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.

Phil Johnson very kindly offered to let me see the process from start to finish! Growing and selling Sweet Pea seeds and seedlings for 10 years now, he started small with his business based in Kent. Gradually building a reputation for quality and consistency his business has gone from strength to strength.

Johnsons Sweet Peas is now one of very few independent seed suppliers in the UK and maybe the only one specialising in just Sweet Peas. In a competitive market where the big boys rule how exactly has he managed to be successful?

Phil is incredibly mild mannered, quiet and affable as a person, not someone you think of in the sense of a cut and thrust business world but maybe therein lies his success, he’s very likable and knows his subject inside out. He has been a member of the Sweet pea society from a very young age and used to give talks and lectures on them to Horticultural societies for many years, sadly time constraints have now put paid to this.  He is also a member of the RHS Herbaceous trials committee, this, the growing business and family life now take priority over talks! He has a passion for Sweet Peas. He has 2 part time workers which help sow the sweet peas that he sells at various fairs around the south east in the spring but for the most part he quietly beavers away, sowing, planting, harvesting, packaging and selling his varieties by himself!

Starting now his small team will be sowing pots for sale in spring and by March/April they will have around 15,000 Sweet peas ready for planting out in people’s gardens. They grow somewhere between 160 to 170 different varieties every year which means they can provide not only baby sweet peas but also an excellent range of fresh seed for those varieties that are a little bit more difficult to get hold of …. but how!

I popped along to his facilities on a gloomy February evening to see how he starts his year.

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Phil shows me some of the sweet peas grown for sale to the public
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Some of the varieties to be grown out for seed saving

In the massive glasshouses he had more sweet peas growing than you can imagine and certainly more than I was able to picture, sweet peas don’t need vast amounts of heat to germinate and once they have germinated they are quickly potted on and moved to the cool growing on section. The temperature in here is only just above the ambient, making it quite a chilly environment to be standing around in.

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In the process of pricking out for sales

We quickly retreated to the office where I was shown the vast quantities of seed needed to supply demand, Id never even considered, never mind seen what this would entail and the thought of achieving all this with such a small team is daunting to say the least but Phil is totally unphased by it all. The seed is stored in huge bags in a climate controlled area, cool, dry and stacked to the ceiling!

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Seed stored ready to be packaged and sent out
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How many!!

Phil tells me there is approx. 12 seeds to a gram and in a year tons of seeds can go through this facility. I’ve always imagined that this would take a massive team of people not just 3!

He mentions that later in the year I might like to come back and see how they grow varieties out, obviously I am delighted to accept, and explains they do this for several reasons. Firstly to check that varieties are ‘True to type’. this means that the genetics are stable, sometimes a variety will break down over time, losing virility. That there is no cross pollination happening somewhere in the supply chain which would muddy the variety, although rare as Sweet Peas are self fertile this will sometimes occur. Lastly, and this is the part that is massively exciting! To trial newly bred Sweet Peas which will be coming up for sale in the future.

And so on a boiling hot day in June I got the call id been very excitedly waiting for!

I literally can’t describe how amazing the smell was as I pulled up and stepped out of my car, the scent of a million sweet peas escaping from the doors of 2 aircraft hangar sized glasshouses is incomparable to anything else I’ve ever experienced. Row upon row, in full flower, each vying for my attention, amazing!

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Phil was waiting for me with a ‘map’ of what was growing where. Some of the names very familiar old favourites, others having just a set of numbers and letters to identify them. These were incredibly exciting as they are so newly bred they haven’t even been named! I get ahead of myself though and I was about to be given a masterclass in Sweet pea growing….

There are currently on the market 2 main types of Sweet pea

Heirloom/Old fashioned

  • Clamped keel
  • Stronger scent

A well known variety of this type is Cupani

Spencer

  • Open keel
  • Bigger flowers
  • Longer stems
  • More colour varieties
  • Less scent

The next part to consider are the descriptions of flower colour

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Now of course there are single colours…

The edge…

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The flakes…

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And the bicolours…

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Now if you can get your head round these prepare to have it blown off! Did you know about shifters? I didn’t!

These are the ones that can change colour almost completely from when they first open in the most delightful way. If you’re going for a particular colour scheme I guess they could be a bit of a nightmare but if youre more liberal in your colour combinations these can be incredible fun!

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And although I can’t say too much about the new breeds which Phil has in the pipelines I can say they’re a game changer when it comes to sweet pea colours and retain the scent which we all adore!

How do you go about breeding a new sweet pea though?

Like most members of the pea family they self pollinate, this means its relatively easy to get them to come true from seed but it does mean that in order to produce new ones human intervention is needed in most cases.

Phil shows me how he opens the keel, pictured below…

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to expose the stamens and pistil of the flower. The stamen, made up of the filaments and anther, are the male parts of the flower. The Pistil is the female part. The stamens must be carefully removed before the flower has fully opened, to stop self pollination occurring and pollen from a different flower applied to the pistil. Once pollinated it needs to be protected from further cross-pollination. If you can get hold of a tiny mesh gift bag they are perfect for the job allowing air to circulate but preventing insects from helping.

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I spent well over an hour with Phil asking lots of questions, getting very excited over some of his new breeds and getting my very own sweet pea selfie with Frances Kate, a Spencer type particularly good for competition growing due to its long straight stems

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Phil also showed me how to straighten a slightly bent stem between thumb and forefinger.

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One main thing when planting your sweet peas out is not to overcrowd them, less is more! Overplanting will cause them to flower less as they will try hard to produce green growth to the detriment of flower production. No more than 2 per station and 6 inches apart. For bushy growth pinch them out often, for a show growers cordon pinch out sideshoots and tendrils. Deadhead regularly, at the very least every other day. As soon as a plant has managed to produce seed it will quit flowering.

Phil gave me permission to pick a posy of Sweet peas before I left, I was like a kid in a sweet shop! Beautiful!

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The sharpest eyed of you may spot one or two VERY unusual varieties in the bunch!

How does his year end?

Come September you’ll find Phil in a far more mechanised environment!

After the dry husks have been harvested they get put through some very noisy, dusty processes in order to bring you the finished product. Once again I went to see how this happens…

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Massive bags of dried pods are lined up ready for processing, then he showed me the machines that help to do it…

Firstly the pods are broken up and good seeds are thrown one way, small unviable seeds and husks the other…

Then a second process refines it…

 

 

 

And finally the precious seeds are clean and ready to be packaged! It makes you realise exactly how much work goes into that lovely little packet of seeds you’re about to sow!

I will never again pull a face at how much I pay for seeds, not that I really did anyway, but it’s really opened my eyes to see the whole year through.

So go and have a peruse of his lovely website and see for yourself how many truly wonderful varieties he has on offer, now’s the time to get sowing!

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Floral fantasia at RHS Hyde Hall

Floral fantasia at RHS Hyde Hall with Thompson and Morgan
Set in the old vegetable garden T&M have created a wonderfully colourful display of some of their bedding plants available from seed and plug plants
Heres just a few of them on show!

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Imagine an entire garden just dedicated to bedding plants, a riot of colour and scent! Literally every way you turn there is an extravaganza of shapes and forms, they tumble from towers, explode from baskets, scramble up spires, drip from containers and carpet the beds.

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Well imagine no more! You can see this vision for real at RHS Hyde Hall from the 4th June to 30th September. Thompson & Morgan have created a breathtaking display using every available bedding plant you can think of and some you’ve possibly never heard of.

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Its rare these days to see displays of this magnitude. Growing up I remember public spaces, such as parks, would often have such bedding schemes that were incredibly complicated. The skill, the time and the effort that would be put into designing and growing the plants for this are phenomenal. Sadly for this reason most public spaces are given over to low maintenance programmes now and if I’m honest I miss this. Yes, it can be garish and overstated. Yes, they are loud, cheerful and brightly coloured… but honestly, is that really so bad?

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No, its not chic, its not thought of in polite gardening circles as stylish or understated. For me that is the joy of it though. Its fairgrounds and seaside, its sheer vivacity is uplifting! Its joyful, it shouts, its summer and ice creams and maybe its time we had more of this in our life?

Ok, maybe you don’t have to fill your garden with every colour or variety imaginable, you could just choose one or two of these gems to bedazzle your friends and neighbours. Often less is more but there is a return in interest to some of the more old fashioned flowers in the gardens around the country. Take the meteoric rise in Dahlias popularity in the last few years.

I’d like to share Some of the plants that caught my eye as I wandered round and hopefully you will see something that inspires you but Id really recommend visiting yourself as this is just a fraction of whats there.

Osteospermum ‘Blue eyed beauty’

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I adore Osteospermums, they just keep going! They don’t mind drought conditions which means less watering, and come in almost every colour. My very first was a variety called ‘Whirligig’ which had an odd mutant petal shape. This one has the most glorious colour combination of a butter yellow and a deep amethyst centre with just a hint of orange on the anthers, very Christopher Lloyd!

Osteospermum ‘Berry white’

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This Osteospermum is so new on the market its still protected by trademark! Part of a new range of double Osteospermums which cope well in low light conditions and unlike its single flowered relations the flowers stay open at nightfall. Its petals have a gentle magenta flush and the centre is a deep raspberry.

Calceolaria ‘calynopsis series- Orange’

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For sheer oddness and prolific flowering the award has to go to the recently introduced Calynopsis series. As a child I chose a Calceolaria as ‘my plant’ and I still remember it fondly. It lasted, despite my irregular ministrations and possible abuse for what seemed like forever. My mum called it a ‘poor mans orchid’ but they go by many common names, most often slipper or pouch flower. She would carefully deadhead it on my behalf and I suspect its success was down to her care more than mine. Seeing this plant brought back many happy memories. I’ve always thought they look a bit like cheerful muppet faces but regardless of all these associations there’s no denying their impact!

Grown from seed they are a biennial but the Calynopsis series are currently only available as plug plants.

Celosia argentea ‘Kelos Fire Purple’

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Another great new introduction, this member of the Amaranth family would normally be very dependent on day length to trigger flowering but extensive breeding has made this particular variety day length neutral, reaching up to 14 inches tall they make a real statement either in pots or in the border. Attractive foliage with feather like plumes held erect in great numbers, whats not to love!

Ageratum ‘High tide’

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Ageratum is one of the first bedding plants I sowed and grew for myself, at the time it wasn’t often seen, the heyday of its popularity had been as a summer carpet bedding plant. Breeding has given us a taller more floriferous plant which can in fact be used as a cut flower! Much taller than its predecessor it holds up well as a border plant rather than just a bedder.

Thompson and Morgan are also putting a lot of time and effort into breeding new plants and I felt very honoured to be shown some of their new introductions both in bedding plants and vegetables!

Alstromerias have seen a massive rise in popularity and not only have they bred an extra tall variety which can hold up to the British winter but they’ve also got a new one they’ll be releasing for sale which can grow and flower to 3ft from seed in one season!

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Also Begonia fragrant falls series

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And last but by no means least! ‘Sunbelievable’ a sunflower with good sized heads that can produce over a 1000 blooms over a summer!! And the bees absolutely love it!

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So if youre looking for this summers ‘must haves’ in bedding plants head over to RHS Hyde Hall for your inspiration!

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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

 

 

Trialling Thompson & Morgan seeds, Part 2 – Flowers

Some exciting flowers from Thompson & Morgan!
What will we grow at Ulting Wick this year…

Following on from my last blog post, this time im talking about the flower seeds. You’ll have to forgive the lack of pics in this instance of real examples as I’ve only seen a few of them, never mind grown them! Thompson & Morgan have been lovely enough to let me trial a few of their range. Im hoping to be able to fit these in alongside Philippas choices in various places throughout the garden, if we cant find the right space for them though they will most likely find a place in my new garden (if the rabbits dont eat them!) or even on the plant sales which of course all the proceeds from go towards NGS charities.

I’ll start with a plant that’s seen an amazing resurgence in popularity. In recent years several plants which I remember as a young’un have made an comeback from being viewed as something your grannie grew to hip happening showstoppers and rightly so as far as im concerned! I guess it started with Dahlias but it seems to now encompass Pelargoniums, Begonias and of course the wonderful Zinnia. They have all been given a makeover and sent back out on the plant catwalk to strut their stuff

Zinnias in particular seem to have been given a somewhat punky new look and looking through the T&M range I think ive been given the chance to try out one of the funkiest!

Zinnia Whirlygig mixed

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Growing to around 45-60cm tall, that’s 18 to 24 inches in old money, these semi double cactus flowered style blooms promise a great colour range. They can be used either as a bedding plant, intermingling happily with your Dahlias & Salvias or grown as a cut flower, if youre feeling particulary generous with the seeds you could end up with both! As the packet contains around a 100 seeds this could easily be the case.

Sow between March, if you have heat & protection, to May. They are half hardy so wont appreciate getting cold. A second later sowing in June/July will guarantee flowers until the first frosts.

Cosmos Lemonade

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Now as far as I knew there was only one yellow flowered Cosmos on the market and that was xanthos which makes me quite excited to give Lemonade a try. Interestingly I do have a packet of Xanthos handy so thought I would compare and contrast the blurb on the back.

Flowering heights and times are comparable, max 60 cm (2ft), July to Oct. Lemonades blurb says it has a white eye but the pic on the front is distinctly yellow. Now it might be that Lemonade holds its flowers on a longer stem? Maybe its more floriferous? Honestly, im not sure. Only one way to find out, grow them side by side and see if I can spot a difference! Which is no real hardship as either way it looks a lovely plant.

Cupcakes mix & Cupcakes White

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When cupcakes came on the market a few years back it caused an absolute storm. Very much a marmite plant, I came down on the loving it side of the fence, I get the feeling Philippa not so much & she does have a point in her reasons for not liking it. It doesn’t look real and shes right it doesn’t.

A genetic mutation has caused this varieties petals to fuse, instead of having 5 or more separate petals it has one entire frilled cup, sometimes double, having a smaller cup held inside the outer one. A lot of work went into making this variety stable and it received the peoples choice in the trials ground at RHS Wisley.

The mix variety comes in shades of deep pink through to white & the white… well… comes in white. It can get up to 1.2M (4ft) in height if its happy & if deadheaded regularly its flowering period is greatly extended. A half hardy annual it has similar sowing requirements to the Zinnia. Also like the Zinnia a second later sowing will extend its season right up to first frosts.

Its also worth mentioning another cosmos worth growing if you like an oddity, seashells.

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The last 2 on the list are both perennials, the first we already grow at Ulting wick but certainly no harm in increasing the amount we have, the second is giving me a slight headache in trying to work out where exactly it might fit in… but ill come back to that!

Berkheya purpurea

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An odd but gorgeous plant, the RHS A-Z gives an entirely uninspiring description of it so you would be forgiven for overlooking it. Even if you were to see it in its unflowering state you would probably look at its spiny rosette of leaves and think thistle, and move on. Take a moment though, for its well worth your time and attention.

The description on T&Ms packet is a ‘thistle that thinks it’s a sunflower’, which personally I think is pushing it a bit but it does have a modicum of truth in it. In full flower it stands around 2ft tall. An incredibly useful plant for difficult dry conditions. Once established it can withstand long periods of practical drought conditions. Ive seen it grown at the QE park where everything else was wilting this plant was thriving! The flowers themselves are a delicate lavender colour, asteracea in form, up to 2 inches across and it really deserves garden space as its no prima donna. It has very few, if any, pests and diseases, the only thing it really objects to is having wet feet. In a moist position it can be prone to flopping a bit, in worst case senarios it may rot off, so keep this in mind when finding the right spot for it. Ooh! One last thing! You can, if this is your thing, cut off the entire flowering spike and hang upside down to dry. It will keep its colour and shape for many months in dried flower arrangements.

Sowing can start early in the year under glass, or you could sow in autumn if you haven’t got room. If sown in autumn you might get flowers the following year but remember this is a perennial so they like to bulk up a bit prior to flowering. Annuals are under pressure to get everything done before the frost hits but perennials don’t have that rush. Give them some time.

Which brings me to my final and most perplexing conundrum!

Aquilegia skinneri ‘Tequila Sunrise’

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Pic from T&M website

I have a love/hate relationship with Aquilegias, they are beautiful, delicate and enchanting… but they are also prolific breeders. In my first garden I had a few lovely double ones that I left when I redesigned it, the next year I had a few more, mostly double but in slightly different shades. In 5 years time I was on a seek and destroy mission with them. They had cross bred and become invasive, popping up in cracks in the pavement, walls, in between other plants, under shrubs, basically everywhere! I learnt very quickly to take the flowering spike off the instant they had finished and woe betide it if I missed one. Theres a saying in gardening ‘1 years seed, 7 years weed’ and it really rings true with Aquilegas.

Forget that though.

They are wonderful & I will always forgive them for their promiscuous ways.

So, Tequila sunrise, what makes this different? Special? Other than its colouring..

A bright red hood over a canary yellow petals, that’s pretty special, right!

But Aquilegas only flower in the spring right?

Not this one apparently! This one claims to flower from May till sept! Giving a profusion of flowers upto 3ft tall throughout the summer, im absolutely desperate to find a place where I can put this to the test. It has a preference for moist soils and there are a few places that could qualify at Ulting Wick. All I need to do now is persuade Philippa that it would work as it could be quite difficult to place colourwise.

Of course these are just SOME of the flowers on our extensive list & I cant wait for you to come and see what new things we have at Ulting Wick when we open for the NGS this coming year so please do write the dates in your diary and visit if you can!

A new year in Ulting Wick

A new year in Ulting Wick my thoughts on the last 6 months & the future

 

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The year has gone by in a blink and what a year it’s been. As I sit here, nursing a glass of sherry in the twilight zone between xmas & new years, and reflect on everything I’ve done, the places I’ve been and the wonderful people I’ve met im quite amazed. If you had told me at the start of the year I would probably have laughed and asked you when I was supposed to take a break!

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Phil, the master of the relaxed pose

And the plants! Oh my, the plants!

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Now I realise that it’s almost impossible for one person to see, let alone remember every plant it’s possible to grow in the UK but I’m afraid I had become somewhat smug and complacent in recent years, something I’m not ashamed to admit. This year has been a wonderful and humbling reminder that although I have a good knowledge, and this is something I will happily say, I don’t know everything.

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Nicotiana glauca, one of the plants that reminded me I dont know everything

I have my skills, things which I count myself as very competent in, others which I have a working knowledge of, an interest in… but an acceptance, a willingness to learn is paramount to who I believe I am. It keeps me enthusiastic…. And what a learning curve its been!

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When I first saw Ulting Wick I fell in love with it, I could see the beauty which has been created here and mentally I compiled a list of things I felt could augment it. Thankfully Philippa is wonderfully open to ideas, obviously she knows her garden well & often has already tried some of the things I’ve suggested but equally she has been willing to either let me retry those ideas or given me permission to go ahead and change things altogether. In my experience this is the hallmark not just of a good boss but of a good person. She also has a vast plant knowledge and introduced me to many ‘new’ plants. Ones that I have seen grown nowhere else in the UK, which is incredibly exciting! Her enthusiasm for experimentation is infectious and has led me to search out plants which I think will compliment her vision. Since joining here I’ve come across some lovely new plants to me and reacquainted myself with a few others …

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We’ve also gone through some vast changes here in the last 6 months, over and above the normal change from tulips to tropical and back again. Over the course of the summer some of our background structure, mainly trees, has altered significantly. Some of it has been planned work but a few have caught us unawares. I’ll be honest, I’ve come to dread the sound of snapping wood, first to succumb was the giant remains of ‘pooh tree’ a huge willow stump which had guarded the entrance to the pond and Philippa had fond memories of her children climbing on. We viewed it sadly listing and the decision was taken to remove it entirely, a sensible one as it was almost entirely rotten through despite having some regrowth. This did of course open up a huge area for replanting which is of course incredibly exciting. I literally cant wait to see the results of this!

A section of hawthorn which had died was removed at the other end of the pond in the Spring bed, this was a huge education to me personally as to the soil type that is peculiar to Ulting Wick, where the ground hasn’t been worked or improved in the last 20 or so years the soil type is…. Stone…. Just stone

Honestly I’ve never come across anything like it in my life!

More suited to a mattock than a fork and spade, its ridiculous, and a testament to Philippa and her gardeners through the years. I now understand why there is a huge pile of stones in the meadow… which in its own way has turned out to be quite handy for repairing the track in preparation for our visitors in the spring… so, swings and roundabouts!

We also had an enormous poplar removed, planned work this time, around 80ft high it had been planted originally as part of a fast growing shelter belt, its presence now though was starting to cause all the other trees nearby to suffer and struggle for light including the beautiful tulip tree very close to its base. Full props to the Arb guys who took it down, given its height and proximity to more precious trees they did so little damage it was untrue!

With this work out of the way I breathed a sigh of relief thinking that surely this was the last of the tree work that would be occurring for the year… well, the big stuff, I had my eye on some jobs for the winter and into 2018 but nothing me and my trusty silky saw couldn’t cope with… or so I thought!

On the neighbouring land and a beautiful part of our borrowed landscape stands a coppiced oak, well most of it still stands… a huge branch, 1/3 of its canopy sheared off whilst in full leaf! The oak is anywhere between 500 and 800 years old. It’s difficult to tell due to the effect of coppicing and although damaged it will carry on for probably another 300 years easily, gradually and gracefully declining.

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The Oak prior to losing the branch on the right

As I sat admiring the sunrise one morning I heard the sound I now dread!

I leapt up, peering across the pond trying to work out what had gone, I was still hoping it was a large branch, it had gone down slowly whatever it was but I was dammed if I could spot it!

With this, I decided it couldn’t possibly have been a full tree so went inside to get dressed and then investigate… I quickly realised on investigation that the reason I hadn’t seen what it was, was because it had been hidden by one of our magnificent willow trees… it had been a full tree, kind of, another poplar! It was a large 60ft plus, multi-stemmed one. The last of the really big ones. One of its stems had broken off right at the base exposing quite significant heart rot, leaving 2 other large uprights which were now doubly unsafe. The falling trunk had in the process taken out 3 other smaller trees and had got itself neatly hung up in a nearby willow, nightmare!

The Arb guys were once again called out and once again impressive work, the hung up trunk, damaged branches and the other 3 trees were quickly despatched, leaving the 2 uprights… I spoke to the climber after and he said if hed known how badly the base was rotted through he would’ve thought twice about climbing it and fair play. They lowered the large trunk section by section, very carefully as it stood right above a prostrate yew (very unusual) and of course the precious tulip tree! The last large upright was felled in one section and this I was incredibly impressed by! They managed to get it so it fell in exactly the right spot, awy from the precious trees and straight into a 1ft gap between 2 other boundary trees, hardly breaking a branch in the process!

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The prostrate Yew with the now gone Poplar (back, right)

The entire base was rotten through, that’s the thing with heart rot, it’s almost impossible to spot and is totally unpreventable sadly… but on a positive note we will now have lots of lovely light flooding in which will help our remaining trees to grow straight and healthy!

We have lost a few more branches since in the snow and winds but fingers crossed no more like that!

I have been enchanted too by the amount of wildlife I’ve seen in the last 6 months, its felt at times like I’ve been transported to a Narnia type world. I’ve seen Muntjacs chasing pheasants. Cormorants, herons, moorhens and ducks. On my very first day here I saw a hare race across the lawn, there’s a resident stoat that gambols on the lawn, water rats swim in the pond, a fox even wanders past me some mornings. At night Tawny owls serenade each other and the occasional barn owl screeches its presence, I’m pretty sure I’ve even heard a little owl. Twice I’ve seen the amazing sight of a kingfisher, its high pitched pip, pip, pip call giving its presence away. The second time I stood gaping, open mouthed as it hovered in the waving fronds of the willow searching for a place it could fish in the frozen pond. It’s the clearest view ive ever had of this fast moving reclusive bird, magical! For a few short weeks in the summer we also gained 2 swans on the pond, incredible!

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Someone else who has been appreciating the wildlife, maybe not in quite the same way as me, is Phil. He has settled in ridiculously well & his territory encompasses the entire garden and he’s encroaching on neighbouring lands! That’s approx 11 acres! A ridiculous amount of space for one cat who doesn’t like to share… hes really antisocial regarding anything other than people! When we find a place of our own I’m expecting him to be somewhat resentful..

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Now as the wheel of the year turns, we start to consider the coming season, this is both thrilling and terrifying in equal parts. I’m still relying heavily on philippa’s & my assistant Kwab’s knowledge of the garden. To do anything else would be arrogant madness! You can read all the books you like, study and educate yourself but familiarity of the area is something that only comes with time, experience of how plants react to a locality can only be learnt through experience and what may work in one area might not work in another. We will also be welcoming a new member to the team! We will be welcoming our WRAG trainee, so exciting! WRAG’s is a fantastic way of learning, an apprenticeship open to people from all walks of life and any age group… and despite the acronym is open to both men & women!

I’ll leave you with a few pics of Ulting Wick from throughout the year & I’d like to say thank you to you all for reading my musings and adding your thoughts. Also a big thank you to everyone who has helped make this year very special, I hope you all have a marvellous 2018 and life gives you everything you need…. sometimes that’s better than what you want…

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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

 

Behind the scenes at Kew

Behind the scenes of kew’s glasshouses
Rare tropical plants saved for the future of the world and how they do it!

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A few years back now myself and a few others went to Kew one weekend to see behind the scenes of their amazing tropical Glasshouse. Kew opens the doors once a year, one weekend in September, and you really have to keep your eyes peeled for this fabulous opportunity!

I happen to follow several of Kew’s Botanists on Twitter and with only hours to go I spotted a tweet saying it would be happening that weekend. So much excitement!

Unlike the Orchid festival in February where I was given my Wonderful Zygopetlum this is much more about the nuts and bolts of how Kew not only cares for some of its rare specimens but also, perhaps more importantly, how they are saving them and reintroducing them to the wild.

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On hand to give you all the information about the exhibits and massive glasshouses, not normally open to public view, are an army of helpful, knowledgable volunteers and staff alike.

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The different zones are climate controlled giving the plants as close to possible the perfect environment and growing conditions needed to keep them in tip-top conditions for seed production.

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Some of the plants on display are very familiar to us now, the bromeliads over the last 10 or 20 years in particular have become almost ‘throwaway’ houseplants. Sold en masse in a certain swedish furniture shop with the most feeble of care instructions they often die at the end of their flowering season but they need not! I kept a bromeliad overwinter in a cool domestic greenhouse once for 3 years and not only did it rebloom but also had pups…. weird turn of phrase I know, but the process of a plant having pups refers to the babies it produces vegetatively around its base after flowering. They are of course complete clones of itself and many plants do this. Agave’s, Aloe’s and Bromeliads being just a few…

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Bromeliad is a wide term that includes 3475 known species ranging from the humble pineapple through to the more exotic looking Tillandsia or Guzmania. Some are epiphytes, growing on the bark of trees for example. Others are classed as terrestrial, their roots firmly in the soil.

They often have intensely coloured bracts, modified leaves, to highlight their tiny flowers. This of course is one of the reasons their popularity has risen in home decoration. The colour on these can last for many months.

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Another set of plants whose popularity is rising are of course the Orchids although not all orchids are what you would consider suitable as houseplants. Most people will have seen a Phalenopsis, sometimes dyed hideous colours, at their local supermarket. Very few would associate the flavouring Vanilla with an Orchid though! The Vanilla Orchid is a beautiful twining, climbing epiphyte whose seed pods have become synonymous around the world with ice cream, imagine a world without Vanilla, another good reason to save endangered habitats!

Not all orchids have showy flowers either, they are as diverse as we are…

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But lets face it… most do

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It’s not just orchids and bromeliads on show though!

Kew’s work encompasses everything from this massive Amorphophallus titanum

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To these beautiful Colocasia….

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and the incredibly rare Ramosmania rodriguesi, which they have helped save from extinction.

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In fact there are so many amazing examples of plants to view I couldn’t pick just one to concentrate on for a short post! So I’ll leave you with a few of their loveliest/weirdest and urge you to keep your eyes peeled next September for news of when the glasshouses will be open again… and the Herbarium! Another on my “To do” list!

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Finally, one last reason to visit Kew in the autumn…. the leaves!

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My Zygopetalum

A love of Orchids is all consuming, the flowers and scent from my Zygopetalum are one of the reasons why

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I’m a great lover of orchids, as some of you may know, I own about 20 now. The vast majority are Phalenopsis, given the nickname of the moth orchid, it could now be happily called the supermarket orchid. Most are rescues as I can’t bear seeing them thrown away simply because they have finished flowering. It pains me to see a good plant go unloved when I know it will go on to thrive once more with just a bit of tlc.

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For years though I have been hankering after 1 orchid in particular. I’ve never dared buy it for myself, terrified I might lose it! That is the zygopetalum.

Back in February an All horts visit to Kew gardens was organised by @gardenwarrior (twitter handle, his real name is Andrew) to see the Orchids there. These visits to various gardens & events are always great fun as not only do you meet wonderful, like minded, enthusiastic horts but in such inspiring places!

This visit for me was particularly special though as it coincided with my birthday woo-hoo!

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We happily trotted round the glasshouse oohing & aahing as appropriate at what is a truly impressive display of Orchids when the scent of one caught me unawares!

Sweet, so very sweet! And musky, you almost smell it in your throat…I’m not sure if that makes sense but honestly you do! It was a familiar scent and immediately I was looking for the zygopetalums!

Not all orchids are scented and as a rule of thumb the bigger & showier a flower is the less scent it needs but zygo’s break that rule!

Lime green with maroon spots they are about an inch across. To my mind they look like little happy faces with purple flecked beards, like punk gnomes.

My friend Justin (Twitter handle @allotment7b ) , who knows a lot more about orchids than me, had very generously said he would buy me one from the shop for my birthday! Imagine how excited I was! Any orchid I wanted!!

Now I did have several “favourite” orchids in mind, one of which is a purple Vanda, these are relatively tricky to look after successfully in a normal home but are absolutely luscious!

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Vanda

Another I had in mind was a Paphiopedilum or slipper orchid. As I think I already have one in my collection of rescues though it seemed wasteful to not get something different. Even when they do look this good!

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Paphiopedilum

I eventually settled my mind on a zygopetalum which after raiding the unpacked cages of orchids in the shop I found and the wonderful Justin bought for me.

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Look at the stupid look on my face! Such joy!

For weeks it flowered it’s head off, making my bedroom smell amazing & in fact the whole house! Eventually it finished and I worried I wouldn’t be able to keep it happy. I forced myself to NOT fuss over it. Most orchids die from being loved too much! I lost my first one this way. I’ve found they much prefer being ignored for the most part. I water them with rain water if I can get it, if not I’ve been known to fill up the sink & plunge them in for an hour or so. I keep a bottle of water to go stale as an alternative. I bought a mist to encourage them to flower which I use intermittently & I also have a feed which encourages leafy growth which I use every few months but I worry about overfeeding as the build up if salts from these in the growing media can kill them just as quick as abandoning them altogether!

The strong sun on my window sill scorched one of the leaves of my beloved zygo back in June, also caused one of my others to abort flower production. It was the week I was moving & my well meaning housemate closed the windows and cooked them all in my absence. I could’ve cried… but hey! They survived! In the next few weeks as we all settled in to Ulting wick I repotted a few of my beauties & in the process noticed flower buds forming on the zygo!!

SUCH EXCITEMENT!!

I tweeted Justin to let him know.

That’s the thing about giving someone a present of a plant it’s a joy that keeps going.

He had given me my hearts desire & now it’s  scent fills the little cottage. It’s smiley punk faces greet me every morning. I have no idea what I did to make it so happy but it obviously is!

Zygopetalums were first found in 1827 by a chap called Mackay from Brazil. He gave one to the esteemed orchid expert of the day sir William Hooker, who promptly created a new genus for it. They can be found growing in cloud forests of south America and are classed as both epiphyte & terrestrial giving them the ability to be flexible in their growing conditions. The growing media need to be free draining, I tend to go for some of the more difficult to get hold of stuff which I buy from the Orchid experts at shows. This is a mixture of perlite, charcoal, bark and a few other bits.

If you’ve never tried growing Orchids before don’t be put off giving them a go, the Phalenopsis are probably the most forgiving, here’s a tip to getting them to reflower, leave them on a window sill where the temp will drop overnight. This triggers the flowering response, I found out by mistake and all of mine proceeded to flower their heads off for the next 12 months!

Heres a few of the loveliest you may consider…

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Great Dixter – Spring plant fair

Great Dixter is a fine garden to visit especially when theres a plant fair on! Often you can find that rare plant from an independent nursery youd find no where else!

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For six years I lived on the doorstep of Great Dixter and like a lot of gardens in the area it has a theme of high hedges and garden rooms so synonymous of Lutyans arts & crafts style work. Great Dixter though has an added twist of having had Christopher Lloyd own it and put his stamp on it.

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Many finer writers than myself though have beaten this subject to death so I don’t need to gush and enthuse on the subject of Dixter and its design, suffice to say its worth a visit and has changed subtly since the death of Christopher. Which isn’t a negative thing rather a natural thing as gardens are living creations and to try to keep them static is an odd concept.

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One thing that always strikes me though when I visit Dixter is its size, I’m always shocked by how small it feels. When you think of famous gardens you often think of rolling acres, at least I do, but Dixter is an oddity in so many ways. The gardens never seem to take long to see in their entirety, although there are areas where you can linger quite happily.  The house itself, despite its appearance of having stood on that spot forever was actually only placed there last century. I say placed, not built as Lutyens and Nathaniel Lloyd (Christopher’s father) actually took the main part of the house from a village called Benenden nearby and reconstructed it. Melding it into the original structure that was already there known simply as Dixter. As a visitor you would never know this though as it was done so successfully it has the appearance of a house that has grown organically for centuries.

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The gardens are being added to continually in the way Christopher did when he was alive. Fergus’s commitment to Dixter and its ethos of teaching being something special to witness.

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The plant fairs though, especially the Spring one are a great opportunity to get out and see small independent nurseries offering beautiful plants at very reasonable prices. I admit its become something of a spring time pilgrimage for me. Even if it now takes me a couple of hours to get to it instead of a couple of minutes! They also do a great thing throughout the weekend where Nurseries give talks throughout the day. Often entertaining, enthusiastic speakers with a wealth of knowledge on their chosen subjects, which if you’re a plant nut like me is well worthwhile!

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For me there were 2 that particularly stood out the first being Barnhaven, a fabulous nursery dedicated to one of my greatest loves Primulas.

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I wrote quite extensively about auriculas on my old blog so if you’re interested have a quick look here…

Forget me not – Auriculas part1

Forget me not – Auriculas part2

Forget me not – Auriculas part3

Barnhaven has recently supplied Sissinghursts garden with a large amount of old variety primulas in their efforts to repopulate the garden with varieties which were there in Vita’s time. Gardens often lose specific plants, sometimes even their own bred varieties. This I’ll mention again in a moment.

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Sometimes a gardener will endeavour to reverse the changes time makes to a garden and small independent nurseries are critical to retaining the genetic stock. Barnhaven is not only responsible for maintaining collections of amazing old varieties and making them available to the public, such as “jack in the green” a very old variety with a charming corolla of leaves which cup the flowers to breeding new introductions and bringing back styles such as the stripey and double Auriculas.

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The second was a talk from Steven Edney, Head Gardener at Salutations, another gorgeous Lutyens garden. The gardens are a tribute to his hardworking team and unceasing enthusiasm. Having suffered a massive flood in 2013, only 5 years after the gardens were officially reopened after years of neglect, they are once more in beautiful condition and this year is their 10th Anniversary!

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Steven touched on the subject of “lost plants” having fortuitously been offered a cutting after the floods of Hebe “Salutation” originally bred at the garden in the 1970’s. His nursery on site has propagated it and it is now available to the general public, another example of how important some plants can be in context!

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He is full of little gems of information too, he told us about plectranthus fruticosus an important plant to Edwardian gardeners as it would be used as a reliable indicator plant for frost. When nighttime temperatures drop below 5 degrees it develops a bronzy colour to the leaves and this would be a sign to the gardeners to lift their tender plants like Dahlias into the glasshouses.

I had to take a second look at this amazing Asphodeline liburnica and was tempted by some of the seeds he had for sale, grown & collected in the gardens!

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Another fabulous nursery is Pineview plants run by the lovely Colin and Cindy Moat who always have time to help you out choosing the right plant for the right place. I fell totally in love with his Epimediums and after going away and coming back THREE times finally settled for this gorgeous one called aptly “Ruby beauty”

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Whilst there I mentioned my mystery Epimedium I’d been given which hadn’t as yet flowered… which of course by the time I got home that evening had… So here it is and I’ll be asking Colin if he can help me identify it!

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There of course are many fine other independent nurseries at the plant fair which are well worth your time and if you’re not aware of one’s in your local area here’s a list that although not comprehensive is getting close and is constantly updated

Independent Plant Nursery guide

Of course there were many others (over 20!) there all with gorgeous specimens so here’s a selection of a few that caught my eye!

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and of course those that came home with me… I’m thinking the garden may have a purple theme… again!

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I didn’t leave Dixter till pretty much kicking out time, after all it was a beautiful day with fine company…. Look forward to seeing you all there again this time next year!

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My little car abandoned and lonely in a now empty field!

Chelsea Flower Show

Chelsea flower show, show gardens are designers dreams, style and fantasy, plants and pimms!
I revisit my Chelsea experiences, horticulture at its finest!

I have had the pleasure of visiting Chelsea a couple of times over the years, sometimes as a visitor, sometimes in a working capacity. Like all shows I’ll admit I have a distinct preference for the actual build process. This to me is a time of magic, from the arrival on site of so many people determined to create structures that give the appearance of having stood forever, the laughing and sharing of biscuits, tea and sometimes plants. The camaraderie that seems to be something special and unique to building show gardens. After all this is an incredibly stressful time for all involved. Months, sometimes years of planning have gone into a single weeks worth of showmanship!

One of my first times building at Chelsea also involved growing the plants for a garden, I’d had experiences at other show builds which fully prepared me for the hiccups and tripfalls to expect but as each garden is different so too are the demands on contractors. I had been asked to help with growing plants for 3 gardens. Firstly for Garden Organics stand in the Floral marquee, secondly for Harrod Horticulture. Their stand was on the outside of the marquee and thirdly for Alitex Glasshouses.

This was to be my special project when it came to the build and I’d prepared thoroughly wrapping each parsley plant individually in newspaper (which I knew I would reuse, stuffed between pots in the actual build, waste not want not!). Transporting the plants is one of the most stressful points as damage done cannot be undone. The memory of a distraught gentleman handing me a Mimosa flower at Hampton court a few years previously, lamenting that this had been its only flower and now everything was ruined always sits at the forefront of my mind.

Myself and a wonderful lady called Helen, who’s tireless cheerfulness was incredibly welcome, set about putting the plants into a half built garden. Sand, dust and noise of machines, drills and builders catcalling each other on a blinding sunshiny day. This is what Chelsea to me is about!

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Sadly most of my pictures of this day are lost, it was in the days of pre-digital cameras & limited to just 24 pictures anyway! Alitex were very kind to send me some of their own promotional pics from opening day, these I will always cherish but the serenity they exude doesn’t give you the blood, sweat & tears it takes to build a garden.

My favourite memory of this day was Helen’s panicked realisation that the sweet peas, grown in tubs, would have the pots visible. I had taken this into account and smugly, quietly packed a drill and jigsaw which I then proceeded to happily wield. Cutting through the hard plastic. As you can see from the pics it worked quite well! For this preparation I can only thank a wonderful man called John, whose second name I sadly can’t remember, who had taught me all I needed to know about Show gardens whilst at Photosynthesis. He was ace!

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My second favourite memory was of the drive home, at about 2 o clock in the morning. Illuminated by the headlights of a car behind I could see what appeared to be the shadow of a ginormous spider! I nervously asked Helen if she could just check how close it was to me and how big, not realising her phobia was far, FAR worse than mine. She screamed, I screamed, we both sat screaming at 60MPH on the M40!

This went on for a while.

It turned out the spider was tiny

I guess its one way of waking yourself up after a long day!

Anyway, the next time I was to visit Chelsea was as a visitor, albeit a working visitor. I’d just started a job working in a private garden and had been invited by my new employers to accompany them to Chelsea’s opening day. Honestly, I was terrified. I felt totally out of my depth which doesn’t happen to me often! I remember this as being my most stressful Chelsea as I realised my every move would be seen by my new employers and we were going to be introduced to the great and good which if done on my own terms would’ve been fine but rightly or wrongly this felt awkward.

Nevertheless, I dressed up in my best “Head Gardener” togs which involved corduroy, of course, and hopped on a train. The rest of the day became something of a blur but a stand out moment, purely for its weirdness factor, was standing on the “Best in show” garden & being introduced to Ulf Nordfjell. He likely doesn’t remember this given how momentous a day it was for him but for me it was overwhelming.

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I stood there in this amazingly glossy garden, its slick, clean lines & amazing construction. Trying to drink in all the details when I realised I felt a bit like a fish in a goldfish bowl! There were hundreds of people all around the edge of the garden, all with cameras and in my own head all going “who the hell is she?”

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So I did the only thing which made me feel comfortable! I hid behind my camera and took pictures of them, perfect!

In reality probably no one even blinked an eye at me & its only years later that I realise this. My life experience at that point in time made this so far out of my comfort zone it wasn’t even on my radar. Its only nearly 10 years later I can look back on this experience and realise it for what it was. I was given an amazing opportunity which was a turning point in my life. Its odd though, often when you’re in these iconic moments you don’t realise it and focus on the parts you can understand and deal with… anyway I digress!

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The rest of the show was a blur, I wish I’d felt in a position to enjoy more of it in a relaxed manner but then this is Chelsea. Relaxed isn’t really how I’d describe it at any point! After being ferried around and introduced to more people than I could ever hope to remember I was allowed to wander by myself. It was at this point I really started to enjoy myself!

These are a few of my best bits of 2009!

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A few years passed, life happened, circumstances changed. I didn’t go to Chelsea, I had a break but continued to watch it on TV. It seemed busier, even more frantic than I remembered?

Then in 2015 I got the opportunity to go again, so of course I did. This time I think I finally got the hang of being a visitor! We arrived as the gates were opening and proceeded to methodically quarter every spare inch of the grounds. From the show gardens to the Marquee not a single millimetre was left unchecked!

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So what had changed?

It was just as crowded as I ever remembered it but this time I was able to take some lovely pictures which feel very calm…

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M & G Garden – Caroline Davy Studio

It wasnt just the fact I had a swanky new camera, although lets face it that does help! I think something about me and how I viewed Chelsea had changed. I still had a slightly awed, inspired love of the gardens but this time I was able to take a moment to draw back and observe the palettes the designers had used. Pick out the colours that spoke to me, think of how they could be transferred into a real situation.

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…and more than that, I now had the confidence I had lacked previously. I was brash & cocky, I probably still am, but now I had the confidence to gently insert myself through the crowds and find the best spot for me to view the garden. Yes, I did get tutted at but that’s ok, I smiled said excuse me but would not be deterred. I saw this as part of my job, it was research.

To that end there were some gardens I had particularly wanted to see, these weren’t the massive show gardens but instead some of the courtyard and artisan gardens. Above all else I wanted to see the Japanese Garden: Edo no Niwa by Ishihara Kazuyuki. So different from anything normally seen in Chelsea.

Apparently so did everyone else!

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One look at that heaving crowd and I very nearly turned tail to run but determined I slowly pushed gently through….

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I was pleased I weathered the storm of bodies, crouching down I managed a few good shots despite receiving a Kath Kidson bag to the back of the head!

Then on to the floral marquee for a smorgasbord of delights!

One of which was of course is Primulas but when presented with so many gorgeous floral displays I realise I have no clear favourites in the botanical world. Each and every plant has something to commend it and the skill of the growers to bring each of them to the pinnacle of perfection is astounding. So I’ll finish up with a few of the best!

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Last year I missed Chelsea entirely! Didnt even watch it on the telly *shocked intake of breath!* I know! How could I! Call myself a gardener!

In my defence I had a very good reason!

I was halfway up a mountain in Peru!

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With these amazing ladies. Between us we raised around £50,000 for Marie Curie by climbing 3 mountains in 3 days, it was an incredible experience!

This year I’ve just received word I’ll be doing my bit for charity AT Chelsea which I’m hugely excited about! I’ve chosen this year to devote my time to help raising funds for Perennial these guys are awesome, check them out!

So far I’ve sold raffle tickets for them at their ball, I’ve raised a bit of cash for them on the Apple pruning course I ran a while back and now I’ll be part of the Chelsea sell off team! This is going to be SO intense!!

The garden they’re involved in is the Mindtrap Garden designed by Ian Price it has a moving story behind it, please do click on the link to find out more.

This wonderful concept also supports Inspire who support those with mental health challenges, based in Northern Ireland they do some amazing work.

There’s going to be lots of Horti faces there too so if you’re going to buy anything on sell off day at Chelsea make sure it’s from Perennial and help a Horti out!

Look forward to seeing you all there…

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