Grapevine Blog

What on earth are you growing?

Understanding your soil type can make successful gardening so much easier

Chalk, peat, clay, loam, sand or silt? Knowing your soil type is a one of the keys to garden health and should be a primary driver of your planting scheme. Choose the wrong plants for your soil type and you will literally be battling nature, making it hard work to keep them happy while often having to make the effort to add extra nutrients that are lacking in the natural composition of the soil.

Here we take a look at the four most common soil types in the United Kingdom, giving an overview of each and providing some useful tips on planting that will work in harmony with your soil plus how you can make the most of the earth you’ve been given, giving nature a helping hand. 

Clay is number one for nutrients

We are all familiar with the reputation that clay soil has for being difficult to work, taking extra effort to dig over borders or needing the help of a cultivator. They also tend to ‘bake hard’ in summer, take their time to warm up and can be become easily waterlogged as we experience a wetter climate and concentrated bursts of rainfall. However, if you live in area of clay then it is not all bad news. Clay soils are full of nutrients that adhere to the fine clay particles and the fact that they retain moisture can be a positive for trees such as apple, pear and magnolia that we wouldn’t normally ‘water’ like a flower bed.

It’s also important to remember that using organic matter such as compost, leaf mould or even bark chippings in Spring can help to break down the clay and aid better drainage, as can adding grit if water-logging is a constant issue. Try tackling your clay beds in the Autumn before it gets too wet (never when they’re waterlogged or frozen) and then let the winter frosts break it up further. Specialist products such as a Clay Buster from Sarah Raven are also a great idea as they aid drainage, improve structure and release nutrients held within the clay, while being sustainably produced from bracken and manure.

Plants that thrive on a clay soil include Hydrangeas, Buddleia and climbers such as Common Honeysuckle or Lonicera Periclymenum. Perennial choices for clay are extensive, embracing Hostas, Helibores, Asters, Anemones, Rudbekia and even Geraniums will all live happily on clay. Roses thrive on it too. We particularly like the Shrub Roses from David Austin which are bred for health and hardiness, including the Emily Bronte and Dame Judi Dench. Shrubs are a good idea if you don’t want to dig over the heavier soil including Deutzia, Philadelphus, Weigela and Forsythia.

Giving your sand a helping hand

It’s hardly surprising that sandy soils will usually hold little water and drain well. They also heat up quickly and will be warm enough in Spring for early sowing, while also proving easy to cultivate as they tend to be lighter for digging. However, sandy soil can also be dry and lower in nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium so the best idea is to work with these characteristics and plan a scheme of acid-loving plants (also known as ericaceous plants) that thrive on a PH value of around 4-5 (with 7 as neutral and above this being alkaline). 

Lots of organic matter such as manure, compost or leaf mould will of course improve sandy soils, plus mulch or bark helps to reduce the ever-present challenge of moisture loss and the need for watering. Furthermore, digging over in late Winter or early Spring and then adding a slow release fertiliser such as Osmocote will give you a soil that is able to nourish plants for longer. If you want to minimise the expense and effort of constant soil improvement though, choose plants such as Lavender, Buddleia, Choisya, Verbenas and our personal favourite, Agapanthus. Climber-wise then look for varieties of Hedera, Jasmine and Lonicera While wisteria will also thrive. Japonica and Berberis are solid choices of shrubs on sandy soils as are Cortaderia varieties if you want grasses within your garden scheme.     

Chalking up success on alkaline soil    

Chalky soils are alkaline in nature with a PH value of greater than 7 and are sometimes known as ‘lime rich’ due to their high calcium carbonate content. They can be dry, shallow, low in nutrients and often contain flint which can be a pain when digging. While varying in type, from lighter and more peaty forms to ones that have a heavier clay content, their commonality is their free-draining properties and inability to hold water.  Adding plenty of moisture-holding organic matter or even importing top soil will be a regular pastime if you live in places such as The Chiltern Hills or on the South Downs, as will breaking up larger pieces of chalk so plants have more of a chance to establish a root system.  

While it is often not easy gardening on a very chalky soil, there are some plus points including excellent structure which means that they make very good ‘no-dig’ gardens. Chalk is also particularly well-suited to the more organic gardener as wildflowers naturally thrive on nutrient-poor chalk. Herbs including bay, thyme, marjoram, rosemary, sage and fennel will also be happy additions to a fragrant chalk garden.       

Your chalk-loving plants will obviously need to be chosen with care. Hardy annuals such as Californian Poppies create a natural looking display of colour on even the poorest soils, and if you leave the seed heads after flowering, they will pop up again next year with renewed vigour.  Peonies and wallflowers also tend to do well as do Hostas, Doronicum, Rudbeckia and Dianthus. Shrubs recommended for chalk include blue-flowering Ceanothus, Hydrangea,Ooleander, Deutzia and Lilacs. Plus we musn’t forget that the prettiest annuals donlt object to chalk, with Cornflowers, Calendula and Sweet Peas all happily at home on it.   

You’re on to a winner with loam

If you have loam in your garden then frankly, you have won the soil lottery. Loams are the ideal balance of three soils including sand, silt and clay with particle size reducing with each type. This is important as a mixture of sizes means that the soil is aerated, with oxygen easily passing through it. Loam also pulls off the master stroke of being able to retain water to keep plants hydrated, while also draining easily so their roots do not sit in wet soil and rot. Finally, the clay content means that nutrients cling to the soil particles, keeping plants healthy and well-fed throughout the year.

While occurring naturally in only a few lucky spots, it is possible to create your own more ‘loamy’ soil. Rather than just importing it by the bagful or even lorry load, it can be built over time using organic material that attracts living organisms that will break down leaves, bark and all sorts of manure if applied to a depth of a couple of inches in the Autumn and then dug over the following Spring.

Leave the peat in its natural home...

One word of caution is to avoid buying peat-based compost to add to your soil beds. Not only does it release carbon dioxide when added to your garden and compound the greenhouse effect, but the delicate biodiversity of peat bogs is being radpidly eroded by its commercial use. We are not big fans of it at The Green Reaper. If you do want to give your soil an extra boost, why not try Earth Cycle’s Peat Free PAS100 Compost Soil Conditioner, made form dense organic matter which both aerates clay soil and improves the structure and sandy soils while aiding moisture retention.

We hope that you’ve found this quick soil summary useful and it will inspire you to find out more about what lies beneath your favourite plants and shrubs. Our soil really is the unique life force that deserves to be looked after by us all.           

Life on the hedge!

A useful guide to the best of nature’s screening for your garden

From as far back as Neolithic times, we have used hedges (‘haga’ in Old English) to enclose and protect our land, separate cattle from crops and act as a demarcation of ownership. Even today, hedges are not only a seminal emblem of the British countryside but have become a beloved part of our garden. Hedges frame borders and lawns beautifully, and in the case of front hedges, they also compliment the first view of the house and set the tone for what lies beyond. With hedges taking their time to get established and often costing a great deal to plant, choosing the right one becomes important. We’ve therefore taken a look at some key buying criteria, the kinds of hedge popular in the UK and their suitability for soil types and climate challenges.  

What kind of hedge plants should I buy?    

Often a confusing aspect of buying hedging is whether you should get bare root, pot, trough or root ball plants. Bare root hedging plants are lifted in the winter (November to April) when they are dormant, and come with little or no soil around the root system although this is usually well-established. They are the most cost-effective option especially for taller hedging, but will need some extra TLC as you’ll have to ‘heel in’ the plants in temporary soil unless you plant straight away, and when you do plant, use a specialist product such as Rootgrow. Although bare root hedging can have a 10% plus failure rate, do still go for it if you are on a budget and can put the effort in.

Pot grown hedging plants tend to be most expensive and their main advantage is that they can be planted throughout the year. As they have stayed in the same pot, the roots are wonderfully formed and are robust plants that quickly and happily take to their new surroundings. In the modern era of everything ‘now’, trough-grown hedges provide a great option for instant screening, often coming in metre lengths that are pre-planted with around 3-5 plants, so hedges look mature from the start. Other advantages of troughs include not having to worry about correct spacing, branches that are already interwoven and again, the ability to plant all year round.

Finally, root ball hedging plants are a solid ‘midway’ choice especially for evergreens such as yew as they are a cheaper than pots which means you can afford taller plants. Grown outdoors for several years, the area around the root system is simply scooped out by a machine and encased in hessian or a biodegradable material, ready for delivery. As with bare roots though, the planting season only runs from November to late Spring.

If you need a more detailed overview of the many options for types of hedging plants, do check out a really helpful video guide at hedgesdirect.co.uk.

The UK’s most popular hedges

A hardy Hawthorn or ‘May’ hedge

There are two native hawthorns in the UK (Crataegus monogyna and Crataegus laevigata) and both are suitable as fast-growing, tough hedging plants that suit almost any soil while being thorny enough to keep out intruders. Although deciduous, hawthorn hedges are thick and therefore still difficult to see through in winter. The delightful pink hawthorn blossom in Spring is another advantage, as is the rich red fruit in the Autumn (called ‘haws’) that are berry-like in appearance and can be made into jellies or jams (beware though as the seeds contain cyanide) or used homoeopathically to treat the heart and blood pressure. Hawthorn or ‘quickthorn’ also provides fantastic shelter and food for native birds and insects, scoring well as a wildlife-friendly hedge. Often overlooked these days in favour of ‘trendier’ laurel and yew, hawthorn is a fabulous all-round hedge with a more natural countryside feel than its neatly-clipped alternatives that responds well to cutting back and is easily shaped.    

Evergreen and luscious Laurels

A healthy laurel hedge is like a ‘green wall’ in the garden, growing by up to half a metre a year and acting as an effective screen and noise dampener in even the smallest spaces, as it can easily be trimmed to a shallow depth of around 45cm. Cherry Laurel or Common Laurel hedge plants (Prunus laurocerasus rotundifolia) are versatile for shade or sun, chalky or clay soil and even salty ocean air, as well as being one of the most cost-effective hedges to plant. Laurel is actually a great alternative to a fence; choose between the dark and light green glossy leaves of the Common Laurel or opt for a Portuguese Laurel (Prunus lusitanica) with smaller leaves and a more reddish tinge especially with the new leaves, followed by clusters of white flowers in early summer. It is also worth considering a Bay Laurel (Laurus nobilis) which can make a great formal hedge in sheltered positions as well as providing fragrant and edible dark green leaves and yellow flowers in Spring.       

Beech hedges with natural, rustic charm  

There’s nothing quite like bright green leaves of a beech hedge bursting into life every April. Where we are based in The Chilterns, many choose it as a natural extension of the surrounding beech woods and the perfect enhancement to local brick and flint dwellings. The beech is a more rustic looking hedge that despite being deciduous, tends to hold on to its leaves after they turn warm orange in Autumn so it still acts as a screen in winter months, albeit not as dense. A bold alternative is the copper beech which produces stunning leaves of deep purple and rich red. In either case, beech hedges grow well on chalky or well-drained soil but are not wholly drought resistant and also do better away from frost pockets. A partially shady spot is perfect for normal beech while the copper variety is able to tolerate fuller sun without scorching. The best time to trim is in August when the leaves have time to re-establish, but besides the occasional cut back, a beech hedge is perfect for a more rustic garden, giving it a genuine woodland feel.  

Privet is everyone’s all-time favourite  

The evergreen privet hedge (ligustrum ovalifolium) is a British classic; hardy, dense and tolerant of most conditions even if coastal or windy, it delivers on so many fronts and has been at home in our gardens since its popularity burgeoned in Victorian times. What is more, the common privet is one of the most pollution tolerant hedges and is perfect for urban gardens. If you feel like planting something a little different, you can choose from a number of different varieties including Golden Privet (with brighter more yellow foliage) and Wild Privet (with narrower leaves). Although privet does need trimming a bit more than some other hedges, it looks splendidly smart when first cut or alternatively, just leave the oval-shaped leaves to fill out for a softer looking hedge which produces delicate white flowers in Summer and attracts butterflies and birds.

Sophisticated Box for borders   

Recently, many of us have resisted planting new box hedges because of the often rampant fungal diseases known as ‘box blight’ (usually cylindrocladium buxicola or pseudonectria buxi), as well as the ever-present threat of box caterpillar. While we can’t deny these exist, a healthy low box hedge, framing borders or terraces, adds charming continental structure to your garden. If you do get an attack, box blight can be treated a couple of times a season with products such as Westland Feed & Protect and regularly checking for caterpillars underneath leaves will help to keep them at bay, as will spraying specialist products such as Top Buxus Xen Tari. Is a box worth the extra effort and risk? We will leave the answer up to you but we still have one in The Green Reaper garden despite the challenges of the last few years!          

Are Yew on trend?

The hedge of the moment is the yew or taxus baccata. Planted either low as a formal trimmed hedge, avoiding the issues of box, or grown tall as a dense screen, it is thick luscious and as English as a country churchyard where it was traditionally planted to represent eternity and to stop cattle grazing! Yew is also a very tolerant hedge as long as it is not planted on boggy soil, and only requires a trim once a year, even withstanding a hard prune if it has been left too long and has become overgrown. Not quite as fast growing as some hedges (around 30cm a year), it is best to buy as larger plants as your budget allows which are suitable for planting most months except high summer. Once established, yew hedges last for many lifetimes so planting one becomes a legacy as as well as a home for all sorts of birds to nest including robins, greenfinch and chiffchaff, with the red berries also providing a valuable food source.  

How to cut your hedge

Finally, whatever hedge you choose, it’s important to cut it correctly to keep it dense and healthy while giving it the best chance to ‘bounce back’ after a good trim. Each variety will have specific requirements such a favoured month for cutting or the amount of foliage to be removed, but a good principle is to treat young hedges differently from established ones. So a new hedge will need to be shaped in Winter or early Spring before growth begins for the first couple of years, while an established hedge will just need a cut or two in the summer, once you’ve checked for nesting birds.

Traditional manual trimmers are great for small hedges and we particularly like the Wilkinson Sword Ultralight Shaping Hedge Shears with a 10 year guarantee. For larger hedges though, we have a comprehensive range of trimmers to suit every hedge from cordless to electric, and pole to petrol so you can be confident of finding the right tool for your job. When cutting, it’s always best to slightly angle the sides of your hedge out towards the base so that sunlight can penetrate down into the hedge.

Looking after a hedge “signifies vision, persistence and patience” according to Rita Buchanan, accomplished author, gardener and craftswoman, adding that “shaping a hedge is the closest most of us will ever come to doing sculpture” while “shearing is very empowering – it gives you an exhilarating sense of control and achievement. You can stand back afterwards and say, look what I’ve done”. We couldn’t agree more. Let’s get ready to celebrate the British hedge this year.  

How green is your grass?

The eco-friendly guide to a lawn that you and nature will love

From Pimm’s on the lawn after a lazy Summer afternoon, to the hum of the mower and smell of freshly cut grass, there’s nothing like a lush green space as the centrepiece of your garden. These days though, we increasingly appreciate that good gardening is also about the husbandry of native insects and minimising our carbon footprint. So can we still define the ‘perfect’ lawn as neatly manicured stripes, reminiscent of a Wimbledon court, which often takes chemicals to maintain?  Lawn care has now entered a new era, and at The Green Reaper, we’ve got some easy and eco-friendly ways to keep your grass green in every sense of the word.

Lawns can have a positive environmental impact

Although they’ve sometimes had a bit of a bad rap environmentally, a lawn is a positive on many counts. For example, unlike paving or hard surfaces, grass actually absorbs both carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide while producing oxygen as ‘clean’ air with an average-sized lawn providing enough for a family. It also reduces erosion from storm water runoff and traps harmful dust and particles. Urban areas with lots of trees and grass also tend to be cooler as well as reducing noise and benefitting our well-being.

To mow or not to mow?

There can be no doubt that mowing less is a good idea for a number of eco reasons. By letting your grass grow a little longer, the blade will be bigger and the photosynthesis that takes place and feeds the roots will be increased. Secondly, the shade of longer blades both protects the soil underneath from drying out and means that ever-present weeds are not exposed to sunlight that helps them grow. And even if you can’t resist your weekly mow, just make sure that you keep your height adjustment at a reasonable level so as not to ‘shave’ the grass which will then be desperate to grow back and use up valuable nutrients from the roots to do so.

Another great idea is to support insects in Spring and Summer is to join the re-wilding revolution and create a section of the lawn which you don’t mow at all. This still allows you to have practical areas for child-play or pure aesthetics, while creating your own mini-meadow of wildflowers which often grow naturally in patches left to their own devices. Daises, speedwell, buttercups, clover and even cowslips are just some of the delightful possibilities when we change to a less controlling approach. At the end of Summer, ideally in September, just cut the wild patches down to a few centimetres and remove the debris or clippings so that tough wild grasses don’t take over.

Feeding, weeding and watering

Perhaps one of the simplest but most significant ways to make your lawn care more eco-friendly is the kind of feed and weed killer you choose. We are huge fans of the Viano range which is totally organic and available from The Green Reaper as a slow-release fertiliser and moss killer called Mo Bacter which improves the soil as well as feeding the grass. Endorsed by the RHS, it doesn’t leave the black debris of dead moss (as this eaten by the bacteria within the product), is animal-safe, will not harm borders or stain patios and even eliminates the need for scarifying post-treatment.   

As our summers seem to get hotter, another concern is often the amount of water required to keep a lawn looking green. If you want to maintain your regular watering routine, why not invest in a water butt which now come in a more pleasing designs and will actually be a feature in your garden. Our favourites are from Owl Hall and include ones with modern styling as well as a more traditional barrel effect with a 250 or 500 litre capacity. Buying a water butt pump will enables you to water the grass more easily and Hozelock do a sturdy and cost-effective range.     

Equally though, there is the simple option of not watering as much on the basis that brown grass is simply dormant and will come back to life with the inevitable arrival of rain. Even watering deeply once a week is, in fact, far more beneficial for your grass than a blitz with the sprinkler every day, as it gets moisture deep into the roots, especially if done in the early morning when temperatures are lower.        

Push mowing for a cleaner cut

Now let’s turn our attention to choosing a mower with greener credentials. There’s actually a good range of more environmentally-friendly options these days. If you have a small to medium lawn, then there’s always the option of a hand-propelled push mower which have come a long way since your Dad walked one up and down the garden in his drainpipes. Now lighter and often with stay-sharp titanium blades, they cut the grass cleanly and save on fuel as well as being free from maintenance such as oil or spark plug changes. Plus you’ll be keeping fit while mowing in noise-free peace, listening to the birds early on a Sunday morning rather than upsetting the neighbours with the roar of a rotary. Some push mowers, such as the classically shaped Webb, have a grass collection box while others just distribute the clippings back on to the lawn where they act as a mulch, restoring nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium back into the lawn. And if stripes are still all-important, just choose one with a cylinder.           

Charge of the battery brigade 

Cordless and lithium battery-operated mowers offer another alternative to fossil-fuelled machines, especially for medium or even larger gardens. While batteries still need charging, the latest lithium-ion ones last much longer and the electricity we all use to charge them is increasingly coming from more renewable sources such as wind. Because model range is so extensive, a good rule of thumb is to choose one with a battery running time that covers how long it takes you to mow the grass. For example, if takes under 15 minutes to mow your small lawn, opt for one with battery power of 2.5Ah (amp hours), while average lawns that take around 30 mins to mow need a 4 or 5Ah battery. Finally, a big lawn space that takes you over 45 mins to cut, ideally needs a 7.5Ah version. A great all-round mower that we recommend is the zero emissions GreenWorks 48V Push Cordless Lawn Mower that comes with two on board 2Ah batteries that double the power, a twin charger and extra environmental credentials by having a mulching option as well as a bag, so you can redistribute clippings and add nutrients back in into the lawn.

Minimise your carbon footprint

Even major players in the petrol mower market such as Hyundai are starting to take their carbon footprint seriously, planting a young sapling with every power product bought in 2020, towards their overall target of 100,000 trees. There’s no reason why all of us can’t put something back environmentally and planting trees is one of the easiest ways of taking CO2 out of the atmosphere and releasing oxygen back into the air. So with your more eco-friendly lawn, why not create an area shaded from the Summer sun, sitting under some newly-planted native alders, bird cherry, crab apple or dogwoods with a mowed path between your trees and wildflower patches. Sounds absolutely idyllic doesn’t it?  

There are so many options to create a more eco-friendly lawn that the grass really is greener if we make even a small effort. As no less a figure than Francis Bacon, the English statesman and philosopher, once said ‘nothing is more pleasant to the eye than green grass kept finely shorn’. There is indeed a unique beauty to a lawn and looked after with a little more thought means it will not only look just as lovely but you’ll be caring for the environment too.       

Are you getting the natural high?

Why gardening is good for mind, body & soul

As our horizons shrank with the pandemic, and our constant appetite for new experiences was curtailed, so we were forced to slow down and look around us again, even just from the kitchen window, and wonder at the sheer magic of nature. A heightened awareness of the seasons was only part of our lockdown story though; it was participating in the natural cycle of growth that reconnected many of us to a fundamental pleasure. We delighted in gardening again.  

So exactly why do we get such a feel good factor from our green spaces? Besides the sheer physicality of gardening, with every activity from pruning to planting increasing our heart rate, it also releases endorphins, the feel good hormone. The ability of gardening to alleviate depression, anxiety and stress is well-documented by many, including Monty Don, who describes gardening as a ‘healing’ process that allows him to work through problems, “I’m physically engaged, using all my concentration, but in a fairly mindless way. I’m not thinking about what I’m doing, I’m just doing it”. Because gardening is about being in the present and living in the moment, it has the ability to lift us out of ourselves, raising our spirits with every snip of the secateurs or turn of the fork.    
 
There is also no doubt that a timely benefit of gardening is how it can press the reset button on modern life. In a world that is just too fast, and where digital-living demands instant results, gardening reminds us that Mother Nature embraces patience and growth takes time. Increasingly, many of us now seek to turn the dial down on technology and enjoy a more natural pace that’s in sync with the rhythm of the seasons. In hectic lives, gardening is quiet, gentle and unhurried.      
  
Gardening also lets us know that nature is bigger than us in a positive way. As social media puts pressure on us to curate and share ‘the perfect life’ so gardening is a reminder that despite our best efforts, we cannot be in charge of it. We all know the feeling when a carefully-pruned climber refuses to flower, or a well-tended lawn becomes full of moss, but these challenges are actually life-affirming. There is a comfort in the acceptance that we can’t possibly always be in control; we just need to do our best and then let nature run its course. Usually the rewards are delightful, but sometimes it just doesn’t matter if they are not.   

The feeling of well-being from giving plants a green-fingered hand can even be life-changing. As Sue Stuart-Smith, a psychiatrist and avid gardener, explores in ‘The Well Gardened Mind’, there are many examples of how gardening rescues us, from helping with her Grandfather’s trauma post WW1, to progressive prisoner programmes that create a sense of self-esteem for the first time. For others, gardening can be a creative, sensorial and even spiritual outlet, allowing them to plan their plots, play with planting ideas and express themselves through the colour and shape of flowers, trees and bushes, almost like painting a canvas.      

While being part of the cycle of birth and decay that gardening embraces is often a highly personal experience, it is equally a communal one. Organisations such as Thrive help the isolated to connect with others through gardening, while the growth in community gardening, especially in cities such as London where charity Urban Growth has over 30 green spaces, proves that the communal pull of nature unifies ages, backgrounds and culture.           

Gardening really has got it all. Whether we’re working a huge patch or looking after a window box, it’s the tending of grass, shrubs and flowers that feeds our souls. The next time you're out in the garden, just stop for a moment and think how lucky we are to have this unique pastime. As the beautiful and wise gardener, Audrey Hepburn once said, “to plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow”.

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