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August 2013

Be smart when choosing Dill, Cilantro and Chervil

Delightfully Piqant Dill by Gladys J. Richter in The American Gardener. ©ANS

There’s a very useful article in the July/August issue of The American Gardener (the members’ magazine of the American Horticultural Society) about Dill. OK, Dill is not the most exciting herb on the planet but the key point is that, in her piece, Gladys J. Richter emphasizes that all Dill is not the same.

Many gardeners and cooks fail to realize that like, so many other edibles, annual herbs like Dill come in a range of different varieties – with different qualities and different uses.

The main point is that some varieties of annual herbs are specially developed to provide leaves, and continue to make more foliage without running up to seed, while others are specially developed to provide as much seed as possible as quickly as possible. Some are also more attractive than others, and so better suited to growing with flowers.

In Dill the varieties ‘Diana’, ‘Dukat’, ‘Fernleaf’, ‘Herkules’ and ‘Tetra’ are best for leaves, ‘Bouquet’ and ‘Mammoth’ are good for seeds, while ‘Vierling’, with its gray-blue leaves is the most attractive and looks best with flowers.

There are similar distinctions in Chervil while Cilantro, grown for its leaves, and Coriander, grown for its seeds, actually different forms of the same plant.

So you can see, it really does pay to be smart about choosing the right varieties according to the use you have in mind. You may not find seed of them all in your local store, but they easy to find in mail order catalogs.

North American gardeners will find a good range of these annual herbs at The Cook’s Garden and Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

British gardeners and cooks will find a good range of these herbs at Chiltern Seeds and Suffolk Herbs.

Join the American Horticultural Society

And here’s a field of Dill being grown for seed that I spotted in Surrey, south of London, eariler this summer.

UPDATE (a few days later): The current issue of Which? Gardening, published by Britain's Consumers' Association (the equivalent of the US Consumer Reports) includes a resport on their trial of nine different varieties of Cilantro/Coriander. One variety, 'Calypso', stood out for producing four or even five cuts of leaves and not bolting.

Books Extra: America’s Romance With The English Garden

America’s Romance With The English Garden by Thomas J. MickeyThis review appears in the current issue of Gardens Illustrated magazine.

American gardeners have a strangely ambiguous attitude towards British plants and gardens. Creating traditional English herbaceous borders backed by adobe walls in Santa Fe, New Mexico seems to reveal an excessive devotion to the English style, at the same time many American gardeners are justifiably sceptical of books on plants and gardens originating in Britain.

America’s Romance With The English Garden by Thomas J. Mickey examines influence of English garden style as it swept America in the late nineteenth century. The author highlights the development of a cheap and reliable postal service from the mid-nineteenth century as the means not only for distributing seeds and plants to a predominantly rural population but also for distributing ideas through the mail order catalogues with their often exquisite coloured engravings. For the first time colourful styles could be cheaply and widely and enticingly popilarised - across the whole country after the Civil War - and many of these ideas originated in England and were championed by emigrants from across the Atlantic.

Focusing on the many intriguing and entrepreneurial individuals who promoted English gardening in America in the nineteenth century, this is an illuminating book packed with the very readable results of dedicated and thoughtful research and helps us all understand a little more of how English gardening has been admired in North America for so long.

America’s Romance With The English Garden by Thomas J. Mickey is published by Ohio University Press at £23.95/$26.95


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Delightful transatlantic clematis – which may (or may not) be scented

Clematis 'Betty Corning'. Images ©

Last year, we ordered some clematis from Donahue’s Greenhouse. Most have done well and one of the most appealing has been one of the less flamboyant varieties.

‘Betty Corning’ has scrambled up a black wire trellis, its two-tone, lavender-blue flowers dancing above the border perennials below. The combination of the coloring and shape of the flowers themselves, the elegance of their presentation on long stems and the neat foliage makes this a really lovely plant. Flowering began with a burst from late June, and is still continuing at a lesser intensity.

Each flower is like a lavender-blue bell split into four reflexed lobes with, on the inside, a paler stripe through the middle of each lobe. The first flowers did not set any seed, but it looks as if the more recent blooms may develop seed heads.

‘Betty Corning’ is an unusual hybrid between an American and a European clematis. The American native Clematis crispa, which grows across much of the southeastern United States and is known by the rather discouraging common name of Swamp Leather Flower is one parent. The other parent is Clematis viticella, from Southern Europe. It's sometimes listed under Clematis viticella, but it's definitely a hybrid.

The hybrid between the two was found in 1932 by Elizabeth Corning, wife of Erastus Corning II who was Mayor of Albany, NY for forty years from 1942.

But there’s an odd thing about this plant. The most comprehensive source of clematis info, Clematis On The Web, reports that plants of ‘Betty Corning’ in Britain are well known as sweetly scented, but plants grown in North America are not. The flowers on our plant have have a faint, sharp-sweet scent, but other American reports around the web mention the “sweet scent” or don't mention scent at all. More startling, perhaps, is the variety of colors seen in an image search; some are quite pink.

Anyway, scent or no, this is a lovely plant and much hardier than the origins of its parents might indicate.

In North America, Clematis ‘Betty Corning’ is available from Donahue’s Greenhouse (who don’t mention scent)
In Britain, Clematis ‘Betty Corning’ is available from Thorncroft Clematis (who say it has a “delicate scent”)

Our friend the frog

Green Frog (Rana clamitans) keeping an eye out for slugs (J048009). Image ©
This fine looking creature has been hopping around our Pennsylvania garden for a week or two now and judy was able to get a great picture. The exceptionally good news is – she’s a Green Frog, and she loves slugs. Which is just as well as she’s quite a way from any water where she would find dragonfly larvae, small fish, shrimps and other small aquatic creatures. On land Green Frogs also eat spiders, snails, small snakes and also, rather alarmingly… birds. Gulp. Can't see Britain's most common frog - yes, it's called the Common Frog! - eating birds.

The Green Frog (Rana clamitans), is the north east’s most widespread frog and reaches about 10cm/4in in length but as, I say, she’s quite a way from the lake. Perhaps a heron dropped her on its way over the trees. The soaker hose watering ensures that there’s plenty of humidity at frog level amongst the lush perennials and shrubs, and there are a couple of broad bowls full of water. But, if you were a Mrs Green Frog, you’d be looking for somewhere else to lay your eggs – though breeding begins in April, and we’re right at the end of the breeding season so exploration is now perhaps more of a priority.

I haven’t heard her make a noise, but they’re said to squawk when alarmed (the Latin “clamitans” means “exclaiming”) The cats are keeping a thoughtful distance.

* Take a look at these other posts about wildlife.

Peonies: New book helps revive an old tradition

Paeonia 'Souvenir de Maxime Cornu' - 'of perfect form' says James Kelway. Image ©
“The sheer loveliness of the blooms of the June-flowering (peonies) is so extraordinary that it seems impossible to find words for the innumerable colour values, the texture of petal and the purity and symmetry of line and outline of many of the large, handsome blooms.” So said James Kelway in his 1954 book Garden Peonies, now updated and reissued.

One each side of the Atlantic, there’s been one family which pioneered the development of new peonies and did more than any other to popularize these indispensible perennials. In North America it’s been the Klehm family, Charles Klehm helped found the American Peony Society in 1903 and the family’s Song Sparrow Nursery remains the leading North American peony specialist.

In Britain it’s always been Kelways, James Kelway established his nursery in 1851 and it continues today, now under the guidance of Dave Root, who is re-energizing the Kelways peony tradition. His latest step is to update and republish James Kelway’s invaluable book.

Garden Peonies by James Kelway and Dave RootDave Root has retained as much as possible of the original text, and has very wisely interfered with the James Kelway’s elegant prose as little as possible. But he’s brought the pests and disease section up to date and recommends the best of recent introductions to replace lost varieties. He’s also added recommendations and advice on those (Intersectional hybrids) which are crosses between herbaceous peonies and tree peonies and which did not even exist when James first published his book.

Well illustrated with contemporary color pictures, this is an ideal book for gardeners looking for recommendations of the best varieties and advice on how to grow them well. This is not a book for those of looking for a vast amount of botanical detail, it’s a book for gardeners and the advice and recommendations of over sixty years ago are as valid as ever.

Garden Peonies by James Kelway and Dave Root is published by Picts Hill Publishing.

In North America you can order Garden Peonies by James Kelway and Dave Root from

In Britain you can order Garden Peonies by James Kelway and Dave Root from Kelways or from

The catbird nest outside our window

Guest post from writer and photographer judywhite

Gray Catbird at the nest with young (J047691). Image ©
Two years ago we had a Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) nest in a juniper outside our bedroom window here in northeastern Pennsylvania and we had a decent view of the nesting process, much to the chagrin of the mother catbird. This year, trying to outwit us, she built a nest on the other side of the house entirely, in a ninebark shrub, Physocarpus opulifolius Coppertina (‘Mindia’). This nest was even closer to a window, about three feet (c1m) away. I only discovered it because I was cutting back the shrub in July and saw the nest just in time, leaving it still covered, but conveniently if inadvertently exposed on the window side, providing an excellent view. [BTW For Brits: the Grey Catbird's closest British relatives are thrushes and starlings.]

Catbirds make a squawking meowing noise when they are annoyed; hence their name. We’ve heard it a lot lately. It’s about the most recognizable birdcall. Catbirds are also songbirds, related to the Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), cobbling together interesting sounds that can include frog noises and whistles. (Listen to the “Mew” as well as song samples on the excellent Cornell Lab of Ornithology site.)

The catbird is a medium sized (9in/22cm) gray nun of a bird, with a demure black cap, but hides a surprising rusty orange petticoat under its long tail. A perky creature despite the somber appearance, it loves the birdbath, taking long splashes in evident enjoyment. The catbird also stays out long after most other birds have retired for the evening. They’re pretty common here.

CNewly hatched Gray Catbird chick and egg (J047288). Image ©GardenPhotos.comOur catbird female built the twiggy nest about 4ft (1.2m) off the ground and laid three gorgeous teal-blue eggs in mid-July. This was her second brood of the year. She sat on them for 12 days, when the first one hatched; the other two followed within 24 hours. The male helps feed the babies, and we sometimes saw him also feed the mother as she sat - which she often had to do in the rain looking miserable.

What’s amazing is how fast baby catbirds grow. In 12 days, they went from vulnerable pink blobs to adult-sized and full-feathered. Today the first one fledged; the others should follow today and tomorrow, a succession that allows the parents time to worry about just one floundering around in the treetops while still feeding nestlings. The nest size, which seemed cavernous with three eggs, was full to bursting by the time the young were big enough to leave.

So we got some decent photos by cracking open the window, fixing the tripod inside and the Nikon D200 & Nikkor 105mm macro lens outside, using a long remote shutter cord. I lay out of sight on the floor so as not to alarm them, waiting to hear the babies peeping in anticipation when a parent was there with food – then I clicked button on the remote.

Catbirds migrate to southeastern US states for winter, as far as Central America, leaving in September/October. I guess ours will be back as usual next May, trying to find yet another shrubby thicket of peace and quiet.

Gray Catbird babies demanding food (J047769). Image ©

Success (and failure) with new cut flowers

Digitalis 'Illumination' in hand-tied bouquet. Image ©Tracey MathiesonI’ve always been interested in flowers for cutting that are new, or a little out of the ordinary. So every now and then I turn up at Foxtail Lilly (the home-grown cut flower shop with its vintage home accessories, run by my friend Tracey Mathieson) with a few plants for her to try. Sometimes she looks at me a little doubtfully, sometimes she’s instantly enthused.

Plants of the all-green Dianthus ‘Green Trick’ were very favorably received last spring and later in the year I was pleased to pass on a few plants of that lovely new hybrid foxglove Digitalis ‘Illumination Pink’ for her to try as cut flowers – and see if they got through the winter.

First, the good news. Three groups of Digitalis ‘Illumination Pink’, in different parts of her garden, all came through the winter with no losses and they were just coming into flower for her very successful National Gardens Scheme open day in June (right, click to enlarge).

Later, Tracey made up some hand tied bouquets (above, click to enlarge) and they lasted well through five of the hottest days of the summer (no air conditioning) “Well, in this heat they lasted five days!! So, possibly much longer, if cooler! They stayed quite upright too!!” So many exclamation marks – she really liked them. Digitalis 'Illumination-Pink' seen through Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve' at Foxtaill Lilly. Image ©

I also took her a few plants of the recently introduced all-green coneflower, Echinacea ‘Green Jewel’ (below, click to enlarge). Unfortunately, they were a big disappointment. They looked great when I took them round, in flower, last summer but none of the three plants survived the winter in her cutting garden. So that was that. Perhaps with extra crisp drainage…? We’ve had the same problem with ‘Green Envy’, with its green-tipped petals – gone. Good drainage in winter is definitely the key.

British gardeners can order a collection of all three Illumination foxgloves - ‘Illumination Pink’ and ‘Illumination Chelsea Gold’ and ‘Illumination Raspberry’ - from QVC. They will be available in North America soon. If anyone spots a US mail order supplier, please let me know.

British gardeners can order plants of Dianthus ‘Green Trick’ from Thompson & Morgan, the similar ‘Green Ball’ should be available in North America soon.

American gardeners can order plants of Echinacea ‘Green Jewel’ and Echinacea ‘Green Envy’ from Great Garden Plants. British gardeners can order from The Walled Garden Nursery.

For more on Foxtail Lilly take a look at their website or their Facebook page.
Echinacea 'Green Jewel'. Image ©