Plants - Any Questions? - page 3


Q.  I have a Gunnera in my garden which is looking rather sick. It has patches of brown spots on the leaves which eventually kill the leaf. I water it regular but I have only fed it twice this year with a tomato feed, do you think this might be the problem if so what should I feed it and how often?

A.  Gunnera are bog plants and need moist roots at all times with plenty of organic matter, I think this is more likely to be the problem. If you feed it, a high nitrogen feed would be more appropriate rather than tomato food. I've grown them successfully by planting in a large dug-in plastic sheet full of a 50:50 mix of soil and organic matter as a sort of mini-bog, I fed the "bog" with overflow water from a water butt.

They don't like winter cold either and need a heavy mulch laid over them in order to survive well, if it suffered in the winter this way, it will have weakened it.


Q.  I have a very mature Clematis viticella which is about 15 feet tall, and basically my next door neighbour gets all the flowers! I know it is group 3 pruning code, but I don't know if I can be brutal with it. the growth up to 4 feet from the ground is very woody, and I'm not sure that if I cut into this whether I will kill the plant. Will it be able to shoot if I do? and when should I do it? Also my mature Ceanothus has gone brown and apparently died. its about 12 feet tall and shaped like a tree with a main trunk. It flowered in May then, shriveled up. Can I plant a new young one in its place...(if I can get the roots out that is!)

A.  Clematis viticella can be pruned back hard, in fact they do better if this is carried out annually. You can cut back to about 6-12" of ground level in late winter / early spring when it's starting into growth. Any completely dead shoots should be cut out completely to ground level. If you're not sure about it growing again (it will!) try cutting one shoot back now to see what happens, it should shoot before the end of the season, or will be amongst the first to shoot again next year. Make sure it has a framework to grow up and train it to where you want it to go when you've cut it down. Regular pruning should also prevent it from growing so high again. Clematis are woodland plants and it's doing what it knows to do, grow tall to escape the gloom of the understorey and then flower with it's head up above the trees in the sun. You just have to persuade it that it doesn't need to do this.

As for the Ceanothus, they are susceptible to honey fungus, so if this is what has killed it, I'd plant something else in its place. It is characterised by black "boot lace" like threads/tentacles that can be found under the bark of affected wood and also in the soil too. Whatever the cause, as a rule of thumb I wouldn't put the same plant there as there's obviously something around that kills them.


Q. I would appreciate some advice on how to deal with a troublesome rose root. I have a forty-year-old Queen Elizabeth rose growing in a bed next to a garden path. Recently, the bed had to be completely dug out to a depth of 24inches to replace the electrical supply to the house and I saw to my surprise that the rose did not have any roots in the bed, but had instead a double root of about 2-2.5 inches diameter (each root) that had grown horizontally immediately under the flagstones of the path. The path is in poor condition and will have to be replaced in the next year or two. This will involve laying a 3inch deep concrete bed so that tiles can be laid and it means that the root will have to be moved.

A.  Before reading the rest of this, you have to bear in mind I've never moved a rose that large or old before! The bigger a plant is, the harder it is to move generally. I wouldn't try to bury the root at a lower depth as I don't think that will work, so it's a case of bite the bullet and dig it up.

Success is dependent on two things - Getting enough of the root up and doing it at the right time of the year. The first is a question of hard work, the second fortuitously happens to be very soon.

Before I started I'd take an insurance policy - plenty of hardwood cuttings to make some new plants if it all goes wrong.

Don't try anything until about December - take your cue from the trees, when they've all lost their leaves and properly dormant, then your rose should be too.

Prune the top growth of the plant, depending on how high it is and what the wood is like, to 1-2ft of ground level. Remove all dead shoots entirely. Dig up as much of the root as you can, chasing it underground. You will obviously have to eventually cut it, if any cuts are with a spade, trim them with a small toothed saw / secateurs / loppers so you have a clean cut.

Replant immediately, don't bend the roots around if avoidable - this usually involves digging a huge hole! Let them lie as they want. Dig in plenty of organic material with the soil, mix it well before putting the roots in. You want a transition zone around the roots before they get to your soil, but don't make it too gentle for them. Firm the plant in, water well to settle the roots and wait. You won't know if it's been successful until spring when the rose should start back into growth. There may be one or two shoots that will die, remove them when you're sure they are dead. Take good care of it through the first year, give it a good mulch and make sure it doesn't dry out, it'll take a while to establish a good root system again. Don't be tempted to feed it as the roots will then be inclined to not bother to seek out nutrients and it's root growth that you're after.


Q.  I sent my mum one of your lovely plants to cheer her up, couple of weeks before Christmas. She was thrilled, she's v. green fingered, but the gardenia decided to shrivel up and die anyway. Mum upset! What do you suggest? - soil, water, food etc all as advised.

A.  Gardenias are tropical plants and while they like the warmth of modern houses, they don't like the dryness that accompanies it which make the environment more desert-like than tropical. They also like plenty of light and so the best conditions are found in a warm greenhouse or a conservatory - the sort that is more used to grow plants than as an extra lounge. They won't tolerate a minimum temperature of less than about 7C which makes them difficult to keep for any length of time in a normal room as you need to attend to their requirement for and light humidity while keeping them warm too - a windowsill might seem ideal, but one cold night trapped by the curtain could spell the end.

Overall, like certain other flowering pot plants, Gardenias are perhaps best treated like a long-lived bunch of flowers rather than as a permanent resident as they're just too fussy over the longer term for most people.


Q.  I have seen bulbs for sale in several stores that were last years spring bulbs that should have been set out the beginning of the year,  if I buy them now and set them out in the spring will they come up being 1 year old.

A.  Don't buy them, they might come up, but I wouldn't even pay 10% of the normal price to find out. There's less chance of flowering if they do come up, you've made all the effort of planting them, where you plant them will be a disappointing area.


Q.  Exactly how do locate a sucker on a tomato plant? I have a friend who pinches all leaves or new shoots on every branch even from top branches and says they are all suckers. but I thought suckers were lower on the plant near the base or root. can you please clarify to me exactly what a sucker is and where on a tomato plant it is.

A.  Yes you're right. A sucker is a shoot that is produced from the roots of a plant separate to the main stem. They usually come from a plant from below a graft joint where one plant has been grafted onto the rootstock of another. Suckers are usually found on hybrid tea roses and ornamental trees in particular, less commonly on shrubs. You don't find suckers on tomatoes at all. What your friend is removing are side shoots.

Side shoots should be pinched out from tomatoes, these originate between the leaves and the stem and will give you a very leafy, bushy and unproductive plant if left. The leaves should be left, these are how the tomato plant produces food to fill the tomatoes. Pinching leaves handicaps the plant and will give a poor crop compared to what would be produced.


Q.  My geranium is over four foot long is that rare?

A.  The only reason we're used to small geraniums is that they are killed with frost and don't live long enough here to get very large. There was a garden centre near me a couple of years ago that had one 15 feet tall and about 4-5 feet across and I have heard of 30 feet tall ones in the Mediterranean (with support!). Rare - yes that someone has looked after it for that long and not pruned it - exceptional - afraid not.


Q.  I've just purchased a Fuchsia plant from a Nursery (early May) It was located in the greenhouse where there was plenty of sun. Instruction was to water 2 times a week with fertilizer. It is a beautiful hanging basket which I hung on my front yard. The 1st week, was rainy and chilly. the plant bore beautiful pink and blue flowers. I put a mild fertilizer and the plant has wilted to the point where the leaves are beginning to dry. This morning I realized that the soil was dry and some of the flowers are beginning to rot. So I watered it. It is a beautiful plant and I am afraid that I am not properly taking care of it. I would hate to lose it. Any suggestion. Incidentally I paid a fortune for that plant Thanks for your advise

A.  Sounds like it was put out too early to me. Greenhouse grown plants need an intermediate period of semi-protection before being put outside or they aren't happy and even if this is done, they often get worse before they get better. Even if it hasn't had a touch of frost, the weather at this time of year is often quite harsh for half hardy plants and the larger they are when put out, often the more they suffer.

Make sure the soil is kept moist, feeding shouldn't be a concern for a while. Was it in an exposed position? The first thing I'd do is put it in a sheltered place to let it recover, I don't think you'll lose it, but it'll certainly be knocked back for a month or more.


Q.  We have a large laurel hedge which is doing very well. We would like to add another laurel hedge on another side of the property. Is it possible to take cuttings from the existing laurel to transplant to new place? If so, how?

A.  You might not even need to take cuttings, have a look around the base of your existing hedge and you may find some small plants that are self sown. Dig them up and pot them in largish pots and grow them on to about 1 foot high before using in the new hedge.

Laurel cuttings are best taken in mid to late summer about 6" long, strip all but the last few leaves at the tip, insert into a peat/sand mix in a cold frame ideally or in a protected part of the garden in pots if not. Keep them in the shade and make sure the compost is moist, they should have rooted by next spring.


Q.  I have a small tree (unable to find info on variety), deciduous, max height 10 feet, spread 6 feet, tiny white (stinking) blossoms in spring, red berries in autumn and thorny, probably 20 years old.

To limit the height and spread, I have 'over pruned' - two years ago, major lopping and cutting back. Result, loads (thousands) of water shoots. I cut them off last year, only to re-appear this year with added vigour. I'm looking for info that will help me restore the tree which is now looking pretty stupid.

A.  Sounds like a hawthorn bush. The trick is not to remove all the water shoots, but leave 3 or 4 in each position to suppress the growth of any more. After a year, remove all but one which will continue to grow and replace the removed branch. If any more arise, rub them out as soon as possible. Eventually the dominance of the remaining shoot will prevent further growth.

Such renovations are best carried out over 2 or 3 years - you've just found out the hard way why this is.


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