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January 2009

My new blog on plant trials and awards

TrialsViewJune06AliCundy700 One of the most important activities of the Royal Horticultural Society is its plant trials. From hydrangeas to sweet peas, hardy geraniums to lettuces - plants of all kinds are compared side by side at its garden at Wisley in Surrey, just south of London, and at other gardens around the country. The best are awarded the Award of Garden Merit.

It’s a great spectacle, as well as an invaluable resource.

Now, after many years judging the flower trials, and writing about some of them in the RHS magazine The Garden, I’ve now started blogging about them regularly on the Royal Horticultural Society’s website. (My RHS New Plants blog continues.)

I’ll be covering the latest awards, which trials are at their best, the free-to-download reports published by the RHS, events at the trials and more. Be sure to take a look.

Now… readers outside Britain may think that there’s not much in it for them. How relevant can trials in England be to gardeners in Nebraska or New Zealand? Well, it’s true that some plants which thrive at Wisley may not even be hardy in Norway or Nova Scotia and plants grow differently in different conditions, of course.TopDahliaBlogPost

But some factors are fairly universal: messy double flowered varieties are messy everywhere; varieties that flower for just two weeks when all the others flower for eight do not suddenly reform; if a plant rampages at Wisley, you can be sure there are many other places it will smother its neighbours; an annual mixture which turns out to be almost all one color won’t suddenly be harmoniously balanced when grown elsewhere. Some things about plants are just universal.

And all the work on correcting names, proving (or disproving) the point when two varieties seem identical, and describing plants so it’s easy to distinguish one from another – it’s all part of the RHS trials and will all be covered on my new Trials and Awards blog. Give it a try.

Looking different today...

Well, this morning the good people who host this blog "threw a wobbly" as we sometimes say in England and dumped out the design of the whole blog and turned it all blue. Of course, it wasn't actually a person, it was their usually very dependable technology, but still...

PotentillaWilliamRollisonNorwellNurseries As it happens I was about to upgrade things anyway but in the meantime I've widened the main central column to make it all easier to read, restored the general colour theme (sort of) and done a little extra simplification... I'll get to the rest of it as soon as I've finished the piece on herbaceous potentillas I'm writing for the April issue of The Garden magazine from the RHS. I know herbaceous potentillas are not in the first rank of perennials, but those in fiery colors, like this 'William Rollison', are simply gorgeous.

No one nursery seems to carry a really wide range, but Norwell Nurseries from Nottinghamshire in England list more than many, and plenty of geums too. Any US nurseries carry more than six or eight?

Another nameless plant

Bacopanonamead-600 Remember last month I was banging on about a plant ad in which they didn’t tell us the name of the plant they were advertising? Well, leafing through the latest issue of Grower Talks magazine this morning – and here’s another.

Referred to throughout as Scopia™, this delightful trailer is more correctly named Bacopa Scopia™ Series – and a very pretty thing it is too. It may even have “the Biggest Flowers in the market!” as the ad claims (not so sure about the “Sensational New Colors”).

But can’t you just tell us it’s a Bacopa?

Ivy is not always a menace

News arrives of an American insurance company getting their knickers in a twist (as we say in England) about ivy growing up the walls of a brick-built house. The broker passes on the message from the insurance company: “If you can't take the ivy down they may chose to not renew your policy.”

So – are they mad, or are they wise and prudent?

In its native habitat ivy, Hedera helix, clings to tree trunks using aerial roots which are produced from stems as they come into contact with almost anything: bark, bricks, glass even. The function of these very short roots is mainly support, although they do absorb some moisture too.

Ivyonhouse On a relatively new brick-built house, the bricks and mortar are so hard that the ivy roots cling without causing any problems. In fact the presence of ivy can be advantageous: it provides extra winter insulation, it certainly sheds water from the wall and keeps it dry. It also provides a valuable nesting and roosting site for songbirds and food for butterflies and birds. And I’ve seen ivy that covered a relatively modern brick wall from top to bottom fall off completely without revealing any damage at all. In that case it couldn’t grip sufficiently well to support itself.

On older houses - and in Britain that usually means houses built before about the 1930s - any problem usually arises because the mortar used between the bricks is softer and as those aerial roots grip then fragments are loosened. You can see from these pictures of ivy growing on a brick house built in the 1800s how it can get out of hand. But here the value of the ivy in keeping the wall dry is also important. More of a problem is the ivy getting under and loosening the roof slates – but with relatively few American houses built of brick or roofed in slate this is less of an issue in the US. Yet in the US ivy is regarded as more of a villain than it is in Britain.

A huge range of problems is attributed to it from the quite reasonable fear of damage to certain types of building to harboring both rats and bacterial leaf scorch (a significant disease of trees). What was interesting is in that in a recent exchange the prevailing opinion was “every little bit of damage we can do to ivy's reputation is a good thing” and “I have to give (the insurance company) kudos for showing leadership in this area”.

No one asked: is the insurance company’s attitude reasonable? And then you see comments like “English ivy is a menace everywhere” - when in almost twenty states it doesn’t grow at all and is only cited as noxious in two – and “ivy strangles native trees” when it doesn’t strangle trees at all, is most vigorous in trees whose canopy is already thinned by disease or other causes and whatever it does is not restricted to natives.

HederaRippleJytte600 Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that English ivy is a saintly plant with no faults. It is indeed a menace in some areas, and the insurance company, in this particular case, may be taking a prudent approach. But in other areas it’s a valuable ornamental climber, an attractive ground cover, useful in hanging baskets in areas not cold enough to kill it and a pretty and tolerant house plant.

But it’s not invasive in states where it doesn’t grow. And is ivy’s value as shelter and food for wildlife, which is much appreciated in its native Britain, utterly redundant elsewhere?

Can we please have less hysteria and panic and more reality and reason?

Transatlantic seeds revisited

There are few truly Transatlantic seed companies. Thompson & Morgan operate out of both New Jersey and Suffolk but none of the other major British companies have much of a presence in the US – and none of the American seed companies pay any attention to Britain. Perhaps they should – but they don’t. I’m sure they’ve looked into it from a business point of view and decided it just won’t work.

But top of the second division of seed companies, if you like, is Chiltern Seeds – based in the north west of England they’ll send seed just about anywhere and they list an engaging mix of rarities and familiar varieties. They also have some intriguing new additions – 430 in all - for the coming season.

Actinidiapolygama These include a variegated form of the lovely Arisaema consanguineum and a rarely seen actinidia, the Silver Vine – Actinidia polygama  – which clings to tree trunks like an ivy but which features silvery white young foliage and scented white flowers followed by edible orange fruits. The foliage, like that of catmint, is very attractive to cats and is even used as a sedative for lions!

They also have a coppery flowered form of the wind poppy (Stylomecon heterophyllum) which I’d never come across before and which is certainly tempting. It's good to see the lovely perennial lupin Lupinus nootkanensis LupinusnootkanensisUSDA600 added and I was also intrigued by a buckthorn I didn’t know – Rhamnus schneiderii var. mandschurica – with clusters of black berries which are both prolific and long lasting.

Chiltern Seeds has always been strong on unusual members of the cucumber family and this season they have a rarely seen species of luffa – Luffa acutangula, a popular Indian vegetable. They also have a variety of hornbeam especially suited to bonsai, a lovely celosia species for drying and lots more.LuffaacutangulaWiki2.288

Check out all the new introductions from Chiltern Seeds. Outside Britain they simply add £2.50 to cover extra postage costs to the rest of Europe, £3.50 to cover postage to North America and the rest of the world.