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Frequently asked questions

Quick question? These frequently asked questions are full of organic gardening advice.


  • As you quite rightly say fruit flies are harmless and are not causing any harm However, you can reduce their numbers by burying the fresh waste when you add it to your bin as well as covering the top of the compost with a damp newspaper or cardboard. This will help to reduce access to the fruit that they feed on. Ants have a beneficial role in the composting process, playing a part in the recycling of animal and plant remains. There is no need to get rid of them, or the woodlice. Both are important in helping to recycle waste material.

    However, the presence of the ants may indicate that your compost is on the dry side. Try turning the compost and giving it a good soaking with water.

  • Bracken makes a good compost ingredient - and you don't really need to shred it first. If you do, I suggest you make sure that you wear a dust mask to avoid inhaling the dust created. The spores have been found to be carcinogenic in mice.

  • The cabbage rootfly has white legless larvae, up to 8mm long and will only attack the roots of plants of the cabbage family, so you can use the potting compost again for plants of other species.

    The adults of this flying insect lay eggs in soil near, or occasionally on, host plants. Pupae overwinter in the soil. Damage is usually worse in late spring and early summer, but a second and even third generation may continue to damage plants into autumn. Cover brassicas (wallflowers and stocks also) with non-woven fleece or fine mesh immediately after sowing or planting. Or, protect individual plants with a cabbage root fly mat. Plant into a slight hollow; in the event of an attack, earth up to encourage new root growth. Intercrop with French or dwarf broad beans.

  • The temperature of your heap will vary slightly according to the external weather conditions, and can reach temperatures of up to 70oC. In extreme heat, there have been very rare occurrences of compost self-igniting. However this is extremely rare, and can easily be prevented. Firstly ensure that the mix is not too dry - make sure you have a 50/50 mix of greens and browns and add water if it dries out. If the centre is becoming very hot, regular turning will also help cool it by ensuring that the heat is dissipated to the edges.

  • Yes. Cellophane is derived from cellulose, a plant material. It can be added to the compost heap, where it will be safely broken down. You must be sure that it is cellophane that you are adding to your heap as many other plastic products can have a similar appearance but would not degrade on the compost heap.

    Scrunch up the cellophane to create air pockets. Layering any compostable material will lead to compaction and loss of oxygen. The microscopic organisms that break down the material need warmth, food and oxygen.

    Composting courses are also available throughout the year - for more information see our Courses and Events

  • Large quantities of citrus in a compost or worm bin can make the contents excessively acidic. Only add a little citrus peel at a time and mix with other waste. To help the peel break down, cut it up into small pieces. Addition of a handful of ground limestone will help to re-dress the balance if you add too much peel and composting has slowed down. If you are producing a large volume of peel you may wish to dispose of it in another way. You could take it to your local green waste dump where it would be composted with a larger volume of materials.

  • It's not true that compost must be built up in layers - let's take a moment to consider why. It is not uncommon for gardening literature to state that a compost heap should be built up in layers, and many keen gardeners will insist that this is the correct way to build a heap. The basis for this advice is mainly to help the gardener attain the correct balance of 'greens' and 'browns', which is important in any compost bin, but especially so if you are trying to achieve a hot heap, which so many gardening books recommend. If you are aiming to put an equal amount of greens and browns in your heap, then the addition of material in equally sized layers of alternating green and brown material acts as a handy rule of thumb to ensure the correct balance is achieved. Building a heap in this way over just a few days will almost certainly result in a 'hot heap'.

    In reality, the waste arisings of the average household may not be produced in sufficient quantities to allow layering to be carried out. This does not need to be a problem. Instead of using layers to measure equal volumes of greens and browns, why not just balance each bucket of kitchen waste with a bucket of cardboard or straw for example. In fact, because the bacteria in the compost need both greens and browns to prosper, the closer together these two types of material are, the better.

    One other thing to bear in mind is that a layer of twigs or branches at the bottom of a compost bin or heap can be a great way of helping to achieve a vertical flow of air through the material.

  • It is quite safe to include cardboard such as cereal packets etc. The inks used these days no longer contain the harmful heavy metals that used to be a problem. Due to economic reasons the industry has converted to vegetable-based inks. The only material we do not recommend in an organic garden is the fire-proof cardboard, as this does contain certain pollutants.

    If you would like further advice on your organic growing, why not become a member of Garden Organic? It costs as little as £2.75 a month, and not only gives you full access to our advisory service, but also free or discounted entrance to many gardens across the UK. Call 02476 308210 or email [email protected]

  • Adding paper to your compost heap is fine. The inks that are used in modern printing are mostly vegetable based, non-toxic and not damaging to the environment. If you do not produce a lot of woody waste then paper is a good alternative as it provides the fibre, necessary to make good compost. Ensure that you do not add too much shredded paper all at once and mix it well with other waste.

  • Worms climb out of their compost for several reasons. They can wriggle out under the lid very easily. Any one of the following could be the reason:

    Compost too wet or acid; Conditions too warm; Insufficient air circulation; Air pressure (due to changing weather conditions); Not enough food; Overcrowding; Curiosity – worms like to explore.

    You may have added too much lime and worm treats to the bin before going away. Only add lime if the compost needs it. Check with a pH soil testing kit. In general, the ingredients usually fed to worms, such as vegetable peelings, will not need pH adjustment.

    The 'worm treat' is designed to entice the worms into new food. Only use this if you feel the worms are not working quickly enough.

    If you would like further advice on your organic growing, why not become a member of Garden Organic? It costs as little as £2.75 a month, and not only gives you full access to our advisory service, but also free or discounted entrance to many gardens across the UK. Call 02476 308210 or email [email protected]

  • Hay is fine to add to the garden compost heap. It has a high source of carbon and significant amounts of potassium. We recommend that you chop or shred the hay first (spread it out and run the mower over it). Remember to mix the hay with green material which will heat up the heap and help it to decompose quicker. Make sure the hay is not too dry, soak with water, if necessary.

    Hay can also be used as a mulch around fruit trees during the spring and summer months, providing food and retaining moisture in the soil.

    One word of warning, though. You may find a great number of grass seeds will survive and germinate in your beds.

  • The mice have probably been attracted to your dry heap. This would be a perfect site for a nest. It is unlikely that the flour attracted them.

    To get rid of them, soak the heap several times over a period of a few days. An easy way to do this is to flood it using a hosepipe. Once the material is totally wet, the mice should move to drier accommodation. Turn the heap over before it has dried out again, if it is not too large. Make sure you wear gloves when handling the compost and wash your hands well afterwards.

    If you would like further advice on your organic growing, why not become a member of Garden Organic? It costs as little as £2.75 a month, and not only gives you full access to our advisory service, but also free or discounted entrance to many gardens across the UK. Call 02476 308210 or email [email protected]

  • The only reason for not composting potato peelings is that they are a potential source of the fungus that causes potato blight. Blight spores can survive only on living plant material. Potato peelings can provide this when the buds in the eyes of potato skins grow into potato plants. To ensure that the peelings don't sprout, bury them well down in the compost and ensure that you turn the heap regularly. If you do this, it is fine to compost the peelings.

  • From your description it does sound like fruit flies. They do tend to increase when the weather is warm and they are feeding on the fruit waste in your bin. As your bin appears to operating normally, in this instance adding ground limestone would not eradicate the problem. I would recommend burying the fresh waste when you add it to your bin as well as covering the top of the compost with a damp newspaper or cardboard. This will help to reduce access to the fruit that they feed on.

    The more quickly the waste is processed, the fewer the flies – so you might like to consider setting up a second worm bin, so you have two operating through the summer. Whilst Derris is a permitted pesticide in an organic garden it is not recommended for use against fruit flies and could have a detrimental effect on the functioning of your worm bin. Fruit flies are harmless and not causing a health hazard in this situation.

  • You have three options:

    1. Heap all the woody stuff up in an out-of-the-way corner and forget about it for a few years. It will provide food and shelter for all sorts of wild creatures - and everything will decay eventually.

    2. Woody material is slow to decay because it is tough (carbon rich) and tends to be dry. To speed up the decay, mix in other materials to supply and/or hold on to moisture, which is essential for decay, and to supply some nitrogen (to help break down the carbon). Suitable additions include used potting compost, turfs, soil, autumn leaves, weeds, grass mowings.

    3. Use the Centre for Alternative Technology's slow stack system. This is similar to a normal compost heap - but is works better if the container is taller than it is wide. Fill it with woody waste (up to 2cm (3/4in) diameter) and all the other ingredients mentioned above. Leave it for 2-3 years. There is no need to cover the heap.

    If you would like further advice on your organic growing, why not become a member of Garden Organic? It costs as little as £2.75 a month, and not only gives you full access to our advisory service, but also free or discounted entrance to many gardens across the UK. Call 02476 308210 or email [email protected]

  • No. A medium-sized compost heap can heat up to 70°C in a few days. The heat helps to make quicker compost, and to kill weeds and diseases. But your compost may never heat up, especially if it is made over a long period. The compost can be just as good, but it will take longer to be ready for use.

  • Some weed seeds and plant diseases will survive in a slow, cool compost heap - if you add them in the first place.

  • No. A shredder can be very useful where there is a lot of woody material to be composted, but it is not essential.

  • Yes, if the usual garden hygiene rules are followed. Keep cuts covered, wash hands before eating and keep your anti-tetanus protection up to date.

  • A garden fork is the only essential item. A compost bin keeps everything neater but it is not essential.

  • Compost is made by a host of small and microscopic creatures. These are not pests and will not overrun your garden. Slugs are often found in compost heaps – some species feed on decaying organic matter and are a valuable part of the composting process.

  • Rats may visit a compost heap if they are already present in the area but composting does not generally attract the rats in the first place. If rats or mice are nesting in your compost heap, this is a sign that the heap is too dry. Add water until it has the consistency of a wrung-out sponge. For more information, Garden Organic Members can see our factsheet, Rats and the gardener.

  • Some grass in a compost bin is good because grass is an activator and will speed up the breakdown of organic materials. In contrast, adding large quantities of grass can result in a smelly, slimy mass. Many householders find that their garden waste is restricted to grass cuttings and that it is difficult to properly balance this with other materials. One option is 'grass-boarding' where thin layers of grass are layered between torn up cardboard. The result can be excellent compost, which is weed-free and does not contain large particles or lumps of material.

    If grass-boarding is not an option, there are some other uses for grass cuttings:

    As mulch - this works better if you put newspaper around your plants first, and then cover with a layer of grass cuttings; this can then be replenished each time you cut the lawn

    An addition to leaf mould - if you made leaf mould in the autumn then you can mix equal volumes of grass to the leaves throughout the following summer. This will speed up the breakdown of the leaves and increase the nutrient content

    Leave it on your lawn - this will add nutrients to the soil, and provided you mow regularly thatching should not occur. It is possible to buy mulching mowers, which are specifically designed for this purpose

  • No. Sowing, potting and multipurpose composts that you buy in garden centres are mixtures of various materials such as shredded bark, sand, coir and fertilisers. These are used for raising seedlings and growing plants in pots. Many contain peat, which should be avoided. Look for 'Peat free' compost.

  • Whether or not you need more than one compost bin will obviously depend to some extent on the amount of waste you are producing and also on how enthusiastic a composter you are.

    Many keen gardeners have at least three compost bins so that they have one bin they are adding to on a regular basis with fresh material, one full bin that is being left to compost, and one bin of matured compost that they are using as and when required. Having more than one bin helps if you want to create a 'hot' heap - filling the bin all in one go with a good mixture of material will provide a sufficient volume of material for high temperatures to be created. Going through this the hot phase of composting that means weed seeds and pathogens are more likely to be killed and compost is produced more quickly than 'cool' composting. However, this is not a practical option for many householders, especially if they do not have a large garden or do not produce much garden waste, and great compost can be produced with only one compost bin that is added to gradually.

    Depending on the size of the bin and amount of material that is put into it, it may well be that the material at the bottom of a compost bin is ready for use while there is still room to add new material at the top. If the compost is brown, smells earthly sweet and you can no longer recognise the materials you put in, then it is ready. This material can be removed through the hatch at the bottom if it is large enough. Alternatively, you can take the bin off completely, find a new location for it, and place the undecomposed material from the heap you have exposed back into the bin. The decomposed material could then be used on the garden, or left covered up in a small heap to mature for longer if necessary.

  • As with the conventional wisdom regarding layering, this technique has its roots in the large compost piles traditionally associated with keen gardeners or large gardens. It involves literally turning the whole heap over in order to open air spaces in the material and to reduce compaction. This can be quite discouraging to people who either do not have the physical capability to lift large volumes of material, or do not wish to spend a lot of time composting.

    Air is essential for the survival of the microbes that degrade organic waste and help to turn it into compost. Although turning the heap is the best method to ensure there is sufficient air, there are a number of easier methods. The first is to mix the material around in the bin using a garden fork or compost aerator. The second is to use a broom handle to poke holes in the material creating air channels. However, easier still is to ensure there is a good mix of materials in the bin that will help to create air pockets amongst the material. Materials that are particularly good for this purpose are those that provide structure in a heap, such as corrugated cardboard, egg boxes, the cardboard centres of loo rolls or kitchen rolls, scrunched-up paper, or a jumble of twigs and small branches.

  • Slugs and snails are the number one enemy of many gardeners and some people believe the compost bin is a hothouse for slug and snail reproductive activity, creating massive populations that will invade the garden and devour the precious plants. Slugs and snails are decomposer organisms that help break down the organic matter in the compost bin so the bin acts as a great feeding ground for them. There is no guarantee that the slugs and snails will not be tempted to other areas of your garden, but the compost heap provides them with an ideal habitat they have no reason to leave as they have a constant food source and are protected from predators - they keep moving up the bin to get to the fresh material, and eventually die of old age. Some slugs live only on rotting organic matter and so will have no desire to leave the compost bin in search of living greens. Some people worry that when they spread the finished compost, they will spread around slug eggs; however, it is likely these will be predated on in the compost bin or will decompose as they become compressed within the heap.

    If you do have slug problems, the most effective way to control them is to encourage natural predators such as hedgehogs that love to hibernate under compost heaps or piles of woody prunings left to decompose, so do encourage people not to have too tidy a garden and certainly not to get rid of their compost container!

    Finally, on no account should slug pellets or other molluscides/insecticides be used in compost, as they will kill the benefical organisms that carry out the composting process.

  • Composting is an aerobic process, which means air is vital to ensure effective decomposition. The presence of air in the bin is much more dependent on the structure and mix of materials in the bin than the presence of air holes. Therefore, drilling holes should not be necessary as long as the structure allows air flow, for example through the use of scrunched up paper and cardboard, or twigs and prunings. If the materials mixture is too compact, holes in the bin will not be sufficient to facilitate airflow to the centre of the bin where composting activity is often at its highest and thus requiring more oxygen. Additionally, lots of air holes in the sides of the bin may let out valuable moisture as well as letting in air.


  • The sycamore leaves are showing signs of a very common fungal disease known as Acer tar spot. There is no need to treat this and it is fine to compost the affected leaves. If you have a large quantity of leaves they are better left to rot down in their own leaf mould bin, container or black bin bags.

  • Unfortunately the UK climate is so wet that scab will always be present. The following might help.

    In winter, clear up fallen leaves and infected fruits. At other times, watering fallen leaves with diluted urine, or any other high nitrogen liquid manure (such as nettle ‘tea’) will help kill spores. Prune trees regularly to maintain an open centre to increase air circulation. Apples that are particularly susceptible to scab are: Cox’s Orange Pippin, Gala, James Grieve, and Laxton’s Superb. Pear: Williams Bon Crétien.

  • Your apple tree is suffering from a fungal disease known as blossom wilt and wither tip. This condition causes the blossom, leaves and shoot/spur tips to wither. Later in the season the fungus will cause the fruits to shrivel. It can also lead to Brown Rot, an airborne fungal disease that attacks damaged fruits. Unfortunately, once the symptoms are present there is little that can be done. The best way to reduce the effects of the disease in subsequent years is to prune out any affected twigs and remove any diseased or damaged fruit from the tree. Also, because the fungus over-winters in the bark of twigs and in fruits infected in the previous year, remove any affected debris that has fallen from the tree, including any shrivelled fruits. This should reduce infection next year.

    Do not store any affected fruit and do not pull any stalks from fruit you are intending to put into storage.

  • We know of a few blackcurrant varieties with resistance. Ben Gairn and Ben Finlay have shown resistance to reversion; Ben Hope is resistant to the gall mite that spreads the disease. However, resistance is not immunity and the level of infection on your site is very high. Ideally, all the plot owners should get rid of all the infected bushes, and start again!

    For an alternative crop, you could try Worcesterberry. This produces a small black berry, with a similar flavour, but the bush is large and thorny.

  • Blossom end rot occurs when there are insufficient calcium levels in developing fruit. This is most common when the first trusses are forming and calcium demand is high. As water transports calcium around the tomato plant the condition is usually linked to inadequate or irregular watering. Tomatoes need the equivalent of 2-4cms rainfall every week, though the amount of water given is less important than maintaining consistent water levels. Watering daily, at least, will be necessary in hot conditions. As little as half-an-hour of water deficiency can cause the condition to develop. Pick off and compost any fruits that have been affected. Mulching around tomato plants with grass clippings, straw or hay will prevent plants drying out.

  • Your Swedes are suffering from a nutrient deficiency of boron, which causes as condition commonly known as brown heart, and particularly affects the brassica family. You can take a number of preventative steps to stop this happening again:

    Both potatoes and swedes are nutrient hungry crops. Follow a crop rotation plan and plant your swede where roots, such as carrots grew the previous year. See our advice on crop rotation.

    Excess liming increases the pH of soil and prevents the take up of some nutrients. Check your pH levels before liming and keep the pH at between 5.5 and 7 for swedes.

    If you have a light or dry soil, add plenty of organic matter to prevent nutrients leaching and to maintain moisture levels. It is far better to prevent this problem from happening by managing your soil correctly.

  • The dry weather has certainly contributed. Hot, dry conditions such as those in August have favoured the two-spotted spider mite (Tetranychus urticae). These creatures feed on plant tissues causing extensive damage in high populations. They feed on a variety of plants both indoors and out. Cut off and remove dead leaves and clear up plant debris to reduce overwintering sites. Water the plants well, they may not produce any more leaf this year, but mites do not like damp conditions. The plants should recover and grow next year. Look out for early signs of this pest next spring and early summer, treating with insecticidal soap spray if found. Available from the Organic Gardening Catalogue.

    Garden Organic members can see our red spider mite factsheet for more information.

  • Potato tubers that are blight infected may contain higher levels of alkaloids than healthy tubers. The standard advice is that pregnant women should avoid eating them. However, tubers from plants where just the leaves have been blighted are not necessarily themselves infected.

  • From your description of the problem with your courgettes, it does sound as though Cucumber Mosaic Virus (CMV) is the culprit. The source of infection may not be as easy to track down as CMV, despite its name, is able to infect many different species of plant, not just vegetables and not limited to the Cucurbit family. Many ornamental and herbaceous plants can have the disease without showing the severe symptoms that you find on your courgette plants. CMV has been detected in more than 700 plant species in 86 families.

    Some examples below:

    Vegetables: Cucumbers and courgettes, tomatoes, peppers, spinach, celery and carrots

    Flowers: Gladioli, lilies, alstroemeria, begonia, carnation, crocus, cyclamen, dahlia, freesia, hyacinth, hydrangea, impatiens, narcissus, nerine, orchids, pelargonium, phlox, tulip and zantadeschia

    Weeds: Stellaria media (chickweed), Senecio vulgaris (groundsel)

    CMV is spread by sap feeding insects, aphids being the most common vector. Unfortunately, resistant varieties are not always foolproof and it may be necessary to take other precautions. Controlling aphids in the garden is one way that you can reduce the likelihood of infection getting to your plants. Grow flowers amongst your vegetables that will attract aphid predators such as ladybirds and hover flies.

    Another way to prevent virus infection may actually be to isolate the courgette plants in a netted area to prevent aphids from feeding. Use a fine meshed netting, such as the enviromesh available from The Organic Gardening Catalogue. Use this when you plant out the young plants in early summer.

  • Fusarium patch or snow mould, appears between September and May in wet conditions, often following a cover of snow. The spores are spread by wind.

    Prevention and control are quite simple:

    • Never apply a high nitrogen fertiliser in the autumn
    • Aerate and scarify the lawn annually
    • Do not walk on lawn when covered with snow
    • In the spring, rake away dead turf
    • Re-seed if a large patch has been infected

  • This could be classic halo blight. It is a bacterial disease, transmitted through the seed. Remove and destroy badly infected plants, and never save seed from a plant with similar symptoms. Pick individual leaves off if the whole plant is not affected. Avoid overhead watering as the spores are spread by water drops. Unfortunately Halo Blight can be retained in the soil, so be sure to use a 3 year minimum rotation before planting beans in the same patch. Observe good hygiene by cleaning tools and boots.

  • It is very common to get a haze of mould growing on the top of potting compost. It is usually caused by the break down of organic matter in the potting mix.

    If the seeds are germinating successfully then it is not a problem. If your seeds are not germinating or die soon afterwards, then it is likely that 'damping off' fungus is present. Try the following organic prevention and control methods:

    • Pots and trays are scrubbed clean before sowing seed.
    • Drainage is good – waterlogged plants are more prone to pest and disease attack.
    • Do not overcrowd seedlings – good ventilation is essential to reduce humidity, which will encourage the disease.

  • Your pear tree is suffering from rust -this is nothing to do with the aircraft flying overhead, it is a common fungal disease of pears. It is not especially damaging to the tree, although it does look unsightly. If you want to try and eradicate it, you need to rake up and remove all the leaves as they fall to remove any of the spores from the area. However, you should be aware that the fungus overwinters on juniper (Juniperus sabina) trees up to 6km from the infected pear tree, so eradication may be impossible!

  • Bolting, which is premature flowering and seeding of crops, is usually caused by plants being put under stress, in particular climatic stress. Temperature plays a vital role. In early spring plants prefer cold nights and warm days. If the days are cold too, bolting is likely. Mild autumns and winters will trigger this condition in certain crops. The factors are quite complex, and vary not only between crops, but even between different cultivars.

    Cauliflowers dislike any check to growth, such as low temperatures, water or nutrient shortage, even windy sites!

    Modern F1 hybrid cultivars of Brussels sprouts are far less likely to bolt, unlike the open-pollinated cultivars. It used to be thought that planting firmly was important to prevent sprouts from blowing. Our experience at Ryton is that this is not necessarily the case.

  • Blindness arises when growth stops through the absence or malfunction of the growing point. There are various causes of blindness, damage from a pest or disease attack, nutrient deficiency, water-logging or dryness are also common causes.

    Next season ensure that crops are watered well in periods of drought, maintain good drainage if plants are getting waterlogged. Maintain a regular feeding regime so that plants are less susceptible to pest and disease damage.

  • There are several possible causes of non-flowering or 'blindness' in daffodils. Daffodils multiply every year, with the parent bulb producing several smaller, younger bulbs that are not large enough to flower. The parent bulb often dies before these immature bulbs reach flowering size. Keeping the bulbs well fed should help. Apply a high potash feed, such as organic potash, and follow up with fortnightly applications of a liquid feed such as Organic Plant Food Concentrate. Both products are available from the Organic Gardening Catalogue

    It may be that the foliage was not allowed to die down naturally last year, i.e. cut off or tied up in knots or elastic bands. This prevents nutrients, made in the leaves, returning to the bulb to be stored for the following years growth. Foliage should be left on the plant or not removed until at least eight weeks after flowering ends.

    With newly planted bulbs, if they have not been planted deeply enough, during the summer it is possible that the flower buds have dried out and died. If this is the case then dig up the bulbs in April/early May (before the foliage dies down) and plant them deeper. There should be two times the height of the bulb of soil above the bulb. For example, if the bulbs are 2.5cm tall then plant them 7.5cm deep, allowing 5cm of soil above the bulb.

    Another cause may be the Narcissus fly. These pests may have eaten the flower buds. To reduce damage next year, hoe around the bulbs to expose any larvae present to cold and predators and make sure that there are no large cracks in the soil for narcissus fly to enter. It may be necessary to cover the plants with fleece, burying the edges to prevent adult flies reaching the bulbs.

  • Greenback is a condition where the stalk end of the fruit fails to ripen, remaining green or yellow. It is usually caused by excessive heat in the greenhouse. Next year ensure that there is adequate ventilation in your greenhouse, shading and damping down to reduce temperatures.

    A shortage of both potassium and phosphorous may also be a contributory factor, but don't be tempted to overfeed. Tomatoes need a regular feeding and watering regime.


  • The recommendation is to thin to one fruit per cluster, leaving fruit about 4 - 6 inches apart. Remove fruit either with scissors or finger and thumb. Just before the June drop, remove any fruits that are misshapen or diseased. The balance can be completed afterwards, once the June drop is over. Finish thinning by mid-July. Excess buds can be gently rubbed off with your fingers.

  • Apple (and other fruit) identification is a specialist skill and is not a service offered by Garden Organic. However, you can search the National Fruit Collection database for information and photographs of many fruit varieties in the collection.

  • Apricots need shelter from frost when in flower, so trained against a warm wall is an ideal situation. Some recommended cultivars for your situation are:

    • Aprigold - Genetic dwarf, ideal for pot culture which produces full-sized fruit
    • Flavorcot - frost tolerant and fruiting later, smaller orange fruit
    • Golden Glow - found on the Malvern Hills as a seedling, very reliable cropper, healthy tree. Yellow round fruit
    • Petit Muscat - Old French variety, with masses of small delicious yellow fruits: does best in sheltered site
    • Tomcot - very hardy, frost resistant, mid summer. Large fruit with red blush, excellent cropper. Grown for commercial fruit production in Kent

    Garden Organic members can view our factsheet Fruit tree/bush suppliers for a list of fruit tree suppliers.

  • As you quite rightly say blueberries do need acidic conditions - a soil pH between 4 and 5.5 to be specific. We recommend you test your soil to see what the pH is. There are various kits available from local garden centres or contact the Organic Gardening Catalogue on 0845 130 1304 or go online at Next step:

    If the soil is acidic you can simply plant directly into the soil, mulching with composted bark or pine needles. Use rainwater when watering in plants if possible as this is acidic.

    If the soil is not acid (i.e. neutral or alkaline) then we suggest your father uses containers where the appropriate acid soil conditions can be controlled and maintained with little work. Again, use composted conifer bark and pine needles as a mulch. The reason for this recommendation is that it will take major soil modifications to attain an acidic soil in your garden - it will take regular testing and further modifications to keep the soil acidic (plus more expense). At Garden Organic we advise members to work with the soil they have, planting species that are suited to those conditions - not to struggle with it or fight against it.

  • Scale is a common pest on any citrus plant. Small infestations can sometimes be wiped off, but the size of your plant would make this time-consuming and difficult. Try spraying the leaves and stems with a suitable organically acceptable product - available from the Organic Gardening Catalogue.

    The biological control to use against scale is a parasitic wasp, but it is very hard to find a supplier. The wasp, Metaphycus helvolus, requires lots of sun in which to bask, and our summers have not been very sunny in recent years. Optimum temperature 20-30°C. This makes breeding less easy.

    Sprays approved for use in the organic garden can be harmful to useful insects, so only use them as a last resort. Spray flowering crops at dusk when bees are not active. Read the label before you buy. Use pesticides carefully

  • Medlar fruits are unusual both in appearance and in their ripening habits. They are very hard and inedible until they start to decay. They will rarely reach this stage by themselves on the tree and need to be harvested as late as possible in November . They should be left in a box in a cool dry place, resting on damp straw and kept away from mice, until they turn a dark reddish brown and become soft and juicy. This ripening process is known as "bletting" the medlars. They can then be used to make jams, jellies and medlar cheese.

  • Your pear tree is suffering from rust -this is nothing to do with the aircraft flying overhead, it is a common fungal disease of pears. It is not especially damaging to the tree, although it does look unsightly. If you want to try and eradicate it, you need to rake up and remove all the leaves as they fall to remove any of the spores from the area. However, you should be aware that the fungus overwinters on juniper (Juniperus sabina) trees up to 6km from the infected pear tree, so eradication may be impossible!

  • If your apple trees are not growing well and the fruits are small, it often indicates a growing problem. Roots are the main source for the tree to absorb nutrients and water. Poor growing conditions will stunt the growth of the tree as a whole. We suspect that the trees are struggling for light, air and nutrients as they are in competition with the hedge and the grass surrounding the base of the tree.

    There should be no competitive growth around the base of young trees. Carefully remove the grass from around the tree trunks, so that the trees stand in a circle of bare soil, 1 metre in diameter. Next spring when the soil has warmed up, apply a top dressing of garden compost (two spadefuls per square metre) keeping a clear area of roughly 15cm (6in) diameter round the tree trunks. Cover with a mulch of straw or hay up to 10cm (4 in) deep. The mulch should be removed every winter. The trees would also benefit from a soil conditioning, low-nutrient mulch like leafmould applied in the following winter.

  • Victoria plum is highly susceptible to the fungal disease silverleaf. Infection enters through pruning cuts or damaged branches and is more likely to happen when the plant is not actively growing. There is no organic wound treatment.

    Wait until vigorous growth starts, usually in April some time, then cut back the overhanging branches. This should be early enough in the season to give plenty of light and air to the pear tree.

  • Fruit bushes can be moved when they are dormant. This is best carried out November to December or in March. It is best to move the plants to their new site after lifting, rather than storing plants in pots first.

    Prepare the new planting site well, incorporating some well-rotted garden compost into the planting hole. Plant no deeper than the original soil mark on the stem, with the exception of blackcurrants which should be planted 5cm (2in) deeper. Ensure that plants are watered well throughout the coming year, especially in periods of drought.

    If you have to store bushes in pots, lift the plants with as much root as possible. Winter time would be a good time to carry out any pruning on the plants. Reducing some of the top growth will help the plant to compensate for some of the roots it has lost. Plant into large pots, don't cut the roots to make them fit into smaller pots.

  • They should blossom again and fruiting will then not be affected. Gardeners can easily see if there are fruit buds remaining on the trees. These will produce blossom this spring and fruit in the late summer and autumn. There may be less blossom than usual but as each bud contains several flower and fruit buds, even after thinning, overall yield should not be affected.

  • While the lemon tree is inside over the winter it will not be growing actively, therefore it will not require much water. It is impossible to give you a frequency of watering as this will depend on the temperature, the size of the pot, the size of the tree etc. During the winter, allow the compost to dry before watering, the plant does not require the compost to be moist at all times. Use your finger to test the moisture content of the soil or lift the pot, if it is very light then you may need to water.


  • Poinsettia is a native of Mexico, so it is likely that because of our reduced light levels in this country your plant will get some yellowing and leaf fall. To keep the plant in good condition do not let temperatures fall below 13°C (55°F). Place in a well lit location. Water thoroughly but wait until the compost is quite dry before watering again. Overwatering is the most common cause of failure in poinsettia.

    To make the plant bloom again for next Christmas, in early spring, cut back the stems to 10cm (4in). Keep the compost almost dry, place in a cool shady position. In early May, water and re-pot the plant, shoots will then soon appear. Remove some of the new shoots to leave 4-5 stems (use the prunings as cuttings). When pruning this plant, wear gloves and long sleeves as the sap can cause irritation.

    As the plant requires careful light control to make the plant bloom again, in September cover the plant with a black polythene bag from early evening until the next morning so the plant is in total darkness for 14 hours. Continue daily for eight weeks, then treat as normal and hopefully the plant should flower for next Christmas time.

  • Clematis montana should be pruned after flowering , so May is ideal. Cut out any dead shoots, taking care with the untangling. Then cut back any shoots you feel are too tall or are straying the wrong way. It's not very scientific because clematis generally responds well to hard pruning and is hard to damage.

  • Garden Organic does not advise any painting of pruning wounds. It is best to leave the cut open to allow the tree to heal naturally with no substance impairing the callus formation.

    For specific details of magnolia pruning check out the Dorling Kindersley/RHS publication 'RHS Pruning and Training Manual' by Christopher Brickell & David Joyce. It has excellent diagrams and easy to follow instructions.


  • No, they don't, but it sounds like aphid damage. Aphids suck the sap from young leaves, and the results are twisted, distorted foliage, looking very much like peach leaf curl. The fruit should not be harmed, and all you can do is to make sure that your garden has plenty of predators present to consume the greenfly.

  • It sounds as if the problem is being caused by the apple twig cutter Rhynchites caeruleus. This weevil attacks apple and other fruit trees, partially severing new shoots about 3 inches or so from the tips, so they hang off as yours do, or drop to the ground.

    The adult lays eggs in the shoot tips from early June (they are more active in warm, sunny weather), the eggs hatch and the larvae munch in the pith of the shoots for about three or four weeks, before dropping to the soil to pupate. New adults emerge in late summer then hibernate under dead leaves or other sheltered situations. As soon as you see signs of damage, trim back the affected shoots and take all trimmings to the nearest green waste site. This way you'll break the cycle.

    Damage is rarely serious although young trees can be more susceptible. In winter, cultivate under trees, and clear out hedge bottoms to expose overwintering adults. To improve the growing conditions of the tree, clear an area of at least one metre square around the tree trunk, and keep this free of competitive growth.

  • The cabbage rootfly has white legless larvae, up to 8mm long and will only attack the roots of plants of the cabbage family, so you can use the potting compost again for plants of other species.

    The adults of this flying insect lay eggs in soil near, or occasionally on, host plants. Pupae overwinter in the soil. Damage is usually worse in late spring and early summer, but a second and even third generation may continue to damage plants into autumn. Cover brassicas (wallflowers and stocks also) with non-woven fleece or fine mesh immediately after sowing or planting. Or, protect individual plants with a cabbage root fly mat. Plant into a slight hollow; in the event of an attack, earth up to encourage new root growth. Intercrop with French or dwarf broad beans.

  • It sounds very much like capsid damage. These creatures suck sap early in the season, when leaves are just unfolding. They make minute holes in the leaf tissue, much too small to be noticed. As the leaf grows and stretches, the holes become larger, and tear. What you're seeing now is the result of this early damage. The brown edges surround the spot where the capsid pierced the leaf and killed a few cells. There's nothing to be done about this. The plants won't die, and next year the problem might not be so bad.

    Encourage birds to feed near shrubs by hanging fat and bags of nuts from branches in winter. If damage is extensive, tidy up under the shrubs over winter, raking out leaf litter and clearing away any plant debris, exposing the pests to predators.

  • It is possible that the flies are gaining access to the crop during these weeding sessions. Carrot fly are attracted by the scent released from bruised foliage. If you have to weed carrots, do it on a dry evening with no wind when the scent of the carrots will not spread so far. Pull carrots for eating in the evenings too, for the same reason.

    Earth up and mulch

    Try earthing up around the tops of the carrots and also applying a 2cm layer of grass clippings around the plants. This prevents flies gaining access to the surface of the soil where they lay their eggs.

    Garden Organic members can see our factsheet about Carrot fly for more information.

  • The spit that you have noticed on your plants is often called, 'cuckoo spit'. It is caused by the larvae of an insect called a froghopper. The insect sucks sap from the plant but generally does little harm. Spray the plants with a jet of water to wash off the insects and the 'spit'.

  • Flea beetles are often a problem on rocket, particularly in dry weather. These are small, shiny, black beetles around 3mm long, which jump when disturbed. If plants are well watered you should be fine. Alternatively, cover the crop with horticultural fleece or ultra-fine mesh netting (0.8mm mesh) immediately after sowing. This may need to be kept in place throughout the growing period and until the crop is harvested.

    Garden Organic members can see our Flea Beetle factsheet for more information. This factsheet includes prevention and control information, including Lawrence Hill's flea beetle trolley

  • Yes, the culprit is most probably the glasshouse spider mite - which can be a problem in greenhouses and conservatories when the atmosphere it kept too dry. Take a magnifying glass to the leaves and see if you can spot the very small spider-like mites. They are pale rust to neutral colour and may have produced webbing between the leaf stalk and the stem.

    If this is what you have, make sure you water your plants well and mist at least twice a day with tepid water. Pot them up if they are pot-bound, or repot in new compost where appropriate. A biological alternative is to introduce the predatory mite, Phytoseiulus persimilis. This predator requires a minimum day temperature of 20°C and night temperature of 16°C. It is available from mid April.

    Garden Organic members can see our Glasshouse red spider mite factsheet for more information

  • The bright red insects are adult lily beetle. This increasingly common pest feeds on lilies, Soloman's seal and Fritillaries. They can detect a lily from 3 miles away! The small reddish-brown grubs also feed on the leaves of these plants and have the particularly disgusting habit of covering themselves in excrement as protection against predators. Remove and destroy any adults and grubs (although you might want to wash your hands thoroughly afterwards). Keep checking plants throughout the growing season, wiping off any eggs and slime covered larvae that you find on the leaves.

  • Scale is often a problem on trees or shrubs growing in pots. The restricted growing conditions cause stress to the plants, and stressed plants succumb more rapidly to pest attack. Make sure your holly has sufficient food and water to help it survive, and to maintain its health. Top dress the potting compost each spring with garden compost or well-rotted and sieved manure. Fork in gently with a hand fork, taking care not to damage the roots. Make sure that the tree never goes short of water. Dry spells in winter particularly can put evergreens, such as bay and holly, under enormous stress. A leafmould mulch is an excellent way to retain moisture in the pot, and it improves the quality of the potting compost too.

    To treat the scale, use a toothbrush to repeatedly brush them off. You can also spray with insecticidal soap. However, this has limited affect, and the best time to spray would be in June and July when the juvenile scales (known as crawlers) are on the move.

  • A Garden Organic member pioneered a slug-deterrent bed called the Butcombe Box. It is a small 4 feet square, 6 inch high wooden sided box with a moat made out of guttering attached to the outside edge. The box is divided up into square foot plots in order to grow different family crops using a crop rotation.

    Attach copper piping on the outside of your raised bed about 2 inches from the top. Slugs will not cross this barrier, making the area a completely slug proof bed!

    There are numerous ways of controlling slugs organically. Choose from many slug traps, barriers and deterrents available in the Organic Gardening Catalogue

  • The dry weather has certainly contributed. Hot, dry conditions such as those in August have favoured the two-spotted spider mite (Tetranychus urticae). These creatures feed on plant tissues causing extensive damage in high populations. They feed on a variety of plants both indoors and out. Cut off and remove dead leaves and clear up plant debris to reduce overwintering sites. Water the plants well, they may not produce any more leaf this year, but mites do not like damp conditions. The plants should recover and grow next year. Look out for early signs of this pest next spring and early summer, treating with insecticidal soap spray if found. Available from the Organic Gardening Catalogue.

    Garden Organic members can see our red spider mite factsheet for more information.

  • Both aquilegia and Solomon's Seal sawflies can strip plants of their leaves in no time. Their behaviour is similar, so is the treatment.

    Adult sawflies lay small batches of eggs on the underside of leaves in late spring. When the larva hatch, they feed voraciously on the leaves for a while, before dropping to the soil and pupating around the base of the plant. The best way to deal with them is to keep a close watch on the plant and remove the larvae as soon as you notice leaf damage has started. It is essential to break the life cycle. Hoe around the base of the plant to expose larvae for birds to eat. Pyrethrum will kill sawfly larvae, but if you resort to this treatment, take care to use it after dusk, when bees and other beneficial creatures are safely out of harm's way.

  • The problem is viburnum beetle (Pyrrhalta viburni). The creamy white larvae cause the damage in early summer before pupating in the ground. In June, prune off the damaged areas, as adult beetles don't emerge until July and August. Viburnum are vigorous plants and the problem is seldom serious although it can be disfiguring. Harlequin ladybirds are the best predators, as are some birds. Hang fat balls in the bush to encourage birds to visit and eat the pupating larvae in the soil.

  • Carrot fly larvae tunnel through the storage root while underground. They can often reduce the carrot to a sorry mess, quite unsuitable for the kitchen. However, you can often salvage something to eat by cutting away the damaged areas.

    The best protection from this pest is to cover where the seed has been sown with horticultural fleece or a fine mesh netting immediately after sowing. Try a carrot variety that has some resistance to this pest, like Resistafly and Flyaway.

Seed saving

  • I suggest that you earmark a couple of plants at the beginning of the season for seed saving. Don't pick ANY pods from them to eat - just pick the crisp brown pods at the end of the season. Don't feed them, or water them unless it is very dry - as this can encourage leafy growth rather than pod development. There is no point in picking green pods as the seeds are not mature enough at this stage.

    Did you know you can save the roots, overwinter in a frost-free place, and replant next year? Runner beans are perennial, but are frost sensitive, so die back in our climate. However, if the roots are dug up and kept in suitable conditions, the plants often get away early and crop faster. If you grow a lot of beans, this may not be a practical option, but you could try it with one or two plants perhaps. Store the roots in a frost-free place, buried in slightly moist sand or leafmould, or something similar.


  • There are lots of alternatives now that you can choose that contain no animal based ingredients. Look for animal-free products in the Organic Gardening Catalogue, such as comfrey pellets or natural gardening all-purpose fertiliser. Animal-free products are all denoted by the AF symbol.

    Alternatively, maintain the fertility in your garden using garden compost, leafmould and green manures. Here, at Garden Organic Ryton we do not use any fertilisers.

    Comfrey and other plants such as nettles are good plant sources of Nitrogen and other minerals, too.

  • Gypsum is quite suitable to use to condition heavy alkaline clay soils. It should not affect the soil pH, so should not cause problems for your potatoes. Add 250-500g per sq.m. We also recommend you have a soil pH test before adding gypsum. Testing kits can be bought at garden centres.

  • One gram of soil (about 1/5 tea-spoon) can contain over 100 million bacteria, 1 million actinomycetes and 100,000 fungi. The weight of these organisms would only account for 0.05 percent of the weight of the soil. The size of a single bacteria is approximately 1 micron or 1 millionth of a metre - 100,000 bacteria placed end to end would measure 1 cm.

  • Animal manures should always be composted or left to rot down before use. The urine in the mix is rich in plant foods, but these are easily washed out by rain - and can also burn young plants. The composting process stabilises these nutrients, so they are released slowly. Horse manure is likely to contain residues of products use to worm the horses, and it is important to give these time to break down. Composting also reduces or destroys pathogens and weed seeds, and makes the materials easier to handle and apply.

  • Grazing rye should be dug in as soon as possible in the spring. In this case you need to chop the top growth off the rye. Use a sharp spade or hoe, or even shears, and leave the foliage to thoroughly die down on the soil surface. Don't worry about the roots - they'll rot down naturally. Why not use a no-dig method for the potatoes? That way you'll smother the rye and prevent any re-growth. Once the rye has been chopped back, just make small holes to plant your seed potatoes, then cover the whole area with a thick layer of straw. Keep the plants well watered, and top up the straw with grass cuttings as the plants grow.

  • It is better to use a range of green manures, as they fit into different plant families. Here are some suggestions.

    • Fenugreek - Legume family; frost tender; short to medium term green manure for late spring to late summer use (depending where you are located) Good weed control.
    • Phacelia - not related to any vegetable crops. Good for short or medium term use. May survive the winter in warmer areas.
    • Tares - Legume; winter hardy. Good for sowing in August/ early Sept to overwinter. Good weed control. Good before brassicas as they provide extra nitrogen in the soil.
    • Field beans - Legume; winter hardy. Only worth growing if you want to sow something as late as November.
    • See also the Garden Organic web page which has full information on green manures Green Manures | Garden Organic

  • If placed around growing plants, fresh manures will scorch the plants. Using fresh manure on the fallow beds should be fine, although if it is applied in autumn and winter it is likely that the nutrients it contains will be washed out and lost during periods of rainfall. Manures are most valuable when composted with some form of bedding material, such as straw and hay. Urine is the main source of the plant nutrients contained in manures, particularly nitrogen and potassium, and is soaked up by the bedding. The composting process stabilises these nutrients, which might otherwise be washed out by the rain, and converts them to a form that is more readily taken up by plants.

    Fresh horse manure can also contain chemicals used to worm horses. These chemicals are broken down during the composting process.

  • Municipal compost that meets the PAS100 quality standard should be fine to use in your greenhouse. To gain PAS100 accreditation, it must go through a monitored composting process that, among other things, ensures that the materials reach significant temperatures for several days, which should kill off most pests and diseases.

  • Farmyard and horse manures from non-organic sources can be used in organic gardens after being aerobically composted for three months, or stockpiled under cover for six months.

  • Wood ash is rich in trace elements and potassium, so it makes sense to use it on the garden. As rain can quickly wash these nutrients out of the soil, it is best to process the ash through a compost heap. Store the ash in a dry place, and it to the compost material as you fill the bins through the year. Ash from smokeless fuel and coal is not suitable for garden use.

  • There is absolutely no need to worry - 'ignore it' is the correct advice. This white deposit is called mycelium. It is a naturally occurring fungus whose job it is to breakdown organic material. You'll find it on bits of wood buried in the soil, on rotting straw or woody bits in compost heaps, on leafmould and manure in the soil - the list is almost endless. You're unlikely to find it in soil which never has bulky organic material added, so clearly some gardens will have more than others.

    Neither plants nor wildlife (nor humans) are harmed by mycelium, and there is certainly no need to dig it out.

  • Wood ash is a good source of lime, potassium and trace elements. Ash from a bonfire is best added to the compost heap where the nutrients will bind to organic matter and humus particles in a form that plants will be able to use. Wood ash should never be applied directly to the soil as it is quickly leached out of the soil. Using wood ash from preserved, painted, stained or treated wood is not recommended as there may be toxic elements remaining within the wood ash.


  • Asparagus crowns are usually planted in trenches. Good preparation is important. In particular, remove all weeds before planting, as this is a permanent crop, and weeding will be difficult once growth has developed. Well-rotted manure or garden compost should be dug into the area before planting.

    Plant without delay in March and early April. Dig a trench 25cm (10in) deep, 30cm (12in) wide, forming a mounded ridge of soil along the bottom. When sitting on this mound the crowns should be 10cm (4in) deep. Spread out the fragile roots carefully, then gently fill in the trench to the level of the crowns. Keep filling as they grow, always leaving 8-10cm (3-4in) of stem showing.

    • Rows: Space plants 30-40cm x 2m (12-16in x 6ft).
    • Beds: Asparagus is traditionally grown in 3-row beds, with 30cm (12in) between plants and rows, and 1.3m (4.5ft) between beds.

    Keep watered in the first year to establish. Protect young shoots with horticultural fleece in cold springs.

    Don't harvest in the first year, let the shoots die down to feed the crowns. In subsequent years, after harvesting always leave some shoots to grow and then die down.

  • Banana shallots are the long bulb varieties of shallots or onions - it is more of a cook's term than a gardening one!

    You might want to try: 'Longor' (a true shallot), available from The Organic Gardening Catalogue.

    Longor is a traditional French shallot with a lovely mild flavour, with copper coloured, elongated bulbs & pink flesh.

  • The clue here is that you are growing two different varieties of cucumber close together. Indoor varieties are well known to develop bitter flavours if allowed to be pollinated; however outdoor varieties need to be pollinated to make fruit. So the issue is one of cross pollination between the two varieties. The resulting fruits are not always bitter because some flowers will have been self-pollinated.

    Next year, plant different varieties well away from each other on your plot.

    A word of warning, bitter cucumbers can be poisonous if consumed in large quantities.

  • Try Sarpo Mira and Sarpo Axona - but remember, resistance does not mean immunity. Blue Danube is a specialty variety which has a deep blue/purple skin (but white flesh). Although its late blight resistance is not high, its tubers are highly resistant (ie. the final harvest yield is rarely affected).

  • Unfortunately, we can't blame this one on the weather! Loose, open sprouts are caused by poor soil conditions. Always plant out into a firm soil. Plant transplants deeply, with the lowest leaf on the surface of the soil. Firm plants in well and, especially if you are growing on a windy site, they need staking too. Brussels are in the ground for a long period of time and are hungry feeders. Before planting, prepare the ground by applying a spadesful of well rotted manure, or two of garden compost per square metre. Mulch with grass clippings in the summer if plants are not growing vigorously.

  • You might get better results by pre-germinating the seed before sowing. Carrot seed germination can be very slow, so there is plenty of time for it to be eaten before it comes up. Slugs are the most likely culprits - but damping off type diseases could also be involved. Wait until the soil is warm before sowing, and use fresh seed each year.

    Garden Organic members can see our Beginner's guide to growing from seed for more information.

  • At Garden Organic, we advise putting your seed potatoes to chit in daylight. Having said that, if they are chitted in the dark, it is not the end of the world. Either way, they must be protected from frost. And you plant them before the shoots get too long and risk breaking off.

    We have tried planting tubers with shoots up to 20cm long (produced in the dark) and they still grew (but are not easy to plant!)

  • Chitting is the process of placing seed potatoes in a cool, but frost free, light place to encourage strong sturdy shoots to grow before they are planted in the ground. If you want to grow very early varieties, such as Maris Bard, and to harvest them as early as possible, then chitting is essential. All potatoes will start to sprout early in the year and if they are not offered the right cool, light conditions they may develop elongated and white shoots (or chits). The aim is to have a small number of sturdy shoots, not masses of elongated sprouts, which dissipate the energy of the seed potato. If you rub sprouts off, then you'll get a smaller crop but larger potatoes.

    Keep seed potatoes in a cool but light situation, rose end upward. This should encourage a small number of eyes to sprout. Commercial growers never bother to chit their potatoes and it seems to make little difference to the yield. However, they are able to keep their seed potatoes dormant by providing very exact storage conditions and this is very hard for the home gardener to do. You can plant out when the soil is warm enough - test it with your hand, or watch for flowering dandelions (always a good indicator that warm Spring has arrived!)

  • Few vegetables will grow well with less than 4 hours sun. However, you can try the following:

    • Growing early vegetables such as spring cabbage, winter lettuce and broad beans (Aquadulce) is one solution. Sow in early autumn so they are well established by early spring.
    • Try growing some shade tolerant vegetables like beetroot, calabrese, kale, kohl rabi, Little Gem lettuce. Also radish, spinach and herbs - chives, mint and parsley are all shade tolerant.
    • Fruit such as raspberries, blackcurrants, gooseberry and rhubarb are plants of the woodland edge and will thrive in this environment.
    • You could try other strategies to improve the growing conditions such as increasing the light levels by careful pruning of trees.
    • Improve the soil too as tree roots remove a lot nutrients and water. Work in plenty of well-rotted organic matter at a rate of one wheelbarrow/5sq m.
    • Starting seeds in modules will get them off to an early start with an established root system.

    I hope this list gives you some hope. As with most things in gardening, experiment and see what does well in your situation.

  • Hot beds were very popular in Victorian times. Once set up, they can be used to grow salad crops in winter, get a head-start on seed sowing in the spring (by up to a month), and for growing melons and any of the cucurbitaceae family in the summer. A hot bed provides bottom heat, using manure rather than electricity as the heat source, thus speeding up plant growth of seedlings and tender plants.

    • The heat source: Fresh strawy manure - in a layer 60-90cm deep (after treading). As the manure breaks down, it generates heat. Tread it down well to compact it, ensuring a more even release of heat.
    • The growing medium: A mixture of top soil and garden compost (ratio of 1:1) - this is placed on top of the manure in a layer 20cm-30cm thick.

    The hot bed can be as deep and as wide as you want, as long as the ratio of manure to growing medium is 3:1. If you do decide to make the hot bed deeper, temperatures may rise above the optimum (24C) and plants may be scorched. It can be cooled down by adding water or leaves and garden debris to the mixture. Check temperatures regularly with a thermometer.

    A hot bed can be made in a greenhouse or outdoors. Provide insulation in the form of wooden sides (4 pallets) and a cover if outside.

    Leave the hot bed for a week to warm up.

    There are several methods of making a hot bed.

    1. In a cold frame (the lid is useful for conserving the heat).
    2. In a pit, 60cm (24in) deep.
    3. Stakes and 4 pallets on the ground to keep the materials and heat in (see drawing).
    4. In a greenhouse.

    What can I sow?

    Seed can be sown direct in the soil layer, or in trays placed on top. After building your hot bed in January, small seeded crops like salad and radish can be directly sown on a well-worked fine tilth. A head start can be made by sowing trays of peas, beans, turnip and autumn cauliflower for transplanting outside. Courgettes and marrows can be directly planted in to the bed April/May. Experiment with different organic crops and tell us how you get on.

    Any drawbacks?

    As a hotbed will only last for up to 2 months - contents will have to be removed and replaced with fresh materials. However, the material on top will be well decomposed and can be used directly on the garden in the spring. The bottom layers may have to be composted again to mature.

  • Artichokes tend to grow in same place year after year - often because they regrow from pieces left in the soil. There is always a risk of disease, and ideally we would suggest a three-year rotation. However, many allotment sites have Jerusalem artichokes growing successfully as permanent windbreaks. You could try a permanent site, but be prepared to move it if the plants do not thrive.

  • There is not really a correct method. To prevent lower growing crops from being shaded out, plant tall crops on an East/West orientation. If they are planted North/South then as the sun moves across the sky the crops on either side will be shaded out. This does not matter as much with lower growing crops, as they cast very little shade.

  • Ring culture involves growing your tomato plants in large (22-26cm or 9-10in), bottomless pots that are filled with compost and stood onto a water retaining, though free draining, aggregate base.

    Washed builders' ballast and sand (80:20mix) make a good aggregate base.

    Although ring culture pots are available, any large (22-25cm or 9- 10in) container with the bottom removed is suitable, providing that it has adequate capacity (6.5kg or 14 lbs). On a solid floor, build a retaining wall to hold the 10-15cm (4-6in) of aggregate mix. The ring culture method encourages the development of 2 root systems; fibrous roots in the ring culture pot supply the plant with food, and the taproots reach into the aggregate and take up water.

    Gently remove your tomato plants from their pots and place them in the centre of the ring culture pot. Add compost and firm around the root ball, leaving 4cm (11/ 2in) to allow for watering. Place on a bench and give each plant 600ml (1 pint) of water. Do not water again for a week, then provide 300ml (1/2 pint) every other day for the next 2 weeks.

    After 2 weeks move the pots to their cropping position on the aggregate base, ensuring that there is good contact between the base of the ring and the aggregate. Water the aggregate daily. After 10-14 days check that the roots are pushing down into the aggregate. Once the tomatoes are around cherry size apply tomato feed to the plants 2-4 times weekly.

    Organic tomato compost, organic grow-bags and ring culture pots are available from The Organic Gardening Catalogue

  • Carrots can be difficult to grow if the soil conditions are not right.

    Carrots do best on a medium to light, stone free soil in a sunny, open sit. The pH range should be between 6.5-7.5. They do not do well in heavy soil and germination will be affected if a green manure crop has been grown and dug in recently. They are not heavy feeders and usually grow well on soil manured for a previous years' crop.

    Sow the seed thinly and thin to three inches apart for larger roots. Keep weed-free by hoeing between rows. Water well in dry weather. The main pest is carrot fly. Growing carrots under a cover of horticultural fleece will give protection against this problem.

    Some carrot cultivars only produce short, stubby carrots. They are more suitable if the soil is heavy. For a longer root try something like 'James Scarlet Intermediate' or 'Flakkee'. Both of these varieties are available from the Organic Gardening Catalogue.

  • The two varieties we have found best are Black Jet and Elena. But it's worth trying any soya beans from a packet for cooking, so long as you sow them when the ground is warm.

  • Early varieties of potato will not store for more than a few weeks and are usually dug and eaten when required. The potatoes will be safe to eat provided that they are not green in colour when cut open. The shoots can be rubbed off with your thumb then prepare the tubers for cooking in the usual way. Green potatoes can give stomach upsets due to the high levels of glycoalkaloids present. Potatoes turn green when in the light and should be stored in the dark to prevent this. Store potatoes in sacks in the dark at a temperature of between 5-10°C

  • Watercress is really easy to grow from seed and does not need running water as in a river or stream to grow. What you intend to do sounds fine - but you don't need to grow the crop under glass unless you really want to. Watercress will grow happily outside as long as the soil is kept moist. Once established, regular picking is essential as it does have a tendency to flower quickly.


  • If there are bindweed roots in the soil, I suggest that you go through the whole lot and remove them by hand. If the heap is too large to do that, then you could try putting it all through a riddle or seive. Spending the time to do this now will save endless frustration later. Once you have done that, then a stale seedbed, to catch bits that you missed, would be sensible. Mexican marigold (tagetes minutae) would have no effect, and I don't think flame weeding would be effective. A black plastic mulch would have to stay in place for years to be effective. Alternatively, send the topsoil back. Knowingly introducing bindweed into a garden is not a good move.

  • Although bindweed can appear to be uncontrollable, it is not too difficult to deal with. This is a plant that hates disturbance. It will grow where the soil is never cultivated. You find it in neglected areas, such as behind the shed or under permanent plants, such as your raspberries.

    Now you've moved the canes, you can really attack the area and clear out every scrap of root. You'll miss some bits of course, but don't worry. Each time you see a new sprout appearing, dig or pull it out, or hoe it off. Use the area for growing vegetables as usual. This will mean that regular cultivation will take place - just what bindweed hates. You'll find that in a season or two there is nothing coming through. Just keep pulling it out and never let shoots grow. If bindweed is growing through grassy paths, these also need to be dug over.

    Don't waste the roots - they contain valuable nutrients. Place everything, top growth and roots - into a black plastic bin-bag. Leave in a sunny corner until only mush remains, add this to your compost heap. All the minerals, which had been absorbed by the bindweed, will be returned to the soil via the compost heap.

  • Don't be tempted to use weed killer, brambles and blackberries can be eradicated by other means. Dig up young plants as soon as seen and older ones where possible. When they are too tough too dig out, brambles will not survive long if the tops are regularly removed to ground level. Invest in a pair of loppers or other sharp implement to cut them down. This can take up to 3 years, but it is worth it - and you have avoided using toxic chemicals, which not only leave residues in your soil, but research has shown can also inhibit nutrient take up. See Glyphosate. See also our advice on how to prepare your new growing area.

  • We can no longer recommend using any carpets in this way. Previously we advised that only natural fibre carpets could be used, but now most carpets are treated with moth repellents and fire retardants. Even if you know the fibre content of old carpet you are unlikely to know what other treatments it may have received - and that may pose a problem especially if the carpet is left in place to decompose. It therefore makes sense for us to advise against using all carpet on the garden or allotment and to recommend the many other safe alternatives such as cardboard over newspaper, weed control fabrics and permeable mulch matting that can be reused to keep areas covered when not in cultivation.

    Garden Organic members can see our factsheet about Mulches: weed prevention and control for more information.

  • By comparison to hand weeding between paving slabs, a flame weeder would be quicker. They are particularly suitable for weeding awkward areas, such as steps, and killing weeds between paving slabs. Flame weeders also have the advantage of killing the weed seed near to the surface of the soil. Most equipment has a wand or lance and this reduces the need to bend when weeding. Depending upon the situation, most areas will require 4-5 treatments per year for effective control.

    Flame weeders are available from The Organic Gardening Catalogue

  • Ivy leaved toadflax may work, although it usually grows in walls. How about thyme? There are many different types, the creeping ones will provide better cover. Thymes give off a scent when crushed, are evergreen, love poor well drained soil (sand) and attract bees when in flower. You can grow thyme from seed, or it is very easy to propagate from cuttings if you only want a few plants.

    Organic thyme seed is available from The Organic Gardening Catalogue.

  • Japanese knotweed can re-grow from root fragments just 1cm (1/2") long. Before adding knotweed roots or stems to your compost, you should place them in a black plastic sack for at least six months to rot down completely. Check that it is all rotted before being added to your heap.

    However, there is a real risk that you will inadvertently spread the weed around your garden if you use the compost you have made. So be very aware of this. It is not so easy to dispose of the material either as in 1981, The Wildlife & Countryside Act made it illegal to spread Japanese knotweed by dumping material or soil. Any excavated soil from areas where Japanese notweed has established must be disposed of at a licensed landfill site and not reused in further construction or landscaping.

    When disposing of contaminated soil it is essential that the landfill operator is made aware of the presence of Japanese knotweed and that the soil is not used for landscaping or restoration works at the tip site. To ensure safe disposal, contaminated soils must be buried to a depth of at least 5 meters. Section 34 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 places a duty of care on all waste producers to ensure that any wastes are disposed of safely and that a written description of the wastes, and any specific harmful properties, is provided to the site operator.


  • Hamamelis seed does need a period of cold 'stratification' to overcome seed dormancy. It will take more than a year before germination takes place. You may speed this process up by placing the seeds in some moist sand in a polythene bag and then put this in the coldest part of your fridge for 4 weeks. Sow the seeds in autumn in a well-drained seed compost, keeping the pots outdoors in a cool, shady place.

  • Liquorice, Glycyrrhiza glabra is a hardy herbaceous plant and tolerates temperatures down to -15°C. The variety 'Pontefract' is the hardiest form, 'Pozan' is commonly grown but is less hardy than 'Pontefract' requiring winter protection in the cooler parts of the country.

    Liquorice is deep rooting and is best grown in the ground. It does not usually grow well in containers unless they are large and very deep. A dustbin would be ideal.

    If you would like further advice on your organic growing, why not become a member of Garden Organic? It costs as little as £2.75 a month, and not only gives you full access to our advisory service, but also free or discounted entrance to many gardens across the UK. Call 02476 308210 or email [email protected]

  • When growing in containers increase the organic matter content by adding garden compost and leafmould. Try using a thick gravel mulch on the tops of the pots. This helps to hold in moisture and keeps weeds down. Water early in the day or late in the evening, less water will be wasted compared with watering at midday. Organic moisture retainers are available, composed of seaweed they are able to hold eight times their own weight in water.

    If you would like further advice on your organic growing, why not become a member of Garden Organic? It costs as little as £2.75 a month, and not only gives you full access to our advisory service, but also free or discounted entrance to many gardens across the UK. Call 02476 308210 or email [email protected]

  • The home-made compost and mulches will be helping keep lots of water in the soil. Automatic irrigation systems are expensive and not really an option on allotments. The next step is targeted watering - different crops need water at different times. Water peas and beans when they are flowering and again as the pods swell. Leafy crops, such as lettuce and spinach, will benefit from supplementary watering about two weeks before you plan to harvest them. Onions and leeks only need watering to get them established. Sweetcorn should be watered as it comes into flower. Tomatoes need watering twice weekly from flowering - watch out for blossom end rot where the end of the fruit turns brown. This is a symptom of inconsistent watering and can be rectified by more regular watering. Other than this, only water if plants are actually wilting.

  • We suggest you contact the Biodynamic Agricultural Association for information and support.

  • It is quite adequate to use a stiff brush and hot, soapy water to rinse tools such as spades and forks. Make sure they are dried off to prevent rusting. Pruning tools should always be cleaned before moving on to a new tree to prevent cross infection especially if pruning out diseased wood. Alternatively, use Citrox - a powerful citrus disinfectant for cleaning greenhouses, pots, staging, seed trays, bird feeders, bird baths and of course tools.

  • Digging is definitely an art and doing it properly makes it much easier and less strenuous. The main points to consider are:

    • Do some simple warm up exercises before you start
    • Always use clean, sharp tools. Wipe tools over with a damp cloth after use to remove soil before putting them away. The blade of a spade can also be 'sharpened' slightly if necessary
    • Push the blade into the soil with your foot, always wearing strong boots
    • Don't overload the spade with heavy clumps of soil
    • Dig out a trench first, then dig backwards, turning the soil into the trench as you go
    • Limit your digging time to manageable sessions, around 30 minutes at a time
    • After a few minutes of digging, straighten up, and with hands on the lumbar area, bend gently backwards. Repeat, often
    • Keep your back straight when lifting and bend your knees

    Have you considered growing using the no dig method of gardening?

    Garden Organic members can see our factsheet on no-dig gardening for more information.

  • Runner bean seeds - be they black, white or, more usually purple with black streaks - are all edible. Soak them until they are plump, and then make sure they boil for at least 10 minutes to destroy the toxins that are in all drying beans. Then continue to cook as usual.

  • Mistletoe, Viscum album, is an ancient, well-known plant, often associated with Christmas. Mistletoe is unusual in that it is does not grow in the soil. It is a parasitic plant, growing on trees such as domestic apple, crab apple, lime, black poplar, hawthorn, crack willow, ash, sycamore, pear, whitebeam. Although it takes some minerals and water from its host, it will not harm an established healthy tree. The large sticky white berries are very popular with birds especially the blackcap and mistlethrush, who aid in the dispersal of this plant.

    If you would like to try and grow mistletoe, collect the berries from live plants as soon as they are ripe. Only collect berries from trees where you have been given permission to do so. Do not collect from the wild, as this special plant is in decline.

    If you have berries remaining from Christmas decorations, these can also be used, but there is no guarantee they will germinate. However it is well worth a try. The decoration cuttings can be kept fresh in a vase of water or the berries can be stored in moist sand in a cool room or shed.

    It is important to know where the berries originated as it is believed that the mistletoe will grow best on the same type of tree that the mistletoe parent chose. So if it was growing on an apple, plant the seeds on an apple or crab apple.

    February or March is the best time to 'plant' mistletoe berries. The host tree should be well established, preferably at least 20 years old. There are various possible planting techniques. You could try simply smearing the berry onto a crevice or fissure in the bark for example. Better results may be achieved by making a small incision on the bark first, so that the berry can be firmly attached. Do this at approx 1.5m above ground level on the side or underside of a strong, young, branch. Tie the berry in with some string or length of sacking or cotton bandage. This will also protect it from some hungry insects and snails as well as reminding you where it is planted. Mistletoe is dioecious, having separate male and female plants, so ideally you should try to grow several plants.

    Have patience. The seeds may take a couple of years to germinate. Once it has begun to grow, cut back each year to stop it growing too big and harming the tree. They should be able to survive in unison for decades.

  • The best time to move plants will depend on the type of plant. Herbaceous plants (ie those that die down in the winter) are best moved in the autumn or winter - though not when the ground is frozen. Deciduous shrubs are also best moved at this time, once they have lost their leaves. Evergreens, on the other hand, are best moved in March.

  • First of all check out the RHS Plant Finder - you can access this free through the RHS website. If you click on to the 'Suppliers' button and look at the drop down menu you will find all sorts of options, including peat free and organic. You'll be able to see which are closest to you, and the plants they specialise in.

    Contact also Caves Folly Nurseries, Evendine Lane, Colwall, Malvern, WR13 6DX or Tel: 01684 540631/07885 443488 or for fruit trees try Walcot Organic Nursery, Pershore, Worcestershire WR10 2AL, Tel: 01905 841587

    Finally, The Conservation Volunteers may be able to help with more native and natural species. Their details are on the TCV website.