Thursday, 6 September 2018

Naturalistic Design

My gardening ‘business’ hasn’t anything as fancy as a strapline, a mission statement, or even a business model come to think of it. I tend to keep my attitude towards the work I do pretty simple: I simply say that I just ‘go gardening’. I love plants and gardens, so why wouldn’t I want to work with both? 

However, on my travels, little logos and quirky straplines do often come to me. I imagine a flowery and colourful van displaying such lines as ‘Working in partnership, with both you and your garden’. Good one eh? Or, another one I came up with is… ‘To get a great garden… get a great gardener’. I really like that one! I like it so much because it’s true.

There’s always been a bit of a divide between the role of garden designer and that of gardener.  Of course, for some strange reason – and it’s probably a class/ego thing – it’s the role of Garden Designer that always seems to attract the fame, status and kudos. It’s the garden designers who hit the headlines and our TV screens during Chelsea week and who publish those huge coffee-table books. Over the years, I’ve met countless people who want to become garden designers, yet very few who want to devote their working lives to mere gardening.

Of course, there are many types of garden designer, and many types of gardener, with a wide shade of grey to help blend and blur the two together. Many garden designers know very little about plants (in terms of both identification and habitat) as do the many maintenance ‘gardeners’ I come across.  I’ve met so many gardeners who will gladly tell you that they’ve received no formal horticultural training, yet feel themselves to be excellent gardeners because they have some kind of ‘gardening instinct’…. a green-fingered intuition! 

Now, I’m all for gardening intuition. In fact, once you’ve been gardening for a very long time, you do begin to work on an intuitive level. It’s hard to put into words, but (over time) the relationships you form with plants can become rather intimate and personal, and very soon you find yourself relating to them in ways you never imagined possible, with the confidence to prune shrubs, move and divide perennials etc at times that you know are right for the plant itself, and not just when the books tell you. When asked the correct time to do a particular garden task, the great Christopher Lloyd once said the right time is when you, a) remember to do it, b) when the plant is right there in front of you… and c) if you happen to have the correct tool on you at the time!

I’ve never really understood the role of garden designer. By all means call in someone to help design and arrange the space in a garden: someone who knows how to organise space; who also knows about the myriad of hard landscaping materials one can use. In fact, I have met a few ex-theatre and film set designers who have used their skills and talents in this very arena. However, when it comes to the planting, give me a knowledgeable plantsperson any day of the week: those horticulturists who have an affinity with plants; who know how they work, what their individual demands are, how they behave in competition with each other and the natural communities they come from.... and so on!

Also, let’s be honest, once designed - by a designer - the garden is often left in the hands of a gardener (competent or otherwise) who, following 10 years of maintenance and editing, now maintains a garden very different from the designer's original creation: maybe the dead perennials have been exchanged for others more suited to the site and soil, or the box hedging that failed spectacularly (Box Moth or blight) has been ripped out and replaced.

The creative gardener may have taken out the roses, adding ornamental grasses and annuals instead: they may have planted the odd small specimen tree – who knows? Good gardens can be achieved by design, but truly great gardens are created with knowledge, skill and love! 

There’s a garden I work in – a huge, richly-diverse garden – where i’ve worked for just over 8 years now. In that time, the owners have been great, and have allowed me (almost) complete and free reign with regards the plantings. I’ve made many, many changes to the borders in that time. Luckily, the ‘lady of the house’ has a great eye for other things in the garden and can visualise the empty spaces within the landscape and knows very well how to fill those spaces. Anyway, recently I came across some planting plans for the garden. The plans date back about 10 years and show how the borders were originally planted up and what plants were used there at the time. As I say, I’ve been there about 8 years, and looking at those plans now, I reckon the percentage of those original plants probably runs at about 10%.... and I’m being very generous in that estimation. That’s 90% of the plants disappeared in just 10 years!

I recently attended a 2-day Beth Chatto Symposium held at Essex University. The first of its kind, the symposium acted as a kind of meeting place for high horticultural thinkers; like-minded, ecologically-inclined, naturalistic plantspeople (growers and designers) who gave some amazing talks, panel discussions and numerous creative insights into the current state of all things horticultural. The learning potential there was huge, and no doubt many of us there for those 2 days will be thinking about the issues and ideas raised there for a very long time indeed.

One thing that really impacted on me though – and verbalised by almost all of the speakers – was the way in which they held garden maintenance in such high regard: the highest regard. I really wasn’t expecting that.
The point that was stressed (time and time again) was how maintenance needn’t be that of household drudgery. With highly naturalistic plantings, and ecologically-inspired design, the role of the gardener becomes elevated to that of co-creator, pivotal in the evolution and future direction of the garden. 

In such an environment the skilled gardener uses his/her talents to manipulate the landscape; to edit the borders, to sculpt and direct the beauty contained within. Through correct identification, it’s the gardener who decides what happy accidents (self-sown seedlings) to leave in, take out, or transfer elsewhere. It’s the gardener who chooses how to manipulate a plant’s growth (Chelsea Chopping or Hampton Hacking), and in doing so, enhancing the plant’s natural beauty. For the skilled gardener, suddenly maintenance becomes artistic…. creative. In my opinion, this can only really happen with highly ‘naturalistic’ garden design that has been built with ecological intentions and a naturalistic aesthetic.... together with that constant quest for what is beautiful.

So, there are garden designers…. And then there are garden designers! I regard true garden designers as those individuals who love plants; who have studied plants; who have looked at their growth habits and natural habitats, and who have then taken inspiration from those habitats. These are knowledgeable plantspeople who want to emulate nature and natural landscapes, and who also want to deliver us a version of enhanced nature, bringing this into the realm of what we call, a garden.

Here's some of my little border creations from this year.....

From this small empty bed, to......
..... this! This is just year one, so it needs to fill out into next year!
The bed next to it was also created from scratch. I filled it up with these little darlings!

The end result for the entire border. All in one year!

Even postage stamp-sized beds can be improved.....

Just a few months later.
My exotic border creation.
I think the bamboo is the only plant left over from those 10-year old plans.  
A raised bed in desperate need of some TLC.
A work in progress this one!

And finally, a small (9sqm) patch turned over largely to grasses. This was only planted in May this year.
Me skimming off fancy curves!
My rough plan.
As I say, very early days, but next year looks promising!
Oh well, that's it for now. Thanks for reading!


Monday, 25 June 2018

The not so 'New' Perennial Movement

Without wishing to let daylight enter in upon magic, and also not wanting to discuss the findings of my recent dissertation, I thought I would take a few moments out to discuss how (and whether) the New Perennial Movement has had any real influence within the average domestic gardens of England. Now, the history of the NPM dates back a very long way indeed, but for the benefit of this rather short post, let’s just say I’m talking mainly about the small band of Dutch Wavers (Piet Oudolf and friends) together with their extended English family, the likes of Noel Kingsbury, Tom Stuart-Smith, Christopher Bradley-Hole, and many many more!

Similar to its history, the design style of the movement is also far too complex to discuss here: the NPM stand upon philosophies, sociologies and ideologies that go back a very long way indeed. But again, for ease of use, and by taking incredible liberties with over-simplification,  let’s just say I’m talking about that rather naturalistic look of late-season daisies and swaying ornamental grasses you’ve seen creeping all over our public spaces over the last decade or more. You now see such naturalistic creations sat upon many a roundabout, new housing developments, and with large Oudolfian-like borders now a feature in many of our famous public gardens. Even the likes of Homebase and B&Q now sell a variety of button-daises and ornamental grasses, squeezed in amongst the Begonias and Pansies.

The New Perennial Movement... coming to a roundabout near you soon...

Now, we can’t really refer to the ‘New’ Perennial Movement as such anymore… it’s simply not new: it’s been around for a very long time, and many a high-hortic commentator has been saying it reached the point of cliché a good few years ago… the point of cliché always sounding the death knell for any new fashion. In many respects it’s a bit like the punk fashion of the late seventies. Great when it’s slightly counter-culture and still being developed by the young, creative, angry and deprived, but as soon as you could buy factory-ripped ‘punk’ clothes on the high street, torn tartan trousers adorned with their own safety pins, then all the energy was kind of taken out of it. Of course, counter-cultural street movements will always be picked up and monetised by big business, and in many respects it’s the same with the New Perennialists. Anyway, I digress. Have the New Perennialists had a major influence in the domestic garden of the U.K?

Well, i'm afraid the answer is probably ‘no’ not really. I believe it’s had a major impact within the public arena, including some of our most famous gardens, and in other public spaces too such as roundabouts and new housing developments… but as to the Jones' back garden? Uuuummmmm? Very debateable!

New perennial planting along Nine Elms.

In fact, I put this very question directly to Piet Oudolf himself when I met him last year. I also asked many other ‘famous’ garden designers (Tom Stuart-Smith, Christopher Bradley-Hole) and top nursery owners for their views on this matter: people I met during the course of my research.

So, kind of knowing the answer already (I do live in England after all, and I work in domestic gardens every day of the week) I rather bravely asked Piet: ‘so, what impact do you think you’ve had on the average domestic garden in England?’…. and do you know what he said? Well, you'll have to wait for my dissertation to be read and marked by the tutors before I can reveal the answer to this, and many other questions! 

All I will say, as a kind of little teaser, is this... the English love colour – always have done! Think Gertrude Jekyll. Think Sandra Pope (Hadspen House); think of any arts & crafts herbaceous border: Sissinghurst, Dixter etc! We LOVE colour! Especially blue it would seem.

Also, us Brits actually like the process of gardening. After all, we are, as they say, a nation of gardeners, and although we moan like hell about it (along with everything else) we like nothing more than pottering in the garden, staking our plants, feeding them, tying them up and dead-heading them! 

Now look again at that roundabout, and witness its gruelling annual maintenance regime.....

No staking. No Dead-heading. No watering. No feeding ect...

Firstly, and quite unlike our traditional herbaceous borders, new perennial borders are designed with form and structure as their primary aesthetic – not colour! 

Secondly, they don’t require much (hardly any) maintenance, and once they’re ‘up-an-doing’ can sit quite happily there for months until, come the spring, you decide to chop them all down to the ground and wait for the cycle of growth to start all over again! Maybe British gardeners like to garden and simply don’t want to be deprived of the many pleasures this all-consuming hobby gives them.

Again, my research reveals many reasons as to why the New Perennial movement has struggled to make inroads into our domestic gardens, but its obvious lack of colour together with the virtually non-existent need for maintenance reveals just a couple of fatal flaws. Many a time I’ve been offered a ‘new perennial’ garden to maintain, but to be honest, although I much prefer naturalistic borders over traditional ones, as a self-employed gardener, I also know where my bread is buttered. Traditional herbaceous borders simply offer me so much more work throughout the year.

One lone naturalistic wolf in Sevenoaks... ready to stand out from the crowd!

Now, don’t let it be said that I agree with any of this criticism. I’m a new perennialist (whatever that now means?) through and through. It was ornamental grasses and clump-forming perennials that got me into gardening in the first place, and it’s the naturalistic plant communities (of both plants and people) that keeps me interested in horticulture to this day. However, a Miscanthus here, and a Rudbeckia there doesn’t mean you understand anything about new perennial planting, in much the same way that owning the famous Blue & Red albums means you know anything about The Beatles.

Ecology, sustainability, plant sociology and durability are just a few aspects of contemporary naturalistic garden design, but it’s not until you really start to tease out the historic strands of naturalistic planting philosophy (its people and places) that you start to get an inkling and a nudge of a direction worth moving towards. My advice? Read Noel Kingsbury… read Henk Gerritsen….. Allan Armitage…. James Hitchmough and Roy Diblik. Go and seek out these designers, and their creations, and then go see them for yourself. 

There’s an absolutely massive world of horticulture out there… a world far beyond pretty flowers and evergreen shrubs… and those bloody awful roses!

Nuff said. Oudolf is genius!


Keep cool. 

Sunday, 25 February 2018

The Nonsense of What & When!

Recently, a colleague of mine commented that you only ever really need one annual subscription to a gardening magazine, as the tips and tricks, together with the ‘what to do now’ sections tend to repeat themselves with an almost same week accuracy, year on year. Of course, he was spot on. I once spent about 5 years tearing out the ‘what to do now’ sections of various gardening magazines and collating them in a folder. I know, very sad of me! Anyway, they acted as a useful reminder of what jobs I should’ve been considering in the various gardens I worked in. However, over time, I too noticed an obvious repetition of articles and tips... even using the same photos!

A small portion of my borders last year.
Now though, having spent many years gardening professionally, and having taught countless students the horticultural basics, I find myself having journeyed far beyond gardening as a pursuit allied to any calendar: I’ve discovered that the ‘what to do and when’ of gardening is something of a notional nonsense! In many respects, all gardening is made up of two elements: how to do something, and when to do it. We read articles on how to take hardwood cuttings and when is the best time to do so, or how to plant spring bulbs, and when to do so… and so on. The mythology of how and when, passed down from one generation to the next.

Well, obviously this is all good advice, and I’m not about to criticize its clear well-intentioned common sense, even though planting bulbs roughly six months before you want them to flower is kind of obvious really, as is choosing the ‘ripe’ time to take the ‘right’ cuttings. However, as with the huge degree of adaptability inherent within the ‘right plant, right place’ mantra, the law of how and when to do certain seasonal tasks also allows for a wide range of flexibility.

Dead seed heads still doing their stuff amongst grasses

That’s why, at times I must confess, I find myself getting a little tired and bored when teaching horticulture to new students.  I hear myself repeating the same information I was once told… 'all that stuff' in the books that tell you how and when you should be doing 'all that ‘stuff' in your own garden…. and so it goes on.... and on...!

I'm aware that i'm telling them of Magnolias, Azaleas, Rhododendrons and Camellias that love an acid soil, even though I’ve seen countless specimens absolutely thriving in some very average, Ph neutral soils. I tell them the importance of annually mulching their borders with a good organic compost, even though now I read that this task isn’t really necessary (except for rose-hungry borders) and how a perennial border actually prefers less fertility than previously thought. I listen to Gardeners’ Question Time on Radio 4 and hear five different responses from five different panellists.

Here, i’m reminded of the wit and wisdom of the great Christopher Lloyd (the God of Great Dixter) when he wrote on the subject of when to do a certain horticultural task. Having just given us pages and pages of advice as to when is the best time to prune and plant, in good humour he tells us that he is also a ‘great believer in doing a job when I want to it, and to hell with the consequences’. He informs us that the best time to do any job in the garden is when the task itself is staring you in the face, when and if you have the time to do it, and (most important) if you happen to have the correct tool in your hand at the time. If all those stars are in alignment, then now is as a good a time as any to be getting on with it!

I think what it is, is that now I’ve been gardening for so long, and I have worked so closely to the ground, and with the many plants contained within it, I have come to witness first hand, that nature (climate, conditions and tolerances) allow for such a wide interpretation of what, how and when something can be done, you can ‘almost’ throw The Book out of the window, and just do it when it seems right to do so!

I mean, don’t be silly about it: don’t go planting anything into hard and frosted ground, or in bone-dry, high-summer borders! Do pay at least some attention to the laws of right plant, right place, but do remain mindful of the fact that, like us, even when denied favourable conditions, plants still want to live, flower and produce offspring: plants are very adaptable!

Lovely combinations at Lady Farm

Without wishing to sound like some kind of other-worldly Zen gardener, I guess what I’m saying is that providing your intention is a good one, and you pay some attention to the needs of the plant, cosset them slightly and make them as comfortable as possible in their new homes, you won’t go too far wrong. All the best gardens are created from love and nurture, coupled with a desire to create something beautiful. Just remember that young Grasshopper… wax on, wax off…!

le Jardinier x

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Organs of Perennation!

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The wonderfull Jaqueline van de Kloet - Dutch bulb master

Well, you don’t get blog titles like that every day, now do you?

Organs of Perennation, or put simply – bulbs! Bloomin’ magic things if you ask me. Small flowering time capsules is what they really are: a miracle, condensed and concertinaed into a container of hope and promise. How poetic!

Well anyway, it’s kind of that time again when our horticultural attentions turn towards bulb planting for the spring. Nurseries, garden centres and even supermarkets are full of them at the moment. Not that I would ever endorse purchasing anything even remotely horticultural from a supermarket, but I often see some real bulb bargains to be had in supermarkets: 18 Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ bulbs for £5 (from Tesco) can’t be bad. Two hefty bags of mixed Daffs for the same price is also a good buy in my opinion.

Two rows of daffs planted under a climbing hydrangea.........

.... and the result a few months later........!

Bulbs, and the planting of bulbs in particular, are a great introduction to the joys of gardening. They’re relatively inexpensive and they're guaranteed to bring success! They also command little/no horticultural skill. The planting ‘rule’ that you hear all the time, is give them a planting depth of around 2 times their own height, and to be honest, that’s pretty good advice. But like most of what ‘they’ say, all such advice can be taken with a huge dollop of salt. Bulbs come so highly bred these days that I swear you could leave the bare bulbs lying on your patio and they would still flower in the spring. Okay, without access to water and nutrients, I wouldn’t guarantee success in year two, but you get my drift.

Also, with regards their correct depth, I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve come across sizeable bulbs that have been living very happily just below the soil's surface. They do say that bulbs planted at an incorrect depth will – over time – pull themselves up or down and find their own happy place. The same has been said about bulbs planted on their side, or even upside down… they will eventually right themselves. It’s that same ol’ thing I guess. Plants, like us, simply want to live, and they’ll do anything in order to continue their journey through to flowering, pollination and reproduction. 

As for their uses, of course the options are limitless. From small terracotta bowls hosting reticulated irises or crocuses, to larger pots of tulips and daffs. Personally, I love scattering crocus over expanses of lawn, throwing them at random and planting them wherever they land. But if you do this, do it after you've cut the lawn and remember to count them out... and then count them back in again. I throw 20 and can only ever find 15!! 

I also love using drumstick Alliums as dotted purple punctuations coming up and in-between perennials and the occasional row of lavender. Of course, allium foliage doesn’t die nicely, so make sure you plant wisely, using the foliage of other plants (hardy geraniums?) to help mask this.

I recall a few years ago, working in a garden that had a Magnolia tree sited in a circular bed in the drive. The circle was ringed with box, and was – Magnolia aside – bereft of any other planting. So, a few boxes of cheap bulbs later; their random distribution across the bed, and voila!  An instant – well, almost instant – success! The foot-high box hedge disguised their decaying foliage and it enhanced the bed immensely. Just do this stuff! Don’t think too much about it. What’s the worst that can happen? A few quid spent on bulbs is money well spent, if you ask me!

At first the daffs came up........

Followed by the hyacinths and tulips....... Lovely!

Also, I use bulbs as a bit of a gap filler for that period when the cut-down, herbaceous clumps of spring create vacant channels of soil: allowing bulbs to come up and do their stuff, bridging that spring gap before herbaceous foliage starts to look attractive in itself. 

As a lover of naturalistic planting, I do realise that the approach can, justifiably, be criticised for not having too much border interest around spring and into early summer – lacking a backbone of evergreen material. Therefore, bulbs can offer something of a solution to this dilemma. To be honest, even I – a new perennial purist - am not entirely convinced with this solution, but hey, who said life was ever perfect? Truth is, the burgeoning foliage of perennials creates sizeable hummocks of greenery by early summer, and with daffs, alliums and tulips adding some colour and diversity…. Well, that’s enough for me. You can’t have everything!

Tulips rising up through Stachys... and a cardoon!

Alliums through waving Stipa tennuissima......

Queen of the Night inside box hedging.

So, my advice is simple. It’s October. Get out there and buy some bulbs and get them in. Plant them anywhere: borders, pots, verges, lawns. They’re cheap as chips, and they won’t let you down. Put them in… forget about them, and then be surprised by their beauty in the spring.

I haven’t written a blog post for quite some time. Some of you might know that I’ve spent this summer writing a 16,000-word dissertation for my garden history studies. 

Well, I had a great summer, meeting many of my horticultural heroes and visiting many gardens both home and abroad. The highlight was spending over an hour with Piet Oudolf in his design studio in Hummelo. Needless to say, that was a rather surreal experience: sitting opposite that man. A man, who in my opinion, is probably the most influential gardener/designer of our time, and who has done more to shape and influence contemporary garden design than anyone for the past 150 years. 

Mr Oudolf's drawing pens....

Me & Mr Oudolf. Why is everyone taller than me!?!

Until next time… thanks for reading! Take care

Le Jardinier.

* Please note, all photos depict my own horticultural handy-work in the various gardens I work in. Just saying! 

Quick Update! I went to the Garden Museum last night to see a new film about Oudolf. Both he and the director were there and they did a short Q&A after the film. Anyway, the film was lovely, and if you have a spare 4 minutes do follow the YouTube link below.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Steppe Lively!

Blimey, it has been some time since I last published a hortic post here. I’ve been very busy working, studying and writing ‘stuff’ elsewhere!

Anyway, having had a nudge from a colleague recently, I managed to find a vacant and warm afternoon in which to visit the Dunnett-designed rooftop gardens at the Barbican centre in London.

Having had the challenge of replacing the somewhat out-dated plantings of the 1980’s, Nigel Dunnett (Professor at Sheffield University) and his team began planting the Beech Gardens back in March 2015.  

The original planting featured areas of lawn, bedding (Yikes!) and bold architectural plants such as Phormiums and Cordylines. These had rather outgrown the site, requiring heavy irrigation and brought many structural problems to the site also. Ageing design, over-mature plants and leaky irrigation prompted the City Corporation to have a radical rethink. 

The Barbican ‘complex’ is a funny ol' place. I’ve visited it many times over the years, mainly to see cultural events at the Barbican Arts Centre. Built during the 60’s & 70’s, it’s a rather mysterious maze; a monochromatic greyness with three imposing towers, guaranteed to get you lost within its long walkways and tall walls of brutal architecture.

Registered as a listed building (or buildings), no changes could be made to the design of the existing beds and borders. 
So, with multiple aims of creating a self-sustaining community of plantings, which would provide all-year-round interest and satisfy the needs of its residents, Dunnett set about creating an oasis of naturalistic plantings all sat within a tough and demanding environment.
Layers and layers of sumptuous plantings!
Of course, the site itself is an elevated one, open to all the elements, and with strong winds funnelled throughout its architecture. Soil depth is also an issue with some plants being anchored in little more than 35cm of soil. So, mindful of the lack of irrigation, soil depth and exposure to the elements, it was to the natural landscapes of the world’s steppes that Dunnett turned for guidance and inspiration.

Steppes occur around the globe, and are to be found in the rain shadows of mountainous regions: the foothills of the Rockies stand as a good example of a landscape that, in recent years, has provided many a contemporary garden with a variety of naturalistic-looking plants: Rudbeckias, Echinaceas and many ornamental grasses. 

Temperate Grasslands, North America, KS2 Geography
Oh give me a home, where the buffalo roam......!!

Steppes also provide plants with a pendulum-swing of extreme weather conditions – bitterly cold winters and boiling hot summers. Steppe plants need to be tough and resilient, able to withstand the feast and famine approach of a weather system of extremes. Very often these plants sit within very thin soils, fighting to hold on to both nutrients and moisture. Sounding more like the Barbican every minute!

Nigel Dunnett devised a 3-teired design solution to the Barbican plantings: the use of Steppe plantings for the driest, most exposed parts of the garden. A shrub-steppe idea, allowing for plants (trees & shrubs) to be used where deeper soils were available, and  some light woodland planting for the shadier areas of the garden. He also factored in layers of succession,  with both colour and form coming in waves throughout the year: as one herbaceous layer dies down, so does another level of material rise up to give a completely new feel and look.

As I say, I saw the gardens in early June, and they looked pretty darn spectacular to me! I saw zillions of Alliums, all flowering atop of their drumstick stems. I saw masses of Salvias and Sisyrinchiums in amongst countless self-sown silvery and white Lychnis.

The green bracts of the Euphorbias contrasted with the purple Allium heads and nestled among the many Blue Oat grasses - Helictotrichon sempervirens. There were the butterfly flowers of Gauras dancing around the heads of Libertias and many a yarrow blending effortlessly with the pin cushioned flowers of the Knautias – how very lovely!

Personally, and with my current study interests in mind, I find the entire subject of a Dunnett-designed landscape absolutely fascinating. Without doubt, they (the Sheffield School) are the latest incarnation of naturalistic garden design. They experiment and trial seed mixtures - as opposed to plants - in order to create beautiful and sustainable, layered and successional, perennial plantings, that require little in the way of maintenance.

As I say, it's not a subject I know a huge amount about, but I find the subject fascinating none-the-less. I also love witnessing, mainly from my arm chair, the evolution of our ever-increasing journey towards more naturalistic gardens.  

Anyway, I’m heading back to my study and my books now, so this might be my last post for a good while.

Meanwhile, thanks for reading… and if you do get a chance to get to the Barbican this summer, please do so. You won’t be disappointed.

All the very best. 


Le Jardinier!

Monday, 29 August 2016

Snippets & Sunflowers

I imagine every tradesperson has an association with his or her special tool. No doubt painters and decorators have their preferred type of brushes; hairdressers who’ll only use a certain manufacturer of scissors; bricklayers with their favourite trowel…. and so on! When it comes to us gardeners, without doubt the tool that becomes our most reliable friend is, of course, the trusty pair of secateurs. Permanently sat in their holster, resting on my right hip, they are a constant source of comfort and activity throughout the day. I must reach for mine over a 100 times a day… everything from cutting string, to dead-heading dahlias... pruning shrubs to opening bags of compost. 
Image result for felco 2
Felco #2's - the choice of the professionals.

I’m forever advising students and clients to invest in the best pair of secateurs they can afford – easy for me to say of course! I believe the best pair of affordable secateurs on the market are undoubtedly made by Felco: for many years they have been the choice of the professional gardener. They retail from around £40.

 I often joke that like Trigger’s broom, in Only Fools and Horses,  I have had the same pair of Felco’s for about 15 years. Of course, they’ve had 10 new blades, 5 new springs and 2 replacement handles , but essentially they’re the same pair! I use the standard Felco #2, but they produce quite a range suiting most hand sizes and preferences.
Anyway, back in the early summer, I was made aware of a growing rumble of fuss being made around a certain manufacturer of Japanese secateur: Okatsune. A couple of friends of mine had been using them for a while, and along with many high-ranking hortics, they were waxing lyrical about how great they were. They let me have a go with them, and yes, they felt quite impressive. Not too dissimilar from Felco. Incredibly sharp and making a very professional-sounding click as they made their cuts…. a bit like a VW Golf door closing, they do sound the business! In fact there are whole You Tube clips where you can just listen to the sound they make... not the guiltiest of guilty pleasures one can have I suppose!
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Okatsune with their distinctive red and white handles.

So, I did my research, and not being one to part with my hard-earned cash that easily, I read articles and reviews, Googled discussions all over the Interweb, listened to those clips on You Tube and so on! Eventually, curiosity alone tempted me to add a pair of Okatsune’s to my basket, proceed to the checkout, and then sit back and wait their arrival.
So anyway, a month later, what’s my verdict? Well, I’m constantly being told that Felcos are the choice of professional gardeners in the West, and that Okatsune remain the #1 choice for the Japanese gardener. They’re very good. Quite well balanced, about the same weight as Felco’s, but incredibly sharp. So sharp in fact, they scare me a little.
With my Felco’s I go cutting down clumps of hardy geraniums like Edward Scissor Hands, grabbing bunches of foliage and stem and shearing away like a maniac. However, I tried that particular task with my new Japanese friends and to be honest I had to stop using them. As I say, although the Felcos are sharp, you just feel that, should an accident happen with them, you would probably only give yourself a nasty cut. With the Okatsunes however I feel that they are so incredibly sharp, I could probably lose a finger or two in the operation and not even realise until I took my gloves off at the end of the day and had a finger count – surgically sharp!
Also, the Okatsune secateurs are not nearly as ergonomic as the Felco’s. They obviously embody a certain design simplicity, with their distinctive red and white handles having subtle simple curves to them. However, with activity, this can cause your fingers to quickly rise up and sit just where the blade pivots – not good!   
My Okatsune's with my very own ergonomic adaptation.

All in all, for me, the Felco’s are still by far the best! They feel robust; they’re well-designed. They sit comfortably in the hand. All parts are replaceable – unlike the Okatsune’s – and they also don’t feel so sharp you could might accidentally circumcise a gnat. 

Shoulder height when first cut
Whilst on the subject of pruning, you might like to see what I do with my sunflowers most years. As you may recall, I have a tiny bit of garden at the front of my cottage and each year I ram it full with pots, mainly herbaceous perennials, many late season daisies plus grasses and a few more exotic-looking annuals: Cleomes and Ricinus.

Of course, sunflowers are mega daisies and I tend to grow the rather tall varieties, again in pots. However, long before they flower, and when they reach approximately shoulder height, I brutally snip the stems.

A few weeks later, once it has branched off.

I do this in the hope of seeing it branch out into a multi-stemmed flower, giving me more bang for my buck. It’s a bit of a numbers game as it doesn’t work on every sunflower I do it to. Sometimes, I spend the rest of the summer simply watering a flowerless stick! But, when it does work, the results are great. Do give it a go!

The end result... several flowers from one single stem! Do this to a few sunflowers and the effect is stunning! Tough, robust mega-daisies towering over your displays.

Oh well, I think that’s just about it for this post. Thanks very much for reading it.
My next post is on the subject of assisted dying, and rather surprisingly, is not as depressing as it sounds!

Have a good one... 'til next time!
Le Jardinier