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December 2008

The price of everything, and the value of nothing

RHSNewTechniques Just before the holidays, I was rattling round town looking for bargains in my last minute Christmas shopping – and I found one. But I was far from pleased. In WH Smith – a well known British store selling books, newspaper and magazines, stationery, greetings cards, music, DVDs, games and books – I found copies of a super new book at a great price. And the more I thought about it the more annoyed I became.

The Royal Horticultural Society’s New Encyclopedia of Gardening Techniques is a comprehensive practical encyclopedia written mainly by the staff of the Royal Horticultural Society. It runs to almost 500 pages, in a large hardback format, and it’s packed with hundreds of step-by-step colour sequences revealing how to do almost everything you’ll ever need to do in the garden. It was published in the UK in October. At £30 (c$43.50) its cover price is set fairly for such a big fat colourful book. It was on sale for £6.25 (c$9.10).

This is bad for everyone – including the customer.

The store can’t possibly make enough on selling a £30 book at an 80% discount to pay for the light to choose it by or the paper the receipt in printed on, let alone enough to keep the store thriving. The publisher can’t keep its office running effectively and its staff properly paid on such a meagre sales price. As for the author… Gone are the days when authors received a royalty of 10%, 12.5% or even 15% of the cover price for each copy of their book sold. Now we often get a percentage in the same range of the price the publisher receives for the book from the wholesaler or bookseller – often 40% of the cover price (that’s why amazon can sell at such a discount) or even less. 10% of 40% is very different from 10% of 100%!

The result of all this? Publishers have reduced their staff and those who remain are crazily overworked; fewer books are published and publishers take fewer risks with what they publish; there’s turmoil in the bookstore business with independent booksellers closing everywhere, the much-loved Ottakars chain in Britain disappearing in 2006 and Borders in the US in trouble; and unless you’re a big star the idea of making even a modest living writing gardening books is increasingly implausible.

When, ten years ago, I first spent a lot of time in the US I was very taken with the slogan for the Christmas Tree Shoppes discount chain: “Don’t You Just Love a Bargain?”. A newly published £30 book selling for £6.25 is not a bargain, it's cheap. It’s too cheap.

We’re back to Oscar Wilde remarking that knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing is the definition of a cynic. Makes cynicism the flavour of the age, doesn’t it.

Good wishes for the New Year – to bookstores, to publishers, to gardening authors and, of course, to you.

You can buy the Royal Horticultural Society’s New Encyclopedia of Gardening Techniques from the Royal Horticultural Society’s website at a modest discount (currently it’s priced at £25).

You can buy the Royal Horticultural Society’s New Encyclopedia of Gardening Techniques from at a bigger discount (currently it’s priced at £19.50).

It's expected that a much revised American edition of the book will be published late in 2009.

Please don’t buy it from WH Smith. I’m not going to provide the link.

What is that plant?

SunParasolAd The latest issue of Grower Talks just turned up in my mailbox. This is a trade magazine for the growers who supply retail nurseries. In the last couple of issues it’s the ads, in particular, which have interested me – especially the ads for plants.

For there’s a definite trend towards not telling us what the plants advertised actually are.

In the latest Grower Talks there’s a double page spread advertising Sun Parasol, illustrating all the eight different colors noting that they’re from Suntory, the people who brought us Million Bells (they’re callibrachoas, by the way)… but what are these Sun Parasols? The flowers in the pictures seem to have a tube… and five petals: Thunbergias… Plumbagos perhaps… in new colors? Nowhere, nowhere at all, in the double page ad does the ad actually tell us what these plants are. There’s a picture that illustrates what looks like shrub in a container… Are they container plants? Are they hardy in some areas? What are they, exactly? Why don’t you tell us? Is it because they only thrive in a few parts of the country but you want everyone else to buy them anyway? Surely, we must be told?

Turns out they’re Mandevilla hybrids, and in most of the country you’ll enjoy them for one summer – then wallop, the frost will kill them.… It doesn’t say so in the ad, but if you take the trouble to go to the website you’ll find out. And there you’ll find a slightly blundering attempt to promote their distinctiveness.

Then, later in the same issue of the same magazine there’s an ad entitled: Diamond Frost – The Original. The original what? Doesn’t tell us… Now, I’ve grown it, I know it’s a frost-tender euphorbia – but unless you look closely at the page alongside, which doesn’t look like an ad at all and seems entirely unassociated with the ad for Diamond Frost, you’d never even know it was a euphorbia – especially as it doesn’t look like our preconceived idea of what a euphorbia should look like.

And it’s not just in trade magazines that this happens. So, what are they up to?:
Question: Why are they deliberately, and with deception aforethought, not telling us what these plants actually are?
Answer: 1) Because they just want to sell them. And if it’s obvious that they’re mandevillas everyone will know they will only thrive above 45F and fewer people will buy them.
Answer: 2) Because they want to promote the brand, Sun Parasol, above all else… Which is another way of saying that they just want to sell more plants.

I know... Times are hard… Nurseries and plant breeders want to sell plants… But this is a disservice to both nurseries and home gardeners.

A new name for the Leyland cypress

LeylandcypresskewFC400 If there’s one thing gardeners hate more than anything else, it’s plants changing their names. Of course, it’s not the plants’ fault – in fact, basically, the fault lies with our old friend Carl Linnaeus who invented our system of names for living organisms. The problem is that the names are tied so closely to the classification of plants that when a plant is reclassified for some perfectly good reason its name has to change.

Fortunately, it all happens far less than it used to – but now I have to tell you about a name change that has crept up on us in recent years but is now pretty much universally agreed. The botanical name for Leyland’s cypress has changed. It’s interesting to learn why.

For many years the botanical name of the Leyland cypress has been xCupressocyparis leylandii. It’s a hybrid between the Monterey cypress from southern California (Cupressus macrocarpa) and the Alaska cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis) which grows from northern California to Alaska. The generic name is derived from the names of the two parents’ names with a small x in front to indicate that it’s a hybrid. OK, it’s a cumbersome name, but we’ve got used to it. The leylandii part comes from the Leyland estate in Wales where this hybrid first arose.

Now, what might seem like a diversion. In 1999 a new species of conifer was discovered in Vietnam. It was recognised as sufficiently different from other conifers to be given a its own genus and is known as Xanthocyparis vietnamensis. Now comes trouble…

The conifer expert at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, London, recognised that the Alaska cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkanensis) was actually much more similar to the newly discovered Vietnamese conifer than to the other species with which it has been grouped as a Chamaecyparis. The result is that Chamaecyparis nootkanensis was reclassified, moved into the genus Xanthocyparis, and became Xanthocyparis nootkanensis.

And… because the name of one of the parents has changed, the name of the hybrid has to change as well. So the new botanical name of the Leyland cypress is xCuprocyparis leylandii. It's taken a few years for botanists around the world to accept this change, but there now seems to be universal agreement that it makes sense.

And you still shouldn't plant it as a hedge.

You can find the full story on the Royal Horticultural Society website.

At least the change is not as dramatic as the chopping up of American asters into Eurybia, Symphiotrichum and the rest.

Top advice on macro photography

AlanDetrick500 Everyone has a digital camera these days and, as prices come down, we have cameras far more sophisticated than was possible just a few years ago. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to take close-ups pictures of plants. Fortunately, help is at hand in the form of a splendid new book from master photographer Alan Detrick.

Macro Photography for Gardeners and Nature Lovers focuses in tightly on close-up photography of plants and also covers animal and insect life. It’s turns out to be two books in one.

The book progresses logically from choosing equipment to thoughts on how to look at plants and compose images. This is followed by analysis of the digital image itself to dealing with the images once they’re in the camera and on the computer. As an in-demand leader of digital photography workshops, the choice of what to discuss and the clarity of the explanations has been honed by listening to and answering the concerns of many participants. It’s logical, it’s clear.

Interspersed through this, right through the book, are individual images, or series of images, coupled with commentaries in which the author describes his thinking in creating each image and also gives details of the camera, lens, shutter speed and aperture for each one. I have to say that I started by going through all these one by one and, in particular, I found his thoughts on the composition of the image refreshing and enlightening. Of course, you can always change the composition of a digital image by cropping later – but think how much time you save by getting it right first time.

As so many people move up from simple point-and-shoot to digital single lens reflex cameras, the whole practice of photography changes - you don’t just point and shoot, you think and shoot. This book will help you develop your thinking on all aspects of digital macro photography.

Needless to say, the pictures are superb. And there's still time to order a copy before the holidays.

Macro Photography for Gardeners and Nature Lovers by Alan Detrick is published in North America by Timber Press at $27.95. Order it from here.

Macro Photography for Gardeners and Nature Lovers by Alan Detrick is published in Britain by Timber Press at £17.99. Order it from here.

Read more about photographic ideas and techniques on Alan Detrick's blog.

Two popular, and non-invasive new buddlejas

BuddlejaMissRubySPN500 In recent years, the Royal Horticultural Society’s trials at their garden at Wisley, south of London, have added a new element – visitors get to vote for their favorites.

This year visitors to Wisley voted on buddlejas, butterfly bushes, and two brand new American varieties came out well ahead of over 100 other varieties.

‘Miss Ruby’ received more than twice as many votes as the second placed variety, ‘Lo and Behold Blue Chip’, which itself was a good step ahead of the third placed ‘Raspberry Wine’. This and ‘Blue Horizon were, again, noticeably ahead of all the rest.

Now, there’s something more special about these two buddleias other than the fact that they’re both American. Unlike almost all the other entries in the trial these two are not forms of the old – and sometimes invasive – favorite Buddleja davidii. They are complex hybrids involving other species and both were raised by Dr Dennis Werner, until recently in charge of the JC Ralston Arboretum at the University of North Carolina.

‘Miss Ruby’ is upright in growth and relatively compact as buddlejas go, reaching 4-5ft/1.2-1.5mm, with noticeably silver foliage and vivid pink flowers. And it’s surprisingly hardy, down to zone 5. ‘Miss Ruby’ is a hybrid between ‘White Ball’ and ‘Attraction’, neither of which are widely grown, and so has in its background B. davidii, B. fallowiana and B. globosa.

The horribly named ‘Lo and Behold Blue Chip’ is startlingly dwarf – not really like a buddleja at all.BuddlejaL&BBlueChipSMN The plants I’ve had on trial this summer did not reach more than 18in/45cm in height and were wider than they were high. The short spikes of blue flowers would, I’m sure, have been produced more prolifically had I been able to find a site for it in full sun. ‘Blue Chip’ is a hybrid involving B. davidii var. nanhoensis ‘Nanho Purple’, B. globosa and B. lindleyana.

There’s one more thing bout these two new buddlejas. they produce hardly any seed. ‘Lo and Behold Blue Chip’ does not produce fertile pollen and is reluctant to produce seed even when pollinated by a different buddleja - so that’s a big plus. ‘Miss Ruby’, while not actually sterile, also produces very little seed.

This is all great news for anyone worried about the fact that Buddleja davidii is invasive in some areas.

In North America, both these new buddlejas will be available from a number of sources in 2009. I’ll bring you details of their availability in Britain as soon as I get some news.

Bring on... The Rockettes

Brassia-rockettes15107-500 My wife, judywhite, has been working on a new book on orchids. She wrote and shot all the pictures for the award-winning Taylor’s Guide to Orchids, the best selling title in the Taylor’s Guide series and she’s recently finished her second, very different, orchid book, which will be out next year.

She passed me the text to look over before she sent it off to the publisher and I was Therockettes500 very struck by the way she described the flowers of spider orchids, Brassia, as “arranged like Rockettes on a spike”.

Now I know very little about these tropical orchids, I have to say, and although I can tell a Brassia from a Brassica that’s almost as far as it goes. But in using just one word you can see exactly what she means. She gives a very precise picture of how the flowers are shown off without resorting to three convoluted sentences describing the arrangement of the flower parts.

I can’t wait to see the book when it comes off the press later next year – especially as she shot all the pictures for this new book too.

Don’t worry, I’ll let you know when it’s available.

Declaration of interest: see first line (above)!