Archive for the ‘Plant Talk with Graham Rice’ Category

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.

Victorian asters still going strong

January 13th, 2017 | Plant Talk with Graham Rice | 0 Comments

'Ostrich Plume' asters

Just over a hundred years ago, in the summer of 1914, the Royal Horticultural Society held a trial of asters at its Wisley garden. One hundred and ninety four varieties (yes, 194) were grown.

The report – written by a Mr C. C. Titchmarsh! – states: “They were sown under glass on April 27, the germination being, on the whole, good. The seedlings were pricked out into frames and trans planted, 18 inches apart, on June 9 into the open ground. The site had been trenched and manured in the previous autumn.” Now, that’s the way to grow asters!

They were assessed just once, at the end of August, and I noticed that a number of ‘Ostrich Plume’ varieties in separate colours were given awards. The blood red was “very variable in height” and so failed to receive an award but the shell pink, shaded white, was described as “An excellent bedding variety” and received an Award of Merit. The snow white (“A very good variety; 92 per cent. true”) and the pale lavender blue (“One of the best blues in the trial”) were both Highly Commended (the award below Award of Merit).

What’s interesting about all this is that ‘Ostrich Plume’ asters, which were described as “new” in 1897 (above left, the colours have faded over the years), are still grown today (above right) although sometimes known as ‘Ostrich Feather’. Strangely, in the 1930s plume and feather had become two different types.

Later, in 1960, the RHS ran a trial of 170 asters (which was assessed every week from July to September). Then in 1967 they ran another featuring 270 asters. In 1973 they ran another trial, of 231 asters and the 1982 trial included 114 asters. 1990 was the record year, with 289 entries. And since 1990 – no trials of annual asters at all. Tells you how their popularity has waned, doesn’t it.

But what splendid plants they are – particularly because their colours, though bright, are never ever harsh. I’m definitely going to be growing ‘Ostrich Feather’/’Ostrich Plume’ for cutting this year.

Impressive annuals for 2017

January 6th, 2017 | Plant Talk with Graham Rice | 1 Comment

Zinnia 'Purple Prince'

Every year, a huge number of new hardy and half hardy annuals appear in catalogues. Fortunately, the experts at Mr F grow most of them in advance on the trial ground so they can assess whether or not they’re actually worth offering to you. Believe me, you’d be amazed how many supposedly exciting new varieties are no better, or sometimes no different, from what’s already available.

So having grown them on the Mr F trials, and also seen them growing in the trials and displays of the companies around the world who’ve developed them, the best are added to the range.

Then here on my Plant Talk blog, I get to make my own selection from those that are being added to the offering via the website and the catalogue – I can choose what I think are the best of the best, if you like. Some I’ve mentioned here already and these include Antirrhinum ‘Antiquity’ and Calendula ‘Snow Princess’ and Dianthus (Sweet William) ‘Black Adder’ and Kale ‘Red Devil’. Some I’ve written up on my Royal Horticultural Society New Plants blog, such as Geranium ‘Quantum’ and Sweet pea ‘Scarlet Tunic’.

But here are three more newcomers for 2017 that I think are especially well worth growing – and which are not difficult to raise from seed.

Zinnia ‘Purple Prince’
This year is The Year of The Zinnia and new for the season is a variety that my florist friends tell me is in one of this year’s most fashionable colours. When I saw Zinnia ‘Purple Prince’ (above) in the Mr F trials I put a great big red X and three exclamation marks in my notes.

The flowers are intense rich purple with some slightly pinkish overtones, and this is an easy-to-grow annual that can be sown direct in the open ground in May, an approach that will give you flowering a little later than if you’d started them off in pots or trays  – but with much less fuss and risk of failure.

Order seed (and plants) of Zinnia ‘Purple Prince’

Linaria 'Rhythm and Blues'Linaria ‘Rhythm & Blues’
In recent years I’ve become a big fan of annual linarias. The range of shades is so lovely and they make delightful and easy cut flowers.

I saw the ‘Rhythm & Blues’ blend (left, click to enlarge) on the Mr F trial ground in the summer and the simple idea is very appealing. Basically, it’s a 50:50 blend of two colours: deep violet blue and rich vivid red. And the result is stunning. At about 50cm/20in the plants are a little taller then those in the ‘Fairy Bouquet’ mix and so all the better to stick in a vase on the kitchen table. And the price! £1.45 for 500 seeds. Bargain.

Order seed of Linaria ‘Rhythm & Blues’

French marigold ‘Alumia Crème Brûlée’
Everyone’s making a song and dance about the new ‘Strawberry Blonde’ marigold and I saw it in quite a few places over the summer. Sometimes it looked great, sometimes not so much; in my garden the colour looked strangely dingy. I much preferred its sister variety ‘Fireball’ whose flowers open deep red and mature to bronze.

British bred ‘Alumia Crème Brûlée’, on the other hand, is very pretty and also unusual. At 12in/30cm it’s a little taller than most French marigolds, which is no bad thing, and the rather flattish fully double flowers are pale yellow generously flecked in deep red. A sister to the altogether exceptional ‘Alumia Vanilla Cream’ – can we please have the other colours? Actually, I’ve just heard that seed of ‘Alumia Crème Brûlée’ is going to be in short supply this year so order early – and, if it sells out, the very pale ‘Alumia Vanilla Cream’ is just lovely.

Order seed of Marigold ‘Alumia Crème Brûlée’
French marigold 'Creme Brulee'

Best seed raised flowers of 2016

December 30th, 2016 | Plant Talk with Graham Rice | 0 Comments

Over this last summer I visited the extensive trials at Mr. F a number of times, took a look at various other trials around the country and grew quite a few seed-raised flowers myself. Every year I’m reminded of what great value seed-raised annuals are – summer seasonals as they’re increasingly being called – and this year was no exception.

Three stood out – well, actually, about a dozen stood out but there’s only room for three. (Click the pictures to enlarge.)

Calendula 'Snow Princess'Calendula ‘Snow Princess’ First, new this year, a calendula that while perhaps not quite as white as it’s said to be, is certainly the only calendula approaching white. I wrote about it previously here back in November. It’s a lovely thing, creamier towards the centre and white at the tips of the petals. It bushes out well without pinching, flowers early and continually and when I cut it for the house I found that it lasted well. Its colour is soft and appealing, with none of the garish orange of many calendulas.

It started to develop a little mildew late in the season – by which I mean October! – but it seemed to keep flowering happily anyway.

Order seed of Calendula ‘Snow Princess’.

Aster 'Duchess Blue Ice', Phlox 'Moody Blues'Phlox ‘Moody Blues’ I was struck by a number of blue, and blue-and-white, annuals this year although unfortunately not all of them are available. Phlox ‘Moody Blues’, in a harmonious range of blue tones with some blue-and-white mixed in, is lovely and easy to grow from a direct sowing outside.

I arranged it with the pretty bicoloured aster ‘Duchess Blue Ice’, Ageratum ‘Blue Mink’ and some pink flowers from the Achillea ‘Summer Berries’ mixture.

Order seed of Phlox ‘Moody Blues’.

Zinnia 'Zinderella Peach'Zinnia ‘Zinderella Peach’ Finally, as The Year of The Zinnia approaches, I’d pick out Zinnia ‘Zinderella Peach’. Mr F grew about one hundred and fifty zinnias this last year, looking for the very best to add to the range for next year but I reckon that the best is already in the catalogue. In fact I wrote about it in November 2014.

Each anemone centred flower of Zinnia ‘Zinderella Peach’ is a lovely combination of peach and apricot tones and, unlike many of the varieties that were tested, there were no irritating off types. Everyone I showed it to loved it. I’m going to order two or three packets next year.

Order seed of Zinnia ‘Zinderella Peach’.

Still Discovering Annuals

December 23rd, 2016 | Plant Talk with Graham Rice | 0 Comments

Iberis umbellata (candytuft) 'Pink Flash' and Viscaria 'Rose Angel'

Back in the year 2000, I was on the front cover of the Mr F catalogue. My book, Discovering Annuals, had just come out and planting ideas that I’d developed in my garden and which were featured in the book were included in the catalogue. You could even ask for free planting plans and the cover showed one of my annual plantings.

Mr Fothergill's catalogue for 2000The idea of the book was to show how colourful and interesting planting schemes using hardy and half-hardy annuals can be, like bringing together the two easy annuals above, Iberis umbellata (candytuft) ‘Pink Flash’ and Viscaria ‘Rose Angel’. I also wanted to steer gardeners away from the pitfalls of unpredictable mixtures and to focus on choice varieties in individual colours.

Well, in some ways I think I succeeded and in others, not so much. These days, everyone certainly focuses more on individual colours and on grouping different plants together to create a harmonious display. This is especially true when we plant tubs and baskets. But varieties of seed raised annuals in individual colours are being supplanted by patio and container plants raised from cuttings, such as the Surfinia petunia and Temari verbena in similar harmonising colours to the annuals, below.

One reason for this is that there is more profit for the grower in cuttings-raised plants that can be patented than there is in seed of annuals. Mr F, of course, brings you the carefully chosen best of both. And there are still some superb seed-raised annuals being released and next week I’ll be picking my top three seed raised annuals – new and old – from the last year.

Discovering Annuals is still available in hardback from
Discovering Annuals is also still available in paperback from

And click here to request your free 2017 Mr Fothergill catalogue

Surfinia petunia and Temari verbena

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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