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February 2012

Seeds suffer in peat free composts - it’s official

Vegetable seedlings thriving in peat - though we certainly don't need the peat pots. Image ©
In Britain, there’s a huge pressure on gardeners to give up seed and potting composts (potting soil in the US) based on peat (peat moss). Digging peat for use in the garden is bad from the environment, it destroys valuable habitats. Here’s what the Royal Horticultural Society, which has reduced its peat consumption to 0.7% of all their growing media and soil conditioner, has to say on the issue:

“The RHS believes that the commercial extraction of peat at current rates is environmentally unsustainable as it removes peat at a much faster rate than it accumulates leading to the irreversible destruction of peatlands.

“Many viable peat alternatives exist which are either completely peat-free or of reduced peat content. With improved labelling and information on packaging, gardeners will be able to make more informed decisions about peat alternatives.”

The trouble is, peat makes the best medium for starting seeds (above, cick to enlarge - though we certainly don't need peat pots) and for growing on young plants. Which is why everyone uses it. And now it’s proven that most peat-free composts for starting seeds are a complete waste of money.

Which? Gardening - the highly respected, genuinely impartial magazine produced by the Consumers Association in Britain (similar to Consumer Reports in the US) - recently reported on their tests of seed composts. They tested ten composts intended for raising seeds, six based on peat and four without peat. Not only did the six peat-based composts fill the first six places, but two of the peat-free composts were so bad they were rated “Don’t Buy”.

Of one, Which? Gardening said: “The quality of our plants varied from reasonable to dreadful depending on the bag of compost we’d used. The worst seedlings barely grew at all…”

Of course at the RHS they have some of the finest horticulturalists in the world, they have the expertise, so can grow plants in almost anything! But it’s tougher for the rest of us especially when, as Which? Gardening found, even different bags of the same brand of compost can vary enormously.
Sphagnum Moss - the origin of peat. Don't gather it for garden use. Image ©
However, it’s also worth pointing out that when Which? Gardening tested composts for containers, two out of three of their Best Buy composts were peat-free. That’s great news - but not much help if your seedlings never get to planting size.

In the end, I expect some excellent products to be developed. But this is surely a case where government sponsored research could help gardeners and compost producers alike, for the greater good – the environment in general. The producers themselves have clearly not done much of a job so far - for seed composts anyway.

Oh, and by the way. Fresh sphagnum moss (above right, click to enlarge), the progenitor of peat, collected from the wild for orchids and to line hanging baskets? No. There are plenty of good alternatives that really do work.

Book Bullet: Heirloom Bean Grower’s Guide by Steve Sando

HeirloomBeanGrowersguide-9781604691023lOK. The return of the Book Bullets. Now that growing food is becoming so popular, we’re getting away from books about growing edibles in general and seeing more books on growing individual crops. And this is vital because it ensures that food growers appreciate the often dramatic differences between individual varieties of the same crop. And just one quick look at this book reveals the vast variety of edible beans. And this is just Steve Sando’s top fifty.

There’s excellent advice on how to grow beans, written in an infectiously enthusiastic style - but frankly, as Steve says, they’re pretty easy to grow. Then the heart of the book is the bean-by-bean guide.

British gardeners will be surprised to see runner beans grown for their seeds, indeed the book tends to pass the European enthusiasm for fresh beans on one side, but everyone will be taken by the variety of colors and flavors and uses.

Although focused on heirlooms, and New World heirlooms in particular, there’s plenty to tempt the gardener – and the cook.

The Rancho Gordo Heirloom Bean Grower’s Guide by Steve Sando is by published by Timber Press.

  • Reveals the humble bean as a delicious and attractive, yet easy to grow, gourmet food.
  • Passionately written, elegantly illustrated – and with recipes too.


Transatlantic award winners – Ornamental Pepper and Agastache

OK, back to my short series looking at award winning seed-raised plants from both sides of the Atlantic, next up is an ornamental pepper and a first-year-flowering perennial Agastache. For more on All-America Selections and Fleuroselect, see my earlier post.
Ornamental Pepper 'Black Olive': All-America Selection 2012. Image © All-America Selections

Ornamental Pepper 'Black Olive'
All-America Selection Ornamental Pepper 'Black Olive' is an ornamental variety with three ornamental features and three uses. Firstly, the foliage which opens green but soon turns dark purple and it may be enlivened by green flashes. Then, there are small purple flowers and they mature into small, more or less tubular fruits which stand up from the branches to show themselves off. In colour, they begin green then turn purple and mature to fiery red.

'Black Olive' reaches 10-24in/25-60cm high and can be used as an ornamental container plant, the branches can be cut for indoor arrangements and the hot fruits can be used in the kitchen.

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Agastache 'Astello Indigo': Fleuroselect Gold Medal winner. Image © FlkeuroselectAgastache ‘Astello Indigo’
Fleuroselect Gold Medal winner Agastache ‘Astello Indigo’ is a first year flowering hardy perennial with slightly minty flavoured foliage and long spikes of pale blue flowers opening from dark blue buds.

Making bushy and well-branched plants which reach about 20in/50cm high and 14in/35cm across, the result is a slightly rounded, compact plant which never looks unnaturally dumpy and which produces flowers on side shoots and not just at the top.

Flowering from July to October from a spring sowing, plants should come into flower about four months after sowing, depending on the temperature at which they’re grown.

Plants are unusually attractive to bees, and can be used in sunny borders and large containers.

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The world's most expensive snowdrop

Galanthus woronowii ‘Elizabeth Harrison’ - the world's most expensive snowdropRising from my sickbed after a week out of action, I find the world has gone mad - or has it? Thompson & Morgan have just spent £725 - that's $1146 - on one snowdrop. I'm pasting in their press release below so you can see what they say about it. Sounds astonishing - or "completely mad" as one garden writer as already said - but T&M's Paul Hansord is a smart guy. I've known him for decades, he knows what he's doing. And it does look gorgeous (left, click to enlarge). Here's todays's press release in full.

"On Thursday 16 February at 14:40 after a bidding frenzy of over 30 bidders Thompson & Morgan, the Ipswich based mail order plant and seed company, acquired the world’s most expensive snowdrop Galanthus woronowii ‘Elizabeth Harrison’ for £725.  This is a unique striking variety with a golden yellow ovary and yellow petal markings.

"The price is almost double the previous world record price for a single rare bulb of Galanthus ‘Green Tear’ sold for £360 last year. 

"Over the last few years the amount paid for unique Galanthus bulbs has been steadily rising as they have created more interest and in 2008 a single rare bulb fetched £226. 

"Thompson & Morgan hopes to be able to produce this variety and bring pleasure to as many gardeners as possible.  These unique Galanthus are notorious for their slow rates of multiplication but we hope to be able to look into commercial production via tissue culture, which will be the most time consuming and expensive part of the venture – buying the bulb was the easy part!

"When Thompson & Morgan purchased the world’s first Black Hyacinth ‘Midnight Mystique’ in 1998 for £50,000 a bulb, it took 15 years before it was available to the general public and demand has always outstripped stock. 

"We anticipate this beautiful snowdrop will create interest amongst enthusiasts and home gardeners alike, thanks to the ‘snowdrop mania’ that has descended on the UK in recent years.  What a welcome sight snowdrops can be at the start of spring.

"Last year we sold over 1 million snowdrops and have tried for many years to source the right golden variety in order to bring a wider range of unique snowdrops to the home gardener.

"The stunning snowdrop Galanthus woronowii ‘Elizabeth Harrison’ was named after the owner of the garden where it first appeared as a seedling in a Scotland a few years ago and it has not been identified growing anywhere else.

"To celebrate this ‘snowdrop mania’ Thompson & Morgan are offering customers the chance to buy 75 single snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) bulbs at less than half price for £7.99 code YP05902 available on our website (UK customers only)."

I wonder how long it will be before we see Galanthus woronowii ‘Elizabeth Harrison’ in the Thompson & Morgan catalog...

Transatlantic award winners - Echinacea and Vinca

OK, starting my quick look at award winning plants from both sides of the Atlantic, we kick off with a sparkling echinacea mixture and sumptuous vinca (not to be confused with groundcover vinca). For more on All-America Selections and Fleuroselect, see my earlier post.

Echinacea 'Cheyenne Spirit', Fleuroselect Gold Medal winner. Image © FleuroselectEchinacea ‘Cheyenne Spirit’
Fleuroselect Gold Medal winner Echinacea ‘Cheyenne Spirit’ (left, click to enlarge) is seed-raised coneflower mixture in six colours: orange, red, rosy-red, yellow, purple and cream. Not only does it bring this excellent range of colours (although no pure white), but the plants flower in their first year from a spring sowing, although seed needs to be sown in heat in late winter. (zone 4)

The single flowers are relatively uniform in size, and the plants all reach about the same size – 27-31in/68-80cm in height and 25-30in/64-76cm wide – whatever the colour. So the plants are very bushy. ‘Cheyenne Spirit’ looks great for sunny borders, and as a cut flower. And you can pick out your favorite color and divide the plants.

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Vinca 'Jams 'N Jellies Blackberry' Vinca 'Jams 'N Jellies Blackberry', All-America Selection. Image © All-America Selections
All-America Selection Vinca (Catharanthus) 'Jams 'N Jellies Blackberry' (right, click to enlarge) is an unusually richly coloured form of this annual in deep, not-quite-black purple that’s rather like a sun and heat loving version of Impatiens. Widely used in North America, and becoming more popular in Britain, these vincas are prolific and easy and don’t suffer from the downy mildew problems of Impatiens.

Reaching about 10-24in/25-60cm in height, depending on the summer climate, Vinca 'Jams 'N Jellies Blackberry' is a fine container plant, with silver foliage perhaps, and good in sunny borders.

Sow seed about eleven weeks before the first frost in your area at about 75F/24C and grow on at about 70F before hardening off and planting out.

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Transatlantic award winners

All-America trials at Gilroy, California. Image ©All-America Selections
If a plant is tested and trialed in a range of situations across the whole of the United States or the whole of Europe, and gets a top award, there’s a good chance it will do well just about anywhere. That’s what the Fleuroselect and All-America Selections awards do, they highlight very best plants – seed-raised plants - which are not only colorful but adaptable.

While the Fleuroselect awards concentrate on flowers the All-America Selections also include vegetables – but all the award winners, from both schemes, are usually available on both sides of the Atlantic although sometimes only in mixtures or in nurseries. Entries for the All-America Selections are assessed at fifty three locations across the country (Gilroy, CA, above - click to enlarge), Fleuroselect entries are assessed at thirty sites across Europe.

There are five All-America Selections for 2012 – three ornamentals and two vegetables – and five Fleuroselect winners for 2012. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll tell you a little about each one. Some are available to home gardeners, some not yet, but they should all become available over the following months so I’ll add a search link at the bottom.

The Fleuroselect Gold Medal Winners for 2012 are:
Agastache ‘Astelio Indigo' (below, click to enlarge)
Alcea ‘Spring Celebrities Crimson’
Echinacea ‘Cheyenne Spirit’ (below, click to enlarge)
Salvia ‘Summer Jewel Red’
Viola ‘Sorbet XP Delft Blue’ (below, click to enlarge)

The All-America Selections for 2012 are:
Ornamental Pepper 'Black Olive'
Pepper 'Cayennetta' (below, click to enlarge)
Salvia 'Summer Jewel Pink '(below, click to enlarge)
Watermelon 'Faerie'
Vinca 'Jams 'N Jellies Blackberry'


Images courtesy of All-America Selections and Fleuroselect. Thank you.

The cucumber that squirts

EcballiumFlowersFruitsBrowsing through the new seed catalog from Chiltern Seeds, really one of the best seed catalogs in the world and they’ll send seed anywhere, I noticed that they’ve re-introduced one of my favorite plants – the squirting cucumber. So I thought I’d let you read the entry on the plant that I wrote back in 1991 for Garden Flowers from Seed, the book I co-authored with Christopher Lloyd. Here it is.

Most plants are grown in gardens because they're attractive or because they provide food or flavouring. But the squirting cucumber, Ecballium elaterium, is grown because it's rude.

A perennial (zone 8-10) which is normally grown as a half-hardy annual, it can be raised in the same way as a zucchini or cucumber and planted out in late May. It forms rather a sprawling plant with rough, hairy, triangular leaves which make a very attractive, though widely spreading mound.

From summer onwards small, pretty, nodding yellow flowers appear, although they tend to be overshadowed by the leaves. It all seems very innocuous. Then the fruits form and the fun starts. The fruits are not large, a very unprepossessing 2in/5cm, but nevertheless, when ripe, the slightest stroking sends a wet mush of seeds and jelly squirting out. 45ft/14m seems to be the record distance. Teenage girls and small boys seem to find it most amusing, but I've also seen straitlaced women of mature years rendered helpless with laughter and embarrassment at the sight of the plant performing in public by a Greek footpath. Ecballium9738

You will see this plant growing by the roadside and in waste places from one end of the Mediterranean to the other. In the garden, plant it at the front of a sunny border in well-drained soil or let it trail over a low wall. And although it belongs to the cucumber family, don't be tempted to put the fruits in your mouth; the juice is a powerful purgative, so be warned.

My friend Frank, a chess and cricket authority of the first order, on hearing this name, rummaged in the remnants of his classical education and came up with this astonishing revelation. The name Ecballium is derived from the Greek meaning to fling out, while elaterium is derived from the Latin meaning... to fling out. Well, the seeds do fly a long way.

You can order seed of the squirting cucumber, Ecballium elaterium, from Chiltern Seeds.

Garden Flowers from Seed is long out of print and not easy to find, but is usually available on amazon.