Petunias - bursting with colour, just like your grandma used to make.

Petunia public information

I think I must be showing my age. I asked someone a few years my junior recently if he remembered the phrase “Kids in water – they love it”, in a rather cheesy Australian accent. He didn’t have the faintest idea what I was talking about; not a clue. It was Rolf Harris of course, telling the British public to teach their offspring to swim. 

I should probably start out this week with yet another apology, as what follows will only have any meaning whatsoever to Brits who are ‘middle-aged’ or older. Youngsters, Americans, continental types and colonials should probably skip to the plant bit or move on to the next page altogether. Unless of course you’ve actually heard of British public information films.

They were weird, condescending, hilarious, cheesy and informative at the same time. How can anyone forget that old bloke on his pushbike; ninety I think he was, who had managed to “stay alive for so long” by being extra careful on the roads.

Or Jimmy Saville, with his particularly dodgy haircut, advising us to “clunk, click, every trip”. Then there was the Amber Gambler, who always had to be the first one away and the last one through traffic lights in his Ford Fiesta. Some of these thirty-second classics cemented themselves into our brain cells more effectively than others – scarily, to this day, I still remember the words “Only a fool breaks the two-second rule” for keeping your distance in traffic.

The worst (or would that by default be the best?) was about a young lad in the park, with his cat, Charley. “Charley and I were in the park. Then this man came up and said would I like to see some puppies.” That really is what he said. Then “Charley reminded me my mum says I shouldn’t go off with people I don’t know” when the cat saves the day. Kenny Everett did the voices for that, by the way.

Possibly my favorites featured a couple of animated characters called Joe and Petunia. They appeared in quite a few – there was the country code one where they thought that opening a farm gate was a good idea, so that the cows could “take themselves off for a walk down t’road”. They then notice the irate (unbeknownst to them) farmer with the purple face jumping up and down, and presume he’s “doing one of those country dances”.  

Then there was the coastguard film, all about Joe and Petunia watching a distressed gentleman floundering off the shore in his boat. “He’s having a lot of fun out there in his little dingy [pronounced dinjy]. That’s what they call them, you know – sailin’ dinjies”. It finishes with a plummy voice-over telling us to dial 999 and ask for the coastguard. Cheesy enough to be superb.

I even managed to find these things online – have a look at

Unfortunately, I can never hear the word ‘petunia’ without thinking about Joe and his lovely wife, and his expertise in the area of sailin’ dinjies. Petunias aren’t just a plant for pensioners in the UK – they’re actually rather common here, too. Thais know them, not surprisingly, as puh-toon-yur.

Do you remember that rather naff TV show where contestants had to predict answers to surveys? If they had to name a flower, I’d be willing to bet that the petunia would be in the top five. Predictable is its middle name. Having said that, even cynics would have to admit that the petunia integrifolia is stunning. It would take a hard man to deny that the colors of this drably-named plant are among the most vivid in the floral world.

This is one of the founding fathers of modern hybrids. Originally from Mexico, the flowers are about five centimeters across, with an intense magenta color, coupled with an almost black throat. The Gazette picture editor is going to hate this photo – he’ll be desperate to turn down the purple. Good luck.

It almost bursts with color and class, blooming profusely and consistently. Best of all, you can just hack it right back to the base, and with a bit of added composty stuff, it will return for a repeat performance. It does its job in pots, and it’s spot-on at the edge of borders.

Apart from in pots, left to their own devices at ground level, petunias can spread out like a ground cover. A single plant can ramble over a meter.  Even hummingbirds love a petunia. This plant is like the unlikely bloke that always ends up with the stunner.

As solid as these plants are, they do make a few un-negotiable demands. Give them full sun with good air circulation, and provide fertile, loose, well-drained soil. That basically means avoiding soggy soil. That’s it, really.

One bit of treatment they especially appreciate is deadheading. Every time a bloom dies, they go to seed and rob the nutrients from more blossoms to develop and open. Just pull a dead flower off and have a look at what’s growing. You’ll probably find a cone shaped pod which will eventually open and drop little black seeds all over the leaves around them. Pinch these pods off, just below the five leaves it’s growing in every day and the petunia will bounce back, with even more blooms than before.

Whether or not to bother collecting the seeds is debatable. There are those that will tell you not to bother, due to the fact that petunias as we know them are hybrids. The natural offspring of these things produce small flowers (if they bloom at all) and will probably not even bloom the same color as the mother plant. Piffle. Who cares. Try growing them anyway.

One thing to watch for is hanging baskets from garden centers. They’ll look incredible when you first bring them home, but you may well find that they’ll quickly lose interest and start to die off. The problem is that many flowers you buy pre-potted are often fairly root bound.

The answer is fairly simple: Just buy another hanging pot and some potting soil, and separate the plant in half, one in each pot. This gardening lark is hardly rocket science – they’ll be as good as new, and you now you have two for the price of one.

Joe and Petunia would have loved this. “It’s raht nahce in’t it, Petunia”. Who knows, they may well have even made a public information film about it. ‘Safe gardening’, perhaps, explaining the perils of a misplaced trowel. After all, they did the Country Code, even though Bloomin’ Bert is a country member. 



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