Leafmould is the black gold of gardening. Ten or more years back, I worked in nursery on a rare hill on the Suffolk Essex border. We are talking small scale, husband and wife team, working all hours of day and days of year. The only time off was to load a large blue van with unusual and mouthwatering plants – arisaemas, trilliums and the like and drive to London to set up a mini fairy garden for the Chelsea Flower Show or exhibitions in the RHS’s Floral Halls. Bulbs and other woodland plants were their speciality. Anyway, I digress: their potting medium was leafmould.
New tree mulched with leafmould
So what exactly is this stuff? Simply leaves that are well rotted, nothing else added. The final product has no nutrients but crumbles down like rich dry chocolate cake – Sachertorte – to be precise. In this form it acts as a soil conditioner. Those with an open sandy soil will know how fast minerals get leached out and moisture too. The leafmould will bind the structure of the soil to help improve water retention.
Clay is more of a problem to work with than sand. Clay soils are intrinsically fertile but the individual particles grab each other so tightly that hallmarks are swamped out wet in winter and cracked dry in summer. Leafmould, by a weird process known as deflocculation, persuades the soil to open up, drainage improves and digging and otherwise working the soil become a good deal easier.
A cage for storing leaves – yours can be much more simple though
Leaves do not rot down in the same way as other garden waste. For this reason store them separately in a cage made of chicken wire. If you can soak them thoroughly now and again in the hot long summer days and turn them once or twice, decomposition will be accelerated.
Leafmould for sale at Fairhaven Trust, Norfolk
The best way to use the leafmould is to put it on as a thick layer over your beds in the very late autumn. It will help conserve soil warmth and act as a mulch. It is almost impossible to buy this fabulous product – I have only seen it for sale at the Fairhaven Trust in Norfolk. But get ahead and make your own. All you need are some stout stakes and chicken wire. And as mentioned above, it is a great medium to use for potting up plants.
Deciding what small tree to squeeze into a modern pint-pot garden can be a real problem. A look at a tree nursery list will have you salivating but if space is challenged, stop right there. Drool away by all means but do not buy anything on impulse.
Never ever buy a tree without paying close attention to the final size that your specimen will reach. Many are parkland trees.
My next door neighbours have a garden 40 metres long and in to it are packed the following: two eucalyptus, one Norway sycamore and a liquidambar. All will make over 20 metres in height. Expensive work for the tree surgeon will ensue and the house itself might suffer from roots questing for water and stability. So what should you grow?
Salix viminalis – the common willow
An elegant solution is the common willow Salix viminalis. With an annual haircut you can keep it to the size you want. Willows put on good growth in one season and new stems are rich and vivid in colour. Give the plant an annual short back and sides and you will have the perfect mini-tree that will not outgrow allotted space.
Give willow a good yearly haircut
An excellent way to treat your willow is to establish three main stems and to cut them back to about a metre and a half. This gives the extra height. The beauty of three stems is that you can rotate your hard hairdo – two one year and the third the following. That way you will always have a framework of branches to look at.
A great tree for small gardens
There is a large selection of willows to choose from – go with the branch colours you like best. There are oranges, blacks, yellow. Their silvery leaves are pretty good too and look graceful all summer long.
Hedges – they’re not just for protection and privacy! Read Catharine Howard’s guest blog on the best uses for the humble hedge.
Different uses for a hedge
WHY does the word hedge always make me glaze over? Hedge, bush, shrub. There now, the awful trilogy of boredom has been spat out. As a designer, gliding along on perennials has always been the obvious option. All lovely, you can pack in as many as you like. Tick them off on your fingers to make sure each season is there. A jostling chorus of ready colour.
Outside it’s blowing a gale, snowing a hatful and grey as an oil slick. My own plot looks more like the set from Slumdog Millionaire than a garden. Now is prime hedge-planting time and I venture out, prejudices swallowed.
A hedge is an ancient invention, planted to keep stock in and safe from the wolf. Take this consideration on for your boundary hedge. It is more than likely to be there for protection and privacy. Spiney and evergreen are top qualities.
But inside your garden, the uses for a hedge begin to take a more interesting turn. An obvious design trick is to break up the space into different compartments. The principle behind this is to slow down the journey round your garden. Neat clipped surfaces and different textures add to this. And where a barrier or break is useful, who said that the top had to be regimented and straight? Wild curlicues and waves are in. Or what about a clipped look like a jelly-mould or cumulonimbus cloud?
Hedges at Cranborne Estate
What about cutting holes in the hedge for doorways to beckon the visitor in? Or you might even consider cutting a window to look through. Edging beds round a border are an immaculate way of keeping orderly appearance. Box is the most popular choice but at David Austin roses they clip yew to less than 20cm high and keep it rigorously tidy.
Yew hedges at David Austin Roses
A mature hedge becomes a part of the hard landscaping but at fraction of the cost. If you buy bare-rooted plants right now they will cost you little more than 50 pence per plant. So return on invest is high. Don’t let maintenance slip out of your mind in the excitement though. Hedges need regular clipping.
If you have space and the will to train and prune with care and want to work on the grand scale, have a look at pleaching. This is hedge on legs which is achieved by careful training and pruning of the branches on clean stems. Lime and hornbeam are the most commonly used trees.