Friday 31 October 2014

A rambling rose

Surprisingly challenging task for me in the herb garden today, where I was asked to prune a rambling rose to fit on an arch.

I had never done that and my colleague explained we were cutting back 1/3rd of the older branches to the ground, then arranging the remaining ones on the arch and shortening laterals to 2/3rds.

Before starting
First part of the task was removing all the old ties from the arch, and taking down the (rather heavy) branches so we  could have a good look at them before choosing the ones we wanted to tie back.

All branches untied and spread out
Once the branches were all on the ground, however, it looked to me very much like a tangled mess, and I found it so much more difficult to decide which ones were good to keep than I usually do: normally, by clearing around the plant and observing it from all sides, the branches that are to go "reveal themselves" to me (for want of a better expression). But here no clearing was possible and the plant had not much of a shape...

A previously pruned rose
My colleague had to leave me to it, with a previously pruned rose as my sample, and I proceeded with as much care as possible, tying back branches to the back of the arch first, some 15-20 cm apart. Then I had to tackle the top. I was told that the arch would look best by having some branches softening its front, so I worked towards creating the desired effect.

It looked to me the plant was rather top heavy, with plenty of laterals and sublaterals on a single stem, so the most challenging part was to reconcile the principle of keeping suitably shortened branches and allowing some distance between them to avoide rubbing (that might cause dieback and provide access to other pests and diseases). By the end, I found what I thought was a good compromise, but I had cut more than the expected one third of the plant.

The final pruned rose, tied back on the arch
My colleague confirmed: this was much more than she was expecting to prune, which was a bit demoralising, especially as this was the last rose that needed pruning, and I would have benefited from pratising on other plants with her, to get used to this new to me shape of plant.

Roses usually respond well to hard pruning, and there were some vigorous new shoots in this one that I left, but I am a bit worried that the plant might put too much energy in vegetative growth next year, as opposed to flowering, which would be a pity as this is a very attractive spot for visitors.

Well, one can only wait and see...

Wednesday 29 October 2014

The very special veg garden and gardeners of Wisley

Today it was the first time I ever managed to work in the veg garden and I was so excited!

In the flurry of activities that the start of our traineeship was, combined with Garden events, staff leave and who knows what else (time flies here!) I never managed to get to work in the veg garden. I had heard so much about it and the specialist colleague that works there and how the area is popular with the public.

The reason why I was specially excited was because I'm so keen to learn about vegetable growing, my passion. I am the first trainee in the Fruit, Veg and Herbs Department that is not just working on Fruit and I am determined to make the most of it, so much so I'm planning to carry out my Horticultural Management project on veg growing (I'll write more on this later on).

And the public is as excited as I am, it would appear, to learn more about growing veg, in fact the staff and volunteers in the area receive some 30-50 questions a day, from spring to autumn when most of the crops are growing!

The bright seed of runner bean 'Hestia'
I was there just clearing spent crops (namely beans and brassicas) yet received my fair share of questions, on the unusual plants they could spot (for example achocha - Cyclanthera sp, a crop I know very well as I've been growing and eating it for last three years) and on our plans for the beds that I was clearing.

Most of my colleagues do love to interact with the public and talk to people about crops and cultivation details: the specialist in the veg garden is particularly well endowed for the role as he used to be in catering in a previous career, so he can not only answer horticultural question, but culinary ones too!

But that is a very special brand of gardener that they are here, as in my experience there is a huge gap between those that like interaction and those that find it uncomfortable to receive questions on biocultural information. Some may well like to write about growing plants, but answering live questions is a totally different matter - I was reading about that just recently, as someone published a case study on their dissertation about growing and sharing information about new crops.

I have received a range of questions myself since I joined the garden, and it is quite an art to abstract yourself from whatever activity you might be busy on and figure out - off the cuff - what a question thrown at you is really aimed at knowing, putting it into context with counterquestions, and finding a suitable answer. I have done it in the past when - as a student - I worked in a customer service role, so I can see how it becomes easier with experience. But, as the relatively novice gardener I am, sometimes I am still thrown off. But it feels really good when you can provide helpful information, it does add to the job's pride.

One question that made me feel like that was about lichens on apple trees: are they a problem? I  knew the answer as we had discussed this last year when restoring orchards. Lichens cause no problem to the tree, but they are an indication that the plant is not growing fast, as they take time to establish. Apple trees that do not have some good vegetative growth tend to produce worse fruit with time, so if you see lichens on your apple trees when you want them to fruit, it's time for a good pruning session!

Some other questions result in you learning something new, like when I was asked: can one train peaches and apricots as cordons to have more space in the garden? Never had I thought about that, but luckily I had our fruit specialist on hand to ask: the answer was, unfortunately for the visitors' plans, no. And the reason why, is that peaches do not fruit on spurs, so you need whole branches and they cannot be restricted much, hence the fan shape they are usually trained as. In the case of apricots, it's the fact that there is no suitable dwarfing stock to grow them on, and as a plant they are too vigorous for cordons.

Tuesday 28 October 2014

My experience of the RHS

Today new staff from all the gardens (Wisley, Hyde Hall, Rosemoor and Harlow Carr) was brought together for induction day.

I have been through a good few induction days in my career, and that corporate self-congratulatory feel about a lot of them has made me less than excited to attend such events. But I did enjoy today: the atmosphere was genuinely friendly and pleasant, and, despite this being an exciting time for the Society, as £100 m of investment over the next 10 years has been approved by the board and the projects linked to it (more details of which are spelled out in the Annual Report) are underway already, I liked the way the Director General was rather down-to-earth about it.

I must say that to me as new entrant in horticulture, who's finding it hard to be self-sufficient on the average salary, the RHS attempt to improve the conditions of horticulturists is particularly appealing. It's rather appalling that we do not pay a living wage to people that produce our food, but the priviledge to make ends meet should extend to the competent gardeners that offer us the pleasure of beautiful gardens too! It is a complex and political issue to address, I know.

It is also very important for me that the RHS (of which I am a member as well as a trainee!) is investing in research and education, as we know still so relatively little about plants, and we definitely need to bring horticulture into an era where being kind to the environment we live in and that keeps us healthy is a priority, while pressures are strong in all sorts of contrary directions.
My hope is the Society will move towards establishing themselves as the world leaders of the new gardening that they started promoting back in 2007 with Matthew Wilson's book, which I recently started reading. I have spotted signs of development: possibly a less complex, although certainly as highly political, issue to address...

There is a lot in the RHS mission statement and guiding principles that I share and feel strongly about, and I was really impressed by the genuine effort to give visitors a pleasant experience in the gardens, and to bring gardening to an increasingly wider audience, beyond the traditional Flower Shows'.

I myself first became familiar with the society at Hampton Court Flower Show years ago, when I visited as a tourist from Italy. Once my interest in horticulture developed, I decided to take advantage of the RHS qualifications, and finally applied for this traineeship, so my horticultural experience is tightly interwoven with the Society!  Curiously, though, I only visited the Wisley Garden for the first time in February 2013, on a spare afternoon after my RHS qualifications' exams - that probably makes me an unusual member. That visit was however soon followed by one to Hyde Hall: I was hooked - I grew a thing for labelled gardens!

But there is so much more to the Society, for example the plentiful information available online on plants and their cultivation (which I always find myself consulting as a first point of reference, even though I might then disagree with it and not follow it). And a fantastic member service which I somehow never realised was available: the opportunity to contact the Society to identify plants, pests and diseases and ask for advice!

RHS numbers are of course impressive, and we were given some at our induction (but, as the RHS is a charity, all the information is public, and there's a lot about numbers in the Annual Review). RHS Garden Wisley on its own is a total of 600 acres in size, which gather together 27k taxa of cultivated plants and 40 champion trees. 41k kids visit the Garden on formal school visits every year, while the total visitors of RHS Gardens across the country (which between them host 14 National Collections) add up to 1.7 m.

Now, now look who's sounding that tad self-congratulatory... :)

But there is indeed a lot to improve in the horticulture industry, in my opinion, not only in how manpower is valued (or not so much) but also in terms of :
  • resources and waste (in a job I had over the summer I was shocked to experience how much goes into raising bedding plants)
  • cultivation practices and, in particular, use and misuse of chemicals.
It will be fascinating for me to observe how - as it expands, acquiring new and urban gardens, widening its membership and the education opportunities it offers, grounded in its own scientific research - the Society is going to apply its influence for positive change ... which, I am assuming, will offer me and other new entrants better prospects of making a decent living, with a light conscience and a lighter doctor's bill, in a chemically wiser and environmentally sounder industry...

Friday 24 October 2014

Planning the revamped cottage garden

I have spent quite a few nights, planning the revamp of my area, the Cottage Garden in the Model Fruit Garden, and a few daylight hours weeding it and getting to know it close up, including measuring it up and drawing a plan.

The area consists of a formal garden on the left, with straighter lines, and an informal area with curving, fluid lines.

First thing, I sketched it out on a piece of paper. Well, more than one, as it is quite a sizeable area, so I first sketched the whole of it, then, as I started measuring, I needed further sketches of the details. With my sketches and a single tape measurer (it's better if you have two, one as the baseline and the other for the offsets, saves loads of time, or you can use string as the baseline) I started measuring.

The straighter lines were easily measured as offsets of the boundary lines along the main paths in the Model Fruit Garden, but for the more irregular shapes I had to triangulate: measuring the distance of one point from at least two other fixed ones (some of the triangulation lines can be seen by enlarging the picture below). I then transcribed all the measurements on graph paper, which also allowed me to double check that all the measurements fitted together.

The final plan of the Cottage Garden
The curved lines were the most difficult to measure and I was so grateful when I had the opportunity to have the Fruit Dept's intern with me to help with the measuring.

Once the map was drawn, I used tracing paper to draw the existing trees (in permanent green ink in the picture below) and to experiment with ideas on how to move shrubs and what to plant in which layout. While this is still very much work in progress, I have had the opportunity to discuss a first plan with my manager, and to amend it based on our discussion. While this is still very much work in progress, two main ideas have emerged clearly for me.

Second round of ideas for the Cottage Garden
First of all, I would like to use the square bed in the formal area as a little potager, with seasonal planting of interesting and decorative fruit and vegetables. I would like to structure it as a four year rotation space, with four areas, separated by short hedging. The central part of the bed is already planted with a Malus, so that will have to separated by hedging too, so as to accidentally damage the roots of the apple tree. After debating options with my colleagues, I decided I would like to use a box substitute for my hedges, as that would be rather educational and in keeping with the area's objectives. In fact, the spread of box blight (Cylindrocladium buxicola and Pseudonectria buxi) which causes dieback and bare patches, has encouraged exploration into alternative hedging and topiary plants - not that that would be a novelty, as over the centuries several plants have been used: from Hyssopus, to Santolina, Ilex creata or Myrtus communis. I would like to experiment with Lonicera nitida, which is suitable for both hedging and topiary - I like its graceful leaves and purple berries (when not clipped).

Also, I think a path should be dug across the informal area, to allow access to the three trees located in the middle of the bed and a closer experience of the planting for visitors. The jury is still out on this feature.

Next step is to draw up a list of plants suitable for shade, as this is mainly a shady area, due to the line of tall Carpinus planted just outside the area to the East, and the beautiful and sizeable trees in the Forage Garden to the West.

Sunday 19 October 2014

10 apples or so a day: keeps the doctor away?

After all the picking, and the rehearsal in London earlier in the month, the last six days have been full-on on apples at the Wisley Taste of Autumn Festival and one can get enough of apples, I tell you!

Produce display for Wisley Taste of Autumn
After a day of set up that involved me checking stored crates of apples and pears for rotting ones to discard, and making an apple mosaic in the lovely autumnal display that we created in front of our stand, we set out to display tasters of our produce so that the public could appreciate a wider variety of apples, and to sell our apples and pear to help with our budget.

October is a special month for apples: for one they are around, but also, since 1990, the Orchard Network has promoted the institution of Apple Day to bring back traditional orchards from abandon, and to celebrate the variety of apples that small scale, local production entails.
And here we grow some 750 varieties of apples (eaters and cookers) and 150 of pears: both modern and traditional varieties, some of which date back to when the National Fruit Collection was located at Wisley in the 1920s: a joy to the palate!

In fact, apples do come in an amazing variety of flavours and textures, as I have learned over the last week, tasting them to help customers with their choices and to encourage tentative attempts at trying something new.

You get the whole spectrum from soft through floury to crunchy and all the in-betweens; juicy to dry; and sweet through fruity, to sharp to acidic. Amazing. And the strangest apple I tasted I was not able to describe, even after repeated tasting. It was called 'Saturn': floury in texture, with an aniseed note, it was almost savoury rather than sweet.

What was most interesting was to observe the reactions of people visiting us to the look and taste of the apples.

Several people dismissed apples only on their looks (which have generally little to do with either flavour or nutrition) - at some point, we had quite a tasty russeted apple, and I had to tell people: ignore their look and delight in their taste - they would have otherwise been completely ignored. Some actually said they would not expect such a good flavour in an unappealing apple. That is obviously going to be a problem for anyone who wants to market tasty produce that is not grown to supermarket plastic-fantastic standard. I was really surprised by seeing this in practice, although I had read about it profusely.

And I am not sure people realise what are the costs of such shining perfect appearance of the produce they would go for. First of all, for the producers and food waste, as crops that are perfectly edible and nutritious may be rejected by supermarkets, throwing farmers into financial distress (sometimes disaster) and often ending up in the compost heap themselves (as even ITV found out). But also, that search for the perfect look pushes suppliers to treat fruits, that come from further and further away and are stored for longer and longer to be available all year round, with all sorts of chemical and physical treatments (from gamma rays in Egypt to chemicals raising health concerns in the US).

Water core in 'Golden Pearmain'
An interesting example was apples with water core, a disorder that causes areas of the apple to be flooded with sorbitol (that is not converted to fructose) and become translucent. While not completely understood, water core is thought to be related to ripening,  contributing factors including excess of nitrogen associated to low calcium, and temperature variations.
We got a cultivar called 'Golden Pearmain' that seemed subject to it, and my colleagues all wanted a taste, as it is quite sweet, thanks to the sorbitol. In Japan, 'honeyed apples' with water core fetch higher prices and the famous 'Fuji' cultivar bred there is susceptible*.

Visitors at the Festival, however, shunned the plate, at least until I explained why the look of the apple was different. Would I have done the same? I had never known the disorder myself, and that is because commercially sold apples are screened for it with a variety of non-destructive techniques: light transmission, mass density sorting, MRI, CT scans and thermal imaging*... talking of keeping the doctor away!

After five days, I decided my greatest pleasure was seeing some kids and the odd adult just taste all the apples on offer, trying to discern the different flavours, rather than judge and dismiss them quickly, or favourite them. And it was a real pleasure to see so many kids so keen on fresh fruit for once: are apples the way into the heart of future healthy eaters? It is true that the demographics that visited Wisley for the Festival were likely not average of the general public...

* Sources:
Michigan State University Apples Extension, Water core in apples,
NSW Dept of Primary Industries

Monday 13 October 2014

Nothoscordum borbonicum

Nothoscordum borbonicum
Only one weed is considered obnoxious at RHS Garden Wisley, and that is honeybells or onion weed (Nothoscordum borbonicum).

It is spreading in the fan borders and the fruit garden, so I have had the opportunity to weed it out a few times in the last couple of weeks, so I've become familiar with it.

Easily detached bulbils surround the main bulb

It is quite a successful weed as the main bulb is surrounded by tiny bulbils that break away as soon as the soil is disturbed: some are white and better visible but others are shrouded in a brown papery cover that merges easily with the background; it is very difficult to remove them all, unless a soil clump comes away with the bulb and you don't break it.


Despite belonging to the Alliaceae family, Nothoscordum does not carry the tell-tale scent, but the white, bell-like flowers with greenish bases and brownish marks across the petals, are fragrant, hence the common name honeybells.

The leaves are straplike, flat and slightly concave in section, with fine longitudinal veins.



Seedlings do their best to disguise themselves as grass, from which they are almost indistinguishable above ground, but the bulbils with rather long white rootlets are easily identified.

It's just a matter of getting up close and personal.

Friday 10 October 2014

Crop of the week: grapes

As part of our coursework our teams ask us trainees to study specific crops in more details, so that we learn:
  • some general information about the plant and how it is grown;
  • available and recommended cultivars, including any with an Award of Garden Merit (AGM);
  • common pest and diseases and how to deal with them.
As the department SOC I have been asked to coordinate this exercise, then, fortnightly, we will get an hour or so to discuss the chosen crop with an expert in our department. As we are three trainees, each of us will take it in turns to report back on each of the three aspects of crop growing mentioned above.

As this week we were planning a team grape picking day (to strip the vineyard ready to send the grapes to Plumpton College that makes RHS wine for us), we decided to have Vitis spp as our "crop of the week", and I worked on the cultivars section. The exercise was very interesting and among the most interesting things I learnt were:
  • the grapes we cultivate for fruit, in the family Vitaceae, are grouped in two main species: Vitis vinifera (the so-called European vines, not very cold hardy and prone to pest and diseases given their long history in cultivation) and Vitis lambrusca (among others, the North American vines, hardier and stronger) and their interspecific hybrids;
  • hybridisation with resistant US  was prompted in the second half of the 19th century when a plague of pest phylloxera, Daktulosphaira vitifoliae, (accidentally introduced from the US*) decimated vineyards in Europe, that had no defence against them; incidentally V. lambrusca, is only resistant to the leaf-infesting form of the pest, not the root-affecting one, which damaged vineyards the worst; some European varieties that survived attacks from the pest, and remain ungrafted, are now considered a niche of connoisseur's "pre-phylloxera" wine grapes;
  • a vineyard pest new to me: the Spotted Wing Drosophila (or SWD, binomial name Drosophila suzukii), unlike other fruit flies deposits eggs in healthy fresh fruit, and once the larvae hatch, they cause primary damage that facilitates access to other pests and diseases. More information on this pest is available from all agricultural extensions of US Universities, like Cornell Fruit or Michigan State University IPM and, specifically for the UK, by Horticultural Development Company (HDC) which specialises in near-market research for the industry;
  • Fan borders: Vitis sp. trained as multiple cordon
  • RHS Garden Wisley grows in excess of a 100 cultivars of Vitis, as part of a collection of outdoor and indoor grapes, plus a vineyard used to make RHS wine and stocked with over 750 plants of Vitis 'Phoenix' (for the bulk of the wine) and 'Orion' (for flavour) that have now been in place for some 10 years;

Vineyard: double Guyot
  • the vineyard plants are trained according to the double Guyot system: the leader is cut at about 15 cm from the ground, to 1-2 strong buds (in order to build up the root system). A new leader, from a strong shoot, is then trained until it reaches about 60 cm from the ground. From then on 3 strong shoots will be grown on: 2 will be trained and tied to the lowest horizontal wires of a post and wire system with 3 lines at about 90, 120 and 150 cm. These will form the cropping arms for the current year, which will send up vertical shoots to be tied to the higher wires. The 3rd shoot, is pruned back to 3 strong buds and its sideshoots will form the arms for future years;
  • the vineyard is managed with weed control and regular pruning of the canopy in the summer, plus a feeding and spraying programme to control Botrytis, on instructions from our fruit specialist; it is pruned in December and tied down in early spring.
Picking: 'Phoenix' grape
Picking: 'Orion' grape

The grape picking day saw all the team mobilised, but we did not take much time to strip all the trees as this year has not been a good year for grapes at RHS Garden Wisley, especially not the 'Phoenix' cultivar, while 'Orion' fared better.

'Phoenix' affected by Botrytis
I grow 'Phoenix' at home, and my grapes seemed to fare rather well this year (in rather different conditions, including heavy chalky soil rather than sandy).

Is it a matter of soil conditions, of general growing conditions (for obvious reasons more pests and diseases concentrate where a wider range of plants are cultivated more intensively, of scale of production, of orchard management?

I am now intrigued to compare and understand further, so I will be following developments in the orchard really carefully, and look forward to working with my colleagues who specialise in grapes growing.

*an interesting article on the pest was published in the US magazine Popular Science Monthly in May 1874 (reproduced on Wikisource)

Wednesday 8 October 2014

An area all of my own in the Model Fruit Garden

I was offered to take charge of an area in the Model Fruit Garden that needs some redevelopment as a cottage garden. It is an exciting, though slightly daunting (as I have never done a large scale design before), project!

My manager will offer me a small budget to acquire some plants and one day a week to take care of it after my initial induction into the team. In the meantime, it needs weeding and autumn clearing, pruning of the stepover apple trees and drawing up a plan of (as I could not find one that was detailed enough for me to work with). I also need to compile a list of seeds I would like to sow, as I they could be available in our members' seed scheme department or they might come in as a donation to the RHS (which is a charity).

Anyway, today, I managed to spend the day in my area even if I'm still in my induction, as it is quite a prominent space in the garden and it needs autumn tidy up, so I pruned the stepover apples, cut back the spent Geraniums (which will regrow fresh leaves), and spent the rest of the time digging out last year's meadow, which was not looking good any longer.

We had discussed how best to carry that out, as the meadow is 4.5m by 4.5m with a recently planted apple tree in the middle. My manager had suggested we mowed, sprayed and then raked away the dead plant material. However, I never think of spraying as the first option, as my background is in organic gardening: I said the way I would do it was by digging it out by hand. We evaluated the possibility of doing half the bed one way and the other half the other way, to assess which one would be the most effective practice. However, the week being a wet one, it was not ideal spraying weather, so we went forward with the digging it out plan for the whole meadow.

The mowing, spraying and raking had been estimated as 3 hours' work, so, with that in mind, I timed myself over the day.

Starting on the meadow

Over midway through the job
It took me 4.5 hours to clear the space, mainly with a handfork (especially as the apple tree is still establishing), composting all the plant material and tidying up the bed and surrounding gravel.
At the end of the day

Lissotriton vulgaris
Everyone was pleased with the result, and over the day I got to find a common newt (Lissotriton vulgaris), and two of the weeds that would come up later in the day, after work, in our fortnightly plant ID exercise!

That is also one of the reasons why I like hand weeding: you get to know the plants you have to deal with, which is great for a range of reasons:
  •  you understand weeds and how to deal with them (those with rhizomes like couch grass Elymus repens or perennial nettle Urtica dioica, or and that regrow from leftovers of the ttaproot like dandelion Taraxacum officinale require a totally different treatment from those that can be just hoed away, like annual nettle Urtica urens)
  • you learn about plants and their ways to thrive and reproduce, which, for me, is an essential bonus... cannot personally understand how botany has disappeared from the UK curriculum. Weeds often also harbour pests and diseases, so if you are inquisitive enough you get to know those too. Who says that weeding is an unskilled job?!?
  • some weeds are simply beautiful, or even useful, and knowing them does trigger my curiosity to try them, like it happened with dandelion and nettles which I have included in my diet in the last few years: they are cheap and nutritious greens.
Coronopus didymus
Juncus effusus
The two weeds I got to learn today, which I had never seen before (as I worked in different soils and areas of the country) but that will never forget about now were Coronopus didymus, lesser swine cress of the family Brassicaceae and Juncus effusus, soft rush of the family Juncaceae (good to remember Rushes are round and sedges have edges).

Tuesday 7 October 2014

The London Harvest Festival

All the team went up to London in shifts over the last couple of days to showcase our apples at the London Harvest Festival, held at the RHS Lindley Hall.

The Festival revolves around the RHS Fruit & Vegetable Competition, which everyone can enter with their lovingly tended produce, and compete on the traditional criteria of size and uniformity.

Around the competition, however, a range of produce and products that are all about flavour and diversity: stands of gourmet food and drinks, heritage seed for sale, and - of course - Wisley apples (and fruit identification sessions).

Our job for the day was to core and slice apples from the orchard, and offer them for tasting to the visitors, who had the opportunity to buy them. It was the first time I had tasted so many different apples, in the attempt to remember their flavour to advise the customer, and they were irresistible!

I found that my favourite one at the end of the day was a cooking apple: tasty Bedfordshire Foundling, a cultivar that dates back to 1800 and whose looks have made it into History, and I mean the Natural History Museum, where it appears on a glyphograph.

When we display fruits at events, they come accompanied with a card describing them: their origin, flavour, their season of keeping in storage, and the pollination group, that is the time of flowering (as most apples are self-infertile, you need at least 2 varieties flowering at the same or at least partly overlapping time, in the vicinity, for pollination to lead to fruit set - 3 varieties if the apple cultivar is triploid). So here is how the card would look like for my favourite apple: the best sources for researching apples, and the ones I used for my card, are the National Fruit Collection, website Orange Pippin, and of course specialist nurseries that sell the variety (in this case Keepers Nursery).

Cultivar: Bedfordshire foundling
Origin: Thought to have originated in Bedfordshire, England in about 1800
Season: Oct-Dec
Pollination group: 3
Notes: Large, round fruit. Orange-red flush over yellowish green skin. Cream coloured flesh with a rich sweet-sharp flavour. Fruits are firm, juicy, a little coarse-textured and subacid. Cooks well.

Friday 3 October 2014

Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium)

One of the plugs we planted
I have never tasted chervil, not consciously (although I read it is the main ingredient of French fines herbes and bouquet garni). Nor have I ever tried to grow it, so it would be fair to say I had no knowledge of the plant at all when I was asked to plant out some plugs today. I assumed it would be, like all Apiaceae, a rather tall plant, with white umbels as flowers.

My colleague said they liked firm soil, so I shouldn't dig too big a hole for them, which I was careful about. But otherwise, I treated it like I do any other seedling. Having never received much practical gardening training I guess I developed my own ways, good or bad, even if I always try to improve them as I learn more about plants and techniques.

It turned out I may have planted the plugs too low and pressed the soil down rather than around the sides. It also turned out that Anthriscus is rather sensitive to root disturbance and my colleague was worried I might have caused a check in growth. I really hope not, and the various books I consulted tonight make no particular warning about careful handling, but maybe it's just taken for granted, and I will keep an eye on the plants, and surely be more careful in the future with planting requirements.

In the process of learning I got told a very memorable story on planting that applies to lettuce: too loo it won't grow, too high it will die. However, as I was reading about lettuces, I think that may have originated from instructions for dealing with cut-and-come-again leaves as cutting them too low into the crown will cause them to take a long time to grow back (it is the same with grass and overgrazing) while too high might cause them to rot and die (very much like the dying back of snags when you prune badly).

In any case, this made me research the plant, which has been used as a culinary herb and salad leaf since Roman times (when it was introduced to Britain) for its delicate aniseed flavour, which does not withstand drying or long cooking (freezing is the best way to preserve it). It has also medicinal properties as a tonic: it contains vitamin C, carotene, iron and magnesium.

An established chervil plant
Chervil likes a well draining, moist soil in partial shade best and bolts easily in sunny weather (some
grow it in between rows of other plants that may shade it). A hardy plant (to about -10C), it can be sown late for winter leaves, especially when protected. We were planting it out in the herb garden because it will provide useful light-green and feathery ground cover over winter, with its low growing habit. It is said to be a good companion plant for radishes, which it makes hotter, and for lettuces, which it may protect from ants, aphids and slugs.

Seed of Anthriscus cerefolium is not viable for long, only about a year, and the plant may suffer from greenfly. Named cultivars are available, 'D'Hiver de Bruxelles' for example is mentioned in the RHS Plant Finder, and there's a curly leaf form of no particular culinary value.

Thursday 2 October 2014

The reciprocating mower

I had never used a sickle mower with reciprocating blades before, and as they were cutting a small patch of meadow grass my team leader briefly showed me how to use it and let me have a go: an impromptu learning opportunity that I really appreciated.

As most mowers, this one was also a four stroke engine, which means you have your lubricating oil separated from the fuel, which makes the exhaust less polluting and also means you have oil amongst your pre-start checks.

The machine had already been checked, and the engine was warm, so no priming needed. I got an explanation on the handles:

  • to the left, with a safety catch, the red handle to engage the blades
  • to the right, the handle to engage the wheels and the throttle control 
Blades handle
Throttle control
Wheels handle

With the throttle on 3/4 to start, I had the honour to pull the recoil start cord. Because it was not self-propelled, the machine was a little heavier to use, but not too unwieldy.

However, as the grass was wet from a morning shower, I soon found out one of the weak points of reciprocating blades (one of the oldest technology and the one still used in hedge trimmers): they get clogged rather easily. Nothing that cannot be solved with a bit of reversing, though, and I am told they are quite good on dry, long grass.

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Trained apples and pears

This has been an unusual summer, dry and warm and apples and pears have not started growing until very recently, that is why summer pruning had not been done before in the fruit garden.

But as it's now October, and the new shoots have stiffened at their tips (previously sappy growth), it was finally time to prune them back. We worked on apples trained on arches, oblique cordon apple and pears and some stepover apples.

We applied the following criteria:

  • looking for new growth that was longer than secateur lenght (as stems that are shorter usually bear fruiting buds so must be kept), we traced it back to the bud scale scars, which usually have a cluster of leaves just above them, named the basal cluster
Bud scale scar with basal cluster
  • laterals (not very many of these present, but they could be described as new growth from a dormant bud on the main stem) were cut back to 3 leaves above the basal cluster, to give them a chance to put up secondary growth, making them more robust
  • sub-laterals (or fruiting spurs) were cut back to 1 leaf above the basal cluster, to keep the tree compact and tidy (some pears had rather thin sub-laterals, which we treated like laterals to encourage thickening).
Training restricted forms of apples and pears like this helps:
  • to encourage fruit buds (in the picture below, you can see a short spur with a tip bud developed where the new growth was cut to one leaf above the basal cluster, together with a fruit bud lower down)
Fruit buds from previous pruning
  • to let the sun in to ripen the fruits (particularly if, unlike this year, leafy growth stops before the fruits are ripe)
  • to have decorative and compact, as well as productive fruit trees.
While summer pruning restricts growth, winter pruning encourages it: some of these tree will need some over winter, to bring back laterals that have grown too unwieldy and encourage new growth to keep plants productive and to remove damaged stems (like the ones in the picture below, damaged by stem sap-suckers woolly aphidEriosoma lanigerum - incidentally, earwigs, Forficula auricularia, are natural predators of the aphids and encouraged in the orchard).

Knobbly stem, woolly aphids' damage