Category Archives: Garden problems

Surprised by secateurs

I love my secateurs – oh, thanks, I had a lovely time in Shetland, but let’s get things in perspective. I really love my secateurs.

And I lost them.

secateurs with giant tom

I had them, oh, I had them. I was fiddling about with them, in the way that you do, and put them down to do something else. Then when I went back for them – no secateurs.

Admittedly I wasn’t sure where I’d popped them down, so I went round the entire garden about 85 times, fossicking through ivy in case they’d disappeared into the maw of the overgrown walls, ferreting through the long grass in case they’d fallen down. (I have a lot of long grass which now looks as though wildebeest have been migrating through it. That would be me and Next Door’s Cat, who was – let’s just say ‘Not Helpful’, and the ‘not helpful’ needs its caps; I emphatically did not need his contribution, and how a mangled mouse was supposed to help I do not know.)

I even cleaned out the shed – dried up shrew, gee, thanks, NDC – which (let’s face it, and quite obviously given the level of rodent mummification as evidence) has needed doing for some time. I might have left them in the house, but thoroughly checking that would have led to housework – ergh – so I looked everywhere obvious and left it at that. By this stage I was even looking in places I’d already checked thoroughly, just in case.

No secateurs.

I rang up P, as we have a long-running joke about Felco theft. No, he had his own, thank you very much – very, very clear on that point, his have the turny handle which I can’t use. So I went round and checked one more time – well, you do, don’t you?

I’ve had these secateurs for years. They’re Felco 8s, and were a deal. Well, an exchange. For several years I was involved with selling books at Chelsea Flower Show, and the last day was always the usual last day mayhem:

Chelsea old(old last-day-Chelsea photo from about 1990, maybe 1989 given the shoulder pads)

but it wasn’t just members of the public trying to fit eight-foot-tall delphiniums on the 19 bus. The madness spreads to exhibitors too.

Non-exhibitors were eventually shooshed out of the show ground, but we had to wait for the lorries to come over from Battersea Park in their meticulous convoy which carefully and inexplicably (all this was apparently organised by the Army) brought them to a position exactly outside the correct stand. This was the time for all the deals which had been arranged during the week to take place; for example, my colleague almost always sloped off to a particular show garden with a heavy carrier and came back with boxes and boxes of plants on a trolley. I used to go skip-surfing for plants myself, and often had the car so full that I could barely see out as I drove away – the irises I found one year still flourish. But one year I was less ambitious: I swapped a signed copy of something on roses for a pair of Felcos. Maybe I didn’t have the car park pass that year. But they’ve lasted longer than almost everything else. Or they had (sniff).

So they are at least 25 years old. And they’re wonderful. Were wonderful.

They’ve been used and abused. They’ve been left out; they’ve cut things thicker than they should have; they’ve cut things in gardens in rented property, in the tiny patch I had with the first studio I owned, in the garden of my last place in London and now here; they’ve been used to give scale to unlikely tomatoes and strange unidentified flowers. They were an extra hand. And they were gone.

I went out and spent money. Well, OK, I spent £2.50 in Wilkinsons. (I could have spent £1, but even Cheapskate Kate realised those weren’t worth the quid). They’re OK. They have a sharp flange to hold them closed and I kept hurting myself on it, but I soon got the hang of avoiding injury. Ish. They’re grey, they’re boring, they’re not brilliant. But they do cut.

My kitchen is partly into the hill, so I see legs going past on the path by the ground-level window when I’m washing up. This time it was legs in motorbike leathers. Strange men in leathers are not a usual feature of early evenings round here (though they probably should be). Open door: is it George Clooney, bored with married life, come to me at last? No.

It is P. Removing my secateurs from his jacket. MY secateurs. MINE!

secateurs recovered

(He was very shamefaced. Picked them up by accident. Didn’t realise until he used them and thought ‘funny, the handle’s not rotating’. Can use this for years, like the time he hedge- trimmed the hedge-trimmer’s lead. Oops, I’m not supposed to be mentioning that.)

And on the plus side, I not only have my secateurs back; I also have a clean shed, sans rodents. Though I still have Next Door’s Cat, currently frozen into immobility on top of the rowan stump, staring into the grass. Mouse number two, no doubt.


I love this time of year – the garden is filling out, there are huge changes from day to day and Next Door’s Cat appears to have found an alternative feline toilet (or has maybe just moved elsewhere in my garden, somewhere with less foliage to get in the way). Some of my favourite plants for right now are my selection of ferns, some inherited, some deliberate.

It’s fiddlehead time!

fiddlehead 1

All the labels have been tossed about the garden by several generations of blackbirds, so identification is not easy. I know what I planted, and roughly where, but some things die and others have been moved over the years and some were just here anyway, so if anyone is a fern expert, pleas help!

This beast, I am almost 100% certain, is my Dryopteris cycadina:

Dryopteris cycadina

Very strange. Very prehistoric, even for a fern.

An inherited one now, or is it?

Dim suniad

This is ridiculous. The idea of four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie seems more appealing by the minute. Plus they make a noise like a herd of elephants charging through a forest while they’re doing it – quite startling if you’re not expecting it. I’ve been out there with the list of what I’ve bought over the years, the rough plans I’ve made, the notes and the assortment of discarded plant labels. and I’m still not much the wiser. This year I’ll have another go once they’re in full leaf. Frond. Full frond.


Some were never labelled, of course, because they were just here. Doing their thing in the wet west, growing like mad and looking wonderful. I have a huge collection of Dryopteris felix-mas, but what’s this one, with its distinctive ruby stems? Roger Phillips is no use; the RHS guide doesn’t help.

I suppose I shouldn’t really care; they’re beautiful. Why do I need to put names to them? Because, I think, that’s what humans do: going right back to the Garden of Eden (allegedly). We organise. We label. And, boy, would I like to label some of my ferns. So if anyone knows a good reference book, a really useful website or anything else helpful, please let me know.

and again


On shrubs and going a bit mad

Sometimes you suddenly get a bit between your teeth and do something radical. I think whatever it is has actually been brewing away subconsciously, and then something happens to pull it into the foreground and there you are – with an inspiration which seems to have come out of nowhere. You could apply this theory to great works of art and literature. I’m applying it to the big bed in the bottom garden.


This is the bottom garden, this time last year (I’m about three weeks’ behind). To the left of the red Acer is a green shrub – that’s a clethra (or, according to my spellchecker, a ‘plethora’ – sort-of right there). It’s actually in the bed behind. Just below and to the right of the plethora is a green boringness. This is a Lonicera fragrantissima. Allegedly. Boring as all out – but should be good in spring.

Nah. Lonicera fragrant-isn’t-ima. Out with it!

I’ve always fancied getting a Cotinus coggygria, a red one this time – I had a green one in my last garden. So I set off for the garden centre, necessitating a 16-mile detour due to long-lasting %@1±CCZ&*! roadworks, and there one was. Looked good, decent price. But there was something that gave me second thoughts – would it really show up against the hedge? Would it work with the glorious colour of the big Acer?

I’d already done the detour so I decided to press on – and ended up at Fron Goch, my favourite garden centre and one where you can always get really good, knowledgeable advice. I was briefly distracted by ferns (no surprises there):

Fron Goch ferns

but remembered what I was supposed to be doing (and the fact that I’d recently bought a couple of ferns). So I sought out one of the most knowledgeable staff – I’d suddenly had an idea, and I wanted to run it past someone.

Another Acer. But a different one. Plenty to choose from…

Fron Goch 3

The bed I’m considering is probably the least exposed place in the whole garden, protected by the Great Hedge of the Annual Scaffolding Winge, and the red Acer is a beauty – though it’s approaching the top of the GHASW and heaven only knows what will happen when it reaches the top. Nothing too fatal, I trust. The presence of the hedge is one of the problems – whatever I plant needs to stand out, it needs presence.

Tah dah!

acer leaves

I think this qualifies. It’s Acer shirasawanum ‘Jordan’, and it’s only fair to say that it was not cheap. But, I feel, worth it. It’s already lighting up that corner,

bottom garden

even though it’s only a baby – there it is, between the standing stones – and contrasts nicely with the darkness of its background  while also working with the red Acer (about eight or nine feet tall, to give an idea of scale – and of the need for scaffolding during the annual hedge-cutting exercise).

The leaves flush pink when younger and in sun:

baby leaves

and it is, interestingly, fruiting:


A lovely healthy plant. And now I have to go and rob a bank or something, but I’m happy. Bit like the Acer, hopefully!

The winter list (and a spring surprise)

Every year (OK, for the last few), I get organised. After the great meadow strim P and I walk round the garden working out what needs doing, and draw up the winter list.

winter gardening

It’s all those jobs which have probably needed doing since the previous Christmas, but which have ‘somehow’ not quite been done. It inevitably includes things which didn’t quite get done last year (‘paint trellis’), or indeed the year before that, and things which are, frankly, optimistic (‘bramble remove’) or somewhat vague (‘move slates’  – which slates? – and ‘repair pigsty: ???’).

It’s divided into the three areas of the garden, and is followed by a list of plants. That’s because winter’s a good time to sort out what needs moving and work out where it can possibly go (quite apart from to the dustbin / compost / neighbours), and then there’s the problem of remembering exactly what ‘get rid of that horrible thing by the hedge’ meant. But it’s mainly the structural jobs which get done in winter, apart from weeding of course. We’ve rebuilt steps, dug new beds, erected standing stones and laid paths. This year it was repair time.

The rowan, which had to come down after the January storms last year, ripped apart the wall above which it grew. But we never quite got round to sorting it out – partly because there was a heck of a lot to do at the time, partly because the storms didn’t let up, and partly because once they did finally stop all the bulbs came up and started flowering. So all of last year I lived with a wall leaning outwards at a dangerous angle, entirely held in place by ivy – except when it wasn’t and stones came crashing to the ground.

Now I have this:

new wallwhich comes complete with a convenient shelf for a cup of tea or a pair of secateurs. And, yes, that is the rowan stump – it’s staying put. I can’t get a digger into the garden.

There was a heck of a lot of rubble, some of the little double daffs had to be replanted and I doubt that my chionodoxas will be as spectacular as normal this year, but it’s done. At last. And we found an old bakelite top for a Pan Yan pickle bottle (c. 1920), but that was the extent of the archaeology.

I’ve also now got  a dug-out greenhouse. I should explain – there is virtually no flat ground in either the top or the bottom garden, and the middle one is iffy. The greenhouse had to go in the bottom one, so P had to dig a base into the slope, which he did. The high side was held up with a mini dry-stone (OK, dry-sort-of-stone-brick) wall, which over the years has gradually slumped against the glass. At the back of the greenhouse a prostrate rosemary was so determined to get in that it broke the glass. It needed tackling…

greenhouse wall

So P demolished the old wall, cut the bank back, rebuilt it as a stepped wall – that should be much better – and dug out the back. I’ve now got what remains of the prostrate rosemary in a  pot, but it’s looking seedy. What a shame. Oh dear. Bechod.

What with all of this (most of which has been done with me watching due to bronchitis, but hey ho), I almost forget to look out for lovely things as well. Just round the corner, I have the first wallflower:


Right, that’s it. It’s clearly spring; I can put the winter list away!

(Plus the garden is suddenly full of snowdrops and crocuses – watch this space…)

Why do I bother? Hm???

I’ve often had compliments on the long plaits of shallots that hang in my kitchen for half the year. People have asked me how to do it, but It’s difficult to explain. Nobody taught me, you see. I just did it. I think it must have been some sort of atavistic race-memory due to a Breton heritage and the long history of the Johnny Onions (not that I grow onions) who came over to the UK on their bikes, laden with plaits of onions.

I’ve wondered in the past about maybe doing a ‘how to’ post… I shshallots, posingould have known better.

Lovely sunny evening yesterday – lovely sunny day, in fact, except I was away. Put shallots out to bask in sun on return. Shallots been curing for some days now, on and off, dodging rain showers. Looked over shallots, realised stalks drying out nicely, just about ready for plaiting.

Did first string, always a bit fiddly and untidy as body memory takes a bit of time to return. Worked fine; not forgotten how after all.

Then had an ‘aha’ moment re finally getting round to doing tutorial post. Good idea. In theory.

Went and got camera, took shot of ready and waiting scene. Selected first three fat shallots, got strong stalks, quite long stalks too, vital. Set up first shot. Angle of sun not the easiest but hey. Cross three over each other…

shallot prep

Not sure that’s right. Rearrange shallots.

Unfortunately neglected to notice precariously balanced trug, despite having photographed it earlier for potential set-up shot:


which then falls to ground with strange noise. Inadvertently jump back, stand in trug, fall over. Swear mightily. Rearrange self, trug, shallots. Where camera? Camera under bench. Retrieve camera. Camera OK.

Set up next shot, where you bend the one in the middle over the one on the left:

shallot plaitingHm.

Hang on, that’s wrong, should be the one on the right which goes over. Should it? Rearrange shallots. No, that was fine. Reaarange shallots. Next shallots due to be used fall down gap between planks of bench. Hold plait in place with camera, retrieve shallots from grass. Camera weight not enough, rearrange shallots…

I do know how to do this, honest. Decide to do another practice string, sans camera. This works, so decide to take shot showing back of plait:


Hold string up to do so. Unfortunately noise has – unbeknownst to me, because I was concentrating on thinking consciously about something I can do quite well unconsciously – attracted Next Door’s Cat.

Cat leaps on table, bats dangling shallot string with mighty paw. Have clearly made edible cat toy. Swing string away from cat, cat follows, try and biff cat with shallots, trug falls off bench again, step into the ********* trug again, fall over. Swear even more mightily, with added shouting. Cat runs off.

Abandon all hope of producing online tutorial on ancient Breton art of plaiting onions and related doo-dahs. Just do the rest, no camera, they’re fine.

shallots in kitchen

Years ago, when I was a stand-up, I used to despise slapstick. I evidently missed my way. Again.

Incidentally, when typing this up, the WordPress spellchecker kept changing ‘trug’ to ‘drug’. If only.


Questions for this gardener…

I have had a good gardeny couple of days, and without doing very much in the garden, which is probably just as well as certain parts have turned to mush. But the snowdrops are coming up (admittedly on very short stems, but they’ll grow), the crocuses are materialising around the base of the big cherry tree and I’ve even got some wallflowers doing their thing. The pruning is complete – er, even the plum, which should not have been pruned at all right now but I lost my temper – and reclaiming the blurry edges of the beds has started too.

I did have to leave the warmth of the house for my good gardening time, though, because I went off to Portmeirion with a couple of friends to attend a recording of Gardener’s Question Time. But before that I spoke to about six million people about what is, to me, a radical decision – not to rejoin the RHS. It was interesting, and revealed a very clear north/south divide.

I joined years and years ago, when I was a baby exhibitor at Chelsea. This was so long ago that The Garden was the tiny size, and very dense, and almost unreadable. When you did read it, it was knowledgeable and often intimidating, but it stretched you. Or it stretched me, I should say. Now it’s bigger, prettier, has lots of bright pictures and sometimes appears to be written for eejits who’ve never been near a garden. It doesn’t work for me, and living here in North Wales very little else RHS-y does. Take a look at the ‘events’ pages, for instance. I picked a Garden at random – I think it was June, when there should be plenty going on – and there were three whole columns of events, excluding pics, for the west and east Midlands (an area also without an RHS garden to bulk up the info). The whole of Wales merited a third of a column. Of the nine gardens very briefly listed there, six were down south – and it’s easier to get to England than it is to reach Cardiff from here.

parpI decided I might have got the Celtic Hump, a well-known disorder, so rang some other friends and this is when the north/south divide became crystal clear. Even my brother, who is within a (long, admittedly) drive of Harlow Carr, has decided to quit. It makes me sad but – so long, RHS. I did ring and explained why I wasn’t renewing, but they’ll probably just assume it was the Celtic Hump Disease and recommend spraying…

Now for something much more enjoyable: GQT.

I learned of an impending visit by the BBC’s Garden Question Time team (try saying that in a hurry) at our garden club, where it was mentioned in the notices. So three of us – well, one other member and A N Gardening Other – decided to get tickets, think of a bright and intelligent question which would transform us into respected gardening gurus overnight, and go along. We also decided to go early, take advantage of the admission to Portmeirion and have a look round; a cold winter monsoon interfered but we’re gardeners, for heavens’ sake, and we went early anyway.

And that is how we ended up in the bar of the Portmeirion Hotel, steaming slightly, drinking wine and discussing our questions.

I had wanted to ask about how you could persuade middle-aged men not to hang out of trees by their teeth while chainsawing, but that was vetoed – vehemently vetoed. In the end I settled for a rather boring one about windbreaks, so it wasn’t surprising mine failed to make the cut, though talking with another audience member gave me some good suggestions. Our other questions, also unsuccessful, were about overwintering pepper plants and whether you really need to disinfect the soil in a polytunnel, one of my companions having taken over the veg garden of a local pub and a vast supply of Jeyes’ Fluid.

The questions which were picked were a combination of interesting – how the heck to stop bamboo spreading (Napalm, IMO), pruning a grandiflora magnolia (don’t) – and wilful battling against the whole concept of ‘right plant, right place’ – trying to move a 5′ x 6′ bottlebrush to an as-yet-undecided location while not killing it and wanting roses and a lawn in a bog (???). Maybe it was the wine – and there was wine for the audience in addition to that possibly unwisely imbibed by some of us in the Portmeirion Hotel – but that was the point at which many of us lost it; the woman behind me was doubled up and wheezing with laughter. The team – Eric Robson in the chair, Matt Biggs, Christine Walkden and Matthew Wilson this time – came up with some great suggestions for the lady with the bog, but I suspect she’ll still try roses.

All in all, by the end of the evening I felt I’d done some gardening. Unfortunately, I don’t think the garden feels the same, but almost all gardens look like the wrath of god at this time of year. But not all gardens have a collapsed rose arch spread across them waiting for someone (ahem) to find the motivation to break it up and take it to the tip along with all the broken pots. Now there’s a question: how do I summon up the energy to load the car with all the non-compostable seasonal rubbish?

Not the best way to start 2014 (sniff)

I suppose something had to happen. We’ve had the most terrible weather, with very high winds – gusts of 109 and 102mph recorded at Aberdaron just across the bay – plus lots of rain and incursions of the sea. Happily I’m on the 100m contour so the latter wasn’t so much of a problem here, but my ancient rowan tree eventually gave up the fight against the first two.

rowan 1

Yesterday P was walking round the corner of the house, in yet another 70mph gale, when he noticed the whole rowan blowing in the wind. Despite being able to see the trunk quite clearly from inside (hello rowan), I’d not spotted what was going on. Blowing lightly in the breeze is not something the tree normally does, being taller than the house…

The trunk was shifting by centimetres each time, and stones were becoming dislodged from the wall above which it sits. P rushed off to get his chainsaw, I made an emergency call to another friend (this was definitely a two-man job, if only to control the inner 8-year-old that seems to pop into existence in trees), and then kept my fingers crossed that nothing would happen before they both arrived. Not only is the tree taller than the house, it’s also very close, and I could see an unfortunate tree-through-roof-and-onto-kitchen-table scenario playing out.

Happily, it didn’t. Unhappily I’ve lost my rowan.

rowan downing

The gusts were only about 60mph at this point, by the way; I delivered my usual absolutely no liability whatsoever speech and went to make tea. I then reappeared, in my by now traditional role as Chief Dragger of Brash to the Bonfire Heap, and started dealing with the debris. The weather deteriorated even further, so as soon as the tree was safe we retreated to the kitchen to polish off the Christmas cake.

The unsafe stones have been removed from the wall, the top garden is covered in branches, the trunk is in two sections and I feel really, really exposed.

no rowan

And I don’t like living without a rowan by the house either, which my mother would have undoubtedly filed in her ‘Celtic bollocks’ category of statement (though she never interfered with her own rowans – note the plural – or her father’s, despite annual chuntering about berries dropping). There are all sorts of superstitions about cutting them down, anyway, though apparently it’s all right if you have no choice – we really didn’t – and I will be planting another, just further away.

My house is, however, still well ‘protected’; there are three ashes, a small holly and there’s iron all over the place – horseshoes above doors and even built into the garden walls along with old nails. This is undoubtedly because the field diagonally opposite me is supposed to be one where the Tylwyth Teg, aka the Fair Folk, dance, or did until they built affordable housing on it. Someone I know swears he saw one, sitting on the field gate, when he was about 7 (so it probably wasn’t the Sixteen Pints of Guinness Fairy). More realistically it’s probably an archaeological site: legends of that nature combined with a name suggestive of something built (‘red castle’), and nine times out of ten you’ve got archaeological remains. But I’m not cutting down the holly or removing the iron just yet… and I still have my guardian cement budgie, sitting on its trunk:

cement budgie

When I went back through all my photos trying to find pictures of the rowan in its splendour, I was shocked at how few I have. This is possibly because it’s – sorry, it was – so close to the house, but it often seems to spring up in the background or framing a view. So here, in honour of my late lamented rowan, is a gallery of its glory (just click on an image for a slideshow). Sniffle.