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February 2011

Growing food is not weird

GrowTheGoodLife Most garden books are packed with pictures, so it’s brave of both author and publisher to put out Grow the Good Life by Michele Owens (Rodale), a gardening book with no pictures at all. I find myself both cheering and becoming slightly apprehensive. After all, good pictures often carry garden books by writers whose writing skills are, how shall we say, not so very finely tuned.

I have a pretty low tolerance, I have to say, for bad writing – in any kind of books. That doesn’t mean I restrict my reading to highbrow literary fiction, far from it. Though it was a relief to fall on the recent Alice Hoffman a couple of days after another book had hit the wall as I expressed my, errr… displeasure.

So I was delighted, after just a few lines, to realize that Michele Owens can write and we don’t need to worry about the lack of pictures. What’s more, she writes well in a style which can be a trap for the unwary: dealing with important issues in a relaxed and conversational manner. “There be dragons”, as the stormy corners of the old maps used to remind us; no dragons snapping bites out of this prose.

This is a book for people who like the idea of gardening, and who like a good read – but who haven’t actually turned much soil. Michele wonders why so few Americans grow food, or grow anything. And then devotes a whole chapter to my personal top reason: soil. Americans don’t like dirt. In a generation we’ve gone from kids eating worms to kids not being allowed even to touch the soil because it’s “dirty” and “full of germs”.

No. As seed sowing season and planting season approach, read this book and enjoy discovering the many many reasons why growing food is… well, not worthy, not important, not a noble achievement determined by some high philosophical ideal (though of course it’s all those things too). It’s just, well, normal. (As is, of course, growing flowers.) And the other thing that so many Americans hate, apart from dirt, is being thought weird. So get to it.

Oh, and don’t be put off by the cover price, which at $24.99 is pretty steep for 200 pages of text and no color pictures. But I reckon it’s priced high so that the price, $14.69 - a 41% discount! - looks such a bargain.


Is this new iris good enough?

Iris,sibirica,new,blue. Image ©John Grimshaw
Over on my Royal Horticultural Society New Plants blog, I’ve just posted about a new two-tone, bright yellow form of Iris sibirica. Called ‘Scramble’, it’s introduced in Britain for the new season by Cotswold Garden Flowers. It’s really lovely, well worth taking a look.

‘Scramble’ was selected by John Grimshaw, one of  Britain’s foremost plantspeople with interests in a wide diversity of plants including snowdrops, trees and kniphofias as well as irises.

And he has another, as yet unnamed, form of Iris sibirica he thinks is very promising, and I do too. At the moment it’s just known informally as “pastel blue” (above, click to enlarge).

This is what John told to me about it: “There is a gorgeous pastelly blue one as well that I think is outstanding for floriferousness, longevity of flowering and charming colouring, though the flowers are not large: it is fertile & the pods are held on very stiff stems all winter - one of the few perennials I can bear to leave uncut. I doubt the Iris aficionados would like it but I think it’s an excellent garden plant. I've selected a few others, including one with peachy flowers, because I like them, but they're probably not worth distributing - "pastel blue" is.”

So do you think this new blue iris is worth passing on to a nursery for them to introduce? Looks good to me, I love the broad falls with the intricate patterning. And what about the peachy one John mentions? That sounds tempting too.

Be sure to check out John Grimshaw’s blog as well as the site for his snowdrop garden at Colesbourne Park.

Thanks to John Grimshaw for the image.

Virus-free foliage pelargoniums

Pelargonium,zonal,geranium,Vancouver,Centennial,Pelgardini. Image © (all rights reserved)
In the comments to my last post about Pelargonium ‘Mr. Wren’, I mentioned the colored-leaved varieties which had benefited so much from being cleaned up – that is, having virus diseases removed. These are marketed around the world by the German plant breeders Elsner pac under the Pelgardini brand.

When I first grew ‘Vancouver Centennial’ (above, click to enlarge) back in the early 1990s it was a weak plant, lovely but very slow to make a good sized plant - which was perhaps surprising as it had only been introduced in 1986. But, nevertheless, it had already picked up some debilitating viruses. I found it hard to root from cuttings too.

Its boldly marked, jaggedly shaped foliage, spreading habit and brick orange flowers marked it out as unique but eventually I gave up.

But this is one of the varieties in the Pelgardini brand and, although less strong than many pelargoniums, it’s now easy to grow, makes a good sized specimen and has even led to a magenta flowered version, ‘Mandala’, raised in Italy by Catia de Tomi and introduced in 2005.

‘Vancouver Centennial’, by the way, was bred by Ian Gilliam, a British pelargonium enthusiast who moved to Canada and named and introduced the plant to celebrate Vancouver’s Centennial year – 1986.

The cleaned up plants in the Pelgardini brand seem most often to be available in nurseries and garden centers than by mail order. Look for “Pelgardini” on the label. Five varieties are included, reduced from about ten a few years ago.

Classic geranium disease-free at last

Pelargonium,zonal,geranium,Wren. Image © (all rights reserved)
I need to stop before I start, so to speak.

I was going to start by outlining the origins of this dramatic geranium – a zonal pelargonium, that is – but straight away I find that no one agrees. Was it introduced in 1949, the 1950s, or 1969? Was is found in California or Connecticut? Was it chance seedling, or a color break on a red-flowered plant?

There are, however, some things that everyone agrees about: The color is not only startling, but unique; it was found in the garden of a Mr. Wren; and it’s a tall and lanky plant which is a little shy in its flowering. Except I find even that is only partially true as Helen Van Pelt Wilson, in her book The Joy of Geraniums, from 1980, describes it as “very free of bloom”!

When I grew it I certainly found it tall and reluctant to make side shoots and so the overall floral impact was less impressive than I expected; I’d pinch it out but it produced hardly any side shoots, just a few tall stems that eventually needed staking. But it also produced these heads of dramatic flowers.

But things are changing. Thompson & Morgan have had the plant in the laboratory where they’ve removed the virus diseases with which it was infected. Here’s what Michael Perry of T&M, told me “We have taken the original stock of 'Mr. Wren' and further developed it to be slightly more compact and more freely flowering. As part of this process, we have also ensured it is virus-free, a problem with the older stocks.” They call it ‘Mr. Wren Improved’.

So at least it won’t pass viruses to other geraniums. This, by the way, is what was done with the colored foliage varieties that we now see everywhere; virus infection had greatly weakened them. With the virus removed they grow well.

And that red-and-white coloring? There’s a layer of red cells in each flower, sandwiched between two layers of transparent white cells. But the red cells do not extend all the way to the edge – so the edge is white.

I look forward to trying this new improved version of ‘Mr. Wren’ (so far only available in Britain, I’m afraid). I’ll report back on whether it really is more bushy.

In the UK you can order Pelargonium ‘Mr. Wren Improved’ from Thompson & Morgan.

In North America you can order Pelargonium ‘Mr. Wren’ (not improved, but still spectacular) from Trio Nursery.

My apples are treated with beetle goo!

red,delicious,shellac,apple,cheap. Image © (all rights reserved)
judy came home from the store with a bag of ‘Red Delicious’ apples the other day. I can see why she bought them, 5lb of apples for just $3.99 – that’s 80 cents a pound (in UK money - 50p per pound or £1.10p per kilo). Cheap. Very cheap. Too cheap.

But here’s the thing. It says on the bag that they’re coated with shellac! SHELLAC! That’s the stuff my dad had on a shelf in the garage, in a sticky brown bottle – he used it to varnish the coffee table! No wonder those apples look shiny. It even has an E number, E904. Don't they look shiny in the picture?!

Now it so happens that judy’s reading the new Bill Bryson book, At Home, and just as we were discussing those apples she came across a passage in which Mr B discusses – shellac. Here’s what he says: “Shellac is a hard resinous secretion from the Indian lac beetle.” Yuk. “Lac beetles emerge in swarms in parts of India at certain times of the year, and their secretions make varnish that is odorless, nontoxic, brilliantly shiny, and highly resistible to scratches and fading.”

So, if you don’t fancy eating table varnish made from beetle goo, how do you get it off? Tricky, it seems. Over on the Veggie Boards, said to be the largest and most active vegetarian forum online, they discuss shellac a lot. One member says: “Shellac can't be removed with baking soda and vinegar. Denatured alcohol is the solvent used to remove shellac, but that is very toxic. Food grade alcohol might work, but I think it is better not to buy food with shellac...”

I’ve kept back the last of those apples, I’m just going to hang on to it and see how long it stays fresh under its coating of beetle goo.

But what better reason to grow your own apples or shop at the local farmers’ market?

Who mangled my bird feeder?

suet,bird,feeder,destroy,bear. Image © (all rights reserved)
Got up the other morning, looked out of the kitchen window – no suet feeder.

Went out and had a look round and found it out in the snow, in two parts, twisted and mangled with the wire cage torn apart and the spring stretched right out. You need a lot of strength to do that sort of damage. So which nocturnal prowler was it?

The obvious answer would be a black bear – but not in the middle of winter, they’re all hibernating. It’s been down to -23C/-10F and by the time the damage was done they should have been tucked up cozily for months. A raccoon would not be strong enough…


Hellebore slide show - 168 pictures!

Hellebore Stock Photos Helleborus - Images by GardenPhotos .com

Now that it's hellebore season, or soon will be, time to present a slide show of 168 images (with more being added) of hellebores of all kinds, from our collection. This is just a small proportion of the huge number of hellebore images we have on file. Hover your mouse point over the images to see the captions.

So enjoy this look at our hellebores - and remember that licenses to use these images in print or on line are available. Just email us.

Enjoy the show!

Christopher Lloyd: His Life at Great Dixter

Christopher Lloyd,Stephen Anderton,Great Dixter It’s taken me a long time to get round to discussing Stephen Anderton's biography of Christopher Lloyd, Christopher Lloyd: His Life at Great Dixter, and I apologize for that. But, in spite of the fact that I collaborated with Christo on our book Garden Flowers from Seed, for many many months I just couldn’t finish it.

The problem, as Irish Times regular Jane Powers put it her review, is that “Talk of famous peoples’ sex lives is absorbing, especially when the person under discussion is as oddball and iconic as Christopher Lloyd. But the homosexual theme rears its head so often, and in so many ways, that the reader becomes fatigued and puzzled.” Certainly, it began as “absorbing” but soon became exasperating. I was soon more than “fatigued and puzzled”, it made me cross and then made me put the book down for months.

“OK,” I kept thinking to myself, “I get it; let’s move on. Enough!”

But then, in the second and shorter part of the book, we get to Life After Daisy. His mother is gone and we find Christo the gardener and garden writer blooming. This section is full of fascinating detail about Great Dixter and its plants, Christo's travels, his friends, his cooking and introduces us to Fergus Garrett who now runs the garden.

His most influential book, The Well-Tempered Garden, was written while his mother was still alive (we just can’t escape her) but for me it was its successor, Foliage Plants, that gave me the jolt. Because it’s funny. And I hadn’t, back in the 1980s when I first came across it, realized that garden writing could ever be funny. Because, apart from Christo, it just wasn’t.

That book changed the way I thought about writing about plants and gardens.

So, for anyone remotely interested in late 20th Century gardening, Christopher Lloyd: His Life at Great Dixter, in the end, proves invaluable. And, I must be sure to point out, Stephen Anderton writes very well, very engagingly, and draws us along briskly.

But don’t be afraid: if all that mother/sex/gay stuff wears you out, don’t hesitate - move on the second half of the book.

Finbd out more about Great Dixter, and the Trust which now supports it, at the Great Dixter website.

* I’ll be taking a look at the other book about Christopher Lloyd, The View from Great Dixter, soon.


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.