Category Archives: How-to

Summer pruning the espallier apples

Earlier in the year I posted a ‘how-to’ on training espallier apple trees and in that post some summer training and pruning is mentioned. I’ve just done it:

Espallier apple in summer

Espallier apple in summer

What I did:

1. I tied in the new laterals to the diagonal canes. These will be lowered to horizontal this winter.

2. I cut side shoots back to a few leaves. These will be shortened further in the winter.

3. I replaced the cane frame because I still haven’t been given the wires I’ve been promised since these trees were first planted! Given each horizontal tier of branches represents a year, and the first year’s efforts were destroyed by hungry goats you can figure out how many years it has been. I can’t do it myself since it’s particularly beloved brickwork. Resigned sigh…

How to Train an Espallier Apple Tree

Espalliered apple trees are a beautiful and fairly compact way to grow apples in the garden. They need the support of a system of wires or similar  (you’ll notice in the pics mine are getting by on a cane framework at the moment – I’ve been nagging for the wires to appear for ages… ) but they don’t have to be against a wall – they make an attractive divider in the garden. If you are going for a wall, South and West facing walls are best. On North facing walls the trees don’t get enough sun and on East facing walls the early morning sun can melt frosted flowers too quickly, damaging them more than if they’d had the chance to slowly warm as they would on a West wall.

When buying your trees you need them to be on a dwarfing root stock and it’s best to mention to the nursery that you are planning an espallier – I didn’t and their initial form had to be overcome somewhat. A maiden whip (single stem) is a good starting point. Also you need your flowers to be fertilised, so if you are growing more than one ensure they are from compatible pollinating groups and if only growing one tree you need a self-fertile variety. When choosing a variety avoid any tip bearing trees – you need spur-bearing varieties. You can espallier prune pear trees, but stone fruit trees (cherry, plum etc) perform better with fan training.

Prune your apple trees in late winter/early spring using clean, sharp tools and angle any cuts so that water will not sit on them. Always cut to a bud that’s facing in a useful direction – not into the wall or the main stem for example.

I’ll start with a pruning diagram and then explain step-by-step. If you have a new tree, or one that is younger than mine you simply complete the steps until you run out of branches!

Espallier pruning diagram

Espallier Pruning

1. Decide at what level you want your next tier of horizontal branches. I’ll be going for four layers on this tree. Three or four is a good number, most won’t manage more because of the dwarfing root stock. You can have just one for a ‘stepover’ tree.

2. Making the new tier of branches. Cut the main growing stem above the third bud above your desired branch level and tie to the support. These three buds will form the new main stem and the two branches. If this is to be the uppermost tier, cut above two buds as you won’t need a new upright stem.

Espallier pruning the top tier

Making the next tier

Throughout the next year – tie the new lateral shoots to canes at 45 degrees to the horizontal as they grow.

3. The New Laterals. Lower the new lateral shoots to the horizontal wire (gently!) and tie them in. Cut these branches back by a couple of inches to an upward facing bud.

In late summer – cut back shoots that have arisen from the laterals and the stem to 3 or 4 leaves.

4. The established laterals. Cut back the shoots you trimmed in the summer further to one or two buds. Also entirely remove any crowded or awkwardly placed shoots. Trim the tip of the lateral back by a couple of inches to an upward facing bud if the tree is still growing into its space, or further if it’s filled its allotted space. Replace all ties.

Don’t skip the summer pruning – if you do it all at once in winter you may force your tree into biennial bearing and then you’ll miss out every other year until you can coax it back to annual bearing.

And that’s it!

Pruned tree


Edited to add: I did my summer pruning and photographed it.

How to make a grass labyrinth

I made a labyrinth in mown grass last week – it was really simple.

Labyrinths aren’t technically mazes as there’s only one path in – so Theseus really didn’t need the twine, the twerp! They’ve been used as substitute pilgrimages or walking meditations and some have believed that your demons will follow you in but then be unable to leave again, leaving you conveniently demon free (I wonder if it works for bankers?)

So if you’ve got a patch of grass and some demons to lose, you too can have a labyrinth. They’re dead stylish too, all the best gardens have one.

Grass labyrinth

Labyrinth in grass

For a grass labyrinth you need:

– A patch of grass about 50ft square and the grass needs to be long enough that once you mow the shape into it, it will be clearly visible. This is a pretty big slab of grass I know but I used my little 16″ cut mower to make the paths for this one and if it was much smaller and it would be somewhat cramped. (See *note at the bottom about a smaller version)

– Some markers. I used a shed-load of 3′ canes. Some of that spray paint that disappears after a few days would be awesome.

– String. The more the merrier.

– A measuring stick. I used another 3′ cane. It needs to be at least twice the width of your mower cut. Any less than 3′ though and, again, you’ll be a bit cramped. I’ll be assuming a 3′ measurement for the rest of these instructions.

– A mower

– This crappy diagram printed out and shoved in your pocket:

How to draw a labyrinth

How to draw a labyrinth

Firstly we’re looking at the black shapes in the diagram.

1. Place a cane to mark the centre of the black cross, this should be about 1/3 in from the front of your area and in the middle from left to right.

2. Then use the canes and string (or other marking tools) to make the cross, with each of its arms twice as long as your measuring stick, so the whole thing was 12′ across for me.

3. Then place the L shaped bits in each corner, 3′ in from the arms of the cross. Each arm of the L being 3′ long.

4. Then put a cane in at each black dot on the diagram, 3′ in from the L shapes.

Cool, now we’ve got the core of the whole thing. Fabulous!

5. Now we’re about to start with the curves. Marking these can be a pain – I used canes but did have to keep careful track of which cane marked which curve. If you have a little more time it would be worth using string for each curve, as well as for the central cross. Each curve should be 3′ from the previous one. Don’t just rely on your measuring stick here though – use your eyes too; what looks right is more important than exact measurements.

6. Start with the curve marked 1 on the diagram, moving outwards and clockwise each time. Carefully measuring, marking and eyeing each curve the whole time as you go until you finish with the outer edge, number 8.

7. Once you’ve marked it up walk it once or twice to make sure there are no mess ups.

Hurrah! It’s marked out.

8. Mow a path through it, making the corners and turns all nice and curved. Getting it round those tight corners so they curve neatly can be interesting but we all need a challenge now and again!

9. Now you’ve got to remove all those canes and bits of string.

Grass labyrinth

Grass labyrinth

And finally – Enjoy!

(This was made for our Amazing Mazes event on the bank holiday weekend. If you happen to be in the area you could pop in and trample my carefully mown labyrinth.)

* I believe a smaller one can be made by omitting the L shapes in the diagram, so the centre core consists of a cross with a dot in each corner. Start with a curve from the centre upright to the top-right dot, then the top left dot to the right arm of the cross and so on.

Rose pruning – the climbing ones

Welcome to my rather belated follow-up about climbing roses. I hope you find it helpful!

All the things I said about tools, hygiene, angles of cut and roses being as tough as nails in my how-to about pruning shrub roses also apply here. You might also need a ladder – be careful! No leaning out from the ladder or placing it on wobbly ground. It’s naughty and I never do it myself. Honestly.

As before, the first step is to stand back and look at your rose. If it has an existing framework of main stems are there gaps in it? Are any existing bits of the framework dead or diseased or just really old and gnarly? Are there any conveniently placed strong new stems that could be tied in to fill these gaps and replace the dead bits? If there’s no framework yet, which are the strongest looking stems? Are these strong stems flexible and in good positions?

Climbing rose before pruning

Just a quick note on framework stems –  it is best to tie them in as close to horizontal as possible as this encourages more flowering. This means a roughly fan or ladder-shaped framework is best. Which stems are framework stems? Any you choose to use that way really – healthy strong looking ones for preference.

Now to start hacking! Cut all the stems back to two or three buds from the framework except any you’re saving for the framework. Careful – this is a prime moment for accidental amputation of the wrong bit and I don’t mean fingers (although that would be worse as they don’t grow back!) Remember to cut back to a bud pointing outwards and upwards if possible. Then completely remove any dead, diseased, crowded or badly placed bits.

If this is the climber’s first year you won’t be cutting much, if anything, off at all. Having said that, it is worth shortening your new framework stems by a few inches to a strong bud as this will encourage branching and expand your framework for next year.

Here’s a close up example of using a stem to create a fuller framework:

Climbing rose before pruning - close-up

You can see there’s a bit of a gap in the middle of this area and to the left there’s a strong and flexible stem which might be a good candidate to fill the gap, as long as it doesn’t break when I try to bring it round. This can be a problem if you want a stem to go in a very different direction to it’s original growth – if you have a stem that is already going in the right direction it’s better to use that.

Climbing rose after pruning - close-up

You can see I successfully filled the gap and cut back all other stems to a few buds.

So once you’ve chopped off everything that needs chopping tie in your new framework stems and replace old ties. For tying in I mostly use twine but have also discovered Soft-tie which consists of a wire core covered in rubber and I now use it for holding up the main support points of the heftier roses which can suffer badly from twine ties. A big old rose is quite a heavy beastie!

And that’s it. Ta da! Job done.

Climbing rose newly pruned

So that’s climbers. What about rambling roses? Ramblers generally have masses of small flowers, rather than single larger ones, and are often a lot more vigorous than a climber. They can be treated as a climber if there isn’t really the space to just let it go, otherwise just keep it within its allotted space and cut out anything dead or diseased and the occasional old stem.

Good luck with your roses and try not to fall off any ladders!

Rose Pruning – the shrubby ones

Well it’s that time of year again. I’ve sharpened the tools and donned the gloves that are never quite thick enough. I’m going to share a quick how-to on here as rose-pruning seems to be something people are a little scared of sometimes. I’ll follow up with a post on climbing roses in a week or two.

You need sharp and clean secateurs, loppers and a saw. Oh and gloves unless you enjoy laceration. I keep a bucket of made up Jeyes fluid in the shed and between areas of roses and at the end of the day I give the tools a swish and a clean to avoid spreading diseases about the place.

Rose before pruning

First things first – a healthy, happy rose is about the toughest thing in the garden. Even if you cut it off to an inch above ground level it will probably be fine, so don’t stress. Having said that … the idea of doing this with a hedgtrimmer… erm. Yes. Well, if you want your roses to look like a tangled mess, prone to disease and reduced flowering, go ahead. They’ll survive. Probably.

Any cuts you make should be as small as possible and angled so that water doesn’t sit on top of the cut. You’ll sometimes see ‘at 45 degrees to the stem’ as the required cut angle but frankly as long as water won’t sit you’re fine.

Rose stem showing pruning cut

First have a stand back and look at your rose. Is it wonky? Are there dead bits? Learn from my mistakes – really look at the branch you’re about to snip, follow it right to the end. How many times have I made a cut and groaned as the wrong bit of plant has fallen to the ground? Ho hum.

So now to the cutting! Remove any dead or diseased branches right to the base and then anything rubbing on other branches. I also remove anything crossing the centre of the bush as I want to keep the middle clear to create a nice open shape with plenty of airflow. You might also want to remove one or two of the older, gnarlier looking branches if it’s looking a bit crowded.

Then cut all the remaining branches back to a bud which faces away from the centre of the bush (or otherwise in the direction you want the rose to grow, like away from a path or wall) to about 1/3 of its original height. Note – I’m a little vicious and err on the side of a somewhat brutal interpretation of ‘1/3’. Seems to work fine…

Stand back and admire your work (and try not to swear about that bit that broke when you cut it and you had to cut back further than intended).

Rose after pruning

I am nowhere near this brutal with old english roses or miniature ones although the same general principles apply. For species roses and others which tend to spring in an arching fashion from the base I remove a few of the oldest stems but otherwise leave them to their own devices.

I’m sure most of my readers have no need of this post but thought it might help the occasional passer-by. Good luck with your rose surgery!

5 Little Steps Towards a Better Lawn

At Layer Marney Tower we are not overly precious about our lawns. We have areas of lawn which used to be occupied by trees or borders which have never quite recovered. Some of these spots are also our highest traffic places being just where the wedding guests like to hang out while the photographs are being taken. We also actually welcome the occasional daisy and have great affection for clover (in small doses) and so our lawns will never qualify for Great Lawns of the British Isles, should such awards exist.

Having said that I have felt that they could be improved, after all, if it’s going to be nonchalently hanging around in the background to the wedding photos a lawn needs to be reasonably attractive. This year I have started doing five simple things that have helped to bring the lawns up a step or two and I thought I’d share them in case any one else has been despairing over turf.

1. I raised the cut on the mower and started mowing more often. Like any other plant grass needs its leaf. Ok it’ll take being chopped about far more regularly than any other plant but if you take off too much at once you shock and stress the plant. Councils seem to be the worst offenders for leaving the grass for a fortnight and then shaving it to within an inch (or less) of its life. I aim to mow the formal lawns twice a week when it’s growing well and the less formal ones about three times a fortnight. If you’re taking off more than half the leaf at once – stop! Think of the poor little grass plant. If I’ve missed a cut for any reason (usually the weather) I cut it a notch or two higher than normal and then come back a couple of days later to take it down to the ‘right’ height. ‘Leave it long, cut it often’ has been my mantra this year and it’s definitely helped. Longer grass also takes traffic and drought far better than short grass.

2. I water. Sometimes. Rather than watering a whole lot, my aim is to keep the lawn from browning. Yes yes yes I know the recieved wisdom is that you just leave it to go brown and in autumn it will perk right up again! It will indeed, but drought stress is stress on the plant. A plant which is already being mown and trampled rather a lot and which we’d rather like to look nice when people visit or have a wedding here. So in particularly dry weather I’ve given the grass a really good soak. When there are signs of drought stress in the areas which tend to brown first but everywhere else is looking fine I’ve just done those areas and this selective watering seems to have worked quite well.

3. I pricked compacted and browning areas. We had a drought this Spring which broke in June. I helped the lawns to recover by pricking the surface of the soil in particularly dry areas. I’m not talking full on aeration here – I took a garden fork and pushed it into the soil by 1-2 inches and repeated this all over worrying areas. This helped water to get down into the soil, rather than just running off. It was a morning’s tough work but it was worth it!

4. I leave the clippings on. The ride-on mower I usually use for the less formal lawns (and the formal ones when I’m in a real hurry… shh don’t tell) is a mulching mower so always leaves the clippings on the lawn. This year however in dry spells I’ve been leaving the clippings on the formal lawns too and as I’m cutting more often I don’t get a ‘mown hay’ effect as the bits are pretty small. This helps retain moisture and it’s amazing how much quicker this makes the job too.

5. I’ve fed the lawns. Ok that’s usually routine maintenance isn’t it? Well, yes. But there has been at least one year when between the weather requirements, not doing it around the public, and other restrictions it just has not got done. So this year I’ve been a bit more proactive on jumping on time slots I can do it in and have done it twice, with an autumn feed due soon. This gives the grass the wherewithall to tough out wear and tear, drought and any diseases which may threaten.

I have to admit that once we were over the drought the Summer has been obligingly damp which has meant that the sprinkler really has only been out a few times. And of course there are still some areas which require some more focussed attention and a little investigation. On the whole though I’m pleasantly surprised how much effect I’ve seen from such minor changes to my routine.

How to Prick Out Seedlings

This ‘How to’ post is something of a trial. My friend Mara suggested the idea so I thought I’d give it a go.

Ok so lets assume you’ve sown some seeds and got some happy little seedlings:

These tomato seedlings are pretty big for pricking out. The first leaves of a seedling are its seed leaves, in these tomatoes they are the long thin ones. The next set will be ‘real’ leaves and you can prick out from when they start peeking out from between the seed leaves. The earlier the better in many ways as the roots are growing as quickly as the leaves and as they grow they get all intertwined with the roots of the next seedling over and then at pricking out time there is more swearing.

You need some pots to pot up into and a mix of compost suitable for seedlings. The garden centre sells ‘seed and seedling compost’ but if you’re like me (stingy) you can mix it up from multi-purpose compost and sharp sand (not builder’s sand), grit or vermiculite. I use a mix of roughly 3 parts peat free multi-purpose to 1 part vermiculite for my seedlings (for seeds I use more vermiculite). You need special compost because the compost beloved of fully grown plants is too rich for seedlings. Your seedling’s existing compost needs to be moist,but unlike some people I don’t water them just before pricking out because then the leaves stick to each other and it’s just inconvenient, but the compost does need to be moist really. If they’re dry, give them a water and come back in an hour or two.

When pricking out you need to hold your seedlings gently by their leaves and only their leaves:

Really don’t hold them by the stem, it hurts the poor dears. The entire vascular system is going through that flimsy little stem and if that gets damaged it’s pretty much over for the little thing. You wouldn’t hold a baby by the neck now would you? So gently gently tease your seedling out of its compost. I often tip out the pot so I can tease the roots with a plant label while I gently pull the seedling. Once you’ve got it dangling, make it a little hole in the compost, put the roots in and gently firm down. If you’re pricking out a little late and it has quite a little rootball (this never happens to me of course, ahem) you might need to half fill your pot, then insert the seedling, and then top up around it before firming gently.

Now water. I use a fine rose on my watering can. You may need to knock some of the drops off the seedlings so they can stand upright.

At this point they often look slightly drunken. It’s as if they’re going ‘what the heck happened there?!’ but they soon stretch their toes out into their fresh new compost, breathe a sigh of relief and settle in to grow like stink.