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November 2012

Book Bullet: Snowdrops by Gunter Waldorf

41uUUM2laKL._SS500_For a long time we’ve needed a book on snowdrops that most people can actually afford. The classic reference - a fine work though it is - is priced at £60/$103 so this little book, at a quarter of the price, is appealing for that reason alone.

The heart of this small format title is the series photographs of 300 different snowdrops. They are mostly in close up, mostly excellent though small, and the overall effect is very attractive. Some fail to show the feature that distinguishes the variety, but I’m looking forward to testing it against a couple of unknowns in the garden.

Each picture is accompanied by a few lines of text which varies from very useful to adequate to downright bizarre: “A snowdrop photographed in England, for which there is as yet no description available.” Errr… You took the picture, can’t you describe the plant?

The issues addressed in the text accompanying the images vary from plant to plant and while the layout of the book allows four short lines of text to each plant, many have only three, or even two, lines of text. Strange, when there’s so more to say about all of them.

In places the translation from the German is clunky, and not all the botanical oddities are attributable to the translation. To illustrate a plant, give it a name, then say that the name is going to be changed is not helpful.

However, having said all that, it will certainly appeal to many gardeners as their first book on snowdrops.

Snowdrops by Gunter Waldorf is published by Frances Lincoln
  • Attractive presentation, with many appealing photographs
  • A useful start at an affordable price
  • Needed editing by a literate, botanically minded editor
  • American snowdrop enthusiasts not considered – but they will still find it useful.

Our birds are a bargain

Evening Grosbeaks waiting their tun on the feeder. Image ©
In recent weeks, the birds seem to have been getting through a lot of seed. I know on one day they went through 2lb 6oz of black oil sunflower seed – not to mention the nijer seed and the suet – because they emptied both full feeders between dawn and dusk so it was easy to check. So when I got home with a 50lb bag not so long ago, I made a note of when we started using it. And it’s just run out.

These lovely finches - Evening Grosbeaks (above, click to enlarge), closely related to the British Hawfinch – were just two of the birds getting stuck in along with as many as twenty six pins siskins on view together. Anyway, that 50lb/22.7kg bag of seed lasted 25 days – that’s an average of exactly 2lb/0.9kg per day.

The bag cost $59.28/£37.76 from our local pet and feed store – that’s $2.37/£1.49 a day. I think that’s a bargain. There are virtually no flowers here in winter, but there are birds.

By the way, I posted more about bird seed last year, and about our wonderful guaranteed squirrel-proof bird feeders as well.

Book Bullet: Wedding Roses by David Austin Roses

Wedding Roses from David-AustinGuest review by Tracey Mathieson of the Foxtail Lilly, florist and vintage store

When brides - and their mothers - come to talk to me about wedding flowers they usually have their own ideas but are also looking for help. This book, a stunning showcase for the beautiful cut flower roses from David Austin, will help me help them. The images are a real inspiration for the bride-to-be, with dreamy displays in churches, on cakes and on dresses to name just a few (below).

There isn't a lot of writing in this slim volume, it’s more like a luxurious magazine. The photographs convey the sheer beauty of each cut flower variety, from pastel hues to rich raspberry shades. I’ve had the pleasure of working with these flowers on lots of weddings and they’re real beauties,

The text details the style, shape and scent of individual David Austin cut flower rose varieties. I found it very interesting to hear how the blooms were named, for instance 'Miranda' was inspired by Prospero's beautiful daughter in Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' and ‘Juliet’ is named after the romantic heroine in Romeo and Juliet. Their latest, ‘Kate’, was named in honour of the Duchess of Cambridge, in celebration of the Royal Wedding.

The hand tied bouquets that are shown contain herbs and foliage to compliment the delicate beauty of the roses. Plenty of ideas there. The material chosen to go with the roses is good: Clematis, Veronica, wax flower (Chamaelucium) and Eucalyptus parviflora on the front cover - lovely. Other bouquets use stocks, Anemone and Astrantia as mixers, good choices. But not asparagus fern – so old fashioned!

The back of the book has a themes A-Z page as well a checklist and Ask The Experts feature to help the bride with her floral designs.

Wedding Roses is published by David Austin Roses.

•    Gorgeous pictures of lovely roses in bridal settings
•    Text is short but useful and to the point
•    Will help any bride ensure that her wedding flowers are universally admired
•    Features only David Austin’s cut flower varieties

Order Wedding Roses direct from David Austin Roses In Britain, or direct from David Austin Roses in North America.

Tracey Mathieson will be running a series of seasonal floral workshops at Foxtail-Lilly in Northamptonshire in the run up to the holiday season.

A very unpredictable phlox

Assessing the trial of Phlox at the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden at Wisley, just south of London, back in the summer I was struck by a few things: the colour, the fragrance, how gorgeous some are (‘Blue Paradise’), how ugly a few are (‘Sherbet Cocktail’) – and the wild unpredictability of ‘Peppermint Twist’.

The trial is confined to varieties of Phlox maculata, P. paniculata and P. x arendsii, one hundred and thirty five of them, from a wide variety of sources but ‘Peppermint Twist’ stood out - for the right and the wrong reasons. The problem is that you get three plants in one.

The true ‘Peppermint Twist’ is a dramatic plant, each petal is pink in the centre and white at the edges creating the impression of pink flower with a white star. It’s colorful, it’s dramatic – but who knows how long your plant will stay that way?

‘Peppermint Twist’ is a sport of the pink-flowered ‘Candy Cane’ found on Jan Verschoor’s Dutch nursery back in 2001 (by Marc Laviana, President of Sunny Border Nurseries). The problem is that most plants revert to that pink ‘Candy Cane’ original after a year or two so you end up with both colors on one plant. Then, less often, it also reverts to the other colour in its flower – pure white. So you get three different flower colors on one plant!

Now, first thing: The true ‘Peppermint Twist’ is an amazing colour combination, a lovely plant. Secondly: If I want a bicolored phlox then I’m not happy about getting a plain pink one mixed in. And how did it get a plant patent if it’s so unstable? Thirdly: Why not grow the very similar Phlox maculata ‘Natascha’ instead? I’ve never seen it revert, and it never gets mildew either.

Finally, this is exactly what plant trials are for – whether at the RHS at the Chicago Botanic Garden or anywhere else; not only to reveal the best varieties, but also to reveal which varieties have problems.

Book Bullet: Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs by Michael A. Dirr

DirrTreesShrubs9780881929010lI mentioned a couple of weeks ago how I’d been reading this book, by flashlight and candlelight, when the power was out during the storm. But I’d also been using it as regular reference for some time before that. And a big fat reference book needs time to prove its value.

This is a huge, large format book, generally with three or more pictures on each page – often with more pictures than text. Set out as an A-Z by genus, the entries are written in accessible language with the minimum of botanical terminology with thoughts on culture and use integrated with the descriptions.

As ever with Mr Dirr, the text is very readable partly because through his decades of research he has never taken anything for granted, but always looked and thought and then decided - and all that is in evidence here. There is also a welcome emphasis on newer introductions. Thank goodness for his prodigious note-taking and/or his prodigious memory.

But the problem with covering trees and shrubs for all climates in one book is that, well, it’s impossible to do so comprehensively. For example, choosing two genera which are very important to British gardeners – the book is of course published in Britain as well as the North America - Erica gets just two pictures and one column of text, while Hebe gets two pictures and half a column of text. American readers will appreciate twenty pages of hollies (but only a page and a half is devoted to those mainly grown in Britain) and Lagerstroemia, important in the US, gets seven pages (they're hardly grown in Britain at all). Strangely, Salvia is excluded altogether.

It’s a bold enterprise, publishing a 950 page full colour book on trees and shrubs. But it makes up for its gaps with its intelligent opinions, excellent illustrations and Michael Dirr’s breadth of experience and insight.

Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs by Michael A. Dirr is published by Timber Press at $79.95/£50.00
  • An easy read, pleasingly opinionated and packed with information
  • Very well illustrated
  • Welcome focus on recent varieties
  • Plants for American gardeners are dominant

Fat discount on award-winning plants magazine

You could save more than 35% on a subscription to Britain’s award-winning magazine for people who love plants.

You’ll have noticed that I mention The Plantsman here every now and again. This is the Royal Horticultural Society’s magazine that takes a deeper look at ornamental plants and how to grow them. Published four times a year, it features plant profiles, discusses developments in horticultural techniques and botanical research, brings news of plant name changes (and the reason why), profiles eminent horticulturalists... and more. Not long ago it won the British award for the best gardening magazine.

In just the last couple of years the plant profiles have featured: Acer, Actinidia, Amorphophallus, Arum, Blechnum, Bletilla, Calanthe, Canna, Clerodendron, Corylopsis, Crocus, Disporum, Enkianthus, Eucryphia, Gladiolus, Helleborus, Hoya, Lonicera, Magnolia, Mahonia, Ornithogalum, Rafflesia and Roscoea – and many more. Take a look at The Plantsman’s webpage for more details.

The Plantsman is not available on the news stands, it’s subscription only, and the reason I’m mentioning all this now is that the RHS is offering an attractive discount on new subscriptions. Something it doesn’t do very often, in fact I can’t remember them ever offering a discount like this. You can save from 17% to over 35%!

To subscribe at these discount rates call the RHS on 020 7821 3000 (44 20 7821 3000 from outside the UK) and quote the reference: PLSO. Or download the application form. Don't you just love a bargain?

Superstorm Sandy here in Pennsylvania

Hurricane Sandy pictures, from The Guardian
First it was Hurricane Sandy, then it was the Frankenstorm and now it’s Superstorm Sandy. For many people in New York, New Jersey and in particular it was - and indeed still is - unimaginably horrific.

Here in north east Pennsylvania we got off lightly; we were without electricity, heat, water and internet for almost exactly four days until yesterday afternoon and with highly unpredictable phone service for most of that time. A 50ft maple fell across our driveway, taller hemlocks fell nearby on one side, even taller oaks and maples on the other. One went right through our neighbor’s shed; but our houses were spared. Strangely, in spite of those ferocious winds, there are still golden leaves on our Asian witch hazel and bright yellow leaves on our Hydrangea arborescens ‘White Dome’.

I’m not going to show you pictures of our fallen trees – it’s nothing compared to what some people have suffered. On The Guardian’s website you can see pictures of the storm damage and pictures of the aftermath.

Local radio service was knocked out by the storm, so we only had radio service from New York 80 miles away, which was the opposite of what Brits would expect: public radio news was embarrassingly bad, commercial radio was good. But all was New York news. For four days there was no way to get any local information at all. So… We piled logs on the open fire, cooked food from our steadily thawing freezer on the grill, fried eggs out there too – and read by daylight, flashlight and candlelight.

DirrTreesShrubs9780881929010lSo I was able to actually read Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees & Shrubs by Michael Dirr, all 950 pages of it, rather than look things up in it. OK, I didn’t read every single page but I read quite a lot of it. A proper review will come in a week or two but being an easy read, and opinionated and packed with information and very well illustrated is a winning combination for American gardeners. I wonder how it compares with the new Timber Press Encyclopedia of Flowering Shrubs by Jim Gardiner, a British expert. When Jim Gardiner’s book arrives, I’ll be able to tell you. I’ll try to sit down and read that too – without the need for another storm.