Dead Hedge

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This is a dead hedge, an ironic name considering the habitat it provides for wildlife. Dead hedges are built from woody prunings, tree branches and foliage, creating shelter and food for insects, small animals and birds. They play an important role in habitat conservation and restoration. The material for a dead hedge is usually produced on site through forestry, pruning or clearing work, and the hedge will eventually compost down back to the earth. The ultimate in sustainability! I helped to build this one a few years ago during a stint as a conservation volunteer at Kew Gardens. First we hammered two rows of posts into the ground, angling in one direction. This made them less likely to bow out and fall under the stress of the ‘filling’  than if they were planted straight up. Next we began to weave the longer, springier prunings between the posts to make two parallel walls that were periodically packed with the ‘filling’ of remaining woody material. We kept building these walls and stuffing them until we were left with a lovely, thick hedge. I wasn’t intelligent enough to take a photograph, but fellow Londoners can see a nice example of deadhedgery (not a word, but seems appropriate!) in the nature reserve Leg O’ Mutton Pond, which lies between Hammersmith and Barnes on the south side of the Thames.

Strulch

 I like a mulch that will eventually break down nicely into the soil, adding nutrients as it goes. Strulch is a type of straw mulch I that I have been using for a few years now. People are always curious about it as it looks so different to the oft-used mulch of bark. Fluffy in texture and bronze in colour, it seems like it might fly away when you first take it from the bag, but it knits together well and stays put! (The fact that it weighs very little is a bonus for any gardeners out there with creaky backs.) Made from wheat straw treated with iron in a patented process that ‘preserves’ the straw for up to two years, Strulch performs well as a mulch (reducing weeds and conserving soil moisture) and when it does eventually rot down it helps to improve the structure of soil. It does this by acting as a conditioner (the substance itself helping break up heavy clay) and by adding organic matter. Recommended for organic gardening, it has a neutral ph and one bag covers three square metres. Because it doesn’t retain water on its surface I have found it has helped deter slugs, as they don’t seem to like the dry texture of it. I think using this over a layer of home made compost is the way to go – the layer of clean straw will stop any weed seeds present from germinating and looks attractive. 

Woody Nightshade

Solanum dulcamara, Solanaceae, Bittersweet, Bi...

Solanum dulcamara, Solanaceae, Bittersweet, Bittersweet nightshade, Bitter Nightshade, Blue Bindweed, Amara Dulcis, Climbing Nightshade, Fellenwort, Felonwood, Poisonberry, Poisonflower, Scarlet Berry, Snakeberry, Trailing Bittersweet, Trailing Nightshade, Violet Bloom, Woody Nightshade, flowers. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is Solanum dulcamara, Woody Nightshade, a pretty plant that can commonly be seen scrambling through hedgerows. I found the specimen pictured below when I was preparing the ground for planting the Rosa rugosa hedge, and I decided to leave it to scramble through the new planting when it matures. I thought I would keep it chopped back until it had a support to wind around, but of course I didn’t and now it has rather swamped one end of my rose hedge. In future I will let the hedge develop before letting climbers do their thing! Woody Nightshade sports flowers with deep blue, minute, petals that fold backwards away from bright yellow anthers towards the stem. These appear in midsummer and are followed by green berries that eventually turn a vivid shade of red.

Rosa rugosa Hedge

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I planted this hedge of Rosa rugosa back in November 2010This species rose is also known as the Hedgehog rose because of its prickly stems. The two-year old plants arrive bare-rooted, in an open plastic wrapping with rolls of wet newspaper in the bottom to keep the roots moist. They can be transported in this seemingly brutal way because they are dormant, and the important thing is to stop the roots from drying out. If they can’t be planted straight away they can be ‘heeled in’ (planted temporarily in a small trench) until the planting area and weather are ready. I put these in roughly 60cm apart. Earlier in the year I had prepared the ground for planting, clearing it of weeds and applying worm casts (from our wormery that is fed with kitchen waste). This rose forms a lovely hedge as it grows fast, has dense tough foliage, and has flowers and fruits that provide interest through the seasons. It produces pink, scented flowers through summer and autumn. These are followed by large hips resembling tomatoes.

English: I am the originator of this photo. I ...

English: I am the originator of this photo. I hold the copyright. I release it to the public domain. This photo depicts a Rosa rugosa hip. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I haven’t pruned the hedge since I planted it, but now it has thickened up I will give it a light pruning after flowering, just reducing some of the side shoots that are becoming a little ungainly. Besides supporting nature, the greenery a good hedge provides seems to promote a soothing atmosphere I feel we could do with a bit more of in London. So this hedge of Rosa rugosa is my small contribution to that!

Bocking 14 Comfrey

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This is my useful and beautiful patch of comfrey,  Symphytum x uplandicum ‘Bocking 14′ . It is a hybrid from parentage both rough (Symphytum asperum) and common (crossed with Symphytum officinale). The deep tap root of comfrey enables it to suck up nutrients from the soil which are then available to us gardeners through its prolifically produced leaves – the whole plant  can be cut right down 4 -5 times in the growing season, the leaves being used for a host of different things that are listed below. I see a comfrey patch as an enhancer of garden health. I got these plants from the Organic Gardening Catalogue a few years ago now;  Bocking 14  is a sterile clone, propagated through root cuttings,  and doesn’t spread the way Symphytum is renowned for.

Comfrey Leaves Can Be Used:

1. As a compost activator

 This adds nitrogen to the heap and helps it to heat up.

2. To mulch the soil

Layers of leaves makes a good thick mulch and provide food for worms and other soil fauna. The soil benefits from the action of the worms, which aerates it, and the addition of humus created when the leaves rot down into its surface

3. As part of a liquid feed (you have to be dedicated to horticulture to bother to do this)

You pack the leaves into a bucket and cover with water. It is advisable to cover this mixture with a lid because as it rots it will stink. After a few weeks you can dilute the resulting liquid  (I would do it one part feed to ten parts water) and use it to feed your plants.

4. As a slug distractor

People who suffer from a surfeit of slugs and snails in their gardens, as I do, will try anything. As slugs are ‘cleaners’, scoffing any leaves that start to rot, the idea is to leave heaps of comfrey leaves in strategic places in the garden and allow them to wilt and go brown. This is supposed to attract the slugs away from your vegetable patch to another meal. However I am not sure if this is just providing a nice hiding place for slugs until they are ready to come and eat my lettuce. Probably you are supposed to frequently inspect the mini-heaps, and remove and dispose of the slugs at regular intervals.

5. As part of a fancy leaf mould mix

This makes a potting mix as it is too strong for seedlings. In a black plastic bag alternately layer 2 year old leafmould with chopped comfrey leaves. Layers should be about 3 or 4 inches thick. Check to see when the comfrey leaves have rotted into the mix and it should then be ready to use. This could take 6 months or less, depending on the time of year.

Although having  the good intention to harvest comfrey leaves,  I rarely do. The plants start flowering and looking majestic and get covered with bees – I don’t have the heart to cut them down! I think I have managed to do it around twice a season, and I’ve added it to the compost heap or used it as mulch. My challenge is to start making leaf mould this winter and look ahead to mixing my own comfrey potting compost.

For The Love Of Ivy

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This particular tree has always caught my notice. It was obviously once host to some magnificent ivy that was killed by cutting a large chunk of its ‘trunk’ (it nearly is!) near the base. The fabulously snaking dead roots still cover the bark of the tree, and some fresh young ivy is now returning to follow the original path upwards. Trees and ivy are a combination that really seems to divide opinion.   Some people feel that the ivy destroys the host tree, smothering it and making it compete for light and nutrients. Others point out that a strong healthy tree should be able to cope with ivy climbing up it, that it forms a valuable shelter and food source for wildlife, and plays an important role in the development of woodland habitat. I think a good way of managing ivy is to allow it to grow up the tree trunk to a certain point, and prevent it from going into the branches. In a gardening situation, it of course depends on taste. If you have a tree with eg. distinctive bark acting as a focal point you may not want anything to detract from that. I myself have pruned ivy in the illustrated way when I was volunteering in a project to renovate some hazel coppice. The woodland under renovation had not been managed for some time, so the conservation group taking charge of the site wanted the freshly pruned hazel to get growing, and other plants, including the ivy, could come back in gradually.

Thameside Poplars

I would like to introduce some favourite trees of mine – magnificent poplars that grow on the south side of the Thames between Hammersmith and Barnes.

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I never tire of returning to walk along this attractive stretch of the river, and I often go purposely to visit these trees. Two or three of them are simply huge, easily picked out on the horizon from Hammersmith Bridge. They are very sculptural, with ridges running down their grey bark that are as deep as the width of my hand. Close up, they look like giant elephant legs. Once I was standing looking at them and an elderly man, riding past on his bicycle laden with shopping, stopped and told me that he liked to visit them too.  “Put you in your place, don’t they?” Lovely things.