Transatlantic views on garden plants, native plants, invasive plants, books about plants… Plus comment on wildlife, catalog(ue)s, the smartness and the absurdity of plant names, the transatlantic life, fishing, music and more... From Northamptonshire (zone 8) in England and the much icier Pennsylvania (zone 5) in the USA.
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My latest book reveals the best plants for this worst of all garden situations. Click below to find out more.
Well, it’s been a tough season so far and that’s why posts here have been rather infrequent. First a heart attack, then acute lyme disease and then complications related to the lyme – I’m sure I’ll be fine in the end but in the meantime, well, not so much. Especially as one of the symptoms of lyme is “brain fog” which seems to permit no higher intellectual activity than watching re-runs of Star Trek: Voyager.
But I’ve now started looking at my not-so-little pile of books waiting for review so starting tomorrow I’ll be posting here about Coffee For Roses by C. L. Fornari followed later by Tweet Of The Day by Brett Westwood and Stephen Moss, The Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs from the RHS, Where Do Camels Belong? - The Story and Science of Invasive Species by Ken Thompson as well as four new Plant Lovers' Guides from Timber Press. These are all very tempting books so please so stay tuned, although I have to say posts may still be a little sporadic for a while.
There are plenty of trade shows around the world where awards are given for new plants. But the Chelsea Plant Of The Year is one of the few awards made to new plants as they’re launched to gardeners. The 2014 award, the fifth, was made last week at London’s prestigious Chelsea Flower Show and the winner was a double flowered, bicolored variety of mophead/Hortensia hydrangea - Hydrangea macrophylla called Miss Saori (‘H20-2’) - which is not only an eye-catchingly attractive hardy garden shrub but which has already had success as a cut flower.
This year’s runner up was the unique black and white tall bearded iris ‘Domino Noir’, raised in France, and in third place was the Dutch, long flowering, hardiest yet Gerbera 'Garvinia Sweet Glow' with vibrant orange flowers.
Highlights amongst the rather long shortlist of twenty plants were the first double-flowered black petunia, ‘Black Knight’, the antioxidant-rich purple tomato ‘Indigo Rose’, the largest flowered Alstroemeria yet seen Inca Smile (‘Koncasmile’) and the lovely golden leaved Eryngium ‘Neptune’s Gold. All are illustrated above (click to enlarge) and should become available to gardeners soon.
As for previous winners, so far the track record and the international availability have been mixed. Previous winners were (left, click to enlarge): Streptocarpus ‘Harlequin Blue’ (2010): Beautiful, compact and with a long season but as a house plant it has limited appeal. Not yet available in North America. Anemone ‘Wild Swan’ (2011): A lovely white flowered variety with blue backs to the petals but, as the plant buyer for a major UK mail order nursery told me: “We had huge problems with it – we received poor quality plants and there were long delays. My understanding is that there are still problems, so we won't be listing it in the near future”. Available on both sides of the Atlantic. Digitalis Illumination Pink (‘Tmdgfp001’) (2102): A spectacular breeding breakthrough with dramatic, colourful, bee-friendly flower spikes and now widely available on both sides of the Atlantic but less hardy than first claimed. Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’: The first winner to be developed in the US, and an excellent evergreen shrub without the spines that so many mahonias have and which many people find annoying. Available on both sides of the Atlantic.
Well, that was a surprise. Last Sunday morning, March 30th… Sitting at my desk… Chest pain… Heart attack! Off to the hospital in the ambulance… Sirens... Catheterization… Clear the blockage, put in a stent, off to bed for recovery. First twinge to resting in bed: five hours. Prognosis is excellent.
Thank you to the great team at Morristown Medical Center in New Jersey. And thanks, too, to Patrick in the ambulance who distracted me from the grim possibilities with a great story about a bald eagle swooping down, while he and his father-in-law were ice fishing, and stealing their catch which was laid on the ice!
I’ve been back home for a few days now and have just returned from a follow-up visit to the cardiologist who was very positive about my recovery – I just have to follow the rules.
UPDATE (24 April): Starting today I'm allowed a 25 minute walk every day, I've been increasing it by five minutes a week but still find it (and just about everything else) very tiring. But I'm doing well and slowly getting back to what will be a new normal. Thank you so much for all the good wishes.
Last time I took a look at new foliage begonias from the US, that I expect British gardeners will be seeing soon. This time – it’s the other way round… new British begonias that North American gardeners should have on their watch list. And while so many of the new US begonias come from one creator, the same is true in Britain.
In recent years Britain’s Fred Yates, from Cheshire in the northwest of England, has introduced more fine new flowering begonias than anyone else - starting with his exceptional Million Kisses Series (left, click to enlarge). These hybrids derived from Begonia boliviensis feature single flowers, in seven colours – and in vast quantities. The blooms come all summer long and into the autumn. Amour (‘Yamour’) is red, with dark leaves; the latest, Blissful (known as Cute Kiss Pink in North America), is a blush and pink bicolour; Devotion (‘Yafev’) is red; Elegance (‘Yagance’) is a white and pink bicolor; Honeymoon (‘Yamoon’) is yellow; Passion (‘Yabos’) is orange-scarlet; Romance (‘Yamance’) is salmon pink. You’ll be amazed at how prolific and colourful they are.
Three more from Fred Yates which I especially like are ‘Glowing Embers’, Sherbet Bob Bon (‘Yabon’) and Cherry Bon Bon (‘Yachbon’). All have a neat, semi-trailing habit and never become straggly and thin.
‘Glowing Embers’ is simply gorgeous, its combination of rich dark foliage backing a long long season of vivid, fiery orange single flowers. In America it's known as ‘Sparks Will Fly’. Sherbet Bon Bon has two tone yellow flowers with pink tints and a neat double centre while Cherry Bon Bon has cherry pink flowers with a golden tint to its double centre.
Two British-bred seed-raised begonias that seem to be doing well not only in Britain but in parts of the US with hot summers are the Ikon Series. These vigorous and robust hybrids make substantial plants which take heat and drought once established, There are only two so far, both with pink-and-white flowers: ‘Ikon Blush White’ has red-backed green leaves while ‘Ikon Bronze’ has bronze foliage.
Finally, Thompson & Morgan have launched a British campaign entitled The Big Begonia Revival. Frankly, I thought the revival was well under way but T&M are making the most of it. They’ve been breeding fragrant begonias since 2006 and now have their Fragrant Falls Improved Series, in three colours: ‘Apricot Delight’, ‘Lemon Fizz’ and ‘Rose Syllabub’ (below, click to enlarge). All are double, all are fragrant and all have compact, semi-trailing growth and are ideal in baskets and trailing over the edge of large pots. You can read T&M’s fascinating account of the development of scented begonias, from 1886 right up to their latest own introductions.
All these begonias are available in Britain this year though some may take a little hunting out. Almost all be available in North America too, so get Googling. North American gardeners will have to wait till 2015 for the three colours in the Fragrant Falls Improved Series.
Guest post from my wife, judywhite - though I think it's great too.
Just a quick note to say I love the new One Touch™ Rain Wand from Dramm, which they sent us to trial this year (above, click to enlarge).
By ‘One Touch’ they mean that the on/off switch can be controlled with your thumb, and slides easily through a range of water flow in a gentle steady shower pattern. It’s incredibly simple to slide it on and off as you move around the garden, so you don’t end up watering the steps and pathways, a great water saver. Ours is the long version, 30in/76cm) but it also comes in a shorter 16in/40cm version.
The Rain Wand is made of sturdy aluminum but is still lightweight and of high quality. It’s designed expressly for watering, not for power washing or other options, and it does its job extremely well. We received the beautiful red colored one – you can choose from six colors from purple to orange. (I am a bit hard on it, so the color has been dinged a bit.) Make sure to look for “One Touch”, because there are other kinds of Dramm Rain Wands.
Which? Gardening is a prestigious British gardening magazine. American readers could think of it as a sort of horticultural version of Consumer Reports. In this month’s issue there’s an article by one of Britain’s top plantspeople and nursery growers, Bob Brown of Cotswold Garden Flowers, about growing perennials from seed.
In it he says: "My experience is that seed of perennials will only reliably germinate if it's sown immediately, certainly within the month. If it gets as far as a packet or a seed catalogue it's already too old." And also... "My advice generally would be not to buy seed of perennials.". Yes, he recommends home gardeners not buy seed of perennial plants. The only exceptions he mentions are "lupins, delphiniums, cactus and other succulents".
Now I have a huge respect for Bob: he’s a fine plantsman, a fine grower and as a judge of the Royal Horticultural Society’s plant trials his insight and unvarnished opinions are invaluable. But, in this case, I’m afraid he’s just plain wrong. The only perennial seeds to buy from catalogues are delphiniums and lupins? I don’t think so. Over the years I’ve raised thousands of perennials from bought seed, fresh seed and seed found in brown paper bags in the back of the shed. Most of it comes up.
It’s a shame that Bob’s recommendation could prevent gardeners from growing a vast range of fine garden plants.
Richard Oliver, the UK manager of Jelitto Perennial Seeds, whose catalogue lists seed of over 3700 perennials and who’ve been in business for over fifty years, disagrees with Bob: “His comment is frankly wrong. Some of the seed packet stuff may be too old, or more likely, have been stored in really unsuitable conditions, but his comments are otherwise nonsense. For example: Dianthus, Achillea (above, click to enlarge) and Telekia, among others, can germinate over 90% within one week even if stored longer than 10 years. Most of our perennial seed has been tested and has a germination rate of about 70% or more. All the world’s seed banks would be useless if he was right.”
And Derry Watkins agrees. For twenty years she’s run Special Plants in Wiltshire where she not only raises a huge range of perennials from seed but teaches seed-raising techniques to gardeners. Derry told me: “I think he’s mad. Most perennial seed will germinate after 5-10 years if kept cold and dry. It may not be quite so quick or prolific, but you get the plants you want. Fresh is best, but with good storage conditions, old is fine. I sow 2-3 year old seed all the time without a problem.”
I also asked top American grower and plantsman Tony Avent of Plant Delights for his view. “There are certainly some seeds that will not store well, and others that loose viability when they are not stored properly. But most plants in the Asteraceae (daisy) family, for example, won’t even germinate fresh since they require a long after-ripening period.”
So… Sorry Bob, but we don’t agree. In your article you emphasize raising plants from seed collected from our own, and our neighbors’ gardens. Fine. But most commercial seed suppliers know how to store seed correctly, and test it regularly, so that when it’s delivered it’s ready to sow, and ready to grow. OK, some needs special treatment. But advising gardeners not to buy seed of perennials at all cuts them off from an economical way to raise thousands of fine garden plants.
The pictures (click each to enlarge): Achillea 'Summer Berries' - Mix of fruity colors, easy to raise from seed, germinates quickly. Delphinium 'Guardian Blue' - One of the best blue delphiniums to raise from seed. Bob excludes delphiniums from his "don't buy seed of perennials" advice. Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii 'Goldsturm' - 99.9% true to type, easy to raise from seed, germinates quickly.
We’re in the middle of the Great Backyard Bird Count here in the US (last day tomorrow) and here in north east Pennsylvania we have a bird that’s not supposed to be around at this time of year. In fact it rarely shows up in this part of the country at all – the Northern Bobwhite. It's a kind of quail, a small, chicken-like, ground feeding bird...
In the last ten years it’s been recorded at just four places in the whole of Pennsylvania (for Brits - Pennsylvania is the size of England); so the fact that we have one here is a bit special. It’s more common farther south but this female has been here, on and off, for quite a few weeks. judy spotted her again yesterday (and took the picture), as she (the bobwhite, that is!) pottered about under the feeders hung from the raised deck.
She’s unexpectedly tame, she approached within just a few yards of me not long ago, and seems to appreciate the extra seeds thrown down for her although there’s competition from the squirrels.
As it happens, over in Britain, a friend who runs DT Brown, one of the UK's biggest seed companies, has also been spotting some interesting birds. In his village near Newmarket in eastern England, for the second year running, he’s noticed a rare Great Grey Shrike spending the winter and in a nearby village he spotted sixteen Red Kites roosting in one tree! And they’re big… With their wingspan of 5-6ft/1.5-1.8m that must have been quite a sight.
UPDATE (6 April) Mrs Bob White is still with us and is still very tame. Most mornings, she's waiting for her daily appetizer of cracked corn. She clucks, quietly, when approached and seems very content - although no sign of a Mr Bob White.
A message by email suggested she might have been intentionally released but we know of nowhere anywhere near here that raises and releases quail or any other birds.
“Growing giant pumpkins is no longer a hobby - to many it has become a competitive sport! So if you want to grow the biggest and the best, you need to start off with the very best genetics.
“At 9pm on Saturday 19th January, the European Giant Vegetable Growers Association held a live auction of pumpkin seed varieties as part of www.bigpumpkins.com chat room. A total of 23 lots were included in the sale.
“Poised by their computers, 67 enthusiasts logged on to take part in the bidding which went on for almost 4 hours. However, lot 23 was the one everyone was waiting for; it was seed from last year’s world record-breaking pumpkin - a hybrid raised by Ron Wallace of Greene, Rhode Island, which weighed in at 2009lbs (911Kg) at Topsfield Fair in the USA. Ron’s was the first ever pumpkin to weigh more than 2000lbs. After a frenzied bidding war, a single seed from Ron Wallace’s prize-winner was sold to Thompson & Morgan for €200.00.
[You can see how big it is compared to a normal pumpkin seed (right, click to enlarge).]
“Managing director, Paul Hansord said, “When compared to the usual giant pumpkin seed price of around 46p ($0.73), this seems extortionate. But we’re paying for the pedigree. If you want to grow a really huge pumpkin, you need to start with record-breaking, genetically proven, premium seed.”
“Auctions of pumpkin seed have been running since 1997. Trading encourages growers and enthusiasts to raise stronger and more competitive hybrids. The highest price paid for a single pumpkin seed was in 2011 from a previous record-breaker which weighed 1810lbs (821Kg). The price was £1009 ($1600); an exceptionally high price due to the fact that the fruit had only produced 5 seeds.
“Thompson & Morgan is now searching for a ‘growing partner’ with specialist knowledge of growing giant vegetables to help raise this precious seed in an attempt to break the record for the world’s heaviest pumpkin.”
T&M’s propagator must be mightily relieved they’re looking for someone else to grow the seed for them. Can you imagine the phone call? “Hello Paul. You remember that pumpkin seed you paid a fortune for? Well, down here at the nursery it’s been a very bad year for slugs…”
In Britain, there’s a huge pressure on gardeners to give up seed and potting composts (potting soil in the US) based on peat (peat moss). Digging peat for use in the garden is bad from the environment, it destroys valuable habitats. Here’s what the Royal Horticultural Society, which has reduced its peat consumption to 0.7% of all their growing media and soil conditioner, has to say on the issue:
“The RHS believes that the commercial extraction of peat at current rates is environmentally unsustainable as it removes peat at a much faster rate than it accumulates leading to the irreversible destruction of peatlands.
“Many viable peat alternatives exist which are either completely peat-free or of reduced peat content. With improved labelling and information on packaging, gardeners will be able to make more informed decisions about peat alternatives.”
The trouble is, peat makes the best medium for starting seeds (above, cick to enlarge - though we certainly don't need peat pots) and for growing on young plants. Which is why everyone uses it. And now it’s proven that most peat-free composts for starting seeds are a complete waste of money.
Which? Gardening - the highly respected, genuinely impartial magazine produced by the Consumers Association in Britain (similar to Consumer Reports in the US) - recently reported on their tests of seed composts. They tested ten composts intended for raising seeds, six based on peat and four without peat. Not only did the six peat-based composts fill the first six places, but two of the peat-free composts were so bad they were rated “Don’t Buy”.
Of one, Which? Gardening said: “The quality of our plants varied from reasonable to dreadful depending on the bag of compost we’d used. The worst seedlings barely grew at all…”
Of course at the RHS they have some of the finest horticulturalists in the world, they have the expertise, so can grow plants in almost anything! But it’s tougher for the rest of us especially when, as Which? Gardening found, even different bags of the same brand of compost can vary enormously. However, it’s also worth pointing out that when Which? Gardening tested composts for containers, two out of three of their Best Buy composts were peat-free. That’s great news - but not much help if your seedlings never get to planting size.
In the end, I expect some excellent products to be developed. But this is surely a case where government sponsored research could help gardeners and compost producers alike, for the greater good – the environment in general. The producers themselves have clearly not done much of a job so far - for seed composts anyway.
Oh, and by the way. Fresh sphagnum moss (above right, click to enlarge), the progenitor of peat, collected from the wild for orchids and to line hanging baskets? No. There are plenty of good alternatives that really do work.