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24 September 2014

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You are in: Lancashire > Nature > Features > Ask the gardener: Flax

Bill Blackledge

Ask the gardener: Flax

Bill gives the facts on flax (phormiums).

Warton's Bill Blackledge is one of the county's most popular and sought after gardeners.   If it's green and needs watering, Bill can tell you about it.  He has been answering BBC Radio Lancashire listeners' queries for over thirty years, which means he's been there nearly as long as the transmitter!

His knowledge is encyclopedic. After training at the under the then Ministry of Agriculture, Bill spent over twenty years at the Department of Biological and Environmental Services at Lancaster University.  Now, he's a regular course tutor at Alston Hall, Longridge and Lancaster Adult College.

For three decades, Bill has travelled the county with fellow judges as a regional judge for North West in Bloom.

So, whatever the problem, we like to think Bill can sort it out... at least that's the theory!

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Andrew Hamilton asks...

I have a Phormium that I planted about seven years ago and it has grown from about eighteen inches tall to over five feet tall and about the same width.  It seems to survive the windy maritime and winter conditions quite happily and seems healthy enough.  However, it has not flowered so far.  Unfortunately I cannot recall the variety but the leaves are a mixture of purple and yellow/brown. Should it have flowered by now please?

Also, something that I have wondered about concerns your previous various comments to questioners regarding removal and dividing of Phormiums.  Given that these plants are presumably used for the harvesting of leaves for rope making etc. back in NZ, what would happen to a plant that was completely lopped off just above ground level - would it recover?

Bill replies...

Phormium the New Zealand Flax is a tough plant and is ideal for coastal conditions.  But the plants do vary immensely as to when they flower and it seems to be that if they are grown in soil restricted areas such as containers this seems to assist them into producing flower stems but, I am sure Andrew that your Phormium in time will produce the spike flowers and a top dressing of Sulphate of Potash will, I feel, help to promote flowering.  With regarding to lopping the plant off at ground level I have never personally taken such drastic steps but you can cut back any older/dead leaves to ground level.

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Julie Quinn asks...

I have recently moved my phormium from a large trough to a clay/improved soil bed. The flax I have is dark brown and I have started to notice a speckled effect all over the leaf, is this something to be concerned about?

Bill replies...

One of the reasons why small speckles are appearing on the leaves of your Phormium Julie could be water droplets if you have watered on a sunny day, and when you do water you would be far better watering early morning or late evening, but it could also be the effect from transplanting.  I am sure that when new leaves appear these will be fine.

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Bruce asks...

I have a new zealand flax in my front garden which about 8ft tall. I was wondering how to prune it, could I cut it down to about a ft above ground and split the root with a spade? If so how long would it take to grow back to full height?

Bill replies...

I would wait until the autumn time Bruce before splitting your New Zealand Flax (Phormium) as the soil will still be warm and your plant will stand a far better chance of establishing itself. With regard to pruning you can using a sharp knife to cut back the older and scorched leaves to base level, leaving the newer shoots.

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Brenda Armstrong asks...

Can I cut the leaves near to the base to reduce overall size of my phormium? It is green with yellow edges. It is too large to dig up and divide. How do I clear the snails?

Bill replies...

You can cut some of the older leaves off your Phormium at base level to encourage new leaves, but these leaves are very tough and you will need to use a sharp knife.  One of the problems with Phormiums is that they do grow into very large plants. They are extremely tough but you can, by using a very sharp spade, cut through and divide the clump and the time for dividing is autumn time.  With regard to the snails they do seem to congregate at the base of the plant and I find the easiest method is wearing a pair of gardening gloves to scoop them out with your hands or a trowel.

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Jennie Handley asks...

I want to plant a fairly small (no more than 6-7 feet when fully grown) exotic type shrub/tree/palm/cordyline/yucca that will remain green all year round. The soil is well drained, the location sunny but can be quite windy with no ready protection. Could you advise on my best plant options?

Bill replies...

Plants which will give your garden an exotic look Jennie are the New Zealand Flax (Phormium Tenax) which grows to a height of approximately six to eight feet and is an ideal plant for sun and light shade and will also tolerate exposed windy conditions.  The plant does flower and the flowers are similar in shape to the Bird of Paradise. Also, Yucca Gloriosa Variegata which will grow to a height of three to four feet and again is ideal for a sunny spot/windy conditions.  There is also the plain green leaved Yucca Gloriosa which is far more vigorous, will grow virtually anywhere and when established produces large flower stalks with beautiful cream flowers.

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Val Blease asks...

I have a large phormium purpureum which has a large family of snails housed deep in the depths of the leaves.  These do not seem to do the phormium much harm but I try and remove them when possible.   My problem is that the plant now has a white powder on the leaves, mostly at the base of the leaves but also can be further up the leaves. Can you recommend what to do about getting rid of this white powder.   Is it a fungus or an animal?

Bill replies...

The white powder on the leaves on your Phormium Val is most likely powdery mildew and you will need to spray with a fungicide such as Dithane 945 which is in sachet form or alternatively use a systemic fungicide such as Systhane Fungus Fighter.  Whichever spray your use you will need to thoroughly spray the leaves till runoff and this process may need to be repeated after three to four weeks. 

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John asks...

I just bought some Phormiums and was wondering if I can plant them this time of the year (February) in East Scotland?

Bill replies...

Phormiums -  the New Zealand Flax - is a beautiful architectural plant John and can be grown in full sun or light shade and is ideal in exposed seaside gardens but, it does require a well drained and fertile soil. When planting it is important to avoid frost pockets as Phormiums can be prone to frost damage, and even though they are hardy, I would be inclined to wait until early springtime before planting into your garden.  They will need feeding annually - early spring/summer time - with a general base fertiliser such as Fish Blood and Bone Meal and it is important when planting to avoid planting too deep as this can cause rotting of the base stems.  You will also have to keep an eye on the watering throughout the summer months.

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Barbara Cotter asks...

I would like to increase my stock of phormiums but do not want to split them. I am not very good with seeds.  Can I do leaf cuttings and if so could you tell me how to do   them please? I would be very grateful.

Bill replies...

It is going to be very difficult Barbara to propagate Phormiums from leaf cuttings.  You will however find that with Phormiums you can divide a small piece from the stock without splitting the main areas.  If you are unable to do this I would then try again from seed and, you will get far better results if you sow the seeds in a two inch deep seed tray - or in pots - in an open seed medium - for example a fifty/fifty mix of sharp grit sand and a multi purpose compost.  After you have covered the seeds with a good quarter inch of compost in trays or pots place in a sheltered spot in the garden but, you will need to protect them from mice and voles.

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James Low asks...

I have a large new zealand flax in my garden and since I have just bought the house I was wondering what to do with the 3 large flowers it had this summer - do you cut them back for next year to help to promote more new growth or should I just leave them alone and they will die back of their own accord?

Bill replies...

Once the flowers on your New Zealand Flax have completely died James and you are left with seed heads and brown stems, these can be cut back to the base of the leaves. Some people however do leave the seed heads and brown stems on the Flax during the winter months for food for bird life.

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Susan Perry asks...

I have just moved and split up my phormium I have replanted half in the same bed but the leaves seem to be turning yellow this is a green plant is there something I can do as I would like to save this plant.

Bill replies...

The yellowing of the leaves on your Phormium Susan will have been caused by splitting and transplanting and although you will need to keep an eye of the watering throughout the summer months - especially during hot weather - I would refrain from overwatering your plant.  I am sure that your Phormium will recover when it has become re-established.

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Angela Frith asks...

My garden is 8 years old and was planted by designers. I now have three mature (10 feet) phormium tenax growing within a foot of; a rowan tree, a eucalyptus gunni, and a buddleia. All are now good sized trees. Say 15 feet high. My question is - how long will the phormiums live compared to the trees? I do not want to sacrifice such marvellous plants but the effect is not harmonious.

Bill replies...

The Phormium Tenax (New Zealand Flax) is a magnificent plant Angela and will live for many decades.  I do however agree with you that the selection of planting is not harmonious and with the other trees growing very close to your Phormium I am afraid that some will need to be coppiced or removed.  It is possible during early Springtime to divide your Phormium plant and transplant the divided part in another area of the garden but, with regard to which trees/shrubs you retain the decision has to be yours.  Again, it is possible to cut back hard your Eucalyptus and this will shoot again and the same also applies to your Buddleia

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Edwina Nicholas asks...

What is the correct way to prune a large flax plant?

Bill replies...

There a quite a range of variety of Flax plants (Linum) Edwina varying in height from approximately one to two feet and with regard to pruning Flax plants the dead growth needs to be trimmed mid to late Autumn.  One of the problems with perennial Flax is that they are not a long living plant but they are easily propagated from seed and also soft wood cuttings taken in the Spring.  They are a beautiful plant and will produce an abundance of flowers throughout the summer months if planted in a sunny position.

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Sally asks...

I have got a phormium yellow wave plant in my garden, can you tell me how to split it up to make more plants?

Bill replies...

I have seen Phomiums grown in cool greenhouses and poly tunnels through the winter months Elaine and it will be possible to grow your Phomium in a cool conservatory but, it will need to be cool and receive maximum light intensity.  I would not advise keeping your plant in a warm room in your home.

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Elaine Spence asks...

Can my outside phormium palm grow inside?

Bill replies...

The Phormium Yellow Wave is a beautiful variety and the yellow colours within the leaves makes it an ideal contrast in the garden.  Phormiums Sally can be divided late spring and if your Phormium is quite large you maybe able to split your plant using a sharp spade or you can lift the plant and again using a sharp spade divide the clump.  When dividing it is important to have reasonable sized clumps to transplant.

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Flavia Timiani asks...

We have New Zealand Flax growing very close to the house wall in a border.  It's overgrown and we'd like to remove it.  Any suggestions as to how we can do this?

Bill replies...

The New Zealand Flax (Phormium) is a very popular architectural plant and will tolerate wet conditions but, will need space to grow.  I can see your problem Flavia with your plant being in close proximity to the house and the difficulty of removing the plant - but I still feel the best method would be to try and dig it out.  If this method is too demanding I would try and cut the stems/leaves just below soil level - there is a chance however, it will shoot again but, at least it is keeping your plant under control.
I am reluctant to recommend a systemic weed killer due to the structure of the plant and with other plants being in close proximity.

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Dorothy Law asks...

I have a Phormium, Pink Flamingo, in a circular bed which is now far too big. Shall I have it removed and if so are the roots very deep? It has been in situ for about eight years.

Bill replies...

If you feel you need to move your Phormium Dorothy the time to lift your plant is Autumn or early Spring.  I would not advise moving it this time of year.  It is going to be quite a task to dig out your plant and I am sorry but there is not an easy solution that I can suggest.  You have not mentioned what you intend to do with your plant  - if you intend moving it to another part of the garden you can reduce the size of the plant by dividing the Phormium into smaller pieces - which would make it far more manageable.

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Helen Everett asks...

I have recently bought a Phormium Rainbow Queen which is in a pot on my decking. I don't know why, but some of the leaves have begun to turn a bit brown and look like they are dying. Is this normal, or could there be a problem?

Bill replies...

It is important Helen that when you grow a Phormium in a pot that you keep it well watered and you will also have to feed on a regular basis.  I would use a slow release fertiliser such as Fish Blood and Bone Meal or a John Innes based fertiliser.  I do find that some of the variegated varieties such as Rainbow Queen can suffer quite easily from wind scorch damage and I feel these varieties do need to be situated in a sheltered area.

last updated: 02/06/2008 at 15:01
created: 23/10/2006

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