Suttons Trial Ground shows Devon Life what's next for Devons gardens
PUBLISHED: 16:22 13 August 2012 | UPDATED: 21:43 20 February 2013
Enjoy a riotous patchwork of floral colour and see what's up and coming in the vegetable world with a visit to Sutton's Trials Ground. Words and photos Jan Barwick.
Plants on Trial
Enjoy a riotous patchwork of floral colour and see whats up and coming in the vegetable world with a visit to Suttons Trials Ground. Words and photos Jan Barwick.
Every gardener has heard of Suttons Seeds. For thousands, Suttons annual catalogue, packed with vivid floral and pristine vegetable images, is a must-have winter read, something to pore over in the monochrome January world and have flights of fancy about what is to come in the year ahead. What is less well known is that Suttons is a Devon company and that the bulk of those photographs were taken at their Trials Ground in Ipplepen.
Although it started life in Reading (back in 1806), Suttons moved to the South-west in the mid 1970s. Its main packaging and distribution centre (which sends out more than a million packets of seeds every year) is in Paignton, and its at Ipplepen that Suttons (and its sister mail-order company Dobies) trial all their new and updated varieties. Suttons is now part of an international company called Vilmorin, so has easy access to plant breeding from all over the world so there is a continual supply of new things to test.
The four and a half acre trials site, cultivated largely along organic lines, is behind Fermoys Garden Centre, and during its peak period in August, its as if the landscape has been painted in swathes of colour and organised into a vegetable growers fantasy around 3,500 varieties are tested here, and many of them will be at their best this month. Whats more, on 11 and 12 August the Trials Ground is open to the public free of charge, while the week either side of this weekend is set aside for horticultural groups to go along and see the best of what Suttons has on offer. If its pouring with rain theres a marquee to shelter in, staff are on hand to answer questions and you can wander round the whole site, see whats going on in the greenhouses and, using the blue sticks provided, mark the varieties that you particularly like so the team can see which have received particular favour they like customer feedback. Near the marquee there is a demonstration garden with the newest varieties, previously unseen, that will be available in the Suttons and Dobies catalogues next year a chance for a bit of early horticultural one-upmanship. Here you can also see examples of flower/vegetable combinations demonstrating that things edible can pack just as much a visual punch as things floral.
As with any company, were continually looking to update and improve, but we only market things if theres a benefit to the home gardener, said Senior Horticultural Manager Tom Sharples. The Trials Ground at Ipplepen is all about quality control on everything we sell, making sure that the seeds we sell do what it says on the packet, as well as trialling new varieties. The Trials Ground is just that it does trials so not all the things that you see here will actually make it into the catalogue. Some recent ones that have include a new runner/French bean cross and a courgette that is parthenocarpic (bearing fruit produced without fertilisation). The bean looks like a runner but with slightly more rounded pods, said Tom. The big advantage is that, like French beans, it is self-pollinating. This means an improved crop yield, particularly considering the shortage of bees that many places are experiencing at the moment although thats not something weve noticed at Ipplepen. The courgette too is not reliant on insects for pollination. The declining bee population has been the trigger for developing some of these new varieties, said Tom. Breeders have been responding to our wish list.
New varieties can also be a compromise. For example, we have a cabbage thats resistant to club root. Its not the best cabbage, but if you are on an allotment where club root is endemic, then its a successful way of growing brassicas.
Apart from testing seeds, the grounds are also used to try out and showcase new equipment, like the VegTrug a V-shaped wooden vegetable bed suitable for cultivation in small spaces, ideal for the elderly or disabled gardener; or testing new cultivation techniques to increase productivity. One thing we tried was double planting sweetcorn planting them in blocks as usual but with two plants per station instead of one. We got more than a 45% increase in crop in the same space. Companion planting has also come under their radar, with mixed results, said Tom. Theres some evidence that it works in a few instances, but it does seem to depend on the particular soil type.
Suttons also has a thriving business in ready-grown plants, bulbs, shrubs and fruit trees. One recent development, and something which had Tom fairly tripping over his words with excitement, is a new range of grafted plants. The principle uses old-style rootstocks that are naturally resistant to particular diseases, and grafting selected varieties onto them.
If you take tomatoes as an example, said Tom, the original plants came from Chile. They were resistant to soil nematodes and fungal diseases, but the plants werent very vigorous, which was why growers stopped using them and they were just parked in seed banks. Now we are grafting our preferred varieties onto these rootstocks. The grafted plants are more expensive than standard varieties, but this is more than made up for by their tougher constitution (which requires little or no heat), their disease resistance (meaning no need for ring culture or growbags ) and their higher and earlier yield. Theyre great for gardeners, and especially beginner gardeners, because theyre getting really good results, so theyre coming back to look at other things like aubergines, peppers, melons and butternut squash. These are all available in grafted form with many of the same attributes. Grafted aubergines fruit four to five weeks earlier again with a much larger crop.
This will be the final year that the Trials Ground will be at Ipplepen. At the time of writing the company was negotiating a move to a bigger site in Torbay. Basically were outgrowing the space, said Tom. Customer demand is changing. Five or six years ago 60% of the seeds we sold were flowers, and only 40% vegetables. Since the economic downturn, many more people want to grow vegetables, so now its 70% veg and only 30% flowers and vegetables take up more room. Weve also been here for quite a time and pests and diseases do build up, even though we rotate the crops, so its time it reverted to pasture and we started somewhere else with a clean sheet.
Even after 206 years, Suttons is still staying ahead of the game.