Gardening Journal – Entry 23

Sunday 23 January 2022

It’s amazing how quickly things come around once the ball gets rolling. It feels like it was only yesterday that I accepted a new role and handed in my notice at my current workplace; now I’ve come to the end of my final week.

Changing jobs is exciting, but it comes with a lot of nerves. After starting my horticulture career in this place, it feels like I’m removing the safety net and diving into the unknown. On the other hand, I’m starting work in one of my favourite botanical gardens in a couple of weeks and my confidence and competency have been reinforced. Going into a new, more challenging environment is exactly what I had envisaged at the end of my apprenticeship. Now I just have to keep my imposter syndrome under control.

Fortunately, to keep my mind off all of that, I had a lot of work to get on with and frosty temperatures to contend with this week.

Tuesday 16 January 

After being away from work with a nasty splinter (read: large wood chip embedded in my finger), I spend today at a site I don’t usually work in. It is an area we know as ‘the podium’ with several large raised beds, some spanning hundreds of square metres. I was tasked with clearing the Anemone x hybrida that had died back, as well as cutting back the flowering stalks of the Agapanthus africanus.

I do love a good before and after photo, as it is all too easy to underestimate the impact of your work without the visual aid. However, in this case, the difference was striking. The bed had a graveyard-like quality due to the vast number of tall, dead flowering stalks of the Anemone. I believe the celebrated garden designer Piet Oudolf said of plants that the “skeletons… are as important as the flowers”. However, in this case, the hundreds of stalks were quite overpowering and nothing like the stunning melange of textures, colours and layers that Oudolf delivers. So they had to go.

Typically the cutting back of perennials like this takes place in early spring, just as the new growth starts to emerge, however, when working in a busy site like this, sometimes we don’t have the privilege of perfect timing. Nonetheless, these plants will be just fine, as the temperatures are much milder now and the raised bed is well sheltered by the adjacent buildings, which will prevent any frost or wind damage to the delicate emerging shoots.

Initially, I started by cutting the plants back with my secateurs, cutting the dead stems as close to the base as I could without damaging new growth. However, after only making very slow progress, I reached for some shears and quickly cut all the plants to a height just above the green shoots. After that, I very gently tugged on the dead plant matter and the majority of it easily came loose. Any pieces that resisted were cut close to the base with my sharp, clean secateurs. While this method was much faster than my spot-pruning, getting this bed to a good horticultural standard was going to be a two-day job.

Wednesday 19 January

Today was spent finishing the bed I was working on yesterday and clearing it up. After finishing cutting back and clearing the Anemone x hybrida, I moved on to the Agapanthus. Their beautiful flowering stalks eventually set seed and die back over winter, sometimes toppling over. I used my secateurs to cut as close to the base of the flowering stalk and removed any dead foliage from underneath the plant. This was also a good opportunity to look through the foliage for any litter or remnants of previous flowering heads that may not have been correctly removed. These are usually dry enough to simply pull out.

After a good clear out, I moved my attention to the soil, which needed light cultivation, largely to remove the moss that had spread across the surface. Moss is a common tell-tale sign of waterlogging or excess water in the soil so I made sure the drainage pipes and grates were clear of debris before removing as much moss as I could with a springbok rake. It is very difficult to remove all the moss without also removing a lot of soil in the process. Regular light raking of the moss, cultivation and improved drainage should solve this issue in future.

I cultivated the soil using a three-pronged cultivator and started at the sandier areas, where the soil was lighter. This allowed me to drag across the more clayey, compacted soil from underneath, leading to a good and consistent depth of cultivation. I was careful of the delicate new growth took my time around the root environment to prevent any damage to the plants.

After this, I created a sharp edge around the lawn using a half-moon and edging shears before packing up for the day and a well-deserved hot chocolate when I got home.

Thursday 20 January

After donning my thermal tights, under layers and ice-handling gloves (no, really, they are made for working in -30℃ weather), I headed out to another raised bed on ‘the podium’. This one seemed like a quick job: leaf clearance, weeding, and cultivation. That was until I realised I was working with pure clay. I mean, this soil was so heavy I could have made pottery with it. One benefit of working with very compacted soil is that the conditions can be so inhospitable that even the hardiest of weeds can’t survive. After some very, very light weeding, I moved on to cultivation using a spade. After about an hour of hacking away, the area was looking more like soil and less like tarmac. It was such as good workout that my watch recorded it as an outdoor run! I did the same on the other side of the bed, which mercifully had a far better, more workable structure.

Friday 21 January

I finished off the week working on one of my favourite beds on ‘the podium’: a little Heuchera and Ilex bed. I started by cutting back a few of the Anemones and removing any dead plant matter I could see. After that, I dealt with the suffocating Cymbalaria muralis. Which, although pretty, spreads like mad and was tangled up in the all Heuchera and needed to go.

Then I cut back the dead flowering stalks of the Heuchera and gave the soil a good cultivate. As it is a narrow bed and I didn’t need to stand on the soil at all, it was a breeze to cultivate and the soil capping was quickly removed, which means that these plants will be able to access all the water they need when it next rains or they get watered.

Around the corner there were a few Ilex trees that needed sweeping out and the soil cultivating. This was a quick job and I was soon giving the lawn a quick edge. I finished off the day giving the area a quick sweep to remove any debris and putting my tools and wheelbarrow away in the lock-up for the last time!

I’m really going to miss these sites, but I’m so glad I got a chance to give them a bit of love before I head off. Now it’s time to buckle up for a week of annual leave before I get my teeth into the new job.

Gardening Journal – Entry 22

Sunday 16 January 2022

During these cold months, as we all recover from the busyness of Christmas and the occasional dreariness of January, I like to keep my weekends fairly open. I use the end of the week to rest and recover from working out in the cold and take the opportunity to spend some quality time with my family.

However, even after the freezing temperatures recently which warranted a hibernation weekend, I loved going to the Brockwell Park Community Greenhouses on Sunday. Sometimes the best kind of motivation and inspiration comes from doing what you do every day in a completely different space. It left me ready to start the new week and get my sites looking great as my days in my current job come to a close. The next couple of weeks are going to fly by and before I know it I’ll be handing over my keys and packing everything up. Might as well make the most of the time I have left!

Monday 10 January 

Monday mornings are always slightly frantic, largely due to the fact that we have all got a bit too used to waking up later and not needing to be in uniform at 7am. This morning, I started by checking on the sites I had worked on last week. Some areas that had been under fallen leaves for months had accumulated an algae-like slimy substance, which needed to be dried out. After a weekend of airing, the site was safe again and looking great. Someone had even placed my safety cones in a lovely ring around the base of the tree – very kind but a tad unhelpful. A friendly reminder; health and safety signage is there for a reason, not just for fun! 

After that, I worked on edging up a bank close to one of the lakes. Edging or edging up refers to the redefining of the edge of a lawn through either slicing downwards and along with a half-moon or using edging shears. It helps the edge of the lawn look neater, prevents encroaching of the grass on hard standing and even prevents trips! This particular bank had not been edged up since before I started working here, so it required a good slice with the half-moon to cut through the dense sward that had formed over the brickwork. After pulling away the larger, more obvious clumps, I swept along the edge with a broom, dislodging any loose blades of grass. I also worked on getting another defined edge a bit neater. For this kind of thing, I use sharp edging shears, which cut through the blades of grass that have grown outwards and help to maintain a small gap between the soil profile and the paving. I like using this method as it makes further maintenance a lot easier and gives you a little more time before the grass begins to encroach on the pathway. 

This is a great task to do first-thing at the start of the week, as it gives such an immediate impact and makes you feel like you’ve actually achieved something that will last for a while. Well, until the grass starts growing again in spring and it becomes a weekly job!

Tuesday 11 January

Today was spent finishing even more edging – this time of tree pits. While tree pits are technically the hole that a tree is initially planted in, I’m referring to a circle or square that is cut out of the lawn around the trunk of the tree. While not everyone loves them, here are some of the reasons I’m a big fan:

  • Tree pits make mowing around tree trunks easier and prevent damage to the roots and trunk when strimming too
  • Seasonal mulching of tree pits helps to return nutrients to the growing environment
  • Tree pits look neat, as they are easier to clean up with some edging, whereas it can be tricky to get an even cut when the grass grows right up to the trunk
  • They prevent compaction of the soil, as people do not tend to step inside tree pits and prefer to keep to the grass
  • Tree pits can help more water reach the roots, as there is less of a barried between the atmosphere and the soil
  • In addition, when measured out correctly, the tree pit will extend to the canopy edge, also known as the drip line. This means that rainwater caught in the tree’s branch network will fall onto the tree pit, taking the water straight to the root system
  • Tree pits tend to look very neat and are common in botanical gardens, which is something we can all aspire to even in our own gardens

When edging up tree pits, I tend to start with a half-moon and carve out the circle or square, flicking the soil upwards to create a small mound closer to the tree trunk. After that, I go over the edge with the shears to get a lovely, crisp finish.

Wednesday 12 January

For me, Wednesdays are always spent looking at my to do list and realising that as much as the week is dragging, time is running out! My plan for the next couple of weeks is to get my sites up to a nice standard before I move on to my new job. Hopefully, the person who takes over from me can have a good framework to work off.

Today I started to tackle a bed that I hadn’t looked at in almost a year. Back in summer, I climbed through the overgrown brush to give the Pyracantha a once over. While I removed a large portion of the shrub, it barely looks like I’ve made a dent. Typically, you wouldn’t take too much off a tree or shrub during this time of year, as there is strict legislation surrounding the disturbance of nesting birds. However, as long as you are vigilant and carefully check the plant for any evidence of this, it is usually okay. I had always wanted to go back over this shrub and prune it back into shape, however, I needed to get rid of the three D’s first (that’s Diseased, Damaged and Dead, but I also like to add Distorted to the list to cover things like nutrient deficiencies and reversion). The shrub was suffering with bad coral spot, which is a fungal disease that is best removed by careful pruning.

After hacking away at it for a couple of days, a wildflower meadow was planted right next to the bed, making maintenance of this border a little trickier. So once I had mown the meadow down, I got to work on the neglected border until the end of the week!

Thursday 13 January

I started on the border bright and early today, removing some of the weeds that had been happily growing for 11 months. By this point, they came up to my waist, which made them easier to pull out without too much digging, but does mean that they have likely already set seed and are going to be a nightmare for the next few years!

I removed as many large, annual weeds before moving onto the fiddly perennials and their stubborn taproots. Since receiving a hori knife for my birthday last year, perennial weeds have been no match for me, and digging them out is a breeze. If you’re looking for a garden multi-tool, a hori is the way to go.

Friday 14 January

Today was a race from start to finish. I had it on my list to complete the aforementioned weedy border by the end of the day and, while there is still a little bit of work to be done, I came pretty close.

Today I essentially removed the dead. I swept out all the dead leaves, cut away any dead Pyracantha branches and removed any dead plants below the shrub, which included several self-seeded Solanum capsicastrum that were struggling to compete with their parent plants. While the space may look quite bare after the removal of the weeds and failing S. capsicastrum, it is important to give plants enough space to grow and provide them with a good amount of airflow to prevent fungal diseases from spreading (I’m looking at you, coral spot). All in all, I got some big jobs finished that had been postponed for months, which is always a good feeling.

Next week, I’ll be finishing this off with the removal of some epicormic growth on the Pyracantha and getting the edge nice and sharp. I can’t wait to finally see this border looking its best, just in time for me to leave!

Gardening Journal – Entry 21

Sunday 9 January 2022

And just like that, a new year is here! So much has happened this week; I took down a Christmas tree, got a brilliant new job and have been given a Sensory Garden border to work on in one of the gardens I volunteer for.

Tuesday 4 January

Today was exactly what I had anticipated on my first day of work in 2021: utter chaos. It started out fairly normally with a quick wander around my sites to look for any glaring issues and to get to grips with the work that needs doing this week. 

This week is all about the final leaf clearance, weeding and mulching; all typical January jobs. After cutting the dead out of a stunning Prunus shrub (and getting tiny pink petals all over myself) I got to work on clearing some leaves out of a border. 

Then I received a call from an unknown number and was told that a job I was previously rejected for was mine if I wanted it. I did and do! So in the next month, I’ll be a botanical gardener! Almost exactly two years since I started this new career, I’ve landed myself a job working for the oldest botanical garden in London! I don’t know when this feeling of surreality will go away, but I’m enjoying it for now!

Wednesday 5 January 

I started the day with pond maintenance. The bulk of the aquatic work I do involves leaf clearance and litter picking. Fortunately for me, today we cleared the leaves from the side of the lakes. Typically, I enjoy getting into my waders and hopping into the water; it feels like an adventure, every time. However, on mornings like this when it’s still dark at 8am and only three degrees, I am very grateful not to be sloshing through the icy water. 

In fact, in February of last year, I found myself using a rake to smash through sheets of ice that had formed on top of the water. We had started the annual cutting back of reeds on the sunken beds in the middle of the lakes. While it was frigidly cold in the water, I had a wonderful time collecting the floating reeds from the top of the water and passing them to the people on the bank. 

You may be wondering why such an emphasis is put on removing leaves and reeds from the water. Lakes and ponds in the wild manage fine without careful dredging and leaf removal, don’t they? However, there is a very delicate balance that occurs in the water and it is important to maintain it. When plant matter breaks down in the water, this decomposition necessitates oxygen. When this happens to a handful of leaves in a large pond, it isn’t an issue. However, when nearby deciduous trees defoliate en masse in autumn and winter, a huge volume of organic matter could simultaneously decompose in the water, thus deoxygenating the water enough to render it inhospitable for other organisms in the habitat, including fish, plants and important bacteria. On top of that, when the water in a pond becomes too nutrient heavy following the addition of organic matter, disruptive and invasive organisms can thrive. And even more importantly, artificial water courses involve pumps which can easily be clogged by decaying plant matter falling to the bottom of the water. 

Managing an aquatic space is by no means my area of expertise, however, I love learning new techniques and going for a wander about. Sometimes when I’m creeping through the overgrown reeds, hunting for litter, I do feel like a crocodile could be swimming up behind me. But when I turn around, it’s always the same pair of ducks, probably laughing at my inefficient waddling through the water.

Later on in the day, we waved goodbye to the festive season and took down the Christmas tree. I say took down – we dismantled it. In order to reduce the waste that comes with growing, harvesting, displaying and disposing of christmas trees, we use an artificial tree that can be reused year after year. It consists of a scaffolding-like upside down cone shape on which clumps of branches are attached. Each clump has its own isolated circuit of fairy lights, which helps to prevent a total blackout when only one clump is faulty. 

Considering the scale of the job, we made quick work of it and had dismantled the tree entirely within an hour. I then spent the next half hour meticulously easing apart the wires into neatly wound bundles for next year. Putting up a Christmas tree is stressful enough without having to untangle 50m of wire! 

Today has been a perfect example of why I love what I do. I got involved in unexpected tasks, saw an immediate difference in the work I was doing and me and my muscles are more than ready to get home and curl up on the sofa. 

Thursday 6 January

Today started with me scraping ice off my bike seat and furiously pedaling to work and the warmth of our mess room. Freezing days like today are always a bit of a challenge, as you have to keep moving to stay warm and some tasks just don’t fit the bill. This morning I found myself crouching (thankfully on a foam pad) and weeding some neglected tree pits. By the time I headed back in for my break, I couldn’t feel my toes. Fortunately. I invested in some waterproof, fleece-lined gloves intended for handling ice and snow. While they are a little overkill for gardening, they have kept my fingers perfectly warm, even in the harshest weather. After sweeping up a mountain of fallen leaves and packing up, the day was pretty much over and I hopped on my de-iced bike and cycled home.

Friday 7 January

This is the first Friday of the year and I was more than ready for it to come. Waking up at 5am isn’t ever easy but the cold weather and dark afternoons make getting out of bed even less appealing. However, it’s a small price to pay to work outdoors with plants every day. 

Today was all about finishing off the tasks I started yesterday. I cleared all the tree pits first thing and swept up (what I hope are) the last fallen leaves until autumn. 

We always finish half an hour early on Fridays and while you wouldn’t think thirty minutes would make a difference, the day always flies by. I can’t deny that I’m looking forward to the weekend, which is going to start with celebratory new job drinks with Kyle at an art deco pub and finish with a border maintenance workshop/ volunteering session at Brockwell Park Community Greenhouses on Sunday. 

Sunday 9 January

Today was the first Border Workshop session of the year at the Brockwell Park Community Greenhouses. We started off by sharing some planting plans we had put together over the Christmas break for a border called the Seating Circle. It is a place used by volunteers and visiting schools as a starting point and a spot to have tea and a biscuit to warm up on cool wintery days like today. My planting plan is below and uses the Piet Oudolph drawing style of ‘blobs’ to mark out the positioning of the plants. Typically, designs are drawn up using circles to delineate the location and ultimate spread. However, I find this more effective and realistic, as it demonstrates the way plants actually grow. They spread into each other and fill in the spaces around them. It is also particularly effective when demonstrating planting in drifts, which I am particularly fond of.

After that, I led the work on the sensory garden, which is a border championing plants that please all the senses: sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. We replaced a plant support that had fallen apart with a new woven Salix structure. It was quite a tight fit, but after some pruning of diseased, damaged and dead, we managed to make it fit. We finished the border with some leaf removal, weeding and sweeping. 

At the end of the session, I was offered a chance to work more closely on the border and support the current curator in her work maintaining, designing and planting it up. Over the next few months, I will be choosing a few new plants to fill in two gaps that have developed in the bed and working on bringing it up to a really great standard. I can’t wait!