NOVEMBER 2020 | English monsoons?

NOVEMBER 2020 | English monsoons?

Hello and welcome back to my blog for urban gardeners in south east London.  Is there anything specific garden-wise about our particular area of London?  The major thing that springs to mind, as we are in the London basin, is that we are all mainly gardening on heavy clay and this month I start posts that focus, amongst other things, on building a soil.  The big picture this month is a fleeting shot I captured of a mackerel sky that lasted but a few minutes back in mid October.  This kind of cloud formation is said to indicate unsettled weather.  It didn’t lie!

New focus on house plants
New focus on house plants

House Plants in low light

House plants seem to be very on trend at the moment, no doubt because many of us currently spend increased time at home and that has put them in the spotlight.  However, my East-facing home does not have strong natural light so I have only one or two indoor plants –  but I was pretty pleased with the pairing (right) of my dark green Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera)  and my latest purchase of a forest green pot.

The Christmas Cactus is slightly at odds with this post, where my main focus is the soil, in that it has nothing to do with soil – quite literally.  In nature it has no need of it as it grows on the surface of another plant (without being a parasite) and derives its moisture and nutrients from the air, rain, water or from debris accumulating around it.  In artificial settings though we generally grow it in soil.

I thought it might be time to expand my stock of house plants and I will need to think about the lack of light challenge to do it .  Do you have a dark home where house plants suffer?  Look out for my future posts on this.

House Plants too large?

A friend recently bought from another friend, unseen, a Ficus benjamina deservedly a popular house plant in the UK.  She sent me a picture of it and it is a great specimen of a healthy plant but rather large for her house.  She wondered about pruning.  Unlikely to be a problem for a sturdy plant like this which, in other climes makes a tree with a height and spread of 15 – 20 metres.  This shows up the fact that the growth habit of Ficus benjamina is to grow as wide as it is tall.   When serving as a house plant not many rooms can accommodate great girth and although your houseplant clearly won’t be attaining 15-20 metres indoors in the UK the growth habit will be exactly the same.

It can be pruned several times during the year and she will need to do this if  her plant is to be kept “slim”, I believe she has already made a start with the pruning.  Well worth a little extra trouble for those wonderful shiny leaves.

I would just mention that however vigorous a plant may be it is better not to remove more than 1/3rd of the total in one year by pruning.

For more information see –

Ficus benjamina grows almost like a square
Ficus benjamina grows almost like a square
<i>I love this leaf. Before all my lovely Ficus leaves disappear I have captured the rear view of what is currently a house plant.</i>
I love this leaf. Before all my lovely Ficus leaves disappear I have captured the rear view of what is currently a house plant.

Self regulation and feedback

is probably, or should be, something I do automatically in my growing areas.  It is also one of the permaculture principles – the idea being to analyse and evaluate what has been going on in the growing environment with the aim of creating real change.  Clearly we all do this to some extent but I decided, now that we are approaching the dormant season, to tackle evaluation more methodically.  After all, all horticulture is underpinned by science.

End of Season Care in the Garden

In the garden I have been increasingly worried about drought and it has become a significant concern that my neighbours on either side both have dead and dying trees.  Trees do not usually abruptly die, especially not when young.

But a recent development suggests something worse might be going on.

In my area we are all familiar with the honey fungus (Armillaria) we sometimes find growing on tree stumps or old wood.  When I saw what looked very much like it growing on my lawn I thought it couldn’t be the same fungus as it usually only grows on wood.  It is not welcome as it is destructive.  I checked it in my Fungus book and unfortunately it was indeed  that same fungus. This autumn problem is not something anyone wants in their garden.

Now it’s a case of wait and see if my Viburnums that I had thought were suffering from drought will survive.  There are certain shrubs and plants, Viburnums being one species, that are susceptible to attack from this fungus and I’ve seen some signs on the bark.  There are no remedies for honey fungus once you have it.  Plants that die have to be removed and replanting of the same species avoided in that spot.  Watch this space.

Do you have a similar problem?  See the RHS for advice and lists of susceptible plants –

Honey fungus (Armillaria)
Honey fungus (Armillaria)

At the Allotment

On a happier note at the allotment I have now completed a full year of no-dig gardening on two of the beds, where I put down a layer of cardboard with a mulch on top, and I can report a finding that was a surprise to me.  I thought of the cardboard layer as simply a barrier and I hadn’t realised how beneficial it is of itself, creating a rich-looking, dark and crumbly soil that still looks good after a heavy growth season.  I saw that the cardboard, now almost completely decomposed, had given rise to lots of brandling worms (the little red ones).

I am now regularly “scavenging” my area for unwanted cardboard.  No problem yet but it may well be in future as the cardboards practice is spreading to more and more plotholders at my allotment site.  A far bigger drawback is getting together enough organic matter to use as mulch.   This is why I started a no-dig regime with just a couple of beds at the time and am now moving on to do, hopefully, two more.

My main focus over the winter and for the next growing season is to continue building a soil.  As I understand it intensive growing and fertilising have degraded soils globally.  My plot is no exception.

Read more at –

Bacterial/fungal soils

Recently I have repeatedly heard mention of bacterial and fungal soils and have wondered how significant this division is to gardeners like you and me.  All horticulture is underpinned by science and sometimes a smattering of understanding can be very useful when it comes to garden maintenance.  Briefly, it seems that the potential of the microorganisms that live in our soils, on which we depend for ensuring that soil’s fertility and ability to sustain our growing, is enhanced if they are compatible with the soil into which they  are introduced.

How can we tell the difference?  Start with a pH test.  A bacterially dominated soil will have a pH of 7 or above.  A fungally dominated soil will come out at a much lower number.

A bacterial soil is a youthful soil in the first wave of organic decomposition.  It is a good soil for our vegetables which are mostly soft stemmed.

A fungal soil is in the later stage of decomposition resulting from the slow rotting down of woody material – the kind of soil you would find on the forest floor.  This would be a good soil for fruit trees and bushes.  These plants can happily be mulched with wood chip mulches.

Decomposition is plainly key and I am very keen to build a decent soil especially for vegetables which are more demanding-this is the essential first step to growing your own food.   I hope to correct as many mistakes as I can this year, although I accept there will always be unforeseens in horticulture.

Vibrant Autumn colour this year
Vibrant Autumn colour this year

This has been one strange year of change – or should I say multiple changes.  People seem to have become more and more attached to the land – usually in the form of their gardens or taking long walks – and that is a positively healthy response – and also to animals.  How the people feel about animals has always been a good indicator of what type of society it is.   I do hope to get a bit more gardening done than I have managed this month thanks to the weather.  Cheerio until next time from Rosanna.

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