Monday, October 29, 2012

The view AT Federal Twist

James Golden's blog View from Federal Twist is one I've followed for years, but James has been a follower of mine for longer - he read my 1996 book The New Perennial Garden when no-one knew what a blog was.So it was with great interest I drove up last week from Philadelphia just over the Delaware into New Jersey.

I feel honored when gardeners follow my ideas and I love seeing what they do with them. The garden at Federal Twist is very much what I have in mind when I write – a journey through lots of rambunctious vegetation. Its the end of the season so the grasses dominate, miscanthus varieties especially, but some Aster tartaricus hanging on, the native asters and even ironweed having gone to seedy silhouettes. There's a big Inula which has self-sown a bit, and I can't help feeling I'm glad it doesn't with me. We are surrounded by forest: tall maple, beech and oak, and the colours are magnificent, the perfect setting for a glade of perennial seedheads.

I wander around with James, talking about the various people in the garden world he comes across through his blog. Strong sunlight makes every shade of dead grass and perennial glow. I try to imagine it with flowers, but realize that I'm not that bothered, this late-season look is good enough for me.
These forest glade gardens are very American. So much of people's living space is carved out of forest – most of it secondary or tertiary growth after being cleared in the 19th century. Woodland here has the most remarkable powers of recovery. There are huge problems with invasive exotic species, but I can't help the feeling that if a property is abandoned, the forest will just envelop it, and eventually shade out everything that doesn't belong. Its a feeling we don't have back home. It makes Federal Twist seem very temporary, almost a gesture against the wind, which is perhaps how a garden should be.
James visits every weekend, so I should imagine maintenance is pretty light. He leaves it standing and burns it all in spring - "stand back when the Miscanthus catches fire" he warns. He's lucky he can, as fire departments can get pretty uptight about this in many areas, which is a pity as burning is such an effective and natural way of getting rid of dealing with dead herbaceous vegetation and with aggressively spreading exotics. I write this visiting another colleague, whose garden has been overrun with something he calls Chinese stilt grass, which is the most horrific spreader, shade tolerant and smothers native vegetation. I am sure burning would be the most effective way of dealing with it but he can't. I'd been to a fantastic conference earlier in the week, organized by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, where we end up listening to Neil Diboll, of prairie nursery, whose extremely lively presentations always end with praise for the burn as an essential annual maintenance tool. “There are three conditions to be met regarding my place of residence” he says, “to be able to leave my keys in the car overnight, to pee off my own deck and to burn my prairie”.
The PHS conference is a fantastically lively event, the energy of 560 gardeners and landscape professionals is warm and positive. People are surprised when I tell them that we don't have events like this back home. There's piles of nursery catalogues to pick up and browse through, and the glories of the Scott Arboretum to explore during break-out time and afterward. Everything is very well maintained and very well labelled, it must be a wonderful place to learn about gardening.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

It's autumn so it's daisy time

The garden now is daisy-heaven. There is an incredible array of this versatile family for late season flower. Most of them North American - the Asteraceae must have gone on an evolutionary binge during some or all of the interglacials of the last million years. Maybe it was the way plantlife was pushed down by the ice every few 100,000 years and had to reconquer territory that drove the evolution of prairie flora. Heliopsis helianthoides (above) is a classic daisy. Its common as a cottage garden plant in British country villages, one of those plants that gets divided up and given to people or sold in yogurt pots or plastic bags at the church fete, losing its identity in the process. I actually grew this from seed from Prairie Moon in Wisconsin, but I prefer the church fete version, which has darker foliage.

Aster 'Little Carlow' is the gold standard aster - free flowering for a long time, disease free and slowly spreading. This lot are ok, but the row in the pic below have o-deed on this years rain and the general fertility of the soil and flopped horribly, which is most uncharacteristic of them. I got the glass ornament from a factory shop near Passau, Germany.

There are zillions of named cultivars of Aster novae-angliae. In fact you could make your own selection by stopping by the side of many an interstate in the eastern US and digging up a few clumps - the level of natural variation is quite amazing. But of course there aren't any varieties called 'New Jersey Turnpike no.2' because it was enterprising Brit and German nurserymen in the early 20th century who realized their value as garden plants. They stand upright (usually) and flower brilliantly. Shame about the bare legs mind.

I was introduced to Aster pyrenaeus 'Lutetia' by Chris Marchant of Orchard Dene nurseries, where all cool garden designers in southern England buy their perennials. It is one of Europe's very few really garden-worthy asters, but a rare plant in nature apparently.

A. turbinellus is a new one for me, a bit disappointed so far, insubstantial and wishy-washy, but maybe i should be patient and see what it does next year.

This is a real favourite. Yes, I know that things you collect yourself are going to be regarded with as much objectivity as looking at one's own children. Aster puniceus though is a damned good plant - and it used to be in cultivation in Europe but died out sometime in the 20th century - heaven knows why as it seeds like crazy (but does not spread vegetatively). It flowers from late August on for up to two months and makes a nice misty blue backdrop for lots of other colours. I got the seed off a few plants by a roadside swamp in the Catskills sometime in the early 2000s.

Kalimeris mongolica is a member of an Asian genus close to Aster. Pretty, free-flowering but grows stems at an awkward angle. Some idiot, in a desperate attempt at making it memorable for the latin-name-phobic has named it the 'Genghis Khan' aster. Which makes you think it spreads like mad and lays waste everything in sight, which it does not.

Not sure about Aster praealtus yet. Very robust, does not appear to spread (yet!) and very tall. Palest mauve flowers. Might be a good back of border or pretend-prairie plant.

 There was a fashion for creating dwarf asters in the early 20the century, much of it driven by the need to have flowers on war graves. This is 'Purple Dome', originally German apparently. But, as you can see, they occasionally throw out 'normal' shoots which grow so much taller.

Aster umbellatus is anything but dwarf, at nearly 2m. This lot have flopped badly but after our horrendously wet summer that is not entirely surprising. Masses of white flowers and an erratically spreading habit.  

Helianthus 'Lemon Queen' just has to be one of the best perennials of the last 20 years. Does not spread aggressively but very robust.

Its big sister is H. 'Sheila's Sunshine' which is the very tall (3m +) at the back here, not quite in flower yet, but primrose greeny-yellow when it does. Fantastically strong, but I suspect too tall for most people- who lets face it do not like being shorter than their perennials. Eupatorium 'Orchard Dene' in front - around the onepointsomething metre mark - again useful for those who can't cope with the 3m joe pye weeds.

 Rudbeckia laciniata has turned out to be a ruthless thug, overwhelming other prairie perennials in one of my plots. So its going to be banished to a new project I'm developing elsewhere.

Rudbeckia triloba is a short-lived species which smothers itself in flowers. Looks great with blue asters, like A. puniceus. So exuberant.This seed is from Prairie Moon too, with much more star-shaped flowers than the usual rather rounded form we see.

Rudbeckia fulgida 'Goldsturm' is simply the best yellow, and a useful not overwhelming height.

Finally, forget not that goldenrods are daisies too. This is the view from my office, with Solidago rugosa as a component in some research plots looking at competition. Its much the best goldenrod, being robust and reliable but spreading only slowly, a graceful and elegant plant. There are many others though, which I am working my way through, and so many of them are quite unlike the thuggish S. canadensis types that have given them all a bad name.

And even more finally, Leucanthemella serotina, a Hungarian species which flowers pretty much last of all.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Plant hunting issues

Social deviants collecting seed in an unnamed central Asian country

I was at an interesting event today – curating it in fact. At London's Garden Museum. A symposium on the future of plant hunting, run as part of the current exhibition. Its something that several of us have been wanting to hold for years, to thrash out some difficult issues that have been caused by that most well-intentioned declaration – the 1992 Rio Convention on Bio-diversity (CBD).
The Convention has made the transfer of plants or wild-collected seed from one country to another technically illegal but set up no mechanism for 'buying' material. Yet another badly-thought out international agreement, that once signed, freezes everything in a place where nobody wants to be. The results have been botanical institutions wanting (and needing) to do everything by the book, and needing to keep well clear of non-botanists doing any plant collecting which does not have country of origin authority. The result is the sundering of the former good relations that often existed between botanical institutions and the horticulture community. I wrote about the background in an article in The Telegraph.

I kicked off saying that at least everyone is talking. The idea of getting someone from Kew (Tim Entwisle), Prof. James Hitchmough from Sheffield, Bleddyn and Sue Wynn-Jones from Crûg Farm Plants (the UK's leading plant hunters) and maverick nurseryman Michael Wickenden of Cally Gardens together on the same platform would have almost unthinkable a few years ago. It could have been too incendiary. We also had John David, the acting Head of Science from the Royal Horticultural Society too, and, a special treat this, Roy Lancaster who gave us a great historical perspective.

Just before it began, Christopher Woodward, the Museum Director called me into his office. I knew he had something important to say. Which was that the RHS although they had helped the Museum put on and had refused to help publicise the symposium. Too much beyond their comfort zone apparently. Too politically sensitive.

The whole issue of industrialized countries acquiring the genetic resources of poorer ones is a sensitive one. The absurdity is that very little money is made by anybody doing so for ornamental or landscape plants. The world horticulture community is suffering blow-back from the issues raised by (e.g.) pharmaceutical multinationals and others engaged in 'bio-piracy' or plant-breeding companies acquiring crop genes from the global south and then selling them back to them in new varieties. Post-colonial elites in the south make a lot of noise, with justification in some cases, but all too often exploit liberal guilt in the north, resulting in a kind of defensive paranoia in the botanical community. In any case, the real damage to plants and habitat in many countries is not coming from plant hunters taking a few seeds away (depriving a mouse of its lunch as Michael Wickenden put it in his eloquent, punchy, radical presentation) but habitat destruction and the plundering of natural resources for traditional medicine (a lot of which doesn't work anyway).

James Hitchmough got us going. As articulate and entertaining as ever, he informed us of how limited the gene pool is for many ornamental plants, of how climate change is going to mean a lot of re-thinking about what we plant, of how different urban gardening is from rural (where most of the garden-designing, garden-writing, garden-opinion-forming classes live, and needless to say garden). We need more diverse genetic material amongst our cultivated plants, to improve the ecological fitness for conditions in our towns and cities. Sustainability is about the genes not technological short-cuts like irrigation or mulching. He stressed the incredible floral diversity of British gardens and how beneficial this is for wider bio-diversity. Above all he stressed how the damaging the CBD has been – how it makes plant hunters into pariahs.

Tony Entwisle from Kew (Director of Conservation, Living Collections and Estates)was good  - and very open-minded, the "sort of man one can do business with" unlike the negative approach that some at Kew and Edinburgh have taken in the past.

All in all, a good day, feeling like a logjam is beginning to loosen. 

and Dig, Plant and Bitch, the soap opera for gardeners episode 5 - The Snowdrop Lunch is now up and running. Its a rather racy episode I'm particularly pleased with. If you want more information on the soap opera look here.