Our heartfelt plea for answers to our gardening queries came from an unexpected quarter: we welcome Dame Ken. Sometimes, gardening books just don’t hack it so we’re hoping that his advice will transform our somewhat knobbly – and rarely green – fingers into more effective digits when pruning and planting.
1. How are you supposed to get at half the stuff you need to tend, particularly sweet peas, without trampling everything else underfoot?
A familiar problem: Dame Enid’s solution is to sink or place stepping stones – usually bits of broken paving stones – where she knows she is going to need to get to the back of the border during the summer. A bit unsightly, but foliage flops over them, and she can feel her way forward without standing on anything precious. Specifically on sweet peas, have you got room for a tub or a decent sized pot on a patio? You could insert a tepee of tall canes, and the sweet peas should do well.
2. What is the real secret of pruning? I do things by the book but my weigela now looks like a triffid.
The real secret of pruning is that there are different techniques according to what you want to achieve, therefore buy, beg or borrow a really good book on the subject, like the RHS book Pruning & Training. Weigela, for instance, flowers on wood that grew the previous year. Therefore, once the flowers have died, cut out the stems that have flowered down to a point just in front of a healthy new shoot which will carry the flowers next year.
Some shrubs like the dogwoods that are grown for their coloured stems in winter need to be cut back very hard to within a few inches of the ground, but the cut should be made just above a bud (one pointing outwards if possible), so the bud can develop into a replacement stem.
Then there are the more complicated sounding things like summer pruning of cordon apples and pears, where the advice is to make the cut just above a bud above (or three buds above, depending) the basal cluster. This is to encourage the trees to form flower buds in the spring. The first few times I did it, I had great difficulty deciding where ‘the basal cluster’ ended, but a professional fruit grower told me not to worry, it was more an art than a science, and could always be corrected by pruning harder next year, if necessary.
3. Why does my garden specialise in the single bloom?
It’s a bit worrying if you plant dozens of bulbs and only get one or two plants, as the most popular bulbs are generally pretty easy. I’d use a trowel rather than a dibber for planting, as pushing a dibber into the ground can compact the soil.
Also, how deep you plant the bulbs should vary according to their size – generally, the bigger bulbs go deeper. But maybe mice or some other pest is getting at the bulbs? Or (unlikely) the bulbs may be drowning if you are planting them in a really wet place.
4. How can I keep my neighbour’s vine under control as it invades my garden?
Does the vine grow over a garden wall, or through a fence? If it’s coming through a fence, perhaps a solution might be to cover that area of fence with a weed-suppressant fabric, if that wouldn’t be too unsightly. Otherwise, a tricky problem.
5. Do oak barrels have a sell-by date? My thyme is getting woody, the sage has disappeared, but the little bay tree is soldiering on.
Oak barrels generally have a good life, but can rot in time due to being in constant contact with the compost or soil your plants are growing in. The fact that the bay tree is OK, and the herbs have grown there for several years is a good sign. Perhaps the soil is getting exhausted now, and it might be a good idea to carefully dig out some of the top layer and replace it with new, and perhaps incorporate a bit of a slow release fertilizer like bone meal.
It’s also possible that the roots of the bay tree have been starving the other herbs or leaving them short of water. It’s not unusual for plants like thyme, and sage, to get woody over the years, and now might be the right moment to replace.
We had two mature plants of what I think is called Narrow-leaved Spanish sage growing in a border – great plants because the leaves are good for cooking, but the plants also have loads of spectacular blue flowers in summer. Having grown very successfully for several years, both plants appeared to die last autumn. One has definitely gone, but we were delighted to find that the long stems on the other had rooted in places, so it looks as though we now have several replacement plants.
Suitably armed with this information, we’re off out to garden with renewed vigour while the rain holds off. But if you have any particularly thorny gardening issues that you can’t find the answers to, why not let us know and we’ll see if Dame Ken can help you.