape of the flowers) are white and grouped in racemes.
Garlic mustard is said to be good for wildlife:
Garlic mustard is famously the larval food plant of the Orange-tip butterfly particularly on damper more open sites such as riverbanks. Look out for the orange eggs laid just behind the flower. Less well known is its importance as the food plant for the caterpillars of green-veined whites.*
Cantharis rustica

I found an unidentified caterpillar (not the larva of either those butterflies) a pretty and beneficial predator, Cantharis rustica, with its heart-shaped spot on the thorax, on one of the leaves.

The middle of a bed that I have to stockcheck is however not the place for those pretty plants to grow, so I started work on them and it took longer than one day to clear the whole patch properly. A couple of pictures from the end of the first day.

*Emorgsgate seed catalogue,

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Weeding the tree circles in the South Canal beds (Week 11, Tuesday)

Team day, as usual, but the difference today was that we were weeding tree circles in my area: Malus, Pirus, Crataegus...

I sat for a while under a large pear tree, pulling weeds from under its canopy. When I came out, my colleague went quiet and looked strange, his eyes on my back: "you have something on your back".

A large moth was taking a ride. "A picture, take a picture...", says I, and a few people tagged along with their mobiles too.

The moth did not seem inclined to leave me, so I carried on weeding, while it stood, parrot-like, on my shoulder. Luckily I'm not too fussed about this kind of things!

There it remained, until lunchtime, when we looked it up: eyed hawk-moth (Smerinthus ocellata) was its name. Not even the manager was immune from the fascination this large insect held on us. Unfortunately, in all the time it hung around, it never spread its wing so that we could see they eyes that give it its common name.

Smerinthus ocellata
Having left it on a log, I went back to my weeding. Another surprise was in store for me, inside a Crataegus. As I was trying to make my way under the specimen's canopy, in fact, our teamleader for the day asked me if I wanted to see something interesting. Well, you can guess my reply!

Viscum album, main plant and seedling

Deep inside the branches, impossible to see if not directed, was a mistletoe (Viscum album). Its main stem came out of an hawthorn's branch, almost indistinguishable from any other branch, it looked so at home there. A seedling emerged from the bark right next to it.

An interesting team day, this one was, in my area!

Friday, 14 June 2013

The Pagoda (Week 10, Friday)

We visited the Pagoda today, such a symbol of Kew gardens!

I remember a few years ago the Pagoda was open to the public for a short period of time and I wanted to go but then did not manage to... but today we had our very own special tour.

The reason why the Pagoda is not open to the public is that the wooden structure may not support the flow of visitors, but there are plans to renovate it.

It was first built as a folly in the seventeen hundreds for princess Augusta, who wanted to make of Kew a paradise on earth, so commissioned various buildings to adorn it.

The Pagoda used to have golden dragons at its corners, and it costed the equivalent of £17,000 in today's money. It was the tallest reconstruction of a Chinese building in Europe but, with its 10 storeys, it is architecturally inaccurate: pagodas always have an odd number of floors.

For me the biggest treat was to see the South Canal beds from up high: they look so gorgeous! And I could spot some of my most recent work even from there.

What is more, by finally seeing them in their whole entirety, I seem to have figured out their geography, which has helped already with my bad sense of direction in the gardens.

The South Canal beds extend from the Cedar vista (the grassed walkway  that  connects the Pagoda to the river Thames) to the tarmacked path that leads to the Pavillion restaurant, 

and from the Pagoda vista (the grassed walkway that connects the Pagoda to the Palm House) to the grassed path that flanks the western side of the Temperate House. It's a trapezoidal area with 6 beds, tree each long side, with the ones on the corners V-shaped, that enclose an area with individually planted trees (Pyrus spp,  Malus spp and Crataegus spp).

It's a large area, seen from up the Pagoda! No wonder I get tired walking around it, and I am losing so much weight :)

The South Canal beds
Since I have worked there so much, I also took a picture of the Japanese gateway. 

The Japanese gateway
Our guide for the trip was the arboretum (and my) manager, who has been in Kew since he was a teenager and worked his way up the career ladder. Having been in the gardens so long, he had some fascinating stories to tell us. A particularly quaint one, was that the area of the gardens where the yard is located and where I'm working, was a long time ago nicknamed "Alcatraz" and the gardeners who were least suited to be in contact with the public were sent to work there!

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Neillia (Week 10, Thursday)

I was not familiar with the genus Neillia before I spent a whole afternoon digging ground elder from under one. That was an opportunity to become closely acquainted; I took the pictures below.

There is probably a reason why I did not know Neillia, and it's because there doesn't seem to be much information around about them.

Originally from China, there are 16 species whose name has been accepted in the genus. As it is in the Rosaceae family, there are quite a few specimens in the South Canal beds. Deciduous shrubs, originally from Asia, with arched branches; some of the species are suckering. Leaves are alternate, lobed, ovate to ovate-oblong and toothed, which may turn yellow to red in autumn. Flowers are various shades of pink, borne on racemes, and bloom in late spring to early summer.

After my first encounter with the species, when stock-checking, I came across a label Rhodotypos scandens that was not apparently associated with a plant of that name. I researched online on the Missouri Botanical Garden website and there was definitely no Rhodotypos around. I was pretty sure there was an unlabelled Neillia there, though...

... and, again when stock-checking another day, I came across another Neillia, a puny rubiflora that looked surrounded by weeds. On closer look, there was a Prunus of some sort poking out from its back... given that I always have my secateurs on me and that I cannot stand stumps I cut the Prunus so it stood out as an eyesore for me to notice next time I was doing weeding.

By the way, stumps are not only ugly from an aesthetic point of view: it is bad horticultural practice to leave random bits of wood when pruning, as they will die back and possibly act as the entrance point for diseases and fungi such as coral spot.

Pruning is best done:
  • close to - just above - a node (where leaves and buds are located on a stem); you should make sure there is strong and healthy outward-facing bud that will grow without congesting the plant;  nodes are a region of the stem where healing is easier for the plant;
  • next to a branch collar*, making sure not to cut into it, because collars are natural protection areas of the plants and callus forms quicker there;
  • right down to the ground**.

Anyway, my devious strategem worked, and, today, while weeding I spotted the stump straight away and set about to free the poor Neillia of the intruder... well, actually, it turned out to be intruders - plural...

a Bryonia dioica

the Prunus
a Crataegus

... and a Sorbaria

... a  red bryony,  Prunus, Crataegus and Sorbaria later... it became apparent it had become a bit overcrowded around there, as the Neillia had obviously escaped attention. Anyway, all sorted now, we should have a happier plant!


*A branch collar is the ridge that a branch forms where it joins the stem. A fantastic colleague taught us that the collar is still part of the main stem, from which the branch emerges (it originates where a bud was sited, fed by a branch in the vascular system deep inside the stem). When you cut the branch, you should not cut into the main stem: that way, the wound will heal quicker, and, ideally, in a number of years, be completely covered by the stem's bark. Below a few pictures:

A branch collar: the ridge is visible
from which the branch emerges

Branches originating from
inside the stem
A good pruning wound
being covered by bark

The black stain in the section shows where a branch was not
correctly pruned: the stem did not find it easy to heal the wound
** If a branch or stem is cut in the wrong position, the stump will die back and possibly congest the plant/be in the way of new growth; the same is true when the stem is cut at the soil level. A plant should be planted at the depth of its root flare, but I guess the exact spot where to cut is a matter of experience and observation. As Rossana would say: look at the plant and the way it grows; and, in the case of pruning, feel the bark, the collar, look at how the branch emerges from the stem, clear the soil all around the plant base and find the root flare. In the picture below, you can see some stumps that died back and are in the way of a new bud: not a good cut.