Of scythes and sails

The absence of posts to this blog for a month has been preying on my mind. Other tasks took precedence in the form of gardening work both on site and on the page. On site because it’s mulching season meaning that some gardens in TW9 have been generous covered with a 5cm layer of shredded horse manure from Woodland Horticulture delivered from Somerset. And when not mulching I’ve been pruning wisteria and roses and preparing two gardens for re-planting projects scheduled for completion in the next fortnight. On the page because I was fortunate to be asked to update some pages for a commercial gardening website, the subject matter being garden pests and diseases.

And as if those tasks weren’t enough to fill my time, I’m now at the halfway point in an online course on the history of the English landscape garden through Oxford Continuing Education. This week we’ve been looking at three of the key gardens of the earlier part of the C18, Stowe, Studley Royal and Stourhead. But in fact it was another garden of the period that no longer exists in its 1730s incarnation that I want to share with you, or more specifically three charming paintings of the garden. Hartwell House near Amersham is now a luxury hotel and the current layout of the grounds dates from a later period. The garden was made in the mid 1730s by Sir Thomas Lee. When the garden was complete he commissioned Balthasar Nebot, a little-known Spanish painter, based in Covent Garden, to record his estate and garden.  This he did, portraying the estate workers and gardeners in great detail.

How little and yet how much has changed in the work of a gardener. We still collect weeds and grass clippings in a container, my turquoise plastic trug being the equivalent of the C18 gardener’s basket. In non-lockdown winters we still manoeuvre a roller over the vegetable garden beds at Osterley after mulching them with leaf mould. And we still clip yew hedges by hand using shears. 300 years may have passed but these simple tasks and tools connect us to the gardeners who have gone before us.

And during a passionate talk this week by head gardener Ben Preston of York Gate outside Leeds, I learnt that the use of scythes is not confined to 300 year old landscape paintings and Ross Poldark. The meadow at York Gate is cut by hand by Ben and his team. He explained that by cutting it by hand they can identify the areas where the grass grows thickest. The hay is cut into windrows and sent to a local community farm. Apparently Eastern European visitors to the garden comment that the sight of the hay meadow being cut by scythes reminds them of seeing their grandparents working on the land in a similar way.

Meadow at York Gate

Another element of the garden at York Gate chimed with the Hartwell paintings where clipped yew is used to such dramatic effect. At York Gate a line of yew ‘sails’ cuts through the garden forming both a focal point and a boundary with one of the many ‘garden rooms’. The garden is owned and run by the gardening charity Perennial and a friend who until a couple of years ago also volunteered at Osterley now volunteers in the York Gate shop. I’ve added this special garden to a growing list of gardens to visit.

The yew sails at York Gate

I shall leave you here as I have some course reading to finish about the glorious landscape at Stourhead in Wiltshire, a garden I HAVE visited. I went on a beautiful autumn day in November 2019. Stourhead is only a short drive off the A303, my route to and from my niece and her family in Somerset. It was such a glorious day that I made a detour on the drive home and immersed myself in the tranquil atmosphere of Stourhead, where classical temples reflect into the lake and, on the day of my visit, the scene was all the more beautiful because of the leaves changing colour. A classic image of the garden follows.

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

 

Clean, Calm and Camellia

Camellia oil? It sounds like a luxurious product I should be applying to my face after a hard day’s gardening. But it’s my precious hand tools which will benefit from a treatment with Niwaki’s Camellia Oil. Made with oil from the cold-pressed seeds of Camellia oleifera, it is a traditional Japanese method to protect tools from rust.

I first heard about Niwaki when Jake Hobson addressed the Kew Mutual Improvement Society in December 2017 on ‘The Art of Creative Pruning’. Jake’s artistic approach to shaping shrubs reflects his origins as a sculptor, and his work combines both Japanese influences and traditional topiary techniques. I recall inspiring images of the extraordinary topiary garden at Levens Hall in Cumbria and cloud-pruning both here and in Japan. In addition to his creative pruning activities, Jake Hobson co-founded Niwaki which supplies Japanese garden and kitchen equipment with an emphasis on cutting tools and accessories. When I started Weeds Roots & Leaves 18 months ago I invested in a pair of the company’s hedging shears which are light, very sharp and are supplied in a substantial leather holster. They have been invaluable when shaping and maintaining large yew and Cotoneaster dammeri specimens in two of my client’s gardens.

I chatted to a company representative on the Niwaki stand at last week’s Garden Press Event at the Business Design Centre in Islington. I asked if I could hold and weigh in my hand the Hori Hori, which translates from Japanese as ‘dig dig’. This narrow, asymmetrically bladed trowel is very versatile and I can see how useful it must be for tackling long rooted weeds (I’m thinking bindweed, both ‘hedge’ and ‘field’) as well as for planting bulbs.

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The Hori Hori

The tool was on sale at the shop located next to the exit of the sculptor Antony Gormley’s exhibition at The Royal Academy last autumn. It somehow didn’t feel incongruous to see this elegantly designed garden tool displayed in such a venue, particularly in conjunction with a show where many of the exhibits were executed in steel. After all, designer William Morris famously wrote ‘If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.’

At the event last week, as well as the Hori Hori, I admired some rather more expensive implements which were hand-forged, the blacksmith’s hammer marks being clearly visible on the intriguingly shaped Japanese trowel and axe. As I left the stand I was given a ‘Crean Mate eraser’ with which to clean rust and sap from my hand tools. I tried it the other day on my secateurs and as the images show it is very effective. The gently abrasive block can be dipped in water or Camellia oil before being rubbed across the area to be cleaned. I used water but have now bought a 100ml bottle of the oil with which to protect the secateurs (and the shears mentioned above) in between gardening sessions.

In my recent blogs I’ve commented on how mild the weather has been this winter and I can see that the buds on the camellias currently in flower in local front gardens and along Camellia Walk in Kew Gardens are undamaged by frost. They have unfurled into perfect blooms, without the browned petal edges which can occur in severe winters when the buds are subjected to very cold conditions.

I included the word ‘calm’ in the heading to this blog not only for alliteration (and a rather laboured pun on the title of Culture Club’s hit single in 1983), but because the good old cuppa is made from the leaves of another species of camellia, C. sinensis. Amidst the current uncertainties, when a cup of ‘Rosie Lee’ helps us to keep calm and carry on, it’s comforting to know that the cup that cheers is another product of this useful and beautiful genus of plants.