Archive for the ‘Plant Talk with Graham Rice’ Category

First year flowering perennials: prolific penstemons

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

Penstemon 'Mixed Colours'

The penstemons raised from seed were so bright on the Mr Fothergill’s trial ground this summer that they caught my eye from the other side of the field. And this from a plant that’s usually grown from cuttings and bought as plants in pots.

They really dazzled but when you look at the price of the seeds and how easy they are to raise you wonder why they’re not grown from seed more often. Five hundred seeds for £2.29, half the price of a single plant in a garden centre, seems like a bargain to me. And, sown inside in March, they’ll flower prolifically in their first year.

The upright 75cm stems carry pairs of glossy leaves topped with large, flared flowers in a very wide range of colours and bicolours and once they start the flowers just keep coming. Best in a sunny spot in rich but well-drained soil, I’ve found that they respond especially well to regular dead heading and I’ve seen dead-headed plants still flowering well at the end of October in their first year after a July start.

Penstemon 'Scarlet Queen'‘Mixed Colours’ is the aptly descriptive name for the variety with the widest range of shades including a lovely pure white, some pretty pink and white bicolours and others with attractive lacing in the throat. If there’s one from the mix that you especially like, it’s easy to propagate it from cuttings in spring or summer. ‘Scarlet Queen’ (right) is the most striking single colour available, in bright red with a contrasting clean white throat.

‘Humming Bells’ is a much shorter blend so ideal for the front of the border or containers and, while the flowers are smaller than those of ‘Mixed Colours’, they’re tightly packed on 20cm stems.

Sowing? March is the ideal time. Give them some heat to start with then keep move the individual seedlings into cells in April and harden off in May before planting out. The plants are quite vigorous and can also be sown in the open ground in May but probably won’t flower till the following year.

But alert your friends: you’ll probably have more than enough young plants to give away.

Finding the best perennials from seed

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

First year flowering perennials on the MrFothergill's trials

This year on the Mr Fothergill’s trial ground in Suffolk, one hundred and forty four perennials were raised from seed and planted out side by side to be assessed. The aim was to see which really flowered well in their first year.

I looked over the trial twice and one thing was very clear: you don’t have to spend £3, £4, £5 or more on just one perennial plant when you can spend £2.69 on a packet of seeds that will give you enough plants to fill a border!

I’ll be looking at some of the stars in the next few posts but, in general, these are the plants that really stood out.

The achilleas covered a wide colour range and were very prolific while the agastaches were stunning, with masses of flowers until late in the season and with aromatic foliage – and they really are bee magnets. Coreopsis, too, were a success and so much more robust that annual types, although the colour range is very limited; they too continued well into autumn.

First year flowering perennials on the MrFothergill's trialsI was impressed with the gaillardias, especially the single red ‘Firewheels’, and heliopsis were good – sort of like sophisticated rudbeckias. ‘Prima Ballerina’ stood out but in my trial garden ‘Burning Hearts’ beat just about everything.

Penstemons were absolutely dazzling and even the almost-hardy Dahlia merckii, a single flowered wild species from Mexico, began flowering in August although the plants were huge.

Alison Mulvaney, Technical Manager at Mr F, explained how they were grown.

“The seeds were sown in early in March on the hot bench in the polytunnel,” she told me. “Most of them had germinated and were pricked out into 6 or 9 cell packs by the end of April.

“We grew them on in the polytunnel in cooler conditions until mid May when they were moved outside for hardening off. We covered them with fleece on really cold nights but otherwise they were left to fend for themselves and they were transplanted outside in the first week of June.

“Over the summer we identified around twelve potential new varieties that are on the list of ‘possibles’ for introduction – depending on availability and price!”.

Cornflower for ground cover

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

Cornflower 'Trailing Blue Carpet'

In recent years we’ve seem some unexpected developments in hardy annuals that we all thought were always more or less the same. We’ve seen variegated alyssum raised from cuttings and we’ve seen low and spreading, winter-flowering calendulas for containers. And now we have a trailing cornflower.

I grew ‘Trailing Blue Carpet’ in my trial garden this summer, treated as a hardy annual and sown in April on the corner of a low raised bed. It was very pretty and spread across the edge to handily mask my not-so-very-efficient carpentry in joining the vertical boards at the corner.

It’s unique amongst cornflowers in spreading out horizontally and staying low over the soil, just 7-10cm high. The plants flowered from June until I finally pulled them out in September, I’m sure regular dead heading was a factor in keeping them going. Snipping with the kitchen scissors or a sharp pair of secateurs was easy.

The flowers were small, as cornflowers go, standing up just above the leaves and opening in deep cobalt blue before taking on paler, purplish tones as they matured. And “trailing” is perhaps not quite the right word: “spreading” is better, “carpet” certainly applies as, when the shoots reached the edge of the bed, they just kept going horizontally until the weight of the stems lowered the shoots. Not quite the thing for a hanging basket, more like annual ground cover.

This is not a new variety of the cornflower we’ve all been growing for years, Centaurea cyanus. I think it’s probably a different species, from the Mediterranean or eastern Europe, but with over two hundred species growing across Europe and two hundred more in Asia I’m hard pressed to suggest which one it might be. A form of Centaurea depressa, from Iran, perhaps?

I thought it was very pretty and when the plant breeders have got to work crossing it with the more familiar types perhaps we’ll end up with larger flowers and more colours. In the meantime, why not give ‘Trailing Blue Carpet’ cornflower a try at the front of a sunny border?

Award winning flowers now in your garden centre

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

What separates the good plants, the very best of all varieties, from the rest? Well, it could be any number of things from flavour, to disease resistance to sheer flower power. But it’s all summed up in the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit (AGM).

This award has been given to over six and a half thousand ornamental and edible plants which the RHS has determined are the cream of the crop. And if the RHS can’t be trusted, who can.

These are varieties to choose if you don’t want to take any chances, the varieties that are guaranteed to perform. Of course, you have to give them the conditions they prefer and look after them as you would any other plant. But they’re more like to give you tasty food or beautiful flowers – in very generous quantities.

And this season sees a collaboration between Mr F and the RHS to offer an elite selection of seed-raised AGM varieties, the best of the best, if you like. You can read more about it all here.

There are two ranges, sixty one AGM flowers and fifty six AGM vegetables but here at Plant Talk it’s mainly the flowers that take precedence and six of the best are illustrated above.

Amaranthus ‘Velvet Curtains’ is a hardy annual with bronze-tinted red foliage and long lasting red plumes. California poppy ‘Apricot Chiffon’ is the best of the dwarf and bushy types with silvery foliage and attractive rippled flowers. Delphinium ‘Centurion Sky Blue’ has flowers to match the types propagated by division while the biennial Eryngium ‘Silver Ghost’ seems to thrive in sun or shade. ‘Valentine’ sunflower is appealingly pale compared with most varieties and if you need a vigorous and prolific annual climber look no further than Mina lobata. And that’s just six out of sixty one! Plus all those vegetables.

You’ll find the RHS range on the Mr Fothergill seed racks in garden centres or you can choose online from the AGM flowers or choose online from the vegetables. Why not take a look?

French marigolds without a greenhouse

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

Mr Fothergill's direct sown French Marigold Trial

French marigolds are half hardy annuals. That means that they’re sensitive to cold so their seed is usually sown in a greenhouse or propagator in March or April and the seedlings are planted out at the end of May or in early June.

But this year Brian Talman, who looks after the Mr F trial ground, sowed the seed direct in the open ground. He did this on May 9 and 10, when the worst of the chilly weather was over. And the result was spectacular. Fantastic colour from one of our most colourful of annuals. The display was astonishing – and all without a greenhouse.

One that stood out was ‘Fireball’, which is a unique colour in French marigolds – it’s deep scarlet at first then, as the flowers mature, the colour moves through bronzed orange into coppery yellow.

Another I especially liked was ‘Alumia Vanilla Cream’, developed in Norfolk and in California, in a unique soft, almost primrose, yellow.

French Marigold 'Tall Scotch Prize'I’m an especially big fan of the tall single French marigolds such as the mahogany-and-yellow striped ‘Tall Scotch Prize’ (left). In my trial garden they’re still flowering well in the third week of October and I’ve been cutting them for sunny coloured bouquets since July. And although quite a few off-types turned up in ‘Tall Scotch Prize’ it’s still well worth growing.

Two that I don’t think I’ll be growing are ‘Strawberry Blonde’, about which there was a big song and dance a year ago but which, in fact, is neither strawberry nor blonde. And while the single flowers of the new ‘Red Knight’ are a valuable deep red, the foliage is dull, and rather greyish, compared with the fresh green colour of so many French marigolds.

But the fact that you can sow them outside, in the open ground, where the plants are to flower – well, that’s worth a lot. Why not give it a try? But get your seed orders in now before the best varieties sell out.

  • Essential new sweet peas Essential new sweet peas Take a look at these lovely new scented sweet peas for the coming season.

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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