Jackie French

Gardening Q&A with Jackie French

A collection of the questions most frequently asked to author and writer Jackie French.

Doesn’t your wombat eat the lettuces?

No, she prefers grass and weeds. But she devastates carnations.

How do I grow the biggest pumpkin at the show?

Why bother?

Why does next door\’s garden look so much better than mine?

Send an air-conditioned limousine to pick me up (with a spunky driver and a bottle of chilled champagne) and I\’ll take a look and tell you. Seriously though, next door\’s plants probably just get more food and water than yours do. A good sprinkle of smelly fertiliser every year (preferably from spring to mid-summer) really gets plants growing and blooming.

Starved plants mostly don\’t die – they just don\’t look their stunning best. The people next door probably prune their Garden once a year too – a great way to get healthy new growth and stop plants looking tatty.

Why is my fruit falling?

Maybe it’s too ripe. Maybe it has been infected by fruit fly or codling moth, or damaged by frost. (Damage to the core will cause fruit to drop.) Maybe the weather’s been too dry or too windy, or the birds have been partying up there with their boots on. Plant more trees to make up for fallen fruit, and introduce some chooks, geese or wombats to eat the fallen fruit to cure your pest problem.

How can I have flowers all year round without spending every weekend in the garden?

Poke plastic flowers in all bare spots. Change them every few years when the colours fade. Alternatively, plant early, medium and late blooming camellias for flowers from autumn to spring; a couple of remontant (a fancy word for repeat flowering) rambling roses for spring ostentation, or ever-blooming Mutabilis, Berlina or Iceberg roses; a few hibiscus or bougainvillea in frost-free areas; and Federation daisies, long-flowering grevilleas, white Alyssum, Brachycome daisies, Erigeron, Gazanias or Trumpet Creeper (Campsis grandiflora) for masses of orange bells all through summer. But if you really want lots of flowers, plant one lot of annuals in spring and one in late summer to bloom through winter – annuals give you more flowers than anything else in very hot or very cold weather. I plant calendulas, pansies and primulas for winter and zinnias, impatiens (look for the ones that suit you) and petunias for summer.

My rose has black spot.

Okay, two choices: haul it out and plant a black spot-resistant variety; or cover the bare soil by spreading it with thick mulch every spring or late winter. Prune off ALL old foliage every winter and spray with Bordeaux spray. The American Rose Society recommends the following organic spray: mix 3 teaspoons bicarb with 2.5 tablespoons Pest Oil (a commercial oil-based spray) then mix into 4.5 litres of water. Spray every four days for two weeks then once a week.

Well-fed roses will outgrow black spot. At least most of them will; if you have a black spot-prone Bourbon rose like La Reine Victoria, you\’ll need to stick it in a raincoat to stop it getting black spot entirely. Take a look at your spotty rose bushes. The old leaves will look awful – but the newest leaves will be unblemished. Remember too that in most varieties the more new growth, the more roses.

What about slugs and snails?

Fence them out with a snail fence – a piece of metal pressed around the garden with the top bent outwards so snails can\’t climb over it. Put snail bait in old margarine or ice-cream containers with a small “door” cut out so the baits can\’t be taken by pets or children. Tape the lids on too for extra safety.

What do you use to get rid of weeds?

Mulch! (I keep yelling “mulch!!” in just about everything I write but people still come up and ask “what should I do about my weeds?” I need to have a T-shirt made to wear in public that just says MULCH! in big letters across the front.) Mulch covers the problem over. Any garden looks well-tended under a blanket of mulch, and the weeds will just rot back into the soil and feed your garden. Most weeds die if you pour boiling (or nearly boiling) water on them every time you brew a cuppa. If you zap two weeds once a day, you should keep them nicely under control. (By weeds I also mean escaped Arum Lilies, Couch grass in the veggie garden, and unwanted violets.)

How do I attract birds to my garden?

Provide water in the form of a bird bath or a small pond. Just make sure the water is kept fresh and cool, preferably in semi-shade, and that it\’s out of the reach of cats. Provide shelter; small birds feel more secure with lots of bushes around, and large birds like tall branches to perch on. Large trees and prickly bushes also make safe places to nest. Every garden should have at least one large tree for the birds, and lots of prickly grevilleas or rambling thorny roses for them to nest in.

Finally, feed the birds. Not with bird seed, though it can be fun to hang a bird seed ball from a tree branch outside your living room window to watch the birds cavort. Birds\’ best tucker comes from the blossoms of grevilleas and other natives, and any of the sage family too, as well as from the insects that will hover around the blossoms. Try to have at least three different sorts of shrubs flowering in your garden year-round.

What about plants that don\’t fruit or flower?

First of all, check that the plant isn\’t more shaded than it used to be, or more crowded (bulbs especially hate overcrowding). Other plants like Camellia japonicas may not flower if they\’re getting too much sunlight (look for narrow or sunburnt leaves). Check for tiny little beasties called thrips in the flowers. These can cause flowers to drop prematurely.

Some plants, like sweet pea, won\’t flower when it\’s too hot, and very cold weather or lots of overcast days can stop plants blooming too. Actually the most common reason plants don\’t flower well is that they\’re hungry. (Blast it, I\’d refuse to flower too if I was kept on a diet.) Don\’t over-feed flowers with too much nitrogen though; that can lead to a mass of leaves and not many blooms. When in doubt, feed with mulch and a “complete” plant food that has a nice long list of ingredients.

How do I kill (insert least favourite garden pest)?

Don’t. Spend your energy growing things, not killing things. That’s the secret of happy gardening.

Jackie French

Jackie French

Jackie French is a gardener, ecologist, honorary wombat, 2014-2015 Australian Children's laureate, 2015 Senior Australian of the year and passionate believer in the need for all humans to feel part of the earth around them, by understanding the plants that sustain us.

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