Ask the Expert

Hi there, I was wondering if you have any tips for growing sunflowers on balconies. The apartment I live in is north west facing so only gets sunlight early on in the day - is it worth growing sunflowers do you think?

Posted 04/06/2015 by Karen, Dublin

Hello Karen, In theory, sunflowers shouldn’t grow there, because they need lots of light, but it’s worth trying for just one year. There might be enough reflected light that they can use. Sunflowers need loads of water when they are maturing, so be sure to give them plenty to drink. If you are looking for something tall to make a statement, why not try a bamboo in a large pot? Again, you’ll need to water a lot when the new shoots are appearing (around now).

We have a weeping willow tree in our front garden that's about five years old now. We've been able to cut it back the odd bit but now it's got quite overgrown and is blocking some light. Could you offer any advice on cutting back the tree or is it something best left to a professional?

Posted 04/06/2015 by David, Co Carlow

Hello David, If you are talking about a true weeping willow (Salix babylonica), the kind that is often planted on the edge of a lake or river, then this can grow to be a rather large tree. I hate to break the news, but it isn’t really suitable for a front garden, unless you have a huge garden. Willow roots travel extensively, and can interfere with house foundations and drains. If the tree is only five years old, and is already blocking light, consider doing the brave thing and replacing it with a less vigorous tree. Weeping willows can be pruned when the tree is dormant (late winter or early spring), but it is better to just let them have their head. If it’s the small ‘Kilmarnock’ willow, you can prune the branches yourself (cut them back to the bulge at the top of the trunk), but again, do it during the dormant period. With all trees, pruning encourages more growth, so you can easily end up with brush-like sheaves of twigs if you don't prune regularly and carefully. It sounds as if a visit from a professional might answer your questions as well.

Is Shamrock Decorative Bark safe for dogs?

Posted 10/04/2015 by Shane in Dublin

Shamrock Decorative Bark is a completely natural product, made from 100% bark. It is not poisonous for your dog to chew but you should try to make sure he or she doesn't swallow it, since it's not dog food, and may cause your four legged friend some discomfort.

We have built a new house on a site with an old apple tree. It had loads of apples last year and the year before. However now that the house is built, we are turning our attention to the lawn. The apple tree is right in the middle of the new lawn and looks odd and when standing in the front doorway you cannot see the road in front of the house. I was just wondering is it too late to move the tree? We have a full acre of the site so there are several more suitable places for it. Any advice about moving it would be excellent.

Posted 06/04/2015 by Marian in Cork

Providing that the tree is in good health, there should be no problem at all in moving it. Apple trees should be transplanted in the winter. First prune the roots several months before transplanting. This is done by striking a sharp spade into the around the edge of the roots in the ground to encourage new young roots. Next water the tree for at least five days before moving. Measure the girth of the tree, and as a rule of thumb, for every inch in diameter, a planting hole of 12 inches is recommended. Dig the planting hole in preparation for moving the tree, so that the roots are exposed to the air as little time as possible. Start by digging around the outer edge of the roots, working downwards. Keep as much soil around the roots as possible. Try not damage any roots during digging and moving. If roots get damaged, then give them a clean cut to avoid disease setting in. Slip a plastic sheet under the tree to move it. Move the tree into the new planting hole, add a mixture of soil and compost (50:50) and gently firm roots in with finger tips. Water generously after replanting, and for five days afterwards.

I have a peony rose growing in a pot for the last two years. It has budded but won't flower - any ideas? Also when should I cut back my fuchsias? Thanks a million.

Posted 02/04/2015 by Teresa in Dublin

There are several possibilities for this: 1) Late frosts - if the plant has been though a late frost, it might not flower as a result, 2) A previously dry summer - if the plant has gone through a dry summer the previous season, then it might manifest itself in not flowering the following year, 3) Sometimes it might be due to a fungus like Botrytis, which is also down to weather conditions (cool and damp). To prevent, remove dead buds in late spring, and remove and diseased foliage at the end of the growing season. 4) It might also be insects - if insects are found on the buds, then these can be treated with an insecticide. Fertilizer might also help with flowering, if you suspect that the soil is not fertile enough. Pruning fuchsias: The best time to prune fuchsias is early spring, after the new growth appears.

I'm thinking of growing tomatoes in the garden this season. How easy or hard is it for them to grow in Ireland?

Posted 05/02/2015 by Pauline in Meath

While tomatoes tend to thrive in warmer climates, you can certainly cultivate a healthy tomato crop in Ireland. March and April are good times to get a head start on growing tomatoes indoors. Sow them in a pot and keep them in a sunny, warm spot (you can use a heating pad for supplementary warmth if necessary).

Re-pot into slightly larger pots when the plants start to develop leaves. You can also transfer young plants into a tomato growing bag, which is ideal for smaller spaces such as patios or balconies. 

Tomato plants can be put into the soil outside once the dangers of frost have disappeared (usually mid to late May) or you can opt to keep growing them in larger pots. They do best in a greenhouse or polytunnel but make sure there is enough air circulating around the plants as blight can be an issue with tomatoes. Make sure you water regularly too.

With a bit of TLC, you'll be enjoying tasty home grown tomatoes this summer!

Why have the centre of my potatoes turned soft and are oozing a milky white substance?

Posted 14/08/2014 by Marie, Thurles

It sounds as if they have one of the bacterial soft rots. If it were blight, it would smell bad, and the decay would start from the outside. You didn't say whether they were stored potatoes, or ones that you have just dug up. Either way, be sure not to plant potatoes on the same spot for another few years, in case the pathogens remain in the soil. Throw out all the affected potatoes (not on the compost heap), and keep a close eye on the unblemished ones. When storing potatoes, make sure that they are properly dried first.

I'm growing a sweet pepper plant in my kitchen window and it was doing well until a fortnight ago. Now it looks slightly droopy and the leaves are a bit withered looking. Any ideas what could be wrong?

Posted 28/07/2014 by Una, Balbriggan

Droopy and withered plants can be due to a number of things, but in the case of peppers it’s usually either too little water, or too much. If the compost is damp, then you’re probably killing your plant with kindness. Add in a sunny kitchen windowsill, and the poor thing could be suffocating. So, hold off on the watering, and move the plant away from the full sun for a day or two. Let us know if it perks up!

My beetroots aren’t doing very well at all. I’m growing them in a peat based soil. Any tips?

Posted 19/07/2014 by Diane, Leitrim

Beetroot is happiest in a light soil, and it doesn't like an acidic soil — such as peat. Rather than try and rescue the current crop, why not plant some more in a patch where you have added lime? You can get a soil-testing kit and lime at your local garden centre. The amount of lime that you add (which will be detailed on the packet) depends on the pH of the soil.

I have a young lilac which I would like to prune. How far back should I prune it?

Posted 07/07/2014 by Annette, Carlow

I am delighted that you are asking while your shrub is still young — as this is exactly the stage when people should be thinking about pruning. Do it right while it’s young, and you’ll be spared problems later. The aim is to have a shrub that has an open structure so that air and light can reach all the stems. At present all you need to do is remove the dead flowerheads, and then cut back any stems that are damaged, or too close together, or that are rubbing against another stem. You can also prune in late winter, but you will be sacrificing the next crop of flowers, as lilac blooms on stems that grow in the previous year.

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