Saturday, 22 April 2017

a plant talk

This afternoon I went to the last Suffolk Plant Heritage Lecture before the summer break.  The speaker was Bob Brown, owner of the nursery Cotswold Garden Flowers, whose website I sometimes refer to when considering trying a new plant, because he posts critical appraisals not just of the things he currently lists for sale, but many other species and varieties he has experience of growing, or trying to grow.  That is a useful habit I wish other growers would follow, especially if they have previously sold the plant and so have the information already to hand in the right format. Though I suppose it could be embarrassing if you changed your mind about a plant to list its deficiencies when you had sold to people it in the past.

Bob Brown was talking about new and garden worthy plants, and began with the caveat that many new plant releases had not been trialled for long enough to find out whether they were garden worthy, and that many weren't.  Certainly I remember how disappointingly short lived the new, exciting, rusty pink Verbascum 'Helen Johnson' turned out to be, when I managed to lay my hands on some plants after a wait (such was the demand) a couple of decades ago when it was new on the market.  I try to be more cautious now, and had already sidestepped the charming but not reliably perennial foxglove cross 'Illumination Pink' that was the big new thing a few seasons back, after trawling round several garden forums and coming to the conclusion that it couldn't be trusted to live, and that was Bob Brown's first target.

I'd hoped to be introduced to some new plants I didn't know and that would be good for our garden. Looking at my notes I've scribbled down the names and brief descriptions of a few things I might like to be better acquainted with.  Eryngium 'Pen Blue' looked promising, because its flowers were so very blue, and Eryngium generally do well on our light soil.  Epimedium 'Spine Tingler' was worth bearing in mind for some future scheme, having large, long, thick and substantial, shiny leaves with splendid spines around the edges, the sort of leaves that remind you that Epimedium is in the same family as Berberis.  And I liked the sound of mophead Hydrangea 'Zebra' with its white flowers on black stems, and the trick of flowering over a long season because it can bloom on the current year's growth as well as last year's wood like a traditional mophead.  And Ribes valdiviana was pretty, looking from the slide rather like the hybrid Ribes x gordonianum which is a cross between the traditional cottage garden R. sanguineum and the scented yellow buffalo currant R. odoratum. I am partial to flowering currants, though I would want to know more about Ribes valdiviana before ordering one.

But I also realised as the lecture went on how individual tastes in plants are, and how difficult it is to predict what will be reliable in a garden setting.  Primula 'Wanda' was declared unkillable, along with a jibe that the colour scheme was unappealing.  Now I am fond of 'Wanda', which has little purple flowers with a yellow eye and was the first cultivar name of any plant that I remember learning, but I have not found it at all indestructible in north Essex, and from some muttering across the aisle I gathered that other East Anglian gardeners had lost it as well.  Likewise the old variety Primula 'Garryard Guinevere' was said to be reliable, although we would not have heard of it.  I had heard of it and am pretty sure that Margery Fish mentions it, and I have tried to grow it, but it didn't last.  Conclusions  based on growing in Worcestershire on heavy clay soil and with cold winters aren't necessarily a good guide to what will prosper on the Essex coastal strip.

And some of Bob Brown's plant choices were just horrid.  Horrid to my eyes, that is.  I am sure he was sincere in liking them and I expect that some of the other people in the room like them as well, but written next to my note "Heuchera 'Pink Pearl' lots of pink fl April-Oct" I have put my own comment in square brackets [dumpy plant].  Honestly, they were nasty lumpy little things.  I get the same feeling looking at most Astilbe.  And I thought the variegated Trachelospermum with orange and yellow leaves truly nasty even before Bob Brown told us that ladies often recoiled from it (note to all garden lecturers: do not try to get laughs by digs at ladies.  Look around the room. About three quarters of your audience are ladies.  Do you think we are amused by banter about our timid tastes or inability to water things properly?).

I did not buy any plants from Bob Brown or the Plant Heritage stall, being fixed firmly on weeding and mulching following which I will put in a couple of carefully researched internet orders for plants to do very particular jobs in selected places.  It has taken three decades of gardening to get to that level of discipline.  I did have a nice piece of coffee and walnut cake, though.

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