A year in the life of a Sweet pea grower – Johnsons Sweet Peas

A year in the life of a Sweet pea grower – Johnsons Sweet Peas
Ever wondered where your seeds come from? I did!
I was lucky enough to see how Phil Johnson a UK grower from Kent produces his so you can have beautiful Sweet Peas.

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Have you ever wondered exactly how seed companies get all the seeds they sell you? How they keep varieties true to type? How they breed new varieties?

I have and last January I decided to go and find out with the help of a British seed firm specialising in Sweet Peas. Continue reading “A year in the life of a Sweet pea grower – Johnsons Sweet Peas”

Woottens of Wenhaston

Woottens of Wenhaston is an independent nursery in suffolk, specialising in rare breed plants such as Auricula
Heres my visit to their open day

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‘Angel eyes’ Stripe, this years star performer

Every season brings me a reminder of a plant that gives me amazing joy, late winter its Snowdrops but come early spring I’m all about the Auriculas!

I know I’ve covered this subject in depth before regarding the history and the show rules so I wont go back over old ground. I even had the most amazing chance to talk to the new owners of Pops Plants late last year, holders of the National collection of double Auriculas. You may have seen a feature on them in The English Garden magazine this April.

Today though I was all about Woottens, I’ve been promising myself a visit to their new base in the romantically named Iris fields, the nursery itself has had a fascinating history for what is a relatively young name in Horticulture. Before going I’d had the pleasure of reading Barbara Segall’s interview with its owners, I highly recommend reading it Barbara has a wonderful way of connecting with people and bringing them to life with her words, you can find her work here. It’s also worth noting it includes a full description of their open days and some beautiful pictures of the Iris fields in bloom… The Garden Post

Id also been one of a million people who had lurked around their stall at Hyde Hall’s plant fair last Saturday. I’m not sure dad had the same enthusiasm for the 4 exquisite little gems I came away clutching but gave me that wonderfully patient and slightly bemused look he gives me when I get a bit overexcited at a tiny plant. Given their stall had already been raided by discerning plant lovers already I was all the more determined to see the full glory of their collection… I was not to be disappointed!

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I woke up late, for me, on Saturday. Phil cat had already attempted to tell me it was well past breakfast time and what kind of a human servant did I think I was! He managed to get me to look at him blurrily for about 30 seconds, get one stroke on the head and I was back out cold for another half an hour! In my defence we have had an exciting week with near on 2000 visitors through the door with NGS openings and private groups and Friday had been so cold in comparison to the previous days. I eventually struggled out of bed around 8ish, lurched round the house like a zombie with Phil shouting about food and being let out. Nursing a super strong coffee I pondered on the weather… it was vile… grey and mizzley (neither mist nor drizzle but a bit of both) I figured I would just have to make the best of it so eventually got myself moving.

However as I drove along the Essex lanes heading towards Colchester my spirits rose, the stong honey scent of the fields of oilseed rape in full bloom and its undeniable cheerful, zesty colour were turning a veritable spotlight on in my head. Suddenly the mizzle didn’t seem so gloomy and I was glad I’d ignored my grumpiness and forced myself out.

East Anglia is an area of England I’m still learning about, I have a very vague grasp of where things are. I know the Norfolk broads a bit, Ipswich too, from my childhood but I certainly can’t say I know a great deal about it so this really was an adventure. Suffolk as a county is pretty much an unknown quantity to me, my mental map has fanciful creatures and the legend “Here be Dragons!” emblazoned across it. On the map Whenhaston doesn’t look that far but driving there felt like it took longer as the A12/A14 wended its way alternately from wide dual carriageways flanked by brutalist architecture of the BT offices back to tiny hamlets with quaint thatched cottages and signs for “Table top sale held today”. I also passed tempting brown signs promising historic mills, market towns, various gardens and most oddly (I thought) a swimming pool!

The journey however did give my brain time to unwind, seeing the lush fresh growth of the trees and hedgerows was pleasant even despite the grey weather. Eventually though my sat nav warned me I needed the next turning and suddenly I found myself on a single track lane which wended its way between high hedges, left onto a very slightly wider lane then in a blink a large set of metal gates with a sign announcing Woottens. I was here!

I parked up, faffed around changing shoes, slurping coffee and grabbed my camera then followed the signs which directed me towards 3 large polytunnels, past a line of young fruit trees. Ahead of me I could see business was already thriving. People were leaving clutching their treasures and more were arriving behind me!

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The first structure you reach had obviously taken some damage in the winter storms, I was later to learn this was where the Auriculas had been housed over the winter!

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How heartbreaking this must have been I can only imagine but on first impression you would never know as the main body of the stock plants had been saved and held safely alongside the Pelargonium collection next door… and what a collection!

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The plants in the tunnels though are not for sale, very sensibly, 7 plants of each variety are kept aside as “mother stock”. Each year after flowering auriculas produce offsets around their base. These “pups” are gently teased away from the mother plant with a small amount of root attached and then very carefully potted on. 6 months later it will have developed a reliable root system of its own and be ready for sale. The main reason for propagating vegetatively is it keeps the variety true, the pups are clones of the mother, absolutely identical in every way.

Auriculas can be grown from seed of course and if you don’t really care about being able to show and give them a name, only plants that have won a first at an official auricula show can be named, you can come up with some absolutely amazing results!

I admit im a bit of a purist when it comes to auriculas but I have succumbed to at least 2 of Woottens unofficially named plants just purely because I loved their colouration so much!

These would never make it to show standard mainly as they are Pin eyed (where the stamen, looks like a pin head, is clearly visible above the anthers) but they can be used as a valuable gene pool for breeding. After all breeder Ray Downard raised Arundel stripe from a pineyed seedling and ‘Rajah’ cross.

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‘Woottens Ragged Canary’ Pin eyed
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‘Woottons Green Goddess’ Pin eyed

I was particularly after some more Self’s on this visit so headed down to where the sale benches were set out beside the cutest little red summer house matched at the far end by a red marquee.

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There were nearly 2 benches of doubles, half of alpines, one of borders and the other of stripes and fancies. I gravitated straight to the stripes and spotted one that both myself and Philippa had liked when we’d seen it posted on Twitter earlier in the week. Called ‘Warpaint’ its the most gorgeous dusty red with delicate yellow thin stripes and a white farina center.

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‘Warpaint’ Stripe

She was swiftly joined by ‘Violet surprise’ a yellow throated variety with a distinct farina collar, beautifully bold distinct stripes in cream and violet.

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‘Violet surprise’ stripe

Then ‘Regency emperor’ a pale yellow narrow throat with a white background streaked amethyst purple and lemon yellow.

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‘Regency emperor’ Stripe

One more in the lilac shades ‘Orwell tiger’ such a delicate tiny flower but held in profusion above a sturdy looking plant. Hints of pale yellow ring its white collar whilst the stripes hold a tint of raspberry.

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‘Orwell tiger’ Stripe

Next I moved onto the gold centered Alpines the vibrant colours of this class really catch my magpie eye. Shaded from dark to light they really are a show stopper.

This one is ‘Cuddles’ which brings to my mind that puppet from the 80’s, if you’re old enough to remember that? A ridiculous orange orangutan animated by Keith Harris… I wonder if that’s what the breeder had in mind when naming it? She has far more class than the puppet though but is equally as cheeky!

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‘Cuddles’ Gold centered alpine

Next up is ‘Sirbol’ such a cheerful colour she shone in the overcast conditions, hints of deep rose overlay a dusky orange that fades to yellow at the far edges.

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‘Sirbol’ Gold centered Alpine

The last of my gold centered alpines, but certainly not least, is ‘Pixie’ a fine name for this ethereal beauty.  A romantic rose-pink with hints of raspberry fading to dusky at the edges. The gold center is wonderfully pinked at its edges

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Whilst choosing these beauties I was chatting to fellow enthusiasts, comparing my basket to theirs and vice versa. One lovely chap was looking for a particular variety which he said was his first love, something I myself can really relate to, my firsts were a double called ‘Sibsey’ and a white centered alpine ‘Kevin Keegan’. Even after a ridiculous number of years I can still vividly remember the joy these gave me. I kept ‘Sibsey’ for many years, almost 20 I think but lost her in a terrible mowing accident along with all my others. I am delighted to report she is now back in the collection and about to flower thanks to Tom and Suzi of Pops Plants… I digress!

I couldn’t see many if any self’s on the benches so I asked about their whereabouts, this is when I learned the terrible tale of the polytunnel disaster! Of all the collection the self’s had taken the worst of the battering. I can’t imagine how devastating this must have felt, to lose hundreds of your babies in one fell swoop to the vagaries of a cruel winter… but very generously I was allowed to view the survivors in the small A&E tunnels off to one side. Some of the stock plants numbers had been decimated to just one or 2.

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I did however spot one or 2 to put on our “must have” list!

‘Bright ginger’ will be a very welcome addition when stock levels have risen sufficiently for her to go back on sale, light levels in the tunnel made it difficult to capture her true colour but as the name suggests she is the most gorgeous shade of ginger with a pure white collar.

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‘Bright ginger’ Self

Another was ‘Golden fleece’ another aptly named variety. These will join ‘Lucy Lockett’ and ‘Morello’ amongst our Self’s.

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‘Golden fleece’ Self

Below are some of our beauties that are already in flower at Ulting Wick, taking pictures on wet, windy days is difficult so I apologise for the quality of some of the pics but it gives you an idea.

Dont forget to check out Wootens website as they have a few Open days throughout the year worth going to, most notably their Pelargoniums which are a collection of choice, rare and species pellies and their Iris day coming up soon! Imagine a massive field full of beautiful bearded Iris all in flower, gorgeous heritage varieties. It’s an amazing sight to behold and I will most certainly be going back to see it!

 

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‘Heavenly blue’ Stripe
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‘Morello’ Self
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‘Ruddy duck’ Stripe
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‘Lincoln consort’ Double
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‘Forest glade’ Double
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‘Lord saye’ Stripe
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‘Cappuchinno’ Double

 

 

Return of Pops Plants!

An exciting visit to Pops Plants nursery, home of the National collection of double Auriculas.

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Imagine a small normal suburban street, it could be any street in England, with a row of upmarket terraced Victorian houses. From the outside, anonymous, utterly normal. You could never guess what an amazing, magical delight could lurk in the back garden….

This is exactly what I found when I visited the lovely historic market town of Hitchin in late November. Hitchin was somewhere I knew well as a child, mum adored shopping there. I think the last time I visited would’ve been about 25 years ago and as I drove in there were some parts that seemed incredibly familiar, that funny road junction that dad hated, the old wooden beamed house that leans out precariously towards the road but subtle changes have taken place. As they always do in towns you haven’t seen in a long while, a new sainsburys, coffee shops where once a haberdashery once was. It’s always an odd feeling, vaguely twilight zone.

I had come with a purpose though!

My love of Auriculas had drawn me to this quiet, sleepy town. A chance follow on Twitter from a chap called Tom Morey, I noticed his @ as I scanned his profile and for some reason it rang a bell with me but what got my attention was the most gorgeous Auricula on his Twitter feed. I asked its name. Turned out it hasn’t, as yet, earned one…. An Auricula can’t be named till it’s won a show, Tom replied saying he would be entering it this coming year! He seemed a lovely chap & his feed was full of pretty Auriculas so I followed back… the penny still hadn’t dropped as to the significance of his @

A few days passed, I chatted to another chap ive known online for about 10 years now, Rhizowen, and the subject of my destroyed Auricula collection came up. I was living in a flat that had a communal garden, quite frankly it was awful but that’s by the by, my precious Auriculas which had survived multiple house moves, neglect and vine weevil attack were sat outside my flats windows. A small little ray of sunshine for me in what was a bleak place. One day on returning from work I filled my watering can and wandered outside, noticing the mow men had been and cut the grass, I turned the corner…. Horror!

A crime scene, destruction, wholesale mutilation… I stood not quite comprehending what I was seeing, it made no sense. Shattered terracotta fragments littered the grass, small shrivelled baked shreds of what could once have been plant material, compost and gravel strewn across the floor under my window and strips of black plastic pot …. Gradually the full horror sank in, the mow men had mown my Auriculas, gone straight over the top, pots and all!

To this day the wholesale destruction still amazes me (& breaks my heart) I’d had some of those plants since starting Ryton! Sibsey in particular was the love of my life but now gone… anyway, back to the present day!

Tom popped into the conversation empathising with my grief then did something totally unexpected and hugely generous! He offered me some of his Auriculas! My jaw literally hit the floor. The conversation rapidly switched to DM where on talking to him further the penny finally dropped… @Popsplants2, his twitter handle. Bear with me here, Pops Plants were a huge name in Auriculas for any number of years and I’m 99% sure that it was from them I bought Sibsey at the Malvern show. Pops Plants were owned by Lesley Roberts & Gil Dawson, they were not only responsible for holding the national Auricula collection but also for breeding, introducing & showing many new varieties … Their show medals would be tucked around the doorframe in the kitchen Tom tells me…and i was now talking to Lesley’s 2nd cousin Tom who had taken over the collection of doubles when herself & Gil decided to retire earlier this year! This was an opportunity to go and see the collection that I just couldn’t miss!

So off to Hitchin I went!

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Tom and his business partner Susi Clarke took on responsibility for the collection in May 2017 after receiving full tuition from Lesley & Gil on how to look after and propagate the collection. Susi’s husband built the most wonderful standing out Auricula house and it’s from here that Susi and Tom are rebuilding Pops Plants (hence the Twitter handle). It’s a remarkable undertaking for 2 people with full time jobs, families and a shared love of Auriculas.

They are currently building their stock of Auriculas up, mainly doubles at the moment but looking to expand into the fancies, striped and self’s and have just listed with the RHS Plant Finder. They also will be running a mail order business via their website popsplants2.co.uk

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‘Bittern Bounty’

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‘Cardinal Red’

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‘Forrest Bracken’

All of this plus holding down full time jobs & family lives keeps them very busy but you will still find them selling their plants at various fairs and markets! Here are some of the upcoming dates

Hitchin craft market – 16th Dec 2017

Southern Auricula show, old barn hall, Great Bodeham – 28th April 2018

Rare Plant fair, Winterbourne – 20th May 2018

As more dates are added to their calendar they will be added to the website so keep checking in!

Some of the original plants from pops plants can be now seen at Hampton Court.

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‘Avon Bunny’

Tom & Suzi also told me some hints and tips for growing Auriculas, a couple of which id never heard of before! Firstly, there is a thing called ‘Auricula finger’ this is not as entertaining as it initially sounds. Auricula leaves are covered in very fine hairs, when you’re potting on a lot of them, or have particularly sensitive skin that is prone to irritation it’s advisable to wear latex gloves as the hairs can irritate. Apparently the feeling is akin to pins and needles. Ive never experienced it myself but then I’ve never had to handle as many Auriculas as they do…. Also, I have the skin of a rhino & the only thing I’ve ever reacted to is fig sap, a nasty phototoxin!

Also the farina (the white dust often present on Auriculas) can cause a mild rash on particularly sensitive skin or through prolonged exposure. As with all plants there is a small chance that you can react so don’t worry overmuch about these things, more just be aware.

We had a chat about the shows too, they can be incredibly competitive! People love their Auriculas and in order to be able to name an Auricula it has to have won at a show which means that if you see a named variety it really is the best of the best!

This can sometimes lead people to resort to tricks which I would never have believed! The poor judges have to look out for things such as icing sugar or talc being used to accentuate farina or hairspay or glue being used on the anthers to make them more prominent! Madness!

As for the care of your Auriculas, Tom describes this as being ‘wilful neglect’ which I think describes my methods with both Auriculas and Orchids & is incredibly successful.

I often hear people saying they struggle to keep them alive and 90% of the time it’s because they love them too much. To understand their history is the key, they are bred from true alpine dwellers, high up In the mountains. Cold isn’t a problem for them, they happily survive below freezing temperatures and although they look dainty and frail are truly tough as old boots but drainage is key to their survival. Their ancestors grew in rocky positions, with only the barest sprinkling of topsoil, one of natures true survivors!

My Auricula Mix

There are probably as many different mixes as there are growers but this is one that I’ve found works incredibly well for me. I’ve found over time that although they will grow in plastic pots they thrive in the traditional terracotta you tend to see them exhibited in. The terracotta allows them to drain and breathe so much better than plastic and if you’re growing them outside without a frame above to keep rain off then it becomes even more important.

 

 

First, I start by selecting a small pot, this is important as whilst they build up a root system it means they don’t have to sit in cold, wet compost, an absolute killer for them.

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Second, I add a good layer of drainage, I use horticultural grit, this allows for the bottom inch of the pot to drain freely. If you don’t have this ready to hand you could use pebbles, gravel or even hydroleca (expanded clay bobbles) or at a push polystyrene, basically anything that won’t hold water and has sufficient gaps for water to pass through quickly and easily.

Next I mix the growing medium itself, I tend to use a peat free compost, in this case Dalefoot compost. Dalefoot is made primarily from composted sheep’s wool… yes, sheep’s wool… and its awesome!

Unlike other peat free composts it has a wonderfully smooth consistency, no chance of getting splinters in your fingers here and it doesn’t have an overly acidic level to it which can sometimes be a problem with other peat free mixes due to their high levels of pine bark.

To this I add generous amounts of grit, as a rough approximation about 40% but I do it purely based on sight and feel.

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As an extra help, to retain more nutrients within the mix I add some perlite. Perlite is a type of volcanic rock. It should not be confused with vermiculite which is very similar but retains more moisture. The nutrients will be absorbed by the perlite which the roots can then affix themselves to but will still allow for water to pass through easily. I adore perlite, it has so many uses, from sowing fine seeds, taking cuttings to mixing into composts for pelargoniums, orchids and of course Auriculas!

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Next I add a little bit of magic! Forget miracle grow which is basically sweeties for plants, I want my plants to grow big and strong on the horticultural version of my mums hotpot! Don’t get me wrong, chemical fertilisers have their place but should be used sparingly if at all. The problem with them is not just the environmental impact they have but also what happens to a plant raised on them. Imagine the plant is your child, you’d feed them good solid food, right? Something that would give them the energy to grow, all the major food groups and trace elements, vitamins etc. Yes sweets give them energy, they run round like maniacs for a few hours but then the sugar crash! Grumpy, sulky, tearful… and that’s just the parents!

I want these plants to put down roots first then bulk up vegetatively. If I do this right, come spring I will get an amazing display of flowers.

Here comes the science bit!

In order to encourage a plant to put on vegetative growth I need to make sure it has plenty of Nitrogen, preferably released slowly. For this I use pelleted chicken manure. I’ll be honest with you for the first week a sensitive nose can detect a certain whiff of farmyard but it very quickly dissipates & isn’t overpowering. For the 11 plants I made this mix for I used under half a cup, it really isn’t necessary to overfeed.

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Then I add another great Organic food, powdered seaweed. Packed full of trace elements it has an average NPK of 1-0-4… I say average as it can vary slightly given that its an organic food.

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NPK stands for Nitrogen, Phosphor & Potassium, the 3 main nutrients needed by plants… other than water & air, of course. Each has a different role to play and a good way to remember their uses by the plant are

  • Nitrogen – leafy growth
  • Phosphor – flowers
  • Potassium – fruit & root

With these added I now mix thoroughly. (those of you who are on the ball will have noticed in the pics I did this backwards!)

When filling the pot I allow a cm clearance from the compost to the base of the plantlet, this will be top dressed with more grit to level with the pot. This has 2 main advantages, again drainage, so moisture doesn’t sit round the plants neck and cause it to rot off. Secondly, and this is something we haven’t touched on yet, the main reason that last 10% are lost… the dreaded Vine Weevil!

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I have found a good layer of grit puts vine weevil off laying its eggs as direct access to the soil and therefore the roots is prevented.

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Also it has an aesthetic purpose, it just looks right, with Auriculas it’s all about the show!

A final note about Auriculas, they can suffer from a few problems, as I mentioned before vine weevil. Prevention is always better than cure in this case so treat with Nemasys vine weevil prevention as soon as the soil temp is above 15 degrees in the spring and then again in autumn before temperatures drop. If your plant starts looking a bit wilty despite watering then tip it out and check its roots for the beastly little grubs & squish them to death if you find any!

Another is root aphid, this can be an awkward one to deal with as they hide right inside the base of the rosettes. You have 2 real options here, one use a systemic insecticide (with great care that other pollinators are not present so either very early morning or late evening) the benefit of a systemic is it gets into the “bloodstream” of the plant & will continue killing the sap suckers for up to 10 days breaking their lifecycle. Contact insecticides rely on you being able to target the pest which can be difficult if you can’t get to them.

Your second option can risk the plant a little it involves taking the plant from its pot, disposing of the compost and washing the base of the rosette in just very slightly soapy water. When I say wash, I don’t mean scrub the plant rather just sluice it completely. Why soapy? Because soap acts as a wetting agent, it makes water wetter. Greenfly breathe through tiny tubes on the side of their body called spiricles. Water has too much surface tension ordinarily to flood these spriricles but the addition of a small amount of soap allows it to flood them and drown the aphids. Just 2 or 3 drops of washing up liquid to a litre of water is sufficient. Rinse under running water and repot.

Watch out for soft yellowing leaves, this indicates the plant has too much water.

Dry crispy wilty leaves, not enough water.

I hope you’ve found this helpful and are now inspired to grow your own Auriculas, don’t forget to follow @popsplants2 on twitter & check out their website!

Here’s a few other things I’ve written about this subject if you’d like to know more…

Primula auricula, the beauty & obsession

A short history of auriculas and description of ‘Show’ auricula standards (part 2)

Auriculas part 3, Alpines, Doubles, Borders & Seeds