Transatlantic Gardener is back!

It’s been quiet around here recently, hasn’t it. Sorry about that: lyme disease, new grandchild, selling an apartment, buying a house, renovating a house… Lots of stuff going on. Not enough hours (or energy) in the day.

But here we are again, and we’re appreciating the perennial advice that when we move into a new home we should take a year assessing the garden before we make any changes. One of the few old garden maxims that actually makes sense.

We looked over our new English cottage (above), just round the corner from the previous one, two or three times in the spring and summer before buying it and noticed the mature specimen of the yellow-leaved form of the pheasant berry, Leycesteria formosa Golden Lanterns (‘Notbrue’) (below), with its supposedly golden leaves and purple late summer and autumn flowers. Have to MalusGoldenHornet_GJR0025-700say… the leaves look a little more bleached than gold. But I don't think it will be for the chop, I know its color will be better in spring: unlike the hideous pink and white variegated willow (Salix integra ‘Hakuro Nishiki’) which I just can't bear to illustrate – where's the saw?

Back in the summer, we had no idea that we had pink and white hardy cyclamen because they were dormant. Now, they’re  lovely. Nor that the huge upright holly in the neighboring garden would prove to be a ‘Camelliifolia’, now heavily laden with scarlet berries. Or that there was a ‘Golden Hornet’ crab apple (above) on the other side also dripping in fruit: there should be plenty of birds enjoying the bounty.

And it turns out that we also have two large and mature (so far unidentified) viburnums, also developing berries. And I know there are snowdrops because some irritating creature had dug them up and scattered them about. The feeders are up, and the birds quickly found them. And the red kites continue to keep an eye on it all from overhead.

Anyway, I'm very pleased to say that postings from the Transatlantic Gardener have resumed. Thank you for your patience – and for checking in today. There'll be a little flurry of catch-ups before things settle down again.


Our movie hits the streets (and screens)

LiesIToldMyLittleSister-DVD-CoverBFF-2DLies I Told My Little Sister, the feature film written by my wife judywhite and nephew Jonathan Weisbrod, has recently been released in the USA. Hooray!! It stars Lucy Walters, currently making waves in the hit TV drama series Power, and rocker turned actress Ellen Foley, Meat Loaf’s duet partner from the Bat Out of Hell album. It also features US soap star Alicia Minshew of All My Children and Donovan Patton of the pioneering children’s US TV series Blues Clues. Oh, and me…! Not starring, exactly, but still…

Telling the story of a globe trotting photographer and the little sister she used to persecute with outrageous lies, as the whole family adjusts to the death of the oldest third sister they all head off on a family vacation – packing, as it says on the DVD cover, all the childhood baggage.

The resulting fun, fury and frustration, fuelled by vodka and love, makes a tender and warm-hearted movie revealing the elastic boundaries, and the unbreakable connections, of family love. Shot on Cape Cod, in New Jersey and at The Phoenix Store just a few miles from our front door in Pennsylvania, the film won awards at more than twenty festivals across the country last year with all the main players and the film itself being nominated or winning awards.

Horticulture? Well, apart from some lovely blue hydrangeas… not much. Although your humble blogger has a small part playing Ellen Foley’s love interest – and who could ask for more in their first movie part?!

This is a really enjoyable drama/comedy about a family full of engaging characters and how they react to their past and to the death of the oldest sister. It’s funny as well as poignant. The director and crew are almost all recent graduates of New York University film school as they embark on their careers after making some award-winning short films while at college.

It was fascinating to participate, even in a small way, and I came away full of admiration for the craft of acting; seeing these fine actors at work made me realize how good they are.

You can watch the trailer below, or watch the first two minutes of the movie here (just click the tab).

Chosen by Geena Davis as a special selection for Walmart, Lies I Told My Little Sister is available for streaming now at Walmart, amazon, iTunes, VUDU, Google Play and other services. DVDs are available in about 3000 Walmart stores. Negotiations continue about a European release.

Go on... Give it a try… I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

 Next time, back to plants...

New research: Non-native plants just as good as natives for pollinators

Verbena bonariensis and Lobelia tupa, two valuable Southern Hemisphere pollinator plants from South America  on the RHS Plants For Bugs research plots.
There’s been a great deal of controversy about whether native plants are best for pollinating insects or whether non-native garden plants are just as valuable. On the whole, the debate has been informed by more opinion than science but, after a four year research project at their Wisley garden near London, the Royal Horticultural Society has the answer. This is the first ever designed field experiment to test whether the geographical origin (‘nativeness’) of garden plants affects the abundance and diversity of invertebrates (wildlife) they support.

“Until now the role native and non-native plants play in sustaining wildlife in gardens has been unclear and confusing,” say the lead researchers on the project Dr Andrew Salisbury and Helen Bostock. “Now, for the first time, gardeners can access robust, evidence-based information on the most effective planting strategy they can adopt if they wish to attract and support pollinators.”

Over on her Plants For Bugs blog, Helen Bostock summarizes the three main conclusions of the research (her emphasis in bold).

“1. The best strategy for gardeners wanting to support pollinating insects in gardens is to plant a mix of flowering plants from different countries and regions.

VerbenaBee“2. Emphasis should be given to plants native to the UK and the northern hemisphere, though exotic plants from the southern hemisphere can be used to extend the season (there are a greater proportion of exotic plants flowering later in the season compared to UK native and northern hemisphere plants) and provide nectar and pollen for some specific pollinators.

 (Left, Verbena bonariensis from South America)

“3. Regardless of plant origin (native or non-native), the more flowers a garden can offer throughout the year, the greater the number of bees, hoverflies and other pollinating insects it will attract and support.”

So there you have it, research at the RHS (part of the research area above, click to enlarge) the best way to encourage pollinating insects is to “plant a mix of flowering plants from different countries and regions” – and not to rely only on native species.

Supported by the Wildlife Gardening Forum, this is exactly the sort of research we need to demonstrate the Entomologist Andy Salisbury uses a Vortis suction sampler to collect insects in the Plants for Bugs experimental plots at Wisley proven realities of an issue which has been dominated by the trading of opinions such as “Native plants will attract more native pollinators” masquerading as facts.

Let’s hope the RHS team will soon be looking at the relative importance of native and non-native plants in providing food for those larvae of native insects which do not require specific native plant species on which to feed – for although the point is pretty much proved in Jennifer Owen’s Wildlife of a Garden, it would be good to have research on the same scale this newly published RHS research to make the point.

* You can read the full details of the RHS research online in the Journal of Applied Ecology.
* Take a look at the latest addition to the RHS guidance on Plants For Pollinators based on this research.
* Read the background to the research and how it was done.

Spring and summer

Well, it’s been a tough season so far and that’s why posts here have been rather infrequent. First a heart attack, then acute lyme disease and then complications related to the lyme – I’m sure I’ll be fine in the end but in the meantime, well, not so much. Especially as one of the symptoms of lyme is “brain fog” which seems to permit no higher intellectual activity than watching re-runs of Star Trek: Voyager.

But I’ve now started looking at my not-so-little pile of books waiting for review so starting tomorrow I’ll be posting here about Coffee For Roses by C. L. Fornari followed later by Tweet Of The Day by Brett Westwood and Stephen Moss, The Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs from the RHS, Where Do Camels Belong? - The Story and Science of Invasive Species by Ken Thompson as well as four new Plant Lovers' Guides from Timber Press. These are all very tempting books so please so stay tuned, although I have to say posts may still be a little sporadic for a while.

Chelsea Flower Show Plant Of The Year 2014

Chelsea Plant Of The Year winner and runners up 2014. Images ©RHS except the tomato ©Tiffany Woods/Oregon State University
There are plenty of trade shows around the world where awards are given for new plants. But the Chelsea Plant Of The Year is one of the few awards made to new plants as they’re launched to gardeners. The 2014 award, the fifth, was made last week at London’s prestigious Chelsea Flower Show and the winner was a double flowered, bicolored variety of mophead/Hortensia hydrangea - Hydrangea macrophylla called Miss Saori (‘H20-2’) - which is not only an eye-catchingly attractive hardy garden shrub but which has already had success as a cut flower.

This year’s runner up was the unique black and white tall bearded iris ‘Domino Noir’, raised in France, and in third place was the Dutch, long flowering, hardiest yet Gerbera 'Garvinia Sweet Glow' with vibrant orange flowers.

Highlights amongst the rather long shortlist of twenty plants were the first double-flowered black petunia, ‘Black Knight’, the antioxidant-rich purple tomato ‘Indigo Rose’, the largest flowered Alstroemeria yet seen Inca Smile (‘Koncasmile’) and the lovely golden leaved Eryngium ‘Neptune’s Gold. All are illustrated above (click to enlarge) and should become available to gardeners soon.

Chelsea Plant Of The Year winners 2010-2013. Images ©RHS.As for previous winners, so far the track record and the international availability have been mixed. Previous winners were (left, click to enlarge):
Streptocarpus ‘Harlequin Blue’ (2010): Beautiful, compact and with a long season but as a house plant it has limited appeal. Not yet available in North America.
Anemone ‘Wild Swan’ (2011): A lovely white flowered variety with blue backs to the petals but, as the plant buyer for a major UK mail order nursery told me: “We had huge problems with it – we received poor quality plants and there were long delays. My understanding is that there are still problems, so we won't be listing it in the near future”. Available on both sides of the Atlantic.
Digitalis Illumination Pink (‘Tmdgfp001’) (2102): A spectacular breeding breakthrough with dramatic, colourful, bee-friendly flower spikes and now widely available on both sides of the Atlantic but less hardy than first claimed.
Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’: The first winner to be developed in the US, and an excellent evergreen shrub without the spines that so many mahonias have and which many people find annoying. Available on both sides of the Atlantic.

You can find a full list of this year’s shortlisted plants on the RHS website.

All Images ©RHS except Tomato 'Indigo Rose'  ©Tiffany Woods/Oregon State University.

Was in hospital, now back home

Well, that was a surprise. Last Sunday morning, March 30th… Sitting at my desk… Chest pain… Heart attack! Off to the hospital in the ambulance… Sirens... Catheterization… Clear the blockage, put in a stent, off to bed for recovery. First twinge to resting in bed: five hours. Prognosis is excellent.

Thank you to the great team at Morristown Medical Center in New Jersey. And thanks, too, to Patrick in the ambulance who distracted me from the grim possibilities with a great story about a bald eagle swooping down, while he and his father-in-law were ice fishing, and stealing their catch which was laid on the ice!

I’ve been back home for a few days now and have just returned from a follow-up visit to the cardiologist who was very positive about my recovery – I just have to follow the rules.

(Cross-posted to my Facebook page)

UPDATE (24 April): Starting today I'm allowed a 25 minute walk every day, I've been increasing it by five minutes a week but still find it (and just about everything else) very tiring. But I'm doing well and slowly getting back to what will be a new normal. Thank you so much for all the good wishes.

New begonias - flowering varieties

Begonia Million Kisses Elegance, Amour and Blissful. Images © and ©Ball ColegraveLast time I took a look at new foliage begonias from the US, that I expect British gardeners will be seeing soon. This time – it’s the other way round… new British begonias that North American gardeners should have on their watch list. And while so many of the new US begonias come from one creator, the same is true in Britain.

In recent years Britain’s Fred Yates, from Cheshire in the northwest of England, has introduced more fine new flowering begonias than anyone else - starting with his exceptional Million Kisses Series (left, click to enlarge). These hybrids derived from Begonia boliviensis feature single flowers, in seven colours – and in vast quantities. The blooms come all summer long and into the autumn. Amour (‘Yamour’) is red, with dark leaves; the latest, Blissful (known as Cute Kiss Pink in North America), is a blush and pink bicolour; Devotion (‘Yafev’) is red; Elegance (‘Yagance’) is a white and pink bicolor; Honeymoon (‘Yamoon’) is yellow; Passion (‘Yabos’) is orange-scarlet; Romance (‘Yamance’) is salmon pink. You’ll be amazed at how prolific and colourful they are.

Three more from Fred Yates which I especially like are ‘Glowing Embers’, Sherbet Bob Bon (‘Yabon’) and Cherry Bon Bon (‘Yachbon’). All have a neat, semi-trailing habit and never become straggly and thin.

‘Glowing Embers’ is simply gorgeous, its combination of rich dark foliage backing a long long season of vivid, fiery orange single flowers. In America it's known as ‘Sparks Will Fly’. Sherbet Bon Bon has two tone yellow flowers with pink tints and a neat double centre while Cherry Bon Bon has cherry pink flowers with a golden tint to its double centre.

Two British-bred seed-raised begonias that seem to be doing well not only in Britain but in parts of the US with hot summers are the Ikon Series. These vigorous and robust hybrids make substantial plants which take heat and drought once established, There are only two so far, both with pink-and-white flowers: ‘Ikon Blush White’ has red-backed green leaves while ‘Ikon Bronze’ has bronze foliage.

Finally, Thompson & Morgan have launched a British campaign entitled The Big Begonia Revival. Frankly, I thought the revival was well under way but T&M are making the most of it. They’ve been breeding fragrant begonias since 2006 and now have their Fragrant Falls Improved Series, in three colours: ‘Apricot Delight’, ‘Lemon Fizz’ and ‘Rose Syllabub’ (below, click to enlarge). All are double, all are fragrant and all have compact, semi-trailing growth and are ideal in baskets and trailing over the edge of large pots. You can read T&M’s fascinating account of the development of scented begonias, from 1886 right up to their latest own introductions.

All these begonias are available in Britain this year though some may take a little hunting out. Almost all be available in North America too, so get Googling. North American gardeners will have to wait till 2015 for the three colours in the Fragrant Falls Improved Series.
Begonia Fragrant Falls Apricot Delight, Lemon Fizz and Rose Syllabub. Images ©Thompson & Morgan

Favorite new garden tool

One Touch™ Rain Wand from Dramm, 30in/76cm model. Image ©

Guest post from my wife,  judywhite - though I think it's great too.

Just a quick note to say I love the new One Touch™ Rain Wand from Dramm, which they sent us to trial this year (above, click to enlarge).

By ‘One Touch’ they mean that the on/off switch can be controlled with your thumb, and slides easily through a range of water flow in a gentle steady shower pattern. It’s incredibly simple to slide it on and off as you move around the garden, so you don’t end up watering the steps and pathways, a great water saver. Ours is the long version, 30in/76cm) but it also comes in a shorter 16in/40cm version.

The Rain Wand is made of sturdy aluminum but is still lightweight and of high quality. It’s designed expressly for watering, not for power washing or other options, and it does its job extremely well. We received the beautiful red colored one – you can choose from six colors from purple to orange. (I am a bit hard on it, so the color has been dinged a bit.) Make sure to look for “One Touch”, because there are other kinds of Dramm Rain Wands.

In the North America, you can order in both sizes and all colors

In the UK, only the green 30in/76cm oprion seems to be available Some enterprising UK distributor should take it on.

"Don't buy seed of perennials," says British expert!

Achillea 'Summer Berries': easy to raise from seed. Image ©
Which? Gardening is a prestigious British gardening magazine. American readers could think of it as a sort of horticultural version of Consumer Reports. In this month’s issue there’s an article by one of Britain’s top plantspeople and nursery growers, Bob Brown of Cotswold Garden Flowers, about growing perennials from seed.

In it he says: "My experience is that seed of perennials will only reliably germinate if it's sown immediately, certainly within the month. If it gets as far as a packet or a seed catalogue it's already too old." And also... "My advice generally would be not to buy seed of perennials.". Yes, he recommends home gardeners not buy seed of perennial plants. The only exceptions he mentions are "lupins, delphiniums, cactus and other succulents".

Now I have a huge respect for Bob: he’s a fine plantsman, a fine grower and as a judge of the Royal Horticultural Society’s plant trials his insight and unvarnished opinions are invaluable. But, in this case, I’m afraid he’s just plain wrong. The only perennial seeds to buy from catalogues are delphiniums and lupins? I don’t think so. Over the years I’ve raised thousands of perennials from bought seed, fresh seed and seed found in brown paper bags in the back of the shed. Most of it comes up.

It’s a shame that Bob’s recommendation could prevent gardeners from growing a vast range of fine garden plants.

Delphinium 'Guardian Blue': even Bob Brown suggests growing delphiniums from seed. Image ©GardenPhotos.comRichard Oliver, the UK manager of Jelitto Perennial Seeds, whose catalogue lists seed of over 3700 perennials and who’ve been in business for over fifty years, disagrees with Bob: “His comment is frankly wrong. Some of the seed packet stuff may be too old, or more likely, have been stored in really unsuitable conditions, but his comments are otherwise nonsense. For example: Dianthus, Achillea (above, click to enlarge) and Telekia, among others, can germinate over 90% within one week even if stored longer than 10 years. Most of our perennial seed has been tested and has a germination rate of about 70% or more. All the world’s seed banks would be useless if he was right.”

And Derry Watkins agrees. For twenty years she’s run Special Plants in Wiltshire where she not only raises a huge range of perennials from seed but teaches seed-raising techniques to gardeners. Derry told me: “I think he’s mad. Most perennial seed will germinate after 5-10 years if kept cold and dry. It may not be quite so quick or prolific, but you get the plants you want. Fresh is best, but with good storage conditions, old is fine. I sow 2-3 year old seed all the time without a problem.”

Across the Atlantic, the same view prevails. Allen Bush, the Director of Special Projects in the American office of Jelitto Perennial Seeds reminds me: “What to make of 30,000 year old seed of Silene stenophylla? Perennial seed does germinate.” Frozen seed of Silene stenophylla was found in Siberia in 2007 and scientists from the Russian Institute of Cell Biophysics announced last year that they had regenerated plants from seeds carbon dated to 31,800 years old.

I also asked top American grower and plantsman Tony Avent of Plant Delights for his view. “There are certainly some seeds that will not store well, and others that loose viability when they are not stored properly. But most plants in the Asteraceae (daisy) family, for example, won’t even germinate fresh since they require a long after-ripening period.”

So… Sorry Bob, but we don’t agree. In your article you emphasize raising plants from seed collected from our own, and our neighbors’ gardens. Fine. But most commercial seed suppliers know how to store seed correctly, and test it regularly, so that when it’s delivered it’s ready to sow, and ready to grow. OK, some needs special treatment. But advising gardeners not to buy seed of perennials at all cuts them off from an economical way to raise thousands of fine garden plants.
Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm': 99.9% true from seed, and easy. Image ©

The pictures (click each to enlarge):
Achillea 'Summer Berries'
- Mix of fruity colors, easy to raise from seed, germinates quickly.
'Guardian Blue' - One of the best blue delphiniums to raise from seed. Bob excludes delphiniums from his "don't buy seed of perennials" advice.
Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii 'Goldsturm' - 99.9% true to type, easy to raise from seed, germinates quickly.