Garden Questions and Answers

The Sunday Gardener receives lots of gardening questions over a year and is always happy to advise. Gardeners are such lovely people to correspond with and ask many interesting questions. Recently, it occurred to me that some of these questions would be of interest to other gardeners. With this in mind, I have saved the correspondence, and with the senders' consent, it is now included on these pages.

Have a browse, and if your question and answer is not here, you can use the form at the foot of this page to send your enquiry and usually I respond within 7 days. Happy Gardening. 

Creating a new cottage garden

cottage garden planting delphinim and foxglove

Sarah is new to gardening and E- mailed saying :

I'm a rather new gardener. I moved into a new property with a south east facing garden and hoping to install a cottage garden theme boarder. Any advice would be much appreciated about possible design layout or even when to start the process as in what time of year best.


Answer:  My advice was to start with the basics and go from there.  A  garden facing South East should receive a fair amount of sun which is always a good starting point. This is especially so in relation to cottage garden plants such as Delphinium, Geranium, Foxgloves, Nepeta, Clematis and Wisteria, to name just a few. All are on the web-site with growing advice.

If you have moved into a new garden my advice would be to wait, at least through this summer and see what is already in the garden. Take photographs of the borders so you can identify what is already there, what you like and don’t like. If you are not sure what a plant is feel free to send it in under the Sunday garden plant identification service.

Many cottage garden plants are herbaceous, which means they come back each year but die back completely over winter, to bare earth, which is why you want to photograph them now when they have leaves and/ or flowers. Next spring there maybe little to evidence the plant until it starts to shoot up with new growth. I have a mainly herbaceous border with many cottage style plants but it would not suit everyone, as there is little or no winter interest when the plants die back, which you may want to think about. It is also higher in maintenance and to reduce the maintenance you can mix cottage style plants with shrubs for all round interest.

The one basic rule is "right place right plant". This means that plants have preferred growing conditions and these needs to be taken into account when planting up a garden.

You need to map the sun in your garden so that plants which require full sun get it, those which like dappled shade or part sun are planted in a different part of the garden.

You need to consider your soil, is it heavy, light, acid or alkaline? Plant labels will say the ideal growing conditions. Unless your garden is very sheltered you need to aim for “hardy plants” which means they are frost tolerant, there is more information about frost hardiness on the web-site. Also, it is worth taking a look around your neighbour's gardens nearby to see what they are growing. You could also check the NGS which opens up local gardens for charity and see if there are gardens open near you to look at their gardens, and have a chat, gardeners are always friendly and happy to share advice. This link to NGS lets you put in your post code and see what gardens are open near you.

Gardens are personal, what one gardener may love another does not. It is like decorating your house, so look for what you like and if the conditions are suitable, seek to re create it. My personal view is that gardens look best with rounded shapes, paths, borders, rather than lines and squares, but that is my personal preference. Unlike TV, it takes time to create a garden so take time to work out the conditions in your garden, warmth, windy areas, cold and hot spots, sunny areas and all aspects of your garden. Almost certainly a cottage theme border will need the sunniest spot which is a good starting point.

If as you select your plants you have any questions feel free to drop me a mail.


Planning and planting clematis garden

Clematis Perle d'azure

John asked for information about planning and planting a clematis Garden, and what a great idea!

Clematis are really popular climbing plants and feature a lot in gardening questions.

It was hard to know where to start on such a big topic and so I advised as follows: 

With regard to your Clematis project, this sounds very exciting.

At this stage I can offer some general advice and please feel free to ask anything further as the project develops.

Most important will be where to position the clematis garden within your garden. Clematis like fertile, rich soil which is on the moist side,  and it is important that neither the soil or plant dries out. Ideally Clematis like to have a cool moist root run, but still like sun on their flowers. These conditions also help to protect against Clematis wilt.

It is also important how you plant Clematis; at least 5 cms below the soil level. There is information about planting and growing Clematis and also a video about planting Clematis.

Once you have selected your spot in the garden for the clematis, you may want to enrich the soil given Clematis growing preferences and also be ready to protect the new shoots from slugs. Once established Clematis fare quite well against the slugs, but in the early stages you may need various forms of slug protection.

Finally, and possibly the best bit, choosing which Clematis to plant. This will be driven by personal preferences, but you may want to think about the size and vigour of the different types of Clematis. An extreme example  would be say Clematis montana (illustrated on the Types of Clematis page,) which is very vigorous and with strong growth in ideal conditions can reach 12 metres, compared with say C. Crystal fountain, a compact variety growing to 1.8 metres. In addition to size, there is the flowering time and you can have a Clematis in flower during almost any month of the year. Again there is information on the Types of Clematis page.

Most but not all Clematis are hardy apart from C. armandii, slightly tender and C.  napaulensis, which is tender.

I don’t know the position of your garden and there maybe areas which are shady. If you check out the major on line Clematis retailers they allow you to search by growing conditions and you can select Clematis which are most suited to less sunny areas. However all Clematis like good soil which is moist and benefit from a mulch, feed and watering during dry spells.

I hope this provides you with some ideas.

Planting into a difficult area

deschampsia cespitosa

Qasim had a tricky planting area, he e-mailed saying:

I have a long narrow garden, block paved but with some plant beds on either side. I have some cordyline red stars As shown in the picture, they have been cut back and have started growing again from the base. I wanted to fill the gaps but am unsure about what to use. The middle portion of the left side is under a tree and gets a lot of weeds growing in it. What do you recommend?

Answer:  What to grow depends on quite a few factors such as the amount of sun/shade/ soil condition/what sort of effect & plants you like.

The best I can do is make some suggestions.

There are a number of (ornamental ) grasses which would mix well with the Cordylines, and which are generally easy to grow and will tolerate average soil. On the same page on the web-site are some plants which look well with grasses such as Allium, Achillea, and later flowering Crocosmia. In addition, if the area is dry with decent sun for a good part of the day you could grow Lavender, and the herbs such as Rosemary, Sage and Thyme which you could also add into grasses. If you want a perennial which is fool proof plant Nepeta, and my web page 10 easy to grow flowering plants, most would probably grow there except the Astilbe which likes damp soil.

I hope this gives you some ideas. Near the tree where the soil will be very dry plant the toughest grasses, such as Deschampsia cespitosa, and perhaps the Lavender (more sun) /Cat mint (if less sun.) Whatever you plant it would be best to remove the weeds as they will inhibit any new plants trying to get established.

I cannot be sure from the image and so have assumed that the area gets are reasonable amount of sun, if that is wrong let me know as we may need to add some more shade tolerant plants into the mix.


Planting in a Gravel area

Cistus the rock rose

Ann asked the question: We have a gravel driveway and a low brick wall separating us from our neighbours. We would like to plant bulbs next or near to the wall but there is very little topsoil available, it is mainly gravel. Is this possible? Or could we plant something else. It is a fairly open situation with lots of sun. Thank you


I think classic spring bulbs would struggle. Gravel is a poor environment for bulbs of this type.  There are lots of plants which will grow in a gravel garden and I think my best help is to send you a link to Beth Chatto, (who sadly died recently.)  Beth Chatto was an inspirational gardener who really invented gravel planting. From what you say, with the benefit of plenty of sun, there are a lot of plants you could grow. The RHS also lists suitable plants for a gravel garden and I have included this link as well.

What to plant is very much a case of personal choice and what sort of effect you want to create. I really like grasses, which will do well in a gravel garden but I appreciate they are not everyone’s cup of tea.

If you are keen on Bulbs there are some suitable Allium and Nerine.

Very well suited to this type of planting environment are the fabulous Mediterranean style of plants, such as Lavender, Thyme, Santolina, Rosemary and Cistus (the rock rose,) all would look good together and would mix well with grasses.

Subsequently, Ann was kind enough to mail and say: Many thanks, you are amazing, the advice I had concerning  gravel drive was great. The thyme plants are thriving!!! Thank you.


Fickle Wisteria

bee on wisteria bloom

Sophie wanted to know about a Wisteria which had not flowered.

Sophie asked me what to do about her Wisteria, which was growing in a container and refused to flower. How to get my Wisteria to flower is a much asked question and thorn in the gardening side. Wisteria can be fickle. There is a good deal of information on the How to Grow Wisteria Page and a video about pruning. Usually failure to prune is the culprit and cause of Wisteria lacking flowers but on this occasion, it was the container.

You can grow Wisteria in containers, and many do successfully. However, if a Wisteria is not flowering when growing in a container, it is worth re- planting it in the ground before giving up hope. Any plant grown in a container has restricted growth, and will dry out more quickly. A Wisteria which is dry in July and August, especially an immature plant, may struggle to flower.  I suggested to Sophie to plant it in the ground out of the container, and the next year it did indeed flower.

Pruning Cotinus

Lovely ruby red of Cotinus coggygria 'Royal Purple'

Winnie wanted to know the best way of Pruning Cotinus and when this should be done.

Smoke bush, Cotinus,  is a lovely shrub and this year (2018) with the very hot weather, they have done particularly well producing lots of flowers, or "smoke". 

Generally, Cotinus does not require pruning imply a light prune in late winter/early spring to remove any dead, spindly or congested branches. As such Cotinus is a shrub which can be grown without any real attention or maintenance. However, I guess you have asked the question because you want to prune it, perhaps it has become too large or is overhanging a neighbouring shrub/plant.

In that event you should prune in late winter/early spring. Cotinus can be hard pruned, even coppiced, but only when it is well established and hard pruning tends to produce larger leaves and less flowers, at least for the first year.  It is a very tough shrub and I have seen one badly massacred, pruned very severely and it came back after 2 seasons.

I would wait until next season late winter so around Feb/March time and then prune to suit your requirements. If I can help further please do drop me another mail.

Pruning Buddleja

Buddleja globosa  with yellow flowers

Ann asked about pruning Buddleja

Questions: I have a couple of Buddleia globosa which are more like trees; they have been pruned but are huge. Could I possibly cut them back hard to rejuvenate them, and if so could I start now? I wouldn't want to lose them, but I want to give them a new lease of life.

This type of Buddleia is pruning group 2 which means it is pruned immediately after flowering. If pruned later in the year flowering can be reduced for the next season. I assume that it has now finished flowering, so now (August) would be the right time of year to prune it. If it is still flowering, and things vary from season to season and in different parts of the country, it is best to wait until it has finished flowering.

I have never tried hard pruning this shrub,  and when in doubt it is usually best to stage the rejuvenation over a period of time.  I would recommend cutting out about a third of the stems, either to a side shoot or to ground level. Some flowers will be lost the following season but after that you prune again in the same way next year. Over time you will reduce the size of the shrub, checking its growth each year, without the risk of it being adversely affected by the pruning.

What's this plant?

Geum urbanum

I get a lot of requests to the web site to identify plants and I am always happy to help when I can. JW e mailed asking me to identify this and unfortunately I could as it is Geum urbanum, an invasive weed.

It can be tricky to identify some weeds as they can look like common plants and of course this looks a lot like the perennial Geum we grow but instead it is a weed and one which needs eradicating fast.

Keeping on top of weeds is not a favourite task but the more vigorous perennial weeds can really cause a problem if they get a hold. For more information and some images of weeds Beat the Weeds.