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.

Radishes from Senegal!

Radishes grown in Senegal from a British supermarket

I bought some radishes in the supermarket the other day. Turns out that they were grown in – Senegal! Isn’t that astonishing? 250g (9oz), sixteen radishes, for 39p (56c) - that's amazing too. [UPDATE: I just found radishes from Senegal in Britain's poshest supermarket: 150g (5oz), twelve radishes for £1.12 ($1.71). Not cheap.].

There’s been snow on the ground both in Northamptonshire and in Pennsylvania this last week or two so not much chance of growing them in January wherever I happen to be. But I didn’t expect them to come the best part of 4,000 miles.

It’s not possible to grow them in Pennsylvania at this time of year unless you have a heated greenhouse and the energy that would go into heating it is probably more than is used to fly that packet of radishes from west Africa.

It’s certainly possible to grow them in winter in a cold greenhouse here in Northamptonshire, but I’ve recently lost the use of Daikon radish 'Alpine'my greenhouse so no go there.

And, to be honest, I didn’t have much luck growing them outside last year either. What, I couldn’t grow a few radishes in my fancy new trial garden? Well, actually, I grew quite a few but far fewer than I’d intended because they were attacked by a nasty little pest: flea beetle. It attacked the rocket and the turnips too.

The varieties I grew were ‘French Breakfast 3’ and mildew-resistant ‘Celesta’ – of course, mildew-resistance is not much use if the flea beetle gets them. Anyway, this year I’m going to try two variations.

Firstly, I’m going to grow them under low fleece tunnels to keep the flea beetle off. And secondly, the red-and-white ‘French Breakfast 3’ had a good tangy taste so I’ll use up the remaining seed of that and I’m also going to try ‘Celesta’ again ‘Giro’ was too mild so I’m going to try ‘Solito’ instead. It has a high resistance to cracking, which was another problem in my troubled year of radishes.

What would I grow in north east Pennsylvania? I’ll be trying the recent All-America Selection ‘Roxanne’ which is proven across a variety of climates and takes the summer heat well. And everyone in our area recommends Daikon radishes, of one sort or another, so I’ll be giving them a try. The 15cm, pure white ‘Alpine’ (above, US) and 'Mino Early' (UK) looks especially appealing.

And, until the new crop comes in, I’ll be checking the radishes in the supermarket. Morocco is the nearest source I’ve spotted so far. Sigh… So grow your own as soon as the weather allows.

Look for a good selection of radish seeds at Johnny's Selected Seeds (US - 24 varieties) and at Mr Fothergill's (UK - 21 varieties).

And, in the winter, perhaps we should just not bother eating them... From Senegal!

Award-winning radish 'Roxanne'

New Varieties in the Burpee Advent Calendar

Burpee 2017 Advent Calendar
Guest post by judywhite

Last year, as garden writers, we were treated to the Burpee seed company's wonderful Advent Calendar, a big cardboard publicity piece that was an instant hit. (Sorry to say it's not available for sale; Burpee should launch a limited edition for holiday purchase.) Instead of a manger or Santa Claus on the cover, there was a snowy image of Burpee's Seed House Barn (below), which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And instead of chocolate behind each calendar date "window" from December 1st thru Christmas Day, there was a mini-packet of a new variety of Burpee seed to grow.

Burpee is well-known in the States. Founded in 1876, the company has long been a gardening source of new seed hybrids. Their 2016 Advent Calendar (above) featured 25 new varieties, many of which some friends grew for us this summer in a Zone 6 NJ test garden. (Thanks, Dave and Jonathan!)

Cauliflower 'Depurple'Some surprises were Canna 'Cannova Rose', a dwarf type that actually did bloom from seed within a few months, and purple cauliflower 'Depurple Hybrid' which, unlike purple potatoes, actually kept its color when cooked. Of the tomatoes, the roma 'Gladiator' was most bountiful, right up to frost, firm and good sauce-making. 'Oh Happy Day' was a sweet, perfect salad tomato, and the Italian pink cherry tomato 'Maglia Rosa' was also excellent. Basil 'Pesto Party' grew well, as did mildly hot Pepper 'Dragon Roll Hybrid,' Eggplant 'Patio Baby,' and variegated Nasturtium 'Orange Troika.' There were a few disappointments: 'Prism' Kale, Pepper 'Gold Standard' and Watermelon 'Mama's Girl' didn't do so well.

This week, we were delighted to again find a Burpee promotional Advent Calendar in the mail. The 2017 cover (above) depicts Burpee's historic Fordhook Farm House decked out in wreaths, with a vintage truck out front. The 25 new varieties in this 2017 calendar include an intriguing green sunflower that's supposed to be great for cut flowers ('Sun-Fill Green'), a yellow Cosmos with white centers ('Lemonade', which did well on trial in England this year), a prolific striped green and gold-bronze small plum tomato ('Shimmer'), and a huge 7"x5" red pepper called 'Stuff Enuff.' Info about their many new varieties can be found on Burpee site.

Burpee's Fordhook Farm, located in Doylestown in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, has Open Days in summers, often thru The Garden Conservancy. The historic buildings and the test gardens are well worth a visit.

Burpee 2016 Advent Calendar

Roadside apples

Apple 'Christmas Pippin'. Image ©Pomona Fruits

In one of my very first posts here on my Transatlantic Gardener blog – ten years and 861 posts ago – I commented on the number of apple trees growing by the roadside. Since then there seem to be more and more, as passengers throw apple cores out of their car windows although, unfortunately, some of the best British examples have been destroyed by road widening.

Now, having not really paid attention (I have to say), I find that an apple found by a roadside in 2003 was introduced in 2010. I spotted the story in the latest catalogue from Pomona Fruits, one of Britain’s finest fruit nurseries. The apple is called ‘Christmas Pippin’ and it’s an easy-to-grow version of Britain’s all time favourite apple, ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’.

“The eating quality is exceptional,” say the good people at Pomona Fruits, “characterised by a sweet and aromatic flavour, lovely perfume and a very pleasant honey after-taste. The fruits are crisp and juicy with a melt in the mouth texture that makes each bite increasingly more pleasurable.” They also say that it’s “very easy to grow and produces reliable, heavy crops countrywide.” Sounds like the perfect apple and the Royal Horticultural Society thought it so good that they gave it their Award of Garden Merit in 2014.

‘Christmas Pippin’ was spotted by the side of the M5 motorway in Somerset in western England, assessed at Britain’s National Fruit Collection and at the country’s largest commercial grower of apple trees and introduced in 2010. It was awarded the Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit in 2014. You can read the full story here.

In this case it turns out that ‘Christmas Pippin’ is probably a seedling from a lost tree that once grew in an orchard nearby. It's available in Britain from Pomona Fruits but unfortunately it doesn’t yet seem to be available in North America.

But wherever you’re stuck in traffic, just look out of the window and see what you can see…

The Year Of The Bean!

In Europe, this year is – wait for it – The Year Of The Bean! Yes, really!

Each year a flower and a vegetable are chosen for special attention by The Home Garden Association, a European industry organization that promotes seed-raised flowers and vegetables. So 2017 is The Year Of The Bean – as well as The Year Of The Zinnia (we’ll get to zinnias another time).

But, when I remembered that it was The Year Of The Bean - actually, it’s hard to forget, don't you think? – the first bean that came to mind was one that’s never grown for its beans.

Well, just take a look at this crimson flowered broad/fava bean (above) - it’s called, well, ‘Crimson Flowered’! Isn’t it lovely?

What we grow today is a descendant of the 'Red Blossomed' bean that was first mentioned in England in 1778, and discussed in a report from the Horticultural Society of London in 1831. The report says: “Stem about four and a half feet high. Blossoms varying, sometimes of a light red, at others of a dark crimson color. Pods short and much pointed, seldom containing more than three Beans, which are small, short, and thick, of a rusty white color when ripe. This is only fit for ornament; it is but a moderate bearer, and will not keep long after gathering, as it soon turns black.” So, the flowers were the thing, and they still are.

So here's the story: The only reason that we can grow it today is that a gardener from Kent, Miss Rhoda Cutbush, donated four seeds to Britain's Heritage Seed Library exactly two hundred years after its first mention in print. It had been handed down to her many years previously by her father, who’d been given it before the First World War, and she’d saved seed every year and kept it going. The Heritage Seed Library increased stock and passed it around.

But I’m sure that today’s ‘Crimson Flowered’ is a different plant from the one that the Horticultural Society of London reported on in 1831. Selection, conscious or not, will have taken place by a number of gardeners over the decades and things change.

Today, it grows to about 90cm/3ft, instead of the 1.4m/4.5ft noted back then. Also, the British catalogue from Mr Fothergill's describes the beans as “flavourful” and Chiltern Seeds describe it as “very tasty”. I have to say that the last time I grew it I seem to remember that “unremarkable” was a better description.

In North America The Sustainable Seed Company describes them as “much shorter” than most other fava beans (Not in my experience) and Heritage Harvest describe them as “tasty”.

But there’s no doubt that this is a lovely thing and I’ll be growing it again this year – and will report on the flavor of the beans, and the height of the plants. And be prepared for more occasional bean-related (and zinnia-related) Year Of posts later this year.

Order seed of 'Crimson Flowered' broad bean in Britain from Chiltern Seeds and from Mr Fothergill's.

Order seed of 'Crimson Flowered' fava bean in North America from Heritage Harvest and from The Sustainable Seed Company.

Supermarket surprises


DandelionsSupermarketMore unexpected things are happening in the produce aisle at the local Pennsylvania supermarkets – and not just the abominable blue and lilac poinsettias.

First of all, I spotted a much derided, invasive alien species on sale next to the kale – dandelions. Nice, fresh, bundles at $2.99/£1.90 a pound. They vanished and never returned.

And that’s another thing. Local supermarkets have started selling lettuce by weight. $1.99/£1.27 a pound I paid yesterday which is great: small heads no longer cost the same as large ones. Except that you end up paying for all the water they spray on the produce – complete with atmospheric thunderstorm sound effects – presumably attempting to keep it fresh. Of course, when you get it home and put it in the fridge it rots more quickly because it’s so wet – so you have dry it.

This is also the supermarket – Weis Markets, let’s not be coy – that uses large orange “Organic” labels to cover the blemishes on its apples and which failed to mention its Tuesday discount for seniors for a whole year of weekly Tuesday visits. If you spend enough, they also offer a discount when you go to get gas – but you have to drive more than thirty miles to find a gas station that participates. “Our gas rewards program offers up to twice the savings of other grocery stores,” they say. Maybe – but you have to drive ten times as far to get them.

But - on the plus side - recently they’ve had a really superb little lettuce that I’d not seen before. Small and fat, with soft slender stems, it’s pale green with a bold crimson zone covering about a third to a half of each leaf – it looks like a cross between a ‘Little Gem’ baby Romaine and a Boston/Butterhead type, it’s like a red-tipped, soft, ‘Little Gem’. It really is excellent so I'm trying to find out exactly whch variety it is.


Transatlantic tomato taste tests 2014

Tomato 'Sweet-Aperitif' was top in the UK taste testA year or two back I did a pairing of posts here on the annual tomato taste tests at Morningsun Herb Farm in California and the tomato taste testing at Ball Colegrave in Oxfordshire. Now the results from this year’s tomato taste tests at these two locations are in – so what’s the news?

At Morningsun Herb Farm the top three varieties this year, out of eighty six tasted, were ‘Sungold’ at number 3, ‘Italian Sweet Beefsteak’ at number 2 and ‘Sun Sugar’ (below, click to enlarge) at number 1.

Rose Loveall at Morningsun reports that because of problems with water pumps, the tomato field was kept drier this year and, as a result, flavor was generally better but the skins were tougher. This led to fewer cherry tomatoes, with their high skin-to-flesh ratio, towards the top of the ratings. ‘Matt’s Wild Cherry’, which we’d enjoyed enormously this year when I bought it from our local farmers’ market, has especially small fruits and sank down the ratings compared with previous years. Tomato 'Sun Sugar' was top in the American taste test

Older British readers will remember Clay Jones, a much loved host of Gardeners’ World TV show thirty years ago, and the author of a book on tomatoes. He told me exactly the same thing: less water, better flavor – but, he pointed out, a lower yield.

You can see the full results for 2014, as well as for 2010 to 2013 plus the five year average on the Morningsun Herb Farm 2014 Taste Test Results page.

The results from Ball Colegrave are less comprehensive and they concentrate on cherry tomatoes. They list the top ten for 2014 and also for 2011, 2012, and 2013. The winner this year was ‘Sweet Aperitif’ (top, click to enlarge), with ‘Nectar’ second and ‘Sungold’ third. Last year’s winner was ‘Sungold’, ‘Sweet Aperitif’ won in 2012 but the 2011 winner, ‘Sweet Million’ slipped to number six this year. Find out more on the Ball Colegrave 2014 results page.

‘Sungold’ is the only variety to be highly rated in both tests this year and I’m not sure if the absence of other varieties in both top tens is down to different conditions and growing methods or tasters’ different preferences. But ‘Sungold’ is clearly adaptable and much appreciated – it’s also naturally resistant to two races of fusarium wilt as well as verticillium – a big plus.

British gardeners might like to take another look at my piece from last year on American tomatoes for British gardeners. In reverse, well… There are so many varieties available in North America that American gardeners don't need to look to Britain. Sweet peas, on the other hand, is the exact opposite.

American tomatoes for British gardeners

The Tomato Growers Supply Company will send seed of a vast range of heirloom tomatoes to British gardeners. Image ©GardenPhotos.com
The number of different varieties of tomato available in the US is enormous. Just one supplier, the Tomato Growers Supply Company lists nearly 300 varieties (as well as over 150 peppers and nearly 30 aubergines (egg plants) – and they will send seed to Britain, in fact they’ll send it anywhere. So this is a great opportunity for British tomato lovers to try something completely different. American gardeners will find some tasty surprises too.

Of course, some of the varieties they list are available from the big British seed companies and some from specialists like Simpsons Seeds (who do not send seeds to North America). But the range of American heirlooms available from the Tomato Growers Supply Company is impressive, and includes ‘Lillian’s Yellow Heirloom’ (“one of the finest tasting yellow heirlooms”), ‘Mexico’ (“huge dark pink fruit with outstanding taste… brought into the U.S. by a Mexican family”) and the more modern ‘Copia’ (“a stunning combination of fine-lined golden yellow and red stripes… the real treat comes when you cut them open. Their gold flesh is streaked with red and is very juicy, flavorful, and sweet.”

You get the picture, a vast variety of intriguing new tomatoes to try.

One really useful feature of the Tomato Growers Supply Company listings is that each variety is rated as early, midseason or late and they give the actual number of days after planting that you can expect your first ripe fruit: around 60 days for the earlies, to about 90 days for lates. British seed suppliers don’t seem to do this.

Hardly anyone grows tomatoes in greenhouses in North America, so these are all outdoor timings. In areas of Britain where the first frosts come late you can probably grow them all; in chillier areas, you might want to forget the late varieties.

The Tomato Growers Supply Company will charge British customers a flat rate of just $12.00 (c£7.50) per shipment ($5.25 for North American customers). You can check out the terms here.

For the benefit of North American readers, sweet peas are the opposite. British suppliers list a large range of varieties, and some will send seed to North America. I’ll be looking at transatlantic sweet pea opportunities for North American readers soon.

Be smart when choosing Dill, Cilantro and Chervil

Delightfully Piqant Dill by Gladys J. Richter in The American Gardener. ©ANS

There’s a very useful article in the July/August issue of The American Gardener (the members’ magazine of the American Horticultural Society) about Dill. OK, Dill is not the most exciting herb on the planet but the key point is that, in her piece, Gladys J. Richter emphasizes that all Dill is not the same.

Many gardeners and cooks fail to realize that like, so many other edibles, annual herbs like Dill come in a range of different varieties – with different qualities and different uses.

The main point is that some varieties of annual herbs are specially developed to provide leaves, and continue to make more foliage without running up to seed, while others are specially developed to provide as much seed as possible as quickly as possible. Some are also more attractive than others, and so better suited to growing with flowers.

In Dill the varieties ‘Diana’, ‘Dukat’, ‘Fernleaf’, ‘Herkules’ and ‘Tetra’ are best for leaves, ‘Bouquet’ and ‘Mammoth’ are good for seeds, while ‘Vierling’, with its gray-blue leaves is the most attractive and looks best with flowers.

There are similar distinctions in Chervil while Cilantro, grown for its leaves, and Coriander, grown for its seeds, actually different forms of the same plant.

So you can see, it really does pay to be smart about choosing the right varieties according to the use you have in mind. You may not find seed of them all in your local store, but they easy to find in mail order catalogs.

North American gardeners will find a good range of these annual herbs at The Cook’s Garden and Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

British gardeners and cooks will find a good range of these herbs at Chiltern Seeds and Suffolk Herbs.

Join the American Horticultural Society

And here’s a field of Dill being grown for seed that I spotted in Surrey, south of London, eariler this summer.

UPDATE (a few days later): The current issue of Which? Gardening, published by Britain's Consumers' Association (the equivalent of the US Consumer Reports) includes a resport on their trial of nine different varieties of Cilantro/Coriander. One variety, 'Calypso', stood out for producing four or even five cuts of leaves and not bolting.

Black Tuscan kale in the garden (and the oven)

Tuscan Kale set against Weigela French Lace (‘Brigela’) also known as Moulin Rouge. Image © GardenPhotos.com
I still get skeptical looks when I point out that this Tuscan kale is a great ornamental plant. I think many people are still worried even about eating kale – which they still think of some sort of punishment – let alone growing it as an ornamental.

So here’s the kale variously known as ‘Nero di Toscano’, Tuscan kale, ‘Lacinato’ and cavolo nero (and also known, according to Wikipedia, as Tuscan cabbage, Italian kale, Dinosaur kale, black kale, flat back cabbage, palm tree kale, and black Tuscan palm)… here it is growing in our Pennsylvania garden. Looks great, doesn’t it?

Behind it is one of the more recent variegated weigela introductions French Lace (‘Brigela’) also known as Moulin Rouge whose splendid variegations ensure that the structure and colour of the kale really stands out. A little ‘Bright Yellow’ chard and variegated Masquerade ('Notbud') buddleia peep into the picture.

‘Nero di Toscano’ kale, or whatever you like to call it, has been grown for centuries. This not only makes clear its resilience and its lasting value, but over the years it has also become rather variable; sometimes, when you grow it, no two plants are quite the same.

Now, a new selection from Britain called ‘Black Magic’ (below, click to enlarge) is becoming available which is much more dependably uniform, and also comes with shorter stems so it's less likely to fall over. As I said when I wrote it up for my Royal Horticultural Society New Plans blog: “As well being uniform in colour, the foliage of ‘Black Magic’ is darker than earlier forms and with more intense puckering. The leaves are a little narrower, it’s much less likely to bolt, and its frost resistance is even better than before.” So why not try it?

And if you’re still skeptical about eating it, try homemade baked kale chips – The Huff Post will tell you how to make them.

In North America, kale ‘Black Magic’ is available from Veseys.

In Britain, kale ‘Black Magic’ is available from Suttons.

Kale 'Black Magic': more uniform, shorter stems, and even tougher. Image ©Tozer Seeds