Master of None; Weed Steaming; Pink in Red; and Being in The Right Place at the Right Time

Butt. Tip. Slype. Wale. Scallum. Back. Belly. Rod. Dark Dicks. Light Dicks. Bodkin.

The unfamiliar lexicon of a new activity had to be assimilated quickly, along with practical skills, when Fiona and I headed off last weekend for an intensive course aiming to have us each finishing a woven willow log basket by the Sunday evening, under the guidance of the fantastic English basket maker Jenny Crisp.

We’d spotted Jenny’s work when we visited the annual gathering of the National basket makers at the National Botanic Garden of Wales earlier in the year (See my ‘Oh What a Lovely Boar’ post, or click here for Jenny’s website). We’ve seen other basket work from time to time, but the finesse, quality and aesthetic design of Jenny’s work really seemed to shine out. So, noticing that she ran courses, without too much thought, we both decided to give it a go. As an ex veterinary surgeon who loved the ‘Jack of All Trades, Master of None’ nature of general practice (at least, this was the case when I qualified, before specialisation took over), I’m a firm believer in the ability of a skilled craftsperson to be able to teach an enthusiastic student the basics of a skill, in a limited time, and for the student to walk away with an item which they can be really pleased with.

The other motivation for trying basketmaking, was that over the years we’ve planted quite a lot of different willows in the garden, mostly unnamed, as quick space fillers and of value for winter stem colour or spring catkin displays. But as yet we’ve been unable to make use of the vast majority of wands (or rods!), that are pruned out every winter. Jenny had warned us that many of the varieties we grow may prove to be unsuitable for basket making, but in the event 4 out of the 5 samples we took up to Leominster with us, were assessed by her as having potential.

Like all great teachers Jenny has the knack of putting across the all the relevant information succinctly and pitching it at the right level for both the 3 complete novices, as well as 3 more experienced basket makers making up our course’s participants. Beginning with guidance on the simple tools used, covering willow selection and preparation (harvested from Jenny’s own willow beds), we moved swiftly on to preparing a base on a pre-prepared hoop, and creating scallums of shaved willow for the basket uprights by close of play on a gloriously sunny and warm Saturday. Sitting just 6 inches off the ground on old primary school chairs (with shortened legs and cushions) to help us adopt the most comfortable working position, and at times using old leg-shortened school tables to fix the developing basket onto, contributed to the learning experience.

The end of day one, and a completed basket still seemed a long way off, whilst the results of 6 students’ slyping and scalluming litters Jenny’s patio (Thanks to Fiona for these 2 photos).

Sunday proved more demanding, both mentally and physically (on a chilly day there was more than enough physical activity to stave off the cold in spite of being seated) as we retreated under a mini marquee since the rain had set in. Various weaving and bending techniques had to be explained and mastered, and as the only male participant I felt the pressure, as my progress seemed noticeably slower than all the very proficient and speedy ladies! Still, as the end of the day approached and everyone’s baskets grew taller, there was the expectation of a completed item to spur everyone on. We drove home again, through heavy rain,(Hereford had over 60 mm in the following 24 hours), tired but really thrilled with what we’d both accomplished.

We can’t recommend Jenny highly enough, and it’s certainly made us look at our existing willows in a different light, and even possibly plan to plant another area with willows specifically for basket work, since ideally they should be planted in rows no more than 2 feet apart, with just 9 inches between stools, to encourage them to reach for the sky and produce lots of long, slender rods.

One of our finer usable willow varieties. But it will need better management and bulking up with new plantings to be really useful.

Having ordered our small, special slyping knives and bodkins from Jenny, which she sources from France where she completed some of her early training, we can’t wait for January and the chance to cut, sort and store some of our own willow for future projects. I was left pondering how many folk in today’s austerity focused environment might get a huge boost from this sort of brilliantly tutored event, and the realisation that they too can make something functional and elegant from natural materials using simple hand tools.

A feature of many of Jenny’s designs is the use of subtle colour variations in the weaving, and one way of achieving this is to use willow rods which have been steamed for about 20 minutes, changing the bark to a lovely, rusty brown colour. And so it was that I spotted her home made rod steamer was made out of a simple length of soil pipe loosely bunged at each end with old rags, into which a pipe was fed from an ‘Earlex’ steamer/wallpaper stripper.

Just a few weeks ago I’d read in Gardens Illustrated magazine of recent research from Denmark where weed steaming was advocated as a viable form of weed control in paths. Admittedly Denmark only has 24 inches annual rainfall against our own 70 inches plus, so their confidence in asserting that 5 or 6 treatments will kill even mature weeds may prove optimistic here. But having used the very hot air from an electric paint stripper gun converted into a home-made weed scorcher for the last 3 years to control weeds in our own paths and terraces, and thus avoid the need for chemical weed killers, the article reminded me that we had an old wallpaper stripper in the attic.

Dusting the ‘Earlex’ off (it hadn’t been used for over 20 years and then at our previous home), and removing the flat plate attachment for delivering steam onto wallpaper, I was left with a shortish ribbed hose with a threaded nut fixing, which I gave some added rigidity by supporting it inside a cardboard tube. It proved to be a huge success, quieter to use than the paint stripper, and easier to move around without getting cables in a tangle. There are no issues of smoke being occasionally created from burning vegetation, and once you’ve worked out just how long to expose the weeds to steam, it’s given a much more complete weed kill, or at least weed suppression, from a single treatment.

The new approach to weed control in our garden. Weed Steaming. The Earlex unit is basically a hot water reservoir which takes about 10 minutes to heat to the point where steam emerges from the hose end (and it’s fitted with safety pressure release valves). It will then work for about 70 minutes before refilling is needed. Rated at 2KW, compared to 1.4KW for the hot air stripper), it’s still a cost effective weed treatment option compared to chemical herbicides (about 26 p per hour’s use), and harmless to the environment. If you have your own electricity source, as we do, it will cost very little, if anything, to operate even if it does take longer to treat an area than by sloshing on chemicals. (Click here for my earlier comments on the wildlife benefits from using this on paths when compared to ‘Pathclear’). Although this model is no longer made, others can be bought for about £40-£50.

Mosses and liverworts are more resistant to treatment, and you inevitably miss some sections of a cobbled path on a single pass, but since the steam creates a localised damp area where used, it is easier to see what you’ve treated than when using just hot air. I’m very impressed with the results, and will switch to using it for most of our areas from now on. I might even ring the British based manufacturer and suggest that they might consider producing a small coned nozzle to fix to the end of the steam pipe to focus emerging steam more effectively onto vegetation.

Section of cobbles before treatment.

Immediately after treatment with the steamer.

2 days after treatment.

13 days after treatment.

As I waited in bed for computer access to finalise this post this morning, I glanced through the latest copy of Gardens Illustrated magazine which arrived yesterday, only to discover that under the header ‘Weed Steaming’ a letter I’d emailed to them a few weeks ago extolling the merits of hot air paint strippers for weed control had been published. Oh dear, I’ll have to email again saying that I think weed steaming with the Earlex is an EVEN better option.

Much photography is very well planned, and some photographers spend hours staking out a single shot, but many of the images on this blog are the result of chance sightings, and I seemed to have taken a number of quite special images over the last 10 days which fall into the category of resulting from simply being in the right place at the right time, with a camera to hand to record the event.

During a session of white Cyclamen hederifolium flower pollination with my tiny artist’s paintbrush, I spotted this beautifully camouflage marked caterpillar spanning the flower stem and the adjacent ground. A fantastic blend of greens, whites and black, it resembles much of the lichen which adorns many twigs in this part of the garden. Caterpillar identification isn’t my strong point, but I think it will probably pupate and emerge as a Brussel’s Lace moth.

Yet another dragonfly sighting and photograph followed on from me deciding to pick raspberries early in the morning before the rain and some garden visitors arrived. This seems to be a female Southern Hawker dragonfly, Aeshna cyanea. Fortunately, it stayed still enough, probably because of cool morning temperatures but perhaps also because of evidence of a recent encounter with a spider’s web, to allow me to run inside for the camera.

A few rainbow images of late, and this one was very fleeting, intense and eventually became a double rainbow. Edited by me 2 weeks later: did you know that the second rainbow has the colours reversed and is paler than the first one? I didn’t, but after getting a Met Office blog on the subject on 12/10/2012 and checking back to this image, I can see that this is the case. For the Met Office explanation of what is going on with the light and its refraction, click here.

Pounding the high meadow path in drizzle meant I spotted these quite large (5 to 6 cm) pinkish brown waxcap mushrooms.

As I consulted my excellent Roger Phillips authored ‘Mushrooms and Other Fungi of Great Britain and Europe’ to identify this large species, the page fell open on Page 62, and there it was, Hygrocybe calyptriformis (calyptraeformis). The appropriately named Pink ballerina waxcap. Even more interestingly, since there were perhaps a dozen of these mushrooms within a few yards of the meadow path, it’s listed as a rare mushroom. In fact, so rare that it features as one of the few Red Data book mushroom species in the UK, and it’s been given a place in Biodiversity Action Plans for the UK. If you’re interested in more on this species, click here for what seems to be a very comprehensive 27 page review of it and its distribution, produced by Plantlife.

Perhaps I should even let someone know I’ve found it, since there are so few records of sightings, most of the local ones being in village churchyards, where benign sward neglect allows it to thrive. It joins a list of notable rare species, (e.g. Marsh Fritillary Butterfly, Euphydryas aurinia, Forester Moth, Adscita statices, and Club-Horned Sawfly, Trichiosoma sorbii) found at Gelli Uchaf, and testament to the currently unspoiled nature of the local environment. And yet another encouraging endorsement of how pastures will become more bio-diverse over time, if you stop the N.P.K fertilizer and intensive grazing. Also as I’ve written in the blog before, several waxcap species have a stronghold in the wet mossy unspoiled pastures of Carmarthenshire, and indeed this weekend I think that there are guided fungi forays taking place at the National Botanic Garden of Wales, hoping to find a variety of waxcaps in the organic grazed pastures of the estate.

A circuit of the same path in sunshine was timed perfectly with the setting sun for another ‘Taller when Prone’ moment.

Some spectacular cloudscapes, sunrises and silhouettes as we pass the autumnal equinox and the days are now shorter than our nights, for the next 6 months.

And a Robin on the weather vane.

A close encounter of the Herculean kind.

And if like me you are plagued with Small White Butterfly, Pieris rapae, caterpillars on your brassicas, and you don’t use chemicals or adequate netting, like me, try looking at them when the sun is out if you can. Stand directly between the brassica and the sun. I’ve never noticed this before, but I’d checked this plant two days earlier with little success, hunting for the green caterpillars which always seem to rest deep inside the leaves and can be really tricky to spot. On this occasion, with the sun shining, there they all were at several stages of maturity, choosing optimum open sunny positions to soak up some rays and heat. I reckon I can count 9 on this one image.

In a poor year for Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta, butterflies, I’ve had more sightings of Wall Browns, Lasiommata megera, than ever before, including this bird pecked specimen nectaring on a late Fox-and-Cubs flower.

Finally a few more general garden views from the last week.

Lovely late Hydrangea villosa, to the left, looks better than ever this year.

Plenty of flowers still, albeit thugs, in the croquet lawn bed.

And along the front of the house.

A relatively rare visitor to the lovely yellow long flowering Linaria genistifolia.


4 thoughts on “Master of None; Weed Steaming; Pink in Red; and Being in The Right Place at the Right Time

  1. Hello Wendy,
    Glad you like the photos. They never look quite as good as the originals when they’ve been resized for the blog, but the Dragonfly in particular, I really liked. I hope that fall/autumn is coming gently for you on the West coast,
    Best wishes

  2. Hi Julian, I see that the other sightings of your Waxcap mushroom in your 10km neck of the woods were at Brechfa and Abergorlech, the three sightings all at the edges of the Brechfa Forest. Although this is probably a meaningless observation, I thought that you, as a firm believer in synchronicity, should know this, if indeed you don’t already!

    Most impressed at the saga of weed destruction from paint stripping to steam annihilation!

  3. Hello Kevin,
    Thanks for that. I think both these findings (Brechfa and Abergorlech) and indeed Llansawel, were all in churchyards, which have escaped more intensive grassland management.
    Can’t wait to try out the new steam treatment lance….when the sun decides to shine again,
    BW Julian

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