Transatlantic life

Abandoned in 1605...

Lyveden New Bield in Northamptonshire, Image made available by Edbrambley at en.wikipedia under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license
A transatlantic visit to Northamptonshire’s Lyveden New Bield, in the heart of England, the other day. This is an unfinished “summer house” abandoned in 1605, before its completion, when its creator Sir Thomas Tresham died and his son featured in the infamous Gunpowder Plot (for North American readers: The Gunpowder Plot was a treasonous plan to blow up the British king by igniting barrels of gunpowder in the cellars under the House of Lords where he was opening parliament).

What remains at Lyveden is a roofless and floorless house through which we wandered, inspecting the graffiti from 1799, plus a recently planted replica of the original orchard featuring many fruit varieties from the early seventeenth century. There are also spiral “snail” mounts, moats, raised terrace walks, a huge grass labyrinth, and red kites soaring overhead.

The transatlantic team was made up of one Brit, me, plus my American wife judywhite, plus the splendid American garden writer and editor, and distiller(!), Fiona Gilsenan, plus Fiona’s ten year old son Julian (To his mum: “You're so lovable and warm. Like bacon, but not crispy.") And thanks, Fiona, for the sample of gin from your boutique distillery Victoria Spirits.

The orchard at Lyveden is going to be fascinating. Grown hard, it’s slow to become established but with its wealth of old varieties I look forward to the day when the fruit is available to sample or even to buy.

And after a visit, there’s a walk through the woods to The Kings Arms at Wadenhoe on the banks of the River Nene for lunch. But we drove the few miles over to The Chequered Skipper at Ashton, named for a rare British butterfly, on the estate of the late Miriam Rothschild. An authority on the sex life of fleas, she also pioneered the use of native wild flowers on roadsides. “I must say, I find everything interesting,” she once said.

Hurricane, voles and the gas pipeline

Before the Hurricane. Image © (all rights reserved)
I was up on the roof, not long before Hurricane Irene raged through, adding some extra sealant around the weak spots on the skylights where the rain sometimes seeps in when we have a thunderstorm. Seemed like a wise precaution… After the storm the local weather station reported 6in/15cm of rain, just on Sunday morning, and although a few drips came through the black goo seems to have mostly done the job.

While I was up there I took a few snaps of what I could see of the garden (above, click to enlarge). It looks a little different now… judy's been out tidying up and, anyway, I haven’t the heart to show you the battered coleus (it was completely flattened) and the broken phlox – not to mention the gaps where most of the hostas used to be before the voles ate them.

Which reminds me… The pest control service that comes to give the place a prevention treatment against carpenter ants told us that we're not the only ones with dramatic vole problems. But he put it down to, what seems to me, a rather unlikely cause. There's a huge gas pipeline going in four miles away, slicing dramatically through the woods (below, click to enlarge). The pest guy says there have been so many vole problems this year because so many animals have been displaced by the project.

Can't see it myself. Is he saying that these mouse-sized creatures have plodded four miles through the woods to get to our garden? Don't think so…

OK, we'll get back to plants next time with a guest post on new Phygelius, Cape fuchsia, from Ian Hodgson who was Editor of the Royal Horticultural Society's membership magazine The Garden for 18 years and Editor-in-Chief of RHS Journals.

Gas Pipeline. Image © (all rights reserved)

Hurricane... We still have no power

It rained and it rained... The lake is 2-3ft higher than it was the day before... The little stream that runs through the corner of our property and is usually about 6in deep rose to 4-5ft and is now back close to normal. Two trees came down but not, thank goodnes, on the house.

Our power went out at lunch time on Sunday and the latest update from the extraordinarily uncommunicative electricity company is that it may be some time over this coming weekend before it's reconnected. This is part of the reason why.


So... after a 60 mile round trip yesterday to get ice for the freezer and fridge... Today we've found a coffee shop with both power and wifi - and bursting with people at their laptops.

If you're expecting a reply to an email... I apologise, I'll get to it as soon as I posibly can! But now we have to go get supplies and the shops are full of people like us whose food is starting to drip out of the bottom of the freezer!

But considering what many many other people are suffering - and with rivers still rising as the flood water fills them and then disastrously overspills their banks - we got off lightly.


Snow, bears, spruces and Zimbabwe

Hamamelis,Pallida,snow. Image © (all rights reserved)

Now back in Pennsylvania, where some surprises (good and bad) awaited me.

Firstly, we’ve just had three or four inches of snow which has weighed down and smothered the snowdrops but given extra charm to the witch hazel. Its temporary beauty almost, but not quite, makes up for it not being what it was supposed to be (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida’) and so having no scent.

Secondly, just a few hours after I got back yesterday, a noise alerted me to a black bear rolling a bird feeder around the deck and getting the seeds out. We banged on the window and he made an unhurried retreat. A few hours later, another noise - he was back lapping up the spilled seeds. You know you’re home when there’s a black bear on your deck.

Thirdly, most of the needles on the three spruces outside my window have turned brown while I was away. Not sure why, but the trees are now far more brown than green.

Next, a copy of the new book, The Living Garden, from the excellent Irish garden writer Jane Powers was waiting for me. I’ll be reviewing it here when I’ve read it. One thing immediately strikes me, on a bleary flick through before collapsing into jet-lagged sleep. Each chapter is launched with a quotation, a thing many writers do, but her choices are especially thoughtful. No great dollops of Gertrude Jekyll, thank goodness, but there’s the wonderful Welsh poet R. S. Thomas:

“Out of the soil the buds come,
The silent detonations
Of power wielded without sin.”

Lastly, I’d listened to quite a lot of the radio news coverage on Libya while I was in England and never heard one mention of Zimbabwe, the former British colony where the atrocities committed by President Mugabe were certainly as appalling as those of Colonel Gaddafi. But, driving home from the airport, I was surprised to hear the lack of action on Zimbabwe promptly discussed on the otherwise pale and unremarkable public radio news.

More snow forecast for tonight. I wonder when the hellebores and snowdrops will emerge…

LATER (17 April): Last night's torrential rain and vicious winds finally ended the very very long display from the hamamelis. Snowdrops have come and gone, hellebores are almost at their peak.

Britain's top garden media folks get their awards

The British garden writers - and other media garden people - had their annual Garden Media Guild bash in London this week and judging by the tweets from the pub afterwards it was quite an event. The next day, the tweets were all about going back to the pub to retrieve phones, coats, and underwear thoughtlessly forgotten in the fun the night before. I really missed it, this year - I'm on the wrong side of the Atlantic.

ThinkinGardens, Anne WarehamBut, for gardeners on both sides of the Atlantic, the awards point to books, websites and other outlets for the expression of garden writing and horticulural insight of all kinds of which we should all take note. So here’s a few winners and finalists that my transatlantic readership in particular will find interesting or amusing.

The Website of the Year award went to Thinking Gardens (left, click on the image to go to the site). Quite right too. Anne Wareham, who runs the site, is committed to realistic garden criticism and campaigns against the platitudinous puffs that fill so many garden magazines or, as Anne puts it more effectively, are “caught in a fixed tradition of relentless admiration”. Why don’t writers about gardens write about them in the same way film critics write about films?

Blog of The year went to Midnight brambling, from Lia Leendertz. I like MidnightBramblingit because Lia brings together domestic life and garden life – and in particular because  it’s well written. She doesn’t post very often, but her blog is always worth reading. Amongst the finalists, Mark Dianco’s Otter Farm blog may bewilder some Americans but they'll certainly find it intrigung. Described as “a window into what's happening at the UK's only climate change farm - where we're planting olives, peaches, pecans, persimmons, apricots, szechuan pepper, vines” but lurching off into his entertaining asides. It’s very English. And all the better for that.

Of the award winning books, for Transatlantic readers I’d pick out The Kew Plant Glossary: An Illustrated Dictionary of Plant Identification Terms. As the judges said: “Thrill to the fact that not only will technical terms from abaxial to zygomorphous be at your fingertips, but that you will understand them.”!! This is an issue whose complexities befuddle many gardeners around the world – trust me, this book will help.

Of the journalism awards finalist Victoria Summerley of The Independent should have appeal beyond Britain’s shores especially in highlighting the idiosyncrasies of Britain’s gardens - not to mention its gardeners - as in this piece on colour. Sparky writing, and always a sense of fun. But: please will her newspaper’s website banish those huge and horrid pop up ads that blot out everything just as you're startibng to read? You can always check her Victoria's Backyard blog as well.

Andrew Lawson And finally, every year the members of the British Garden Media Guild votes for a Lifetime Achievement Award. This year, the award to photographer Andrew Lawson. If you’ve opened a garden book or magazine you’ve seen his work. Crucially, it seems to me, he trained as a painter and looking at plants and gardens as an artist seems to infuse everything he does.

OK… That’s just a few. You can check out the whole list of awards here. People not mentioned - don’t be offended, no room here for all fine work that was honoured. And, sorry, but there’s not much interest in broadcasting awards for shows never seen over in California and Nebraska. And anyway... if I go on too long, everyone will click off somewhere else. Congratulations, everyone. [And I lied about the underwear - I hope...]

£40 (that’s more than $60) - for a fescue!!

I’ve sometimes remarked on this blog that plants are often too cheap both to ensure good quality for the gardener and provide suitable margins for grower and retailer.

Well today I have an example of that – plus an astonishing example from the other extreme.
Fescue,expensive,Bibendum. Image © (all rights reserved)

My friend, writer and editor Fiona Gilsenan, spotted this fescue (click to enlarge) on sale recently at Bibendum in London. It was priced at £40. No, not £4 - £40! That’s $63.81. OK, it’s in a big pot, Fiona tells me it was about what in the US we call a gallon (about 3.5 litres). But £40! I know, costs in London are steep and it’s clearly taken more than a few months for a fescue to reach that size. But £40!

Then a couple of days ago I took a look at our local Lowes here in Pennsylvania; for Brits, Lowe’s is like a monster B&Q. And there I found chrysanthemums (below, click to enlarge) in 11/4 quart pots (just over a litre) for £2.48, that’s £1.55. Take out the cost of the pot, the compost, the cutting, the royalty on the cutting, the transport, the cost of growing since spring, the maintenance in the store – and what mark up is there left for the grower and retailer?
Chrysanthemum,Lowes,cheap. Image © (all rights reserved)
So in one store the price is so outrageous that only the ignorant or the clinically deluded would pay it, and in the other it’s so cheap that the gardener should almost insist on paying more!

* Let’s not get our Bibebenda confused. This is Bibendum, the restaurant and retailer in Kensington, complete with its slightly icky-sounding Crustacea Stall, not Bibendum the wine store in London’s Primrose Hill nor Bibendum the importer of English beer into Sweden.

* The Plants section of the Lowe’s website, today at least, features no plants at all, of any kind, only things like soil, pickling supplies(!) and plant food.

UPDATE - Six days later

Those chrysanthemums have been reduced! They've gone from too cheap to, well, actually, about right as most of them are looking pretty sad now. And the yellow ones are labelled as orange.

Chrysanthemum,Lowes,cheap. Image © (all rights reserved)

Our chestnuts are dying

Aesculus,hippocastanum,horse chestnut,leaf miner,Cameraria ohridella. Image l© (all rights reserved) As the plane from New York approaches Heathrow airport, look out of the window and the horse chestnut trees (Aesculus hippocastanum) are easy to spot. Not, as my mother insists, because they’re the first tree to develop autumn colour – although coming in to land in September that might at first seem to be the reason.

No. Just about every horse chestnut tree in the south of England has turned brown because it’s infested with a pest, the horse chestnut leaf miner (Cameraria ohridella). This little bug tunnels through the leaves causing translucent patches - in the same way as the leaf miners infesting chrysanthemums or aquilegias. But the tunnels soon merge, the leaf turns brown, the edges roll up, then the leaf drops off. By August, some trees have lost all their foliage. After a few years of losing all their leaves, trees die.

First noticed in south London in July 2002, trees across most of south and central England are now infested. It’s spread very rapidly and continues to spread. There is no effective control. Other species of Aesculus, plus Acer platanoides and A. pseudoplatanus, are also damaged.

Aesculus,hippocastanum,flowers,horse chestnut. Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.	
© Andrew Butko In Britain, the horse chestnut is an iconic tree. Its bold foliage opens from fat, sticky winter buds, then the dramatic spring flowers are followed by conkers, large shiny nuts used in kids games. The World Conker Championships are held, this year on 10 October, just a couple of miles away from where I’m writing this. Aesculus,hippocastanum,fruits,conkers. Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Photograph © Andrew Dunn.

But – the horse chestnut is not a British native tree. It grows wild in Greece and Albania and was first brought to Britain in the early 1600s. It’s so common that some American observers would probably classify it as an alien invasive and would be delighted that the leaf miner is killing trees. By contrast, in Britain research is continuing to find a predator that will kill the leaf miner.

First it was the English elm, now the horse chestnut. But things change. Last year, in Northamptonshire a few miles from here, there were elm trees growing in the hedgerow that reached about 4.5m/15ft high. And on the south coast, there were many trees that were never infected. But things change again, and now those trees are again under threat.

Aesthetically and culturally the loss of so many of these trees is a disaster. But the horse chestnut has only been in this country for 400 years, the elm for 2000 years - not long, in the evolutionary life of a tree species. And things will continue changing.

Here come the plant police

boring,garden,landscape,dull,approved plants. And I thought Americans preferred their government, from Federal to local, to leave them alone, let them to get on with their lives and not interfere… Well, it turns out that for many people in private communities – a very widespread situation here in the US and not restricted to a few affluent areas as it is in Britain – there are some pretty amazing rules about what you can and cannot plant in your garden.

For example, the community of Beverly Oaks, near Dallas, Texas, (96 homes) lays down which plants you can plant in your front yard. The list is known as the “Approved Exterior Plant Selection”. There are six plants on the list. No no, not six hundred. Six. “Shrub species will be limited to those already in use in the community”, their website explains. The six approved plants are, in their language: Fraser Photinia, Red Tip; Dwarf Burford Holly; Glossy Abelia; Nandina Compact; Japanese Boxwood; Variegated Pittosporum (Orange); Italian Cypress. The photos (click to enlarge) show typical homes. Doesn’t the landscaping just fill your heart with joy? And not much market for a garden writer there.

And get this. The website also directs: “Flowers may be displayed, but must be maintained in pots or planters.” You’re not even allowed to plant a penstemon or a phlox or a gazania - in the ground, in real soil! boring,garden,landscape,dull, approved plants.

Here’s the key to their philosophy: “Unplanned diversity in a community typically ages the look of the community, and lowers the values of the real estate.” They want all the houses to look the same. “The current focus of architectural coordination is on unifying the roof colors and the garage door design, and lighting accessories… there are now… 3 garage door patterns randomly scattered throughout the community”. Three! What an outrage!

Their website seems to have more pages than there are houses in their community.

At Belcorte (79 homes), in north east Tucson, Arizona, they’re less strict. Their “Schedule of Approved Plants for Front Yards” allows sixty two different plants although some, like Variegated Pittosporum, are mysteriously restricted to east and north walls. I notice that Euryops is allowed but not Argyranthemum, pansies and petunias are OK but not pelargoniums…

Belcorte also lists of the types of decorative rocks which are allowed, eleven kinds are permitted including four specific types of “decomposed granite”. “No rocks larger than 3in in diameter except for accent (large) rocks”.

Sorry, I can’t go on. I started looking up other communities around the country but once I discovered that the approved plant lists of some communities apply to the back yard as well as the front I had to stop. OK, I know some of this is to do with choosing drought tolerant plants in the dry south, and plants that fit into the surrounding natural landscape. What is wrong with these people who allow me to plant Mexican gold poppy (Eschscholzia mexicana) anywhere on my property but only allow California poppy (E. californica) in pots in the front yard and not at all in the back?!

What we need is a revolution. What, we’ve had one already? Time for another.

UPDATE: My friends at Garden Rant have re-posted this piece as a guest blog. Take a look, and be sure to check out the great comments.

Annuals and Perennials at Ball Open Days

Impatiens,Masquerade,BallColegrave,Open Day. Image © (all rights reserved) Just before I flew back to Pennsylvania I took in the spectacular trials at BallColegrave near Banbury in Oxfordshire. BallColegrave is the British arm of Ball Horticulture and supplies seed and plugs to professional growers.

Since Darwin Perennials has joined the Ball Horticulture group, the BallColegrave trials have broadened out from their previous colourful emphasis on flowering and foliage annuals and now also include a good range of perennials.

Actually, to be honest, it’s all more of a display than a trial and the main feature is the chance to see a huge range of plants maturing in containers – just way we grow them in our gardens.

It was impressive to see billowing baskets of petunias and begonias - including the new yellow Million Kisses Honeymoon and the award winning ‘Glowing Embers’ as well as some impressive new coleus like ‘Dark Chocolate’ in green with a chocolate flash at the base of each leaf. And the startling Impatiens ‘Masquerade’ (top, click to enlarge) stood as it does wherever it’s seen.

Amongst the perennials it was good to see heucheras, like ‘Brownies’ (right, click to enlarge), in large tubs Heuchera,Brownies,BallColegrave,Open Day. Image © (all rights reserved) as well as huge tubs of astilbe and phlox.

I was able to call in before the first open day, so they were still setting up and it was raining and blowing a gale – so no dramatic views, I’m afraid, although here’s one from the air ten years ago (left, click to enlarge) – plenty of colour!

BallColegrave,Open Day,trials. Image © (all rights reserved) But don’t take my word for it – go yourself. It’s free. BallColegrave’s open days for the trade are continuing until 6 August, they have an open day for the gardening public in a couple of days time, and there’s also a Customer Day for American growers in Chicago on Friday.

I have to say, however, that the information on the British event is a little hard to find on Ball’s not-very-user-friendly website. Follow the link for the British Trade Open Days and unless you’ve previously been on the site and selected United Kingdom in the Select Your Country menu – it just doesn’t work. The whole site is infuriating. Hit the New Varieties link on the UK site… nothing. They’ve taken the page away! And just when they're showing off their new varieties... Sigh...

Well, they may not be able to build a user-friendly website but they can certainly create some impressive new plants – and show them off well too.

BallColegrave Trade Open Days continue until 6 August, every weekday 9am-5pm
Ring 01295 814 702 if you can’t find it on the website.

BallColegrave's Public Open Day is on on 30 July, 4-8pm.
More or less no details on the website, ring 01295 814 702

Ball Horticulture Customer Day in Chicago is  at the Gardens at Ball, West Chicago, Ill on 30 July, starting at 8am. This even has its own microsite - excellent.