Thursday, 23 April 2015

Collecting Rare Plants

If you visit a garden centre you will often be dazzled by the choice, particularly in spring when the sales benches are packed with fabulous plants all ready to take their place in your garden. Sometimes a plant range is so big and so diverse that it all becomes a bit daunting; working your way through the A-Z benches of a big garden centre can turn into an endurance test while you look for plants suitable for your garden and needs. New gardeners can find it hard to believe that there are more garden plants actually out there, but the garden centre range is the tip of a very large iceberg.

To be successful in a garden centre, a plant must meet certain criteria. Firstly it must perform really well. Most garden centre customers, and indeed more 'casual' gardeners, are looking for performance; the ideal plant will look great for as long as possible, flower for as many weeks or even months as possible, and won't grow too big or too open. The second of the criteria is ease of propagation; large retailers and chain stores will buy extraordinary numbers of plants to stock their shelves, so plants must be easy to propagate and mass produce either from cuttings or from tissue culture (micropropagation). Plants that don't meet these two main criteria won't feature in most garden centres.
Coming to a garden centre near you... never! Dionysia 'Gerben'
There are big advantages to buying mass produced plants. If a plant is mass produced then it will almost certainly have gone through rigorous trials with plant experts who will evaluate it thoroughly before it goes into production. Mass producing plants is a risky business; given that it will usually take several years to produce enough of a particular plant to release onto the market, these plant experts have to be very sure that the plant is worth the time, effort and money. Get it wrong and there will be trouble! You should be pretty confident that if a plant is mass produced it will have been deemed to be a very good performer, and it should make quite a show in your garden.
Geranium 'Rozanne' has been a very successful introduction!
Of course sometimes it goes wrong. Somebody fairly reliable told me that Geranium 'Bob's Blunder' came from a mistake made by Bob Brown, owner of Cotswold Garden Flowers in Evesham, UK. So the story goes, Bob was evaluating some of his seedling Geraniums and had chosen the best to go to a tissue culture lab to be mass produced. Something went wrong, however, and when the staff member went back to the Geraniums to pick up the plant to be sent away, he or she picked up the wrong one by mistake. This error wasn't noticed until it was too late! I'm not 100% sure that the story is entirely true, but don't have any real reason to doubt it. Geranium 'Bob's Blunder' is now a fairly widely grown variety with dark brownish leaves and charming smoky pink flowers. Maybe it wasn't quite such a blunder?!

An enormous number of garden plants will never be mass produced because they either don't meet the criteria set by the big producers or because they haven't been spotted by a keen-eyed product developer. Many of these plants are propagated and sold by smaller wholesale or retail nurseries, businesses that produce smaller batches of a wider range of plants. Most nurseries propagate their niche plants themselves, dividing perennials and taking cuttings the traditional way. Although this limits the numbers of many plants, it does at least keep a broader range available for the discerning gardener. 

So why would a gardener want a plant that doesn't 'perform' as well as more modern varieties? It's a matter of how you garden. For some a garden filled with a succession of traditional cottage garden plants is perfection itself, while for others a diverse range of foliage is better. For more experienced gardeners it's often a case of quality over quantity when it comes to flowering season. Certainly for me there is a great sense of anticipation in waiting for a plant that only flowers for a short period and, to be honest, although I'm often sad to see the last flower on a treasured plant fade, I think that a precious plant which doesn't flower for very long makes you appreciate each flower more. Nonetheless, this is a view that isn't shared by people breeding and growing massive numbers of plants for the garden centre trade!

Some plants are easy to grow and propagate but remain rare simply because they're not known. I've taken many a gamble on the word of an enthusiastic nursery owner or gardener, and rarely has it not paid off. The RHS Plant Finder lists thousands upon thousands of plants and nobody can know them all. Hidden on nurseries all around the UK are hundreds if not thousands of obscure plants that deserve to be better known. For the keen gardener stumbling onto one of these plants is a source of real excitement, a chance to enhance the garden and grow something new. There is always an element of risk trying something new, but providing we can get good advice from our nurseries we should be fine.
Easy but unknown; Trochodendron arailioides.
There are plants that are rare because their cultivation needs means that suitable places to grow them are rare. Half hardy or tender plants might need to live in a heated greenhouse all year round in most parts of the UK, and for so many gardeners that's just not affordable. Bigger tropical plants will need vast spaces to grow so will only be grown in big old Victorian conservatories attached to stately homes, far outside the reach of the ordinary gardener. 

Being entirely honest here, some plants are rare because they're rubbish! Old varieties so susceptible to disease that they can only be kept alive with frequent chemical intervention, fruit varieties with unreliable and insipid fruits, plants that have always been weak and hopeless... not every rare plant is an opportunity to grow something new and exciting! There is a nostalgia around old varieties that, although great for raising interest in conserving garden plants, is keeping some plants going that shouldn't be kept. I made the mistake early on in my love affair with rare and unusual plants of buying plants without evaluating them properly and bought some awful plants that died pretty quickly! If you have a passion for keeping old varieties going at any cost then good on you, but the rest of us need to evaluate plants before they come into our collections, simply to avoid disappointment.

I think to a degree everyone has a slightly different take on why they collect rare and unusual plants. Certainly the universal factor is the desire to do something different in the garden, to grow plants that aren't the same as the ones everyone else grows. I think once you get past the desire to be different people factor in things such as an interest in historical plants, interest in plants from certain parts of the world, interest in botany, a love of plants with certain uses (there are people who collect plants that were used to make dyes, and others that collect traditional English herbs), and an interest in a particular genus or plant family. There is nearly always a sense of the importance of conserving rare and unusual plants, and the sense that we are doing our bit for their survival if only by growing them in our gardens.

Whatever the reasons, people who collect and grow rare plants get extraordinary amounts of pleasure from their gardening. Yes there are bad traits around; some people use their knowledge of plants to belittle others, while others will steal plants or buy stolen plants. Most of the rare plant circles are a mixing pot of friendly eccentricity. Get enthusiasts of rare and unusual plants together and they will happily chat away about their collections, giving each other tip-offs about cultivation techniques or plants to look after. I have met a few rather unpleasant characters in rare plant circles over the years, but they have always been a very small minority. 

I've said about the sense of excitement that's felt by most people who grow rare plants. We live lives of perpetual delight and anguish; delight when something special is growing rather well, and anguish when something is struggling or facing damage from the weather (think Magnolias and frost here!). This emotional tie with plants seems very odd to non-gardeners or people who are new into gardening, but we are curators of living collections, and we do care about plants more than most people do.

This question of what to grow should be straightforward; surely just grow what you like? In reality we all face issues of climate, space, money (usually a troublesome issue for plant enthusiasts!) and practicality.

Climate is a bit of a sod with unusual plants as so many of the unusual plants we all love come from areas with different climates to our own. Take, for example, Meconopsis. Most of the Meconopsis species we admire are from a much narrower temperature band than ours in the UK. Typically winters aren't very cold (or snowfall protects them from damage from the cold) and the summers don't get too warm. The winter temperatures can be controlled with careful protection, but summer temperatures can be more tricky. Most Meconopsis start to cook above about 20C, so a cool moist soil in shade with good air flow is needed in most areas. Add this to the fact that they resent disturbance, won't tolerate soils that get too wet or too dry, and some can be monocarpic (flower once and then die, like an annual or biennial but not necessarily in their first or second year from seed) and you've got a plant that sounds like a real swine to grow. They are real swines to grow, and this is why gardeners who persevere with them and grow them successfully deserve credit. 

Not all plants have to be difficult, but many are. In my experience the pitfalls can come from not realising that certain species might be tender even though the rest of the genus is hardy, such as Hydrangea or Rhododendron. I've lost plants because I've not realised the subtle nuances of their cultivation, and these have in some cases been expensive mistakes. 
Worth a sheltered spot; Rhododendron johnstoneanum.
Whatever you decide to grow, if it's 'off the beaten path' it's worth doing your research before you get stuck in to a particular thing. You might well have to come to terms with the fact that certain desirable plants are impossible to grow until you win the lottery! This heartache is nothing compared to losing a whole collection to a bad winter.

There are ways around certain problems. Obviously cold and wet weather will warrant a greenhouse or polytunnel for your collection, and extra water needed might require an irrigation system. Growing things in the wrong soil type is usually the biggest challenge that faces collectors of unusual plants. Usually the problems come when soils are too heavy, but also pH is a big issue if you want to grow ericaceous (acid loving plants). Through necessity I grow all of my plants in containers, but this has given me the advantage of a nearly infinite range of soil types I can make. For my Hostas and Rodgersias the mix is John Innes #3 with multipurpose compost and perlite, while my choice woodlanders live together in big troughs with a mix of composted bark (NOT bark chips) and perlite. Other plants just get multipurpose compost with some perlite for air and drainage. By choosing pots that are fairly deep I get the best drainage I can (remember that shallow pots don't drain as well as deep pots), and the open mix in my troughs replicates the conditions of a forest floor, or at least as close as I can get it. The results have been great; the big Hostas and Rodgersias do well in their bulky mix, while the woodlanders (such as Trilliums) have a nice easy mix to bulk up into. I do have to keep an eye on watering in dry weather, but that's not a bad thing given that it's easier to add water than take it away!

A serious collector with more space might well be advised to make their own raised bed(s) for their more demanding plants. Providing you provide the best depth possible and make your growing medium from the best mix of ingredients you should be OK. As a serious plant collector you want to avoid certain practices, such as adding things to alkaline soils to dry and make it better for acid loving plants. Know your limits; if your soil is wrong and you can't make a decent raised bed then you will likely be heading for trouble.

Of course you might be lucky and have the perfect conditions for what you want to grow, in which case get planting! Be careful to keep plants in your collection defined when you plant them, particularly if you collect a specific genus such as Crocosmia. It's tempting to go for a nice drift that shows your collection off in a more natural looking setting, but trust me you will regret it! Even if you've become somewhat expert in identifying your plants in flower, could you still recognise them all out of season? I know from my experience growing Camellias commercially that even a fairly diverse group can look very similar out of flower, and it's usually when a plant is out of flower that you need to grab a cutting, division or plant for someone. Take care in labeling your collection, it really is worth the effort, even if you know all your plants really well!
Distinctive enough in flower; Camellia 'Dewatairin'
I'll leave this section with an anecdote; I worked for a while for a garden centre in Cheshire. One day I remember a chap visiting and looking at Clematis. He told me that he loved Clematis but couldn't grow them. On enquiring it turned out that this customer lived in Southport, a few streets in from the sea, on what are known as 'grey dunes'. Grey dunes are the part of a sand dune area where there is some humus but most of the bulk is still made of sand; not good Clematis soil! He told me that the top inch (couple of centimetres) dried out within half an hour of heavy rain, and that any organic matter he added just seemed to disappear. Over the years he'd lost probably 30 Clematis he'd tried in the garden, but a Convolvulus cneorum grow to six feet (2m) tall- a great height, but a plant he hated with a passion!

Sadly you will encounter other problems when you grow rare and unusual plants. The first is getting hold of your plants in the first place. There are some fantastic nurseries in the UK but they do tend to be hidden away in rural areas and might not be practical to visit. Don't get me wrong, if the plant you want is definitely in stock and the nursery looks interesting then take a day trip to visit- there's always the chance that you will see something else you like the look of...! Most nurseries offer a mail order service and have websites you can browse, but there is the issue of cost. Sorry, but many rare and unusual plants are expensive. It's hard to tear yourself from a plant you love but can't afford or justify but sometimes it has to be done. Nurserymen don't charge more for rare plants so they can afford to live a life of luxury (usually quite the opposite!), but higher prices often reflect the extra costs of propagating and growing a particular plant. This isn't great news if you, like me, are on a budget, but I'm afraid it's how things are. 

The more obscure the plant you want the more you will have to hunt for it. To be honest I think there is a thrill to be had in tracking down a plant that you want, especially if it's not listed in the RHS Plant Finder! Looking at websites, emailing people and generally asking around usually throws up leads or results, but collecting obscure plants teaches patience. The anticipation between finding your plant and it arriving in the post can be unbearable! 

There is an important skill that plant enthusiasts have to hone; plantsmanship. Being a plantsman/plantswoman isn't about going out and buying everything that has a different name, it's not 'stamp collecting' with plants. Plantsmanship is the ability to evaluate a plant according to its characteristics and requirements. Attempts are occasionally made to teach it but I think it's fair that it comes with experience. It is worth getting into the habit of evaluating plants; if you're faced with two comparable plants could you decide which one is best to have? Once you get into the habit you will start to evaluate plants with ease- which has the better scent, the nicer (not necessarily biggest) flowers, the best foliage, is this plant too similar to one you have already. This technique will help you develop a broad and interesting plant collection and will hopefully save you money by helping you choose plants more wisely.
I think Viburnum 'Mohawk' is one of the best scented shrubs around.
By far the biggest nuisance can be other people! I've been quite lucky in that my family and friends know I'm into plants, but I've known enough plant enthusiasts who've had to visit plant fairs and gardens with bored family members in tow. The world of the rare and unusual plant enthusiast is, to outside eyes, a strange one; seeing someone enthuse over tables of 'all the same' plants at a plant fair, only to pick up something that hasn't got big pretty flowers is a strange thing for most people. There is a certain nerdiness with plant lovers, and it really is better to try and leave non-understanding people behind when you're going to shows, fairs or open gardens. Other plant enthusiasts are seldom a problem, although you can usually expect a degree of competition at plant fairs!

For the die-hard plant enthusiast the rewards are incredible. While other people have gardens with overgrown lawns, kids toys and a few scruffy plants, to be able to enjoy your own collection of plants that you enjoy is its own reward. 'Planty' circles are usually great fun to be in, and being able to use your own knowledge and experience to contribute to plant discussions is a great thing. So much of being a plant enthusiast is about sharing knowledge (and often plants too!), so if you're really passionate about plants you will find your knowledge and interest will grow and grow.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Breeding the excitement out of plants

Let me introduce you to one of my absolute favourite plants, Sanguinaria canadensis f. multiplex 'Plena'. Despite its complicated and cumbersome name, this has to be one of the most charming and exquisite of all of my plants, although it's also the most infuriating. Sanguinarias are gently souls, and their flowers are easily destroyed by a gust of strong wind or a heavy shower. Add the fact that their delicate blooms only last for a few days anyway and you realise that to see even one pristine bloom each spring is a treat! Suddenly the lottery we play each spring with frost and Magnolias pales into insignificance compared with the heartache of growing this little treasure.
Charmingly ephemeral Sanguinaria canadensis 'Plena'
Spending time appreciating this special little flower got me wondering; is modern plant breeding robbing us of one of gardening's most exciting things? Is the drive for ever longer flowering seasons making our gardens more beautiful, or are we missing out on the excitement and anticipation of rarer events, such as the brief but spectacular flowering of Magnolias and Rhododendrons?

If everything in our gardens flowered perpetually from early summer until the first frosts I think we'd end up with absolutely mind-numbingly boring gardens. What's the difference between a garden filled entirely with never-changing evergreens and a garden filled with never-changing herbaceous plants? Sure, some plants like Geranium 'Rozanne' have become staples of the British garden because they flower well for several months, but do we really want all of our plants to be like that?
Geranium 'Rozanne' flowers well, but where's the anticipation?
I'm saying no! For me anticipation is possibly the biggest real excitement of gardening; those regular trips to see how the buds of a favourite plant are developing and if they're opening, the nervous crossing of fingers when bad weather is forecast and threatens the emerging blooms, and the absolutely irrefutable joy when everything comes together and you get to see a favourite flower again for the first time in a year... wow! Just wow!

Yes there's also sadness when a plant finishes flowering, but a short flowering season surely makes you treasure each flower more? If a plant reliably flowers for months and months it becomes a little predictable and ceases to be quite as special. Certainly for me a succession of plants with a shorter flowering season is much better- keep that excitement coming!

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Painting over rotten wood

So there's been another article in the mainstream media telling us about the rising interest of young people in gardening. Good. Very good!

You can read the article from the British newspaper 'The Telegraph' here:

I do take issue with a couple of things... Firstly, the statement that “89% of 16- to 24-year-olds say they have a garden or grow plants" sounds a little suspect to me. When you take a moment for the statement to sink in you actually see that there are two things here, that the age group says that it grows plants, or that they have a garden. Most 16 year olds in the UK will still live at home with their parents, and will continue to do so until they leave for university; they will likely have access to their parent's garden, but might not actually be gardeners themselves. Within this group there will also be those who do gardening, but as a chore like mowing the lawn rather than as a pleasurable activity. I think Jack Shilley and his 'Young Horts' movement have a long way to go yet before they can achieve statistics like this. I don't think dubious statistics really help the cause either, and can paint a misleading picture of how things are... after all, if 89% of 16-24 year olds are already into horticulture why should the 'Young Horts' movement spend their time trying to change perceptions?!

The other issue I have with these stories is media driven ageism. I believe very strongly that the future of horticulture won't come from luring young people into a horticultural web, but will come from proactively working to make our industry more user friendly for everyone, regardless of age.

I'm not in any way suggesting that we dumb down by making sure that every plant is completely hardy, really easy and is sold by its common name because we think botanical names are too hard. I think we need to work to encourage people to enjoy gardening as an activity by making access to advice and information easier, by encouraging horticultural retail staff to be proactive in their approach to advising customers (and encouraging horticultural businesses to make sure their staff actually know what they're talking about!), and simply doing whatever we can to help new gardeners understand and explore horticulture openly.

Horticulture has an image problem, but we don't make that any better by focusing on a particular age group while leaving issues unresolved. We need to encourage new people, regardless of age, to pick up their trowels and join in, both as amateur and professional gardeners.

There's no point painting over rotten wood!

Friday, 3 April 2015

Just another blog about skills...

The skills crisis in horticulture isn't exactly news, but in case you've somehow managed to miss the looming troubles then let me summarise them here; skilled horticulturists are leaving horticulture faster than they are being replaced. In many cases people retire, while some leave for economic or personal reasons, and sadly some simply die.

Bringing new people into horticulture is still proving difficult; a drop in applications to horticultural colleges over the last decade or more mean that these once specialist institutions now provide horticulture amongst dog grooming (no, really!), floristry and vehicle maintenance, while horticulture is still seen as a second rate career by so many people. Young people are entering the industry, but it seems to be pot-luck whether they can find education and experience that helps them develop. In many cases young people are attracted to horticulture by the idea of working outside and doing practical work, but then find that horticulture is often physically demanding, poorly paid, and cold and wet! My former employers signed up to an apprenticeship scheme and we had two apprentices; one left to work as a butcher, while the other worked for 12 months with a landscaper before starting a career with the Royal Air Force. Given the challenges of educating both of these apprentices while also keeping up with our own workload this is not encouraging, and I hope that other businesses do better with their apprentices!

Intake into horticulture isn't just from young people leaving school or sixth form, there is also a massive intake from older people who want to change career. Career changers come into horticulture for many different reasons, but face their own challenges. Someone in their 40s who has spent their career so far at a desk might well find the prospect of working in horticulture enticing, especially if they already enjoy gardening, but seldom appreciate the demanding physicality of horticulture as a profession, and that sometimes you do find yourself working in appalling conditions if the weather turns bad!

Bringing people into horticulture wouldn't be possible if we didn't give a slightly rosy view of it; as horticulture stands at the moment you have to be in it for more than wealth or comfort... there's a certain spiritual element that drives committed horticulturists to go to work in bad weather or when they're facing jobs that they really hate doing for days on end (hedge trimming is often unpopular!). For many of us there's a serious sense of job satisfaction in potting batches of plants or weeding borders, but different people all have different ways of measuring job satisfaction, and the achievements made in horticulture may not mean the same to people who measure their achievements in other ways. It goes without saying that when it comes to attracting people into professional horticulture we won't do that by showing muddy horticulturists working in torrential rain!

In an attempt to combat the negative perception of horticulture in general, let alone as a career, school children are being targeted in campaigns to reinstall gardening into our national way of life. Organisations, chiefly the Royal Horticultural Society, have spent easily millions of pounds in schemes to encourage school gardening clubs, and have managed to get gardening into the curriculum (after all, gardening teaches us all about the world around us), but will this have an effect on the future of gardening? I'd like to say yes, but in reality I'm a bit skeptical. Teaching young children about the joys of gardening has no doubt had a great effect on them, but does that effect stay with them through secondary school, where the curriculum is stretched enough without trying to squeeze gardening in? Will students sitting exams idly gaze out of the window and daydream of sweet peas? If gardening has become a genuine interest will any of the children who have benefited from gardening at school actually want to join the horticulture industry, or will they simply be hobby gardeners while they pursue a 'real' career?

Organisations like the RHS have done great work in getting kids into gardening, but let's remember that even as the 'UK's leading horticultural charity' they do have their own agenda. The RHS has to make money to survive, so it needs members, visitors to gardens and buyers of merchandise. It's not really cynical to make the connection; by getting kids into gardening they can in turn get to the parents who will hopefully be brought into gardening by their kids. Bearing in mind how immune we are all becoming to advertising, the 'pester-power' of children is an effective tool when it comes to making money! Kids who develop an interest in gardening will hopefully want to visit gardens (preferably for the RHS an RHS garden!), own gardening tools etc., and for non-gardening parents who are desperately in need of information the RHS is there with everything they need, and not all for free!

OK, maybe that is a little bit cynical, but there can not be any doubt that by investing income in educating children the RHS does stand to gain. Why not? Would a non-charitable organisation not want to see potential gains for investment? The key is, I believe, not to sit back and wait to see if we see rewards for the RHS' investment in time and money. If we want to grow horticulture into a more successful industry we must make our own efforts to encourage new (not necessarily young) people into horticulture as a hobby and career. This will come from using our own skills and experience to keep friends, family and customers interested and inspired in gardens and plants. This will come from professional horticulturists not dumbing down their own industry. This will come from making people aware of the 'spiritual' side of gardening, and helping them to appreciate the achievement of a job well done!

The RHS is playing a long game by investing heavily in gardening for young children. If we ignore the interests of adults then by the time those children themselves become adults there may not be much of a horticultural industry left for them to engage with. The horticultural industry itself needs to be a part of its own future; by using our own influence we can do our own bit, through whatever means, to keep Britain gardening.