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Q&A - Question & Answer about gardening
Daphne Ledward - Gardening Expert
Daphne Ledward

Q: Valerie Glover-Hackett – Although I’m a seasoned – and usually successful – gardener, I have two bet noirs. No matter how I try, I cannot seem to grow cucumbers and Buddleias. The former seems to contract all sorts of virus’ and other pests, usually resulting in their destruction. The Buddleias are a different matter – I’ve always planted and pruned according to my books on the subject. I’ve tried different varieties over the years, but none of them seem to survive the winter. Where am I going wrong? P.S. Give my love to the Greyhounds!

A: Valerie Glover-Hackett 5 miles north of Boston in a village called Sibsey. The soil is alkaline and although heavy is proving to be very productive. Although an exposed area, I have created a sheltered garden by building high boundaries.

I know Sibsey well – it has what farmers call ‘good, strong soil’, but it is very fertile with plenty of organic matter added to it on a regular basis.   In the Fens, most areas need good shelter belts before they produce good crops.   With regard to the buddleias, I find locally that they can struggle over winter, and I generally plant young ones in pots and grow them on in a sheltered place on the patio or similar (not in a greenhouse) until they have made decent-sized plants, after which they can be planted out in a sunny place.   I always prune in April, when (hopefully) there is less risk of frost, but generally speaking, buddleias aren’t usually long-lived plants.

I think the main problem with your cucumbers is mildew, which will quickly destroy a whole crop.   I’m not a great advocate of using chemicals on food crops, but there is one recommended for edible plants that are available from most garden centres; I would suggest using this before any signs of blight and you should get good results.    The greyhounds send their regards, and also the two lurchers!

Q: Jean Thirlaway – How can i treat slugs and snails without harming my pets?

Manufacturers tell us that slug pellets are harmless to pets providing they are used as instructed, but there are other issues in their use, such as reducing food for birds, frogs and toads.   I have found one of the most successful remedies is to make friends with your local publican, and ask if they can save you their beer dregs.   Slugs and snails will happily drown in a jar of beer (what a way to go!) – position these jars near particularly vulnerable plants like hostas; you won’t get rid of all of them, but the damage will be severely reduced.

Q: Chris Ashcroft – I have a large area of garden under a beech tree, very dry and chalky, which shrubs would thrive here please?

Hi Chris, this is one of the trickiest problems I come across.   Beech roots are shallow, and so most of the soil underneath is dry and not particularly fertile.   The only shrub I have found works reasonably well is the spotted laurel (aucuba), but I  think a better remedy would be to plant up some tubs of your favorite shrubs – for example skimmia, hydrangea, lilac, ceanothus, or whatever you prefer, and arrange them tastefully in groups.   Because the compost is more fertile than the soil under the beech, the tubs should thrive and give a good display for three or four years; when they start to look tatty, move them into full sun and start again.   Not the best answer, I know, but would give the best effect in an awkward situation.

Q: Alison Davidson – I also have hydrangeas one white one pink and one blue, i planted them together, they died away and now have healthy growth but will they stay the colours i planted them or will they all take the boring “pink” because they are together? Xx

I’m glad to hear your hydrangeas have recovered.   The good news is that white varieties usually stay white; the bad news is that blue hydrangeas planted in alkaline soil will usually turn pink, or a sort of purplish colour.   Planting them close together won’t have any effect on the colour.   There are products available that help to turn pink hydrangeas blue, but I would wait until they flower as they may remain the colours they are supposed to be.

Q: Clare Madderson – I have a Hydrangea that is quite large, but it has not flowered for 2 years, do I need to re-pot it in a larger pot!

It possibly does need repotting, although I would have thought it would still flower, but the blooms would possibly be smaller.   As you say it has grown quite large, I wonder if you are pruning it too hard.   Hydrangeas only need the old flowers removed in the spring, after the risk of frost damage; any more drastic pruning will remove any flower buds as well.  I would repot it in a larger pot, using John Innes No 3 compost if it is a pink flowered variety or John Innes ericaceous compost if it is a blue one, and hide the secateurs!

Q: Karen Weids – I have roses in my garden that this year has been covered in blackish spots what can cause this and how can i cure it?

To help you overcome the problems there are some simple precautions you can take.   These will not guarantee eradication but will help keep infection down to a more tolerable level.


1. As far as practical, pick and burn all infected leaves and prunings.

2. Drench plants and soil in late December or January with a garden disinfectant.

3. Prune hard in February/March burning all prunings.   Follow pruning with a feed of Rose Fertilizer and if possible, a mulch of well-rotted manure, peat or bark.  If you have several infected plants dig up and burn.  Replant only after soil has been cleaned of old roots and disinfected.

4. At the end of April or as soon as the leaves are open start summer spraying, ensuring that leaves are well covered both on upper and lower surfaces.  At this time you can generally include an insecticide and folia feed.  Spray at 10 to 14 day intervals through to the end of September.

Black spot is encouraged by potash shortage and warm, wet weather in the summer.

Mildew is encouraged by closed in conditions, dryness at the roots, poor feeding and by hot days followed by cold nights.

Q: Jackie Hawdon – I have a miniature apple tree I bought it from spading last year it hasn’t blossomed yet and I think it may have something to do with the bad winter we had last year , it’s in a very large pot can you advise me if I need to do anything to protect it this winter many thanks

It’s important to never let the root ball dry out and ensure the pot is placed in a sunny area, although partial shade is also well-tolerated. In early spring give the tree some fertilizer with low nitrogen and high potassium.

Many people do not realise what a problem frost can be. It does not harm the trees themselves, which are hardy enough, but it can kill the reproductive part of the open blossom, so the tree regularly flowers, but rarely fruits. The danger is in those late spring frosts and you should be wary of planting fruit trees in valleys and hollows that are natural “frost pockets”, where late frosts are common.  Dwarf trees are the easiest to deal with, and strange to say the covering does not need to be very substantial, just a double layer of fish netting draped over their branches can be enough to ward off a light frost. Alternatively you can move the pot to a sheltered part of your garden during the winter.

Q: Elizabeth Teale – I have to find quick growing bushes/plants that will cover a fenced area next year, i thought of honey suckle and climbing roses, could you give me any ideas of any others that would grow quickly and cover a fenced area to stop people climbing over it. Xx thanks

The climbing hydrangea will grow where other climbers struggle! It flowers with wonderful big flower heads in the summer. They require little or no maintenance and are easily trained up a fence. Whilst it’s not the fastest growing climber it is attractive throughout the whole summer.

The best plant to deter unwanted visitors to your garden is the Pyracantha; this can be grown against a fence or used as a hedge, its sharp thorns will stop or hurt any unwanted visitors.

Q: Val Gardner – I got a buddleia, for the butterflies etc., how long before i may get flowers on it, and the same with my honeysuckle many thanks.

Buddleias bloom on one-year wood. Cut back the buddleia bush annually in early April to 3 (opening) buds. If necessary, you can rejuvenate the shrub by cutting back to a third. In winter, provide it with a mulch of compost and well-rotted manure and try to avoid planting in very wet areas.

The Honeysuckle grows with its ‘head’ facing the sun. For a good growth, it’s best if its roots stay cool. Give it extra water during dry periods to prevent the soil from drying out. Provide it with a layer of mulch of garden compost and manure during the winter. After flowering, slightly trim it, strong pruning is not well-tolerated as this can result in the loss of flowers. In March if overgrown, thin out by cutting back the side shoots to 4 bud eyes or 15 cm, this will encourage the growth of new shoots.

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