Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Let's not get bogged down..........

Potting some seedlings the other day, I was reminded again how the quality of potting compost has has declined in recent years. This bag of Levington Compost was full of wood fibres and chunks of timber that would make good kindling. I have to say that I had been a fan of Levington Compost for many years and still feel that peat-based composts are superior to any of the modern peat-free composts. Many years ago, when I first left school I worked at Fisons research station where they were just developing Levington compost. One of my jobs involved batch testing samples from the production line. I had to grow seedlings of tomato, antirrhinum and Brompton stock in each batch of compost to ensure the quality. I also happened to be on duty the day they took promotional photographs and my hands sowing seeds, adorned their early advertising. Since then I have used Levington compost in most of the places I have worked and until recently found it to be a top quality growing medium.



The current move to outlaw peat seems to have taken on a somewhat evangelical fervour that is not necessarily based on fact. The Royal horticultural Society and organisations such as the National trust have taken strong stands on the issue but without presenting all the facts. The RHS website on peat is pitifully poor on facts. Over recent years the RHS have carried out various trials using low peat and peat-free composts and the results have been published in The Garden. However in each case the pictorial evidence shows a comparison between the various peat-free composts used but no control. In any scientific trial there should always be a control and in this situation it should be to compare the results with plants growing in an established peat-based compost. I would guess that if the RHS did use a control, that the results of plants growing in a peat-based compost was so superior, that it would defeat their purpose in trying to promote peat free composts. Let's hush this up!


I also strongly object to TV presenters such as Monty Don who suggest that using a peat-free compost is the only way to grow certain plants. Listen to him next Friday and I guarantee whatever he is propagating, he will state potting in a peat-free compost. This is not the only way to grow whatever it might be but it's purely a matter of choice. Can you imagine a TV chef cooking a Boeuf Bourginon and listing amongst the ingredients a glass of red grape juice instead of a hearty Merlot? It would be preposterous, but amazingly the parallel seems acceptable for gardening. In all my books I have suggested organic alternatives to various growing practices to let the reader choose.

If any of you are sitting there fuming at my Neanderthal attitude and lack of environmental awareness, I suggest you read some of the background arguments on the other side of the peat debate. If you check out this website linked to the Glendoick Nursery, there are some very interesting facts. Whilst it can be accepted that many lowland peat bogs have been depleted and should be protected, in the UK nearly 50% of Scotland is still covered with peat deposits. In the last 50 years, whilst 500ha of peat bog have been used for extraction, some 95,000ha have been drained for forestry purposes. Much of our peat is also imported. On the worldwide basis, approximately 2% of peat is useful horticultural purposes. Most of the peat extracted is still used as a fuel and this still happens at a domestic level in parts of Scotland and Northern Ireland. Finland has vast sources of peat but the majority is used as a fuel to supply power stations. In Russia 1.5million tons are used for fuel.

Shatura Power Station in Russia - the largest peat burning power station in the world.


The government is in a mess on this.  Dare we say - bogged down? 'The Sustainable Growing Media Task Force' is currently under is dispute on the basis that no-one has really defined what the problem is. Defining this was assigned to the Friends of the Earth organisation who have not delivered a response. Whilst undoubtedly there would need to be control over the use of a product such as peat and a need to protect the natural environment, it would seem to be clear that stopping the use of peat for horticulture is a minor issue compared to harvesting for fuel and draining for agriculture and forestry.

I hasten to add that the above are just a few facts on the matter and certainly far from definitive but it makes you think!


Sunday, April 15, 2012

Lost gardens of..........

I am reminded this week of how fragile and vulnerable gardens can be. Some years ago I was privileged to see the Lost Gardens of Heligan, when they were only just being discovered and unwrapped from their covering of brambles and ivy - it was a magic place. Exciting as such gardens are, I never expected a garden with which I had been intimately involved, to become derelict within my lifetime. Apologies for the quality of the pictures in this post which are mainly old 35mm slides scanned to digital.

Norwood Hall across the formal bedding - 1970's
Back in the 1970's I spent six years teaching horticulture at a place called Norwood Hall on the western outskirts of London. We trained the apprentices from many of the London boroughs plus those from Kew gardens and other local employers. I taught horticulture, botany, the dreaded soil science and turf culture but managed to avoid machinery. (Machines hate me!) Not only did I teach there but lived in a flat on the second floor and had a vegetable plot at the bottom of the grounds. We shared the hall at weekends with the caretaker and the resident ghost - the grey lady! Norwood Hall had been built in 1801 to a design by the notable architect Sir John Soane but was extended in the 19C.

The gardens from our kitchen window - to modern taste, very formal and dated!

In my typical way I interfered with the grounds management and over six years initiated many changes to the landscape, generally to align with what we were teaching. Each year the students would also design and implement a series of projects, so that over the years most of the grounds had been re-designed. The landscape was fairly traditional; shrubs, roses, bedding, herbaceous borders, a couple of pools, a rock garden and many beautiful trees, although this was the era of Dutch elm disease and I remember us losing some major trees.

Double herbaceous borders

Students reseeding the main lawn
 There was a formal walled garden with trained fruit, vegetables, herbs, an annual border and a range of lean-to greenhouses. Under glass we had an extensive range of ornamentals from cool house pot plants through to a tropical house with a heated pool. There were grape vines, trained peaches, a fern house, cactus house and a greenhouse filled with economic plants, such as sugar cane, bananas, pineapples, black pepper and rice. I once remember the garden press coming to photograph our fruiting banana. Annoyingly the fruit had been harvested the previous day and the mother plant cut down. Never wanting to miss a press opportunity, we retrieved the plant from the compost heap and tied the bananas on again!

Bed system in the vegetable garden

Herb garden designed by students

The tropical house

It was all managed by a small staff, a propagator with a green baize apron and a traditional Head Gardener, who used to work under a black umbrella on wet days. On Fridays in summer he presided over 'market day', when surplus fruit and veg were sold to the locals. He also had a twin brother, also a gardener which caused total confusion on open days and public events!

Cyclamen grown by students

Fruiting pineapple in the economic house
So to the point of the story! For some reason earlier this week, I searched for Norwood Green on google maps to see what was still there - its amazing what you can see on the satellite pictures. To my horror, most of the garden has been ripped up, a massive new school is being constructed on part of the site and it would appear that the glasshouses in the walled garden have gone and been replaced with another building. Further searches produced another aerial picture on bing showing the grounds a few years back, totally derelict with trees coming out of the glasshouse roofs.  Although this was never a major garden, it saddens me that the grounds of a grade 2 listed building, in a conservation area and filled with preserved trees, were allowed to decline and become derelict to the point of destruction.

Satelite photo 2012 - its nearly all a building site!

Bing picture a few years back, the walled garden to the right grassed over and trees of some sort growing. Teaching glasshouses to the left totally derelict with trees growing through their roofs.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Horticultural sniffer dogs!

Gardeners are such generous people! Over the years I have been given so many plants, cuttings and seeds. It actually makes my garden so much more interesting when I see the plants and remember the person behind the gift - somehow gives the plant more personality than those  that were bought at a garden centre. I can't actually hand-on-heart say that I have never stolen a surreptitious cutting but it has been very rare - the occasion - not the plant, I hasten to add! Generally if you ask, most gardeners will usually give you a cutting or even dig up a small piece.

Variegated Ricinus - anyone know its correct name & is there a commercial source?

Just this last week I have been reminded of this generosity. An unknown gardener from the USA contacted me regarding a variegated Ricinus he had seen described on the Hardy Tropicals UK site and asked me if I could find out the seed source. Now as a lover of variegated and coloured leaved plants, this immediately had my heart racing! I tracked down the post describing the plant and found a picture of a dark leaved castor bean with pink edged leaves - lovely! But I failed to find any seed sources for this. A personal message to the forum member describing the plant, resulted in a generous packet of seed which I was able to split, sending half to the original enquirer in the USA. Two very satisfied gardeners!

Beet 'McGregor's Favourite' with rainbow chard

But the story doesn't end. The American gardener asked if there was anything I wanted in exchange. Now just a few weeks ago, when still in the USA I had seen a lovely dark-leaved beet in the gardens at Disneyland. This was just like the old 19C 'McGregor's Favourite' which is no longer available in the UK. (I hasten to add I don't recall back to the 19C but this was still available in the 1980's) Disney informed me it was sold by Burpees as 'Bull's Blood' which is confusing as there is another inferior cultivar sold under that name. Anyway, my American sleuth has tracked down several dark leaved beets which he has ordered for me and promised seed of a black leaved cotton, Gossypium herbaceum 'Nigrum' which also sounds exciting. And just this morning the first of the variegated Ricinus has germinated.

The next generation!

So if Di or Rick happen to read this - thanks again guys and Di - I owe you - if you want some black-leaved cotton, just let me know. And it all fits in with the basic premise that if you want to conserve a plant - give it away!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Identity Crisis

Like many gardeners, I am probably more at ease with plants than people! I certainly have no problems remembering or spelling plant names but introduce me to a new friend and I will have forgotten their name within moments. My best clanger was after attending the wedding reception of one of Philip's colleagues. A couple of weeks later we met a young lady in a bar and dredging up a glimmer of recognition I proudly said 'We met you at that wedding', to which she replied 'Yes - I was the bride!'

Weigela 'Monet'

Anyway today's blog is stimulated by reading in The Garden magazine about how to prune Wiegela. Yes - note the spelling! Now this colourful and easy shrub has had its fair share of identity crises over the years. I grew up calling it Weigelia. At some stage the second 'i' was dropped and it became Weigela. For a short while they were reclassified as Diervillea but most returned to Weigela. Now I see this spelling, Wiegela,  from the RHS no less, although the Plant Finder, normally regarded as THE easy source of all nomenclature still calls it Weigela. Now I wonder has it changed again or is this a keyboard woopsie from the fingers of the RHS?

Diervillea 'Cool Splash'

This set me thinking about other changes over the years. Buddleja used of course to be Buddleia, Solenostemon were nice friendly Coleus and Aloysia citriodora was better known as Lippia citriodora. The berried Pernettya has now been dumped in with GaultheriaCytisus battandierii has now become Argyrocytisus battandierii and that old stand-by Senecio greyii, which became Senecio 'Sunshine' must now be called Brachyglottis 'Sunshine'. The beautiful blue flowered member of the nightshade family is currently Iochroma australe but since I have known it, it has also been Acnistus and Dunalia.  Oh and by the way, the typical bleeding heart, that we know so well as Dicentra spectabilis has become Lamprocapnos spectabilis - simple isn't it!

Dicentra 'King of Hearts' (Chad - thanks for the name correction)
Lamprocapnos spectabilis 'Alba' - note the broader leaves

Such name changes inevitably cause confusion and when common or garden chrysanthemums were reclassified and Dendranthemum some years back,  there was a revolt and they have reverted to being correctly named Chrysanthemum indicum on the basis of horticultural precedent.  Can you imagine going into a florists and asking for some dendranthemums? I could go on - the plant world is littered with confusing name changes all in the cause of correctness and clarity!

A wonderful display from Chrysanthemums Direct
 If plants had feelings, I think some of them would have identity crises and in particular Ilex 'Golden King' which is a female plant, complete with berries and we'll make no comments about 'Silver Queen' that's a male holly!


Ilex 'Silver Queen'

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Susan and relatives

I guess like me, most gardeners have got favourite plants, those they dislike and possibly some they've just ignored! Now I have a fairly eclectic love of plants which generally includes anything big, bold or colourful and in particular exotic looking plants.  Amongst my dislikes there are rhododendrons - such lazy plants giving interest for just a few weeks a year and pampered orchids. Years ago I instigated the dispersal of a collection of Cymbidiums as I felt the glasshouse space could be better utilised.  Horticultural heresy I hear you say!

Magnolia campbelii in Berkeley Botanic garden San Francisco

And now we come to the confession, that after many years of gardening I have never really given much attention to magnolias. Its not even as if I've never had the opportunity - when I managed University Park, I had 300 acres of mainly sandy acid soil. What a missed opportunity! Why the sudden revelation you might ask? Well I guess its the unseasonal weather that has brought them out superbly this year and there seem to be so many wonderful specimens in ordinary gardens here in the Midlands.

Magnolia x soulangeana

One of the most widely grown is M. x soulangeana, actually a hybrid between M. denudata x M. liliiflora which gives spectacular displays of goblet shaped white flowers flushed with  apple-blossom pink and rich purple. It is said to have been bred in France in the 19C but similar forms from earlier crosses originated in Japan long before this. There are various particular named clones such as the following wonderful hybrid.

Magnolia x soulangeana 'Lennei'

There is another deep purple form, correctly named M. liliiflora 'Nigra' and sometimes called the black magnolia (nothing to do with the rock band!) This is another hybrid and was introduced from Japan in 1861.

Magnolia liliifloa 'Nigra'
A couple of years back I spent some time walking the alpine streets of San Francisco, checking out the wonderful range of trees planted there, mostly by the 'Friends of the Urban Forest'. Amongst the many species growing there, I was surprised to find whole streets lined with thriving Magnolia grandiflora. This is one of the few evergreen magnolias, although there are several named cultivars. In the UK it is usually grown as a wall plant to give it a little extra protection and huge mature plants, reaching the roof line are sometimes seen on old houses. Sadly its beautiful creamy white bowl-shaped flowers are rarely visible, hidden at the tops of the plant. For planting in the UK, the cultivar 'Exmouth' is regarded as being particularly hardy. M. delavayii is also evergreen and has creamy yellowish flowers.

Magnolia grandiflora  as a street tree in San Francisco

Magnolias are really mostly trees, although they are usually bought as relatively small 'bushy' plants which often gives the wrong idea about their eventual size. Because of this they are often planted in the wrong location or not given enough space to properly develop. Inevitably they are then over-pruned and the result can be disastrous. The delicate Magnolia stellata is a more compact species growing to about 3m and is particularly good  for small gardens.

Magnolia stellata

One of the few magnolias that I have used in garden designs, is the wonderful pink cultivar 'Susan'. This is one of a group of eight hybrids between M. liliiflora and M. stellata raised in the National Arboretum Washington and called the eight little girls, being named after staff members or their families. 'Susan' is probably the best know but all are compact and floriferous.

Magnolia 'Susan'

Magnolias are ancient plants and were apparently around before bees evolved so the flower parts are specialised for pollination by beetles and are particularly tough to avoid damage. To be absolutely botanically correct, these primitive plants have neither petals nor sepals but a combination of the two known as tepals. (Sepals are the outer parts that protect flower buds and petals usually the showy colourful parts.)

Magnolia wieseneri

Now after researching and writing this piece I cannot for the life of me think why I didn't fall in love with them years ago! I shall have to find a spot for just one in my tiny garden - I guess a plant of 'Susan' for those vivid ruby flowers!

(Update - just opened my copy of  'The Garden' for  April - bit late with the reading - and discovered a detailed article on magnolias with pictures of some lovely new hybrids - who couldn't fall in love with the rich ruby flowers of 'Burgundy Star'!)