Archive for the ‘Plant Talk with Graham Rice’ Category

More Annuals That Are Really Perennials: Lobelia, Nasturtium, Nicotiana, Petunia…

February 17th, 2017 | Plant Talk with Graham Rice | 0 Comments

Nicotiana langsdoffiiHere’s a second selection of plants grown as annuals that are really perennials, including two of the most popular in both forms: geraniums (pelargonium) and petunias.

Lobelia
Raising lobelia from seed can be a tricky business, the seeds are tiny and often damp off. But lobelia is a perennial and the best of all trailing lobelias for hanging baskets are propagated from cuttings. The problem is, cuttings-raised lobelias are not cheap and are rarely available. My solution: grow ‘Wonderfall’ seed-raised lobelia, but buy plugs.

Nicotiana
After the very first summer when I grew Nicotiana langsdorffii (above) with its dainty dangling green bells, I cut the plants down in the autumn and left the roots in place – as I thought, to rot. The following spring I was surprised to find that the overwintered roots produced shoots and flowered again. They behaved just like hardy perennials and only require a warm site and fertile but well-drained soil.

Pelargonium (Geranium)
Until the 1960s, zonal pelargoniums (geraniums) were always raised from cuttings – partly because they took so long to flower when raised from seed. But new plant breeding techniques allowed plants to develop that grew much more quickly from seed. Now we have Divas, Maverick and the best seed-raised traditional red geranium ‘Moulin Rouge’.

But development of cuttings-raised geraniums has progressed too and plants in the semi-double Designer Series are exceptionally prolific, more rain resistant and flower for longer. ‘Designer Scarlet’ (below) has been used in the beds outside Buckingham Palace.

Petunia
Since the 1800s, petunias have been raised both from seed and from cuttings but were originally often grown in pots in conservatories to protect their fragile flowers from rain. As with geraniums, more sophisticated plant breeding techniques led to more resilient petunias – seniors will remember ‘Resisto Rose’ (says he showing his age), as the first big step forward in weather tolerance.

Modern cuttings-raised petunias were developed from seed raised types and since then, in the development of both groups, one group has been used to improve the other. Doubles from cuttings, such as the Tumbelina Series, are especially good compared with seed-raised ‘Duo’ and ‘Pirouette’.

Tropaeolum (Nasturtium)
It’s easy to root cuttings of nasturtiums, just put them in a jar on the windowsill and they’ll root, and there are some superb fully double flowered types available as cuttings raised plants. But Mr F doesn’t list them, partly because gardeners think nasturtiums are easy and should be cheap and propagating them from cuttings commercially, and ensuring that they’re disease free, results in plants that are just too expensive. However lovely they are, people don’t buy them.

Geranium Designer Scarlet

Nicotiana langsdorffii close-up ©Magnus Manske licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Thank you.!

Annuals that are really perennials: Ageratum, Alyssum, Antirrhinum, Calendula

February 10th, 2017 | Plant Talk with Graham Rice | 0 Comments

Alyssum 'Snow Crystals'
Most of us appreciate that, although we’ve been raising them from seed for sixty years, geraniums (pelargoniums, that is, not cranesbills) are in fact perennial plants that can also be raised from cuttings. Petunias, too, are naturally perennial plants that used to be only raised from seed, now cutting-raised types predominate. But ageratum and antirrhinums and calendulas too?

Ageratum
There are a few ageratums available to commercial growers, both container types and for cut flowers, that are propagated from cuttings but for gardeners the undoubted improvement in quality is not generally thought to be worth the increase in price. So, as far as I can tell, it’s impossible for gardeners to buy them.

Alyssum
The original alyssum (botanically known as Lobularia maritima) is a genuine annual but in recent years species that are perennial (though not long lived) have been added into the genetic mix. The result is plants that flower prolifically for longer, but must be propagated from cuttings. There are even one or two prettily variegated types.

But, again, is the extra quality worth the extra cost? Most people looking for a high quality alyssum have gone for ‘Snow Crystals’ (above) whose double genetic content (tetraploid) takes it half way towards cuttings-raised quality at a fraction of the price.

Antirrhinum
In the wild, antirrhinums make spreading, twiggy little shrublets that are woody at the base. If you leave plants in the garden at the end of the season, they often survive the winter and flower again the following year. Some of these wild types have been used in the development of pendulous antirrhinums for baskets, such as ‘Candelabra’ (below).

The rare marginally variegated types, which don’t come true from seed, are occasionally seen in catalogues, but keeping them going from cuttings at home is tricky as rust is always a danger.

Calendula
This is another hardy annual that, like alyssum, the addition of blood from rare perennial species has been turned into a perennial in the form of PowerDaisy Sunny (more colours coming). We love this plant at Mr F, I’ve mentioned it before: its fully double flowers, its neat flowering habit and its exceptionally long flowering season mark it out as special.

More annuals that are actually perennials next week…
Antirrhinum 'Candelabra Purple'

Dicentra: the prolific perennial climber

February 3rd, 2017 | Plant Talk with Graham Rice | 0 Comments

Dicentra scandens (Dactylicapnos scandens)There’s a very limited choice of hardy perennial climbers, and many of those most widely available are perennial relations of the sweet pea, such as ‘Everlasting Mixed’. But one that’s often overlooked but which is well worth growing is the climbing dicentra, Dicentra scandens.

Its flowers, as you can see, are rather like those of the popular bleeding heart, D. spectabilis, but come in rich yellow and are held in generous clusters, often of more than a dozen.

And of course the big difference is that this is a vigorous, self supporting climber reaching 3-4m in height which clings using the branched tendrils at the tip of every leaf. It’s a great plant to have scrambling over a dilapidated fence (as above) or an old shed or a big old shrub but it dies down for the winter so is not an all-year screen. It will take up quite a lot of space, but it flowers for months.

So why don’t we see it more often? The big problem is that the stems grow quickly, and they’re also a little fragile, so they tend to be damaged on the way from the nursery to the garden centre or when sent in a parcel by post. So the answer is to grow your own from seed.

Sometimes seed of Dicentra scandens germinates promptly, sometimes not. The best approach is to sow all the seeds in the packet as soon as possible in a 9cm pot. Ideally use a compost that contains some John Innes added in, such as Wyevale Multipurpose with John Innes. Alternatively there’s Carbon Gold GroChar Seed Compost, although I’ve not tried this for dicentra.

Space the seeds out across the compost, cover with grit or gravel, water well and stand outside until mid March and then bring the pots into a warmer place. They may have germinated by March, they may germinate soon after or they may wait a longer. Frankly, it’s all a little unpredictable. Move the seedlings into individual pots, harden them off as they develop and plant out after the last frost. Choose a place with good soil, shelter from cold winds – and watch them grow.

* The botanists have been playing fast and loose with Dicentra names recently, so the correct name for D. scandens is now (wait for it) Dactylicapnos scandens – but hardly anyone has taken any notice…

Where do the seeds in the packet come from?

January 27th, 2017 | Plant Talk with Graham Rice | 0 Comments

Keith Hammet's sweet peas.

Image ©Keith Hammett. Thank you.

A few weeks ago, Dermot posted a comment on the blog wondering about where the seed that goes into Mr F’s packets actually comes from. It’s an interesting issue.

When seed companies were getting started in the 18th century, they mostly collected seed from their own plants and put it in packets to sell. But it soon became clear that the climate where the company was based might not be ideal for producing good quality seed; D. T. Brown, for example, was founded in 1908 in Lancashire. So they arranged for plants to be grown in a climate better suited to producing seed.

Of course, some seed companies were founded in areas with a good climate for seed production and, in both cases, this meant Essex where the dry summers proved ideal for ripening of good seed. Specialist companies sprung up in the area specifically to grow crops of flower and vegetable seed for the seed companies.

Then, as the cost of producing seed in Essex rose, the Lompoc Valley in California (below) with its even better climate and lower costs, took over, and the flower fields became a big attraction. Some seed is still grown in Essex, and the Lompoc Valley flower fields are still quite a sight but production has now tended to move away from California to South America, China, India, and parts of Africa.

Sweet peas are an interesting exception as the climate in New Zealand is particularly well-suited to producing the highest quality sweet pea seed. This is where Dr. Keith Hammett, whose varieties are such a feature of the Mr. F range, produces his seed (above).

So what it boils down to is that the seed that goes in the packet is now grown in an area where the climate suits the production of each particular kind of seed. That’s how the germination rate and the vigour of the seed in the packets is so much better than it was. And better seed = better plants.

Larkspur grown for seed.

Image Courtesy of Explore Lompoc. Thank you.

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Hellebore season

January 20th, 2017 | Plant Talk with Graham Rice | 0 Comments

Hellebore flowers

It’s hellebore season… I know, the weather has been a bit grim in many parts of the country but if there’s one thing about hellebores – apart from their delightful speckled gorgeousness – it’s that they’re tough. On frosty mornings their stems may be bent right over and the flowers touching the ground – but by midday they’ll be back to normal. They can take it.

But here’s the thing. At this time of year it’s very tempting to cut them and bring them indoors. After all, how much more comfortable to admire them in the house than to get kitted out with a warm coat and a woolly hat to enjoy them outside.

But the thing is, it’s not easy to make them last for more than a few hours in a vase. So here’s a better idea.

First, find your most elegant bowl. A simple glass bowl 20-40cm across is good, or a ceramic bowl you bought at a craft fair, perhaps, or your favourite salad bowl that you won’t be using so much in the winter. Fill it with water to within an inch of its rim.

Next, get that coat and hat on, just this time, and go outside with a plastic kitchen box. Look closely at your hellebores and nip off, with your finger and thumb, or a pair of nail scissors, an individual flower or two from each plant – or all the flowers from one plant, if you like – and put them in the box. Try to choose those flowers that don’t look fluffy around the middle (those where few anthers are shedding pollen). Bring them indoors.

And float the flowers, on their backs, in the water.

You’ll be able to appreciate their subtle colouring, admire the patterns of their colours, and the flowers will last far far longer than if you’d cut the whole stems.

But what got me thinking about hellebores, in fact, was seeing the hellebore seed in the Mr F catalogue. Hellebore seed is fussy, it needs a period of moist warmth followed by cooling temperatures before it will germinate. Cold first, heat later, will give you almost no germination. So order hellebore seed now, by all means, before it sells out. But put it at the back of a kitchen cupboard until June – and sow it then, in pots placed outside.

Is one of our best known gardening writers. A graduate of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Graham was previously Gardening Correspondent of The Observer.
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