Wednesday, August 25, 2010


A little while ago I had my second visit to Northwind Perennials in a year, they are just outside Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. Run by three people who all take different roles in the company, it is Roy Diblik who is known as the plantsman - he was a real pioneer in the containerised production of native perennials.

Colleen Garrigan does some wonderfully artistic or even wacky assemblages of old tools, architectural salvage etc. 
Roy has developed a sophisticated take on the art of putting together native and non-native perennials - all explained in a neat little book - 'Small Perennial Gardens: The Know Maintenance Approach'.                                                                                                                                                                        The pun is based on the fact that what so many (American) gardeners seem to want is NO maintenance, but Roy is keen to stress that if you KNOW your plants then you can reduce maintenance - and this is key, without smothering the ground with wood chip mulch.               

The plant combinations are very much about creating a complete canopy so grasses shoehorn in between flowering forbs like liatris and echinacea and sprawly (but not actualy spreading) low things like calaminthas can fill in the gaps. The display gardens around the nursery are very accomplished with a good 'field' type effect, and nicely integrated with shrubs and small trees.

Now - the wood chip. A good example of how a 'good thing' becomes a 'bad thing'. Not so long ago mulch was seen as solving  a lot problems - like reducing moisture loss and smothering weeds, but of course like all good things (chocolate cake, beer etc.) can be overdone. Wood chip has become one of Roy's pet hates, and I can see why - a lot of folk around Chicago seem to think that wood chip is an end in itself, any plants standing out looking rather lonesome. The stuff is dumped on every year, so not surprisingly plants underneath can be completly buried, and in the hot humid summers, all sort of diseases get going. What's more, a lot of the wood chip gets shipped up from Georgia, so the transport miles are pretty crazy.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Jim Archibald

Jim Archibald, who died last week, was one of the 'last of the great plant hunters'. This is what I wrote about him for an obituary to be published in The Daily Telegraph.

    For those of us in the gardening world who enjoy the challenge of growing unusual and rare plants, the annual arrival of a seedlist from Jim and Jenny Archibald was keenly awaited. Unillustrated, and consisting of A4 sheets stapled together, it would inevitably list scores of intriguing plants, mostly offered as seed collected in the wild. Some would be new forms of familiar species, some species of groups we know and are familiar with, but many would be completely unknown. However it was the introduction that many of us would read most keenly. Who would be Jim Archibald’s target this year: a botanist whose opinions on plant naming he disagreed with, the Royal Horticultural Society, Kew Gardens, or someone being holier-than-thou about the ethics of collecting seed in the wild? The introduction was always erudite, well-informed, witty and often very hard-hitting; in the world of gardening, where there is little openly-expressed disagreement they were a true tonic.
    Archibald’s career as a freelance plant hunter and seedsman extraordinaire began, appropriately, with another plant catalogue. That of Jack Drake, a famous grower of perennials and alpines in Aviemore. As a teenager Archibald was a keen gardener, and it was the listing of some plants grown from an expedition to Nepal in 1954 which fired his enthusiasm. His holidays were spent working at Drake’s nursery, and even at university (Edinburgh), where he read English Language and Literature, he continued to grow, and even sell, unusual plants. Early trips to look at plants growing wild and collect seed followed, to Corsica and Morocco.
    Travelling, often in out of the way places, looking for plants was soon established as a lifestyle. He would make light of the process, I remember him telling me once that “seed collecting in the past might have involved intrepid hikes or perilous adventures on donkeys but these days the road system makes it a lot easier, we rarely need to go anywhere more than a few hours from at least a track”. But soon he would talking casually about collecting alpine plants from the “mountains of the Iran/Iraq border region”. Then there is the story, legendary amongst alpine plant enthusiasts, of ‘the van to Van’, when he and Jenny towed a caravan to eastern Turkey, to use as a base for seed collecting.
    The only period Archibald was not spending at least part of the year travelling, it was running a nursery – The Plantsman, near Sherborne in Dorset, from 1967 to 1983. Working in conjunction with Eric Smith, it was the forerunner of the great many small specialist nurseries which make the British gardening scene so vibrant. The Plantsman was famous for its hellebores and hostas, many varieties bred by Smith. Unable to make a success of the nursery as a business, Jim turned to his first love, of travelling.
    Usually accompanied by Jenny, who he had met in the early 1970s, Archibald established an annual cycle of summer and autumn seed collecting, selling the seed in the winter and spring. With a clear focus on alpines and small bulbs, JJA Seeds sold primarily to enthusiastic amateurs, but also to botanic gardens (at least until the restrictions of the Convention on Bio-Diversity made this difficult) and nurseries. Some of his bulb introductions were used by Dutch breeders to produce new varieties for the general public, but it was commercial growers of alpine and rock plants who relied on him for a constant supply of interesting plants; it is reckoned that almost anyone growing such plants today will have some which originated as JJA seed.
    Famed for his memory, Archibald seemed to have an almost photographic memory for the plants he collected, even able to take fellow travellers back to the exact rock where he found a particular plant, many years after he first visited the spot. His favourite hunting grounds for the plants he loved were the mountains of Iran and Turkey; occasional run-ins with military check-points or secret police did little to dent his enthusiasm. In later years he spent more time in the mountains of the western USA, often working alongside the growing number of local botanist-gardeners who were passionate about both seeing their native flora in the wild and growing it.
    Archibald was resolutely not commercial. Many times I tried to persuade him to pay more attention to collecting seed from larger herbaceous plants – apart from anything else they could have been more remunerative, but he stuck to what he loved.
     Many of us also wished that Archibald had taken up journalism. Those seedlist introductions were always worth re-reading – barbs flung (but always politely) at the pomposity of botanists who concealed data (supposedly in the name of conservation), at the effects of political-correctness on horticulture, at the dogmatic application of ill-thought out quasi-legal concepts like the Convention on Bio-diversity or Plant Breeders Rights.
    Archibald’s knowledge and ability to communicate it was recognised by the Alpine Garden Society, who in 2003 gave him their highest award – the Lyttel Trophy, given annually in recognition of a lifetime of achievement in contributions to the growing of alpine plants, their culture and botany. His incredibly wide circle of friends and colleagues in the garden and botanical worlds will remember a man of great intellectual integrity, enormous and infectious enthusiasm, who combined real erudition and learning with an ability to communicate it, and great personal warmth. Eloquent too, one seedlist introduction ended -  “we sell dreams to ourselves and hope to pay for their reality by work and knowledge…what are seeds but dreams in packets?”

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Great prairies.............but stick to the smoothies

All pictures are of Shoe Factory Road prairie, near Elgin, IL. A dry to mesic site.

When Europeans go to the USA 99.99% of them do the same three things: go to NYC and go "ohmygodohmygod, look at those buildings" or the Grand Canyon and go "ohmygodohmygod, isn't it big, you could fit the whole of London/Paris/canton of Zurich in there" or they drive from San Francisco to NYC and all you ever hear is "ohmygodohmygod it is so boring driving across Nebraska". But we all complain about the coffee.

The other 0.01% tend to have a nerdy interest in something American like those people who know every single Indian tribe or every single Civil War battle. But there is a growing number who get obsessive about prairie. Personally I love it. This is the most fantastic habitat. It sums up what I love about being in the Midwest. It and the wooded surrounding landscapes are familiar enough to make you feel at home, but foreign and exotic enough to be give you a real thrill of excitement and novelty.
Silphium terebinthinaceum leaves

A dry habitat form of Phystostegia virginiana

Prairies are like Euro-wildflower-meadows but more diverse, with richer flora and an incredible level of difference between them. They are very beautiful but over a surprisingly long time, with flushes of different wildflowers from May to September. There are wet prairies, big and lush, right across to dry prairies, often on sand or gravel moraines - where the vegetation is short and sparse. Exploring any of them is an extraordinarily rich aesthetic/ecological experience, as it seems like every single bit is actually different to every other single bit, with different species or combinations of species.

Spotting mighty bright yellow silphiums with their sandpaper-textured leaves or deep purple/violet Dalea purpurea is like meeting old friends, and they always look so much better in nature than in the confines of a border. Bit like having a proper cup of coffee instead of the stuff that comes out of the tub the size of an oil barrel which says 'makes 240 cups'.

I only had a  day and a bit to look around this time but you can pack a lot in. Roy Diblik of Northwind Perennials in southern Wisconsin took me round to look at some of the local wildflower sites. Hot and humid, so a bit like walking around in mosquito soup, but who cares. At Kettle Moraine you can see how the Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources is trying to buy up parcels of land to create a 30mile long prairie corridor. Its places like these that make give you a feeling about what this country looked like before fields of soybeans, highways, malls and as-far-as-the-eye-can-see suburbia took over. And on the way to the airport we scrambled through a fence to look at a fantastic site at Shoe Factory Road.

Its just a shame about  the coffee. But then if it got better I might be tempted to emigrate.

Check out Shoe Factory Road Prairie, at: