Heirloom Bulbs & Garden History  •  Living Treasure from the Past
Jan
10
2018

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.

Read January’s News, Alerts, & Quotation.

Jan
4
2018

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?

1905 bronze sidewalk marker,
Bloomington, Illinois
1907 concrete stamp, “laid by Jas. Wigginton,” Glencoe, Illinois
“Granitoid Flagging” marker, Westmoreland Place, St. Louis
1909 concrete stamp with street names, Ypsilanti, Michigan

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!

Read January’s News, Alerts, & Quotation.

Dec
27
2017

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:

Warm Winter Woes: Iris “Lightbulbs” and Scanty Bloom – www.oldhousegardens.com

“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.”

Dec
20
2017

Frumpy No More:
Glads and Dahlias for Stylish Bouquets

Frumpy

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%.

Frumpy

“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?

Dec
13
2017

Three Great New Books:
Peonies, Bugs, & Pioneer Gardening

Three Great Books for Giving and Getting – www.oldhousegardens.com

Peony: The Best Varieties for Your Garden – This book is so new that Amazon isn’t even shipping it until later this month, but I got a copy Monday and couldn’t wait to tell you about it.

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?

Three Great Books for Giving and Getting – www.oldhousegardens.com

The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes that Inspired the Little House Books – Before she was a famous author, Marta McDowell was a customer of ours. (That's her in the photo below, visiting OHG this past September.) I loved her first book, Emily Dickinson’s Gardens, published in 2004, and since then she’s written three other gems: Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life, All the Presidents’ Gardens, and now this one.

Three Great Books for Giving and Getting – www.oldhousegardens.com
Marta (right) at OHG with Vanessa (center) and Arlene

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.

Three Great Books for Giving and Getting – www.oldhousegardens.com

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.

Nov
30
2017

Bulbs in Winter: Tips for Forcing, Tips for Storing

Bulbs in Winter: Tips for Forcing, Tips for Storing – www.OldHouseGardens.com

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.

Nov
28
2017

Iris by an Artist:
The Living Masterpieces of Cedric Morris

Iris by an Artist: The Living Masterpieces of Cedric Morris &ndahs; www.OldHouseGardens.com

Is it too early to think about spring planting?

Not if you want to snag a rhizome or two of ‘Edward of Windsor’, one of the most intriguing iris we’ve ever offered. Some call it soft pink, others pale orange, but either way it’s a light, dreamy pastel color with a surprisingly bright tangerine beard.

Unusual colors are one of the hallmarks of iris bred by British artist Cedric Morris (1889-1982) whose paintings hang today in museums around the world. Morris painted in what has been called “a distinctive and often rather primitive post-Impressionist style,” and for more than 40 years students flocked to the art school he conducted at his home, Benton End, in the English countryside.

Morris developed extensive gardens there, said to be inspired by Monet’s at Giverny, and in the early 1940s he began breeding iris. He eventually registered 45 of the best with the American Iris Society, often with names such as ‘Benton Rubeo’ (named for his pet macaw) and ‘Benton Cordelia’ (winner of the British Dykes Medal in 1955).

Iris by an Artist: The Living Masterpieces of Cedric Morris &ndahs; www.OldHouseGardens.com
‘Edward of Windsor’, 1945

Unfortunately almost all of these had disappeared from commerce by the time Sissinghurst’s head gardener Sarah Cook discovered a long-lost label for ‘Benton Nigel’ in the gardens there. After taking early retirement in 2004, Sarah launched a quest to rediscover all of Morris’s iris, and today she’s nurturing some 25 of them as holder of Plant Heritage’s National Collection of Cedric Morris Iris.

Learn more about Morris and his iris here (although please note that the photo labeled ‘Edward of Windsor’ is NOT that iris), view dozens of his paintings here (you may need to be patient as the images load), and if you like what you see, why not order now to enjoy a bit of his incredible floral art in your own backyard!

Nov
22
2017

How Bulbs Plant Themselves

How Bulbs Plant Themselves – www.OldHouseGardens.com

Nature is amazing, as every gardener knows.

For example, you’ve probably noticed that seed pods can form on your tulips, lilies, and other bulbs if you don’t deadhead them after flowering – but how do those seeds end up as bulbs six or eight inches underground, without a gardener to plant them there?

The fascinating answer involves contractile roots, blue light, and – for tulips – the evolutionary pressure of marmots.

tulip seedpod

Canadian blogger Larry Hodgson explains it all at LaidBackGardener.blog/2017/09/20/how-bulbs-plant-themselves/.

One caution, though: In an accompanying article, Larry recommends planting tulips a foot deep and says Darwin Hybrid and Viridiflora tulips often return best – but that’s not been our experience. For our tips on how to get your tulips to return and bloom year after year, visit oldhousegardens.com/HowToFall#Tulipa.

Nov
15
2017

Baseball, Love, and Dahlias

Baseball, Love, and Dahlias – www.OldHouseGardens.com

A few days after his team won the World Series this fall, Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander (former star of our hometown Detroit Tigers) married super-model Kate Upton in an intimate ceremony in Tuscany – and ‘Café au Lait’ dahlia was there!

At least we think that’s what’s decorating the aisle in this photo the happy couple posted on Instagram. The shape is right, the soft, dreamy color is right, and ‘Café au Lait’ is very much in vogue for weddings. (Although some blooms pictured have open centers, this is common late in the season when there’s less sunlight for petal production.)

To add some All Star/super-model romance to your garden, order ‘Café au Lait’ now for spring delivery!

Nov
7
2017

Was Your Street Paved with Wooden Bricks?

Was Your Street Paved with Wooden Bricks? – www.oldhousegardens.com

Workers repaving a street in Grand Rapids, Michigan, this past August were surprised by what they found buried under the layers of old asphalt – wooden paving bricks from over a century ago, many of which were still in perfect shape.

In his 1891 History of the City of Grand Rapids, Albert Baxter explains that “a change in Grand Rapids pavements from cobblestone to wood was made in 1874. The first wood pavements were made of blocks cut from four-inch pine planks set on end upon a gravel bed, . . . making a wood roadway six inches in depth.” Unfortunately the pine decayed after five or six years, so “the next advance was in the use of cedar blocks.” Cedar is naturally rot-resistant, and “the cedar block has proved much the more durable, and is the popular pavement to this day.”

Was Your Street Paved with Wooden Bricks? – www.oldhousegardens.com

I learned a lot more about the evolution of the city’s streets in Baxter’s book – and the early history of paving in your city was probably similar to it.

“Naturally the first wagon roads to the village,” he writes, followed “paths which the Indians had trod and were correspondingly crooked.” In 1835 the first right-angled streets were laid out and cleared but otherwise unimproved except for “little plank or log bridges across streams and mud holes.”

Further improvements “involved a vast amount of labor and expense.” Although Grand Rapids isn’t especially hilly, some high spots were cut down by as much as 40 feet and the resulting fill dirt used to raise low-lying streets by up to 15 feet – all without the help of mechanized equipment.

The next advance was paving, with Canal Street “macadamized” in 1847. This relatively new process involved layers of crushed stone that, with use, would bind into a solid surface. Unfortunately the mud under Canal Street proved to be too much for the macadam which was soon riddled with “mire holes.”

Was Your Street Paved with Wooden Bricks? – www.oldhousegardens.com

Next the city tried a few sections of wooden plank road, a “passably good pavement,” before turning to cobblestone in 1856. “Cobble stone well laid on a solid even bed is a good pavement, indefinitely durable,” Baxter writes, but it is “very noisy and hard upon the horses’ feet.”

“During the war period,” he continues, “not much progress was made in paving,” but starting in 1866 some streets were paved with “round stone” – which, as best as I can figure, consisted of smooth, uncrushed stones. (If you know more, please let me know.)

Wooden blocks came next, and “after this little if any stone pavement was laid except along street borders and gutters” – although Baxter does mention recent “experiments” with a brand-new paving material for sidewalks known as “artificial stone or concrete.”

If you’ve read this far, you might enjoy the entire Chapter 50 of Baxter’s History, “Village Roads and City Streets.” As you can probably tell, I found it fascinating.

Nov
1
2017

Heirloom Gardener
Spotlights the “Noah of Hyacinths”

<i>Heirloom Gardener</i> Spotlights the “Noah of Hyacinths</a>” – www.oldhousegardens.com

Our good friend Alan Shipp and his ark of hyacinths are featured in the fall 2017 issue of Heirloom Gardener magazine.

Editor Rebecca Martin tells the inspiring story of how Alan, a third-generation vegetable farmer, became the world’s leading expert on historic hyacinths and guardian of some 250 rare varieties.

Nine of Alan’s treasures are pictured in the article, and if some of the photos look familiar it’s because you’ve seen them at our website.

As Rebecca writes, shortly after Alan sold his first hyacinths he started exporting bulbs to “Scott Kunst, founder of Old House Gardens, who’s also passionate about saving old cultivars. OldHouseGardens.com is a Michigan mail-order company specializing in heirloom flower bulbs, and the exclusive U.S. dealer for Alan’s hyacinths. ‘There’s nothing like a phone call from Alan, out of the blue, telling me about some exciting new hyacinth he’s found,’ Scott says. ‘It’s like the sun suddenly bursting out of the clouds on a beautiful spring day. He’s truly an inspiration and a world treasure.’”

You can read the entire article – and explore Heirloom Gardener magazine – at heirloomgardener.com/profiles/people/heirloom-bulbs-zm0z17fzmar. Although all of Alan’s hyacinths are sold out this fall, seven other fabulous, fragrant heirloom hyacinths are still available – if you order now!

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