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Improving clay soil

Improving clay soil

Making clay soil workable, improving clay soil, breaking down heavy clay, how to improve clay soil, garden jobs for winter,

 

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.

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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.

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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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