The serious business of flower pouches

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What is the gardening trade to do when every patio is crammed with tubs, every pub festooned with huge hanging baskets, and there is a nagging worry that the market for plants in pots might be saturated? They have to think of something else to sell us. Grow-Bags worked well, so someone had the brainwave of hanging them on the wall.

Thus flower pouches were born, and reached their apogee earlier this month when the seed merchants Thompson & Morgan dished out an astonishing pounds 75,000 in prizes for the best displays in them.

Urged on by the prospect of a first prize of pounds 50,000, I decided to plant a flower pouch - a cross between a carrier bag and a Grow-Bag, with a stout handle to hang it from and slits at intervals down its length for plants to be inserted. It comes with a mixer to incorporate into the compost, which combines water-retaining granules and slow-release fertiliser.

My pouch certainly would not have won any prizes, although I admit that may well be partly my fault.

A good rule, of course, whether filling flower pouches, setting off fireworks or piloting light aircraft, is to follow the instructions. These specified soilless compost, but I couldn't bear not to use my own home-made, very heavy, mix. The result was that my pouch weighed so much that it was hard to lift on to the wall. The handle looked as though it might break (although it didn't) and the slits spread slightly open, making watering rather difficult.

I chose a combination of pale blue lobelias, mid-blue felicias, and pale- ink petunias. Unfortunately I bought these before reading the instructions, which recommend young plants or speed-plugs for pouches, and it was difficult to get my largish, well-rooted petunias through the slits. Speed-plugs would probably have established themselves far more quickly. The manufacturers do not tell you this, but it may be worth having a few extra plants in reserve in case one or two fail.

The pouch needs careful watering, and the instructions did not mention anything about not going away and leaving it in the care of teenage daughters. A flash past with a hose was not enough to make sure each plant was well watered, and some of the lobelia suffered as a result.

In spite of all that, it looks just about all right. The felicia, in particular, clings and spreads nicely around the bag, and the petunias are reliable. But I will not be rushing to show anyone photos of it, unlike the 4,500 people who sent pictures of theirs to enter the Thompson & Morgan competition. These were narrowed down to 100 finalists, who were all sent pounds 100 and invited to bring their pouches to the firm's headquarters in Ipswich for the final.

And bring them they did. From as far afield as France, Ireland and the Scillies, the flower pouches were lovingly transported in the backs of cars and displayed in a huge marquee. This was a serious business: the firm laid on security guards in case anyone tried to sabotage a rival entry before the judging.

If we didn't already know it, the competition proved that there is no limit to the amount of effort and time amateur gardeners will put into their hobby. According to Thompson & Morgan, the prospect of the prizes did not seem so important to the finalists as showing off their own efforts and comparing them with everyone else's.

The winner was a tasteful column of peach-coloured, pendulous begonias; the second prize went to an arrangement of mauve, pink and silver petunias, viscaria and helichrysum.

Thompson & Morgan sold half a million pouches last year, and they expect to have sold many more this year. So hanging baskets, tubs, pots, window boxes and all the rest are not enough: there is a place in the world for flower pouches, although possibly not in my garden.

Flower pouches from Thompson & Morgan (01473 688821) cost pounds 5.99 for three.