Monday, March 31, 2014

Lost in translation

Tall herb flora in Kyrgyzstan on a wet scree slope. Aconitum leuostomum mostly, to 2m tall.

I just had the following letter from a student in canton Zürich, Switzerland. It raises some interesting topics, not least the very different approaches to studying plant management in German-speaking and English-speaking countries. I'm answering her through a blog posting, so more of you can see it.

I'm currently studying at the ZHAW in Wädenswil... The topic of my term paper is the "stability" (Standfestigkeit) of "large herbaceous perennials" (Grosstauden). I don't know the proper technical terms in english. For this reason I hardly found English literature. Now my question to you: Could you translate following words in technical language? "Standfestigkeit", "Grossstaude" and "Staudenhecke". Maybe you even know some links or papers about these topics?

The embarrassing thing is that, unlike in German-speaking countries, we do very little, indeed almost no formal research into ornamental plant design or management. James Hitchmough and colleagues at the University of Sheffield do some fantastic work on establishing perennial combinations and a little on management, but the field is so vast, and no-one else does anything. Collecting data and being precise are a bit too 'Germanic' for most British gardeners. Yes, its frustrating. We are trying to change things, but it is slow.

Standfestigkeit translates as 'stability' or the more colloquial term we gardeners would use would be 'sturdiness' – i.e. does it fall over or not? Especially after flowering.

Grossstauden as 'tall perennials'. And yes, tall perennials do tend to fall over in gardens. Let's unpack this a bit more and look at the ecological and regional origin of perennials which grow tall.

1) 'Tall herb flora' has a very special meaning to an ecologist; in Britain we have very little of it, and the expression has little meaning, so I sometimes find myself using the German Hochstauden to English-speaking audience, to stress that this means something special. This may sound pretentious but there is a long tradition of English-speaking intellectuals using German words, which can often say in a word what English needs a sentence for (we are always talking about Zeitgeist, Schadenfreude etc). Hochstauden or tall-herb flora means those incredible places you get in hilly or mountain areas where very mineral rich and oxygenated water flows constantly underground to nourish the growth of perennials to massive sizes. My best experience of these was in Kyrgyzstan a few years ago, but the Alps can be good too. Huge perennials, many of which we grow as garden plants: many Aconitum, Campanula lactiflora, Persicaria amplexicaulis, and yes, in nature they are very untidy and often fail to show much Standfestigkeit.

2) Prairie plants, from the tallgrass prairie – high rainfall, fertile soils, high summer temperatures, grow tall too, but tend not to fall over (ok. my prairie experience is limited but I have never seen a flopped-over prairie). Grasses play a role and may help support the forbs, but also I suspect that competition ensures that growth is kept within limits.

3) Perennial forbs from places with monsoon climates, so a bit like the prairie. I'm thinking of Russian far-east and Hokkaido, Japan. Massive growth to compete in a wet resource rich environment.
Filipendula camtschatica and a Eupatorium in Hokkaido, Japan.

These plants in cultivation tend to be grown with wide spacing compared to nature, and so there is little competition and so they overfeed (like getting fat really) get top heavy and fall over. Simple as that. Grow them at closer densities and they are less likely to get so large and more likely to show good Standfestigkeit.

Staudenhecke – translates as 'perennial hedge', which is something they have been experimenting with at ZHAW. Basically, plant a line of tall self-supporting perennials in a narrow band and you have a seasonal hedge feature. Nice idea. Have never seen anyone do it here, apart from the one I did here three years ago, and which I cannot find a photograph of which show it clearly :( Basically I have a line of Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerster' and some forbs acting as a screen half way down the garden. I'm not entirely happy yet with the companion forbs: Veronicastrum virginicum/sibiricum is ok Vernonia would be if the ****ing slugs hadn't eaten them all last year, Eupatorium maculatum/fistulosum etc. are very good, I think Helianthus 'Sheila's Sunshine' would be good too. Anything bolt upright.

Perennial hedge at ZHAW, Switzerland.

Which brings me on to my final point, which I have never seen described anywhere, if you dig up any of the perennials I have just described, you will find something very interesting. The helianthus – you just dig up, comes up easily, like an aster or solidago. The eupatorium and vernonia involve hacking your way through a massive radial root system - which takes a few years to build up, and is clearly a solution to how to stop 3m high plants from falling over. It is quite unlike anything you will find in any other perennial. Impressive engineering. So perfect for the Staudenhecke which I must really try to complete this year.

In researching the use of the German terms which Anna asks about, I came across the most fabulous looking Staudengarten (perennial garden) near Rostock. Can't wait to get there.

Anna – There is one book you might find useful: Tall Perennials, Turner, R. Timber Press, 2009.

one book I really do recommend, which is about plant ecology, but highly relevant to garden and landscape planting design is:
J. Philip Grime, 2001. Plant Strategies, Vegetation Processes, and Ecosystem Properties. Wiley.


If you like my blog, why not check out my e-books, which are round-ups of some writing I did for Hortus magazine back in the early 2000s, along with an interview with the amazing Beth Chatto. You can read them on Kindle, or Kindle packages for smartphones or the computer. You can find them on my Amazon page here. You will also find my soap opera for gardeners - currently running at eight episodes.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

War and the garden - a century of nursery catalogues

I spent a productive day in the library at Wisley a few weeks ago, looking at old nursery catalogues. Having run a nursery myself many years ago, old catalogues have always fascinated me. They are also a very good way of mapping something which has also always interested me - how garden fashion has changed over time.
This particular rummage was aimed at getting an overview of what perennials were available from the late 19th century onwards. I did not know quite what to expect and was in fact rather surprised.
The pic above is from one of the most important perennial breeders of the early 20th century, Amos Perry.
A 1910 listing of grasses, from Perry's catalogue.

I was aware that a lot of early 20th century cultivars have been lost and a few species too. I remember looking through a book by Ernst Graf Silva Tarouca which belonged to my friend Sabine Plenk in Vienna (published 1913?, in Austria-Hungary, just a few years before that political unit was consigned to the dustbin of history by some shots fired in Sarajevo). There was Aster puniceus, no longer in cultivation, but something I had collected seed from, a few years previously, from a swamp in the Catskills in NY state. And now seeding all over my garden, which only goes to show how even vigorously spreading plants can vanish.

I did not realise however just how much we lost and have only recently re-gained. Not because of the First World War but because of the Second. I write this as Britain is about to start on a veritable orgy of commemoration for the 1914 war – about which I feel distinctly unenthusiastic. It was such an unspeakable disaster that led directly to the unmitigated horrors of the 20th century, and in Britain was conducted with such an orgy of hysterical nationalism and war-mongering that I feel I would rather draw a veil over the whole shameful episode. The only heroes for me are the conscientious objectors on both sides.

Anyway, back to the herbaceous border. Trench warfare left the combatants' gardens (and their cities) largely untouched. Nurseries, in Britain and Germany, held similar ranges before and after the war. Although one does have to make allowances for the all pre-war German names being changed to English ones in Britain, and (I suspect but am not sure) the other way round in Germany. The British royal family had to change their (German) name too, so the plants were in good company.

Looking through catalogues from around 1890 to the 1930s, the range is truly extraordinary. There is that feeling that 'there is nothing new under the sun'. So many of the perennials and even grasses, we think of as 'new' were then available. I was interested to see Baptisia, Vernonia and Astrantia, all listed, all of which I thought of as post-1970s plants. However catalogues of the time, particularly pre-First World War ones, are dominated by a small group of perennials of which a great many varieties were available: Michelmas daisies (Aster novae-angliae), Penstemon and Delphinium for example. All of these are what we think of as high-maintenance plants today. At the back of the catalogues of the larger companies, like Amos Perry and Kelways, are the 'Miscellaneous Herbaceous Perennials'. This was clearly a minority interest, but the range of plants looks almost entirely 'modern'. What is missing is the range of cultivars we have now of many of these.

Turning to the 1950s and 1960s, the range has hugely diminished. It was not until the new generation of nurseries that got going in the 1970s and 1980s (Beth Chatto, Elizabeth Strangman in England etc.) do things begin to look up. What happened?

The answer has to be the Second World War, but also its aftermath. I remember the German garden maker and nurseryman Peter Janke saying to me that he thought that German gardening had never recovered from the war. Looking back at the catalogues, books and magazines of even 1930s Germany, as the country staggered into its apocalyptic crises, the health and vibrancy of the gardening scene is very vivid. What struck me though, looking through the British catalogues of the post-war era, was that perhaps British gardening had suffered just as much.

Promoting British nurseries is nothing new - 1922 from Kelways.

Much of the German garden heritage turned to ashes, the British to compost. Saturation bombing of Germany by the Allies must have done much damage. In Britain however, the commercial growing of ornamental plants was banned early on (earlier than in Germany, I believe), wih prison sentences being handed on to anyone selling flowers. 'Digging for Victory' saw many ornamentals cast onto the compost heap or ploughed under.

The Second World War was followed by the fifties, which by all accounts was a grey and dreary decade, one of recovery and reconstruction, with little fun or luxury. A particular aspect of the fifties in Europe was the idea of public planning and public welfare, good progressive aspects in which the running was often made by social democratic parties. The downside of this was a rejection of heritage (think of all the country houses demolished in Britain during this period) and a kind of what we would now call dumbing-down – egalitarianism, not as equality of self-expression, but as a lowest common denominator lifestyle forced onto everyone. The decade of grey concrete, of philistine local government and a desire to create a brave new world by denying any merit in the past, was followed by more destruction of heritage in the 1960s.

This came across strongly when talking to a Swedish colleague recently – Sweden of course exemplified the ideal of social democracy and community thinking particularly strongly. Planting was, she said, “reduced to a very functional style”. A time of major urban development saw a strongly collectivist ethos prevail with landscape architects working on public housing projects, parks and children's play areas using only a limited range of plants; private gardening simply went out of fashion, and designers lost interest in the domestic garden. Many nurseries often stocked little more than conifers.

In Britain, the need for physical reconstruction may have been much less than in Germany, but garden culture was very unambitious. My recent post about the 1950s Adam the Gardener series shows how widespread knowledge of garden craft may have been, but there seems to have been relatively little interest in new plants or conservation of garden heritage. Many great gardens, even if their houses were not demolished, sank into weed abandon. I remember my parents buying a disused walled kitchen garden in 1962, where they built a house. It had been part of the grounds of Shernfold Park in Sussex, the house had been turned into offices and the garden a wilderness of vast rhododendrons, magnolias and unkempt grass.

1957 saw the birth of the Hardy Plant Society (as well as myself!). Looking back at a book about perennials, written by one of its key founders, Alan Bloom, in that year, it is possible to see that much of the pre-war plant selection existed, but hardly anyone was actively propagating and selling it. It was not until Beth Chatto and Alan Bloom started to ride the consumer boom of the 1960s that gardening started to become interesting again. Margery Fish and Vita Sackville West played a great part too in encouraging more enlightened and ambitious thinking. Shrubs recovered their diversity quicker than perennials. When I started getting involved with gardening professionally, in the late 1980s, perennials were limited in variety and generally only from specialist nurseries. Much of the remarkable growth in our nursery sector dates from this period and can be seen (in hindsight at least) as the rebuilding of the range of perennials that were available pre-1939.

What was lost, and are perhaps unmourned, are the huge numbers of cultivars which early 20th century catalogues listed. Mostly of labour-intensive plants, which do not appeal to us much these days. The genepools are still in cultivation of course, and in most cases massive genepools exist in the wild, so if we did want to bring back hundreds of penstemon/delphinium/etc we could do so.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Monarchs and Monsanto - a plea to think (and grow more milkweed and eat more insects).

The last few years has seen discussion of a rather worrying trend in declining numbers of monarch butterflies. One fairly obvious reason for the decline would appear to be a decline in the milkweeds (Asclepias species) on which they feed. This is because farmers are now so efficient at eliminating all weeds from their fields.

Cue a hysterical reaction. Like this.

I have long thought that environmentalists are often bad for the environment and this is a good example. The complete failure to think through some basics on this issue is spectacular. As is the refusal to take responsibility for one's own eating habits. Why take responsibility when you can blame an easy scapegoat. Like Monsanto. Just mention the company and you get an instant knee-jerk reaction – with an associated brain disconnect. Blaming Monsanto avoids actually looking at the issue.Which is what I intend to do here.

Furthermore, the easiest solution to this problem is so obvious its ridiculous, and it is something which directly involves gardeners and the landscape industry. 

As anyone who grows their own veg can tell you, weeds compete with your crops and you have to minimise them. Farmers have to do this to survive commercially, something organic growers know as well as conventional. So can we blame farmers for using an effective herbicide like Roundup? Or combining the herbicide with crops which are genetically modified to resist the chemical?

And why do the farmers of the Midwest grow so intensively? Or indeed any farmers?

Well there are rather a lot of us. And as living standards rise, which they are rather doing strongly in many poorer countries, one of the first things people do is eat more meat. Meat production is an inefficient converter of plant material to animal: chickens aren't too bad, pigs and sheep are not so good, but beef cattle are terrible. In other words, farming needs to be intensive to provide us with the diet we have chosen. If you eat meat every day, it's no good blaming Monsanto for selling Roundup and Rounup-Ready crops, you should take responsibility for the disappearing milkweed. And don't say that you only eat local grass-fed beef, or some other politically correct feel-good foodie excuse. Do you suppose that organic beef farmers let toxic milkweed grow all over their fields?

An alternative sounds attractive. Less intensive farming, wildflower strips, higher weed populations. Yes, all well and good. Except that the demand for crops is still there, and they have to come from somewhere. Reducing intensity leads to a trade-off effect – a need for more arable land. And that is one thing we don't have much of left. Arable land is actually declining globally. We also do not want to sacrifice any more wild landscapes, forests, wetlands etc. We simply have to get the most out of what arable land we have.

I have driven around Iowa a bit (whilst researching at Ames Uni. and attending the World Food Prize, some years ago) - it is the quintessential Midwest farming state, and one where monarch butterfly populations and milkweed have notably fallen. And do I remember roadside to roadside crops? Every patch of ground covered in soya or corn? Er no actually. I seem to recall that like much of the rest of the USA there is an awful lot of mown grass. Vast areas of the stuff in fact. Alongside roads, around houses, offices, churches, shops there seems to be endless acres of this utterly useless vegetation. You can't eat it, cows can't eat it, wildlife can't live on it, and it needs mowing all the time. Why not plant wildflowers, include lots of milkweed of course. Problem solved. There is space for milkweed AND crops.

On a slight change of subject, we would all live more lightly on the earth if we ate not just less meat, but er.... more insects. They are fantastically efficient converters of plant to animal protein. In Mexico last week I tried chapulines – grasshoppers, and even brought some back with me. Delicious AND sustainable!!!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Dialectic of the Polyanthus Part Two

 You may recall a piece I wrote about the philosophical aspects of polyanthus/primulas some time ago. Anyway, I have tracked down the source of the plants, which are now increasing in ever varied variety. You can read about them here in The Daily Telegraph. An interesting bit of plant breeding.
I love that title the Telegraph gave the piece "polychrome-princess-of-the-petrol-pump".
If you want to know more about the plants, here is the producer website, but please note, they are not retailers and are unable to supply anyone other than professional growers, nor are they able to advise on suppliers - you just gotta shop around the garden centres.


If you like my blog, why not check out my e-books, which are round-ups of some writing I did for Hortus magazine back in the early 2000s, along with an interview with the amazing Beth Chatto. You can read them on Kindle, or Kindle packages for smartphones or the computer. You can find them on my Amazon page here. You will also find my soap opera for gardeners - currently running at eight episodes.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A walk in the (Mexican) woods.

Mexico has incredible biodiversity, with the state of Oaxaca having 60% of the country's higher plant species - some 6,500, that's four times the plant biodiversity of Britain. And its safe and very well organised for trekking.
An Eryngium - a classic Mexican genus - their biodiversity starts to get good here and carries on right down to Argentina.
We went with Tierraventura, a long-established eco-tourism company in the region, the pueblos mancomunados which is a unique co-operation between 8 indigenous (Zapotec) villages to promote rural development and eco-tourism.
 Latuvi, where we stayed overnight. Isolated but clearly going places. Mexico's indigenous people are finally catching up. Their strong sense of community self-help counts for a lot, indeed there is a lot going on here which the rest of us could learn from. Many of the social problems which plague other parts of the country seem absent.
Agaves are very much part of the landscape and used for a kind of crude hedging along roads.

They don't need dry conditions, sneaking up to the water when they can! 
With mostly acidic ingneous rock, Arbutus, i.e. madrone with amazing peeling bark is a minor tree element amidst pine and further down, various oaks. Arctostaphylos, i.e. manzanita species also very common, reminding me of trekking in California.

Doesn't this remind you of Deep South longleaf pine and wiregrass? According to our guides it is not a fire-mediated plant community however. The interesting news is that all this young pine is re-afforestation as the area used to be used for potato growing.
Gentians! Just like Switzerland, but much paler. Later we found another gentian species.

Is that a bullet hole in the sign?

Saw a lot of this little alchemilla. I never realised that the genus exists in the New World.

Epiphytes are what make this trip. Huge numbers especially on west facing tops of slopes or escarpments where humid air is forced up.
 A Tillandsia species, sitting on a twig like birds on a cable. Distribution varies, some species dominate in some locations, but then are replaced by others a few kms further on. 
Surely one of the strangest and most specialised of flowering plants, Spanish moss is neither Spanish nor a moss so lets stick to calling it Tillandsia usneoides. 

Cordyline/Dracaena/Yucca relatives, not sure of identity look surreal in woodland, as do agaves, but that is how they grow. I am reminded of Philip Brown's planting of cordyline and phormium in native woodland at Portmeirion in North Wales. We tend not to think of these as woodland plants but why not?

 Some orchids, ID? on damp rock, later we saw some on trees, mostly older trees. 
Always intriguing to see which plant families dominate an unfamiliar area. Mexico is famous for Salvia - we saw quite a few but this was the dry season so they were not very prominent. Also many and this is true of a lot of shrubs here are messy gappy plants in the wild, often in shade (the sun is very strong) and do not make much impact. A lot of shrubby Asteraceae, which we are not familiar with at all, Many would make good plants for horticulture in areas which get only light frosts.
Interesting to see shrubby species of general familiar as herbaceous in North America, like this gorgeous Vernonia, from which i did get seed :) . It fades to white from mauve. 
Lots of shrubby Ageratina (a group of formerly Eupatorium). this one was out in the sun and had lost its leaves but it made a great impact and a reminder that in the right place they can form nicely shaped shrubs. We have A. ligustrinum in cultivation in milder parts of Britain, but there are others here. Would be good for autumn flower. Notice the warm shirt, as it starts off jolly cold at 3000m +.

Finally the cacti, of which we saw a lot on rock outcrops on the last part of our two day trek, the most uphill and hottest part, often on rock outcrops and sometimes in company with ferns - the fern flora here has many species which die right back in the dry season. 


If you like my blog, why not check out my e-books, which are round-ups of some writing I did for Hortus magazine back in the early 2000s, along with an interview with the amazing Beth Chatto. You can read them on Kindle, or Kindle packages for smartphones or the computer. You can find them on my Amazon page here. You will also find my soap opera for gardeners - currently running at eight episodes.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Saving Mexico's plant heritage

A wonderfully colourful Tillandsia species.
A holiday in Mexico, driven from England by the endless rain. Can't really afford it, but essential for our sanity! I've been twice before, but in a work capacity. So, nice to explore an extraordinarily colourful and vibrant country, with immense cultural richness - although if you keep up with the news you realise also that this is a deeply troubled country too. It has fantastic biodiversity, which needless to say, faces all sorts of threats, although opinion polls show Mexicans to be very supportive of conservation and environmental policies.

In Chiapas, the main problem is poor farmers, driven mostly by population increase, clearing forest to farm, although a lot of the land is very steep. A problem exacerbated by the social divisions created by fundamentalist christians (missionaries funded by US churches who turn people, especially kids against their native culture), who then go off and form their own separate communities, which need yet more land. Trees are felled and the orchids, ferns and bromeliads that make up the very rich epiphyte communities in the branches are burned.

After having seen the damage caused by the development of one such village, an American living in Mexico, Craig Dietz, known as 'Cisco' rescued a load of plants and set up a plant rescue mission. His work, all over Chiapas state has provided a lot of useful data for the academic botanists who rarely get out. Local environmental organisations have linked with him - his 'Orquidario Moxviquil' - essentially a privately run botanic garden, is a great focus for their work and publicising what they do.

One of the spectacular tillandsias whose flower spike takes two years to grow, and suffers from being very popular for church and shrine decoration - creation threatened by religion! One of the things Cisco does is to encourage people in the villages to do their own plant rescue and grow epiphytes themselves.
Cisco, with Jo. He is one of those amazing guys, an old California hippy of course, who is just doing such important work, and seemingly achieving a lot, that makes the rest of us feel inadequate.

There are some wonderful whacky structures around the place, such as an amphitheatre for school parties and a greenhouse for the plants from lower down in Chiapas that cannot take the minus 3 temperatures which you can get in San Cristobal de las Casas. He's now got funding from the Mexican government for a massive new house for lower altitude plants too.

And Cisco was adamant that i had to photograph the rubbish bins. This is an incredible place, and a very good model for other regions. The world needs more Ciscos!


If you like my blog, why not check out my e-books, which are round-ups of some writing I did for Hortus magazine back in the early 2000s, along with an interview with the amazing Beth Chatto. You can read them on Kindle, or Kindle packages for smartphones or the computer. You can find them on my Amazon page here. You will also find my soap opera for gardeners - currently running at eight episodes.

Monday, January 13, 2014

A window into the past

A friend gave me this for Christmas, a little book published in 1955, which includes a whole year's worth of a cartoon strip from the 1950s from The Sunday Express. The strip illustrates gardening operations for the week using this character - Adam, who must have been based on a real person I suspect.

 Adam, with the same set lugubrious expression on his face, unsmiling, sets about showing Express readers what to do. A lot is pretty advanced stuff, unthinkably so for a popular information sources on gardening today. On one page there is some material on grafting, going over crown, cleft, saddle and tongue. There is even a reference to grafting cacti!

Some of it leaves me with the feeling that there is nothing new under the sun. There are references to using herbs to keep insects away from other plants (saves having to douse them in DDT), to growing dandelions as a spring salad, and for using marigold flowers in salads.

Express newspapers sold to the middle class and aspirational working class, i.e. people who could not afford a gardeners - unlike a lot of the folk who took The Times and The Daily Telegraph. Or the Observer, where the aristocratic Vita Sackville-West would boom on, her readers perhaps arranging a few pots, for their weekly help to actually plant. This is serious skills-based, craft gardening. It makes me think about just how many skills we have actually lost - an enormous amount of knowledge which once would have been much more widespread. So there are things we can learn from here. I liked the tip about digging up parsley roots in autumn and growing them on in pots in the greenhouse as a winter herb. There is far more knowledge here than you'd get from the bunch of dilettante lightweight presenters who currently grace our TV screens, or write columns for newspapers. There is no dumbing down; no fear of things being difficult.

There is some additional material at the back, which does include some design stuff, such as this b/w rendition of the colour wheel.
And some borders which show what aspirational gardeners might be making. By 1955 wartime rationing would have ended 3 years ago, so the food situation would have been getting better, and a lot of people would have been giving up their vegetable plots and wanting to make ornamental gardens again. The model is very much Arts and Crafts.

This looks so basic by today's standards. Plant availability was pretty low - something I shall be touching on in a future post.

The 1950s was the high point of the chemical warfare approach to gardening. Notice the reference to 'the safe insecticide' - organochlorines like DDT were safe, compared to a lot of the mercury and arsenic based compounds that had been used before! In one strip Adam recommends using mercuric chloride as a wormkiller - apparently people didn't like worm casts ruining their velvety lawns! Another horror was a technique to encourage fruit trees to grow, by ring barking them on one side and painting with lead paint!

In some ways at least we have gotten wiser.