It’s always fun to give visitors a surprise. And I don’t mean a Jack Russell that bites their legs or one of those tricks where they step on a certain paving stone and it triggers a drenching of water from a hidden spray. Grow something different that they just don’t expect.
Plants that are really, really BIG are always a good bet: sunflowers, of course, either hugely tall or with enormous flowers; dinner-plate sized dahlias; monstrous pumpkins; vast cabbages; roses growing up telegraph poles – that sort of thing.
Plants that smell in unexpected ways are good too: curry plant, moth-ball plant, stink lily, and roast beef plant for example. People always like to see unexpected edibles such as olives, peanuts, bananas, lemons; rude plants are fun too (but this is a family site, so let’s not go into details…). These five are easy to get hold of, easy to grow – as well as lots of fun.
OK, it’s true, you probably won’t get a crop of actual bananas unless you grow your plant in a conservatory. But the plant itself is a fantastic focal point outside in a summer border. It develops a trunk, from the top of which leaves like huge paddles develop and instantly create a wonderful tropical effect.
Usually, the ones you see in garden centres and at mail order nurseries are intended to look good rather than give you fat clusters of fruits and these can often make it through the winter in a cosy corner. But to get bananas, grow a plant in a big – and I mean 75cm or more – pot and move it inside in October. Grows to around 1.2-2.5m.
Dinner plate dahlia
Actually, this is kind of a misleading name. Yes, the flowers can be the diameter of dinner plates but there the resemblance ends. You’d be hard pushed to find a dinner plate as dazzling as these huge dahlias in such a vast variety of shapes and colours and colour combinations.
Those tagged as “giant” have flowers more than 25cm across, “large” varieties have 20-25cm flowers so the stems of either will need some support from stakes: those flowers are heavy.
You can help ensure that the flowers really are monstrous by snipping off the buds below the first main flower – but if you can’t be bothered then all the blooms will still be pretty huge. Grows to around 1.4-1.8m.
Giant pumpkins, there’s an idea. Did you know that the world record pumpkin weighed over 1,000 kg? It takes special skills and special seed to grow a pumpkin anything near that size but even a relatively modest (by world record standards) 50kg pumpkin is still pretty impressive.
This is a case where it’s vital to start with the right seeds – some pumpkin varieties are intended to only grow to one or two kilos whatever you do to them.
‘Atlantic Giant’ is the one you’ll find in garden centres – give it plenty of water and plenty of liquid feed. You can sow the seeds outside in May. Grows to around 2+m spread.
Stink lily (Dracunculus)
Poo! What a stinker! This is a plant in the calla lily family that’s also known as the Dragon Arum, the Voodoo Lily and the Black Dragon. Described in one encyclopedia as having “an intense unpleasant fragrance that attracts flies for pollination purposes” – that’s only the half of it. The fact is, it stinks of rotting meat!
Its blood red or purple flowers, with their black spike in the middle, only stay open for a few days. And in-mid summer the whole plant dies away. It likes sun, and spring moisture. Grows to around 90cm-1.2m.
Tall plants, huge flowers or both – take your choice. But sunflowers are like pumpkins in that you have to grow the right varieties. No matter what you do, some sunflowers will never grow much taller than knee high so look for varieties with names that make it obvious what they’ll do: ‘Giant Single’, ‘Giraffe’, ‘Kong’, ‘Mongolian Giant’, ‘Russian Giant’, ‘Titan’ – you get the idea.
Once they’re growing, water them regularly, feed them with liquid feed and make sure they’re supported. Whether they’re developing huge heads or tall stems they’re likely to blow over unless tied to a fence or the side of the house or to stout stakes – or to a telegraph pole! Grows to around 2-4+m.