A couple of weeks ago, I engaged in yet another epic struggle with tree roots.

A perennial bed that was root-free when first planted (about twelve years ago) had been showing signs of decline for several years. Plants were smaller and obviously struggling, especially the hostas. Turns out hostas don’t compete well in rooty situations; strange, considering at least some species are native to woodlands. Not woodlands of Norway maples, I suppose.

I’m pretty philosophical about the older beds in the back garden. After all, they are close to five large trees, three of them maples (1 red, 2 Norway), whose roots interlace in a network throughout that 50 by 50 foot space. Goodbye, vegetable patch. Tough plants only. But this newer bed, situated in a narrow strip of land between my house and my neighbours’, was, I thought, far enough from any tree to remain root-free. The drip-line (canopy edge) of the closest maple was safely distant, and tree roots don’t extend beyond the drip-line. Or do they?

Yes, they do. Roots roam far and wide, as it turns out. Once I discovered creeping rootiness in that new bed, I started reading up on how tree roots grow. There was surprisingly little written for home gardeners, even those who are familiar with Latin plant names. I found a lot of scientific papers written by researchers in the fields of forestry or agriculture. Their focus was narrow and their terminology over my head.

Finally, I found this — relatively comprehensible and relevant to my situation. Also discouraging. The drip-line idea is one of the fallacies. Au contraire, “it is not uncommon to find trees with root systems having an area with a diameter one, two or more times the height of the tree.”


This isn’t how it works! (Image from Pixabay)

Trees send out long, questing roots that keep on growing as long as there’s a reward in the form of water or nutrients, as in a fed and watered perennial bed. The roots run along horizontally, sending up vertical subsidiary roots ending in fine mats of feeding roots. Those are the ones that make that typical ripping sound when a spade is thrust into the soil.

So I tried a strategic strike. I dug up a clump of purple monkshoods (Aconitum napellus) and a few young hellebores at the end of the bed closest to the tree I suspected to be responsible for the root. Then I excavated down two feet and indeed found not one, not two, but three roots a couple of inches apart, each of them about two inches in diameter. Using a nifty little saw (actually intended for cutting wallboard) and a hatchet, I removed sections of these roots, one to three feet in length. Then I dumped in some compost and replanted the aconites and other plants. Thanks to cool and rainy weather, they recovered nicely.
I hope this will give the perennials in the beleaguered bed a chance, if only for a season or two. I don’t relish the thought of a full-bore rebuilding of the entire bed in the grand manner. This rather limited effort was enough for an aging gardener.
October 20, 2011

Hostas, autumn of 2012.


The thing about both gardening and writing is that when doing them, one isn’t doing other things, like blogging.


A happy spring combination — perennial candytuft (Iberis sempervirens), flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) and pasque flower or meadow anemone (Pulsatilla vulgaris)

Potential Plants

Reasons gardeners grow plants from seed:

  • They need a lot of plants at once
  • They can’t afford to buy plants
  • They’re purists
  • They’re snobs
  • They can’t help collecting seeds and finally decide to do something with them
  • All or some of the above.

After 35 years of gardening, I have a lot of seeds — packets bought for ambitious projects years ago, tail-ends of vegetable and herb seeds from before my veggie patch became the ex-veggie patch, and assorted envelopes containing seeds gathered from my garden or from road- and trail-sides. Most of them are neatly filed away in a three boxes, one labelled “Perennials,” another “Annuals and Herbs,” and the third “Vegetables.”

It’s funny — there are plants I take pains to prevent from seeding (Lychnis coronaria), and others I cajole and pray over, hoping they will produce even a few seeds (Meconopsis, of course, but not M. cambrica — that one is in the deadhead a.s.a.p. category). Then there are those with rare or atypical colours — pink, cream-coloured, and tawny California poppies, for example. I can’t resist saving their seeds. Maybe this colour won’t ever appear again, I think; better get ’em while they’re here. So I end up with half a dozen envelopes — California poppies, 2010, 2011, 2013, etc.

Eventually, the obvious becomes inescapable — there’s no point in collecting seeds for their own sake. Each seed is a potential plant, but that potential will not be realized inside the seed packet. Soil, water, warmth, time, and luck are necessary before that tomato, delphinium, or poppy grows and blooms in the garden.

Unlike wine in the cellar, seeds do not improve with age. There’s no point in hoarding them. Yes, there’s that story about 3,000-year-old viable seeds from Egyptian tombs, but they’re the exception. Most seeds retain viability for only a few years — perhaps five years at most. Tomatoes appear to be an exception; I successfully grew plants from seeds almost 20 years old. Seeds of the Himalayan blue poppies (Meconopsis), on the other hand, must be sown the winter following harvest. A year later is too late.

I’ve grown hundreds, if not thousands of plants from seed. Back when I had a lot of bare earth to cover, I set up a plant factory in my basement — fluorescent lights, a heating cable, lots of suitable containers, and bags of sterile seed-starting soil mix. I made “paper pots” using a clever wooden device called a Potmaker to roll and fold newspaper into pot-like shapes two inches in diameter and about four inches tall. Packed together in a wooden or plastic flat, these “pots” lasted long enough to nurture annual seedlings until they were ready for life in the garden, at which point pot and all could be planted. Much cheaper than peat pots, and a “green” option as well.

Growing some plants from seed is dead easy; others are long-term projects often doomed to failure. Some seeds need exposure to freezing temperatures to induce germination. Others (Romneya coulteri, the California tree poppy, for example) germinate best after fires — not easy to do at home. Then there’s double dormancy, which may require two years before a sprout is seen. Many gardeners give up before that happens, or simply forget what’s supposed to happen in that pot and repurpose it. Working with challenging seeds requires dedication, labels, record-keeping, and space, as well as a good supply of patience.

The emergence of sprouts is always a thrill, no matter how long it takes, and especially if it takes a long time. A few years ago, I managed to sprout four seeds of Lilium columbianum, a native yellow lily. As I recall it, the sprouts emerged the second spring after planting. They went dormant for the summer, at which point I thought they had died, but last spring two tiny plants appeared. (I guess the other two decided to stay permanently dormant). One of the two survivors was cut down by slugs (probably a single slug, actually, because the plant was less than an inch tall). The other persisted for a couple more months, then vanished. Dead or dormant? Imagine what a thrill it was to see a lily-like sprout emerge last week, and a second one today! If I manage to foil the slugs, it’s possible I’ll actually have two plants taller than one inch by summertime, and who knows — maybe in a couple of years I’ll see at least one of them bloom. And if it produces seeds, I can do the whole process again — if I’m up to the effort.

As for all the old seeds I have stashed away in envelopes, pill bottles and other containers, the best thing would be to sort through them and get rid of any that are more than five years old. They don’t have a future, except as sad mementos of plants that have vanished, or that never progressed beyond the seed stage.

As a last-ditch effort in some cases, I could do germination tests — spread a sample of seeds between layers of dampened paper towels and see if anything happens. Unlike other unwanted items, disposal of old seeds is easy — mix them up and cast them to the winds. If any of them manage to sprout, I’ll consider it a gift from the garden gods.


Tomato seedlings

Missing the “B”

Have a close look at these two images and see if you can spot a significant difference between them.

The Nexus corrected

Image #1


The Nexus

Image #2

OK, the title and the author’s name are a lighter colour in #1, but that isn’t it. No, it’s the typo in the subtitle. “A portal to the Herert West Series.” A typo on a cover image! A cover image designed by the author herself, i.e., moi.


I published this short story in September — six whole months ago — and didn’t notice that error until last night, when I ran across the cover image on some website. I was admiring how all the elements worked together, when I saw it. “Herert,” not “Herbert.” I messed up the name of the main character of my series. How bad is that?

I’ve seen typos on other authors’ cover images or in their book listings, with a mixture of pity and contempt. “Look how that poor schmuck screwed up! Haste makes waste. Ha, ha!”

OK, it could have been worse; at least the typo isn’t in the actual title or the author’s name. And the font I used for the subtitle is called Sacramento, described as “a monoline, semi-connected script.” It’s pretty, but barely legible in thumbnails and other small images. At least I spelled everything correctly in the book’s listings in ebook stores. Maybe most people don’t bother to enlarge cover images and scrutinize them.

I have, of course, corrected the error and uploaded the corrected image to the relevant sites. But it takes a while for a change to trickle through the internet, and quite a few copies were downloaded before I found the mistake. Which means the flawed image is still out there, waiting to be noticed.

I did manage to find a couple of positives in this irritating little situation:

First, it’s a reminder to pay attention. Always double, triple and quadruple check the spelling of titles, subtitles, author names and any other text that appears on a cover. Whether it was designed by you, a friend or a professional designer — before you approve it, check, check, check!

Second, those error-bearing covers may become valuable rarities sought by collectors, sort of like postage stamps with a monarch’s head printed upside down. “Ah yes, the rare ‘Herert’ edition. Very few exist.” Well, maybe if I become posthumously famous. You never know.

A Slow Spring

Calendar spring has arrived, but the real thing is still peeking around the curtain, trying to decide when to make its appearance. We’ve gone from cold to cool, but haven’t arrived at warm.

And that’s fine with me. No, really! I’ve always found spring to be an anxiety-producing season. So much to do and not enough time in which to do it, never mind savour and observe. Weeds to weed, plants to plant, seeds to seed. And grass to mow.

Last spring — my first as a job-free (i.e., retired) person — came on fast and hot. Right from the start, I felt I had missed the garden bus with no hope of catching up. The weirdness of  leaving my years-long work routines, combined with hot (30 C, 86 F) days in May threw me off balance. I found myself shelving ambitious plans for the garden and improvising.

This year is different. I’ve worked through most of my Things to Prune list and made good progress on the Plants to Move one. I’ve seeded half a dozen perennials (inside) and of course the tomatoes. Most of them are starting to sprout. Tomatoes aside, it’s been years since I bothered growing new plants from seed.

Finding literally hundreds of hellebore seedlings around one of my mature plants, I potted up a few dozen. Hellebores do quite well here, so my plan is to make them more of a feature in a couple of beds, replacing plants that are struggling. The parent plant is a rather dark, smoky purple; it will be interesting to see what colours its offspring produce.





These cool, often cloudy days are perfect for doing strenuous stuff in the garden, such as digging up perennials and moving them to new, supposedly better spots. Preparing the new spots, of course, usually involves cutting and removing part of the network of tree roots that lurks just below the surface.

I also have a lot of compost to distribute — shovel into wheelbarrow, shovel out over the ground. (When I think about it, compost is an awful lot of work — rake up the leaves and stuff, pile it up, poke it and turn it, and finally shovel as above, probably returning much of the material — in a decomposed state, of course — pretty much to where it started from. Nature probably laughs at gardeners).

In between all these efforts, it’s good to wander around and see what the plants are up to. That, after all, is the reward.


Euphorbia myrsinites


Iris unguicularis


Arum italicum



Guest Author: Audrey Driscoll – Weird rabbits…

Sue Vincent invited me to contribute a post to her estimable blog, so I wrote this.

Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

A while ago it occurred to me that when humans become extinct, unless aliens arrive on Earth to dig up and appreciate our music, art and writing, it will become meaningless. The animals that survive our presence on this planet will never read our books, sing our songs or admire our creations, even though vines may festoon our sculptures and birds nest among their twining stems.

Culture, I thought, is unique to us. Then, for some reason, I remembered those weird rabbits.

What rabbits?

Near the end of Part I of the late Richard Adams’s wonderful book, Watership Down, the band of homeless rabbits comes across a warren whose inhabitants display peculiar behaviours. They practice complicated etiquette, recite poetry and make things they call Shapes by pushing pebbles into burrow walls. It turns out this warren is managed by a nearby farmer. He protects it from predators and delivers…

View original post 1,247 more words

Tool Review: Pole Pruner

I’ve been doing a lot of pruning around the place lately, and had a substantial brush pile for pickup on our recent Compost Day.


Most of the pruning and trimming was done either with feet on ground or from an 8-foot-tall stepladder. Not, unfortunately, one of those elegant three-legged numbers used by professionals, but an orange fiberglass and aluminum one intended for the handy homeowner. In most places it worked well, and is just light enough that I can lug it around and position it properly.

October 12, 2009 027

My cutting tools — secateurs, loppers and scimitar-shaped pruning saw — also worked as expected. Near the end of the job, I tackled a relatively small but (when fully leafed out) shade-creating branch of the Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima). I had an idea I could remove it by deploying the pole pruner. Most of the time, this tool stands unused in a corner of the shed. Once more I have been reminded why.

In theory, it’s a marvellous thing — a 5-and-a-half-foot-long telescoping pole that may be extended to 10 or so feet, with both a clipper and a saw blade at the end. The clipper is operated by pulling on a long cord (wrapped around the pole when not in use, as in the photo) that works a spring-loaded device attached to a blade-and-hook arrangement similar to that found on loppers. The gardener may stand on the ground (or, if desperate and daring, on a ladder) and cut otherwise unreachable branches. In theory.


Slick, eh? Except the damned thing is virtually unusable, especially when fully extended. For one thing, it’s fairly heavy, with the cutting equipment on the end accounting for a good portion of that weight. It’s hard to finagle the hook over a branch at the correct angle and then hold the tool with one hand while pulling the cord with the other. The cord is long and hard to manage. The cutter can’t easily cut branches thicker than half an inch in diameter. That leaves the saw blade, which is about 9 inches long, but it’s impossible to saw a branch that’s bobbing up and down and can’t be held steady because it’s out of reach. Thus the saw is usable only to cut branches fairly close to a trunk or thick branch.

My pole pruner gets a one-star rating — or, if you prefer, a multi-#*%! rating.

To anyone who has been contemplating a pole pruner as a solution for pruning out of reach vegetation, I would say — don’t. At least not a heavy two-tools-in-one thing like mine. I think I’ve seen pruning saw blades attached to long wooden poles, which are probably a lot lighter. The limitations I’ve already noted would still apply, though. All in all, I would recommend a good ladder, and if that won’t do the trick, note the real problem branches and hire a professional to deal with them.