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August 2011

Hurricane... We still have no power

It rained and it rained... The lake is 2-3ft higher than it was the day before... The little stream that runs through the corner of our property and is usually about 6in deep rose to 4-5ft and is now back close to normal. Two trees came down but not, thank goodnes, on the house.

Our power went out at lunch time on Sunday and the latest update from the extraordinarily uncommunicative electricity company is that it may be some time over this coming weekend before it's reconnected. This is part of the reason why.


So... after a 60 mile round trip yesterday to get ice for the freezer and fridge... Today we've found a coffee shop with both power and wifi - and bursting with people at their laptops.

If you're expecting a reply to an email... I apologise, I'll get to it as soon as I posibly can! But now we have to go get supplies and the shops are full of people like us whose food is starting to drip out of the bottom of the freezer!

But considering what many many other people are suffering - and with rivers still rising as the flood water fills them and then disastrously overspills their banks - we got off lightly.


Phlox: a splendid new book for naturalists

Phlox paniculata. Image © (all rights reserved)
The phlox are blooming and I have questions about them…. lots of questions, mainly about the tall American native Phlox paniculata, a classic British border perennial. So I turn with a relief to a new book on the subject Phlox: A Natural History and Gardener's Guide by James H. Locklear (Timber Press).

I'm looking for an expert's opinion:
* Why is P. paniculata 'David' no longer mildew resistant, was 'David's Lavender' ever resistant?
* I'm wondering if the many recent much shorter varieties from Holland are forms of P. paniculata or hybrids – and if they're hybrids, do they spread more, as we might expect (one parent does, the other not) and do they still get eelworm (again - one parent usually does, the other not)?
* What's the best way to take root cuttings and so avoid eelworm? Many home gardeners have problems with this eelworm-avoiding technique?
* Lots of ID confusions… Is 'Blue Paradise' the same as 'Blue Evening', for example, or is one being sold as the other?
* Do some varieties respond better to cutting back in May than others – so they flower on shorter plants and don’t need staking?

Phlox: A Natural History and Gardener's Guide by James H. Locklear (Timber Press) ISBN: 9780881929348l But it turns out that it's not that sort of book. This is an impressive and authoritative botanical work, with detailed descriptions of all the wild Phlox species. The wild distribution of each species is discussed, there are many details on the habitats of the plants at different sites, and invaluable accounts of the plants with which each species is associated – something rarely found in this detail in plant monographs and testament to the author's ten years of diligent research.

But, although enjoyably written and comprehensive when dealing with plants in the wild, the book answers none of my questions. Few cultivars of any species are mentioned, eelworm gets less than three lines, there is little on propagatrion, and cultivation advice is generally basic.

That would be fine, if there was also a book on Phlox for gardeners. But there's not. And I know from experience that once one book on a specialist plant subject has appeared – good or bad, comprehensive or not – it's very tough to persuade a publisher that another is needed.

Phlox: A Natural History and Gardener's Guide is a superb Natural History - but, sadly, not so hot as a Gardener's Guide.


Surprising plants succeed in dry shade

Hydrangea in Dry Shade. Image © (all rigts reserved)
I have a piece about growing plants in dry shade in Britain's Independent newspaper today and there's also a version in its sparky little sister paper i.

But as well as the plants I mention in the piece - and the many I discuss in my new book Planting the Dry Shade Garden - a couple of slightly unexpected plants have been doing surprisingly well in dry shade this year.

The first is Hydrangea arborescens 'White Dome', you can see it in the picture (click to enlarge). Only one nursery seems to stock it in Britain, though it's much more widely available in North America, but its broad white lacecap flowerheads set against rich green leaves are lovely and well supported by slender but strong stems. What's more, the skeletons of those same flowers don't fall to pieces in the autumn but remain through the winter for a lovely second season effect.

The other surprising dry shade success has been the yellow-leaved creeping Jenny, Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea' (on the right, at the front in the picture). This shows the benefit of a little soil improvement, its shallow roots taking moisture from just the top few inches of soil. It looked a little sad when it got really parched but soon colored up when a little of our recent thunderstorms penetrated the tree canopy.

For more on dry shade…
Read my piece in The Independent
Subscribe to The Independent's lively little sister i
Find out more about the book on its own British website
Find out more about the book on its own North American website
Order the book in Britain
Order the book in North America
Check out the book's Facebook page

More depressing vole stuff (sorry)

Hosta eaten by vole. Image © (all rights reserved) Those voles are still at it. This picture shows the latest hosta chewed right through at the crown in one night. There are spaces all over what is usually a very crowded garden, now, though fortunately they don't seem to go for coleus or phlox or shrubs. Hostas are definitely the favorites.

Nicki the Vole Slayer must have caught more than thirty so far, when it started we never thought to keep a proper count. Duffy the Duffer (who's usually dozing when Nicki is out on patrol) has had two that we know of and perhaps a few more. Yesterday I watched Duffy stroll across the living room and simply step over a dead vole dispatched and left there by one or other of them. Never even looked at it. [Scroll down to see the two of them on the left.]

The guy, by the way, with the live trap (that would be me) has caught two voles, plus two chipmunks and two mice. So Duffy and I are about on a par – except I spend less time sleeping.

So what next? I'm worried about the winter when I'm afraid they'll spend months munching away under the snow. Poison has been mentioned, says the vegetarian. We're that desperate.

Heucheras: Changing through the seasons

Heuchera 'Tiramisu', Multiseason. Images ©
As I mentioned the other day, I've been thinking about heucheras recently - working on the next book, the new one is only just out. There are hundreds of heucheras now available, originating both in North America and in Europe, and I've especially been thinking about the qualities that make the very best varieties really stand out.

In the previous post I concentrated on those Heuchera varieties that combine good flowers and good foliage, now I've been wondering about those whose foliage changes with the seasons, providing different appeals at different times of the year.

Again I came up with my own list, and then got some advice from a real expert. My list was:

'Autumn Leaves'          

'Electric Lime'               
'Ginger Ale'
'Midnight Bayou'           

'Peach Flambé'
             'Southern Comfort'
'Tiramisu' (above, click to enlarge)

I then asked advice from Jooles Burton who, with her husband Sean, runs Heucheraholics. Apart from having just about the best nursery name in Britain, Heucheraholics is one of the two British Heuchera specialists who've done so much to popularise the plants in Britain.

"I think you've picked out the best of the Changelings," she said, "but these are a few that are also very good and always doing something different. 'Berry Smoothie' is the most amazing spring colour I have ever seen - squashed raspberries – and 'Snowstorm' has lovely pink winter colour, very different. But 'Pinot Gris' is favourite (but don't ask me why!), the gingery foliage with its silvery overlay ages to smoky rose.

"'Midnight Rose' has burnished black leaves, thickly spotted hot pink in spring and then the summer leaves are paler and dotted with cream and pink.

"I'm sure there's lots more, 'Ginger Peach', 'Encore', 'Beauty Colour', 'Georgia Peach', 'Marmalade, 'Mahogany', 'Pretty Perinne'… As you know they can appear totally different depending on shade/sun/water/cold etc... I love the way the colours become richer as the nights get colder."

Again, it's good to know that real expert who's been growing old and new heucheras for years doesn’t think my choice is completely mad! And with her great suggestions it just proves how many of these plants have that quality which is so valuable, especially in small gardens: growing plants whose foliage changes its color and tones as the months pass is like growing two or three different pants in the same place.

You can check out the Heucheraholics nursery website, run by Jooles and Sean Burton, at Please note that they do cannot send plants to North America.

And don't forget to check my earlier post on heucheras with both good flowers and good foliage.

Heucheras: for flower and foliage

Heuchera 'Rave On' Images ©Terra Nova Nurseries
I've been thinking about heucheras a lot recently. I know, there are lot to think about - and actually that's the point. There are so many that are good foliage plants, but what is it that makes the special few really special?

Two things I think. Varieties that change during the year, their foliage color shifting from one color to another so that the one plant looks different at different seasons is one important factor, I'll be giving a few thoughts on that next time. The other feature I look for is varieties that have good flowers as well as good foliage.

This is the list I came up with for the best heucheras for both flower and foliage. Of these 'Rave On' (above, click to enlarge) is my top pick.

'Café Ole'                        
'Cinnabar Silver'

                              'Peppermint Spice'
'Pretty Perrine'                 'Rave On'

'Stainless Steel'

I then asked Vicky Fox of Plantagogo, one of the two British nurseries who specialize in heucheras, what she thought of my list and if she had any other recommendations. She's grown more heucheras than I've ever heard of so she's well worth asking. Here's what she said:

"All the ones you mentioned are good although I find 'Rave On' (above, click to enlarge) can be hit and miss - a bit thin on the foliage sometimes, flowers well though. 'Shanghai' (below, click to enlarge) has fabulous flowers here continually flowering all summer, it has beautiful foliage on a compact plant. It would be a sin not to mention it. 'Fireworks' and 'Ebony and Ivory' are good flowering varieties too, with attractive foliage.

"Out of the older varieties 'Rachel' flowers for a long time and 'Jade Gloss is really good too, it flowers all summer with lovely foliage.

 Our favourite picks in the UK would be 'Milan', 'Paris', 'Rachel', 'Jade Gloss' and 'Shanghai' (below, click to enlarge). 'Havana' is nice but must have plenty of shade, it flowers very well in right position and of course the foliage is stunning."

Heuchera 'Shanghai' Images ©Terra Nova Nurseries

Well, it's good to know that I've not gone completely mad and that Vicky likes my list. I should mention that 'Stainess Steel' and 'Moonlight' have not yet made it to Britain so she couldn’t really comment on those two. It's such a help when you get advice from someone who really knows the plants and grows them all.

You can check out the Plantagogo nursery website, run by Vicky and Richard Fox, at Please note that they do send plants to North America.

Next time, heucheras whose foliage changes with the seasons.

New coreopsis at the New York Botanical Garden

judy spent a day shooting in New York this week…

Coreopsis 'Ruby Frost' - impressive at the New York Botanical Garden. Image © (all rights reserved) I was at the New York Botanical Garden on Tuesday and was struck by a Coreopsis that was in the Home Gardening Center, Coreopsis ‘Ruby Frost’ (left, click to enlarge), a deep clear red flower with a white picotee edge. It is one of three new Coreopsis in the Hardy Jewel Series from plant breeders Terra Nova, and was planted alongside the other two: ‘Garnet’ (dark pink with red center) and ‘Citrine’ (deep clear yellow). But the ‘Ruby Frost’ was performing by far the best, and to my eye its beauty was really magical.

The color combination certainly is different. Most Coreopsis are yellow, yellow and red, or, less commonly, pink and red, or red and yellow (as in ‘Route 66’). The red and white flowers of ‘Ruby Frost’ are bigger and much brighter than the all-red ‘Limerock Ruby.’ The plant habit of ‘Limerock Ruby’ always seems too open and sort of weedy-looking to me, the color dull. ‘Ruby Frost’ was much denser in flowers and more mounding.

‘Ruby Frost’ is a 2010 Terra Nova introduction, but this was the first I’d seen it. It’s supposed to be hardy through zone 6 (the hardiest of the Hardy Jewels), so I guess we can’t have it here in our Pennsylvania zone 5 unless we treat it as an annual; possible, I guess, since its growth rate is supposed to be fast and they flower all summer. It spreads the most in the series, 32in/80cm and supposedly gets up to 26in/66cm high with flowers on it.

‘Garnet’ (zone 7) was far more distinctly pink and red at NYBG than the oversaturated dark pink pictures on the TN website – more like ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ but reaching only about 12in/30cm high. ‘Citrine’ (zone 6b or 7) (below, with 'Garnet', click to enlarge) is a nice bright color and at only 7in/18cm high is a much lower, more compact grower than many of the other yellow tickseeds.  Be on the lookout, though, on both sides of the Atlantic, for ‘Ruby Frost’ – it is a definite wow.

Coreopsis 'Garnet' and 'Citrine' at the New York Botanical Garden. Image © (all rights reserved)

Help with crab apples, please

Mystery Malus Number One. © (All rights reserved) I'm having some trouble with crab apples. Not that they've got some terrible disease or the voles are eating them as well as everything else, no.

I have some great pictures of their flowers that I'd like to use - but I don't know what varieties they are. I know some expert plantspeople check in here, so can anyone help?

The first one (left, click to enlarge) has distinctive bi-colored flowers which I thought I'd be able to find, but not so far - not even in Father John Fiala's monumental book Flowering Crabapples.
Mystery Malus Number Two. © (All rights reserved)
The second one (right, click to enlarge) we thought might be 'Golden Hornet' but the  flowers seem a little large, a little too blushed, and the foliage a little pale.

Finally, a very prolific one with darkish leaves (left below, click to enlarge) – not with purple foliage like 'Royalty' but with a purplish tint. It makes a neat rounded tree, with small Mystery Malus Number Three. © (All rights reserved) purple-red fruits. 'Lemoinei' perhaps? It's not an old tree, so perhaps one of the more recent ones.

Crab apples are just not something I know a huge amount about. So any help will be gratefully appreciated.

Variegated ceanothus - old and new

Ceanothus 'Zanzibar', the first of the variegated varieties. Image © (all righjs reserved)
With more variegated ceanothus appearing, we now seem have about eight, this seems a good moment to take a look. Any evergreen shrub that features variegated foliage to spark interest in all those months when there are no flowers is well worth having. With ceanothus the flowers and the foliage look good together too.

The first variegated ceanothus I grew, back in the 1990s, and the first to appear was 'Zanzibar' (above, click to enlarge), less often but more correctly known as 'Pershore Zanzibar'. It's still the most often seen in Britain, its broad leaves each with a central dark green stripe and wide lemon-lime edge. It's a sport of the old favorite 'A. T. Johnson'.

This is an upright and bushy plant and from a distance the effect is of a pale yellow cloud, so it makes a good back-of-the-border feature. Then in spring the clusters of pale blue flowers are shown off beautifully. The foliage can be little sparse in early spring, as it tends to lose its oldest leaves in the winter, but new growth soon makes up the deficiency. El Dorado ('Perado'), found as a sport on 'Pershore Zanzibar', is similar, but less bright and with a broader green stripe, and some say its softer coloring helps it integrate with other plants more effectively.

The next I grew - I have a feeling it was sent to me in England by the Seattle plant nut Bob Lilly also in the 1990s - was 'Diamond Heights', one of two variegated forms of the spreading C. griseus. Lurking in the back of my memory is the notion that this was found amongst an extensive planting along a road in the district of San Francisco of that name. With a much lower, more spreading and mounding habit of growth, its deep green center and broad limey yellow edge, and its pale blue flowers in late spring and early summer  - 'Diamond Heights' is ideal trailing over a sunny stone retaining wall.

More recently we’ve had a rather different variegated form of C. griseus, 'Silver Surprise', a sport of 'Yankee Point', which is more upright and bushy than 'Diamond Heights', but less big and bold than 'Pershore Zanzibar', and with the edges of the dark green leaves marked in silvery white. The blue flowers appear in Ceanothus 'Lemon and Lime', the latest variegated form. Image © (all rights reserved) late spring.

Now, recently introduced, from England, and with longer, more slender foliage ' Lemon and Lime' (left, click to enlarge) is a variegated version of the old favorite 'Cynthia Postan' and has a more airy and refined look than 'Pershore Zanzibar'.

There are more… 'Golden Elan', with pink flowers; 'Bright Eyes', said to be similar to 'Diamond Heights'; 'Blue and Gold', which is said to revert to green. But these I've never seen.

The problem, of course, is that with their progenitors originating in California they're not as hardy as we'd like. Can't grow them here in north east Pennsylvania. Planting against a west or south wall is a big help for the more upright ones, as is good drainage and knocking off any winter snow accumulation.

All we need now is a variegated form of the black-leaved Ceanothus 'Tuxedo'. Wow!

Our cheeky chipmunks

This year it's been a bumper year for voles, and a bumper year for the much less destructive chipmunks. It all seems to run in cycles: we've never before had a plague of voles, and even Nicki The Vole Slayer can't keep up with them. Chipmunks - some years, like this year, they're everywhere and some years we hardly see a one. But it was a treat to see this one on the deck rail, tasting a strawberry that had become a little too squidgy for human consumption.

And here's last year's chipmunk picture.