Sweet Smell of Success

After countless years growing and exhibiting prime specimens of sweet pea at shows, both locally and nationally, Ray Bradbury has again won the first prize at the 24th Annual Sweet Pea show in Wem, Shropshire. After beating growers from all over the British Isles Ray tells Thomas Castle some of the secrets behind his success.

Ray Bradbury

“The Royal Horticultural Society recently conducted a study into women’s favourite flowers, because of the colour and their perfume sweet peas came second only to roses in the poll.  It is a beautiful plant and I have always been keen on producing some excellent specimens of the plant.”

During a rare day of summer weather Ray literally led me up the garden path to the sacred area designated for the growing of his beloved sweet peas.

“The one thing you must do is treat them as though they are family. You must care for them like they are children, talk to them, sing to them and give them plenty of food” says the green fingered Ray, standing proudly amidst the stems with pruning tools in hand.

After exhibiting in many local shows the target has always been to achieve national success. “I have exhibited at the Wilmslow Show, Poynton, Prestbury and I go further afield toWakefieldfor example, but winning the national’s and beating people from all over the country is what it is all about. I like to support local shows and I believe it is important to be involved in them for the good of the community and in order to practice my skills before going on to the national shows.”

“I always try and exhibit at the Prestbury show and I will be entering this year in September. I have won there before. I love doing it. Sweet peas are my favourite flowers and I am keen to show what I have accomplished throughout the year. It is not just down to the growing, it is how you ‘stage’ the flowers before the judging begins. I arrived at 4:00 am for this year’s show in Wem, just in to arrange my vases before the judging began.”

Ray tells me timing is everything with sweet peas, from understanding the correct time of the year to plant; to knowing exactly when to prune and when to remove buds, as well as choosing exactly which ones will make it to his spot at the show.

“I plant around 150 each year. I buy the seeds around October to start the process. Then they go in pots until March time, and when they are approximately three inches I cut them and plant them in rows. I probably lose around 15 plants every year, usually because of the frost but sometimes they just don’t grow because the seed may not be good. They need constant attention, you have to treat them as though they are children, they must be nurtured throughout the growth. They are something very special”.

Every minute detail is taken into account before Ray selects the twelve vases of five stems which he intends to ‘stage’.  Class 47 this year was the ‘Three Vase Distinction’ which was open only to growers of 100 plants of fewer. Before selecting the best of his sweet peas Ray must assess them as though he were judging them, by checking the quality of the bloom which may be tainted if the flower is too young.

“This is where experience comes in. After growing sweet peas for so many years I know a full flower and when it can be picked. By examining the colour I know when the time is right. I check to ensure the keel has not split where the petals form; the fullness of the bloom, and that the colour is true to type. I exhibited three different colours at Wem; ‘Charlie’s Angel’, ‘Gwendolyn’ and ‘White Frills’, all three must be perfect specimens of their type”.

Entrants have to be ready after ‘staging’ their plants for 7:30 am when the judges arrive.

“The judging takes around two hours and then the show opens at 10:00am. Prizes are awarded at 2:30pm so it can be a long day if you are on the road early. The trick is arranging the stems in a certain manner so that they stand out as the best in show. You cannot leave them and hope for the best, it is very intricate and detailed.”

Ray also has to time the success of his sweet peas around the time of year of the shows, in order to maximise the potential of his plants.

“There is another show inChristchurch, nearSouthampton, which is a little too early for my plants because of the difference in environments in the north and south of the country. My sweet peas do not bloom in time for the earlier shows in the south so I enter the northern shows. The annual show is always held in July so I can time my growing around that date. I have to let the society (National Sweet Pea Society) know at a five day declaration stage of my intention to exhibit“.

More than 600 entrants ‘stage’ their horticultural wares at the national shows across some 64 classes ranging from single vase shows to the three vase exhibits in which Ray features.

After a process of growing that started in the autumn Ray was named winner of the Daily Mail’s ‘Three Vase Distinction’ class.

“I received a glass crystal for winning. It is a great achievement after a long growing process”.

After winning the event four years ago in Chatsworth and following his recent success at Wem, Ray is now looking forward to exhibiting next year in Harrogate, although it could be a long two-day show if Ray takes up a position as one of the judges.

“I am a judge in some of the smaller classes now and I am learning and understanding the judging requirements for the major classes such as the one I won. There is a lot to learn. There is a lot to take on board in order to judge professionally and fairly. Again, it all comes down to experience and knowing what to look out for.”


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