Double Take Quince - NC State Does it Again

Europe use to be the the hot bed of shrub breeding, but not anymore. Sorry guys - but it's been relocated to Mills River in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Tom Ranney and his crew at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center, Darren Touchell, Tom Eaker, Joel Mowrey, Nathan Lynch, Jeremy Smith and Kevin Parrusfor are a well oiled breeding machine that continues to develop one great new plant after another.

This is the team that broke the color barrier with the introduction of the first ever pink flowered Annabelle Hydrangea - Invincibelle 'Spirit'.

Now they've developed a series of quince (Chaenomeles) that look a lot like Camellias, but much hardier, called the Double Take Series.

Double Take 'Orange Storm'

Double Take 'Pink Storm'

Double Take 'Scarlet Storm

As you can see from the images the flowers are very large and have lots of petals. The color range is blessed with deep hues of scarlet, pink and orange. To make life even better they're thornless! While quince is an old fashioned shrub that is not as popular as it once was, I suspect these plants are going to reinvent this old time favorite, and make quince popular once again.

I love quince as it is a nice change from the typical spring flower color we get from Forsythia. The colors are rich and warm you up on a cool spring day and get you pumped about being out in your garden. These plants make a very colorful hedge. I think quince is at its best trained up a wall to show off its flowers at eye level. It's also a great cut flower and makes a very elegant show in a vase. These are very new plants, just like a lot of plants you will see on my blog, so they're not generally available at retail. There are a few mail order nurseries that have them this year, but you can expect to see them work their way into better garden centers over the next few years.

We have been trying to get them approved for Canada, but the at this time we have not had any luck with the Canadian government. Hopefully this will change soon.

What do you think?

Bloomerang Lilac Starts a Controversy

Who would have thought that Bloomerang® Purple Lilac (Syringa ‘Penda’ ppaf) would create such a controversy? First Slate magazine comes out with an article entitled “Gilding the Lilac: A new hybrid could kill the nostalgia...” and then MaCleans Magazine follows up with an Internet article titled the “Ever-blooming Lilac Wars.” It seems that some people feel a lilac should bloom only once and only in the spring. I disagree and so do the thousands of people that rushed to buy Bloomerang when Better Homes and Gardens magazine did a limited release in March of 2009. Expecting to sell just a thousand plants, BH&G sold over 11,000 plants and turned away a throng of disappointed, potential buyers.

Bloomerang Lilac is not the first reblooming lilac. In 1917 Charles Sargent of the Arnold Arboretum noted that Syringa microphylla (S. pubescens subsp. microphylla var. microphylla) “… if it keeps up its habit of flowering a second time in autumn it will be at least interesting even if other lilacs are more beautiful. In her 1928 book “Lilacs” Susan McKelvey noted that S. microphylla has “… the curious habit of blooming twice in one season.” Syringa ‘Josee’ (syn. MORjos 06F) a small leafed, pale pink flowered cultivar introduced in 1974 by Minier Nursery of France is another noted remontant lilac. ‘Josee’ is a complex cross (Syringa pubescens subsp. microphylla x Syringa pubescens subsp. patula (syn S. velutina) x Syringa meyeri subsp. meyeri) developed by Georges Morel. More recently, Frank and Sara Moro of Select Plus International Nurseries of Quebec, Canada introduced several reblooming cultivars. So why all the fuss about Bloomerang lilac?

There are a number of things that have put Bloomerang in the spotlight. From my observations, (and a good many of the 400 garden writers that trialed the plant) it is the most consistent and prolific remontant lilac to date. The initial bloom is heavy and appears in mid-May. It goes through a rest in June and then begins to rebloom in July and continues on until frost. While the summer and fall panicles are not as large as those in the spring, it puts on a very good show. Every single branch bears flowers (not just an occasional flower). One of the reasons for its propensity to flower is its strong growth. As long as it continues to grow it continues to produce new flowers. You don’t have to prune it get it to rebloom, however, a light shearing after the initial bloom results in a fuller plant with more branches and thus more blooms.

As far as its ability to bloom and rebloom I have no doubt. In the selection process, I tagged only the seedlings with the most prolific summer bloom. Each year I repeated the process and in the end I chose the three plants with the most tags. These three, strongly remontant selections, were then propagated and evaluated further in production and in the garden. Eventually we selected one plant and introduced it as Bloomerang Purple. Of the remaining two plants, one appeared special enough to introduce and should be out in a few years. 

Our Lilac breeding program continues on. I have sowed out F2 crosses and have selected five more remontant plants of various shapes and colors. I have also made crosses that draw in new genetics to obtain plants with dwarf habits, glossier foliage, better fall color and larger flowers. Many of these plants look promising but only prolonged testing and evaluation will determine which, if any, are worthy of introduction. But the plan is to offer a range plants under the Bloomerang series.

As the Product Development Manager at Spring Meadow Nursery, one of my main functions is to find new and superior plants for the Proven Winners flowering shrub line. The shrubs in this line are selected based on a specific criterion that in its most general terms focuses superior performance, improved disease resistance, ease of production and culture, compact and dwarf habits, attractive foliage, and extended or multiple seasons on interest. Adding lilacs to the line was a goal of mine because they offer many fine attributes that make them popular. Most notably lilacs bloom in the spring when people are in the garden center, they offer excellent hardiness, they’re well recognized by consumers, they’re very colorful in bloom and they offer fragrance. On the other hand lilacs typically offer only one season of interest and are susceptible to Powdery Mildew and Pseudomonas. Bloomerang addresses all of these issues and as a result is off to a very good start.

Still, I’m not sure why Bloomerang or any other reblooming lilac is so controversial. It seems to me that some people like to complain and to create controversy even where is there is none. I guess it helps them sell magazines and attract blog subscribers. Regardless, it’s strange to read comments like “ Of all the things that plant hybridizers could be focusing on, this type of indulgence is a waste of creativity… (, August 9, 2009 “How much plant improvement can we stand?”). How can I respond except to say go ahead and call me indulgent and blame me for ruining the joy of lilacs. It will only sell more plants and beautify more yards.

Got Questions? Get Answers!

I suspect I have a wide mix of readers and subscribers; some of you are horticulturists and nursery people, while others are gardeners, both experienced and beginners. I think that's great. It keeps it fun.

I try to speak in a language that everyone can understand. I use scientific names and common names. I try to write articles that are interesting and educational for all my subscribers. But most of all I want to share my excitement for good plants.

But at the same time I get a lot of gardening questions. That is why am excited to introduce you to our Facebook Fan Page. I am so excited about what is going on there. I think you will be too. It is a community of gardeners looking for, and sharing gardening advice, stories, photographs and tips. It is a great place to get your gardening questions answered or to help a fellow gardener. It is a place to mentor new gardeners.
I know - many of you think I'm crazy for suggesting Facebook. I was skeptical at first. I had no interest in joining Facebook - I have a life and don't want to know what my high school friends had for lunch. But a friend insisted  that I join up and I'm so glad I did.

Check out the Proven Winners ColorChoice Facebook Fan Page and let me know what you think.

Sky Miles for Sky Pencil: The Journey from Mt. Daisen to Maryland

You migth suspect I do a bit of traveling – but plants have a funny way of traveling around the world too.

Sky Pencil, Japanese holly, (Ilex crenata) is a plant that has earned some serious sky miles. This narrow, column-like, evergreen holly was discovered in the wild on Mount Daisen, Honshu, Japan by my friend Akira Shibamichi. He then passed it on to his good friend, and my acquaintance, Dr. Yokoi, the noted variegated plant collector. Dr. Yokoi passed it on to Rick Darke (the ornamental grass guru) while he was in charge of research at Longwood Gardens in Kennet Square, Pennsylvania. (I met Rick while I was a summer student at Longwood in 1982). Rick got the plant in 1992 while on a plant collecting trip to Japan with Sylvester March of the United State National Arboretum. The USNA then propagated it and introduced it and now it’s grown by nurseries and gardeners across the U.S. and around the world.

Just to keep the story going, Mike Farrow of Holly Hill Farms nursery in Earlville, Maryland took ‘Sky Pencil’ and crossed it with a male selection of Japanese holly. His goal was to develop a very narrow, conical holly with dark green leaves. You see - vertical Plants, especially those with the quintessential Christmas tree shape are very popular, Thuja occidentalis (aka arborvitae, aka Eastern cedar), Skyrocket Juniper and Dwarf Alberta Spruce (Picea glauca ‘Conica’) are all narrow, pyramidal varieties and nurseries grow them by the acre. Mike Farrow understood this. Successful plant breeding starts with a good eye for plants and a good idea and Mike has both. (His impressive plant portfolio includes Arctic Fire Redstem Dogwood, 'Sienna Sunrise® Nandina, Bollywood Variegated Azalea and Pink Panther Echinacea).

After growing out hundreds seedlings, Mike selected out the six best plants to propagate and to evaluate further. Part of this evaluation took place in Michigan after Mike sent his six holly selections to Spring Meadow. For our part of the evaluation, we propagated and grew on about 1,000 plants of each selection. We evaluated each variety in propagation, as a one gallon crop and then as three gallons to gain a thorough understanding of it production and timing. To better understand how the plant performed in the garden we planted the hollies out on two different test gardens. Eventually we choose the best looking, best performing plant of the bunch. At this point we sent plants to about thirty growers across the country to find out how the plant performed under various climates and soils. Ultimately, after all these evaluations we took the leap and introduced Mike’s new plant as Sky Pointer Holly (Ilex crenata ‘Farrowone’ pp# 20,049).

Sky Pointer Holly has shiny, flat, dark evergreen leaves. The flat leaves make for hard living for spider mites, as they cannot hide and protect themselves under the cupped-shaped shaped leaves which are common on Japanese holly. This gem has tight, upright, conical branching which makes it a great container plant. I see many such plants used in sidewalk cafes and near store fronts for decoration. It’s hardy to zone 6 and just like ‘Sky Pencil’ it appreciates a bit of shade, especially in the winter. Growers appreciate its narrow growth habit. Narrow plants require little or no spacing in the nursery, which ultimately saves them time, labor and money.

And thus the journey continues. Last year, Spring Meadow Nursery shipped Sky Pointer liners (starter plants) to wholesale growers across North America. These growers pot them up, and grow them on for one or two years and then send them on a truck to a garden center near you. If all goes as planned, someone will buy a Sky Pointer holly. Perhaps it will be you. And after you plant it in your yard and watch it grow, I suspect you’ll think about its long journey from Honshu, Japan to your front yard.

Felder Rushing - A Simple Dirt Gardener

I've known Felder Rushing for about eight or ten years. I see him at garden writer conferences. He's easy to notice and hard to forget with his beat up hat, scraggily goatee and his standout Southern accent. I knew he was a successful writer and that he wrote books and that his articles were published in fancy magazines that actually paid him money. I also knew he has a garden growing in the back of his F-150 pickup truck. But until Felder was booked to speak in my home town of Grand Haven, Michigan and I read an article in my hometown paper – I didn’t know how little I knew about Felder.

I did not know that Felder is a self-proclaimed dirt gardener. What's a dirt gardener you ask? Well this is how Felder describes himself:

"I garden for the love of it — not for the challenge of it. I have one basic gardening rule Green side up. Dirt gardeners don't do soil prep — we plant stuff in the dirt. We know a ceramic gnome is just as valuable as a life-size marble naked goddess statue, and that birds are just as interesting as anything out there and they don't ask much of us." He says, “... a plant shared with a friend is as valuable as one ordered from a glossy catalogue. We know where our plants came from — even the ones we stole."

Because Felder gardens in the heat of Mississippi, and I garden in the great white North, I assumed we had little in common. But I was wrong. It turns out we share the idea that gardening and growing plants is fun and simple. So simple that anyone can do it.

The big problem, in my opinion, is that there are way too many expert horticulturists out there telling you how complicated it is to garden. They would have you believe you need to match your flower colors using a color wheel. They say you have to sequence the bloom time of your flowers and to use grey as a foil between red and orange. They'll tell you to double dig your flower beds, do a soil test and to adjust your pH. (I’ve never done any of these things). And of course they'll tell you to “buy my book” to know how to garden.

This is all phooey.

You do not need the help of garden experts to garden. You just have to dig a hole and put a plant in it and water it a bit. Get over the idea that every plant you plant has to live 100 years. Plants are living by definition so of course they die. Just plant it - and don’t take it so personally if it dies. I’ve got a master's degree in horticulture and I've killed hundreds of plants. I'm ok with that. That’s how you learn!

It’s not about you!

When a plant grows well in our garden we say “Look what I did!” And when a plant dies we say “I have such a brown thumb.” Either way we give ourselves way too much credit. The fact is the plants is doing the growing – not us. So dig a hole, put a plant in it and enjoy it. If it struggles or gets too big for it's spot – dig it up and move to another location. If it dies - dig it out and plant something else. If it thrives - enjoy the miracle that plants are living creatures that hang out in our yard.

Growing plants is fun. It’s wondrous. It’s addicting. It’s good for the soul. It’s dirty, yet at the same time it brings us closer to God. It’s suppose to relaxing, so drop the guilt and stress that comes with doing it right or wrong – and just do it.

Felder Rushing is the author or co-author of 15 gardening books; and countless newspaper columns and articles for publications such as Horticulture, Landscape Architecture, Better Homes & Gardens, Fine Gardening, and National Geographic. Felder has been featured three times in full-length articles in the New York Times. He has hosted a television program that was shown across the South, and appeared many times on other TV garden programs. Felder currently co-host’s a call-in garden program on NPR affiliate stations called The Gestalt Gardener.

Talks, Meetings, Misc. (Things a Nurseryman does in the Winter)

American Hydrangea Society February Lecture Meeting!

If you live the in the Greater Atlanta area I will be speaking at the American Hydrangea Society Meeting, Monday, February 22, 2010, at the Atlanta Botanical Garden (Day Hall) at 7:30 pm.

The American Hydrangea Society is one of my favorite groups, because (as you may know) I'm pretty much crazy about Hydrangeas. If you can make it great! Send an RSVP at their Facebook Page.

Horticulture Students

If you are a Hort student I have good news. Spring Meadow Nursery offers internships. It's a great place to work and to learn. We welcome international students as well. We've had interns from France, Poland, and the USA. Learn more.

Dale Deppe the owner of Spring Meadow, knows that the future of horticulture depends on the next generation. That's why he has started a scholorship for aspiring horticulturists. Apply at ANLA.

ANLA Management Clinic in Louisville.

American (Plant) Idol

I hope to see some of you at the ANLA Management Clinic. I will be presenting some new plants at the PLANT IDOL on Monday, Feb. 1 at 2:45. I'll need your votes so please come and cheer me on. Come see Horticulture’s hottest new intros, a celebrity panel of judges and Chris “Call me Seacrest” Beytes. In this fast-paced, high-drama session you’ll meet the latest and greatest plant introductions, hear them professionally critiqued by expert judges, and vote to determine the winner.

(Please come and vote for me and boo the judges if they give me a hard time!)

The No-New-Plants New Plant Session

I'll also be on a group panel -  "The No-New-Plants New Plant" Session. No plant talk allowed here, rather we will be discussing the role of new plants in nursery / garden center business. This will be on Tuesday, Feb 2nd at 10:15. Hope to see you there.