Nancy, believe it or not, “has about 1750 irises in her care. She keeps them in a master Excel file on her computer, and brings printouts of the file to the garden where she can make notes.
“‘I needed something that would stand up to the wind, and sheets simply tore right out of a three-ring binder,’ she explains. ‘Clipboards were unwieldy and the wind would catch papers and tear them off. Then I found a system called Pro-Click, which allows me to print right on perforated sheets and bind them myself. The sheets flip 360 degrees and I can easily open the bindings to add and remove sheets, and the paper doesn’t tear out of the binding. I haven’t chased a paper across the field since I started using it.’
“ProClick supplies are readily available online and at office suppliers. A pre-packaged presentation kit comes with 50 sheets of perforated paper, two clear front covers, two black back covers, and two reusable spines, all for less than ten dollars.”
In a pioneering article in the May 2007 issue of Horticulture magazine, Betty Gatewood sang the praises of heirloom daylilies.
“Daylily fanciers today usually dismiss [heirlooms] as historical curiosities of limited interest,” she wrote. “The oldies, they believe, have been superseded by varieties with larger, showier flowers, sturdier stems, longer blooming periods, or other perceived advantages.”
But heirloom varieties, she points out, have their own special virtues.
First of all, “they retain the classic lily shape that has largely been bred out of modern daylilies. They are supremely beautiful. For this alone they are worth seeking out. . . .
“Many are fragrant.
“Their thinner, smaller flowers mean that deadheads are not very noticeable – in contrast to modern daylilies, which are disfigured by heavy, ugly spent blooms. . . .
“The old varieties range widely in size and in bloom time – daylilies flower in my garden from mid-May until the end of September, sometimes longer.
“Their colors are clear and stable; they combine well, and most suffer little weather damage.
“They are vigorous and naturalize well.”
“Some modern varieties bloom longer,” she adds, “but I would rather have three weeks of a flower I love than months of one that is commonplace.”
You can read the entire article here. Although most of the 35 daylilies she mentions are impossible to find today, we offer eight of them on a rotating basis and we’re building up stock of ‘Libby Finch’ and ‘Neyron Rose’.
In 1879 a customer wrote to nurseryman James Vick, editor of the popular Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, praising a white dahlia that was “the prettiest thing I ever saw” with flowers that “didn’t look much like dahlias, but more like asters.”
Vick explained that “this class of dahlias is called Pompon or Bouquet,” and added that “there are two very good white sorts, White Aster and Little Snowball.”
But do the neatly rounded flowers of ‘White Aster’ really look like asters?
Not compared to the perennial asters that are commonly grown in gardens today, but back in 1879 the most popular asters – by far – were the annual bedding plants known as China asters, Callistephus chinensis. Vick devoted an entire page of his 1872 catalog to images of them, including ‘Imbrique Pompon’, which is pictured here. Although it’s a highly idealized image, I hope you’ll agree that it looks something like a pompon dahlia – and some modern China asters do, too.
But originally ‘White Aster’ looked even more like an aster because its petals were notched at the tip, making them look narrower, more numerous, and, well, more aster-like. You can see what I mean in this magnificent chromolithograph which was published full-page in Vick’s Monthly in 1878. Although none of the dahlias in the image are labeled, I’m virtually certain that’s ‘White Aster’.
Dahlia genetics are complex and unstable, though, and apparently sometime during ‘White Aster’s long history its DNA reverted to producing normal, rounded petals. (Something similar seems to be happening with ‘Old Gold’, whose petals are sometimes notched and sometimes not.) The change must have occurred sometime after 1956 because the de Jager catalog that year describes ‘White Aster’ as having “lovely laciniated flowers.” Although nowadays “laciniated” refers to the fringe-like petals of dahlias such as ‘Tsuki Yori no Shisha’, its dictionary definition is simply “cut into narrow lobes; slashed; jagged.”
Of course it could be that today’s ‘White Aster’ is simply an impostor substituted for the real thing sometime between 1956 and when we first acquired it 50 years later from one of Germany’s oldest and most respected dahlia nurseries – but, at least for now, I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt and believe that it’s the real thing minus the notching.
Could the notching reappear someday? Yes! So please keep your eyes peeled and if you ever find a notched bloom on your ‘White Aster’, contact us ASAP. With a little luck we might be able to root a cutting and eventually re-introduce the original, more aster-like ‘White Aster’.
(Thanks to garden historian Thomas Mickey who inspired this article and shared the amazing chromolithograph with us. Read his blog post “Victorian Dahlia ‘White Aster’ Still Shines” and more at American Gardening.net.)
Enormous Tulip Genome is Mapped to Help Breed “Greener” Varieties
Here’s some cutting-edge news from the 182-year-old Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society’s latest newsletter:
“A consortium of three Dutch companies . . . have sequenced tulip DNA using Oxford Nanopore Technologies and the TULIP algorithm (The Uncorrected Long-read Integration Process).
“It seems the tulip has the biggest genome that has ever been sequenced. Its size is estimated to be nearly 11 times larger than that of humans.
“Far more work lies ahead to analyze the data but the intention is to link gene sequences to particular characteristics that can be manipulated to ‘transform tulip breeding, making it faster, more predictive, and above all “greener” because we will focus on varieties that can be grown sustainably,’ according to Hans van den Heuvel of Dümmen Orange [one of the largest Dutch flower breeders and growers]. This would mean using genetic engineering to raise tulips with in-built resistance to pests and diseases, thus reducing the use of chemicals, for ecological and financial benefits.”
At Dümmen Orange’s website, van den Heuvel goes on to say that “the tulip genome makes the human genome look tiny: the entire human genome fits into one tulip chromosome.” Bas Reichert, CEO of the lab that sequenced the genome, says the project “proves that this technology is now feasible and affordable” and will “further accelerate developments in the ornamental sector.”
So are fragrant, deer-proof tulips that return and bloom for decades just around the corner? Maybe not, but it looks like our centuries’ old quest to develop better and better tulips is about to enter a momentous new stage.
“I am reading an amazing book about flowers,” one of my favorite former employees texted me recently. “It would be great for the newsletter. It is so delightful! I love all of the info on the history of flowers in different civilizations (rituals, architecture, etc.) and learning about the various pollinators.”
As it turned out, I’d bought the book a couple of years ago but set it aside after just a few pages. Brienne’s enthusiasm spurred me to give it another try, though, and I discovered that she was right – The Reason for Flowers: Their History, Culture, Biology, and How They Change Our Lives is a fascinating book.
Here’s my advice, though: skip the first 80-page section about “Sexuality and Origins,” which I found slow going. (The author is an expert on pollination ecology and evolutionary biology so he has a LOT to say about these topics.) Start instead with one of the other sections:
“Growing, Breeding, and Selling,” in which I learned that there’s evidence Neanderthals buried their dead with flowers,
“Foods, Flavors, and Scents,” which includes an ancient Egyptian perfume recipe that starts with 2000 Madonna lily flowers,
“Flowers in the Service of Science and Medicine,” which introduced me to the theory of biophilia, and
“Flowers in Literature, Art, and Myth,” which includes Ezra Pound’s evocative, two-line poem “In a Station of the Metro”: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd: / Petals on a wet, black bough.”
Once you’ve enjoyed these faster-paced sections, all of which are rich with surprising information you won’t find in most garden books, I think you’ll want to go back and read the first section. I know I did. (Thanks, Brienne!)
Who’s That Growing in My Garden? David Howard, the Man Behind the Dahlia
With its dark foliage and apricot-orange flowers, ‘David Howard’ is one of our most popular heirloom dahlias.
But who was David Howard?
Back in the late 1950s he was just a British teenager who had always loved plants. Instead of raising hell he was raising dahlias from seed, and – according to a 2004 article in The Telegraph – “one of these, a seedling from Dahlia‘Bishop of Llandaff’, was taken up by a visiting nurseryman, who named it ‘David Howard’.” Introduced in 1960, it became “an instant hit with gardeners and it remains one of the best dark-leaved dahlias around” – so good that it’s won the prestigious RHS Award of Garden Merit.
Howard went on to launch his own nursery in 1969 with £50 in the bank and a half-acre of rented land. In time it grew to be as successful as his namesake dahlia, and today Howard Nurseries Ltd. - which Howard runs with his daughter Christine, pictured here - is one of England’s largest wholesale perennial growers, annually producing over two million plants of some 1500 varieties at their farm in the beautiful Suffolk countryside.
Although Howard has always championed the best of the new, “it’s not just new varieties that attract his eye,” according to The Telegraph. “One firm favorite is a long-established bearded iris called ‘Rajah’ [introduced in 1942], which has rich burgundy falls shot with gold and butter-yellow upper petals.” Howard introduced it to leading garden designers “who have since used it to great effect in several show gardens. Its appeal has filtered down to garden centers” and it’s now a popular iris throughout the UK.
We don’t offer ‘Rajah’ – yet – but you can order ‘David Howard’ right now for planting this spring. Who knows, it may inspire you or a teenager you love to do what David Howard did and follow your garden dreams.
The First Concrete Sidewalks – And How Old is Yours?
What was snow shoveling like before sidewalks were made of concrete – and when people walked everywhere? Were wooden walks slipperier, or harder to shovel? And what about dirt walks?
These are some of the questions I got to thinking about after reading Albert Baxter’s History of the City of Grand Rapids published in 1891.
The earliest sidewalks, Baxter writes, were “usually voluntarily laid,” as needed, by property owners. “Generally they were only such as were absolutely necessary to keep the feet of pedestrians out of the mud, often not more than two or three feet wide, of planks laid lengthwise rather loosely on sleepers.” Eventually the city replaced these with walks made of “two-inch pine or hemlock plank, in general laid crosswise on stringers and well spiked down.” Widths ranged from four to eighteen feet, with “those in the residence districts averaging six feet.”
Although there were a few “handsome and solid walks of dressed stone,” Baxter notes that “the stone for these is brought mostly from other states,” which no doubt made it quite expensive. In fact, the city hall had stone sidewalks on only three of its sides.
Baxter ends by mentioning recent “experiments” with “walks of artificial stone or concrete made of cement, sand, and gravel. These are molded in blocks to suit the locality, usually of lengths corresponding with the width of the walk, and six or eight inches in thickness. The molding is done on the spot, and when dry and hardened they are apparently as solid as granite rock This walk is handsome and gives promise of being durable and permanent as stone, judging from the short trial it has had here of only two or three years.”
So how old are your concrete sidewalks? In my neighborhood the oldest date-stamped slabs date from the 1920s, but the oldest I’ve ever seen date from the first decade of the century, including those pictured here.
We’d love to see the oldest sidewalk date-marks you’ve found. Email us a photo or two and we may publish them in a future article. Happy searching – and shoveling!
Warm Winter Woes: Iris “Lightbulbs” and Scanty Bloom
Warmer than usual winters can cause all sorts of problems for plants, including bearded iris. In a recent post at the American Iris Society blog, World of Irises, Bonnie Nichols of zone-8a Dallas explains:
“In December [last year] when the Christmas Day temperature was 82 degrees ... we knew the iris bloom season was in jeopardy. And, it didn’t get better when on January 31 the high was 79 degrees.
“When I saw various bearded irises blooming in December and January, I asked friends if they thought it was rebloom or what would have been our spring bloom. We all had no idea. In April, we knew [it] was the ‘spring’ bloom because we ... had no additional bloom. Maybe 20% of tall bearded irises bloomed....
“We saw more than normal increases on some of the plants because they did not use their energy to bloom. On other plants we noticed something that we had not had much experience with – ‘lightbulb’ rhizomes. Lightbulbs are rhizomes with no increases and the roots wither away.... The rhizome increases in size and twists slightly as if it is pushed out of the ground. [If it blooms] the stalk comes up in the middle of the fan and dies back quickly. The rhizome eventually dries up and dies also....”
Commenting on Bonnie’s post, Phil Williams offered an alternative explanation: “Strong root growth is what produces good bloom here. Makes me wonder if the prolonged heat [in summer and fall] might have created a false dormancy ... and the plants did not root deeply.”
Either way, warmer temperatures are the culprit. Is that global warming? Bonnie says she’s not sure but “I’m beginning to believe it is.”
Frumpy No More: Glads and Dahlias for Stylish Bouquets
Alstroemeria and gazanias, step aside! According to a leading British newspaper, dahlias and glads are the hot new flowers for bouquets.
Although the news took a while to reach us here in Michigan, The Telegraph reported in September 2016 that “nostalgic Britons have revived an English country garden trend by decorating their homes with ‘frumpy’ British-grown flowers such as gladiolus, dahlias, and delphiniums.”
“Despite once being associated with other ‘undesirable’ stems such as chrysanthemums, experts said . . . more families are choosing these retro-style flowers instead of classics such as roses and lilies.” In fact, one major supermarket chain reported that glad sales were up 30%.
“Although gladiolus are often used in magnificent displays at venues such as Westminster Abbey, they are perfect for the less experienced arranger,” said a spokesperson at the UK National Association of Flower Arrangement Societies. “Gladiolus make a bold modern statement in a large vase or container on their own.”
For easy, on-trend bouquets from your own backyard, why not order a few of our retro-style glads and dahlias now for spring delivery?
It’s definitely “a stunner,” as co-author David Michener of the University of Michigan Peony Garden told me, with page after page of glorious photos, many by co-author Carol Adelman of Oregon’s Adelman Peony Gardens. After chapters on peony history and origins, peony types, gardening with peonies, and peonies as cut flowers, most of the book is devoted to mouth-watering close-ups and short descriptions of nearly 200 peonies.
Although I wish there were more heirlooms in it, David and Carol have put together a line-up that’s impressively diverse. Most are herbaceous peonies, but there are plenty of intersectional and tree peonies, too, all dating from 1824 to 2015, and the incredible range of colors and forms is sure to have you ooo-ing and ahhh-ing. The book’s price is impressive, too – just $19 at Amazon. So what are you waiting for?
You don’t have to be a fan of the Little House on the Prairie books or TV series to enjoy it. The illustrations – antique images, original artwork from the books, and historic and modern photos – drew me in immediately, and Marta’s writing reads more like a conversation with a friend than a dissertation. The Wilders homesteaded in a half dozen states, from New York to South Dakota, and their story is more about growing food than flowers, as well as the untamed natural world they lived in.
At the end are chapters on “Visiting Wilder Gardens” and “Growing a Wilder Garden” today, and then just before the index there’s my favorite photo: a snapshot from 1962 of Marta’s family standing in her great-aunt’s backyard – “the flower garden that I imprinted on” – next to a big beautiful swath of tiger lilies.
Garden Insects of North America, second edition – I got a copy of this book for my birthday recently, and it’s even better than I expected. First of all it’s BIG: 704 pages, weighing a hefty five pounds. It’s so well bound, though, that it opens flat for easy reading, and the cover seems so durable that I won’t hesitate to take it with me into the garden.
Then there are the photos: 3300 of them, all in full color, and helpfully organized into chapters such as “Insects That Chew on Leaves and Needles.” I admit my first reaction to them was “gross!” Most bugs, after all, aren’t as photogenic as the caterpillar on the cover, and it’s daunting to see page after page of damaged plants. But before long I was discovering insects I’d seen before but didn’t know what they were – such as the tiny, mosaic-patterned ailanthus webworm moth – and I realized this book is going to be both useful and fun.
Superstar garden blogger Margaret Roach recently called it “a must for every gardening household,” and I couldn’t agree more. One caution, though: be sure to get the brand-new second edition which is bigger and better than the 2004 original.
Bulbs in Winter: Tips for Forcing, Tips for Storing
FORCING is fun, and end-of-season bulbs are often deeply discounted at local garden centers – so why not try blooming a few indoors this winter? Some are easy enough for children, while others require more finesse. For inspiration and tips, see our Forcing Bulbs How-To page and our Forcing Bulbs newsletter archives.
STORING tender bulbs like dahlias, glads, and tuberoses is even easier (although please remember that it’s also fine to just let them go). For our expert advice, see the “Winter Care” sections throughout our spring-planted Planting and Care page.