On 17 May Incredible Edible Winchester, in partnership with Winchester Friends of the Earth, held a Gardeners' Question Time.  Amateurs and keen gardeners alike posed questions on food growing and  low impact gardening to our expert panellists, who were:

  • Kevin Hobbs, Head of Research & Development, Hillier Nurseries Ltd
  • Jamie Cryer, Ground Manager, Sparsholt College
  • Phil Jeffs, Worthy Plants
  • John Wigginton, Winchester Horticultural Society

"It was a lively and interesting evening. We certainly covered a lot of ground and I think we all learnt something. I will certainly use more companion planting to keep pests at bay" said Clare Shorter, Chair of Incredible Edible Winchester. "We hope to run another event like this, as it is a  great way to encourage people to grow their own food and keep their carbon footprint low".

Here is a summary of the questions and answers.

What is the best way to keep down slugs and snails?

  • There are many methods to control or trap slugs and snails
  • Mulch plants rather than watering
  • Tidy up in the gardening,  especially round plants
  • Remove old green slug pellets as the colour attracts slugs and snails long after the poison has broken down

Does the panel have any advice about wormeries?

  • Don’t put cheese and meat in a wormery
  • You can put dog poo in it
  • They work best between 20-25degrees, and not below 10 degrees
  • Keep them clean to prevent smells

 Do the panel recommend raised beds and what are their advantages?

  • They make gardening accessible for people in wheelchairs and children, and allow paths between them for easy access all around the bed
  • Because you don’t tread on the soil, you don’t change the structure of the soil. This is  good if you want to use the "no-dig method". This has an advantage of not releasing carbon dioxide into the air from digging
  • The top inch or two of soil is the most fertile, which is why the no-dig method is good.  Roots go out, not down
  • It is a good way to create planters where there’s no soil, such as on paved drives or where the land isn’t good e.g. full of building debris– making use of every space in the garden
  • They are convenient if you want to grow ericaceaus plants on chalk e.g. blueberries
  • Fill them with soil as well as media from garden centres, or they may be too rich, or retain too much moisture
  • Beware: they may drain too fast, so nutrients drain away and need more watering
  • They don’t last long, unless you use tanalised timber. Try using something substantial like sleepers  as they last long, but can cost a lot. Put a tie in the middle to stop them bowing out, and line with polythene. Pallets are a good source of wood for raised beds.

  How to make vegetable patches wildlife friendly?

  • Use a mix of vegetables and flowers e.g. Swiss chard in the flower beds, . It is important to mix it up as bees like variety. And by using as wide a range as possible, the flowering season stays as long as possible. Plant single flowers, not double, for insects. Both native and introduced plants are good for wildlife
  • Try companion planting – marigolds with your vegetables
  • Rotate flowers that are in the same family as your vegetables (e.g. some wild native plants are brassicas, related to cabbages and sprouts)
  • Include trees and bushes which produce berries for wildlife feeding
  • Provided nesting opportunities and insect boxes
  • Provided fencing to protect from deer and be vigilant if using fruit netting in case birds become entangled. 
  • Don’t tidy up or prune in late summer /autumn to provide food for hibernators including seed heads. However tidy leaf litter up because it harbours vine weevils
  • Open up soil to let in rain, and to help birds find things to eat

 How to handle a neglected compost bin, that is infested with ground elder?

  • Leave the bin open for insects to escape
  • Tip contents onto polythene, removing weeds as they grow and then take them to the tip
  • Sieve the contents to use
  • Eat ground elder – it’s edible
  • Bury compost in a deep hole
  • Spread things like bindweed and ground elder on paving stones and leave them in the sun for a couple of weeks

 What to grow in the shade under trees?

No-dig method

  • As if natural – let leaves mulch down
  • You may need to get rid of weeds first
  • It takes three years to get going, till top layer gets down into soil 

What is the easiest fruit to grow on chalk locally?

  • Apples, pears, plums, raspberries, strawberries, cherries, gooseberries  and black, red and white currants can all be grown on chalk
  • These core fruits are also tolerant of clay
  • Autumn raspberries are easier than summer fruiting – a longer cropping season, last longer on the bush, and just need cutting down
  • There are now thornless brambles.
  • Beware: blackbirds get to the cherries first. 

How to stop birds eating your fruit?

  • Pick early before the baby blackbirds get to it.
  • Be tolerant – the birds need fruit when it’s dry.
  • The more you grow, the more there is for them and you.
  • Bird scarers that spin and CDs  on a post work well. whereas kites fall down when the wind stops.  
  • Netting is a hassle.
  • Small trees on dwarf roofstock makes it easier to cage in netting.


Why is my apricot tree not producing fruit?

  • Try hand pollinating.
  • Don’t prune it.
  • Don’t cover it, which limits choice of insects getting to it.
  • Give extra potassium at flowering time, e.g. potash, and avoid too much nitrogen which encourages peat growth.

Peat-free compost – which are best?

  • Sparsholt College uses Melcourt – stocked by Phil’s nursery – has a good consistency.  They also have a low carbon wood mulch. 
  • Hilliers stock New Horizon, which won Which earlier award for peat-free.
  • Make your own compost – nothing better.
  • Peat-free is not much better than it was.
  • The National Trust is now peat-free.
  • Some types are too inconsistent in texture, nutrient.
  • Pulped woodfibre is good, from sustainable sources.
  • Don’t be put off, be selective.
  • Going for a cheap offer can be a bad idea.
  • Don’t use it alone – mix with a soil-based compost like John Innes, especially as you pot things – hold moisture and create good soil structure.
  • 0.3% peat used by nurseries, 3% sold in garden centres, the rest is burnt in power stations.
  • The more some of the peat replacements weigh, the more it costs (in money and emissions) to move.

The panel's topical tips for growing sustainably

  • Think of plants, gardens and wildlife as one entity, don’t use weedkillers, pesticides or fungicides.  They run off into the water-course.
  • Have wild areas and grow plants and flowers that are good for wildlife.
  • Small white butterflies drop their eggs so netting is ineffective.
  • Berries are good for birds.
  • Follow the instructions on the packet when you use fertiliser – too much kills your plant.
  • Manage your garden with nature and wildlife in mind.  If you have too much of something, even slugs, your garden is out of kilter.
  • Ponds attract wildlife – (fill with rainwater not water from the tap).  Frogs and newts eat slugs.  Create a whole habitat with shrub layer, tree layer, shady spot with ferns, foxgloves, bluebells and snowdrops.
  • Your garden is an opportunity to try something different.  Plants with edible fruits include monkey puzzle nuts; loricera (honey berry); kiwi (choose a self-fertile one); figs on a sunny wall; cranberries and blueberries are attractive; wonderful ornamental rubes – short and tall, stocks and sun-loving some thornless.
  • Put plenty of compost on your soil, and it becomes darker, warms quicker; better structure so doesn’t pan; and holds moisture better so don’t need to water.
  • Recycle, make do and mend – e.g. use doors and pallets to hold compost; carpet to cover compost, or lay on ground to reduce weeds and keep soil; use old windows as cold frames. 

What’s the best way to make compost?  When’s it ready?

  • A wide variety of materials and not too much of any one – grass mowings have lots of nitrogen.
  • Kitchen waste is good.
  • Don’t worry if it doesn’t get hot.
  • Can take up to 12 months.
  • Turning is easier if you have two heaps side by side.
  • A compost bin is too small – you need a cubic metre at least.
  • Need 20-30 times as much carbon as nitrogen – carbon comes from brown stuff, nitrogren from green.
  • Put in some soil to add natural.
  • Put black container in sun.
  • Pee on it – adds nitrogen.
  • Activator useful – urine; or spadeful of old compost.
  • If it starts to smell, it needs more air – turn it.
  • Don’t put a thick layer of grass cuttings – it cuts out the air.
  • Make compost tea by putting ready compost and molasses in water, and use as a liquid foliar feed.
  • Coffee grounds are good for the soil and also stop cats making a mess in your garden.
  • Chicken pellets, farmyard manure – chicken pellets are good.  Don’t use fresh chicken or farmyard manure.  Mushroom compost of limited value – use as a mulch.  Has a lot of lime in it.