Half a century of querying the patch

As `Gardeners' Question Time' celebrates its 50th birthday, panellist Pippa Greenwood looks back
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Gardeners' Question Time was first broadcast 50 years ago in spring 1947 from Ashton-under-Lyne. Since its creation, the programme has seen only nine chairmen - the first was the originator of the programme, Robert Stead, followed by Freddy Grisewood (1953-1961), Franklin Englemann (1961-1972), Steve Rose (1972), Michael Barrett (1972-1977), Ken Ford (1977-1985), Leslie Cottington (1985) and Clay Jones, who retired in 1993. In early 1994, Eric Robson took over the chair, and I have been on the team since that time. There is no doubt that each of the previous chairmen has had their own distinct and much-loved style.

We have a lot of fun recording the programmes, meeting gardeners from all over the country and attempting to solve their problems. But how much have the questions changed since the first Gardeners' Question Time? Fifty years ago, plastic flower pots, loam-free composts, grow-bags and imported plants were not readily available, nor were there as many garden centres as there are today. Nevertheless, many of the questions most often asked are similar to those asked time and again over the past 50 years. Take the control of moles, moss or slugs, problems with choosing plants for the trickier sites such as north-facing walls, or the ever- present non-flowering wisteria. Whatever medium plants are raised in, it is, it seems, human nature to try to buy plants not suitable for the site we have in mind. For example, I have no doubt that previous panel members have dealt with yellowing leaves caused by "lime-induced chlorosis", a problem that develops when lime-intolerant plants are grown on a limey or chalky soil.

It amuses me to think that when peat-based composts were first introduced, the gardening public struggled to get to grips with their "peculiar" characteristics, having been accustomed to using loam-based composts. Then a few years ago, the new range of peat-free composts arrived as concern over the use of peat increased. How, gardeners want to know, are we meant to grow plants in this? The differences between the new breed of coir- or bark-based composts and the peat-based ones were just as alarming to gardeners in the Eighties as the differences between loam and peat had been to their predecessors. Time may have passed, but the problems remain remarkably similar.

Methods of dealing with problems change, sometimes more due to fashion than necessity. In recent years, every gardener has grown to know (and detest) the vine weevil whose grubs love to reduce pot plants to rootless heaps. Before restrictions on the chemicals used by commercial growers to control these pests were imposed, the vine weevil rarely posed problems. Now these pests rank number one in our GQT Top 10. Fortunately, a biological control has been developed and so dealing with this pest is now easier - simply drenching the vine weevils with a nematode solution knocks their levels down effectively. The recent move towards the use of an introduced creature to control a pest species is one of the best changes in recent gardening history. Sadly, the majority of these biological controls are only suitable for plants grown in greenhouses and conservatories. In years gone by, much discussion occurred on the programme as to which cocktail of chemicals was best to combat a particular pest. With few rules and little legislation, it had the potential to be a bit of a free-for-all and many of the remedies (some of them home-made) were enough to make your hair stand on end (or, more literally, to fall out!). Now faced with similar questions, we find ourselves discussing the merits of resistant varieties, biological controls, integrated control, and often struggle to name a chemical that has the appropriate "label recommendation" to allow us to advocate its use.

As the team members, chairmen and producers have changed over the past half century so the character of the programme has changed too. We now make it our policy not to be given any prior warning of the questions, so one finds oneself waiting with baited breath in case a real stinker is posed. Some of the questions we have been asked have been quite extraordinary: they include advice on how to stop frogs knocking over waterlilies, how to keep a neighbour's peacock from attacking the plants and, more recently, suggestions for planting a "politically correct" window box in the week before the General Election!

10 OF THE THORNIEST QUESTIONS

The Gardeners' Question Time panel of experts give their advice on a whole range of gardening dilemmas every week, with no advance warning on what they are going to be asked. Some hardy perennials do, however, crop up year in, year out. These are the 10 commonest questions:

1 How can I control vine weevils?

2 Why won't my camellia/clematis/wisteria flower?

3 How can I control slugs in the garden?

4 Can you name your favourite roses?

5 How can I get rid of moles?

6 How do I banish moss from the lawn?

7 How do I get rid of honey fungus?

8 How can I have success with brassicas?

9 What are the best plants to attract wildlife and pondlife?

10 What are the best plants for north-facing walls and shady sites?

ANSWERS

1 Vine Weevils

Use a biological control at the grub stage provided the weather is warm enough and the compost is moist. You can buy this at garden centres in spring and autumn, as Biosafe, or Zeneca, Nature's Friends for Vine Weevil Control. By Mail Order write to Defenders Ltd, FREEPOST, PO BOX 131, Wyne, Ashford, Kent, TN25 5TQ, or English Woodlands, Biocontrol, Hoyle Depot, Graffham, Petworth, West Sussex, GU28 OLR. Tel 01798 867574.

2 Non-flowering shrubs, ie camellias, clematis, wisteria

The problem is dryness the previous year with camellias and rhododendrons when the buds are forming towards the end of the previous summer. Just a few days of dry soil conditions can be enough to damage a bud and prevent it forming properly.

3 Controlling slugs in the garden

Avoid chemical controls and use biological control for slugs. It is more expensive, and you need to ensure the weather conditions are right. You can buy this biological control at garden centres as Zeneca, Nature's Friends for Slug Control, in spring and autumn, or by Mail Order, write to Defenders Ltd, FREEPOST, PO BOX 131, Wye, Ashford, Kent, TN25 5TQ. Tel 01230 813121. Acanthus, achillea, verbascum, geums and astilbess are rarely attacked. You can avoid damage to potatoes by choosing your variety - `Wilja', `Charlotte', `Estima' and `Pentland Dell' are very rarely attacked by keel slugs.

4 Favourite roses

The common wild dog rose and Rosa filipes `Kiftsgate'.

5 Getting rid of moles from the garden

No guaranteed solution.

6 Getting rid of moss in the lawn

Pippa said it is very important to kill the moss before raking, otherwise raking will make things worse. If you have a heavy soil, it is much harder to keep moss away.

7 Honey fungus

It is very difficult to get rid of, and will attack a wide range of woody plants and trees, climbers, shrubs and woody herbaceous plants. She recommended prompt action - learn how to recognise it, dig up the infected plants, or as much of the root system as possible. If the tree is felled, don't leave the stump in as the fungus will continue to live on and spread. Winch it all out. Some strains of honey fungus are not aggressive at all. Removal is the best thing, but also choose plants carefully as some, like roses, rhodendrons, apples and privet are more prone to honey fungus. Plants that are not prone are chaenomeles, cercis, and fothergilla.

8 Brassicas

Beware dry soil, inadequate lime and those lovely little fellows, clubroot and cabbage fly.

9 The best plants to attract wildlife and pondlife

I would like to attract insects that would also be beneficial in terms of pest control. Try Piracelia, which looks stunning but also attracts hoverflies which act as predators on a lot of common garden pests. Poached- Egg plants are fun and easy, and will encourage insects into the garden too. For a good wall shrub to attract bees try Ceanothus. But it is important not to be too tidy in the garden if you want hibernation sites and nesting sites for wildlife.

10 Plants for North-facing walls and shady sites

Try periwinkles for plain green and variegated foliage. Also ajuga, and one in particular, ajuga `Braunherz'. Japonica would do well, and hardy herbaceous Geraniums in variations of crimson, purple and pure white.

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