Today my swivel handled Felco secateurs arrived back from being serviced. Felco's UK agents Burton McCall will for a fee take back your secateurs, replace any worn parts, and adjust and oil them so that they are as good as new. My number sevens were returned with a new and wonderfully sharp cutting blade, while the swivelling handle once again turned smoothly in my palm. At £19.95 it is not cheap, indeed, you could buy a pair of secateurs by another manufacturer for less than the cost of getting the Felcos reconditioned, but they are superb tools. As I ran my thumb experimentally down the edge of the new blade and felt the handle rotate when I closed my hand I felt the small thrill one gets from really well made things. With a large and now mature garden there is a lot of pruning and cutting back to do and good cutting tools make a huge difference. I recently managed to blister the middle finger of my right hand cutting the ivy hedge with a lighter weight, non swivelling pair of secateurs because the number sevens were blunt and needed servicing.
Good tools make most practical tasks so much easier to do, and the results are often so much better, whether gardening or cooking. Garden centres and catalogues are full of costly and often twee objects that fail to meet this basic definition of a good tool. Recycled reply paid envelopes are fine for saving home collected seed, no need to pay £2.99 for a packet of ten arty ones printed up as Home Saved Seed. It is easier to tie the top of a tripod of bamboo canes together with string than to push every cane laboriously through a hole in a moulded circle of green plastic. Sharp, well balanced, low effort cutting tools are simply marvellous. I felt the same about my new shears, and made a mental note at the time to buy new ones every other year rather than going along with their imperceptible but steady decline in performance until jolted into action when they stopped cutting at all (I would get the shears serviced, but nobody does them).
Tonight's garden club meeting was about taking cuttings. The organisers had mustered piles of propagating material, and were keen to break down people's perception that taking cuttings was difficult and encourage everybody to have a go. We were given a pot of damp compost each, and after the introductory remarks it was open season on the heaps of bits of plants. I'm already happy doing fuchsias and geraniums, but hadn't realised you could propagate Gaura from stem cuttings, and stored away a second hand Raymond Evison tip on getting clematis cuttings to work for future reference.
The clematis trick was fascinating, and I would never have thought of it and have not seen it mentioned in any book. The club chairman, who is a keen propagator and active in Plant Heritage as well as her village garden society, asked Raymond Evison, who is one of the greatest living clematis breeders and growers, for advice on clematis cuttings that rooted perfectly well but then failed to make any top growth, as she'd suffered from that problem. He told her that once the cuttings had formed a good root system that if they didn't start making stems and leaves as well then she should tip them out of their pots, shake the compost off the roots, bunch them up and chop the bottom half off. That, said Raymond Evison, would jolt the plants into starting to make top growth as well. I have no idea why they would have refused grow stems before, or why losing half their roots would prompt them to do so afterwards, but that was Raymond Evison's advice and she found that it worked. The actual cutting looked very easy. Clematis are made from internodal cuttings, meaning that the lower part of the cutting that you stick in the compost is simply a section of stem rather than ending at the bottom in a leaf joint. You leave a joint and pair of leaves sticking out of the compost, and can reduce the size of large composite leaves to cut down on water loss.
Even in the case of the geranium cuttings I learned something new. I must have taken dozens of geranium cuttings through the years. They are easy to root, and I felt quite blase about it. But I have only ever used the tips, often when pruning straggly plants back, and it had simply not occurred to me that you can also use intermediate sections of stem. It turns out that you can, and I am now the hopeful owner of an as yet unrooted cutting of an old zonal variety 'Gustav Emich' as used outside Buckingham Palace, with a tall habit and flowers that match the guardsmens' tunics. I only took a very small piece because there were quite a few people queuing up for cuttings and only two stems to divide out between us. I see on the internet that it is not actually out of commerce as I could buy a young plant from Allwoods, so if my small bit does not take then I could still have one if I wanted to. But it would be fun if it grew.