Want to be GREEN? Promote Gardening

I recently read an annual report for a botanical garden entitled Hope for Healing the Planet. Among other things I learned that they were embarking on a new strategic plan. Over the last twenty years botanical gardens and arboreta have evolved to the point where they are faced with redefining their purpose. I recall a conversation with Peter Ashton, the Director of the Arnold Arboretum, in which he explained that his most daunting task was justifying the Arboretum to Harvard in an age of molecular biology. Since that conversation, I have watched with interest as public gardens have evolved to redefine their relevance.

What is botanical garden’s greatest asset? Why do people visit? Why do they become members? What do we do best? These are the questions to be asked during the strategic planning process. Do the visitors come to see the rose garden, the children’s garden, the home idea gardens, the prairie, or is it they’re intrigued by their conservation efforts?

You know the answer – they come because the botanic garden is an oasis of breathtaking beauty in an urban jungle. The garden inspires; it reveals the beauty of plant diversity, and give us ideas and hope that plants and people can coexist, and shows us that life is enhanced when we are surrounded by a diversity of plants.

And now in this time of Sustainability and Green, the clear need, the necessary message, and the great opportunity being neglected is that plants and gardens need to be at the core of the Green movement. But why plant tree seedlings in a distant forest as carbon offsets when we need to be planting trees, shrubs, perennials in our cities and yards; close to the sources of carbon and pollution, and where people can actually be healed by the power of plants?

I would encourage everyone to champion gardening as a green lifestyle. A year ago, standing on top of a hotel in Nagoya, Japan I was saddened by the prospect of concrete to the distant horizon. What a contrast to Chicago which is a beacon of green to all other cities in its devotion to plants and gardens. What a unique time and place we are in to promote the healing power of plants by planting our own yards and neighborhoods! Change happens locally.

What can we do to promote the healing power of plants and plant diversity at a local level? Encourage people to grow plants in their yard then expand to their neighborhoods and city. I know a man that loves to collect trees and shrubs, but he quickly ran out of yard space. He asked his neighbor if he could plant some of his trees and shrubs on his property and the neighbor agreed. Soon this yard was filled with new species of plants so the man went to another neighbor and did the same. Today his entire neighborhood is a beautiful, mapped and labeled botanical garden accessible to all. While in Korea a man told me the native species of White Forsythia, Abeliophyllum distichum was endangered, and that as a conservation effort the government made is illegal to grow or sell. He was in awe when I told him we sell about 5,000 a year and that people actually plant it in their yards.

While I commend botanical gardens and garden writers for picking up the banner of global warming, invasive plants, habitat conservation, etc., I question whether this should be our main role. If it is Conservation that makes a botanic Garden relevant and defines its purpose (as the annual report I read suggested) then why do they waste the time and money maintaining a garden?

Many of you reading this blog have the knowledge and voice to promote gardening as way for everyone to heal the planet. I urge that you keep this at the center of your personal mission statement. Something to consider as you revise your personal strategic plan. Share this with a friend and ask them to comment.

Fabulous and Foolproof

In one of my previous posts I asked everyone to complete a Hydrangea survey to give me a better idea what type of plants I should be looking for, breeding and introducing. The survey was primarily about Hydrangea macrophylla and its cultivars.

One comment that caught my attention went something like this:

I think instead of forcing Hydrangea macrophylla to do something they weren’t designed to do, we should focus the hardy species that bloom on new wood, like Hydrangea paniculata and Hydrangea arborescens. I agree, these two species are fabulous and foolproof just about anywhere in North America . There are many superb new varieties of Hydrangea paniculata. I've written about it on this blog and mentioned Pinky Winky, Little Lamb, The Swan, and Limelight. These are are all easy to grow and dependible plants.

I also wrote about Hydrangea arborescens in an earlier post. To remind you I said …

Smooth Hydrangea, Hydrangea arborescens (Eastern U.S, Zone 3), is a wonderful, hardy plant that blooms in midsummer. It has the great advantage of blooming on the current season’s wood. This results in very reliable blooming plant regardless of frost or winter injury. The species itself is not a spectacular garden plant with its small mostly fertile flowers, but there are some noteworthy cultivars that are worth growing.

'Annabelle', introduced by Joe McDanials of Champaign, IL, is the most commonly grown cultivar. One is hard pressed to find any other cultivar of Hydrangea arborescens being sold today. There are some nurseries unknowingly selling the cultivars 'Hills of Snow' as 'Annabelle'. True 'Annabelle' has very large, perfectly symmetrical blooms, while the blooms of 'Grandiflora' are often quartered and irregular. 'Annabelle' is very showy, but often collapses under the weight of its own blooms.

If you remember, I said there was a need for more selections of H. arborescens and that I would like to see an improved 'Annabelle' with sturdier stems. At the time this was only a wish, however I was breeding and selecting with the goal of developeing an Annabelle with strong stems. Annabelle is such a great plant but is a mess after it rains. The stems are just not strong enough to hold the large flowers. Well I have exciting news to share; I found a plant with very strong stems. This was not a big of a surprise, but what came as a surprise was that this selection had strong stems and incredibly larger flower heads too. When I counted the individual flowers this selection had 4x as many flowers as Annabell. I call it Incrediball Hydrangea. Here are a few photos I took of the plant. What do you think?

Don't ask be where you can buy it because it's not for sale - yet. Hopefully you can get it from Wayside gardens next Spring.

Roses and Roller Coasters

Some people love roller coasters. My kids love the coasters, but for me I get enough thrills introducing new plants. Introducing new plants can be fun and exciting, but it’s also scary as hell. Sure it’s really fun to be the first person to see a new plant with great garden potential. And it’s especially exciting the first time you see that new plant in someone’s garden or landscape. But introducing a new plant is also very scary. First off everyone is a plant critic. As horticulturists we are trained to find fault with every plant. And to be sure every plant has its weak points. No plant is going to do well in every state in the union, in every soil type and withstand all the abuse that gardeners dish out. So I introduce plants and brace myself for the criticism. No matter how good the plant it always comes.

But there is nothing better than hearing and seeing the good reviews. A couple of weeks ago we took a trip to a local mail order nursery called Garden Crossings. They’re a small grower that has a unique view of the market. A few years back they decided to grow and sell the complete line of Proven Winners plants, including the Proven Winners ColorChoice shrubs. During our visit it was exciting to see the 2 ¼ inch liners he brought in just a few months earlier and potted up into two gallon containers. It was especially exciting to see his crop of Oso Easy Roses. They were superb! Each plant was like a soldier, full and robust, and all budded up and ready to flower. The leaves were glossy and clean.

Oso Easy paprika

When I selected the Oso Easy Roses I knew they were extremely good plants. I work with five different rose breeders and in our trials we do not spray any of their selections. In our hot, humid production environment it’s the perfect conditions for disease. Not many roses cut the mustard and as a result only few varieties (out of hundreds) remained clean during our trials. So far only four varieties have made it into the Oso Easy line.
But, regardless of how well the plant perform in our trials, I always worry about how people will perceive our plants. How will perform in nurseries and in the garden. So it was a good day when I saw the Oso Easy roses looking so darn good, especially compared to the most popular roses on the market. Cleary they were stand-out plants. It came as a great relief because several people had told me I was crazy to introduce new roses. The rose market is being dominated by just a few new selections and no one is asking for new roses. But if you’re in the business of introducing new plants, and if you believe you have something special, you have to stand firm. You have to stick your neck out. Lots of people are going to take swipes and some will call you crazy, so you need to have thick skin. It can be a roller coaster ride of emotions, but in the end there’s a real satisfaction in weathering the storm. This week the roses in our display house came into full bloom. I brought some three gallon Oso Easy roses into the office. Everyone, including the people in bookkeeping, went crazy over the plants. More confirmation.

But for me the roller coaster ride never ends. Each year there are more introductions, more worries, more criticism and more reviews. But that’s ok. It's not the horticulturists that decide the fate of a new plant, it's the consumer. And I can live with that.

NMPro Magazine Interview

No one was more surprised than me when NMPro Magazine put my picture on the cover of their April issue. When Kevin Neil interviewed me for the magazine I suspected that my story would end up in the back next to the classified ads.

Forestfarm Nursery - A plant lover's paradise

When I was a young, reluctant nurseryman around the age of 10, I had an extremely important job at my Dad's nursery; cleaning countless, rancid, one gallon, sharp and jagged tin, tomato cans to be used as nursery containers. After cleaning the cans I would add four drain holes using a beer can opener. It was a nasty job that left me with numerous hand lacerations and a strange foul smell. After researching the history of Forestfarm Nursery in Williams, Oregon I found it comforting to learn that Ray and Peg Prag began their nursery and honeymoon doing the same nasty task. It’s a small world.

Forestfarm is a nursery that every plant lover and fanatic should know and patronize. While Dan Hinkley’s Heronswood Nursery to the north, garnered the press and praise of Martha Steward, Forestfarm quietly grew into a plant hunter's paradise offering over 5,000 types of plants. Accoring to Ray “…we just like plants.” The nursery started somewhat romantically as a means to allow Ray and Peg “do something together, something away from the city, something constructive." Voila! The concept of Forestfarm was born in 1971.

The Forestfarm catalog is one of my favorites. I keep the latest edition close to my desk at all times and a dozen older versions on my bookshelf as reference. Listed at $5 a copy and measuring around an inch thick, it is, in my mind, the bargain of bargains. Here you can find the single best selection of trees, shrubs, perennials, conifers, grasses, vines and palms all in one place. Each plant is succinctly described providing the most critical information for growing each plant and making a buying decision. Plant related quotes, customer testimonials, plant comparison charts and line drawings are interlaced to make this a gem of a read. But to me, it the vast number of plant species and cultivars located all in one place that makes this catalog so fun. Where else can you find over 50 different types of willows. Is it any wonder that botanical gardens from around the world hunt for their plants at Forestfarm?

Sure you can go to Forstfarm.com and access all the same plants and information, but to own the book is a joy. Get your copy today.

The more color the better – Red Majestic Corylus

The more color the better.

Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick, or the Contorted Filbert or Hazelnut, (Corylus avellana 'Contorta') has never been hard to find in better garden centers, but is it by no means a common landscape shrub. Prized for its corkscrew-like stems it’s at its best in the winter and in early spring before the leaves emerge to hide its interesting stems. During the rest of the year it is a plant that simply fades into the background, unnoticed until the next winter.

Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick had had an extreme makeover with the introduction of Corylus ‘Red Majestic’ (patent #16,048). This gem is great addition to the garden pallet because it has red-burgundy foliage in addition to its interesting curly stems. ‘Red Majestic’ is at its best in the spring as the new, bright red foliage emerges and begins to grow. As summer approaches and as the temperatures rise, the foliage turns to a dark burgundy and then by mid-summer the mature foliage turns to a dark green. Even when the older leaves turn green, all is not lost; the new growth continues to push out red foliage to contrast with the old.

The more color the better, that’s what I say. If a plant is to get from the nursery into the garden it has to have more color, more seasons and more ornamental interest than four to six weeks of duration. I don’t know about you but I no longer have room for shrubs that offer just one season of interest. That being said, I have made room in my garden for ‘Red Majestic.’

Red Majestic was developed in Germany by Rolf de Vries. Garden centers can purchase the plants from these officially licensed wholesale growers: Bountiful Farms Nursery, Broken Arrow Nursery, Canadale Nursery, Ekstrom Nursery, Handy Nursery Company, Hollandia Gardens, Means Nursery, Monrovia Growers, Pierce & Son Nursery, Willoway Nurseries.

Retail purchases can be made at on line Wayside Gardens.

Holly Reaches New Heights

I love the saying “Standing on the shoulders of giants” because it reminds me that most all great accomplishments are built on the people that labored before us. This is especially true in plant breeding.

Holger Hachmann, a plant breeder from the Holstein region of Germany is quick to remind people that his breeding work could not have been accomplished if not for his father and a housewife in Long Island, New York.

Holger grew up the son of a nurseryman and renowned plant breeder Hans Hachmann. His father was, without a doubt, the most prolific Rhododendron breeder ever. In addition to introducing hundreds Rhododendrons, he develop a number of popular Potentilla cultivars including Potentilla ‘Hachmann’s Giant.’ Plant breeding was taught to the young Holger by example, just as he learned to weed the fields and to root cuttings. Hans taught his son the secrets of plant breeding. His most important lesson was to start by identifying a problem or weakness in a plant, and then solve it. Certainly Holger was well trained and well equipped to begin his plant breeding career. He had a great teacher.

In stark contrast, years earlier a housewife was laying a new foundation. An amateur horticulturist by the name of Kathleen Kellogg Meserve, told a reporter "Not knowing what I was doing was an advantage. I didn't know what could be done and what couldn't. So I just did it." And without any formal training and without understanding chromosome numbers she develop what we now call Blue Holly. She crossed the beautiful but tender English Holly (Ilex aquafolium) with a hardy, low growing Rugose Holly (Ilex rugosa). At first glance this may seem trivial, but in actuality this cross made it possible for millions of people in Middle America to grow Holly.

And so the foundation was laid; Holger’s father had taught him the tools of plant breeding and Kathleen Meserve invented a hardy holly. And as blue hollies became more popular, Holger found himself growing a good number at his nursery. In time, he soon came to realize that Kathleen’s work was not yet complete. Growing a good quality blue holly took a lot of time and care. The plants grew slowly and required a lot of shearing to make a full plant. Additional people expected hollies to be upright pyramidal evergreens and not round bushes. Here was a breeding opportunity. To solve this problem, Holger crossed the hardy Blue Prince holly with ‘Alaska’ a pyramidal, glossy leaved English holly which was considered the hardiest of all English Holly.

With time and patience Holger made his selections and introduced two new plants. And fittingly, he named his plants Castle Hollies; stately, yet rugged plants built on a strong foundation laid down by two previous “Giants” of the breeding world. Growers in Europe and America have been growing his plants for about four years now and the reports have been very favorable. Castle Spire holly is fast growing female selection with bright red berries. It has a traditional Christmas tree shape. The foliage is quite unlike Blue Holly, being extremely glossy and rich green in color. Castle Wall holly is a very functional male selection. This is Holger’s favorite because it makes good container plant and a great hedge. Its dense, upright habit makes it a good replacement for the over used ‘Hicksii’ yew. With its useful shape and attractive glossy foliage, this plant is more than just a pollinator. It will find a home in the landscape as a specimen, hedge and foundation plant.

Castle Spire

Brick by brick, stone by stone and trait by trait, breeders continue to improve upon the work of their predecessors. Clearly it takes a strong foundation to build a beautiful castle that will stand the test of time.