How to choose a good gardener

Given the previous post on guerrilla gardening, several people have asked how they should go about choosing a “good” gardener.

Sadly, but unsurprisingly, there isn’t a simple answer to that. A gardener who is good for one task, or who one person thinks is fabulous, might not be the right person for a different task or a different person.

However, some guidelines may be helpful:

First of all, give some serious consideration to what you want a gardener for. Is it mainly managing lawns and hedges? Or do you have beds and borders with a diverse range of planting that need more careful management? Do you want to sustain a kind of status quo, or do you want to radically overhaul the garden?

Do you want to make the decisions without input from your gardener, or do you want somebody who will guide and advise you. If you know about plants and gardening, and in the main would just like some extra muscle to help you out, your task of finding a gardener (or possibly labourer) is considerably more simple.

Secondly, think about the business aspects of the arrangement: how much do you wish or are you willing to pay? How often will you want the gardener to visit? What time of day and/or day(s) of the week will you want them to come?

With these two points in mind, you can draw up a brief outlining the work you would like done. Don’t consider this as cast in stone, it is just a starting point for both you and your potential gardeners to negotiate from. Even if you feel you don’t have a clue where to start, let alone what you’d like the finished job to look like, you need to make the effort to define your requirements. If you don’t, you leave yourself wide open to abuse from unscrupulous tradespeople. Magazines and books are a great starting point to trigger inspiration.

Having decided what you are trying to achieve, it’s time to start looking for the person or team that can do it.

Have a look in your Yellow Pages, the local newspaper small ads, noticeboards at garden centres and nurseries, look out for gardeners working in your area, search the internet, ask friends and colleagues.

Some points to bear in mind as you search:

Recommendations can be useful, but if they come from somebody with very different requirements than you, they may not.
Qualifications: again, these may be useful, but so is experience. There is such a plethora of qualifications available, some that take years to achieve, some that basically take a couple of hours and an internet connection, it is very hard to know the value of any one certificate. Also, sadly, there are many fakes. What’s more, some fabulous gardeners are fairly allergic to taking any kind of exam, but that doesn’t lessen their ability. And every gardener has to start from somewhere and it may be that a keen, unqualified, inexperienced beginner will be a good investment in the long term.
Trade association membership: almost anybody can buy membership of some organisations, others are more discerning. In general, don’t set too much store by this.
Don’t be impressed by fancy, computer generated plans and designs. There are some amazing software packages that produce fantastic output, but if the gardener can’t implement it, it is meaningless.
As with all jobs, it is wise to seek several quotations. Any gardener who offers to quote without meeting you to view the site and discuss your needs is unlikely to be able to satisfy your requirements. All gardeners should be willing to visit and discuss requirements at no charge. However, don’t be surprised or offended if some decline to do this: it is better for a busy business to turn down work that they can’t commit to than waste your time. Also, don’t expect a free, comprehensive review of your gardening needs…

IN SUMMARY
1. Be clear about your requirements – write a list.
2. Set your budget (but realise that either your requirements or your budget may need to change).
3. Invite contractors to quote.
4. “Interview” those who come to quote:

  • Ask about the time it would take them to do x, y or z.
  • Ask whether they charge per visit or by the hour (be wary of by the hour charges).
  • Ask them about pruning / propagating / planting schedules to get a feel for their knowledge.
  • Ask them where else they have worked, what kinds of tasks they have experience in.
  • Check that they have adequate insurance.
  • Check that they will work at times and on days that fit in with you.
  • Most importantly – do you trust them? do you feel comfortable with them? are they easy to deal with? If the answer is “no” to any of these, then even if they are the most knowledgeable and best priced contractor you speak to, don’t hire them.

Hopefully you will find the ideal person or people to help you to achieve and maintain the garden you dream of.

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Guerrilla “gardening”

(This post is about waging war in the garden, not planting and gardening on land without permission.)

I have watched with a mixture of sadness and incomprehension the decimation of numerous gardens lately. Gardens that were filled with mature shrubs and resilient perennials; that abounded with wildlife all year round and were filled with flowers from spring to autumn.

Then the “gardeners” arrived, and skilfully razed all the plants to the ground. Well, not quite to the ground because the gardens are left covered with the stools of shrubs bristling above the bare earth: earth that will soon becomes verdant with nettles, thistles and brambles.

From so many perspectives this is a perverse thing to do. If the garden owners realised the value of their plants would they be so willing to be (mis)guided by their “gardeners” into decimating their trees, shrubs and perennials?

From a monetary perspective alone, the value of the plants in the latest garden I have seen disappear, which was only small, but very productive, would be in the region of £600, and that is a fairly conservative estimate.

It’s true that the plants may be rather old fashioned (Lonicera, Buxus, Hydrangea, Chamaecyparis, Spirea, Myrtus, Rosa etc – traditional plants from the 1950s and 60s), but it’s equally true that they were ideally suited to their situation, as was proved by their longevity.

But it’s not just about money: the habitat value is/was immense – it will take decades (or lots of money) to recreate anything resembling that mature habitat. Also there is the genetic value of the plants – stock which have proved ideally suited to their location, in this instance a very light soil in a garden blasted by salt laden winds. 

A further irony is that the “gardeners” now only have two suggestions to “improve” the barren wasteland they have created: pave it or put it to lawn. Both of which will need considerable further expense, particularly in removing the old stumps and stools.

And, perhaps most bizarrely of all, the garden owners are surprised that they have lost the privacy and seclusion of their gardens.

The curious case of cobalt…

In the late 19th and early 20th Century, sheep farmers across the world became increasingly aware of a devastating disease that caused their sheep to literally waste away and die.

Initial symptoms of the disease were a general failure of the animals to thrive, they also developed an abnormally coarse fleece. 

The disease went by many names specific to the locality where it occurred.  In the UK it was most commonly called pine, or pining disease – because the animals just seemed to give up the will to live, as though they were pining.  Other names included bush sickness and coast disease.

Stockmen had soon realised that the disease was associated with specific soils and geographic areas.  They also found that if they could move the stock to different pasture, they would sometimes recover with no further intervention. 

Initially, scientists thought the disease was caused by a deficiency of iron.  However, in the 1930s this theory was disproved and cobalt was identified as being the deficient nutrient. 

That’s all a long time ago, but I was reminded of it when the vet at a farm I was working on last year recommended giving the sheep B12 injections.  Coincidentally, at the same time a surprisingly large number of my friends, and their friends and families, had been given vitamin B12 injections by their doctors. 

Few farms bother testing their soils at all, and those that do generally only test for pH (to see if they need to lime) and maybe Phosphorous (P) and Potassium (K).  Hence, few if any would know whether their soils were deficient in cobalt (or any other micronutrient).

And what does that have to do with B12?  Well, cobalt is an essential constituent of vitamin B12; another name of B12 is cobalamin.  In ruminant animals, like sheep, cobalt is needed by the bacteria that live in the animal’s rumen and carry out most of their digestion.  These bacteria also synthesise vitamin B12 which is absorbed by the animal.  So, a deficiency of cobalt is thought to adversely affect ruminants through reducing digestive efficiency and causing B12 deficiency.*

In humans, B12 is essential for red blood cell formation and energy production (amongst lots of other things).  Humans need to obtain an adequate amount of vitamin B12 in their diet and the best natural sources are red meat, eggs, fish and dairy products.  A lack of B12 causes a type of anaemia.

So, maybe if the soil is deficient in cobalt meaning the lambs are needing an injection of B12, perhaps their meat, and the milk products from the dairy herd, are also going to be lower in B12 than might be expected.  And maybe that’s why so many people have been needing B12 injections lately…

The role of cobalt in plant nutrition is poorly understood, except for that in nitrogen fixing plants it plays a critical role for the nitrogen fixing bacteria.  Research is still on-going to find out more about its role in non-nitrogen fixing plants.

The take home message of this story is that the interactions between soil, plants/crops, livestock and human nutrition are incredibly complex and fascinating.  There are at least 15 essential mineral elements involved in plant nutrition – and that number tends to keep on increasing as scientists develop a better understanding of plant nutrition.

* for useful information on cobalt deficiency in sheep see the Teagasc factsheet at http://www.teagasc.ie/newsletters/farmingtips/2009/sheep-20090623.asp

Green waste compost

Few would dispute that the concept of composting green waste to create soil improvers, growing media etc. is a good thing. 

However, the experience of utilising such products is not necessarily so good. 

Contamination of the compost, particularly with plastics, but also things like hypodermic needles, engine parts, oil filters, mdf of unknown composition, rat carcases, etc. can make it off-putting to use. 

Contamination by things not so easily seen can be just as bad, if not so quickly apparent.  Weed seed burdens continue to be at unacceptably high levels, even in many PAS100 certified green waste composts.  There also remain continuing reports of herbicide residues causing problems – particularly, but not exclusively, aminopyralids.

A new and unlikely champion of quality control and improvement in green waste composting has entered the arena: the National Council for Metal Detecting (NCMD).  Apparently the amount of metal residue in the waste is causing them problems and concerns…

It is probably good to have input from such an unlikely perspective.  Anything that helps to improve the quality and safety of composted green waste has got to be a good thing.

Welsh poppies – Meconopsis cambrica

Welsh poppies

The Welsh poppy – Meconopsis cambrica – will cheer up any dull spot with its beautiful flowers in shades from pale yellow to rich juicy orange all the way from March to November.

If their cheerful beauty isn’t reason enough to include Welsh poppies in your planting, how about doing it for the bees?  Bumble bees love them, and the poppies’ long flowering period makes them especially beneficial to bees.  One of the benefits of growing native “weeds” is that they are often the preferred food plants of many insect species, presumably because they evolved together.

Welsh poppies are generally trouble-free, but they can be affected by a downy mildew (some type of Peronospora), especially in damp springs. They are also popular with Calocoris sexguttatus, a type of capsid bug.

Some people have problems germinating Welsh poppy seeds.  I have found that collecting some soil from the root area of the plant at the same time as collecting the seeds, and then including this when sowing the seeds can dramatically improve germination and success.  Perhaps there is some kind of fungal association that helps.  Who knows, but it works for me!

Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations in Welsh Horticulture

Did you know, in Wales, if you want to plant an orchard, establish a vineyard, or set up a market garden, you might need permission from the Welsh Government?  Really? Yes, really.  Even if the land is yours; even if it’s been in your family for donkey’s years: you’re not free to just do as you may wish with it.

There are lots of reasons why this is the case, this post focuses on the snappily titled “Environmental Impact Assessment (Agriculture) (Wales) Regulations 2007”.  Environmental Impact Assessments are generally referred to as EIAs.  And in fact, these Regulations (in the context of horticulture in Wales) actually rarely deal with actual Impact Assessments.  They deal more with assessing whether or not an Assessment is required.

Whether you agree with the Regulations or are outraged by them and see them as an infringement on your liberties, they are something you need to know about if you’re planning to start-up in horticulture. 

The Welsh Government provides quite comprehensive advice and guidance on the regulations and their interpretation at http://wales.gov.uk/topics/environmentcountryside/consmanagement/conservationbiodiversity/eiahome/eiadocs/?lang=en.  You can also speak to Welsh Government officers who deal specifically with EIA and are generally very helpful (yes, honestly, they are).

In brief, the rules say that if you are “intensifying” production on an area of “semi-natural” or “uncultivated” land, you need to ask permission first.  However, the definitions of these land types are specifically rather vague.

That may be it: you might ask, the Welsh Government might say, ‘no problem’.  Or, they might want to look a bit harder at your land and your plans, and then say it’s ok for you to go ahead.  Or, they might say that you need to carry out a “scoping” exercise to identify the likely impacts of your activities and produce an Environmental Impact Assessment of them.

Tiresome as complying with these requirements may seem, it is in your best interests to do so.  Failure to comply could be costly in the long run.

You may wonder how the Welsh Government would ever know what you’re up to, especially if you’re halfway up a hill in the middle of nowhere.  But the Welsh Government has extensive and detailed aerial and satellite images and data for the whole of the country.  And an army of interested parties is always ready to report any potential breaches to the officials.  The chances are that at some point in time, your new orchard, vineyard, field of potatoes or whatever, is going to come to the attention of a Government official.  The worst case scenario could mean that you have to rip up all your planting and reinstate the land to the condition it was to previously (insofar as that is possible…).  All at your own expense, and with no compensation.

So, the lesson of this rather dry story is be aware and beware.

Why is Hoplia philanthus called the Welsh chafer?

Welsh chafer (Hoplia philanthus) on Miscanthus

It seems to be a bumper year for chafers of all types. 

The emergence of these beetles always seems like a blessing to the birds who flock to devour them with gusto and to take them back to their greedy broods.  In the garden, they are a favourite fast food for blackbirds and even dunnocks and robins are happy to have a go at them, although they make a mighty mouthful for those little guys. 

Out in the fields and down on the dunes the air is literally buzzing with the little beetles and flocks of gulls, rooks, jackdaws and crows are making the most of them.

So, I got to wondering, why is the Welsh chafer so called?  The fab interactive map provided by the National Biodiversity Network (http://www.searchnbn.net/imt/?mode=SPECIES&species=NHMSYS0001718473) shows that they are not particularly prevalent in Wales, and indeed are widespread throughout England.  And descriptions of their life habit state that they prefer sandy soils – which aren’t that abundant in Wales.  So far, I haven’t been able to find the answer.

In general, these chafers are not a serious pest.  The bumbling adults will chomp on the edges of almost any vegetation, but they’re not around for long and don’t really do much damage (especially if the birds have their way).  Sometimes, but not usually, the grubs which develop in the soil and munch on plant roots, especially grasses, can be a bit of a nuisance, but on balance, if possible, try to leave the birds to sort them out.  They emerge just when the birds need a hearty feed for their hungry broods.

Also, beware if you pick a Welsh chafer up for a closer look, they are very quick to sink their jaws into anything that comes their way, including fingers.  It doesn’t really hurt, but it is quite a shock to feel the little guy chomping down on you and it will then hang tenaciously from wherever it has sunk its jaws!