Thursday, 31 December 2015

That New Year Blog Post...

With constant news of war, famine, flooding, greed, corruption, abuse and scandal being drip-fed to us all day every day the need for gardening has never been so great.

Happy New Year.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Book Review: The RHS Encyclopaedia Of Conifers

It's easy to imagine some raised eyebrows when the RHS considered publishing an encyclopaedia of conifers; conifers have been out of fashion in the UK since the 1980s, so it would stand that any book about them, let alone a two volume set, wouldn't have the potential to be a best seller. Thankfully the RHS, along with Kingsblue Publishing, saw the importance of giving this unloved but diverse group its due, and the result is spectacular.

The RHS Encyclopaedia Of Conifers is a two volume set, 1506 pages in total, covering all 615 currently recognised conifer species and describing an impressive 8,000 cultivars. The set is lavishly illustrated with over 5,000 pictures, many of which were taken specifically for this encyclopaedia. Given the widely held view that conifers are “all the same” you could be forgiven for expecting page after page of nearly identical pictures or nearly identical plants, but you would be wrong; the pictures have been chosen and arranged in such a way that each page shows the diversity of cultivars, and even where the cultivars of a species can be fairly similar (as with some species of Abies, Picea and Pinus) the pictures may highlight a different characteristic such as needle shape or cone. This is hard to explain, so let me give you an example: within Abies koreana ('Korean Fir') there are a group named for the silvering of their needles, but rather than show photographs of each cultivar with its silver needles the publisher has chosen to focus on the habit of the illustrated cultivars while showing in a few spectacular images what the effect of the colouring is. This certainly cuts down on repetition in the pictures, as does the careful choice of cultivars illustrated at all. Some of the full page pictures used to punctuate these books are breathtaking!

Just one image of so many
The descriptions are concise but not without charm; each described cultivar is briefly covered, explaining habit, colouring (where necessary), origins and distinguishing features, but [crucially] also giving an expected height and spread in 10 years. Conifer growth rates can vary wildly according to climate, and my dwarf conifers grow much more quickly here in mild Cornwall than they do in drier and colder areas, but an idea of the height and spread is still very useful. So far I've not come across any ultimate heights and spreads in the cultivars, but such details are given in the descriptions of the individual species. Many of the ultimate heights given in horticultural books are nothing more than educated guesswork so the growth after 10 years is of more use to a gardener than a guessed figure, especially given that many dwarf conifers (take for example the tiny cultivars of Abies koreana) originate from much faster and larger growing trees, while some other cultivars (such as Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Little Spire') can grow considerably larger than expected! The species are covered in more depth than the cultivars, but descriptions stay away from being overly botanical. Species are described concisely, but also some interesting information is given about their habitats and preferences, their use as timber crops, and in some cases their relevance to local culture.

The RHS Encyclopaedia Of Conifers has been a labour of love for its authors, Aris Auders and Derek Spicer. I don't know much about Mr Auders, except that he was considered a leading expert on conifers and sadly passed away before this encyclopaedia was published. I have had the pleasure of meeting Derek Spicer on several occasions (he owns a conifer wholesale nursery, Kilworth Conifers, here in the UK), and I can personally vouch for his love of conifers; his enthusiasm for them, despite their fall from fashion, comes across in conversation. Derek has introduced several cultivars into cultivation, including the awesome Podocarpus 'Kilworth Cream', a beautifully variegated shrubby Podocarpus with a nice bushy habit (I would strongly recommend gardeners get to grips with Podocarpus, many are useful shrubs for colour and shape).

There can be no doubt that this work will remain unbeaten for many years to come. The sheer scale of the work, as well as the care taken to produce an encyclopaedia of such immense quality, makes this the definitive work for anyone who needs a broad understanding of conifer species and cultivars. My only criticism of this work is that it would be nice to have some pictures of the really rare and obscure genera that appear, if only for the sake of completion. Even a good picture of a pressed specimen in a botanical collection would be interesting, but at least by giving obscure taxa such as Retrophyllum a decent write-up anyone interested in learning more can go online for more information. This is a very minor fault with an otherwise perfect encyclopaedia.

Sadly I don't think the publication of the RHS Encyclopaedia Of Conifers has made, or will ever make, a difference to how ordinary gardeners perceive conifers. To change perception will need a radical overhaul of how gardeners value plants, and while herbaceous plants and growing food remain dominant trends the poor conifer is shunned. It's a shame really; to shun conifers is to ignore an enormous family of plants purely based on their methods of reproduction. Nonetheless this is where we are for now, and conifers will remain the interest of a minority of more experienced gardeners. For those gardeners, the RHS Encyclopaedia Of Conifers is a must-have book, and in addition to being a reference source it will also bring hours of pleasure just flicking through the pages. Will there be a second edition? Probably not.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Your nursery needs YOU!

This is an appeal on behalf of your local plant nursery...

A combination of recent bad weather and unforeseeable economic pressures have left small nurseries suddenly rather quiet. The stock is there, the bare rooted plant season is well under way, and the mild (if wet) weather recently has extended the autumn planting weather well into December. Despite so many reasons to buy plants, nurseries across the UK (and I've heard also around Europe) are missing trade.

There are many reasons for this; often wet and windy weather puts people off doing any gardening, stories of terrorism and war in the news generally lead to slower sales generally (presumably fear of what is to come makes people think twice about spending?), and the run-up to Christmas tends to favour shops rather than nurseries.

So why should we care? Businesses always have peaks and troughs in their incomes, so this is just another trough? I think there is a big concern because this has been a difficult year, with unpredictable weather and concern about how Government cutbacks will affect us all meaning that we reconsider our spending, and to end on a low note does not bode well for smaller businesses. January is nearly always a quiet month, and if February is cold then often this can add extra strain onto a small business's finances. If November and December remain this quiet then many (most?) small nurseries will face at least a third of the financial year unable to meet their costs. This could very easily be the end for some.

So yes, why should we care? Your local nursery is where you often find the better advice, the more interesting plants and the better prices and value for money. These are the places that focus of producing and selling plants, and are a very important part of our enjoyment of gardening. Would you really want to rely on your local garden centre for all of your plants, or have to send off to a nursery somewhere else in the UK or Europe every time you want to grow something different? I enjoy trips to my local garden centre for sundries etc., but my local nursery is where I find the better and more interesting range of plants!

What can be done?
  1. Don't delay your planned purchases. Yes, family might put pressure on you to go here, there and everywhere in the run-up to Christmas, but try to make some time to visit your nursery.
  2. Send plants as gifts! If you know a friend or family member well then you could choose a plant as a Christmas present. Do they have a tree in mind? What about a perennial for their border? Have they been coveting something in your garden?
  3. If you can't give them a plant, or you're not sure what they might like, why not send vouchers? There is a downside to this; the National Garden Gift Vouchers can be redeemed in hundreds of garden centres and nurseries across the UK, so you might have to stipulate that you would appreciate the recipient spending their voucher(s) in an independent nursery. Also the nursery has to pay to redeem the vouchers...
  4. Does your friend or family member have a good nursery locally to them? Why not contact the nursery and see if they would allow a credit note? You pay them X amount and then tell the recipient that they have an amount to spend at that nursery... Although a little more complicated, and not all nurseries will be able to do this, it would at least mean all of the money goes to that nursery.
  5. Be sure to raise the profile of your local nursery with gardening friends! It's the easiest thing to do... you get talking about gardening and just mention that your local nursery has the new season's fruit or bare rooted plants in stock. You might fancy a trip out yourself so you could make a day out of it with your friend(s)! My local nursery, Endsleigh Gardens Nursery in Devon, has new stocks of fruit, trees, roses and bare rooted hedging in stock now, and your local nursery is likely to be the same. Now is a great time to buy roses so they establish well in spring, and most come with pictures on their labels so you don't have to shop entirely by the description.

Although the nursery trade has been tough for several years it would seem that this autumn and winter is proving particularly tough for small independents. If they go, just imagine the world of homogenised garden centres, all selling the same plants at the same prices, that would be left. What gets planted in your garden will be decided by people in boardrooms, and over time gardens will all become clones of each other. All that's needed to stop this is a conscious decision to support independent nurseries, and not leave them fighting for their existence this winter.

Best of all your efforts are rewarded with plants!