There once was dormouse who lived in a bed of delphiniums blue and geraniums red. And all the day long he’d a beautiful view of geraniums, red, and delphiniums, blue. AA Milne
We seem to be most attracted to that which is most difficult for us to grow, and that is how it is with me and delphiniums. Perhaps it’s the image of a dormouse asleep in the flowers, or just the rarity of true blue in the garden, but I’ve always loved delphiniums. Unfortunately, they don’t love me back. My slug prone, heavy clays aren’t well suited to keeping them alive. Neither are the winds up here or the amount of cosseting they need. I’ve bought plants and rapidly lost them to mildew and slugs, had poor germination rates from seed, and seedlings that failed to thrive. After a while I gave up and concentrated more successfully on Larkspur, its tougher annual cousin (see Autumn sowing hardy annuals). I took the photo below at Hidcote Manor Gardens, in the Cotswolds, where the delphiniums towered above the visitors.
A couple of years ago, Gardeners World had an expert championing the Elatum hybrids as a tougher alternative to the blowsier Pacific Giants. I treated myself to a couple of Blackmore and Langdon’s elatum plants (a whopping £9 each as a birthday indulgence) and planted them on a sunny spot with lots of dug in compost and grit. They flowered in the first year, small spikes but a piercing blue, and promptly snapped off in the first storm of summer (my staking needs to improve). Here are the leftovers of ‘Faust’ and ‘Blue Nile’ making a luxurious bouquet.
As per the GW advice I covered the plants in grit and sand over the winter to protect from slugs, but unfortunately by spring they had rotted away completely so overall the experience was disappointing.
Not completely defeated, last autumn I sowed some “Delphinium elatum Magic Fountains’ seeds from Chiltern Seeds. Although germination wasn’t great, a dozen plants made it through to spring pot plants. These survived the hot spell, only to be munched to stumps when neglected over autumn. They had to be rescued and re-potted to painstakingly remove those tiny black slugs, which burrow inside the soil and eat the new shoots before they even emerge. The delphs are pictured convalescing on the shed windowsill and ready to be planted out once March’s gales and rains subside.
The mixed packet means I can’t be sure of getting my fix of blue, so I’ve also purchased some elatum seeds from Larkspur nursery which were chilled and sowed early this February and are just starting to emerge. ‘Kestrel’ is proving stubborn and has a lone seedling from the whole packet, but “Kathleen Cooke’ and ‘Conspicuous’ are doing slightly better with a few seedling peeping through. Now I just need to find a dormouse…