How I calculated that I won’t be removing the privet

In the same way as I worked out how long it would take me to remove the lawn and its brick edging, I decided to try my hands at one of the twenty metres of privet that we need to remove. The neighbours had already begun, by clearing their own ten metres entirely: but they had use of a JCB, which the existing terrace at the back of our garden is unlikely to suit. One way or another, by me or by someone else, this had to be a manual job. How hard could it be?

Here’s the corner I decided to trial techniques on:

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Although I’d warned the neighbours beforehand, I still wanted to test a piece that was relatively inconspicuous (and there are shrubs behind this corner on their side.) Within only half an hour, I’d already cleared around a metre of privet tops:

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I then set to work on the roots. Three hours later? Even despite having to stop occasionally to let the rain pour down, the results were disappointing:

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I had got more and more wiggle room out of the rootballs, but hadn’t removed a single one (apart from a stray cotoneaster, I think.) Not only that, but I’d seen the tap-roots start to sneakily disappear under the patio of the house behind:

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Maybe that bodes well generally, because it means they’re removable for fencing by chopping off at the point they bend underneath those stones: but, ultimately, that work isn’t going to be done by me. Even though I sharpened my tools beforehand, I’m just not equipped for deep-root work. Axes get blunted by soil; spades shave off thin slivers of root-bark, before hitting a stone here or there.

On the plus side, I now know for sure that this job is going to need landscapers, or at the very least odd-job men. And it won’t be cheap. But at least I now know what the job is going to involve: and respect them, for the amount that their labour and expertise is clearly worth.

Sharpening larger tools with a metal file

Although I’ve always taken care of my spade and fork, I’ve never bothered sharpening them. But as I was planning to tackle the privet, including some potentially hefty roots, I found a guide online that pointed me in the right direction where a sharpener was concerned.

Sharpening stones are only really good for flat, small blades, but a file sharpens large surfaces well. And if you’re not too worried about the evenness of finish, I found that I didn’t really need any kind of clamp: merely sitting on the rest of the tool, at the top of a set of steps, sufficed to keep it still enough.

It turns out the only place I could find a lone, bastard-mill file in Sheffield’s city centre was Wickes; in comparison, B&Q was particularly bad in terms of choice, only having rather poor sets. Circumstances meant I didn’t have time to check Shaw’s Ironmongers, but if I had a chance again I would probably try there first.

After only fifteen minutes of sharpening each, the spade and fork had good cutting surfaces once again:

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There’s a slight roughness to the finish on the spade, but the cutting edge is still perhaps a fifth or maybe even a tenth of the thickness it was before. To be clear, I was putting a bevel on a bevel here: the spade is made to thin slowly, to make the first few sharpening sessions easier, but the cutting bevel thins much more rapidly, over the course of a few millimetres and at a forty-five degree angle to the flat surfaces.

The sharpened tools, then, handled much better: cut into turf much better; clung less willingly to dirt; in general felt like a real improvement. But was all that enough? Tune in later, to find out!

Update: how’s the ecopotagator working for windowsill basil?

Back in mid-March I planted up an Ecopotagator with the basil seed that came with it:

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At the end of April, I transferred this “little pot” of sprouting basil seedlings into the upturned “big pot” that the ecopotagator forms when you flip it over. This was probably the most worrisome part of the whole process: the instructions did say that you should do this as soon as the seedlings were touching the clear-plastic cover/jug fitting; but I was convinced that tapping it out would just leave me with a loose collection of soil and seedlings all over the place.

In the end, the roots had knitted together really strongly, but given I had to juggle (a) the plug of seedlings (b) the pot it was originally in, and was going to be in again (c) enough soil to fill said pot up when I flipped it, then it was slightly awkward. And if it had gone wrong, it would’ve gone wrong quite badly!

Immediately afterwards, though, it was looking pretty good:

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What was the base, now detaches to form a saucer to put water in. I found that, without this saucer being very full indeed, the shallow-rooted plug was prone to wilting for the first week or so. But another few weeks, and some judicious pruning, later and the seedlings are doing very well:

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Would I recommend the ecopotagator? I think so. It’s made from recycled materials, and in its initial propagation form is really quite handy, insofar as it provides that winning formula of both moist and free-draining compost. But the switcheroo from propagator to big pot was tense and fiddly, and it does take up a lot of space on the windowsill. I guess one option would be to have two ecopotagators, and use them to succession-plant over a season. But maybe that’s how they get you!

Houseplant: Billbergia x windii, or Angel’s Tears

One of my little birthday purchases was a Bilbergia x windii “Angel’s Tears”. You can see it here keeping company with Ficus elastica var Robusta “Tineke” and a peace lily:

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Plus an obligatory birthday pot rose, which my parents always buy, and I always love to bits, and always dies on me. (But hasn’t that wall been improved by a coat of paint since the Ficus arrived? Don’t the plants look much nicer in front of the white background?)

Each little blue-mauve-green flower dart bursts open in turn, a bit like a Geranium seed-pod, until the flower spike is spent. But these darts don’t look much like angel’s tears, do they?

It turns out that the name comes from the nectar, which you can see in little drops here:

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Unlike Bob Flowerdew with his Kniphofia‘s nectar, I don’t plan to drink this any time soon, as I’ve not been able to find out whether it’s toxic (or at least irritant). But it has led me to learn a bit more about the plant itself.

It turns out that it’s monocarpic, which I didn’t realise when I bought it. In theory that means that the plant dies off after flowering! At first I was a bit annoyed, as I’d only just bought it. Luckily, though, like other bromeliads Billbergia pups, each pup forming a rosette or “vase” of flowers that you water into. Only the particular “vase” that the flower spike has come out of, will die off along with the flower spike.

This plant already has at least a couple of other pups, including one that’s practically “mother-sized”. So when the flowered vase starts to look unwell, I’ll have a go at separating them all out!

May blooms come late this year

Cathy at Rambling in the Garden very kindly suggested I could contribute slightly late to Carol’s Garden Bloggers Bloom Day this month, despite missing the boat by a few days. I’ll get the hang of these memes soon, I’m sure.

My new purchases from RHS Malvern are already kicking off. The Tiarella “Sugar and Spice” has been flowering ever since we all returned together:

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You might be able to make out a slightly purpling globe of a bud on the Cirsium rivulare (Atropurpureum) behind it. I’ve tried to keep it a bit moister than the others and it seems to be working.

The Geum “Prinses Juliana” has also started to fire off a couple of buds:

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Meanwhile, the border of spring bulbs is having its last hurrahs:

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The Tulipa “Antoinette” has been the last to come up:

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and its lemon-drizzle and creme-anglaise blooms, mixing with the Narcissus “Pipit”, are making me crave any and all desserts!

An inherited [Edit: see comments; Valerian] in the border is starting to bud up:

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and as you can see, Myosotis is everywhere in the garden, which I’m more than happy with. Hidden elsewhere, the cheap Pelargoniums that have lasted all winter are beginning to bud:

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While the Kerria japonica “Pleniflora” is beginning to go over, just as the unknown rose next to it starts to open up:

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But ultimately, the domineering apple tree is the star of the show this month:

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The apple blossom smells lovely close up. I’m still planning on cutting this tree down—come July, its thick foliage will be keeping most of the good veg-growing areas in almost perpetual shade—but for now I’m just happy to enjoy it.

The front garden, which we’ve done nothing with, is starting to look a bit fuller.

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[Edit: see comments; Centaurea montana] was being blown by the wind so much that I lost focus:

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while the Choisya ternata compliments the white bluebells behind it:

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That’s about it for now, though. It’s been a bit of a rush getting this together as I do want to try to take part in memes if I can. So thanks again to Carol for hosting this meme. After a late May, perhaps June will arrive on time here in Sheffield!

Removing the old, dead Prunus to make way for fencing

To put up fences, we need to remove the privet. And to remove the privet, we need to remove the old, dead Prunus at the back:

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The previous owners made a perfunctory (as always) attempt to remove it, then tried to hide it with that lovely wine-red Acer:

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But at the very least the rest of the top growth needs to come down; ideally, I’d also come up with a plan for removing the (majority of the) root ball. Even if that plan is: hire a stump grinder at a later date!

The immediate good news was that much of the top growth was removable by muscle power alone; it had rotted until it had a brittle, biscuit-y quality: so much so that I’m quite glad I brought it down, as it wasn’t likely to support its own weight much longer.

The bole was the only part that hadn’t entirely rotted (12-inch boot in picture for scale):

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Shortly after I sawed through it, my neighbour asked if I wanted to borrow his chainsaw. But the next cuttings would really be best made with an axe, as they were all below the soil level.

I was able to hack through, and entirely remove, two long roots about twenty centimetres in diameter:

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Both roots had been travelling under the privet, so I’ve hopefully made the removal of that a lot easier in the future.

All of this effort left me with a mixed pile of rotted and unrotted wood:

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(I’ve set aside the unrotted bole, possibly for seasoning and burning.)

After tidying and replanting some Crocosmia, there was still a substantial root ball in place:

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But at least it lets us move ahead with the next step of the plan, and gives us some ideas of the likely job ahead of us when we do eventually landscape this area (we’ll likely need a stump grinder.)

And that Acer? Well, we’re already getting rid of the apple tree, which is full of blossom. So the Acer will likely survive this round of landscaping, at least; assuming it can keep out of the way of the privet removal…!

How did my first RHS plant festival (Malvern) go?

I went to RHS Malvern on Friday. It was my first ever plant festival, and my first RHS event. On the whole I really enjoyed myself, although there was a lot about the event that might catch other first-timers unawares.

This is therefore a slightly confusing post containing: a run-down of some of the exciting things we saw; a brief summary of what went badly; and what we’d do differently in future to work around it (with maybe some tips for anyone about to go to their first plant festival.)

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Calculating landscaping: how long to clear the turf and bricks?

At the centre of our back garden is a roughly elliptical lawn. It’s perhaps 9×7m in size, and edged by about 15m of bricks:

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Our proposed re-landscaping will slice off and flatten the nearest two metres of this lawn, then cover the rest of it to a depth of up to 50cm. This seems a waste, though, because good turf (stacked and rotted down) makes great compost; also, we’ll need bricks for one of our retaining walls, and anyway they’re too useful (and expensive to buy) to just bury.

How long will it take to dismantle the edging, and to dig up and stack the turf? Now, there’s a question, which I hoped to estimate with the following, much smaller-scale, experiment.

Yesterday I spent about twenty-five minutes (not including interruptions) cutting out a rough quarter-circle of turf, of radius 1.3m:

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During that time I also chiselled out (using wrecking tools, not a proper chisel) perhaps 2m of bricks, which turned out to be 20 of them.

I then stacked bricks and turf up as neatly as I could, and here’s the result after my beautiful assistant knocked over the turf and then ran up the tree:

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She looks quite proud of her own contribution, doesn’t she? First lesson learned, I re-stacked the turf, two spits deep:

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Along the way, I had a few complications which I’ll need to go back and fix: I lost at least one brick to dismantlement, as it just cracked apart; and other bricks were very hard to separate, including the two still stuck under the carrot bed you can see in the first picture. While I hope to buy a chisel to improve this part of the work, I need to factor in tidying time at the end.

So how long will the job eventually take? Let’s calculate the two simultaneous jobs—cutting and stacking turf, chiselling and stacking bricks—and take the higher of the two measurements.

  • Amount of turf cut: pi * (1.3)2 / 4 = 1.3m2
    Remaining time to finish = (48.7/1.3) × (25mins/60mins per hour) = 15.6hrs.
  • Amount of brickwork removed: 2m
    Remaining time to finish = (13m/2m) × (25mins/60mins per hour) = 2.7hrs.

The turf-cutting is easily the longer job, and is therefore likely to take perhaps two working days. Because all the work was simultaneous then it’s hard to get a better estimate than that, but that gives us a good working value.

One interesting consequence from measuring the pile of turf (before Indie knocked it over) is that I’m likely to end up with a good 0.7m2 of stacked turves—that’s a pile with base 1×1m, height 0.7m, which is obvious but gives you an idea of the volume—that I’m going to need to store somewhere: preferably somewhere that will suffer the least from any landscaping, and preferably not too far away or downhill from where they’ll eventually end up (I’ll probably use them as topsoil where needed, fairly high up.)

Once the turf is cut, I can start laying walls and looking at removing privet. But I now know, given other commitments, that that’s going to be at least a couple of weeks away, and can plan a bit more. Mostly I’m just planning to start yoga early, as I think I’m going to need it.