As a gardening journalist, I’ve long been given plants, seeds and bits of kit to test in my own plot. Some are established favourites with growers, others things firms are keen to promote, occasionally it’s a variety so new it has yet to be named and it comes with just a reference number. Gardening trials are a great way to discover new things and push the boundaries of what you grow.
This season has seen me raising everything from cosmos to cabbage and testing a peat-free compost. There have been a few disappointments and one or two surprises.
Possibly the stand-out plant of the year was Petunia ‘Night Sky’ from Thompson & Morgan (pictured above) mainly because I really didn’t expect to like it. I have a love-hate relationship with petunias. On the one hand, they are a useful summer bedder for containers but they need a lot of dead-heading to look good – something I find a horribly sticky job.
‘Night Sky’ seemed even less likely to appeal as I expected the white-splashed dark purple blooms to be a bit garish.
In fact, I rather grew to like them. The purple had a velvety sheen to it and the white splashes gave them a cheerful rather than comical look.
I put them in a pot with Cosmos ‘Xanthos’, also supplied by Thompson & Morgan. Launched in 2015, it has pale yellow flowers that fade at the edges and a darker, golden centre. The plants are dwarf, making them ideal for containers.
If there was a problem with them, it’s deadheading, as the flowers are packed onto the stems, making it difficult to snip off spent blooms without accidentally removing flower buds.
There were a few plants over after I filled my container so I put them in some spare ground I had in one of the borders. Expectations were low as it’s one of the shady spots but the cosmos performed well, flowering happily in the semi-shade.
Cabbage was another surprise in this year’s gardening trials. It’s not something I usually bother to grow. Brassicas are fraught with difficulty thanks to cabbage whites and the garden’s resident wood pigeons – there’s only so much ground you can net – and I prefer to use precious space for something that’s a bit more unusual and difficult to buy, such as cavolo nero.
However, with a packet of ‘Gunma’ seed from Marshalls, I decided I might as well give cabbage a go. I limited the trial to half-a-dozen plants and began to wish I’d grown more. The cabbages are tightly packed, crunchy and with a good flavour. Definitely one to repeat.
Tomatoes are a family favourite and one of my main crops; I generally grow about six different varieties, ranging from cherry type to large Italian varieties for cooking.
This year, I was asked by Suttons to grow ‘Crimson Crush’ as part of my gardening trials. Billed as 100 per cent blight resistant, it is a cordon variety producing large fruit.
Did Suttons know something? For the first time in years my garden, along with those all around, succumbed to a bad attack of blight. And yes, the ‘Crimson Crush’ fell victim along with the other varieties. That said, it was among the last to get it.
What was noticeable was that in a poor growing season – the tomatoes set badly and very late – ‘Crimson Crush’ was the first to fruit, producing weeks before some of the others, both in the greenhouse and outdoors. It wasn’t my favourite to eat raw, but that’s just personal taste as I prefer smaller, sweeter varieties. However, it’s size does mean that it’s not too fiddly to cook with.
The blight rather curtailed another of my gardening trials: peat-free compost from Dalefoot. I had been growing a few tomato plants in my ordinary peat-free mix and a few in Dalefoot’s new ‘Wool Compost for Vegetables and Salads’.
The Dalefoot range, from Cumbria, combines sheep’s wood and bracken, both renewable resources, and claims to cut the need to water by up to half, while providing a steady release of nutrients.
What I did find, before the tomato plants bit the dust, was that those grown in the Dalefoot product were significantly bigger than their counterparts, with exactly the same watering and feeding regime.
I tried the ‘Double Strength Wool Compost’ on a couple of my veg beds to see if it would improve the free-draining, sandy soil. It’s a difficult thing to judge, but certainly the squash fared better there, the sweetcorn grew strongly and the soil had a better texture.
Finally, the ‘Wool Compost for Seeds’ was easy to use and produced good germination. I particularly liked its lump-free texture, quite different from other peat-free composts I’ve encountered. Had I been more organised, I would have tested it against the same seed sown in a different medium but sometimes life’s just too busy.
If there’s a drawback, it’s the price. At £10.99 plus delivery for a 30L bag of the standard ‘Wool Compost’, if you order 2-11 bags, it’s not a cheap option. Prices do drop, the more you order – perhaps with a group of friends or through a gardening club – but it could be too expensive for those on a tight budget. It is also stocked in some garden centres, which would take the delivery charge out of the equation and it could be mixed with home-produced compost to eke it out.
A disappointing dish
Possibly the most disappointing thing in the gardening trials was unsurprisingly, Thompson & Morgan’s ‘Egg & Chips’ plant, an aubergine grafted onto a potato. Despite being mollycoddled in the greenhouse, it produced just one aubergine and a handful of spuds. Not bad until you consider the £14.99 price tag for the 9cm grafted plant. Definitely in the gimmicky but not a serious contender category.
Planning for spring
So much for 2016. I’m already looking ahead to the next growing season and new gardening trials. A spotty nasturtium, courgette and pea suitable for containers, two-tone tomato and white pumpkin are already lined up for the gardening trials.
I’ve also just planted up pots using a new planting collection – ‘Winter Wonder Gro Thru’ – put together by Unwins containing a mixture of tulips, crocus and grape hyacinths.
The bulbs are packaged in three ‘bulb pads’ designed to make the planting quicker and easier. All you do is put a layer of compost in a pot, put in the first pad, add more compost and so on, finishing with the viola plugs that come with the kit. The pads are numbered and even tell you which way up to place them in the container.
I’m not sure if this will appeal to experienced gardeners as it limits your choice and ‘bulb pads’ seem unnecessary for what isn’t a particularly difficult job. However, at £19.95 for enough to fill two pots, it’s reasonably priced. There is also a ‘Spring Fireworks’ version, which has narcissi, Dutch iris, chionodoxa and pansies.
It’s all in the soil
Finally, I will be trying out a new compost accelerator and a soil improver that have been launched recently by SoilFixer.
The Northumberland-based company claims that compost made with its activator will double crop growth and yield, while the ‘SF60 Super Soil Improver’ is said to greatly improve water retention while adding important nutrients. My lightweight soil sounds the ideal testing ground.
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Did Shakespeare garden? Visitors to Stratford could be forgiven for thinking so as the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust maintains five gardens at houses associated with the Bard, including New Place, which has just undergone a £6m transformation.
Yet, as art historian and landscape designer Sir Roy Strong outlines in his latest book, The Quest for Shakespeare’s Garden, the New Place plot owes as much to nostalgia, patriotism and a dislike for Victorian bedding as it does to historical fact.
The recent revamping of New Place included an overhaul of its Elizabethan-style knot garden, first created in 1920 by Ernest Law.
It’s this knot garden, says Sir Roy, that occupies a special place in gardening history.
“. . . this recreated Elizabethan garden is not just sentimental curiosity but a milestone in the emergence of garden history and recreation,” he tells us and he describes the garden, created after a public appeal for funds, as “the first major public attempt in England to accurately recreate a garden of another age.”
The appeal of the past and, in particular, what was considered to be a golden age was shaped also by the timing of the New Place garden, coming two years after the First World War.
“Amid the turbulence of that era, security and tranquillity were seen to reside in recreating the past,” comments Sir Roy.
The knot garden was laid out ‘in accordance with authentic contemporary plans’ but these were not specific to New Place; although contemporary reports state that it had a ‘greate garden’ beyond that nothing is known about it, including whether Shakespeare altered what was there when he bought the property in 1597.
However, the book is not concerned so much with the building of this garden as with the emergence of the idea of garden history and the linking of Shakespeare with nature that together provided the impetus for its creation.
In his characteristic lively style, Sir Roy takes us on a journey through the past covering the influence of the 18th century actor David Garrick on Shakespeare’s popular image, the Victorian fashion for the ‘language of flowers’ and the beginnings of the study of the history of the English garden.
Along the way, we encounter the flower-obsessed novelist Marie Corelli, Daisy, Countess of Warwick, who planted a ‘Shakespeare border’, and Henry Ellacombe, who first considered the idea of Elizabethan gardening in his 1878 book The Plant-Lore and Garden-Craft of Shakespeare.
Ellacombe, we discover, was particularly attracted to the idea of Elizabethan gardening because he considered Shakespeare’s flowers to be ‘thoroughly English’ and hated the Victorian practice of planting tender annuals from Central and South America.
“ . . . it offered ammunition in the battle against mid-Victorian bedding out,” explains Sir Roy, former director of the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Of course, much of the alliance between Shakespeare and nature comes from the many references to flowers in his plays and these are quoted throughout the book.
They, along with paintings depicting the plays, details from Elizabethan gardening books and old photographs, help to break up what is carefully researched text, sometimes literally as I found my train of thought distracted by an engraving or quote.
The book concludes with Francis Bacon’s 1625 essay in which he outlines his views on what a garden should contain, something he describes as ‘the purest of human pleasures’.
• The Quest for Shakespeare’s Garden by Roy Strong is published in association with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust by Thames & Hudson, priced £14.95 RRP. Buy now (If you buy via the link, I get a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)
• Review copy supplied by Thames & Hudson.
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