Experts share top tips at the Alitex Gardeners' Question Time

Alitex Open Day

We welcomed guests to our headquarters at Torberry last night, here to listen to the wisdom of our guest panellists, Tony Kirkham from The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, Marina Christopher from Phoenix Perennials and Ann- Marie Powell, locally based garden designer and TV horticulturalist.

Over thirty guests arrived; garden designers, gardeners, Alitex owners past, present (and future?) and local people who enjoy a good horticultural event. After all, it’s not often that we get such a distinguished group of horticultural experts in one place at one time to answer questions and conundrums. We also managed to find out that Tony spends his holidays "tree-chasing", in Japan and the USA - quite an image to conjure!

Obviously it was great to meet with so many like minded people – but we were all there to listen, so the evening got underway quickly, skilfully steered by Andy Lewis from the National Trust’s Uppark.

Here are a few of the golden nuggets of collective wisdom dispensed through the evening:

The perfect shrub/tree for a small cottage garden which will live in an oak half barrel.

Firstly, don’t expect the plant to last longer than 5 years and attention to replenishing the top layer of mulch/compost and feeding will pay dividends. The Ginkgo was mentioned for great autumn colour – certainly look to multi stemmed, not single trunk shrubs/trees. The Cistus will provide a delicious scent from the leaves when temperatures get warm. The Daphne and Malus were also mentioned.

Which fruit tree would make a good gift?

You must buy a one year old “maiden,” which has been grafted onto root stock and then grown for a year (from the UK). Otherwise older trees are often grown in France, and whilst working well as an espaliered tree, the lower branches are still high. I enjoyed the idea that you can combine certain fruits onto the same tree – local fruit nurseries are the best first call and follow their advice.

Kew have been enjoying experimenting with grafting in the last couple of years to great effect and we can look forward to seeing the results around the gardens.

What to do about honey fungus

Presenting as a bunch of mushrooms in honey colours with a particular smell, honey fungus can be detected easily by a swollen trunk or white mycelium traces under the bark. In years gone by, honey fungus was always regarded as a disaster but as Tony Kirkham reminded us, there have been a number of significantly worse diseases effecting our trees since then. The bottom line is, honey fungus needs the tree to stay alive in order to live, it is other extra environmental issues which add the stress which tips the tree over the edge. Tony encouraged everyone to plant what they wanted and Marina added that we simply need to ensure good health for any plant/tree to keep stress levels down.

An interesting point was made by Tony; at Kew during the huge storms of 1987 trees at Kew were literally shaken from their roots but replaced in the same spot. In other words, lifted and replanted by the storms. There was so much storm damage that Tony and the Kew team methodically worked around the gardens repairing and replacing and it wasn’t until the following spring that they arrived at a tree that (along with so many others in the gardens) was over 100 years old. What they realised was that the tree was blooming – it was in rude health and revitalised. For Kew, this was a huge lesson; with millions of annual visitors, the ground around the trees has become compacted, the storm shake up is just what the tree needed. Nowadays the Kew team try to aerate the roots of ancient trees as often as possible. 

What to do about a mossy lawned area

Moss is not just about shade, but poor drainage so start by forking the area and improving the ground. Embrace a woodland planting scheme with plants suited to dry shade.

The challenges of shifting seasons

Ann-Marie relayed stories of recommending lots of expensive rainwater collection schemes, only to be caught out by repeated summers of extreme rain. Marina found sedums to have thrived in recent summers and of course, Tony loved the wet summers as his trees required less care and were less stressed. Indeed at Kew, they have now altered their thinking and developed plans around 2 seasons, not the traditional 4 – autumn and summer plus winter and spring. Kew have shifted their energies from spring planting to autumn planting for trees, allowing them to root over winter and then search for food in spring. Kew’s magnolias will be in full force at the same time in 2 weeks – this time last year they were over. This method is more forgiving for the trees and Marinna agreed, with her own plants she had found this method useful.

Creating a wildflower meadow

Broadcasting seed is far too hit and miss unless you have a never ending supply of seed. Alternatively grow into plugs of grass under glass – plants such as cowslips, primroses, snakehead fritillary (bulb) and yellow rattle. Or put your bulbs under the turf in Autumn, maybe with chicken wire to stop the pesky vermin snaffling them. Kew planted 450,000 plant plugs  in the first year and continue to plant 1000 each year. We have plans to do something similar at Torberry, albeit on a much smaller scale...!

Top tips:

  1. Knock the tree out of its pot in the nursery before you buy it, checking for new growth and avoiding pot bound roots. You wouldn’t buy a car without looking under the bonnet!
  2. Move a tree over a 2 year period, establishing a root ball which is happy in year one, but not moving it until year 2.
  3. Pruning Fatsia Japonica – go hard after the last frosts. Then give the plant food pellets.
  4. Avoid tree loppers! They are banned at Kew as they crush the branches. You should be using a Silky.
  5. The Felco No.2 for right handers is the same as the Felco No9 for left handers
  6. Knotwood is a reportable weed – you have to get rid of it safely. Suggestions included stressing it by cutting it, then leave it in the sun to dry out, then burn it. Alternatives were to follow the lead of the Olympic Stadium builders and inject with glyphosate.
  7. Investigate perennial vegetable growing. Also edible flowers; the yellow flowers are often sweeter as they are scented.
  8. A white rose for a shady area - Rosa 'Madame Alfred Carriere' (thanks Ann-Marie!)
  9. Smokers beware – you can introduce a plant virus to your tomatoes simply by touching them with nicotine fingers.

And so...

Alitex are not just a great team to talk to about your greenhouse and conservatory requirements, we also happen to run some fun and informative events, to which you are very welcome. Our associations with horticultural professionals continue to thrive and we look forward to being able to get out into our gardens and greenhouses to put these tips into action.

N.B. - My note-taking was fast and furious, it was a whole evening of useful tips, so please accept these words of advice from our experts as they have been delivered, via my pen, rather than finely edited by our panel.

POST SCRIPT: We have been so delighted by the feedback from guests - here is just a snippet.

Uppark garden volunteer Ric on "Tom-Tom Yorkshire" Tony  - "Never heard anyone talk so enthusiastically about trees!"

From Uppark garden volunteer Kate - "I wish I'd asked more questions!"

And from an Alitex customer - "We very much enjoyed the Gardeners' Question Time event last night and came home with a list of things to do in our garden! Thank you for such a useful and entertaining evening. We look forward to coming to more of your events in the future."

Tags: alitex events. gardeners question time, kew, tony Kirkham, Marina Christopher, annmarie powell, garden design