Archive for the ‘Plant Talk with Graham Rice’ Category

RHS Award Winners: Super Sunflowers

January 19th, 2018 | Plant Talk with Graham Rice | 0 Comments

Sunflower ' Valentine' Image ©

Isn’t it a treat to have sunflowers in the garden? And the varieties that come on the market are getting better and better, with new colours, sturdy growth and better branching – the days of stems taller than you are with one flower on the top are long gone.

Last year I grew two that are included in the new RHS range from Mr F, although I had to be careful. The previous autumn I’d left the heads for the finches but they missed some of the seeds so I had self sown seedlings popping up all over the place. And the question then, of course, is this: which are the unpredictable self sown seedlings and which are the seedlings of the carefully chosen varieties I actually wanted to grow.

This year I’m going to solve the problem by raising my chosen sunflowers in 9cm pots in the cold greenhouse, sowing in late March or April. At the same time I’ll be ruthlessly removing any self sown seedlings that pop up in the garden. Then, when I plant my seedlings in May, there’ll be no doubt about which are the sunflowers I really want.

And I’ll be growing two RHS award winners. ‘Claret’ is a lovely deep red, with brighter petal tips and with an almost black centre. When it was grown in the RHS trial the judges summarised its qualities like this: “very dark reddish brown; very good foliage, nice dark stems; flowered well over long period; good cut flower”.

The other AGM winner I’ll again be growing is ‘Valentine’, with dark-eyed flowers in a lovely soft primrose shade. The RHS judges reported: “striking dark centre with pale yellow rays; excellent cut flower, basal branching”.

Apart from removing self sown seedlings, the other lesson from last year was to support them well. A head-high sunflower can be weighed down by summer storms and fall into the plants around it. So support them well with stout stakes set behind the plants so they’re hidden by the fat sunflower stems. Just remember to tie them in as they grow.

RHS Award winners: a very special perennial

January 12th, 2018 | Plant Talk with Graham Rice | 0 Comments

Erigeron 'Profusion'

This pretty, long flowering, Award of Garden Merit winning perennial is a lovely garden plant with an unusual feature that’s not immediately obvious. I wrote about it here a few years ago, but now that it’s been included in the new Mr F Royal Horticultural Society collection – and now that I’ve found something especially interesting about it – I can tell you more.

When we propagate our plants, the usual rule is that the only way to make sure that our new plants are exactly the same as the original is to propagate them vegetatively: that is, by division or by cuttings or by layering. Erigeron ‘Profusion’ is different – it comes true from seed for a very specific reason. You never see one that’s all pink, for example, or all white, or one that’s very tall or very short. They’re all grown from seed and they’re all exactly the same.

Here’s why. Most plants need to be pollinated and fertilised to produce seed and the plants grown from that seed can be unpredictable. Erigeron ‘Profusion’ produces seed that is genetically identical to the parent plant without fertilisation so the offspring grown from seed are exactly the same as the parent. The technical word is apomixis and it also occurs in plants as diverse as wild roses, rudbeckias, dandelions and blackberries.

But as far as Erigeron ‘Profusion’ is concerned, grown from seed or grown from cuttings they’re all the same.

And what a superb plant this is. It “opens its first white daisies, which turn pink as they age, in May and continues thereafter with unabated zest until the first sever frosts of winter. In a frostless winter…, it flowers right through.” That was Christopher Lloyd in The Adventurous Gardener. You can still see the plant at his garden at Great Dixter even though he himself is long gone.

RHS award winners: Essential climbers

January 5th, 2018 | Plant Talk with Graham Rice | 0 Comments

Ipomoea 'Heavenly Blue' and Mina lobata

The new collaboration between Mr F and the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) features seeds of flowers and veggies that have been awarded the prestigious Award of Garden Merit (AGM). I discussed these new ranges briefly here last year but I thought, as seed sowing season approaches, I’d take a closer look at some of the floral highlights. And the ipomoeas are especially interesting.

There are two AGM ipomoeas in the Mr F catalogue and, at first sight, they look completely unrelated.

Mina lobata (above right) features in the RHS range and, although long known by that name, it’s now been recognised as so similar to ipomoeas that it needs to be classified as one: so it’s now known, botanically, as Ipomoea lobata.

Fiery orange buds are held along arching stems, maturing to yellow and then cream but even as they pass their peak the new flare and the flowers stay tubular. It makes a great deal of growth, reaches 1-8-2.4m depending on the richness of the soil and the watering, and needs stout support. It flowers for months. Sow in frost free conditions from April.

The closely related Ipomoea ‘Heavenly Blue’ (above left) is also an AGM variety but has been listed for years so is not in the new RHS range. It’s very different, with large flared sky blue flowers that open early in the day and close by afternoon – which is why it’s called morning glory. It reaches the same height as Mina lobata but its growth is less bushy and dense. It’s one of the most beautiful of garden climbers, no garden should be without it.

Just to emphasise how varied the ipomoeas are, Mr F also lists two special varieties of sweet potato grown for their coloured foliage; they’re ideal in sunny containers and trail neatly. These foliage varieties of Ipomoea batatas do not have AGMs – but I suspect this is only because the RHS has not yet held a trial.

I think these varied ipomoeas deserve a try, don’t you? I’ll be growing them all this year.

Chocolate scented dahlia!

December 29th, 2017 | Plant Talk with Graham Rice | 0 Comments

Dahlia 'Karma Chocolate'

I didn’t believe it was true, but Dahlia ‘Karma Chocolate’ really does smell of chocolate. You think I’m kidding you, a dahlia that smells of chocolate?!

Back in September my friend Tracey at Foxtail Lilly, boutique florists, gave me a bunch of ‘Karma Chocolate’ and I just sniffed them without thinking.

OK, it’s not strong. But some plants of the chocolate cosmos, Cosmos atrosanguineus don’t smell much either. But that elusive chocolate smell is definitely there.

But it’s not just the smell. This is fine border plant that flowers for months and, in particular, it makes a superb cut flower with waterlily flowers in deep and sumptuous velvety chocolate red.

All seventeen varieties in the Karma Series have been specially developed for cutting, with a long vase life of seven to twelve days and long strong stems that support the flower heads well but which are not too fat and obtrusive.

The rich colouring of ‘Karma Chocolate’ always captures our attention and combined with that gentle, though unmistakeable scent, makes it a genuinely outstanding dahlia. Look out too for the lovely lilac pink ‘Karma Lagoon’ which has the same long lasting cut flower qualities and which also makes a superb plant for a mixed or perennial borders.

The plants come as dry tubers, and when they arrive in the spring you can hang on to them until early May then plant them in the garden. I prefer to pot them up into 12cm pots as soon as they arrive and grow them on just frost free to plant out at the end of May or early June. Be sure to give them stout support, the plants produce a lot of growth and a lot of flowers.

There’ll be so many flowers that you’ll have plenty to cut and still leave an effective display in the garden.

Orange Christmas lanterns

December 22nd, 2017 | Plant Talk with Graham Rice | 0 Comments

Chinese lanterns in a Christmas display ©Carol Parfitt/

Do you ever get tired of the same old Christmas plants? Holly, ivy, the dreaded poinsettia? I recently wrote a piece about alternatives we can grow ourselves on the RHS website and I thought I’d highlight a couple of them here.

Chinese lanterns (Physalis), for example, are spectacular both in the garden and in the house. The summer flowers are tiny and not really worth bothering with but by autumn they miraculously develop into glorious fruits with bright orange papery sheaths, all along the stems.

Pick them by cutting them down to soil level, then you’ll have a good length of stem to intertwine with evergreens from the garden or hedgerow.

The only problem is that to say they’re vigorous is an understatement. But they’ll take being planted in poor soil and be a little better behaved.

Cardoons and globe artichokes (Cynara) have a different appeal. The flowerheads are like huge thistles, magnets for bees and butterflies in summer, and standing out dramatically against the sky. Unexpectedly, the huge silvery leaves last well in water.

But, even simply left on the plant, they dry to a lovely autumn brown which with the bold shape is attractive through the autumn. Then, in the run up to Christmas, you can spray them with gold or silver paint for a striking seasonal decoration. I saw some sprayed red once – don’t bother.

The proviso with these is that the foliage, though dramatic, takes up a lot of space in the garden. So site carefully.

But thinking about spraying the cardoons has just reminded me to take a look at the nigellas I hang in the corner of the shed back in October. I’m thinking I’ll spray them silver as well.


  • 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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