Archive for the ‘Plant Talk with Graham Rice’ Category

Geranium or Pelargonium? Which is correct?

August 18th, 2017 | Plant Talk with Graham Rice | 0 Comments

Geranium and Pelargonium - what's in a name?

OK… Stepping into shark infested waters here. What should it be: Geranium or Pelargonium? It’s an issue that often raises tempers.

Just to confuse the issue, there are two answers.

From a botanical, point of view, it’s easy. The tender plants from South Africa that we use in containers and window boxes and seasonal summer plantings are Pelargonium. The hardy perennials, some of which are British natives, are Geranium.

But when we use geranium as a common name, we use it for both. That’s confusing and this is how it came about. It’s all the fault of our old friend Carl Linnaeus.

There are about a dozen native Geranium species, usually called cranesbills, and about three hundred around the world. But, in the early seventeenth century, what we now know as Pelargonium species were brought to Britain from South Africa. In 1732 seven different forms of Pelargonium were described by the botanist J. J. Dillenius – but he named them all as different forms of Geranium africanum. So, at that time, botanically speaking they were all grouped as Geranium.

Not long after, another botanist Joannis Burman, decided that the South African plants were sufficiently different that they required a genus of their own and the name Pelargonium was chosen.

And that would have been fine, there would have been no confusion at all, if Carl Linnaeus had not disagreed with Burman. In his classic book, Species Plantarum of 1753, Linnaeus lumped them all together under Geranium and because of this reputation and the fact that his book was so widely influential – it stuck. But it turned out to be wrong.

In 1789 a French botanist, Charles-Louis L’Heritier de Brutelle, got it right but by then the combination of the popularity of the South African plants and Linnaeus’s wide reputation meant that it was too late – the name Geranium had stuck for them all.

But what’s the difference, botanically speaking? The most obvious thing is that while in Geranium species the flowers are very evenly shaped with five petals all the same size (as above left in Geranium ‘Splish Splash’), in Pelargonium the upper two petals are smaller than the lower three (as in Pelargonium ‘Maverick Quicksilver’, above right).

So there you have it.

Growing the wild sweet pea

August 6th, 2017 | Plant Talk with Graham Rice | 0 Comments

The wild sweet pea, Lathyrus odoratus

This summer, I’ve been growing the wild sweet pea. Yes, this is the very hard to find, original wild species, Lathyrus odoratus, native to Sicily, and un-improved and un-messed around with. It’s proved both delightful and surprising.

The flowers are exactly as I expected. They’re small, about 4cm high, but richly coloured. The standards, the upright petals at the back, are velvety maroon while the wings, are deep violet. In general, it looks like a slightly smaller flowered version of what we now grow as ‘Cupani’ or ‘Matucana’.

Only one or two flowers are produced on each short stem but they were the first of all my spring sown sweet peas to flower, in late May, and are still going strong as I write in early August.

Then, of course, there’s the scent. I have to say that although the scent is good, it’s not as powerful as that of, say, ‘Gwendoline’ and ‘Hi Scent’ growing nearby. And I noticed that the fragrance of the flowers on some individual plants is stronger than that on others.

The stems are short, the stalks of the small leaves are also short, the leaves themselves are small and sometimes with only two leaflets, and the plants themselves are short because the internodes, the length of stem between the leaves, are also short so the whole plant is compressed. Although the well-drained soil is good, and they were watered once or twice in long dry spells, they came into flower at about 40cm high and are now only about 85cm high.

They’ve been deadheaded almost every day, which has been crucial in keeping the flowers coming, but when deadheading was missed for a few days the developing seed pods looked unusually hairy.

So, is it worth growing? Well, yes. It’s very satisfying to grow the true wild sweet pea and a short, long-flowering, scented climber in these rich colours is very useful both in the garden and in a small vase. It would also be good tumbling out of a large container. So I’m going to stop deadheading now, collect the seed and sow it in the autumn for next year.

And it’s on trial at the Mr F trial ground, so it may be in the catalogue in a year or two.

My new trial garden

July 28th, 2017 | Plant Talk with Graham Rice | 0 Comments

Part of Graham Rice's trial garden

This spring I set up a new trial garden in Northamptonshire. It’s modest in scale compared to the colourful and productive acres Mr F runs at its Suffolk HQ, but it’s already proving invaluable in assessing new varieties, as well providing cut flowers for the house and food for the table.

Most of the area is organised in 1.2m (4ft) rectangular beds with 60cm (2ft) paths, the paths just wide enough to take the legs of the wheelbarrow. The beds are edged with 15cm (6in) pressure treated boards.

I’m growing new shrubs, perennials and annuals; also veggies and salads, new varieties and old favourites; plus flowers for cutting including a few for my friend at Foxtail Lilly, the boutique florist and vintage store, to consider for her customers.

And I’m not segregating the different types of plant in different beds. Zinnias are growing between the tomatoes, new poppies in front of the baptisias and plants of a new cosmos between a collection of new Shasta daisy varieties.

Unfortunately, this has led to a few close calls when I’ve tried to cram too much in! The ‘Jazzy’ early potatoes (tasty and prolific) made so much growth that they started to smother the yellow Cosmos ‘Xanthos’ on one side and the new kniphofias on the other! But now I’m lifting the spuds the cosmos and pokers are getting more light and recovering fast.

The stars so far? ‘Amaze’ red baby cos lettuce is good even as it starts to bolt. The ‘Hi Scent’ sweet peas with their pretty colouring and super scent have proved why they’re now essential growing although my old favourite ‘Gwendoline’ has some disappointing off-types. The crop of ‘Socrates’ mini-cucumbers has been spectacular – and there’s nothing quite like visiting a friend with a gift of tasty little cukes.

Some new calendulas from the USA are superb (can’t tell you any more at the moment), I’m also trying three hardy gladioli (one of them scented!) and they’re lovely although the rainstorms did them no favours.

I’ll keep you posted with occasional updates.

Hardy annuals to sow in summer

July 21st, 2017 | Plant Talk with Graham Rice | 0 Comments

Calendula 'Snow Princess'

Back in November, I told you about my plants of the new Calendula ‘Snow Princess’. Sown at the end of July, they were still going strong a month before Christmas and were still producing flowers for cutting as well as a very pretty garden display. So I thought I’d remind you to try the idea this year.

What I did was use a plastic six-pack that I’d bought in the spring filled with violas. I washed it out well, filled it with moist seed compost and sowed three seeds, spaced out, in each cell. I covered them with just a little compost and put them on the kitchen windowsill.

I just thought that a little protection, both from hot sun and from slugs on cool nights, might be worthwhile. They were soon up, every one germinated, I turned the pack every day then planted them out as the roots started to emerge through the holes in the bottom.

I’m going to try the same thing again this year with ‘Snow Princess’ and perhaps also try ‘Indian Prince’ and ‘Princess Orange Black’ as well.

But then I wondered: what about other annuals? Zinnias perhaps? But annuals that will take a first light frost or two might be a better bet. Short sunflowers such as the top-branching ‘Soleo’ might be worth a try, or the golden ‘Hello’. And I wouldn’t be surprised if plants like ‘Summer Fruits’ scabious flower well, but on shorter plants than usual.

I think I’d raise them in the same way as last year’s calendulas. The question is: do I have enough space to try them all? Hmmm…

Making larger (and smaller) flowers

July 14th, 2017 | Plant Talk with Graham Rice | 0 Comments

Dahlia 'Kenora Sunset'

Exhibitors have a way of increasing the size of dahlia and chrysanthemum flowers for their shows, and we can use the same technique in our gardens. We can also adapt it to provide more flowers that are a little smaller, rather than larger, and more effective in the garden.

Increasing the size of dahlia and chrysanthemum flowers is not difficult. Simply snip off the buds immediately below the main bud on a stem and all the energy will go into producing one large flower instead of a number of smaller ones. Use sharp secateurs or sharp kitchen scissors as the stems are soft and juicy and blunt secateurs will simply squash them and let in disease.

The result will be larger flowers that look more dramatic in the garden and in large arrangements but which mingle less well with their neighbours.

With both chrysanthemums and dahlias, some varieties have been developed to provide fewer, larger flowers and some to develop more flowers that are smaller. So it pays to start with varieties that suit your intentions.

The opposite approach is to snip out the main bud to encourage more buds to develop lower down the stem. These will produce smaller flowers, better suited to mixed borders and mixed arrangements on the kitchen table.

The same technique can be applied, depending on the variety, to leucanthemums, asters, tall calendulas and sunflowers – anything with branching flower heads with a single flower at the end of each branch.

OK, I can’t guarantee how it will work with all these other flowers, it will vary with the different varieties. But it’s definitely worth a try.


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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