Frequently Asked Questions


Index :

1.”How fast does it grow?“…2.”How big does it get?“…3.”How old is it?“…4.”Is there anything I can grow on clay?“…5.”What if it dies?“…6.”Why do I kill everything?“…7.”What happens if I remove a dead branch from a piece of topiary?“…8.”Can I move it?“…9.“Can I mend it?”…10.”How do I protect plants in the winter?”

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 thatEriobotrya 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 calledCaptan, 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.

8. “Can I move it?” Dig up a plant and no matter how careful you are, you’ll cut off some of the roots. Some plants are more amenable to this treatment than others. I happen to know that Coast Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) and Chilean Podocarps (Podocarpus salignus) are amazingly amenable. Oaks (all oaks) and Cupressus hate it. Eucalyptus trees are almost impossible and Echium pininana is entirely impossible.

The theoretical routine as as follows : If this is a serious undertaking (if you really want this to work) you must first prepare the rootball. A year (at least) before moving, you cut a trench round the root as deep as you can. The effect of this is to cut off a number of the roots and force the plant to produce a denser rootball (new roots will be grown within the volume that you’ve prescribed with your trench). Fill in the trench and come back and do the same thing again in six months time. Before finally moving, reduce the leaf area as much as possible. This is because the greatest threat to the plant is it trying to transpire water from its leaves but it hasn’t got enough root to suck up enough water. The plant goes into shock and can die. Wrap the rootball in hessian, tie it up so the rootball stays intact and after much huffing and puffing and grunting, lift the plant and take it to its new home.

If you just want a plant moved because it’s in the way or it’s evidently unhappy where it is, the main thing is to cut the foliage back as much as possible. If it’s deciduous, do it in the winter when the leaves are absent but cutting back the branches anyway is still advisable because it must have enough root to support the new leaves when they finally arrive in the spring.

You’ll note that I used the expression : ‘the theoretical routine’. What I’ve described is common sense. Get the rootball big enough and reduce the leaf area and what could possibly go wrong? It won’t always work with everything. In Japan, they move plants on the hottest day of the summer. That doesn’t make any sense at all but that’s what they do. Summers in Japan are very humid which could make all the difference. Some plants just hate having their roots disturbed. The size you move plants at is obviously in relation to the amount of available muscle and/or machinery.

Good luck.

9.”Can I mend it?”This isn’t actually the way people phrase the question but it contains the essence. What they actually say is – ‘I have a well established tree in my garden that’s always been very happy but now it seems to be dying – is there anything I can do to save it?‘. Our response is as follows : It’s probably a pathogen (bacterial or fungal) having a go at the roots so it’s the roots we need to concentrate on. Before doing that, get down on your hands and knees and make sure there’s no damage to the bark. If it’s been ring barked (the bark has been destroyed round the entire circumference) then you have a dead plant on your hands. This is unusual and would either be caused by an animal nibbling the bark or as a result of too much soil accumulating round the base which can cause the bark to rot.

Back to the roots. We take either the’Boffin Approach’ or the ‘Scatter Gun Approach’. The Boffin Approach entails taking a sample of soil close to the base and sending it off the the Royal Horticultural Society (if you’re a member) or the Central Science Laboratory in York for them to isolate what might be the culprit and to suggest treatment. With the greatest respect to both these august organisations, this process can take a while and they’reoften far from certain in their conclusions and frequently – by the time you’ve read the lengthy report – the plant’s almost dead anyway. This approach is predicated on the idea that someone somewhere out there will know exactly what the problem is and how to solve it. Sadly, very rarely the case.

The Scatter Gun Approach works as follows : ‘I’m not prepared to just watch my beloved plant (actually, it’s nearly always a tree) die and I want to do something to help it immediately and there’s probably no one out there who knows the answer so here’s what I’ll do‘: Clear round the plant as much as possible and give it a good feed with whatever you have available. Seaweed extract or Miracle Gro seem to work well. Then buy some Copper Sulphate crystals and make a very dilute solution using 2.5 ounces dissolved in 5 gallons of water. Now drench the roots with this solution using a watering can. Ideally one would do this when the weather’s warm and the plant’s metabolism is rattling along. If it’s cold, nothing much will happen until it warms up. In order to monitor progress – (is it getting better or worse?) – it’s essential to spend time removing as much of the dead matter on the plant as possible. That way it will soon become obvious as to which way things are going. If the treatment’s working, there will be new growth but if it’s not working there will be more dead. Copper is toxic to all plants and the idea of using a dilute solution is in the hope that the hostile pathogen will be killed but the host plant will not. Just like with chemotherapy in the treatment of cancer.Whether it’s working or not, wait a few weeks and do the Copper Sulphate drench again. It’s got to be better than just watching the poor thing die and doing nothing.

10.“How do I protect plants in the winter?” :A subject about which I have to admit to some agnosticism. Do I really want to look at a straw stack or a cylinder of chicken wire filled with dead bracken in the middle of my garden for the entire winter? Or even worse, my beloved exotics wrapped up in bubbly plastic and brown sellotape.

In Japan they have a tradition of wrapping some tree trunks and Cycads for the winter using rice straw in some of the colder parts of the country. It’s often a work of art that will have taken several people several days but it works and it looks beautiful.

In this country there are similar traditions but they tend to surround edibles rather than exotics e.g. figs had bracken tucked round them and pineapples were grown in heated glass frames.

The art of wrapping exotics to get them through winters that they were never designed to get through is in its infancy. We’re often asked how to wrap plants for the winter as if there are established rules surrounding the subject. Sadly, there aren’t. It’s mostly down to your own ingenuity, your desire to do it and a knowledge of the plant

Having said that, here are some ideas and observations from our own experience :

First :wrap according to the weather forecast and not the calendar. Some winters are so mild, wrapping is not necessary. If the forecast is for very cold weather, get out there and start wrapping. You’ve got to be a bit of a meteorologist to do this but that’s all part of the fun of becoming a gardener.

Second : don’t leave plants wrapped upfor too long – it’ll do more harm than good. Wrap up a Cordyline in October and unwrap it in April and it will be a dead and smelly mess. Just do it when it’s about to get cold and unwrap it as soon as the cold is over.

Third : use natural materials where possible – they allow some ventilation. Straw and hessian sheets are best and horticultural fleece is good but avoid plastic as it will just cause the poor thing to rot due to lack of ventilation.

Some specifics:

Dicksonia antarctica: There’s no point tying up the fronds as they always look so tatty when you unwrap them so cut the fronds off and wrap the trunk in layers and layers of hessian or fleece. Some people say they’ll benefit from having straw in their crown. I find it all very inconclusive because it’s clear that the frost hardiness of this plant varies enormously. One thing that does work is to build a stack of straw bales round each plant. We actually used to do that at the old nursery but that part of the garden ended up looking like a farm yard for three months every year and can you still get small straw bales anyway?

Musa basjoo: this is worth doing just to preserve the trunk and using the straw bales undoubtedly works. Cut the leaves off once the frost has got them and protect the trunk by whatever means you have at your disposal. A very cold winter will cause the trunk to collapse so protecting the trunk is worthwhile.

Cordyline: tie the leaves up if you can reach them. The old leaves will go some way to protect the tender growing points. Sticky tape works well

Phoenix canariensis: gaffer tape’s the only thing strong enough to hold it all together. Once it’s in a column of leaves, try wrapping in layers of fleece and more gaffer tape. An ugly white column. You can buy rush matting quite cheaply. Applying this round the fleece provides an aesthetic advantage.

Smaller herbaceous tender exotics in cold gardens : Echiums, Geranium madarense, Melianthus etc. : You can construct a little tent over them using sticks and fleece but it will only give minimal protection unless you introduce a heat source like an old light bulb (new light bulbs are so darned efficient they hardly give out any heat. What is the world coming to?). Alternatively, keep them in big pots, drag under cover in winter, or move to Penzance, Paddington or Puerto Rico.