Previous month:
March 2015
Next month:
May 2015

April 2015

Himalayan blue poppies: A stupendous new book

The Genus Meconopsis by Christopher Grey-WilsonThe blue poppies are amongst the most tantalizing plants we grow – or try to grow, at least. These exotic relatives of the corn poppy and Oriental poppy instantly attract visitors in any gardens where they’re in bloom. The Himalayan blue poppy… the very name is exciting. We’re almost in Indiana Jones country…

But there’s no doubt that not only are many species difficult to grow but their classification and naming has all been more than a little baffling. So the arrival of this fat – nay, enormous – new book from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the expert on Meconopsis, Christopher (Kit) Grey-Wilson, is very welcome.

So, first of all: 300 pages, 300 color pictures, large format (almost 12in x 10in/30cm x 25cmm), spectacularly thorough (except see below) and amazingly detailed. The photographs are superb, many of plants are seen in their wild Himalayan home which is not only a treat in itself, but also helps inform us on how to grow them. The writing is admirably lucid (as we would expect from Mr. G-W), especially considering some of the difficult botanical issues that he discusses. It’s such a relief to have all the classification and naming set out in a way we can all grasp.

But, to be clear: This is primarily a work of botany, and not a work of horticulture. Based on the latest field, herbarium and laboratory studies Kit has completely revised the classification of the whole genus, given us detailed new descriptions of all the wild forms and published many new names for the first time. Garden hybrids and garden cultivars are not usuallly discussed and even some that have received the RHS Award of Garden Merit in recent years are not mentioned. As I say, this is not a book for gardeners.

There are many striking results of all this, but two stand out. Firstly, the name Meconopsis baileyi is now, again, the correct name for what we all finally got used to calling M. betonicifolia – the blue poppy most often seen and the easiest to grow. Secondly, our old friend the lovely yellow Welsh poppy, so familiar as Meconopsis cambrica, and native not only to Wales but Ireland and parts of south west England, and naturalized all over Britain, is now Parameconopsis cambrica. (More on that another time…)

So. This a very impressive work, and the culmination of many decades of dedicated and insightful study in the field, in the herbarium and in the laboratory. It’s an amazing achievement. But, as with The Genus Erythronium that I discussed here in December, it’s expensive: $112/£68. Isn't it time these books were published as ebooks for a third (a quarter?) of the price?

Kit taught me taxonomy when I studied at Kew many decades ago and he was mad about meconopsis then. This book is the triumphant culmination of a lifetime of study. Perhaps, next, he’ll give us a book for gardeners.

The Genus Meconopsis by Christopher Grey-Wilson is published by Kew Publishing in Britain and by The University of Chicago Press in North America.


Lettuce, golf courses and gardens - wasting precious water

Irrigating Wheat! Using an overhead spray line. Image ©USDA
So, it’s finally dawning on California that there’s a water shortage. Better late than never, I suppose. But where does all the water go? Well, spectacularly inefficient irrigation of crops and golf courses, not to mention gardens, is one way it gets wasted. Like watering wheat - wheat! - above (click to enlarge)

I remember, years ago, the PR guy from one of Britain’s top garden watering companies telling me – in a tipsy moment after a press party – that 85% of the water that came out of his company’s sprinklers evaporated. Wasted. Gone. Vanished into thin air.

Research at the University of California (Davis) points out that in the southern deserts of the USA 36 inches of water per acre is typically used to grow a lettuce crop, that’s about one million US gallons per acre. Let’s say a field produces two crops of lettuce a year (an estimate probably on the low side), that’s two million gallons of water per acre per year. The water is applied from overhead sprinklers and let’s say that my tipsy PR guy overestimated the wastage, let’s say it’s only 50%. That’s a million gallons per acre per year – wasted. And the most recent figures (2012) show that California harvests about 284,000 acres of lettuce a year.

Across the border in Nevada, Google Earth reveals the patterns created by huge sprinklers - the booms can be up to half a mile long - in a naturally arid region (see below, click to enlarge).

And what about golf courses? According to the United States Golf Association “golf courses in hot, dry climates may require as much as 6 acre-feet of water per acre per year”. As it happens, this curious measure translates into almost two million gallons of water per acre per year for a dry country golf course. If we say a golf course is about 100 acres in total  - well, you get the message.

So, co-incidentally, it takes about the same amount of water to keep a golf course lush and green as it does to grow two crops of lettuce – and most of it is wasted!

Soakerhose watering hellebores in the shade garden. Image ©GardenPhotos.comThere are a number of conclusions to be drawn from all this. And one of them is that California’s new rule that restaurants must ask customers if they would like a glass of water before serving it is not going to solve the problem.

As gardeners, we should abandon sprinklers and install soaker hose watering instead in the shade garden, left, click to enlarge). That’s easy. As for lawns? I’m sure I don’t need to tell you. Lettuce growers, too, should use some form of furrow irrigation, many already do. Or soaker hose – and using soaker hose would also work wonders for the car tire recycling business (that’s what soaker hose is made from). Installation would be a major capital expense, of course, but charges for water use would be cut significantly as growers would use so much less – where they pay for it at all(!) And hey, we’d have to pay more for our lettuce. What’s wrong with that? Lettuce is cheap. And perhaps more crops would be grown in areas with a higher natural rainfall. It makes no sense to waste water growing lettuce in California then truck it to supermarkets in New York. But don’t forget: 80% of California’s water is used by farms and farms are not included in the mandatory 25% cut back.

I'm not sure that reducing 20% of water use by 25% is going to make much difference - that's 5% of the total use. A drop in the... you get the picture: sounds good, doesn't mean much.

And golf courses? That’s a tricky one. The men people who make the decisions about this probably agree it all out on the golf course - and we wouldn’t want to upset them, would we…?
Irrigating the Nevada dessert. Image © Earth

Anniversary pansies span the years and the river

160 baskets of Viola 'Waterfall' on a bridge in Suffolk. Images © Thompson & Morgan

Now here’s a way to celebrate!

British seed and plant company Thompson & Morgan celebrates its 160th anniversary this year and to mark the occasion they’ve done something rather amazing. They’ve hung 320 hanging baskets from a bridge over the river near their headquarters in Suffolk, 160 on each side (click the picture to enlarge). And they’re all planted with T&M’s brand new, own-bred, fragrant, trailing viola mixture – ‘Waterfall’ (Brits will be able to order it in May).

First, they hired specialist highway contractors to fix the 320 heavy-duty hanging brackets in place, 8m (26ft) apart along the 1287m (4200ft) bridge, and then the baskets were hung. The teams worked from 12-4am over the last three nights. of March in liaison with local authorities. to cause minimal disruption to traffic. All be revealed today, 1 April.

A total of 5,760 violas have been planted in 3,200 liters (845 US gallons) of T&M’s own Incredicompost (yes, that’s what it’s called!) with 9.6kg (21 ponds) of their Incredibloom plant food added to keep them going till 1 June when they’ll be removed.

Of course, once they’re all in place, watering is the big challenge. But they’ve installed an automatic desalinating system that draws water from the brackish River Orwell below the bridge and doses the baskets with 2200 liters (580 US gallons) of water every day.

Well, I think this is pretty amazing. And I especially like the fact that they’re watered with desalinated water from the river below.

T&M say that “depending on public support” they’ll replace them all with summer flowers in June. So why not check in with Thompson & Morgan on the T&M Facebook page or follow T&M on Twitter and tell them what a great idea it is?