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August 2010

Best climbers for wet soil?

Lonicera,honeysuckle,Graham Thomas,wet soil,climber. Image © (all rights reserved) I’ve been looking into climbers for wet soil today, for something I’m working on, and the fact is there don’t seem to be very many.

The first one that came to mind was Smilax, because we have a great tangle of a one growing in a boggy portion of our woods here in Pennsylvania. But - how can we say this politely - it’s not very colorful. And its spines are vicious.

Over in England I’ve seen honeysuckle, Lonicera periclymenum, with its roots in ditches as it climbs trees on the bank so that looks promising and there’s now quite a range of varieties, including the prolific yellow-flowered ‘Graham Thomas’ (click to enlarge).

Virginia creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, is often recommended as well as climbing hydrangea, H. anomala subsp. petiolaris. I’ve also come across the suggestion that climbing, or more particularly, rambling roses are good in wet soil.

It seems to be mainly the really vigorous roses – ‘Kiftsgate, ‘Bobbie James’, R. banksiae – that are suggested. I know a lot of roses like heavy soil but that’s not quite the same as wet soil. Any thoughts?

Akebia, Campsis, ivy, jasmine, Vitis palmata (which I’ve never even heard of) are also recommended in various sources.

To help, I’ve just ordered a book called Managing the Wet Garden by my old boss John Simmons, Curator at Kew years ago. It’s based on his experiences in his soggy English retirement in garden in Norfolk (Was he mad? Well, at least he got a book out of it!) . He knows his plants and has a good eye – so I’m sure it will be useful.

In the meantime - while I’m off out to ID the Smilax in the woods a little more precisely - any more ideas for climbers for wet soil?

UPDATE: Turns out it's the common (aka roundleaf) greenbrier, Smilax rotundifolia. Quite an attractive foliage plant but, this year at least, no flowers and no fruits - not that either are especially exciting...

Those brilliant native sunflowers again

Helianthus,sunflower,maximiliani,Maximilian. Image © (all rights reserved) Almost a month ago I was enthusing about some varieties of an American native perennial sunflower I’d come across on the High Country Gardens website. Well – two updates.

Firstly, having said that I’d never seen Maximilian’s sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani) in the wild – I suddenly spot some by the side of a road I’ve been driving along once a week for the last three or four years! You can’t really miss them, they’re 6ft/1.8m tall and bright yellow – so perhaps they’ve just arrived. Smart, aren't they?

The other update is just to report that I’ve emailed High Country Gardens, twice, to ask about the origins of these three varieties and if they’ve ever tried them as cut flowers – no answer. Makes you cautious about ordering, doesn’t it, when you ask a nursery a question and no one replies? I’ve now tried again and got a reply which simply says he's read my blog post. If I hear more about their varieties of these colorful perennials I'll let you know.

Coleus and kale look good together

Coleus,kale,annuals,geranium,all-in-one garden. Image © (all rights reserved) Just thought I’d share with you this simple foliage combination from our garden here in Pennsylvania (click to enlarge).

I took out three aged, closely planted, flowering cherry trees earlier this year, and this opened up some new areas for planting. The new bed is mainly planted with annuals this first season, from seed and from cuttings, and the element that’s worked especially well is this combination of kale and coleus.

Curly green kale with its and heavily crinkled leaves, sits alongside this bright yellow coleus with red stems, the color seeping to the base of the foliage. Plus alongside, though growing much less strongly, there’s one of the those dramatically marked geraniums.

Names? Ah… Well the geranium is ‘Mr Henry Cox’. The coleus came unlabelled from a local nursery but it looks a lot like ‘Pineapple Queen’, although less pineapple and more yellow, perhaps. The kale? Same - unlabelled from a local nursery and of the three plants we bought, the two here are bushier and a little more blue than the other. Poorly rogued heirloom ‘Dwarf Blue Scotch Curled’, I suspect.

But it just shows, as in my All-in-One Garden book, that ornamentals and food plants can look great together. But we’re just going to wait a little longer before cooking some kale.

Just too ugly to grow

Echinacea,coneflower,Doubledecker,ugly. Image © (all rights reserved) Some plants are just so ugly that you want to chop their heads off.

Look at this echinacea. What a mess! Such an ugly tangle of petals it disgraces the name coneflower. It’s the perversion of simplicity that so often make me want to reach for the shears. We all know the simple and elegant daisy shape of Echinacea purpurea, the purple coneflower. And this is what is said to be an improvement.

To be fair, Echinacea purpurea ‘Doubledecker’ (left, click to enlarge) is not supposed to Echinacea,coneflower,Doubledecker,ugly. Image ©Perennial Resource, (all rights reserved)be like this. It’s supposed to be like this (right, click to enlarge) – which I have to say is  not much better - but in all the years I’ve been growing it these horrid messy tangles have dominated ten to one.

Then there’s daffodils ('Jersey Torch', in case you want to avoid them). Isn’t this a Narcissus,daffodil,Jersey Torch,ugly. Image © (all rights reserved)horror? (left, click to enlarge – if you dare). Takes all the elegance away. You’ll never see these “Tossing their heads in sprightly dance,” as  William Wordsworth put it, as he “wandered lonely as a cloud”. The heads are so heavy with all those extra mangled petals that they’re more likely to simply hit the ground when it rains and never stand up. These don’t “flash upon that inward eye, Which is the bliss of solitude” – they make we want to reach for a long cane so I can swish their heads off.

And then... just today… This hibiscus opened in the garden, Hibiscus Sugar Tip (‘America Irene Scott’), a variegated sport of the popular ‘Lady Stanley’. Its neatly edged foliage is quite Hibiscus,Sugar Tip,America Irene Scott. Image © (all rights reserved) attractive and I was looking forward to a single rose pink flower, perhaps. Instead of which we get this pasty mess like a wrung out dish cloth. Well, now I’ve taken its picture I can cut the flowers off.

But don’t think I hate double flowers. There are some lovely double echinaceas and even at least one double daffodil that I’ve grown and enjoyed.

But these are just too much. Off with their heads!

Here come the plant police

boring,garden,landscape,dull,approved plants. And I thought Americans preferred their government, from Federal to local, to leave them alone, let them to get on with their lives and not interfere… Well, it turns out that for many people in private communities – a very widespread situation here in the US and not restricted to a few affluent areas as it is in Britain – there are some pretty amazing rules about what you can and cannot plant in your garden.

For example, the community of Beverly Oaks, near Dallas, Texas, (96 homes) lays down which plants you can plant in your front yard. The list is known as the “Approved Exterior Plant Selection”. There are six plants on the list. No no, not six hundred. Six. “Shrub species will be limited to those already in use in the community”, their website explains. The six approved plants are, in their language: Fraser Photinia, Red Tip; Dwarf Burford Holly; Glossy Abelia; Nandina Compact; Japanese Boxwood; Variegated Pittosporum (Orange); Italian Cypress. The photos (click to enlarge) show typical homes. Doesn’t the landscaping just fill your heart with joy? And not much market for a garden writer there.

And get this. The website also directs: “Flowers may be displayed, but must be maintained in pots or planters.” You’re not even allowed to plant a penstemon or a phlox or a gazania - in the ground, in real soil! boring,garden,landscape,dull, approved plants.

Here’s the key to their philosophy: “Unplanned diversity in a community typically ages the look of the community, and lowers the values of the real estate.” They want all the houses to look the same. “The current focus of architectural coordination is on unifying the roof colors and the garage door design, and lighting accessories… there are now… 3 garage door patterns randomly scattered throughout the community”. Three! What an outrage!

Their website seems to have more pages than there are houses in their community.

At Belcorte (79 homes), in north east Tucson, Arizona, they’re less strict. Their “Schedule of Approved Plants for Front Yards” allows sixty two different plants although some, like Variegated Pittosporum, are mysteriously restricted to east and north walls. I notice that Euryops is allowed but not Argyranthemum, pansies and petunias are OK but not pelargoniums…

Belcorte also lists of the types of decorative rocks which are allowed, eleven kinds are permitted including four specific types of “decomposed granite”. “No rocks larger than 3in in diameter except for accent (large) rocks”.

Sorry, I can’t go on. I started looking up other communities around the country but once I discovered that the approved plant lists of some communities apply to the back yard as well as the front I had to stop. OK, I know some of this is to do with choosing drought tolerant plants in the dry south, and plants that fit into the surrounding natural landscape. What is wrong with these people who allow me to plant Mexican gold poppy (Eschscholzia mexicana) anywhere on my property but only allow California poppy (E. californica) in pots in the front yard and not at all in the back?!

What we need is a revolution. What, we’ve had one already? Time for another.

UPDATE: My friends at Garden Rant have re-posted this piece as a guest blog. Take a look, and be sure to check out the great comments.

What, exactly, is an heirloom?

Narcissus,daffodil,‘Tête-à-tête’,heirloom Image © (all rights reserved) Leafing through the tempting new White Flower Farm catalog this morning, I came across the news that the delightful little daffodil ‘Tête-à-tête’ (left, click to enlarge) is an “Heirloom, pre-1949.” Hmmm… don’t think so. Not an heirloom and not pre-1949. It was actually raised by Alec Gray, the noted breeder of dwarf daffodils, and introduced by him, in England, in 1956, at five shillings a bulb.

Two issues arise from that little phrase, “Heirloom, pre-1949.” The only place I’ve found that notes ‘Tête-à-tête’ as pre-1949 is an English academic website listing the daffodil varieties in its collection. Sorry, it’s mistaken. Full marks to WFF for researching the history of the variety, but that website is misled them.

But that little slip is not the really point, its more the implication that because it’s more than fifty years old it must be an heirloom – in spite of the fact that it’s a British variety, raised by a dedicated breeder of daffodils.

And I’ve come across this before – I once heard a lecturer describe one of David Austin’s early English Roses, the gorgeous ‘Mary Rose’ (right, click to enlarge), from 1983, as an heirloom – “you can tell by the old-fashioned look of the blooms”. Hah! Rose,Rosa,Mary Rose,'Ausmary',English rose. Image ©David Austin Roses

So what, exactly, is an heirloom? Joel M. Lerner had an interesting piece in the Washington Post earlier this year in which he says that “almost all heirlooms are considered products of natural pollination, generally not derived from hybridizing, grafts or other human intervention” and reports that Jo Ann Gardiner, author of Heirloom Flower Gardens , considers that “heirlooms are plants we know because we grew up with them.”

Wikipedia says: “An heirloom plant, heirloom variety, or heirloom vegetable is a cultivar that was commonly grown during earlier periods in human history, but which is not used in modern large-scale agriculture.”

Tomato,Tigerella,Mr Stripey,heirloom. Image © (all rights reserved) None of these definitions is very satisfactory. ‘Tigerella’ tomato (left, click to enlarge), often listed as an heirloom, was specifically bred (in Britain, by the Glasshouse Crops Research Institute, I seem to recall) to combine good flavor with the striped skin – not “a product of natural pollination”; I grew up with ‘Carefree’ geraniums in the garden but these are F1 hybrids, surely the antithesis of the heirloom concept; ‘Tête-à-tête’ daffodils now represent an amazing 34% of Dutch daffodil production – I’d say that qualifies as “large scale agriculture”.

So… the question is: What, exactly, defines an heirloom? Thoughts?

BTW The authoritative sources on ‘Tête-à-tête’ are Modern Miniature Daffodils by James Wells and Golden Harvest: The Story of Daffodil Growing in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly by Andrew Tompsett. I'll come back to the intriguing origins of this variety another time.

A new weed evolves

peppered moth,evolution,birch,black,white. Image ©Martinowksy. Distributed under the GNU Free Documentation License How often is it that you see natural selection happening before your very eyes? Well, it’s been happening at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Garden at Wisley, just south of London, where a weed has evolved which is less likely to be pulled out by the gardeners!

It’s like the moths in the old industrial north of England. For centuries, the white form of the peppered moth had been the most common, camouflaged against the pale bark of birch trees upon which the moths rested. Then, as industrial pollution grew, the bark became covered in soot and the white moths became highly visible and were snapped up by birds. (Click the image, left, to see white and black forms on birch bark.) The less common black form then became much more common. More recently, as the air became cleaner again, the white form has enjoyed a resurgence.

At Wisley, annual meadow grass (Poa annua) is a persistent weed but the gardeners are diligent in rooting it out and consigning it to the compost  heap. But over the years forms with darker stems and leaves have developed – colours which show up less well against the dark soil and which are less likely to be noticed and pulled or hoed off by gardeners. poa annua,purple,Wisley,evolution. Image © (all rights reserved) The result has been the development of a distinct brownish purple leaved form known not seen anywhere else. Known as Poa annua f. purpurea, it was first formally described in 2003. Click on the image, left, to see how well camouflaged the purple form is.

On the Rock Garden and on the Portsmouth Field (the trials field) at Wisley this new “invisible” form has become a particular problem, especially now that less chemical weed control is used and control depends more on the gardeners’ sharp eyes. I only noticed the plant in the picture when I bent down to pick up my glasses!