Frequent questions

Frequent Questions: After nearly 30 years of growing and selling plants, there are definitely questions and statements that come up over and over again. The most frequently heard statement from our customers is : "I'm not a gardener". In fact it's more than frequently heard - it's almost universal. There's something about us that attracts - and always has attracted - people who know what they like, tend to be quite particular but have the confidence to admit they don't know much about gardening. What do we do about it? Almost everything we do and say has a theme threaded through it - a subversive desire to change things; to keep you as particular and discerning and confident as ever but - at the same time - to turn you into a gardener. If we don't do that, we're all going down a dead end street. Treat plants like bits of furniture and flowers like wallpaper and it'll all end in tears.

The information on this here webthing, the care notes provided at the point of sale, the conversations we have with customers, the books and bits of information left lying around and even the rant posters on the subject of plants in pots, how trees grow and what you can do to plants if you're feeling creative. Of all these approaches, what we actually say to our customers reigns supreme. The personal touch - asking about your location, inspecting your garden from 5,000 ft on google maps, being a bit bossy about what you can and can't grow in your garden, discussing husbandry and soil type and even indulging in broad generalities on the subject of design. All of these factors are designed to help - and we really hope they do - but the sinister undercurrent is as follows : we're trying to turn you into a gardener.

Below are some of the questions that come up every day. The questions are followed by a stab at an answer. Not nearly as easy as you might imagine.

1. "How fast does it grow?" A perfectly reasonable question. One could always give a concise but misleading answer like "Six inches a year" or a vague but less misleading answer like "Quite fast". Maybe the most useful is "It should reach about 10ft after 6 years". The problem of course, is that it all depends. It depends on the health of the plant, the type of soil, the nature of its planting, the subsequent maintenance etc etc. The difference between poor plant in poor soil, poorly planted and poorly maintained and quality plant in good soil, properly planted and well maintained is huge. In the case of a Eucalyptus tree, the difference could be 15 fold. Significant. So when people ask this very reasonable question, there's always a temptation to answer : "It depends on how nice you are to it". Describing something as 'slow growing' or 'fast growing' is concise and accurate but the conditions described above can make a nonsense of these statements. Eucalyptus in the right place can grow to 80ft in 25 years or, in the wrong place only 15ft in the same time. The Australian Tree Ferns (Dicksonia antarctica) can form a 4ft trunk in less than 10 years but in a less ideal spot, take 50 years to produce the same growth. Bamboo can reach 30ft with 2" diameter stems in perfect conditions but in imperfect conditions reach 15ft with canes of less than 1" in diameter. And so on.

Back to the question: we do our best to give an indication of rate of growth with the caveat that conditions can make an enormous difference.

2. "How big does it get?" Another perfectly reasonable question and reading the paragraph above will cover most of the answer. An additional factor is that the speed of growth from youth to old age is non linear. It is logarithmic, the inverse of exponential; it grows rapidly in youth, levels off its growth rate in middle age and slows right down to hardly anything in old age. Often we are asked for a small tree that grows to 15ft very quickly. The inference being that it grows rapidly to that height and then stops. Needless to say, no such plant exists. The nearest you could get - we explain - is to have a fast growing tree and buy a tall Japanese pruning ladder and give the tree a haircut at 15ft every year.

Back to the question: we do our best to give an indication of size with the caveat that conditions can make an enormous difference.

3. "How old is it?" Once again, perfectly reasonable but to us, slightly embarrassing. The honest answer is "I don't know" but this answer is usually substituted with an educated guess. It's slightly embarrassing because many of the plants we sell are propagated and grown by us but you'd have to work on the nursery for several years to understand that we have no mechanism to monitor the years of growth as they go by. Apart from working out the relative profitability of a particular plant, there's no reason to do this.

Back to the question: we do our best to give an educated guess. It will be fairly accurate. The question's always asked when it comes to the imported Japanese Niwaki and the big old imported Olive trees. Then it is a guess - not even a particularly educated guess. The Olives have been hacked back so often the trunk could be well over a hundred years old and in the case of the Niwaki, these have often started life on the nursery in Japan as a tree that's been dug up in the wild, been cut down and transplanted to the nursery to be trained as a 'new' plant when the roots may again be well over a hundred years old by the time they get here.

It's interesting writing this down because now I'm beginning to think : "Hang on one cotton pickin' minute, maybe this is exactly what we should be doing..."

4. "Is there anything I can grow on clay?" We're a bit surprised by this one but it comes up over and over again. Mid Sussex is almost all clay and contains many fine gardens and grows the finest oak trees in the land. Clay is full of nourishment and as long as it has plenty of organic content, it grows great plants. Some people have chalky soil, some have sandy soil and both of these are great if you don't like mud but the vast majority of gardens in southern Britain are on some kind of clay.

If you're faced with a new house on the Sussex or Kent Weald you could have a bit of a challenge, it's true. Property developers tend to leave you with a lovely new house and a garden that consists of compacted clay sub-soil covered in 3" of imported topsoil covered in lawn with some not terribly happy birch trees and some equally not very happy 'colourful' shrubs round the edge.

The answer is a war of attrition on your soil. Anything organic - mulch, bark, compost, anything you can get hold of - needs to be dumped on the surface for the bacteria to break down and the worms to assimilate into the soil. Keep doing this and eventually you'll have as lovely a garden as anyone else and it will be on clay. If in these circumstances you feel you're a bit low on worms, get some and introduce them to your new garden. "Get some"? There's even a company called Worms Direct.

Back to the question : Yes, lots.

5. "What if it dies?" It almost certainly won't. Much anxiety surrounds the idea that a plant bought at a nursery might die. Millions of years of evolution and dramatic climatic changes have equipped all living things to survive. Killing things is a major accomplishment - it's difficult. Having said that, it can be done. Buy a plant in a pot and never water it or plant it in the summer and give it insufficient water and it will die. Plant it in waterlogged soil or leave it in a pot with poor drainage and water it mercilessly and it will die. Ignore our traffic light system about frost resistance and leave it out in the cold and it will die.

Environmental symptoms (withering, blackening, poor growth, discoloured leaves, looking bloody awful etc) are a result of what and where the plant is, not disease. Within the first year of planting, disease is incredibly unlikely. It's true that a plant might become infested with an insect pest almost immediately it arrives in its new home but this doesn't threaten its existence and is not a disease. Gardens are full of natural predators that will in time, establish a balance which keeps bugs under control - naturally. Insecticide can be used in a garden but we would very rarely recommend it. Nasty, smelly, dangerous and largely unnecessary stuff. We do have to use it on the nursery but that's intensive horticulture and not comparable with being in a garden. Something that I do if the new growth is covered in black fly is to cut the tips out and destroy the evidence. This way you decimate the bug population and give the natural predators (ladybirds, lacewing etc) a chance to do their job.

Air born fungal diseases are common in our damp climate and also pose a threat to the health (but not the existence) of many plants. In the garden, sections of plant (particularly some conifers and yuccas) get afflicted and it might be worth using a fungicide but more importantly, remove afflicted bits, burn them and use dilute bleach to clean your tools as you go, to stop cross contamination through the tools.

Plant diseases tend to affect older plants and some are incurable but much hysteria surrounds this subject and is blamed on ailing plants when usually, the reason is good old bad husbandry. The two treatments for disease are 1. Surgery (amputation) 2. Medicine (use of various noxious substances). In our experience, surgery is quicker, cleaner, cheaper and more effective. Years ago we discovered that Eriobotrya Japonica (Loquat or Nespilo) when grown from seed was highly susceptible to Apple Scab - a disease usually afflicting apple trees. The plant pathologists had never seen this particular manifestation and amongst much excitement prescribed the standard course of medicine for apple trees - some stuff called Captan, if I remember. Did it work? Sort of but we got bored spraying them all the time and eventually cut the affected plants back really hard (it got in the branches as well as the leaves) and burnt the infected bits. Done. We never saw it again to this day. Having just referred to 'Noxious substances' raises another little problem. Chemical agents that really work are dangerous which is why they work but because they're dangerous, they get banned. Good for the environment, bad for the farmers and the horticulturists but it means that many of the insecticides and fungicides available to the public are fairly ineffective. Another argument in favour of surgery.

Back to the question : Absorb all our good advice, become a gardener and it won't. Very occasionally you might get a plant from an infected batch on the nursery. If they're dying on the nursery, we'll find you another one or give you your money back. That happened once with some ancient grape vine 'trees' we found in Italy. They were horribly diseased when they came in and we ended up burning the whole lot. That was 25 years ago. One learns things.

6. "Why do I kill everything?" You don't, you just think you do. If you're new to gardening, you might fuss over things. "I've paid good money for you so I'm going to be really nice to you and feed you and water you" and kill you. I've done it. Most people have done it. After a while it ceases to be a mystery. It's called 'Killed by Kindness'. Otherwise, read the paragraph above and begin to become a gardener.

7. ''What happens if I remove a dead branch from a piece of topiary?" The concern is that there will be a big hole (there will be) but it will remain a big hole (it won't). 'Nature abhors a vacuum' was first coined by dear old Aristotle and he was right. As true in the garden as in the Infinite Universe. Any gap in a plant and, as long as there's light, new growth will fill it up and surprisingly quickly too. Dead bits often appear in a number of plants used for topiary - Conifers and Box in particular. The fear that "If I cut it out, there'll be a nasty hole" leads to a reluctance to cut it out but if it isn't cut out, there will be no void - no void for nature to abhor and fill. I'm sure Aristotle could have explained it better. Even in Ancient Greek.

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