These are definitely strange times we are living through. You will remember the 10 plagues of Egypt: Water turning to blood, frogs, cattle death and the death of the first born etc. Well those Egyptians had it easy, apart from the cattle and the death of the firstborn we gardeners suffer most of the others during the normal gardening year. But nowhere in the Bible does it mention a plague of ants or the death of cuttings which tends to make me think that Cruella (my absent wife) is behind these occurrences. She remains at our English house taking care of our idiot son, and recently in a FaceTime call she asked me if I was missing her? without thinking I said I was too busy to miss her. As soon as the words left my mouth I knew I would live to regret them. Her mood darkened instantly, her eyes turned blood red, the cup of tea sitting in front of me started to boil and I saw a flock of small birds fall from the sky behind her. Despite my protestations of regret she merely muttered something about being made to miss her then suddenly the electricity went off in the house the dogs started howling and I fell off my chair in a dead faint.
Which is basically how I ended up with a plague of ants and all my cuttings dying. Anyway, let’s get on with this after all it’s supposed to be about gardening.
14th April. Things I have been doing lately:
🌱 🐜 Dealing with all things lawn. If you have a lawn then now is the time to get active. By now you should have done at least one cut of the grass and killed off broad leaved weeds by applying weedkiller. If possible you should also have given the lawn it’s first feed. If however, like me you cannot get to any open garden centres, then the feeding will have to wait.
My first task this week was to repair and seed a patch of grass in our afternoon lawn. This was a patch which I had already tried to repair at the end of last year but had failed as ants had carried away all of my expensive grass seed overnight and hidden it underground for food. The photo below shows the state of this patch of lawn and my equipment ready for the big reseeding.
Just before I was about to start – and remembering my ant problem from last year – I carefully checked this area of lawn. Sure enough there they were waiting for their annual feed of grass seed. Upon closer inspection some were sporting napkins whilst others were passing out knives and forks. Unfortunately, they had to be dealt with as the grass seed I was using “Kikuyu” is very expensive costing 18€ for a small box. The first photo below shows the remedy to the ant problem. The second photo shows the worlds most expensive grass seed.
Once the ants had been successfully dealt with and the grass seed scattered over an area of lawn raked with a leaf rake. It was possible to get on with the process of reseeding. In order for grass seed to get the best possible start, and to protect it from birds you need to cover it with a thin layer of soil. Once this is completed then you have two options. You can either tread the the soil down to ensure the seed comes into good contact with the soil, or, as I prefer, you can roll the area with a heavy roller. Some people don’t like rollers as they think they will crush the seed, but they don’t. The first photo below shows the start of the process of using a riddle to spread the soil over the seed. The second shows my roller action.
Once the reseeding was completed it was time to tidy up the path edges. Wherever grass meets a pathway it will attempt to grow over it and given 20 years or so probably would succeed. However, in the meantime you need to get your trowel, lift the edges of the grass where it creeps over the path and then trim the excess off with scissors or one handed shears. The picture below shows my handiwork.
Whilst walking back to the shed to celebrate my fascinating morning of grass based activities and my triumph over the ants I glanced sideways whilst passing a climbing Hoya, and there waving back at me were Farmer Ants. The ants were happily farming Aphids for the sweet honeydew substance they produce, whilst the Aphids were being protected by the ants and allowed to suck the life out of my Hoya. A quick glance around the vicinity found them at it on a nearby Oleander. This symbiotic relationship (protection rackets) suits them both, but not me so again the ants had to go. The first photo below shows my poor Hoya. The second photo shows a Farmer ant happily at work (sorry about the quality) the final photo shows the Aphids happily colonising my Oleander. Click on each photo for a larger view.
✂️ Taking cuttings: This is the best time of year to take cuttings and you should be busily going round all your plants and looking for vibrant non flowering shoots to take as cuttings. To be honest normally I have great success with cuttings and by this I mean that I can normally propagate up to half the cuttings I take. However, this year because of the rain, Cruella’s curse and my obvious lack of skill I have lost nearly every cutting. To overcome this dismal record I have now reverted to a process that I haven’t done for a number of years, and is a bit like the processes we are all using to escape the coronavirus, whereby I cover the planted cuttings with a plastic bag.
The starting point when taking cuttings is a bit like the coronavirus advice to keep washing your hands. Though in our case it’s to make sure that your pruning knife or secateurs are sterilised between each cut. To achieve this I have used the alcohol that I usually utilise to cauterise my many bleeding wounds from gardening and I also stole some of Cruella’s heavy duty make up removal pads (industrial strength) to wipe the blade. The photo below shows my reliable old pruning knife that I have had for over 30 years together with my non drinking alcohol.
Once you have suitably sterilised your knife, then you are all set to go a cutting. Look for strong “whippy” stems that are not flowering. As you take each cutting quickly put it into a plastic bag to stop it drying out (this can make a big difference). I take four cuttings at a time. I then rush back to my potting bench, remove all but the top two/four leaves from the cutting and then dip each stem into hormone rooting liquid before planting in a pre prepared and watered pot. Plant four around the rim of a four inch pot. The final stage is to place the pot inside a plastic bag and seal the top with garden twine or wire. Some garden books will tell you to place the plastic bag over the top and seal with an elastic band around the pot. But this is fiddly and often results in you decapitating the cuttings with the elastic band as you try to take it off. Once you have the cuttings sealed within their plastic bag then place them out of direct sunshine for about 2 weeks or until you see some growth. Make sure you open the bag up every so often to check it hasn’t dried out. The photos below show the process in action and the final photo shows my potting bench filling up with cuttings.
🏆 A gardening success story. When you are a gardener – like me – who plants from seeds and cuttings, you have to plan ahead as it can sometimes take years to see your work come to fruition. If you prefer to just go out and buy plants and stick them in, then that is fine too, but you are missing out on the real mysteries of gardening. However, there can be drawbacks from my approach, all too often things will fail to flourish, die or be trampled by maurading Labradors and you see your years of work destroyed or just fail to live up to your expectations.
Well not this time baby! Three years ago I cut down an old unproductive orange tree, leaving part of the trunk and some branches as a support for climbers. I planted Jasmine and Pink Trumpet Vine as climbers and under planted with a mixture of Margeurites and Aeoniums with a structural blend of other plants. I also planted two groups of Flag Iris bulbs. Now whilst this area has been interesting over the past three years and has had good interest throughout the seasons. What I was waiting for was the final flowering I had imagined. And it came this year and all the waiting was worthwhile as you can see from the photo below.