Zinnias on Trial

For those of you who read our blog regularly, you will probably have guessed that the new nursery area has opened up a whole range of new possibilities and opportunities for us as gardeners. We have already written about our enlarged and improved cutting garden as well as the new iris stock bed that will be so important in safeguarding our collection for the future. Now we are venturing forth into the world of plant trials. We have always trialled new plants in the nursery but have never had the space to do this on a large scale. Individual plants have been planted out in the nursery for a year or even two to assess their flower colour, size and overall vigour before deciding whether they are worthy of a place in the main garden. Now we are able to consider running trials where several cultivars of the same plant are assessed side by side and this will enable us to make more considered choices, learning more about each cultivar before making decisions.

Trials at Sissinghurst can, essentially, be divided into two groups.

The first types are those which are run by RHS where plants are assessed using a rigorous set of criteria with a view to deciding whether they should be awarded an Award of Garden Merit (or lose an Award of Garden Merit). Most trials are run at Wisley and judges gather every few months to judge the plants using the criteria set at the beginning of the trial. Each trial usually runs for at least three years so that plants can be assessed over several growing seasons. RHS trials can also be held in other locations around the country so that plants can be grown in alternative environments and therefore, their performance judged more thoroughly. It is one such trial that we will be taking part in later in the year and Troy, our Head Gardener will write about this in more detail later in the year.

The second type of trial that we can create as gardeners are those where we set own criteria in order to assess plants for a particular purpose. We are running two ‘in house’ trials this year with zinnias and delphiniums being the plants under scrutiny. The delphiniums are simply being grown on in pots this year and the trial will properly start next year but the zinnia trial is well under way.

Vita wrote about zinnias in one of her Observer articles, “It is only half-hardy in this country, and thus has to be sown in a seed box under glass in February or March; pricked out; and then planted out in May where we want it to flower. We will have to be very careful not to water the seedlings too much, or they will damp off and die. On the other hand, we must never let the grown plant suffer from drought. Then, when we have planted it out, we have to be on the look-out for slugs which have for zinnias an affection greatly exceeding our own. Why should we take all this trouble about growing any flower which we know is going to be cut down by the first autumn frost?” and “… For there are few flowers more brilliant without being crude, and since they are sun-lovers the maximum of light will pour on the formal heads and the array of colours.”

The advantage of this type of trial is that it can be very specific in its criteria for assessment. For example, the zinnias are being assessed for potential planting in the Moat Walk as we know that Vita once grew them here. Therefore, their colour is the most important factor we are assessing although other factors such as their height, width and ability to grow without support are also important. We will also consider the number of flowers produced, how many side shoots each plant has, how weather resistant it proves to be and our propagator, Emma will assess germination rates. We chose 10 cultivars (‘Wine Bouquet’, ‘Benary’s Giant White’, ‘Benary’s Giant Scarlet’, ‘Benary’s Giant Wine’, ‘Benary’s Giant Lime’, ‘Envy’, ‘Polar Bear’, ‘Luminosa’, ‘Purple Prince’ and ‘Queen Red Lime’) and planted 12 of each. All the plants are now flowering and we will need to observe and discuss them to draw our conclusions. An informal trial such as this can be so useful as it can be relatively small scale whilst allowing us the opportunity to compare foliage and flowers side by side. It’s unlikely that the zinnias will be planted until 2017 and therefore, we have the time to run a two year trial. The advantage of this is that only the zinnias assessed to be potential candidates for the Moat Walk will move forward to the 2nd year and if we find other zinnias that might be suitable we can add them to the trial. In year 2 we will also try to find a location within the Nursery that offers conditions very similar to the Moat Walk so that we can really observe how the plants cope with the stresses of this location.

There is a book, Dearest Andrew, letters from V’. Sackville-West to Andrew Reiber 1951-1962 about the correspondence of Vita Sackville-West with Andrew Reiber. They wrote letters to each other from 1951 until her death in 1962. On December 27 1951 Vita wrote to Andrew “I am going to ask a favour of you. I hope you won’t mind: I feel pretty sure you won’t. It is something I covet passionately for my garden. It is a packet of seeds –Bodger’s Zinnias- the stripy ones. The seed is unobtainable here, and it is the envy of every gardener. The American firm called Bodgers sell them –so I imagine that you could easily buy a packet of seed and post it to me. I can’t send you any money to pay for them, because we are not allowed to send money out of this country, but I can get some American stamps, and I will send you those- and if you would really get me a packet of seed I would grow them in your honour.”

He almost immediately bought some seed from Burnett Brothers in New York and mailed them to Vita. Within ten days of her original request reaching Andrew, Vita had possession of a quarter-ounce of Bodgers Peppermint Stick Zinnias. Andrew’s several requests to seed companies resulted in the arrival of another package on Vita’s doorstep on February 14. The happy coincidence of the date was to make the observation of Valentine’s day a special holiday for Andrew and Vita. Vita wrote “Another great huge packet of seed! How marvellous–and how kind of you. I am now planning to have a whole border (narrow, but very long) entirely filled with your zinnias. The narrow but very long border in which Vita planted the zinnias was the border in front of the Moat Walk wall.  On July 31, 1955 Vita wrote to Andrew “Your zinnias are looking grand. They are all along the foot of a wall with Morning Glory clambering behind them”.

In 1954 he inquired if he might add some other varieties of zinnia to the packet of ‘Andrew zinnias’. Vita replied “Blaze sounds lovely and as I have an orange-red garden it would be perfect. I like any of the Burpee ones, -Persian Carpet or Fantasy, for instance. Not white, since I can get those here.”

In many ways zinnias may seem a strange choice to trial but from the correspondence we know that Vita clearly liked these bold flowers and was experienced in growing them. In her Observer article on February 12 1950 she wrote ‘Some people do not like zinnias: they think them stiff  and artificial looking. But they are surely no more artificial-looking than dahlias … and their colours are even more subtle than the colours of the dahlia. In zinnias, you get a mixture of colours seldom seen in any other flower: straw-colour, greenish-white, a particular saffron-yellow, a dusky rose-pink, a coral-pink…. Personally I like them higgledy-piggledy, when they look like those pats of paint squeezed out upon the palette, and I like them all by themselves, not associated with anything else.’

When our trial finally concludes in 2017, I hope that we will be able to report that zinnias will once more be growing in the Moat Walk.

Helen Champion and Monique Wolak