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Pattie Barron

Sweet pea fatigue and snails

30 August 2012 5:54 PM

If, like me, you're a keen gardener, you've doubtless swapped views this summer on which of your garden plants have survived, thrived - or sunk without trace. Sadly, due to the prolonged cold and wet weather - which has brought out the slugs and snails in unprecedented armies - there are more failures than success stories to be reported.

My dahlias, despite my best efforts, are being decimated by snails, despite the fact that I've grown them in pots and mulched their compost with sharp grit; I've even seen snails half buried in the grit, so they look like a larger stone in the mix. Even my succulents have signs of chomping. The runner beans ran to ground soon after they started and it is clearly not going to be a bumper year for tomatoes. However against the odds, one flower has gone berserk, and shows no signs of giving up: the sweet pea.

Sweet pea 1

So forgive me if this sounds like swanking, but I have sweet pea fatigue. After weeks of cutting the flowering stems every other day, if only to prevent them from going to seed, my thumb has a blister from excessive scissor action and, to be frank, I have had my fill. And as I write so have every vase, jug and a few of our drinking glasses - 18 in all. They're full of gorgeous, sweet-scented bouquets in shades of lilac, scarlet, magenta, white, purple, sky blue, sugar pink, burgundy; there is even a sweet pea of purple and violet that is a dead ringer for the sublime Matucana.

Sweet pea 2

Strange, because they were all a mixed bunch - seedlings - picked up from the garden centre in late March, and called something weedy like Summer Skies Mix. I planted about a dozen at the base of a wigwam of hazel poles and there they sat, for weeks on end, doing absolutely nothing through those weeks of grey skies and perpetual rain.

And I panicked, thinking they had been there too long and for them, it would be too little, too late. So I planted more, at the sides of both garden arches, as insurance. Surely some would flower? Some and more indeed did, as soon as the sun put in an appearance. I could practically see them growing on a daily basis. And because they were late starters, unusually for this late in summer, they're still flowering.

It takes me at least an hour every two days to snip off the flowering stems and still they come… the house smells sublime, there are sweet peas in every room. Neighbours, friends and family have been delighted by bunches of the pretty perfumed blooms. To paraphrase Elvis Costello's song, It's been a good year for the sweet peas. But next year, I just might plant a few less.

New tree lilies on trial

03 August 2012 5:59 PM

One of the perks of my job is that I get to try out new plant introductions. Which is how I came to plant three very fat lily bulbs this spring. Tree lilies, to be precise.

The buzz on the block - well, the horticultural blurb from Thompson & Morgan, to be more precise - is that tree lilies grow up to 8ft in as little as two years, and that one single bulb can produce up to thirty 8-inch trumpet blooms. The stalks are almost 5cm thick.

Tree lily starburst

This is my Starburst's first year of flower, and it's doing rather well (above). The stems are only just over 2ft tall and a mere half-inch thick, the flowers are 8ins in diameter if you uncurl the petals and measure from tip to tip, and there are only a combined amount of 19 flowers, some still in bud.

The fragrance isn't 'fantastic', as T & M state - it's sweet and pleasant - but then nothing matches the perfume of Lilium regale. Whether you like the paintbrush effect of jammy red on lemon is a matter of personal preference; I rather like it.

The point of this lily, like the other new tree lilies, is that it's bigger and bolder than the rest - and judging by its premier performance in this summer of grey skies and relentless rain, it will be a stormer next summer.

Lilium nerone

My lily favourite, however, is Lilium nerone (above), which is currently flowering on the terrace and has garnered more compliments than Starburst. It isn't that big but is certainly bold and is decidedly beautiful: shiny, carmine-red speckled tiger lilies. Absolutely stunning. When they produce a tree lily with those blooms, T & M will really have something to trumpet.

A summer of gloomy skies and relentless rain means gardeners are grateful for small mercies

16 July 2012 6:15 PM

During the most plant-punishing summers any of us have ever known, it's hardly surprising that the most exciting plants on my terrace are the sempervivums, and that other less hardy succulent, the glossy mahogany Aeonium Zwartkop.

Sempervivums and Echeverias are flourishing

Flowers are harder to come by: bedding such as callibrachoa, which usually flowers its heads off, is much slower, given such little warmth and sunshine, the dahlias are on the skimpy side and the half-dozen pots of lilies are still in bud - and refusing to budge.

Aeoniums are blooming

I am still nursing a hanging basket of new pepper Sweet Sunshine in the greenhouse because putting them outside seems like putting a baby in a pram out in a rainstorm. The RHS says that plants are two to three weeks' behind in growth - and I reckon that's a conservative estimate.

In the kitchen garden, the most successful veg - and the most colourful - is the beetroot, which thankfully doesn't need much sunshine to thrive. I daren't earth up the early potatoes - it will be a miracle if they haven't escaped becoming waterlogged and scabby - and the runner beans, what's left of them, have made little progress.

Beetroot isn't defeated by excesses of rain

A whole row of young frilly red lettuces - such a pretty colour, such early promise - have been wiped out by rain, wind, slugs, you name it, but the perpetual spinach, which is perpetually resilient, looks positively lush. In summers like this, you learn what thrives, what merely survives, and what sinks without trace.

Once the courgettes got going, they've proved their worth: courgette Romanesco, the fine ridged variety, producing their enormous golden flowers that just beg to be stuffed with ricotta and fried in tempura batter. If only it would stop raining, I could get out and pick them.

This year I have 12 cucumber plants on three hazel wigwams, four poles apiece, and so far, have had one cucumber, but it's early days. I discovered a few years back that cucumber plants, so long as they've got a bit of sturdy growth on them when they're planted out, keep on trucking, however gloomy the weather.

Last week the sweet peas finally started showing some colour, and to date I have managed to pick three jugfuls.

Sweet peas are finally flowering

During this summer of gloomy skies and relentless rain, we gardeners are very grateful for small mercies.

My spring garden highlights

30 April 2012 11:37 AM

There are a couple of highlights in my garden at the moment. One is Tulip Prinses Irene. You have to try it next year if you haven't already. Despite its beauty, the bulbs are widely available. The colours of the flowers are the thing: a kind of dusky orange tipped with golden yellow, each petal subtly feathered with deeper shades of muted crimson. Was there ever a tulip as beautiful or as regal as Prinses Irene?

Tulip Prinses Irene
Actually there is a tulip as beautiful, possibly twice as beautiful, because you get twice as much bling for your buck: Orange Princess, a sport of Prinses Irene, with fuller, fatter flowers. I'd settle for either.

The other plant is an extraordinary but easy-to-grow annual that self-seeds like crazy from year to year. Trust me, you can never have enough of it. The flowers are as complex as its name: Cerinthe major Purpurascens.

Mediterranean native that has become deeply fashionable in gardening circles over the last several years, Cerinthe has hooded, complex flowers in shades of dusky purple and deep ink, held on upright stems. With glaucous green foliage that forms sturdy clumps, Cerinthe looks both spectacular and sinister, and is a great addition to gardens that have open days - it's a real talking point.

I wouldn't be without it, and neither should you. You can sow seed direct now: make sure the soil is free-draining and in a sunny spot.

This spring I've got serious about decent supports in the veg patch

27 April 2012 4:16 PM

For several years I've had two black double arches that loom large, especially when they're not clad in beans or courgettes. They're sturdy, made of tubular steel and more than do the job but I've never really liked them. However I couldn't find anything preferable.

Most garden arches tend to be thoroughly utliitarian in black metal or dark green plastic, or else fussy beyond belief, all frills and furbelows. I don't want either, and this year I've found just the ticket.

Garden arch
I've invested in simple double arches of galvanised box steel that are their natural shade - an unobtrusive pale grey - but can also be painted at a later date, if I fancy. I know they'll look good through frost, snow and rain without visually hogging the scenery. I bought them from McKellars Ironwork ( and am happy to recommend them.

My other support system purchase are hazel bean poles. Not a great cause for excitement, but they look so much better than the usual garden canes. Sweet pea supports are never quite tall enough, but these are around 7ft tall so by the time they're pushed into the ground to form a wigwam, they're 6ft and counting.

Hazel bean poles
I've also used them to make slim, tall wigwams for growing cucumbers. Not bad for a bunch of 20 for £19.55 - though carriage is an exorbitant £18.35. I bought them from

The ornate beauty of the Alhambra Palace, Granada

26 April 2012 6:48 PM

Alhambra tilesI recently visited the Alhambra Palace, Granada, a place I had wanted to see for some years. And yes, I was knocked out by the beautiful designs and rich colours of the tiles.

Some were exquisitely ornate - others exquisitely simple, such as the diamond motif set on a white background, each corner marked with a star.

Why don't we see more of these gloriously rich shades - ochres, cobalts, jades, plums - and wonderful patterns in tile manufacturer's designs?

The highlight for me, though, were the spectacular Judas trees, in full blossom (pictured below). I planted one in my own garden last year and although it is still a scrap, the Judas trees at the Alhambra have given me great hope for the future.

Garden designers love the dark-leaved Cercis, canadensis Forest Pansy, but my heart belongs to the Cercis siliquastrum, the ancient, classic Judas tree of Bible lands, with thatwonderful habit of sporting blossom directly on its branches and trunk.

You can also see it in full fling at this time of year at Beth Chatto's gravel garden. It's an easy tree to grow and ideal for London gardens.


Spring gardening?

04 April 2012 6:13 PM

Spring is such a great time of year - especially when the weather is as glorious as it was until a few days ago. The daffodils in parks, pots and gardens were in overdrive, the tulips were starting to flower and the summer roses looked like they would be blooming soon.

At Chez Barron there is much to be done: new metal arches blocking the driveway that need to be pushed into the ground in the back garden, a plant stand yet-to-be-assembled on the terrace, a zillion seeds from broad beans to zinnnias to be sown. 

Spring flowers
Oh and the seven-foot hazel poles, on order for the sweet peas, are arriving any day now. Dahlia tubers buried in compost are producing leafy shoots in the greenhouse, castor oil seeds bought over from Crete are sprouting and the chitted potatoes are more than ready for planting. The big question is, can I keep up with the plants???

Pink flowers

Battening down the hatches for winter

04 November 2011 4:15 PM

I've gathered in the last spoils of spring and summer sowing before battening down the hatches, in the kitchen garden anyway - and herein lies the dilemma. Vegetables are meant to be eaten, I know, but when they are so pretty, who can bear to? 

Take the pure white, shiny pattypans, that feel so nice in the hand and look like flying saucers with scalloped edges. They're meant to be eaten when a few inches in diameter, but like courgettes, they like to hide beneath their large leaves, so that some aren't discovered until they're a good deal larger. 


Steamed until tender, slathered with butter, they're quite delicious. But I prefer them gathered into a group on the sideboard, and interspersed with night lights. If they don't rot and have to be thrown out beforehand, I may use them as a Christmas table centrepiece, scattered with a little silver glitter dust.

Then there are the chilli peppers. Oh so many of them. Scotch Bonnets, Cheyennes, Cayennes, Apaches, Gusto Purple, all of which I grew to supply various shades of heat to guacamole, chilli con carne, casseroles...

Chilli peppers.jpg

Scotch Bonnet is supposed to be blisteringly hot but I'll never know, because I won't be using them in the cooking pot, but threading them onto cotton and hanging them on the dresser. So after growing all those chilli pepper plants in the greenhouse, it's back to a tube of chilli paste in the kitchen. 

Ridiculous, really, but having bought ready-strung garlands of peppers in Amalfi and bought them back in a suitcase, I know how lovely they look - not just for Christmas, but all year round. And I can always use them dried.

And then, of course, there are the pumpkins. What's the point of growing them if you don't get to eat them? What indeed. But I just can't bring myself to consign the beautiful turks' turbans to the cooking pot - or roasting tin.  Apparently they taste a little like turnip, a little like squash.


But again, I'm not likely to find out, because it's impossible to cut them up and cook them when they look so decorative, all in a line down the dining table. It makes sitting down and eating a meal rather difficult, because to tell the truth, they're rather in the way, but you can't have everything.

In January I will be working out my list of vegetable seeds for the coming year. I intend to be brutal, and grow no vegetable that I'm not prepared to eat. 

Christmas in Chelsea

03 November 2011 5:23 PM

Next Wednesday 16 November, 6pm-8pm, The Chelsea Gardener will be holding a Christmas shopping evening, offering a 20 per cent discount on all purchases. There will be exclusively made garlands, wreaths and centrepieces, unique tree decorations, gardeners' gift sets as well as freshly-cut firs for sale, which The Chelsea Gardener can deliver, install and dismantle. Canapes and drinks will be served; entrance is free.

The chelsea gardener christmas display

This weather is bananas

04 October 2011 3:55 PM

Pelargoniums flowering their heads off Talking of which, you should see my banana plants. As far as they're concerned, they're having a second summer, and spreading out their huge propellor leaves in the sun; they get larger by the day. The Convolvulus sabatius is going crackers; confined to a small pot, it never produced as many flowers as this in summer.

When I went on holiday at the start of September, I had mentally confined the pelargoniums on the wall to the compost bin, because I knew the cat carer would never water them, and I'd return to find near-dead plants. In fact I did, and hadn't bothered to resurrect them.

However last Friday, when the weather perked up, so did they - after a trim back, water and feed. Now they are flowering their heads off (pictured, above): how long will they carry on like this?

Autumn chrysanthemums alongside summer's lobelia and busy lizzies

For the first year ever, the winter-flowering pansies and autumn chrysanthemums are blooming alongside cannas, pelargoniums and petunias (above). So there's a veritable melee of seasonal mellow fruitfulness going on alongside the decidedly non-seasonal Mediterranean blooms.

Pumpkins ripening in the Indian-summer sunAs I write, the pumpkins are drying out in the sun (right) at the same time as the strawberries are flowering and fruiting all over again. Confused? You bet they are, and they're not the only ones.

Usually, at this time of year I'm ruthlessly ripping out the summer bedding and settling in the winter charges; out with the old, in with the new, not least because I'm keen to try new container combos.

Exceptionally, I've decided to make hay while the sun shines, even if that disrupts the colour scheme (summer had lots of blues and lilacs; autumn's scheme is all rusts and burgundies) and plant what autumn bedding I have alongside the old. The result is bold, bright and I feel I have the best of all seasons. Long may it last - even if it's just for a few more weeks.

Lobelia and gazanias still blooming their heads off
There are dilemmas, though. I can't plant some of my spring-flowering bulbs till I've freed up the containers to plant them in, so I've dug up the cascades of blue lobelia in one pot and added them to another, so I can plant a bowlful of hyacinths, at least. Which is how orange winter-flowering pansies peek out alongside the blue lobelia, looking pretty if a bit incongruous. In these uncertain days of global warming, we gardeners have to be adaptable.