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July 2011

New variegated plants - a first look

Alstroemeria Rock n Roll, Prunus Frilly Frock, Antirrhinum 'Eternal Magenta'. Images © (all rights reserved)
This is the first of three posts about variegated plants. At the end of last month I took a look at Britain's National Plant Show, a trade show focused on plants - and not the garden furniture, barbecue grills and bird food that seems to take over so many trade shows.

One thing that struck me was the number of new variegated plants on show, so here's a few notes on six of them. All look well worth trying – depending on your tastes.

I'm hesitant to give heights and hardiness guidance as they've not yet been fully assessed and the information presented with some of the plants seemed a little suspect. One or two are just starting to become available, but over the next year they should all turn up in retail nurseries or garden centers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Alstroemeria Rock ‘n’ Roll (‘AlsDuno1’) (above left, click to enlarge)
This was perhaps the most startling plant I saw, a new variegated Alstroemeria from New Zealand. Each leaf of Rock ‘n’ Roll has a broad white to cream splash in the center and plants are topped by vivid orange-red flowers. You can't miss it.

Prunus Frilly Frock (‘FPMSPL’) (above center, click to enlarge)
There are virtually no variegated cherries (Prunus) except evergeens, so it was exciting to see this small weeping cherry with such bright variegated foliage. Ideal in a container, after clouds of small white flowers the yellow edged foliage develops from leaves which open green and then in the autumn it all turns purple, red and yellow.

Antirrhinum ‘Eternal Magenta’ (above right click to enlarge)
We've had variegated antirrhinums before, mostly seed raised types, but ‘Eternal Magenta’ is the first intended to be raised from cuttings and so dependably true in flower color and variegation. Slightly greyish foliage with white margins is topped by pink (not magenta) flowers. I have a few trial plants in the garden and they're starting to look good.

Alonsoa Lucky Lips Scarlet (below left, click to enlarge)
I vaguely remember seeing a variegated Alonsoa a couple of decades ago, but now there's Lucky Lips Scarlet from Penhow Nurseries in Wales and the bright orange-red flowers make a very effective contrast to the yellow-edged foliage.

Olearia arborescens ‘Moondance’ (below center, click to enlarge)
The first variegated form of this New Zealand native species, and developed in New Zealand, the deep dark green evergreen leaves are brightly splashed in yellow around the edges.

Petunia Surfinia Variegated Mini Purple (below right, click to enlarge)
Every few years a new variegated trailing petunia turns up, and mostly they disappear after not very long – they never seem to catch on. Perhaps this one will, you can't say it's not colorful with those vivid purple flowers set against brightly yellow edged leaves.

Alonsoa Lucky Lips Scarlet, Olearia arborescens 'Moondance', Petunia Surfinia Mini Purple Variegated. Images © (all rights reserved)

If you come across any of these plants on sale, please post the news as a comment below. Thanks.

Next time I'll be taking a look at variegated ceanothus.

My Sweet Pea Book has a new rival

RHS Sweet Pea Trial 2011. Image ©
It's odd, reviewing a book that's in direct competition with one of my own. For my Sweet Pea Book now has a rival in Sweet Peas: An Essential Guide by Roger Parsons (Crowood Press).

Fortunately, Roger's book takes a slightly different tack from mine with more emphasis on growing for showing and on the Spencer types which dominate the showbench. and with less focus on old fashioned heirloom sweet peas and growing sweet peas as garden flowers. It seemed to me that with the British National Sweet Pea Society and its publications so focused on exhibitors, what was needed was a book that would appeal more to non-specialists.

So many gardeners love sweet peas, and have no intention of doing anything but growing them in the garden and cutting a few for the house, that I thought that in my book exhibiting could take a back seat - though the basics are covered. Roger's account of what is perfect in the shape of a flower, quoting the precise angle between the wings that is acceptable, is fascinating for the truly devoted but a step too far for most non-exhibitors.

My book describes a large number of different varieties of all kinds – I sat on a stool in front of them to write most of the descriptions and they're presented in an A-Z format. Roger groups his by the color classification of the National Sweet Pea Society but although he grows far far more than I ever have or will, he describes few in detail. Grouping them by color is a good idea - when my book is revised I'll be including recommendations of the top garden varieties in each color group.

But, you know, let's not do any more his-and-mine stuff. Who cares?! The books are aimed at different types of sweet pea enthusiasts – and the real fanatics will quite rightly buy both. Although I must mention the photography. The The Sweet Pea Book features some gorgeous studio photography by the award-winning photographer judywhite showing a huge range of different varieties and so helping gardeners choose exactly the colors they want.

To be honest, I'd say if your main aim is competitive exhibiting then buy Roger's book. If not, then buy mine. Better still buy both.

At the moment it's easier to get my book in North America and Roger's in Britain although both are available on both continents. Here are buttons to buy books, on both sides of the Atlantic. And don't forget you can find out more about The Sweet Pea Book at its very own website. Find out more about Roger Parsons at his website.



More slaughter in the garden

Begonias eaten by voles. Image  ©
A few days ago I posted here about the mysterious pest munching our plants… This morning another disaster. These begonias eaten off at the ground. Every night there seems to be more including four hostas, now, and any number of other plants.

And now that our dense planting is getting thinner (with so many plants decapitated) we can see the holes – there are holes everywhere. And judging by what Nicki The Vole Slayer (left, scroll down) is bringing in every day, the culprits look like (I kid you not) Microtus pennsylvanicusthe meadow vole. Its even named after our state! And a state is exactly what we're in. Can't go on like this.

Nicki will just have to spend more time outside because Dozy Duffy, our other cat who roams inside the deer fence, is to put it mildly – utterly useless as a vole slayer.

OK, time to wake her from her slumbers and get her back to work. There are voles to slay, plants to protect. Where are you Nicki?

UPDATE (two days later): I finally gave in and put out a little trap, I just can't keep losing all these plants. This morning, after the first night - the trap has completely disappeared...

My new book: Planting the Dry Shade Garden

Planting The Dry Shade Garden by Graham Rice (Timber Press) I have a new book out next month! The top-selling American garden writer Tracy DiSabato-Aust says about it: "Graham Rice will take your dry shade garden from ho-hum to hip-hip-hooray." Well, there's a quote for you!

Planting The Dry Shade Garden, published by Timber Press, fearlessly tackles the most difficult situation in the garden, the place that makes gardeners despair and want to move house, or give up gardening and take up bridge – that dry and shady place where you think nothing will grow. Well, think again. Don't assume it's no better than the ideal site for the shed. I've put together a whole book full of plants that will do well in dry shade and bring beauty to your garden.

I've also laid out some simple guidance on how to make dry shade both less dry and less shady. These are basic things you can do to expand the range of plants you can grow in dry shade.

So combining simple steps to improve the situation with a smart choice of plants, dry shade ceases to be a problem and becomes another area of your garden that you can make beautiful. Planting The Dry Shade Garden explains how.

The photography in the book is mainly the work of award-winning photographer judywhite so not only is the book packed with good advice, but the pictures reveal the beauty of the plants you can grow.

The book is published by Timber Press in North America on 16 August 2011 and Britain on 1 September 2011. Please check out the book's North American website at and its British website at And why not place an advance order at or and receive the book as soon as possible when it's published?

Harry Potter and the Horticultural Hogwash

Here's a great little video from Dr Markus Eichhorn, an ecologist at the University of Nottingham, pointing out some of the horticultural blunders in the Harry Potter movies.


I've seen none of the Harry Potter movies (Hah!) so can't add more.

But I once started keeping a record of all the plants I'd spotted on far and distant planets visited on Star Trek. I began when Captain Picard, I think it was, beamed down into a large field of argyranthemums (marguerites), of all things, and another episode found Captain Kirk and his crew slashing their way through a forest of garden centre sized date palms.

But the truth is I just couldn't face watching every episode of Deep Space Nine on the off-chance of spotting a begonia.

The most gorgeous delphinium in the world!

Delphinium,Alice Artindale. © (ll rights reserved) While I was over in England recently, I had supper with my old Northamptonshire friends the artist Carry Akroyd and Gordon Monk, the craftsman in wood. And in their garden is the most beautiful delphinium in the world – 'Alice Artindale'.

OK, I would say that, wouldn't I - I gave it to them many many years ago and it's done well in a cosy corner of its own with brick walls behind. In fact Carry has coaxed what is often a difficult plant to grow well into two fat clumps of over forty spikes – not including those cut for the house.

This is an old variety, introduced in 1936 by the Sheffield nursery of William Artindale and Son, where it was spotted by Ted Barker, presumably one of the staff, and named for the boss's wife.

This is where my memory gets hazy because I seem to remember that there were two or three others, with the same flower form, introduced at the same time; I even vaguely remember knowing the names of the others, writing about them long ago and quoting the number of petals in each flower. Sadly, the last resort of looking it up in my own books proves unhelpful.

Two others in the same style, 'Liz Pelling' and 'Susan Edmunds' have been raised more recently and in Britain Hayloft Plants have introduced some, the Highlander Series, which look rather similar. I'm keeping my eye on them on trial at nearby Foxtail-Lilly and am looking forward to seeing them flower. I've just noticed that Mr Fothergill's also have them in Britain. If anyone knows where to get them in North America, please post a comment below.

It would be marvellous to have the same flower form in other colors.

What ate my hosta?

Hosta 'Maui Buttercups', pest, eaten. © Back in Pennsylvania, we find the top growth of a newly planted hosta, 'Maui Buttercups', laying on the path, the crown has been eaten right through. The top growth of a 9in/23cm begonia has also been severed right through. Very odd…

Before I went away a plant of Pelargonium 'Vancouver Centennial' completely disappeared in just one night - something I've never seen before. Although, now I come to think about it, I seem to remember that years ago a large hellebore, planted about six months earlier, collapsed when all the roots were eaten.

The cats have been catching some little black vole-like creatures recently but they don't look as if they could eat a whole pelargonium in one night. What's going on?

Helleborine orchids in our garden

While I've been woozing over my jet lag, judy has been inspecting the increasingly prolific orchids in our Pennsylavina garden.

Epipactis helleborine, Broad-leaved Helleborine Orchid. © (all rights reserved)
It’s that time of year at the lake when the hardy Epipactis helleborine orchid is in bloom again. It’s not a native orchid – only one Epipactis, E. gigantea, is a native American. The Broad-leaved Helleborine Orchid is from Europe originally, and, in fact, in some places in the United States (especially Wisconsin) this beautiful plant is invasive, so much so that it’s called the Weed Orchid. It’s been naturalized in the States since at least 1879. (I read that originally it was introduced by American colonists as a medicinal plant, theoretically good for gout. There are scientific studies showing its in vitro activity as an antiviral against HIV-1 and HIV-2 as well as influenza A.)

Here in our 1400ft (425m) high Pennsylvania mountain garden, though, the helleborine orchids just kind of pop up, usually one at a time in scattered spots, often gone the next year, and we are rather fond of the gently random nature. Although they spread by rhizomes, ours seem to spread more by seed, so clearly we have conditions conducive for the necessary mycorrhizal fungi that help the seeds germinate. Generally these orchids grow in semi-shade, but sometimes in lots of sun, and though supposedly Epipactis prefer moist – or even wet – environments, ours are exceedingly adaptable and drought-tolerant, a good plant for dry shade.

Broad-leaved Helleborine Orchid, Epipactis helleborine,daylily,fern. ©GardenPhotos.comHelleborines make tall spikes of little half-inch to three-quarter inch (1.2-2cm) flowers; some of our plants have nearly 50 blooms, with the inflorescence reaching over 2ft (60cm) high. This year there seems to be a vast number of pollinators on the ones in the most shade (I’ve noticed bees on them), and the flowers, which open successively from the bottom up, are turning into seedpods almost immediately upon opening.

Last year I took some seedpods and scattered them around the various garden beds, so there are some unexpectedly nice woodland plant combinations this month. With green sepals and lavender-tinted petals, the helleborine flowers are looking lovely with a lavender-toned Japanese painted fern cultivar (Athyrium nipponicum var. pictum) that we’ve lost the tag of, amid the lacy sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum). A few are blooming under the Hydrangea arborescens ‘White Dome’, which is also in full flower, and one helleborine has struck up the tallest presence our main garden border in a fair amount of sun; it’s opening much later than the others.

The name “helleborine” supposedly is because they resemble hellebores. I don’t get it. No part of them, not the flowers, and definitely not the plant habit, look like hellebores in the least to me. I’ve even got the two growing side-by-side. Linnaeus must have been a little drunk on Swedish schnapps when he named the species.

Ageing disgracefully

Argyranthemum,,marguerite,cobbitty daisy, fading. Images ©
I was looking at the trial of marguerites, Argyranthemum, sometimes known as cobbitty daisies, at the Royal Horticultural Society's garden at Wisley near London this week. One hundred and seven different varieties from around the world all grown in one place. A great opportunity to compare.

Two things struck me. Firstly, the old varieties like 'Jamaica Primrose' were only just starting to flower while modern varieties were covered in flowers. And already plants of the old varieties were generally much larger. But, more importantly, I was struck by the fact that while the flowers of some faded harmoniously the flowers of others deteriorated badly and as they faded they detracted from the display.

This is important because if you have to pinch off the flowers before they're finished the impact is dramatically reduced.

In the picture, the plant on the left is Summit Pink ('Cobsing') and the single flowers open in rose pink then fade to white. Very pretty and with a bonus: as the flowers finally die, the petals roll back as they turn brown and are hardly visible at all so no deadheading is needed.

On the right, San Vicente ('Ohmadsavi') opens a deep magenta rose then becomes paler and paler at the tips of the petals at the same time developing an odd little white crest in the middle. The result is a mess which could only be improved by cutting off half the flowers in the picture. What's more, as you can see, as the petals turn brown they remain on show. Not good.

The classic plant for ageing disgracefully is Achillea 'Fanal', often known as 'The Beacon'. As the tiny flowers first open, the flat heads are a brilliant scarlet. Then it all goes wrong, and as the later flowers are at their peak the earlier ones have turned the colour of dirty dishwater. Of course, you cut them off – but then the display is certainly much brighter, but very very thin.

The ability to fade harmoniously is not always a feature that can be easily appreciated when you come across an unfamiliar plant in flower in the nursery. But look carefully at all the plants on offer and it's often possible to look into the future and see how the flowers will mature.

Catbirds outside our window

While I was at the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, my wife judy sent over this guest post on the Gray Catbirds in our Pennsylvania garden. Thanks judy.

Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) on her nest. Image © (all rights reserved)
We see Gray Catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis) here at the lake as regular summer residents, but this is the first time a pair built a nest outside our bedroom window. It’s comprised mostly of twigs, located about 6ft/1.8m off the ground, near the top of evergreen shrubbery but still hidden, and while only 4ft/1.2m from our window, absurdly hard to photograph because of the shrubs and the difficulty in getting our casement windows open wide enough. It has been wonderful, however, as a vantage point thru the nesting process.

Catbirds are so named because of the meowing sound they can make, but are actually songbirds and also good mimics of other birds and sounds, in the same category as mockingbirds. We’re pretty sure ours are also making the odd squeaking noise that sounds like someone’s reeling in a clothesline. The genus name, Dumetella, means “small thicket” - where they build their nests.

Our pair began building on June 8, and a few days later the female began incubating, but almost immediately crows forced her off the nest and took the single egg. We figured the catbirds would abandon, but less than 2 days later, on June 13, she began sitting again. Four more eggs had been laid, a beautiful, deep turquoise green-blue, much richer than an American robin’s egg color.

Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) with babies. Image © (all rights reserved)
The female rarely left the nest during incubation (typically 12-14 days, during which it rained on her a lot, kind of like watching Dr. Seuss’s elephant Horton Hatches An Egg). The male sometimes hovered around. Between June 26-27th, three babies hatched, tiny, naked and vulnerable. Both parents, sometimes both at the nest at once, began feeding them insects – I saw one catch a huge moth in the air, bring it to the nest and shove it down a bright yellow-gold throat. The female stayed on the nest a lot the first few days, but after that, she spends perhaps 20% of her waking time there. Oddly, when she leaves, the male often sticks around and acts worried, tittering and flashing open his tail and wings in short bursts, but it’s like it would never occur to him to actually get on the nest until she gets back.

Catbirds are unusual in that they are versatile eaters; insects, berries, fruit, even coming to the suet feeder, and occasionally awkwardly eating the big sunflower seeds. What I see being given the nestlings, however, was almost entirely insect until about a week old, when Amelanchier berries became a good part of the mix. I’ve been putting out strawberries and grapes, which the parents eat. Even more than the birdfood, though, they love the birdbath; sometimes both parents are in there at once, splashing around in what seems to be great delight. They also stay out til quite late at night, well after all other birds have disappeared.

Catbird fledgling. Image © (all rights reserved)
The babies grow incredibly fast; hour-by-hour they zoom in size. And today, June 7th, 10-11 days from hatching, I looked out the window early this morning to discover everyone was gone. The nestlings have all fledged, leaving this nest. Catbirds often have two broods a year, so we’ll see if they use this small thicket again, especially after having to endure human faces peering at them so often.

For a relatively shy species, they’ve been amazingly tolerant. I already miss them.