Happy Habby garden, pH testing

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Hablitzia Tamnoides plant in tea garden

I’ve had a Hablitzia Tamnoides plant for about 18 months now. To say it is not thriving, would probably be pretty accurate. It’s a relatively unknown plant in the UK, at least until quite recently. Originating from the caucasus region, it is (supposed to be) a vigorous scrambling perennial plant, growing to about 6 ft with tasty leaves that can be cooked and eaten like spinach. Steven Barstow (http://www.edimentals.com/blog/?p=8606) has helped to popularise the plant with his ‘around the world in eighty plants’ book, which I heartily recommend by the way. My plant came from Alison Tindale of backyard larder (http://backyardlarder.co.uk), as a swap for some local Skye plants, and I planted it in the tea garden, where I thought it would be quite sheltered. As it turns out the tea garden hasn’t been as sheltered as I’d hoped. Also, I’ve since found out it’s native range is in limestone cliffs, so it prefers quite an alkaline soil.

(edit: I seem to have made up the limestone based on this comment from Steven Barstow, https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10154986079450860&id=655215859
I think I just assumed the cliffs in the picture were limestone.  Having done some hasty research online https://www.britannica.com/place/Caucasus, does mention limestone, so perhaps my guess was right. Alison Tindale also says it dislikes acid soils (which seems to bourne out by my experience) so I think I have added 2 and 2, whether my answer is right is luck rather than judgement!  What Stephen actually says in his book is that ‘It is found in spruce and beech woods, amongst rocks and in ravines and along rivers’)

It also benefits from quite a fertile spot. I don’t think the tea garden is particularly fertile, but relatively good for round here. Because I was so keen on growing this plant, I had also obtained some seed from Mandy at incredible vegetables (http://www.incrediblevegetables.co.uk) this spring, and got lots to germinate.

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Hablitzia Tamnoides seedlings

Potted on, they soon outgrew the fertility in their little pots and turned quite yellow. I’ve since potted them on again, and so far they are looking a bit more happy. I decided to make a ‘habby bed’ to make my hablitzia happy. This is in the shelter of the workshop by the drive. I dug out the soil and rocks as deep as I could (not very deep – a foot or before I hit bed rock). I then back filled with builder’s rubble (some of the old render from the byre which was falling off). On top of this I put compost from last year’s compost heap which was rather full of wood ash from the stove, so hopefully both nutritious and low in pH. Having mixed these two together (difficult with the stones) I topped the lot with not quite ready bracken compost, which hopefully will be relately weed free as well as adding to the nutrients in the longer term. I’ve planted three of my new hablitzia in the bed and so far they are just sitting there! Hopefully next spring I should see them putting on good growth in appreciation.  I need to think about some sort of climbing frame for them, since they should now grow quite tall.

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Hopefully Happy Hablitzia in Habby bed

This week I finally got round to doing a pH test on the soil here. I’m not sure why I hadn’t done it before. I think I had just gone on the gut feeling that it is quite acidic, without needing to put a number on it, and let’s just say I was right! The hydrangea here can have lovely blue flowers, and rhododendron thrive. I’m a bit surprised now that anything else grows – it just goes to show that plants don’t read books! I took a soil sample from approximately the centre of the tree field between the royal oaks, and the pH came out as very acidic. I tested the soil in my happy habby bed as well, and at this early stage my terraforming has been successful as it has come out as alkakine. It will be interesting to see how this changes over time. Hopefully the lime from the render will keep the worst of the acidity away. If necessary, I have a ready supply of ash from the house fires which could be used to top up.

I think I will do some more pH testing nearer the house to see if there is a difference in the cultivated areas. They may have been ‘improved’ by previous gardeners, or from lime leaching from the buildings. I do occasionally dig up what seems to be a bit of chalk, so the land does seem to have been modified in the past. I can’t think of any other reason for rock chalk to be lying about anyway.

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Mulching away

I’ve been having trouble with my mulched areas. I love the idea of using mulch to drive back the weeds and feed the soil, however I haven’t quite cracked the practicalities.
For example:
I like using cardboard as a sheet mulch to keep grass and weeds away from newly planted shrubs and trees in the garden. It works very well as a simple solution up to a point. If the area is to revert back to grass as in the case of the field trees, it’s fine. I use brick sized stones to keep the cardboard down, which works much better than I expected against the winds we get. By not covering the cardboard, the surface keeps drying back out and it lasts up to a year without too much degradation. You need to make sure that any bits of tape and plastic labels are removed, since these do not disappear like the cardboard does.

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New beach plum in cardboard mulch a few months on

The problem I have is that this does not fully work against creeping buttercup, which is almost everywhere. The buttercups then spread over the mulch, and if you are foolish enough to enjoy the flowers, they seed everywhere, and you get a lovely ground cover of buttercups! These are probably one of my least favourite weeds. The roots are so persistent, and it is too easy to pull the top off, leaving the crown (which will regrow) behind. I’ve been struggling in the tea garden, which I have fully mulched over the last two years or so. I have five stages in progression: Bare soil exposed from removing the excess soil for terracing the orchard; Reasonably intact cardboard mulch, which is gradually being reclaimed by buttercups; a rather mature buttercup mulch where the cardboard has fully degraded; an area weeded in early summer and replanted with himalayam strawberries (which I hope will replace the buttercups as a living mulch – they are fighting it out at the moment); and an area, which was replanted with root crops – (salsify, scorzonera, skirret and also the maca).

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The idea of the root crop area, was that since they would need digging up in the future, I could take the opportunity to weed out the buttercups at the same time. Maybe I should have just left it till that stage, however, as well as the new buttercup seedlings and buttercups creeping in from the edges, I also noticed a lot of little dock seedlings, and (the little pink flower like londons burning) that seeds around so much. I couldn’t take it and had to start clearing the weeds early. I have left the corpses thickly around selected plants. However, since the weather has been wet and mild, unhappily the weeds have carried on growing. I’ll have to remove them and put them in the compost bin.
The new raspberries that I planted there didn’t do too well last year, only a few canes survived through to regrow. I noticed new shoots coming from the autumn bliss ones, so hopefully they will do better next year. I’m not sure why they struggled, but the survivors now seem happy enough. They should be sheltered enough there. It hasn’t been as good as I hoped in the lee of the barn. It seemed like a midge haven, but obviously they are tougher than the tea plants!
The other area which I mulched in a different way, and have been readdressing, is the orchard area to the right of the path as you look downhill. I covered around the trees and blackcurrant cuttings with cardboard, as usual, then used all the lovely cut grass from the pathways to cover the whole area thickly, including the area of card. Unfortunately it looks like it wasn’t thickly enough, since grass is now growing though in most of the area outside the cardboard sheets. I have tried mortal tree’s suggestion of lifting the mulch back over the growing shoots and adding a bit more mulch (https://mortaltree.blog/2013/06/16/group-and-conquer/). At the moment however, it just looks as though I’ve been feeding the couch grass! I think that the area of card will decompose more quickly as well – being covered in damp retaining material. I wasn’t expecting to achieve weed free straight away, since I know there is couch grass, docken and nettles as well as the ubiquitous creeping buttercup. But am a little disheartened. I’ve used up my stock of cardboard sheet to make a light proof layer and remulched with fresh grass cuttings (yes, he’s cut the pathways again) between the trees and the trackway, although I didn’t quite have enough cardboard to finish as far as I wanted to mulch.

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Remulching the orchard area with cardbaord under cut grass

The only weed excluding mulch that does seem to have done pretty well is the floor underlay from the last time the hall flooded, which we were able to reclaim. It is a very thick black plastic sheet, with a slight felt on one side. I’ve laid some on the drive bank to clear back the horrid creeping grass there. I’d like to get the top bank planted, but also need to build a retaining wall to stop it all falling back into the drive again. S. wants to resurface the drive along there, and it makes sense to do that first before building the wall. We removed the sheets to scrape back the soil where S. thought it was encrouching on the drive and I’ve been pleased by how little has been growing back. I used stones, old tyres and fenceposts to keep the sheet down, and that was the only problem I had – it did tend to catch the wind exposing the soil again.

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Effective black plastic mulch on driveway

If the hall floor needs replacing again, as seems likely, we’ll try and get hold of some more of that sheeting. I wonder if it would work for a water proof membrane for a green roofed car port….I’ll have to think about that.