Having to drop everything and get out when the sun shines is a must round these parts. I'm so glad that I got out in the garden when I did yesterday. Thick grey clouds carpeted the sky by late afternoon and by the time I got home with the girls the wind was hurling itself around the place like there was no tomorrow. Luckily tomorrow did come, so here I am this morning looking out at an inky grey, dimly lit, soggy garden after a night of howling gales and lashing rain. I would not be rushing to get out there today. Instead I have put the kettle on and I am going to finish what I started writing yesterday....
So, I began with a further inspection of my blackcurrant patch. I had pruned the three large bushes a week or two back after more than 8 years of neglect and not a secateur going near them. No wonder they seemed to be getting less and less productive. I had often glanced at them and thought that I should probably do something, but I wasn't quite sure what. Anyway, while I had been revising soft fruit - and the pruning of blackcurrants in particular - I had gone out into the garden and performed my own little practical. I took out all the old dark wood, and all the branches that were lying too close to the ground. You are only meant to remove about a third of old wood, but since they had not been pruned for years, I decided I could be more radical and gave the poor bushes a good old clean out. The idea is that you let in lots of light and air to help prevent disease and, when the bushes are in leaf and flower and ultimately fruiting, there is plenty of light to help the berries ripen up. You are also meant to remove any dead, damaged or diseased wood (the 3 Ds) - but mercifully mine didn't seem to have any of this (Big Bud Mite is the blackcurrant's greatest curse - you have to destroy the bush if it gets this badly). I think we are very lucky here with the purity of the air - the garden seems incredibly healthy. And I know for a fact that there are lichens which grow on the drystone walls which line the top half of our lane and the boundaries of our garden which choose to flourish only where the air is particularly pure. Proof, you see. Anyway, by the time I'd finished the bushes were looking splendid. So much less congested than they were. Rather more loved.
Having done a further blackcurrant pruning exercise at college last week, as I described yesterday, I took another look at my previous handiwork. I decided that I could prune some of the stumps I had left a little further back and I decided that the middle bush of the three had probably had its time on this earth. Another thing that I had learnt at college was that blackcurrant bushes have a productive life of about 10-12 years, after which they are in decline and have probably had it by the grand old age of 14. Well, I have been here nearly 8 years now (how the time flies) and I imagine they had been planted a while before I appeared - which means they are surely in their twilight years. So yesterday I yanked out the middle bush - it barely resisted which more than suggests it had given up on life - and decided that this then was where I was going to place my propagated blackcurrants.
'How do you propagate blackcurrants?' you may, or may not, be asking. Well, having foolishly got rid of the prunings from my own plants, I grabbed some from the pruning we did at college last week. They will probably be more vigourous anyway, having come from younger bushes. I had left them soaking in a bucket of water as it had been a week now since they were cut. You take a branch, preferably pencil-widthed, which has lots of healthy looking buds on it. You then cut it to a length of about 8 inches (20cm). You cut a clean cut just below the bottom bud of the cutting and a slant cut just above the top bud. You then insert it into your prepared soil to a depth of about 6 inches with 2 inches above ground. The buds which are below the surface produce shoots which come up through the ground to form what is called a 'stooled' bush. You can either plant these cuttings in a 'nursery' line, about 8 inches apart and move them into a pot or their final position in a few months time when, hopefully, they will have happily rooted - or you can insert them directly into the ground where you want the mature bush to be. I chose to do the latter, having created space by digging out the old bush. Much less palava.
I cleared away all the grass and moss which had grown all around the blackcurrants and the raspberries. This was such an easy task. I just pulled it all back, part by hand, part just with the spade tip and it all came away incredibly easily with no real effort revealing soil which was friable, moist and a beautiful dark brown - almost black in fact. I have never bothered with this small task in the past - I've just let everything grow up through the rough grass - raspberries and gooseberries included - but I decided to do it a little more 'textbook' and see if it made any difference. Grass, of course, competes for water and nutrients - but on the other hand its immense system of little fibrous roots helps improve soil structure and, I would argue, to a certain extent acts as a mulch and actually helps retain moisture. Maybe I am being heretical. Anyway, just for a change, I did what I'd been told and we shall see what we shall see.
So I took my cuttings and pushed them down into the soil in two little groups - with the intention of creating two more bushes in the space where the great big old one had been. Even with a spade I was struggling to create insertion slots which were 6 inches deep (I think the roots of the other bushes as well as the raspberries crawling around the place were causing the problem) but I inserted them as deeply as was possible. I then went and got my wheelbarrow and filled it half full with some beautiful leaf mould which has developed over a few years in a pile near the copper beech (we used to dump our cut grass here and I added leaves every autumn to mitigate the sliminess of the pile. I now have this beautiful dark, sweet smelling, crumbly leaf mould mulch). I took it back up to my little blackcurrant babies and scattered it liberally all around and between them. Then, of course, I gave them some water and that was it, job done. I shall eagerly monitor their progress, hoping it will be positive - but nothing is ever sure in gardening, is it?
1. cut a pencil-width branch with lots of new buds into 20cm lengths.
3. Insertion of the cuttings in a cluster form
2. Getting leaf mould mulch
4. Mulching with the leaf mould (don't be confused by the longer darker canes in this picture - they are new raspberries coming up and I can't be bothered to move them!)
5. Job done!