Tony Dickerson answers your questions
Q How do we create a wildflower meadow?
Steve Rotton, Dunoon, Argyll
A Wildflower meadows are quite difficult to establish. You often hear that they need poor soils, but this isn’t true. Wildflowers love rich soils, but unfortunately rank grasses and vigorous thugs, such as nettles, quickly outgrow and swamp them.
As a first step it’s important to choose wildflowers suited to your soil and situation. The species that grow best on dry, thin, chalky soils will fail miserably on moist clay soils. There are three ways to create a wildflower meadow. Perhaps the simplest is to repeatedly mow an area and remove the clippings for a season, before sowing yellow rattle in autumn. This is a semi-parasite of grass and reduces its vigour. Seed has to be sown fresh because it has short viability, so go to a specialist wildflower seed supplier such as Scotia Seeds (01356 626425; www. scotiaseeds.co.uk). Then add your chosen wildflower plug plants in spring, using a bulb planter. Either grow your own plug plants from seed or buy them from specialist nurseries such as Cumbria Wildflowers (01228 711282; www.cumbriawildflowers.co.uk). Simply sowing seed into an area of existing grass will fail. A second option is to strip off the fertile topsoil and cultivate the soil beneath before sowing a wildflower mix. It’s important to work the soil because otherwise seed will struggle to establish on a compacted base. A rotavator is fine for relatively small areas.
You can do this in autumn in mild locations on well-drained soils, but in colder regions it’s best to wait until spring. If you’re attempting to seed steeper slopes, to prevent seed being washed away, put down jute netting, available from suppliers such as Greenfix (01608 666027; www.greenfix.co.uk).
The third approach is to kill off the current vegetation with glyphosate and cultivate the soil. If you then sowed into this, the weeds in the seed bank in the soil would swamp your wildflowers. The secret is to put down a layer of sharp sand 8-10mm deep over the entire area and sow into this. This prevents light reaching the weed seeds in the soil beneath so they don’t germinate.
Q Is it possible to overwinter my summer bedding? Pam Ewing, Woodbridge, Suffolk A Lots of summer bedding plants would naturally be perennials in their native sites where winters might be mild, but in this country, when grown outside, they die with the first frost.
Whether your leucanthemums and chrysanthemums survive outdoors depends on which species or varieties they are, and where you live in the country.
East Anglia can have severe winter frosts. Perennial leucanthemums, known as Shasta daisies, are hardy, but bedding types die back with the frosts and might not emerge next spring.
The simplest option is to lift them, pot up and place them in a frost-free greenhouse or, if risking them outdoors, place a layer of bark mulch over the roots to protect them.
You need much the same approach with your chrysanthemums. Many will be hardy or borderline hardy so may repay the little effort needed to protect them over winter. Q When should I start hyacinths in vases for Christmas? Grant Rivers, South Ockendon, Essex A You’re just in time. You need to buy ‘prepared’ hyacinth bulbs. The time needed varies according to the variety.
‘Anna Marie’, for example, needs eight weeks in cool temperatures then 18 days inside. However, others need up to an extra two weeks of cool temperatures.
The bulb should be slightly smaller in diameter than the vase, so it sits snugly with the water level just below the base of the bulb. Place in total darkness at a temperature of 9C (48F) in a shed or cupboard.
When shoots are 5cm (2in) high, bring the pots into a cool room, but keep out of bright sunlight. Once the shoots green up, move them near a window, but not by radiators. If leaves develop faster than flower buds, move to a cooler place, in darkness, for a couple of days. Q What are the best climbers to use for an extensive screen? Joan Charlton, Boston Spa, Lincolnshire A There aren’t many hardy evergreen climbers, but the large-leaved ivy, Hedera colchica, is one option. Others not often seen in gardens include Holboellia coriacea (sausage vine) and H. latifolia. Although deciduous, Clematis montana, growing to 12m (40ft), is very tough and the mass of stems make a good screen in winter. New growth in spring tends to be attractively bronze tinged. Both white and pink flowering selections are available. Other vigorous deciduous climbers to consider include Akebia quinata (chocolate vine), Schizophragma
hydrangeoides and S. integrifolium (Japanese hydrangea vine). Jasminum
officinale is another option, to 6m (20ft), offering lateflowering interest.
Q What’s wrong with my cucumber leaves? Pat Cassell, Farnborough, Hampshire
A The mottling on the leaves is due to glasshouse red spider mite. This sap-sucking insect is only just visible to the naked eye and, despite the name, is yellowish-green in colour. When present in numbers, quite extensive webbing can be seen on the leaf undersides.
Regular spraying of cucumbers with water and damping down the floor to maintain humidity will reduce attacks, but won’t control it.
Edible plants can be sprayed with insecticides based on plant Q Why have my tomatoes developed ‘noses’ and ‘horns’? Harold Toyne, by email
These projections look quite dramatic but are simply a physiological disorder caused by high temperatures. Tomatoes like warm conditions, no more than 25C (77F), and suffer as temperatures approach 30C (86F), which is easily achieved under glass or in a polytunnel.
If you slice a tomato in two, they have four or six segments or locules. Extended temperatures above 32C (90F) during the day and 27C (81F) at night appear to cause a genetic deformity where the cells divide oils, plant extracts or fatty acids.
The most widely-used biological controls are predatory mites phytoseiulus and amblyseius, which are available from a variety of mail order suppliers such as Agralan (01285 860015; www.agralan.co.uk).
To reduce overwintering mites, remove plant debris and disinfect the greenhouse, canes, stakes and plant ties with a glasshouse disinfectant. to form extra locules as projections from the normal surface. Older heirloom varieties appear to be more prone.
The fruit is perfectly OK to use and, once temperatures moderate, subsequent fruits are unaffected.
For a wildflower meadow that really thrives, there are some hard and fast rules
Clear off vegetation and work the soil underneath
Enjoy winter flowers and scent by forcing hyacinths
Akebia quinata (chocolate vine) is rather a fast grower
Notice any webbing? It may be red spider mite
‘Nosey’ tomatoes are still good to eat!