I’ve been working on an interesting little project lately in Dorset, looking after a newly-designed garden which is learning to settle back in to its landscape after some fairly major re-sculpting of a steep hillside into handsome stone-built terraces.
The (extremely nice) owners are keen gardeners but not knowledgeable, so it’s up to me to come up with solutions to the inevitable little problems that crop up when you drop a garden onto a hillside and leave the evolution into maturity till afterwards.
The owners mentioned to me that three little ornamental Japanese cherries planted on one of the terraces hadn’t been thriving this summer. We worked through the usual possible ailments: drought in this year’s relatively dry summer, lack of shelter (the prevailing wind blows directly onto this terrace), silverleaf disease.
But then I went and actually looked at them, close-up. And it was blindingly obvious what the problem was: the above (bar the silverleaf) may have played their part but the clincher was the way these trees have been staked.
It’s hard to know where to start.
Bamboo canes. Far too weak, flimsy and flexible to hold a growing tree steady against gales and the knocks and bumps of everyday life. They weren’t stuck into the ground all that deeply either – you could flap them about with one hand. No support whatsoever.
That flexitie. I have issues with this stuff for all sorts of reasons: but in this case, again, it’s far too stretchy for holding a young tree in position. It’s also tied so loosely around the tree that it’s simply not doing its job.
All this meant these little trees might just as well have been planted without stakes at all. And you could see the damage: the root balls were clearly lifting out of the ground.
The reason you stake a tree while it’s getting established is to hold the rootball firmly in place. If you don’t, when the top of the tree whips about in the wind it will also pull at the rootball, which (because you haven’t staked it properly) is free to move within the soil. That rips away those delicate feeder roots a tree puts out to explore and colonise the surrounding soil, effectively repeatedly preventing the roots from anchoring the tree in the ground. This keeps the root ball loose, and because the tree can’t develop a better root system than it had in the pot, it cannot grow. That’s why these trees were suffering.
So here’s what I did:
This is a proper tree stake: around 7.5cm (3″) diameter, sturdy round wooden pole about 1.5m (5ft) long (you can use squared timber, as long as it’s good and robust). It dwarfs the tree trunk a little but that’s the point: it’s meant to be stronger.
I’ve driven it in to the ground with a mallet at a 45° angle, firmly enough that you can’t move it easily by hand. Opinion is divided about whether stakes should be parallel with the trunk to about halfway up, or like this: I’ve always favoured the 45° approach as it holds the rootball while letting the top of the tree move, and you’re driving it in a little way away from the rootball itself so you don’t have to damage any roots by sinking it closer to the trunk.
You’ll notice it’s pointing away from the wall, into the wind: this is deliberate. When the wind blows at this tree, the force is pushing the tree against the stake’s anchor, so it shouldn’t move. If I’d pointed it the other way (or straight upwards) the wind is effectively pulling at the tree rather than pushing it into the stake – much less stable.
And last but not least: a proper, collared tree tie. This holds snugly around the trunk and around the stake, the collar making sure the two don’t rub, and is stretchy enough to allow growth but not stretchy enough to give in to the wind. I’ll be checking that tie each summer as the trees grow and loosening it off if it’s needed: hopefully, in a couple of seasons’ time, this tree will be fully recovered from its bad start, well rooted and growing on so strongly I can pull the stake out and let it strike out on its own.
…it is getting cold. Seriously, properly cold.
Actually I can’t remember being cold before Christmas before (well, a bit chilly, perhaps, but not cold of the three layers and double socks kind just yet).
We have, I think, become a bit soft in recent years what with all this global warming malarkey. Things may be a little extreme in this respect at my end of the country, around 20 miles from the south coast and never the coldest of places generally.
But since the epic winter of 2010 (when we had about 10 winters’ worth of snow, hoarfrost and ice for a memorable three or four months from November to February) we’ve been lucky to get a frost at all. Last year the lowest temperature I recorded was around 1°C, in February; the previous year we dipped to an adventurous -2°C for one night only. It was hardly the second ice age.
Anyway, all this is by way of saying that this month in the garden I have had to get my skates on (not quite literally but you never know) in a way I have not been accustomed to doing, and do all those getting-ready-for-winter things I’ve previously been putting off till about January. So here’s what I’ll be up to…
Planting garlic I have had a bit of a garlic crisis this year: every last plant succumbed to rust. I am therefore launching an experiment: I’m replanting the bulbs from the garlic which survived the longest, in an attempt to select a strain that copes better with the (now endemic) garlic rust in my garden. I will report back with results.
Collecting leaves There are so many leaves. So, so many leaves. I watched them rain down the other day like a golden snowstorm. And so to work with my trusty rake and wheelbarrow to fill as many leafmould bins as I can before they all run out.
Putting the veg garden to bed The endless task continues: clear crops, cart off to compost heap, weed, mulch, cover, repeat. I am still only halfway down the veg garden and I’ve already run out of soil improver.
Picking spring cabbage Yes, you read that right: spring cabbage. I planted it last August (that’s August 2015) and it has been going strong ever since, mainly through my laziness in not getting around to pulling it out, so it just sprouts again. A happy accidental discovery: I shall be doing this again…
Clearing the greenhouse The cucumbers are spent; the green peppers picked. Time to strip out the last of the summer crops and get the greenhouse ready for its winter role. I have only one this year, as we’re having to move the other: I am bereft.
Lining said greenhouse with bubblewrap insulation You save around 25% on the average heating bill by insulating your greenhouse, so they say. I know it keeps things much cosier, and often means I don’t have to turn on the heater at all.
Planting winter salads under cloches Since I am deprived of my winter salads greenhouse this year I am resorting to planting out my greenery under cloches instead (or rather, one massive cloche made of blue plumbing pipe and clear polythene).
Wrapping bananas The Musa basjoo in the back garden has been going great guns this year, so the plan is to wrap it in the time-honoured way (chop leaves off, wrap in straw and hessian or fleece, big bubblewrap hat) and leave it outside for the first time.
Digging up pelargoniums My scented-leaf pelargonium collection is expanding all the time: I do need to bring it in for winter, though. This year they’ve been in containers on the front steps, making this particular job much easier.
Planting tulips Ah yes: there is some joy to be had this month. This year’s order includes ‘Ballerina’, ‘Jan Reus’, ‘Purple Prince’, ‘Violet Beauty’ and ‘White Triumphator’. I am looking forward to spring very much.