Gardening Journal – Entry 9

Tuesday 29 September 2020

We started the day off with a lovely bit of constant drizzle. Not enough to rain off the day and study from home, but definitely enough to soak you through on your 40-minute cycle in.

We started the day catching up on Learner Journals and updating our time logs. Then we worked for a few hours on stripping out more bedding and soil cultivating, only this time on some raised containers. This was good news for our backs and shoulders.

The rain actually worked in our favour, as by the time we got out there, it had stopped drizzling but the soil was soft enough that the plants came out very easily. I started by removing the edging plants, which were tougher to get out, and then I worked towards the centre. The sub dots were scent marigolds and they came out of the soil really easily. Lastly, we used a border fork to remove the dots: cannas. These were tricker to remove but eventually came out after some teasing. When removing plants from a display, it is important to tap off any excess soil, as this prevents too much soil from being lifted and helps to keep the green waste bags light. We set the cannas aside for one of our colleagues who runs a plant recycling and reusing scheme.

We then used the same border fork to simple dig the containers, lifting and turning the soil methodically across all the containers. After getting the soil level and removing the roots left behind by the plants (and in particular the cannas), we created an edge and swept up.

Then it was back to the study bunker to work on our plant idents and complete some learner journals. Just as we were about to leave, the sun came out for our cycle home. Perfect; still in our wet clothes from the morning!

Gardening Journal – Entry 8

Monday 28 September 2020

Today was a really good day, and a great way to kick off the week. Between pandemic fatigue and not feeling very inspired, I needed a day like this to get me back into the swing of things.

I started off with a litter round first thing, while Laurence worked on stripping out one of the summer bedding displays. Then, we worked on raking off any leaves, stones or pieces of plants removed before. After that we began simple digging.

Unlike single digging – which involves digging a trench as deep as one spit length and backfilling the trench with the next row of soil – simple digging is not as time ( or back) intensive. It involved lifting and turning over the soil. This can be done by thrusting the fork into the soil and flicking it around using the shaft as a pivot. Otherwise, if the soil is more compacted, you can use your foot to push it in to a spit’s depth and lift the soil clear of the ground before dumping it in upside down.

Soil cultivation is important in gardens like the ones I work in, where sites see a lot of foot traffic and, as a result, suffer from compaction. Cultivating the soil also helps to aerate it and allows for gaseous exchange within the soil. When planting bedding – and in particular when planting winter bedding, which requires lower depths for bulbs – it is important to prepare the area by single or simple digging. Otherwise, if you are short of time, a rotavator can be used. Nonetheless, it is important to note that while rotavators quickly cultivate the soil, they cause compaction in the subsoil and should only really be used once per year, either for summer or winter bedding.

Once the soil had been dug over, we roughly raked it to get a decent level before treading. Treading is important in helping the aerated, ‘puffy’ soil sink down somewhat. Without treading, as soon as plants are watered in or it rains, the soil will sink down in an irregular way and could lead to water pooling in certain areas. You tread in by walking methodically across the soil, putting your weight in your heels. It should create almost a herringbone pattern when done correctly.

After that, we began to rake again. Initially, we were raking to collect up any detritus, such as leaves, rocks or dried clumps of soil. I learnt last week at college that you can use your rake to collect together any larger lumps of soil and bash at them with the rake and it breaks them down nicely. It also feels good to give something bit of a bash after digging and raking for two hours!

The final rake is the most important one, and what usually takes the longest. The aim is to create a level. Sometimes, it can be difficult to create a level if digging or rotavating has lifted the soil height too much. In this case, it is best to create a gentle gradient upwards towards the middle, as this will not be noticeable once planted and will help drainage towards the edges.

After lunch we worked on another bed, in exactly the same way. We stripped out and raked off any debris. However, due to time constraints, we used a rotavator to cultivate the soil. At the beginning of my apprenticeship – and on a chaotic day where everything went wrong and the shouting was WAY too much – I used a very old and very confusing rotavator that had about 10 levers too many and had bits falling off it as we used it. (If I have learnt anything in my nine months’ experience it’s that old machinery needs to get replaced).

Luckily for everyone involved, this machine was newer, lighter and very simple to use. Before our colleague started it up, he said, “Just to let you know, it’s quite fast,” and was immediately dragged about 5m into the bed. Important information: this man is the tallest person I’ve ever met and with legs twice as long as mine. Needless to say, I turned it right down to a modest Gear 1 before taking it for a spin.

To get the best out of a rotavator, it is worth bouncing weight down on the handles, as this helps the blades penetrate deeper in the soil. It is also advisable to switch off the blades when moving it back into position, or you’ll give Lili a heart attack as she sees the blades spinning over concrete – and your feet.

After that, we raked – following the same steps as above. Then we called it a day. I’m really glad the weather is changing and making hard work like today much more bearable. I didn’t even break a sweat while digging, raking, rotavating or lugging tools around in a wheelbarrow. I’ve got autumn to thank for that.

Gardening Journal – Entry 7

Thursday 24 September 2020

Today I woke up to the sound of rain on the roof of the boat and I half expected to recieve a message telling me to stay at home and study. (Un)luckily, there was no message and the rain had slowed to our work day started as usual.

This morning we completed some individual risk assessments to ensure that health and safety measures put in place meet our specific needs. After that, we returned to the lavender beds near the river Thames to cut the lavender back to the crown. Usually, this is not advised and only to be done in our circumstances – when the alternative is losing the plant entirely.

The rest of the day has been spent studying and working on Learner Journals, which track specific activities we have done and require researching related topics, as well as a plant profile. For example, when I produced my LJ on planting bedding, I researched colour theory in garden design and focused on a Millet plant.

Tomorrow is a ‘study from home’ day, which means getting another LJ finished and working on some website content. Happy days!

What I learnt today: preparing a bed for lawn seed and broadcasting

Today – for the first time in about seven months – I sat in a classroom with the other apprentices on my course. It was amazing. I had missed talking as a group, finding out what we had all been up to and working together. These kinds of college days remain a rarity, as we will be studying from home every week except for practical days. Today we worked on the following:

  • Soil cultivation, preparing for a lawn
  • Seed broadcasting
  • Calibrating a broadcast spreader
  • Hand scarifying with a rake
  • Hand aerating with a fork
  • Top dressing
  • Ident walk

We kicked off the day with some soil cultivation, preparing a bed for lawn seen broadcasting. Preparing a bed for any use is time consuming and – in some cases – back breaking. For example, if the practical test pare required a 20m² bed to be prepared for planting vegetables, good luck! This likely means you will be double digging the area or at least digging to a depth of about 30cm. Then, you will rake this over, tread it in and rake level.

Fortunately, lawn establishment only requires the top layer of the soil for the roots. As such, we worked on simple digging, which involves inserting the bottom third to two thirds of a fork into the soil and tousling it. This allows for gaseous exchange in the soil and alleviates compaction without digging too deep. After that, we roughly raked over the soil with a soil rake, combing through it and flicking away any large rocks, while also giving larger clods a good bash to break them down. Then comes the penguin walking, or treading in, which involves putting all of your weight into your heels and methodically taking very small steps across the soil. This presses the soil in and firms it up as when you cultivate, it adds more air into the mix and raises the level.

Once we made our way zig zagging back and forth over the bed once, we used an industrial rake to rake it over again. Unlike soil rakes, which have wider teeth and are primarily used to move material, industrial rakes have very fine teeth and are about 1m wide. They are used to break down clods and gently create a level without moving the soil around too much. Importantly, they also have a long flat bar when you turn it upside down, allowing you to smooth the surface of the soil and create a presentable, flat level.

Buddleja ‘Buzz Velvet’, Hand scarifying and aerating, Preparing bed for lawn planting, seed broadcasting and pretty patterns by Jordan.

Once we had finished leveling off, we began working on broadcasting grass seed. As grass seeds are so fine and accurate broadcasting is important to grow a strong, consistent sward, measurement is key. As per the box instructions, the grass seed had to be cast at the rate of 30g/m². Our prepared beds were 4m², which made it easy to make out these 1m² boxes, as all we had to go was place a stake in the middle of the original square.

To provide even distribution, the broadcasting is done in two passes (i.e.: from North to South, then from East to West). This means that the volume of seed recommended per m² needs to be halved. In our case, this means that 15g of seed will be broadcast per metre squared. When sowing seed, it is important to factor in a certain loss of seed to animal feeding. As such, it is common practice to add an extra 10% on top ‘for the birds’. This made our total seed volume 33g/m² and 16.5g per pass.

Broadcasting seed is best done with broad passes, using your hand or a cup/ container. Try to keep each pass as even as possible and fill in any gaps when making the final pass. When all the grass seed had been broadcast, gently rake over the soil to lightly cover the seeds. The last step is watering, very lightly, to avoid puddling, seeds pooling in one are and the soil level being disturbed. Use a rose adapter on your hose or watering can to diffuse the water and pass over it a few times with a spray, as opposed to a drench.

I had a wonderful day working with my classmates again and having a laugh while we learned some new skills. I can’t wait for our next practical day next month!

Gardening Journal – Entry 6

Tuesday 22 September 2020

Today was another busy day spent hedge cutting down by the river Thames. We worked on cutting back the Trachelospermum jasminoides, which is attached to a wire frame above beds of lavender.

We used the long-arm hedgecutter to cut the jasmine back to the bed size beneath it, keeping the sides well trimmed. Unfortunately the T. jasminoides above two of the beds was in a poor stte, with a lot of yellowing leaves and plenty of dead branches. These were more tricky to work with, as there was less wiggle room when it came to finding the ‘lowest point’ to cut into. Finally, we cut the tops of the jasmine, nonetheless, as it was trained to climb towards an upwards slope, ever bed became more and more challenging to cut, without the use of a platform ladder.

Initially, I used the harness as it is meant to help take some of the weight off the machine and make it easier to manoeuvre. I did not find this to be the case, as the harness was too big for me and did not fit on my back. Instead, it pushed my head forwards when I was working and made it difficult to looking up a the plants without straining my neck. This is another in several examples of manual handling aids causing more issues. Eventually, I used the machine without the harness and – while this made it a lot tougher on my arms and shoulders – it helped my keep the lines (and my neck) straight.

We worked on these hedges for four hours straight and by the time we had finished, we were absolutely shattered. Bear in mind, this included lugging the machinery, cones, green bags, 150m of hose and the rest up and down two flights of stairs; hello manual handling hazard! Just when our arms were about to give out, we lugged more wheelbarrows about to cut the lavender under the jasmine. The lavender is on its last legs – and quite leggy at that – so we gave it a hard prune back. It usually isn’t advised to cut back into the woody part of the plant, however, it can be a way of extending its lifespan, when left unpruned for years.

This week so far has been very hard on our bodies and I’m full of aches and pains again, like I was when I first transitioned into this job! I’m not sure how a whole day of practicals at college is going to go tomorrow but I can’t wait to see our class and tutor again and work on a different site. In the meantime, keep my arms and shoulders in your prayers.

Gardening Journal – Entry 5

Monday 21 September 2020

After a lovely but busy weekend, waking up this morning was a bit of a struggle and I feel like the fogginess of the morning stuck with me throughout the day.

Today, we kicked off the week with a litter round. Seeing as the country feels days from a huge lockdown, people went ham with the public drinking last weekend and we collected two full bags of rubbish.

After our first break of the day, we went back to Greyfriars to finish cutting the low Euonymus japonicus hedge. I also worked on three Ilex topiary balls and managed not to make them look like eggs on their sides like last time!

This afternoon, we spent some time cutting six Taxus baccata hedges. When cutting Taxus, you tend to cut at an angle, creating a wider base and a tapered top. This allows more sunlight to reach the base of the hedge, encouraging vigorous growth and promoting overall health for the hedge. As the hedges were almost as tall as me, Laurence worked on the tops of the hedges using the long-arm hedgecutter and I cut the sides with the normal hedgecutter.

I’m starting to feel more confident cutting different species and heights of hedges and if the feeling in my arms right now is anything to go by, I’m going to be JACKED by the end of this apprenticeship.

Gardening Journal – Entry 4

Friday 18 September 2020

Fridays are always busy, even though I only work until 12:30pm. This is because on Friday I go to the launderette to do our washing and catch up with any work I’ve missed during the week. 

Today we had a discussion about COVID concerns for the team in the morning and then Laurence and I went on our litter round. Since our litter round was shortened a few months ago, it usually only takes about half an hour to complete. As such, we treated ourselves to a coffee before our tea break and looked through some of our plant idents. 

After tea, I worked with my supervisor on some of the raised lavender and Trachelospermum jasminoides beds. As we didn’t have much time, we worked on the lavender exclusively and will start cutting back the T. jasminoides next week. 

When left unpruned, lavender becomes leggy and woody and eventually, very little of the stems bear flowers. Usually, lavender has a lifespan of four to five years. In order to encourage the lavender to produce some new growth and extend its life, we cut back all the diseased, damaged and dead before pruning back to any new growth at the base, keeping any remaining stems to 5-10cm. Hopefully in a few months, we will start to see some fresh, new growth and we can wait a few more years before having to replace the plants. 

After I finished at work, I spent the afternoon wrapping up some of the assignments I didn’t have time to finish on Wednesday. This included my assignment on Health and Safety legislation and the costing of planting five different species of hedge. I particularly enjoyed working on the latter, as it was fun to work on a hypothetical gardening project.

Gardening Journal – Entry 3

Thursday 17 September 2020

Today was a bit of a stressful one, as we may have a COVID case at work. With no testing available in London, it’s a waiting game – my least favourite. I worked on hedgecutting, which I have done a couple of times before. However, this time I used a long-arm hedgecutter, which was new. This also involved getting into the the harness contraption that helps take on some of the weight of the machine. All in all, it was a good day of learning, albeit quite tiring.

The long-arm hedgecutter helps you cut taller plants, such as the Trachelospermum jasmioides we worked on that was climbing a tall structure. You can adjust the angle of the arm to help to reach tight spaces and avoid bending too much. I found it a lot more fiddly to work with that the usual hedgecutters I’ve used in the past. This was largely due to being smacked repeatedly in the face by a dangling carabina I couldn’t reach.

We were also working on trimming some of the Euonymus japonicus low hedge we had planted in winter. I found this one a lot trickier to cut, as it was only about 30cm tall. I eventually switched from using the long-arm hedgecutter to the normal one, which made it a lot easier to level out.

Finally, I was given the chance to trim an Ilex topiary ball. As I was using a hedgecutter, it was not as precise as I would have liked but I managed to make a general sphere shape. It didn’t help that the holly was in very poor condition, with quite a lot of defoliation due to underwatering. This produced a less compact hedge, which didn’t provide any bounce when cutting it.

All in all, I enjoyed using a new machine, however, I think I definitely need more practice using both the harness and the long-arm hedgecutter.

The brassica ‘triangle of U’

Today was our first day back at college since we broke up for summer. And by ‘back’ I mean back behind a computer studying from home. I have been missing the learning aspect of college, as well as the day of respite it offers from the working week. Nonetheless, I do miss our classes in person, when we could chat during breaks, wander around the college grounds and learn about plants the best way I know: through touch, smell, sight, sound and, occasionally, taste. Next week, we will get to do this, as we go for a safely distanced day of practicals. I can’t wait.

Today, we covered tonnes of content, from legislation and health and safety to plant nomenclature and how much it costs to plant a hedge (a lot, if you were wondering). One thing that jumped out at me – and by that I mean: confused me – was the concept of the ‘triangle of U’ when talking about brassicas. I’m going to do my best at explaining what exactly that is and hopefully help myself figure it out along the way. Just to warn you, as much as the ‘triangle of U’ sounds like the name of an angsty indie song, it’s actually very scientific and delves into the evolution of plants. So strap in!

The Triangle of U is a theory first published in 1935 and named after the botanist Woo Jang-choon’s Japanised name “Nagaharu U”. This is a theory about the evolution of plants in the brassica family (Brassicaceae). The basis of this theory is that three ancestral brassicas, which were diploids, combined to create three common brassicas, which were tetraploids. Before we jump into the ins and outs of the theory, let’s get some terminology out of the way:

  • Genome: this is the genetic material in a living organism
  • Diploid: ‘Ploidy’ refers to the number of complete sets of chromosomes found in the nucleus of a cell. In somatic cells, the chromosomes exist in pairs. This is known as diploidy, and the cells are referred to as diploid (2n). Except for human sex cells, which are haploids (containing a single set of chromosomes), the rest of our cells are diploid, containing chromosomes from each of our parents.
  • Tetraploid: While diploid cells have chromosomes in pairs, polyploidy (when a normal diploid cell acquires one or more additional sets of chromosomes), means that some cells can reach up to twelve sets of chromosomes. Tetraploid cells have four sets of chromosomes.

The relationship between these brassicas is best shown through the diagram below:

Triangle of U Simple1
Adenosine at English Wikipedia based on work by Nashville Monkey at English Wikipedia / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)

While this may look intimidating, once you break it down, it becomes a lot easier to understand. The AA, BB, CC, AABB, etc. differentiate between the three diploid species (AA, BB, CC) and the remaining tetraploid species (AABB, BBCC, AACC).

After that, it is important to note the ‘n=’. This is simply referring to the number of pairs of chromosomes present. In Brassica rapa (or AA), for example, there is a total of ten pairs of chromosomes. In the tetrapolid cells of Brassica juncea (or AABB), there is a total of 18 chromosomes present, as the number of chromosomes in AA and BB have combined.

What we observe is that the diploid species, or the Brassica nigra, Brassica rapa and Brassica oleracea, are the ancestral genomes, with only set of two chromosomes. When combined, these produce Brassica napus, Brassica carinata and Brassica juncea, species with tetraploid cells.

Since this discovery, an ‘allohexaploid’ has been created, which would sit in the middle of this triangle. It combines the three different sets of chromosomes to create AABBCC.

If your brain hasn’t melted by now, here’s the horticultre element: these derived species make up the bulk of the brassicas you know and love today. Brassica oleracea has many cultivars which produce these favourites: brussel sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi and more!

I can’t say I have a comfortable understanding of this just yet, but hopefully I can review this in a few months and make a little more sense of it then!

Gardening Journal – Entry 2

Tuesday 15 September 2020

We were back at the park today, and it was absolutely roasting. There were moments where I could even see the swirls and waves of hot air coming off the sports pitches! The person training us was at one point wearing four layers, including a gilet and some black plastic waterproof trousers. It was hot just to look at him!

Today we worked primarily on line marking. This involved overmarking a football pitch, both ‘eyeballing’ by using the previous line as a reference, and the more precise string and stake method. We used a manual line marker and the typical watered down white emulsion paint typically used for this job. The line marker works using three rollers that are in contact with each other and pass the paint up from the reservoir and onto the bottom roller, distributing the paint on the grass. There is a brush feature on the roller, which can be used to regulate the amount of paint you apply. On dry days like today, there is no need for a reduction in paint flow. However, if it were a rainy day or the ground was wet, you may reduce the paint flow to 50% or 25%, to prevent the paint from spreading.

To set up the string and stake, you need some string on a line marking reel and two stakes. First, the reel is set up behind the beginning of the line, leaving enough space to work around it. Then the end of the string is pulled to the other end of the line, with a stake in tow. The string is looped onto the bottom of the stake and the stake is pushed into the ground on the corner of where the previous marked line was. You can then return to the reel at the beginning of the line and pull the string taught, to check if the line is straight. Once it is lined up, you can create a slipknot and stake the string at the beginning of the line, keeping the string as taught and straight as possible. On longer lines, it is worth walking to the middle of the line and ‘pinging’ the string, making sure it is not caught on any bumps in the grass.

Then it’s time for the fun(ish) bit – using the line marker! As there are stakes and reels in the way at the beginning and ends of the line, it is best to start about 1m in and work backwards towards the stake. After that, you can turn around and walk the length of the string, making sure the bottom roller is in line with the string at all times. I found it easier to check this by walking to the left of the machine, where the string was more visible, however, some people prefer to walk behind the roller. I’m just not a fan of the penguin waddle you have to do to keep from walking on the fresh paint!

We covered all the lines on the football pitch, including the circle and semi-circles, which had to be overmarked using the eyeball method. For the smaller corner curves, it is easier to lift up the back wheels and simply use the front wheel to keep the quadrant tight.

After that, we got into the maths portion of our day, as we marked out a rectangle for an events area. While it is helpful to know the width and height of the rectangle you are marking out, using Pythagoras theorem is the best way to ensure every corner is at a right angle.

Pythagoras theorem is an equation used to find the length of a triangle’s third side, when you know the lengths of two other sides. The equation is as follows (where x is the unknown side and y and z are the known sides):

x = √y²+z²

As such, when we were told to mark out a rectangle measuring 8m by 6m, we found the square of each side by multiplying 8×8=64 and 6×6=36. Then we added those together: 64+36=100. Finally, we found the square root of 100, which is 10.

This is how those numbers matter when marking out a right angled rectangle: once you have marked out the first line (8m) and staked both points, you take two tape measures, one measuring from the first stake and another measuring from the second stake. You know that the next side you are marking will be 6m, so you can measure this out. Then, you know that the diagonal line will have to be 10m, so you measure this out too. Finally, you pull the tape measures to the point where the 10m and 6m mark are overlapping. This is the exact spot where your next stake has to go. To finish off the rectangle, you simply pull the measuring tapes across to create another diagonal line and line up the 10m and 6m again. You have now staked out a rectangle!

To mark this out with the line marker, you pull a string tightly around the outside of all four stakes and pass the manual line marker around the outside of the string. You can remove the stakes and finish off any bare patches you may have missed.

We also worked on marking out a circle, which is significantly easier and faster! Once you know the diameter of the circle and where the centre of your circle should be, you place a stake in the centre point with some string looped to the bottom of it. Then, you halve the diameter of the circle to find the radius. Our circle had to be a total width of 4m, so we halved this (2m) and marked out this length on the string. Then we simply pulled this string around the stake, followed by the manual line marker, creating a circle with a radius of 2m and therefore a diameter of 4m.

Just as the sun started bearing down on us, we worked on creating a new cricket pitch, as an end of season booking had been made. This involved marking out an area… again. I can confirm that it was way too hot to be remembering measurements and working out squares and square roots, but nonetheless, we persevered. It is important to know the typical dimensions of a cricket pitch, although these can change depending where you work. Usually, a cricket pitch will measure 20.12m long and 3.05m wide, with a minimum of 1.22m behind the stumps. We worked to a width of 3.4m and lined up our wicket area with that of the adjacent pitch.

First of all, we used the string and stake method to mark the two long lines and this area was mowed using a cylinder mower, initially on a higher cut of about 8mm and then on the lowest cut of 3mm. Usually, this would be done over the course of two or three days, to allow the grass to recover. Unfortunately, we did not have much time before the cricket game, as a it was a last-minute booking. One thing that is important to note is that unlike mowing on amenity areas, or even the rest of the cricket square, a cricket pitch must be mown twice over the same line. In other words, there should be no decorative lines like you would find on other turf.

After passing over the grass with the cylinder mower, we used a calibrated frame to mark out the wicket areas. We used two long planks of wood lined up against the frame and sprayed in between the planks and the frame with white line marking spray paint, to create a sharp, straight line. Once everything had been sprayed in, including the middle wicket line, we were finished!

It was a long, but very informative day and I’m glad to be at home. I must say that I’m excited to return to our familiar depot and to not have to cycle across all of London. Nonetheless, I had a great time learning more about sports turf and cruising around the park in a golf cart.