Gardening Journal – Entry 17

Tuesday 12 January 2021

Today was much of the same as yesterday. This time year, the jobs are quite limited, as a lot of the plants are dormant and growing at a snail’s pace. 

I started by weeding a small winter bedding display full of Erysimum. It didn’t take long and after giving it a little cultivate, we were done. We noticed that soil was very soft, which is a rarity in a usually busy area, where beds tend to get a pummelling from heavy footfall. I believe this soil has a better structure than some more compacted beds because it is so narrow, making it a rare site where all work can be done from the concrete surrounding it. 

After that, I worked on a bed on the second level. This was filled with herbaceous perennials like Euphorbia characias and our trusty friend the Anemone x hybrida. There was also a beautiful magnolia tree, bare of its leaves, but boasting beautiful furry buds, ready to spring open in a few months. This bed had a smattering of weeds, both annual and perennial, which were easy enough to hoe off or dig out, respectively.

We started by cutting back the euphorbias, as they were looking scraggly and were due a cut in autumn! We were careful when cutting these, as the photosensitive toxic sap is not something you want to be getting in your eyes, or anywhere on your face for that matter! Then, I moved onto the anemones, cutting back the dead growth, leaving the healthy green leaves to protect the new growth emerging in time for spring.

I then swept up the fallen magnolia leaves, any hoed-off weeds before giving the bed a good cultivate. This bed was in need of some work, and the job is far from over, even now. I always find that little and often is the best approach in gardening, so you catch the small weeds before they become an impenetrable jungle you have to hack through with a machete.

Tomorrow is our study-from-home-college day, which I’m quite excited about. While I love my early mornings and cycling into work while the city is still drowsily opening its eyes, I do appreciate a few extra minutes of sleep and the privilege of staying at home in COVID times.

Gardening Journal – Entry 16

Monday 11 January 2021

This week got off to a bit of crappy start – and I don’t mean I overslept or had an altercation on the cycle in. Today, I shovelled about 5kg of faeces before 9:30am, and it was completely fine. Sure, I almost threw up and laughed at Laurence almost throwing up until I cried, but I felt accomplished. We don’t call our litter rounds litter rounds; we call them ‘cleansing’, and we certainly cleansed the dark corner of that gloomy church today!

Aside from the dirty protest, we spent the day tidying up one of our sites. It was amazing to manage our tasks independently, work together to get the job done and look back on our work at the end of the day.

We started by clearing a herbacous perennial bed of weeds. There was a lot of Cardamine hirsuta with a touch of Stellaria media mixed in. Now that we have the opportunity to work at our own pace and independently, we also have the chance to use every task as revision. In this case, we tried to name every weed we pulled out. Aside from a couple of Bellis perennis here or there, we were lucky to be working with only annual weeds. This meant that the job was a little quicker, as we only had to tear off the growth above ground and needed our trowels every now and then for a stubborn root system.

After clearing the border of weeds, cutting back the Anemone x hybrida and giving it a quick rake, we cultivated it lightly. There was a little soil capping, due to the rainfall in recent weeks so after the little scratch we gave it, the beautiful purples and limes of the Heucheras popped against the dark, rich soil and made the border feel more like a feature and less of a bed of decay.

I created a clear divide between the border and the lawn by cutting the edge with edging shears. I later did this all the way around the lawn and the difference was amazing. I am more convinced every day that a little cultivation and a nice, sharp edge can make even the most neglected gardens look well-loved again.

We finished off by clearing the fern and grass beds of fallen leaves from the deciduous trees and then cultivated the soil before sweeping up. Then we loaded the wheelbarrow with our tools and went off to shovel another poo into another bag. It’s always good to start your day as you mean to go on.

Gardening Journal – Entry 15

Monday 4 January 2021

Happy new year – and what a year 2020 was! It’s funny how quickly the human brain can adapt. Last year (so glad I can finally write that), everything was turned on its head. Cities went into lockdown, people lost their jobs and loved ones left us. What was once a distant idea became our day to day lives. We changed our habits and, in turn, the world changed too. Aside from the pandemic, I have also noted the speed at which I embraced my last two weeks off. 

I was on annual leave for the last two weeks of the year and most of that time was spent in bed, or waiting to be in bed. I feel restored, rejuvenated and ready to take on everything it has to throw at me.

Today we worked on leaf clearing, as can be expected after a couple of weeks with limited staff during the festive season. We used backpack leaf blowers to clear some Salix babylonica leaves which had come down in Storm Bella. I can’t quite believe how far I have come using machinery. This time last year, I was dreading the use of two-stroke and four-stroke machinery. I had done a little too much research h and seen too many machinery related injuries. Now – with enough Health and Safety Legislation in my head to sink a ship – I know how to identify the hazards and risks and minimise them. Happy days! 

January tends to be the time that I reflect on my progress over previous years and it has brought me some comfort to know that while the world stood still in 2020, so many of us took huge strides individually and came out of it slightly battered, but with more resilience than ever. 

Gardening Journal – Entry 14

Monday 7 December 2020

And I’m back! I know I said that before, but I didn’t anticipate our boat batteries would fail and leave me without reliable laptop charging at home. So I write tonight from a flat – not too far from the canal, but with my feet firmly on solid land. It feels strange, foreign and I definitely need to get used to this. I’m going to start writing these in the morning, before I head off for work, to give myself a chance to take a breather before I pedal my way around the deadly streets of London and to order my thoughts for the day. 

Today was bitterly cold. It was a harsh reminder of what winter has in store for us. I woke up to a message on my phone wishing me a ‘Good Morning’ and promptly making me curl back up into my duvet when it showed me the temperature for the day. Ideally, I wouldn’t get out of bed for anything less than 10 degrees, but living in the UK doesn’t afford me that luxury, so up I layered up to face the 0 degree cycle into work. 

We spent the day clearing some herbaceous perennial beds close to the river. They are planted with evergreen plants such as Pittosporum, Carex, Rudbeckia, Anemone x hybrida, as well as a beautiful Prununs serrula (one of my favourite trees!). We worked on clearing some of the herbaceous growth. Even though the timing was not quite right, we cut back the Carex, creating little hedgehog-shaped mounds. I used shears to cut through them, after trying my hand at it with secateurs and understanding just how long it would take (probably around 400 years). I was slicing away at the Carex in no time and we managed to cut back all the Carex and rudbeckias on the first half of the bed. 

Unfortunately, as soon as we started working, Laurence started sneezing – badly. He is clearly allergic to something we were working wit or around today. Poor man. By the end of the day his nose was completely blocked. As a result, I finished off the bed using a leaf blower to clear the cut grasses. It was challenging to use the machine on such a busy area, as I had to stop every few seconds to allow people to pass safely. However, as always when using the blower, the end result looked wonderful.

Tomorrow is all about clearing more care and herbaceous perennials and cultivating! We have a lovely week this week, with only two full days of work. On Wednesday we have another practical day at college, after which we will be heading to a pub (outdoors, of course) to wave goodbye to this year as a class. Then, Laurence and I have a pub quiz and are taking Thursday off to finish one of our other projects – a Christmas song! There’s a lot to be excited about.

Gardening Journal – Entry 13

Monday 2 November 2020

And just like that, it’s November, and another month has flown by in this simultaneously sloth-paced and urgently fast year. A second lockdown is looming and we only have two more days of freedom before we lose the pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops again. Nothing much has changed for me this year, as we have worked throughout all lockdowns and the pandemic in its entirety. We didn’t even take a day while the dangers and health risks were assessed – we were far too busy mowing those lawns and pruning the wisteria and supposedly keeping London on its feet. It feels so good and so bad to be ‘essential’.

So, back to work I went this morning. Unfortunately, just as the country lost its faith in the government (can you lose something that has already been missing for years?), the frame of my glasses lost the will to stay attached and snapped in half. It’s an upsetting moment for any 20-something on a meagre apprentice salary and with only two contact lenses to their name, but considering I was speeding along on a narrowboat at the time, it was far from ideal. Luckily, I was video calling my mum so I didn’t feel like a complete plonker as I held my glasses to my face and smashed into some bloke’s boat while I rummaged around for my last pair of contact lenses.

Thank goodness, my workplace provided prescription safety goggles to me and Laurence early on in our apprenticeship, so I’ve been walking around London looking like I’ve just swum the channel. London Fashion Week will emit a sigh of relief when they hear that an emergency box of contact lenses are arriving at work tomorrow and new glasses are currently being whittled, so I will no longer be terrorising the streets in my utility specs.

After spending the early morning at work organising my optometry needs, me and my supervisor planted the bulbs in between the winter bedding we planted a couple of weeks ago. It was my first time planting bulbs in a bedding scheme and I’m glad I had already planted about 150 in containers in preparation. My containers took about an hour to plant and really took the energy out of me. You can imagine how intimidates I was when I found out we would be planting 1500 bulbs between the two of us in a raised bed full of delicate violas and forget-me-nots.

Once I had figured out my trowel technique stab the ground twice, trowel up, lift and slot the bulb pointed end up into the slit at the bottom), it became slightly faster work. The important thing to remember with bulbs is the planting depth. The rule of thumb is to plant them at a depth of three times their height. For tulips, this is around 10 – 15cm. Today we planted Tulipa ‘Spring Green’, which is new to me and I’m very excited to see come spring.

All in all, it was an energetic start to the week and made me feel quite accomplished, while distracting me from the next four weeks of abnormal normality. Gardening is very good at doing that.

Gardening Journal – Entry 12

Thursday 29 October 2020

This was by far the most exciting day of the week, as it was our first trip the Barbican Conservatory. It was so lovely to have a change of scenery and do our very outdoors work, in an indoor environment.

We went to the Barbican Conservatory because, although we get plenty of experience working with machinery and doing ornamental horticultural maintenance, there are no facilities or tasks involving propagation at the depot.

We started by looking around the conservatory, which reminded me of a mini Kew glasshouse. It was full of tropical plants, ferns and banana trees. And how refreshing to be surrounded by so much greenery amid the brutalist infrastructure of the Barbican.

We then mixed some soil for the propagation task we were working on. This involved mixing four bags of John Innes No 3 (mature plant potting compost), a large bag of bark, a good few handfuls of perlite and a dash of John Innes seedling mix, to add drainage. Add salt to the rim and there you have it – the most disgusting cocktail ever!

To mix the various components, we made a pile on the floor, adding every ingredient in layers, before mixing by shovelling it over itself. Essentially, we moved the pile of compost across the floor until the mixture looked right and the perlite was evenly distributed throughout. Then, we shovelled it back towards the potting bench, where we shovelled it up onto the bench, ready for potting.

We prepared the pots before taking the soft-wood cuttings of the plant we were planning to propagate. We did this by filling the pots with soil and pressing down with a round pot tamper until it was at the right height (at the lower rim of the pot. Then we watered the soil and filled in any pots where the soil had sunk down.

We took stem cuttings of eight different Pelargoniums, including P. ‘Cola Bottles’, P. unique ‘Donatella Bluet Champagne’, P. ‘Robert’s Lemon Rose’, P. ‘Little Gem’, and P. ‘Grey Lady Plymouth’. We cut about 15cm from the terminal bud (using thoroughly cleaned secateurs to prevent contamination and spreading disease), making sure we took enough to plant eight good cuttings per cultivar. We placed a label in each bucket so we could keep track of which plant we were taking cuttings from.

Then – hot hort tip incoming – I used the sharpie I wrote the labels with as a dibber, as its the perfect size. You can have that plant hack for free. After that, I carefully removed all of the leaves from the stem, apart from the top three or four. You want to avoid leaving too many leaves on, as that is where transpiration occurs most in a plant and results in loss of moisture, which can stop a cutting from rooting and succeeding. To save resources, I used the label I had written when collecting the cuttings to label each tray of the Pelargoniums.

And that’s that! We cleared up, said some sad goodbyes to the beautiful, dry conservatory and headed out into the pouring rain.

Gardening Journal – Entry 11

Tuesday 27 October 2020

Today has been a bit of a slow one – but much needed. It started with a beautiful sky show on the way to work, with a tangerine wash of colour filling my view all the way in. Grumble as I may about the clocks going back, I felt very luck to be able to catch that sunrise on my cycle today.

Today really was a study day, with us only leaving the depot for two and a half hours to fill some containers with soil. The rest of it has been spent behind laptops, trying to catch up on missed college work and get up to speed with our Learner Journals.

The containers we filled have been affectionately named the ‘COVID planters’, as they are technically new sites hat have come about during and because of the pandemic. They will be planted with small trees and shrubs and have socially-distanced seating arranged around them. From what I could see on the planting list, there will be a lot of birch trees collared by a ring of liriopes at the bottom. I also spotted some Osmanthus aquifolum on the sheet.

Much like a lasagne, when planting up a container with a tree, the layering is very important. Coincidentally, we got the order all wrong and spent ages shovelling leca out of the planters. We should have started with a layer of Terram (a geotextile that allows moisture to pass through but won’t allow bigger particles such as leca or soil to pass through and mix), followed by two bags of leca. Then, another layer of Terram was placed on top and we shovelled in the soil. To make sure the soil level was correct, I hopped into the containers and treaded the soil, to find any gaps and remove large air pockets, before filling it to the desired height.

As the trees are only being delivered tomorrow, when we’re studying from home, we did not fill the containers to the top and instead only filled them halfway. This will allow space for the rootball to be placed without double handling of the soil.

Tomorrow is all about catching up on the work I missed while my laptop was being serviced and I couldn’t complete classwork virtually. Wish me luck!

Listen to my podcast!

I recently launched my new podcast, called Trowel and Error; the podcast for imperfect gardeners. Join me and Laurence as we laugh at each other, share other gardener’s hilarious horticulture fails and take the perfectionism out of gardening. Here are a few ways you can listen:

Gardening Journal – Entry 10

Monday 26 October 2020

I’m finally back! After a week off work due to COVID symptoms (the test came back negative, don’t worry) and being without a working laptop for three weeks, here is another Gardening Journal entry.

A lot has changed in the past four weeks. Spaces that were once a lush mass of green have an added depth as the russet, gold and crimson foliage reminds us of the beautiful variety of plants all growing together. On a more somber note, the clocks have gone back, making the morning commute into work a little less miserable. However, the change has stolen away our evenings somewhat. I’m still getting used to going to sleep at what feels like 11pm. I don’t even know if the clock changes help us, really, but that’s a different post for a different day.

This week we are without supervisor and although we had a plant to work to involving some lawn cutting and shadowing a senior gardener, all that flew out of the window when some turf arrived to finish a lawn. We had started working on it almost two weeks ago, however, we came short due to heavy rainfall damaging some of the turves. So off we popped with a van-load of turves and enough tools to sink a ship.

To lay turf you need:

  • Broom – for sweeping the area before and after the job (particularly in autumn and winter when there are always fallen leaves everywhere)
  • Large rubber rake – for removing fallen leaves and debris from the soil before laying turf
  • Wheelbarrow – to carry said tools, as well as to move the heavy turves without injuring your back
  • Flat-head garden rake – to tamp down the turves after you’ve laid them
  • Clappers – to pick up swept leaves
  • Scaffolding boards – to distribute your weight when standing on laid turf
  • Half-moon – to slice through turf when you need to cut it
  • Edging shears (this will make them blunt, so always use a dedicated pair for turfing) – to cut through the turf if the half-moon won’t do
  • Loads of green bags – for the leaves, debris and turf offcuts

The first step in any turfing job is to measure out the area. As the standard size for turves is 1m² (2m x 0.5m), you simply need to buy as many turves as the size of the site. For example, in the area we were finishing off, it measured approximately 9m by 2m. We counted the turves we used for this project and the total came to 18 turves, excluding offcuts.

The next step is to decide where to begin working. The two most important things to consider are how you can use the turves efficiently to reduce as much waste as possible and how you can avoid leaving smaller pieces on the perimeter of the space. Smaller pieces on the edge of the area are more likely to dry out and possibly go brown or die off entirely.

My method is to work from the outside in, as this guarantees that the edge will have enough large pieces to keep it moist. We were working on a slightly awkward space, which had a couple of jutting spaces and was not completely parallel. While I laid out the turf on the far edge, Laurence worked on the inner strip.

The edge usually takes quite a lot longer to lay out, as it needs to be as straight as possible. This can often mean re-rolling the turf and repositioning, as the turves as so heavy that any tugging or pulling can tear, stretch or weaken it. Once the first pieces is correctly positions, the second can be lined up at the end. The idea is to work in one direction and weave your way up and down the site, as this will create the striped effect usually achieved using a mower with a mower roller.

All the edges of each turf (except the side on the perimeter of the site) have to be ‘knitted together’. This involved getting the turves close enough together that there is a slight overlap. Then you can lift the two pieces and effectively drop them into a perfect, joined position. This can then be tamped in either by giving the seam a good punch or using the flat-head garden rake to smack it in. Needless to say, laying turf is a good outlet for anger and frustration.

Sometimes the turf will need to be cut once you get to the end of the strip. This can be achieved through laying a scaffolding board along the line you want to cut and using a half moon to slice along it, creating a clean, precise line. For trickier areas, it may be necessary to use the edging shears.

As the site was not parallel, the final strip in the middle became wider and wider towards one end. After a certain point, the distance was too wide or the turves to fit in lengthways. As such, as I turned them to the sides and lay them that way, making sure the longest piece was laid on the edge, to it wouldn’t dry out.

The end result was something we were very proud with, especially as it was only the second time we had ever done it! All newly laid turf looks a little like a patchwork, but in a week or two it will look lush and the seams between individual turves will begin to disappear.

The vascular systems of a stem

It was another day of college today and my laptop decided to fail me, just in time for online learning! Learning is never easy outside of the classroom and not being able to access the documents we’re working on makes it even harder. Still, we covered a lot and I only got slightly left behind!

Here are some of the topics we focused on today:

  • Health and Safety Legislation
  • Vascular system of a plant’s stem

I’m going to focus on the second topic, for obvious reasons (i.e. posting about legislation an interesting blog does not make). I would argue that the stem of a plant is one of the least appreciated parts of a plant. When looking at a plant’s distinguishing features, you often think of things like the foliage shape and texture, the showy flowers or the berries and fruit. However, the stem is the literal backbone of the plant. It acts as support in adverse weather (with the help of the roots), it transports nutrients around the plant and the stem is one way you can clone your plant to produce a genetically identical replica, for free!

We dived into botany today, looking at plant cells up close and discovering the different processes that happen beneath the surface and just how important they are. To kick off the learning, let’s talk about monocotyledons and dicotyledons:

  • Monocotyledon (or monocots): this refers to flowering plants that have scattered vascular bundles in their stems and are characterised by their lack of cambium (see below) between the xylem (also see below) and phloem (just see below for all, please). There is also no distinction between the cortex and pith and no annual rings (tree rings) are formed.
  • Dicotyledons (or dicots): unlike monocots, these have a limited number of vascular bundles arranged in a ring. Cambium does exist in dicots and and the cortex and pith are distinguishable. Secondary thickening can occur (I’ll get into this later) and annual rings form as a result of this.

Distinguishing between dicotyledons and monocotyledons is important, as it tells us a lot about what the internal structures are going to look like. The best way to differentiate between a monocot and a dicot is seeing what its first leaves look like. If a pair of kidney bean-shaped leaves appear, that’s a dicot, whereas if one grass-like leaf grows out of the soil, that’s a monocot.

Let’s look at the structure of a stem. Most dicots have a similar structure to this and may only show slight variation or modified bits and pieces. Here’s a diagram I put together at the beginning of the year:

Terminal (or apical) bud: this is the topmost bud and the one responsible for terminal growth. Due to the auxin hormone, most of the energy goes into growth from this terminal bud and growth is inhibited in the lateral buds. This is why gardeners ‘pinch out’ plants that they want to grow bushier or to put on more lateral growth – the energy stops being solely directed to the terminal bud and lateral buds get a chance to grow.

Lateral (or axillary) bud: These are the aforementioned buds that are further down the stems. They are produced in the leaf axils and are responsible for the lateral shoots from the main stem.

Flower bud: These develop into flowers and are often larger in size than the buds that produce vegetative growth.

Leaf scar: This is the scar from from the place where a leaf was joined onto the stem. It is also called the abscission scar.

Node: This is the point on the stem where a leaf used to be. The angle between the petiole (leaf stalk) and the stem is known as the leaf axil.

Internode: This is the length along the stem between two nodes.

(Not mentioned in the diagram:)
Lenticel: These are pores in the stem through which gasses may be exchanged. The relative size and shape of the lenticels can be a distinguishable feature when identifying plants.

Growth rings: This is sometimes called the girdle scar and indicates where the growth stopped after the end of the growth period the year prior. Therefore the length of the stem between two girdle scars or the terminal bud and the previous girdle scar will advise how much the plant grew the previous growing season.

And now, let’s look even closer – with a microscope! Inside any plant’s stem, there are three main players: the xylem, the phloem and the cambium. These form the vascular system of the plants, transporting food, water and minerals around the plant and offers support.

Vascular cambium (F): this is known as a meristem, meaning it is made up of undifferentiated cells and is capable of cell division. These cells have the ability to develop into any of the other tissues and organs in the plant. It is located between the xylem and the phloem inside the bark of the stem. Its cell division and growth make it responsible for increasing the girth of a stem.

Xylem (D): this conducts water and dissolves minerals and nutrients upwards from the roots to all the other parts of the plant. The xylem vessels’ walls are thickened with secondary deposits of cellulose and this causes secondary thickening. In older plants, the xylem stops helping with transporting water and nutrients and serves to give support to the growing trunk. As such, wood is xylem and when counting the annual rings of the tree, you are counting the rings of xylem.

Phloem (located under the bundle cap – E): this is produced towards the outside of stem on the other side of the cambium. Phloem transports the glucose produced through photosynthesis in the leaves and around the rest of the plant.

Helianthus stem 2 L

Jon Houseman / CC BY-SA (

Secondary thickening can happen in all dicots, however, it is more noticeable in perennials and woody dicots. Secondary thickening refers to the thickening of the stem as a result of the primary xylem and primary phloem being moved further and further apart. Annual rings will develop as a result of this and appear as alternating rings of spring and autumn wood.

There’s a lot more we can get into around this topic, however, I think modified stems a little more attention grabbing. While typical stems occur above ground and feature all the different parts listed above, modified stems can exist above and below ground and serve many more purposes than you might think.

Chlorophytum comosum variegatum (Spider Plant) produces plantlets, which are young plants that arise from modified flowering stems. These can also be called stolons.

Sempervivum tectorum (Common Houseleek) dsplay offsets, which are young plants produced from the base of the rosette forming new plants.

A crown is an area of compressed stem tissue. This is where new shoots are produced, generally found near the surface of the soil. Taraxacum officinale (dandelion) are compressed stems which produce leaves and flowers on short internodes. Runners are a kind of stolon, produced from the crown, from which new plants will grow.

Stolons are horizontal stems that are fleshy or semi-woody and lie along the ground. Stolons are specialised stems that run across the soil surface and create a new plant at one of more of its nodes. Strawberries are good examples of this!

Stolons are often confused with rhizomes, which are a different kind of specialised stem which grows horizontally just below the soil surface. They act as a storage organ and a means of propagation for some species. Some rhizomes, such as in irises, are compressed and fleshy.

Spurs are compressed fruiting branches, common on fruit trees such as Pyrus spp. (Pear trees), where they bear fruit.

Tubers are enlarged portions of an underground stem, such as potato tubers. Like any other stem, a tuber has nodes that produce buds. These are the eyes of a potato and contain clusters of buds. It is important to note that root tubers also exist.

Corms are solid, swollen stems. They are different to bulbs in that they do not contain fleshy scales. Instead, they have been reduced to a dry, leaf-like covering. New corms are formed on top of older, exhausted ones, meaning that adventitious roots develop to sink it to the correct depth.

Unlike corms, bulbs have fleshy scales and produce shortened, compressed, underground stems. The scales envelop a central bud located at the tip of the stem.

So there’s a mammoth amount of information about stems! Stems are one of the most important parts of the plant and I always see it as the HQ of the plant, sending nutrients where they’re needed and offering support. I can’t wait to do some stem cuttings at college next week so I can put all this theory into practice!