Category Archives: The Garden

Must-have plants for any garden

My must-have plants for any garden
Gardener Bourne End, garden care Taplow, lawn care Wooburn Green, Hedge triming Cookham, Bourne End Gardener.

I’m often asked about favourite or a must-have plant, but I don’t think there is a singular answer. Many merge together creating the effects I like, and succeed each other in an orchestral fanfare lasting months on end.

But these listed below can form a core that would enable a long featured display from February to December.

Specific varieties are mostly not detailed, that would be part of the colour scheme or them of an individual garden. They could all be a must-have plant.

There are some shrubs for structure, grasses and perennials that will start early in the year, others that will last until Christmas.

And now is the time to consider any new plants for your borders. March and April are best months for planting, and if it gets as hot as last year, May will be too late. Unless you have irrigation installed or area slave to the hosepipe.

My Must-have plants – grasses and shrubs

Cornus, coloured stem dogwoods. Or coloured Willows. These provide basic flowers on fresh leaves, but of managed well offer coloured stems from December to March. They must be maintained annually, else they can grow beyond reach and the task becomes a chore. These are absolute must-have plants.

Phalaris. A vigorous variegated grass that can be divided annually to fill spaces.

Calamagrostis. Super tall grass that forms large clumps, lasts through winter as a frosted statue.

must-have plants
Two striking grass forms together

Miscanthus. Generally softer than above.

Stipa Gigantea. A most imposing grass with open oat flowers.

Black currant. Minimal fuss plant with great rewards. Grows in shade, but better, sweeter fruit is produced in a little more sun.

Essential perennials

Rudbeckia / Echinacea. The basic yellow or purple flowers are tough and will self-seed. They can be temperamental in wet ground. The newer alternative colours are more tender.

must-have plants
Echinacea purpurea, Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’

Lupin. A packet of Russel hybrid seeds will see your garden full of flowers for years.

Crocosmia. The fresh dense growth provides a great contrast to most other forms. A few nice flower colours too.

Iris Germanica. Buy from a specialist as bare roots, all the colours you could imagine, various sizes and variegated forms too. The flowers can be shirt lived, but are still must-have plants.

Must-have plants
Bearded Iris provide some of the most intricate flowers in the garden. Short lived in warm periods, but so worthwhile.

Echinops. Spikey blue/purple globes on serrated leaves, can be vigorous.

must-have plants
The spiky foliage and flowers contrast with soft foliage and rounded Achillea

Eryngium. Sea holly, spiky leaves and flowers, great contrast.

Achillea. I love the tall yellow flowered version that look like cauliflower. Other colours are available, but can be more tender.

Must-have plants
Achillea cloth of gold.Tall, log-lasting, contrasting flower and foliage form. A simple must-have plant.

Hemerocallis. Day lillies, a mainstay for any garden. The flowers offer morning and evening therapy, deadheading while checking the rest of the beds. The more you deadhead, the more flowers are produced. So many colours, spreads easily, grows in ditches on freeways in California so is very tough.

must-have plants
An example of some day lily colours.

Verbena Bonariensis. Never be without this plant. I use it with Stipa to form screens through which the garden can be viewed.

Must-have plants
Stipa gigantea and Verbena bonariensis combine beaufifully.

Penstemon. Or this one. It is generally tough when established, many colours that can flower into December. Can be susceptible to drought or waterlogging.

Ground cover must-haves

Ajuga. This is wonderful, all but indestructible ground cover, bronze leaf with blue flowers. Leaf shades, size and flower colour vary slightly.

Heuchera. A wonderful variety of leaf/flower colour combinations mostly for shade or partial sun.

Geranium. The hardy ground cover plant, not tender pelargoniums. They vary by leaf shape and size, and colour, and by flower colour.

Bergenia. A very useful tough ground cover that tolerates shade well. Varying leaf sizes and flower colours.

Stop Box tree moth caterpillar

Stop Box tree moth caterpillar
and other pests in 2019. How to treat box tree moth, stop box moth caterpillar, stop slugs, stop lilly beetle. treatment for box tree moth.

A simple plan for low rain lawn care, cutting grass in dry weather, top tips for lawns in summer, keeping grass green in drought.

In 2018 much of the UK had its first experience of Box Tree Moth Caterpillar. Though it has been around since 2014, this pest has increasing  made its presence felt recently. And for many it was very much after the horse had bolted, with their – in many cases very expensive – box installations reduced to sticks. That combined with the heat and lack of moisture to slow recovery, with many plants overwintering without foliage.

From the ground up has formulated a plan to address this invasion for clients, and stop box tree moth caterpillar. This involves first advising them that the pest is present, and what damage it can do. We have an effective method to try to prevent infestation. This uses a combination of pheromone traps and direct spraying. The traps contain a lure that attracts the male, so preventing any eggs laid by the female getting fertilised.

Box tree moth caterpillars can defoliate your plants in a matter of days
Box tree moth caterpillar can defoliate your plants in a matter of days

Chemical spray or a more expensive nematode solution is available to treat caterpillars directly. Spray treatment needs to be thorough and get right inside the plant, past the protective web left by the caterpillars. Pump sprays with a lance that are put right into the plant ensure that all the foliage is covered. To be effective the treatment to prevent caterpillars must be repeated every 7-10 days between March and October.

Box tree moth – practicalities

Timing of spray application is important. We spray early in the morning, helping to ensure that only the box caterpillars are treated.

Bacillus thuringiensis var Kurstak is a product that controls box moth. This is a natural bacterium (not a chemical insecticide) that organic farmers use to stop crop destruction by butterflies.

To stop box tree moth caterpillar use these watchwords. Awareness. Vigilance. Prevention. Treatment. Perseverance.

The final consideration is recovery. Box plants can recover from defoliation through infestation or drought. For full recovery you’ll need patience. Many box plants bear the scars of the moth onslaught after the growing season, filling out in the spring.

 

Low rain lawn care

Low rain lawn care

A simple plan for low rain lawn care, cutting grass in dry weather, top tips for lawns in summer, keeping grass green in drought.

Deja vu. June 2017 saw dry weather and brown lawns. Even after the longest wettest winter for a while, in May 2018 some grass is already starting to turn brown.  Here are some pointers for low rain lawn care.

Lawns that have been managed carefully will be thriving still.  A plan that increases the strength of the grass is paying dividends now, with green swathes still dominating as a result.  But it’s not too late to adopt a plan that will save time, money and will keep your grass greener and healthier.

If you haven’t planned for it, what can be done now?  Here’s a simple guide.

  1. Keep the grass longer.
  2. When cutting, use a mulching deck, or leave the grass clippings on the lawn.
  3. Leave more vulnerable areas completely

Low rain lawn care
A mulching deck cuts the clipping smaller, and returns them to the soil. This allows them to break down and feed the lawn.

How to keep it green

And a low rain lawn care plan to keep it greener starts very simply too.

  1. Keep the grass longer. Think of “making it even” rather than cutting the lawn.  And if moss is present, raise the cutting height to leave it 20mm clear. Cutting too short is the main reason for moss and weed dominance in most lawns.
  2. Make sure your mower blades are kept sharp.
  3. Cut in small slices. If the lawn is longer, rather than try to cut it down in one pass, take two or even three passes, reducing the height slowly. These smaller cuttings will break down more easily, and feed and replenish the grass, rather than rot. Apply the rule of only cutting one third of the grass blade.

Mulching, or leaving fine clippings on the lawn, saves time in removing them to the compost or bin, and also returns valuable nitrogen to the soil. This could reduce the feeding requirement by 25 per cent. Given that most lawns don’t get fed at all, its a huge improvement.

The evidence is clear. To do less work when the weather is dry and hot, cut the lawn higher, leave the clippings, which will help keep your lawn green.

Look after lawns in drought

Scalping weakens the grass, leaving t vulnerable to weeds and heat. Cut the grass long!

Stopping Lily Beetle

Stopping Lily Beetle

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At this time of the season, whenever that is in the year, two particular subjects dominate my garden. One is day lillies and the need for constant dead heading. The other is lily beetle. The two jobs can be connected, but don’t offer the same enjoyment.

Dead heading the Hemerocallis rewards  you with more flowers. It’s also a chance to be in the border again. In the morning this is with a good cup of tea in hand, but in the evening it may well be a crisp white or rose.

Whilst surveying the decaying day lily blooms I keep an eye out for the little red monsters that can shred your lillies in a moment. Red lily beetle don’t touch day lillies, just the true lily family,  LiliumCardiocrinum and Fritillaria.

Stopping lily beetle
Red lily beetle are black underneath, so when they fall to the ground are very hard to see.

Since discovering that these apparently delicate plants were quite hardy I’ve planted many more, and with  them comes the invading red bugs. the result is worth the effort though.

What happens if you don’t stop red lily beetle?

These pests are attracted to the smell of the lillies. When they find them they quickly reproduce and leave hundreds of offspring that will eat the leaves and stem.  This may actually stop the plant flowing. So keeping them off is justified.

Stopping lily beetle
They have to be worth protecting from red lily beetle!

I employ two strategies in stopping lily beetle. One is to stop them finding the plant to start with, and second to kill them if they do find it. To mask the scent of the plant I use blended garlic filtered into a spray bottle. I mix in some washing up liquid to make it foam and stick to the leaves for longer. You must continue  to apply it fairly regularly though.

To make it use a couple of cloves crushed or finely chopped, leave to diffuse in boiling water for five minutes, then filter ( the pulp will block the sprayer) into a spray bottle. Add washing up liquid, then top up with water. Keep te pulp in a sealed jar to use next time, you’ll get four or five uses from one pulp.

And when I spot the red devils I use two hands to pick them off. One hand is beneath them, as they have a habit of just letting go of the leaf and falling to the ground where they’re hard to spot. The other can pick them off. Dispose of them with a foot on a hard surface.

The garlic spray needs to get to as much of the leaf surface as possible, including underneath. Here you may see the nasty clutches of eggs laid in excrement.  Remove these as well to prevent rapid re-infection.

I am always looking for other ways to enhance my protection of the lily plants with something sprayable and sticky, and equally pungent so the bugs can’t find the host.

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Improving clay soil

Improving clay soil

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The wet and cold of winter are likely to provide some of the best clues to your soil type. If your lawn or flower beds have pools of water, the lawn squelches beneath your feet as if walking on a sponge, you’re probably experiencing the symptoms of underlying clay. There are ways of improving clay soil.

Improving clay soil

Clay is often spoken of in hushed terms, with sympathy expressed for those unfortunate enough to suffer it. But other than a having to apply a different plan to keep it workable, those with clay might be grateful. Some of the most celebrated gardens are on clay, like Great Dixter.

Making clay soil workable

There is no shortcut to improving clay soil. It will take work, and some money, and it may take time. Key to making it as simple as possible to use the weather to your advantage. So step one should be to use winter weather to break down clay soil for you. This applies regardless of soil type really, why work the soil when winter does it for you? Dig the beds over and let cold, frost and rain break it up. But that assumes you’ve had that opportunity.

Next would be to use gypsum to help break the structure of the clay. It won’t work on its own, but in conjunction with some bulk organic matter it will be worthwhile. Gypsum causes the clay to clump together, or flocculate, and can improve damp lawns just by sprinkling it over the grass. It is a fine powder, so use carefully and with precautions to prevent ingestion.

Organic matter is the overall best solution, both breaking up the clay by separating it and providing moisture retaining matter for the months when clay dries out. Well rotted manure or composted bark are the best for this, but are twice the price of mushroom compost. As the third choice for organic additions, it is still viable, and given the cost benefit probably elevates itself to No 1.

Whatever you choose to add, it will involve barrowing it to the site, spreading it over the work area, and then digging it in. Spread the organic material a few inches deep across the affected area, before digging in to the underlying clay based soil. Slicing up and turning the clay first allows  the compost to be combined more easily.

Further applications of manure, bark or garden compost will continue the improvement process.

Don’t make it worse

In working your soil don’t make it worse by treading on it. Lawns especially should avoided. If access is essential try to use planks or boards to spread the load and avoid compacting the soil further. Or wait until the soil is to some degree dryer.

You could further improve a heavy clay soil by effectively diluting the clay. This involves adding particles that are larger, therefore taking up some of the space, separating the clay. This involves large volumes of sand or grit. The volumes involved make this method suitable only for smaller spaces, and the increasing overall volume of soil lends it neatly to making raised beds. Raised beds are naturally better drained. But they often infer a more formal layout.

The cost implications are a minimum of £5 per square metre. Getting it “perfect” might cost around £15, plus any labour required to facilitate it.

 

What to grow

In most cases gardeners have a plan of what they want to grow rather than what the conditions dictate. Improving the soil in this way helps that goal be achieved. Some plants actually thrive in the naturally damp and then dry conditions provided by clay.

Because clay soils can be hard to turn, and difficult to work on, keeping weeds out becomes a priority. Bergenias and Ajuga are both valuable easy care plants that provide more that one seasons interest in addition to their weeds suppressing duties.

Improving clay soil
Ajuga provides dense ground cover and all year interest, more than justifying its place in the flower bed, especially on clay soils

But changing the structure with composted material can allow that same range of plants, and another much wider range. Best of all is that it will not take as long to manage once its done.

Gardens with an underlaying clay soil will remain colder and wetter until later in the year. So whatever you decide to plant, planting is correspondingly later.

Gardener in Bourne End, Flackwell Heath gardener, Taplow gardener

 

Prevent snow damage in your garden

Prevent snow damage in your garden

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Pretty as the snow may be, there are situations where it can cause damage in your garden that will take some time to rectify. If you know what to expect, you can reasonably prevent snow damage in your garden, or at least the worst of it.

Firstly, the weight of snow build up can bend and distort the shape of your ornamental shrubs. While the damage is not permanent it can take a lot of preparatory work and months of growing to restore the preferred form.  It is very frustrating to have mis-shapen plants after the prolonged work getting the shapes right.

Damage can be more extreme

In extreme cases the weight of snow can cause branches to snap, a much more permanent type of damage .  In this case prune out the damaged area before growth resumes in the spring.

prevent snow damage in your garden
The weight of snow can cause branches to break

That snow lying on top of some plants can actually kill off the growth. This will leave large brown patches of dead leaves that will take up to a year to be replaced. Bay, especially if formed into a globe, ball or lollipop where snow can sit on top, are particularly vulnerable.

To prevent snow damage in your garden you can use a broom or rake to shake off the snow. If the snow has settled and then frozen it will be harder to remove. If it has become ice then its best to leave it until the weather warms up.

This of course assumes that the snow is an occasional visitor.  If you get snow on a regular basis then a more pro-active approach is needed. This may involve gathering or binding shrubs together with tape, or covering with fleece. Even then it may pay to shake the snow off before it builds up.

 

Preparing the garden for winter

Preparing the garden for winter

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As the flower garden slows down for the year, the door opens for next year. Now is the time save plants for next year, plant for spring, and let winter help you out with the hard work.

When dahlias blacken with the first frost cut back the foliage, then lift the tubers, clean and trim off the thin long roots. Stand them upside down to make sure they’re dry before storing them away in dry compost, or wrapped in newspaper.

preparing the garden for winter
Dahlias should be lifted when blackened by frost

There is still time to buy and plant spring flowing bulbs. Choose your supplier carefully and you’ll get quality and a bargain to boot; wholesale suppliers are already reducing prices on remaining stock. My favourite is Gee Tee (gee-tee.co.uk), I’ve used them for nearly 20 years. You can continue to plant bulbs into the first weeks of December.

If your soil is heavier, get it turned before the frosts come. Just dig, lift and leave, and let the frosts break down the clods for you. As the temperatures drop these lumps will form a perfect growing medium, ideal for areas where you’ll be sowing seed – vegetable beds or borders for annuals.

Dormant season is busy for gardeners

The dormant months – from leaf fall through spring budding – are also the perfect time to prune trees and shrubs. Christopher Lloyd maintained that the best time was when you had time and secateurs in your hand. And I agree, but the down side is that you may have to sacrifice the plant’s crop of flowers or fruit.

Timely pruning will encourage flowers and fruit, create better shape and promote strong growth. Trees that will benefit most are those that will “bleed” if pruned when sap is flowing—including apples, pears and figs, acers, most deciduous ornamental trees, and vines including grapes and wisteria.

Many roses can also be pruned when it gets cold, floribunda, hybrid tea and climbers. In fact if it’s not rambler, you can prune it in winter.

Those ornamental deciduous shrubs that have doubled in size this year can be brought back into line while dormant. They’ll look like a skeleton for a few weeks, but will come back with better shape and vigour.

The golden rules of pruning are the three D’s – dead, damaged and diseased – remove them all while creating an open and uncongested shape. For roses that is usually a “goblet”. With fruit trees Monty Don advocates the should be open enough that a pigeon can fly through.

And if you need any extra guidance, the RHS website explains everything very clearly. Enjoy your garden this winter.

Garden task for November, preparing the garden for winter

 

Simple rose pruning rules

Simple rose pruning rules

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There are seemingly many rules to consider when pruning roses, so daunting that most people choose not to bother for fear of causing more harm than good.

But some simple rose pruning rules applied at the right time will easily enhance your roses regardless of what they are.

Simple rose pruning rules

Consider first, does the rose flower just once? If so prune in late summer after flowering is completed.

The objective is – as with all pruning – to keep the plants free of dead, diseased and damaged wood (the three D’s). Crossing or rubbing branches and spindly growth should also be removed.

Avoid any excessive build-up of the older, less productive wood that can crowd out the centre of the plant. Opening up the plant to form a goblet shape is the plan.

Simple rose pruning rules

Remove older branches from the centre if necessary. If they become leggy and bare at the base, remove one or two stems back near the ground to encourage new growth from the base.

If on the other hand, you don’t know if the plant flowers just once,  prune your roses in February to March. Use the simple rose pruning rules below, as described by the RHS.

Prune in late winter before dormancy breaks

The idea here is to make the cuts before the plant breaks dormancy in the spring.

  • Cuts should be no more than 5mm (¼ in) above a bud and should slope away from it, so that water does not collect on the bud. This applies to all cuts, whether removing dead wood, deadheading or annual pruning.
  • Cut to an outward-facing bud to encourage an open-centred shape. With roses of spreading habit, prune some stems to inward-facing buds to encourage more upright growth.
  • If a dormant bud is not visible, just cut to an appropriate height
    Make your cuts clean and neat using clean and sharp secateurs. For thicker stems use loppers or a pruning saw.
  • Prune and dieback to healthy wood. Cut out dead and diseased stems and spindly and crossing stems. Aim for well-spaced stems that allow free air flow.
  • On established roses, cut out poorly flowering old wood. Saw away old stubs that have failed to produce new shoots
  • With the exception of climbing roses and shrub roses, prune all newly planted roses hard to encourage vigorous shoots.
  • Trace suckers back to the roots from which they grow and pull them, rather than cut them, away.

So there it is, simple rose pruning rules that we can all follow to keep your roses easily maintained, and enhanced.

From the ground up can show you how to prune your roses and other shrubs.

And if you need any extra guidance, search the RHS website for rose pruning, where everything is explained very clearly.

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The weed suppressing membrane myth

The weed suppressing membrane myth

Using fabric to suppress weeds, low maintenance gardening weed fabric, weed membrane, weed suppressing membrane myth
Clients often ask me to lay a fabric membrane to “suppress weeds”. This is usually as part of a plan to minimise maintenance, or specifically weed growth.

But what the client expects, and what they get, may be very different, even though I might provide exactly what they request.

The concept that a membrane can be used to suppress weeds for long is not real. It’s the weed suppressing membrane myth. Let me qualify that further. If you want to be able to plant in or around it, and have your plants survive or thrive, it does not work.

In fact a fabric or membrane  can often makes things worse.

If you want to lay a path or hard standing of aggregate that will not contain plants then it may work for a while.

Here’s why I don’t believe the weed suppressing membrane myth

If fabric is laid to cover the area between plants, be it mulched or not, the area will eventually become fertile above the membrane. As material decomposes and provides a base for seeds to germinate, the ground below deteriorates as it becomes starved of nutrients.

The weed suppressing membrane myth
Weed control fabric is not suitable for permanent planting

And as a layer of compost like material forms on top of the fabric, the first things to germinate will be those with tough roots – like ash and dandelion – that penetrate and anchor it. Now try digging them out.

And those covered with aggregate that looked so smart for a while. Now there is detritus gathering between the stones, enough for seeds to germinate. And once they penetrate the fabric… it’s a familiar tale.

Meanwhile the soil below is unable to benefit from the nutrients laying above. Worms working the soil cannot reach the materials to drag it into the soil. It will gradually become lifeless.

Weed suppression is for me in the same category as the no or low maintenance garden. It is feasible,  but subject to many caveats and just as much work to make it effective.

Low maintenance is possible, in particular growing conditions or by compromising on the plants you might want, choosing instead from a more limited palette.

So what does work to suppress weeds then?

Several things are better than the weed suppressing membrane myth.

Less stress about weeds helps, just accept that they will grow. Even if you eliminate every one in your garden, the seed will blow in from next door. Or a therapeutic hoeing regime, leaving the cut weeds to cook in the sun.

Mulch works– plenty of it will suppress weeds. Until it starts to break down, at which point it nourishes the soil. So renew it at least twice a year.

Best of all is a  dense planting plan that prevents weed seeds getting to the soil to grow. Include plants who’s presence will kill off the seedlings of anything else around it. This is called allelopathy, and is a fascinating subject for those with time to consider the potential.

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Stop bamboo spreading

Stop bamboo spreading

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From the ground up has had several cases through May and June of bamboo plants that were otherwise well behaved clumps spreading wide by sending out runners. This was when it was relatively hot and notably bereft of rain. The symptom and prevailing conditions are not unrelated. The plant is spreading  out in search of moisture, but you can stop bamboo spreading.

This happens with otherwise well behaved clump forming plants as well as the more notorious running forms, and can have taken over the garden before you realise how bad it is.

In some forms the runners are strong enough to push through paths and tarmac, and to undermine walls or other structures with shallow footings.

Stop bamboo spreading
Bamboo can be managed to look smart and effective.

When you think about it, it makes perfect sense. There is no water local to the plant, so it looks for more to sustain itself. At the same time it may drop leaves to reduce transpiration.

The result in your carefully planned border is bamboo shoots where you don’t want them and brown paper leaves adorning everything.

You can take preventative and corrective action to stop bamboo spreading.

Prevent bamboo spreading runners

If the reason for sending out runners is to find water, then pre-empt it by making sure there is adequate supply. That does not mean just leaving a hose pipe on next to it, but also reducing its requirements.

This involves thinning out the main clump, removing up to one third of the stems so that it needs less to survive. This exercise also keeps the clump tidy, as any dead or damaged stems can come out at the same time.

You can also concentrate water at the plant by mulching,. This wil both maintains moisture close to the plant and helps to prevent evaporation.

You can also employ various physical and mechanical barriers, all of which are effective. But they may not be conducive to the easy care regime bamboos propose.

If bamboo has already spread

If the bamboo has already sent out runners you have a choice to make. First is to take a long view and starve out runners. Just like any other weed if you reduce its capacity to absorb energy it will eventually weaken and die. So keep cutting off the stems as they show themselves.

Stop bamboo spreading
The detail of pruning bamboo

Or you can take more radical action. They can be cut out, or even just pulled out. They should come out with the assistance of a fork or lever such as a pick axe. If stems are rising in places that can’t be dug or disturbed, within established borders, through a priced rose bush or such, then this is what to do. Bamboo Botanicals has further useful information.

Let the stem grow until it has a width of 6mm or more. Then cut of the stem leaving a portion behind. To this stump apply a glyphosate weed killer. With larger stems the liquid will sit inside the hollow stems and kill the runner.

The treatment may need repeating. There is always the danger that it will knock back more than just the runner you want rid of. So in some cases dig around the runner to expose it and cut as close to the main plant as possible. Don’t spray weedkiller around  the plant. It takes much more chemical to effect a result than letting it soak through the stem.

Once the stem and runner are dead they become quite tough and can usually be pulled out.

The best choice?

In this case prevention is better than cure, and the argument for a maintenance regime is strong. It takes only a couple of hours per year to keep the plant neat and limit its need to go searching.

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