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April 2011

Spring in the garden, fall at The Home Depot

Chrysanthemum,Home Depot,spring. Image: © (all rights reserved)
Yesterday we saw our first hummingbird of the season, a good looking male Ruby-Throated Hummingbird – the only species we have here on the east coast.

A couple of days before that we saw our first bees, and yesterday we had ten, bright yellow male goldfinches round the feeders - though not in the pink-flowered weeping cherry where they refuse to pose for a picture. Forsythia and hellebores are out, the bloodroot is over, through the woods the amelanchiers (serviceberry) are dusted with white blossom.

And in The Home Depot (Brits: like a vast B&Q) they think it’s autumn. There’s a nice range of chrysanthemums on display… in full flower, ready to plant. In April.

Two things:
* Chrysanthemums are quintessential fall flowers, why do we need them in spring? I suppose we have them because they enables chrysanth growers to generate some off-season income. But just because they’re there, it doesn’t mean we should buy them.
* Will inexperienced gardeners, who are more likely to shop for plants at The Home Depot than a nursery or garden centre, think this is their normal flowering time?

There was an extensive display of vegetable plants, too – enough different tomato varieties to bewilder the inexperienced plus a large range of bell peppers and chili peppers and egg plants (aubergines) and zucchini… all frost tender. Like the dahlias in full flower, also on display. And it’s weeks before final frost date. But no lettuce or chard or kale or cabbage or onions or hardier vegetables that you can safely plant.

Another way to provide a discouraging experience for inexperienced gardeners.

Sweet pea,snap pea,Home Depot. Image: © (all rights reserved) And there, in the middle of the veg display: Sweet Peas. No no… These were actually ‘Sugar Ann’ snap peas. But there are going to be novice gardeners disappointed by the lack of colorful fragrant flowers… In spite of the fact that they’re not mentioned on the tags. What do you think of when I say “sweet peas”, after all?

Exactly the same range of veggies was available a couple of miles away at Lowe’s, The Home Depot’s big competitor.

This all seems to me likely to create disappointment in new or inexperienced gardeners. Shouldn’t these places try harder to create a positive gardening experience?

Today's visitors

R Breasted Grosbeak,bird feeder Image: © (all rights reserved)
For the first time in a few years, we have a male Rose-Breasted Grosbeak with us, and here he is on the feeder crunching a sunflower seed. This is the impressively squirrel-proof feeder that I mentioned a while back.

He's been here for a couple of days now and today he seems to have been joined by two "wives" who spend more time tussling with each other than eating seeds.

This was after a black bear came around the middle of the day and took down the feeders and gobbled up all the seed. We didn't even hear the commotion, we were slaving away at our desks, so no pictures. But here's one from another time.

This has been a year of new or returning-after-a-break wildlife: a pair of beavers in the lake, banging their tails on the water just like in the wildlife films on TV, along with Lesser Scaup, Goldeneye, Hooded Mergansers, Common Mergansers and Loons plus Ospreys every day and quite a few immature and mature Bald Eagles. And a male Eastern Towhee which we've never had before. And more chipmunks than for a few years... And we spotted the first bee yesterday. No wonder the hellebores don't set much seed - no early bees.

It's a wild life out here by the lake in the woods...

UPDATE: A week later, we now have four male and two female Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks. Plus, today for the first time ever, a Black-throated Blue Warbler.

The Living Garden: A Place that Works with Nature

Today's review of The Living Garden is a guest post by award-winning garden writer and photographer judywhite. I also enthused about it myself in an earlier post.

Living Garden, A Place that Works with Nature,Jane Powers,review. Image: ©Frances Lincoln (all rights reserved) Perhaps it is the Irish influence that makes Dublin-based garden writer Jane Powers so quotable, for The Living Garden (published by Frances Lincoln) is full of sentences to admire. But it is just as likely to be her capacity for close-up observation, combined with the literary sensibility you might expect from a child of America’s National Book Award winner, J.F. Powers.

For a garden book that contains virtually no information about plant zones or hardiness – rather more geared for Irish or British gardeners than for Americans – it’s still surprisingly useful no matter your locale, because of Powers’ ability to present the big, integrated picture of what it means to save the planet, one garden at a time. This might sound tiresome, and in other hands it often is. But in this first-person account from her 1/6 of an acre town garden, the tone is accessible, opinionated, sometimes downright funny. This is a good book for beginners in particular, because it teaches you how to see what really goes on in a garden.

In ten chapters, only one is devoted to plants; as much detail as is spent on compost, “creatures”, soil and cycles. You have to love a book with a section on “Plants That Look Good Dead,” and a sidebar pleading for a return to clotheslines in the garden. Full of wonderful bits of natural lore (did you know honeybees have shorter tongues than bumblebees?), there are also classier-than-usual chapter header quotes that range from 500BC to present day, from philosophers and poets to physicists and novelists.

The subtitle, “A Place that Works with Nature”, is truly what Powers is after – essentially organic, sort of sustainable, with a lot of debris, none of it overly aggressive. It seems doable. “Were I to stop, this miniature world would slow down, and grind to a more sedate rotation, with far fewer living things on the wheel.” Makes you want to take up her rallying cry for gardens that live more broadly than most.



Star of the spring garden

Sanguinaria,canadensis,bloodroot,buds,flowers,native,pink. Image: © (all rights reserved)
We grow many American natives in our Pennsylvania garden, as well as some British ones. But one of the stars of them all – across the whole year - is the bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis. Thought to be the larval food plant for an unusual plant bug in this area (thought I'd mention that after recent controversies...), the pink form is perhaps the most lovely of them all. (Click the image above to see a larger version.)

From the moment the buds start to peep through it’s beautiful and intriguing. Then as the buds rise above the boldly veined new leaves (above left), which form a protective sheath as the buds push through the soil, they again repay close inspection. This was five days ago, on the 18th.

By the day before yesterday, 22nd, in cool and wet conditions, the buds had started to open (above center) and the weather was slowing their development so that we could enjoy this captivating stage in their development.

In a few days time, depending on the weather, the flowers will open completely (above right) White on the inside and pink on the outside, the flowers stay closed in dull conditions but flare open in the sun which highlights the pink veining. They may last a few days or perhaps two weeks – depending on the weather. They’re followed by very attractive leaves, more boldly divided than those of other forms (below, click to enlarge).

This is a real treasure, and increasing steadily. With the red flower stems of Epimedium grandiflorum ‘Princess Susan’ behind it makes a great combination. Both thrive in some shade and any reasonably good soil.

But there’s a problem. Hardly any nurseries list it. I got mine, along with that epimedium, from Darrell Probst’s Garden Vision a few years ago. It's expanded well. If anyone knows any other sources, especially in Britain, please post them in the comments below. It would be great to see this exceptional American woodland native more widely grown.

And take a look at my earlier post on other forms of bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis.

Sanguinaria,canadensis,bloodroot,buds,leaves,foliage,native,pink. Image: © (all rights reserved)

How "unique" is this new perennial?

Actaea,pachypoda,Misty Blue,dolls eyes,Mt Cuba. Image: ©Walters Gardens, Inc
Unique, or not?

Yesterday I was looking over the new introductions from the international perennials grower Darwin Perennials (Darwin Plants in Europe) and I noticed the new actaea that I’d written up over on my RHS New Plants blog back in February - Actaea pachypoda ‘Misty Blue’ (above, click to enlarge).

They descibe it as thus:
Cimicifuga pachypoda 'Misty Blue' Unique blue foliage, with white flowers in spring. In fall will make white berries on a little red stem. VERY Unique” (their CAPS)

It’s a lovely thing, but three points:

1.    Why do they call it Cimicifuga pachypoda ‘Misty Blue’? It’s true that a few years ago the two genera, Actaea and Cimicifuga were amalgamated – but under the name Actaea not under the name Cimicifuga. And this species was not placed in Cimicifuga even before the change, it’s always been an Actaea. So why confuse everyone by suddenly, out of the blue, calling it Cimicifuga - a name no longer valid? Aren't gardeners muddled enough by plant names?

2.    They describe it as "VERY unique" (their capitals) - which means it must be more unique than just, well, unique. So there must be other plants which are, perhaps, moderately unique or mainly unique or not very unique at all. No: it’s either unique, or it’s not unique. There’s either just the one, or there are more.
Actaea pachypoda 'Pewter and Pearls'. Image: ©
3.    In this case, as it happens, "not very unique at all" is more like it. There’s at least one other form of this species with that distinctive silvery/bluish foliage and it looks pretty much the same. Actaea pachypoda ‘Pewter and Pearls’ (above, click to enlarge) was selected by the British nurseryman Kevin Hughes and I spotted it at the 2009 Chelsea Flower Show. So ‘Misty Blue’ is, you might say, not "VERY unique" but only "slightly unique"! [The leaves are actually more similar in colour than my pictures suggest.]

I know, this might seem like pedantic and esoteric stuff. But we already have nurseries trumpeting as "new" plants which have been around for years. I'm just trying to keep them on their toes…

Either way, this/they is/are (a) lovely plants(s).

Best buddlejas for butterflies

Buddleja,buddleia,Orchid Beauty,butterfly,butterflies,RHS,trial. Image: © (all rights reserved) One of the many interesting points made in Jennifer Owen’s Wildlife of A Garden, reviewed here recently, is the value of Buddleja davidii as a food plant for moth larvae. Of course, it’s more commonly thought of as a food plant for adult butterflies, its common name is butterfly bush, and it was this feature which was examined during the recent trial at the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden at Wisley, near London.

It’s important to say at the outset that in some areas of the USA in particular, including the Pacific North West, it’s inadvisable and even illegal to plant Buddleja davidii as it has proved damagingly invasive.

In 2009 the adult butterflies visiting 49 of the cultivars of B. davidii in the trial were recorded and details were also taken of the flowering stage, the size of the shrubs and their flower color and fragrance.

Plants varied in their size and flowering stage but nevertheless the results show striking variations. Two cultivars stood out at the top of the list, ‘Orchid Beauty’ (above, click to enlarge) and ‘Foxtail’ (below, click to enlarge), followed by ‘Dart’s Ornamental White’ and ‘Pixie Blue’. At the other end of the list nine cultivars showed no adult butterfly visitors at all. Interestingly, Butterfly Conservation ran a trial in Dorset which revealed that ‘Foxtail’ was the buddleja most visited by butterflies. Buddleja,buddleia,Foxtail,butterfly,butterflies,RHS,trial. Image: © (all rights reserved)

The results of the RHS count, and the trial as a whole, are published in the recently published report which also states: “Colour seemed to have little impact on the choice of flowers that were visited by the butterflies. The top four cultivars are listed as being violet (x2), white and light blue.

“The strength of the scent seemed to have some impact. The top two had medium scent levels and the 3rd and 4th had relatively high. So it seems that a fair amount of scent is required to attract butterflies.

“A general observation indicated that the plants which were most popular were the cultivars which were the largest, and were densely covered in fully open flowers, indicating that the butterflies were attracted to the quantity of food on one plant.”

The report also lists the observations by Andrew Halstead, RHS Wisley Principal Entomologist. And of course it shows the cultivars which received the Award of Garden Merit and also gives the results of visitors’ votes for their favorite over three years – ‘Miss Ruby’ was the clear winner amongst visitors.

The RHS report on its three year buddleja trial is available here. Anyone interested in buddlejas should take a look as it's a fascinating and wide ranging assessment.

Note: writer at work

Many books use quotations at the heads of their chapters and, frankly, I don’t always find the dollops of Shakespeare or Milton, Jekyll or Sackville-West very inspiring. But in The Living Garden by Jane Powers (full review in a week or two), there are some unusually thoughtful and apposite choices.

They may lose a little of their power, detached from the chapters they introduce, but here’s a few examples anyway:

“Earth knows no desolation. She smells regeneration in the moist breath of decay.”
George Meredith.

“Out of the soil the buds come,
The silent detonations
Of power wielded without sin.”
R. S. Thomas

“I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment, while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn.”
Henry David Thoreau

“A good Garden may have some weeds.”
Thomas Fuller

“Time is what prevents everything happening at once.”
John Archibald Wheeler

Bodes well for the book as a whole, doesn't it.

Read more about The Living Garden by Jane Powers

Native plants are not always best for native insects

Wildlife of a garden,Jennifer Owen. Image ©RHS Native plants are not always best for native insects, non-natives also have an important role. That’s the message following a thirty year study in a British garden. For thirty years award-winning ecologist Dr Jennifer Owen studied, identified – and counted! – the insects and other creatures that visited her suburban garden in the English Midlands. And detailed it all in her invaluable book Wildlife of A Garden (Available in North America, and available in Britain) published by the Royal Horticultural Society.

She grew well over 400 different plant species - garden plants and weeds, natives and non-natives - in her garden (below, click to enlarge) which measures just 741square meters (8000 square feet). And she counted 23 species of butterflies, 375 species of moths, 94 species of hoverflies, 121 species of bees and wasps, 305 species of bugs, sawflies, lacewings and related creatures; 21 species of beetles, 122 species of other insects including two ants – all in her suburban garden. And 138 other invertebrates. And 57 birds and six mammals. Wildlife of a garden,Jennifer Owen,garden,Leicester. Image ©RHS

And as well as counting with extraordinary determination and great skill at identifying this vast variety of creatures – she also studied their food plants. And what did she find?

Dr Owens found that non-native species were better as food plants for moth larvae than native species. Moth larvae used 27% of the native species in the garden as food plants, and 35% of the alien plants. And 46 species of moth fed on 40 native plants in the garden, while 75 alien plants provided food for 38 species of moth.

She also looked at the four moth species with the most varied diets and the plants they ate. One ate 78% non-native plants, one ate 83% non-native plants, one 62% and one 79% non-native plants. They definitely didn’t favor natives. Of course, we don’t know how much of each plant each moth actually ate – after all, Dr Owen needs to get a few hours sleep each night.

And finally, what were the most popular food plants for moths? Plants in the rose family come out top, with seven native species and five non-native species used by 27 species of moth. And one of those native species, Potentilla fruticosa, is so rare in Britain it might almost be non-native. Next comes the Buddleja family represented only by the Chinese Buddleja davidii and used by 19 species of moth. The daisy family, the largest family of garden plants, hosts just 13 moth species all of which feed on aliens and only two of which feed on natives. And just to be clear: these are all British native moth species.

Wildlife of a garden,Jennifer Owen,tortoiseshell,aster. Image ©RHS You get the picture. I could go on, but this is just a blog post of a few hundred words. Read the book. OK then, one more thing. Dr Owen reports that of the 15 most widely used food plants in the garden nine are non-natives and only six are native. And some people think that introduced plants have no native larvae feeding on them at all!

This really throws the “natives are best” notion out of the window. We may like to think that natives are best, but they’re just not. And can’t we trust the insects know what they like to eat – wherever the plants come from? So why don’t we plant what the larvae actually like to eat, instead of what we think they ought to like?

This is an extraordinary piece of research summarized in a very readable and well illustrated book.

In my next post here, I’ll be looking at which buddlejas are best for adult butterflies. Because now we know.



* This post was originally headlined: "Alien plants are better for insects than natives – it’s official!" But after reflecting on the comments below, I modified it and substituted a less sensationalist headline. I also modified the introduction.

* At present, for some reason, and don't seem to realize they have the books in their own warehouses and are not listing them as being available. They are available for shipping anywhere in the world from The Royal Horticultural Society.

Love it or loathe it hydrangea

Graham Rice,Hydrangea,Forever,Ever,Fantasia. Image ©
The Forever & Ever® hydrangeas have been a great success in North America and are also now seen in Britain. The idea is simple: instead of flowering early in the season on the previous year’s growth, these hydrangeas flower later in the season on current year’s growth.

Setting aside whether we really want hydrangeas that flower when all the other similar hydrangeas are finished, a great advantage for many American gardeners is that they’ll still flower well even if a harsh winter kills the growth of the previous year, growth on which most hydrangeas bloom.

There are now nine varieties – but what do you think of the latest in the series - Forever & Ever® 'Fantasia'? Like it or loathe it? I’ve heard people say it looks charming and intriguing and also heard people say it looks diseased or infected – which it definitely isn’t – and they hate it!

Forever & Ever® ‘Fantasia’ is a cross between the pink-flowered ‘Adria’ and an unnamed pink flowered plant whose flowers matured to green. It was selected in The Netherlands in 2003.

But is it for the garden or the garbage? What do you think?

RHS Plant Finder – not just about finding plants

RHS,PlantFinder,2011/2012 Yes, the latest annual edition of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Plant Finder, one of the most important garden books ever published, is now out – both in its print edition and free online. But this is a British book, what use is it to gardeners anywhere else?

Just to remind you, this is the book that tells British gardeners which nurseries stock which plants. In this new edition there are 69,972 plants stocked by 566 nurseries! But that’s not much use in North America, although many nurseries will ship plants to other European countries only a few ship to the US and Canada.

More important to everyone else around the world, is the fact the RHS Plant Finder is also the most comprehensive reference to correct names of garden plants published anywhere. The team of RHS botanists, and their contacts all over the world, cautiously update the names as botanical science advances. All are carefully cross-referenced, of course, and in the online version all the plants that ever featured in previous editions are also included making it uniquely comprehensive. You just can't afford to be with out it.

The online edition of the RHS Plant Finder is free to anyone, an invaluable free service to gardeners from the RHS.