Previous month:
September 2010
Next month:
November 2010

October 2010

Witch hazels at RareFind Nursery

This is the time of year that I routinely bang on about the American native witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, flowering now along our roadsides here in Pennsylvania – the scent wafting in through the open windows of the car is simply magical. And 99.9% of British gardeners don’t know these autumn flowering witch hazels even exist.

But a visit yesterday to the fascinating RareFind Nursery two-and-a-half hours away from us in New Jersey turned my attention away from the wild forms along the roadside and in the woods – whose intriguing variations I talked about here almost exactly a year ago.


For at RareFind I spotted two cultivars of H. virginiana I’d never seen before, ‘Harvest Moon’ (above, click to enlarge) and ‘Champlin’s Red’. There only seem to be about seven or eight and it’s taken more than fifty years since the first to get to that small number.

‘Harvest Moon’ looks like some of the best I’ve seen in the wild. The petals are longer than those of most forms, there seem to be more flowers in each cluster and the clusters are closer together than in most of the others. So the plant has quite an impact. The scent is good, and the mostly yellow autumn leaf color is pretty good too, though perhaps not spectacular. At least the leaves have mostly dropped by the time the flowers open, so the flowers are not hidden.

Most spring flowering witch hazels are grafted on to seed-raised H. virginiana rootstocks, ‘Harvest Moon’ was a rootstock which grew and flowered after grafting failed.

Rather different is ‘Champlin’s Red’ (below, click to enlarge), found on a roadside in Rhode Island. Personally, I find this more interesting than dramatic. The two tone flowers have petals which are rosy red at the base and yellow at the tips, an intriguing but not really colorful combination. Unfortunately, there is little scent. Again, the yellow leaf color is good, but not spectacular. It's available at the nursery, but not on the website.


I couldn’t find ‘Mohonk Red’ on the nursery (there are so many distractions!), but it’s in the online catalog along with six others including two variegated forms. It looks like a slightly darker, redder version of ‘Champlin’s Red’. This is the only form of H. virginiana available in the UK so far.

I think we’re going to have to extend the deer fence to fit these in – the deer love them.

RareFind Nursery is full of fascinating plants, and good horticultural conversation. It focuses on trees and shrubs, including many unusual variegated forms, but grows some good perennials too. They also keep an impressive range of rhododendrons chosen specifically for the east coast, including some raised by the nursery’s founder Hank Schannen who sadly passed away last year.

If you’re looking for something choice, but uncommon - RareFind is the place. And, as Hank put it: “If you can find it in a garden centre, we probably don’t have it!” And their mail order service has a great reputation.

Blueberries in fall color

I’ve been out shooting blueberries today. No, no… I’m not utterly bonkers, not quite yet. I’ve been taking pictures, of the leaves.

Vaccinium,blueberry,highbush,fall color, autumn colour. Image © (all rights reserved)

In general, our leaf color is past its best but amongst the bare branches and under the dark brown oak leaves there are a few colorful standouts, mainly maples. And all through the under story of the woods here, the high bush blueberries, Vaccinium corymbosum, are still in color. As the clouds part, they’re like flickers of fire.

One noticeable feature is how much they vary. The leaves of many are red, sometimes with purplish overtones, while others are orange or yellow. But some plants have already lost every leaf while others, and not only those in shadier places in the woods, remain green. Jennifer Trehane’s comprehensive book on blueberries (see below) reveals that named forms grown for their fruit also vary in their fall coloring. I also noticed that where one red leaf is laying on another, the covered area remains yellow.

Of course one crucial influence on the display is the deer. Here, the lowest 4-5ft/1.2-1.5m of every bush outside the fence is stripped bare leaving a sort of mound of foliage at the top which is just out of reach. You can see the bare stems in the picture above. Though when the plants are in fruit, we’ve sometimes seen a black bear standing on its hind legs pulling the branches down so it can eat the fruit. (Sorry, the camera is never to hand. One of these days…)

Vaccinium,blueberry,highbush,fall color, autumn colour. Image © (all rights reserved)

Other highlights apart from the maples, of which more in a day or two, include not-sure-which forsythia (soft yellow), Syringa x meyeri ‘Palibin’ (pale yellow), a weeping cherry (yellow and green, still), the superb Solomon’s seal that was variegated earlier in the season, Polygonatum odoratum var. plurifolium ‘Variegatum’, (biscuit yellow), two eupatoriums (yellow) and some surprisingly dashing hostas in bright butter yellow to biscuit brown. Even one of the rhododendrons is covered in scarlet sparks.

Few flowers remain, but there’s still plenty of color.

British and Irish readers can buy Jennifer Trehane's book Blueberries, Cranberries and Other Vacciniums from

North American and other readers can buy Jennifer Trehane's book Blueberries, Cranberries and Other Vacciniums from


Victory over the plant police – for now at least

Yes, a victory for opposition to proposals from the plant police to add all cotoneasters to the British list of banned plants. The government has had the power to ban the sale of specific invasive plants since 2006, although at the moment no such bans are in place. So I’m talking about the list of plants which it is illegal to "plant or otherwise cause to grow in the wild". And they wanted all cotoneasters (below, click to enlarge) on the list as well as all crocosmias and a wide range of other plants.

Cotoneaster,conspicuous. Image © (all rights reserved)
An announcement on which plants are to be banned from sale was expected this month but has been delayed till spring. In the meantime, the suggestion that it should be illegal to plant in the wild or allow to escape into the wild all 337 different cotoneasters and all 289 different crocosmias that have been grown in Britain in recent years has been scuppered. Quite right too. The list also included, bizarrely, the British native sea buckthorn, Hippophae rhamnoides. Not much expertise went into creating that list!

But then, after representations from a wide range of interested bodies, just five species of cotoneaster plus all 126 cultivars of Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora (below, click to enlarge) are included.

Crocosmia,Fuchsia,invasive,Ireland. Image ©Sunny Wieler/Stone Art's Blog (all rights reserved)

One interesting element of all this is that little phrase “cause to grow in the wild”. So if you plant that old favorite Cotoneaster horizontalis in your garden and a bird eats the berries and drops the seed, say, in a nearby hedgerow and the seed grows – then you’ve broken the law. So it’s been suggested – yes, really - that to avoid any risk of breaking the law you should snip all the berries off your cotoneasters! Errr… don’t think so.

Crocosmias usually spread into the wild when people dump them by the side of the road – and that is certainly unforgivable. You now see them all over Ireland. And the same applies to Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) (below, click to enlarge), one of three plants that are such a problem that the Royal Horticultural Society has banned then from sale at their shows and plant centres, even though the government has not. The others are Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) and giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) (at the end, click to enlarge). These are genuine horrors.

Japanese,knotweed,Fallopia,invasive. Image © (all rights reserved)

But the RHS reminds us of one of the other major issues underlying all this. “Quercus pubescens … requires high summer temperatures to set seed. If our summers do get warmer it may have a significant effect on areas of lowland beech which are already suffering drought stress in many areas.” All over the world, the distribution patterns of plants and animals are starting to change in response to climate change. It seems likely that at the other end of its range in southern Europe, it may be becoming too hot for Quercus pubescens. And perhaps our native beech, Fagus sylvatica, is also moving into cooler areas.

Needless to say the European Union is also getting in on the act, an EU Directive on invasive species is on the way and at present it looks as if it will introduce a black list of species that will apply across the whole European Union without any allowance for climatic differences. This is like the US Federal Government banning anyone in the whole country from growing certain plants. This is clearly mad. Here in Pennsylvania we can rarely get buddleias to survive the winter; they may need banning in Oregon, for example, but not here. The EU displays a basic ignorance…

Well… plenty of issues covered here today. I think I feel a whole book coming on. But it’s easy to get carried away with this stuff. The people who want to rip out any plants that are not native in a particular county or zap them with RoundUp certainly get carried away. And I get carried away pointing out that it’s not that simple and highlighting the more ludicrous elements of the whole business.

And I’ll be on the look out for that “banned from sale” list when it appears. I’ll probably have something to say about it – don’t you think?

  Heracleum,giant hogweed,invasive. Image ©GerardM/GNU Free Documentation License. (all rights reserved)

Thanks to © Sunny Wieler from Stone Art's Blog for the crocosmia image. Read the full post, which is mostly about (non-native) fuchsias in Ireland.

And thanks to GerardM for making his Heracleum mantegazzianum image available under a GNU Free Documentation License.

Free books for my Twitter followers

5186CY7Z35L._SS500_ Are you following me on Twitter? If you are, or if you're not, here's a chance to win a free copy of my award-winning book Hardy Perennials.

I'm now approaching 500 followers, the 500th person to follow me on Twitter will receive a free signed copy of the book. You can follow me here.

AND - by way of thanking all my other followers - I'll also be choosing one of the other 499 followers at random to also receive a free signed copy.


"Everyone who grows perennials, whether beginner or specialist, will enjoy this book."
Brian Halliwell, The Garden

Checked in this morning to find I'd passed 500 followers. And the 500th was Garden Addict (@garden_callus). Congratulations, your book will be on its way to you soon.

Then, using the True Random Number Service, number 336 was generated and the 336th follower out of my first 500 followers turned out to be Jerry Peed (@HPotterGardens). Congratulations, your book will also soon be on its way. And if anyone else would like to buy a signed copy, please email me (US - $15, UK - £10. Plus shipping).

Now, after that fun way of thanking all my Twitter followers, and rewarding two of them, it's back to normal service. Big post on invasives coming next here... plus continuing tweets, but never in overwhelming numbers.

Thanks to all 503 of my followers on Twitter.

£40 (that’s more than $60) - for a fescue!!

I’ve sometimes remarked on this blog that plants are often too cheap both to ensure good quality for the gardener and provide suitable margins for grower and retailer.

Well today I have an example of that – plus an astonishing example from the other extreme.
Fescue,expensive,Bibendum. Image © (all rights reserved)

My friend, writer and editor Fiona Gilsenan, spotted this fescue (click to enlarge) on sale recently at Bibendum in London. It was priced at £40. No, not £4 - £40! That’s $63.81. OK, it’s in a big pot, Fiona tells me it was about what in the US we call a gallon (about 3.5 litres). But £40! I know, costs in London are steep and it’s clearly taken more than a few months for a fescue to reach that size. But £40!

Then a couple of days ago I took a look at our local Lowes here in Pennsylvania; for Brits, Lowe’s is like a monster B&Q. And there I found chrysanthemums (below, click to enlarge) in 11/4 quart pots (just over a litre) for £2.48, that’s £1.55. Take out the cost of the pot, the compost, the cutting, the royalty on the cutting, the transport, the cost of growing since spring, the maintenance in the store – and what mark up is there left for the grower and retailer?
Chrysanthemum,Lowes,cheap. Image © (all rights reserved)
So in one store the price is so outrageous that only the ignorant or the clinically deluded would pay it, and in the other it’s so cheap that the gardener should almost insist on paying more!

* Let’s not get our Bibebenda confused. This is Bibendum, the restaurant and retailer in Kensington, complete with its slightly icky-sounding Crustacea Stall, not Bibendum the wine store in London’s Primrose Hill nor Bibendum the importer of English beer into Sweden.

* The Plants section of the Lowe’s website, today at least, features no plants at all, of any kind, only things like soil, pickling supplies(!) and plant food.

UPDATE - Six days later

Those chrysanthemums have been reduced! They've gone from too cheap to, well, actually, about right as most of them are looking pretty sad now. And the yellow ones are labelled as orange.

Chrysanthemum,Lowes,cheap. Image © (all rights reserved)

Mad planting ideas for our country town

OK, it’s blood boiling time.

LecuanthemumGR14872 The local council back in my home town in picturesque rural Northamptonshire in England’s East Midlands has a plan. They want to “enhance the appearance of the town”. Sounds splendid, doesn’t it. Who could complain abut that? Not so fast.

The council’s own little magazine reports: “The project will start with the town boundaries to improve the various approaches to the town. Flower beds will be created and the areas improved in such a way that will attract wildlife as well as making the entrances to the town have much more impact.”

No. Not “flower beds”. No no no. See the steam coming out of my ears?

I know, coming from a garden writer that may surprise you. But the main approach to the town, from the east, is shown in the picture. Not a “flower bed”, but there’s already a lovely display of native ox-eye daisies. They follow the native spring cowslips. And there’s even a rare campion in there somewhere. Orchids will surely arrive eventually, they did at another site in the town. What’s wrong with that?


This wildflower planting was created when the new bypass was built in the 1980s and was inspired by Dame Miriam Rothschild a pioneer of planting native wild flowers in gardens, public places and roadsides. She was born and lived all her life just two miles away and also established a business growing seed of native flowers and developed new techniques for restoring the richness of meadows which had been reduced to grass monocultures by the use of weedkillers.

We have an internationally recognised local pioneer of natural roadside planting whose example the town has already followed. And the best they came up with is flower beds?! Perhaps the council would prefer Carpet bedding,Carlisle,Gardeners Tips. Image © (all rights reserved)something like this? (right, click to enlarge - thanks to Gardeners Tips for the image)

Years ago, Pamela Schwerdt who for over thirty years was joint head gardener at Sissinghurst Castle, perhaps England’s greatest garden, took me aside to persuade me to write about the increasing popularity of planting beds of big yellow daffodils at the approaches to villages and country towns. “They just look wrong,” she told me. She was cross, and she was right to be. I’ve sounded off about such thoughtless planting in national newspapers and magazines repeatedly over the years and here on this blog last year.


And now flower beds are planned for the approaches to my own town. No. Not only do we have the inspiration of Miriam Rothschild to guide us, but we need just look out of our car windows as we drive through the local lanes and see the richness of wildflowers, both colourful and unusual, to be inspired again. And let’s not forget that the maintenance involved is minimal. We just need to remember the miserable weed-infested flower beds that greet us as we approach another local town for the point to be rammed home even more surely.

So: no flower beds, no big and blowsy ‘Carlton’ daffodils, no petunias or mega-marigolds like yellow dishmops despoiling the entrances to the town.

OK, I feel better now.

Guest post: judywhite goes nuts for nuts

I’ve been learning about nuts. Acorns, to be specific. From oak trees. Because they’re lying all around in great masses this year, much more so than usual. The “mast”, as the crop is called, is good. And by extension, I’m learning more about chipmunks, who eat the mast. The chipmunks are running around in great masses eating the great mast this year. Might be a connection.

I confess to being rather stupid about trees, a failing I keep meaning to correct. But this year’s bounty of nuttiness strengthened my resolve, so I picked up some books. (Stan Tekiela's invaluable little Trees of Pennsylvania Field Guide helped me identify our oaks.) 

Quercus,marilandica,scrub oak,Trees,Pennsylvania. Image © (all rights reserved)
One in particular has been not only greatly informative, but also vastly amusing. I recently acquired this delight at our library’s semi-annual book sale. A great bargain at a dollar. Published in 1929 (mine is the original version, and still in its dust jacket), Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture by J. Russell Smith, is apparently still the classic work on the subject. The poet-farmer-writer Wendell Berry wrote in the foreword of the 1950 reprinting, “This book contributed to a fundamental rethinking of agriculture in our century.” No wonder Wendell Berry loved it. Besides the common sense and prescient thought that “farming should fit the land,” and despite the ponderous nature of the book’s title, J. Russell Smith has me laughing with every wry twist of phrase. Consider the 1st sentence in the chapter, “The Oak as a Forage Crop”:  “The oak tree should sue poets for damages.” There’s also a picture of some sorry-looking muffins for the next chapter, “The Acorns as Human Food.” The caption reads, “Muffins made of Missouri acorns. Said to be good.”

Anyway, back to chipmunks. I had gathered up a bunch of different acorns, some from the Chestnut Oak (Quercus prinus, a white oak type), which at an inch or more in length are fairly big, and some much tinier ones from the Blackjack Oak (aka Scrub Oak, Q. marilandica, a red oak type apparently at the edge of its hardiness zone here in northeastern PA), and dumped them in a pile on a rock in the garden. The next morning, I noticed all the little acorns had disappeared, and all the big ones scorned. Clearly a preference had been established.

Graham said, “Hey, get more of those nuts, set up the camera, and photograph the chipmunk taking them.” He handed me the long remote camera shutter cord, and then we sat in wait from inside the house, ready to snap. Two hours elapsed before the chipmunks A) decided it was safe to come out of hiding and, after running around sort of aimlessly in the garden, B) finally re-found the pile of nuts. If it hadn’t been morning, all the waiting and peeping out the window would have been much more enjoyable with a glass of wine. (I clearly have standards that need some eroding.) Two different chipmunks availed themselves, first actually eating a nut or two, then stuffing the rest in their cheeks and running off, coming back and repeating the process of eating and stuffing.

Mixed-Acorns-J014909I discovered in Tannin and Lipid Content of Acorns in Scatterhoards and Larderhoards (Marianna Wood,  Northeastern Naturalist, 12:4, 2005) that “…Tamias striatus (eastern chipmunks) …prefer acorns from white oaks for immediate consumption in the fall, but prefer acorns from red oaks for caching for winter use. In the fall, red oak acorns contain higher levels of lipids and tannins [making them more bitter] than white oak acorns [i.e., sweeter in taste]. ...Throughout the study, red oak acorns had lipid levels five to ten times greater than those of white oak acorns and tannin levels two to four times greater than those of white oak acorns.”

But as my little pile of bitter red oak type acorns disappeared, it was clear that our chipmunks, at least, will eat the tannin-rich nuts right away as well as store them, and ignore the supposedly sweeter white oak type completely. Maybe it’s a size thing.

By the way, I cracked open one of those big, supposedly sweeter Chestnut Oak acorns to see for myself. Didn’t do what J. Russell Smith recommended to remove the tannins. Tasted horrible. Spat it out. Drank some wine. Not making muffins anytime soon.