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Sunday, 31 May 2009

What it a Garden?

An accumulation of plants you love, of smells and colours, objects and sounds, of water and wind. This may be why gardens are so difficult to design well, since all the best are the result of years of collecting and removing, planting and training, the sum total of hours of pottering and humming and gazing.

Strange then that the garden is also a place to be ruthless. If you don’t like something, get it out. Don’t let it hang around, dig it up, and plant something you do like!

Written By Tom O'Leary

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Designer Advice - Designer Don'ts

A path of blue slate chippings meandering through clumps of tastefully positioned bamboos. Looks fantastic in the magazine but wait until you have to pick the dead bamboo leaves out of the chippings. It’s a never-ending and virtually impossible job.

A Grecian style urn planted with a castor oil plant (Fatsia japonica). Striking contrast in form, very classy, but how are you going to get the plant out when it gets too big. Break that expensive urn, that’s how.

A fastigiate Italian cypress (the tall, narrow ones that grown like columns) a focal point to a border beneath a large tree. Looks very nice when planted but the cypress is going to grow towards the light and the straight column will soon look very bent.

Area of white gravel dotted with hostas and ferns. There are two problems here. The garden is very damp and shady and the owner has a cat. Soon the gravel area will turn into a mixture of green slime and you can guess what else.

Cotoneaster horizontalis as underplanting for a large deciduos tree. It’s a fairly tough shrub that will do OK in the dry shade. Its main features are the autumn colour and berries but the owner will probably never get to enjoy them because this plant is a leaf trap.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

The Power Flower

Love them or hate them, bedding geraniums have to come top of my list for their sheer staying power. But even with geraniums, it pays to be a little bit discriminating if you are after maximum performance for the minimum effort.

For ultra low maintenance, my advice is to stick to the zonal types, the ones with banded markings on the leaves. Named varieties are the safest bet as they tend to form compact, bushy plants. The ones sold simply as geraniums often grow rather leggy and uneven, not what you want for a container display. They are also less prone to geranium rust, a common fungal disease that disfigures the leaves late in season.

Don’t worry too much about actual name: ‘Aprika’, ‘Ringo’, there are hundreds to choose from but they are nearly all good, so go for the colour that takes your fancy. Think twice about white though because the flowers turn brown as they fade and they need constant deadheading to keep them looking good. In a wet summer, double flowers often collect the rain and the blooms can start to rot during prolonged grey spells.

Written By Alistair Ayres

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

The Tea Bag Trick

In the days when tea came in packets rather than bags, it was common practice to empty the used leaves onto the garden. ‘Does wonder for the roses’ as my granny used to say. Unfortunately, a pile of soggy tea bags doesn’t’ quite have the same effect (the bag material doesn’t biodegrade), but the old wisdom is not entirely lost.

As you probably know, azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons need an acid soil and, especially those grown in pots, commonly start to look a bit sad and yellow over time. This is because they struggle to get enough iron as the compost turns more alkaline, an inevitable result of using our hard London water. But there’s no need to worry. Just put a used tea bag in a can full of water and stir gently. A weekly dose of this mix will soon have your plants looking green and healthy again. Magnolias, skimmias, and heathers will also thank you for a drop of tea.

Green tea, highly favoured by the Chinese and Japanese for its antioxidant properties, has an almost magical effect on plants. Just a tiny drop in the watering can each time you water results in healthier, bushier plants with more flowers. It works for both houseplants and outdoor containers. It may take a month or so but, once you see the results, I’m sure you’ll be convinced to join your plants in a regular cuppa.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Growing Annuals from Seed Part 2

You should see signs of life anywhere from a few days to a 2 weeks. As soon as you do, put the pot in the lightest place you have. Water only when the pot has nearly dried out. When the seedling is showing four or five leaves, pinch the stem out above the topmost leaf. This will stop the plant rushing upward and toppling over.

If it’s warm out, you can then start ‘hardening off’ – see my piece on Annuals – to get them used to being outside. This is terribly important. If you rush it, your plants will get a cold shock and sulk for weeks. When you are sure all risk of cold or frosty weather is past, usually late April – carefully plant out or pot on your seedling and water it, keeping it out of direct sunlight for a few days afterward. Make sure your new container is only slightly larger than the old one,
or your seedling will drown.

Written By Tom O'Leary

Friday, 15 May 2009

Borrowing from Bonsai

You don’t need to grow miniature plants to benefit from the wisdom of bonsai growers. Choose the scale you want and use the techniques to you’re your containers trees and shrubs healthy and in perfect proportions.

Trees and shrubs commonly start to look stressed once the roots fill the pot. The problem if you put them in a bigger pot, they’ll just grow bigger. What bonsai growers do is prune back the roots. For container gardeners wanting medium-sized plants, trimming back the roots by up to a third and putting the plant back in the same pot with fresh compost will work wonders.

The other useful technique is to regularly pinch out the leaf tips, which keeps plants bushy and compact, and to prune back the side shoots before they get too long. Done regularly over several seasons, even naturally vigorous trees and shrubs begin to learn the ideal size you would like them to grow and develop well in their new well-behaved habits.

5 Steps to Longer Lasting Flowers

Ok, I’m a man, but on the rare occasions that a woman buys me flowers I take it as a big compliment. I want them to last as long as possible. Here’s what to do.
1. Take off all but the top two or three leaves. Any leaves that remain under water will rot. If you get roses, take the thorn off too.
2. Submerse the stems in bowl and trim the bottom of the stems underwater. This prevents the pipes getting blocked by bubbles of air.
3. Even cut flowers like to eat as well as drink. A drop of lemonade in the vase supplies them with the sugary goodness they like. Adding half an aspirin helps to keep the water clear. If you get one of those little sachets with your bunch, use that instead. They contain both food and medicine. Don’t forget to top up the water occasionally and change it if it starts to smell.
4. Tulips and roses have a tendency to curl their heads over. It’s just an airlock in the plumbing. A simple pinprick just behind the flower head will fix the problem.
5. Put the vase in cooler part of the room, not over a radiator or on top of the TV.
A little bit of thought and effort, well yes, but isn’t that what true romance is all about!

Written By Alistair Ayres

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Growing Annuals from Seed

Nothing beats growing a plant from seed, planting it out and seeing it flower. Watching a small piece of springtime emerge on your windowsill in it’s little pot will gladden the heart on rainy days, and you’ll be much more likely to care for it during the coming seasons.

It is good to remember that an annual plants whole purpose is to flower and set seed before winter comes, which is why we ‘deadhead’ and remove old flower heads, encouraging the plant to flower again and again.

I sow 2 or 3 seeds in little pots 4 inches high and 3 wide, using FRESH seed compost pressed firmly into the pot. Plant the seeds at twice the depth of the seeds diameter – for tiny seeds, sow on the surface and scatter a fine dust of compost over them. Then, place your pots in a tray and water the tray – not the pots. They will slowly absorb the water without disturbing the seeds.

Place the pots in a warm place, on a windowsill in the light, and don’t let them dry out!

Written By Tom O'Leary

Why Do Supermarkets Taste So Bland?

For me even the organ vine-ripened varieties don’t come a patch to one freshly picked from my own plant. The thing about supermarkets is that choose varieties that look good on display, have a long shelf life and are not easily damaged by customer handling. They also stop the fruit from fully ripening by putting it cool storage. If you want really tasty tomatoes, my golden rule is never ever put them in the fridge.

Tomatoes are very easy to grow. Virtually any container, some decent compost, a bottle of liquid feed and your away. The problem is that it’s a bit late to start growing them from seed. Late in the season the plants on sale can also look a bit sad. Fortunately, tomatoes are exceptionally easy to grow from cuttings. Take a side shoot, trim the bottom and remove all but the top four leaves. Poke it into a pot of compost and it will start growing within a week or so.

If you don’t know a friend or neighbour who will give you a small bit of one their plants to get started, even starved and leggy plants from market stalls can be made young and healthy again if you use it for cuttings.

Written By Alistair Ayres

Monday, 11 May 2009

Rhodedenrons en Masse

Do you want a colour experience that will literally take your breath away? Forget HD, you won’t find it on any television. One of the most amazing sights of late spring is azaleas and rhododendrons planted en masse. It’s almost like being in a dream.

While a trip to the Himalayas is probably not on the cards, a short trip down the A30 to the Valleys Gardens in Windsor Great Park is a good second best.

From 18 to 22 May, there are organized walks through the Valley Gardens, when hopefully the azaleas and rhododendrons should be at their peak. See for details.

Slightly closer to London, the Isabella Plantation in Richmond Park boasts over 220 different types of azalea and rhododendron and is also well worth a visit.
Written By Alistair Ayres
(Get in touch if you take Alistair up on any of his tips - we'd love to hear from you)

Saturday, 9 May 2009

5 Tips for Easier Watering

Line the sides of clay pots with polythene. This stops the compost drying out so quickly and helps prevent frost from cracking the pots.

Add a tiny sprinkling of watering-absorbing polymer (such as Swell Gel) to the compost when planting containers. The granules can hold up to 400 time their volume of water. Too much and the compost will turn to soggy jelly.

Put a small saucer in the bottom of hanging baskets before planting to act as water reservoir. Line the side with black polythene to reduce evaporation but make some small holes around the bottom to allow drainage.

Cover bare compost around large specimens in containers with light coloured pebbles. This will reduce evaporation and reflect heat.

Group container plants close together. They will share in the moist micro-atmosphere created by evaporation from compost and leaves.

Written By Alistair Ayres

Think Clematis, Think Laurel

Perhaps you have a couple of naked fence panels you would like to cover with clematis. Here, a bit of lateral thinking will give you the best results. Instead of buying two or three plants, look for one with three or four reasonably long stems. When it comes to planting, put the roots sideways in the hole. You can lay the stems along the ground at the base of the fence and cover them with soil. A few leaves sticking out above soil level at regular intervals is good but not essential.

Before you know it, a new stem will start to grow from every leaf joint, each one with its own roots. This way, your single plant will give you a lush blanket of leaves and flowers to completely cover the fence.
If you try this at home, don’t act too smug when you see your neighbour’s clematis has a few almost bare stems with all the leaves and flowers at the top. This technique can be used with many climbers. Feel free to experiment.

Written By Alistair Ayres

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Bargain Orchids

Due largely to modern micro-propagation techniques, orchids have become much more widely available and very reasonably priced. The plants are raised in test tubes from tiny fragments of tissues, enabling growers to produce them in their thousands, cutting literally hundreds of years from the traditional production cycle. Cloning may sound a bit Frankenstein but for plants it’s really just a hi-tech way of taking cuttings.

Of all the orchids, cymbidiums are by far the toughest and most widely sold. These are the ones with long strap-shaped leaves and flowers in an amazing range of colours. They are happy in quite cool conditions and do well with minimal watering while in flower.

If want an absolute bargain, watch the shops for orchids that have just finished flowering. Prices are often slashed to giveaway prices. To get them to perform again next year, put them outside somewhere as sunny as possible, keep them watered and give them an occasional liquid feed. The leaves can look quite attractive as a foil to summer flowers in a container collection, so there’s really nothing to lose.

Bring them indoors again until temperatures threaten to go below 5 degrees C and ease off the water for the winter. As long as you had a nice summer, you should be rewarded by ten full weeks of bloom.

Written By Alistair Ayres

Monday, 4 May 2009

The Gardener's Scourge

The leaves of bay and laurels all eaten away around the edges, polyanthus suddenly turn yellow and die. Chances are you have the dreaded vine weevil. It has reached plague proportions in London gardens over recent years.

The adults, which are like tiny black beetles, can only be seen if you go out with a torch at night. Shaking the plants over a sheet will give you a clue to their numbers and give some measure of control. Unfortunately, while the adults disfigure plants biting out notches around the edges of the leaves, it their maggot-like larvae that do the most serious damage, gnawing away at the roots.

Vine weevils are hard to kill because you need to get the adults, the larvae and the eggs. There are two chemicals that will do the job but they are only for use in containers. Provado Vine Weevil Killer 2 (thiacloprid) and Scotts Bug Clear Ultra Vine Weevil Killer (acetamiprid) are both mixed with water. You need to really soak the compost for them to be effective. A single treatment can give up to two months control but my experience suggests that at least one repeat application Let your guard down once and they’ll be back in force.

Never uses these chemicals for any plants you intend to eat. The organic solution is a biological control in the form of a microscopic worm that parasitizes the vine weevil grubs. It works in the garden as well as containers but the soil needs to warm and moist. Putting the worms into action is easy. Just mix some powder into to your watering can and you are away. They work in the garden as well as containers but the soil needs to warm and moist. Google biological pest controls to find suppliers.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Recharge Your Bulbs

Bulbs come with their own power pack. They stored the energy to put on a good flower display during last year’s growing season. Now they need to recharge for next year.

My parents had the strange idea that daffodil leaves should be tied in knots when they finished flowering. It’s better than cutting the leaves down but it’s still not good practice. Extensive trials by the Royal Horticultural Society have demonstrated that daffodils perform best the following year when the leaves are allowed to die down naturally. The same principle applies to tulips, hyacinths and all the other spring flowering bulbs.

Great simple advice but it’s not always totally practical. What if you planted daffodils and crocuses in the lawn for example? Try and hold off mowing for 6 to 8 weeks after the last flowers fade. Mow around the bulbs rather than letting the whole lawn go wild.

In tubs and window boxes, watching the leaves of spring bulbs slowly die is not a very attractive. What I do is to plant the bulbs in small pots in the autumn and sink them pot and all into the containers. Once they finish flowering, I can easily take them out the pots and let the leaves continue growing in a less conspicuous position. With a bit of care, most bulbs can be successfully moved in leaf. Another solution is to replant all the daffs and tulips from your window boxes in a large pot and give the leaves a bit of extra loving till they fade.
Written By Alistair Ayres

Attack of the Greenfly!

Greenfly are amazing creatures. They survive the winter as eggs and during the warmer months they give birth to young greenfly that are already pregnant with a pregnant offspring. Not only that, but they can ride the winds for hundreds of miles to find their way to your window box. The mind boggles. So how do you kill them?

My favorite method is to gently squash them between finger and thumb, taking care not to damage delicate stems. It’s cheap, organic and effective for container plans. An alternative is blast them off with a hose. It won’t kill them all but there will be fatalities. Both these methods require persistence for success.

Insecticides are the next resort. Soft soap, approved by organic growers, contact insectides (containing bifenthrin) kill greenfly and other insects they come in contact with, and systemic insecticides (imidacloprid and thiacloprid) ingested by plant and poison insects that try to eat them. My advice would be to use insecticides sparingly to deal with the first big wave attack. You don’t really want to kill the ladybirds, lacewings, ground beetles and spiders that will eat enough greenfly to prevent them become a further problem once the population is under control.

The sugary droppings from greenfly and other aphids can often be a bigger problem than the direct damage they cause to plants. This becomes covered with a black mould that blocks out light to the leaves. Don’t worry if you see this, the plants are not diseased; they just need to be washed.

Ants farm aphids for their sugar droppings and will viciously defend them against predators. A ring of Vaseline around the base of the plant stem will close down the ants’ access to their herd.

Rose Pruning Myths

I once had a dog named Ken who loved rose bushes. Every time I planted one, he’d dig it up and chew on the stems. Undeterred I kept replanting them and lo and behold they flowered beautifully, albeit a bit later than normal. This started me questioning the traditional advice on rose pruning.

Working for Which? at the time, I commissioned the Royal National Rose Society in St Albans to carry out a proper trial to compare the careful method (making a slanting cut just above a bud) with just cutting all the stems back roughly to about a third of their height. We used a hedge trimmer to simulate dog’s teeth. The roughly pruned and hedge trimmer cut roses flowered as well or better than those treated with care.

Roses in general are pretty tough plants so don’t be frightened to cut them back. The textbooks usually say March, but April, May or even June is OK. In our recent mild winters, roses can carry on blooming until after Christmas and the later pruned ones should be especially good in the autumn. If you use a rough method, be prepared for brown bits at the ends of some of the cut stems. This is not worry – just trim of anything that looks ugly as and when.

Unfortunately Ken is no more, but I hope his contribution to gardening may be remembered.

Written By Alistair Ayres

Friday, 1 May 2009

Nurseries come to farmer's markets!

I like visiting London’s Farmers’ Markets. There’s something reassuring about seeing vegetables sold in random shapes and sizes. There’s the homemade bread and scrummy cakes too. This year, gardeners are in for a special treat as nurseries have been invited along to sell their plants on selected dates through April, May and June at Farmers’ Markets throughout London.

They run from 9am to 1pm on Saturdays and 10 to 2pm on Sundays. Dates for markets with Plant Fairs are:

4 April Holly Road Carpark, Twickenham
5 April and 24 May Walthamstow Town Square
26 April Bonneville Gardens, Clapham
3 May and 21 June Salusbury Road, Queens Park
9 May Wimlbledon Park Primary School
1o May and 14 June Islington Town Hall
16 May William Ellis School, Parliament Hill
17 May Blackheath Station

Written By Alistair Ayres

(We'd like to hear about what you think of your local farmer's markets. Please let us know and we will promote them for you. We want to support local British produce of the highest quality - the little green space ladybird says)