Tuesday 28 August 2007

It's all new

One of the perks of being a gardening journo is that you get new plants and products to trial. This year has been no exception and in spring I received a massive box of bare-root perennials from Darwin Plants in Holland. Here’s how I got on with them.

There were two new cultivars in the collection: ‘Love and Pride’ and A. chinensis ‘Diamonds and Pearls. I’m not a great fan of astilbes, so when I received these and three other different ones to grow I wasn’t totally enthralled. They were planted in a shady border, which isn’t that wet. Anyway, I have to say that despite my misgivings they’ve performed really well and provided some great summer colour. I’m particularly impressed with ‘Diamonds and Pearls’. Maybe I’ll have to reassess my feelings on this group of plants!
Geranium ‘Sweet Heidy’ has been flowering for months, produces good ground cover and has great flower colour – distinctive white centres surrounded by pink, fusing into blue with an overlay of dark veins.

Heuchera ‘Mocha’ has really large leaves that are black-brown in colour. It has done well and provided great foliage colour for months.

There were also three new perennial phlox. P. paniculata ‘Grenadine Dream’ has produced lots of good quality purple-red flower spikes. It has good mildew resistance too. P. paniculata ‘Sherbert Cocktail’ hasn’t grown as well and so hasn’t provided such a display of colour, but I quite like the flower colour combination. It is the first with yellow in its petals, combined with white or pink centres. It too shows good mildew resistance. P. paniculata ‘Peppermint Twist’ has also produced less growth than ‘Grenadine Dream’ and hasn’t started flowering yet.

Other plants in the collection that aren’t new for 2007 included:

Rudbeckia ‘Pot of Gold’ has produced good-sized mats of ground cover foliage and has been in flower for several weeks – and looks like it will continue for many weeks more.

Sedum ‘Lajos’ - I love sedums and variegated foliage – need I say more!

Three veronicas - ‘Fairytale’, and ‘Babydoll’ and ‘Purpleicious’. They’ve all grown well and produced a superb show of colour. I particularly like ‘Fairytale’, and ‘Babydoll’ has produced a good mat of low-growing ground cover foliage.

I've received other plants from other suppliers and I'll let you know how I've got on with these later in the year.

Wednesday 22 August 2007

To prune or not to prune

That certainly is a question. And a question I get asked a lot; most starter gardeners are petrified of attacking plants with secateurs thinking they'll kill them. Most plants can survive and some even enjoy massed butchery, so there isn't anything to be too worried about. Whether they'll flower and fruit afterwards is another matter!

I give a talk to gardening clubs on pruning, and it's always surprising to discover that what can be an artful skill, is usually viewed as a totally scary subject.

So when I was approached by The Crowood Press to write a book on pruning I jumped at the chance to put my views and pruning approach across. When they gave me several months to research and write it I was even more delighted (I was given two months to do the same for my book on bulbs). But having such a long timescale meant I didn't start for ages - or made a quick venture into putting thoughts together, and then closed down the computer. The deadline date was hurtling towards me like a runaway rootstock before I knuckled down to the task. Anyway, I'm pleased to announce that I finally got my brain into gear and I've at last finished writing it. The publishers have it and the next bit is down to them. All I've got to do now is wait for the proofs to come back for checking. Hopefully, there won't be too many corrections and I can look forward to the book being printed early next year. I'll keep you posted.

In the meantime, if lopping, cutting, snipping or even butchering leaves you cold, send me an e-mail and I'll put you out of your misery/stop your fits of cold sweats asap.

Sunday 12 August 2007

More radio times

Yesterday I made my usual five-to-six-weekly visit to Chelmsford to do my guest spot on BBC Essex' Down to Earth gardening programme with Ken Crowther. I've been doing the show now for about 14-15 years and really enjoy it - I'm told I have a face for radio!

It's a two-hour programme that concentrates purely on gardening - no music, just a lot of chat and phonecalls, e-mails, letters and texts from listeners who want to talk gardening or have their problems solved. We even had an e-mail from a listener in Spain - probably thanks to the BBC listen again option via the website.

Our main topic of the week was pests & disease - what's a problem this year, how to spot problems and how to deal with them. One listener phoned in to say what had happened to aphids and whitefly this year. I agreed that my garden was clear of both of these, and felt sure it was due to the cold and wet period of summer weather.

As usual, there was a good range of questions asked including powdery mildew on cucumbers, flower colour in hydrangeas, harvesting onions, leaf blotches on walnut, controlling clover in lawns, flowering yuccas, no flowers on campsis and removing ivy from walls.

If you want to hear how we got on, go to www.bbc.co.uk/essex hit the listen again button and then find Down to Earth.

Trials - but no tribulations

I love the summer, as it is usually filled with press trips and other events.

Following last week’s trip to Ball Colegrave, this week I’ve been to Mr Fothergill’s. This seed company has its trials grounds on the outskirts of Newmarket in Suffolk, and there’s always something exciting, interesting and new to see.

The near-perfect summer’s day followed several weeks of poor weather – so much so that Mr Fothergill’s was set to cancel the day as nothing was in flower. However, the weather over the last week or so brought on plenty of colour and the day went ahead as planned. However, it was a little too early for some of the flowers and vegetables to be at the best but, unlike some years, not as much as usual had gone over. Sweet peas, petunias and several direct-sown annuals were at their best.
The trial grounds were full of flowers looking good, but of particular interest were two new cut flower and border plants - Zinnia ‘Jazz’ and sunflower ‘Calypso Mixed’. Also full of colour were Papaver somniferum ‘Purple Passion’ and sunflower ‘Black Magic’ from the new Laura Ashley range and Osteospermum ecklonis ‘Daisy Mae Mixed’.

One of the most interesting trends to come out of the day is the fact that many of the best-looking plants were open pollinated cultivars – they beat the pants off their more expensive F1 hybrid cousins. Mr Fothergill’s is actively looking at some very old cultivars that have been around for years, to see whether they out-perform the F1s. In a lot of examples – particularly Eschscholzia – the F1s were sulking with few flowers, whereas the open-pollinated cultivars were looking magnificent and full of flowers.

Among Johnsons’ exclusives for 2008 shown on the day was pastel sweet pea ‘Sugar Almonds’ – a strongly scented mix also from the Laura Ashley collection.

Mr Fothergill’s seed packets have been redesigned and relaunched, but are still easily identifiable thanks to the friendly ‘Mr Fothergill’ character. The company has also re-structured and re-branded into several ranges, including: The World Kitchen range, Sprouting Seeds range and the Laura Ashley.

Following the visit to the trials ground, we were treated to a special visit and lunch at Newmarket’s historic Jockey Club. Always a good way to get the best out of journalists! But seriously the setting was magnificent and the buffet lunch was just what was needed after several hours strolling around the trials.

Thursday 2 August 2007

Fun in the sunshine

Yesterday I spent a glorious sunny day at Ball Colegrave during the company’s press day. This company is one of the world’s leading bedding plant producers, and my visit to its trials grounds at West Adderbury, near Banbury in Oxfordshire is always a highlight of the year.

Not only can you see the trials fields where new cultivars are being trialled and tested against the current leading best sellers, but there are also numerous container, hanging basket and other displays that show the plats grown to their best advantage, how they look when mature and in containers and combinations with other plants.
Stuart Lowen, the Marketing Manager, opened the day by welcoming us, and providing some background information on what the company has been looking into during the past year, and what are the major factors coming up in the future.
“Within five years the products that comprise 70 percent of today’s consumer goods revenue will be obsolete!” (Source: Innovation boot camp, mark Dziersk, September 2006). This was the startling statement that Ball Colegrave wanted to get across to us. You may be thinking that this statistic couldn’t reflect what will happen in the gardening industry, but the consumer marketplace is changing at a rapid-fire pace – and plants are no exception. As a result, Ball Colegrave believes significant and rapid change have become a normal part of its business world. So the company is ready to support its customers’ business judgements with the right products, programmes and services that allow them to thrive in this era of dynamic business change.

As gardens are getting smaller, Stuart pointed out that making the most of all available space was critical and that upward, or vertical, gardening was becoming more important. The use of raised displays and hanging baskets (right) were areas the company was trying to put across to gardeners.
As there will be 30 areas/45 cities and towns that have been earmarked for new housing projects in the next few years, there would be even more smaller gardens coming on the market that needed plants and colour.
Stuart referred to some research that shows that the numbers of ‘very keen’ and ‘quite keen’ gardeners is decreasing. Fortunately, the ‘not gardeners’ and ‘hostile gardeners’ was also diminishing and the number or ‘marginal gardeners’ was on the increase by 3 percent. This was generally seen as a good thing for the industry as more and more people would want some colour and interest in their gardens. It was felt that the supermarkets and DIY stores were helping to increase the market – but at the same time changing it – and that garden centres needed to look at the way they worked and even amend their retail practices to provide more in the way of help, design and innovation to these marginal gardeners; basically leading the market by showing how plants could be used in the garden, providing ideas, help, advice and tips.
There was now more interest in single-colour planting, more use of single-planted containers and the overall better use of colour in the garden. Many garden centres were doing away with the boxes of mixed bedding and concentrating on individual colours.

To emphasise this, there was a display entitled DIFM – do it for me - plant packs that contained all the plants you needed to produce a colourful and interesting container, with a planted container providing the inspiration along with recipes to provide the ideas for gardeners. Stuart even suggested the concept of garden ‘kits’ for small gardens, based on a square or cube format that contained everything you needed and all the gardener had to do was simply ‘open, unpack and grow’!
Other areas Ball Colegrave are looking at are plants that are easy to grow and care for, as well as those that can cope with extremes of climate and weather conditions. One such plant is Begonia Million Kisses (above right); it looked superb last summer in all the heat and sun, and equally looked fantastic this year having coped with cooler conditions, poor light levels and torrential downpours.
And finally, the increase in the popularity of healthy lifestyles, grow your own and the five-a-day campaign have led the company to expand its range of veg, fruit and herbs culminating in a new catalogue for these plants in 2008.
Ian Cole from KinderGarden Plants then unveiled his company’s plans for the coming year.
Although baby plants were still increasing in popularity, there were two ‘selling’ drawbacks; the label that often became separated from the plant and that the pots had to be picked up by customers leading to ‘dirty fingers syndrome’! Both problems could be solved by replacing the company’s net pot with a printed photographic paper quality sleeve. The plant sat in the sleeve, which contained all the label information, and the plant could be picked up cleanly by the sleeve removing the need to handle the pot, the plant and the compost. All the baby plug plants are grown in a coir compost plug, and with no plastic pot to dispose of and the paper sleeve being biodegradable, this was all helping the company to become even more environmentally friendly. The final piece of news from KinderGarden was that it is introducing a children’s range of 10 types of seedlings to encourage younger gardeners, with full details on growing and other useful hints, tips and information available from its website – www.kindergarden.co.uk
Obviously, we were there to take in the new plants and what a lot there was on offer.

Ball Colegrave has also noticed an increased desire for foliage plants and hence has increased the range of its Fantastic Foliage and Tropical Express ranges. This includes Alocasia ‘Calidora’, Alternanthera ‘Royal Tapestry’, Solenostemon ‘Chocolate Mint’, Colocasia esculenta ‘Illustris’ plus a range of grasses.
New flowering plants revealed at the open day included Angelonia angustifolia Angelmist, Bacopa (Sutera) ‘Blutopia’, ‘Snowtopia’, ‘Abunda Colossal Lavender’ and ‘Abunda Colossal White’, Calibrachoa Cabaret, Impatiens DeZire, Petunia Shock Wave and Verbena Picotee, Aztec and Quartz XP series. Many of these plants address the issues raised by Stuart Lowen at the start of the day.
After the daytime press visit, Ball Colegrave opened to the general gardening public. Hundreds of keen gardeners spent the evening looking at all the new plants and varieties on offer next year, as well as some of their regular favourites. Everyone gets a chance to vote for their favourite plant, and the results are: first Strobilanthes Persian Shield; joint second Dianthus Corona Cherry Magic and Begonia Million Kisses Romance.
The trials grounds are open annually to the gardening public and it’s always well worth a visit. You can find out more by visiting the website – www.ballcolegrave.co.uk