Price Increase

Ahhh! Diesel costs too much!Much to my personal disgust, I’m going to have to put my prices up slightly. Unfortunately, the cost of, well, everything, but in particular running my van has meant I’m scraping the breadline at the moment. I’ve updated my prices page accordingly. I hope this doesn’t cause a problem for anyone.

Posted in Garden Geeks News | 1 Comment

Spammed!

I’ve become aware that my email address has recently been used as a front to send various spam emails. Unfortunately, a huge security hole in the way emailing works means that it is very easy to make an email look like it came from someone else (technically, it’s a case of altering the From: field in the email. You can see whom an email is really from by examining the header). Sadly, the spammers choose random commercial email addresses to hide behind, changing it every few days. Needless to say, I’ve not sent this spam and sadly there is nothing I can do to stop it, since it’s not coming from me or my computer. Unfortunately, I can do nothing to spot it either!

My apologies to anyone who has received spam from my email address- I hope your spam filters caught it, at least. Whatever you do, don’t click any links in the email since they often lead to dangerous sites!

Posted in Garden Geeks News | 1 Comment

White Van Woman!

My lovely Van

When I first started working as a gardener, I ran my business from a Smart car. Now, Smart cars have many good points, but I have never seen any advertising for them that showcase their ability to hold a lawnmower and assorted gardening tools. It is amazing, however, what you can fit in one if you remove the passenger seat! As time went on, though, I invested in my little van which I adore simply because it makes life so much easier. Today, I’ve gone a stage further and finally got around to getting signs on the sides of my van, and I will admit to being very pleased at how they’ve turned out! Keep an eye out for me as I poddle around the lanes and byways of east Cheshire.

It’s interesting to see how people treat you differently when you drive a white van, compared to a Smart car. In a Smart car, everyone lets you out at junctions because you are so cuuuute! But, on the other hand, people do drive far too closely behind you. In a white van, nobody lets you out at junctions- except other white vans- but, on the other hand, no one cuts you up on roundabouts! So, it has its plusses and minuses.

You may notice that the number I advertise on my van and elsewhere is a mobile number. One question I have been asked by customers is “Why don’t you advertise my land line phone number, rather than your mobile?” It’s a very fair question, since most consumer programs advise people to avoid traders who only give out a mobile number. Well, my reason for it is twofold: First of all, I am sure my family would rather not be glorified secretaries for my work, and secondly, the cold calls, oh my word, the cold calls! If you run a business and have a landline number, it is very cheap and easy for advertisers, loan sharks, search engine optimisers and numerous nefarious other people to ring you and try out the old hard sell. It gets very tedious very fast to get five or six of these calls every single day. However, the mobile number is more expensive to call, and thus puts off the cold callers and I get some peace and quiet. I know this is true for many sole traders like myself these days, and I would say it’s no longer the sign of a cowboy. So, what should you be wary of when choosing a trader? Well, these are some of the things I look out for:

  • Are they knowledgeable? With the world wide web, it’s easy these days to look up a bit of information about whatever their field of expertise is, and drop it into the conversation. For instance, a gardener should be able to recognise the majority of plants in your garden.
  • Do they seem desperate for your business, or happy to advise and walk away if they aren’t what you’re looking for? If they’re desperate, it’s worth wondering why…
  • Do they have a diary to keep a track of whom they are seeing?
  • Do they want paying for materials before they do the job? (NEVER pay a workman before he has started a job- except, maybe for a deposit, and then, get a receipt. If they need materials they can’t afford, ask them for a shopping list and buy them yourself instead.)
  • Do they insist on payment in cash, or have they got a range of different payment options? Can they accept cheques under their business name?
  • Have you got any friends who have had work done by them? A personal recommendation is always the best way to find a workman.

Of course, getting a workman to turn up when they say they’re going to is another matter entirely. This one baffles me- how do they make any money when they never come to jobs? Anybody know the answer to this?

Posted in Garden Geeks News | 2 Comments

The Autumn Trio

Autumn has come! I would say ‘at last’, but actually it seems to have turned up very quickly after a hard summer’s gardening. It’s been a great year for me with lots of new gardens to look after. It’s fantastic to see a garden go from neglected to burgeoning, and, ultimately, it’s why I do the job.

Now the garden is starting its shutdown for winter, and it can be hard to keep the garden flowering at this time of year. There is still lots of colour from fruits and the turning leaves, but little in the way of new flowers to enjoy. However, there are three Autumn flowerers that I feel should find a home in every garden.

1. Japanese Anemones, Anemone x hybrida

Anemone 'September Charm' There are so many different Anemones that we have in our garden, and the best known are possibly the Spring flowering Anemones such as Anemone ‘blanda blue’, which look stunning grown in amongst grass (and also give you a good excuse not to cut your lawn for a little longer). However, the Japanese Anemones are deservedly becoming more popular as Autumn flowerers. They have a huge number of features I like- they flower for a long, long time, normally from September through to the first hard frosts. I have even seen them flower in December! They need full sun and prefer a damper soil, but they will tolerate partial shade or a drier soil- they simply won’t grow as fast. They are very easy to propagate, and will normally manage on their own, producing little plantlets at the base of the bigger plant. The plantlets are normally attached to the bigger plant via a dark black root- dig up the plantlet, plus a section of its black root and put it either in the soil or in a pot of soil-based compost, and it will reward you the next year.

This species has produced a lot of interest in recent years and there are a lot of new varieties coming out at the moment. Worthy of note is the older variety ‘Honorine Jobert’, a beautiful and reliable white flowering plant with a nice growth form. An early flowerer is ‘September Charm’, pictured left, which is also noteworthy for the petals that often have alternate pink and dark pink petals around the whorl of the flower. I saw a new variety, ‘Wild Swans’ at Tatton this year that really stood out as truly gorgeous. A denser, compact form, it has white flowers with blue backs to the petals. It is advertised as having a longer flowering period (mine didn’t, but it is only young. We’ll see next year).

2. Upright Sedums

Sedum Autumn JoyThis is another big group of plants, varying from the tiny trailing, yellow-flowered alpine varieties to the big upright sedums that I am going to discuss today. They have been thoroughly cross-bred and hybridised, to the extent that they don’t really have a latin species name any more, and are all just called ‘Sedums’. They are closely related to the yellow-flowering wild stonecrop plants you may get growing on your roof as a weed if you’re lucky. I assume that the alpine varieties are more closely related to these wild-growing stonecrops than the upright sedums of autumnal glory.

Unlike the Japanese Anemones above, Sedums are well-known as Autumn plants, but still very much worth a mention. They produce clusters of tiny, bright flowers at this time of year held above fleshy leaves. However, it is important to pick your Sedum carefully. The best Sedums, I have found, are the proud upright green-leaved and pink flowering varieties, such as ‘Autumn Joy’ pictured above, or ‘Brilliant’. To be honest, I can’t even tell ‘Autumn Joy’ and ‘Brilliant’ apart! The darker leaved varieties, such as ‘Purple Emperor’ tend to be prone to mildews, while the more recently introduced white flowering versions specialise in falling over at every opportunity- they look wonderful if well-staked, but strong winds will snap those brittle stems. They love a sunny and dry position, and if they get that, they thrive on neglect. They seem a little prone to lack of nitrogen, so an occasional feed with a lawn feed (not feed and weed though!) helps them greatly. To get the very best out of them, you can give them what is called the ‘Chelsea Cut’- this is where, in the week of the Chelsea flower show, you cut the stems right back to about half an inch above ground level. This makes them produce sturdier growth for the flowering season.

3. Schizostylis Coccinea

Schizostylis 'Jennifer' After a well-known species, it’s time for something more obscure. I sometimes wonder if this plant is not well-known simply because it is difficult to pronounce! It certainly deserves a better press than it gets. Also known as the Kaffir Lily, this lovely plant has a very long flowering period, as long as the Japanese Anemone’s. There are a range of varieties of different heights and colours, from the shorter, dark red ‘Major’ to the incredibly delicate pink of my favourite, the tall and slender ‘Jennifer’, pictured left. They prefer a well-drained but moist soil to really thrive, but will cope with a sandy dry soil fairly well. They are semi-evergreen, so it is best not to cut off the growth after flowering, and the flowering stems are quite easy to spot before they flower, since they have thickened bases compared with normal leavy stems.

Best of all, after a few years they can be divided and sewn around your garden. Even the smallest little offshoot, as long as it has both leaf and some root, can take in the right place. This is a flower that always causes amazement (and a certain envy) when planted in gardens, followed by the inevitable question: ‘Can I have a bit of it?’

Posted in The Plantsman | 2 Comments

A Garden isn’t a garden without…?

I think all of us, whether keen gardeners or not, have something that we absolutely must have in the area between our houses and the road. It’s an expression we all use: ‘A garden isn’t a garden without…’. But what, for you, is the thing that makes your garden truly enjoyable and fulfilling. Here are some of the things my customers have said they absolutely, positively must have in their garden. I’ll leave you to try and spot your own entries, folks!

A garden isn’t a garden without…

  • …A water feature
  • …Pet cats
  • …A model railway
  • …Symmetry
  • …A woodland area
  • …Wildflowers
  • …Edible plants
  • …The colour black
  • …A lawn

One of the above list is my personal choice. I’ll leave you to guess what it is. Have a think, though- what is the one thing you would love to have in your garden, and how could you set out to achieve it? It’s always worth being optimistic and think that one day, you may manage to get it…

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Long time no blog!

I had forgotten just how silly silly season is for the gardener! Every year, at the beginning of February, the calls start to cascade in from people emerging, blinking, from the prehistoric twilight of winter to realise that they have a garden! It is a lovely time of year- watching the plants start to unfurl and come into full colour, but very, very busy.

Things have calmed down (slightly) now, so here I am, blogging again. My apologies for being so delayed in writing. So, let’s move on and write something interesting…

Posted in Garden Geeks News | 1 Comment

Talk at Congleton Horticultural Society

Tomorrow evening, Wednesday the 16th February, I shall be giving a public talk at the Congleton Library to the members of the Congleton Horticultural Society on health and safety in the garden, entitled ‘How to maim yourself while gardening’.

The talk starts at 7:30pm and includes a gardening question and answer session and tea and biscuits afterwards. The cost is £2.00 for members and £3.50 for non-members. Hope to see you there!

Posted in Garden Geeks News, Hints and tips | 1 Comment

Do you leave your leaves?

Pretty, but a nuisanceThe wind is bucketing around today and tree branches and twigs are littering the roads. It’s recycling day, too, so there are plastic bottles strewn around the streets. On a day like this, deciding what to do with Autumn leaves is pretty much moot- there is no way they could be gathered up!

There are more leaves around that is normal at this stage in the winter this year, because of the early cold weather that hit as the trees were losing their foliage. In cold weather, worms, woodlice and other detritivores aren’t as active since they’re cold blooded, so the leaves aren’t eaten the way they normally would be. Not only that, but many leaf-eating creatures rely on bacteria in their guts to help them digest the tougher cellulose of the leaves, and the cold also slows down the bacteria. So, when freezing temperatures hit before the leaves drop, the leaves stay intact for a long time.

I have lost count of the number of composting bins and sacks I’ve filled with leaves by now! One thing I find though, is that people have different approaches to the whole leaf issue. In my garden, I prefer to leave the leaves on the borders and beds as an extra mulch against the cold, but many people find this far too messy and like their beds to be swept clean down to the soil throughout the whole winter. This does look a lot neater and I can very much understand why people want their gardens to look pristine, but the leaves do benefit the whole food chain. It protects the herbaceous perennials from the frosts, it gives insects somewhere to live and eat and therefore also gives blackbirds and thrushes areas to forage for food (they also kick all the leaves back onto the lawn as well- sigh.). A leaf mulch, though, can be a home for pests and diseases as well. Blackspot on roses, for example, persists on dead leaves as spores and then reinfects in the spring, so if you have a bad disease outbreak on your plants, it’s best to get rid. Foliage can also drown early flowerers, such as snowdrops and primroses. Leaves must also always be swept off lawns, since the grass dies off underneath them, leaving unsightly brown or black marks on your lawn in Spring.

So, it boils down to being a case-by-case decision. Do you leave your leaves or not, and if so, what are your reasons?

Posted in The Gardener's Year | 1 Comment

A Beginner’s Guide to Petrol

She'll never start it, pulling it like that!It’s a clear liquid that does fiery stuff. Lesson ended. What, you want to know more?

Well, alright then. In fact, I didn’t intend to write about petrol but about petrol engines. As a fellow gardener, Adrian of Bear Town Gardeners, once said to me: ‘Once you go petrol, you’ll never go back.’. When I first decided to start my own gardening business, I quickly realised that electric engines have their limitations. The biggest one is that they need cables, and those rapidly become a pain. I know plenty of people (thankfully, I’m not one of them) who have accidentally minced their mower’s cable. This is both dangerous and annoying. Thankfully, they all had the sense to use a circuit breaker. Needless to say, you should always use a circuit breaker with electrical equipment. Petrol engines are also more powerful and are more robust than electrical engines- electrical engines do burn out eventually, especially if used under heavy loads a lot.

However, as a new petrol user, I found a big, big problem: Starting them! When I first used a petrol powered lawn mower, I had to ring technical support to get the blasted thing started. Similarly, it took me two days to figure out how to start my Mitox multi-tool. I decided there was one of two problems with my method: either there is some weird magical voodoo involved that allows only the Chosen Ones to start petrol engines, or I needed to find out how they worked. I firmly told myself that if I can make computer printers work, I would not be defeated by any snotty little engine. So, I set out to find out how they worked, on a basic level.

The petrol engine is based around the combustion chamber and the piston. Petrol and air goes into the combustion chamber and is lit by the spark plug, causing an explosion. The explosion pushes the piston up, which normally drives some form of rotation that in return drives the pump which refills the petrol chamber for another spark to light. The clever bit is that this sequence is self-sustaining once it starts. Two-stroke and four-stroke engines vary in just how this rotation works, but for the layman like me, the important difference is that four-stroke engines need a separate oil and only work while the right way up, while two-stroke engines will work upside down and need the oil mixed into the petrol.

I once had the good fortune to go on a fire extinguisher training course, which, ironically, involved setting fire to things. I remember the trainer filling a trough with raw petrol and then threw a match into it. You can guess what happened next- whoosh, the whole thing exploded into flame which we then dutifully put out with powder extinguishers. So, if petrol is so inclined to exploding, why does it take so much effort to make an engine start?

The problem is that we want reliable internal combustion. I don’t know if anyone has ever made an [i]external[/i] combustion engine, but I’d imagine it would be of limited use. The combustion has to be controlled, and to do that, we need to feed the fuel at the right rate, control the volume of air to petrol, light it at just the right time, and get rid of the waste gases. So, let’s go through this one thing at a time.

First of all, the fuel is normally fed into the engine via the fuel line, which is a little tiny tube with a filter on the end. The filter stops any nasties getting into the engine. If this is blocked, no fuel. This only really happens in old engines, especially if the petrol sits about in the tank for a while. The fuel is pumped into the engine and in most two stroke engines, needs priming via a squishy little bulb that fills up with petrol when you squeeze it. Before trying to start an engine, check the two tiny clear tubes running from the petrol tank into the engine- when you press the squishy bulb, one should be full of petrol without any bubbles, and the other should contain a foamy mixture.

At the same time, air is also fed into the engine, via the air filter. Air filters, given the dusty environment gardening equipment works in, can often get blocked. I find mine tends to fill up with leaf fragments and maple seeds (maple seeds are those tiny yellow-coloured winged seeds that get everywhere) and now and again needs brushing off. Refer to your instruction manual to see how to remove and clean the air filter, and do this once a year.

The fuel and air are both fed into the next part of the engine: the carburetor. This, in my experience, is where you are most likely to get trouble. The carburetor mixes the air and petrol together into a foam. If the engine is cold, more petrol is needed in the foam and less air in order for it to burn. That’s what the engine’s choke does- it shuts off some of the air to the carburetor, making the mixture more petrolly (if that is even a word). The problem is that this petrol-rich mixture can start the engine, but it can’t run using it, and will quickly shut down if the choke stays closed. So, the choke ‘primes’ the engine to start properly. Depending on your engine’s design, the choke might cut off automatically after starting (such as on most Ryobi motors), or you may need to manually prime the engine so it almost starts, and then open the choke and start it properly (such as on a Mitox motor). The petrol-rich choke mixture can also fill the combustion chamber with too much petrol- this is the ‘flooded’ engine which has happened to us all at some point. How do you tell if you have flooded an engine? Well, the annoying thing is that it has no symptoms, other than the engine simply not starting. A good rule of thumb is that if you’ve tried to start the motor with the choke closed four times and it hasn’t started, it will be flooded. Thankfully, this is easily fixed. Opening the choke makes the carburetor make a more ‘normal’ mix of fuel and pulling the starter chord to get this normal mixture into the combustion chamber will clear out the flood, and also often will then start the engine.

So, the carburetor has taken care of the intake of fuel and air and made a combustible mixture. Now it has to be combusted, by the spark plug. A spark plug is a little ceramic doofer (to put it technically) with a small gap through which a spark arcs. It is normally found underneath an easily removed rubber cap connected to a wire. Most manufacturers recommend removing this rubber cap to remove any chance of accidental firing if you’re performing any maintenance to the machine. When the plug is in place, this happens within the combustion chamber, so that the fuel and air mixture in there is lit. You can check to see that you’re getting a decent spark by waiting until nightfall, removing the spark plug , placing it on its wire connector and then pulling the starter chord. The engine won’t start, of course, but the start chord winds an electrical generator called a magneto (very similar in design to bicycle light dynamos, less similar to the villain of the X-men films) and you’ll be able to see a little spark form on the plug (don’t hold it!). Spark plugs can be old, cracked, burnt out, carbonised or badly arcing. Your manufacturer’s instructions will tell you what spacing the spark plug should have, and you can easily correct it to this with a thickness gauge from any car parts supplier and a quick tap with a hammer. A wire brush will remove any carbon from it and you’ll be ready to go again. If it is cracked or impossible to clean, replace it. Spark plugs get a lot of hard use and replacing them can breathe new life into an engine.

Now the engine has its electricity, its fuel and its air. It is still not starting. There are two more things to check. First of all, just like a car engine, garden power tools can stall. I once was unable to start my pole saw (This is a chainsaw-like tool with the advantage that the scary cutting bit is a good six foot away from me on the end of a pole), and I eventually found that the chain had fouled and stuck, leaving the engine unable to turn over. Once I freed the chain, the engine started beautifully. Secondly, the muffler gets rid of the exhaust gases from the engine, and in a garden it is easy for it to get clogged with old leaves or dust. The muffler normally has a spiked metal heatsink and a safety guard around it, and needs to be checked for debris every thirty hours of work or so. It will be hot when you first turn your engine off, so wait for it to be cold before attempting to clean it.

I don’t check all these things every time I start a petrol engine. I only start to check if they don’t work after a few tries. I’ve found that every engine is different, and the more you use them, the more reliable they get. I think they all have a ‘knack’ to getting them started. There is something very human in the way they have their bad days and their good days, and I find I get oddly fond of my petrol gear (it’s either that or kicking it around the garden in frustration). Petrol power tools are always designed to last and normally so beautifully machined they are a pleasure to look at, like a minature steam engine.

One thing that definitely helps is not to be cautious. Modern internal combustion engines are very tough and well designed, and they can take quite a beating. Yank that starter chord like you’re trying to pull it out of its socket, brace the main chassis under your knee to keep it still while you start it, flick the choke and try running it with and without the choke closed.

But most of all, when you’ve pulled that blasted chord for the 30th time without anything more than a strangled mutter from the engine, remember that you are not alone. If nobody else had this trouble, why would there be a product on the market called Start Ya B*stard?

Posted in Hints and tips | 3 Comments

Signs of Spring

Robin on unfurling hawthornAt this time of year I’m always eager to see those very first leaves open, the new buds and the tiny little signs that maybe, just maybe, the weather might warm up again and not be awful. As I work, I’m now starting to see them. Or at least I can fool myself that I am!

The snowdrops are, of course, budding nicely, but I am also starting to see the daffodils come up. The grape hyacinths are making an appearance, but they’re odd little things and tend to bud at all sorts of times of year. More significantly, hydrangeas, underneath the drab leaves of yesteryear, have tightly furled green leaves just waiting to burst forth. Sedums have produced their new buds for the coming year’s show, just waiting patiently in the wings to give us much needed autumn colour.

The first true sign of Spring, though, will be the hawthorn leaves starting to open. They’re always one of the first and very easy to spot in the hedgerows of Cheshire. The turning of the seasons never ceases to amaze me- to watch dead twigs change and burst forth into leaf and scented blossom is astonishing, every single year. I’ve seen it happen 35 times already, and I hope to see it many more, but I sincerely hope I never lose the feeling of wonder it inspires in me.

Posted in The Gardener's Year | 1 Comment