Tuesday, 31 December 2013

New Year Resolutions

I'm never one for keeping to these things but maybe if I make them public then I might be more likely to keep them...?!

The fact is that I need to work less. As it is I personally take on too many burdens from the company, burdens which are seldom really mine to bear. Worrying about the future is what managers are there for; I should only need to focus on doing my job properly.

I also need to lose some of my weekend commitments. Living on my own I pay for everything myself, so I've ended up working a seven day working week, and it's not good. I'll have to keep a closer eye on finances, but I need to have time where I'm not working in one form or another. This will allow me time to recuperate which will hopefully mean that I am better able to do my 'day job', but will open up time for me to rediscover why I'm in horticulture.

Ouch! Aciphylla sp. in flower at Glendurgan
I live in Cornwall, one of the best counties for gardens, and yet I've never visited the famous garden at Caerhays Castle (home to the original Camellia x williamsii hybrids), nor the up and coming sculpture garden at Tremenheere, or even been to see the stunning Magnolias at Trewidden, and it's been a long time since I visited Tregrehan, Trebah, Glendurgan....

The fact is that I need to live more. That is my New Year resolution.

Happy New Year everyone!

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Bit of a teaser for you...

Look carefully at the three pictures of Camellia flowers below. What do they share in common? (Apart from stamens and petals!)


The answer...?
Several answers on my Twitter account were incredibly close, and in a couple of cases people were spot on! The person who said that they all belong to Camellia sasanqua was right, as was the person who said that they share common parents. Several people were, however, completely spot on! Yes, these three flowers share a root system; yes, they're all from the same plant!

This, folks, is Camellia sasanqua 'Souvenir de Claude Brivet', a fascinating autumn flowering Camellia because it is a botanical 'chimera'. For anyone (like me) with a scant memory of Greek mythology the Chimera was a creature made up of other creatures. Botanically a chimera has two or more genetically distinct types of cell, usually caused by a mutation in the meristem.

This is all very interesting, but for gardeners it is how this characteristic shows itself that is the appeal; Camellia 'Souvenir de Claude Brivet' will flower anywhere from white to solid pink, and with variable degrees of streaking between. It would drive obsessive gardeners mad (and could be used to confuse someone- they'd swear it was pink last year...!) but for me it is a fascinating oddity.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Biog Blog

My parents tell me that I was keen on plants from a very early age, and that when I was only four or five years old I could identify and name several garden plants by their botanical name. It's amazing how school takes things away from you; as I grew up those early gardening days drifted further and further back. The pressure of the controlled learning environment of school, coupled with every child's desire to fit in, suppressed my passion for gardening for many years.

My turning point came when I was maybe 13 or 14 years old. At the time we lived in Snowdonia, and my dad took me to the then fairly new nursery at Crug Farm near Caernarfon. It was a dull and cold day, and while my dad looked at the plants he was interested in I wandered aimlessly around the sales area. It was there that a little plant caught my eye, Arisarum proboscideum, the 'Mouse Plant'. Beneath glossy arrow-shaped leaves I found a strange structure that looked like the back end of a mouse (complete with tail) digging in the ground. I was fascinated by this plant, bought it, took it home and planted it. I guess like all teenagers my interest wavered, after all it wasn't really 'doing' anything. My tiny plant disappeared, and that was the end of it... or so I thought. Next year it reappeared, bigger and stronger, and that's when I was hooked! 
Here's where it started, Arisarum proboscideum
When I was old enough I took a Saturday and show season job with an Alstroemeria specialist who also grew other things. Here I met Arisaemas, the 'Cobra Lilies', and forged my strong interest in aroids, the members of the Arum family. From this core interest in a fascinating part of the plant world I expanded my interests into all sorts of other interesting plants, including carnivorous plants, alpines and woodland plants.

After sixth form college I was tired of the education world and, very dangerously it must be said, decided to go into work rather than follow the tried and tested path to higher education. Why dangerous? It is a lot easier to show your worth in the real world if you have a piece of paper to prove it! A qualification would almost certainly have made life a lot easier for me.

My first full time proper job was at a garden centre in the North West. Sadly it has now closed down, but I remember my time there fondly. It was quite daunting being part of a small but very busy team; we worked hard together to make sure that our plants were presented well and properly cared for, and that our customers were given good honest advice. Regardless of my own personal interests at the time I was expected (by customers and by my colleagues) to be competent at all areas of horticulture, and it was at this point in my career that I realised something; I love finding out about things! I really enjoy researching different areas of horticulture, whether it be plants, gardens or horticultural techniques.

Since then I have allowed my passion to grow. I now work for a nursery in Cornwall, growing and selling an enormous range of nursery stock. I've continued to expand my knowledge and experience, and I'm involved in most nursery activities! I've also taken up photography, and feel a great sense of satisfaction when I 'bag' a good picture of a plant. Many of these photos I share via my Twitter account (@bensbotanics) and my Facebook page (search for Ben's Botanics), or on my main site www.bensbotanics.co.uk. 

I can't put my finger on just one thing that keeps me fascinated by plants; I marvel at their very intricate lives, from the way their buds burst, their flowers are arranged, the development of their seeds and how they're set, as well as their clever and ingenious ways of simply staying alive. There is a world of interest out there, accessible to anyone with a passion for appreciating the natural world, and all you need to do is look!

I am always glad to hear from other gardeners, as well as answering any questions. I hope that you enjoy my blog.

Ben

PS. No pictures of me? I don't like having my picture taken, so very few exist, certainly no recent ones!

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Testing for topiary

Watching The Great British Garden Revival on BBC recently has stirred me to try out a little project I've been getting round to for about the last five years! Rachel de Thame visited several gardens known for their topiary, and showed viewers how to create topiary shapes out of box and yew (privet also appeared on the show...). I wouldn't say that I'm massively 'into' topiary; I love neatly clipped spheres, pyramids and cubes, will tolerate spirals but would never want to own one, and loathe with a passion racing cars, peacocks, prancing horses, teddy bears... the list goes on! My taste in topiary is not the purpose of this blog.

Yew (Taxus baccata) is a very popular plant for topiary; it's evergreen, can potentially grow nice and big, takes clipping and will grow nice and dense if maintained. This got me thinking about other plants that share the characteristics of yew, and this brought me to a fairly underused genus of conifers, the Podocarpus.

Podocarpus are all native to the southern hemisphere and are recognised by their typically conifer leaves (like broad needles) and their fruits, similar to yew. Some, such as P. salignus, grow into large trees, and others, such as P. henkelii, are too tender to be grown widely in the UK. Thankfully the ones that I would expect to be suitable for topiary are hardy in the UK, although not widely grown at the moment. I picked three varieties, as seen below- 'Young Rusty', 'Kilworth Cream' and 'Red Tips'

L-R 'Young Rusty', 'Kilworth Cream', 'Red Tips'
So why Podocarpus? The varieties I've picked out all have small needles which I hope will give my shapes a smooth outline, and also Podocarpus share a useful characteristic with yew; both will break from old wood, meaning that if I cut thicker stems dormant buds will break and I will get soft new growth that will then be good to trim into shape.

New shoot breaking
At the moment the three plants have been grown (very well it must be said) to be open and shrubby, so I'll start by shortening the long thick shoots back and pruning them within the framework of the plant and hopefully this will give me lots of soft shoots to trim to shape. I'm hoping that in the not-too-distant future all I will have to do is run shears lightly over the plant to keep it in shape.
A tuft of new shoots on 'Kilworth Cream'
One advantage with Podocarpus is that they come in a (small) range of colours. Yew comes in green or gold, but Podocarpus come in bronze, blue, green, cream and a mustard/orange. Podocarpus also do very well in pots, providing they are watered and fed properly, whereas yew tends to sulk if it's contained long term. There are drawbacks though... I'm very much aware that many Podocarpus usually have a fairly coarse texture and an open habit and are more prone to being shrubby than tree-like. This could give me a couple of problems; it's possible that I won't be able to clip them into a decent shape and keep them dense, but also I'm limited to doing fairly small/low shapes. For me the latter isn't a problem because I want to clip them into a set of spheres, but it does limit their potential to be adopted widely as topiary plants.

I'll let you know how I get on!

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Through rose-tinted glasses....?

It's funny how people like to hark back to the 'good old days', when prices were cheaper, life was simpler, and generally things were better. In fact if you could go back in a time machine you would find that yes, prices were cheaper but wages were lower, life was simpler with no mobile phone/internet/digital TV, and things for most people were as hard or even harder than they are today. We love to reminisce...

A lot of things in gardening are about reminiscence; traditional techniques are making a comeback (things like planting in autumn instead of spring/summer), there is a lot of interest in old gardens and their restoration, and conservation groups are busy saving old varieties of garden plants from extinction.

Start a conversation about any TV show and sooner or later someone will say that things are being 'dumbed down', especially factual programmes, shows like Gardener's World. I'll be honest, I don't watch Gardener's World any more; for me things were much better with Geoff Hamilton, and went down hill during Alan Titchmarsh's tenure as lead presenter. The thing is that time can play tricks on you, so it's important to separate reality from impression. I recently found old episodes of Gardener's World on Youtube, and watching a couple gave me and idea- I should compare an old show with Geoff Hamilton and a new show with Monty Don and see if I can see what it is that I don't like about the new shows, if, of course, I don't find that actually the old style Gardener's World is no different from the modern show. I picked two episodes at random, one from 1991 and one from 2013.

The 1991 show, presented by Geoff Hamilton featured:
  • weeding
  • garden construction
  • plant maintenance (pruning etc)
  • lawn care
  • pests and disease advice (including a feature about Japanese Knotweed
  • a visit to the garden of a very uncomfortable Carol Klein (her first TV appearance!)
  • gardening under glass (Integrated Pest Management (IPM), plant maintenance, Fuchsia propagation and training
     
I noted 26 plants named in the half hour show, and identified 25 hints and tips given.

By comparison the 2013 show, presented by Monty Don, featured:
  • planting Clematis
  • a garden visit
  • planting brassicas
  • a 'jobs for the weekend' section (sowing sweet peas and wallflowers, and weeding with a hoe)
  • tulips in the garden
  • another garden visit (this time to Holland, with more tulips!)
  • sowing hardy annuals
I noted 23 plants named in the half hour show, and identified 18 hints and tips.

What struck me was that there was more packed into the 1991 show, and it covered a very wide variety of garden tasks compared to the 2013 show, which I reckon was probably filmed a little later in the year, but definitely still in spring.

The other thing that struck me was the general style of the show. The 1991 show was pretty basic, with presenters talking to the camera or shots of the plant/task in question- this might have been due to technical differences in the TV filming technology of the time. By comparison the 2013 show was much more advanced in it's filming style, and had been 'padded' in several places with clips of no real significance; let's take, for example, a 30 second clip of Monty picking up a tray of plants and walking to the place where he's going to plant them, all set to an intrusive backing tune. Why does the audience of a practical gardening programme need to see a man walk from one place to another? The camera work was excellent but the section was pointless. This 'padding' happened a few times in the show.

There was also significant chunks of show given over to presenters, not just Monty, getting all poetic and contemplative over the garden they were in. In the second garden visit, Rachel de Thame spoke at length with her mother about a trip they had made over 40 years ago to visit a garden in Holland (apologies, I forget which). Actual airtime was given over to a conversation between them about how much Rachel has grown in 40 years! Fair enough, we all have conversations like this but they are actually private conversations, not because they contain dark secrets but because they are only relevant to the people concerned.

Despite the fact that in real terms the old Gardener's World format only managed to slip in a few more plants and tips than the new format show there was a marked difference in the overall feel. Most notable was that the show now seems to be more about the relationships between the presenters and the gardens than between the viewer and what they are seeing. The presenting team on the 2013 show (including Carol Klein who has come out of her shell since the 1991 show) seemed keen to show off their own poetic interpretations of gardens and gardening than getting down to some 'nitty gritty' horticulture. In some ways Monty Don has an excuse; in his own words "I was – am – an amateur gardener and a professional writer...” (not sure which interview this quote is from).

All in all I don't think my fond memories of the Geoff Hamilton era are misplaced; the very 'down to earth' presenting style, most notably with Geoff but also with the rest of the team, was in keeping with gardening itself. Likewise the only egos in the show belonged to the plants and the gardens which, through excellent camera work, and careful, accurate and never patronising explanation, were brought to life for the viewer. I still remember hearing about the sudden death of Geoff Hamilton, the man who had instilled the thrill of gardening in me. My parents and I sat in silence for Geoff's last ever show, and somehow, even then, I knew that gardening TV would never be the same for me. For many gardeners up and down the country, these words from Alan Titchmarsh's tribute at the beginning of Geoff's last episode of Gardener's World are still fresh, poignant and above all, still true.

When Geoff Hamilton died, earlier this week, television viewers all over the country must have felt they've lost a great friend. For 17 years, on a Friday night, they'd watched him sowing and planting, often in his own garden at Barnsdale, and whether they were keen gardeners or novices they couldn't have failed to have been impressed by his easy going manner, his friendly approach, and his sheer passion for gardening.” Alan Titchmarsh, August 1996.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

For those who do not actually remember...

If our grandparents' generation hadn't killed and died to fight the forces of fascism in Europe we would be living in a very different world now.

In Europe you would not have been allowed to be gay, Jewish (or probably follow any other religion), from any non-European ethnic background... it is very unlikely that those in power would allow you to vote, or let you speak out against anything you didn't approve of. Who knows where the rights of women would have ended up?

Tomorrow, as the clock reaches 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month we are asked to remember those who we don't know, who have fought battles most of us wouldn't have the nerve to fight.

Also try and imagine what our world would have been like if things hadn't gone well for the good guys? Imagine a world where genocide had been committed on British soil, and where the freedom we have to complain ceaselessly about the world around us just didn't exist.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Fancy doing this as a career...?

Horticulture is a rewarding and fun industry to work in. Wherever you are and whatever you're doing in horticulture you will be challenged and, if you like challenges and feel a great satisfaction from a job well done, you will succeed.

Horticulture is almost entirely a 'hands on' industry. Whether you are a horticultural scientist working in a lab, a nurseryman growing plants on a nursery, or a gardener tending and creating a garden, you will spend most of your time 'doing' things, and while every day will bring it's challenges every day will also bring it's successes and achievements. There is great satisfaction in leaving work each day knowing that you've achieved something!

Of course in horticulture the plants are everything. The fairway of a golf course might just look like grass, but in fact is made up of different species carefully selected and nurtured by skilled grounds-people to create a surface fit for purpose, and often maintained to impressive standards. Maintaining a golf course, or any other surface used for sports (like a football pitch) is a skilled occupation, and people working in that particular part of horticulture are constantly making new developments to improve the performance of their turf. Imagine being the person who's work helps your favourite sports team to victory! Imagine being the person who's job it is to look after some of the most iconic sports turf in the world, like the pitch at Wembley!
Not quite Wembley, but a great croquet lawn!
Gardens are made up of plants to provide shape, structure and colour in order to create the overall effect. From tiny alpines to massive trees, the plants are what makes a garden. Ensuring the health of the plants in a garden is probably the overall reason to have gardeners in the first place, and maintaining a garden brings an enormous sense of well-being. Gardens have a cycle during the year, a cycle of growth, development, fruition and decline. Being a part of nature's cycle is very rewarding, and I know it sounds a bit strange but the whole experience could almost be described as spiritual. Yes, gardening has times of mad rushing around, mowing the lawn or collecting leaves, but there are also times when the pace of life becomes more gentle, and you are given a privileged front row seat in nature's theatre. Seeing buds burst after winter dormancy, waiting for flowers to open, watching as fruits set... all of these things are familiar to gardeners, but never do they lose their magic.
Cool office! The back garden of St. Michael's Mount, Cornwall
Growing plants on a nursery also gives you first hand experience of nature in it's finery, the difference being that on a nursery you are raising plants to be bought by other gardeners. There is an immense feeling of satisfaction as a customer buys a plant you've grown on the nursery and takes it home to their garden. Nurseries are very artificial environments, so knowledge of science, technology, economics, marketing... these are all put to the test on a daily basis. Growing plants in a nursery brings a lot of challenges, and it can quite often be a fast paced environment. Being able to think on your feet is important, as is not only knowing about horticulture but also having the passion for your subject that drives you to learn more. Wherever you look in horticulture there are things happening; new plants are being bred, new products developed, new techniques mastered, new markets created. For anyone who wants to go the extra mile there is room to carve a career in production horticulture.
Horticulture can bring you into contact with rare species; Grewia occidentalis


Production horticulture also needs people to sell the products, whether on the same site as the plants are being produced or in a retail only environment like a garden centre. As with any industry the key is to make sure that the product stands out, either by being displayed well or by appropriate marketing, or more than likely both! Retail in general is ever changing, and horticultural retail is no exception. Every customer through the door is different, and the skill in horticultural retail is to match your customer with the appropriate plant. You'll need a sound knowledge of horticulture as well as the passion to keep learning just to keep ahead with your customers! One might need a plant for a particular purpose, another might be worried about a pest or disease, and it's your guidance that will make sure that your customer continues to enjoy their garden for years to come. The retail environment is the perfect place to apply your knowledge and benefit others.

Garden and landscape design is a great way to make your way in horticulture. From a tiny little back garden for a private client all the way up to a major project, design and careful implementation is key. Designers painstakingly survey the site and produce often breathtaking results, all with the help of competent landscapers who actually build the project. The sheer variety of projects suits people who enjoy the challenge of being creative and implementing a design to a high standard, so a career as a designer or a landscaper will suit people who enjoy a new challenge with each site to work on.

Of course horticulture needs science and technology to succeed. Plants are living things and must be cared for or they will die. Horticultural scientists work hard to identify, monitor and deal with pests and diseases, they develop growing practices to improve productivity and plant health, they create new products to make the whole business of growing plants easier. Behind the scenes scientists are busy in their labs or trial beds creating and developing the future of horticulture, and if your leaning is towards science then you could well be part of something big!
New plants are often the result of complex breeding; Digitalis Illumination Pink
Of course as with any career there are downsides; the vagaries of the weather can make your day's work more challenging, there are economic difficulties around, and there is a shortage of skilled staff in most (if not all) sectors of horticulture. To be good at horticulture you need to be keen, willing to be passionate about what you do, interested in why and how things happen, and most of all willing to get stuck in!

Saturday, 26 October 2013

A Twit without Twitter...

Gardening is a combination of three things: materials, technique and information. The materials are the structures we build and the plants we use to make a garden, while technique is how ideas and materials are brought together to create a garden. Information in gardening is both inspiration and science, brought together to guide the hand of the gardener.

Take someone who knows nothing at all about gardening; deliver a whole truckload of plants and they might have a stab at 'doing something' with them. Give them information and technique and they are able to create a garden. Communication is key to transferring knowledge from one gardener to another. Working on a nursery I have to communicate a lot with customers, some of whom are experts needing a little specific information while others are novice gardeners who seek the knowledge and confidence to achieve what they want, whether it be the conquering of a trouble spot in their garden or wanting to know how to grow a plant that's caught their eye. Without communication everybody is left floundering.

How communication is achieved can vary; information is everywhere, in books, in magazines, on the internet (including the blog that you're reading!), on the radio and on the TV. To be entirely honest I think we're almost at the point of being overloaded with information, some of it good, some of it... dubious. Several times now I've had customers ring and ask about things because their books disagree on a topic, or they've spent an hour wading through website after website looking for advice relevant to their problem but to no avail; in the end they'd like to speak to someone and get a hopefully definitive and specific answer to their question. This is why BBC Radio 4's Gardener's Question Time is still going strong despite the strong presence of the internet and freely available information- people don't want to know if a plant is hardy, they want to know if it's hardy in their area, for example. An opportunity to ask an expert is an opportunity not to be missed.

Nice plant, but how do I grow it?
Technology plays a key part in gardening, as it always has done. Today's technology allows free and ready transfer of information from one person to another, and this means that today's gardeners can ask their question easily and know that someone, somewhere, knows the answer- the trick is just to find that someone. Twitter can seem daunting to anyone over the age of 12 (the average age of a Justin Bieber fan, and believe me there's enough of them on Twitter) but is actually a digital platform for an enormous number of gardeners from around the world. In Monty Don's article in Gardener's World Magazine he says (so I'm told, I've heard about his article but I'm not rushing out to buy a copy of the magazine just to read it) that there aren't any gardeners on Twitter because gardeners are over 50 and don't really understand technology.

Let's tackle ages first- I'm not over 50 and I've been gardening for many years, and I am (I believe) fairly good at it. The horticulture industry employs plenty of people under 50, many of whom are experts in their field. Many of my customers at work are under 50, and many of them are accomplished gardeners. There is also an ever increasing number of people in their late 20s and early 30s who are gardening for the first time, often when they move into their first house.

One of the great appeals about gardening is that it is not exclusive; you can be a gardener in a window box or a huge estate, you can be rich or poor, upper class or working class, male or female, young or old.

Technology is a simple matter... if you engage someone with a technology they will learn to use it. Before the invention of hormone rooting powders nurseries used all sorts of ways to propagate plants, and when the powder arrived it brought new techniques that needed to be embraced. These new techniques are fairly ordinary now, and in fact it is the old techniques of grafting and layering that is a mystery to many gardeners! Likewise technology doesn't differentiate between age groups; if you are nine or 90 you might need to be shown the basics of a technology, and once you've got the basics you are on your way. Likewise if you're a gardener tempted by Twitter sign up, go to the 'search' box and search for whatever topics interest you, find the people you share interests in common with and before you know it you've joined a community of gardeners.

It's as easy as sowing seeds.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Opinion: The rise of the Tomtato

Unless you've been on Mars for the last week or so you must have heard about the latest development from UK nursery/seedsmen Thompson and Morgan, the 'Tomtato'. It's even on the BBC you know?!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-24281192

The pictures show T&M's New Product Development Manager, Michael Perry, holding a plant that looks like a prop from a science fiction film, a tomato plant on top and a clump of large potatoes underneath. There's no sticky tape here, this is no cheap prop for a corny film, this is a new development for the 21st century vegetable grower!

I say new but the idea behind this new product is nothing new; tomatoes and potatoes are incredibly closely related and can be grafted together, but the Tomtato is the result of 15 years of development and research... my guess is that much of this time has been spent finding tomato and potato varieties that grow well together, grow at a compatible pace, and don't 'pollute' each other's flavours (a problem with early attempts- apparently the tomatoes were vile!). This is a triumph of horticulture.

My horticultural sensibilities were outraged! Here a respectable company has taken a fairly run-of-the-mill (albeit fiddly) process, the art of grafting, and the science of how plants are related to each other and turned it into what... a gimmick? Certainly the young starter plants don't come cheap, and despite T&M pointing out that this is a great space saving plant, suitable for a pot on the patio or in the ground, you can get heavy crops from three seed potatoes in a potato bag (about the size of a dustbin) and delicious and reliable crops of tomatoes from the grafted tomato plants coming onto the market- more expensive than a packet of seeds but the rootstock gives improved performance and disease resistance, and just how many tomato plants do you really need?!

The problem is that I'm missing the point; I'm getting bogged down in gardener's wisdom and not seeing this new plant for what it is, a new and exciting product that has brought a lot of publicity not only to T&M as developers but also to the science of horticulture. Here's something new, different, accessible to the home gardener and the result of good solid horticultural research. The Tomtato won't solve the world's hunger but, along with the development of grafted tomatoes, does draw attention to possibilities for the future of food production both commercially and at home; great work T&M!

Gardeners are already familiar and comfortable with grafted fruit trees on different rootstocks (chosen to alter how the tree behaves) and it does beg the question of what else can be grafted to great use? While plant breeders dabble with their paint brushes to create better yields and disease resistance, will the science of rootstocks spread from the orchards and into other areas of the edibles market?

In the words of the character Fallowfield (played by Kenneth Williams) from the classic 1960s radio comedy Beyond Our Ken, “I think the answer lies in the soil!”

You can follow Michael Perry on Twitter: 

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Ode to the untidy garden

Garden, garden, why don't you grow?
These are things I'll never know.

Your lawn is rough and full of weeds,
Despite me tending all your needs.
Your shrubs continually expand and balloon,
Despite my best efforts to trim and to prune.

Perennials die with monotonous ease,
Leaving labels behind to bait and to tease.
Bulbs and seeds go in but then die,
My drawer-full of packets proves it's no lie.

The pond is brown and choked with weed,
And the hole in the liner more stress than I need.
The tree at the back is probably dead,
But lends some height to the rest of the bed.

But as I gaze from the kitchen inside
I can't help feeling a sense of great pride.
And although my garden isn't that fine,
It's all that I've got, and mine, all mine.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Beyond Lucifer

If you're lucky enough to live anywhere in the South West west of Exeter the chances are that you will recognise the orange patches of wild montbretia in the hedgerows. Although not native it has naturalised to become a familiar part of the local flora through late summer and well into autumn, and while some groups see it as a wild and destructive pest for most people it's a fairly innocuous plant. But how did a South African plant come to be so widespread in the mild western parts of the United Kingdom?

Weed? Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora
Montbretia is the common name given mainly to the hybrid between two species of Crocosmia, C. aurea and C. pottsii, which were crossed by eminent French nurseryman Victor Lemoine in 1880. It is well worth researching Victor Lemoine and his contributions to horticulture... The hybrid was a triumph, providing gardeners with a freely clumping plant with attractive orange flowers, and a hybrid that would produce different varieties that could be named and grown as garden plants in their own right. The only downside of this hybrid is that it can set copious quantities of viable seeds (a trick picked up from C. aurea) and these seeds could escape into the natural environment.

The horticultural world was nonetheless taken by storm, and Lemoine's legacy was to give gardeners a hardy, bright and colourful plant for the drab days of autumn. WWI saw a decline in Crocosmia cultivation and breeding as many gardeners were taken away from the gardens of the wealthy landowners to serve their countries. Many varieties were lost as plants died, labels were lost or clumps become overwhelmed by seedlings, and the arrival of WWII certainly didn't help things for the humble Crocosmia.

Crocosmias languished for many years until, in 1963, Alan Bloom and Percy Piper crossed C. masoniorum with C. paniculata (what is believed by some to be what is now named C. paniculata 'Natal Red' in cultivation) to raise the most iconic of these late summer plants. Love it or loathe it, Crocosmia 'Lucifer' is quite a plant; standing 4ft (120cm) tall, the devil-red tubular flowers are well presented on a branched inflorescence, and held above sword-like leaves. 'Lucifer' has picked up two bad habits from it's parents, the habit of flopping in late summer (which I think comes from C. masoniorum) and the habit of setting seed. Given some support and a good deadheading after the flowers have finished and it will be fairly well behaved. One good feature about C. 'Lucifer' is that it bulks up well, so a large and impressive clump is easy to achieve (but give it space!). C. 'Lucifer' is so well known in cultivation that I don't really need to provide a picture...!

Now the breeding and selection of Crocosmia varieties is enjoying a resurgence of interest.

I recently visited Crocosmia expert Mark Wash at his nursery in Cornwall. On paper Trecanna nursery isn't such a good idea; grow and sell Crocosmias in an area where nearly every hedgerow is peppered with them! Thankfully Mark's customers are discerning gardeners and enjoy the cultivars on offer. I visited in the very last few weeks of the Crocosmia flowering season, but there was still plenty to see.

Crocosmia 'Hellfire', an unbelievably intense red!
Crocosmia 'Anna Marie', a charming new cultivar for 2013
As the flowers of Crocosmia 'Limpopo' age they take on peachy tones
Crocosmia 'Tamar New Dawn', bred by Mark Wash in the Tamar Valley

Crocosmia 'Tamer Glow', also bred by Mark Wash. Lovely colour!
Small but bright flowers of Crocosmia 'Prince of Orange'
Trecanna nursery isn't just about Crocosmias though; Mark Wash also grows Eucomis ('Pineapple Lilies'), which grow well in the same conditions as Crocosmias.

Eucomis comosa in all it's glory
Although popular South African plants Mark doesn't grow Agapanthus in large numbers as these are covered excellently by other nurseries. However in any small nursery you will find the occasional plant that is grown 'for the hell of it', like this Agapanthus 'Queen Mum', a new and desirable variety.

Bicoloured flowers fading on Agapanthus 'Queen Mum'
Trecanna nursery is not open to the public, but plants can be bought by mail order or from the shows/fairs the Mark attends. As well as South African plants Trecanna Nursery also sells dry bulbs (in season). If you live in Devon or Cornwall Mark does talks to gardening clubs etc., contact him via his website for more information.

You can follow Trecanna Nursery on Twitter: @TrecannaNursery

Thursday, 1 August 2013

More to do...

After a busy spring period summer is a useful time on the nursery to take a breath. Most of the young plants have been potted and are growing away in their tunnels or outside, and in a few cases the fastest rooting plants are making their way slowly but surely towards the sales area. Summer is a time to get some real horticulture in, pruning, training and staking plants as necessary, as well as watering and using liquid fertiliser (including the amusingly named 'fertigation', that is applying feed via the drip irrigation to trees etc.).

Adding a complex task to the summer schedule is unwise, especially if you're short staffed. Nonetheless there are some things where the pain is worth the rewards, and one such job is potting shrubs sent from New Zealand.

But why New Zealand, and why is this a problem? In New Zealand there is a rather excellent nursery called Stepping Stones, and they produce large Acers and Magnolias (and possibly other things too). In terms of the product they are world class, producing good sized plants at a reasonable cost. For those 'in the know' it is easy to recognise a Stepping Stones 'rod' in a garden centre or nursery- the distinctive straight stem with horizontal branching can be spotted from quite a distance. The advantage to the gardener is that fairly large specimen trees can be bought for less than a UK grown plant of the same size would cost.

The problem comes from the shipping time; plants are sent dormant and bare rooted in July which is winter in New Zealand... but is summer in the UK! The battle for any UK nursery is to allow the plants to have a 'spring' in August, grow a little and become established, and then move safely into autumn with the rest of the deciduous stock. Successful overwintering of the new stock relies on the skill and experience of the growers, regulating the moisture of the compost all winter.
You can see why they nickname these boxes 'coffins'!
Potting quickly is vital, the delicate roots won't stand being exposed to dry air for long. Plants are carefully unpacked and sorted into their varieties; each plant is taped with a code that relates to the name of the plant. Once sorted, each plant is potted up into the appropriate size pot, usually 7.5L or 10L. 
Picking out the trees from the 'coffin'...

... and counting them in their batches.
Tape with a code for each variety...

... best to write your own label too!
Quickly sorting and potting the plants is only a tiny part of the struggle- now here comes the tricky bit! Allowing bare rooted Acers and Magnolias to be subjected to summer heat is not a good idea; the plants need to gently ease themselves into growth, rather than exploding into full growth. Plants need a cool and shaded space, under plastic, with a very good air flow. We found a spot in one of our tunnels where the new plants are sheltered by large specimen Acer griseums, Acer davidiis, and a few specimens of Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca'. The other side is open to the elements and this should allow good air circulation- if the weather takes a turn for the worse we might have to choose another spot!
 
Potted and set out in the tunnel.
To help reduce stress on the Magnolias the suppliers sent a bottle of a 'Sticker' which gets mixed in water and sprayed over the new shoots. I believe it works by providing a protecting film over the fleshy stems which seals moisture in. Can't say if it's effective or not because I've never seen what happens to a Magnolia that hasn't been sprayed- the opinion seems to be that if Stepping Stones sends it with their products then it probably works!
Free gift- 'sticker'.

For now the plants are settling down to their new surroundings and should leaf in the next fortnight or so. These plants will probably be ready for sale in 18 months or so, so it's a long process, but should be worth it in the end. Sorry if you're hoping for hot and dry conditions for your summer holidays, a lot of UK nurseries will be hoping for cool and dull weather!

Friday, 21 June 2013

No, Puyas are NOT carnivorous!

Sheep farmers needn't worry about a menacing plant at RHS Wisley attacking their sheep! First, read the original story here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-surrey-22967160

Puyas are terrestrial bromeliads native to fairly arid areas of South America, with most originating from the Andes. They are notorious in specialist gardening circles for their stiff and vicious backward facing spines that can easily ensnare an unsuspecting hand. Interestingly Puya raimondi holds the record for the tallest flower spike of any plant, a staggering 32ft (10m) tall!

But are they carnivorous? Despite disagreements from anyone who has lost their own blood to this genus, they are not. Carnivorous plants are specifically adapted to lure in their prey, usually with the promise of tasty nectar, but then trap the prey in sticky goo (e.g. Drosera), pitfall traps (e.g. Sarrecenia) or in a fast moving trap (e.g. Dionaea, the Venus' Fly Trap). There are a couple of disputed carnivorous bromeliads too, Catopsis and Brocchinia, but these are epiphytic 'tank' bromeliads and are very different from Puyas.

Stories about Puyas feasting on sheep are probably exaggerated- no doubt sheep occasionally get trapped in the huge rosettes of Puyas, and cuts to the face from the sharp spines are probably fairly commonplace (after all sheep aren't all that bright!) but there's nothing really to suggest that the Puyas are munching on fresh lamb!

I originally saw this story in the members magazine of the Eden Project in Cornwall, although it might have come second hand to them. As my friend showed me the article I was astonished to read these claims of carnivory being peddled by a so-called educational establishment. To find this dubious information being passed on by the RHS is doubly disappointing, but I suppose the promise of a rare and macabre plant will do no end of good to their visitor figures, but there's one thing puzzling me; Puya chilensis is a rare plant with vicious spines that seldom flowers outside the mild gardens of Cornwall, but when it does it produces a flower spike 10ft (3m) tall... why isn't that impressive on it's own?!

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

8 Urban Myths In Gardening

With so much information around in gardening it's no wonder things sometimes don't come out quite right. Here are eight urban myths in gardening

Agapanthus need to be pot-bound or they won't flower
Nope! Agapanthus flower very well in the garden, large clumps often bearing dozens of fabulous flower heads for weeks in the summer. The secret to success with Agapanthus is good life- good rich soil, enough water during the summer (although not too much during the winter) and plenty of sunshine. The myth that Agapanthus need to be pot-bound probably stemmed from a misunderstanding; Agapanthus flower better when they've made a clump- dividing your Agapanthus into small chunks won't help it flower. Plant your Agapanthus out in the right spot and then leave it!
Perfectly happy in the garden- Agapanthus inapertus 'Sky'

Nerines want to bake in hot, dry and poor soil
Nope! Not sure where this has come from; Nerines are happiest in good garden soil with good drainage (but not dust dry!) and with plenty of sunshine, here they will bulk up beautifully. The larger the bulb the better the flower display. This myth might have come from Holland, where bulbs are treated with hot water to stress them into flowering when the bulb is too small- this is all well and good for bulb merchants, but in the garden it is better to focus on building up the bulbs naturally for long term benefits.

You should water your plants every day until they're established
Hmmm, no.... Although this is rooted in common sense, it is generally reckoned to be better practice to water your new plants really well 2-3 times a week (normally twice a week, three times a week if it's very hot and dry) instead of a little and often. The sense behind this is that a few good soaks encourages the plant's roots to grow down and search for water, whereas watering a little and often encourages roots to stay near the surface (and makes the plant more susceptible to stress during dry weather).

Shallow pots drain better
NO! Garden books will tell you to put a nice layer of crocks (bits of broken pots/flat stones) at the bottom of the pot for drainage, but in fact current thinking is that a drainage layer at the base of the pots might do more harm than good. Compost is much like a sponge; if you saturate a sponge and then let it drain you will be left with a saturated layer at the base of the sponge, while the top has dried out. The same happens in a pot, but the drainage layer pushes that layer of saturated compost closer to the roots. If you want to get your compost to drain then pick tall/deep pots which keep the saturated layer of compost further away from your plant's roots. Often if you remove a nursery grown plant from it's pot you will find that the roots aren't quite as keen to fill the bottom centimetre or so of the pot, and it's because of this layer of saturated compost!

Add lots of grit to improve drainage on clay soils
Nope! This old wisdom can spell disaster- clay soils are made up of tiny particles and these mix with the grit, and in dry weather this layer stiffens into what could only be referred to as a natural concrete! Much better to add plenty of good organic matter to the soil, and this will improve soil structure.

Only native plants are good for insects
Insects need a ready supply of nectar from flowers, and the best way to provide plenty of food for native insects is to fill your garden with plants that will flower for as long a season as possible, and these are nearly always non-native species*. Try to make sure there's plenty in flower in spring and autumn for the early emerging insects and those late to hibernate.
Early flowering and good for bees, but this Mahonia 'Lionel Fortescue' is not native!

Plant snowdrops in the green
Nope. This old hunk of horticultural 'wisdom' is probably well enough known to have become 'ancient gardening lore'! It is, however, of dubious accuracy. Like all bulbs, snowdrops (Galanthus) are best divided when dormant, in this case in August. However it must be said that Galanthus bulbs have thin skins and can dry out fairly easily if not handled carefully; with this in mind you are probably best avoiding dry bulbs in bags from the garden centre! Lifting bulbs 'in the green' (when in full growth) is more convenient to commercial growers who like to lift and bundle Galanthus from the open ground, but this does cause the bulbs a degree of shock from the disturbance. Gardeners really should try to lift and divide their bulbs in August, making sure that bulbs are planted again very quickly, and the bulbs will grow away healthily in spring.
Galanthus 'Straffan'- please divide when dormant!

Alstroemerias must be grown in pots
Hmmm, well possibly. Alpine species and tender varieties need to be in pots out of necessity, but the garden hybrids really are much better in the ground! Alstroemerias like good deep garden soil with good drainage (see the bit about drainage in pots above). In pots plants can easily get overcrowded and pot-bound, as well as needing a lot more feeding and watering. Also plants in pots are more susceptible to damage by frost being able to get into the too area from all sides. I would suggest assuming that any Alstroemeria grown in a pot is tender. In the garden, however, Alstroemerias have ample soil to grow in, are less susceptible to drying out and are better protected from frost. For best success it is wise to give your Alstroemerias a thick layer of a dry mulch (bark chips would be ideal) for the first couple of winters while your plant gets established.
Alstroemeria 'Inca Exotica'
*Conserve native plants for their own sake!

Sunday, 26 May 2013

My crime against horticulture

... and the pitfalls of living in rented accommodation.

As I write literally hundreds of men and women are dismantling the 100th Chelsea Flower Show. Plants and hard landscaping materials are being loaded onto trucks to be taken away and resold or, in the case of a lucky few, reassembled permanently elsewhere. This year we have seen a fascinating range of gardens from the great and the good of garden design, but here, in a quiet corner of Cornwall, a crime has been committed.

Let me fill you in a bit; my house shares a common lawn with my neighbours. There's a wooden fence that separates the lawn from a short drop to our parking spaces. Both houses have their own gate, but there is no division at the front of the two houses.

My neighbours decided that they wanted to grow runner beans and a few herbs along the fence line in front of their house, which is fair enough. Unfortunately this left a messy strip in front of mine, too tricky to mow between the fence posts. Today I got sick of this and decided to sort it out, so I dug over the area and planted a few things. No problem?

In order to match in with the 'border' next door I kept the front of the border in line with the front of theirs. The only problem is that their border is barely a foot (30cm) deep!

Urgh, look how thin this is...
Yes, I have created a narrow border along a fence line. I'm not proud, in fact I'm ashamed- this goes against every design principle there is!

Not proud

 Why, you may ask, don't I make my planting area bigger? This is where the challenges of gardening in rented accommodation come in. Firstly my neighbours like the grass so their grand children can run around in safety when they visit, which I can entirely sympathise with. Secondly, living in rented accommodation there is a fairly good chance that at some point I will leave and have to set things right, and the more I do to the space, the more time and money I will have to spend making sure that everything is set right when I leave. The incentive to indulge in serious gardening isn't really there.

I see this time and time again on the nursery; customers (usually young couples) come in looking for a  fast-growing shrub to screen something or make some impact and as cheap as possible because they live in rented accommodation and don't want to spend a fortune. I grow nearly all of my plants in containers (except the few things that have gone into my 'criminal border') so I can at least indulge my love of plants at home. This means a lot to me because living alone I have to watch every penny for rent and council tax etc.,  so tinkering around and watering my plants is one of my few easily affordable pleasures.

On the parking bay side of the fence things fare a little better; using deep window boxes bought from my local garden centre I have made a 'border' behind where I park my van. I dabbled with 'flowers' (bedding) mainly to keep criticism about my "boring plants" down, but now I've settled on a mix of hardy herbaceous plants. Best of all with each section being different I can swap them around and, within reason, make a new border!


The little green tufts are white trailing Lobelia for later in the summer
Maybe one day I will find good luck and be able to afford a house (either rented or with the immense joy of a mortgage!) with a proper garden, or maybe someone will decide that their small parcel of land is irritating and that they want someone to do something with it- both are unlikely! For now I must do the best I can with containers and put up with the shame of my 'criminal border'.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Indulge yourself AND save bees!

The decline in bee populations has been in the news a lot recently. A combination of increased pesticide use, loss of habitat and difficult weather conditions, along with attacks by varroa mite have decimated bee populations. Anyone who grows their own food or knows about the world around them knows how important bees are, but what can gardeners do to help them?

Grow plants!

The best thing we can do is grow plants. Gardening. Good news I'm sure you'll agree.

It seems that most people's ideas of a bee-friendly environment is a traditional meadow, full of nectar rich native plants, but what if that's not the answer?

Native plants are great, but a long succession of nectar rich flower is what bees need,
and gardens can provide that
Firstly most of our native plants don't actually flower for very long. Bees will buzz around collecting nectar (and pollen) from perennial and annual flowers in hedgerows and meadows for as long as they are in flower, but what happens when those plants go to seed? Yes, keeping habitats for wildlife is important, but my point is that gardeners should use what they have to make life easier for bees, so these are my own suggestions:
  1. Pick plants with single flowers- if you can see stamens in the flower then the bee can get in and find nectar, so avoid frilly double flowers (or keep them to a minimum).
  2. Choose plants with a long flowering season- sometimes these will be old varieties, sometimes new modern varieties bred for a long season.
  3. Grow a diverse range of flower types, so that different species of bees, as well as other insects, can find flowers that are easy to feed from.
  4. Try to make sure that your garden has something in flower all year round! Not only will this make your garden rewarding and interesting for you but you will also benefit bees around at other times of the year. Bumble bees don't have a proper hibernation, so on a warm winter's day you can often see one flying around- Mahonias and Sarcococcas will provide much needed early nourishment and will give you winter scent and colour. Likewise hollies are surprisingly good sources of nectar according to a bee keeper I know!
  5. Choose garden trees wisely- no point in planting a tree pollinated by wind if you want to feed the bees! Choose 'Crab Apple' (Malus) or 'Cherry' (Prunus) trees and the blossom will help the bees no end! Don't forget that the blossom of eating-apple trees are also good, so maybe a self-fertile apple tree on a sensible rootstock would be the perfect tree for your garden?!
  6. Grasses are all wind pollinated, so don't fill your garden with them. Likewise your lawn is like a barren desert for hungry bees, so consider reducing the size of your lawn (or getting rid of it altogether) to pack more gorgeous plants in!
  7. Bees can fly up, so don't keep all your flowers at low levels- large shrubs or Clematis scrambling up into trees will still be accessible to bees. While we're on climbers, Ivy is a great source of nectar for bees too, so don't rush to get rid of it if you don't have to. Using vertical space is very important, especially in a small garden, so using vertical surfaces to grow flowering climbers is good for you and for the bees.
  8. Provide shelter- that 'leylandii' hedge you hate provides the perfect home to lots of insects, including bees. Although it doesn't provide them with food it will provide a nice dry place to keep out of bad weather. 
    Digitalis 'Illumination Pink'- a new variety AND good for bees!

    Pesticide use
    Keep pesticide use to a minimum- only use an insecticide if ABSOLUTELY necessary! Most of the time a background level of a pest species doesn't cause any problems, but sometimes there can be a population explosion (aphids are very good at this) and you find your plants being inundated. Usually vigilance is key; squash a small colony of aphid in spring and they won't be around to cause problems later on, and this approach saves you time and money. If you really must use an insecticide make sure that you spray early in the morning before beneficial insects are active. Only spray the plants that are infested. Also, given that neonicatinoid pesticides have been implicated in bee decline you really should avoid them- speak with a competent member of staff at your garden centre or nursery, and always read the label before using. By growing a diverse range of plants and not too much of one thing crammed into a space (not too many roses, for example) you seldom find problems with pests. Use nematodes to prevent Vine Weevil grubs from munching plants in containers instead of known-to-be-harmful neonicatinoids. Your beautiful garden is an ecosystem, and by encouraging insects to live in your garden you will get plenty of predator species that will pick off your pests- nice to sit and relax as nature takes away all of your problems! 

    Trachystemon orientalis- an underused plant which is very
    popular with bees in spring.
Essentially what I'm saying is that if you cram your space with flowers you can not only enjoy the benefits yourself but can also feed bees and other insects. Good, eh?!

Friday, 15 March 2013

Please don't put a brick through my window!

“So I was using a neonicotinoid...”

In a short time I doubt I'll be saying that again! At some point in the not-too-distant future the insecticide group known as the neonicotinoid group will be banned from use in Europe. This insecticidal group of chemicals makes up about 25% of the European pesticide market, so there is a battle being waged between the producers of this chemical group (who predictably claim that the environmental effects of their products are minimal) and anyone who understands the importance of beneficial insects, including (most famously) bees. As the neonicotinoid group is a broad spectrum insecticide it will kill any insect. Although the doses and application rates are aimed at damaging populations of small insects, it also has a knock-on effect on larger insects that collect pollen and nectar from the flowers of treated plants, including causing infertility and abnormalities in bees, and subsequently population decline.

I'm not going to enter into the issues around the neonicotinoid group here. I would like to draw your attention to a product...

This is Intercept. It is a neonicotinoid that is available solely to professionals who have a pesticide handling certificate (usually a PA1/PA6). It is manufactured by Scotts, who also make slow-release fertilisers, “Miracle Grow”, and various insecticides and herbicides.


Now before you lobby to have all Scotts products removed from sale because they [currently] make neonicotinoids, I would like to draw your attention to the label. 

 
On the side of the label it makes it absolutely clear that this product must not be used on any edible crops, or even compost that might be reused to grow crops for human or animal consumption. Fair enough, it's poisonous and has a residual effect. Let's look at the bottom of the label....

“HIGH RISK TO BEES. Do not apply to crops in flower or to those in which bees are actively foraging. Do not apply when flowering weeds are present.”

This particular bottle of Intercept was bought in 2008 and has a clear warning that there is potential to harm bees.

How does one company know that their product is dangerous to bees warn users 
while another (Bayer) continues to maintain that neonicotinoids are not harmful?

Neonicotinoids will be banned from use. Horticulture is better placed to cope with this than agriculture; neonicotinoids have almost already been replaced by a bacterial product to combat vine weevils in compost ('Met52') (as well as using nematodes if needed later in the growing season), Integrated Pest Management (IPM), better horticultural practices, and (if necessary) the remaining chemical products available to professional growers.

At work we seldom spray any stock in the tunnels or outdoors- birds and insects do most of the work for us- and maybe the occasional isolated batch might need a chemical treatment if a pest population is getting out of hand. We never routinely 'blanket spray' plants, even though we grow an enormous range and are always short on manpower- nature takes it's course and we intervene only if absolutely necessary. Most hardy stock nurseries run along similar lines.

So before I get a brick thrown through my window... why was a using a neonicotinoid product when I know about the dangers to bees? I had a very serious root aphid infestation on the root-balls of some large Pinus roxburghii. Ordinarily plants with such bad infestations of root pests would be disposed of, but throwing away rare pines that are already more than a decade old is not an option. Am I happy with my decision? Yes. Pines are pollinated by the wind, not bees, and there is no chance of beneficial insects being harmed by the use of this product on the pine- I assessed the risks and used the product legally. Once there is an effective drench for root aphid on non-flowering plants then the little bottle of Intercept at the back of the pesticide locker will become a thing of the past. More likely we will run out of Intercept granules and then it will be banned, but at least the Pinus roxburghii are safe.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

King of Spring; the Magnolia

When it comes to splendour of spring the Magnolia is king. Large gardens in the South West boast dozens of these magnificent trees, some early collections of Magnolia species are now around 100ft tall and in March and April their blooms stand out for miles around!

Magnolia stellata
The history of the Magnolia in cultivation is almost the same as that of the other stalwarts of the 'big house' garden, the Rhododendrons and the Camellias. In the early days (19th century) if you wanted a Magnolia you would have to sponsor a plant hunter, and these brave men would travel through the wilderness of the Far East in search of Magnolia seed. Then came the wait; Magnolias take an eternity to flower from seed, often somewhere between 20 and 50 years depending on species- growing Magnolias from seed really was an investment in the future of a garden! It is not unlikely that many of the men of wealth who sent the plant hunters out to far flung corners of Asia in search of seed never saw any flowers in return for their investment.

As time has passed Magnolia growing has moved on, and now you can buy some Magnolias in your local garden centre, although visiting a specialist for something special is very much worthwhile. Selection of clones, new propagation methods and good plant breeding have made Magnolias far more accessible to the general market, although Magnolias are still not cheap- they are not easy to graft and take a lot of time to make a plant good enough for sale, so it's unlikely that you will get a good Magnolia for less than £20, and even then it will be fairly small. Price isn't all that much of an issue really; most gardens will only have room for one or two of these trees, so it's a matter of finding the right tree for your budget.

In a previous blog post I mentioned the time-scales involved in breeding Camellias and how that affects their price and makes raising new varieties unattractive to nurseries. Magnolias have the same problem, but much worse! By the time a breeder's Magnolia hybrids are flowering in a stock field 20+ years may have passed since the cross was made and the seeds were sown. Once a new variety is selected from these seedlings (and indeed if a seedling is good enough to select) material must be taken and grafted onto rootstocks to create more propagation material. This process must be repeated for many years; each grafted plant will have to be grown for several years until it is big enough to yield more material for grafting. In order to yield enough material to make enough plants for release onto the market these plants must be grown on and on... Magnolia breeding needs time, space and patience!

Gardeners benefit well from this mammoth breeding task- modern hybrids are often superb, with excellent colour, form and flowering. Some varieties are well known, like Magnolia 'Susan' with it's deep purple flowers, and M. 'Star Wars' with it's open flowers and slightly pointed petals. 
Magnolia 'Susan' in bud
Magnolia 'Star Wars'


















 Some flowers are just sublime, like this M. 'Iolanthe' which has a superb scent and enormous mouthwatering flowers.
Magnolia 'Iolanthe'
Some selections are superb for creating 'flower power', such as M. x loebneri 'Merrill', a very good alternative for Magnolia stellata (top).

Magnolia x loebneri 'Merrill'

For sheer beauty M. x soulangiana 'Picture' is awesome, as are some of the yellow Magnolia hybrids, like M. 'Elizabeth'.
M. 'Picture'
M. 'Elizabeth'
If you are making an investment in a Magnolia you must be sure that you can accommodate it. Soil requirements are simple but important; a continually moist but free-draining (NEVER waterlogged) slightly acidic soil is vital. Magnolias will take plenty of sun anywhere with reliably moist soil (this is why they do so well in the west of the UK!), but will tolerate some light shade without any ill effects. Because their flowers and leaves are fairly large Magnolias are best in a spot sheltered from the wind. Also, as they are early flowering plants frost can be an issue- try to site your plant in a spot sheltered from frosts, but also choose the right variety- blooms of a white Magnolia will be visibly damaged by even a light frost, so if in doubt go for a variety with darker flowers so that only damage from hard frosts will be noticeable.

The next important requirement is space, and this is why you must choose your Magnolia carefully and if possible have a good in-depth conversation with a specialist Magnolia grower; some Magnolias have an upright habit (such as M. 'Star Wars') but others are more spreading (such as M. stellata). Make no mistake- you are buying a tree, so it's important to make sure that you have space to fit a Magnolia as well as a Magnolia suitable for the space. On the whole the yellow flowered Magnolias seem determined to make a tree with a straight leader- pruning is very much inadvisable. Your budget will also play a part in your decision... some Magnolias are easier to propagate and grow, so will be available as small plants fairly cheaply (M. stellata is a good example, and M. x loebneri 'Merrill' can be fairly inexpensive) and will flower well as young plants, but some plants are difficult to grow and are naturally more tree-like in habit, so will only be available as larger plants with a larger price tag. It is important to get the right variety- if your heart is set on a large flowered tree then you must save up!