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June 2021

July 2021

A newly discovered annual that's prolific and good for cutting

Erigeron annuus
Eastern daisy fleabane - Erigeron annuus


When I lived in Pennsylvania, there was a wild flower that popped up occasionally in open grassy places where the soil was disturbed, sometimes with native rudbeckias. Eastern daisy fleabane was a tall annual with pretty white, yellow-eyed daisy flowers, but I never thought to grow it in the garden.

Then I spotted it – Erigeron annuus - in the Special Plants catalogue, they were listing seedlings and recommending it as a cut flower. So I had to try it. And it’s been brilliant.

After a slow start it’s now reached 1.2-1.5m and it’s been flowering for many weeks. The stems are stiff, the plants branch well, but setting them out 30cm apart proved to be too close as it’s tricky to extract the cut stems from the mass of branched growth without damaging them.

The flowers last well after cutting and make an ideal foamy foil to other flowers and these dainty daisies have a neat spiralled way of opening that repays close inspection in a bouquet. Cut flower growers should give it a try and it would also be good to try in prairie-style plantings.

The Flora of North America tells me that E. annuus is an annual, and it certainly looks like one. Its close relative E. strigosus is reckoned to be an annual or biennial or short-lived perennial. We shall see. I’ll be collecting some seed, and leaving some of it to self sow, and I’ll also be a leaving a few plants to see if they last the winter and re-emerge next spring. I really do suggest you give it a go.

* A month after the above picture, yesterday I took this one - still going strong...

Erigeron annuus
Erigeron annuus, still going srong a month after the first picture, in spite opf being cut for bouquets every few days.

Book Review: The Secret Lives of Garden Bees

SecretLivesOfGardenBees900

This week is Bees’ Needs Week, an annual event coordinated by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs and involving charities, businesses, conservation groups and academic institutions to raise awareness of bees and other pollinators. So what better time to remind you about this book?

I had no idea there were so many different kinds of bees! The Secret Life of Garden Bees by Jean Vernon (published by White Owl) really opened my eyes to the vast variety of these endearing and invaluable creatures. Two hundred and seventy six species in Britain alone.

Honeybees: yes, of course, I know about them. These are the ones everybody gets so worked up about. But they’re probably the ones least in need of protection - after all, there are beekeepers all over the country whose aim is to look after them. There are also the bees that burrow into the mortar in the front wall of my old stone house: yes, I know about them.

But I had no idea about, for example, the ivy bee which doesn’t emerge from its below ground nests until September when the first ivy starts to flower. Or Britain's rarest bee, the shrill carder bumblebee, known only from a few places scattered across southern Britain.

This is an eye-opening book and one thing that Jean Vernon does very well, as she guides us through a world that really is secret to most of us, is to present information that could be seen as off-puttingly technical in easy accessible language. It's crucial for writers aiming to engage readers with new and detailed material to carry them along, to present no barriers. Some resort to being superficial - but what's the point of that?

Reading The Secret Lives of Garden Bees we can absorb the information in an enjoyable way without feeling overwhelmed.

  • Declaration of interest: the author is a friend, and the book was supplied free of charge by the publisher.
  • A shorter version of this review appeared on Facebook in July 2020.

Trialling English Roses Old and New

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David Austin's English Rose James L. Austin (‘Auspike’)

The year 2018 marked the 35th anniversary of my growing David Austin’s English Roses. They sent me trial samples of Mary Rose (‘Ausmary’) and Graham Thomas (‘Ausmas’) back in 1983 and I’ve been a fan ever since, first visiting the nursery in the mid 1980s to interview David for an article and to see the breeding set up. I’ve often featured them in my work.

So I thought it would be good to mark the anniversary of the introduction of Mary Rose and Graham Thomas - still widely grown and highly popular - by growing them alongside the very latest David Austin English Rose introductions for that year and seeing how they compare.

So in April 2017, in my trial garden, I planted bare root plants of Mary Rose and Graham Thomas plus the three latest newcomers at the time - Dame Judi Dench (‘Ausquaker’), James L. Austin (‘Auspike’) and Vanessa Bell (‘Auseasel’).

You might think that planting bare root roses in April is rather late and you’d be right. But that’s when they arrived and they all grew away happily.

So, now’s the time to make an assessment. All are in same rich old cottage garden soil in the same open border amongst other shrubs and perennials and all have been treated in the same way.

The three newcomers have all made larger plants than the two oldies – clearly, this is good in some gardens and less good in others. I tried to prune them in a similar way and that’s how they’ve turned out. Here are my rankings (best to worst), for half a dozen features.

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David Austin's English Rose Graham Thomas (‘Ausmas’)

 

Beauty of individual flowers and clusters
James L. Austin
Graham Thomas
Dame Judi Dench
Mary Rose
Vanessa Bell

Impact from a distance
Vanessa Bell
James L. Austin
Mary Rose
Graham Thomas
Dame Judi Dench

Elegance of the maturing plant
Vanessa Bell
Mary Rose
James L. Austin
Graham Thomas
Dame Judi Dench

Appearance after a downpour
Graham Thomas
Dame Judi Dench
James L. Austin
Mary Rose
Vanessa Bell

General health
All very healthy. Only one patch of black spot, on one leaf, across all of them.

Fragrance (my sense of smell is fading, but…)
Mary Rose
Vanessa Bell
James L. Austin
Dame Judi Dench
Graham Thomas

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David Austin's English Rose Vanessa Bell (‘Auseasel’).

 

Individually
Dame Judi Dench Beautiful buds with red tips, small and nicely formed flowers but not enough of them. Throws up occasional long shoots. Fading petals drop off neatly.

Graham Thomas A lovely rich yellow shade, long flowering and dropping its faded petals reliably. Makes a rather inelegant plant.

James L. Austin Carries the largest flowers of the five, and beautifully formed, but developing white edges to the petals as they age and it holds on top its dead petals.

Mary Rose The neatest of them all, but still elegant, and with a strong old rose fragrance even I can smell.

Vanessa Bell Outstanding in the number of flowers per head, and the soft colouring, but full opening is delayed and it retains its faded petals spoiling the effect. But it has more or less no thorns.

So, on the basis of this mini-trial, are the three 2018 varieties better than the two 1983 varieties? Perhaps a little, but it depends what you’re looking for…

RoseMaryRose-IMG_0045-copy
David Austin's English Rose Mary Rose (‘Ausmary’)



My pick
I’d not grow Dame Judi Dench again but I’d be happy with all of the other four. But first of the five would have to be Vanessa Bell, with its prodigious flowering capacity, followed by James L. Austin for the size and individual beauty of the flowers.

British readers can check out David Austin Roses here.
American readers can check out David Austin Roses here.

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David Austin's English Rose Dame Judi Dench (‘Ausquaker’)

A new respect for elders

Sambucus 'Gate In Field' with dustbin lid ©EdBrown
Sambucus 'Gate In Field' with dustbin lid

Elders, Sambucus, have gone from infuriating me with their pigeon-pooped seeds popping up all over the garden –in a crack at the top of a stone wall, just out of reach, is a favourite spot - to being elite ornamental shrubs. British bred Sambucus nigra Black Lace (‘Eva’), with its reddish black, finely dissected foliage and its heads of pink flowers, must be the most popular new shrub introduction of the century.

I recently wrote a piece on developments in elders for the trade magazine Horticulture Week – subscription or free trial required – where I featured one of our top breeders, Ed Brown of Cotswold Garden Flowers.

I’d grown his ‘Chocolate Marzipan’ which is a spectacular plant growing 2-3m in a year, with huge chocolate brown leaves and huge marzipan-scented flowerheads. Huge is the word - one of the most amazing plants I’ve ever grown. I also came across one of Ed’s videos from the nursery (which now I can’t find) where he says that one of his varieties, ‘Gate In Field’, “has flowerheads the size of a dustbin lid and will grow to 14ft”.

Well, naturally, I wanted to see a flowerhead and a dustbin lid compared! So here we have it (above).

“My original aims as a breeder of Sambucus,” Ed told me, “were to breed better foliage and form and length of flowering season.

“But I have learnt that getting a new product into the commercial market takes years and new products fail for stupid reasons like space on a Danish trolley (the cart that delivers plants to garden centres). Gardeners are being deprived by all the garden centres: it all goes back to delivery week, transport, and a lack of knowledge or any willingness to take a risk.

“I tried waking the industry up ten years ago but after five years gave up and switched to colour, scent, flavour and length of flowering season.

“Sambucus has well tested antivirus properties,” Ed continued, “sambucol is sold in pharmacies to help the body fight infection. But it’s made from just one of the 147 named varieties in my Plant Heritage National Collection. It’s long overdue for the pharmaceutical industry to do more plant trials but, thanks to Brexit, the work that was being carried out between me and a Swiss company ended prematurely. So if there’s a masters student wanting work with National Collection holders, we’re here and waiting.”

Ed then gave me a few details about more of his best of his varieties.

‘Milk Chocolate’ “My first introduction, it has milk chocolate foliage and cream flowers and, given good soil, will flower until November.”

‘Milk Chocolate Orange’ “Milk chocolate leaves but with contrasting orange stems grows to 2m with all flowers presented on the top.”

‘Chocolate Marzipan’ (below) “Grows to 3m has amazing two tone foliage: black on top and mint green underneath, with almond scented flowers in June, July and August.”

‘Black Cherries’ “The darkest yet, it has the highest level of anthocyanin colour in the flowers and adds a cherry-like hint to cordial.1.5m high and very slow to reproduce needs to go into tissue culture.”

Find out more about Ed Brown’s Sambucus at Cotswold Garden Flowers.

Sambucus Chocolate Marzipan ©GrahamRice
Sambucus 'Chocolate Marzipan'