Leading the way with Dianthus
Reading society year books from 1988 to 1994, the wonderful achievements of Desmond Donaldson are recorded but not in any great detail. In fact one of the year books makes reference to a wish of learning the secrets of Desmond’s skills and techniques but this was never realised so far as I have been able to establish.
In mentioning his name at BNCS events and shows over the years I have never met anyone who could shed any light on whether Desmond was still growing carnations or even if he was alive and well and still living in Dumfries, Scotland.
In May 2010, whilst searching the internet, I came across a photograph of a Begonia grower called Ian Donaldson whom I immediately recognised as the son of Desmond from the Garden News photograph in 1992. Contact was established and on Sunday 30th May 2010 I spoke to Desmond on the telephone, now 91 years old, but sadly, no longer growing carnations.
The following is Desmond’s account of his time, growing perpetual flowering carnations which I reproduce here in full. I am both grateful and delighted for the opportunity to finally link up with him and to report upon his detailed methods of growing which made him virtually unbeatable in the carnation world for a period of some six years.
‘My first contact with carnations was whilst a boy, my father grew them for many years. As a young man, I began to grow them myself but I concentrated on borders at that time as we did not have a greenhouse. Family life and work commitments were to take up much of my free time and so my carnation growing went onto the back burner and I was without plants for a few years.
I retired on the 12th of November 1978 when much of my time was spent travelling around the world, I was a regular visitor to Canada and Greece and my time away from home was such that I did not have the time to look after any plants in the manner that I would have wished.
By 1985, my travelling had reduced considerably and so I decided to try a few perpetual flowering carnations which I got from several sources, one supplier I remember was Tom Gillies, who ran a specialist carnation nursery in Bolton. I acquired a small 8’ x 6’ aluminium greenhouse and grew them in here but as my interest and expertise grew, I needed more glass and so bought a second hand 8’ x 6’ which I fastened onto the back of the first one.
As I learnt more about their culture I joined the Great North Carnation Society, the Rosecarpe Society and the BNCS. The first few years were spent showing in the North East where I won some very nice prizes including a brass miner’s lamp at the Gateshead festival which I still have and treasure. I also won a gold medal at the Glasgow festival which I still have in my possession.
By now I had attached a third greenhouse to my existing two which was soon to be followed by a further four (All 8’ x 6”) which were erected as a separate entity from the three. To clarify, I now had one - 24’ x 6’ and one 32’ x 6’ greenhouses. The greenhouses were found locally from people wishing to sell them at very good prices and which I was happy to take off their hands. Clearly, I needed more growing space in which to hold my ever increasing number of plants which at my peak numbered about 450 pots. All the greenhouses were mounted on wooden railway sleepers to give a little more height.
After the RHS show each October, all available cutting material was removed from the plants and put in to root. I had been fortunate to come across a nurseryman who was disposing of a large number of Dutch lights and these were taken to my home. I made a large cold frame by standing four frames onto their edge, thereby forming a square which was 2’6” high.
The structure was fastened together and then two Dutch lights fitted on top to make the frame water tight. I decided upon this method for two main reasons. Firstly the plants would be grown quite hard with excellent light and would not get drawn. The second was to allow me time to empty my greenhouses at my leisure and to be in a position to fully sterilise the glass and gravel beds by use of strong Jeyes fluid. Everything was then clean and sterile before any plants were re-introduced.
The bottom of the cold frame was covered with 4” of washed river sand into which I buried an 80’ soil warming cable. Cuttings were inserted into cell trays into a mix of peat and washed river sand at a ratio of 3 to 1.
I should explain that my propagating frame was covered outside by a shelter made from spare Dutch lights which was 20’ long. I erected this structure which was covered with corrugated sheeting for growing some border carnations the previous year. This gave extra protection to the plants below.
Plastic 4” pots were utilised and the compost was peat and river sand at a ratio of 3 to 1. However for this potting I used Chempak potting base to each bushel of the mix. I did add extra lime which I found the plants liked.
Following sterilisation of the greenhouses, old wooden doors which I recovered free of charge, were used as temporary benches and the 450 pots plus quite a few spares were spaced out a short distance apart.
All the 4” pots fitted into one of the 8’ x 6’ greenhouses and I was lucky enough to find a source of unwanted 6’ fluorescent lights which I suspended at a minimum height of 6” but no higher than 12” from the top of the pots. The lights were on at night from early December and right through to final potting in early February. No additional heating was required nor did I use any soil warming cables at this time. Each evening large sheets of aluminium foil was suspended over the lights and allowed to drape over the sides of the benches ensuring all the pots were encased thereby getting maximum benefit of the lights. On nice days the foil would be removed and returned for night time use.
The pots were stood onto the greenhouse gravel base as follows. Three rows of pots were placed on each side of the greenhouses with a narrow central path. The gravel on each side of the greenhouses was covered with a 2” to 3” layer of washed river sand which helped to keep the pots stood on top, nice and moist. Three straining wires were run the entire length of the greenhouses, each side, and canes in the pots were secured to these with ties. I admit this was tight and made tending the plants and watering quite difficult. As I gained more glass space I believe I reduced the rows to two each side to make life easier
Joanne’s Highlight and Joanne were always favourites and from memory I grew 60 pots of these varieties. I had some good success with the fancy Ron’s Joanne but to be honest I never really liked the colour. Scented varieties were Doris Allwood and Fragrant Ann. I remember that Colin Short’s variety Queens Reward always grew well for me and I grew quite a few of that. Others included Crompton Princess, Joe Vernon and some which now escape my memory. However I remember Annie Claybourne being introduced which I felt superseded Joanne, and so grew this for a year or two until I stopped growing.
Living in South West Scotland means the weather can be quite wet and yet the sun does not get too hot. Under glass the plants could go a week or sometime nearly two weeks before they required further water. Watering was done with a hose unless I was giving liquid feed when the watering cans were brought into play.
In the main, Chempak liquid feeds were utilised at strengths number 2 or number 3. Number 2 would get the plants growing strongly in the early stages with number 3, (balanced feed) brought into play when the flowers began to form.
I always kept daily records and I watched the buds closely. I got to a stage when I knew which buds would be ready and those which would be over before the date of the required show. Conversely, I knew which buds would not be ready for a particular show and these plants would be brought into the house where they occupied a spare room to get good light and the warmth of the house to bring them on a little bit faster. Whilst this did not always work, in the main I enjoyed good success with this method.
I would not cut flowers less than 2 days before the show and transporting blooms was via 2’6” long boxes from a local florist. Each box would take 9 x blooms and for London and the Daily Mail Cup I took four boxes giving me 36 blooms. At that time the Mail required four vases of six blooms so I always had plenty of spares should they be required.
I utilised small plastic lemonade bottles with very narrow tops and nine were fastened into each box by means of wire mesh and tape. This held the bottles firmly to the bottom of the boxes. More wire was used to keep the stems straight in the box and the bloom supports ensured no damage was caused to petals whilst they were in transit. My usual practice was to put lemonade into each bottle to keep them fresh, never water
On two occasions I travelled to Westminster via the evening train from Dumfries carrying four boxes so they needed to be as light as possible. Sometimes I put a little sugar into the bottles but am not sure if this improves flower quality.
I first visited this show in 1988 to observe the standard and to get a feel for what was required. It was also a good opportunity to meet up with some of the southern growers and to see if any new varieties were being released onto the market.
Winner of the ‘Daily Mail Gold Cup’ with wins in two classes out of the four entered featuring the varieties ‘Joanne’s Highlight’, best six bloom vase in the competition, and a mixed vase of two Joanne’s Highlight, Joanne, Fragrant Ann, Joe Vernon and Crompton Princess
Winner of the ‘Daily Mail Gold Cup’ for the second successive year with wins in three classes out of the four entered featuring the varieties Fragrant Ann, Ron’s Joanne and Joanne’s Highlight, the latter selected as best vase with one of the blooms in the same vase taking the best bloom award in the section.
Winner of the ‘Daily Mail Gold Cup’ for the third successive year with wins in two classes out of the four entered featuring the varieties Joanne’s Highlight and a mixed vase of three Joanne, two Joanne’s Highlight and Ron’s Joanne
Winner of the ‘Daily Mail Gold Cup’ for the fourth successive year with wins in three classes out of the four entered featuring the varieties Ron’s Joanne, Joanne’s Highlight and a mixed vase of two each of Joanne, Ron’s Joanne and Joanne’s Highlight.
I was first drawn to growing carnations following delivery of The Garden News in October 1992, in which the show journalist Jack Wood reported upon the R.H.S show at Westminster earlier that month, covering in detail the achievements of Mr Desmond Donaldson who had won the coveted ‘Daily Mail Gold Cup’ for the third time in succession. The article featured a photograph of Desmond together with his son Ian and both were holding winning vases of Perpetual Flowering Carnations comprising the varieties Joanne’s Highlight, Joanne and Ron’s Joanne. The story stated Desmond had been unwell prior to the show and as a result his son Ian had grown on and looked after the ‘beloved perpetual carnations’ on his father’s behalf. They had then travelled together from Scotland to show them. I was so drawn by the colour and beauty of the flowers that I decided there and then that I must grow a few myself. In the weeks that followed I approached the only carnation grower I was aware of who lived in my area and that was Mick Mackie from Leeds. Luckily for me Mick had already started to propagate his P.F’s and agreed to root a few for me including Joanne’s Highlight and Joanne which he considered to be ‘banker varieties’ himself. Thus my love affair with the carnation had begun.