Questions, answers and jobs for the coming week

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Brian answers readers’ horticultural questions

A friend of mine is a flueologist (chimney sweep). Is soot any good for my allotment? HL, Fareham.

Yes it is very useful to reduce slug damage particularly on potatoes. Use half-a-pound per yard run scattered over the soil you use to earth up the rows. I would like to get hold of some soot!

My allotment has an area of clay at one end. What can I do to improve this area? It is wet all winter and like rock in summer. SL, Purbrook.

Dig in as much strawy manure as you can and leave the clods of soil as large as possible during the winter. Scatter two inches of sharp sand over every square yard as soon as the digging is done and the winter weather will transform the clay. Your local allotment store sells sharp sand.

I live at Portchester and last summer had a plant with huge leaves and thousands of tiny blue flowers. The plant grew to 15ft in the second year and has left behind a mass of tiny seedlings. What is this plant? RL, Portchester.

It is called echium. This magnificent plant is a beautiful feature at Ventnor Botanic Gardens in the Isle of Wight. You will be interested to know you are one of several gardeners at Portchester enjoying this beautiful plant. Please give a few seedlings to friends with large gardens because this is a very useful plant for the production of honey. Bees adore the tiny blooms which are full of nectar and pollen for a long period.

I have a small garden and read recently you suggested using a four-inch layer of manure over the top of the soil where my roses are growing. My sister keeps a horse but she tells me not to use the manure because it is too hot. What would you suggest? GM, Milton.

Ask your sister to bring you the manure in old compost bags and leave it in them until spring. The manure will cool down and rot and you will be able to top dress the bed once the rose foliage emerges in April. Chop up the manure. This is called short manure and is quickly incorporated into the soil.


Plant shallots. They are best planted in December or January. If the soil is wet, fork over the surface, cover with cloches and leave the ends open to allow the wind to dry the soil.

Feel the compost on newly-purchased potted plants such as azaleas, poinsettias, cyclamen and Christmas cacti and only water once the compost feels dry. Try to ensure all plants are kept at a fairly even temperature. Cyclamen must be kept cold in plenty of light.

Keep an eye out for adverts in connection with garden centre sales. One local garden centre will be advertising 20 per cent off everything shortly.

There is still time to plant tulips. Think about dwarf tulips such as Red Riding Hood in containers near your front door for a lovely welcome of red blooms in early spring.

This is an excellent time to reduce the height of many trees. Before starting look carefully at the tree’s shape and prune so you keep a good looking outline. Buy a proper pruning saw, this will be sharp and you are less likely to have an accident.

Think ahead. In January, it is possible to start seed sowing. Think about buying a soil warming cable if there is electricity in the greenhouse. Soil warming cables are very safe and easy to install. There are instructions in the pack and they start at less than £30. Best investment ever.

Paraffin is now more expensive than electricity. Having electricity installed professionally into the greenhouse is very worthwhile and the running cost is cheaper than paraffin because electricity can be thermostatically controlled. If you rely on paraffin, use the heater to warm just a small part of the greenhouse so a small area can be kept warmer. Divide the greenhouse using polythene bubbled plastic film. This is about £1.10 a metre and will pay for itself in two seasons.

Don’t forget to feed the birds and you will have a great deal of pleasure when different species pay you a visit.

If you have a question for Brian, e-mail him at