Raise the Spanish Flag

005A kind friend gave me just one tiny seedling of Mina lobata or Spanish Flag back in May and I didn’t really know what to expect. I thought it might climb a cane so I put it at the end of a row of Sweet Peas. It spent the summer growing a huge number of stems and leaves but stubbornly refused to flower. Then, on 14 September I went on holiday for three weeks and when I came back, this is what I found!011

The tiny little plant had morphed into an enormous thug with literally thousands of pretty red, white and orange flowers on hundreds of stems. What a performance! It did get some water and comfrey back in June and July when the sweet peas were there but apart from that it had no special attention. In fact, I neglected it completely believing it was probably a dud. How wrong I was. It is a stunner and definitely one to grow for late summer colour in future. It looks like the flowers will yield plenty of seed heads so I can repay the favour to all my unsuspecting friends next year too!007

One good turn deserves another!

Social Climber


This delightful little twining climber is properly called Maurandella antirrhiniflora but fortunately its common names are the much easier Climbing Antirrhinum, Twining Snapdragon or, in the States, Roving Sailor. It is very easy from seed and produces hundreds of plants from an early sowing in a 3″ pot. I give lots away to people who probably don’t want them but are just being nice. However, they tend to come back for more the following year if they haven’t saved their own seed.027

The flowers are a delicious almost luminous dark violet with a white throat and shaped, as you would expect, just like an antirrhinum. It needs to climb and twist around something but the vines are so small and delicate that it works well planted with something tall like Agastache foeniculum which is strong and upright and a complementary colour. It can reach 2m high if you wish but I find 1.2m about right. When it reaches the top of the plant or the support it just falls backwards and continues to flower on the way down.025

It produces a lot of seed at the end of the season which keeps well in the fridge for the following year. I would heartily recommend it as an extra which ‘peps up’ a container display or an otherwise boring tallish plant which might be past its best by July when Maurandella comes into its own for a couple of months.024

I have a feeling it might be related to the climbing foxglove, Lophospermum erubescens which I also grow and which I wrote about last year. They both seem to have the alternative genus of Asarina and both originate from the southern United States and Mexico. However, the Lophospermum overwintered as a dormant tuber in the cold greenhouse which I don’t think the Maurandella would. There are also red, white, pink and orange varieties to brighten up your patio or conservatory. Really worthwhile trying…if you like that sort of thing!

Lab Labs

The Girls! Whenever I think of Labs I think of our dogs Yana & Yula and, although this post is not about them, I thought you might appreciate a photo anyway. Any excuse to show off our adorable girls!009                                                                                                                    Now back to the other Lab Labs or, more precisely, Dolichos lablab ‘Ruby Moon’ or Lablab purpureus ‘Ruby Moon’ which is another ‘first’ for me this year. Not quite sure which genus and species is correct as both are listed as a synonym of each other. It was offered in the Plant Heritage seed exchange and when I investigated further it was described variously as an attractive ornamental climber and a climbing ‘edible’ bean, both of which turned out to be partly true.002                                                                                                                       It was a cinch to germinate in exactly the same way as climbing French beans, it twines its way rapidly up any support to about 3 metres high. The pods are a deep purple to maroon color on the outside and a bright, vivid green on the inside. They are malleable and lie flatter against the seed, like Sugar Snap peas. Immature beans are edible, though they may not taste as good as most other beans. The pods contain toxic cyanogenic glucosides, antimicrobial agents the plant produces that create a bitter taste in defence against hungry herbivores. Lablab beans have to be very carefully prepared, otherwise they can be poisonous. They are not recommended for consumption. The mature beans must be boiled and drained several times in order to rid the bean of its toxin. Ruby Moon beans will lose their colour when cooked, and turn a more modest green. 004
Native to Africa,  lablab beans are grown in both south-east Asia and eastern Africa as a pulse crop for both animal and human consumption, but if you don’t mind I won’t be trying it myself, or the dogs!

Sweet Pea Sowing Time

Cathy and I love Sweet Peas and we grow them every year. They seem to like the alkaline clay soil in the front garden and are much admired by passers-by. Our window cleaner also happens to be a champion sweet pea grower and he reckons it is because the place we grow them is where the mixer was when the extensions were done and each day the builders washed it out and the cement soaked into the ground in that spot. I am not sure I totally believe him but it’s a good theory!

We started with a small pot of mixed Grandifloras in 2009 and now grow several different cultivars including Cupani, Matucana and Painted Lady which, as far as I know, are the three oldest varieties.

Lathyrus odoratus 'Painted Lady', Fabaceae, Fa...

Lathyrus odoratus ‘Painted Lady’,  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This year we participated in the Which? Gardening trial of ‘High Scent’ and have just reported back so I shouldn’t reveal the results until they do!

‘High Scent’

I have tried sowing them in autumn and spring and directly in the ground in April, and I have come to the conclusion that it all depends on the weather! In a mild winter and spring autumn sowing probably produces stronger plants and earlier flowers. The earliest I have managed is an overwintered self-sown white Grandiflora in flower on 24th April. However, in severe winters it is a struggle to keep them going, even in an insulated cold frame with fleece over at night. It is definitely better to grow them ‘hard’ but if the compost freezes for too long there are often casualties. It is strongly advisable to pinch out the growing tips when two pairs of leaves have formed, same for the side shoots, to keep the plants compact and bushy.

I have tried all the recommended germination techniques and read all the conflicting advice. There seem to be many contradictions in the ‘best practice’ expounded by the expert growers and it must be very confusing for some novices. Do you soak the seeds overnight in tepid water to soften the hard seed case? Or do you nick them with a knife or nail clippers or sandpaper them to expose the white pith beneath and ease the passage of root and shoot? Or do you, as I now do, just take them straight from the packet and sow them!

‘King Size Navy Blue’

Then there are the containers to sow them in. Should you use a standard 9cm pot, a discarded cardboard toilet roll tube, a root trainer, seed tray or what? Perhaps you should buy the special biodegradable grow pots from J. Arthur Bowers or special deep Sweet Pea Pots marketed so cleverly by Sarah Raven? I have tried them all but, in the end, I have opted for none of them. Instead, I have bought 100 re-usable polythene grow tubes for £5 from Eagle Sweet Peas as they seem to offer the best solution.

Although they will stand up on their own when full of compost, I can get 20 in a standard mushroom tray which keeps them upright and makes them easy to move about.

As the autumn sown seeds are going to be in the tubes for at least 5 months, I mix a little slow release food in the gritty compost.

The window cleaner reckons you should sow them when the clocks go back and plant them out when the clocks go forward. Simple to remember and has worked for him for over 30 years. Three seeds of each variety are now sitting in their grow tubes in the greenhouse and as soon as they germinate they will be transferred outside into the cold frame.  I will sow 3 more of each on New Year’s Day in the propagator, on 1 March in gentle heat if it is still cold, and directly in the ground on 1 May. If two thirds germinate and grow to maturity, bearing in mind how much slugs, snails, mice and birds love the seeds and seedlings, this should provide me with around 160 plants, half for us and half for friends and neighbours and the Horticultural Society Plant Sale in May. I am hoping to avoid the usual glut of flowers in June and July and prolong the season to provide cut flowers from mid-May to mid-September.

According to Mr Fothergill’s, 2013 is the year of the Sweet Pea and they have released a new variety in conjunction with the RHS called Chelsea Centenary to celebrate.

My 20 selected varieties for next year are as follows:

  1. Cupani
  2. Matucana
  3. Painted Lady
  4. Grandiflora purple/pink
  5. Grandiflora red
  6. King Size Navy Blue
  7. Cathy
  8. Heirloom mixed
  9. Alan Titchmarsh
  10. Apricot Sprite
  11. High Scent
  12. Singing the Blues
  13. Henry Eckford
  14. Ensign
  15. Air Warden
  16. Beaujolais Purple
  17. Noel Sutton
  18. Royal Family
  19. Mrs R Bolton
  20. Lathyrus chloranthus

Lathyrus chloranthus is a species variety and unique as it is the only ‘yellow’ sweet pea known to exist. It is a bit of a novelty and has little or no scent but I thought I would grow it simply for the colour which is really an acid green rather than yellow.

Lofty Lofos

A friend kindly gave me a tiny self-sown plant in August and told me to ‘have a go’ with it, which usually means it is going to be difficult. Not this one! Lofos, or more accurately Lophospermum erubescens (meaning reddening or blushing), was formerly called Asarina and, confusingly, is sometimes  also called Maurandia erubescens.

Creeping Gloxina #2

Creeping Gloxina

It has the common names of either Climbing Foxglove, Creeping Gloxinia or Twining Snapdragon depending on which part of the world you come from. Originating from Mexico, but now also common across the Mediterranean, it is a beautiful climber with felty heart shaped leaves and mid-pink flowers like foxgloves, which appear from July to October. I believe this is the species form but there are creamy white and dark red cultivars too which may be hybrids. I have read that they work well in hanging baskets as they fall as well as climb.       I have been amazed at it’s rate of growth. From a nondescript 9cm pot plant it has shot up to the top of a 5′ cane in just a few weeks and two flowers opened today! I can’t believe it will keep up this phenomenal growth much longer and with the nights drawing in and getting colder it will surely stop soon.

Species: Asarina erubenscens Family: Scrophula...

Species: Asarina erubenscens Family: Scrophulariaceae Image No. 1 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In summer, this vine will climb to about 10′ using its leaf stems to attach, and does well in full sun or part shade. It needs a moist soil though, so it mustn’t dry out.  It is a half hardy perennial and apparently forms a tuber, which can be dried off and stored over winter, but judging from the number of self-sown seedlings in my friend’s greenhouse, it is also very easy from seed!  It should be happy to grow as a houseplant over the winter if you have the room, or in a heated conservatory. I haven’t got either so it will have to take it’s chances in the greenhouse cuddled up to the cannas and dahlias!