Miscellaneous - Page 1
Any Questions?

Gardening questions and answers, these are those that I couldn't readily put into any other category.

Q. What is the best way of finding a gardener (not necessarily a designer) who knows a bit about plants (when to prune, what not to weed, etc) and who doesn't mind turning the compost heap or digging out ground elder roots? I need someone on a weekly basis in the Cambridge area. In the past I've found either people who are happy to weed, etc but know nothing, or are landscape gardeners who object to basic garden work. I'd rather not go through the Yellow Pages. Is there an organization with names of gardeners and details of the sort of work they do?

A. This is one of my most frequently asked questions. It comes down to a question of economics. Until recently I would design, and construct gardens for people. When complete they would often ask me about maintenance, but it was never worth my while to enter into a contract / agreement as you suggest. I could make far more by finding a new client for the design, construction side. Unfortunately (for you) if someone has the skills that you require and is fit enough to do the work, then maintenance is probably the lowest earning job that they can do. Hence the people that you can find to do the work don't have the skills or knowledge to know what they are doing. Your best bet is to ask friends and neighbours, maybe to advertise in the local newsagents or similar. A retired or semi-retired gardener who lives locally is what you need, and if you find one, treat him or her well as they will probably have the pick of the jobs available!

Q. Raking back the gravel in my front garden I discover Tarmac. Attacking the Tarmac with a pickaxe revealed about six inches of hardcore. The plan now is to go for a raised flower bed! How deep does a raised bed need to be? I plan to plant climbing roses, clematis, small conifers.

A. For planting shrubs you need a minimum of 18" to 2ft for a raised bed, the deeper the better really. However for a lower bed, you could dig out the tarmac and gravel beneath the shrub and replace it with soil before planting above the hole you have made.

You need a minimum of a 6" diameter "plug" through the tarmac/gravel into the soil below, the bigger the better, 12" would be good, 24" better. You have to bear in mind that dryness will be the main problem and drainage will be good (excellent in your case) down to ground level, once the plant roots get below this, they'll be more self-sufficient.

Q.  What is the usual useful life of standard bark laid in a domestic garden? The garden isn't played or walked on to any great degree. Should bark be replaced regularly or should we get a few years out of it?

A.  It depends on a whole range of factors, where it is, what the weather's been like, does it get wet and stay wet, how big the bits were, how do you want it to look etc.

There's not usually any reason to replace it as in lift the old and put new down, but it will need topping up every now and then. You should be ok for 2 years before a top-up, maybe 1 if you're more fastidious about appearances. Just add more of the same to the same depth as how it was originally.

Q. Hopefully, the trees in our yard are Chestnut Crabapples. From internet pictures, these match. I tried making jam from the fruits. My fear, is that these crabapples are not edible. I used honey and 'reduced sugar content' for diabetic purposes and still am concerned about the final product. My question is: are chestnut crabapples edible? Are they consumed by another process, like pickling?

A. Yes Chestnut Crabapples are edible, they're one of the best types for making preserves with. Did you make the jam this year or last? they won't be anywhere near ripe yet (July) they're not ready until about mid September. What's this with jam? I thought I was learning to speak American properly and you called it jelly? Or is that the clear stuff without bits?

reply - Thank you for your response. OOOPPPs! Our crabapples (chestnut size) are red and falling from the trees now, So, I thought that they were ripe. Perhaps I was a little impatient. I made jam. Jelly is clear, no fruit particles or chunks and of course sweet. The process I used was from the county extension office here, which states to cook the crabapples until they pop; strain through a sieve; use that pulp with honey, lemon juice and apple juice to mix the jam. My jam is very thick...it took all Sunday afternoon to do! The nursery man here told me this morning that most people do not use this size of apple because it is such a time consuming 'pain'. I know the product is sour. Using LOTS of sugar would have changed the taste, but I followed the recipe to the letter. I have now decided to just make up blackberry jam for the Christmas presents.

reply / reply - Thanks for that reply, I've been avoiding the word "jam" thinking Americans will wonder what I'm on about, I shall now use it with abandon.

Your trees are showing the "June drop" which often happens in July(!), it's the trees way of thinning out the results of a very successful pollination. If all the fruits remained, the tree would wear itself out trying to set so much seed (it's the seed that are the effort, the fruits are easier for the tree).

Though they are sour for direct eating purposes, crabapples ripen like any others and will be ready for jam making later on. If you really want to make jam as Christmas presents, then grow a damson tree, they're really easy to look after and fruit like mad (usually) and the jam is the best in the world, IMHO!

I'm sorry to hear about your wasted Sunday, I've had similar experiences myself going off on a tangent. Let the thoughts mature and you'll come up with a wonderfully amusing anecdote as the real fruit of the days labours.

Q.  What are the best tomatoes to grow in a greenhouse? I mean ones that have a good flavours.

A.  The old-fashioned varieties are consistently amongst the best.

Gardeners Delight is a cherry tomato that is reliable, best under glass and has a wonderful flavour, another I'd recommend is Ailsa Craig a standard-size tomato with an excellent flavour. Given limited space I'd only grow Gardener's Delight, they always get eaten as fast as they can grow and they're very prolific.

One I'd recommend to avoid are hanging basket tomatoes - can't recall the name, but I grew some a few years ago and while they're very prolific and impressive, the skins are tough and flavour disappointing.

Also to avoid are yellow tomatoes, or any other colour than red. I'd heard they have good flavour and so grew some yellow ones a few years ago, sure enough they tasted fine, but the colour just doesn't meet expectations. The family all tried the yellow ones and declared them tasty, but would ALWAYS go for red by preference, I haven't bothered trying to be different for the sake of it since.

Q. (Aberdeenshire) This beautiful September morning, I found crawling along on the moss that covers the stones of wildlife pond an enormous green caterpillar with two sets of markings looking like eyes on either side of it's head (below one another) and with feathered black markings on the back. In old money it must have been about 2 1/2" long and as thick as my middle finger. I have never seen anything like this before even when I lived in England. Sorry no picture to show.

I do hope that the birds or frogs do not get hold of it. Have you any idea please from my description what sort of larvae it may be and what it could it turn into (moth/butterfly).

A. Sounds like a hawk moth caterpillar, they're amongst the largest of British moths and the fastest fliers (hence hawk). There's a number of species and the caterpillars are variable in colour, but it may be an Elephant Hawk Moth. The adults are as spectacular as the juveniles, though as they fly so fast and are largely nocturnal, they are not often seen even though they may be reasonably common in an area.

Q.  There are many soil pH testers available from 5GBP up to 350GBP. Neither extreme seems right for me. I want accuracy but don't feel I need the top of the line. Which do you suggest?

A. If you're testing the soil in your own garden and don't need to do it very often, then I'd go for a small chemical-based testing kit rather than an electronic meter. I wouldn't trust the cheaper electronic meters at all, only the more expensive ones are going to be anywhere near accurate and they will need calibrating with buffer solutions every now and then. They are intended for commercial growers and horticulturalists who regularly add things to and take pretty heavy crops out of the soil, so the pH of it is likely to change and needs to be monitored regularly. In your garden, the pH is highly unlikely to change from what you measure it at initially.

Chemical testing kits, where there is a liquid pH indicator will be more accurate and consistent at the cheaper end of the scale and a small kit will probably be sufficient for most people. Larger kits just have more chemicals for more tests.

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