Friday, 24 December 2010

Season's Plantings

I know it's been a while since I posted just for the fun of it (as opposed to trying to sell you something), I think it's about time though, and an opportunity to wish all my customers A Great Christmas and an Excellent New Year.
The main nursery news is that I'm on the look out for a patch of land to rent to expand the nursery onto. Already I've outgrown the space I have (basically a suburban garden). The greenhouse bench has over fifty new pots of seeds already and if even only a small fraction germinate I have no idea where I'll put all the babies. Of course, I'm hoping that a large fraction will live so that's even more of a problem. At the moment much of my stock is protected in a polytunnel at Stonepit nurseries near here in Henfield (thanks Neil). He grows mostly summer bedding so his tunnels are largely empty at the moment, but come the spring....
Perhaps you could help me find a place. It'll need to be very close to home so I can get over there regularly, and since most of you are not local you won't be able to help with that - but do any of you know how one might go about locating local landowners who might be interested? I have a few in mind that I'll visit in the new year. I reckon I'll need not more than an acre, at least initially, somewhere reasonably easy to find and pleasant for customers to visit. It needs to be open and sunny (more so than here) and suitable for building display beds and benches (plus of course the poly tunnel and a potting shed), and it needs to be for at least five years. Anyway, any advice would be very gratefully received.
So 'What's in the pots?' is what you really want to know. What's new for 2011? Well hopefully a whole lot of stuff you won't have heard of. The internet is a wonderful thing for locating obscure items that no one else is offering. I've had seed sent from all over the world, but mostly the USA, including from a couple of botanically minded friends I met on Flickr who've sent me exciting things from California. There is of course something of a risk in that the plants are not thoroughly tried and tested in the UK, but that's half the fun. Gardeners all over the UK have been very adventurous of late - trying out all manner of 'hardy exotics' and succeeding with a surprising number even through the last three winters. I'm a huge fan of the Correas - an Australian group that flowers at this time of year and has proven remarkably tough. On the left there is C.Marian's Marvel. This and others should be available later on in the year. Another Australian, Grevillea victoriae is also flowering well in it's pot in the open at the moment, and has been since October despite snow and frost. I hope to be able to offer some later in the year.
Most of the new things will be spring and summer flowering though. I'm trying out a whole lot of species from the mid-western USA at the moment - in particular the wild species of Penstemon - a hugely neglected genus of over 250 species varying from tiny cushion forming alpine and desert plants to some quite substantial shrubs. Most are very cold tolerant (unlike the well known bedding hybrids) and in a stunning array of exciting flower colour and form including clear azure and lapis lazuli (always sought-after colours in the garden.) Most need a very sunny, freely drained site which makes them ideal for gardens on chalk or sand or gravel and especially in the south and east. It's been something of a fashion of late for nurseries to specialise in plants for cool, moist, shady conditions - Tricyrtis, Deinanthe, Anemonopsis - to name but a few - all excellent plants, but sometimes difficult to grow well in this part of the country. If you don't have a dry sunny garden, species Penstemon are excellent in raised beds and pots, but for people with a parched impoverished border where 'nothing much will grow' they should definitely be considered. Anybody who's into the hardier American Salvia or Agave should have no trouble.
In a similar vein I've also been working with Asclepias - another little-grown North American group, often from the same habitats. The appeal is less obvious perhaps but for those who appreciate something a little different they are well worth a look.
Besides these I'll be offering an increasing range of choice shrubs, climbers and perennials, almost all chosen because hardly anyone else offers them, and I'll be revealing them in this blog as they become available through the year.
Anyway folks - thanks for your custom and hope to hear from you again.
Take care on the ice and have a very merry time.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Silene zawadskii

Silene zawadskii

If you have ever admired the fresh white blooms of the white campion but wished it wasn't quite so weedy this might be the answer. This 'alpine' version is very neat and adaptable.
3in square pots ~ £5

Silene zawadskii

Monday, 21 June 2010

Buddleja lindleyana

Buddleja lindleyana
A very striking species and not at all what you might expect a Buddleia to look like.
Buddleja lindleyana
The rich purple flowers are tubular and have a waxy bloom to them which gives a particularly richly coloured effect and are produced over a long period in summer.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Silene asterias

Silene asterias, originally uploaded by peganum.
A lovely little Bulgarian species unlike any of the other Silene in cultivation that I'm aware of. This has tiny flowers massed into thrift-like heads well above the rosettes of fresh green leaves.
The combination of vivid pink (what colour is that? carmine?) flowers in dark wine red bracts and the violet anthers is extremely striking. The foliage is good too.
In cultivation it is an easy and adaptable species suitable for any moisture retentive soil but is particularly useful for wet sites where something smaller is required.
1L pots ~ £7

Monday, 10 May 2010

Happy Potlings!

Happy potlings, originally uploaded by peganum.
Being somewhat new to this business, the novelty of having a greenhouse full of babies hasn't worn-off yet. It's extremely exciting.
Until last year I'd only raised a few items here and there for fun or if I needed something specific for a garden. I'd done some courses (one especially good one at Armidale tech, NSW) and paid close attention to what other nurseries did. I raised my plants as well as I could (and often ended up with a lot more than I knew what to do with) but I never really had to develop what you might call a production system before. It's what's known as a steep learning curve.

I'm obviously reluctant to give away trade secrets - a customer asked me recently where I got my seeds from and I said something vague about the internet, but the fact is that the internet has been absolutely indispensible, both for hunting out likely looking species that are not easily available over here in the UK, and for finding people to sell me the seeds. In the process I've also made a few friends.

So, what have I learned in the last twelve months?
Vigilance - that's one thing. Neighbours might have a spotted me in slippers, PJs and fleece, with a torch, prowling about out here, periodically dropping something on the path and squishing it into oblivion. I make no excuse for this. For whatever reason the local pest control team (hedgehogs, slow worms, toads) are not doing their job and I have to step in and thin the slimy hoard. It's become a nightly ritual although the period spent at said ritual has decreased lately as the new shoots firm up and the slugs amuse themselves elsewhere.
 Making more space is the other thing. Not for nothing is this blog called Far Too Many Plants. I've no idea where I'm going to put it all. The original idea with the 12 x 8 greenhouse my wife very kindly bought me a few years back was to keep half with benches for growing my weird and rare plants, and half with borders filled with compost for growing tomatoes and basil and such like. That was before I decided to try to run a nursery. As a consequence, all last winter my newly potted cuttings sat in blue mushroom crates on top of the compost - horribly vulnerable and intolerably risky with freshly pricked seedlings. I just couldn't see the slugs coming at all. So this last couple of weeks I've been out with the timber and the hammer and the expletives, building new benches. It all looks very neat but I still don't know where I'm going to put everything...

What else? More sand in the compost (at least for young plants and dry climate plants) keeps it more open and drained for longer, and to try not to prick out more than one seedling per pot. This I have trouble with. I'm too soft. I hate throwing seedlings out when they've gone to all that trouble coming up for me and I've tended to put two or three in each pot (as insurance, in case one dies, ha ha.) You can do this with some species. The seedlings either coexist or there's a certain amount of 'self-thinning' as I believe the foresters call it, meaning that the weaker seedlings get out-competed by the stronger and disappear. In the worst case scenario though, all survive but none thrive. Stanleya pinnata and Penstemon palmeri I think suffered this way last year.

Another punishing winter took it's toll but much less so than last year. The greenhouse was minimally heated and fleeced (see article) so it didn't drop below -5C but limited space meant some relatively young plants had to sit outside. I chose only those that I believed to be fully hardy but, like I say, it's a steep learning curve. Plants aren't necessarily killed by the cold per se, but, if they're sick or weak for some reason (or too small), winter is when this'll catch up with them. All the Hibiscus made it through by the way, in their pots, out in all weathers, as did Senna hebecarpa - my most experimental new items. All the Desmodium and Asclepias, Colquhounia and Caryopteris divaricata made it. Those that didn't make it include Nepeta govaniana, Spigelia marilandica and Atropa belladonna. All sizable plants, and I'd have thought, pretty hardy. Strange.

Anyway, there's lots of exciting new things coming along.
As soon as they're ready you will, of course, be the first to know.

Happy Spring to all our customers.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Nurseries vs Garden Centres

It's a bit late now but I was very sorry to see that one of my favourite nurseries closed down last year, or rather, they were taken over by one of the big chains (clue: it rhymes with 'why sales'.)
It was a sad day for me because it was a place we used to go when my dad was alive and they had a nice tea shop and a very unusual selection of indoor plants (rare species Begonias for example. Evidently someone who worked there was an enthusiast.)

It was an unusual place actually in that it had a lot in common with what we know as garden centres (a lot of garden ornaments, composts and sundries and the tea shop) but it was independently owned (not part of a chain) and probably as a result of this it had a quirky character and an idiosyncratic selection of plants on sale, many of them produced on site and not too expensive.  When it was bought out, the oddities disappeared, the place was 'tidied up' and the prices rose by, I'd say, about 50% (£6.99 rose to £10.99 for a shrub for example. So much for economies of scale.)
Of course, most punters won't know the difference. They go to a garden centre of a Sunday not to pick up a rare Begonia but to peruse the wax cotton jackets, drink a cappachino to a 'Celtic Chill' soundtrack, and maybe take auntie Maude an azalea for her birthday. It's a nice day out.
So why, besides the nostalgia, does it bother me so much that this take-over happened? After all, the public get what they want don't they? The owners were presumably offered a fairly hefty incentive. Probably they retired on the proceeds.

I like that film, The Devil Wears Prada. Besides seeing Anne Hathaway running around in that green dress, I especially like that bit where the Meryl Streep character explains to the Anne Hathaway character that the clothes she wears are not merely stuff (I love the way she says that - 'stuff'.) No - high street fashions are the end result of a tremendous effort involving designers and fashion houses, selecting one colour over many other almost identical ones, cutting the shape just so, presenting it on the catwalks in Paris so that it will eventually end up in the local chain store so that we can buy it.

I know nothing about that world. Haute couture is a mystery to me. I'm an ordinary clothes wearer. I buy what I can find reasonably easily in the highstreet (or at the army surplus) if it seems to fit and will do the job and I can afford it. I'm not an expert. Life's too short. You can't be an expert in everything (or many things actually). There are people out there who really love and know about clothes and I have to trust them to provide me with things that will look ok and not fall apart immediately from the vast array of clothes that are produced, or could be produced in the world.

Most people who go to a garden centre are like me in H&M. They may even consider themselves keen gardeners. They no doubt buy the odd copy of Gardener's World, watch Titchmarsh on the telly from time to time, own a copy of the RHS Encyclopedia of Garden Plants. Many may know the names of most of the plants in their garden and a few others besides. They may be members of the RHS or NT. They're ordinary gardeners and quite right too. As I say, life's too short. They can't be an expert in everything and they have to trust the garden centre staff to provide them with plants that will grow well and look good from among the vast array of plants that are grown, or could be grown all over the world.

I can hear the hollow laughter from here ('Trust the staff? Hah!') but even so, I hear you say, if people want obscure Begonias, surely they can go to an obscure begonia nursery? There are plenty of specialist nurseries about. Each to his own. Live and let live, surely?

Unfortunately not. Small specialist nurseries only rarely sell only obscure and unusual plants, and generally only if they are not totally dependent on them for an income. Go to Crug farm in North Wales, renowned for being one of the finest purveyers of rare and obscure plants probably in the world, and if you look at their list you will also find pages and pages of hardy Geraniums on offer which have always been a bit of a speciality of theirs. They're probably less dependent on them now they're known all over the world but I'm fairly certain it was the Geraniums originally that gave them the freedom to offer all the obscure stuff.

For the grower, plants can be divided up into broadly two categories - those that are easy and quick to produce and those that are not. The best garden plants can be found in both groups. Many plants that are difficult to propagate are hardy and reliable once established in the garden. Now, the keen nurseryman will be trying to produce the best garden plants, probably based on his own tastes and experience. They will want to provide the best plants for their customers in the best possible state to transplant quickly and establish easily in the customer's garden. To do this they may need to talk to the customer and provide advice, even if that means discouraging them from buying something because it may disappoint. They will of course be trying to make a living at this, and one way of doing that will be to make sure they offer a range of plants in the 'quick and easy' category (eg Crug Farm's Geraniums) as well as the more awkward stuff.
The problem then with the garden centres, and the wholesalers who supply them is that they tend to cream off the 'quick and easy' plants and ignore the ones that are not (or in a few cases they may offer them as a 'speciality' or 'plantsman's' range of fashionable items with an extravagant price tag. The whole 'architectural' plants thing is the obvious example.)
Either way, the small specialist nursery, unless they are doing it for love, will be forced out of business. Live and let die, you might say.

Will the average punter even notice the loss? Highly doubtful, but the overall result is obvious - the apparent choice and variety at the garden centre masks the actual loss of diversity overall. I see it every time I go to one of these places, but then I've lived and breathed plants for the last thirty years.
Obviously which ornamental plants you can buy for your garden is not a life and death situation, but it does make me wonder about the supposed choice available in other products that I do not know so much about, such as food or clothes, finance or, for example, medicines; as the suppliers get larger in size and fewer in number.
Surely the free market is supposed to promote choice?