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 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!

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.