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February 2007
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April 2007

March 2007

Heucheras after the winter snow

The many heucheras which have appeared in recent years are considered mainly for the quality of their foliage but also for their flowers. But while tidying up outside this afternoon, now that the snow is mostly gone, another quality was brought to mind : how do they look immediately after the winter?

In this part of the world in particular, plants which emerge from weeks or months of snow cover looking good provide immediate value in the garden. So how did the heucheras fare?

I grow a mixture of very new and less recent introductions, almost all planted or moved last year. The only one that actually died was ‘Marmalade’, with almost orange leaves, which looked great last summer – but no longer.

Most of the others are still alive though many look pretty rough; it remains to be seen how they recover for the new season. ‘Regina’ and ‘Cinnabar Silver’ both look better than most but three stand out, having emerged from snow cover looking really good.

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Spring at last

Back in Pennsylvania now and in the last couple of days winter has been transformed into spring. As in the wild, the snow recedes and the crocuses pop up and open. The ice on the lake is still 6in thick (so I won't be needing my new season’s fishing license quite yet), but the snowdrops are out at last, buzzing with honey bees but impossible to photograph in the wind. Crocus tommasinianus flares its petals and the witch hazel is out.

Hamamelispallida500 Bought last summer, the buds of Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida’ started to open in December and then simply stopped, the spidery petals half unfurled. Now in nearly 60F they open but, as the picture reveals, the tips are burnt and they seem a little wan. That lovely sweet scent is there, but not as powerful as I expected.

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Celery really is offensive

Celeryvictoria Three English soccer have been banned from Stamford Bridge, the home of high flying Chelsea, and face criminal charges – for throwing celery on to the pitch, according to a report from Reuters today.

Celery, an offensive weapon? A tomato, yes, even a turnip, a squash or a potato – but a stick of celery? Just shows how tough those millionaire soccer players are. “Hey ref, stop the game, I got hit by a stick of celery.”

And there’s a twist. Reuters reports: “Chelsea fans have been throwing it among themselves, and singing an unprintable song about the vegetable, for more than two decades.”

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Beautiful blackthorn and sloe gin

Prunusspinosa500 One of the most dramatic plants I’ve seen in England on this trip has not been a garden plant – it’s the blackthorn, Prunus spinosa, with great clouds of white flowers billowing out of the hedgerows. It’s the classic spring shrub of roadsides and hedges and like so many natives the plants vary: so today some are well past their best, some are just about to open while many are in full flower. Some are also a clean pure white, others are a dirtier shade.

This relative of the plum and cherry is a traditional, and vital, component of farm hedges – its sharp spines and branching habit help make the hedge a good barrier and it also has other uses.

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Alpines on display

Wisleyalpinehouse500 One of the great treats of a spring visit to the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden at Wisley in Surrey, where I’ve just been, is a look at the Alpine House. In fact there are two glasshouse displays of rock plants and alpines: one in which plants are grown in a rocky landscape and a more traditional display of alpines and dwarf bulbs in pots plunged in sand. Having worked for some years in the equivalent department at Kew, I especially enjoy the traditional display.

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Hideous daffodils

Narcissuspseudonarcissus500 Driving around England this last week, I’ve found the daffodils especially infuriating. Everywhere, even in relatively remote areas far from towns and villages, the roadsides are planted with daffodils. The trouble is that these daffodils, planted I’m sure by well-meaning local people, are so often large-flowered hybrids like ‘Dutch Master’. They just look so gross and out of place in these more or less natural situations.

If they’re going to plant daffodils, why not plant something less garish, something - dare I say it – like Britain’s native daffodils species, Narcissus pseudonarcissus? Seeing them in the grass at the Harcourt Arboretum a few miles outside Oxford, in the picture,reminds me how appropriate they look.

Pam Schwerdt and Sybil Kreutzberger, formerly Head Gardeners at the spectacular garden at Sissinghurst and my colleagues on the Royal Horticultural Society’s Herbaceous Plant Committee, have long complained about this habit of planting large flowered hybrid daffodils in more or less wild situations – they just look so unnatural! But their protests seem not to have yet sunk in.

So let me add my own encouragement: Please don’t plant large-flowered hybrid daffodils on roadsides, by farm gates, along hedgerows, and in other places populated by genuine wild flowers. If you want to plant daffodils, plant our own native wild species.

Looking for Dahlia ‘Ragged Robin’

Dahliaraggedrobin500 At the recent RHS flower show Alan Street of Avon Bulbs explained to me a problem they have with their wonderful Dahlia ‘Ragged Robin’.

Spotted as a seedling on the Somerset nursery in the early 1990s, 'Ragged Robin' is a prolific dahlia with bright red single flowers and slender wavy petals. There’s nothing quite like it, and it rapidly became popular in Britain; I was also very impressed when I saw it inthe USA, at Heronswood, the wonderful garden of Dan Hinkley in Washington State.

The problem that Avon Bulbs have is that their stock of this lovely plant has been infected with virus disease. The result is that it flowers far less generously than it should and rooted cuttings often fail to make tubers so it’s become impossible to carry plants over from one season from the next.

So they’d like to know if anyone out there is still growing healthy and prolific stock of ‘Ragged Robin’ – and if so, could they please let Avon Bulbs have some! They can propagate it again and make it available. The alternative is to try to create it again. Avon Bulbs only grew three dahlias at the time the self sown seedling was spotted: ‘Bishop of Llandaff’, D. coccinea and D. sherffii – so the parentage can be guessed at. But if someone still has healthy stock it would be so much simpler.

This is a wonderful nursery and Alan, and his colleague Chris Ireland-Jones, would greatly appreciate your help. Leave a comment here, or email the nursery, if you have any healthy plants or useful information on Dahlia ‘Ragged Robin’.

Begonias on trial – the report’s out

Begoniafireworks Over the  next couple of weeks, I’ll be posting news of the results of four trials held at the Royal Horticultural Society’s gardens at Wisley in Surrey. I was involved in judging them all.

These trials have universal value, they’re not just useful in Britain. For as well as assessing the very best varieties, which are awarded the prestigious Award of Garden Merit (AGM), problems of identification are resolved, pest and disease problems analyzed, cultural techniques investigated, and accurate and detailed descriptions published of all the award winners. All this is of value all over the world.

There are over 500 different varieties of Begonia rex grown. [The correct name is actually Begonia Rex Cultorum Group – all are hybrids between Begonia rex and other species.] These would have filled far too much greenhouse space so the Society’s experts selected what they considered the best 87 and these were assessed as foliage pot plants for the home, greenhouse and conservatory. Twenty five achieved award standard. The qualities we assessed most closely were: habit; leaf shape, color, markings and arrangement; length of good display; health; tolerance of a dry atmosphere. For an illustrated list of winners click here.

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Back in England and Monksilver Nursery

Fritillariaraddeana500 Back in England for a couple of weeks, and first stop (after stopping off at the RHS bookshop at Wisley to sign copies of the Encyclopedia of Perennials) is Monksilver Nursery near Cambridge.

This nursery boasts an outstanding range of unusual plants, mainly perennials, with many new introductions discovered by owners Joe Sharman and Alan Leslie and an very wide range of variegated plants.

The vincas roaming through the borders round the car park were wonderfully colourful and at this early stage of the season the many selections of the lesser celandine, Ranunculus ficaria, were flowering cheerfully. Although invasive in some areas in the North America, these superb early plants are valued for their early single and double flowers from white, through many yellow shades to copper and orange. Their foliage is also outstanding, and can be green or bronze with a myriad of pretty patterns enhanced with silver mottling.Ranunculusdoublebronze500

Pulmonarias, arums, vincas and a few unusual bulbs are other spring stars with asters, sedums and old fashioned chrysanthemums for later in the season. You can find a full list here, but there are often a few plants of rarities to be had.

However, it’s only fair to say that this is not the tidiest nursery in the country and that their website is rudimentary. But the range of unusual plants they have available is very impressive.

On Saturday, 17 March, the nursery hosts their Spring Thing, where their plants will be available and there will also be four visiting nurseries: Graham Birkin’s 39 Steps, specialising in American woodland plants including Trillium, Arisaema and hardy orchids; familiar and rare trees and shrubs from Bluebell Nursery, spring bulbs from Triffids nursery and hellebores and peonies from Will McLewin’s excellent Phedar Nursery. There will also be secondhand books available from Keith Larkin. There’ll be a marquee and hot drinks too. Well worth a visit.

For full nursery details and catalogue costs check here.

A wonderful catalogue from Arrowhead Alpines

Arrowheadcover2007500_2 I’ve never ordered from Michigan’s Arrowhead Alpines, but if their plants are as good as their extraordinary catalog it’s clear that I should.

This is a very – how shall I put it – individualistic catalog. After all, few alpine nurseries would fill their front cover with the huge blue cones of a Korean fir hybrid (Abies koreana x A. lasiocarpa, no less).

Bob Stewart’s introductory essay rattles along on the subjects of why we garden, why Britney Spears wears no panties, the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, North Korean missiles, creating antimatter pairs with lasers, gene splicing, and so on.

There follows a hundred densely printed pages packed to bursting with good plants, many wondrous rarities and many more familiar. There are conifers, shrubs, vines, perennials, wild flowers, bulbs and, of course alpines. You could spend thousands. But it’s not just the extraordinary collection of plants that make this catalog special, there are, I should mention, no pictures except on the cover. It’s the way Bob describes them: On the rarely seen Smilacina bicolor, the quotes the Google translation from the Korean: “The beard root to the genitals is born from the joint”, “both sides flow in lower part and becoming the short leaf sack”, and his favorite: “the flower stalk comes out from the armpit of the gun.” (Fortunately, there’s a picture here for those not sufficiently convinced by this description.)

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