Budge the sludge?
Q We have had a small wildlife pond in our garden for about 10 years, and now the lilies and aquatic plants have outgrown their baskets. My husband and I agree that while we are sorting out the aquatics, we need to give the pond a “spring clean”, but can’t agree on how far to take things. He would like to clean out the pond and remove all the sludge, but I am worried about the newts, snails, water boatmen and so on.
Mary Somerville, Southwell, Notts
A This is a dilemma that vexes many a small pond owner – a so-called “wildlife” pond should ideally be allowed to find a natural biological balance, enabling it to sustain itself with as little meddling from us as possible. I know from past correspondence that some gardeners find it hard to accept that a clear pond with a happy “wild” population is one that is about half full of oxygenating weed, and/or a third of its surface is covered by lily leaves in summer. Also (vitally) it will have a layer of sludge (alive-o with seldom-seen beasties) at the bottom. This pond nirvana can take a few (often algae-green) years to achieve.
I am of the view that a pond should never be emptied unless it is unavoidable. By all means redo your aquatic plant baskets. If you feel you must do more, scoop out some of the sludge with a fine nylon net from one half of the pond this year (so that every thing can scuttle away to the other half), and give the other half the same treatment next year. Always check the sludge net for anything too sleepy to scuttle.
Q My monkey puzzle tree has been in a large pot for six or seven years and has grown slowly and steadily, left mostly to its own devices, in and out of sun or semi-shade. Now one branch has gone brown and other bits are going the same way.
I am not the most knowledgeable of gardeners but I would like to save it if possible. I did look on the internet for information but couldn’t find a reason for the tree going brown. Your advice might save the day.
Janis Osbourn, via email
Monkey puzzle trees in the Malalcahuello National Reserve in Chile (Tui De Roy / Minden Pictures / Getty Images)
A A little monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) is what I regard as a “novelty” plant: intriguing in an alien-looking sort of way when small, a bit of a pain as it grows, with nasty bits of prickly “puzzle” always dropping off its lower branches as it gets ever lankier, and rather a monster when full grown.
I won’t mince words: after eight years in the same pot (and presumably the same soil in the same pot) your tree is trying to tell you it wants to move on. You have a tough decision to make, I think.
Either you have a bit of a tussle with it and repot it into something larger (ouch) with fresh compost, or you plant it in the ground in your garden (probably double-ouch). Either way, you will have to prune out the brown bits, which might make it look worse.
It could be time for a replacement? Or not.
Beastly bonemeal burrowers
Q Please can you recommend an alternative feed to bone meal? If I use bone meal when planting, the plant is dug up before morning by badgers, who often unhelpfully trim the new roots of the targeted plants as well.
Peggy Jones-Parry, via email
Unfortunately for gardeners bonemeal is a popular meal with badgers (PA)
A It isn’t just badgers. Many gardeners have similar problems with dippy dogs and fanatical foxes attracted by the smell, and just have to abandon using bonemeal. It is used traditionally as a long-lasting source of phosphates, the nutrient that encourages root growth in plants. Instead, they simply use an inorganic balanced fertiliser such as Growmore, which has no smell and is not at all attractive to animals, to give their trees and shrubs a bit of a kick start. Also, when planting bare-rooted trees and shrubs, use Rootgrow (beneficial mycorrhizal fungi) which enhances root development.
There is, however, an organic alternative to bonemeal, an equally long-lasting, slow release source of phosphates, also suitable for use on acid soils: Rock Phosphate, derived from stone quarries, is a powder that you use just as you would use bonemeal, at the rate of 12g per square metre.
It is available at garden centres or through The Organic Gardening Catalogue.
Paths in long grass
Q We have started to encourage wildflowers in the grass at the end of our garden, letting everything grow for the summer and just mowing a path through it. This year we want to hold back the long grass each side of the path (which flops after bad weather). Do you know of a company that makes arches that would do the job?
Jane and James Walton, via email
Wildflowers look fantastic in a garden lawn, but can get unruly (SWNS)
A First, a tip about path-mowing in long grass. For the first part of the mowing season (i.e. now), make the path through the grass double its intended summer width. Narrow it down from mid-May onwards. You will find that the slightly shorter grass on the margins either side of the slimmed-down path will do quite an efficient job of holding back the longer grass. Wildflowers are more likely to turn up (or you can introduce them) in grass that is low in fertility, so mow the grass as close as you do your lawn for most of the year and always pick up the mowings.
Young hazel and ash twigs look lovely made into natural-looking barriers, but if you don’t have your own supply it can all get a bit fraught since, as you have found out, farmers tend to flail their hedges in early spring (before the birds start nesting). I think it makes utter sense, therefore, to acquire a supply of curved metal hoops that are the right height to edge your paths.
Path hoops made by Ben the Blacksmith fit the bill and can be ordered via the website.
They are about 3ft 3in (1m) long, made from 8mm steel that rusts naturally, and once pushed into the ground (slightly overlapping), they form a barrier about 12in (30cm) high.
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