Tag Archives: step by step gardening

Outdoor Classroom: Sowing seed in trays

Photo 11) Sowing seed should save you money, especially with vegetables and annuals and it is also the way of getting plants which may not be available otherwise – such as dwarf daffodils, English snowdrops or rhododendron species. We use polystyrene mushroom trays which we have been continuing to use for up to 20 years. Wooden or plastic trays can also be used but you need around 10cm in depth and plenty of drainage holes. Egg cartons can be used for quick turn around crops such as lettuce or peas. You can also reuse the punnets that come from garden centres. Mark likes small individual pots for vegetables.
Photo 22) It is preferable to use proper seed raising mix which has less fertiliser in it than potting mix because fertiliser can burn young plants. These mixes are sterile, so you know when you see shoots that it is your seeds germinating. You can use garden soil if you want to but coarsely sieve it first to get rid of larger lumps and you need some fine sand or similar to sprinkle over the seeds on top. A home made sieve is fine. You can’t use unwashed beach sand because plants don’t like salt. A bag of seed raising mix is easier and goes a long way so is not expensive.
Photo 33) When filling with mix, tamp it down to get rid of air bubbles by pressing on top of the tray. If you are using egg cartons or individual cells, sharply rap the container on a hard surface to get the mix settling further. However, if you are using garden soil, don’t compact it.
Photo 44) Large seed can be hand placed but fine seed is traditionally tapped out of the hand as shown in the photograph or dispersed in small quantities from a piece of folded paper. It can also be dispersed by pinching it between fingers like salt.
Photo 55) Spread a thin layer of mix on top of the seeds. The smaller the seed, the lighter the covering but almost all seeds need a complete cover (primulas and rhododendrons are an exception. These are surface sown – ie not covered). Water carefully. A misting bottle (a well-washed window or shower cleaner bottle with a pump spray) is ideal for fine seed. A watering can with a fine rose to disperse the water is also good. Don’t flood the seeds.
Photo 66) Label the tray. We favour a soft pencil and hard plastic labels which we scrub and reuse for years. Pencil lasts longer than marker pen and is easier to clean for reuse. Precious, fine seed can then be covered with a protective sheet of glass. Stretched plastic can also be used. Until seeds germinate, place the seed trays out of direct sunlight and in good light. It is usually wise to elevate the seed trays away from slugs and snails or cats who think it is a litter box. Check your seed tray daily for moisture levels but do not scratch around looking to see what is happening. When the seeds have germinated, move the tray to sunny conditions and increase the watering as required.

Outdoor Classroom (for absolute beginners): how to plant a tree

1) If you are planting into grass or paddock, remove the turf from the area first. The rule of thumb is to dig a hole at least twice the width of the root ball of the tree and a little deeper. Break up the clods of dirt thoroughly as you go, because you want friable, well cultivated soil so the tree can get its roots out easily. If water ponds at the bottom of the hole as you dig, look for another site. It will rot the roots. Keep the top soil to one pile and the subsoil and clay to another for when you refill the hole so the subsoil can go back in first.

2) If the plant is in a plastic bag, cut the bag off to avoid damage. Examine the roots. The fine roots are the most important ones. If there are strong roots wound round and round the outside, these need to be cut, because they will stay in a corkscrew shape and not spread out.

3) Often there is a mass of fine roots and the plant is difficult to get out of its pot or bag. Roughen up the outside of the rootball with your hands or make several shallow cuts down the sides. However, do not try and tease all the roots out to spread them. You are far more likely to cause damage than to do any good. As long as you plant into friable soil, the plant will get its roots out on its own. However, if the roots have grown into an envelope shape at the bottom of the planter bag, these can be trimmed off.

4) Getting the plant at the right level in the hole is extremely important. If it is too deep, you risk rotting the stem, too shallow and the roots will be exposed and the plant will dry out too easily. Measure with a stick and backfill the hole with compost and soil to get the level right.

5) Only stake the plant if it is necessary because of strong wind or instability. Trees grow better unstaked because the rocking movement in wind makes them form a strong tapered trunk. Staking can slow this process so never have a stake more than a third of the tree’s height. Put the stake in beside the plant before you refill the hole. Never drive a stake in close to the trunk. You are shearing off an entire section of roots.

6) Where soils are poor or heavy, layering in compost gives better soil texture. However, there is no point in adding extra fertiliser to the hole at this time of the year. Plants take up fertiliser when they are in growth so the time to feed is in spring and summer. Added in winter, it will leach out and disappear with the winter rains, giving no benefit.

7) Once the tree is in place, fill the hole with the original dirt which you have broken up to form a finely textured soil. Firm the plant and gently tread the surrounding soil but do not stomp heavily close to the stem or you risk tearing off the roots. A final layer of mulch will stop weed competition and protect the roots.

8) Where staking is necessary, always use a soft tie such as the stockinette shown here (available from garden centres) or old pantyhose. These do not cut into the bark of the tree. Cross the tie between the stake and the tree to reduce the bark rubbing on the stake. Make sure that the top tie is never more than one third the height of the tree.

Outdoor Classroom: digging out large, clumping plants.

1) Huge, clumping plants which have outgrown their space can be a challenge because it is not always easy to know where to start and they have to be dug out, as opposed to cutting off woody plants. This is an unusual plant called Curculigo recurvata which has grown enormous but many home gardeners may have large clumps of flax or astelia. (The dog is Zephyr.)

2) A reasonably fit and strong person is necessary, armed with a sharp spade. Don’t try it with a blunt spade because it requires a combination of cutting and digging. Sometimes an axe is helpful to cut through big masses of crown. (The suitably strong person is our Lloyd.)

3) Sort out if you have any underground wires or pipes before you start. We didn’t this time. Fortunately the pipe supplying water to our house was alkathene so it was easy to repair.

4) Clear a space around the plant. You need room to move so lift anything precious close by. Starting from the outside perimeter of the clump, take off the sections piece by piece. Don’t try and dig the whole plant at once.

5) Taking it off in sections makes the process manageable. Because this is a relatively rare plant, we will be using some divisions elsewhere in the garden and potting some for sale.

6) We left three small clumps to grow again in the original position. If you are removing the entire plant, the critical part is to get all the foliage and the growth shoots from the base of the clump cut off and removed. It doesn’t usually matter if some of the fibrous roots remain because few plants will grow away again from severed roots. Leaves such as flax or astelia take a very long time to rot down and don’t compost well so we chew them up in the mulcher. You may need to take them for green waste recycling or put them in a discreet place to rot down over the next few years.

Renovating a lawn: step-by-step guide

Sometimes a make-do patch and feed is not sufficient for a lawn and more drastic remedial action is required.

1) Rake out the dead grass and accumulated debris from the existing lawn – referred to as scarifying or dethatching. We have a manually operated tool for this purpose which is easy to use. You can also use a garden rake or there are powered machines which you can hire. Remove the piles to the compost heap.

2) Level out bumps and hollows, bringing in clean topsoil if required. Ideally you want the top soil to be free of weeds. Where possible, rake to a fine tilth but if you are working over an existing lawn, you can only do this in the bare patches. Too much raking and scarifying can remove the existing grasses that you want to keep. Preparation is the key to a good lawn – there are no shortcuts.

3) Grass seed is best bought and sown fresh. The packet will give the recommended application rate. Measure out a sample square metre and weigh out the recommended quantity so you can see the correct quantity. Don’t rely on guesswork. Broadcast the seed by scattering to get a feel for how thickly to spread it. We applied it about half rate because we were over-sowing existing lawn which still had some grass growing.

4) Compress the soil. Traditionally, lawn rollers are used for this process although we used our lawnmower which has wide tyres. Any rolling weight is fine. You are compressing the top layer, not trying to compact the entire lawn.

5) We chose to spread a fine layer of compost about one centimetre thick to hold the grass seed and give it a good start. We raked out all twigs and larger pieces from the compost. This was spread after rolling.

6) The greatest peril is birds – every seed eating bird in the district will be trying to get the grass seed. The worst offenders are sparrows and finches. It is worth the effort to cover the sown areas until it is clear that the grass is germinating and starting to look green. We used a combination of bird netting and old shade cloth and left it on for about three weeks.

Outdoor Classroom – Winter pruning Hydrangea macrophylla

The common hydrangeas grown here belong to the macrophylla family. These give us most of the traditional mop-tops along with the flat heads of many lace-cap varieties. Less common hydrangea species (the ones with oak leaves, cone flower heads, evergreens and the like) often have different pruning requirements.

1) It is not essential to prune hydrangeas. They will still flower if not pruned but you will usually get many small flowers on a bush which grows ever larger. Pruning takes place to keep the bush smaller and tidier and to encourage bigger blooms.

2) Most hydrangea stems will have a series of buds in pairs visible down their length. The fat buds are flower buds. The thin, small buds are leaf buds. Ideally you want pairs of fat buds, because that will be two flower heads but sometimes you find one fat bud paired with a small leaf bud. You will only get one flower from that spike.

3) Using secateurs, prune back to the lowest pair of fat buds. If that is still much taller than you want, trim back to the lowest single fat bud.

4) After you have reduced the height of each stem, look at the clump and take out any really old, thick, woody stems and any spindly weak ones. You can also take out stems which are headed sideways and those with no flower buds if you want to keep your bush more compact.

5) Because most hydrangeas flower on last year’s growth, if you cut too low down and without taking any account of the difference between leaf buds and flower buds, you will have cut all this summer’s flowers off. You can cut off near to ground level if you want to rejuvenate an old plant and it will shoot again but you will have to wait 18 months for flowers. We have pruned for flowers on this plant.