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LUPINS FOR THE UK GARDENER


Lupins are perennial (i.e. they come up year after year) shrubs which start into growth after the last frosts, produce their first flush of flowers in late May / June and can continue flowering into early August if dead-headed correctly (see below).

The flowers are large and very showy, in almost every possible colour imaginable including some unusual shades of blue.

When grown from seed they are an extremely cheap and reliable plant for the cottage garden. Note that this article only covers perennial lupins, there are annual lupins but these only last one year and are grown in a very different way.

lupins growing on an allotment
Lupins grown on an allotment 

Use the checklist below to decide if Lupins are suited to your preferences and garden conditions.

GROW LUPINS FROM SEED OR PLANTS?


Lupins can be grown either from seed or from cuttings. The choice of which is the best option comes down to two factors, cost and how determined you are to have to have a specific colour.

Lupin seeds cost on average about £2.50 for a pack of 40 and will give you excellent plants which will be a variety of colours. The seeds should be sown in late February indoors to early April. Some of them may well flower in the first year others may only flower in the second year.

White lupins
White "Russell" type Lupins grown from seed

Lupins grown from cuttings are the only ones which will be an exact replica of the parent plants. They come in two basic ways, either as plug plants or as pot plants, both of which are far more expensive compared to seed however you are guaranteed the variety and colour you require.

For pot grown or plug plant lupins our recommended supplier would be Crocus for reliability, quality and price. Click here for their informative page on buying and choosing lupins.

CALENDAR FOR GROWING LUPINS IN THE UK AREA

The Lupin calendar below has been adjusted for your town, UK.
Click here to change towns.

Sow seeds indoors
March week 3

Buy and pot up plug plants
April week 3

Harden off plants
April week 4

Plant out seedlings
May week 1

Harvest seeds
July / August

HOW TO SOW LUPIN SEEDS


The process for sowing saved seed or packet seeds bought from garden centres is normally the same. For the most reliable results sow seeds indoors, however they can also be sown in pots outside a month later. The best time to sow lupin seeds indoors is around the first week of March.

The day before sowing, soak the seeds in a saucer of water. This will hydrate the seeds and result in quicker germination.

You can sow seed initially is seed modules and then transplant into 8cm / 3in pots when the seedlings have four or more true leaves, normally two to three weeks after sowing. Alternatively sow one or two seeds directly into 8cm / 3in pots, this is the method we prefer. Sow the seed about 1cm deep and sprinkle fine compost on top. Use normal multi-purpose compost and water, but not water-log, the compost immediately after sowing.

Lupin seeds will germinate in a wide range of temperatures, the best being about 15°C / 59°F to 20°C / 68°F or somewhere around the temperature of a cool room in a centrally heated house. Seedlings should appear in 10 to 15 days time. When they do emerge, keep the plants in a cool, light position. A windowsill will be fine but not one in direct sunlight.

In the last week of April harden off the plants over a week or two, at this point they will be ready to plant outside.

BUYING LUPIN PLUG PLANTS


Although more expensive compared to seeds, plug plants are still cheaper than buying larger plants in 8cm / 3in pots. Buy the plug plants in late March / early April and then pot them up into 8cm / 3in pots a couple of weeks later. When you can see the roots at the bottom of the pot harden the plants off as described above.

HOW TO AND WHERE TO PLANT LUPINS


Lupins prefer a full sun position but will also grow well in semi-shade, they do not grow well in full shade. They grow well in a wide variety of soil conditions although chalky and / or waterlogged soil will be a problem if not improved before planting. If the ground is very clayey, lots of grit dug into the planting area will greatly increase their chances of surviving wet winters.

Although lupins grow to about 150cm / 5ft high they are surprisingly strong plants even in exposed and windy conditions. Lupins will grow in all parts of the UK and Ireland, withstanding frosts down to -25°C.

Lupin variety Bubble Gum

Planting lupins is simple, dig the area well where they are to be planted and sprinkle on some blood, fish and bone working it into the soil. Dig a hole for each plant and plant to the same depth as it was in the pot. Lupins grow from crowns and if these are planted too deep they will rot, if planted too shallow they may fail to establish well. Water well. The planting distance between each lupin should be 30cm to 45cm (12in to 18in).

ONGOING CARE OF LUPINS


WATERING
Lupins are strong growing perennial plants and quite capable of looking after themselves as far as water and nutrients are concerned. They have long tap roots when established which allows the roots to find water in all but extreme drought. In fact, manual watering may well result in the crowns rotting.

FEEDING
The roots can also find their own nutrients, they have nodes on them which produce their own nitrogen. Don't feed lupins after their initial feed at planting time, nitrogen based fertilisers will encourage lush green growth which make them more prone to aphid attack.

REMOVING / DEADHEADING FLOWERS
To get the longest flowering period from your lupins, cut off the flower heads when they have died down. The flowers will die from the base of the flower head upwards, the time to dead head them is when two thirds of the flower has died. New, smaller flowers will soon appear extending the flowering season.

WINTER CARE
As the foliage starts to turn brown and die down in winter there is no need to do anything. The foliage will slowly die back and does no damage. In early spring when new shoots appear, clear away any remaining dead foliage to allow good ventilation at ground level.

Lupins will live for 10 years or more but much depends on the the conditions they are grown in. Generally they will produce a good display of flowers for five years and then begin to become woody and unproductive. It is well worth digging them up at this stage, dividing them and replanting. Even though their long tap root will be damaged they may well recover and produce a decent display of flowers for another four or five years.

PESTS AND DISEASES OF LUPINS


APHIDS
These pests often attack lupins and the unfortunate truth is that these plants are not one for the organic gardener in many cases. In particular the Giant Lupin Aphid may attack your plant and if left to their own devices the result will be poor flowers and foliage which is open to further attacks from fungi.

Spray lupins with a systemic insecticide at the very first signs of aphids which is generally May time. Then re-spray the plant two weeks later. Spraying with insecticidal soap and all the other organic solutions will have almost zero effect when aphids attack your lupins, we have tried them all!

SLUGS AND SNAILS
Some areas of the UK do not have problems with slugs and snails but many do. Again, the only solution which works is not an organic one. The organic slug pellets simply don't work as far as lupins are concerned. Normal slug pellets do work and in our opinion are the only deterrent.

CROWN ROT
Occasionally the base of the plant rots and this is caused by excessive moisture. Dig up the rotted plants, space the remaining ones out a bit more and you may find the problem disappears next year.

PLANT COLOUR CHANGES
Lupins will stay the same colour year after year, they do not change. Where you notice a change in colour from one year to the next it is because the plants have self seeded (they are very good at this). The self-seeded plants will, in all likelihood, revert back to a bluer shade each year.

The solution is to prevent the plants self-seeding. This can be achieved only by removing the seeds from the flowers before they fall to the ground.

GROWING LUPINS IN CONTAINERS


One of the key problems with growing lupins in containers is that fully grown plants are 150cm tall and that makes them very top heavy. Only large and heavy pots (at least 60cm / 2ft in diameter) are suitable. Combine this with their need to produce long tap roots for successful growth and you need a wide and deep pot. Certainly it will not be moveable by one person.

If you can provide a pot of a suitable size (with a drainage hole in the bottom) the soil should be free-draining (two thirds multi-purpose and one third sharp grit). Other than that the plants will have no special needs compared to other pot plants.

Watering will be required frequently and because they prefer slightly acidic conditions, rainwater is preferable compared to tap water. See our article on water butts for convenient ways to collect rainwater. The best plant food is a fortnightly application of liquid tomato feed from April to late June.

When the foliage dies down in late winter there is no need to remove it unless you really want to for the sake of appearances. It is best removed in spring when new shoots appear.

SAVING LUPIN SEEDS


Allow the seed pods to turn brown then remove them from the plant and open up the pods to get at the seeds. Seeds will be available in July to August time. Store until required in a cool, dry dark place. The seeds will keep for three years or more if stored correctly. The older the seeds the more important it is to soak the seeds before sowing.

WHERE TO SEE LUPINS IN FLOWER


The National Collection of Lupins is held at:

Westcountry Nurseries
Donkey Meadow
Woolsery
Bideford
Devon EX39 5QH

Opening Times for the National Collection of Lupins are:
Monday to Sunday 10.00 to 16.00 March to July
We strongly suggest that if you are travelling any distance you phone them first on 01237 431111.

It is very strange that when we searched the Westcountry Nurseries website we could not find their address or opening times, although we did see the map they have with their approximate location. Maybe we just missed it or maybe it's just very difficult to find, or maybe it's really not on their website. The strong feeling we get is that they much prefer to conduct business online rather than by personal visits. So, phone first before visiting!

LUPIN SUMMARY


Below we list the key strengths and weaknesses of Lupins.
 
HARDY 5 star hardiness rating (to -20°C / -4°F )
   
CLAY SOIL No 
SANDY SOIL  No 
   
DRY SOIL No
   
SHADE  No, partial, full sun
   
EVERGREEN  No
   
EASY CARE 2 easy care rating
SMALL GARDENS  Yes
   
POT / CONTAINER No
   
FLOWERING  5 star flowering rating
   
FLOWER TIME June to July

COMMENTS / QUESTIONS LEFT BY OUR READERS

Date: 7 june 2018 From: Sue W
There are House Sparrows getting on my large purple Lupins, what are they pecking them for?

ANSWER: I believe they are after the nectar. Unfortunately, to get to the nectar they destroy the flowers.


Date: 01 June 2018 From: Jimmy
QUESTION: When I cut back dyeing flower heads, how much stem do I leave?

ANSWER: I just cut away the flower head and leave the lower stem. I've not tried it but I am sure at least half of the stem could also be removed.


Date: 31 May 2018 From: Tracey
QUESTION: There are woodlice all over the roots of my lupins, how can I get rid of them?

ANSWER: Woodlice rarely do any damage to plants and I certainly would not try and do anything about them. They are beneficial in almost all cases, breaking up fallen debris and making it quickly available as a fertiliser.


Date: 16 June 2016 From: Eileen B
I planted lupines last year and they grew and were beautiful, however, they did not come back this year. Any thoughts? We live in Pennsylvania, United States - cold winters and hot summers.

ANSWER: The cold won't be a problem for lupins in Pennsylvania but the hot summers will be a problem. Left in open ground the sun will bake the roots over the summer. You have two options, the first being to grow them from seed each year and treat them as annuals.

The second option is to protect the roots somehow from the heat in summer. Mulching the plants in mid June might work and / or planting them next year in a shadier position. I suspect though that you will be fighting a loosing battle and the first option is the only realistic one.


Date: 17 May 2016 From: Tom
Hi, thank you for your detailed information. A couple of my newly planted lupins are struggling in a raised bed. The bed received a fair amount of ash (from wood burner) over the winter. Some are doing fine but others are going yellow and have stopped growing. Some leaves are brown. What can I do?

ANSWER: I wouldn't add ash to the ground in which lupins are growing. Ash turns the soil lime whereas lupins prefer a slightly acidic soil. This could well be the reason for the leaf problems.


Date: 24 April 2016 From: Vivienne C
Thank you for your very easy to understand information, After many failures with lupins have moved to Essex and told the soil no good for lupins. All lupins planted last year l am delighted to say have all come up very healthy. Good luck to everyone growing them they are a beautiful plant

ANSWER: Well done!


Date: 1 November 2015 From: Alan B
I would like to re-site my lupins, the existing bed is to small. Planted earlier this year. Any problems doing this?

ANSWER: In theory they are not well suited to being transplanted because they develop long tap roots and these inevitably get broken on transplant. However, in practice they seem to survive well. Yours are less than a year old so your chances of success are high. I would move them in spring time rather than now, just make sure you keep the soil moist but never water-logged.


Date: 3 October 2015 From: Geoff R.
Can you tell me if I need to cut back container planted Lupins? If so when should this be done?

ANSWER: I have added a new paragraph in the main article above to answer this question. It says "When the foliage dies down in late winter there is no need to remove it unless you really want to for the sake of appearances. It is best removed in spring when new shoots appear."

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Other shrubs in this series include Ceanothus, Choisya, Hebe, Skimmia, Magnolia, Mahonia, Mock Orange, Lilacs, Potentilla and Rose of Sharon (hibiscus syriacus). Our main shrub index page can be seen by clicking on the link below.