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.
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
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.
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
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.
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!
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’
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!
Some of you may remember me posting about my visit to GLEE in September last year, some of the people I chatted to were the lovely staff on the Thompson & Morgan stand. I explained to one of the guys about where I worked and what sort of things we grew and asked if he could suggest anything we might find useful… The reaction was amazing! This chap, and I REALLY wish I could remember his name, knew his seeds!
He flew into action pointing out packets, extolling their virtues, talking about them intimately like old friends, it was incredible to behold!
Long story, short, by the end of our chat I came away clutching some lovely packets of seed to try out in the garden, not just flowers but some really exciting veg too.
Now with all of absolutely itching to start sowing I’ll give you an insight into some of the varieties we will be trying out, starting with the veg
Kohl Rabi Kolibri F1
This is such a lovely veg I’ll never understand why it isn’t more commonly grown. Eaten young, golf ball up to cricket ball sized it can be plucked, peeled and eaten on the spot! In fact I highly recommend doing so. I loved using this veg to introduce kids to growing as it looks insane, a bit like a flying saucer. The taste is wonderful, incredible, juicy with a taste not dissimilar to the sweet heart of the cabbage. In over 3 or 400 younguns I gave it to not one said they didn’t like it and more often than not they came back for seconds! If you can resist peeling and eating it the second you pick it, it can be added to salads either grated or cubed. If for some strange reason you don’t get around to eating it this way it can still be used, it makes an excellent base for soups.
Dead easy to grow, start in March and successional sowing can carry on till late sept, it likes regular watering otherwise it can be prone to splitting. Although this in itself isn’t really a problem other than aesthetically…. If you’re like me and have a habit of eating everything the young leaves are quite tasty too.
Next on the plate and these look awesome are…
Radish Bluemoon & Redmoon F1 Hybrid mix
Now we all like Radishes, right? What’s different about these ones though is the colour and oh wow! What a colour! As the name suggests the crisp juicy flesh, which we normally think of as white is shades of violet blue and ruby red respectively. I’m hoping they taste as good as they look because they look amazing!
Sow direct from mid May to the end of Aug, every 2 – 3 weeks, thinly & give them plenty of water to prevent bolting.
Carrot Sweet Imperator mix F1
If I ask you what colour a carrot is you’ll say orange and give me a funny look, right?
Now some of you may already know this and forgive me if you do but no, not all carrots are orange. In fact orange carrots are a relatively recent introduction speaking globally. The wild Daucus carotta is white and although is edible isn’t as nice as the carrots we have bred for eating. They are descended from the wild afghan carrot which is purple!
This colourful mix of specially bred carrots retains some of the more interesting colours they are available in, the mix includes Honeysnax F1, Creampak F1, Snowman F1, Yellowbunch F1 & Purple eliteF1
Sow thinly from April onwards, to reduce the need for further thinning, as the smell will attract Carrot root fly & if you can protect with a barrier such as Enviromesh. If the barrier is over 30cm high it will prevent the little blighters from destroying your crop as they can’t fly high. Carrots are one of the very first thing I remember growing with my granddad and the sweet smell will always bring back fond memories of gardening with him. These memories are treasures that can’t be bought and your children & grandchildren will hold them close as they grow up too.
Squash Coquina Inca gold F1
Everyone in the UK would love to be able to grow Butternut squashes successfully, why not it’s a lovely tasting squash…but! There’s a small problem with growing them in the UK, they don’t like our growing conditions. It can be incredibly frustrating and disheartening for people in their first forays into veg growing to have nursed a plant, loved it, hugged it, grown it carefully all season to get no real results from it.
In a good summer you may get one, maybe 2 fruits to grow successfully & if you do give yourself huge congratulations! Whilst growing for the restaurant at Sissinghurst in our best year from around 60 plants we managed a maximum of 60 fruits… in our worst, perhaps 20. We had a massive field of them and all of our other squashes were producing magnificently. Sometimes it’s not you, it’s the wrong plant, wrong place.
That said, this Squash which is a cross from the conventional Butternut and a South American variety Coquina purports to be able to withstand our British summers a bit more successfully! The packet tells me that even in a poor summer it could produce up to 4 fruits per plant which would be a far better use of valuable space in the veg garden than the conventional Butternut.
As with all squashes the urge is to start them early, resist! Unless you have heat and are prepared to repot regularly and the space to keep them inside till ALL risk of frost, or even cold, have passed you won’t be doing yourself or them any favours. They are fast growers so by waiting till the end of May to start them off they will soon catch up & even overtake ones started early. They are incredibly hungry plants too so by giving them sufficient space to really romp away you’ll get the best results. I use a 10 year crop rotation which relates to veg families and cucurbits come in at year no.8, this may seem extreme but it does mean that many diseases such as onion white rot can be avoided (I’ll talk a bit more about this at the end)
My final T&M trial variety is not a new one exactly but still a very useful addition to the winter vegetable garden…
Carrot Nantes 2 – Frubund
This carrot is something of a traditional one in some ways, something of a forgotten tradition for most but still worth giving a go!
I’ve grown it before at Ryton and it really does give you a wonderful early crop of carrots without having to worry about Carrot root fly!
Sow it as late as Oct & it will overwinter to give you fresh carrots from early April, brilliant!
In my plans for next years veg garden I have included some other lovely veg I’m familiar with that not only look good but taste amazing and importantly I’ve included some plants that will help attract beneficial insects, some that will be sacrificial plants & others as herbs. These are normally referred to as companion plants.
One of the best companion plants I tried new last year is Calendula ‘Snow princess’ she is gorgeous! The traditional Calendula comes in shades of vibrant orange through to a pale yellow but this one is almost a pure white with a dark eye. A great pollinator it brings in all the wonderful bugs you want lurking in your garden especially the hoverflies. It also appeared to hold up well against the dreaded powdery mildew which Calendula is a martyr to. I intend on doing 2 sowings, one early around late April and another in late June. This should mean I get flowers all summer long and when the first sowing succumbs the second should take over.
Other companion plants you could consider are
Tagetes minuta – great attractant, its smell deters whitefly from your Brassicas and Solanacea. It’s also reputed to deter eelworms in the soil.
Nasturtium – I call this a sacrificial plant because blackfly will attack it over and above your more valuable crops. A level of pests in an organic garden will always have to be tolerated otherwise your predators such as ladybird larvae & hoverfly larvae will have nothing to eat. This can serve as a nursery for your predators and if you want to you can move the babies around to attack on your other plants!
I mentioned earlier I go for a 10 year crop rotation, this may seem extreme but it’s actually not so bad. Some of the worst diseases can stay active in the soil for several years and by splitting your veg up into families it makes managing these much easier & allows you to plan far into advance.
Miscellaneous – Lambs lettuce, basil, put to green manure
Personally I find this so much easier than a 3 or 5 year rotation which throws the families out of the window but of course the choice is yours. One book which I found immensely useful & still do is Carol Klein’s book ‘Grow your own’ if I was allowed just one book on growing veg this would be it!
I’d love to share with you every variety I’ll be growing this year in the veg garden and the sowing times etc. but honestly it’s a massive list! I’m sure I’ll be sharing more of the successes, and of course failures as we all have them, on twitter and the blog throughout the year and I look forward to hearing about yours!