Monday 12 November 2007

Radio questions

It has been a busy radio week for me - Gardening Plus (the new name for Down to Earth, which is now three hours long) on BBC Essex and the Thursday phone-in and Dougan Does Gardening on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire.
Along with the usual "How do I kill this or that bug, disease or weed?" (rose blackspot is still a major concern for gardeners, even at this time of year) and "Why is this plant dying?", I've had some questions that may give some credence to changing climate.
Listeners have asked about looking after outdoor mimosas, lemons, olives, palms and even prickly pears - and this is the UK! The latter question came from a listener in Cambridge who had even managed to eat a few of her own prickly pears from a plant she had brought back from the Canary Islands earlier in the year. This was followed by a listener in London, who originally comes from South Africa, pointing out how they're basically a weed in that country because they propagate themselves so easily; chance would be a fine thing!
And, of course, there are always those willing to admit to the biggest of faux pas!; planting a monkey puzzle tree right outside the house in the front garden, planting a willow right next to a drain and someone even admitted to planting and growing pampas grass - the shame of it!!!

Friday 2 November 2007

All systems go at RHS Online

Speaking of the day job (see last blog) it's all systems go on RHS Online - the RHS website. We've been working on some new areas of the site and updating others.

There's Passion for Plants, which ties in with the BBC TV programme A Passion for Plants shown on Friday evenings; Garden Explorers, which is a new membership category for families; Campaign for School Gardening, which is aimed at schools, teachers and pupils to encourage them to go gardening; a new Britain in Bloom section; plus the tickets pages for all RHS flower shows in 2008, including Chelsea and Hampton Court Palace.

We're also looking at new sections for launch towards the end of December - Gardening in a Changing Climate and Wildlife Gardening/The garden as an ecosystem - all topical and relevant stuff for gardeners.

Our Grow your own VEG campaign this year has been very successful and we're looking at a refresh for 2008.

One important function of RHS Online is saving other RHS departments time and money. So I've been creating downloadable versions of past exam papers for the Qualifications Department. This will save them the aggro of having to print them out and post them in the snail mail.

And not forgetting the fabulous new Glasshouse (that's posh for greenhouse!) at RHS Garden Wisley.

All very exciting, interesting and enjoyable stuff - but now there's just no time to think!

Sunday 21 October 2007

Long time no blog

It's hard to believe that I haven't posted a blog since the end of August - but then again not! I've been soooo busy with other things that I just haven't had the time.

I managed to get some holiday in during September and went off to Greece for some sun and relaxation; I also went on my annual fishing trip to the Norfolk Broads with friends from University.

I've also had the proofs back from my pruning book, so have had to spend some time checking for corrections. Autumn is a busy time for me as I put together the Yearbook for the Garden Writers' Guild and produce the catalogue for Greenacres Horticultural Supplies. And, the autumn is a busy time for talks to gardening clubs. All in all, things are pretty hectic - but I have managed to get out into the garden too.

The last couple of weekends I've been having an autumn tidy up, lifting, storing, cooking and freezing the last of the summer veg and generally getting the garden and greenhouse ready for autumn. I do love this time of year. Towards the end ofsummer the garden can start to look a bit tired with plants going past their best, but a quick tidy up puts everything to rights.

All I need now is 40-hour days, six-day weekends - or the chance to retire from the day job!

Tuesday 28 August 2007

It's all new

One of the perks of being a gardening journo is that you get new plants and products to trial. This year has been no exception and in spring I received a massive box of bare-root perennials from Darwin Plants in Holland. Here’s how I got on with them.

There were two new cultivars in the collection: ‘Love and Pride’ and A. chinensis ‘Diamonds and Pearls. I’m not a great fan of astilbes, so when I received these and three other different ones to grow I wasn’t totally enthralled. They were planted in a shady border, which isn’t that wet. Anyway, I have to say that despite my misgivings they’ve performed really well and provided some great summer colour. I’m particularly impressed with ‘Diamonds and Pearls’. Maybe I’ll have to reassess my feelings on this group of plants!
Geranium ‘Sweet Heidy’ has been flowering for months, produces good ground cover and has great flower colour – distinctive white centres surrounded by pink, fusing into blue with an overlay of dark veins.

Heuchera ‘Mocha’ has really large leaves that are black-brown in colour. It has done well and provided great foliage colour for months.

There were also three new perennial phlox. P. paniculata ‘Grenadine Dream’ has produced lots of good quality purple-red flower spikes. It has good mildew resistance too. P. paniculata ‘Sherbert Cocktail’ hasn’t grown as well and so hasn’t provided such a display of colour, but I quite like the flower colour combination. It is the first with yellow in its petals, combined with white or pink centres. It too shows good mildew resistance. P. paniculata ‘Peppermint Twist’ has also produced less growth than ‘Grenadine Dream’ and hasn’t started flowering yet.

Other plants in the collection that aren’t new for 2007 included:

Rudbeckia ‘Pot of Gold’ has produced good-sized mats of ground cover foliage and has been in flower for several weeks – and looks like it will continue for many weeks more.

Sedum ‘Lajos’ - I love sedums and variegated foliage – need I say more!

Three veronicas - ‘Fairytale’, and ‘Babydoll’ and ‘Purpleicious’. They’ve all grown well and produced a superb show of colour. I particularly like ‘Fairytale’, and ‘Babydoll’ has produced a good mat of low-growing ground cover foliage.

I've received other plants from other suppliers and I'll let you know how I've got on with these later in the year.

Wednesday 22 August 2007

To prune or not to prune

That certainly is a question. And a question I get asked a lot; most starter gardeners are petrified of attacking plants with secateurs thinking they'll kill them. Most plants can survive and some even enjoy massed butchery, so there isn't anything to be too worried about. Whether they'll flower and fruit afterwards is another matter!

I give a talk to gardening clubs on pruning, and it's always surprising to discover that what can be an artful skill, is usually viewed as a totally scary subject.

So when I was approached by The Crowood Press to write a book on pruning I jumped at the chance to put my views and pruning approach across. When they gave me several months to research and write it I was even more delighted (I was given two months to do the same for my book on bulbs). But having such a long timescale meant I didn't start for ages - or made a quick venture into putting thoughts together, and then closed down the computer. The deadline date was hurtling towards me like a runaway rootstock before I knuckled down to the task. Anyway, I'm pleased to announce that I finally got my brain into gear and I've at last finished writing it. The publishers have it and the next bit is down to them. All I've got to do now is wait for the proofs to come back for checking. Hopefully, there won't be too many corrections and I can look forward to the book being printed early next year. I'll keep you posted.

In the meantime, if lopping, cutting, snipping or even butchering leaves you cold, send me an e-mail and I'll put you out of your misery/stop your fits of cold sweats asap.

Sunday 12 August 2007

More radio times

Yesterday I made my usual five-to-six-weekly visit to Chelmsford to do my guest spot on BBC Essex' Down to Earth gardening programme with Ken Crowther. I've been doing the show now for about 14-15 years and really enjoy it - I'm told I have a face for radio!

It's a two-hour programme that concentrates purely on gardening - no music, just a lot of chat and phonecalls, e-mails, letters and texts from listeners who want to talk gardening or have their problems solved. We even had an e-mail from a listener in Spain - probably thanks to the BBC listen again option via the website.

Our main topic of the week was pests & disease - what's a problem this year, how to spot problems and how to deal with them. One listener phoned in to say what had happened to aphids and whitefly this year. I agreed that my garden was clear of both of these, and felt sure it was due to the cold and wet period of summer weather.

As usual, there was a good range of questions asked including powdery mildew on cucumbers, flower colour in hydrangeas, harvesting onions, leaf blotches on walnut, controlling clover in lawns, flowering yuccas, no flowers on campsis and removing ivy from walls.

If you want to hear how we got on, go to hit the listen again button and then find Down to Earth.

Trials - but no tribulations

I love the summer, as it is usually filled with press trips and other events.

Following last week’s trip to Ball Colegrave, this week I’ve been to Mr Fothergill’s. This seed company has its trials grounds on the outskirts of Newmarket in Suffolk, and there’s always something exciting, interesting and new to see.

The near-perfect summer’s day followed several weeks of poor weather – so much so that Mr Fothergill’s was set to cancel the day as nothing was in flower. However, the weather over the last week or so brought on plenty of colour and the day went ahead as planned. However, it was a little too early for some of the flowers and vegetables to be at the best but, unlike some years, not as much as usual had gone over. Sweet peas, petunias and several direct-sown annuals were at their best.
The trial grounds were full of flowers looking good, but of particular interest were two new cut flower and border plants - Zinnia ‘Jazz’ and sunflower ‘Calypso Mixed’. Also full of colour were Papaver somniferum ‘Purple Passion’ and sunflower ‘Black Magic’ from the new Laura Ashley range and Osteospermum ecklonis ‘Daisy Mae Mixed’.

One of the most interesting trends to come out of the day is the fact that many of the best-looking plants were open pollinated cultivars – they beat the pants off their more expensive F1 hybrid cousins. Mr Fothergill’s is actively looking at some very old cultivars that have been around for years, to see whether they out-perform the F1s. In a lot of examples – particularly Eschscholzia – the F1s were sulking with few flowers, whereas the open-pollinated cultivars were looking magnificent and full of flowers.

Among Johnsons’ exclusives for 2008 shown on the day was pastel sweet pea ‘Sugar Almonds’ – a strongly scented mix also from the Laura Ashley collection.

Mr Fothergill’s seed packets have been redesigned and relaunched, but are still easily identifiable thanks to the friendly ‘Mr Fothergill’ character. The company has also re-structured and re-branded into several ranges, including: The World Kitchen range, Sprouting Seeds range and the Laura Ashley.

Following the visit to the trials ground, we were treated to a special visit and lunch at Newmarket’s historic Jockey Club. Always a good way to get the best out of journalists! But seriously the setting was magnificent and the buffet lunch was just what was needed after several hours strolling around the trials.

Thursday 2 August 2007

Fun in the sunshine

Yesterday I spent a glorious sunny day at Ball Colegrave during the company’s press day. This company is one of the world’s leading bedding plant producers, and my visit to its trials grounds at West Adderbury, near Banbury in Oxfordshire is always a highlight of the year.

Not only can you see the trials fields where new cultivars are being trialled and tested against the current leading best sellers, but there are also numerous container, hanging basket and other displays that show the plats grown to their best advantage, how they look when mature and in containers and combinations with other plants.
Stuart Lowen, the Marketing Manager, opened the day by welcoming us, and providing some background information on what the company has been looking into during the past year, and what are the major factors coming up in the future.
“Within five years the products that comprise 70 percent of today’s consumer goods revenue will be obsolete!” (Source: Innovation boot camp, mark Dziersk, September 2006). This was the startling statement that Ball Colegrave wanted to get across to us. You may be thinking that this statistic couldn’t reflect what will happen in the gardening industry, but the consumer marketplace is changing at a rapid-fire pace – and plants are no exception. As a result, Ball Colegrave believes significant and rapid change have become a normal part of its business world. So the company is ready to support its customers’ business judgements with the right products, programmes and services that allow them to thrive in this era of dynamic business change.

As gardens are getting smaller, Stuart pointed out that making the most of all available space was critical and that upward, or vertical, gardening was becoming more important. The use of raised displays and hanging baskets (right) were areas the company was trying to put across to gardeners.
As there will be 30 areas/45 cities and towns that have been earmarked for new housing projects in the next few years, there would be even more smaller gardens coming on the market that needed plants and colour.
Stuart referred to some research that shows that the numbers of ‘very keen’ and ‘quite keen’ gardeners is decreasing. Fortunately, the ‘not gardeners’ and ‘hostile gardeners’ was also diminishing and the number or ‘marginal gardeners’ was on the increase by 3 percent. This was generally seen as a good thing for the industry as more and more people would want some colour and interest in their gardens. It was felt that the supermarkets and DIY stores were helping to increase the market – but at the same time changing it – and that garden centres needed to look at the way they worked and even amend their retail practices to provide more in the way of help, design and innovation to these marginal gardeners; basically leading the market by showing how plants could be used in the garden, providing ideas, help, advice and tips.
There was now more interest in single-colour planting, more use of single-planted containers and the overall better use of colour in the garden. Many garden centres were doing away with the boxes of mixed bedding and concentrating on individual colours.

To emphasise this, there was a display entitled DIFM – do it for me - plant packs that contained all the plants you needed to produce a colourful and interesting container, with a planted container providing the inspiration along with recipes to provide the ideas for gardeners. Stuart even suggested the concept of garden ‘kits’ for small gardens, based on a square or cube format that contained everything you needed and all the gardener had to do was simply ‘open, unpack and grow’!
Other areas Ball Colegrave are looking at are plants that are easy to grow and care for, as well as those that can cope with extremes of climate and weather conditions. One such plant is Begonia Million Kisses (above right); it looked superb last summer in all the heat and sun, and equally looked fantastic this year having coped with cooler conditions, poor light levels and torrential downpours.
And finally, the increase in the popularity of healthy lifestyles, grow your own and the five-a-day campaign have led the company to expand its range of veg, fruit and herbs culminating in a new catalogue for these plants in 2008.
Ian Cole from KinderGarden Plants then unveiled his company’s plans for the coming year.
Although baby plants were still increasing in popularity, there were two ‘selling’ drawbacks; the label that often became separated from the plant and that the pots had to be picked up by customers leading to ‘dirty fingers syndrome’! Both problems could be solved by replacing the company’s net pot with a printed photographic paper quality sleeve. The plant sat in the sleeve, which contained all the label information, and the plant could be picked up cleanly by the sleeve removing the need to handle the pot, the plant and the compost. All the baby plug plants are grown in a coir compost plug, and with no plastic pot to dispose of and the paper sleeve being biodegradable, this was all helping the company to become even more environmentally friendly. The final piece of news from KinderGarden was that it is introducing a children’s range of 10 types of seedlings to encourage younger gardeners, with full details on growing and other useful hints, tips and information available from its website –
Obviously, we were there to take in the new plants and what a lot there was on offer.

Ball Colegrave has also noticed an increased desire for foliage plants and hence has increased the range of its Fantastic Foliage and Tropical Express ranges. This includes Alocasia ‘Calidora’, Alternanthera ‘Royal Tapestry’, Solenostemon ‘Chocolate Mint’, Colocasia esculenta ‘Illustris’ plus a range of grasses.
New flowering plants revealed at the open day included Angelonia angustifolia Angelmist, Bacopa (Sutera) ‘Blutopia’, ‘Snowtopia’, ‘Abunda Colossal Lavender’ and ‘Abunda Colossal White’, Calibrachoa Cabaret, Impatiens DeZire, Petunia Shock Wave and Verbena Picotee, Aztec and Quartz XP series. Many of these plants address the issues raised by Stuart Lowen at the start of the day.
After the daytime press visit, Ball Colegrave opened to the general gardening public. Hundreds of keen gardeners spent the evening looking at all the new plants and varieties on offer next year, as well as some of their regular favourites. Everyone gets a chance to vote for their favourite plant, and the results are: first Strobilanthes Persian Shield; joint second Dianthus Corona Cherry Magic and Begonia Million Kisses Romance.
The trials grounds are open annually to the gardening public and it’s always well worth a visit. You can find out more by visiting the website –

Sunday 29 July 2007

It's not me! I'm free!!

I've just been doing some surfing - and blog spotting - and noticed that there are a few blogs about Gardenforum crossing the line, doing the dirty etc, etc. That is they're now charging for their premium services. Please be aware this ain't me.

GardenForum Horticulture ( - that's me - is different to Gardenforum ( I'm a one-man band offering free advice to gardeners. Always have - and probably always will.

Radio times

As a gardening journalist working in a broad portfolio of mediums, one of my favourites is radio. I appear regularly on BBC Essex and am the gardening correspondent for BBC Radio Cambridgeshire. Today was one of my regular slots on the latter. Dougan Does Gardening from 11am to 1pm offers a phone-in advice service, and it's always interesting to hear what people are having problems with and helping them out wherever possible. It's also a good way of learning and finding out if there are any new trends developing.

To listen to the programme visit

So what did today have on offer? Mainly pest and disease problems and mostly focussed around the unusual weather patterns of this year. Potato and tomato blight were high on the list (following my own experience at home), onion blight (although onions don't get 'blight' and this was more likely to be neck rot or mildew), and numerous leaf spots and other fungal and bacterial diseases on hydrangea, petunia, cherry and magnolia to name a few. Other questions revolved around pruning bottle brush plants, using wood chips, growing figs, passion fruit and lemons and moving a Japanese maple. These suggested that we’re all tending to grow more ‘exotic’ plants – maybe one of the few good things about global warming!

It's interesting to find out what's bothering people - but more interesting to realise just how bothered and worked up they can get about things. I think they also gain reassurance knowing that there are lots of other people out there with the same problem. But if I can be a reassuring shoulder to cry on - although usually I'm the bringer of doom and bad news - then so be it.

My next radio appearance is on BBC Essex on Down to Earth on August 11. If you don't live in Essex or can't tune in and have a question, then you can always e-mail me in the usual way.

Have a great gardening week - or at least try to!

Wednesday 25 July 2007

Pestilence abounds

What a year it has been so far! I know I love the subject of plant pests & diseases - but only to help other gardeners get the best out of their gardens. I get as annoyed as the next person when plants that have had lots of TLC, suddenly go down with a nasty problem. I always make sure I inspect my plants on a regular basis for signs of attack - usually for 10 minutes or so after work, and usually with a glass of wine or beer in hand!

I've already mentioned an attack of the horribly destructive vine weevil (that seems to have gone away now, but I'm still vigilant), but the damp weather has certainly encouraged others to the fore. After coming back from the RHS Flower Show at Tatton Park I noticed that some of the outdoor tomatoes had been hit by blight. Some of the beef tomatoes in the greenhouse had also started the tell-tale signs. Now I know how the Irish felt when the potato famine hit! Tomato and potato blight is an incredibly destructive disease and when the weather conditions are right (warm and humid as they have been recently) it spreads rapidly. In all the years I've grown these crops I've never been struck by blight. With my heart pounding and panic beginning to strike there was nothing for it but to reach for the penknife and the sprayer. I started by removing all the badly affected leaves and then following up with a quick spray of Dithane. I don't like using chemicals if I can help it - but I certainly don't like having to dig up and throw away diseased plants. So far, the disease is now holding back, but I have had to strip off quite a few of the lower leaves.

Some of the potatoes were beginning to show early signs of blight too, but I've now cut down all the stems to ground level and destroyed them. As long as the blight spores don't reach the tubers, they'll be fine. I've lifted a few - and they looked and tasted fine!

Us gardeners have to learn that there is always something round the corner desperate to have a go at our plants - and be vigilant and deal with anything that comes along. But I do feel sorry for anyone that has just started out in gardening and is having some of the same problems as I have. The rise in popularity of growing your own veg is a case in point; imagine growing your first ever crop of tomatoes this year, only to see the whole plant wither up and die.

Keep sane, keep in control - and keep gardening!

Sunday 22 July 2007

Dirty word...!

Rain, waterlogging, torrential downpours. Luckily, my part of the UK hasn't had any flooding (although I thought the flat East might be at risk), but the garden has become battered by the rainfall. Everything is growing more like ground cover than upright plants. All the rain has washed nutrients out of the soil too, the growth is soft and lush and the battering has resulted in mush! The soil's too wet to walk on, so there's nothing to be done - just wait for the summer! Anyone know when that's going to happen?

But I do feel sorry for anyone that's under water at the moment. Obviously, there's the horror of house flooding, but the garden will suffer too. Let's hope everything dries out quickly. My website has information on dealing with waterlogging and flooding in the garden.

I've just come back from a few days at the RHS Flower Show at Tatton Park running the web coverage for the RHS website RHS Online. The show itself was excellent, but the weather conditions affected the planting in the gardens - and the car park was a tad skiddy! And flower shows always look and feel better in the sunshine.

I'm off out to do a sun dance!

Monday 18 June 2007

Vine weevils at midnight

For the first time I've been struck by the dreaded weevil. The leaves of a pot-grown euonymus and a nearby blueberry had the tell-tale leaf notches.

So late last night I went out with a torch - and there they were - six of them munching away. By carefully dislodging them and letting them fall into a jam jar I caught all six and then let my feet do the talking - and the walking - all over them. They sure do make a resounding and satisfying crunch!

After that it was out with the Provado to give the euonymus a good spraying of Ultimate Bug Killer and the soil a drenching of Vine Weevil Killer 2. Although the new version of Ultimate Bug Killer has approval for use on blueberries, I'm loathe to use this unless things get worse.

I'm going out again tonight to make sure it has worked &/or capture some more of the swines.

Now where's that hammer!