Despite its name, the Chelsea Chop isn’t the latest trend in hair styling although trimming the unruly and the straggly certainly is involved. It is a very simple and straightforward method of cutting back herbaceous* plants which, for some reason, terrifies even the most confident of gardeners.
The only skills required are courage and the knowledge of exactly when to carry out the chop. The latter is simple to calculate and is hinted at by the title of the deed – the week of the Chelsea Flower Show or thereabouts. This year, there have been two hiccups in using this rule: firstly, the show has been moved to autumn because of Covid restrictions and secondly, because spring has been so slow in coming that plants are behind with their growth. As a general rule of thumb, the time for cutting is around the third week of May.
Beloved by bees and butterflies, Sedum – also known as Ice Plants on account of their fleshy, cool-to-the-touch leaves – are the ideal candidate for the chop and one of the most satisfying to do. Inevitably, when left to their own devices, the large, flat flowerheads are too weighty for their stems and they topple over to sprawl across the ground and spoiling an otherwise impressive display.
To make the chop all that has to be done is to cut through every growing stem, thereby reducing the plant’s overall height by half to one-third. Clear away the prunings (which can be added to the compost heap) so as not to attract slugs. There, I told you it was simple!
Although the method sounds and looks drastic the plants quickly recover and make new growth. The end result will be a plant that doesn’t collapse and doesn’t require staking. Admittedly, the flowerheads will be smaller than before but they produce so many more than they would have done left unpruned that the effect is in no way diminished.
This simple pruning technique can be used on a number of other plants too in exactly the same way. The taller achillea, phlox, campanula, asters (michaelmas daisies) and rudbeckias are all good candidates. I have heard of its use on echinacea (cone flower), penstemon and helenium but, in my experience, these are trouble-free plants anyway, so why bother? The secret to good, stress-free gardening practice is to find the balance of what suits you and what suits the plant. The Chelsea Chop on sedum in May prevents an awful lot of stress later in the year!
*herbaceous – a non-woody plant that dies back and becomes dormant in winter to regrow each spring
I was fortunate in having a country childhood where roaming the fields and woodlands was the norm. My early schooling was often held outdoors on sunny days, sitting on a warm, grassy bank; best of all, were the long, nature-study walks we were occasionally taken on. At the age of ten my schooling changed and the open space and fresh air was replaced by a concrete yard separated from a railway line by a high, chainlink fence. The only shades of green to be seen were the short spikes of Wall Barley Grass that grew wherever they could find a place to take root. Later, I changed schools again and, although still in the centre of a town, at least now there were extensive playing fields as well as a small wooded area. In the no-man’s land between the closely-mown sports grounds and the trees Hardheads and Rocket grew. Against the school walls, Wall Barley Grass could be found.
Wall Barley Grass, which as children we called darts, is a short, annual grass that thrives on waste ground. It frequently sows itself in cracks in pavements or, as at my old school, the gap between the tarmac playground and the wall. Despite frequently growing at the base of walls which its common English name recognises, the botanical name for the grass Hordeum murinum means something quite different: murinum = mouse. So why darts and, for that matter, why mouse? Surprisingly the reasons behind both names are unwittingly known by countless generations of children. Our favourite ‘weapon’ of choice, the seedheads when separated from the stalk, can be thrown just like a dart, the point not sticking into a bullseye but on articles of clothing, especially knitwear. The pinnacle of childish achievement was to attach it unknown to someone at the base of their back. Over time, with their body movement, the dart would slowly creep upwards until it arrived to prickle their ear or neck in the same way as a pet mouse might.
In researching for this blog, I was surprised to discover that Wall Barley Grass, so commonly seen throughout my (Home Counties) life, is rarely found in Scotland and Ireland. It is a plant of drier, warmer regions and grows across the Mediterranean area, North Africa, parts of Asia as well as Central and Western Europe.
It is sometimes hard to believe thatCentaurea nigra, Knapweed – or as we called it, Hardheads – is a wild flower; it seems to be far too beautiful to be a ‘mere weed’! A great bee and butterfly plant it grows to about two feet tall and flowers throughout the summer months. As children we cared not one jot about the flowers, it was the flower buds that we coveted. A tight, hard ball (hence the name) on a long pliable stalk made them another ideal weapon once we’d tired of darts. Perhaps ‘bullets’ might have been a more appropriate name for when the stalk was looped around the bud and pulled tightly the bud would ping off at quite some speed. Unlike darts where stealth was required, hardhead battles were fought openly and at close quarters. The closer to the opponent the more they stung when a strike was made.
On rare occasions, pure white flowers can be found. These were always treated with respect and never picked. Even rarer – and I know of only one place where they can be found – bi-coloured hardheads grow. Hardheads grow throughout Europe, elsewhere in the world it is an introduction. For me, the first of its flowers are a sure sign that summer has arrived. A plant of old meadows and chemical free waysides, their purple flowers brighten up many a roadside verge.
The last of this trio of childhood plants, Rocket, is the only one that we never picked. They were loved for their appearance reminding us of the sparkler trail of the cheap, unsophisticated fireworks that were the norm in the 50s and 60s. Rocket, bears no resemblance in any way to the herb that we eat in salads, in fact it has been used as a medicinal herb to relieve many complaints ranging from gallstones to treating snake bites. Agrimony, Agrimonia eupatoria, to give it its correct English and botanical names, grows to about two feet tall and flowers in mid-late summer on a single stem. Its pretty, pale yellow flowers are followed by sticky burr-like seedheads that attach themselves to animals and clothing. They grow on roadside verges and grassland but unlike so many of our native wild flowers that require ancient, unimproved meadows, they prefer relatively young ones of less that fifty years of age.
Just as garden plants can often remind us of people, times and places of the past so darts, hardheads and rocket transport me back to my childhood. I no longer pluck darts to throw but I do admit that rarely a summer goes by when I don’t check that my knack of firing hardhead bullets hasn’t been lost. In doing so I remember a time of innocence, old friends and a life of simple pleasures.
Imagine it is mid-summer, the morning sun is warming the day and you are gathering handfuls of pretty, multi-coloured and fragrant flowers to bring back into the house. If this sounds like a heavenly dream then read on. The dedicated gardener will need no further encouragement to grow sweet peas but for those less keen on gardening or with little time, they are still the perfect choice.
So, even if your idea of gardening is to sit in it with a glass of chilled, white wine, there is a quick and easy way to grow sweet peas for, at this time of year, pots of young seedlings are available from garden centres. They are usually grown in a single pot with a dozen or more plantlets crowded together. They nearly always come as a mix of colours but it is necessary to check that they are a tall-growing and scented variety. Avoid buying the scentless and/or dwarf types, both of which I dislike intensely – why grow these when they should be fragrant and elegant?
Sweet peas grown informally on a ‘wigwam’ in the garden border
If the weather is reasonable and the soil not frozen, the seedlings can be tipped out of their pot, teased gently apart and popped in the ground about six inches (15cms) apart. It is beneficial to make sure that the soil in the pot is moist so give them a good drink an hour or so before planting. Sweet peas, being climbers, need something to clamber up: the traditional way are hazel sticks. These are ideal for the sweet peas attach themselves readily to the rough and twiggy stems. If hazel cannot be found, bamboo canes also work well although the young plants may need a little helping hand at first to attach themselves – use any short twigs for this just to prop them up. The canes, which are traditionally placed into a circular ‘wigwam’, need to be about 7-8ft long so that once in the ground they are about 6ft tall. Apart from keeping them watered in dry spells and free from slugs and snails that’s it. They will begin to flower in June and continue (providing you pick them regularly and never allow them to set seed) until the autumn frosts. Incidentally, they grow well up fences too providing they get adequate sunshine.
For more experienced gardeners and those that want to enter the local flower show try growing them as ‘cordons’. With this method they are grown in straight rows on bamboo canes or strings to a height of 5ft. A place in the vegetable garden is ideal as they can be readily accessed from all angles without treading on other plants. The spacing is again six inches apart. For the best blooms, remove the tendrils and any side shoots as they appear, also any flower stems with less than four flower buds. With no tendrils for self-clinging it will be necessary to tie the plants to the stakes with string or by using metal rings sold especially for the purpose. When the plants reach the top of the canes and/or the flower quality diminishes, cut the plants free of their stakes and lay them carefully along the ground. Tie in the growing tips to their nearest stake and train as before. The plants will flourish having been given a new lease of life.
These sweet peas, grown as cordons, are now ready for layering
The layering process
Sweet peas are readily grown from seed, either sown in pots or the ground in March/April or in pots in October. I prefer to start them in individual pots regardless of the time of year and to protect them from the worst of any cold weather. The seed does have a hard coating and many gardening books advise chipping the individual seeds with a knife. Not only is this hard work and time consuming, I have never found it to be necessary. The seed is both plentiful and inexpensive and if a few don’t germinate does it really matter that much?
The growing and exhibiting of sweet peas reached a peak in late Victorian and Edwardian times with many specialist clubs holding shows. With patience and luck, who knows you may become a medal winner at your local flower show? Even if you don’t, you’ll be rewarded by a garden full of colour and a house full of scent.
There is lots more no-nonsense advice for gardeners in my book “Why Can’t My Garden Look Like That?” To take a peek inside the covers, click here.