Sweet peas Part 2: Variety library

When shopping for sweet peas, or any flowering plants really, I find it very difficult to know just what I’m getting. The quality of plant photography, printing, and computer monitor displays vary so widely that varieties depicted in catalogs or online often bear no resemblance to reality. As I’ve fallen further down the sweet pea wormhole, I find that the only real way to know exactly what a bloom will look like is to grow it myself. This makes color planning a bit hit-and-miss, but the thrill of discovering a variety even more spectacular than its Web presence is worth the inevitable disappointment when some fail to deliver.

I do a lot of research before I order my seeds, and look at as many photos as possible in order to average them out in my mind to what I think I might get. I’ve often wished for more accurate descriptions of varieties and their colors, with photographs that were created to be as true to reality as possible. Having not yet found such a resource, I have decided to start one myself. What follows are images as closely aligned with what I perceive to be how the flowers actually look. As always, your computer monitor may vary, but this may still be helpful in some way. If nothing else this is a record for me of what I have grown, and what I’d grow again.

In 2018 I grew:

  • ‘Piggy Sue’: a pale ivory with peach tones

  • ‘Kingfisher’: supposedly a pale blue but this came up a bright red, pointing to a mistake from the seed supplier

  • ‘Nimbus’: an almost-grey flake with deep purple-red streaks

  • ‘Maloy’: coral orange'

  • ‘Noel Sutton’: solid mid-blue

  • ‘Betty Maiden’: white with purple blue flake'

  • ‘Oban Bay’: very pale blue, almost white

  • ‘Dorothy Ekford’: white

  • ‘Earl Grey’: purple and maroon flake

  • ‘Blackberry’: deep red

  • ‘Hero’: very dark blue

I had a few seeds left over from those I’d randomly collected off student plots my first year studying in Edinburgh. One of them turned out to be a very pretty lavender, which though it was a color I don’t think I would have bought, I ended up loving. Too bad I’ll never know its name!

I was excited to grow a coral orange sweet pea called ‘Maloy,’ which came heavily recommended by Floret. However, the second image perfectly illustrates why I consider ‘Maloy’ to be a failure. It’s just too hard to work into bouquets, especially as my tastes tend toward the cooler sweet pea colors. I was also disappointed with the white, ‘Dorothy Ekford.’ It’s an old-fashioned sweet pea, and thus smaller-flowered than the modern varieties, but it didn’t do much for me.

‘Piggy Sue’ was pretty and blended well into arrangements. The mid-blue ‘Noel Sutton’ was okay—it had nice big flowers but didn’t really get my pulse going. There may be more interesting blues out there. ‘Blackberry’ and ‘Hero’ served their purpose to provide some deeper tones in arrangements, but two sweet peas I grew at work, ‘Windsor,’ and ‘King-Sized Navy Blue’ were better options for those colors.

‘Earl Grey’ and ‘Nimbus’ were similar in that ‘Nimbus’ took on almost sinister tones. I know it is very popular among cut flower growers, but something about it didn’t thrill me. I imagine it could be very beautiful combined with flowers other than sweet peas, and silver foliage such as Senecio cineraria , so I won’t discount it. I liked ‘Earl Grey’ and found it a beefed-up version of ‘Senator,’ my favorite of the sweet peas I grew in Edinburgh, though ‘Earl Grey’ was less deliciously scented.

My favorite of the bunch was ‘Oban Bay,’ which was an ethereal pale blue that bordered on white. I also liked ‘Betty Maiden,’ a variety I first met in the demonstration garden at the Botanics in Edinburgh. It is white with a blue stripe, or “flake.”

In Edinburgh I grew:

  • 'Charlie's Angel’: mid- to pale-blue

  • 'North Shore’: dark and mid-blue bicolor

  • 'Jilly’: lovely ivory

  • ‘Senator’: maroon and purple flake

  • ‘Champagne Bubbles’: ivory and peach

  • ‘Almost Black’: very dark purple

I actually liked all of these and would grow them again, though ‘Champagne Bubbles’ wasn’t as robust as ‘Piggy Sue’ and had similar coloration.

I now have my seeds for this year’s sowing, so stay tuned to find out what I will grow and how these new varieties stack up against the ones pictured in this post.

Sweet peas Part 1: Sowing and growing

The longer days are quickly returning, and my thoughts now turn to what I will grow in 2019. I’ve started placing seed orders, and with each envelope that appears through the mail slot I get more excited by the possibilities ahead.

An especially important package arrived last week with my sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus) seeds from Roger Parsons. Since moving to Britain I have become a bit obsessed by sweet peas, most likely because they were impossible to grow well in my native Virginia climate. It just got too hot, too fast for them in the spring.

When I was living in Edinburgh I grew my first sweet peas supported by jute netting attached to the front of my house. They didn’t have much root run in their raised planter, but I got decent-enough blooms that I was hooked. They were so intricate and sensual with their ruffled flowers and evocative scent. They seemed the antithesis of zinnias, cosmos, and all the other bold, scentless hot-climate flowers I’d grown in Virginia. I slept with sweet pea posies on my nightstand that summer, and knew I’d grow sweet peas as long as I lived in Britain.

Last year—my first in Kent—I sowed my sweet pea seeds on Feb. 27 into root trainers. I didn’t knick, soak, or otherwise adulterate the seeds before sowing, though I do know one expert who germinates all his seed on damp paper towels before sowing to avoid any root trainer cells coming up blind. As is best practice, I labeled my cells with date and variety before sowing. My seeds germinated in the airing cupboard by March and then they went right outside into the cold frame. When each seedling had four true leaves I pinched off the top to encourage lateral branching.

When it was finally dry enough to work the soil I created a new bed in a section of my lawn that over winter stood pretty boggy and wet. Once the new bed, which was 16 feet long, was cut in I dumped a few bags of compost and manure into it along with handfuls of fish, blood, and bone. I heaped the soil up to create a somewhat drier planting bed and then cut some eight-foot poles in the forest, pounded them in, and strung jute netting between them.

The seedlings dragged along during our long, cold spring (as we all did) until I finally planted them out on April 22. I covered them with fleece for a week or so to discourage the pigeons. Each day I’d check them and patiently encourage the tiny tendrils to grasp the lowest strings of the netting. It always takes a while for them to get their roots going, during which time they don’t look like they are going to do much. But as the temperatures warm and they get established they soon shoot up. From then there is no holding them back as they stretch to the sky.

I watered them regularly, gave them a weekly feed of Tomorite and had my first blooms by mid-June when the stems were a bit more than half-way up their supports.

In another month, they had reached the top of their supports and were flowering so profusely that each dead-heading and harvesting session, which I did religiously to keep them blooming, took up to an hour. I drowned in blooms, harvesting fistfuls at a time and running out of vases in the house to hold them all. I felt so rich.

We had an atypically hot and dry summer last year, and I think the moisture-holding qualities of their location actually worked in the sweet peas’ favor. They kept blooming pretty well into August, when the constant baking and the lack of any more room to grow started to brown them out. They revived a bit in cooler temperatures, leading to me believe that without such extreme weather they would have happily grown all summer, but by then I was so tired of tending them that I thanked them for their service and cleared the bed.

In all, the 2018 sweet peas were a great success, and there isn’t much I’d change about their cultivation other than to grow fewer plants of each variety so that I have more flexibility with my arrangements. I do dream about having even more space to grow them, though that may be a mixed blessing given how time-intensive it is to keep them deadheaded so they don’t run to seed at the expense of flowers. I’ve ordered my 2019 line-up, which I will introduce soon, and in the next post I’ll share the varieties I’ve grown and my thoughts on each.

2017: Where to even begin?

I've been trying to think of a word that sums up 2017. The first few that spring to mind are uncertainty, change, exhaustion, and adaptation. A few on a slightly more positive note would be wonder, gratitude, and love. In short, there is no one word to encompass the monumental life achievements and transitions of the past year, along with their highs and lows. I am happy to have made it through relatively intact...and looking forward to 2018. 

Last year's review post featured lots of exotic foreign travel and and world-class gardens. In 2017 I was too busy to leave the British Isles. I finished my horticulture degree, learned to drive a manual car on the left side of the road and passed my U.K. driving test. I got married, obtained my next U.K. visa, moved to south-east England, bought a car, re-adapted to life in the country, and found and began my first professional horticultural job. 

Mixed in with all the life groundwork above were some truly beautiful moments, the finest of which was without a doubt my wedding. There were other highlights including a class outing to the Victorian fernery on the isle of Bute, a trip to Broadwoodside garden in June, a visit from my parents in July, and my first trip to RHS Wisley, which helped assuage the pain of missing Edinburgh's Botanics. A much-needed trip to London this past week topped up my depleted reserves of art, culture, and delicious food. Even simpler pleasures were time spent walking along the Water of Leith in Edinburgh, spotting kingfishers and otters. I walked miles a day in that beautiful city, taking in all I could before I knew I'd have to leave. 

Now that I am starting to stabilize into the next phase of my life, I plan on spending 2018 exploring as much of southern England as I can and visiting the many famous gardens planted in this warmer and sunnier part of Britain. I'm looking forward to wearing shorts and sandals for the first time in this country, fingers crossed. I hope to take advantage of living almost within sight of France and generous vacation time to do more trips to the Continent. Along with my husband, I am excited to plan, plant, and tend our first garden--the seeds of which were my favorite Christmas present. Most important, I'd like to gather my strength to plan the next step in my brand-new horticultural career, in which I want to combine my technical gardening skills with my writing and photography to teach people about plants. 

Wherever you are, thanks for reading along, and have a wonderful new year. 

A graft "failure" on Princes Street

I was on an after dinner walk down Princes Street, just below the castle, admiring the fallen cherry petals that were carpeting the garden with pink. I love ornamental cherries as they remind me of the five years I lived in Washington, D.C., where they famously circle the Tidal Basin.

This night, though, I was brought to a stop when I saw two very different blooms on one of the trees. "That ain't right!" was my first thought as I traced the branch back to the trunk to investigate. 

Turns out I'd found a textbook example of a graft "failure" in this ornamental cherry (most likely Prunus serrulata 'Kwanzan'). 

Though it is not essential to their success, Kwazan cherries are sometimes grafted onto other cherry rootstock, as you can see in the photo above where there is a grafting scar right below the main branches at the top of the trunk. But notice there is a stout branch going off to the left, right below the graft union. 

That branch belongs to the rootstock and is the source of our white-flowered blooms intermingling with the fluffy double pinks.

I also see a branch scar right below this branch, suggesting that at some point someone noticed the rootstock was trying to take over the graft and pruned it out. But in testament to the vigor of most roostocks, this one shot out another branch, which you can see blooming today. I know it's technically a horticultural "mistake," but I can't help but admire the tenacity of this rootstock and the delightful combination of two very different blooms on one tree. It makes me think about the many years of human cultivation, selection, and breeding that took a cherry like this white, more wild-flowered type and turned it into a confection named 'Kwanzan.'

2016: A good year

2016 was, world events aside, a very good year. My biggest achievement was surviving my second year of the horticulture with plantsmanship course at the Botanics, and gaining my HND as well as my Diploma in Plantsmanship, with distinction. I memorized innumerable Latin plant names, drew dozens of floral diagrams, wrote a very long paper on the history of horticultural journalism, and completed myriad other assignments that flew fast and heavy.

I also traveled a lot in 2016, with international adventures to new countries as well as two trips back to the U.S. I happily got to see much more of Britain, including famous gardens the length of the country: Levens Hall, Chatsworth, Sissinghurst, Great Dixter, Newby Hall, Drummond Castle, Cambo, Shepherd House, Scampston Hall, Glasgow and St. Andrews Botanical Gardens, and more. And of course I fell deeper in love with Scotland, checking off the Isle of Skye from my life-long must-visit list.

It's been a great year, and I'm looking forward to many big adventures in 2017. Happy New Year!

Winter at the Botanics

After that second cup of tea I put on my wool long underwear and shearling hat and walked through the chilly streets of Edinburgh and down the Leith River to the Botanics. Because of its lower elevation and closer proximity to the sea, there wasn't as much frost in the garden as at home. Nevertheless, I walked around looking for photos, my only company the wood pigeons and a handful of visitors who had braved the cold.

It was nice to spend time in the garden in a visually creative way. I am there every week--sometimes multiple days per week--but for more than two years the focus of that time has been horticultural and taxonomic training, not art. Photographing in the frosty garden yesterday reminded me of one of the main reasons I want to work with plants--they are just so beautiful

Even on a day when weather conditions and the half-light of Scottish winter kept most people inside, fallen leaves and frozen foliage held my attention for several hours. I walked home in the four o'clock dark as snow squalls advanced from the east, grateful I'd seen the garden this day.

I keep thinking about an amazing BBC documentary I watched last week, called Forest, Field & Sky: Art Out of Nature, about artists who use nature as their medium. It featured David Nash, Charles Jencks, Julie Brook, my favorite Andy Goldsworthy, among others, and lots of artworks created in Scotland. It was one of the best and most inspiring films I've seen, so check it out if you can (it's also on YouTube though the quality doesn't do justice to the art). I revisited one of the Goldsworthy pieces at the Botanics yesterday, enjoying the surrounding warm-colored leafy gradient combined with the cool slate, and how the fallen leaves added an extra element--a stripe of orange--of which Goldsworthy would no doubt approve. 

Slate, Hole, Wall by Andy Goldsworthy (1990)

Hoar frost!

I've always wanted to see a hoar frost, seduced by the amazing photos I've seen of plants made otherworldly by what looks like a light dusting of powdered sugar. I got my chance this morning, when I opened the wooden shutters to find every detail of my front garden picked out in white. 

It's very cold out, but I bet the gardens at school look amazing. Might bundle up and take a donder down there...once I have that second cup of tea... 

The Rust Garden for Edinburgh Printmakers

A month ago today I was delighted to come upon a brand-new, fascinating Edinburgh garden in an area I frequent on my way to walk the Union Canal path. For as long as I've lived here this raised bed has been a wild urban space, choked with Buddleja and Sambucus, collecting trash that blew through the alley and decorated only with graffiti. Then one day I walked by and noticed that the ground had been cleared, the shrubs hacked to down to stumps. Shortly after I rounded the corner to this riot of color and form. 

In the last two years I have seen some of the world's most famous gardens: Hidcote, Sissinghurst, Chanticleer, Rousham, Longwood, Great Dixter, Chatsworth...the list goes on and on. But this mystery garden delighted me in ways that some of those heavy-hitters failed to do. 

The carnival colors and crazy mix of tropical-looking plant forms looked so refreshingly novel and un-British to me. I loved the more-is-more effect of packing so many strongly colored plants so closely together. Adding all these hot colors to the grey and brown building behind it could have ended poorly. Instead, the flower and foliage color harmonized with the paint and very effectively married the garden to its building, turning an eyesore into an asset. It took the work of a skilled colorist and planting designer to pull this off so well. The effect was a defiant fist shaking at the grey and cold Edinburgh weather. Just looking at it brought to mind my native hot-climate summer that I'm so missing, and warmed me up a lot. 

The plant selections weren't the only surprises. This turned out to be an interactive garden, with a little step built to help one up to sit on a small wooden bench. 

At first I thought the circular patio area in front of the bench was filled with pea gravel. But as I sat and looked around, I noticed words and phrases spelled in metal letters throughout the garden.

Turns out the "pea gravel" is actually 25,000 rusted steel letters! It was impossible to see or sit in this garden and not play with the letters, writing messages and signing names. 

Every time I've passed the garden in the last month there have been different phrases written with the letters. I love this interactive, poetic aspect to the garden. 

Pan out a bit and you'll get a sense of why coming across this garden was so surprising. You can barely see the bright lupines tucked in that tiny space in post-industrial urban wasteland.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the Rust Garden is that the interpretation panels that explained it weren't on display when the garden was first installed, and when I came across it. The seemingly magical appearance of such a bright and beautiful garden sprung fully-formed in the midst of a neglected and "waste" space made the garden even more affecting. It was only later that I learned the garden was the work of Toronto-based artists Matt Donovan and Hallie Siegel (which may explain the more North American feel to the planting design). There's more info on their site, including some good pictures of the alley as I'd always seen it. 

The Rust Garden was commissioned by Edinburgh Printmakers, which is set to revitalize this neglected Castle Mill Works building, which was the headquarters of the North British Rubber Company, Edinburgh's largest industrial operation, from 1856 to the late 1960s. Their best known product was a green wellie boot, and eventually the company became Hunter Boot Ltd. So those iconically British wellie boots known and worn around the world had their start in this building a stone's throw from my house in Edinburgh. Discovering this history has made me even more sad that ever since Hunter moved their production to China and became more of a fashion instead of a utility brand, their boots have become such poor quality that I sent the last pair I ordered back in disgust and (regretfully) switched loyalties to a French company. 

Wellies aside, the Rust Garden is a huge success and one of my favorite gardens of 2016. It's on display as part of the Edinburgh Festival and runs through August 28, so see it while you can. I am not sure what its fate will be as the planting was very much done for immediate effect, with tender annuals that won't survive the winter. I am also pretty sure the weedy shrub stumps were not totally removed, which means those plants have probably already begun to grow back with a vengeance. I can only hope that after the Festival the Rust Garden will be developed into a more permanent garden that can continue to surprise and delight those of us ducking through this Fountainbridge alley.

Edinburgh Solstice

Today will be just six hours and 57 minutes long, and what little sunlight there is on this darkest day of the year will soon be obscured by the heavy rain moving in from the west. Sunlight has been in short supply lately, but yesterday my brother, who is visiting from the U.S., and I walked up Calton Hill and were surprised by a few breaks in the clouds. This city, which can look so bleak in the grey, lit up for a few seconds in the low rays.

Tonight's Solstice celebration will be lighting lots of candles to beat back the dark, cooking dinner with friends and family, and then treking out for a pint and a fireside pub quiz. I have really enjoyed the coziness and hibernation of the recent dark days this winter, but I am always happy to welcome the returning light. I hope that whatever your Solstice plans are they bring you hope and joy.

A Pentlands hike: Part one

Saturday I set off on another hiking date, this time to the Pentland Hills south of Edinburgh. It was my first time in the Pentlands, and I was excited to explore this series of hills that forms the backdrop of the city.

It was the first weekend day of decent weather in what felt like months, and the landscape sparkled. Scotland is often cloudy, but when it's not there is a clarity to the light and air that is spectacular.

The hike began with a short road section, but soon enough we were off into the woods. Here's an excellent illustration of my arboroculture tutor's maxim, "Trees seal, they don't heal."

Border collies were the trail dogs of the day. I saw at least 10 before the hike was over, and each one made me miss hiking with my own black-and-white, four-legged companion back home in the U.S.

Below, Vicia cracca, or Tufted Vetch.

I had to peek over a rose-covered wall to get a better view of this darling cottage and garden, with a tractor parked in the drive. It looked like a Scottish incarnation of my farm in Virginia.

The path swung around a reservoir where serious-looking men were fly-fishing, and we continued around the water for a while before beginning to climb into the heather fields.

Up next: changing habitats with elevation and the view from the top.

British Tits and other wonders of natural history writing

As I walk to work before seven each morning, I pass scores of antique and second-hand book stores displaying treasures to make a botanist's heart beat fast.

There's one shop near the Botanics that has an ever-changing selection of natural history books, and this little collection caught my eye today. It's a good thing the shops aren't open on my way to work or I'd spend my paycheck before I even got it

Perfectly simple: The Campbell-Stokes sunshine recorder

The reason behind last week's venture to the top of the Palm House was check the sunshine recorder mounted on its roof. The irony of tracking hours of sunshine in Edinburgh does not escape me, but it's something staff at the Botanics do every day as part of the observations they collect for the Met Office, the U.K.'s national weather service.

You'd think there would be some sort of technologically sophisticated gadget to record this data, but the reality couldn't be further from that:

This is a Campbell-Stokes sunshine recorder, and in it's analog simplicity it's one of the most beautiful things I've seen at the Botanics. It is just a crystal sphere, held in place with two metal clips, positioned in front of a paper strip. Any sunlight hitting the ball is concentrated by the sphere and burns a mark on the paper behind it. By retrieving the paper each day and measuring the length of the marks one has a fairly accurate record of the day's sunlit hours. Or minutes--this is Edinburgh after all. Different-sized paper strips are used in summer, winter and around the equinoxes to allow for the changing altitude of the sun throughout the year.

Pretty simple, but it works perfectly.

Palm House panoramas

One of the best things about working at the Botanics is getting to spend time in all the places that are off limits to visitors. On Friday I climbed with a coworker to the top of the Temperate Palm House, Britain's tallest glasshouse. The long view stretched from the extinct volcano of Arthur's Seat, to the Craigs, on up the Royal Mile all the way to Edinburgh Castle and beyond, with the garden and glasshouses laid out at my feet.

The extent of the display and non-public back-up glasshouses was pretty impressive when viewed from this height. The Victorian Tropical Palm House is in the foreground. It was built in 1834 and is not only the oldest glasshouse at the Botanics, it's the oldest in Edinburgh.

Below, a closer view of Arthur's Seat, the big land form on the left horizon, all the way up to Edinburgh Castle at the very right edge of the frame. Two public glasshouses, built in the 1960s, are in the foreground.

Edinburgh Castle with a bit of the blue Pentland Hills further to its right, with the Azalea lawn in the middle distance.