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Facebook Q&A Session 4th February

Click here to view details of our previous Q&A sessions.

Name: Anna Simon

Question: I have some immature fruit trees in my (new) garden which I would like to move. Is it possible to move them, without damaging them or killing them? When is the best time to do it and do you have any tips? Thank you.

Answer: Hi Anna. There is always an element of risk involved when moving trees, but the younger they are, then the greater the chances of successful re-establishment. It is best to move deciduous trees and shrubs while they are dormant from November to February so you will need to get on with this as soon as possible. If you give the roots a wide enough berth then they will certainly have a fighting chance!

Prepare the tree by pruning out any thin branches and reducing the remainder to create a balanced framework. Make sure that you water well in the days before the move. Prepare the new planting hole before you begin lifting the tree from its current position.

Choose a still, cool day to prevent the roots from drying out during the move. Give the main stem a wide berth and aim to lift a potential root ball diameter of about a third of the trees height. Dig a trench around the tree and gradually work around the rootball with a fork easing soil away from the roots a little at a time. Finally, undercut the tree with a spade. Any large roots that cannot be lifted can be cleanly should be cut with a knife or saw. Wrap the root ball in a damp a hessian sack to hold it together and retain moisture before moving it to its new home.

Replant your tree immediately. Mix plenty of organic matter (well rotted manure or garden compost) with the soil from the planting hole, and insert a sturdy stake to prevent the plant rocking during windy weather. Gently position the root ball into the hole so that it sits at the same level in the ground as it did in its previous site. Backfill the planting hole, firm the rootball in, and fasten to the stake with a tree tie. Water well and spread a deep mulch (20cm, 4") to help conserve moisture at the roots. During the first year after moving you will need to water your tree frequently, especially in dry periods. You may well notice that it experiences a check in its growth this year, but be patient as your tree will need time to re-establish. Good luck Anna.

Name: Diana Hills

Question: I'm really worried about the oleanders I have I'm reading horror stories of these plants poisoning bees, cats, dogs, humans and being fatal to anything growing around them can your experts help on this at all? Any advice at all on these would be very much appreciated many thanks.

Answer: Nerium (Oleander) is highly toxic if ingested and contact with the foliage may irritate the skin. Fumes from burning this plant may also be toxic if inhaled.

But as with all poisonous plants, the potential risk really depends upon the circumstances. A poisonous plant growing in a children’s playground carries a far greater risk than the same plant growing in your own garden away from children and livestock. There are many other familiar plants that we grow without concern, which are also irritants and highly toxic if ingested. Rhus (Sumach) is one such plant, and yet it is commonly found in gardens, both public and private. Lilies are highly toxic to cats, but we happily send them in bouquets!

If your Oleanders are accessible to livestock, unsupervised children, or your cat is obsessed with chewing it then you should certainly consider removing them (carefully). However if the risk is minimal and you enjoy them in the privacy of your own garden then keep them - but be sure to wear gloves and long sleeves when pruning or handling them and make sure that your family (and anyone else with access to them) is fully aware of the risks. If you later decide to move home it would also be sensible to advise any new owners of its presence.

Name: Lucy Garden

Question: While on the subject of oleanders, mine took a bad hit last year in the bad winter and looked pretty sick all last year; and then it had another dose of cold this winter and now looks terrible. It's in a sheltered corner by the house wall so it ought to be protected. They seem to grow well in neighbours' gardens so have I just got a tender variety (mine is white) and should I just dig it up, or am I doing something wrong?

Answer: Hi Lucy. Most Oleanders are frost tender although there are a few hardier varieties including one called ‘Little Red’. After two very cold winters it is no surprise that it is struggling, despite its sheltered position. But before you resort to digging it up, it might be worth trying to regenerate it, provided that the roots have not been killed by the cold.

Oleanders can tolerate hard pruning and often come back bigger and better with more flowers, as they flower on new growth. Leave it for the time being, until late summer or autumn, them reduce the branches by half and remove an damaged ones entirely. Spread a thick mulch of well rotted manure or compost around the base of the plant to feed it and conserve moisture at the roots. It may take a couple of years to fully recover though.

Next winter I would recommend keeping some fleece handy to cover it on frosty nights. One final point - as discussed in Diana’s question, you will need to wear protective gloves and long sleeves while handling this plant as all parts including the sap are highly toxic and an irritant to skin.

Name: Mary O' Donovan

Question: What are the best wild flowers to grow from seed?

Answer: Hi Mary, most wildflowers are easy to grow from seed but its worth thinking about the location you’re placing them in (sunny, shaded, damp, dry) and whether you want instant colour this year (annuals) or whether you can wait a year for flowers (biennials and perennials). All wildflowers are of great benefit to native insects and some such as Teasel (Dipsacus sylvestris) provide seeds for birds too.

Annuals are great for instant colour so try growing field poppies, cornflowers, corn cockles, corn marigolds and Ox-eye daisies (Ox-eye daisies are perennial but will flower in their first year). All prefer a position in full sun on well-drained soil and can be directly sown with excellent results. Wildflower mixtures will contain many of those mentioned plus a variety of other annual flowers.

If you’re prepared to wait a year then you’ll find some of the prettiest wildflowers are biennial (flowers and dies in the second year) or perennial. Honesty (Lunaria annua) is a tall biennial with masses of purple flowers in late spring and summer but they also produce fantastic seed heads which will persist throughout the autumn looking like papery coins. They also grow well in part shade which makes them great for an awkward spot in the garden. Foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea) are also good for part shade although they are poisonous so take care if you have pets or children. You could also try red campion for part shade or small scabious and musk mallow for full sun. If you have a damp spot in the garden then ragged robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi) is worth growing for its attractive pink flowers. For the front of a border or a rockery, primroses make an attractive spring display. I hope this has given you some inspiration Mary. Good luck, we’d love to hear how you get on.

Name: Emma Bowden

Question: I have a real problem with cats fowling in my veg garden, last year they even ripped my fleece covers. Do you have any ideas on what I can do to keep them away (apart from hiring my next door neighbours dogs!)

Answer: Hi Emma. You are not alone with this problem and in my experience they will use just about anything as a toilet - even pot plants! There are many repellents available that are claimed to deter cats including orange or lemon scents which cats dislike the smell of. The home remedy of scattering citrus peel about your garden is based on this idea but has varying results and looks rather unsightly. You could try growing Coleus canina which has a pungent smell that cats dislike. However it sounds as though your neighbourhood cats are unlikely to be put off bad smells!

I have found the most effective method with my cats is to construct frames around my beds with garden canes and chicken wire, and then cover them with netting until plants are big enough to tolerate some disturbance (although I tend to leave them in place all season). It is a bit of a pain to get in to weed them but it certainly stops the cats - even my very determined ginger tomcat! You could also try planting through sheets of black plastic or landscape fabric that would cover the soil completely.

There are a few more technological options such as motion activated water sprinklers or motion activated ultrasound devices available on the market although these can be expensive. A well timed soaking with hosepipe or water pistol might be just as effective if you spot the culprit in time!

Name: Laura Keynes

Question: I collected some black berries from Sarcococca confusa yesterday, hoping to grow some for myself. I've extracted the seeds and cleaned them. When and how do I germinate the seeds? Do I need to dry them out or expose them to cold? Should I leave them somewhere to sow later in the year or should I sow them now? And what kind of soil, how deep?

Answer: Hi Laura. Sarcococca seeds can be extracted from the fleshy berries when they turn from red to black. They can be squeezed in muslin or mashed in a sieve to extract the seeds from the fleshy berry and then washed clean. Leave them on a piece of absorbent paper to dry at room temperature before storing them in a paper bag or envelope in a cool, dry place.

Sow them in autumn on the surface of a moist, quality seed compost and cover them with a fine layer of compost. Then add a 5mm layer of fine grit before placing the seed tray in a cold frame outdoors. Sarcococca seeds will usually germinate in 30-120 days. If you have no luck with seeds then you could always try taking semi ripe cuttings in late summer.

Name: Anna Simon

Question: Is there anything I should 'feed' my asparagus with now? I am painstakingly weeding the beds (we moved into our new house last August) but didn't feed them with anything in the Autumn. Asparagus is new to me!

Answer: Hi Anna. Glad to hear that you cracked on with the weeding. I am looking forward to hearing the results of all of your hard work! Asparagus has a low nitrogen requirement so just give the plants a feed of any balanced general fertiliser in March before the shoots appear.

You can start harvesting spears from April when they are about 15cm (6") tall. It is recommended to stop cutting from the end of May to allow the shoots to develop into foliage. Later harvests can be made but risk weakening the plant. In autumn cut back the yellowing foliage and mulch the crowns with well rotted manure to protect them from frost.

Name: Anna Simon

Question: As we don't have a handy heap of well rotted manure, what, if anything should I put on the soil before sowing my potatoes and legumes? I have some fresh manure - is this too strong? Or some blood fish and bone? Or something different?

Answer: I would not recommend using fresh manure as it is likely to scorch your plants. Leave it to rot down before you use it. Blood, fish and bone is a useful fertiliser if you garden organically, being fairly balanced in N:P:K and slow to break down in the soil. If organic gardening is not your primary concern then you could use a balanced granular fertiliser formulated specifically for potatoes. Legumes fix their own nitrogen so you should feed them with a low nitrogen fertiliser.

Name: Louise Rowley-Spendlove

Question: How do u know when a hebe is dead??

Answer: Without exception Hebes are evergreen, so if your plants leaves have turned brown then this is a fairly clear sign of its demise. However if you are at all unsure then you can check by gently scratching a small piece of bark with your thumbnail. If the stem is green beneath the surface then the plant is still alive. Hope that helps Louise.

Name: Matthew Eddy

Question: Do raspberries need to be planted in full sun or semi shade?

Answer: Raspberry plants are ideally grown in a sheltered, sunny position, but they will also grow perfectly well in semi shade. Choose a site on fertile, moist, well drained soil that has been enriched with plenty of organic matter. If you are growing summer fruiting varieties then remember to provide supports for their stems.

Name: David Westwell

Question: When growing potatoes what is the best method to keep pests away, especially those that burrow underground?

Answer: The best way to avoid pests building up in your soil is to ensure good crop rotation and avoid planting potatoes in the same soil within a 3 year period. The main potato pests that you are likely to battle with are slugs, wiremorm, and potato cyst nematode (eelworm). You can buy potato varieties that are eel worm resistant and slug resistant and these will be much less susceptible to damage. Slugs and wireworm tend to be more prevalent from late summer so damage can also be reduced by growing early varieties which can be lifted by the end of June.

If crop rotation is not possible, or you are having a particular problem with eelworm then you may need to grow your potatoes in potato bags rather than in the ground. This should eradicate any problems from soil borne pests so long as you do not use garden soil to fill the bags. Hopefully you will have better luck with your potato crops this year, David.

Name: Vicky Travers

Question: Can I chit my seed potato's in plastic egg boxes or is it advisable to put them in cardboard egg boxes? Thanks

Answer: Plastic egg boxes are fine Vicky. Make sure that they are placed in a bright frost free position. You will notice that the immature 'chits' are all at one end (called the rose end). Place the rose end upwards so that sturdy 'chits' can form. If you don’t have enough egg boxes then you could always use a seed tray.

Name: Jo Moore

Question: I have to cut a largish branch off a magnolia soulangeana, its obstructing the footpath. When’s the best time to do it please ?

Answer: Hi Jo. Deciduous magnolias such as Magnolia x soulangeana are prone to bleeding sap if pruned early in the year so it’s best to wait until after your magnolia has flowered and prune it in early to mid-summer. When you prune, make an angled cut slightly away from the main branch or trunk leaving a small amount of the branch intact. This protects the ‘collar’ which is where the branch meets the trunk. You should end up with a stub about 2-3 centimetres long. You will need to make an under-cut or support the branch when sawing it, to prevent the branch tearing away from the trunk before you have completed the cut. There is no need to apply any tree wound paint afterwards as this tends to seal in any pathogens and moisture rather than allowing the wound to heal naturally.

Name: Christine Burke

Question: Hi, I have a bay tree that is slowing turning brown is this frost damage and should I cut it back or do they usually go this way in winter?

Answer: Hi Christine. Your bay may well have caught the frost over the winter. If only a few of the leaves are affected then you can pick them off individually in the spring. The stems will often leaf up again with time. If no buds appear by late spring then the bare stems will need to be cut back to live wood. Bays can tolerate hard pruning but are quite slow to recover so it is best to avoid this unless necessary.

Name: David Hamill

Question: Sowed tomato seeds a week and a half ago indoors by a small window as there i no other decent light source. Now they have all gone leggy looking for light. if i pot them on now (no secondary leaves yet) deep so just some stem is seen and the leaves - would they be ok ?

Answer: Hi David, many seedlings grow a bit ‘leggy’ at this time of year due to low natural light levels. There shouldn’t be any problems with burying your seedlings up to the first pair of leaves and it will also give them some stability as tomatoes are able to produce more root from the buried portion of the stem. If you have enough seed you could always sow some more in a month’s time when light levels have improved.

Unless you are growing your tomatoes to be raised in a heated greenhouse I would sow the seed at the beginning of April in future years. Tomatoes are such fast growers you won’t lose out on your crop by sowing later in the spring! And by sowing later you will avoid that tricky period when your tomato plants are large enough to go outdoors but the weather is still too cold to risk it.

Name: Jessica Hope

Question: Q for sue, my brother is building me an archway/pergola on the side of my house this weekend, it is quite a shaded location as the shadow of the garage hangs over it. Just wanted some advice or ideas as to what climbing plants i could use! the area that needs covering is quite large so i could use a few different ones. Thank you.

Answer: Hi Jessica, there are some lovely climbers which will grow in an awkward shaded position. I always find honeysuckles are a great choice as they not only grow fast but they also produce deliciously fragrant flowers too. Lonicera japonica ‘Halliana’ is evergreen so will provide winter interest too. Pileostegia viburnoides is an attractive evergreen climber with heads of small cream flowers in late summer and autumn.

For something a bit different you could try Akebia quinata which has scented purple spring flowers and bright green foliage which is semi-evergreen (although Akebia can be quite vigorous!) Some spring-flowering Clematis are great for shady spots – choose species such as Clematis alpina, Clematis macropetala or Clematis montana, the latter of which is very vigorous. My final recommendation is one of my favourites; Schizophragma hydrangeoides which makes a truly elegant climber for a damp, shady position. I’m sure your new pergola will look lovely with a selection of these plants climbing over it – good luck.

Name: Anna Simon

Question: I have a problem with rabbits in my garden. They have dug tunnels through my asparagus beds and are ruining my borders. Help!

Answer: Hi Anna, the best defence against rabbits is to put up physical barriers although I appreciate this isn’t always practical. If you can erect a fence around the affected areas (or your whole garden) this would be the best guarantee of stopping the rabbits. It’s best to use chicken wire and to lay the wire deeply below ground level so the rabbits don’t tunnel underneath. The fence would also need to be 3ft or more tall as rabbits can jump quite high!

If a fence isn’t practical there are a few products available that act as rabbit repellents. You can readily buy granules and sprays which you spread over lawns, flower beds and on the plants themselves to repel wild animals. You can also buy sonic devices which will deter small mammals, although they can be quite pricey. Good luck Anna, I hope you manage to keep the rabbits off your crops.

Name: Beth Stewart

Question: The sun is shining and my garden looks miserable!! I have native trees plus Rhodedendrons, Camellias, Holly, Buddleia and other unhappy things-:) Help please, what is the first thing I should tackle? My plants need pruning and I dont know which to do first and when.

Answer: Hi Beth, it sounds like you have lots of trees and shrubs in your garden! It is definitely worth buying yourself a good pruning book as it will help you prune your plants correctly each year (RHS pruning books are very good).

With regards to some of the shrubs you’ve mentioned, Rhododendrons should be pruned in early summer after they have flowered, removing only dead, diseased or damaged wood. Camellias should be pruned in the spring as soon after flowering as possible but only lightly. They often don’t need much or any pruning. Rhododendrons and Camellias will also both respond well to hard pruning if renovation is needed. It’s better to do drastic pruning over 2 or 3 years, pruning a third of the branches back hard each year.

Buddlejas vary in their pruning requirements although Buddleja davidii, which is the most commonly grown, is simply pruned hard in the spring. Cut down all stems to within 2 or 3 pairs of buds from the woody framework at the base of the plant. It is best to check which species of Buddleja you have as some species flower on the previous season’s growth and you may accidentally remove this year’s flowers! I hope this gives you a good start Beth, let us know how you get on.