Previous month:
May 2011
Next month:
July 2011

June 2011

Grow Plants in Pots – a great new book for Brits

How To Grow Plants in Pots, Martyn Cox, UK edition Deciding to review a book by a friend can be a gamble – what to say if it turns out not to be good? Fortunately there's no such problem with the British edition of How To Grow Plants in Pots by Martyn Cox (Dorling Kindersley), which is full of well-presented practical advice and planting ideas for both ornamentals and food plants.

There's guidance on familiar container planting ideas like growing pelargoniums in pots and tomatoes, but also on growing aquatic plants and topiary and tree fruit and bananas and orchids and salads and even pineapples in containers. There are one or two unexpected omissions but in general a very wide range of ideas is presented. And all the information is presented in bite-sized nuggets so it's easy to get at and act upon.

This is a very useful book and well priced.

The book also comes in an American edition, called more simply Grow Plants in Pots, and this is where things go wrong. The original British edition needs quite a transformation to be useful to American gardeners but the work is perfunctory at best. There are no North American hardiness ratings included for perennials and shrubs; John Innes composts, popular in Britain, are recommended for American gardeners who can’t buy them; I immediately looked for advice on dealing with permanently planted containers in the cold winters so many American gardeners have to deal with, but there's none. There's little recognition of the fact that in some parts of the US no containers can ever be left outside all winter while in others they can all be left out as frosts are so rare. How To Grow Plants in Pots, Martyn Cox, US edition

The cover picture and title have been changed and, yes, the spelling has been Americanized, that's the easy part – the spellchecker in Microsoft Word will do that for you. And there are some small, but sometimes mysterious, changes in phrasing: "as these will be" in the UK edition becomes "because these will be" in the US edition; "blossom in pots" becomes "blossoms in pots" in the US. But the tomato varieties shown in the US edition are those recommended for Britain, not one of the many many heirloom tomato varieties sold widely in Home Depot and elsewhere in the US is included. The entry on lilacs fails to mention Bloomerang ('Penda'), the repeat flowering lilac now so popular in the US.

None of this, I hasten to say, is the author's fault. Martyn Cox is a highly respected British gardening columnist and he's written a very useful book for British gardeners. But the book needed a far more thorough transformation to be equally valuable in the North America.

Book bullets

  • Effective presentation of pictures and information in bite-sized nuggets.
  • The author's name is not on the cover. Why not?! In Britain his name is a selling point.
  • There are too many pictures from British flower shows.
  • Why make the UK edition hardback and the US edition paperback?


Name changes - don't you just love 'em?!

Cytisus battandieri,Argyrocytisus battandierii. Image © OK, it's the subject you love to hate… Your familiar plants have their names changed. Well, here's more - as reported in the latest issue of the The Plantsman magazine.

First thing – don’t shoot the messenger. And it's not the fault of the botanists, either, they're just doing research and applying the rules to what they find. It's all the fault of Carl Linnaeus. It was the great man who came up with the system that connects the name of every plant with its classification, with its relationship with other plants. And the result is that when science advances and we reach a new understanding of how plants relate to each other, sometimes the names have to change. That's all there is to it.

Now, I'm not going to go into all the background of the latest modest changes – I'm just going to tell you what they are.

First, that lovely honey scented shrub Cytisus battandierii. We can all see that it doesn't look much like other species of Cytisus. Well, now it's been decided that it's so very different that it deserves a genus all of its own. It's now Argyrocytisus battandierii (left, click to enlarge).

The black "iris", Hermodactylus tuberosus – finally it's been decided that it's really so similar to irises that Schizostylis coccinea, Hesperantha coccinia.Image ©GardenPhotos.comit's been placed irrevocably in Iris as Iris tuberosa. Belamcanda has moved into Iris as well.

And finally Schizostylis, invaluable late summer and fall flowering perennials for Britain and warmer zones in  the US. They've been moved into Hesperantha, so Schizostylis coccinea is now Hesperantha coccinea (right, click to enlarge).

Well, that wasn't so very bad was it? Or was it?

Praise for our worst invasive plant

Fallopia japonica,Japanese knotweed,invasive. Image © (all rights reserved)
As you might have noticed, I don't sympathize with some of the alarmist claims of the plant police about invasive plants. But I certainly believe that Japanese knotweed, Fallopia japonica as it is now correctly called, is a very very dangerous plant. I even recommend not growing the variegated version.

But here are some comments about this unkillable invasive that I came across on a popular mailing list (listserv) recently. I've not given the names of these folks to protect the, errr, naive:

"I'm wondering if I'm doing myself a disfavor by leaving it in? Does anyone have any negative input with this Fallopia japonica?" Negative input? I should say so. DIG IT OUT AND BURN IT!

"I had mine in medium light under a huge maple and a large spruce in really rotten dry soil. It was easy to keep under control in those horrible conditions - just whack off the suckers every spring.  Actually pretty in a shady spot. It never got really large. Think it was thirsty all its life." Pretty? Yes, but that's not the point.

"In the right place these plants can perform and behave well" Hah!

"I have seen it growing all over the county here in Tennessee.  It is a favorite of flower designers in the fall.  I would be careful about treating it nice though.  Take root sections to make more clumps since the seeds will take a longer time to get the effect you want in the garden." Make more clumps? NO!!!


New penstemons: delightful - or dead

Penstemon-Prairie-Twilight-_J029064 Last spring, the good people at the American offshoot of Blooms of Bressingham sent us some new penstemons to try. One of them, 'Prairie Delight', is (as Brits used to say) in its pomp at the moment – that is, it's looking wonderful. The others are dead. Let me tell you more.

Penstemon 'Prairie Delight' is a lovely thing. Created by the world's top penstemon expert, Dr. Dale Lindgren at the University of Nebraska where, believe me, it gets cold in the winter, it combines the blood of at least three different American native species - P. brevisepalus, P. gentianoides and P. parryi - although it seems there may be a little from other species in there somewhere as well.

Its spring rosettes are strongly red-tinted so you know you have Penstemon-Prairie-Twilight-_J029085 something interesting right from the start and then by early June it's sent up these red-tinted vertical stems… Well, you can see from the pictures (click to enlarge) how pretty the flowers are. We have it in three different spots, as long as it gets plenty of light it seems to thrive.

Contrast that with the four others we tried, all penstemons in the more flamboyant British style and none worth growing here: 'Sweet Joanne', 'Pensham Amelia Jayne', 'Pensham Elanor Young' and 'Pensham Czar' (below, click to enlarge). These have larger flowers, at their best (that would be in Britain) they're more dramatic, they're more juicy in their growth, they start to flower later, they continue for longer - and here in Pennsylvania they're all dead. What's worse, only two of them flowered at all last year, 'Pensham Amelia Jayne' and 'Pensham Czar', and those two were very sparse.

To be fair, I know the winters are too cold for them here. But I expected a really colorful display in their first and only summer. We put some in a large container in a really sunny spot, the others went in a new bed that gets at least half a day's sun. They grew well, but even those that flowered were not impressive – spindly and sparse.
I look forward to trying 'Prairie Delight' back in England, perhaps it will be as good as it is here in Pennsylvania or perhaps it will be poor. The others I know do well back in Britain, I've seen them looking superb.

And that's the thing: until you actually grow them you never know. The nurseries will tell you they're wonderful, but you never know till you try. That's why it's so valuable that growers like Blooms of Bressingham send out new plants for people like me to assess. I grow them, I take note. And, although I don’t always write them up as I have done here, growing them will inform my writing about them for years. 'Prairie Delight' is going straight into my new plants lecture.

Beavers at the bottom of our garden

  Beaver,garden,Nympaea,water lily. Image © (All rights reserved)
Well, what can I say? Friends in England just can’t believe we have beavers at the bottom of our garden but here they are.

Actually, this is Mr. Beaver. judy took these quick snaps as she stood on our boat dock last evening.

Mr. and Mrs. Beaver have, I'm sorry to say, developed a taste for water lilies – that's what he's munching. Fortunately, we have plenty round the 80 acre lake. But I think the time has come to wrap wire round our waterside trees to prevent them being gnawed through.

Fishing seems to have fallen off recently – when they see the boat they come out and try to scare us off by splashing their tail on the water. It makes quite a noise and frightens the fish, of course.

We seem to have three beavers at the moment, but judging by the activity later in the evening - there could be more on the way. [Pictures withheld to protect a private moment.] 
Beaver,garden,Nympaea,water lily. Image © (All rights reserved)

Beaver,garden,Nympaea,water lily. Image © (All rights reserved)

Brits don't grow New York's top roses

Rosa, rose, Brothers Grimm Fairy Tale, Korassenet, NYBG, Kordes. Image ©Kordes. Once I've looked through each issue of The American Gardener, the excellent member magazine from the American Horticultural Society, it goes - let's be honest - into the bathroom. Where it's perused again, now and then, before finally going on the shelf.

The other day I was looking through the March/April edition when I came again on the list of the top-rated roses at the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG). Frankly, many of them I didn't know. Then I wondered: how many of these are well rated in Britain?

So I started to look them up. Top of the NYBG list is Brother's Grimm Fairy Tale (right, click to enlarge). It's not listed at all by the Royal Horticultural Society in Britain, a Google search turns up almost nothing. First thing – that rogue apostrophe. Its correct name does not have that apostrophe.

Turns out it has five, yes, five other names. All but one are selling names used in various countries – Brothers Grimm Fairy Tale is also sold as Eternal Flame (in Britain), Joli Tambour, Gremlin, and it was first sold in the USA as Gebrüder Grimm. And the one thing that ties them all together is the correct cultivar name, which is 'Korassenet'.

In roses, the cultivar name, in this case 'Korassenet', is often more like an originator's code name and in those cases the rose is never sold solely under that name. You may have noticed them all in my recent review of David Austin's new rose book.

Rosa,rose,Caramel Fairy Tale,'Korkinteral', NYBG, Kordes. Image ©Kordes. But the international naming rules that govern these things state that the cultivar name must always be given with whatever selling name is being used, so no one ends up buying the same rose under two different names. Bad for the home gardener, but a disaster for a nursery which might buy 500 of each. Unfortunately, The American Gardener list did not include the cultivar name, neither does the NYBG's own list.

So… Once I'd discovered its true cultivar name, via the invaluable Help Me Find Roses website, I was able to look it up in Britain and found that there's only one British supplier and it has no awards. Not very encouraging.

I did the same with the rest of the top five. Next on the NYBG list was Caramel Fairy Tale ('Korkinteral') Rosa,rose,Cinderella Fairy Tale,'Korfolbalt',Kordes. Image ©Kordes. (left, click to enlarge), also known as Caramella and Reminiscence - no British suppliers. Third on the list was Cinderella Fairy Tale ('Korfolbalt') (right, click to enlarge), also known as Cinderella and La Giralda - no British suppliers. Fourth came 'Ducher', from way back in 1869 when muddling about with names was never even considered – no British suppliers. And fifth came Easter Basket ('Meiopoten') – no British suppliers.

So, not only did the five top roses at the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at the NYBG not have any awards or recommendations but only one was actually on sale in Britain – and from just one nursery.

And the research would have been far simpler if the names had been given as the international rules say they should be.

Our local Mountain Laurel

Kalmia,Mountain Laurel,Jaynes,40026. Image ©
All over the woods here in north east Pennsylvania the flowering of the Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) is at its peak. And it's intriguing to see how much the flower color varies in these lovely evergreen rhododendron relatives.

The three in the picture (click to enlarge) are all from wild in the woods no more than about 100ft/30m from our front door. Farther away there are darker pinks, almost red, and I noticed 15 miles away last night that great drifts of them were all noticeably dark.

This variation in wild plants has been enhanced by plant breeders, as can be seen in the pictures of the kalmias stocked by Rare Find Nursery and in the only book on this invaluable acid-loving shrubs – Kalmia: Mountain Laurel and Related Species by Richard A. Jaynes (Timber Press). Sadly, that book is now out of print but you can find it used at you-know-where for about $30 and new at up to almost $300! (£20 used or £25 from their British site.)

The only problem is deer - all those in the woods here are stripped bare to about 5ft/1.5m and those now inside our deer fence are slow to recover. We need deer candy Kalmia latifolia crossed with the short and suckering, 100% deer resistant Kalmia angustifolia. I discussed this idea a couple of years ago. We live in hope.


Discovering amsonia

Amsonia,hubrichtii,Leslie Hubricht. Image© (all rights reserved)
Back in March, I wrote about Amsonia hubrichtii, the 2011 Perennial plant Association Plant of the Year. I also wrote about its fantastic fall color in October last year. Now I know how it was discovered, thanks to the blog from Mississippi horticulturalist Gail Barton.

Amsonia hubrichtii was discovered in Arkansas in 1942 by the renowned malacologist (snail expert) Leslie Hubricht - he named 81 new kinds of land snails! His day job for much of his life was working for Remington on early computers but in 1942 he worked at the Missouri Botanical Gardens and after he brought back his amsonia from a snail hunting trip to Arkansas, it was his supervisor who confirmed that it was indeed a new species.

There's an interesting slant to the story which Gail Barton tells on her blog – but rather than cut-and-paste it here I'll simply suggest you hop over and take a look.

It's great to find how these plants were discovered and in this case it's also surprising that a colorful plant that grows across two states (it also grows in Oklahoma) was discovered so recently.

English Roses revealed


English Roses,David Austin,book, A couple of days ago I sat down to take a close look at the new edition of The English Roses by David Austin (Conran Octopus). This is a beautiful rose-by-rose account of the many many roses – new roses in the old style - created bythe British rose breeder David Austin and popular all over the world.

The original version of this book appeared in 1993, but the heart of this revised edition remains the same: studio portraits of individual English Roses, shot against a white background, are accompanied by short texts describing each rose and its virtues. The Clay Perry pictures from the old version have been replaced by beautiful portraits by Howard Rice.

The extensive introductory material is fascinating and the account of the origins of these indispensible roses reveals some interesting balancing of good qualities and less favorable ones in choosing new introductions. Over fifty varieties for which less favorable qualities have proved too dominating are reduced to short unillustrated entries at the end.

One double-edged change, compared with my 1993 edition, is that the roses are grouped according to their origins and general qualities instead of alphabetically. This helps us understand their connections with each other, and with the heritage and modern roses from which they're derived. But, of course, most of us looking up a particular rose will now have to go via the index.

I was very pleased to see that he points out the inevitable faults of some roses, like lack of fragrance, as The Wedgwood Rose,David Austin,English Rose,Ausjosiah. Image ©David Austin Roses. well as good qualities, and also mentions the impressive disease-resistance of some like Rosemoor ('Austough') -  "almost completely free of disease", The Mayflower ('Austilly')  - "completely free of disease" and The Wedgwood Rose ('Ausjosiah') - "virtually disease free" (right, click to enlarge). It was also good to see so many of his bush roses recommended as climbers; I've grown Heritage ('Ausblush') as a climber for many years and it's spectacular.

But this is not a book about growing English Roses – cultural advice takes up just four pages – so American readers will be disappointed that there's no advice on choosing and growing English Roses in North America. Perhaps we need a separate book: English Roses for American Gardens.

One odd thing: as it happened, the day I was looking over this book, our friend who looks after our garden in England emailed to report how well the rose she'd moved in the winter was doing, a dwarf and fragrant David Austin rose called 'Pretty Jessica'. I looked it up the book - but it's not there. I hunted, but I couldn't find it.

So I checked in my 1993 edition, and there it is – where its popularity, clear pink color, fragrance and its susceptibility to disease is noted. But it's vanished from the new edition – although it's still for sale on the website.

This is a beautiful book, with lovely photography and full of good information. It's a book in which it's a pleasure to learn more about the most important roses of recent times.

Book Bullets

  • There's plenty of space for much more information on each rose, why not use it?
  • How about lists of the most fragrant, the best for small gardens, the longest flowering etc?
  • How about some specific growing advice for American readers?
  • A few pages seem to be printed in bold type.
  • Where is 'Pretty Jessica'?!


Kolkwitzia Dreamcatcher finally flowers!

Kolkwitzia,Dreamcatcher,foliage,flower,Maradco. © (all rights reserved)
Ever since we received plants on trial from the shrub breeder and grower Spring Meadow Nursery (no retail sales), we've loved Kolkwitzia amabilis Dreamcatcher ('Maradco'). It's one of the best foliage shrubs I've ever grown. I wrote it up here in June last year, and mentioned that I was surprised that it never flowers. Now it has.

Perhaps it enjoyed last summer, perhaps it was the extra doses of lime. But the tips of many of the shoots on the slightly older plant, the one in more sun, are carrying reddish pink buds opening to almost white flowers. When I wrote about this plant last time I was cautious about the effect of the pink flowers against the yellow foliage – it actually looks pretty good.

So I thought I'd show it to you.

Images ©