Your gardening questions answered

Want to know how to grow chillies, fancy going organic or creating a low-maintenance oasis? Our panel of green-fingered experts have the solutions to your botanical woes

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    What are the best tomatoes to grow on my balcony?

    Alys Fowler, author of the forthcoming ‘The Thrifty Gardener’ (published by Kyle Cathie, out September 25), says ‘Odessa is an excellent bush tomato, a compact plant that is great for small urban courtyards and balconies. Expect high yields and a good taste. Any of the Brandywine lot are lovely old varieties from the 1800s with far, far superior taste. Green Zebra (not technically that old but often considered heirloom) is a dark green and yellow-green striped tomato that is really, really tasty. Mamande is a large, irregularly shaped tomato that is very good for cooking. It’s an old variety, but fairly easy to source.’

    Which vegetables grow best in hanging baskets and what potting mix should I use?

    Martine Davis from Balcombe Street Window Box Company (020 7723 4496/ says, ‘Really only strawberries and rocket lettuce would grow well in the shallow soil of a hanging basket. Use a normal multi-purpose soil, most of which contain fertilizer so you won’t need to add extra feed. Water it every day.’

    Which mix of herbs will grow well together in my kitchen window box? My mint keeps taking over.

    Martine Davis says, ‘Rosemary, bay, thyme and oregano work well together as do most herbs. Avoid mint as it takes over – it is best planted in a pot on its own.’

    I’d love to grow fruit and berries in containers on my roof garden. Any tips?

    Martine Davis says, ‘Plant fruits and berries in a multi-purpose soil (most of which contain fertilizer). A sunny spot is best and make sure you keep the tubs nice and moist – don’t let them dry out.’

    What easy-grow flowers will bloom in a window box over the summer?

    Martine Davis says, ‘Geraniums, petunias, pansies and violas are hardy and thrive in sunny positions, while impatiens, fuchsias and lobelia do well in shady spots.’

    How do I deal with pests and weeds organically?

    Sybil Caines, Powerplant Garden Design ( says, ‘Attract slug and snail predators such as frogs and birds by making a small pond, installing a bird table and, if possible, planting bird-attracting hedges such as hawthorn. Try biological control by introducing nematodes which live in the soil and feed on slugs. Control annual weeds by hand-weeding or hoeing as soon as they emerge, to prevent them setting seed. A 5-7cm layer of mulch applied in early spring will help discourage annual weeds. Perennial weeds such as brambles and creeping buttercup need to be dug up – unfortunately persistence is necessary to get rid of them totally.’

    My garden is tiny. How do I make it look more spacious with plants and features?

    Sybil Caines says, ‘Disguise the back boundary with plants so the viewer is not sure where the garden ends. Rectangular plots appear smaller – create the illusion of more space with a diagonal design or break up the space with circular features. In a shady garden, dot around lighter and variegated plants (such as Lamium maculatum or Brunnera macrophylla). This will lift the darker areas and open up the garden.‘Vertical planting helps to reduce the depth of your borders – focus on planting the boundaries with climbers, such as Parthenocissus tricuspidata (Boston ivy). Vertical planting is a new trend whereby you can create living walls using a great variety of plants. See for ideas. Finally, create the illusion of more space by using mirrors, panels of mirrored stainless steel, or a painted trompe l’oeil.’

    I don’t have much free time. How can I create a low-maintenance back garden?

    Sybil Caines says, ‘You want to get to a point where you can just blitz the garden in early spring and late autumn. So opt for slow-growers that won’t need cutting back too often and choose self-supporting varieties (which won’t need tying back) and don’t be too tidy – leaving leaves is good for the soil and wildlife, and saves on gardening. ‘If you’re lucky enough to have a south-facing plot, create a Mediterranean-style garden using drought-tolerant plants such as lavender, rosemary and sedums. You could get rid of the lawn and create a gravel garden – there’ll be no mowing and little watering. Or create a minimalist garden using paving or decking and a restrained planting palette – however this approach isn’t environmentally friendly, so include lots of borders to compensate and help drainage.’

    How do I make the most of my urban roof garden?

    Garden designer Noushine Nozari ( says, ‘Roofs are exposed so counter this by painting walls, putting up a trellis, and using furniture and lighting. Use nutrient-rich, moisture-retentive compost and select resilient plants that are adapted to withstand the greater extremes of heat, cold and wind, such as heathers, conifers and grasses.’

    I’m interested in growing chillies. What container and conditions would be best?

    Noushine Nozari says, ‘Warmth and plenty of sunlight. You could germinate them in February or March in a heated propagator or by simply sowing seeds into a tray covered tightly with a plastic bag and placing it in a warm place. Once they’ve germinated, pot them on individually. Keep them well watered in a warm sunny place, either a heated greenhouse or indoors on a window sill. Transplant them outdoors at the end of May and give them tomato feed once flowers appear. Hope for sun and enjoy the harvest from July onwards.’

    I’d like to conserve and reuse rainwater in my garden, but don’t have room for a big barrel. What are the alternatives?

    Amy Thompson at The Chelsea Gardener says, ‘There are a number of space-saving water butts on the market which store 100 litres of rainwater and won’t overflow as they are wall-mounted over your downpipe.’

    How do I create a wildlife-friendly urban garden?

    Amy Thompson says, ‘Birds, bees and butterflies are all attracted to plants with flowers and berries. Try planting perennials, lavender, roses and shrubs. Bird tables and feeders will attract birds, as will tall shrubs that encourage nesting.’

    My front garden is on a main road. What plants can cope with pollution?

    Amy Thompson says, ‘Buxus, bay trees, bamboos, euphorbia, lavender and choisya are particularly hardy and suitable choices.’

    I’d like to make my garden feel more like an outside room where I can socialise with friends. Any tips?

    Amy Thompson says, ‘Consider adding water features, hammocks and candle lanterns, and plant scented flowers to create a relaxing area. For a livelier outdoor zone you could add a good charcoal or gas barbecue, garden chairs and a table framed by flowering plants and shrubs.’

    I’ve just bought a house with a really overgrown garden. I’m a little daunted by the prospect of turning it into a usable garden so where should I start?

    Garden designer Noushine Nozari says ‘Don’t feel you have to rush in and get it all done at once. Take your time to know what you’ve got. If you can live with it for a year then you’ll have a better feel for what plants you want to keep, which parts of the garden get the sun and shade and where you want to create more privacy. Think about what you want to use the garden for, how much gardening you want to do, and the look you want. Only then are you ready to start. You may find the services of a garden designer invaluable in turning your ideas into reality.‘

    My young children love playing in the garden. Are there any harmful plants I should avoid?

    Garden designer Noushine Nozari says ‘There are many harmful plants, either poisonous if eaten or producing an irritant or allergic skin reaction on contact (eg euphorbias) or physically painful because of thorns, prickles or sharp leaves. Teach your children never to eat anything in the garden unless they have checked it is safe first. There are many readily available lists of poisonous plants to avoid including yew, foxgloves, daphne and laburnum. But also be aware of other hazards when playing outdoors including open ponds, garden tools and chemicals and exposure to the sun. Take a common sense approach, regularly look at your children’s development and any new safety risks.’

    I’m interested in growing something edible but know nothing about gardening and only have a small back yard. What is easiest?

    Amy Thompson says, ‘Blueberries, mulberries and most big leaf herbs such as basil are easy to grow in a bed or a pot. Salad leaves and tomatoes are also easy to grow. Globe artichokes look impressive in large pots beside a sunny front door or in a flower border.’

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