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How to grow wallflowers

how to grow wallflowers

Wallflowers have a special place in my heart. When I catch that sweet, almost orangey, scent I am transported back to sitting on a front door step in my Grandad Clark's garden - rows of bright wallflowers under the roses.

He bought them as plants - slimy roots wrapped in newspaper, their only scent at that time a cabbagey whiff of decomposition.

Decades later - when I was making my first garden - we visited Monet's garden at Giverney. There I was bowled over anew by wallflowers, great blowing cushions of wallflowers in amongst bright tulips under espalier apple trees in blossom. It was the most beautiful thing I had seen, the flowers were like watercolour washes and their ample flowers filled in all the gaps between the tulips - a swirl of colour and texture.

So, though my memories of wallflowers are of my Grandad, the way I plant them is more an emulation of Giverney than the straight lines of a 1970s North East of England front garden.

And to get that - to get the tall, mottled, glowing flowers you really need to grow from seed. They aren't varieties that make it to the garden centre.

Wallflowers are biennials - or more accurately short lived perennials that are most commonly grown as biennials. That means that you sow the seeds in May, they do most of their growing between May and November, they hunker down and don't do much over the winter and then, when the weather warms up in the spring, they burst into flower.

I think it is this feeling of "2 years to grow" that means they are not a popular plant to grow from seed.

apricot sunset wallflower

Choosing a variety.

There are 2 main types of wallflowers - bedding and cut flowers varieties. The main difference is in height - bedding ones grow to about 12-15 cm and are ideal for filling in-between other temporary spring plants. You will see this type in a lot of parks and civic gardens. The cut flower varieties are much taller - about 30-40 cm - and ideally they should be staked in some way or they topple over.

My favourites are the cut flower varieties in subtle mottled colours - Sunset apricot (middle photo) is a mix of apricot, peach and slightly raspberry tones, Sunset purple is a cream and purple wash (in top photo), Fire King (in jug in bottom photo) is a wonderful mottled orange which seems to go with everything.

I have found that there is a fair amount of variation in the sunset varieties in particular - but personally I like that as it stops it looking too uniform.

Sowing seed.

If you have a nursery bed, you can do it the traditional way start off wallflowers there, grow them on and transplant to their final flowering position in late winter. Make sure that your soil is alkali - or rake gardener's lime into it before you plant.

Otherwise sow seeds finely into a seed tray of multi-purpose compost, cover with a fine layer of compost or vermiculite and leave to germinate. Like most brassicas they germinate fast and should be up in 5-10 days.

When they are sturdy seedlings with at least 4 leaves, prick them out into modules or small pots. Mix a couple of handfuls of gardeners' lime into your potting compost to make it alkali.

Growing on.

I find that my garden - in central Scotland is a bit too wet and windy for wallflowers to be happy outside over winter in their first year. I tend to plant them into large pots and keep them somewhere sheltered until it is time for them to go into their final position. Next year I am going to put some temporary mini windbreaks along the tulip border as I think that, where I lost plants, it was because of the wind.

Anywhere that you are going to plant wallflowers should be alkali - they do not like acid soil at all - sprinkle lime where you are going to plant and rake in well. They are perfectly happy in poor soil - indeed will grow in the lime mortar of walls - so are perfect for anywhere in your garden that may suffer from builders rubble!

Most of the plant's growing will have been done in the summer and autumn of their first year, so you can plant them out quite close together when you put them in their final position. They traditionally used to be sold bare root in twists of newspaper which shows how tolerant they are of replanting.

Next year.

Though many people grow wallflowers as biennials - chucking them out after they have flowered - they are in fact short lived perennials and will live for 4 or 5 years in many gardens.

If you don't want them to remain where you have had them for their spring show - and it must be said that they are not the most attractive plant in the summer/autumn - then you can cut off all the flowering shoots and dig up, storing them temporarily in another part of the garden until they are needed again.

apricot sunset wallflower cut flower

Cut flowers.

Wall flowers are wonderful cut flowers as the heat indoors magnifies their scent. They are the perfect 'filler flower' to put in between tulips and narcissi, but I also love tight massed bunches of them alone. Together they look like old faded velvets and silks.

Pick the stems into a bucket of water, strip all the leaves, sear the stem ends in boiling water for 20 seconds and then leave in a loose bunch in a vase of tepid water to condition.

Arrange in a vase or jug that is not transparent - they are from the cabbage family and the stems do not look attractive after a few days in water!

For more tips, get my free guide to cut flowers by signing up for the newsletter below.

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I am a bit of a womble.  My Studio is a layering of things that have been found, things that have been saved, things that have been given to me - I like to be surrounded by a bit of history. ⁠⠀
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I am known as an avid skip diver so people kindly keep me things.  This weekend I am off to pick up 13 sash windows rescued from a skip.⁠⠀
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This is my dye cupboard - the mordants and other powders, the piles of fabrics and yarns, my newly started record book and the glue to paste the swatches in.⁠⠀
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It has had a hard life - the back is patched with hinges as plates, there are many, many layers of paint and a door has gone missing along the way.  It is perfect.⁠⠀
Back when I grew flowers commercially the area that is now ‘the orchardy bit’ was rows and rows of spring bulbs.⁠ In the years where the deer didn’t eat the tulips they looked magnificent, stripe upon stripe of pure pigment. ⠀
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When I turned my back on growing for money, we simply took out the beds and levelled it, turning it back to grass.⁠⠀
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The tulips quickly gave up - never brilliantly perennial here anyway, they took the opportunity to fade out fast.⁠ Well if you don’t want us . . . ⠀
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The narcissi loved it though and every year appeared back in their serried rows through the grass. ⁠There was something disturbingly grave like about them.
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My planting  ever since has all been an attempt to disguise that - feathering the edges, making little islands, trying to make it all look haphazard.⁠⠀
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Gradually it is working - this is the edge of what would have been a bed of Narcissi geranium (best vase life, along with best scent) - now happily interspersed with a pheasants eye and a little lemon coloured one I have lost the name of.
Abundance.⁠⠀
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And the hedges beginning to vibrate with that gloriously specific spring green.
This week has been about experimenting.⁠⠀
Experimenting with all the ways to dye with daffodils, experimenting with the new e-course part of my website, experimenting with shooting and editing videos on my phone.⁠⠀
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My business hero is @sethgodin and his mantra is 'ship it' - a way of saying that the best way to learn is to make things and get them out in front of people before they are polished and 'perfect'.⁠⠀
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So I took his advice and combined all three experiments. Today's newsletters will have links to a free e-course all about dyeing wool with daffodils.⁠⠀
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I have been absolutely amazed by the colour you get from faded daffodil flowers (see the second photo). It is a bright, yet somehow soft, golden yellow which is now adding an amazing zing to my pile of plant dyed fabrics.⁠⠀
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I am prone to obsessions.  My brain hones in on topics and rabbit holes away, a constant background chatter to my life.⁠⠀
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It annoys the people I live with as my world shrinks to one topic. ⠀
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My camera roll shows me it is three years ago this week that I returned to natural dyeing with plants, concentrating on using only the plants growing within a couple of miles.⁠⠀
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Three years of experimenting with plant after plant, three years of googling and reading obscure articles and piling up samples. ⁠three years of conversation about mordants and modifiers. ⠀
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Three years is a short time in such a slow craft. A blink of an eye. ⁠⠀
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But already I can see a difference in my skill.⁠⠀
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This is a corner of the cupboard where I stash my fabrics and yarns building up enough for a project.  These have all been dyed this year - with barks and cones. ⁠⠀
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This week I am dyeing with bright deadheaded daffodils and the golden yellows will join these soft terracottas and pinks while I dream up something to make.
I grow very few white flowers. ⁠⠀
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White summer flowers tend to mark in the rain - white roses look like discarded tissues, white dahlias spot brown.  Even cosmos purity - which I do grow - goes droopy and grey in a way that the coloured versions don't.⁠⠀
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The petals of spring bulbs however seem rain resistant - so I can indulge my love of white flowers and enjoy them backlit by the morning sun on the Studio window shelf.
Bright and light and pretty.
I am spending a lot of time in the greenhouse at the moment - playing an endless game of jenga with my seed trays.⁠⠀
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Many of the seedlings are for the community gardens - being planted out gradually under fleece. We are biding time, taking the cautious route so that we minimise the risk of everything being wiped out by a very cold night.⁠⠀
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We still have a full month of frosts to go here - little ones of -2 or 3 are manageable, an extra covering of fleece, some bricks to act like a storage heater.  Most hardy seedlings will recover from getting their tips nipped a bit.⁠⠀
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Last year though we had a really cold night in mid May, when growth was going well and sappily. It blasted the blossom and killed many of my hardy veg too. Slightly too late to resow.⁠⠀
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Speak to the older generation of gardeners and they all sowed and planted out much later than is the fashion today.  They perhaps had a point.
I wrote in my Friday letter this week about the sudden lifting of the uncertainty and inertia that had been dogging me for a few months.⁠⠀
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It's always easier to write about these things once they are resolved - do you find that?  Once I am unstuck and lolloping along happily again, I can look at it all and not get sucked down.⁠⠀
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Of course all this talk of getting going again, of new plans and exciting things . . . . it all actually means hard work. ⁠⠀
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Head down, working through an actual written plan kind of hard work.  Not always my natural strength.⁠⠀
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So yesterday I rearranged the studio window shelves and cleared the working table, ready for an uninterrupted start today. ⁠⠀
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An attempt to keep momentum.
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At Snapdragon Life I gently guide you through bringing the changing seasons into your daily life, helping you slow down, so that you can experience increased well being, calm and creativity.

 

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