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The height of good taste; Onions with enormous showy blooms and tricky strawberries that taste divine grab the attention of The Post's gardening expert Roger Clarke.

Knowing your onions could pay dividends in the garden next year, whether you want them for frying in the kitchen or blooming in the borders.

Starring in the culinary department at the Royal Horticultural Society flower show at Tatton Park in Cheshire were the old favourites Ailsa Craig.

These were on a magnificent stand of vegetables from Thompson & Morgan (www.thompson-morgan.com) who was proving it could grow its seed as well as sell them.

Tatton is the last big show of the summer, following hard on the heels of the RHS show at Hampton Court, and heralding the break until the Malvern Autumn show at the end of September.

From the Midlands it is easy to get to, particularly when someone else drives, just an hour or so up the M6, with plenty of parking near the entrance and a courtesy car service for those who require it.

The T&M stand had a wide range of vegetables grown from seed and tubers from its catalogue, with the centrepiece a display of huge Ailsa Craig showing why they are a favourite of exhibitors.

To get them to exhibition size demands a touch of obsession, along with a fair amount of experience and skill, but if you want large onions which are as easy to grow as any other then they are a good variety for the home gardener.

They have a good shape and colour and, most important, a good flavour. They also keep well if they are well dried after harvesting.

On the subject of flavour, June and July in particular are strawberry months and that is one fruit where taste seems to be a low priority these days with ability to travel and a long shelf life at the local supermarket the overriding factors.

So it is time to thank your lucky taste buds for Ken Muir, the Clacton-on-Sea strawberry grower (www.kenmuir.co.uk) who won an RHS gold medal at Tatton for his display of strawberries and Minarette fruit trees in Towerpots.

Minarettes by the way are fruit trees which reach about 8ft when mature but crop heavily on a single stem and can be planted 3ft apart and are ideal for growing in pots and containers.

Ken Muir, on the one hand, is a commercial grower who supplies major supermarkets with strawberries and soft fruits while on the other he supplies a wide range of strawberry plants to the gardener.

There are usually about 25 varieties in the Ken Muir catalogue with any new varieties having to first prove their worth in terms of yield, disease resistance and flavour before they can challenge the existing collection for a place in the catalogue.

Varieties range from a sort of beginner's strawberry such as Cambridge Favourite, to a true aristocrat of the fruit, Royal Sovereign.

Favourite was once the most popular commercial variety. It is reliable on any type of soil, it shrugs off poor cultivation, and it is reasonably disease resistant and produces a good crop of medium sized fruit in virtually any conditions. The flavour is nothing to write home about, although home grown will still outshine supermarket fruit which are often several days old when they arrive on the shelf.

Royal Sovereign on the other hand has flavour to spare. It is the Cox's Orange Pippin of the strawberry world with a taste that almost spoils you for other varieties.

From that peak though it is rapidly downhill. The berry size is inconsistent with small and large on the same plants, cropping is light, particularly against modern varieties and beds have a short life before they need replacing because the plants rapidly become infected with virus disease and are susceptible to just about every other problem the plants can suffer.

If you have the space though it is still worthwhile growing a row away from the main strawberry bed just for that heavenly flavour.

Ken Muir had a wide range of plants on sale at good prices so I came away with Eros, a British bred midsummer variety from East Malling, Florence, a huge plant with large fruits which is a late season variety with good disease resistance and Rosie which is an early with glossy fruit and excellent flavour.

This is a good time for ordering and buying plants so that they are established before winter and will be ready to crop next year.

Just one point though. Don't decide to plant strawberries in land which has just been cleared of early potatoes. Spuds can infect the soil with Verticillium Wilt, which might not affect potatoes much, but it can seriously affect the growth and even kill strawberries.

Back among the onions though, and Dutch firm W S Warmenhoven had a stunning display of Allium. I am sure that Allium suffer from being tagged as decorative onions which seems to make them a bit infra dig, a pity as they do have some spectacular garden plants among their number.

Allium giganteum takes the size award. It can reach more than 6ft in height with huge purple ball heads 6in or more across. The bulb originates from central Asia and is not fully hardy, so mulch well in autumn in cold areas.

It flowers in early summer and the giant blooms last well as cut flowers - if you have a 4ft vase.

A sphaerocephalon, a catchy little number also known as the round headed leek, only reaches about 2ft but still manages large flowers which look a little like the blooms of red hot pokers.

The flowers are bee magnets and are also excellent for cutting, appearing in mid to late summer.

Most unusual of the Alliums on display was A. schubertii which reaches about 3ft with these huge spidery flower heads. Again it makes a good cut flower.

Alliums are a diverse group with large border plants down to tiny rockery plants such as A. oreophilum, which often only reaches about 2ins and is covered in pink flowers in early summer.

If you have never grown Allium they are among the most undemanding of bulbs. Plant in any fertile, well-drained soil in a sunny, sheltered spot.

As a rule of thumb, plant the bulbs so they are covered by about twice their diameter. For example, if the bulb is 2ins wide then plant with about 4ins of soil above the nose of the bulb.

The bulbs can be left to their own devices for several years but if you want to divide a clump it is best done as soon as they have died down after flowering.

Lift the clump, split the bulbs and replant straight away.

Some species will seed themselves if the seed heads are left on which is no great hardship as they can be an attractive addition to the border.

Bulbs, including Allium, will soon be sent out by mail order and will be appearing in garden centres shortly.

The earlier you buy the more choice is available and the quicker the bulbs can be planted. Early planting means they have a chance to become established, as far as the roots are concerned, before the soil becomes too cold for growth which helps to reduce the chance of rot.

THINGS TO DO

It is time to wage war on vine weevils again. The grey adults with long snouts, rather elegant - as far as beetles go - can be seen prowling around the garden and their white grub offspring are probably already at work underground.

These days it is not only plants in pots and containers which suffer as the weevils can be found in beds and borders and even under turf in the lawn.

It is plants over-wintered in pots and containers which really suffer though. The weevils, small white grubs, feast on the roots and at this time of year with high temperatures and regular watering, plants can produce enough new roots to keep leaf and flowers alive and apparently healthy.

Once temperatures drop and growth slows though, the weevils start to eat roots faster than the plant can produce them, leaving the plant virtually rootless by spring when it is called upon to grow again.

You can solve the problem now by watering the compost with Bio's Provado which came out last year. It kills the grubs and gives protection for about six months. It also kills off aphids, blackfly, whitefly and a few other nasties as a bonus.

Trim hedges to make them neat and tidy. Use clippers or shears on small leaved plants but secateurs give a better finish on large leaved hedges such as laurel - it avoids ripped, ragged brown leaves.

Pick crops as they are ready and continue to feed tomatoes and remove side shoots from cordon varieties.

In hot dry weather ponds are like any other body of water and start to dry out, so top up regularly. If you have fish in the pond then allow chlorine to escape from tap water by either filling the pond with a find spray or a small trickle playing over rocks or a flat stone.

Water and feed containers regularly. If you did not use water retaining gel this year think about it for next year. It really does make a difference. A neighbour's hanging baskets are dry and drooping in the evening after a hot, sunny day and are noticeably light in weight while mine are still heavy and damp thanks to great globs of water-swollen gel in the compost.

CAPTION(S):

Just to show it does not have to be gnarled oaks or conifers for the bonsai treatment, here is a fuchsia, Lady Thumb, seen at Tatton Park on the stand of Cottage Bonsai from Broadway in Worcestershire. Above, Allium giganteum and left, Allium sphaerocephalon
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Gardening
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jul 28, 2001
Words:1623
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