We have a fairly large area under mature beech and sycamores that was planted about 25 years ago with masses of early spring bulbs, which are followed by bluebells. the problem now is that the crocuses are disappearing and large clumps of narcissi are blind. I’ve tried fertilising after the bluebells are finished but that seems too late and hasn’t worked.
Ian Seymour, County Down
The time to feed bulbs and make sure they have adequate water to encourage the formation of the following year’s flower bud is immediately after their flowers have faded. in a dry season this is best done by swishing the leaves a couple of times and/or watering them with a soluble fertiliser, before leaves start to go yellow.
I am not sure how it has been in County Down, but I suspect that you have had what the weather men keep telling us is a succession of dry years, which may be in part why spring bulbs have started to diminish. Coupled with this, 25 years is a long time in gardening terms and without a doubt the canopy of your trees will have spread and thickened in that time, which will inevitably have had an effect on your elderly bulb colony beneath them.
Beech trees are really hard to under-plant successfully unless their canopies are lifted by fairly radical surgery. Bluebells seem to be able to cope and spread in the face of whatever nature throws at them; non-native crocuses and narcissi are far more demanding.
I hate to give negative advice on this page, but I feel that in this instance, in the long term, you are going to have to let Mother Nature get the upper hand. By all means try watering and feeding your spring bulbs. but I would simply remove any that come up “blind” and let the bluebells gradually take over, perhaps even introducing native wood anemones into the area as well.
Having lost one lollipop bay tree after another in two successive cold winters, I am now looking for a hardier replacement plant as the central focal point of my herb garden. Would an olive tree be any more hardy than bay? the plot is against a west-facing fence and is fairly sheltered. Have you any suggestions?
Patricia Deacon, via email
I think you are right to hesitate before opting for an olive tree. as you have lost two bays, it would seem that this is actually rather a cold spot despite the fence, and an even more tender olive would probably fare no better. Incidentally, with these tender trees, it is the slim trunk that is particularly vulnerable and needs serious protection. If that freezes through for any length of time, the tree dies.
If the drainage of your soil is perfect, you could try planting an upright rosemary (‘Miss Jessopp’s Upright’) and train/prune it into a series of irregular spires, which would look good in what seems to be a fairly formal setting.
Holly is as tough as old boots, and you can buy little trained “lollipop” trees of this or of Portugal laurel (Prunus lusitanica), the variegated versions of both being less vigorous than the green ones. Another idea is that you give up the “statement plant” idea and go for a smart urn or Mediterranean pot as a centrepiece, in which you could grow a prostrate rosemary in gritty, free-draining soil in an inner container. the urn could even be kept empty all winter and merely dressed up for the summer: imagine the lax stems of a sky-blue-flowered tender plumbago (Plumbago auriculata – Cape leadwort) holding sway over a herb garden in full swing.
Mower of the moment
Emailer Frances Jarvis’s husband has hurt his back and his petrol mower is too heavy for him, she writes. the mower I was using in the recent picture on this page caught her eye since it looked decidedly lighter. could I let her know the make and model of it?
I have to admit the picture was a rather old one from our archives, and the Qualcast electric mower that gave me several years of good service has since been replaced with one that is battery powered (Rotak, by Bosch). It is just as light but even more manoeuvrable than the old one because of the lack of flex. however, that picture was a bit misleading, in one sense. I confess that with the passage of time and now with diminished acreage, I stride rather less vigorously.
Chickens come home to roost
A surprisingly large flock of readers turned up in my in-box suggesting solutions to the problems of garden poultry-keeping. Most – those with really extensive gardens, it seems – manage as I did of old with a successful but fairly arbitrary combination of supervised free-ranging, total exclusion from smart areas and confinement to (spacious) grassy barracks. while I enjoyed reading the contributions of these fortunate people, I will concentrate on the suggestions of those who have more modest premises and for whom the struggle is more difficult.
Hilary Thomson, from Devon, manages to have a thriving veg patch, keeping both her hens (and her peacocks) off seed beds by laying pea(cock?) sticks over the ground, which successfully prevents general destructive scratching and the infuriating creation of huge dust baths.
No-nonsense Angela Hadley, from Rushall, puts a large brick on the ground anywhere she does not want her hens to dust bathe, and they obligingly go elsewhere (hopefully somewhere less crucial). New plants can be protected for a few weeks with an upturned hanging basket or a circle of chicken wire with a cane to anchor it in much the same way as you would protect plants from the attentions of a rabbit or two – no, make that five. Another form of protection is to cut some plastic guttering into 10in sections and push two or three of them in the ground around young plants to stop chicken feet scratching prized plants while they get established.
Barbara Jones, from Llangollen, writes that she allows her hens to roam free, and covers the soil in her troughs and barrels with a layer of small-sized gravel or grit. they do not seem to like the feel of grit on their feet, she says, and so don’t seem to want to jump up into the barrels or troughs to scratch around. she helpfully offers a list of plants that thrive alongside the attentions of her girls: astrantia, geum, helianthemum (rock rose), lavender and heathers. Plants to avoid are aubretia, arabis and saxifrage – beloved by the little peckers, especially when the new buds are forming. in my own poultry-keeping days, I found that my feathered friends did a fine job of limiting the excesses of a patch of ground elder in my orchard – the endless soft-shoe shuffling had its upside.
Those I feel most sorry for are gardeners with really small patches, who optimistically think they can keep two or three hens in one of those tiny houses with minuscule runs attached. then in a moment of soft-hearted foolhardiness they let their girls out to shimmy around the place “to control the slugs” – at which point they can never really bring themselves to confine them again. And bang goes the garden. If I were ever tempted to keep hens again in my precious plot, I am sure it would all end in tears.
Write to Thorny Problems at email@example.com or Gardening, the Daily Telegraph, 111 Buckingham Palace Road, London SW1W 0DT. Helen Yemm can answer questions only through this column