The Shearing of the Green

The season started with weeding an artificial lawn and has ended with a variety of lawn maintenance jobs. I was focussed on mowers and grass when I drafted this post while staying with my niece (otherwise known as my client in the country) as I had offered to cut the lawn of her largeish, squareish, south-facing Somerset garden. In fact, a combination of rain, dew and lack of time meant that I left without mowing the grass for her. Most of my jobs have involved lawn work in the last couple of weeks and I’ve also seen a couple of impressively pristine lawns, both with royal connections.

But before we get to pristine, let’s take a look at the other end of the greensward spectrum. With my Osterley volunteering colleague Andrea Blackie (ablackiegardendesign.co.uk) I carried out a thorough tidy-up of a large garden in Twickenham belonging to INS, a fantastic local charity which provides support for people with neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS), Parkinson’s disease (PD), and Stroke. The garden is usually maintained by a team of volunteers but like so many places the volunteering programme had to be suspended earlier this year because of Covid 19 and the garden had become rather overgrown. We weeded paths and raised beds and rationalised a number of containers whose contents had gone over. In the absence of a scythe , or a Ross Poldark lookalike to wield it, we used hand shears to cut back the tall grasses established across the L-shaped lawn and raked off the cut stalks and thatch. Then we shuffled our way across the plot on kneelers, removing as many of the coarse-leaved dandelions and low-crowned plantains as we could. Only then did Andrea run the electric mower over for an initial rough cut. With perfect timing, a tremendous thunderstorm crashed across TW2 within half an hour of our packing up for the day, and after steadyish rain for much of the following morning, when we returned 36 hours later for day two of the clear-up, the lawn had perked up and looked more green than brown. Andrea lowered the blades of the mower and cut the lawn once more and I followed with an application of Safelawn, which combines seed and feed, to repair the impoverished grass.

Before
After

On a subsequent visit we would like to scarify the lawn even more, remove any remaining weeds and give the lawn an autumn feed to put it in good heart for 2021. It’s never going to rival the Centre Court at Wimbledon, but with some further TLC it will make a lush foil for the deep border which runs the length of the garden. This is effectively a linear orchard of mature greengage, pear, apple and cherry trees (varieties unknown sadly) interspersed with shrubs such as Mahonia and underplanted with hellebores and Japanese anemones. The latter is a striking deep pink cultivar, revealed when we cut back a couple of wayward shrub branches.

Anemone japonica: cultivar unkown

It was fun collaborating with another gardener for the tidy-up project, and I was grateful not only for the shared labour and company but also the recommendation of Hebe ‘Mrs Winder’ to place in the concrete planters on either side of the main entrance. Although almost waist high, the actual planting depth of the containers was deceptively shallow and the Hebes should be less hungry than the previous incumbents, a couple of conical bay trees. I sourced the plants from the wholesale nursery near Chobham, North Hill Nurseries. It was my first visit since lockdown and I was glad to be there again impressed as always by the quality of the stock and the wide choice of cultivars available. I am usually very disciplined when I’m there and resist the temptation to deviate from my core list, but I confess that I did treat myself to a plant for the top right hand corner of my garden where I’ve twice failed with Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’. I succumbed to Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Heavenly Blue’ with its fluffy sky blue flowers and dainty light green leaves. It looks very good in this position where it will continue the blue/mauve theme from the nearby honesty (Lunaria annua) and Wisteria.

Another purchase that day was a magnificent Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ which I planted in a large terracotta container in another client’s garden a week ago. I also gave the lawn there an autumn treatment, raking out the thatch and aerating (or spiking) it using the fork. I applied grass seed to a couple of bare patches which had developed and here again the rain gods obliged and provided a drenching as I was finishing the job.

I promised you pristine lawns at the beginning of this post. The first is in the centre of the turning circle outside the Elizabeth Gate entrance to Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. I’ve been monitoring it this spring and summer when running around Kew Green, fascinated by its perfection. Short, weedless, stripey: a textbook fine lawn. I’ve watched two kneeling gardeners excise any hint of a weed and I see from this image taken a few days ago that it has recently been spiked. Even the spacing of the holes is precise.

The turning circle at Elizabeth Gate
Aeration by the book

The next lawn has even stronger links with royalty. This striped sward lies within Windsor Castle which I visited at the end of August in order to see the East Terrace Gardens which have been opened to the public for the first time this year.

Within Windsor Castle

Although these rose gardens interspersed with antique bronze statues were beautifully elegant, I preferred the informality of The Moat Garden, adjacent to the Norman Tower of the castle which is the home of the Constable and Governor of Windsor Castle. A snaking red-tiled path runs alongside a border of interesting perennials leading to a rock garden containing a series of waterfalls. Along the way I was drawn towards Poets’ Corner, tucked to one side and lined with garden-themed quotations. The garden is maintained by volunteers and is open to visitors on August weekends.

The stripe maker

A quirky urn nestles beside the plume poppy Macleaya cordata ‘Flamingo’

Next time I leave lawns behind to visit Homeacres, the realm of the king of No Dig, Charles Dowding.

Turfing it out

Extracting weeds from an artificial lawn requires a very different technique to that applied to a lawn of real grass. I soon found this out when I tidied a neighbour’s back garden last week. For a start, a hand fork or trowel is unnecessary since the weeds seem to embed themselves into the weave of the material to which the ‘grass’ is attached. No need here for a sharp implement to loosen the soil around the weed’s roots before yanking the weed from the ground. Instead, the weed needs to be grasped between thumb and forefinger and gradually pulled up with a final gentle twist to keep the roots intact. I have never seen roots so clean! I was surprised to see that even an artificial lawn can host weeds but the weeds I removed were ephemeral weeds like groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) and hairy bittercress (Cardamina hirsuta). No ‘lawn spoiler’* to worry about here like greater plantain (Plantago major) . And I suppose that is the merit of an artificial lawn: even if some enterprising little weeds manage to embed themselves into the surface of the material, the long-rooted perennial weeds cannot penetrate the thick polypropylene base.

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This was my first experience of working with synthetic grass and although I’m by no means a convert, I can see that compared to a real lawn there is no need for cutting, edging and feeding. This lawn looked particularly authentic and included material which seemed to mimic the straw-coloured thatch that accumulates at the base of grass stems over time. In a real lawn this has to be raked out from time to time to make room for fresh blades of grass to grow.

As I carefully removed the weeds I began reflecting on the growing popularity of artificial grass and not only in domestic gardens. A mile and a half from here, were it not for the Coronavirus crisis, the newly built stadium to be shared between Brentford FC and London Irish RFC would soon have opened its doors for the first time. We hope it will still open in time for the new season in the summer.  Having read somewhere that many modern football pitches are created using a hybrid of real and synthetic grass, I determined to find out more. I approached Nity Raj, a parkrun friend and director of Brentford FC, to ask him about the system used at the club’s current ground, the dearly loved Griffin Park, and at the new Brentford Stadium at Kew Bridge. Little did I know as we chatted on Saturday mornings over peppermint tea after the weekly 5k run at Richmond’s Old Deer Park, that Nity knew anything about this topic. Here he generously shares what he knows about football pitch technology:

The current pitch at Griffin Park is a stabilised natural grass pitch.  The stabilised element comes from a plastic weave which was woven into the turf before the grass was grown and the turf was cut and relaid at Griffin Park.  It looks a bit like a tennis net, but with smaller squares.  The plastic matrix significantly reduces the amount that the surface is broken up during play making the regular pitch works much easier to manage and  repair of damage more effective.  We haven’t always had this kind of stabilised pitch.  Until the summer of 2015 the pitch was a normal seeded grass pitch.  We worked with specialists to re-lay new drainage and an entirely new pitch, incorporating the plastic matrix.  Since then I am told we have had the best pitch we have ever had in our history, with significantly less damage visible, especially during bad weather periods, when previously the pitch was prone to getting very badly damaged especially in the high traffic areas of the pitch. 

In the new stadium we are installing a Desso Grassmaster pitch.  Desso are the leading pitch tech company and their pitches are used in many of the most prestigious football and rugby stadiums in the world..  Desso have a different system from the one used at Griffin Park in that it involves a machine injecting fibres into the ground.  We believe this kind of system will best suit the pitch being used for football and rugby.

It’s worth saying that the pitch at Griffin Park and the pitch at the new stadium are both virtually indistinguishable from ordinary grass pitches.  The pitches look, play and smell exactly like grass pitches except for their ability to rejuvenate and resist damage.  Without careful management by our excellent groundsmen, they would also be susceptible to weeds, just like any wholly natural grass surface

The list of venues in the Grassmaster Wikipedia entry reads like a roll-call of world-famous soccer and rugby grounds and includes Wembley, Twickenham, Old Trafford, Parc des Princes, the Emirates Stadium and Anfield. And it will soon be joined by Brentford Stadium.

The hybrid pitches installed for playing professional football and rugby are a far cry from the artificial lawns which are becoming increasingly popular in domestic gardens where the lawn is laid rather like a carpet. Indeed, I’m told that some householders have been known to vacuum their Astroturf! I’ve already mentioned that there is no use for trowels or forks when weeding artificial turf. Nor for a rake as I discovered last week when I initially tried to clear away an accumulation of dried bamboo cane sheaths and leaves. I soon found that a stiff bristled brush is the ideal tool for this purpose. I confess that seeing a green expanse entirely devoid of weeds after a few hours’ gardening was surprisingly satisfying.

Am I now a convert to the pseudo sward? The answer is no, because for all its benefits- neatness, hygiene, consistency- this inert material lacks two of the essential elements of real grass. The coolness under bare feet of grass on a hot day cannot be replicated, nor can the scent of newly mown grass. In the last day or so I have detected that distinctive smell drifting across from neighbouring gardens where the instruction to stay home has prompted many householders to cut their lawns for the first time this year. And to Dig for Victory and grow vegetables, but that’s another story and one I shall address in a future blog.

*William Edmonds ‘Weeds Weeding (&Darwin)’ ISBN-10: 0711233659

 

Blues in the site

‘Well, you’ve got just about enough to make a placemat!’ I’d been showing a retired art teacher friend the collection of blue and white ceramic shards unearthed from my garden and from those of clients, with a view to getting her advice on how to create a mosaic table top. Her reaction confirmed that I would need to up my game to accumulate enough pieces to achieve this. I mentioned my project to a few people and with contributions from allotment sites in Richmond and Ealing and a garden in Northamptonshire, the glass vase in which I keep these little treasures is three quarters full. Short of buying a willow pattern plate from a charity shop and embarking upon a Greek restaurant style plate smashing session, I anticipate it will take another 12 months before I have enough broken pottery to complete the planned masterpiece. And that’s fine: most of the fun of this exercise is in collecting the raw materials and in knowing that these ‘objets trouvés’ may have lain undisturbed for 100 years or more.

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It’s always a mystery to me how you can dig over the same area of soil year after year without finding pottery pieces and then suddenly your fork turns over a fairly substantial segment of an old plate or vessel. There are several theories expressed online about why so much discarded pottery is found in gardens. One school of thought considers that the pieces were applied to the soil to improve drainage. Another that in the absence of council recycling centres, broken blue and white tableware was dumped into a corner of the garden. Whatever the explanation, I always experience a frisson of excitement and curiosity when I spot a gleaming white or blue fragment when weeding or preparing an area for planting. So many questions occur to me. Did the plate smash accidentally or was it hurled across the room in a temper tantrum? How many cups of tea had rested on it before the saucer broke? Was a scullery maid hiding the evidence of a dropped cup from the mistress of the house? Where did the plate originate from: China, Japan, Stoke on Trent? Or was it imported from the near continent, part of a Gien de France tea set or a Royal Denmark dinner service? Was it bought in an exclusive shop or in Woolworths?

Sometimes the original pattern is discernible: a willow bough or part of an ornamental bridge, a chrysanthemum flower or sprig of lavender. One piece in my collection stands out as it is black and white and appears to be in Art Deco style. Another is solid turquoise: I found it last year in the cinder paths which lead to the Loder Valley nature reserve at Wakehurst Place in West Sussex.

Okay, so it’s not the Staffordshire Hoard or the Sutton Hoo treasure, but in their own way these chipped and misshapen fragments have a value of a kind because they have their own stories to tell. To me there is a mystery attached to every humble piece of china I find whilst I’m digging. Not least of which is what to call them. My late father, who hailed from Birmingham, used to call them ‘chinies’ but I’d be interested to know if there are other regional words to describe them.

In the meantime if anyone knows where I can source a smallish cafe table suitable for the garden on which I can create my first garden china mosaic do let me know! One thing is for sure, I shan’t be digging it out of my or anyone else’s garden.

Postscript 14 April 2020: An exciting find

Whilst weeding in the alleyway behind my garden on Good Friday, making space to stand a few potato planters, I found two pieces of blue and white china which, when fitted together like jigsaw pieces, spelt ‘Asiatic Pheasant’. The initials ‘C&E’ indicate that the earthenware vessel was made at the Cartwright & Edwards factory of Longton in Staffordshire, one of the five towns known collectively as ‘The Potteries’. The Asiatic Pheasant design was hugely popular in the Victorian era, and this piece probably dates from 1880-1890, coinciding with the building of the house in the 1890s. Although when the utensil that this came from was smashed is anyone’s guess. An elderly neighbour who has lived on the street throughout her life, tells me she remembers playing with her friends in the network of alleys between and behind the terraces and finding blue and white pieces which they used to decorate their fairy gardens.

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Daisy, Daisy

Mountain thistles, a suburban palace and a maritime sink garden

High in the mountains of Northern Iraq grows a wild thistle-like plant the young leaves, stems, roots and undeveloped flowerheads of which are gathered every spring whilst its the spines remain tender. The flavour of the plant when cooked is said to resemble asparagus and artichoke. In a recent conversation with a Kurdish friend I learnt that the wild harvest of this delicacy heralds the arrival of spring in Kurdistan. Called ‘Kereng’ in one of the two Kurdish languages, Gundelia tournefortii is also known as Tumble Thistle. A member of the daisy family, it grows at altitudes of up to 2,500m, and is pollinated by honeybees and pollen feeding beetles. By mid-May, the stem separates from the root, allowing the entire plant to be rolled into a ball by the wind and carried over the ground to disperse its seeds.

Gundelia tournefortii

Analysis of pollen in the fabric of the Shroud of Turin in 1998 revealed that over a quarter of the pollen identified was assigned to Gundelia, leading some researchers to suggest that Christ’s crown of thorns was made from its spine bearing branches. I read that Gundelia has been cultivated in Paris’s botanic garden, the Jardin des Plantes, since the early C18 when it was introduced by Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656—1708), a professor of botany at the garden who carried out a plant expedition in the Middle East accompanied by the German botanist, Andreas Gundelsheimer (1668–1715).

Containing more than 32,000 species, the daisy family or Asteraceae rivals the orchid family as one of the largest in the plant kingdom. Late summer and early autumn is an ideal time to see the colourful members of this diverse family lighting up herbaceous borders with vivid hot shades of yellow and orange. On a visit to Eltham Palace in south east London in late August, I found swathes of Echinacea and Rudbeckia in the Lower Moat Garden. I first visited Eltham Palace a year or so after English Heritage reopened it in 1999 after an extensive restoration of the unique Art Deco mansion attached to a Tudor Great Hall built by Stephen Courtauld in the 1930s. My chief memories of that visit were the salmon pink leather upholstered dining chairs and the huge carp in the palace moat and I do not recall the gardens making much of an impression. But I can see that the gardens have since been lovingly restored with their secluded ‘rooms’ providing welcome shelter from the hot sunshine on the day I was there.

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At Osterley the daisies feature throughout the gardens at the moment. There are diminutive Cornish daisies, Erigeron karvinskianus, near the elegant steps to the rear of the house, perennial sunflowers, Cosmos and Goldenrod (Solidago) in the Picking Garden and Heleniums in Mrs Child’s Flower Garden. With a handful of us volunteer garden team continuing to lead 45 minute garden tours twice a week, these cheerful flowers provide colourful highlights as we progress through the garden to where deep burgundy and orange Dahlias (also daisy family members) are complemented in one of the potager style beds in the Tudor Walled Garden by the velvety plumes of Amaranthus.

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In Osterley’s Picking Garden in late July another daisy, Echinops, towers over young flowers of Solidago

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Erigeron karvinskianus at the rear of Osterley House growing beneath a Magnolia grandiflora and Rosemary ‘Sissinghurst Blue’

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Heleniums

In a digression from daisies, I would like to share my favourite plant scene from the last week in August, and one created without human intervention. At one side of the coastal path from Croyde Bay in North Devon to the promontory of Baggy Point, I noticed an expanse of upended slivers of shale, in the crevices between which were growing a myriad of tiny succulents. I have often admired these miniature landscapes replicated in troughs displayed outside the Davies Alpine House in Kew Gardens, but to see one such terrain ‘in nature’ in the golden hour before sunset with the outline of Lundy Island hovering on the horizon 20 miles away to sea was a special experience. IMG_8934IMG_8941

POSTSCRIPT: 1 October 2019

I began this post with a reference to Tumble Thistle, Gundelia tournefortii, named for a seventeenth century French botanist, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort. I was lucky enough to spend a few days in Paris last week and joined a walking tour of the area around Rue Mouffetard in the 5th arrondissement, in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway who lived there in the 1920s. Eager to show us an example of a street sign which had been altered due to historic events, the guide took us to the former Rue Neuve Genevieve, where the name was etched into the stone wall of a building at the corner of the street. The abbreviation ‘Ste’ was obliterated after the French Revolution in 1789, when religion was outlawed during the period known as the Terror. By coincidence the street is now called Rue Tournefort, with the classic green edged blue Parisian street sign showing the name of the botanist who lends his name to one of the more intriguing members of the daisy family. The Jardin des Plantes is located approximately half a mile from this spot.

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Germination

Since mid winter is traditionally a period for armchair gardening, I have taken the opportunity during a quieter season to launch this site. I hinted in my first post at an interest in grammatical matters which arises in part from a previous career in the legal profession, where accurate written expression is key. A subsequent eight year sojourn in Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew’s visitor information team neatly bridged a transition from law to horticulture.

Whilst much of my time was spent addressing customer relations matters, I took the opportunity of working in the world’s best known botanic garden to develop and expand my interest in gardening, conservation and the natural world. The generous co-operation of colleagues across the organisation, from the horticulture and science teams alike, meant that few days passed without learning about a new plant, conservation initiative or gardening technique.

During my last couple of years at Kew, and through a combination of distance learning and attendance at Capel Manor’s branches at Gunnersbury and Regent’s Park, I acquired the RHS Level 2 Diploma in the Principles and Practices of Horticulture. So as to reinforce what I learnt on the course, for the past year I have volunteered on Fridays in the historic gardens at the National Trust’s Osterley House. This experience has been a source of inspiration for much of what I would like to share in these posts.

As well as writing about gardening, I am planning to develop a ‘light’ gardening business, and hope to be able to document its progress in these virtual pages. Whilst I shall not be operating a hard landscaping or design business, I shall provide a service for busy working clients or those for whom gardening has become more difficult with the passing years. I can clear small town gardens of weeds, prune shrubs and design and maintain planting schemes for containers and individual flower beds.

In the next post I report upon an early November day at Osterley and trace the West London origins of ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’.

From words to weeds

Punctuation and horticulture might not appear to be obvious bedfellows, but when ruminating on an identity for this blog and a fledgling gardening business, I plundered the title of Lynne Truss’s entertaining book, ‘Eats Shoots and Leaves’. Rather than skewering modern grammar, I aim to share some thoughts and observations on gardens, gardening and gardeners.

Pedantry and punctuation have led me to ‘Weeds Roots & Leaves’, though the inclusion or otherwise of  commas remains debatable. In the punchline of the joke which inspired Ms Truss’s book title, the inclusion of a comma changes the sense of the phrase entirely, as it would in mine, though to less comic effect.

My original working title, ‘The Pedantic Gardener’, scored poorly when suggested to friends, although I enjoyed creating the proposed copy: ‘If your flower beds are punctuated with weeds and your shrubs need editing, you need the Pedantic Gardener. I can help you compose an elegant garden…’ and so on in similarly pun-laden prose.

I rejected the draft tagline ‘Tall tales from a small garden’ on the grounds it was a little prosaic, in favour of ‘Small tales from a tall gardener’ so as to reflect the modest nature of the blog content and the height of the author.

In my next post I shall explain how I came to write this blog and my purpose in doing so.