Emailer Sandra Tremlett sowed seeds of cosmos and zinnia in trays of compost (marked “suitable for seeds and cuttings”) in her greenhouse, but swiftly moved them to an indoor windowsill when she saw signs of snail activity. But germination has been really poor: she has only two cosmos seedlings and 12 zinnias from two packets of seeds. What is she doing wrong, she asks?
I suppose there is an outside chance that these were simply duff (or very old) seeds. Also (and this suggestion Sandra may prefer to dismiss), she could have inadvertently brought a small hungry snail into the house on a seed tray, something that is not unknown.
More likely, she put her seeds on a sunny windowsill and kept them covered in clear plastic (to induce germination, in her unheated greenhouse) and forgot to uncover them during the sunniest part of the day. The compost could have simply “cooked” the seeds.
Might I here remind novice or soft-hearted seed-growing readers of the importance of thinning out or pricking out and potting on small seedlings as soon as they are big enough to handle (holding them by the leaves, not their fragile stems).
I know some people can’t bear to throw seedlings away but throw some away they must. This applies to seeds in trays, veg or flowers in neat rows, or random colonies of broadcast or self-sown annuals and biennials.
If advice given on the optimum eventual spacing of plants is ignored (see back of seed packet), then seedlings have to compete with each other for the stuff of life and it can all end in tears. Sowing fewer seeds and sharing/swapping with friends might be the answer.
Four years ago, I bought four fruit trees including a pear (‘Conference’) that in its first year produced the most wonderful pears I have ever eaten. Since then, nothing. After two years a friend suggested frost might be the problem, so I have fleeced the tree each winter since. Although I think it has carried flowers in the past, this year when I uncovered it (quite late), there were leaves but no blossom. What is going on?
Terry Lawton – via email
Since your tree has proved to you that it can bear fruit, this is not a question of maturity. Its refusal to fruit, or maybe even flower reliably since its first year, may be down to one, or a combination, of the following: It could be growing in a place that is too shady, or it may have had insufficient water in summer. You may, in your enthusiasm to give it a good start in life, have given it too much of a nitrogen-rich fertiliser, so that it made stems and leaves at the expense of flowers. A little sulphate of potash may be all that is needed to encourage it to flower next year.
If it did in fact flower under the fleece early this year, the bees would have been unable to get at it. And although ‘Conference’ is known to be one of the varieties that is self-fertile, it is far more reliable if a compatible variety of pear is grown close by. A list of compatible varieties, one of which you could plant to help things along, is to be found at orangepippintrees.co.uk.
BAMBOOS THAT WON’T RUN AMOK
I want to hide or disguise the corner of an ugly outhouse, and when I mentioned to my friends that I wanted to plant bamboo they were aghast. I am sure I have read that there are some that are not invasive. Is that true?
Paula Evans – via email
All bamboos spread sideways by runners, hence their bad reputation. There are, however, some that are regarded as “safe”: those that are generally referred to as “clump-forming”, such as those belonging to the genus Fargesia. I have grown F. murielae (which has attractively weeping stems) in the ground with no problems, and also (straighter-stemmed) F. nitida. If they are tidied-up and grubbed out each year and about a quarter of the oldest stems cut down to the ground once the clump has achieved a good “girth”, they really don’t budge.
More loosely clumped, useful for making a taller screen but still tolerably tidy and unlikely to make a run for it are those in the genus Phyllostachys. P. nigra and P. aurea have stems that age colourfully to black and deep orange-yellow respectively, shown off best if you cut away the lower leaves from time to time. Safest of all is to grow them in containers (minimum 16in/40cm tall and wide, loam-based John Innes No. 3 compost), but you still have to “groom” them and take great care that they do not dry out in summer.