Category Archives: plants

A tale of two roses – pruning to restore vigour

A few years ago, a client asked me to remove the suckers from a climbing rose growing up the back of her house. At the time this rose wasn’t part of my work and the job fell to the man who cut the grass because the client hadn’t the heart to take the task from him. I was disappointed but accepted it and got on with the rest of the garden. Until I was asked to work on the rose I hadn’t looked at it properly and, to my horror, I realised that although there appeared to be plenty of growth trained against the wall, it was almost all suckers that had been tied in and only one stem of the main rose was left. Worse, it was completely bare for the first 2m (approximately seven feet). It looks like ‘Easlea’s Golden Rambler‘ which is vigorous, but with a reputation for legginess and this one was certainly leggy.

What was left after the suckers were removed

What do you do with a climbing rose which is bare for the first 2m? I could have cut it back hard and let it start again, but the client was by no means young and she’d been ill recently. I wished her to have her rose back as quickly as possible, so I looked for other options. It struck me that I could trick it into thinking it had been cut back by taking a notch out of the lower stem, cutting into the cambium just above a dormant bud, and seeing if this broke the bud dormancy.

Not pretty, but it works

That was at the end of September and the rose was left to think about it over winter. Spring broke and I checked the stem at every visit I made to the garden, searching for a sign of growth. It finally arrived, a little red nub poking out of the bark.

The red nub made short work of growing, fast becoming a thick, very thorny stem. In the following weeks more red nubs appeared and seven new stems erupted from the bare wood. New wires were put up to support them and the training began.

New growth

As is done elsewhere, I bent the stems horizontally and have been tying them in so that they curl at the ends. Encouraging horizontal growth changes the plant hormone mix in the stem and promotes the development of flowering buds.

The lower stems now flower well

Two years later and it’s flowering well and starting to cover the wall again.

There is more to be done, but this is a pleasing start

Rose number two. This was another wall trained rose and it was one of the saddest roses I’ve ever seen.

Where to begin?

Like the other rose, the stems were bare for several feet. It was a complicated tangle, with long-unpruned stems zigging back and forth across the wall. Others had been bundled up, had wire wrapped around them and then been stuffed behind a drain pipe.

Far too much of the rose looked like this

It was hard to see where on the plant growth started and it took a good long session of puzzling before I decided how to tackle the job. It was as well that I started then, too, because the client said two weeks later that he was thinking of taking it out because ‘It’s never done anything’. He’d lived there for nearly 20 years and it had performed so poorly that he couldn’t remember what colour the flowers were.

New growth in June

Work had started in mid-March; fast forward to the end of June. The rose reacted better than my highest expectations. New stems appeared along the bare wood, glossy foliage unfurled all over and large clusters of flower buds burst forth.


The first flower – it made my heart sing

One by one, the buds opened until there was a mass of richly scented creamy white flowers and I recognised it as a variety called ‘Wedding Day‘, a truly lovely rambler. There is still plenty of re-shaping to be done, but it came back and that’s what matters. I smiled for weeks about that rose, it made my summer.

Lush growth, masses of flowers, exquisite scent

The Golden Rule with this type of pruning is called ‘The Three ‘Ds’ – standing for dead, damaged and diseased. Everything coming under those descriptors is removed. After that congested growth is thinned out and you see what you’re left with; often it isn’t very much, but as long as it’s healthy growth it should be okay. Give the plant a good feed, mulch with compost, give plenty of water and you ought to get positive results.

Finding a Pilea peperomioides plant

Back in 2005, I put up a page on my old Wildchicken site about a popular but not easy to find house plant, Pilea peperomioides, or the Chinese missionary plant. There is also an interesting page about where it comes from and the story which goes with it. Since those pages were first published I’ve had a steady stream of emails and messages asking where the plant can be found. People from all over the world write and ask about it and there’s no way I can tell everyone where they might find  a Pilea peperomioides in their country, but in the last few months, I’ve had more messages than usual so I thought it might help to give some pointers on finding one.


This is what I say in my replies to queries:

‘Thanks for getting in touch.

From what I’ve been able to gather, nurseries and garden centres don’t tend to sell Pilea peperomioides and they’re usually passed around by individuals.

If you have a local Women’s Institute, there will be some plant enthusiasts amongst them who may be able to help you. The WI is a great source of knowledge and information.

Local gardening clubs are also a good place to ask.

Also investigate botanical gardens as they sometimes have this plant in their collection.

Sometimes this plant turns up at car boot/garage sales.

Failing that, try asking on a local Freecycle type group. These are increasingly popular.

And keep your eyes open for sightings on the windowsills of neighbours and places of business, then beg for a plantlet. Maybe offer them some home-baked goods in return.

Somewhere out there is a Pilea peperomioides waiting for you to give it a home!

Good luck!’


Making linen by hand – the first steps

Earlier this year, I came across an interesting looking one day course on the hand-processing of flax plants into linen. It was run by a small company called Flaxland, to be held at the end of July. It was months away at that time and we were still in the dark days of winter, but we booked up right away, curious to know more. The perennial question, ‘How do you do that?’ had been asked and could not be un-asked, we’d have to go and find out. People have known how to make linen for thousands of years and linen flax (Linum usitatissimum) was reputedly an important crop as far back as 7000 BCE, while the oldest preserved fibres ever found are those of flax. The dyed flax fibres were discovered in a cave in Georgia, in the Caucasus, and were dated to thirty-six thousand years ago. Not bad for so-called rock-bangers.


So we turned up on the morning of the course at a tied-farmworker’s house to be welcomed by Ann Cooper, suitably dressed in pale blue linen. We’d meet her husband Simon Cooper, the one who started it all, later in the morning. The day started with coffee and introductions. Ann wanted to know what had attracted us to the course (‘Because we like knowing how to do things’) and gave an explanation of what the day would involve. We learned strange, arcane-sounding words – retting, rippling, scutching, hackling – and by the end of the day had made them familiar through the act of doing them.


To the field, where we saw the flax growing in situ, about half an acre of it. That doesn’t sound like much, but Ann said that in the days of handworking, one acre of flax would employ two people fully for a year and having seen what’s involved in the processing, I can well believe it. To one side of the crop, bundles of stems were set out on the grass for the process called retting, in this case ‘dew retting’.


According to the wiki page ‘Retting is a process employing the action of micro-organisms and moisture on plants to dissolve or rot away much of the cellular tissues and pectins surrounding bast-fibre bundles, and so facilitating separation of the fibre from the stem’. Depending on the weather, this can take anywhere from two to several weeks.

Faster is water retting, where bundles of flax are submerged in tanks for four to six days and then laid to dry on the ground. The tank water stagnates and the flax stems come out with a smell to them that can best be described as ‘bovine’. I’ve always liked a bad smell so found this pungent reek interesting – it reminded me of the milking shed in the days when I was working on the Victorian museum farm and the cows would often react to being milked by loosing their bowels.


Anyway, back in the field, Ann showed us how to tell if the retting process is complete by taking a stem between thumb and fingers and bending it roughly back and forth. If the bark flakes off easily, leaving the inner fibres intact, then the stems can be stooked and stored away for later use.


That done, we turned to the growing plants – they had come to the end of flowering so the plants could be pulled up. I asked why they were pulled and not cut and Ann suggested we try cutting some, so we tried to with a sickle and understood why pulling is done instead of cutting – my sickle usually goes through plant matter with incredible ease, but flax stems are like wire. They didn’t cut, they just bent. Useful to know – flax is incredibly strong.

karl-flax-pullSpot the sickle

The next half hour or so was spent talking and pulling up handfuls of flax, then laying it out for retting in rows with the roots all facing the same direction. It’s done this way to make processing more efficient but the visual effect was a beautiful gradation in colours, from the brown of the roots, to the pale greens and yellows of the stems and seed pods.


Following the field work, the next stop was the barn. Here we’d learn the uses of an array of fascinating machines, all made by the skilled hands of Simon Cooper. We would ripple, scutch and hackel until our shoulders ached – read all about that in the blog to follow.




Can a Hippeastrum be persuaded to flower in our cave-like house?

At the beginning of 2014, I was handed a Hippeastrum bulb (often called Amaryllis) and asked to plant it in an Oxford garden. Hippeastrums are tender, originating in tropical and sub-tropical South America, and would die outside so I offered to take it home with me instead to see if I could get it to flower again and this was agreed on.

Once home, I planted it with the top third of the bulb showing in a pot that allowed about 2.5cm of space between the bulb and the pot edge, as Hippeastrums prefer to be snug. The compost contained loam, for better drainage. The two limp leaves were supported against nearby plants so they didn’t droop any more and could get the sun. This done, it was given enough water to moisten the compost but not drench it, then set on a sunny windowsill.

amaryllis_may_7May 7 – the first new leaves

Continue reading Can a Hippeastrum be persuaded to flower in our cave-like house?