GrowHow: Go Organic the Easy Way, with Alan – Masterclass on-demand

GrowHow: Go Organic the Easy Way, with Alan – Masterclass on-demand

  1. Controlling problems without harmful chemicals
  2. Encouraging wildlife to be our natural allies
  3. Powering up your compost making
  4. Feeding plants organically – know your options
  5. Choosing eco-friendly materials – and avoiding plastic landfill

Alan’s five ways to solve problems, organically:

  1. Growing plants with natural resistance
  2. Using mulch for a healthier garden
  3. Tackling slugs and snails with simple but effective steps
  4. Planting techniques to cut down on weeding
  5. Companion planting – how it works

Go Organic the Easy Way, on-demand:

Your event hosts

Alan Titchmarsh

Alan has been an organic gardener for over four decades, he is also a writer, broadcaster, poet and best-selling novelist. He’s been writing for BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine since it first launched in 1991 and was the former presenter of BBC Gardeners’ World TV show, from his garden at Barleywood.

Lucy Hall

Lucy Hall is Editor of BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine, a host of the magazine’s podcast and presenter at Gardeners’ World Live events. A keen gardener, based in the Cotswolds, she and her partner have been creating an organic garden for over a decade in their awkwardly long and narrow plot.

Discover more online GrowHow learning events from BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine.

Masterclass transcript

Go Organic the Easy Way, with Alan Titchmarsh – special online event

Lucy [00:00:11] Good evening, everybody. I hope you’re well. Thank you so much for joining us tonight. Hottest day of the year. So you’re doing well to be indoors. But thanks very much. And hello, good evening. I’m Lucy from the magazine. And welcome to this latest event. This is a special Gardeners’ World Magazine event. We love to share the expertise of our favourite presenters and contributors. And tonight’s event is part of our new premium content exclusively for members of the subscriber club. And thank you for joining us. So, of course, our special guest tonight, as you can see on screen, is Alan Titchmarsh, and he’ll be sharing with us very shortly his approach to going organic, the easy way. He’s been an organic gardener for decades, so his is a tried and tested approach that has helped him create a breathtakingly beautiful garden. And we are going to have some photographs of that to share with you over the course of the evening. But before we welcome Alan to our virtual stage, just two quick housekeeping tips, and I shall just get those on screen for you now as a little reminder. So two quick housekeeping tips for best results when watching the streamed live event. We suggest you turn off all other programmes on your computer and if your screen should freeze. Simply refresh the page in your browser.

[00:01:27] And so on to tonight, I’m going to be in conversation with Alan, asking the questions that so many people have about organic gardening. It’s a big question for all of us. And then, of course, at 7:40, it’s 7:02 now so we’re going to be talking for about 40 minutes and at around 7:40, we’re going to be moving to your individual questions. And this is where you get a chance to ask the big questions. So start posting them now in the Q&A panel on screen. And of course, you can rate others questions that you would like Alan to answer. So there we are. Let’s get started. I’m going to come on to camera and I’m going to invite Alan to join us on our virtual stage. So, Alan, come on in. Come and join us.

Alan [00:02:11] Good evening, good evening

Lucy [00:02:13] Swish the curtain. And here you are.

Alan [00:02:16] Here I am. Everybody’s wonderfully warm tonight. No central heating on anywhere.

Lucy [00:02:19] No, I know. How have you been today? How you been keeping cool?

Alan [00:02:22] No, it’s all right. I’ve been trying to stay. I’ve kept nipping out and looking at stuff that was distressed and give it a can of water and then nipping back in telling myself ‘now that I’m of venerable years stay cool’ and just being sensible. But it has been very, well it’s obviously been the hottest day. I got here, up to, what did I get, 36 degrees in Hampshire. So pretty warm. It’s gone down now to 29. So it’s quite comfortable.

Lucy [00:02:50] Balmy, it’s like in the Mediterranean. But and I’m sure there’s a few a few of the audience from all around the world wondering what on earth we’re complaining about. But there we are in the U.K. We get overexcited about our weather. Thankfully, it looks like it’s cooling down shortly. So Alan, listen, we’re here obviously tonight to talk about organic gardening. It means a lot to you. I’ve also been organic for quite some time. But you’ve been organic for, well, decades, it’s fair to say. You’ve, as I said earlier, you’ve got a few tried and tested methods. So we’re going to talk through that this evening. And listen let’s get underway. What is it about organic gardening? What does organic gardening mean to you?

Alan [00:03:29] It means really about being responsible for your patch of earth. I mean, I suppose one of the problems that faces us all nowadays, anybody who’s interested in wildlife, in the landscape and I include gardeners in that, we, I always think of us as being the figurehead on the front of the ship. We are the sharp end of conservation, of environmental care because we look after our little patch of earth. Yes, it’s cliche, it’s a naive thing to say but all those little patches join up. And I think sometimes one feels powerless to do anything about the bigger picture, about climate change and global warming. Shouldn’t government be doing something about that? Well, yes, they should. But we’re a part of that movement and we have a responsibility to our little patch of earth, however small it is. And that’s what fuels me is, the old saying, you know, if you look after the pennies, the pounds will take care of themselves, is looking after that piece of earth, which is my responsibility, because it gives me a clear conscience that I’m doing my best and I’m not polluting in the broadest sense of the word, that bit. But I’m looking after it, to use these well tried words now, you know sustainably. It matters to me that the time in which I’m responsible for this bit of earth, it will be cared for and it shouldn’t be onerous. It takes energy and time, but it’s the most delightful thing to be entrusted with. And I just find the older I get, the more stimulated, excited and keen on it that I am. It becomes more and more important. I mean, I often get asked, you know, how much time do you spend in your own garden? Well, when I’m not writing sitting here at this desk or I’m not broadcasting. And I’m off tomorrow, doing our last recording this year of Love Your Garden. I am out there. When I write, I write in the morning so that in the afternoon I can go out there and potter, but with an eye to taking care of it for everything else that lives in it. Not just me.

Lucy [00:05:40] Now, climate change has cast a shadow across a lot of what we talk about. And it’s a challenge. It’s an opportunity too. But you’ve been organic for really long before we started having these, you know, conversations about it . What was the moment that made you think, was there a moment or a sliding scale? When did you say no, do you know, organic is the type of gardening I must do, because be honest, your training probably brought you through all sorts of processes and chemicals and, you know, all of the battery that you’d say traditionally gardeners would rely on.

Alan [00:06:15] I suppose in a way, it’s almost like being a reformed drug user, which I never have, always been too frightened. But when I go back to my training in parks, I left school at 15, which is an awful long time ago now. I went to work in the Parks Department nursery where we had a spray programme. Most people had a spray programme, a timetable of what you sprayed, with what, throughout the year and in our greenhouses once a week in parks, I was in charge of four enormous greenhouses. We fumigated them with nicotine shreds, nicotine shreds were shredded, cardboard impregnated with nicotine. Very toxic. And you pulled them out and made them all fluffy like wood wool, you know, the stuff that used to pack things in before polystyrene pellets were invented, and we used to pull it apart, light it with a match and then stamp on it, so it smouldered, rather than flared up, inflamed, because then it was less effective and you’d run out of the greenhouse, close the door and watch, and if it flared up, you had to put your hand here, over your nose, open the door, go in and stamp it out, terribly dangerous, this is nerve gas. And we’d sprayed with all kinds of things from DDT and BHC. We dipped chrysanthemum cuttings in nicotine solution, which we thought was quite normal because it kept them pest free. And the thing about being a gardener is you want to grow good pest and disease free plants. Of course we do, we all do. But then I began to realise, that was in 1964, when I started, a long time ago, and gradually this thing, various chemicals started to be banned. DDT for instance, which, funnily enough I was writing about it last week in the Duchess of Cornwall’s illustrated edited issue of Country Life and remembering that a friend of mine saw a man on an allotment surrounded in kind of white fog, dust. And he said, “Are you all right?” And he said, “Oh, yes. It’s only DDT” because it was before we realised it built up in body fat, it was terribly dangerous. And so all through those sixties and seventies, you know, I was thinking actually I’m not sure this is right. And it’s now 40 years since, so it was about 1980, I suppose. I thought, this is ludicrous, so I must go organic. I can’t keep killing off everything because it’s the food chain, you know, ladybirds and lacewings and wasps and things feed on greenfly, you’ve got the cycle, everything feeds on something else. If you take a lump out, it sort of falls apart. The very last thing I used that wasn’t organic was lawn weed and feed because I do like a nice lawn, that’s Parks Department training, you see. Something that you can’t shift. And then I saw about 10, 20 years ago, 20 years ago now, a blackbird pulling a worm out of my blackened lawn where the moss had been killed, to go and feed it’s young and I thought, I can’t do this. So it’s about, it’s since we moved to this house, 20 years, I’ve stopped using anything. Because, yeah, I get a bit of this, a bit of that, which we’ll talk about as we go along, but it’s just not worth it. You find it takes time. You do find the balance is struck. Predatory insects are bearing greater numbers. So when you do get an infestation of greenfly or blackfly or whatever, it doesn’t last long. Something will help you out. And it’s having the courage. Like learning to swim, hold your nose and jump in, with a few lessons, and it works and I just feel so much more comfortable in my conscience now. That for the last 40 years, I’ve never used a spray. And for the last 20, the very last inorganic product in my garden, lawn weed and feed, has gone. Don’t use it. I haven’t used slug pellets, you can’t use them now, they’re banned, but haven’t used those for donkeys years. It’s not being holier than thou. It’s just trying to look after your patch of land in a responsible way.

Lucy [00:10:23] I mean, we’re going to talk about some of those steps and we’ve got a couple of videos to show everybody that you recorded for us a couple of weeks ago. So we’re going to go into some of the details of it. But, you know, I think there’s a lot of myths about organic gardening. So I think we also need to bust a few of those. You know, that you can only be organic if you’ve got a big garden or you’ve got a lot of money or you’ve got a lot of training. You know your way around a horticultural qualification, etc., You know, let’s bust a few of those myths. Take us right back to what is in a nutshell, organic gardening. What are we aiming at?

Alan [00:10:56] You’re aiming about tolerance, really, and about letting nature take a bigger hand in it then she would be allowed to if you were spraying all the time. You know, gardening is controlling. Gardening is working with, there’s a lovely story about the vicar, you know, leaned over the fence in this glorious garden and it was beautiful veg patch, stripy lawn and flowers. It was full of glorious goings on, just the most beautiful garden. And the gardener was sort of on his knees as ever in the middle of it. The vicar said, “Isn’t it wonderful what God can do in the garden?” The gardener said, “Yes, it is. You should’ve seen what it was like when he had it to himself” and you have to learn to balance your importance with that of him upstairs and/or Mother Nature. And it’s learning really Lucy to be just less anal about it just a bit more. I’m by nature a tidy person. I always say that in horticulture as well as being in the growing business we’re in the beauty business. We endeavour to make our little piece of landscape, however small, look beautiful. Because not only if we’re growing from veg can it feed us physically. It can feed us spiritually. I love I’m looking out across my computer now at a pond. There’s a moorhen just coming out of the pond and some water lilies and some irises, flag irises, growing around it. And I look at that. It’s a wonder I get any writing done at all. And I look at that and I think, well, that could do with cutting back a bit, you know, that’s the gardener. The thing is you do the cutting back a bit to make it look even more beautiful and make me feel even better. And it’s there for us to utilise as something which makes us feel good. But it’s striking this balance between making us feel good and not being too pernickety, I’m pernickety and I like it to look good, but not at the cost of nature, of wildlife. And it’s learning when to back off, when to say, okay, that outbreak a greenfly over, a real nuisance. In another week. I’m just looking at me roses which had a bit of greenfly on a couple of weeks ago. Not there now. Gone. Noone’s touched them. Haven’t sprayed them, but the growth has got tougher. It’s started to harden up a bit as the summer goes on. Greenfly aren’t interested the things that wanted the greenfly have taken them. Wait, often the answer often is to do nothing and just think, “Oh, I’ll look the other way.” I always say to people, if you start a packet of seeds with a hundred seeds in and 99 of them die, go park your deckchair by the one that grew and flowered and major on that. There’s a lot of psychology involved in gardening and persuading yourself that, you know, it really doesn’t matter. And so many people, will be interesting to see the questions tonight, because they generally crop up with problems, things that have gone wrong. How do you do this? And a lot of it involves not chemicals, not being inorganic, but it does involve gardening. Which means getting actively involved. I often say to people, you know, if you don’t like sitting on the river bank, don’t be a fisherman because it’s called fishing, not called catching. You know, you need patience. You need to enjoy being there. And I think, you know, like everybody else I get irritated every now and again when I see something isn’t growing well. I try and work out why, but if it’s something, I can’t really do anything about. Or if it’s a plant that doesn’t really grow that well here anyway. You know, try something that does.

Lucy [00:14:37] I mean, there’s a lot of confusion about, you know, how you spray how you use these chemicals, you know, in a way, that’s why we sort of dubbed this the easy way. Gardening without all of that is actually about getting involved with your plants and observing them. I think that lovely point that you make about time, maybe it’s about also reassessing the time that you spend in your garden and maybe not seeing it as a finished product.

Alan [00:15:02] It’s the old thing, success is a journey, not a destination. And it’s the same with a garden. And it’s always, always, always. I have to tell myself this as well. You know, I’m not saying I understand, it’s a shame you don’t, I have to tell myself it’s a journey, not a destination. A garden is always work in progress. It is never finished. You’re never going to come in and say, “There you are Mabel that’s it, it’s all done, sit down now.” It’s been trying, this week for all of us, because I’m very careful with my watering. I’m very lucky I have a well underneath the kitchen. I put a pump so I can use well water, but I use it sensibly. I have not watered my lawns. It’s irresponsible and I’m aware that I need to conserve my water towards the things that need it, but I do need to keep me veg growing, otherwise you won’t have any onions for winter and I need to keep newly planted things going. I noticed today, for instance, on the veg patch because I grow quite a few flowers on my veg patch, the sweet peas are just about giving up. Two days ago there were full of flower and I deadhead, because if you let sweet peas run to seed, as little pods, they’ll think job done, stop flowering now, I’ve been assiduously cutting them off. But look, these last two days, they’ve had it now, they’ve had enough. And it’s what, 19th of July, which is early to lose your sweet peas. I can generally keep them going until August, but not this year, and you have to accept it I think really every year is different. It was interesting, they’ve been talking quite a lot recently about the summer of ’76. I got married in 1975. The summer that year very kindly started on our wedding day, which is the 26th of July. It had been rubbish up to then. We had a late brief summer in ’75 from the end of July through August, but ’76, which was the year having got married in ’75, that I made my first garden, a tiny garden, ten feet by 30 feet on Bagshot sand in ’76 when there was a drought for ten weeks. Now it’ll be interesting to see how long this one last, but it was ten weeks in 76′, I was reading in the paper and it was tough on sandy soil. But you know, gardeners we’re faced with a different challenge every year, a late spring, an early spring, a late autumn, an early autumn. A late frost, an early frost. It’s always a juggling exercise. And it’s so easy for me to say to other people, don’t get disheartened, because I do, I wanted my sweet peas to go on longer. But sometimes you just can’t control it and you have to realise that you are at the mercy of nature and your life as a gardener is spent in reconciling yourself to not achieving perfection.

Lucy [00:17:41] Well, that’s a good lesson. That’s a good point, probably for us to stop and pause because we want to talk about, okay, how do we go about being organic? And we’ve got the first of our videos to show everybody here. It’s going to be coming up in a second. It’s the five key steps that it takes to go organic. So well, now Alan and I are going to disappear off camera for a few moments while the video is shown. And Rachel, over to you. Let’s get the video up on screen and we’ll be back to you to discuss it in a few moments.

Speaker 3 [00:18:15] I always think of the compost heap as the boiler house of the garden. For an organic gardener, it’s making use of all your organic waste, rotting it down so you can return it to the soil as enrichment. The most important thing is to get a decent enclosure for it either post and wires or wooden slats so it’s not slithering over the garden and then mix everything up when you put it in, lawn mowing, vegetable waste, no food, don’t put bread or cooked food in because you just attract vermin. If you’re putting thick rooted weeds in, you risk perpetuating them as well, so keep them out. But annuals can go in. You can chip wooden stems and mix it all up. And in the space of three, four, six months, hotter weather will make it rot down faster. In winter, it might take a year, but you will produce organic matter that really enriches your soil and it doesn’t cost you a penny. Finding a good fertiliser for your garden when you’re organic is vital. You don’t want your plants to starve just because you don’t like using chemicals. So I am a devotee of blood, fish and bone. Dried blood, sounds ghastly, but it’s good for the garden, fish meal and bone meal all mixed up. They have the three main ingredients that plants need to feed, nitrogen, phosphates and potash. The thing about blood, fish and bone is it’s quite a long lasting fertiliser. It needs soil bacteria to break it down before its nutrients are available to plants. It’s also a very good lawn fertiliser. My lawn gets a couple of applications of blood, fish and bone every year, once in March, April and again in June. And that is all it gets if you look closely at it, there’s little weeds in there, but it’s green and crisp and even all thanks to blood, fish and bone and everything that grows in this garden is on a diet of that, couple of sprinklings before you plant anything. And again during the summer, water it in. This is what you get. Not a bad fertiliser. We all worry about using plastics in the garden and it is a worry as soon as that plastic has to be discarded. Plastic is only a problem when you throw it away. So if you’ve got plastic plots, just make sure you keep on using them. But for me, clay pots, terracotta, taken from the earth, crafted and fired. There’s something wonderful about them. They’re complementary to the plants that grow in them. And you can make a clay pot, if you’re careful and you don’t drop it, last for centuries. I’ve got a few that have done just that. And when they do break, well then they become crocks, drainage material for the bottom. And I think the clay flowerpot is one of the most environmentally friendly containers of all time. When it comes to being an organic gardener, harnessing nature’s way of helping you is really useful. And I’m thinking of birds. We used to feed birds during the winter months. Now, mercifully, from the birds point of view, we feed them all the year round. They cost me a fortune mind you. I have a bird table and dangling hangers filled with feed and a bird bath to which I have to clean out daily. Make sure you give the birds a regular supply of food. They’ll come to know where it is and to rely on you for it. But also that fresh water is vital, clean any bird feeders every couple of weeks so that disease isn’t perpetuated. Green finches caught something very nasty from dirty bird feeders. So be hygienic with your bird food. But then you’ll discover when the birds come in, they help you with slug control, green fly control, all manner of nasty insects will disappear down the gullet of your friendly blue tit. And also they’re lovely to have about, aren’t they. Time was when every gardener had what he called a spray programme. It began in spring and it ran right the way through to winter with winter washes on fruit trees to kill, well, just about everything actually, we don’t want to kill everything anymore, so we’re very careful. We look for ways of controlling pests that are not harmful to the environment. And one of those ways is by choosing plants which are naturally disease resistant. Roses are martyrs to mildew and blackspot, but choose a rose, which not only has beautiful and fragrant flowers, but which has shiny, leathery leaves, and you will find it simply doesn’t suffer from mildew and black spot. By all means, make sure the plant isn’t under stress because that’s when mildew and black spots attack. Dryness at the root is a prime cause. But choose a rose with lovely glossy leaves or the Rugosa varieties, and you will find that mildew and black spots are a thing of the past with nary a spray in your cupboard.

Lucy [00:23:28] Excellent.

Alan [00:23:29] He does go on a bit, doesn’t he.

Lucy [00:23:32] He’ll go far that guy! I think what really comes through there is that whole notion of harnessing nature. And I think in a way, it comes back to that some idea talked about earlier about there being myths around organic gardening, that it’s difficult, that it’s you know, it’s beyond most people. Actually you’re working with the very best things that you’ve got plants, wildlife, nature. Who wouldn’t love the birds that I know you have in your garden. And that’s something I think that we can latch onto. Tell us what you’ve been doing, you know, around birds and bird feeding really this summer, because I think that’s, you know, weather like this. It’s they’re really going to struggle. Well, that’s another reason why we do it.

Alan [00:24:16] I thought, for instance, I wonder, you know, if their appetites go with the really hot weather. Not at all. I have a bird table which has got a little roof on it, and I’ve rigged up around the sides sort of wire, wide wire that the sparrows and the blue tits and whatnot can get through and the blackbirds can poke their beaks through, try to keep the squirrel out and the pigeons out because got a lot of wood pigeons and they get what falls on the floor. And that is, I get a scoop about that big and I fill that bird feeder every morning and it’s gone by the evening, sometimes I have to fill it twice a day, even at this time of year. Always have to be careful about feeding whole peanuts to birds, I don’t actually feed peanuts to my birds, I just have a mixed grain bird feeder which is full of sunflower hearts in it and a lot of grain and that goes on the bird feeder and in a tall seed feeder which is hung from a damson tree where the blue tits sit in the tree and they wait for it to come in within seconds of me doing it and the robins come. So I feed all year round now, we’ve been told that that’s a good idea and it goes, I’ve got two metal dustbins full of bird feed and they just go down and down and down. But it’s a delight to have them. And I’ve noticed since I’ve fed all day and well every day of the year, the bird life here has gone up in leaps and bounds, and that means that I will be getting better pest control. You know, from those birds, I think if you don’t welcome the birds and just get on with it, you know, there’s plenty to feed, feed on. I don’t know that you would get quite such a good result organically from the help the birds give you. But also I love having them about, I mean, it’s a glorious thing. For me a garden is not just about plants or flowers, it’s about everything in it. I got butterflies, Prince of Wales always calls butterflies animated flowers. They are in a way, they’re wonderful to see.

Lucy [00:26:14] I think the thing about birds, though, is that just feeding them isn’t enough. A good organic garden will have so much more. And I know you have that in your garden. So what else are you providing for the birds beyond the feed itself? There’s a few things that everyone can sort of take away from this in terms of what they should be thinking about.

Alan [00:26:32] Water is vital. Fresh water every day. I’ve got one, two, three, four different areas, bird baths, the easiest bird bath is a dustbin lid, and they drink from it and they wash in it. But if they’re washing, it tends to go down quite quickly and with evaporation this time of year, and it gets dirty. So tip it out every day and replace it with fresh and it’s lovely. We’ve got one just outside our little summer house and see birds coming within two or three feet of us drinking or bathing or whatever. So water’s vital, cover, garden hedge if you can instead of having interwoven fence, have a hedge or have both, the interwoven fence will give you real privacy, but a narrow hedge, and you can trim hedges so they’re quite narrow. They don’t have to be three feet wide. That’s great for bird nesting, for bird roosting, you know, sleeping at night, for food, the insects that come into it will be good food. The foraging they’ll do at the bottom in the leaves that fall inside the hedge. You’ve got that damp area underneath the bottom of the hedge where all kinds of things, blackbirds in particular. And I think the blackbird is the gardener, apart from the robin, which is the gardener’s friend. As it perches on your fork when you’re digging your garden, but the blackbird song, it’s not at this time of year it’s too late now, it’s summer. But in spring when the blackbird sings its carols from the chimney. I did Desert Island Discs an awful long time ago now. But that was one of my 8 discs, blackbirds singing from the chimney tops. And they give you so much delight. I mean, there’s a wood pigeon across from me now, you can probably hear it. He’s there anyway, and the moorhens are out there. They’re all part of my garden and I garden with them, or in spite of them, rather than against them. And it’s learning, Lucy, really, it’s learning to kind of relax into gardening, really. It’s not like tagging your sock drawer every Saturday. Well, it shouldn’t be, but you’ve got to train yourself. Took me a long time to train myself, I’ve been doing it for, you know, gardening now for how long? Gosh, 65 years. And as a living for 55. So it takes a while to get to this kind of compromise with nature, really. I suppose this comfortableness with what goes on around you and it’s not that you don’t care, as I say I’m quite, I like me garden to be sorted you know, if a border starts looking a bit tatty, but the two are not irreconcilable. You can have a good looking garden and still have wildlife. So I was a annoyed at the rabbit that came in ate my cosmos.

Lucy [00:29:08] But that’s another story.

Alan [00:29:10] It is. We won’t got into that one.

Lucy [00:29:11] Another rabbit another day. One thing that I know you always emphasise is the importance of growing healthy plants, and that really starts, I think, with the soil, you know, how are we nourishing that soil. What do we know about soil, we know so much more about it than we ever did. So let’s just dive into that for now. Let’s dive into the soil. Tell us more about that, because that’s really at the heart of organic gardening as well.

Alan [00:29:36] Well, I think we often think of soil as being inert. It’s just well, in my soil science lecturer, Dr. Coca, at Corrie College said, you know, soil is broken down rock, yes, but there’s rather more to it than that. Actually, what he did say was soil is the substance plants roots grow in. And although it might be broken down rock, there’s an awful lot else going on in there if it’s good soil. And the old adage, you spend as much on the whole as you do on the plant, what goes in must come up is my motto. And that’s why I was so keen on the compost heap. If, you know, if you’ve got a balcony or you’ve got a tiny garden and there isn’t any room, even for the weeniest of bins. Don’t give up on putting organic matter into your ground because that gets soil bacteria going and the living soil produces healthy living plants. We tend to get obsessed with the bad things, you know, bad bacteria. You watch adverts on the box for your gut and people went, I think the gut has to have bacteria in it to work. There are an awful lot of good bacteria as opposed to the lavatory cleaner adverts which encourage you to think that all bacteria is bad. It kills 99% of household germs. Bacteria are vital for our way of life. And we’ve discovered this enormous thing about trees now, which is fascinating, this network of roots, that trees have that stretch far farther than you ever thought they would they, in inverted commas, talk to one another. We’ve learnt to put mycorrhiza around the hole which is you know fungal, actually fungal preparation to get the roots working well, it’s not just what you can feel in your soil, although that’s very important. I love soil that smells like fruitcake. Gorgeous, but if it’s just some inert sandy or clay earth, what wants to grow in it, you know? And it’s up to us with a compost heap or with organic enrichment, if you can’t have a compost heap, to work that in whenever you plant something and you know, never plant a dry root ball because it won’t get wet, soak it, it’s sodden before you put it in the ground, it will then drain, then water it in, but then it will have contact. If you plant a dry root ball the plant sits there, if you don’t, you don’t need to tease the roots on border plants, perennials and annuals, things like that, but trees and shrubs, if they’re pot bound and they see the roots going round in a circle, tease them out, bash them out with your fingers or your fork to get them to move out. I do not believe, there’s been a lot of talk recently about the importance of having a square hole rather than a round hole. What? When a root hits a piece of soil, it hasn’t got a protracter with it. It doesn’t know whether it’s a corner or a flat, you know.

Lucy [00:32:28] So we should go relax about that.

Alan [00:32:32] Relax about that. I know this might sound like heresy, but come on, it doesn’t matter what shape the hole. It’s just making sure the soil that goes in it, is good. However, if you’re on really heavy clay soil and you over enrich the backfill that goes into the hole that you’re planting in, so it’s so different and much more better drained than the surrounding clay. Then it will act like a sump and the water from the clay soil will come in and your plant can drown. So commonsense. Be thoughtful. Yes, some organic matter to encourage the roots out, but not to make that piece of earth that you’ve planted in so different from your clay that it acts as a sump. In sandy soil, however, as much organic matter as you can to hold onto the moisture.

Lucy [00:33:21] So really, you’re about feeding the whole soil. The soil is at the heart of you know, and you described obviously the compost heap as the engine room of the garden. And I think that’s such a great image to take away because we should all be spending more, not only on the whole, but on your compost heap, too. So but I think you touched on something earlier about people always seeing problems emerging. And I can see great questions coming up everybody, thanks very much. We’re going to be getting onto those not too long, but problem solving is one of the biggest questions that I bet you ever get. And we certainly get loads at the magazine and on the website and through the forums. So people want to know how do I sort the problems out? So we asked you as part of this, this evening to come up with a video, create a video about the problem solving approach that you as an organic gardener like to take. So we’re going to go to that video now. We’re going to give people some ideas about problem solving the organic way. And again, we’re going to disappear off screen for a few minutes while the video runs and we’ll be back to discuss it afterwards. So let’s go to the video.

Speaker 3 [00:34:26] When it comes to problem solving in an organic garden, we’re almost always looking at methods of prevention rather than cure when something’s gone wrong. And this is where mulching is so important. Once you have clean ground in spring, particularly, perhaps around a border where you’ve planted perennials and shrubs, help to keep it clean by mulching the surface with a good one and a half to two inch thick layer of chipped bark. Garden compost, if you like but chipped bark has greater sterility and it prevents weed seedlings from pushing up underneath it. Spread it when the soil is moist and you get a double whammy, it’ll seal in that moisture and stop plants from suffering from drought. Mulching for me every spring – vital. If you talk to organic gardeners about pests, they will almost always gnash their teeth at the prospect of slugs and snails, especially on hostas. Five star hotels for slugs they are. But the thing to do is to try and protect those hosta shoots when they’re just pushing up through the soil. That first inch, two inches, that’s when the plants are at their most vulnerable. The way I do that is with copper collars. Slugs and snails apparently don’t like crossing copper. It gives them some kind of electric shock. If you’ve got hostas coming out of the ground, very quickly, whip one of these collars around sit it on the ground. The plant will grow up through it, and hopefully you will have protected it from slug and snail damage when it’s at its most vulnerable. When it comes to protecting plants in pots from slugs and snails in particular. I find pot feet really useful. It’s a simple way of lifting the plant out of harm’s way. I have two enormous pots with massive great Hosta sieboldiana’s growing in them, and if the weathers dry at the beginning of the year, that’s helped because slugs and snails don’t like dry weather. But by raising the pots off the ground, just about an inch on pot feet and making sure that those leaves, when they spread sideways, don’t touch a box hedge or a bit of yew or another plant and allow the slugs and snails on. Keep them isolated on these pot feet. You’ll find they’re remarkably effective at avoiding the predations of slugs and snails. It never ceases to amaze me how many people talk about, oh, weeding in the garden. And I hate weeding. I do very little. And the reason I do very little is for a very simple reason. I plant things very close together, still with room to grow sideways a little bit. But once they’ve started growing sideways, the canopy of foliage meets, cuts out the light from the surrounding soil. There’s no room, light, air or moisture left for weeds. So provided your soil is clean when you plant and you plant close together in soil which has been well enriched with garden compost or manure, you’ll find that your weed problem subsides, fill your garden full of things you like and there isn’t much room for them. Companion planting is a wonderful term. It’s a way of enlisting nature’s help in your cultivations. It’s putting plants together which exist for mutual benefit. Symbiosis. That word we learnt at school, and by planting one plant alongside another, you can often help it to grow better and survive pest and disease attack. Those little tiny leaved, fuzzy leaved French marigolds. If you plant them in the same soil as your tomato plants are growing, they can help repel whitefly. But it’s important that the two sets of roots are in the same earth. I grow chives next to little rows of carrots in a planting tub, and the smell of the chives, the onions scent, helps deflect the attentions of the carrot fly, which would otherwise home in on the roots of the carrots and their particular aroma. So search around and you’ll find some plants that really do help others in the battle for survival throughout the year.

Lucy [00:38:59] It’s great. Fascinating. I think the big takeaway from a lot of that is prevention, not cure.

Alan [00:39:05] It is. Yeah, it’s growing stuff well, and it’s like, you know, a healthy person can shrug off. Hmm. Well, hopefully COVID, but, you know, whatever. You’re better placed to survive an attack if you’re in good health and it’s exactly the same for plants, grow well in good soil and not deprived of water and not deprived of food, air, or light, those big four things that the plants need, they’ll get over it. They might get an attack, but they’ll be capable of resisting it. And that, to me, is the way forward. That’s gardening.

Lucy [00:39:44] And I think you picked up there on companion planting, which I think is so fascinating. The science behind it is, you know, is fascinating. Tell us a little bit more about that. Why does it work?

Alan [00:39:57] Well, it works because it’s kind of it’s all smoke and mirrors in a way, isn’t it? You know, by planting chives next to my carrots. And I remember learning at college back in the 1960s, I remember the phrase that stuck with me all those years, thinning of carrots is out. I wrote it in my exercise book and underlined it because the lecturer told me to. And the reason you don’t thin carrots is that when you do thin carrots, it releases the aroma of the carrot, which we all know. And the carrot flys home in, but if you try not to thin them. Sow them very, very thinly and harvest them as baby carrots anyway. So when they’re smaller they’re much more tender and then you plant chives or spring onions alongside them, the aroma of the onions is effective at fooling the carrot fly, which doesn’t smell the carrots, but it’s not muck and mystery, it’s a kind of obvious way to do it, really. And I think also having, I grow in my veg patch, lavender, scabious, you know, butterfly blue, sweet peas, things which attract hoverflies, pollinating insects, and they help pollinate the peas and beans that I grow as well. So I get good pollination, I get a good crop. Those are French beans at the moment, which is really great. And as a quick aside, I always grow climbing French beans rather than runner beans because they’re much more tender. So we always go climbing French. But it’s by working out what we’re doing. So it’s not sort of muck and mystery. It used to be thought of that, but there’s generally a fairly basic and obvious reason why one thing can stop, stop another thing, or things like nasturtiums will attract. blackfly, and you might be lucky enough not to get some on your broad beans. But for me, blackfly always attack my broad beans. The thing to remember is, one squirt the blackfly off with a very strong hose, just blow them off. By now, they’ve long gone. Several weeks ago they disappeared. So the attack those soft tops on the broad beans. The other way around is to pinch the tops off the broad beans so there’s less, nothing as attractive to them as the soft foliage, because it’s harder lower down. Fred Streeter, that old gardener, for those viewers who are over the age of 80 or well 70, will remember Fred Streeter saying I remember he had a lovely friend who said, you know he said, if you if you go down the bottom of the broad bean, you take a pinch of that dry soil by the bottom of the broad bean, and you sprinkle it on the blackfly at the top the broad bean. They don’t like it in their teeth. So they get fed up and they go, well they have a proboscis and they suck sap, we know that. But it was a lovely analogy, try sprinkling that soil. So there’s lots of old wives remedies, but sometimes the old wives remedies have a reason behind them. When you examine it, they worked.

Lucy [00:42:56] Yeah I mean sometimes we didn’t know why it worked. It just did work and you sort of know. But I think that the interconnectedness of everything is what’s so fascinating. I think as an organic gardener, that’s what you tend to start to see. If, like you said earlier, if you just jump in and have the faith, hold your nose, jump in, these things do come along. But I think sometimes making the first step is perhaps the hardest.

Alan [00:43:18] Oh, it is. It is. And it’s and you’ve really got to trust yourself and trust to it and not expect it to happen instantly. You can’t be an organic gardener next week and everything will be right. It’ll take months, sometimes a year or two, for a complete balance to be achieved. It’s never complete, but for a better balance to be achieved. I think the big thing is, is, you know, my big message would be, don’t be quite so perfectionist. Be perfectionist about your own standards of gardening, but learn to be just a little less anal really about everything that grows. There’ll be a bit of this will be a bit of that. And I got cross across yesterday. I looked at a rosebush. And I saw a great lump of convolvulus which had got right to the top of it. I mean, do they know who I am? And it was right at the top and I’d not seen it and I was pulling it out, I’ve got scratches on my arms to prove how. So cross with this bit of bindweed that got right. It happens in the best regulated of households, you know. And I think really it’s a kind of mental problem as much as anything else. Just learn to, it’s the old travelling hopefully, it keeps going. I just pulled the bindweed and it’s gone then, I know it’ll be back in a couple of weeks as I didn’t get get right down to the root. But I will. I will. I just like being out there and doing it you know, if it was all perfection. I try and get, we haven’t done it for two or three years now to get a winter break in the Caribbean in January or something, just for a bit of sunshine and warm temperatures. And I go out there. And think this is wonderful. What have they got? They’ve got bougainvillaea, they’ve got hibiscus, they’ve got oleander in January, it’s marvellous. What have they got in July, they got bougainvillaea. They’ve got hibiscus, they’ve got oleander, look at us over here you know, snowdrops, narcissi, tulips, paeonies, sweet peas, roses, acers in the autumn. And you go on and on and on, and you think yeah I know where I want to be, really just. It’s very nice to have a break, occasionally.

Lucy [00:45:30] That ever changing palette of plants, it’s there for us, we’re very lucky. We’re going to be going to questions very, very shortly. But before we do that, let’s just talk about that one step to get everybody started. What would it be.

Alan [00:45:49] Stop using chemicals. Simple as that. One thing. Just stop using them. Feed your soil, but give up. And it’s like, I suppose, like stopping smoking. I don’t and I haven’t. But, you know, it’s a tough thing to do because you’ll see things happening. But don’t, come away. Just try other methods of doing it, but don’t go out and I’ll just spray that greenfly, don’t. You know, and it’s the other thing is I’m going to my veg patch any time of year, or I see my grandchildren going there pull something out, pick something off and put it straight in their mouth with no worries. Oh, we ought to wash. Don’t need to wash it. You know, it’s so state of mind as much as a state of what you’ve done to your garden, but it is important and lets everything have its place on the Green Planet. You can’t be a conservationist on the one hand and someone who is into sustainability, looking after the planet and caring about the future of what we hand on to our children and grandchildren and spray. I just don’t think you can. I don’t think it’s possible to reconcile the one with the other. So give up and you’ll find you can still enjoy it. Actually, you’ll notice over, you know, months, a year maybe, things are happening and it’s you know, it’s not me. I don’t I do not have one moment now where I go in my garden and think oh, I wished I sprayed. It just doesn’t happen. I don’t feel like that because I tend not because it’s lots of stuff mixed up I tend not to get epidemics. There’s a few bits of this and a bit of that, but I rub greenfly on the Clematis out there that had black fly up it, oh look, there’s these bugs, rub it with your fingers, you know, squirt it with the hose and it’s gone. Then turn around, look at the stuff that’s growing well. And then you get a clear conscience and hopefully a good garden.

Lucy [00:47:44] And you say it’s all part of the journey, all part of the enjoyment and the process, and which we know is what’s so great about gardening is actually being out there and doing it. So now, okay, we’re going to go to questions and there have been loads coming in. So thanks, folks. Looking great. Now the we asked earlier people to vote on some of the questions that we’re coming up, so here’s one that’s had more votes than any other? And it obviously speaks to lots of people. So Mia is asking, how do you get rid of weeds in gravel organically?

Alan [00:48:17] Well, you get a hoe out and you run the hoe through it. Do it that way. That lovely line from Kipling, you know ‘better men than we go out and spend their working lives at grubbing weeds from gravel paths with broken dinner knives.’ Get down on your knees and if it’s a big gravel path. Well, take several days then, and do it. You know, I’m sounding very unsympathetic. I have a gravel drive. I was out there with the hoe yesterday just scraping them off. And then in this heat, oh, hoe them off when it’s dry like this, they’re crisp in 2 hours. So, yeah, it involves. I’m sorry, Mia. I’m not meaning to sound unsympathetic, but it strikes me as rather odd that people will go out with a sprayer and the six weeds in their gravel drive. They’ll get the spray gun mixed in with the thing that was shaking up a little strip. We could have been 2 minutes with a knife. Don’t tell your wife you’ve borrowed it. Just wash it. But I have an old one in the potting sheds. I use all the time. I use it for cutting turf as well. Yeah, sorry, I hope I’m not going to be totally unsympathetic to all these problems.

Lucy [00:49:30] On your knees with a bread knife. Off we go, so. Okay, moving on. Oh, now, this is this is going to resonate with so many people. Ruth is asking. Ruth H is asking We’re overrun with slugs. Oh, boy, I’ve tried nematodes. What else would you suggest?

Alan [00:49:45] This year particularly, we had a very dry spell in spring, do you remember that spell in March when they were coming through it was really dry. And I’ve been doing Instagram, which I was finally after a year of never, no I don’t do social media, I do do Instagram now which is Alan Titchmarsh MBE, just sort of different from all the other people saying they’re Alan Titchmarsh Well, they’re not. You’ve got a few imposters out there. There are actually. I keep occasionally getting messages, saying there’s somebody out there pretending to be you when they’re not. So I am Alan Titchmarsh MBE. I’m nobody else. And this year and I posted a picture of my hosta the border. I took an old Leyland hedge out two and a half, three years ago and planted my Japanese maples underplanted with hosters in a raised bed a foot high. And they are wonderful. There’s nary a hole in them. And people say why are your hostas so clean, because it was a dry spring. It was really dry. But I’ve got to I showed you in that video there about growing hostas and two sucking great sieboldianas, growing in pots with pot feet. And there’s not a hole. The pot feet help but a dry spring helps as well. That’s been really helpful. And then, yes, use those copper collars or there’s something else which is based on sheep’s wool, which is spread around them, when you water it the wool expands. They don’t like that. Eggshells. Great. It doesn’t really work terribly well. Discourages them a bit, but you still get them so I’d try those methods really if you grow in pots just put them on pot feet..

Lucy [00:51:22] Okay. Now moving on to the engine room as we talked about earlier. So Anna H. I have a very small garden but would like to start my own compost heap. How can I do this with limited space? And I’m worried it might smell a bit.

Alan [00:51:36] Oh, and it shouldn’t smell much at all make some closure. That’s the important thing. And if you’ve got a tiny garden, it might be two foot square and three feet high, or you can get a bin do it in the bin, that’s got a lid and the plastic, like I said in the video, as long as you don’t throw it away or get it from recycled plastic it’s not a problem and put your stuff in the bin, mix it, firm it and keep it damp and it will rot. That’s what it wants to do. It’s as soon as you pick anything, it decays and that’s what will happen. Just don’t leave great, load of lawn mowings to go green and slimey. Mix them with everything else and it will rot down, faster in summer than in winter. But if you have a sort of yearly cycle, if you’re a tiny garden, you only have one, shovel out the bottom. I do not mix my compost. Shirley Conran said life’s too short to stuff a mushroom. I reckon life’s too short to turn a compost heap. I have enough to do here without doing that. So but I do mix it all when I put it in, I put a bit of old carpet over the top just to stop it drying out in the heat. And then I come autumn and take off the bit that hasn’t rotted, dig out this wonderful brown stuff and it goes into the soil. So even if it’s tiny. The important thing is that you don’t let it dry out. Put a hosepipe on it in hot weather and you will get brown and crumbly stuff if you just mix it, firm it, moisten it.

Lucy [00:52:58] I mean, too small a space means, you know, it’s not quite sufficient. You could use a compost tumbler..

Alan [00:53:06] Rather like the plastic garlic that you get. The tumbler is it doesn’t take very much. But it rots down very quickly because you’re mixing it the whole time. It’s like a tombola machine, you know? Yeah. Give it a go. Any garden, doesn’t have to be a big one, to do a compost heap.

Lucy [00:53:21] Okay, so now back to back to slugs. Mark H was asking, what’s the best advice for controlling slugs without using, without using pellets? My poor dahlias. We have tried pellets. We’ve tried wool pellets, crushed eggshells, coffee grains, but they still keep coming through.

Alan [00:53:43] So he’s tried the wool. That’s interesting that they get getting over the wool as well. I’d go to my copper collars, then I found them really useful. They, you know, they’re quite sturdy things. And they’re not I can’t remember what they cost, but they’re not the cheapest. But they last forever. And if every spring, you just run a bit of emery paper over them to freshen up the copper and take the verdigris off, they haven’t crossed mine, so I’d try some of those, depending on how many hostas you’ve got. I’ve got 76 hostas. I can’t afford 76 copper collars. Well, you can use them in rotation as the hostas come up, push it down. It’s really critical, particularly in those early days when they’re coming up two inches and that’s when they can really make a mess because it’s rather like tearing paper doilies. You know, you fold your paper, take one tear, you open it up. It’s got 24 holes in it. And it’s the same thing when hostas are coming out of the ground. That’s when they’re at their most vulnerable. Try the copper collars, give those a go. Nematodes do work, but only when the soil is warmer. Well, of course, when hostas start coming through. Sometimes it hasn’t reached that critical temperature which it needs for the nematodes to multiply. So you try that watering that all around them as well and hoping it’s warm enough.

Lucy [00:54:54] And of course there’s never just one solution. You tend to layer over a whole range of solutions. You know, it’s the copper tape. It’s obviously attracting in, you know, perhaps hedgehogs. You might have frogs, you might.

Alan [00:55:08] Talking earlier about my pond here. We have moorhens that come and nest and and I find them in the garden occasionally. I have a rill and they, they’ve got a big pond out there. They come into the garden and they do their ablutions in the rill, I mean it’s not on. However I then learnt that they do very good slug control. So I thought ah, the rill is not far from the hosta border, so maybe the moorhens are doing their bit as well. This is organic gardening, it’s letting nature help and nature is a moorhen in this instance, you know.

Lucy [00:55:39] It’s a lovely view. Okay. Now we’re going to move on to a weeding, going back to what you just had in the border recently. So Katie C is asking, what’s the best way to tackle bindweed without chemicals?

Alan [00:55:52] Oh well, Katie, I’d do what I do and it’s hours of amusement and you don’t have to pay for it. It’s quite free. You can untanlge it! Try and catch it early enough when it’s coming out of the soil you can see it, just pull it and pull it. My advice to people is kind of no answer to it. No come back to it. Marestail is the same. My answer with marestail and bindweed and ground elder is that they don’t grow in lawns. Why don’t they grow in lawns? Because you cut your lawn, should cut it every week. Not now, haven’t cut mine for a fortnight as it’s not growing. But generally in spring and summer, you know, you cut your grass if you cut it every week you’ll get it thicker, cut it every fortnight is okay, but it’s thinner. So weekly cutting between sort of April and a stop when it’s really dry like this because it’s not growing. But if it’s growing, weekly cutting is good. No bindweed or marestail or ground elder grows, why? Because it’s regularly cut. So if you regularly hoe or you regularly pull it, you will get rid of it. It can’t withstand it.

Lucy [00:57:02] It weakens it, doesn’t it? Okay. So moving on, Alexis, how do you keep roses from getting rust organically? Obviously.

Alan [00:57:11] Rust is difficult. I mean, it’s going back to what I was saying earlier, but particularly with mildew and black spot and it’s the same with rust to a certain extent when you’re choosing a rose, if you’re on really dry soil, it’s when roses are stressed they tend to get fungal disease like mildew, black spots and rust because they’re trying to find water. Stress generally means drought, lack of water. If it’s a good rich organic soil. So they always say roses like going on clay soils. Well, they do because there’s generally a better water supply in clay than there is on sand and that means they’re less likely to be stressed. You know, if a rose hasn’t got much moisture at the roots, growing on sand, and it’s kind of like you can almost feel the rose being what you might call constipated, you know it’s kind of desperate for a drink, no water down here. And it’s leaves start to get a bit wilty. That’s when mildew and black spot come in and rust. If growing on clay, it’s less likely. So a] make sure you soil is well enriched and capable of holding on to moisture, but b] if they get it every year they’re a martyr to it, ditch them and get rose when you’re looking to buy a rose, the leaves are as important as the flowers, the colour and scent of the flower is of prime importance, but so are the leaves, if they’re thick and leathery. They’re less likely to fall prey to mildew and black spot, even in dry soils and rust. So look at the leaves. You don’t see mildew and black spot on rugosa. You know, the really crepey leaves ones, but there are lots of other roses, with big glossy leaves that don’t fall prey funguses and diseases cause the leaves are leathery and too thick for the fungus to get into.

Lucy [00:58:47] That’s right. Back to your point about making sure you choose the right plants at the outset. Let nature, let the plants work with you.

Alan [00:58:53] Exactly, you’re working with nature, you’re saying to nature, what can I do about this nature? So I’ve got a few over here on special with thick leaves. Why don’t you try one of them and you do, and you think actually this is really rather good. There’s a rose growing outside of our windows on the house, which is single flowered pink rose. Has the most gloriously glossy leaves and even when it’s out of flower. It’s first flush has finished. The leaves are so attractive because they shine and it never catches anything.

Lucy [00:59:19] Yeah. There’s been brilliant breeding hasn’t there, in roses, so definitely one to explore there. So okay, now we’re going to move to a topic that I know you love. Judith V is asking about wildflowers, so she’s saying when you cut wildflowers at the end of summer, do you put the cuttings on a compost head? If you do this, the seeds can be present when you use the compost for mulching. So, how do you how do you tackle that specifically? And then more generally about seeds on a compost heap?

Alan [00:59:46] I think the thing about it is just mix it up well and if you’re mixing it with your lawn mowing, they get very hot. So you’ll be able to utilise the roughage, as it were, rather like a breakfast cereal, the roughage to open up the grass clippings and stop them being that green slime. But the heat of the grass clippings will help to kill out those weeds and their seeds. And it’s damp too, the thing about a seed is it’s the most wonderful little capsule of life? But it needs to stay dry. And that’s why a packet of seeds kept cool and dry will often last for years. The moment you water it in the seed tray, the enzymatic action starts and it’s away and it’s vulnerable. And then, you know, if you let it dry out, it will die. And it’s the same with seeds if you put them in the compost heap, if they get damp or hot, they won’t be viable, just make sure they’re mixed with everything else, and you can use them in your compost heap.

Lucy [01:00:40] Okay, good. So moving on to more weeds. Good topic for the evening. So Ann is asking so she’s got a bed thoroughly infested with couch grass, ground elder and a wild salvia, hasn’t been touched for three years. And she’s saying how should she tackle it? She’s been busy doing other things, looking after her husband. So she’s she’s obviously turning her mind back to to the border outside. I’m too old to try and dig it out. I’m sure. I’m sure not. Should she try to save a few plants, strim it, put plastic over it. What do you do when you inherit a bad infestation. Where do you start?

Alan [01:01:20] You’ve got several options here. You can cover it with black plastic, but you have to leave that black plastic in place for a good year to kill everything out. What you could do is you could mow it. Now, take out anything you want to save. But then if you mowed that area and treated that area as an area of lawn, you’ll be surprised. Within two years that will have become a lawn and a lot of those weeds will have disappeared. They will have gone. And then if you like you can strip the turf and then you can make a new border, it does bring up that big thing in gardening, which is patience. And I get accused. You know, I have been accused in the past of because I do make over programmes about there’s no such thing as an instant garden. No, but there’s such thing as a head start. Gardening is doing a makeover. The only thing that varies is the time frame. And yes, when we’re making a garden and I’ve made several in my life now, it’s a long and ongoing process, but you can get ahead quite quickly at the beginning by doing a make over as we do on Love Your Garden, if you do it properly, but sometimes you have to take longer to solve a problem. And in this instance, I think what I would do there is make sure that I here are no stones or anything on it, and I would just mow it. But I keep mowing once the rains come and it starts growing again, every week and mow it right the way through. You can even mow in winter if it’s dry, and it’s growing. You know, you don’t put your mower away in October and take it out in March. If you do, you know, you have a heck of a job. So sometimes I mow occasionally during the winter when it’s dry, the grass has grown a bit. I don’t cut it really close. That way you will discourage all that weed growth without having to use herbicides. And then, you know, in months ahead, maybe a year, if you can just park that and let it lie fallow but mowed, you’ll solve the problem.

Lucy [01:03:12] Mm hmm. We once had an allotment covered in marestail. Did exactly that. You know, it works. It well, it works. It works well.

Alan [01:03:20] Yeah.

Lucy [01:03:21] Went back to the allotment 10 years later and the people that took it over from us!

Alan [01:03:26] But there’s no marestail there.

Lucy [01:03:29] Now, here’s a great question, so from Yvonne. So what would be the greatest misunderstanding about organic gardening, do you think, and which joy or result might be convincing for people who’ve got doubts about it?

Alan [01:03:46] Oh, gosh. Well, it’s had there was a sort of reputation attached to organic farming that it was and I’m sorry if anybody’s watching this with the beard and sandals and grey socks, but there was this thing that people in organic gardening were rather strange, sort of in the old days we called them beatniks. They were rather strange people did it, now, you know, and it’s rather strange if we don’t do it. So it had a reputation attached to it. The biggest thing you will find, I think, is clarity of conscience. You won’t always be totally in charge of everything, but you’ll achieve that balance where you’re comfortable that you and nature got kind of slightly managing. The balance of power varies week on week. I think that. But I think the biggest thing is that, you know, you can go out there and what you’re going to eat is as clean as it could possibly be, in as pure as it could possibly be. And to have a packet of seeds, I’ve got a packet of seeds. I mean, look at these these, I’m not really advertising them am I. Can you see what that says. It says Alan Titchmarsh sweet peas. But regardless of what’s in them, to know that you have had this packet of seeds in your hand and you committed it to the earth or to a seed tray. The beginning of the year and things came up when you grew them on and you planted them out and they grew and you’re cutting flowers. There’s nothing better than that. There’s such a sense of achievement that you’ve done that and when you’re doing it organically. It’s a double sense of achievement in that you’ve done it utilising nature, working with her rather than trying to repel and keep her back and fight her but that you and nature between you have grown it. I mean, it sounds kind of Pollyanna-like and purist, but it’s real. I mean, this is what happens. You put seeds and you look after them, and as long as you don’t let them dry out and you will get plants, it’s great.

Lucy [01:05:43] And you’re doing something that, you know is brightening a space that could have been very dull, very green, very flat.

Alan [01:05:49] You are, in the broadest sense, you’re actually paying rent for your time on earth, now that sounds like a pretty grandiose, almost quasi religious remark. But I do feel that if your patch of earth, going back to what we said at the beginning, how ever small it is as big as the table that my laptop’s on at the moment. It’s yours. It’s yours to do with what you want and you can feel goodness in soil. Train yourself to understand what good soil feels like and smells like. And then you see it growing plants and you look after them, you don’t let them go short of food or water or like your children, they will be hungry. It’s commonsense, learn to look, lot of people look and don’t see, learn to observe. It’s because of years and years. I can look at a plant flag 20 yards away and tell it’s not well, oddly, and I keep saying, you know, you’re making it up. It’s fine No, it isn’t. No, it’s not. You get closer, you learn by its demeanour. It’s like looking at a friend and saying you look a bit pasty. You all right? It’s the same with your plants, you’ll know when they’re well and when they’re growing lustily and it’s down to your cultivation, your husbandry, your stewardship terms which aren’t used anymore. They don’t just have to be concerned with agriculture and horticulture. They’re concerned with that little tiny patch that you’ve got. It matters you. I get some evangelical zeal about this, really, because it’s given me so much pleasure and delight over the years, growing things and it’s and it’s not difficult provided you understand how plants grow and what they need. Water, good soil, light, air. They’ll grow. And it’s up to us not to get in the way.

Lucy [01:07:35] Simplicity. You make it sound simple. And, you know, that’s why we said the easy way, you know, because people overcomplicate things.

Alan [01:07:43] Mm hmm. Absolutely right.

Lucy [01:07:45] Now that we’ve got time for just a couple of quick more questions. So let’s dive back in again Anne is asking about she makes her own comfrey fertiliser. Very good. Really easy to do isn’t it? But is it okay to use it on all plants? So yeah. Just quickly, take us through the types of homemade feed you can make. Nettle feed. You can make comfrey. Tell us about those.

Alan [01:08:09] Well, you get regulations, people in my sort of position I don’t think are allowed to advise you on that because of lots of complications from the powers that be. But it’s up to you what you do. And plants aren’t choosy, you know, when you’re using organic tomato feed on roses. Mercifully, plants can’t read. They can’t see what it’s been made for or the fact that it contains magnesium, potash and the main plant foods. It’ll do for anything. So yeah, keep doing it. It works. It works with nettles. When you rot them down in water and with comfrey, do make sure sometimes that you dilute it enough, but not too much. It’s amazing how sensitive plants are to relatively small amounts of feed. But yes, it works on everything. There’s nothing you shouldn’t use it on.

Lucy [01:08:56] Keep it simple. Okay, now here we go. This is a question that was bound to come up. Rats. So, Catherine, okay, we feel for you here. How can I control rats in my compost that live under a barn next to fields, nearby presumably. So okay, let’s address it head on. Tell us about rats.

Alan [01:09:16] We live next to a farmyard and we had a terrible, I had to give up keeping chickens two years ago because we had a terrible rat infestation problem, the farmyard then closed. And I’m afraid we had the local rat catcher round. So it’s the one thing I suppose tonight that I’m not being organic about, but when you get outbreaks like that, it’s not funny. There’s no organic way of controlling it. You worry about your children, your grandchildren, or what not. And it’s a problem. Yeah, but get your local man in to help sort it out, that’s the answer. With your compost heap keep clearing it out, you know? So it’s moved every year as it was, you know, harbouring them there. But I sympathise. I understand the problem. Yeah.

Lucy [01:10:01] I was going to say, there are some things obviously with your compost heap and not allowing it to be too comfortable and dry, you know, bird feeding, you might, you might ease off the bird feeding if you.

Alan [01:10:12] The thing about bird feed, do it out in the open. With our chickens, we moved them out from a little orchard, which is next to the farmyard. We put a run, a mobile run in the middle of a large lawn, a large area of grass. They don’t come. They don’t like going out into the open, rats like cover, like sneaking out, grabbing it, running back. So if you can put your bird feeders, as I have with mine here right out in the open, they’ll unlikely to be a problem. That’s the secret that.

Lucy [01:10:41] Yes, surprisingly cautious creatures. Okay, now here we go. This is a great question, actually talking about organic gardening. Our lawn, so this is Ann J. Our lawn is full of dandelions. Since we stopped weeding and feeding, do we have to live with them or is this something we can do?

Alan [01:11:00] Well, you saw my lawn when we were doing those videos earlier, that’s my lawn. That was one stretch of it. There’s another one which goes at right angles to it. I take dandelions, plantains and dock out of my lawn with that dinner knife. I go round on my knees. I don’t tell people to do one thing and then do something else myself and I just cut them out. I mean, the thing about dandelions is that they’ve got a long tap root, but if you use this thing called a daisy grub, where you can prise them out. I’ll take them out individually. It was ever so satisfying with a trug basket and a knife. I fill it up. The more regularly you do it, and if you do it and pull the flowers off so they don’t seed, you will get rid of them. It’s being committed I suppose, really. I mean, you might find it tedious, but suddenly there’s a strange kind of sadistic or if you like, masochistic pleasure in taking dandelions out of the lawn by hand with a little old butter knife. I know I sound pathetic if you are going to go away in droves now feeling rather sad about me. I understand. But that’s what I do on mine. It works. You know, you’ll reduced their numbers. I’ve got, alot of you know if you read my column in the magazine, I’ve two acres of wildflower meadow here, I pull ragwort by hand. And this year, I do it every year, this year I had seven plants or ragwort. The reason I pull ragwort out, I’m dubious about it because it’s a great food plant for the cinnabar moth, but it’s poisonous to stock. Now I don’t have stock in my field, but one day maybe I don’t intend to move. But if somebody came here and wanted to keep horses on that two acres of glorious wildflower meadow, ragwort, it kills horses. It’s poisonous to livestock. So I do actually pull ragwort and there’s plenty of it around in the hedgerows, in that field and the hedge banks around it. So it’s enough there. But by doing it every year, seven plants and it’s done. Well, you know there we are. And I know that it’s still pure and it’s full of scabious and knapweeds, glorious flowers and marjoram.

Lucy [01:13:09] But it does tell us that we should be aware of what our plants can do for us. I mean, back to the dandelion. It’s actually some of the best plant, some of the best flowers you can have early in the year for bees. So you know why be obsessed about getting rid of all of them.

Alan [01:13:25] You don’t want them in your lawn, you know, I mean, I understand that. So we have to strike a truce they’re allowed to grow other there, but they’re not allowed to grow there. And I understand that.

Lucy [01:13:35] Okay. Well, we’re coming up to quarter past eight. And so we’ve had a wonderful evening. And Alan, I know we must let you go and everyone else will be parched if they haven’t already got a very cold drink next to them. I really hope you have already. But look, we’re sort of, we’re going to wind up here, let everybody go off into the evening, look again at the garden and think, hmm, could I be a bit more organic? I don’t know. What’s the last message do you think you’d like to send people away thinking about organic gardening?

Alan [01:14:07] It’s just try it and just think how good you’ll feel giving it a go and remembering that everything that’s in your garden, it may sound slightly holier than thou, I’m not intending to, but it has a right to be there. That’s its natural habitat. I love that moment where you make a pond in your garden and it’s never had a pond in it before and overnight pond skaters arrive. How do they know? And then frogs come and lay their spawn. The garden pond has become a stronghold for the common frog because it’s dying out everywhere else, because the ponds are all going. We can do our bit. We can do something really important and have a lovely garden. It’s always a bit of compromise, but you can do it. And a friend of mine came round and said of my garden, what a wonderful escape. Yes, it’s an escape to reality because this is the real world. And with the news that we get every night now where our sense of proportion and our priorities are twisted and our sense of perspective is it’s hard to retain. The garden allows us to do that. It allows us to see real life going on that is under our control, but not, and to strike that balance and to feel that you’re working with nature. Squeak of a moorhen, thank you. That is the greatest joy in life is to think I might not have got it absolutely right but I’m pretty well on the way rather than a pristine, pure, sterile area of primped garden. I’m pretty prim, but it’s stuffed full of life, and that gives me enormous pleasure.

Lucy [01:15:59] You’re painting quite a picture there, so we must let you get into it. So, Alan, from all of us here, thank you so much for joining us tonight and sharing your thoughts and sharing your ideas. And I think lots of actions that people can take away and try.

Alan [01:16:13] I hope I’ve not made you feel guilty and hope I haven’t droned on too much, all you do when you doing something like this, is just hear yourself droning on. But it’s a passion and a privilege to be a part of so as it is to to write for Gardeners’ World Magazine, and to have been associated with it from the very beginning. So thank you for coming along and joining us tonight. Thank you, Lucy.

Lucy [01:16:32] Yes, well, thank you, Alan. And I should just wrap up to the audience with a few last sort of words. But so we’re going to let you go and many thanks. Clearly, it’s a great passion, and thank you for sharing it with us so well.

Alan [01:16:46] Well good luck. And as I used to say whatever the weather, whatever the weather. Enjoy your garden. Goodnight.

Lucy [01:16:54] Goodnight Alan. That’s great. So really, that’s it now, folks, thanks very much for joining us. That’s all we have time for. Really, my huge thanks to you all for joining us tonight. And we hope you’ve enjoyed this very special event with Alan exclusively for Gardener’s World Subscriber Club members. And this has come to you as part of the new premium area of, where you can find exclusive new features every month, including practical and problem solving tips, lots of videos, competitions and money saving offers. Meanwhile, we’d really welcome your feedback on tonight so that we can create future events that we hope you’ll love. And that survey is only going to take less than 2 minutes. So please do stay online after we’ve gone, which will be any second now, to complete the survey and that will follow this presentation right away. And before we do that, though, we are going to invite you to join us again in our next webinar, which is a wildlife masterclass with David Hurrion and Kate Bradbury. Part one is available now on demand and part two is coming up on the 26th of August. See the panel just here on screen right now to find out more. And as a subscriber, you will save 25% on the ticket price. So come and join us there. So it really it just remains for me to say a special thanks to all the team behind the scenes here tonight at, creating this event for us. And of course, thanks to Alan for a stimulating hour and a bit of his company. And I’d just like to give a shout out to Rachel behind the scenes, our producer and Emma, our gardening editor, who’s been sifting your many fantastic questions. And that’s really brought the event to life. So thank you. So there we are. Thank you for joining us. We wish you a lovely rest of evening and well, looking forward to seeing you next time. Have a good evening. Thanks, everybody. Bye.