In Praise of the Humble Pea: The Seedlip Garden

In 2013, in a North Lincolnshire kitchen, pea farmer Ben Branson began experimenting with a copper still after reading about the non-alcoholic remedies distilled by apothecaries in the 1600s. Ben’s family have been farming for 300 years and their peas are picked by hand by Ben and his team. His kitchen experimentation led to the world’s first non-alcoholic spirit, the Seedlip drink, which was launched in 2015. This is the second Seedlip Chelsea Garden and it views the humble pea from an unusual angle as every plant in the garden, designed by Dr Catherine MacDonald, is a member of the pea family, Fabaceae.

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Ben serving his non-alcoholic cocktails at the show

Bringing together diverse plants in the same family on one garden highlights their similarities – many have papilionaceous flowers (shaped like a butterfly) with a central standard or banner petal raised above the smaller pair of wing petals, with the two keel petals forming a boat shape below. The most obvious example of this in the garden are the lupins which draw the eye across the planting as they blend from the soft yellow of Lupinus ‘Desert Sun’ to the bright purple Lupinus ‘Masterpiece’.

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Lupin ‘Desert Sun’

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Caesalpinia gilliesii (Credit: By Krzysztof Golik [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons)

The plants in the garden are fascinating because of the vast diversity in the family, from the ground cover clovers like Trifolium repens ‘Dragon’s Blood’ (one of my favourite plants) and the other nine clover species in the garden, to the larger specimens like the Japanese pagoda tree (Styphnolobium japonicum), Laburnum anagyroides ‘Sunspire’ and the striking crimson threadflower (Caesalpinia gilliesii) which was attracting much admiration when I looked round the garden on Monday. A large evergreen shrub from northwest Argentina and Uruguay, the crimson threadflower is unfortunately only hardy down to about -5, so only an option in colder areas of the UK if winter protection is available as it can be grown in a large pot.

 

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Trifolium repens ‘Dragon’s Blood’ may be small but it has big impact with red-veined patches on the leaves

The garden is filled with circular structures, from the pea panels underfoot acting as grills over split pea shingle to the pools which are filled with deep blue-green water, coloured with a pea-dye.

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Circles are everywhere in this garden

Even the peavilion at the back of the garden is a shrine housing a collection of articles relevant to the pea, topped with a pea-shoot green roof.

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Lupins floating in the foreground and the Peavilion behind

The Seedlip Garden celebrates the work of three pea pioneers: Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) who discovered the basic principles of heredity through his work with peas, Dr Calvin Lamborn (1933-2017), the breeder of the first sugar snap pea, and Seedlip creator, Ben Branson. Many of the edible peas (Pisum sativum) in the garden are varieties bred by Dr Lamborn and there are also two of his new varieties released for the first time on the garden.

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Split pea shingle

After admiring the plant diversity on the garden I was persuaded to try the non-alcoholic Seedlip Garden 108 drink (the average number of days it takes to sow, grow & hand-pick the peas), mixed by Ben himself. It’s a floral blend of hand-picked peas, homegrown hay, spearmint, rosemary and thyme, with no sugar or additives. I liked the absence of saccharine sweetness; it has a minty refreshing taste with a slightly sour tang in the background, reminiscent of gin. Well, it would have been rude to say no – and it is gluten-free too!

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My Seedlip cocktail

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