Q&A with Phil McCann

Phil McCannPhil McCann from the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) stepped up with a team of gardening gurus to answer your questions, from tackling broadbean-loving black-fly, to weed-infested allotments, and foxes who just won't leave your garden alone. 

Phil was previously assistant producer on BBC's Gardeners' World, is a trained horticulturist, a gardening journalist and a member of the RHS Vegetable Trials Committee. The RHS is the UK's leading gardening charity. Free one-to-one gardening advice is one of the many benefits of an RHS membership.
 

Small urban gardens | Weeds | Perennials and plants | Lawns | Vegetables and herbs | Trees  

 

Small urban gardens

Q. CMOTdibbler:  I am the shame of my hugely avid gardening family, as my garden is just grass! It's not that I am not interested, just that I don't have a lot of time, and a weird slopey garden. Plus, I have a four-year-old and three cats for added disruption!

Do you have any suggestions for low maintenance additions that would survive if I went away for a week and nothing was watered?

A. Phil: Weirdly slopey, low maintenance, drought tolerant and cats - you don't ask for much! Of course, there are plants which are suitable for your conditions - there are plants for every situation - and periwinkles take some destroying. Gorgeous purple flowers, which you can also get white varieties, and stringy branches of glossy green leaves. As a rule of thumb, plants with silver leaves are usually drought-tolerant so check out perovskia, caryopteris and even olives if you fancy something Mediterranean. And if the dry weather continues it won't just be the North West where hosepipe bans may come into force. If you are ever in Essex check out our garden at Hyde Hall - they have a magnificent dry garden crammed with just the plants you want. 

Q. Jonicomelately: I'm moving from a house with a large garden to one with a smaller garden, although there is a pretty, lawned front garden too. However, I'm really stressed because I have two sporty boys and a dog, and I wonder how I'll manage to create a nice garden. At the moment the back is a lawn which I'll have to keep so the boys can play football and lots of conifers: a real monoculture. Where would you start?

A. Phil: I can sympathise - I have two boys, one is 13 and the other five, and both like their footy and cricket. Plants do get damaged but some hold up better than others. Hebes are fantastic because they are tough, available in loads of colours and do bounce back after a wayward shot (don't mention the World Cup!) Your conifers may be nice but if they are plain green and large, do consider getting rid and adding more choice types. RHS Garden Wisley is the place to see almost every plant you could ever want, and the staff there are incredibly knowledgeable.

Your lawn will get a battering and regular mowing (leave it longer in dry weather as it survives better), aerating and getting rid of any moss will help keep it looking good. If you do feed it check out the manufacturers instructions as to danger to your children and the dog.

Q. Asmallbunchofflowers: I am an avid gardener, butI only have a small urban garden. I did a lot of new planting this spring to fill the empty space left by the removal of a diseased tree and various things which expired during the winter. Everything in my garden was going to be lovely this summer, I thought. But I am waging a losing battle against foxes, which are digging up all the young plants, flattening other plants and pooping all over the garden. I have tried to fox-proof the fences, but as my garden is higher than the one onto which it backs where they live they are still digging underneath. The back fence is covered in well-established climbers (honeysuckle, clematis, roses, jasmine) which makes further excavation and burying of paving slabs - my tactic so far - difficult. What else can I do? Do those electronic fox scarer gizmos actually work.

An RHS garden

A. Phil: Sadly foxes are in the news and getting more common in urban areas. Once established in a garden they can take some shifting, and their calling cards are horrid for both parents and children (although they can eat mice, which are another garden pest for some). It's a tricky one but I would immediately fill in any holes they make to prevent a den being established and never leave food out for foxes. I’m sure you don't but maybe ask neighbours if they are - and ask them to stop. Chemical deterrents rarely work and need frequent applications but a friend of mine has used a sound deterrent to good use. That was two weeks ago - my concern is that the foxes will get used to the noise.

Therefore, keep up with the paving slab and netting deterrent, try a sonic deterrent, never feed the foxes and keep filling in the holes they make. They might get the message.  

Q. Midnight Express: I need a hedge to act as a boundary between our garden and our neighbours. I would like something fairly fast growing, but not leylandii. The site is exposed, acid soil, north facing, in partial shade, in Scotland. Can anyone think of any other problems it might have? Oh yes, heavy clay. And it's on a slope. There is currently a privet hedge down one side and a fence on another, but as it's windy, I'm thinking a hedge would act as mmore of a windbreak. I've considered a native mixed hedge, based on hawthorn, but I'm wondering if there are any other species that would work particularly well in those terrible conditions?

A. PhilYou're not kidding when you describe your conditions as ...well you did. A mixed native hedge will look terrific, sounds in keeping with the surroundings and will thrive.
You could also go for Eleagnus, a real toughie,or even a row of buddleja. They might be trimmed by the wind but I bet they'll do well. And who can ignore laurel in your time of need. Try getting rid of that one! 

Q. Nymphadora:  We have a long, narrow garden which is only four meters wide in places, running roughly from east to west. The south side has a six feet wall and north side has a small fence so all the light is on the north. In the summer the whole garden gets sun although the south side only gets it for a few hours a day. We are revamping the garden and are now up to getting the raised beds for veg. What are the best things to plant in the bed that will be by the wall? And is it worth planting things in there in the winter when it doesn't get much light or should it just be covered over

A. Phil: One of the great thing about raised beds is that you control the watering and the soil so anything is possible, within reason,  so get growing! Beans will be good as they will grow tall and reach any available sun. I'll admit it now that I do like a nutty sprout at Christmas - the good thing is that during autumn and winter they are merely swelling and not requiring any particular conditions. OK, they take up some space but if you look for varierties labelled with the RHS Award of Garden Merit, then you know you are getting a great variety. Swiss chard is another easy one to grow with fantastic rewards and don't forget all the crops that are fast growing and perfect for the children to get involved in - carrots, as the small golf ball sized ones are so tasty, radishes, spring onions - you know the kind of stuff. 

Q. deepdarkwood: We live in a typical Victorian house with a side return. We have this year claimed this back. It’s a sun-trap and very protected, so I'd love to try out some more interesting planting options that would make the most of those conditions . I'd like to feel like I can step out of my house into a holiday. So far we've got Mediterranean style plants, like olives, rosemary, lavender, and thyme, but it feels uninspired.

A. PhilHoliday in the tropics and plant yourself a banana. Musa basjoo is the toughest and will grow quite happily - protect if we start to get a winter like last. I would put lots of exotic climbers up your walls - grow them from seed, put some wires up and let them go. All the Cobaea, Eccremeocarpus are great. Or what about an exotic passion flower - or bourganvillea might be okay if we get mild winters (not freezing!). I do like your rosemary, lavender, olive combo though! 

 

Weeds

Q. MayorNaze:  I am a keen but very amateur allotment-er. I took over an extremely abandoned plot and two years later am definitely reaping the fruits of my labour. But oh the weeds! The other, well established plots seem to have barely any weeds at all, and I’m fairly sure the owners aren't weeding in the dead of night. What am i doing wrong?

A. Phil: You are not alone - trust me - there are many people who are continually battling against weeds on their plots. And you know what? We all have to learn to live with the fact that weeds will appear on our plots and unless you spend every hour of every day at the plot, they will be there when you enter the allotment gates. A few won't harm, will increase the chances of wildlife and give the other 'pristine' plotholders something to moan about!

So don't get too upset, keep cultivating only what you can manage and cover any spare ground with black plastic, or those large plastic sheets from a leading DIY retailer. The plastic will smother the weeds and the soil will be ready for when you have the time to start cultivating that part. It's either that or give up everything else in your life and spend every hour down at the plot - and I'm not suggesting you do that. You'll get more info at our Grow Your Own events. There's loads of information and most importantly, staff who know their onions.  

Q. CuppaTeaJanice: We're struggling to keep our large, hilly and wild garden under control. What is the best way of getting rid of brambles, pendulous sedge, and that horse tail plant that grows everywhere?

And what can we replace them with that gives good ground cover without getting too rampant, keeps weeds down and preferably looks pretty too?

"You can kill moss off by using a shop bought treatment. They act within days and once the moss is black and dead, rake it all out. Then tackle the soil."

A. Phil: For brambles, cut down and dig them out, although you do say 'large' garden so that bothers me. For pendulous sedge: same again; or you can use a chemical that kills anything that is green, so be careful where it goes, but degrades on contact with the soil. Look for the active ingredient called glyphosate. I don't like pouring chemicals all over the place but if you have to get rid of weeds then that is the one to look for - it has various trade names but look on the label for glyphosate. 

Now for your horsetail - you might need a sit down after this one. It is one of the Earth's oldest plants and a right old survivor. Every section of root left in the soil will grow another plant and every stem fractures into sections that, you've guessed it, grows another plant. Let it bloom and you get more plants. Chemicals will knock it around a bit but it will come back. Your best bet is to keep hoeing or strimming the shoots off when they are young. This will eventually weaken the plant. If using chemicals on it crush its stems first to allow the chemical to penetrate the glossy exterior. Or, live with the lovely little age old Christmas tree-like shoots. I thought so, get digging!

Once you've got rid of - or at least tamed - that lot, try a cotoneaster for ground cover. Red berries and tough stems that smother the ground that will help keep new weed shoots at bay.

Q. Pebblejones: Unfortunately, my garden is full of moss. how can I get rid of it? If I returf will the moss come back?

A. Phil: I think you know the answer - you can't paper over a problem and expect it to go away! The moss is there because the water content is high, there's not much air getting to the roots and the light levels are low. You can kill moss off by using a shop bought treatment. They act within days and once the moss is black and dead, rake it all out. Then tackle the soil. Spike or aerate the whole surface. Brush in sand or loam and don't cut the lawn too short. This weakens the grass, exposes the surface and moss takes it chance. If there are any overhanging branches then get rid. It might take a couple of seasons but you'll crack it. 

An RHS gardenQ. Boisbach: Our front garden has bind weed growing almost everywhere. To get rid of it I've tried constantly pulling it up, covering the garden with cardboard and putting a layer of wood chippings on the cardboard, and painting the leaves with Roundup weed-killer. None of these seem to work I am reluctant to dig-over the entire garden as it has many lovely mature plants.

A. Phil: I know how you feel - I have both bindweed and ground elder and you turn your back and whoosh! The bindweed is all over the place. You've tried most of the tricks - but one more is to put wigwams of bamboo canes or something similar in amongst your borders and let the bindweed grow up them - and they surely do! Then you can bag the whole lot, and spray glyphosate into the bag. It concentrates the weedkiller and can kill it off. 

Q. Solo: What's the best way to kill off weeds?

A. Phil: Weeds - plants in the wrong place at the wrong time! Some say leave them as they provide a rich and diverse habitat for wildlife. And they do. But not everyone wants a weedy garden or lawn or veg patch - so there are ways, and we are still allowed to talk about them, to get rid of unwanted plants. I prefer the back-breaking hand weeding - getting the whole root out wherever possible and not simply whipping off their heads.

But on occasions lots of gardeners resort to weedkillers. There are general ones that persist in the soil- not a good idea if you want to plant into the soil afterwards - and ones based on a chemical that degrades the minute, or indeed second, it falls on the soil. If you are going to use a weedkiller look out for one based on glyphosate - it's the one that degrades. But bear in mind it will kill anything that is green - but not brown so is used to kill weeds around the base of trees). But if you can, get them out by hand, fork, hoe or trowel. 

 

Perennials and plants

Q. Taffetacat: I garden on south facing, very free draining, sloped downwards, extremely chalky soil. I am very selective in my planting as I am keen on gardening with plants that thrive here rather than fighting a losing battle with ones that sulk. Some of the plants that like it here include lavender, rosemary, hollyhocks and peonies.

I was wondering if you may be able to suggest some others, perennials preferably, but not hot colours. The garden is awash with mature shrubs, so no more of those needed. Trees seem to struggle here as its solid chalk once you get to a certain depth.

A. Phil:It's always a good idea to grow with your conditions rather than fight nature and lose!
Chalk is great because it drains well - but as you know it is 'thin' and doesn't offer much for roots. But saying that, there are perennials that will thrive in chalky soil. Poppies have to be one of the best, chamomile is gorgeous and beautiful blue cornflowers - you can't have a garden without them. Then there's rudbeckia and echinacea - both stunning in later summer. Fennel will look good. That lot should keep you busy! 

Q. Whodunnit: I want to have a border with loads of lavender. I've seen lots that have gone long and straggly, and some which still look thick and strong after years and years. Any tips? Does it need cutting back?

A. Phil: Lavender - there's nothing better when its in full flower and the bees are going crazy for the pollen. However, it can be absolute rubbish with woody stems and frazzled flowers. The trick is to cut it back straight after flowering. Cut the old flower spikes and a bit of the stems out. The plants regrow and flower on stubby plants for a few years. They do give up after about five years, but it can be five years of utter pleasure. 

Q. willywalshsballs: Oh Phil! They call me brown fingers because although, we have a lovely long garden, but it's just lawn and a few apple trees, because every plant I buy dies, and I don't know why! Could you recommend some very hardy plants that require minimal maintenance? Would love a climber to go along the shed and a flowering plant with a good scent for next summer. 

A. PhilThere are tough plants that will survive the brownist of fingers and any level of neglect you care to throw at them.You're not going to kill hardy gernaiums - you can't! Plant them in sun or semi-shade and watch them grow. If you fancy, cut them down to within an inch of their lives around now and you'll get more flowers and really tight growth in late summer. Not a bad start!

Eleagnus Quicksilver is a super shrub, silvery green leaves on shrubs that get a couple of metres high. They don't go wrong. Then you've got your cotoneasters and berberis - berries (which can be poisonous so check it before buying), sometimes evergreen and tough as you like. 

A lot of the hebes are robust, I've got a Mock Orange (orange scented flowers for the last month) is easier than pie and most of the viburnums with their winter flowers are so easy you'll forget you've got them - until you pick up the super scent and notice the mass of evergreen leaves in December. In the vegetable garden, shallots are indestructible and muscari - planted as bulbs in autumn, will bring blue blooms all spring long. And you'll never get rid of them.  

"It's almost impossible to kill geraniums! Plant them in sun or semi-shade and watch them grow. If you fancy, cut them down to within an inch of their lives around now and you'll get more flowers and really tight growth in late summer."

Q. 43Today:  We have recently moved into a new-build house and we are planning to work on the garden next year, which is currently turfed with edging of slabs at back of house. I would like to have three or four large perennial plants in containers that will flourish on a south-facing patio - non-climbers but with attractive foliage, flowers if possible, and not too high maintenance - to make it look less stark this year. What would you recommend?

A. Phil: Perennials in pots: such a choice but whatever you choose make sure you have good drainage and plenty of root room - watering may be a bit of task in scorching weather but to be honest, quite relaxing on a summers evening. I love agapanthus - I saw them at Tresco gardens a few weeks ago and they look terrific. Gorgeous blue pom-pom flowers on stalks a couple of feet high. And they are low maintenance - my own plants have had nothing done to them for six years and they still bloom in July. Pinks (or old fashioned carnations) grow well in containers and I've just planted up some purple flowered scabious into a couple of containers. They will flower all summer if I keep deadheading them.  

Q. 43Today:  We would like to plant a small tree in our west-facing front garden, about 10 feet from  our house. Ideally, it would be year round interest, not block out the light, and if it was not too tall that would be nice. Also importantly, it mustn't have roots that would damage the block paving of our neighbours parking space.  Any suggestions?

A. Phil: You've got to go for an Amelanchier (also called Snowy mespilus) It has coppery leaves in early spring, white flowers in late spring, gorgeous green leaves in summer and fantastic autumn colours. You can't beat it, it won't rip up your block paving and you'll see one at RHS Garden Wisley.

 

Lawns

Q. Madrush: We have a garden approaching 200ft long and mostly lawn. In parts it's very shady, with two small oaks halfway and three huge black poplars at the back, so moss creeps in. 
I tried raking it out followed by reseeding one time, which was quite successful but I can't find the time to dedicate myself to such care every year. I am quite lazy and so like the idea of naturalising the moss or finding a lawn plant that would cope better with shade.

Do you think we should make time/get a grass care expert? Or maybe leave it to become a mossy lawn - are there many reasons why this is more environmentally friendly and very much the done thing these days? Or should we find a non-grass lawn type plant to seed there instead of grass - any suggestions of easy sowing shade loving ones? 

A. Phil: Lawns - love them or hate them, they are a big part of gardening. And where there's a lawn, there's moss. Of course you can get someone in to sort it out - but it will cost a few quid and chances are they are lobbing about lots of chemicals. It's not for me.
You can rake and scarify until your biceps bulge and your back aches - but moss will come back. You have to treat what's causing the moss. It's bad drainage and your shady spots. Aerate the soil, that's making holes in the lawn surface. Rake in a loam or sand to allow air to get to the roots. Feed the lawn to strengthen it and able to cope with the moss invaders. Reduce the trees to allow in more light.

Saying all that, moss is great to walk on, stays green in the driest of summers and is home to more creatures than a monoculture of grass. I reckon we should let it live hand in hand with the grass and concentrate on other eseential gardening tasks - like looking at the garden in this gorgeous weather. Don't be a slave to your lawn. 

An RHS gardenQ. Eltham: We only have a back yard which has a raised composite concrete section, as the previous owners built a car port. I would love to have some grass there but it would be too costly to excavate it and return it to the level of the area outside the kitchen.

My question then regards the laying of turf onto this. How much soil does grass need to grow in? Is it at all possible? For instance, if we broke it up a bit for drainage and imported topsoil, would grass survive?

There's also an area which is in deep shade a lot of the time - are there particular types of lawn grass that do better in such places? Or do I just need to give up on my wish?

A. Phil: It's a tall order, as you would have to smash up the paving, build up the sides using bricks or wood to a depth of 18 inches at least, import a lot of quality loam topsoil and then turf over. Watering would be a nightmare.

So - build yourself some raised beds to a design of your choice ( make sure you can reach into the middle of them) , fill them with topsoil, grow some veg and flowers and 'green' the whole area like that. It's a lot more productive than grass! You could maybe visit one of our RHS gardens for inspiration, or come to a veg weekend. 

 

Vegetables and herbs

Q. GinaFB: We are growing vegetables for the first time this year in raised beds in our garden. Everything is doing well but we have a small problem the broad beans which are covered with black insects. Other than this they are very healthy and there are hundreds of flowers on them. Please help! How can I get rid of them?

A. PhilSounds like black-fly to me. They love the soft shoots - and don't you know it. You have to get rid of them because they will distort the flowers and beans. Rub the the black-fly off, spray them off with a hosepipe or there are organic insecticides based on horticultural soaps that will clean the plants up. Don't use chemicals because you are so, so close to tasty beans!  

Q. JaynieB: I've just been offered an allotment - its been slightly tended for the previous year, but before that was disused for several decades. The soil is very impoverished, very acidic (pH may be less than 5, which was as low as the test kit went). Where do I start?

A. Phil It sounds like a challenge - but not an impossible one! Only try and sort out what you have time and energy for - a full sized plot is massive and best if you have all day, every day spare or a lot of like minded friends. If you use half, cover the other half with plastic. It will cook the weed seeds, block out the light and stop things getting out of control.

You are right to think about the soil first. A pH of 5 is really acidic - I'd get hold of spent organic mushroom compost and dig in tonnes of the stuff. But before that sieve through what you can to get rid of weeds. Don't rotavate the whole lot as the weeds will be chopped up into tiny pieces and your plot will look good for a week. And only a week.So you've weeded, dug in mushroom compost and covered what you can't face up to with plastic. Cheer yourself up by buying in ready grown plants. They'll get away quickly and you will be cropping soon - runner beans are good. Sow carrots, beetroot, sping onions, radish - quick, easy and tasty. And net everything to stop the birds. 

"Herbs are great fun to grow - and usually so rewarding. We all know most like hot conditons but a windowsill can fry the leaves and boil the roots."

Q. Prettybird: Last year, I started growing veg in some raised beds that we built into a sloping grass slope - the old drying green - of our north facing garden, raised to get maximum sun. I had great success with peas, mostly all of which germinated.

But this year I have had really sporadic germination, with two attempts at sowing three different types (in separate rows): Kelvedon Wonder, Alderman and Oregon Sugar Pod. Of these, only the Oregon Sugar Pod has germinated successfully (and even then, only 75%). The Alderman has only two plants showing (of c.20+ sown initially) with another one seedling from a repeat sowing, while the Kelvedon Wonder has a similar germination success rate.

Is the dry weather we have had at fault? I have only recently started watering regularly and deeply. Half a row of Tom Thumb lettuce disappeared overnight in the same bed with no trace of slug trails - is that a coincidence? The runner beans in the same bed are doing fine. 

The 'seed beds' were/are protected by short peas sticks, both against birds and from our two cats. Meanwhile, our potato bed, brassica bed, onion bed and (1st year) asparagus bed are all doing well, but I had also had problems with germination in the cutting flower bed (sunflowers, asters, love in a mist) - although the fennel has taken no problem.

A. Phil: It's doubtful your peas are suffering from drought as there has been enough moisture under the soil surface for most things to germinate - look at the weeds! I reckon we can blame mice - they adore peas and any other juicy seeds. You mentioned sunflower seeds. 
I prefer to sow peas indoors, in deep pots on the windowsill and transplant them when a couple of inches tall. Or I put holly branches along the rows outside to deter the mice. 

Q. Lulamaam: I'm not much of a gardener, but I do like to try and grow herbs in my windowsill, but never get very far, they die regardless of what I do! How can you get windowsill herbs to flourish, or is it impossible? I wonder if it's best to plant properly outside in tubs? 

A. Phil: Herbs are great fun to grow - and usually so rewarding. We all know most like hot conditons but a windowsill can fry the leaves and boil the roots. Spring, early summer, autumn and winter are great times for windowsil herbs - bright conditions are best and don't forget to water. The pots dry out quickly. But it is best to plant them outside in the peak of summer. Plants I like to use are the ones from supermarkets sometimes labelled as growing herbs. They are great when planted out and a fraction of the cost of garden centre plants or even raising your own from seed. 

Q. Taffetacat: I'm in my first few years of a veg patch, and after much enrichment with manure and compost can grow most stuff, although I suspect chalk is better for some fruit and veg than others. I had heard brassicas like lime, any more recommendations? Or ones to avoid? 

A. Phil: Brassicas, like caulis, cabbages, sprouts, clabrese need lime to thrive and keep away a nasty disease called clubroot. Most veg is tolerant of some chalk - best to check the pH of how acidic or alkaline the soil is with a simple testing kit from any garden centre before planting.  

Q. Dumbledoresgirl: I am trying my hardest to squash the black-fly and cabbage white caterpillars that are variously trying to destroy my runner beans, broad beans, peas and broccoli, but it is far from a perfect method of getting rid of these pests. Is there one really really good insecticide I should look for when I go to the garden centre next? I hate the idea of spraying but if I don't, I fear my crops will be paltry.

Also, I was disappointed when my lovely beetroot plants were attacked by what I have decided from reading books is Mangold Fly. Anything I can do to prevent this happening next year?

A. Phil: Mangold fly; 7mm long, grey brown body, nibbled leaves that blister and go brown - yep - you've got the right one. The best thing is to gently loosen the soil around the plants as this exposes the pupae, snuggling in the soil, to birds. If you don't these crawl up and do the damage. Don't spray - you'll damage the leaves and lace your beet with chemicals.
As for a combined killer spray for all the other bits and pieces you have - yep, most garden centres have them but use with care. 

An RHS gardenQ. Lulamaam: I have a peace lily, that is still going after several years, more by accident than design, and it's currently in a large pot in the bathroom. Where is the best place to keep it, and what should I re-pot it in as it grows?

A. Phil: Your peace lily - they are tough ( as you know) They will grow almost anywhere and put up with all amounts of over or under watering. A bright but not blazing windowsill is good, or a bright bathroom is fine. You'll do well to get rid of that plant! 

 

Trees

Q. Nigglewiggle:  I would really like to grow a magnolia tree in our garden as there was one where we got married and it looked beautiful. I see them everywhere looking fabulous, but whenever we try to grow them, they either die or, like the current attempt, fail to flower.
I am reluctant to fork out for a big tree, so we have tried to nurture saplings. We are about to lay a patio and I would like to try again with a Magnolia next to the patio area. Should we push the boat out and get a bigger tree? Any other tips to avoid Magnolicide?

A. PhilMagnolias are superb, especially when they avoid the wind and frost of spring. There are so many to choose from but I like a smaller growing one called Magnolia Stellata. It likes a sunny spot, well drained soil and isn't fussy about the acidity of soil - while many magnolias are! It grows to around three metres and is the one for smaller gardens.

Magnolias are better grown on from small plants as they don't like being transplanted when large - something in a 10-litre pot and about a metre high should cost about £20 (a bit vague but it does depend on where you shop). You can find every magnolia name and where to buy them on our RHS Plant Finder.

Q. Mustrunmore: I bought a fig tree this year, and the instructions say it's better to leave it potted to produce plenty of figs, and also so it can be brought in from frosts. Is that really true? I've seen most fig trees just planted in the ground! But if it should be potted, how do I know what size pot?

A. PhilFigs are interesting plants and the instructions are almost accurate ( that's the same as not being accurate!) The trick with figs is to restrict the root growth. This prevents the plant from romping away in lush soil, merrily producing leaves and not bothering, because life is too good, to produce flowers (and therefore fruit). You can plant figs out in the soil but I would put vertically placed concrete slabs in the sides of the planting hole to stop the roots spreading. A planting hole ( and therefore pot) two feet wide will be ample for a big tree. Of course they can be outside - in most of the UK. 

Q. Kisamama: We have a row of Damson trees in the middle of our south-facing, and in a perfect world, they would be growing along the fence. Is it possible to move them? And if so what time of year? And when can we prune? One is quite big, the trunk about 10cm in diameter and about five to six metres high, while the others are smaller, about six to eight in diameter and three meters high.

They were full of beautiful fruit last autumn when we moved in and are looking like they will produce a big crop this year too so do not want to lose them, but we just need more clear running and football space I am afraid!

A. Phil: I fully understand the need for running about in the garden - both my boys, 13 and five, live in the garden. Your trees sound big to move, but anything is possible if you don't mind a gamble. Early winter is a good time to move the trees. Dig a large trench around the trees at a point where you don't find thick roots just below the surface. Then dig down until you reach virtually root free soil. Then cut under the roots - it sounds hard work and it is! Your rootball should then be free of the soil - slide a piece of plastic or sacking under the cut and ease the tree and rootball away from the soil. Plant in a new position at the same depth as it was before this major surgery.

Then keep it watered, staked and fingers crossed. Or prune in summer and leave them where they are! I know what I'd do. 

"Early winter is a good time to move trees. Dig a large trench around the trees at a point where you don't find thick roots just below the surface. Then dig down until you reach virtually root free soil. Then cut under the roots - it sounds hard work and it is!"

Q. Granny23: We have had a patio pear tree in a huge pot for seven years now. Every year it blossoms and sets to fruit but the tiny pears turn black and fall off. Last year we had two that grew to eating size and the year before only one. This year they have all blackened and fallen off. Next door has a huge pear tree covered in pearlets as usual - so what is wrong with ours?

A. Phil: It sounds like your neighbour's tree is growing in the soil - I bet it is rained on and never goes short of water. If yours is in the same pot and compost it originally was put in, chances are the compost is old and even difficult to get water down to the roots. Old compost has that horrible knack of capping over, getting crusty and repelling all water. Try scraping off the top couple of inches of compost and replacing with new.

Make sure the tree is watered - even in spring when the fruits are developing the compost can be dry - and maybe add a drop or two of tomato fertilser to the water in May and June. It should do the trick. 

Q. Isthatporridgeinyourhair: I grow veratum album, viride and nigrum (very slowly) but have yet to think of really good plants to grow with them to set off the pleated leaves and restrained flower spikes. Can your gardeners think of any inspiring combinations?

A. Phil: You've got some great plants there - highly toxic though - and not usually seen in garden centres. Veratrum also has an Award of Garden Merit)which is only awarded to the best garden worthy plants in various trials conducted by the RHS. Look out for the award symbol on other plants and seeds. You have to check out the Hampton Court Flower Show for inspiration, but I would plant them with plants that like similar conditions - and this one isn't too fussy. I'd plant some aqulegia with it so as not to hide its foliage and and even thalictrum would work well. But do be careful as all parts are poisonous. 

Q. SwansEatQuince: We have a happy old apple espaulier tree which is around 120 years old that we have been told to move. What's the best way to do this and is there anywhere we can have it identified? We live in Tayside.

A. Phil: What?! 120 year old tree and you've been told to move it? Wow, I won't get involved.
You know what - I think you've got no chance - sorry. It sounds massive, will have roots all over the place and the last thing it needs it to be moved. Surely there's some tree preservation order on it or talk with the local council. Please, please look into alternatives to moving it. If you're a member of the RHS you can send their bits of old twigs, leaves, or pictures of fruit and so on to the members advisory service and will get a personal reply. 

 

Useful links

Last updated: 14-Oct-2013 at 5:26 PM