Rare bobwhite in our Pennsylvania garden

Northern Bobwhite looking for seeds under our bird feeder. Image ©GardenPhotoscom
We’re in the middle of the Great Backyard Bird Count here in the US (last day tomorrow) and here in north east Pennsylvania we have a bird that’s not supposed to be around at this time of year. In fact it rarely shows up in this part of the country at all  – the Northern Bobwhite. It's a kind of quail, a small, chicken-like, ground feeding bird...

In the last ten years it’s been recorded at just four places in the whole of Pennsylvania (for Brits - Pennsylvania is the size of England); so the fact that we have one here is a bit special. It’s more common farther south but this female has been here, on and off, for quite a few weeks. judy spotted her again yesterday (and took the picture), as she (the bobwhite, that is!) pottered about under the feeders hung from the raised deck.

She’s unexpectedly tame, she approached within just a few yards of me not long ago, and seems to appreciate the extra seeds thrown down for her although there’s competition from the squirrels.

As it happens, over in Britain, a friend who runs DT Brown, one of the UK's biggest seed companies, has also been spotting some interesting birds. In his village near Newmarket in eastern England, for the second year running, he’s noticed a rare Great Grey Shrike spending the winter and in a nearby village he spotted sixteen Red Kites roosting in one tree! And they’re big… With their wingspan of 5-6ft/1.5-1.8m that must have been quite a sight.

* There’s still time to participate in America’s Great Backyard Bird Count.

UPDATE (6 April) Mrs Bob White is still with us and is still very tame. Most mornings, she's waiting for her daily appetizer of cracked corn. She clucks, quietly, when approached and seems very content - although no sign of a Mr Bob White.

A message by email suggested she might have been intentionally released but we know of nowhere anywhere near here that raises and releases quail or any other birds.

T&M splash the cash on world record pumpkin

World record Pumpkin weighing 2009 pounds. Image ©
Remember last year when Thompson & Morgan paid £725 ($1149) - for just one snowdrop bulb? I wrote it up here. Well, they've splashed the cash again. My old friend at T&M, Managing Director Paul Hansord, has paid 200 euros – that’s £168 or $266 – for one pumpkin seed. No, no... Not one packet, not one pound, not one kilo. One seed. But it's one of just five seeds produced by last year's 2009lb (911Kg) record-breaker (above, click to enlarge. Image © which is called "The Freak II".

I thought I’d simply quote you Thompson & Morgan’s press release, in full.

“Growing giant pumpkins is no longer a hobby - to many it has become a competitive sport! So if you want to grow the biggest and the best, you need to start off with the very best genetics.

“At 9pm on Saturday 19th January, the European Giant Vegetable Growers Association held a live auction of pumpkin seed varieties as part of chat room. A total of 23 lots were included in the sale.

“Poised by their computers, 67 enthusiasts logged on to take part in the bidding which went on for almost 4 hours. However, lot 23 was the one everyone was waiting for; it was seed from last year’s world record-breaking pumpkin - a hybrid raised by Ron Wallace of Greene, Rhode Island, which weighed in at 2009lbs (911Kg) at Topsfield Fair in the USA. Ron’s was the first ever pumpkin to weigh more than 2000lbs. After a frenzied bidding war, a single seed from Ron Wallace’s prize-winner was sold to Thompson & Morgan for €200.00. World record pumpkin seed, and ordinary pumpkin seed. Image ©Thompson & Morgan[You can see how big it is compared to a normal pumpkin seed (right, click to enlarge).]

“Managing director, Paul Hansord said, “When compared to the usual giant pumpkin seed price of around 46p ($0.73), this seems extortionate. But we’re paying for the pedigree. If you want to grow a really huge pumpkin, you need to start with record-breaking, genetically proven, premium seed.”

“Auctions of pumpkin seed have been running since 1997. Trading encourages growers and enthusiasts to raise stronger and more competitive hybrids. The highest price paid for a single pumpkin seed was in 2011 from a previous record-breaker which weighed 1810lbs (821Kg). The price was £1009 ($1600); an exceptionally high price due to the fact that the fruit had only produced 5 seeds.

Thompson & Morgan is now searching for a ‘growing partner’ with specialist knowledge of growing giant vegetables to help raise this precious seed in an attempt to break the record for the world’s heaviest pumpkin.”

T&M’s propagator must be mightily relieved they’re looking for someone else to grow the seed for them. Can you imagine the phone call? “Hello Paul. You remember that pumpkin seed you paid a fortune for? Well, down here at the nursery it’s been a very bad year for slugs…”

You can read more about Ron Wallace and his pumpkin in The Boston Globe.

Seeds suffer in peat free composts - it’s official

Vegetable seedlings thriving in peat - though we certainly don't need the peat pots. Image ©
In Britain, there’s a huge pressure on gardeners to give up seed and potting composts (potting soil in the US) based on peat (peat moss). Digging peat for use in the garden is bad from the environment, it destroys valuable habitats. Here’s what the Royal Horticultural Society, which has reduced its peat consumption to 0.7% of all their growing media and soil conditioner, has to say on the issue:

“The RHS believes that the commercial extraction of peat at current rates is environmentally unsustainable as it removes peat at a much faster rate than it accumulates leading to the irreversible destruction of peatlands.

“Many viable peat alternatives exist which are either completely peat-free or of reduced peat content. With improved labelling and information on packaging, gardeners will be able to make more informed decisions about peat alternatives.”

The trouble is, peat makes the best medium for starting seeds (above, cick to enlarge - though we certainly don't need peat pots) and for growing on young plants. Which is why everyone uses it. And now it’s proven that most peat-free composts for starting seeds are a complete waste of money.

Which? Gardening - the highly respected, genuinely impartial magazine produced by the Consumers Association in Britain (similar to Consumer Reports in the US) - recently reported on their tests of seed composts. They tested ten composts intended for raising seeds, six based on peat and four without peat. Not only did the six peat-based composts fill the first six places, but two of the peat-free composts were so bad they were rated “Don’t Buy”.

Of one, Which? Gardening said: “The quality of our plants varied from reasonable to dreadful depending on the bag of compost we’d used. The worst seedlings barely grew at all…”

Of course at the RHS they have some of the finest horticulturalists in the world, they have the expertise, so can grow plants in almost anything! But it’s tougher for the rest of us especially when, as Which? Gardening found, even different bags of the same brand of compost can vary enormously.
Sphagnum Moss - the origin of peat. Don't gather it for garden use. Image ©
However, it’s also worth pointing out that when Which? Gardening tested composts for containers, two out of three of their Best Buy composts were peat-free. That’s great news - but not much help if your seedlings never get to planting size.

In the end, I expect some excellent products to be developed. But this is surely a case where government sponsored research could help gardeners and compost producers alike, for the greater good – the environment in general. The producers themselves have clearly not done much of a job so far - for seed composts anyway.

Oh, and by the way. Fresh sphagnum moss (above right, click to enlarge), the progenitor of peat, collected from the wild for orchids and to line hanging baskets? No. There are plenty of good alternatives that really do work.

Transatlantic award winners - Echinacea and Vinca

OK, starting my quick look at award winning plants from both sides of the Atlantic, we kick off with a sparkling echinacea mixture and sumptuous vinca (not to be confused with groundcover vinca). For more on All-America Selections and Fleuroselect, see my earlier post.

Echinacea 'Cheyenne Spirit', Fleuroselect Gold Medal winner. Image © FleuroselectEchinacea ‘Cheyenne Spirit’
Fleuroselect Gold Medal winner Echinacea ‘Cheyenne Spirit’ (left, click to enlarge) is seed-raised coneflower mixture in six colours: orange, red, rosy-red, yellow, purple and cream. Not only does it bring this excellent range of colours (although no pure white), but the plants flower in their first year from a spring sowing, although seed needs to be sown in heat in late winter. (zone 4)

The single flowers are relatively uniform in size, and the plants all reach about the same size – 27-31in/68-80cm in height and 25-30in/64-76cm wide – whatever the colour. So the plants are very bushy. ‘Cheyenne Spirit’ looks great for sunny borders, and as a cut flower. And you can pick out your favorite color and divide the plants.

Search for suppliers in North America (none yet…)

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Vinca 'Jams 'N Jellies Blackberry' Vinca 'Jams 'N Jellies Blackberry', All-America Selection. Image © All-America Selections
All-America Selection Vinca (Catharanthus) 'Jams 'N Jellies Blackberry' (right, click to enlarge) is an unusually richly coloured form of this annual in deep, not-quite-black purple that’s rather like a sun and heat loving version of Impatiens. Widely used in North America, and becoming more popular in Britain, these vincas are prolific and easy and don’t suffer from the downy mildew problems of Impatiens.

Reaching about 10-24in/25-60cm in height, depending on the summer climate, Vinca 'Jams 'N Jellies Blackberry' is a fine container plant, with silver foliage perhaps, and good in sunny borders.

Sow seed about eleven weeks before the first frost in your area at about 75F/24C and grow on at about 70F before hardening off and planting out.

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Organic broccoli: is it really better for you?

Broccoli Marathon - more antioxidants when organically grown? Image ©Marshalls SeedsMany of us feel that organically grown food is better for us then food grown by what have become conventional methods but rarely is it actually proved that organically grown food is more nutritious. Perhaps, says he, because it isn’t more nutritious – it's just that it doesn’t have the chemicals.

But the other day I noticed a small piece in the ResearchMatters column of the British trade magazine Horticulture Week (login required) which summarizes research published in the latest issue of The Journal of Horticultural Science & Biotechnology. And this research finds that organically grown broccoli has higher levels of antioxidants than conventionally grown broccoli.

The variety ‘Marathon’ (above, click to enlarge), popular with both home gardeners and commercial growers, was grown on the same site by both conventional and organic methods. Florets were tested for a range of factors, and organically grown and conventionally grown broccoli showed no difference – except in antioxidant content.

I don’t subscribe to The Journal of Horticultural Science & Biotechnology, perhaps I should, so I’m not able to study the research paper in full but the publically available abstract looks promising. And study reported in Britain’s Guardian newspaper four years ago also shows the promise of organic culture as does a paper on blueberries in The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Of course, I'm not an organic chemist, So I popped downstairs and asked judy, who holds double-major B.S. degree from Rutgers University's College of Agriculture and Environmental Science. She told me: “There is a lot of controversy in the scientific world about how bad most of the studies have been. The broccoli one is not statistically significant. Also, the word “antioxidant” is not even used the same way by different studies; various compounds are given a number of different names and it's not regularized.”

Hmmm… So we have to be a little careful and not get carried away. But whatever proves to be true about the nutritional content, at least we know organically grown food has not been sprayed with chemicals.

Just one other thing… Many years ago, the British organic gardening charity Garden Organic (known back Potato 'Desiree' - more Vitamin C than other varieties. Image ©Marshalls Seedsthen as the Henry Doubleday Research Association) did some studies on the nutritional content of different varieties of potatoes, I think it was, and carrots. They found that varieties varied enormously in their vitamin content.

And I just come across a study from Slovakia which showed that the popular potato variety ‘Desiree’ (right, click to enlarge) can have more than twice the Vitamin C content of other potato varieties.

So the variety you choose to grow may well turn out to be more important, from a nutritional point of view, than anything else.

BTW British gardeners can buy both the varieties mentioned from Marshalls Seeds. In North America Broccoli 'Marathon' is available from Harris Seeds, and potato 'Desiree' is available from Seed Savers Exchange.

Snowdrop bulb sold for world record £357 ($576)

The recent sale of a single snowdrop - Galanthus plicatus 'E. A. Bowles' - for a world record £357 ($576) on eBay has collapsed into confusion. Apart from the madness of paying that much for an admittedly lovely variety, in just a few days all sorts of mistakes about this simple story have appeared in Britain’s newspapers and on blogs. Its origins, the grower, the seller, its price, the destination of the funds - all have been wrongly reported.

John Grimshaw, one of the world’s leading snowdrop experts, gave the news of the sale on his blog a week ago. Then yesterday he was forced to post again correcting all the mistakes that had arisen as a result of journalists not checking their facts. One paper even managed to get the world record price wrong. Then today he posted again, making clear (not for the first time) that he had not “bred” this variety himself.

You’d think it was a simple story.

What is definitely true - says he deftly changing the subject - is that the gardens at Colesbourne Park in Gloucestershire (managed by John Grimshaw) will be open for visitors to see the superb display of snowdrops every Saturday and Sunday afternoon in February 2011, plus 5th & 6th March, from 1 pm. So the first open day is this coming Saturday, 5 February. Guided tours for groups are available on weekdays by prior appointment. For more info check out the Colesbourne Park website. And don’t be digging up any of their snowdrops in the hope that you can make a fortune. Just don’t.

As I write, the same vendor still has other special snowdrops on sale on eBay.

Free books for my Twitter followers

5186CY7Z35L._SS500_ Are you following me on Twitter? If you are, or if you're not, here's a chance to win a free copy of my award-winning book Hardy Perennials.

I'm now approaching 500 followers, the 500th person to follow me on Twitter will receive a free signed copy of the book. You can follow me here.

AND - by way of thanking all my other followers - I'll also be choosing one of the other 499 followers at random to also receive a free signed copy.


"Everyone who grows perennials, whether beginner or specialist, will enjoy this book."
Brian Halliwell, The Garden

Checked in this morning to find I'd passed 500 followers. And the 500th was Garden Addict (@garden_callus). Congratulations, your book will be on its way to you soon.

Then, using the True Random Number Service, number 336 was generated and the 336th follower out of my first 500 followers turned out to be Jerry Peed (@HPotterGardens). Congratulations, your book will also soon be on its way. And if anyone else would like to buy a signed copy, please email me (US - $15, UK - £10. Plus shipping).

Now, after that fun way of thanking all my Twitter followers, and rewarding two of them, it's back to normal service. Big post on invasives coming next here... plus continuing tweets, but never in overwhelming numbers.

Thanks to all 503 of my followers on Twitter.

Mad planting ideas for our country town

OK, it’s blood boiling time.

LecuanthemumGR14872 The local council back in my home town in picturesque rural Northamptonshire in England’s East Midlands has a plan. They want to “enhance the appearance of the town”. Sounds splendid, doesn’t it. Who could complain abut that? Not so fast.

The council’s own little magazine reports: “The project will start with the town boundaries to improve the various approaches to the town. Flower beds will be created and the areas improved in such a way that will attract wildlife as well as making the entrances to the town have much more impact.”

No. Not “flower beds”. No no no. See the steam coming out of my ears?

I know, coming from a garden writer that may surprise you. But the main approach to the town, from the east, is shown in the picture. Not a “flower bed”, but there’s already a lovely display of native ox-eye daisies. They follow the native spring cowslips. And there’s even a rare campion in there somewhere. Orchids will surely arrive eventually, they did at another site in the town. What’s wrong with that?


This wildflower planting was created when the new bypass was built in the 1980s and was inspired by Dame Miriam Rothschild a pioneer of planting native wild flowers in gardens, public places and roadsides. She was born and lived all her life just two miles away and also established a business growing seed of native flowers and developed new techniques for restoring the richness of meadows which had been reduced to grass monocultures by the use of weedkillers.

We have an internationally recognised local pioneer of natural roadside planting whose example the town has already followed. And the best they came up with is flower beds?! Perhaps the council would prefer Carpet bedding,Carlisle,Gardeners Tips. Image © (all rights reserved)something like this? (right, click to enlarge - thanks to Gardeners Tips for the image)

Years ago, Pamela Schwerdt who for over thirty years was joint head gardener at Sissinghurst Castle, perhaps England’s greatest garden, took me aside to persuade me to write about the increasing popularity of planting beds of big yellow daffodils at the approaches to villages and country towns. “They just look wrong,” she told me. She was cross, and she was right to be. I’ve sounded off about such thoughtless planting in national newspapers and magazines repeatedly over the years and here on this blog last year.


And now flower beds are planned for the approaches to my own town. No. Not only do we have the inspiration of Miriam Rothschild to guide us, but we need just look out of our car windows as we drive through the local lanes and see the richness of wildflowers, both colourful and unusual, to be inspired again. And let’s not forget that the maintenance involved is minimal. We just need to remember the miserable weed-infested flower beds that greet us as we approach another local town for the point to be rammed home even more surely.

So: no flower beds, no big and blowsy ‘Carlton’ daffodils, no petunias or mega-marigolds like yellow dishmops despoiling the entrances to the town.

OK, I feel better now.

I won an award!

Graham Rice,award,PPA,Perennial Plant Association,International Contributor Award. Image © (all rights reserved) Yes, I’m delighted to report that I’ve won an award from the Perennial Plant Association (PPA). This is the society of mainly professional growers and plantspeople based in the USA and devoted specifically to perennial plants. And they’ve just honored me with their International Contributor Award for 2010. Thank you.

(How else do I illustrate my award, except with a picture of the plaque?! Click to enlarge.)

This award honors an individual who has made significant contributions to the herbaceous perennial industry through writing, breeding, growing, retailing, or designing with perennials.

Other winners in the past have included such notables as Piet Oudolf, Adrian Bloom and Beth Chatto.

Thank you, PPA. I’m honored.

Here’s a complete list of winners from previous years:
David Tristram - Plant breeder (UK)
Georg Uebelhart - Jelitto Seeds (Germany)
Poul Peterson - Overdam Nursery (Denmark)
Nico Rijnbeek - Rijnbeek & Sons Nursery (Netherlands)
Beth Chatto - Plantswoman, writer, nursery owner (UK)
Gert Fortgens - Arboretum Trompenburg (The Netherlands)
Ernst Pagels - Pagels Nursery, Leer (Germany)
Jac DeVroomen - DeVroomen Nurseries (The Netherlands)
Adrian Bloom - Plantsman, garden designer, writer, nurseryman (UK)
Piet Oudolf - Plantsman, garden designer, nursery owner (The Netherlands)
Luc Klinkhamer - CNB (The Netherlands)