Saturday, June 23, 2012

Damn good plants - Hydrangea Ayesha

Modern breeding has given us some truly exciting Bigleaf Hydrangeas, (Hydrangea macrophylla) but at what cost?  Sure, repeat flowering or everblooming (remontant) Hydrangeas sounds like more bang for our hard earned bucks but, its easy to get sick and tied of looking at the same old flowers, day in and day out.  These days, new Hydrangea must all be repeat flowering to hit the market, causing the non repeaters to get kicked to the curb.

This year I tried to stock the once common 'Blue Wave' but found that it had been dropped by most of growers in favor of the Endless or Forever series of Hydrangea's.  I can't blame a grower for doing so as they have to find a cash crop to keep the doors open and the business going.  However, I find it quiet alarming to see some of the older hybrids begin to fade away as they can 't match the traits of today new wave of plants.

One such cultivar that we shouldn't loose is the increasing rarer H.'Ayesha', so radically different that it would be criminal to loose it from the trade.  When it was first release after World War II it caused quiet the stir and still does.  Its unique character is the cupped sepals (modified flower petals) that resemble little spoons.  Too this day, since it was first revealed no other Hydrangea has come close with similar characteristic's making this stand out from the pack even though its not a repeater bloomer.  It is said to have a fragrance but  I have been unable to pick up on this.  However, my sense of smell isn't that good, I couldn't even pick up the aroma of a Mock orange while everyone else around me could.

Foliage is a waxy dark green with a thick cuticle that holds well and doesn't wilt easily in summer heat but like all Macrophylla types in Northern Virginia, afternoon shade is preferred.  Hydrangea's require moist locations and will quickly become stressed in dry spots.  The name should give it away with 'Hydr' meaning water as part of its name.  The soils pH will effect the color of the blooms, acid for blue and alkaline for pink.  For some reason they seem to always show up pink in containers but once in the ground adjust better to the color type you'd prefer.  If blue is your desired color, don't use fertilizers that contain high amounts of Phosphorus, often used to promote flowering.  This prevents the plants uptake of Aluminum that changes the color to blue and thus keeping them pink.  Aluminum sulfate is very effective at acidifying the soil and producing better color but always follow the recommend dosage as it can burn the roots of your Hydrangea's if given too much. Give 'Ayesha' room to grow as it will reach 4 to 5 feet in height and width.

Plants don't need to flower constantly to provide us joy in the landscape.  The joy of seeing the first Crocus or Snowdrop in late winter, early spring gives us something to look forward too although fleeting. Any longer and there's a chance that the effect may be different.   When you start taking flowers for granted, it looses that special quality.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Stewed Hydrangea anyone?

Do you remember hearing of a lawsuit from some parents of a child suing a manufacturer of a stroller for not labeling that the infant must be removed before folding the stroller?   Its sad but true that we need the manufacturer to point out in writing, what is obvious to any normal person, that an infant in the chair will prevent the stroller from folding up and of course may injury the said infant.

This was brought home today when a nice customer brought back an ailing  Hydrangea that she had just purchase the day before.  The tops had turned brown and flopped over and it had a strong odor of stewed cabbage.  Pathogens or watering couldn't of turned this Hydrangea into such a state with in 24 hours so what was the cause?  Well, it turned out that she had left this once upon a time, beautiful plant in the back of the car without a thought of how hot it was going to become (late June, 96 degrees outside).  Needless to say it boiled on the back seat hence that stewed cabbage smell.  Of course, not willing to own her mistake she brought it back to get a refund!

Do we really need to spell out the obvious like removing the infant before you fold the stroller or have I just woken from a coma without realising it, to find that everyone has gone a little funny.  Maybe we need to rewrite our planting brochure to start with:

1. Do not keep plants in hot cars, they will die!
2. Remove container from roots at planting or they will die!
3. Green side up or they will die!
4. Yes, you do need to water it and take care of it or they will die!
5. Plastic plants are available should you fail with steps 1 thou 4, they won't die! 

Its like the banker robber in Germany suing the bank after the teller realized he was hard of hearing and triggering the alarm.  The lawsuit was for exploiting his disability! There's no winning sometimes.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Tea time

Once upon a time, long long ago, as all good stories begin, a developing colony stood on the frontier of becoming the next biggest tea producer in the world.  That colony turned out to be the United States and yes, one of the alternative crops that were considered for production in the south was tea.  In fact there is still  two working tea plantation in mainland America, with the biggest in South Carolina, the Charleston tea plantation  that produces the 'American Classic tea' that is the official tea of the White House.

Modified Tea harvester at Charleston Tea Plantation,
believed to be the only one in the world 
The history of both Tea and the United States never had a comfortable time together.  Dumping tea into Boston harbor was a revolt against Britain's taxation of this commodity without having any colonial representation regarding matters of the new world back in England.  Some would say it was the flash point to the beginning of the war of Independence so its not surprising that tea never really caught on here.  Tea is labor intensive and expensive to harvest, costing eight time more here per pound than in Asia.  The highest grades of tea are often  pick by hand to ensure the most tender of shoots are selected.  A modified cotton/tobacco harvester is used at the Charleston tea plantation to keep overhead cost low but isn't as precise when harvesting.

Camellia sinensis or Chinese Camellia is the species whose leaves are used in the production of tea.  There are two varieties, a little leaf, used for Chinese tea and the bolder flavored big leaved used to make Assam Tea.  Both are processed differently even with in their own groups to attain different levels of oxidation that change the flavors or can be blended just like wine to achieve a desired taste.  Some can be cut, brewed or steamed fresh while others are roasted or dried to intensify the flavors.  Even the twigs can be boiled to make a tea.  The main groups however include, Green, black, white and Oolong teas.

Chinese Camellia are found growing naturally from mainland China and into Southeastern Asia but has be cultivated across the world where the environment permits.  It is a large shrub to small tree but is usually kept clipped to around 6ft when used for its young leaves.  The fall flowers are a simple creamy white, fragrant,  five petaled  bloom that when compared to other Camellia's won't impress but will readily produce seeds can be pressed to extract tea oil used for seasoning and cooking oil too.  Tea oil should not to be confused with Tea Tree Oil found in a native Australian tree called Melaleuca alternifolia, a Myrtle relative.

Before you can make your own tea we need to look at how best to grow them so you can start your own backyard plantation even in Northern Virginia.  I'll cover the tea making process on a later post once I've had a chance of growing mine on for a bit.  Its best to get the plants growing for at least 3 years before you beginning plucking them for a brew so be patience.

Typical Tea plantation in Asia
All Camellias like well drained soil that is moisture retentive without becoming water logged.  Soil should be slightly acidic so incorporating sphagnum moss peat or a reasonable substitute is recommended.  Plants are hardy to zone 7 or higher but adapts well to container growing if your in lower zone and are prepared to move them inside a house or conservatory for a winters rest.  Full sun or light shade is recommended but for us in Northern Virginia, watch out for winter dessication where the foliage will freeze dry on the plant if exposed to sun and wind without access to available moisture.   Tea Camellia's prefer a minimum of 50 inches of rainfall a year to be productive so be prepared to supplement in periods of drought.  All things said, its not a hard plant to get established, the trickier part is the actual tea processing part.

So for now lets get our Camellia's happily growing in the ground and stop for a quick spot of tea.  All this writing has worked up quiet a thirst and the civilized thing to do would be to satisfy it.  All that's left to say is one lump or two..........Until I write again

Monday, June 11, 2012

Gardening the Redneck way

A new puzzling trend has hit the garden center in the last couple of weeks that's been causing quiet the stir.  It seems the niche market this year is 'fairy gardens', small little displays of plants with tiny benches or other doll accessories depicting miniature landscapes.  Being a guy the concept is definitely lost on me , but my daughter will change my perception if she ever saw it. One thing did stand out that there's a fine line between shabby chic and plain ol'redneck landscaping and this borders right on the fringe of normal.

How can taking an old shoe and planting it up be any different than an old tire!  In fact was shabby chic gardening really taken from an idea in a trailer park but 'prettied' up to make it more mainstream.  I can almost see Martha Stewart discussing paint ideas for your tractor tire.  What do you think a mullet would look like on her?  I have way too much time on my hands.

Please don't get me wrong, I don't mean to use the term 'Redneck' in a negative way as I see them as part of the fabric of American civilization but credit needs to be given to them for developing this original concept.  I don't think it started as a  'Fairy' garden, but instead a way to recycle trash into treasure (see they're leaders of the whole green moment too!).  'Fairies' gives it that "Je ne sais quoi" needed to market it us culturally judgemental city slickers.  They got one up on us!

One day someone will write a book on 'Gardening the Redneck way' and when that happens we won't me thinking of them as simple folk, instead 'Inovators of the new modern American garden'!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Damn Good plants - Cornus angustata ‘Empress of China’

Finally, after several years of searching I've the elusive evergreen Dogwood 'Empress of China'.  This Dogwood is quiet remarkable, apart from the claims of it being an evergreen the flowers are heavily profuse and displays for a prolonged period.  We've had the trees in stock for the last 3 weeks, delivered covered in buds which have now opened into a glorious flowering  tree.  I've been told to expect the flowering to last for up to 6 weeks and this looks possible!  To top it off its the last of the Dogwoods to bloom, extending the total bloom time from Cornelian-cherry Dogwood (Cornus mas) starting in March, to our native (Cornus florida) and then the Asian Dogwood (Cornus kousa) ending with this one in June.

15 gallon plant at the nursery

Until recently it was only available from Wayside Gardens, a mail order nursery based in South Carolina, though it managed to escape  into some mainstream nurseries.   The benefit is that larger plants can now be supplied as you have to limit the size of the plant when shipping through the mail.  'Empress of china' was a selection made by John Elsley , Director of Wayside back in 1992 from some 2-3 year seedlings and after trials applied for a patent application in 2002.  The original species was only introduced for the first time in the U.S. in 1980 from a collection made by Ted Dudley of the U.S. National Arboretum.  It takes a long time for new tree cultivars to come to market unlike perennials that can be turned and burned in a shorter period.

Proven to be a reliable evergreen in the south with good vigor and sets a heavy bloom, so thick you don't see the tree through the flowers.  Small strawberry like fruit are produced in place of the spent blooms that's a favorite of songbirds in late summer.  Foliage is said to remain on the tree through the winter and shed in spring to keep it fresh and never naked but some growers claim that it may not be the case for us further north from the Carolina's.  Either way it has lots of redeeming features that won't disappoint us in the garden.

'Empress' has shown to tolerate the heat and humidity in the south, however requires a break from afternoon sun.  I've found most Dogwoods are sensitive to the high heat and drought  conditions in summer where there swallow roots can bake when exposed to afternoon sun.  However, too much shade will create a drop in flower production and prevent it living up to its full potential.  Just like azaleas, it will flower best in full sun but finding that balance of filtered light can be a challenge.

Don't let its shrubby form fool you into thinking it will stay small, expect a 15ft plus tree both high and wide, so leave plenty of breathing room either side.  From the photos I've seen it appears to have a bushy, rounded form instead of the openly horizontal shape we see with our native C.florida.  For all the plant geeks out there trying to figure out the proper naming of this small tree, well, let just say it might be in a witness protection program.  Here is a list of what you might find it under:

Cornus angustata
Cornus elongata
C. capitata ssp. angustata
C. capitata var. angustata
Cornus kousa v. angustata
C. kousa v. angustifolia
Cornus elliptica

At the end of the day it doesn't change the price of gas to concern us that much, but interesting to see how it can hide away from sight.  I for one will be trying to find a place in my garden for it to live as long as I can seek it past the minister of finance (being the wife) who will probably bust me for yet another garden expense!