Wednesday, December 18, 2013 3 comments

Oldies but goodies, poinsettias remain a holiday fave

When we think about “decking the halls” for the holiday season, most of us envision boughs of holly, evergreen wreaths and fragrant firs or pine. But in addition to traditional greenery, one plant has become a Christmas icon -- the poinsettia. With more than 65 million sold each year, this colorful plant has moved from the desert into three-quarters of American homes to become a holiday superstar.
The poinsettia is a Euphorbia, a succulent from the arid regions of North and Central America. It was named after Joel R. Poinsett, a Charleston native who was appointed ambassador to Mexico in 1825. Poinsett was a keen gardener who was captivated by the plant’s vivid color. The bright scarlet objects many thought to be “flowers” were not flowers at all, but petal-like leaves called bracts. The actual flowers are those little yellow dots at the center of the bracts.
Because the yellow flowers and attractive bracts emerge during the holiday season, the poinsettia has been a part of Christian celebrations for hundreds of years. In the 17th century, Franciscan priests in Mexico carried poinsettias in nativity processions. The Aztecs were said to have prized the plant for its color and medicinal properties.

Although poinsettias were well known in Mexico and Central America, it was a family of German immigrants who spied the plants in the desert and created the Christmas favorite we know today.
In the early 1900’s, Albert Ecke and his family left Germany to establish a farm in California. One day his son Paul noticed an unusual plant growing in the wild and decided to develop it as a cut flower. Before long, the family’s fields of poinsettias in Hollywood became a huge attraction.

In the 1920’s an amateur hybridizer in New Jersey bred a poinsettia called Oak Leaf, which was the first to resemble modern varieties. The Eckes family further developed the plant, then devised a system to distribute cuttings to nurseries throughout the country. Today, the Paul Ecke Ranch holds the patents on most popular varieties and is the largest supplier of poinsettias in the world.

 Of course, the traditional red poinsettia remains the top holiday choice, but interest in white, cream, pink and mottled varieties is on the increase. In fact, the popularity of the red poinsettia has been steadily falling over the past decade thanks to the introduction of new and more colorful varieties each year. (However, I must say the blue ones creep me out.)
 In addition to new colors, we can thank breeders for giving us plants that are longer lasting and more vigorous. Today’s poinsettias aren’t too fussy and are relatively easy to care for. Above all, don’t over-water -- plants should be kept on the dry side but don’t allow them to get bone dry. Keep them away from drafts and sources of heat like a fireplace.

Poinsettias like bright light and will drop leaves and get leggy in a location that’s too dark. A window will provide the light and cool nighttime temperatures plants need to thrive.
 It’s possible to keep a poinsettia alive and blooming from year to year, but like most people, I toss mine out about mid-February. It seems sad and cruel to throw away something that was so lovely during the holidays. But by next Christmas, another showy poinsettia will catch my eye, and this year’s beautiful blooms will be just a happy memory.

Here’s hoping your holiday season will be filled with happy memories, too.

PS We’ve all heard the rumors that poinsettias are poisonous. Apparently this urban legend started in 1919 when it was reported that a two-year-old had died after eating a leaf. According to the American Society of Florists, poinsettias have been tested more than any other plant and the verdict is they are safe for people and pets. But you still wouldn’t want to eat one.
Wednesday, November 20, 2013 10 comments

American rose lovers, here are the David Austin English beauties for 2014

More glorious English roses are bound for American gardens

In a time when pumpkins and mums have been dominating the garden landscape, it’s a treat to see some of my beloved roses making their final appearances of the season. 

These last roses of summer can often be the sweetest – the nip in the air deepens the colors and the blooms themselves are sometimes a bit larger than usual.

However, after a couple of early and ugly freezes, most of the roses are now gone and all that is left is a sad looking garden filled with dead leaves from surrounding trees, untidy bushes and mushy annuals.

But there is no need to despair! One look at the calendar tells us that in just a few short months, we will be back in business, sprucing up bedraggled bushes and adding brand new roses to the mix!

Loved Cottage Rose, but so did blackspot
Of course as Dirt Diaries readers know, I am a huge fan of David Austin English Roses, and quite often shout their praises from the housetops. But to be honest, not all of the varieties I’ve planted over the years made the grade in my garden. A few of my favorites from years gone by did fall prey to disease and malaise. (To find out if one of your prized older English roses is still highly recommended, check for a small flower next to its name in the Austin catalog.)

As my rosarian friend Paul Zimmerman points out, it has been 13 years since Knock Out was introduced and focused attention on the health of the overall bush, not just the beauty of the bloom.

However, even before Knock Out exploded on the scene, top hybridizers including David Austin were working diligently on addressing disease resistance issues. Over the past decade that hard work has paid off with the creation of plants that are both alluring and healthy. 

This year’s introductions may be the most disease resistant ever.

And they may also be the most beautiful and prolific.

Here are the new David Austin 2014 introductions to tempt you:


Michael Marriott, Technical Manager of David Austin English Roses, believes Boscobel may well be the most popular American introduction for 2014.

According to Martin Ogden, the garden designer also known as The Teddington Gardener, it is an absolute beauty with rich colors that vary from peach to pink as temperatures warm up or cool down. As the red buds open, they gradually develop into sumptuous blooms in the form of a classic rosette. Catalog copy tells us “the numerous small petals are of varying shades, mingling to provide the most pleasing effect.”

Martin also reports that Boscobel has the strongest fragrance of almost any recent English rose.

By the way, Boscobel House was built in 1632. It is famous for the fact that Charles II hid there in an oak tree, while being pursued by Cromwell’s soldiers during the English Civil War.



Of course I am a sucker for the red Austins (Darcey Bussell, Sir John Betjeman, Munstead Wood, Tess) so Heathcliff was a must have for my garden.  He is described as having very large, fully double, rosette shaped flowers of deep crimson. Teddington Gardener says this rose is reminiscent of Falstaff or L.D. Braithwaite. The color stays red and does not meander over to purple. The growth is strong and upright.

There is some disagreement on fragrance – some say it has none, others report the scent is a blend of Old Rose with a hint of cedar wood.   

So the jury is still out on some of the attributes of the rose, but I am more than willing to give this bad boy a try.

 Royal Jubilee

A unique rose for a unique occasion – it was introduced in celebration of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.

Royal Jubilee features large rounded flowers of deep pink with the petals curving in. It is vigorous and bushy and will form a large shrub 5 feet or more in height. It has a strong rich fruity fragrance with hints of blackcurrant.

The Lark Ascending 

There is often a big difference between the way David Austin English roses perform in the UK and how they do here. Lark Ascending may be one that is so robust, it will need to be trained as a climber in parts of the US.

Martin Ogden tells me it is a very different creature, a very healthy, bigger plant for the back of the border or for growing with wilder roses. It sports semi double blooms of light apricot (that are said to be luminous) with a light fragrance that varies from flower to flower.  


I’ve read that some gardeners consider Tranquility to be the best of the white Austin roses. Martin says it is a formal rose, more hybrid tea in style with a touch of lemon in the center.

The creamy blooms are very weatherproof and have a light apple fragrance. Its large sprays of flowers are held upright and are framed by light green Musk Rose foliage. I can’t wait to see this one in bloom! 

The Lady's Blush has a creamy white eye
I have two other Austin roses coming next spring: The Lady’s Blush and Fighting Temeraire. I wrote about them in the 2013 intro posting. The Lady’s Blush is a pure soft pink with a white eye in the center of the semi-double blooms. I’ve heard from my UK friend Richard Stubbs (who also works at the David Austin nursery) that it is always in bloom in his garden.
Fighting Temeraire

Although Fighting Temeraire isn’t my color fave, it is getting rave reviews so I will add it to my new “yellow” bed that includes Midas Touch, Julia Child, Sungold and an unknown grocery store mini that is a bloom machine.

Once I’ve had a chance to see how they all perform in the mountains, I’ll let you know which of these English beauties catches my eye and captures my heart.

Thursday, November 7, 2013 11 comments

The window boxes of Nantucket: gorgeous, then gone

Recently we were invited to join some dear friends for a few days on the island of Nantucket. I had never been to that part of the country before and had no clue what to expect.

Sankaty Head lighthouse
I knew the roses were pretty much gone for the year, but I was hoping to discover what else might be blooming in mid-October. So after a flight from Boston on a plane not much larger than my living room sofa, I set off to explore the island that was once the foremost whaling port in the world.  
Cranberries are still harvested from this bog

Nantucket is 3.5 miles wide and 14 miles long. The entire island was designated a historic landmark in 1966. There are quiet harbors, lighthouses, sandy white beaches, cobblestone streets, imposing mansions, widows’ walks, museums, shops – even cranberry bogs. There are no traffic lights, neon signs or fast food joints.


A triple-decker

There is much to see wandering around town and the waterfront. As a result of strict building codes introduced in the 1950s, the gray-shingled homes, cottages and businesses look much like they did two hundred years ago. But despite the charm of the architecture and lure of the harbor, it was the sight of so many gorgeous window boxes that captured my attention.

The first thing that struck me was that no two houses had similar window box designs. Some featured a mixture of annuals or perennials, but others were a creative combination of fruits or succulents. Then during my second day of window box mania, I noticed some of the displays had disappeared.
Later that afternoon, I wandered down to one of the beaches where I spied a pick-up truck overflowing with all manner of lush plants. As I moved closer (to take a picture of course) I could see the beauties had been pulled out of the window boxes, thrown in the back of the truck and were now headed for the town dump.

So many gorgeous plants on their way to be trashed
It seemed such a shame, but the workers informed me “the season was over” and the owners wanted the boxes dismantled and stored for the winter. They were not able to give any of the plants away, although they said there was a very happy man at the dump waiting with a large garbage bag to take away as many plants as he could carry.

Good for him.
Our visit was magical, but too quickly came to an end. I spent most of the last day on the island checking out the Nantucket lightship baskets (I couldn’t afford one) and investigating quiet lanes where a few window boxes remained.

Thanks to my Nikon, they will live forever.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013 11 comments

HIgh class blooms and high flyers, Part 2

The Conservatory at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens

Last year I wrote about my trip to judge the Garden Club of Virginia Rose Show at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens in Richmond. I talked about the splendid blooms that stole the show, and the Butterflies Live! exhibit that stole my heart.

Randy Scott, Courtesy Tom Mayhew
I’ve just returned from judging the 2013 show and it turned out to be even more spectacular than last year.

Once again, Richmond’s Boxwood Garden Club treated the judges like visiting royalty by throwing a cocktail in the Lewis Ginter rose garden, followed by an excellent dinner (with lots of fine wine) in the Robins Tea House.

Lewis Ginter is a historic property (once owned by Patrick Henry) that features over 50 acres of gorgeous gardens and 9,000 types of plants. More than a dozen themed gardens include a Healing Garden, Sunken Garden, a Victorian garden, and an interactive Children’s Garden. There’s also a classical domed conservatory, a Garden Café, Tea Room and the most enticing gift shop I’ve visited.
A recent addition, but a stunner

The rose garden features more than 80 varieties and 1800 roses selected for repeat performance, fragrance and disease resistance. The visitors I saw were literally spoiled for choice when it came to finding the most sweetly scented blooms in the display.
Crystalline, Courtesy Tom Mayhew

If you are ever anywhere near Richmond, you owe it to yourself to take time to stop and see what I believe is one of the finest gardens in the east.

Snuffy, Courtesy Tom Mayhew
While the judges were chatting during the cocktail party, we heard some of the top exhibitors from several districts would be bringing blooms to the show. The next morning it was easy to see the rumors were correct as we had trouble deciding which bloom would be tapped for Queen.

In the end, Randy Scott took top honors with Crystalline and Snuffy close behind as King and Princess.

Mexican Bluewing
Once the judging was complete, I made a beeline for the North Wing of the Conservatory. I’d heard Butterflies Live! was back and couldn’t wait to have all those brilliant jewels fluttering around me once again.
Dad, is that you?

This year, a Chocolate Pansy (Junonia iphita) landed on the sleeve of my suit jacket and refused to budge. According to lore, this means a loved one from the past has come to say hello, or good luck will be coming my way. (I hope both legends are true.)

I also saw different varieties this trip including a False Zebra Longwing, Common Morpho, Mexican Bluewing and the Julia.

Sadly, the show moves on.

Common Morpho
The Garden Club of Virginia Show moves to a new venue every two years, so this was going to be my farewell trip to Richmond.

Our time there simply flew by. I will miss Lewis Ginter and many of my dear rose judging friends I don’t get to see very often now that we’ve moved to the mountains of North Carolina.

But between the hugs, the high class roses and high flying beauties, I have memories that will lift my spirits for months to come.


Sunday, October 6, 2013 8 comments

David Austin is golden at Chelsea and Hampton Court

The Albrighton Rambler, a new Austin intro at Chelsea

I’ve been away the past couple of weeks on a mini vacation judging roses shows, visiting friends and family as well as stopping by two of my favorite botanical gardens. So I am a little behind on The Dirt Diaries, but I promise to post pictures from Norfolk Botanical Gardens and Lewis Ginter very soon.

In the meantime, I’ve been wanting to share some of the amazing photos of David Austin English roses from two of the summer’s biggest flowers shows across the pond.

Like many companies in England and Europe, David Austin’s nursery has been affected by atrocious weather this year, but it didn’t stop them from scooping up gold medals at Chelsea and the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show.

Their rose garden exhibit (above) staged in the Grand Pavilion snagged a 17th Gold for the firm at the 100th Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show. The garden included 500 roses including four new varieties The Lady Gardener, The Albrighton Rambler, Thomas a Becket and Carolyn Knight.

David JC Austin said their approach was different than in recent years, and possibly a bit risky. 

We will not see Thomas a Becket in the US till at least 2015

Austin's exclusive china, English Rose

Instead of basing the design on grand public gardens as has been done in the past, they focused on providing inspiration for private gardens. He noted people could easily recreate a corner of the Austin display at home, then just sit back, relax and enjoy the wonderful fragrance of the roses.

Henry VIII"s favorite royal residence now hosts an impressive flower show

The RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show also awarded the firm Gold for the best exhibit in the marquee.

When they found out the theme was to be “Romance and Roses”, the Austin folks felt they almost had an unfair advantage. “After all, we are fortunate to have introduced some of the most romantic roses being grown in gardens today,” the great hybridizer said with a smile.

Another gold winner at the BBC Gardener's World show
Indeed, the display jam-packed with many-petalled, fragrant blooms and old world charm definitely caught the eyes (and I’d guess, noses) of the judges.

"Tea and cakes" at Hampton Court
By the way, David Austin English Roses also won major awards in France and Japan this year.

But I wondered how much beauty readers could handle in one posting.


          Many thanks to David Austin Roses for sharing their photos of the Chelsea and Hampton Court winners.

Thursday, September 12, 2013 8 comments

Summer, we hardly knew ye

Sometimes it rained so hard we couldn't see the waterfall

Wait a minute! Wasn't it just a couple of days ago we were visiting Christopher C and his fabulous Mom, Bulbarella, enjoying their wildflower gardens and stunning rhododendrons?

Drop dead gorgeous Rhodys in the Carrie gardens outside Clyde

Biltmore in May

Then wasn't it yesterday we spent Memorial Day checking out the winners of the first Biltmore International Rose Trials? It certainly seems like yesterday. So how come the calender now says September 12th? And what happened to June, July and August?

Looking back, our summer was literally washed away. We had over 30 inches of rain in July alone, and spent most of August looking out the window at dark skies and watching the veggie garden drown.

And of course, a sea of blackspot washed over the roses.

Ironweed (a member of the aster family) and Joe Pye
But now we've actually had a week with sunny skies! So I've been out exploring, appreciating the early fall beauties that are strutting their stuff right this minute. I am loving the Joe Pyes, sunflowers, phlox, dahlias and a plant I've never seen before, Ironweed.

Summer may have evaporated, but I'm going to savor every minute of this September show. Because I am certainly not ready for mums, pumpkins and black cats.

A field of sunflowers near Highlands
Red Bleeding Heart (Clerodendrum thomsoniae)

Sedum looking like refreshing cones of strawberry ice cream

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail and buddleia

Female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail and phlox

Green-headed coneflowers (I think) growing along our trail