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February 2011

January 2011

Where does our bird seed come from?

sunflower,black oil,bird food.
Back in December I posted here about sunflower seed, for bird food, and promised to follow up with news of where the sunflower seed that our birds devour with such enthusiasm actually comes from.

Well, none of the bags in the local stores seemed to enlighten me. So, when I was in our friendly local farm supplies store, Farm Plus, yesterday, buying yet another bag of black oil sunflower seed ($18.96 for 40lb – 47 cents a pound, Don't you just love a bargain?), I asked where it was grown.

In North & South Dakota, it seems, the sunflower seed heartland of America. The fields of sunflowers I see growing in New Jersey, it turns out, are either grown for cut flowers or – and this was a surprise – for sileage.

But there was an interesting extra facet to the issue: When sunflowers are grown for bird seed, they’re often sprayed with a dessicant before harvesting, in the same way as potatoes, to help ease their way through the harvester. Potato growers used to use paraquat, which is not a nice chemical, perhaps they still do. So, does that mean we have to look for organically grown sunflower seed for our birds?

Well, in the USA you can buy organically grown sunflower seed from Harrison Bird Foods. In the UK you can buy organically grown sunflower seed from Vine House Farm, based not so far from our home town in England.

But I have to say, here in Pennsylvania I’ll continue buying my black oil sunflower seed from Farm Plus. I like to support independent local businesses.

BTW, anyone know where non-organic black oil sunflower seed sold in Britain is grown?

World's first blue verbascum

Verbascum,blue,lagoon,Thompson,Morgan. Image ©Thompson & Morgan
We’ve seen a vast variety of verbascums come and go in recent years, but never one like this – the first ever bright blue verbascum.

Reaching about 75cm/30in in height, with a noticeably upright habit, ‘Blue Lagoon’ is the result of some creative plant breeding by Thompson & Morgan’s plant breeder Charles Valin, who has created so many interesting new plants in recent years. He told me how it happened.

“It actually came about as a result of trying to breed a red verbascum,” he told me. “Red shades usually come from crosses between a yellow plant and a dark violet flowered plant. In 2006 I started growing many species to find one with the deepest possible violet colouring and among those I tried a species native to Armenia and Turkey and selected some of the darkest plants.

“In 2008 I selected one plant bearing violet flowers with a slight blue hue. In 2009 I expected its offspring to produce only violet flowers but one seedling was an extraordinary “Meconopsis” blue, a rare colour in flowers, let alone in verbascums!

“Everyone agreed that this was a stunning plant and had to go into immediate production. The plant was sent to a tissue culture laboratory for micro propagation to ensure rapid and identical multiplication. In this case the blue petals were used as the start material. This method has enabled us to offer plants only two years after selecting the first blue plant.”

This looks to be a dramatic breakthrough. I look forward to seeing it in gardens this summer.

In the UK you can order plants of Verbascum ‘Blue Lagoon’ from Thompson & Morgan. Verbascum 'Blue Lagoon' is not yet available in North America.

[Cross post from my Royal Horticultural Society New Plants blog.]

Thinking about chrysanthemums - in January?

Amateur Gardening,hardy,chrysanths.I’ve written quite a few pieces about old fashioned hardy chrysanthemums over the years. Three months ago I published a piece in Britain’s Amateur Gardening magazine while the first, I think, was for Horticulture magazine in the USA many years ago. Click the image to read the Amateur Gardening piece, click the link to read the Horticulture piece.

So why am I mentioning them now, in the middle of winter when there's snow on the ground? Because now’s the time to order plants for spring planting.

First, by way of a quick recap, what’s so good about them?

  • They’re hardy – all over Britain and down to zone 5
  • They’re easy to grow – in any sunny place where the soil is not soggy
  • They increase well – so can be divided after a year or two
  • They’re resilient - many have been found flowering happily in long neglected gardens
  • They’re good cut flowers - and last longer if the lower leaves are removed, the stems frequently re-cut (not crushed) and with flower food in the water.
  • They’re elegant – not like those footstool mums we see on sale in pots in September
  • They come in a vast variety of flower forms, sizes, colors and styles.

Here are some good places to order old fashioned hardy chrysanths in Britain.
Halls of Heddon
Norwell Nurseries
Southview Nurseries
Woottens of Wenhaston
World’s End Garden Nursery

Here are some good places to order old fashioned hardy chrysanths in North America.
Niche Gardens

Anyone know of any other good sources?

And be sure to check out Britain’s National Collection of hardy chrysanthemums.

Two new lectures on the way

Iris,foetidissima,citrina,flowers,berries. Image © (all rights reserved)
This winter I’m working on creating two brand new lectures, they’ll be ready later this year.

Planting the Dry Shade Garden Based on my next book, out later this year. It looks at why dry shade is such a problem in the garden, how to make it less dry and less shady and then presents a choice of plants of all kinds that will do well dry shade. I’m taking bookings now for fall 2011 onwards – from the UK and Ireland, and from North America. Iris foetidissima (above click to enlarge) is a top dry shade plant. (Please excuse the leaf spot - it wasn't in my garden!)
Deer Defeaters – Plants the Deer (probably) Won’t Eat I’ve been researching this important subject extensively and have come up with some unexpected discoveries. Let me enlighten you… I’m taking bookings now for the summer of 2011 onwards – but only from the USA.

Other subjects for lectures include:
UK and Ireland
Transatlantic Treasures - New and Undiscovered Perennials from Across the Atlantic.
Transatlantic Perennials - From vantage points in north-east Pennsylvania and Northamptonshire in England, a look at perennials in the wild, and their selection and development into garden plants on both sides of the Atlantic.
Ultimate Plants for Small Gardens - Small gardens demand special plants.
Hellebores - The charm and diversity of these essential early perennials with ideas for plants to grow with them.
Perennials for Flower and Foliage - Top perennials for flower power, foliage impact and the best of both.
Britain's Favourite Perennials - Britain's top ten perennials based on actual sales at RHS plant centres.

North America (Created for your local conditions)
Transatlantic Treasures - New and Undiscovered Perennials from Across the Atlantic.
Transatlantic Perennials - From vantage points in north-east Pennsylvania and Northamptonshire in England, a look at perennials in the wild, and their selection and development into garden plants on both sides of the Atlantic.
Ultimate Plants for Small Gardens - Small gardens demand special plants.
Hellebores - The charm and diversity of these essential early perennials with ideas for plants to grow with them.
Perennials for Flower and Foliage - Top perennials for flower power, foliage impact and the best of both.

Interested in making a booking or looking for more info? Email me.

Earlier this month I talked to a packed group from the UK Hardy Plant Society Hertfordshire Group about hellebores. And a very friendly, knowledgeable and appreciative group they turned out to be. They have Matthew Wilson, The Landscape Man, on 5 February talking about Making a Garden – should be a great afternoon.

On 5 March I’ll be back in Britain and speaking to the East Anglian Garden Group, Stowmarket in Suffolk, also about Hellebores (members only, I'm sorry to say) and then on 6 March I’m speaking to the Essex Group of the Hardy Plant Society on the subject of Transatlantic Treasures - New and Undiscovered Perennials from Across the Atlantic. Hope to see you there.

Winter color - and not from flowers

Polypodium,polypody,fern. Image © (all rights reserved)
In winter, especially in cold and snowy winter, we have to take our garden color however it’s presented. It might be winter flowers, it might be the remains of last year’s foliage or it may be in the slightly unexpected form of fern spores.

Here’s a British native fern (above, click to enlarge) that I spotted growing on a stone garden wall behind the supermarket back home in England on my last trip. It’s the common polypody, Polypodium vulgare – “polypody”, by the way, means “many footed”, that is, it has repeatedly branching rhizomes.

Along the undersides of mature fronds, are these double rows of orange sori, clusters of spore producing organs, and their brightness lifts the spirits on cold, damp and dull day.

As it happens, two related species grow here in Pennsylvania, especially across the tops of huge granite boulders out in the woods. But they’re under 18in/45cm of snow at the moment so I don’t think I’m going to go snap their fronds just yet.

Garden bird counts coming up soon

On both sides of the Atlantic, the season of garden bird counts is fast approaching. These annual counts, in which anyone can take part, are really very simple: you just count the birds you see in your garden for a short time on one day - and send in your totals. Couldn’t be easier.

But why? Two reasons. Firstly, it will help you get to know the birds in your garden better. And secondly, your count helps scientists understand the way bird populations are changing and highlights problems with individual species.

In the North America, the Great Backyard Bird Count is run by the Audubon Society, and this year takes place next month, 18-21 February. You can register at the Great Backyard Bird Count website. Last year over 97,000 people sent in their lists and 11,233,609 birds were counted.

In Britain, the Big Garden Birdwatch is run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and takes place this coming weekend, 29 & 30 January. And you even get a 10% discount on bird food when you register at the Big Garden Birdwatch website. Over the years 280,000 gardens have sent in their counts.

We’ll be counting here in Pennsylvania next month. I’ll let you know our results.

New series on plant combinations

WhichJan2011Small Just to let you know that I’ve started a new series for the British magazine Which? Gardening. It’s called Plant Partners, and on the back page of every issue of 2011 I’ll be recommending seasonal planting combinations to help you create attractive plantings right through the year. For the first issue, I’ve chosen white stemmed Rubus cockburnianus and the stinking hellebore, Helleborus foetidus.

Which? Gardening is one of a number of impressivelt impartial magazines, without advertising, produced by Which? (it was called the Consumers' Association when it began in 1957). Which? is a bit like the US magazine Consumer Reports and they also publish magazines on travel, money and computing as well as the more general Which? Magazine.

The January 2010 issue also includes tests on seed compost, shredders and whether it’s practical to grow peppers outside in Britain. My piece is not available online, so try a short trial subscription.

Fishy catch is no longer served

perch,European,Perca. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. © Dgp.martin
When I was kid, my Dad and I used to go fishing in the River Thames in south London on Sunday mornings and catch perch (above, click to enlarge) for our lunch. We’d go out in our home-made double kayak and, with minnows or worms as bait, and catch a tasty meal.

Times have changed.

When out walking by the River Nene in Northamptonshire on my recent trip back to England, I again came across this sign on a gate that led down to the river. It states, in ten languages: “All fish to be returned. No fish to be taken away.” (right, click to enlarge) Apart from the crude and unnecessary tautology, this is all a bit sad. And anyway, what about Notice,taking fish banned. Image © (all rights reserved) the other seventy languages spoken by the 173,000 people in the nearby city of Peterborough?

In Britain's Guardian newspaper recently, hunter-gatherer Nick Weston encouraged people to eat freshwater fish and produced a furious reaction. He has a great piece about cooking pike on his blog, too. But feeling seems generally against eating anything but game fish, and in particular those raised on farms and stocked specifically to be caught.

Of course Americans will be bewildered by this distinction between “game fish” (salmon, trout etc) and “coarse fish” or “freshwater fish” (all the rest). And it's entirely artificial: like saying cutting plants in the rose family for the vase is OK, but not those in the mint family. [It's a class thing, actually - but let's not go there...]

Anyway, this year I’m vowing to cook anything that I can haul out of our lake here in Pennsylvania that I haven’t tried already (not including rocks, logs and bits of old rope, of course). Just to test them all. I'll report here come the spring.

But perhaps I won’t be buying a UK license – it was eating the fish from the river that had me tempted.

Amazing acer for winter stems

Acer,negundo,Winter Lightning,Wisley,winter stems. Image © (all rights reserved)
While we were in England over the holidays, we naturally visited the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden at Wisley, just outside London on the south side. The lakeside highlight was the stunning display of shrubs grown for their winter stems which gleamed in the gloom even on a cloudy afternoon.

As well as all the dogwoods, Cornus, and willows, Salix, familiar and rare, one plant in particular stood out – Acer negundo ‘Winter Lightning’. I’d never heard of it, I have to say, there’s only one stockist listed in the RHS Plant Finder (in the US it’s available from Forest Farm). But its surge of tall stout green stems, yellower towards the base, was simply stupendous - like a monstrous green porcupine from outer space!

It overtopped the dogwoods and willows grouped around it and as a specimen amongst their more slender red, black, orange, green and yellow stems it really stood out. I want one.

Quiet color in the snowy garden

Hakonechloa,Kolkwitzia,judywhite,,snow,garden. Image © (all rights reserved)
And here’s one of judy’s images from yesterday’s shoot in the garden.

In front, the biscuit brown stems and foliage of Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’ look so warm against the snow in spite of their coating of ice. And behind, the arching branches of the variegated beauty bush, Kolkwitzia amabilis Dream Catcher (‘Maradco’) make a statement that is both bold and soft at the same time.

At the top, a last fiery pair of leaves cling to the shoots of one of the dark-leaved ninebarks, Physocarpus opulifolius Coppertina (‘Mindia’), known in Europe as Diable d’Or.

Not a flower to be seen (the hellebores that opened in November are under there somewhere), hardly a leaf, and most of the plants very definitely dormant. But still a quietly colorful and intriguing garden.