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December 2011

Book Bullets: Two Important Re-Issues by Christopher Lloyd

No one in recent times - and not so recent times, come to that – has known plants so well, had such decided opinions about them, and written about them so persuasively as Christopher Lloyd. So what a treat to have two of his best books back in print.

“He challenged fashion, flouted conventions and poked fun at correctness,” says Fergus Garrett, who was Christo’s, and now Great Dixter’s, Head Gardener in his introduction to the re-issue of The Adventurous Gardener. And that’s what this book is about. Bursting with bold opinion, rich in planting ideas and written in his always entertaining style.

Foliage Plants, its companion re-issue, was the book that made me realize that garden writing could be funny. [What on earth was I thinking before?] In a time, almost 40 years ago, when foliage was not at all fashionable, the great man is way ahead of the rest of us with his appreciation of the value of leaves.

Have to mention, btw, that these reissues are very basic paperbacks: no color pictures, no fancy design, with the focus on the text. But of course it's the writing that counts. And, thank goodness, the botanical names are updated.

The Adventurous Gardener and Foliage Plants, by Christopher Lloyd, are published by Frances Lincoln.

  • Two invaluable texts, available again with updated plant names
  • Simple, elegant, but fairly basic format




Declaration of interest: I wrote a book with Christopher Lloyd back in 1997. It does not seem to be part of this re-issue program!

Christmas Day flower counts

Helleborus argutifolius often seems to flower at Christmas. Image ©
Well, having discussed the tradition of listing plants in bloom on Christmas day in my last post, I asked a few friends on both sides of the Atlantic to make lists this year. I myself dutifully went out on a chilly Christmas morning to count the plants in bloom in our Pennsylvania garden and was delighted to find far more than I expected – a grand total of… two!

These were two of the recent Gold Collection hellebores bred in Germany by Josef Heuger: Helleborus niger ‘HGC Jacob’ and ‘HGC Josef Lemper’. The mild weather two or three weeks ago had hurried them along, then it was down to 19F/-7C so they bent their heads and froze to the ground! I blogged about these impressive hellebores back in 2006, and also in 2008 when we had them in flower in mid November.

Back in England my friend Tracey Mathieson, who runs the lovely barn shop and garden called Foxtail Lilly, just a few hundred yards from our Northamptonshire home, took a quick look at her garden at Christmas and, surprisingly, came up with only three plants in flower: Helleborus argutifolius, Penstmon ‘Port Wine’ and Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’.

The record from Russ Graham’s garden in Salem, Oregon, was also surprising: “My list is short this year,” he emailed: “Cyclamen hederifolium.” This is especially unexpected as Russ has been collecting early flowering forms of the Christmas rose, Helleborus niger, for some years.

“I do have Rhodie 'Christmas Cheer' and Viburnum 'Pink Dawn' blooms from a nearby neighbor open in the house,” he continued. “And a garden in Salem had H. niger in full bloom last Tuesday (they had a low of 23F/-5C already as did we...) I still only see tight buds. I do have H. foetidus with a couple of flowers essentially open but it is a bit of a stretch to think of it as "in bloom"”.

Bougainvillea and snow-capped peaks in Southern California. Image ©Ian CookeMuch farther south on the west coast, another British ex-pat Ian Cooke, author most recently of Designing Small Gardens, published in Britain in October and published in the North America in April 2012, reported: “I think maybe I got the easy one – Palm Springs, in Southern California…”

Ian explained that his own yard is tiny so he added what’s in bloom in his neighbor’s gardens and came up with a total of forty – but that counts the many cultivars of Bougainvillea, Hibiscus, Lantana, Nerium oleander and roses he spotted as just one of each.

Back in Britain Julia Boulton, the Editor of The Cottage Gardener, the quarterly magazine of the Cottage Garden Society, reported fourteen plants in bloom in her suburban garden on the south western edge of London, including a pyracantha with both flowers and berries, and three different roses but no hellebores.

And finally Clive Lane, who when writing in The Cottage Gardener back in 1988 revived this old Victorian tradition. This year Clive counted nineteen plants in bloom in his cottage garden in Cheshire, in the north west of England including three hellebores and, surprisingly, Genista monspessulana which has seeded everywhere in his garden.

You can check the full lists from Ian Cooke, Julia Boulton and Clive Lane.

Plants in flower on Christmas Day

Rosa-Suffolk-Winter-Frost-Rose-J019692Nearly twenty five years ago Clive Lane, for so long the guiding light of Britain’s Cottage Garden Society, revived an old Victorian custom. Writing in the Society’s Newsletter in December 1988 he said: “I believe there was a delightful custom in Victorian times for gardeners to list and publish the number of plants which were flowering in the garden on Christmas Day, and I have seen references to some quite remarkable lists.

“The length of the list, I feel sure, will depend very much more on where in the Kingdom the gardener lives (and of course to some extent on how much port was drunk after lunch on Christmas Day!) rather than on the gardeners’ green fingers. However, this quaint custom should be revived, and I propose asking all members of The Cottage Garden Society to forget that little snooze in the armchair before the Queen’s Speech and to take a look at what is flowering in your garden on Christmas Day.”

[For US readers: The Queen’s Speech – officially The Royal Christmas Message – is an annual broadcast by the Queen to her subjects. In the 1980s, if I remember rightly, it was broadcast on all British TV and radio channels at precisely 3pm on Christmas Day!]

Three months later Clive Lane reported that he’d received over a hundred lists and that a member in the west of England had counted the most with sixty three different varieties in flower in her garden on Christmas Day. These included five different roses, four hellebores, four euphorbias, polyanthus in all colours except blue, and the old double wallflower ‘Harpur Crewe’.

And Clive is right about it being an old tradition. Here’s just one example, a letter printed in the issue of The Garden dated 16 January 1909 from a garden near Falmouth, a cosy spot in the south west of England, listing plants in flower there on Christmas Day, 1908. The list includes such unexpected companions as Cobaea scandens, three nicotianas and Helleborus niger.

I’d add a list of my own at this point – but this year I’m in Pennsylvania and my notes are all in England. The rose at the top of this post, Suffolk (‘Kormixal’) was shot in Northamptonshire at Christmas 2010.

If you’re interested in cottage garden plants and cottage gardens, you should join Britain’s Cottage Garden Society. With their quarterly magazine, extensive seedlist and many other benefits membership is great value at just £12 in the UK, or £17 (about $27). It’s easy to join online.

In the family: His Emporium

His Emporium: Offering Vintage and Antique Gifts for Men. Image © His EmporiumThis is the first of an occasional series of posts looking at what the rest of the family is up to online. I just thought you'd be interested to see that gardening is only part of it, and that almost everyone else seems to have bypassed horticulture entirely - but it adds up to an impressive collection of enterprises.

The latest to hit our screens is His Emporium (click to enlarge the front page), an online source of unusual vintage and antique gifts for men. It’s run by my daughter Lizzie and son-in-law Carl, with an equal measure of assistance and impediment from their toddler Monty and the benign tolerance of Piccola the little black cat.
Marilyn Munroe prints by Andy Warhol (click to enlarge)
They sell none of those gadgets that marketing people seem to assume are the only things in which men are interested. No, His Emporium features carefully chosen vintage and antique gifts for men including: Andy Warhol’s prints of Marilyn Monroe (right, click to enlarge); some impressive vintage watches; “naughty” playing cards; Christmas issues of the classic British country magazine The Field from the 1970s; hip flasks and antique decanters and glasses; retro cigarette lighters, and even a very rare vintage Manchester United lamp which is probably from the 1970s (below, click to enlarge).

You get the picture? The range is astonishing, and it’s all good quality and at a fair price. What's more, they’re offering free UK delivery on everything during December. Don’t you just love a bargain?

Vintage Manchester United lamp © His EmporiumAs well as being a great source of unusual gifts in Britain, His Emporium is a great site for family and friends around the world to use to send gifts to British men – without the cost of international shipping.

OK, she’s my daughter – what do you expect me to say?! But trust me, if they didn't have a great selection of really special gifts I wouldn't be posting about the site at all. This is a gardening blog, after all!

So, if you’re looking for an unusual vintage gift for a man in your life start at His Emporium.

Don’t you just love a Christmas Tree bargain?

Bargain Christmas Trees from Lowes. Image ©
Here in the US some people buy their Christmas trees a month before the holiday, as soon as they’ve recovered from Thanksgiving. Some wait until Christmas Eve. We went out for ours yesterday afternoon – and the timing was perfect.

We passed the local store - “Christmas Trees from $19.95” - and carried on to Lowe's (For Brits: Like a supersized B&Q) because we needed some bungees to tie the tree to the roof of the car. When we got to Lowes we were greeted by a “30% off Christmas Trees” sign. “OK,” we said, “let’s take a look.”

There were plenty of trees left, a range of species, and the quality was pretty good. And the prices… We picked out a 6ft/1.8m Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea) - $5.97 (£3.84). Then we thought: Perhaps we could have a tree by the front door too? 5ft/1.5m Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri) - $3.97 (£2.55). And then we thought: Why not have one on the back porch as well?! 5ft/1.5m Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) - $2.97 (£1.91). Yes, you read right. And these were originally $30-$40 (c£20-25) trees!

The very friendly and helpful woman who netted the trees for us explained that the manager of the store had yesterday decided to slash the prices of the remaining trees.

Then at the checkout, two more happy surprises: Not only were there free plastic sheets and twine to help us get our trees well secured to the car. -- We still got the 30% discount! So, with sales tax, we got three trees, about 16ft/4.8m of tree in all, for $9.58. For Brits that’s £6.17. Don’t you just love a bargain?

But here’s the thing. Not only is this a great deal, but the staff were so friendly and helpful. And we were told that store manager, Evan Yanik, is full of great ideas that help the store by helping the customer. Makes you want to go back, doesn’t it. And you should have seen the poinsettias…

I just hope we have enough lights for three trees. Otherwise it will be back to Lowe's. Lights are 30% off, you know.

Best gift for this (or any) season

WoodpeckeronSquirrelBuster-370There’s no doubt about it, the Squirrel Buster Plus bird feeder is the best squirrel-proof bird feeder you can buy.

So many gardeners like to feed the birds, especially in winter – but so often the squirrels get to eat far more seed than the birds. Can’t have that. Not so with the Squirrel Buster Plus (left, click to enlarge).

I’ve tried every so-called squirrel-proof bird feeder I could find – this one really is squirrel-proof, and it's tough too. I discussed it in more detail back in the spring of 2009.

This is the one. And you can buy it both in North America, and in Britain & Ireland.


Book Bullet: Seeing Trees by Nancy Ross Hugo

Review: Seeing Trees by Nancy Ross Hugo with photography by Robert Llewellyn ISBN: 9781604692198l“I would suggest planting a white oak with the care and attention you would give to locating a new city…,” says Nancy Ross Hugo. And as I look out at the white oaks in the woods outside my window, crowded there by nature, not one has the solid majesty of the tree in Robert Llewellyn’s photograph – the only tree in an arable field.

This is a book whose photography is as elegant as so many of the trees it features, as specimens or in the intimate intricacy of their flowers, and is matched by appropriate elegance in the book’s design. The engaging and very personal text, is derived from enthusiasms for the trees in her and neighbor’s backyards and an inclination to look closely, reflect and ask searching questions.

Brits may be bewildered by some of the common names - but don’t worry about it.

Seeing Trees by Nancy Ross Hugo, with photography by Robert Llewellyn, is published by Timber Press.

  • Altogether elegant in its design, photography and writing
  • You’ll never look at a tree in quite the same way again


Mildew wipes out impatiens (but not the invasive one)

Impatiens Fiesta Sparkler Orange - double impatiens are very susceptible to downy mildew. Image ©
When nurseries voluntarily stop selling a popular plant something must be up. Well, the plague of downy mildew wiping out Impatiens in Britain has led four of the biggest producers to say that they just won’t supply vegetatively propagated (cutting-raised) varieties like 'Fiesta Sparkler Orange (above, click to enlarge) at all. And some nurseries are cutting back their production of seed-raised impatiens by as much as 60%.

Impatiens downy mildew is caused by a fungus called Plasmopara obducens. The leaves turn yellow, drop off and rot rapidly; the flowers drop off too. Plants end up as cluster of pale stems and not much else. The disease thrives in wet summers. It only seems to attack the most widely grown Impatiens species, I. walleriana.

First seen in Britain in 2003, last year it swept the country killing plants in gardens, public displays, and in nurseries before the plants even went in the ground. New resistance to the one effective fungicide is blamed.

In North America the disease was reported this year from coastal southern California; northeast Illinois; northern Indiana; Cape Cod, Massachusetts; and Long Island and upstate New York.

Vegetatively propagated (cutting-raised) impatiens are more likely to be hit because plants are usually sold in flower as individual specimens so are on the nursery amongst thousands of others for longer. And The RHS website has good information on Impatiens Downy Mildew. Webpage ©RHSmother plants from which cuttings are taken are a nightmare to keep clean and healthy. The growth of many varieties is also very tight so each plant creates its own little high-humidity microclimate. And in the moist conditions needed for rapid growth on the nursery the fungus can grow quickly too. And if your fungicide is useless…Find out more on the Royal Horticultural Society’s website.

Seed-raised types are on the nursery for a shorter time and sold as much smaller plants and for, gardeners, one option is to grow from seed or from bought in seedlings. But plant in a new site or in fresh container compost each year; spores can overwinter in the soil and infect plants the following year.

But, looking ahead, the problem may not be with us for ever. It’s thought that adding fungicide to compost may give protection and decades of experience in developing resistance to a similar disease in lettuce is being brought to bear.

Finally, some two sided news. Because this form of downy mildew only attacks I. walleriana, in favoured areas we can plant New Guinea impatiens instead, although these are often more expensive. It also means that early optimism that the disease would wipe out invasive Impatiens glandulifera, Himalayan balsam, is unfounded.

Best option? Grow begonias or fuchsias instead.

Book Bullet: Weeds by Richard Mabey

Weeds by Richard Mabey - Book ReviewBritain’s most distinguished writer on natural history brings his accessible erudition to bear on plants which can both destroy precious ecosystems and beautify urban dereliction and war torn landscapes.

Considering both how eucalyptus took over the Florida Everglades to such an extent that in some areas there were 8 million trees per square mile and how native poppies sprang up so memorably on European battlefields, this effortlessly wide ranging and engagingly written book.

"Weeds, as a type, are mobile, prolific, genetically diverse,” says Richard Mabey. “They are unfussy about where they live, adapt quickly to environmental stress, use multiple strategies for getting their own way. It's curious that it took so long for us to realize that the species they most resemble is us."

Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants by Richard Mabey was published recently in North America by Ecco and last year in Britain by Profile Books.

  • Combines scientific research, folklore, personal experience, fun and fine judgment in one enjoyable book.
  • A vital read for gardeners, naturalists, and anyone interested in both native plants and invasives.


Pampas-grass: two surprises

Along the river from Henry the Eighth’s palace at Hampton Court, west of London, there’s a huge area of water works, a purification facility built in the 1850s. Some of it is no longer in use, in fact some of the buildings are being restored and converted. One of the huge pools is now dry – and growing there is pampas-grass, Cortaderia selloana. Just one plant.

I first spotted pampas-grass here two or three years ago, in fact there were a few plants scattered across the area. Then they disappeared, there was no sign of them for a couple of years. Perhaps, afraid they might become invasive, the water company dug them up – though it seems unlikely they would have bothered.

Then, driving by in October on the way to the attractive Walled Garden at Sunbury, I spotted this one plant (above, click to enlarge). It looks wonderful set against a fat clump of brambles, but I wonder how long it will remain?

Pampas-grass was first grown in Britain in 1848 and was first seen in the wild in 1925. Mostly, it’s plants thrown out of gardens that become established in the wild but this one looks as if it’s grown from wind-carried seed. You can see how it has become established more widely on this map produced by the Botanical Society of the British Isles. It's invasive in parts of the USA, especially California.

Then, a few days ago, I came across a piece in Britain’s Independent newspaper that made me see pampas-grass in a whole new light. Growing pampas-grass, it seems, is a sign of swinging. (There will be no photograph to illustrate this.) The Independent reported that “Mariella Frostrup, the television and radio presenter, had received unwanted attention by placing a pair of pampas grass plants on the balcony of her Notting Hill flat. "Who knew," she wrote on Twitter afterwards, "that pampas grass plants are a signal to fellow swingers?"

“Fellow broadcaster Esther Rantzen received similar publicity last year when she revealed how she removed the plant from her own garden after discovering the supposed connection with swinging. "There's an awful lot of pampas grass in Luton," she observed of the town which had recently failed to elect her as Member of Parliament.”

So, be sure you know what you’re doing before planting pampas-grass where it can be seen by passers by.