How to Plant : xxxx
How to Stake & Guy: xxxxx
How to Clip : If it's really big, we might occasionally use a petrol driven or electric hedge trimmer but nearly always we use our Japanese Okatsune shears - for everything - no matter how big or how small.
In order to avoid cross contamination of any fungal disease that might be present, we always have a bucket of 5% bleach solution (household bleach or Milford Solution) by our side. Stick the tool in the bucket (even an electric hedge trimmer if you can manage)Â ever few minutes or between individual plants, count to five and carry on. The bleach will kill any fungal spores on the tool and stop further infection. We started doing this on the nursery many years ago when we discovered that some Ligustrum delavayi (small leafed topiary lollipops) from Italy with strip canker (a horizontal scar all the way down the trunk) had spread to our home grown Ligustrum lucidum (closely related evergreen trees). We introduced the use of dilute bleach and it was so successful that subsequently, it became a bit of a religion and something that now everyone accepts. A bit of a fag but well worth the trouble. One can liken this process to the dramatic decline in the frequency of septicaemia in Glasgow Royal Infirmary after Joseph Lister introduced the use of carbolic acid as an antiseptic in the 1870s. Lister's method was life saving and life changing. Our method is a good way to save yourself a bit of hassle in the garden from time to time. Same idea though.
Not unreasonably, we're often asked when's a good time to clip. Avoid the autumn as cutting a plant back encourages the sap to rise and encourages new growth. Clip in October and a severe frost in November could damage the plant. This doesn't apply in central London and mild coastal areas but is still a good general rule. If a plant is particularly slow growing, clip it in March before the new growth appears but mostly, clipping is done during the summer, while the plant is growing. The frequency is entirely proportionate to your desire for a crisp, well tailored look or a more informal look. On the nursery, we know that well clipped topiary sells better than informal topiary so Box plants are clipped 6 or 7 times during the summer but if you were to do your clipping once a year and you're happy with the effect, that's fine.
Here's an important thing : Things that are obvious are really nothing of the sort. They're just obvious, after you've realised them. Then, they're obvious. Here goes : If you're creating topiary, you presumably want the plant to become dense and thick and well defined. The basis of topiary is the fact that when a woody stem is clipped it bifurcates (divides into two) and successive cutting will therefore allow the plant to become dense with stems. If you leave a stem so it's 6" long and then cut it back to where you want it to be, it will bifurcate once. If, during the time it took to grow to 6", you were to cut it back 6 times (every time it grows 1"), think how much more bifurcation there will have been! So, if you want your topiary to be crisp and thick as soon as possible, clip it as often as you can and you'll be amazed how quickly the process is accomplished. Cut it once a year and you'll be amazed at slow the process is. Make sense?
What can one say about shape of topiary? There's a popular belief in lollipops. A ball on a stick. The trouble is that plants grow up, not down and therefore balls always look thin at the bottom and there's a touching belief that one day it will be nice and dense at the base just as it is at the top. It won't. It'll always be thin at the bottom. We have a simple solution. Make it flat across the bottom like a mushroom. Because we like to show off our incredible grasp of foreign languages, we call them Funghi. Not only does it work brilliantly but the shape (we and most people think) is more pleasing. Just remember when clipping - the the line across the bottom is just as important as the curve over the top. I could witter on about various shapes (which I will in a minute) but attending one of our courses on Creative Maintenance would be instructive.
More on shapes : most plants grow up, up, up. Some people's idea therefore, is to clip plants tall and narrow but neat. We call these gherkins and they're usually pretty unpleasant to behold and seem to have more to do with taking control of the garden than creating a beautiful garden. Believe it or not, most creative ideas in the garden are borrowed from the nature. Scan the horizon where the landscape is dominated by mature old trees. Their majestic heads are domed and wide and the trees look almost squat. The Japanese are nuts about clipping stuff and they get this 'almost squat' thing. Donuts - flat topped balls, sometimes referred to as pillows and other things -the vocabulary goes on and on but we definitely have a weakness for donuts and an antipathy towards gherkins.The shapes, that is.The traditional market for clipped Box is dived between Cones and Balls. Historically, we sell 50 Box Balls to every 1 Cone. Cones occasionallyÂ have their place but it's quite clear that people prefer the shape of Balls to Cones. To us, it's a more pleasing shape and it's a more natural shape. Maybe if you lived in Siberia where the conifers are all conical, your perception might be different. Who knows.
Still on the subject of shapes and geometry : Cones and Pyramids are different but they seem to get confused. Cones are circular in cross section (think of ice cream cones upside down) and pyramids are square in cross section (think of Egyptian pyramids). Cones are much more common in the horticultural industry because they look a bit like pyramids but are much quicker to produce. Pyramids are very posh and beautiful but take forever to produce those nice crisp arrises down their corners. The two terms are different but pyramid is often used when cone is meant. If you use a powered hedge trimmer, once you've built your pyramid, it's actually much quicker and easier to clip. Bosh, bosh, bosh, bosh, done.
How to Water: How much water should I give it? Another reasonable but fairly un-answerable question. You've got to get in its little head or whatever its planty equivalent is. You've got to understand what it does, what it's doing, what it needs and you've got to know a bit about the plant - and that's where we can help.
As a general rule, if the weather's warm and the plant's growing vigorously, you'll be hard pushed to over-water. If the weather's cold and the plant isn't growing, it will need little water. If it's windy, the moving air increases the rate of transpiration (loss of water from the leaves) and more water will be required - whatever the season. If it's deciduous and it's winter, it will have very little use for water. If it's herbaceous and dies down in the winter it will need water in the spring when the metabolism of the plant goes from 0 to 60 in just a few weeks. If it's famous for growing fast and getting big quickly (e.g.Eucalyptus,Gunnera,Canna,Cynara, Bamboo), it can only do its thing with masses of water. If it's famous for growing slowly (e.g. Dwarf Pines,Cycas), give it more water than it has use for, the soil will become a bog, the roots will rot and the plant will die.
Remember that a plant that's just been removed from its pot and put in the ground, might as well still be in its pot as far as watering goes. Even if the ground's wet, the roots on the side of the rootball will not be able to take up sufficient water. For the first few weeks after planting, water the rootball as if its still in a pot. Once the roots have grown out of the rootball and into the soil, it's on its own. Rarely more than a few weeks in spring and summer. Longer in winter but then in the winter it won't be growing so will have less need for water.
One thought to hang on to : it's clear that more plants are killed by over-watering than by under-watering. Over watering rots the roots and the whole plant will collapse quickly. It's called Killed with Kindness. "I've paid good money for you so I'm going to be really nice to you and water you and feed you constantly. And kill you". We've all done it when we started gardening but we all learned not to. Or gave up gardening. One of the two. Unfortunately, the early symptoms of both drought and drowning are similar. The reason's the same (water is not reaching the extremities of the plant and the tips are dying) but the causes are very different. In drought there's no water reaching the tips because there's no water but in drowning there's no water reaching the tips because it's so wet the roots have rotted.
A word on Drought Tolerant plants : Much misunderstanding. Except in the case of a few peculiarities (e.g. Cacti), being drought tolerant merely means the plant's good at finding water - not that it can tolerate an absence of the stuff. This means that plants famous for being drought tolerant (e.g. Cupressus sempervirens, Cistus and Rosemary) need lots of water when first planted. Once they've sent their roots down and found water, they'll probably manage without ever being watered by humans. Unless they're in a pot, of course...
...plants in pots :A few like it wet (e.g.CyperusorGunnera) so if the pot's in a tray, just make sure there's always water in the tray. As long as you know (or strongly suspect) that the roots have reached the bottom of the pot. Some plants are what we call Good Wilters. A Good Wilter (e.g.Eriobotrya) is one that droops its leaves when its dry, you give it a drink and half an hour later its all perky again. Very convenient. The drooping business is its way of dealing with drought. It closes down and flops in order not to loose any more water until some more appears. Then you get the ones that will just stop growing but look okay in drought conditions (e.g. Bananas). The huge Banana-like plant known in Ethiopa as Ensete (Ensete ventricosum) can survive quite happily for two years without rain. It just stops growing. Then you get the Bad Wilters (e.g Bamboos). These start drooping when too dry but the process is irreversible. Once they've started a wilt you can water them as much as you like but it's too late! They'll regenerate from the roots but they won't look nice again for a year or two. These are the ones we warn people about when the occasion arises. Bamboos in pots in a roof garden really must have an irrigation system or a pretty religious approach to hand watering.
The Parable of the Two Bananas. When I started the nursery, I had to learn quickly how to advise my customers on how to grow our plants. Certain questions and comments by customers stand out in my memory. Here's a good one : "I don't understand it. I've got two bananas in separate pots and I give them the same amount of water and one's doing really well and the other appears to be dying and they're right next to each other". The answer? You're giving exactly the right amount of water to the happy one and that's why it's happy. You're giving too much to the unhappy one and it's roots are rotting and it's growth rate is probably going backwards and you continue to water it so you are compounding the problem and if you continue, the plant will give up and die. So how did this come about? At some crucial point (probably over the course of a day or two) the balance tipped for the poorly one. Suddenly, it couldn't use the amount of water being provided and because the customer carried on, the problem became worse and worse. All they had to do was to notice that one wasn't doing as well as the other and stop watering the one that wasn't doing so well and let it catch up. Think about it. Get the Parable of the Two Bananas and you've learned a lot about watering plants.
Irrigation systems : We swear by them. We instal an irrigation system in almost every garden we build. We use a tiered system so the plants that need lots of water are at the end nearest the tap (usually Bamboos) and then there's a small tap on the irrigation pipe so that other plants can be isolated from the system if it's a wet summer and they don't need the water and then, sometimes, another isolating tap for ferns and small slower growing plants. An irrigation system is not a sinecure. It needs an intelligent human behind it to manage it but it's a fantastic way to get new plants established. The systems are plastic and relatively inexpensive and after five years might be so dilapidated that they can be abandoned but their job is done. On a roof garden, it'll have to be perpetual but as one doesn't usually have dogs, rabbits, deer and foxes (destroyers of irrigation systems) on a roof garden, this is easier to accomplish.
One can hardly blame customers for asking that frequently heard question : "How much should I water it?" but after reading the above you might understand why there's no simple answer. The simple answer is "Not much" which doesn't really help at all. Now we can say : "Read the bit on the website called How to Water"
How to Grow Indoor Plants : xxxxx
How to Grow Conservatory Plants : xxxxxx
How to Grow Plants in Pots: xxxxxx
How to understand how Plants Grow : xxxxx
How to Control Pests & Diseases: xxxxxxx
How to understand Creative Maintenance : xxxxxxx
How to stop worrying about Roots & Foundations : Much hysteria - mostly promoted by insurance companies - surrounds this subject. Subsidence leading to cracks in your walls can happen if the house is built on clay and we get a particularly dry summer. The clay that the house sits on will have a stable water content which allows the house to remain intact. A large tree close to a house in a dry summer might start taking water from the soil where it wouldn't normally. This means the water content of the clay is reduced, the clay shrinks, the foundations settle and cracks can appear. If cracks appear in the walls and there's a tree within 100 metres (slight exaggeration) of the house, the insurance company condemns the poor (usually innocent) thing, insists on its removal and when the cracking continues (probably because the house is on poor foundations), the insurance company shrugs its shoulders.
If the house is built on chalk, limestone or any other rock, this can't happen. Apart from anything else, if a tree's so close to the house and so big, won't the risk of it blowing over and crushing the house be a bit bigger than a few tiny cracks?
The next thing to understand is the relationship between the extent of a tree's roots and the extent of the tree's branches (and therefore its leaf area). Keep a tree's growth under control by clipping and shaping and the roots have no reason to expand beyond what is necessary. Start with a tree that can become huge (a Beech or a Holm Oak for example) and keep it clipped to a suitable size to grow near a house (or anywhere else for that matter) and you'll notice that the trunk never gets to anything like the proportions of a fully grown unclipped tree. What you won't notice (because it's underground) is that fact that the roots are doing exactly the same as the trunk - they're limited in their growth by the constant removal of leaves and the drastic reduction in photosynthesis.
A useful corollary to this argument is the whole business of keeping a plant in a pot. As we constantly point out, plants don't grow in pots (they grow in the ground) but keep a plant to a constant size by clipping (topiary) and the plant has no reason to produce as many roots as if it was left to its own devices. The finite environment of a pot will then be much more acceptable to a topiaryed plant than to a plant that is allowed to grow and grow but has nowhere to send its roots.
We once had a garden to do in a rather smart part of London on land owned by a well known Duke who shall remain nameless. We wanted to use clipped Holm Oaks (Quercus ilex) as they were highly suitable for that particular garden (they clip well and are shade tolerant which was necessary as there were large trees in the neighbouring gardens). Unfortunately we had to get permission from a horticultural apparatchik who worked for the nameless Duke. He heard the word 'Oak', thought 'Big' and 'Foundations not okay' and refused our request but allowed us to use Olives instead. When he heard Olives he thought 'Small' and 'Foundations okay'. We pleaded with this person that as the Oaks were to be clipped, the roots would never threaten the buildings. "But what if future generations fail to clip the oaks and keep them under control?" said the nameless horticultural apparatchik who worked for the nameless famous Duke. For one thing, at that address, that's not going to happen and for another thing, Olives left to their own devices become just as big as Holm Oaks but they very rarely do because they're always grown for their fruit and the branches are always cut back so the olives can be reached - that's why the apparatchik thought 'small'. Wrongly. The Olives were used but are hopelessly unsuitable because they're not tolerant of shade and they're all thick at the top and thin at the bottom and - predictably - are a disappointment to our customers and to us.
The abysmal ignorance of a 'qualified' horticulturist about 1.The relationship between plant size and root size and 2.The potential size of Olive trees, has left me still fuming after nearly 15 years. Can you tell?
How to stop worrying it's going to die : People often worry they're 'going to kill it' which is odd because killing a plant is a major accomplishment. Millions of years of evolution and adaptation to constant climate change has equipped all living things with a powerful survival instinct. The reason for our (all living things, that is) existence on the plant is due to our tenacity and refusal to give up.
So how would you do it? You could try planting it in a bog or water it constantly until it drowns. Or you could never water it even when it never rained. That would do the job. You could plant it in compacted clay sub-soil (always a possibility in newly built houses in central Sussex) and it might be so miserable it might as well be dead.
Death by disease in recently planted plants is incredibly unlikely. Only old plants are susceptible to fatal diseases and they need to have been in the ground for some time to be affected by a hostile pathogen in the soil. If recently planted plants are ailing, it's almost always an environmental problem brought on by poor soil and either over or under watering. Another possibility (but this will take longer to manifest itself) is a woody plant that's been planted too low; if soil accumulates round the base of some woody plants, the soil will begin to rot the bark and the necessary exchange of water and nutrients through the cambial layer (the bark) will be interrupted and can (very slowly) kill the plant.
If you need further reassurance that killing plants is extremely difficult, there's more on this subject in Frequent Questions. May I commend 5. "What if it dies?" and 6. "Why do I kill everything?" If you plough through that lot and are still convinced that killing plants is easy, may I respectfully suggest you consider a pastime other than gardening?