Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Focus on Cuttings


 This winter season may be severe and prolonged and all outdoor plants are well and truly dormant, but gardening is very seasonal and whilst it may not be possible to do much soil cultivations, there are many tasks that can be started now.
A lot of trees, shrubs, roses, fruit bushes and ground cover plants get pruned during the dormant season and it is these prunings that can make perfect cuttings when you wish to increase your stock of plants.
This is also the time to start sowing onions, and sweet peas if they were not autumn sown. If you have a good selection of geraniums and Impatiens which you wish to retain and have taken cuttings in autumn these will now be rooted and in need of potting up. I have kept the same geraniums going for many years as I have got really good colours for a brilliant summer display.
It is always very satisfying to produce your own healthy strong plants from seed and cuttings, rather than buy the more expensive mature plants. When training to be a gardener in the Parks Department in the early sixties the competitive spirit was always very strong and there was always someone who had bigger plants, more of them or had more flowers than the next. Propagation of all plants was a mark of your skills. Rose budding at the Camperdown  nursery sorted out the men from the boys as a high percentage take, speed of budding and clean grafting were closely monitored.
Although there is not a lot of fruit and vegetables grown in the parks, you were expected to acquire gardening skills in all topics, so training covered vegetables, fruit and greenhouse work as well as planting trees, shrubs, roses and bedding plants, grass cutting and landscaping.
It was at Duntrune Terrace demonstration gardens that I got my propagation skills honed under the watchful eye of a very skilled head gardener. My first home grown fruit bushes started off from cuttings grown from the gardens own stock of the best black currant varieties.
It was all part of the training exercise of course.

Hardwood Cuttings Fruit

Black currants, red and white currants and gooseberries are all propagated similarly as mature one year old shoots about pencil thickness. Cut them to about six to eight inches long with the lower cut under a node and the top cut above a bud. Leave all the buds on unless you wish to grow them as cordons or on a bare stem as with gooseberries. For these remove all the buds except the top two or three. Gooseberries are best on a leg to help picking as the weight of crop often pulls the branches down to the ground where the fruit gets splashed with soil.
Insert the cuttings about four inches apart in open ground in rows, leaving about one third of the cutting above ground. Leave them to grow on for a year before lifting them in the dormant season to go to their permanent spot.
If you are planting a new row of blackcurrants, you will only need to buy half the required number, as it is necessary to prune a new bush down to a few buds to get it established. Each new bush will normally have about four stems which after pruning will give you four good cuttings. Plant all four cuttings together in a square about four inches apart in the place of another bush.
After three years you will not see any difference in size of the bushes.

Hardwood Cuttings Ornamental Shrubs

There is a wide range of ornamental trees, shrubs and roses that can be propagated from cuttings very similar to black currants.
Poplar and willow trees must be the easiest and you should achieve 100% rooting almost every time. Take one year old shoots and cut to about ten inches long and insert into rows four inches apart leaving a third above ground.
Cornus, philadelphus, forsythia, buddleia and most roses can be propagated as above, but other ornamentals may need a wee bit more care.
Often the best time to take these hardwood cuttings is either two weeks before or after leaf fall or in March just before dormancy breaks.
Cuttings are taken about six to eight inches long, and some, e.g. pyracantha are better with a heel. Prepare a bed in a cold frame or other sunny sheltered spot mixing a lot of grit and some old compost into the soil to open it up, improve drainage but still retain moisture. Cuttings are lined out about four inches apart in rows six inches apart.
Commercially cuttings are often bundled up in batches of about twenty then plunged into an open frame full of sand or grit with soil warming cables underneath in late autumn. This gives cool tops so nothing breaks into growth, but the bottom heat encourages the base of the cutting to form a callus. The bundles are checked regularly, and then as soon as roots are seen to break out of the callus, they are lined out in another frame in ordinary propagation medium.
Allow all the rooted cuttings to grow on for a year before lifting, keeping them watered, and in summer protect them from strong sunshine.
For those with less sophistication it is possible to use deep boxes filled with a mixture of sand and old potting compost to take the cuttings in smaller bundles and sink it onto the top of a fresh compost heap where there is still some heat. Leave them there till mid March then line them out, when they will have callused over and some may show root initials.
The yellow flowered Jasmine is very easy to grow as long stems often fall onto the ground where they will root very readily. Hydrangea petiolaris also roots itself into soil and moist walls at every opportunity.


Many shrubs, e.g. cotoneaster, pyracantha, rowans, and saskatoons grown for their ornamental or edible berries can be propagated from seeds extracted from these berries.
Once the berries are mature remove them and squeeze out the seeds. Wash any remaining pulp off the seeds as it contains germination inhibiting hormones, then either store them for a few weeks in a fridge, or sow them in trays and keep them outdoors. Keep them watered and protected from birds and mice. Over winter them outdoors, then in spring you should get a good germination of young plants. Grow them on for another year in soil or pot them up individually.

Greenhouse plants

Grape vines are very easy to root. I take pruned shoots about twelve inches long in January and over winter them in bundles in my compost heap. In March I cut all the plump healthy stems into one bud cuttings. Cut each one above a bud and leave two or three inches of stem below that bud. These can be inserted individually in pots, or spaced out in a cellular tray and kept in the greenhouse. By mid summer they will be rooted and ready to pot into a bigger pot. Once well rooted they can grow very strongly and as they are quite hardy grow them outdoors all summer and autumn.

Geraniums that were started off as cuttings last October are now rooted. They were inserted in wide shallow pots at five to a pot, but they soon filled the pot. I take out the tops to make them branch and let light into the middle otherwise at this time of year they would get very leggy.
They are now branching very nicely so potting them up into an individual pot and giving them more space will keep them short jointed.
I try to keep my greenhouse unheated as it is better for my overwintering grape vines, but it is too cold for geraniums. They can take a few degrees of frost, but not over a long period, so I keep mine on the windowsills in the house until March when I feel it will be ok to give them cold greenhouse conditions.
If a late frost threatens I do have a heater I can use for a short period.
Sweet peas can now be sown any time in January or February if they were not autumn sown. Last year they were autumn sown then overwintered in my cold greenhouse. That allowed me to plant them out early, but unfortunately this was followed by a cold wet spring and an even wetter summer so the display was miserable. This year I am not sowing too early. The seeds are soaked over night in a glass of water, then sown the following day at three seeds to a pot and germinated in my studio. Soon after they emerge they will be hardened off before going into the cold greenhouse. They should be ready for planting in early April on a good day.


Saturday, 22 January 2011

A Fresh Start


 The beginning of January is the perfect time to look back over the previous year and analyze your gardening activities so that you can learn from your failures, build on your successes and plan new ventures. This applies to both my gardening activities as well as my painting projects.
Of course we are always at the mercy of our unpredictable weather and climate change brought on by global warming seems to be giving us a more extreme climate. New weather records get broken at a more frequent rate, whether it is the warmest summer, coldest day, the highest rainfall, or the heaviest snowfall.
Keeping in touch with weather forecasts is more important than ever before so we can plan seed sowing, planting, weed control and soil cultivations at the best times. It is even more important to make sure any spraying for pest, disease or weed control is done when a few days dry weather is forecast. There is nothing more infuriating than to have completed crop spraying then see it all washed off a few hours later. Last year was a very difficult year for spraying as the rain was never very far away.
The garden and allotment have never been subject to routine. There are so many new and improved plants to try, and ones that were previous favourites have gone out of favour if they have not been able to cope with a wetter climate. However I may be making a wrong assumption. Just because we have had four wet years and two severe winters in a row does not mean you can expect this to be a pattern. Prior to this we have had years of mild winters with hardly any snow, 2006 was a heatwave and my memory from childhood records seeing the first winter snows every year in November
However, it is great fun to experiment, so although I have tried many grape varieties outdoors in Dundee and discarded most of them, I will still continue with other varieties. Our climate may well get warmer and drier again and maybe I just have to find the right variety for Scottish conditions.


With winter starting at the end of November, gardening has been put on hold till the snow melts and pruning and digging can continue. However the winter landscapes have been brilliant for painting ideas, so I have been going through the phase of planning art projects for the year ahead. The recession has had a big impact on art sales in the middle price bracket, but less so for smaller paintings. There is also a trend towards simpler images on unframed large stretched box canvases. So projects are being planned for a series of watercolour winter landscapes with minimalistic images, and some contemporary figure studies on large box canvases.
Now that could keep me occupied till next autumn unless of course we get a great summer and I will find it hard to choose between the spade, the hoe, the trowel or the paintbrush.


The wet years have really sorted out the roses. Climber Golden Showers was always very reliable as was shrub rose L D Braithwaite, a gorgeous deep red, but they just could not withstand attacks of blackspot disease. Spraying with Dithane was not effective with the continual rain. They and many others have been dug out. The climber has been replaced with shrub rose Graham Thomas which is much stronger and will be trained as a climber.
I have a lot of very steep banks around the house where access to cultivate is a problem, despite a fair bit of terracing so these will be planted with drift of Fuchsia Mrs. Popple, Shasta daisies and some flag iris. This permanent planting will help to stabilize the bank.
Some of the bank was bedded out with spray chrysanthemums last year. I am hoping that these will survive the winter outdoors and grow again this year as a drift, of close planted stems that will not need any attention. Time will tell.

Vegetable Crops
Most vegetables cropped very well last year resulting in gluts of the usual courgettes, cabbages, lettuce, beans and sweet corn.
This year I must grow a wider range of crops and less of each as I am only feeding two people.
Although last year was a bit too wet for onions, I grew a Sweet Spanish Yellow variety from seed.
It was late, but produced an excellent crop that stores very well. I still have plenty firm onions left. I will grow that one again this year but must sow it a bit earlier.
Another success to be repeated this year was a super sweet type of sweet corn, and Swiss Chard Bright Lights has been very prolific, so I do not need so much, especially as we use a lot of Kale leaves in stir fries, and that is just as healthy.
With brassicas both cabbage Golden Acre for summer and Traviata, a savoy for winter will be grown again as well as Brussels Sprouts Wellington.
In the greenhouse it is hard to get a better tomato than Alicante for a large fruit full of flavor and my favourite cherry type is Sweet Million though the seed is expensive and not supplied in large quantities. Do not sneeze when sowing that one.

Fruit Crops

I grow just about every fruit available for eating fresh in season, in jams, compotes all year round, puddings, scones, pies, crumbles, smoothies and juices. It is very important to make sure selected varieties are the best for our local climate and soil. I have not always got it right, so there are many changes to be made this year.
I have several apple trees that provide eating apples from August till mid winter from those in store.
However,  I have too much Arbroath Pippin, (the Oslin) which is very early but does not keep so some branches will be changed to new varieties by grafting this spring.
Pears have the same problem as I have a large Comice tree that gets wiped out by scab in any wet year. Grafting will also be done to replace some of it. I will retain some Comice just in case we go back to warm dry summers again, as there is nothing to beat Comice in a good year.

Raspberry Glen Ample suffered a terminal root rot disease slowly killing the row over several years. The symptoms indicate it could be phytophthora. This fungus disease is spread in soil water so could be a problem if drainage is poor, or during prolonged periods of wet weather. I suspect the disease came in on infected new raspberry canes. There are several strains of phytophthora, some being quite specific to one plant host whereas others can attack a wider range of plants. I must have the latter as I also lost a white currant, and a gooseberry and some blaeberries also got infected. These were growing beside the raspberries, but lower down the slope. Different strains of this disease causes potato blight, sudden oak death and many other plant diseases.
I have replaced the raspberries with a new variety called Cascade Delight bred at Washington University and selected for tolerance to root rot. Hopefully the new canes planted last year will give me some crop this year. I will be sorry to lose my Glen Ample as it is an excellent variety.
I will also replace the white currant but will choose a different location.

I planted a new perpetual strawberry, Malling Opal last year, but it did not make a lot of growth so I will need to assess its performance this summer. It was replacing another perpetual, Flamenco which stopped producing runners, then died out. Perpetuals help to extend the strawberry season into the autumn without any protection.

Last year I tried another superfood fruit called the Chokeberry. Botanically, it is known as Aronia melanocarpa and the popular variety in Viking. The fruit can be a wee bit astringent if eaten fresh. Even the birds leave it alone till the end of summer, but it makes a terrific jam, compote, a deep red wine, and a very healthy smoothie. The berries are almost black and very high in vitamin C and antioxidants. The Aronia has one of the highest levels of anthocyanins of all known plants. The health benefits of aronias are being studied by food scientists. I have a batch of these sown in a tray and hope to have some plants by summer.

I now await delivery of a new cherry tree on the very dwarfing Gisela 5 rootstock, as well as a new grape vine called Solaris which I will try outdoors on a south facing fence, and hopefully I will see some white seedless grapes from a new vine, Perlette planted last year in the greenhouse.


Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Winter Pruning of Fruit Trees


 The dormant season from November to March is the perfect time to tackle the winter pruning with   pruning saw, loppers and secateurs. Other garden tasks have been put on hold while we wait on better weather once all the snow melts, but pruning is mostly above ground level so deep snow and frost are no obstacle as long as you have warm clothing and the promise of some hot pumpkin or beetroot soup once the job is complete.
Pruning fruit trees and bushes has always been seen as a skill beyond most amateur gardeners and only acquired after good training and years of practice. Even in professional circles I have found great gardeners who never did break down the mystery of pruning. One expert propagator highly regarded for his skills in raising plants never got his gooseberry bushes to bear any fruit.
In reality the principles of pruning are similar for all fruit production although each type has its own needs.

I try to keep my pruning very simple and may not follow the book. I leave that to those undergoing training, who have to follow the Royal Horticultural Society precise methods so they understand the principles and get through their exams.
Then there is the commercial growers who wish to produce quality fruit with high yields, but with the minimum of labour input and aimed at producing trees that can all be picked from the ground.
My methods combine RHS principles applied with a simplified version of commercial practice.
My first aim is to produce a strong well shaped tree or bush, then prune lightly to encourage a balance of fruiting wood and replacement shoots. These must be well spaced to allow light into the tree to ripen up young wood so it can initiate fruit buds.
Pruning also removes weak growth, diseased shoots, crossing branches, branches broken with heavy crops or just too near the ground.

Apples and Pears
Pruning method varies depending on whether the trees are bush, cordon, espalier, stepover or fan trained. All of these can be spur pruned by summer and winter pruning. Cut back all side shoots to five or six leaves in mid summer, then again back to two buds in winter to encourage formation of fruiting spurs. In time reduce the size of these spurs otherwise you may get too many fruits at the expense of size.
Leading main shoots are reduced by a third in winter.
My apple and pears are grown as bushes so I do not spur prune them. I carry out replacement pruning of fruiting branches which have got too old and bent down with heavy cropping. This is done with loppers and saw, not secateurs, and I always look for a young shoot to replace the branch being removed.
If the tree becomes too vigorous, I do not feed in spring, but at the end of August. This feed is too late to encourage fresh growth so the tree uses it to build up fruit buds. Late pruning once spring growth has just started will also help to curb an over vigorous tree.


These are always pruned in summer to minimize the risk of Silver leaf disease. The spores of this disease are around from late autumn to late spring and could penetrate any cut surface.
Form a well balanced tree with five or six main branches in the early years. Plums tend to crop heavy and pull limbs down, so replacement pruning is perfect for them. There is usually plenty of young shoots to replace any limbs removed. Replacement pruning is carried out as required and not necessarily every year.


These are usually fan trained against a warm south facing wall or fence, so pruning is carried out to keep the tree in this shape, and allow ample sunlight onto the ripening fruit. Fans have four main branches on each side. These are constantly being replaced by young shoots that are allowed to grow for one year producing new fruit buds that overwinter to make the following years crop. To allow sunlight into the centre of the tree remove all unfruitful shoots in late winter and during summer prune out weak growth, upright shoots and any showing signs of disease. Remove some foliage around the fruit in summer to help colour up the fruit.


Summer fruiting types fruit on canes produced the previous year. These are removed after cropping or in winter and the new shoots tied in. If the variety produces a lot of canes thin these out so that canes are spaced out at four inches apart tied along the top wire with a running knot.
Autumn fruiting types are cut down to ground level every winter as they fruit on new canes.

Blackberry (Bramble)

These are similar to summer fruiting rasps but the canes grow a lot bigger so have to be tied in to a wire framework where they are looped up and down to save space. Train the new canes up the centre and above the fruiting canes to keep them out of the way.
Tayberry and Loganberry is pruned the same way.


Immediately after planting cut the new bush down to a couple of buds on each shoot. These prunings can be used as hardwood cuttings to grow into more bushes. Blackcurrants fruit on one year old shoots and older wood. Prune after fruiting or in winter by cutting some older branches down to ground level or to a young shoot coming from near the base. Aim to replace all growth over about four or five years.

Red and White currants

These can be grown as a bush or a cordon as they fruit best on spurs. Allow the bush to form an open centre with about six main shoots. In early summer cut all side shoots to about six inches then in winter further reduce these to two buds. After a few years start to replace one or two main shoots every year with new young shoots.


These fruit very easily as long as bullfinches don’t go pecking out the buds in spring. Pruning is mainly to make picking easier, so keep the centre open and also remove any low trailing shoots otherwise soil could splash the fruits. Remove any crossing shoots and overcrowded areas.

Saskatoons and Blueberries

Saskatoon  fruit bushes produce berries on all wood, so pruning is only carried out after several years to keep the plant down to an easy height for picking. Every year remove a branch down to ground level to encourage new sucker growth to keep the bushes young.
Blueberries also require little pruning for the first few years as they are quite slow growing. In later years cut some older branches down to younger shoots coming from the base or lower down the plant to rejuvenate the bush.

Grape vines

In Scotland these are either grown under glass or on a sheltered south facing warm wall. Under glass grow them on single upright rods spaced about eighteen inches apart and in winter cut every shoot back to one or two buds of the main rod. Shoots emerge from these spurs and form small fruit bunches. Allow these to grow then prune them to two leaves after the bunch. Then for the rest of the growing period cut all other growths to one leaf. In early autumn thin out more shoots and leaves to let sunshine ripen the fruit. Pruning wall trained vines outdoors is just the same, though grow them on a well spaced framework of main branches rather than rods.


Tuesday, 4 January 2011



 Orchids came to Britain over a hundred years ago as plant explorers brought back new exotic plants from every continent to grow in Britain. They were very rare at first and difficult to grow but demand was huge as having orchids became a status symbol of the wealthy.  Collectors went in search of new orchids as imported plants could be auctioned for very high prices as orchidmania swept the country.
In my training years, orchids were quite rare as no-one had any and I did not know anyone who had them. I could only read about them in magazines and gardening books.
My first sight of an orchid was on a camping trip in the sixties up Glen Nevis. I saw this very unusual small flower spike at the side of the footpath. The plant had yellow spotted leaves just like I had seen in books. I was quite excited at discovering my first orchid, and although it may not have been very exotic, it was growing wild in Scotland. Further up the glen I was amazed to find more of them growing in massive drifts all over the place. Fortunately I had my Kodak Brownie with this new colour film so I could record my find.
Many years later while working in Livingston I found that wild orchids are quite common and enjoy boggy land in areas of high rainfall. A lot of Livingston was built on peat boglands. I had been asked to estimate a price for weed control around this new factory where weeds had started to encroach into the paved areas. I couldn’t believe what I found, as it was my spotted orchid trying hard to survive after someone had planted an industrial estate on its natural habitat. There were hundreds of them, and all in full flower. It was a beautiful sight, though soon to be very short lived. A team of men in white suits and face masks arrived with sprayers as nothing could stop progress.
Have they no soul!!!
Today the mystery of orchids has somewhat disappeared as easy to grow types, e.g. phalaenopsis and Cymbidiums are now available in every garden centre and books abound with stories and growing instructions for the beginner.


Orchids grow in almost every country around the world so there is tremendous variety. Breeders can enhance species and hybrids to produce plants suited to domestic cultivation and environments.
There are many types native to UK, though these grow in the ground preferring damp areas and boggy ground though they often grow on banks above wet areas so the roots are not in standing water. These types are known as terrestrial but the common ones we see flowering in garden centres are mostly epiphytic in origin.
These do not grow in soil, but cling to tree trunks and branches in tropical forests where there is high humidity. They have clinging roots which hold the plant in place and aerial roots which hang below the plant and absorb moisture from the air as the root surface has a blotting paper ability.
They do not draw on their host plant for nutrients but are happy with nutrients washed down in bird droppings, rainwater with atmospheric nitrogen and small amounts of leafmould produced by natural falling leaves.
The woodland canopy, mostly evergreen, affords dappled light and protection from strong sunlight. As orchids come from all over the world there are those that are happy with our temperatures and others that need a bit more warmth.


When you purchase your first orchid I would always recommend starting with one of the easier ones such as the Phalaenopsis which are usually quite reliable and very rewarding when it repeats the flowering every year. They will come in pots with ample holes for drainage and planted in special orchid compost. This is often a mixture of bark chips, coarse graded peat, charcoal to keep the mixture sweet, nutrients and trace elements. This should be sufficient to keep the plant happy for two to four years before repotting is necessary depending on type. It is best to repot in spring as growth commences.
Plants can continue in flower for a few weeks, then occasionally some may send up another flower spike from lower down on the existing spike. Once flowering is over allow the plant some dormancy. Keep it in a cooler spot, and water less often, but do not let it dry out. Do not feed at this stage or repot. Never leave the plant in standing water as they all require free draining compost.
Place the plants in a well lit room, but out of any direct sunlight. I have a strong white phalaenopsis that just loves our bright bathroom where daily showers provide it with high humidity. If growing it in a living room, give the occasional light spray to the leaves and wipe off any dust.
Orchids are not heavy feeders so just give them an orchid feed once every two to four weeks while they are growing.
Orchids have thick leathery leaves that are not too troubled with pests or diseases.


It is often easier to buy new plants rather than propagate from an existing plant. Commercially many orchids are produced by specialist growers using meristem culture producing many plants in selected clones.
Orchids may grow as a single stem from a rhizome and sometimes produce basal offshoots that can be separated for growing on once they have produced their own roots. Others that produce many pseudobulbs, or swollen stems, or just many flat stems may be split up and repotted. Sometimes it is difficult to get them out of their pots as the roots cling onto the insides of the pot. Before potting up, remove any broken, diseased or dead roots, and make sure there is plenty of drainage in the bottom of the pot before adding orchid compost. Repot into the nearest size for the plant as they prefer to be rootbound before they settle down to flower. Do not put the aerial roots into the pot when potting up.
Although orchids may produce seed, it is not easy to grow as each type requires a symbiotic relationship with its own species of mycorrhiza. Breeders use a special growth medium in sterile flasks for their seeds then bulk up using meristem culture.


These have been extensively bred and crossed and are now available in many colours. Although they are fairly easy to grow they enjoy plenty of warmth and in winter can take direct sunlight for a few months, but keep them shaded from spring onwards.
They can flower most of the year with six or up to twenty or more flowers on one spike. Keep the stem staked otherwise it hangs over and could pull over the whole plant. They are very popular as cut flower in North America.


Cymbidiums are very popular and another good one to start with as they are very adaptable. They flower in autumn to spring producing many spikes with up to twenty flowers each lasting up to ten weeks. The plants can grow quite large and are happy in a cool room. They require more frequent repotting because of their strong growth. Again, these are excellent for long lasting cut flower.


These orchids are terrestrial, not epiphytic so there are no aerial roots or pseudobulbs. They grow from rhizomes just below ground level and produce medium sized flower stems with just one or a few flowers. They like to be kept lightly shaded. Propagate by division in spring and repot every second year in the smallest pot available.


These epiphytes are very flamboyant with large colourful flowers which are often highly perfumed.

There are many orchid societies throughout Scotland and the UK and every year the World Orchid Congress puts on a fantastic show. This year it is in Singapore on 14 to 23 November 2011.