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Future Gold Medal Winners?

Green flowered echinacea in the 2021 Fleuroselect trial
Green flowered echinacea in the 2021 Fleuroselect trial


Fleuroselect is the across-Europe organisation that grows new seed-raised flowers in eleven countries, compares them with existing similar varieties and gives Gold Medals to those that really are better than what’s already around.

The Mr Fothergill’s trial ground in Suffolk is one of two British sites where trials are held and I’ve looked them over twice this year and picked out the most promising. None of them have yet been given names.

My first visit was on a scorching day and the second was in a downpour, so I got see them in both extremes and there were three that really stood out.

Space-alien Helianthus, sunflower, in the 2021 Fleuroselect trial
Space-alien Helianthus, sunflower, in the 2021 Fleuroselect trial

First, one that I admired but didn’t really like. It was a short wild-looking, space alien sunflower in a pretty pale yellow with flowers that – well, you can see above.

One that I did like was a dwarf perovskia (now reclassified as a Salvia – don’t ask!). It was half the height of ‘Blue Steel’ growing alongside, with growth that was more dense and spikes on which the flowers were more tightly packed.

There was also a green-flowered echinacea (above) which I did like. I’ve grown ‘Green Twister’, with green petals tipped in purple, for a few years now but this one was completely green. The flowers were also smaller than those of ‘Green Twister’ which are sometimes too large to be elegant.

Seed-raised sedum in the 2021 Fleuroselect trial
Seed-raised sedum in the 2021 Fleuroselect trial

Finally, the pick of them all was a seed-raised form of Sedum spectabile (above). At first I wondered why anyone would want to grow this plant from seed, but there are growers who like to raise all their plants from seed so I suppose it fits into their programme.

Tight, extraordinarily compact, very prolific, early flowering on very short stems, the new flowers were a little slow to overtop the older ones and many of us will prefer one of the increasing number of varieties raised from cuttings, rather than seed. But it’s certainly impressive.

The echinacea, I’ll definitely be growing – when it finally comes on the market. And perhaps it will be awarded a Gold Medal?


News from northern travels

Dahlias protected from earwigs with organza bags
Dahlias protected from earwigs with organza bags at Cloudberry Flowers.

I’ve been on a little jaunt. A week in the Scottish borders and in Northumberland making horticultural stops – not to mention startling fellow drivers by singing sea shanties as we were stuck in traffic.

I stayed with my old friend, the award-winning botanist Phil Lusby, author of Scottish Wild Plants: Their History Ecology and Conservation, and his weaver wife Ellie. Sadly, amazon has priced his splendid book more than a little high (£77.99), although they also say that it was published in 1679 so what do they know! Oh, wait. There's a revised edition at a proper price: £11.43. That's more like it.

I learned some very interesting background on the genetics of native roses, which I’ll come back to here another time, and we found a puzzling variegated honeysuckle in a hedgerow. Puzzling, because there was so much of it: not just a single shoot or a single plant – there was masses of it. I suspect virus.

Lonicera periclymenum with mysterious variegation
Lonicera periclymenum with a mysterious variegation growing in a Scottish hedgerow

We had a lovely visit to Cloudberry Flowers in Peebles, one of the new breed of cut flower growers supplying fresh, locally grown, sustainably produced flowers for local customers. Catherine Duncan’s cutting gardens seem steadily to be taking up more of the acre of garden that surrounds the house, encroaching on the lawn.

I was especially taken with the ghostly dahlias (at the top): organza bags keeping out the dreaded earwigs.

In Northumberland I visited Halls of Heddon, celebrating their centenary this year, and from whom I and my friends order dahlias and chrysanthemums. Apart from the fine quality of their plants, customers who’ve had occasion to use their customer service cannot speak too highly of the response.

I always enjoy seeing plants on trial, lined up in rows, side by side, and that’s what you’ll find at Halls. It makes it so easy to compare varieties and I guarantee you’ll be delighted when come across a treasure that you didn’t know. I was very taken with ‘Blyton Everest’, a very tight, white small decorative with lavender tints in the centre.

Of course, we can’t all get to visit but their website is easy to use and comprehensive.

Halls of Heddon display garden
The Halls of Heddon display garden

In Northumberland I also paid a visit to another cut flower grower, Kate Norris at Northumbrian Flowers https://northumbrianflowers.co.uk/ near Hexham. Busy with weddings, there’s a flurry of brides desperate for flowers as all the pandemic-postponed weddings are back on the calendar, the cutting garden was nevertheless looking very prolific.

Rudbeckia 'Sahara' at Northumbrian Flowers
Rudbeckia 'Sahara' at Northumbrian Flowers

Her bed of Rudbeckia ‘Sahara’ was impressive – such lovely tones – and there was bed after bed of helichrysums in separate colours. Kate had also recently planted more woody plants for cutting, especially hypericums, so I was able to recommend some physocarpus and point her to me my earlier blog post.

And finally, apart from enjoying the magical Borders scenery, I also got to spend a couple of evenings in a delightful little shopfront pub in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea on the Northumberland coast. The Ink Spot is only open a few hours a day, three or four dys a week, there’s no loud music, no food – just cheerful locals and their dogs enjoying drink and conversation. Seats, at a guess, eighteen. Marvellous. I’ll be back.

TheInkSpot


Book Review: RHS Weeds

RHSWeedsFixed

We all know about weeds. We pull them out, we throw them on the compost – and then we do it all over again. And again. But weeds are far far more than never ending irritation and fodder for the compost heap as this elegant little book reveals. They’re simply fascinating, as RHS Weeds by Gareth Richards proves.

Looking closely at fifty plants that most of us would rather not have in the garden, we learn why they succeed, why they’re difficult to eradicate and also why we should admire them.

I have to say, though, that throughout this book there’s a definite feeling of support for the underdog. The more that Japanese knotweed or Himalayan balsam or ragwort is added to lists of banned weeds, the more Gareth feels the urge to remind us of the plants’ good qualities and the intriguing associated stories.

He airs his respect for Japanese knotweed, pointing out that bees love its generous late season nectar supply; he explains how the toxins that make ragwort so unpalatable, indeed poisonous, to cattle are passed on to the luridly striped cinnabar moth caterpillars that feed on its leaves; he notes the irony of Spanish bluebells being weeds in native bluebell woods, while native bluebells can be weeds in the garden.

Setting the tone for the whole book, in the very first entry, Gareth sets out his admiration for the sycamore, explaining how it behaves in the same way as native forest trees and fits well, visually, into the British landscape. Rather than be derided, sycamore should be welcomed as a replacement for the elm and ash that have been laid low by disease. What’s more, it turns out, sycamores support a greater mass of insects than oaks.

Clearly, Gareth has a rich understanding of what he calls these “vagabond plants”, these plants in the wrong place, yet this impressive appreciation is passed on to us in a very readable style, helped along by the beautiful historic botanical illustrations. So, when we’re finished heaving out brambles, we can relax with a cup of pineapple weed tea, and nurse our wounds as we discover why it is, exactly, that the bramble stems, and even the backs of the leaves, come with so very many vicious thorns.

I know it’s a cliché to say it, but in this case it’s actually true: this is a book that all gardeners will enjoy.

RHS Weeds by Gareth Richards is published by Welbeck.

Declaration of interest: the author is a friend and the book was supplied free of charge by the publisher.


Double pink sunflowers? Not really...

Sunflowers: Fake double pink and what the seed produced
Sunflowers: Fake double pink and what the seed actually produced

Back in the spring I saw an ad on Facebook for pink sunflowers. The variety was said to be ‘Pink Pooh’ and, at first sight, the fully double pink flowers looked quite convincing. If it was a Photoshop job then it was well done. And that, of course, was exactly right – it was a well done Photoshop job. You can see it above.

My friend Alison Levey over at The Blackberry Garden blog checked the same Facebook ad and we decided to do a little test. Alison ordered some seed, sowed it, potted up the seedlings and then passed three of them on to me.

A few days ago Alison reported what she discovered and just over a week ago the first buds on my three plants opened. As you can see, above, each plant produced a perfectly nice, yellow flowered, single sunflower: an unbranched stem with just one flower at the top – it’s probably one of those varieties grown increasingly on a farm scale for bird seed.

But not a double pink. Are we surprised? Not really.

And it’s not just pink sunflowers. There are “rainbow” tomatoes (below) with blue, purple, puce and buttercup yellow fruits all on the same truss not to mention multicoloured tulips (also below) seen nowhere on the planet outside websites trying to sell us the doctored images.

So, in the words of every shopping and consumer rights expert across the world: “If it looks too good to be true, then it probably is.” In these cases, we can scratch out the “probably”. Don’t waste your money.

Rainbow Tomatoes
'Rainbow' Tomatoes: offered on Facebook with this image, doctored clumsily in Photoshop.
An image of fake 'Rainbow' tulips
An image of fake 'Rainbow' tulips offered for sale.

Trialling New Zealand sweet peas

Sweet peas (l-r) 'Bix', 'Pink Nines' and ‘Enchanté’
Sweet peas (l-r) 'Bix', 'Pink Nines' and ‘Enchanté’

Dr. Keith Hammett is the world’s leading sweet pea breeder. I’ve always been a big fan of his varieties, and he’s made so many important steps forward including integrating the most recently discovered species – the red and yellow Lathyrus belinensis - into his breeding work.

This year I trialled seven of his varieties, some of which I’ve never grown before, and I was especially pleased with four of them. Just to be clear, seed was sown in late winter, they were grown in ordinary garden conditions, on a wigwam of bamboo canes, in a corner of the cutting garden just round the corner from here at boutique florist Foxtail Lilly.

‘Bix’
This has been outstanding, not so much for its productivity but for its wonderful cream colouring with the strong rose pink picotee.

‘Enchanté’
One of the few tri-coloured sweet peas, with pale cherry red standards, white at the base, and pale mauve-blue wings opening from yellow buds. A delightful soft combination.

‘Enigma’
I was really looking forward to the vertical magenta-pink stripe through each pale pink standard but found it much less clear than I expected. I’ll give it another try next year, in better conditions.

‘Nuance’
This is a two-tone pink with darker standard and paler wings, very pretty but not as striking as I’d expected.

‘Pink Nines’
Nine flowers per stem – yes really! I loved this for the long life of each stem, provided by its eight or nine flowers. We need this in other colours.

‘Route 66’
Gorgeous, nicely frilled, pink and white bicolour that was taller and more vigorous than any other sweet pea in the cutting garden. ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ is similar, but bright red and white.

‘Turquoise Lagoon’
An extraordinary combination of pinkish mauve maturing into soft turquoise blue. Very pretty in posies with pinks.

I’ll definitely be growing ‘Bix', ‘Enchanté’, 'Pink Nines’ and ‘Route 66’ again, and I suspect that the others would be more effective with better treatment.

Sadly, since Brexit, Keith is unable to send seed from New Zealand to the UK. However, many of his varieties are available in the UK from English Sweet Peas and from Mr Fothergill’s. In North America try Sweet Pea Gardens.

And you can find out more about Keith’s sweet peas here.

Over at the award-winning Blackberry Garden blog, my friend Alison Levey has also been growing these sweet peas from New Zealand. Check out her report here.

I’m still waiting for my copy of the new RHS monograph on Lathyrus by Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, botanist Greg Kenicer and Plant Heritage National Collection holder Roger Parsons. Of course, it includes sweet peas. When it finally arrives, I’ll be discussing it here… It's arrived! It looks stupendous. Review coming...


Book Review: The Joy of Dahlias

The Joy of Dahlias by Katja Staring, Linda van der Slot and Marlies Weijers
The Joy of Dahlias by Katja Staring, Linda van der Slot and Marlies Weijers

I like books. I’ve written quite a few, reviewed more and have a house full of them but sometimes the publishers just leave me baffled.

Dahlias are the flower of the moment so when I saw that The Joy of Dahlias by Katja Staring, Linda van der Slot and Marlies Weijers (Terra) was out I asked for a review copy. But, immediately, I saw that something was amiss.

The paper is not coated, slightly shiny, as it is in most books where the pictures are important. So, instead of gleaming off the page, the ink is absorbed, just a little, and the result is dull, no sparks, which wastes the original images; I’m sure they’re better than they look in the book. Presumably the uncoated absorbent paper is less expensive.

The authors, all flower growers themselves, have enlisted the help of a large number of other growers who share their dahlia wisdom, although there’s no list or index of who they are (another thumbs down for the publisher).

Authors are at the mercy of their publishers. Most published gardening authors will have a tale of a change of plan that never filters through to the writer at the keyboard, a deadline mysteriously brought forward, a title changed with no consultation. The result is that slips are missed and things end up on the page that shouldn’t.

I roared when I read this: “Since the beginning of time, the dahlia has grown as a wild plant in the highlands of the area which we now call Mexico.” Hah! “Since the beginning of time!” Oh, please. “In the beginning God created the dahlia.”?!

It’s the publisher’s job, and particularly the copy editor’s job, to tell the authors: “You can’t say that.”

And just to be clear: I’d be hugely embarrassed if some of the things I’ve sent to publishers in a mad hurry had actually made it on to the page.

There are more, but enough’s enough. It’s a very contemporary book, the design is sparky, and all the information presented in bite-sized nuggets by a wide variety of dahlia fanatics. It’s a dahlia book for the Instagram age - and that’s not a criticism at all, it’s praise.

But, again, the publisher has also not helped by pricing the book at £30. OK, you can get it for less on amazon, of course, but Discovering Dahlias by Erin Benzakein, which I reviewed here back in May, is almost exactly the same size, the pictures pop off the page, we know we can trust every word – and its publisher’s price is £18.99.

This could have been a much better book if the publisher had helped the authors as it should have done. And can we please have an index to more than just the recommended varieties?

The Joy of Dahlias by Katja Staring, Linda van der Slot and Marlies Weijers is published by Terra.

 

Declaration of interest: the book was supplied free of charge by the publisher.


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

RoseJamesLAustin-IMG_0046-copy
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.

RoseGrahamThomas-IMG_0129-copy
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

RoseVanessaBell-IMG_0025-copy
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.

RoseDameJudiDench-IMG_0155-copy
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'