March 6, 2013


Cut flower sweet peas are one of the most amazing flowers a gardener can ever experience, but they are not always the easiest to grow. Here is the story about how I raised long stemmed English sweet peas this year.

Last year I became obsessed with English Spencer Sweet Peas - so variety grown by true Sweet Pea enthusiasts in England and elsewhere, because of its characteristically large blossoms and long, long stems. Once the most popular cut flower in America ( in 1900), today, the sweet pea is still somewhat scarce, which just means that you will need to grow your own from seed, as this is another one of those annuals that you will not find in garden centers as seedlings ( and, you shouldn't, as the best plants are those grown from seed in your own garden). As many of you know, I sort of became a little too obsessed last year, even having a party to celebrate their mass blooming in June. Since many of you have shared an interest in trying to grow Spencer Sweet Peas yourselves, here is a photo-heavy step-by-step post on how I grow mine. Enjoy!

Sweet Pea enthusiasts use a new type of pot called a root trainer, and the name Rootrainer is also a brand. Google it, if you think you can invest in a set ( they are not cheap, but they are reusable). Some people use toilet paper tubes ( silly, really, and not horticulturally sound as they will decay long before you can transplant your seedlings). Root trainers allow seedlings to produce long roots, essential with sweet peas, especially since you will be pinching the seedlings to encourage even more roots in the first few weeks of growth. Of course you can use most any pot, yogurt containers - what ever you feel comfortable with, but look for deeper containers rather than shallow ones. Sweet peas dislike root disturbance, so Root Trainers allow you to unfold the pot, and slide the root ball out with a minimum of disturbance. With regular pots, you will just need to carefully tap and slide out the root ball.

Varieties are important, and I encourage you to seek out the Spencer variety if you are large flowers and long stems. You certainly can use American seed strains if you wish, but I assure you that the flowers will be smaller, and the stems shorts. Heirloom varieties exist, and they are often more fragrant, but the true Spencer strain forms have the newest varieties - those grown for exhibition in England, and I believe the largest foliage and flowers. Grown side-by-side with American Royal sweet peas, you will instantly see the difference. I order mine from Owl's Acre in England, but there are many sources in the UK and even from California (although, I honestly would just look at the Sweet Pea Society website in England, and check out their source list - these growers grow two crops a year, to ensure the freshest seed - one crop in the UK, and then one crop in New Zealand during their summer). I cannot stress the importance of getting the finest seed you can get.

I sow seed starting in late February, but also as late as mid March ( I am late this year). I sow two seed per cell, and then I pull one out and toss it, keeping the strongest seedling to grow on. At the second leaf stage ( above) I pinch the growing tip out ( it's what the professional exhibitors do). This encourages more roots, which is so important for sweet peas as the vines will grow 8 to 10 feet tall, and by mid summer, the hot temperatures will require plants to have deep and strong roots.

Starting in mid March, I start bringing plants outdoors to harden them off. All peas love cold weather, and many can handle light frosts. At first, I bring the flats of root trainers back into the greenhouse, but by late March, I leave them outside all night, only protecting them if snow threatens.

In the third week of March, I start setting out the strongest seedlings into a prepared bed. I don't add manure from the chicken and duck coops into the soil because one must control the nitrogen level, but I do add bone meal and a drench of tomato fertilizer ( 2.5.5), along with compost. I use cloches to protect plants from heavy early frosts.

These pinched seedlings show how the root trainers work. Yes, I forgot to pull out the extra seedling here, but at this stage, I can still snip off or pinch out the two weaker stems.
 In the rear, you can see the bamboo cordon system I use - 8 foot bamboo canes, attached to a wire which extends between two snow fence poles. This creates a very sturdy structure which you will need once the vines mature and bloom.

Seedlings after being set out, watered and fertilized. One plant per cane. I know, I know, a little crazy, but wait till you see the results.  This is exactly the same way exhibition sweet peas are grown in England. If you think this is silly, I can say that the foliage on the sweet pea plants grown this way is four times larger than those on conventionally grown vines. The goal at this point? Strong roots, so I pinch plants again just after planting. Don't worry, you will be surprised at how pinching early will stimulate plants to produce side shoots which will be even larger and more sturdy than the original growing point.  For some reason, side shoots are massive  and more aggressive than those on un-pinched plants.

After pinching, strong shoots will emerge from the base of the seedling. At this point, around May 15th, you will need to start tying vines to the canes ( they will not grasp on by themselves).

I use vinyl tape for tying sweet peas, as it does not damage the stem, it stretches and ties easily. I know, it is not environmentally sound, but it just means that I must collect the pieces at the end of the season. Many UK growers use this material for staking tomatoes and sweet peas. Its' very soft, and will not harm the plant.

By June 1st, vines will start to grow incredibly quickly, almost 3 inches a day. Have twine or tape ready, for they will need to be tied every other day or so. I tie at each internode. It's a pleasant task, relaxing after a long day at work, just listening to the robins, and making little bows.  I've tried twine, rope, twistems, but this soft plastic ribbon is the best, as sweet pea stems are winged, and tear easily with even thick twine. If you want to be more organic, you may want to try cutting fabric or cloth ribbon. I think the trick here is a flat material and not a round one, which will cut into the stem.

Tendrils emerge at the end of each leaflet, and they will need to be cut off, or this will happen. They will grasp onto bud and nearby leaves, encircling them and causing havoc. Carry a pair of little scissors, and snip all tendrils off.

Flower stems need to grow tall and long, and tendrils will cause trouble. Again, it is a strangely pleasant task, snipping off tendrils every day after work in the evening. Sometimes, tending to plants with snips and ties, can be like therapy.

By mid june, flower buds will appear, and extend long and tall. If the first set yellows and falls off, don't dispair, but keep an eye out for virus' and aphids. If you are lucky, soon will will have amazing long stems of fragrant sweet peas.

Some of these stems are 18 inches long, with blossoms nearly 2-3 inches in diameter. Properly grown sweet peas are amazing and impressive, probobly because we rarely ever see them, even at florists. Once you grow your own sweet peas, you will understand their charm and respect why they were so popular a hundred years ago when people cared about such things.

The color palette with Spencer Sweet Peas is unmatched. coral, cerise, periwinkle - some of the purest  colors seen outside of Valentines Day or the My Little Pony aisle at Target. I can say that, because I know :). The Yummiest colors of any flower, indeed. So go get your sweet peas on!

Awesome pictures to follow:

March 3, 2013

It's Meteorological Spring!

Lily of the Valley pips emerging in the greenhouse - in a week, the entire flat will be a fragrant garden 
The meteorologists know that at least by their three month calender, that it's spring, many plants in the greenhouse and out in the garden know that days are getting longer, and that the sunshine is becoming brighter each day, but we humans still find it difficult to believe that spring is on the horizon, with snow falling, and chilly nights, it seems that winter will never release its grasp. But here in New England, even with snow falling, it is officially here - mud season. With now four dogs ( yes, it seems we are keeping the puppies), I spend a good part of the day washing floors, the deck and the porches, only to find four sets of muddy paw prints almost immediately after I finished. Sometimes I do wish that I lived in a new, modern house, with one dog, and no mud, but there is little I can do.

Muddy paw prints on the porch floor which needs a good striping and paint job come this summer.

Our floors are over 100 years old, which by New England terms, means little as many homes here are 300 years old, but before I can refinish the porch floors, I have far too many tasks to handle. New garden gates and fences so that the dogs can't get out, I need new entrance doors to the house, new windows ( we put on a new roof last year), but it seems we can only do a couple of big projects a year.

An early morning spring snow, sticks to every detail in the garden when the temperature hovers near freezing.

For the past three weekends we've had snow storms, nothing bad, just nice, pretty, gentle snow, a couple of inches at a time. Last weekend the snow was wet, so it stuck to every tiny branch. This weekend, it was mild, with temps near 32º F and it continued to snow lightly. The sun is high enough now for the greenhouse to warm up, even on overcast days such as this weekend brought. This allowed me to do some well needed tending to in the greenhouse, particularly with seedling that needed to be transplanted, and then, others which needed to be sown. I was able to sow the rest of my primula species seed which was refrigerated three weeks ago, and some pulmonaria seed. If you remember, I added the seed to some moist sand, and then placed sand and seed into a zip lock bag which I refrigerated. A short cold period was all that was needed for these particular species, to stimulate them to grow, believing that it is indeed late spring.

Another shot of the new Winter Garden at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden where I spent most of yesterday. Just planted last year, this garden will need some time to mature, but I could not resist shooting these cornus shrubs, so strategically placed so that one can enjoy both the golden stems and the red stems.

My Hamamellis x intermedia is just beginning to bloom, waiting for a couple days of warm weather to really make it pop. As the snow falls, the bright yellow blossoms stand out. I've noticed many birds plucking the petals for a sweet treat  as pickings are slim in the woodland this time of year.

Diascia Diamonte Coral Rose F1 hybrids, repotted into individual pots, await to be watered, fertilized and pinched to promote more branching.  These cool-loving annuals enjoy the colder conditions in the greenhouse, whereas other annuals such as impatiens still need to remain indoors under lights.

In the greenhouse, I tended to some transplanting which needed to be done.  The Artichokes are ready to be moved from their root trainers, to 5 inch pots, and a few pots of Diascia had to be transplanted if I ever want to enjoy their salmon/coral blossoms by the time real spring arrives.

Artichoke seedlings are well rooted, with deep root systems. They now need to be up graded to 5 inch pots. Sown in January, artichokes and Cardoons need an early start, then a short chilly period for at least two weeks with temperatures near 40º to stimulate them to vernalize, and then exposed to warm temperatures again - this promotes blooming.

A flat of Impatiens which I had sown in January, are ready to be transplanted.

I am growing many of my own annuals this year for a couple of reasons. Varieties are important to me, and I have been not impressed with most commercially grown plants. They are too short, too bloomy when they are in-store, and they remain too dwarf. I mean, I get it - retailers need young 6 packs in bloom so that people will buy the colors they want, and they want short plants, so that they will fit on shelves at the garden center. I don't care if my plants are in bloom when I plant them, and I prefer taller varieties, so I start mine from seed sown in January.  This variety grows 14 -18 inches tall ( from Harris Seeds).

These impatiens seedling are strong, I should remind you that these are growing indoors under grow lights, as they need warmth. Seed will not germinate unless the soil is above 75º F, and plants must be grown on at 65º - 70º. In a month or so, I will be able to relocate the pots back into the greenhouse, but for now, they are transplanted  on the potting bench in the greenhouse, but brought back indoors where they can grow under the warmth of the lights.

I planted these Impatiens seedlings into 4" pots, which should ensure strong, and large transplants by the time late May rolls around. No growth hormones, no root stimulants, no chemicals to stimulate early blooms, and no chemicals to encourage short stems  and extra green leaves. I can't wait to see how these will perform in the garden next to store bought transplants.

Lastly, I had to share this pot of Cyclamen coum, a winter blooming cyclamen species that loves the cold, often surviving in many zone 6 gardens. I still prefer to grow in near the glass in my cold greenhouse.

March 2, 2013

A 184 Year-Old Camellia Exhibition

Camellias from all over Massachusetts are benched on a table awaiting to be judged at the 184th Annual Camellia Exhibition sponsored by the Massachusetts Camellia Society at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, MA.
If you read this blog often, it will come with no surprise that I love camellias, in fact, with each passing year, I find myself becoming more in love with this ancient Asian tree which was once so popular and common in old New England greenhouses, in old estate conservatories, 19th century florist glass houses  and in institutional collections. Camellias may seem rather un -exciting if you live in London, or in southern states and the Pacific rim, but for the rest of us, they are rarely seen, a lost legacy of times-gone by, relics from a past when cold greenhouses and unheated conservatories provided the perfect conditions for these Chinese, Korean and Japanese trees.

This weekend I had the pleasure to be invited to be a judge at the 184th annual Camellia Exhibition held by the Massachusetts Camellia Society - the show, one of the oldest flower shows in the country ( they still fight with Philadelphia on which one is actually the oldest!) is held this year at the beautiful Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, MA, near my home. If you live in New England, come visit tomorrow - the show continues on Sunday, March 3rd until 5:00 PM.

In New England, finding camellias can be challenging. If you want plants to try, you must order them from one of the few national nurseries who grow them (Nuccio's Nursery in Pasadena, perhaps the finest, and Camellia Forest Nursery in North Carolina come to mind). There was a time when a camellia corsage was commonplace, even I remember in the 1970's old wooded greenhouses in my home town of Worcester, MA with tall camellia trees planted in the ground, that would provide flowers for the few older women who would call to request them. Today, they are all lost, and if you are curious to see these stunning flowers, perhaps the only place to see them would be at a camellia exhibition, such as this one, or, if you visit a private collection.

Fast advice - camellias can't survive in average homes, they demand cold winter temps just above freezing and cool, buoyant air. If you have an unheated porch that remains constantly above freezing, or if you have a cold ( 35-40º greenhouse) then you will have success. You can try them in an un heated garage with a window, or a cold bedroom that you don't use. They are relatively care free in such environments which is why they were once so popular until modern heating systems made their indoor culture impossible.

My entries for the show, picked fresh this morning as I make my way to the truck at 7:30 am. Once at the show, they will be floated in little dishes of water, and benched into categories based on form and type. A camellia show is both educational ( the best way to choose varieties), and beautiful.

 I have to honest, I've resisted entering or even attending the camellia show at Tower Hill each year, only because I felt (wrongly) that it might be underwhelming, my own prejudice as I have my own collection of camellias in the greenhouse here, and felt that there would be so few entries that it would not be worth my time to bother to enter. Boy, was I wrong. I was surprised ( i.e. shocked) at how crowded the show was, (clearly - lots of people want to visit a botanic garden in the middle of winter- duh!), and, I was super impressed with the number of entries. I predict that the camellia will be the next peony, for I never seen so much interest from people about any flower show plant or flower. Many people were buying plants, and even more were taking photos.

Mass. Camellia Society member Frank Streeter labels his entries at the show. Camellias are transported as loose blossoms, and they need to be carefully sorted and placed in their proper group and class before being judged. Petals must be clean, and free from any blemishes, and their form must meet strict standards for each type.

The new winter garden, at Tower Hill. Magnificent architecture and new plantings keep this new jewel in New England on many visitors must-see list.

Camellias come in 6 forms, some are single, double, rose-formed or peony formed. Others have tight bosses of stamens like the Higo type and others have small, slender blossoms.

My fellow judge Taylor Johnston,  a horticulturist from the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum in Boston showed me these larger specimens in the Limonaia ( like an orangerie) at Tower Hill. These all came from the collection which once was housed at the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum, but which now are housed at Tower Hill Botanic Garden.

At this camellia exhibition, both plants and flowers are staged, and are entered for competition. These displays line a hallway at the garden, where the public can stroll and view the many forms and types.

  A bronze antique vessel holds a floating display of camellia blossoms.

We voted this beauty BEST IN SHOW.

We judges agreed that these two rarer flowers which were nearly black entered by Glen Lord should have won an award, but he entered them in a class marked NOT FOR JUDGING. The variety? Night Rider. Must have! Check out those red stamens, and Glen informs me that the foliage is reddish too.

A white formal rose camellia, a form that everyone loves because of its symmetry. Comparing these more symmetrical flower types with the more poofy reticulata's makes camellia judging a bit like a dog show. It can be hard to not be subjective.

A massive single higo form

These are the winners, removed to a side table so that we could judge them against each other. All blue ribbon winners, this is like the last class at Westminster Kennel Club - one of these will become the Best In Show. ( you've already seen it, above, but check out the huge reticulata in the bowl at the top of the image - wow).

On a dull, overcast cold winters day, there is nothing like a bright and cheerful camellia show to lift spirits.