Inside the Floral Marquee at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show 2017, I met Jackie Currie, a passionate Allium expert and Garden Designer from Surrey. The RHS judges presented Jackie with a Silver-Gilt Medal, for her first ever exhibit at Hampton Court, which featured a selection of Alliums, from Jackie Currie’s National Collection of Alliums.
Beth: Congratulations on your beautiful Allium exhibit and your success here at Hampton Court Jackie!
Jackie: I am pleased with a Silver-Gilt, but that’s not what it turned into, what it turned into was meeting a myriad of amazingly interesting people, from top botanists and horticulturists, to amateur gardeners. They were so interesting and interested, it made me realise how much plants and gardens connect people – and that’s what it was all about. I am grateful to my fellow Garden Designer Lorraine, my business partner, who has helped me to assemble this exhibit.
Beth: How lovely! Gardening friends are always very special. Do you have any recommendations of the easiest Alliums to grow?
Jackie: The summer flowering ones: Allium nutans, Allium senescens, Allium tuberosum, and Allium angulosum. They’re easy peasy Alliums, stick them in the ground and they’ll grow.
Pumpkin Beth: Do you have any rare Alliums in your exhibit?
Jackie: Allium wallichii is the rarest Allium here. It’s rare in the wild because people eat it; the whole thing is eaten including the root. It’s a small one; it doesn’t look like a bulb, does it really? So the root, the leaf and the flower are eaten in Tibet in China – they’re eating it to extinction. But it’s easy peasy to grow!
Beth: What a great shame that people are still eating this special Allium, when it’s at risk of extinction! Thank goodness for people like you Jackie, who hold National Plant Collections to safeguard these rare plants. I am glad that Allium wallichii is easy to grow.
Beth: Do you have any tips for growing Alliums?
Jackie: You know when people say, ‘I can’t grow Alliums because my soil’s too wet.’ Well no – you have to lift them and bake them, because what happens is when you buy them, you put them in the ground, and they always work the first year, it’s the year after that you lose them.
I upset a lot of people, because people don’t grow them correctly. There are three categories of Alliums. There are the ones that require what I call a lift and bake– you need to lift them and bake them in your greenhouse or somewhere just dry, at about 23-26 C. You’ve got the ones you need to lift, only because the one bulb turns into like a clove of garlic – so they’re best if they’re then broken up and replanted. They may not flower the following year, but they definitely will flower the year after. And then you’ve got the easy-peasy ones where you do nothing. You plant them, and they just come up and do their thing, you just tidy them up in the winter.
So Allium nutans, Allium cernuum, Allium senescens, they’re all the really easy peasy ones that you don’t have to do anything and they just flower each year.
I went to Holland, and they lift every single bulb, and they bake them, and then of course they sell them, or replant the bulbs.
Beth: So how long a flowering season could a gardener enjoy by growing Alliums?
Jackie: From March to October.
Beth: Could you list some of the varieties that would span the season?
Jackie: You want me to do it now? It’ll bore you rigid!
Beth: Nope, I love talking about Alliums; this is the best part of my day so far!
Jackie: Okay, so Allium paradoxum var. normale. Only use the var. normale one, never ever choose the regular paradoxum as it’s a pernicious weed; normale flowers, the other one doesn’t, and it doesn’t spread everywhere. That one and Allium zebdanense are the first two, and that one likes dry shade! So they’re March to April: Allium jesdianum ‘Early Emperor‘ is one of the first ones. Then we go into all the ‘normal’ well-known ones, so Allium ‘Eros’, that’s a lovely pink low one, then you have things like Allium ‘Purple sensation’, and then the later-flowering ones are Allium cristophii, Allium ‘Ambassador’ and Allium giganteum, they’re always slightly later. And then from there you go through to the Allium sphaerocephalon, you know the drumstick one, that’s sort of June. In between you’ve got the Allium cernuum, June into July. And then in July we go into the Allium nutans, then Allium senescens and then Allium angulosum. From there you go to Allium wallichii. So we’re into about August/September – Allium wallichii, which is used to monsoons so it can cope with anything.
Beth: Would Allium wallichii be a good choice for a built up urban area at risk of flash flooding after heavy rainfall?
Jackie: Yes, but don’t plant it in a wet soil, as it’s used to dry soil and then terrible downpours. You get it on the edge of woodlands; it does lean a bit, so I’ve tried it in sun and shade. From there we go through October/November, you’ve got Allium thunbergii, and also garlic chives – Allium tuberosum. So that takes you through to October and November, but there are lots in between.
Beth: If you could only plant one Allium which would you grow?
Jackie: I think actually if you were only going to plant one Allium, and you weren’t going for a big flashy type, this is the one you’d choose – Allium ‘Eros’. These are the bulbs, they look like little amoebas, they don’t look like a bulb! That is the basal plate there.
Beth: Bulbs are so amazing! Have you used any methods to make your Alliums flower earlier, so they would be in flower for Hampton Court? Have you tried to hold your plants back, so they would flower later, in time for the show? What methods have you used to get your Alliums to flower here at Hampton Court?
Jackie: I’ve tried. I’ve pleaded! My eldest son – we’ve got a problem with our fridge, we’ve got an outside fridge, and he phoned me to say, “There’s an Allium in the fridge!” – I forgot to take it out! I’ve had a few disasters to get here.
So, I was trying to hold some Allium ‘Eros’ back – I put them in pots, and then I put them in our outside fridge, which is really bad, it freezes but only ‘just’ freezes. I put the Allium in and let it freeze, but they still flowered at the same time as the ones I’d left out, it didn’t make any difference! My son asked, “Can I take it out, or have I got to leave it in here?”
Beth: That’s so funny!
Beth: Do you have any favourite plants, or favourite plant combinations that you enjoy growing with alliums?
Jackie: The Salvias look good, and Nepeta look good with them, particularly if you’ve got Nepeta and Allium ‘Eros’ – which is the small pink one – they look good together.
You see Alliums are really good, because a lot of them come up just before the main flowering time, so it gives you that stopgap. Alliums also look good with Irises because you have the different shapes – the round shape of the Allium with the iris shape.
Beth: What’s the tallest Allium you grow?
Jackie: Allium ‘Summer Drummer’ which is 2m.
Beth: How long have you been growing alliums for?
Jackie: I’ve only had the National Collection for about three years, but I’ve grown Alliums – must be for about twenty years. I’ve always loved Alliums, but it’s only maybe five years ago that I really got slightly mad about them.
Beth: So how many types of Alliums do you grow?
Jackie: Two hundred and thirty-ish species, cultivars, and hybrids. That does change, because the taxonomy keeps changing. Also, I lose the odd one and gain the odd one!
Beth: This article will be permanently on my website, I hope that lovely Allium enthusiasts will read it, and give or swap any Alliums they have with you.
Jackie: I’ll collect any and I am happy to swap. The problem is that nobody has written down – other than Dilys Davis who wrote the only book on Alliums – other than that, nobody’s written down how to grow Alliums, particularly in the UK. So I’m in the dark, I have to work out where the Allium is from in the world, and take an educated guess. This doesn’t always work – there’s Allium crenulatum, which is from California, but it’s actually from moist meadows, which you don’t think of in California, so actually it’s best in the ground in normal garden soil, rather than in a pot being grown like an alpine. It’s only about 10cm tall, very pretty, quite a short, stocky little plant.
Beth: So which Alliums are you missing, that you would most like to add to your National Collection?
Jackie: There’s one, but even the Allium expert I know in Holland only has one bulb himself: Allium regalii. It looks a bit like a candelabra primula, so it’s not a round ball, you’ve got flowers and then a stem, more flowers, and then stem, and then one flower on the top. He’s only got one bulb, because it’s a really difficult Allium to grow in cultivation. That one I’d love, but I’d take any Alliums! I love them all. Allium chrysanthum, it’s a yellow Allium, that does look slightly like a Chrysanthemum, I haven’t got one of those, so I’d really like that one too.
Beth: Is there anyone you would like to thank?
Jackie: My husband and Lorraine Smith, my business partner.
Beth: Tell me all about your Garden Design business Jackie.
Jackie: It’s called Euphorbia Design. Lorraine and I are unusual garden designers in that we’re more plant-based – we’re very keen on our plants. A lot of designers are very keen on their hard landscaping, but they’re not that knowledgeable on their plants, whereas our thing is that we’re really passionate about our plants. We won’t put a new plant into somebody’s garden unless we’ve trialled that plant for a couple of years.
We’ll follow whatever the client wants, we had one client who was only in the UK between May and September, so every plant in their garden had to be flowering then. But most people want their garden to be low-maintenance, but pretty for as many months of the year as possible. We’ve designed child-friendly gardens, bee-friendly gardens; we enjoy creating whatever type of garden the client wants. People have strong feelings about colour, so we select plants from the specific colour palette that the client wants, but we love plants, so we want to put as many in the garden as we can!
Beth: Do you maintain the gardens?
Jackie: We get somebody in to do the actual physical hard landscaping, and we do all the planting – we don’t get somebody in to plant it. We feel that need to work the soil to double-check that the plants we’re putting in will cope with the conditions; sometimes you start digging and somewhere is moister than you’re expecting, or drier, so occasionally we have to make changes. So we do all the planting ourselves. We only ever plant from October to March; we don’t plant in the summer because I think plants just sit there and don’t cope very well; it’s best for the plants to become established and settle in over the winter. So we have started to maintain gardens in the summer as well.
Beth: What area do you cover?
Jackie: The Guildford area, through to the other side of Petworth. Lorraine lives in Petworth, so we have quite a few clients there, and because I’m up this way, we do Guildford, Godalming, Fernhurst, and Brook.
Beth: What’s your best gardening tip or advice?
Jackie: Right plant, right place. It’s really important. Also, soil preparation is everything, you have to prepare the soil properly, dig it over by hand, and get rid of any stones or rubble. We use mushroom compost because it’s weed-free. A few years ago there were problems with chemicals that had made it into manure based composts, we won’t touch manure because you can’t be sure it’s free of herbicide. We’ll dig in compost, we plant, and then we mulch with mushroom compost to keep the moisture in and the weeds down, and add nutrients to the soil. The preparation, which you don’t see, takes the most time, but is the most important part.
Beth: Do you have any gardening ambitions?
Jackie: I would love to own an Allium nursery!
Beth: What a great ambition, I am sure that you will!
Jackie: Yes, it’s just finding somewhere really.
Beth: You never know, a wonderful person might be reading this article, and they might be able to help!
A shortened version of this interview was first published in the October 2017 edition of Vantage Point Magazine.
Other articles that may interest you………….
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To read an overview of the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show 2017, please click here.
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For gardening advice, tips and lovely ideas of what you could do in your garden, or at your allotment from mid October to mid November, please click here.
To read an overview of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2017, please click here.