Greetings from PDN! Thanks to everyone who visited our Summer Open House, especially those from the distant locales of New York, Michigan, Florida, Brazil, and even Algeria. It was very cool to chat with one of our brave soldiers, who was home on break from Afghanistan’s Bagram Air Force Base. He was particularly interested to learn that we grow a couple of Afghan native plants, including the bizarre Ficus afghanistanica.
There are probably quite a few other plants that we could grow from Afghanistan, although the prospects of botanizing there look grim for the foreseeable future. Interestingly, Bagram Air Force Base sits just below 5,000′ elevation, and is the same latitude as Greenville, South Carolina, so the prospects of a climate match is quite good.
We’re still experiencing some shipping delays due to seemingly incessant heat, so we thank you for your patience. Since we are dealing with live plants and we want them to arrive at your garden that way, we are simply unable to ship when the temperatures exceed much more than 90 degrees F. If our yearly averages hold, we are overdue for some cooler days soon.
We’ve spent much of the last month working on our fall catalog, deciding which plants to offer and which plants didn’t make the cut. We are very excited with our new offerings which you will see when our catalog goes in the mail in another week. Among our many exciting new introductions are five new rain lilies from Indonesia breeder Fadjar Marta. Fadjar continues to expand what we thought was impossible in the genus zephyranthes with these first new releases since 2007. You can see images of our entire rain lily collection including those slated for Fall 2010 and Spring 2011 introduction by clicking here.
In other plant news, let’s talk about Echinacea ‘Pink Poodle’, which we first listed in 2009. Well, as we say in the nursery business…woof, woof, woof. Yes, the name “Poodle” should have clued us in, but indeed, it turned out to be a real dog. While we first trial almost all of the new plants that we offer, there are a small number that we will occasionally list from trusted breeders, or from where we regularly monitor certain breeding programs. On a very rare occasion we find that a stray dog has made it into the nursery and such was the case with Echinacea ‘Pink Poodle’. After two years in our garden, only one flower out of several hundred turned out to be the nice double that was pictured by the breeder. The rest resembled the insanely ugly Echinacea ‘Doppelganger’, which must be in its parentage. Anyway, we have discarded our remaining stock and are offering credits to anyone who purchased this from us…just contact our office at firstname.lastname@example.org. We apologize for letting this one get past us.
Here at PDN, we’ve celebrated a milestone recently, as our database indicates that we have now passed the 20,000 mark for killing plants. 20,194 dead accessions (different plants) is actually our current total, so don’t even think about complaining that you have a brown thumb. Our dead/alive plant rate now stands around 50%, but since our goal is trialing, experimenting, and learning the possible parameters under which each plant will grow, these numbers are actually a good thing. Granted, if you look at the numbers from our cost for purchasing all of those plants, perhaps one might not consider this a success, but this is what allows us to offer better and often different cultural information than what you might normally read. I’m constantly reminded of the late Dr. J.C. Raulston’s quote, “If you’re not killing plants, you’re not growing as a gardener.” No truer words were ever spoken. I wonder if the Guinness Book of World Records has a category that we fit into?
So, why do plants die? Obviously, there are many causes, and sometimes isolating the specific reason isn’t as easy as we would like. When confronted with a dead plant, especially one planted within the last couple of years, the first step is to inspect the root system. Just like humans, plant autopsies must be done as soon as possible after death to get meaningful results. If you tug on the dead stem, you will find one of three things…no root system remaining, a root system that has never emerged from the original root ball/container shape, or roots which have spread nicely into the surrounding soil.
If you encounter no roots, then the roots were probably either eaten by a vole (thumb sized tunnel will be found nearby) or the roots rotted, which often indicates a poorly drained soil or soil borne disease. If the roots are still in the form of the original container, your plant dried up and died due to poor planting practices. Plants in containers are grown primarily in pine bark, and during the growing season in a nursery they are typically watered at least twice every day…anything less and the plant dies. By not breaking up the root ball and removing most of the potting soil, the roots assume they are still in the pot. It is virtually impossible to apply enough water to keep the root ball moist once it has been planted. If you are able to water enough to keep the root ball moist, the surrounding ground will most likely then be too wet.
When the roots on dead plants have grown out into the surrounding soil, it is more difficult to diagnose the cause, due to the large number of potential problems. These include adaptability in your climate, improper growing conditions, toxins in the surrounding soil, diseases, and propagation issues (i.e. on cutting propagated perennials, not having a growth bud below the soil surface).
At Plant Delights we try to determine the hardiness zone limits, so we kill quite a few plants simply because they aren’t winter or heat hardy in our climate. That being said, you can’t automatically assume that a plant isn’t hardy in a particular climate just because it dies once or even twice. Often, we kill the same plant several times until we get it in exactly the right location. Sometimes it’s just a matter of moving the plant a few feet away for it to be successful. Dr. Raulston once mentioned in a lecture that it was impossible to grow Romneya coulteri (California Poppy) in our climate. We took up the challenge and killed 15 plants over a 20 year period before we succeeded in getting it established. We could have easily given up after the first couple of times and assumed like everyone else that it simply didn’t like our climate.
Many plants were very late to emerge this summer, including many of our curcumas, bananas, and elephant ears. Our Colocasia ‘Illustris’ didn’t emerge until late July and some of our bananas didn’t resprout until mid-July. Obviously, the length of time the ground was frozen this winter had a great effect on many of our “hardy tropicals”. I was recently comparing colocasia survival notes with our neighbor and noted aroid expert Alan Galloway, bemoaning the fact that several of our colocasia, most notably Colocasia ‘Mojito’ and Colocasia ‘Diamond Head’, had died in what was a relatively mild winter…except for the long duration of frozen ground. Alan, who lives less than a mile away, had good survival on all of the plants we lost. He explained that the had noticed for years that elephant ear tubers work their way up through the soil, and after three years the tubers rise to the soil surface where they are most likely to be killed. He plants all his elephant ears 6-8″ deep, and in the fall re-checks the tubers after the first frost, replanting any shallow tubers. This is the obvious explanation why we would sometimes lose well-established colocasias during a seemingly mild winter. We are therefore changing our planting recommendations for elephant ears.
As a nursery, dying plants also create a problem when dealing with narcissistic gardeners, who by their nature, must blame their lack of success on someone else. We dealt with a particularly unintelligent gardener last year who, between constantly repeating his gardening credentials, insisted that it was our fault that several of his plants which came from us died…all after growing fine for an entire season. This lack of common sense kept the gardener from looking for what might have actually gone wrong. Several years ago we had another gardener who purchased plants at an Open House day and proceeded to leave them in her closed car while she stopped to shop on the way home…on a day when the temperature topped 100 degrees F. Sadly, this customer was also unwilling to take any responsibility for her lack of common sense and demanded that it was our fault. Thank goodness it wasn’t children that she left in the car.
While plants may not always die immediately, they often grow for a few years and then decline in health. Evaluating your garden conditions is the best place to start when your plants fail to thrive. Factors in their decline include changes in root competition, the amount of overhead light, soil nutrient balance, soil moisture, and the balance of fungi/bacteria in the soil. Many gardeners miss subtle changes such as these, which happen slowly over time. I recommend testing your soil every 2-3 years to keep an eye on soil nutrition. Remember that some short-lived plants prefer a soil that has a higher bacterial/fungal content. When soil is disturbed/tilled, the balance of bacteria as compared to fungi increases, since fungi resent soil disturbance. Conversely, the longer a soil stays undisturbed, the higher the fungi content becomes as compared to the bacterial population which favors longer lived plants. Other plants simply like to be divided every few years…great examples are farfugiums, daylilies, and Japanese iris. Because of these factors, we’ve been spending quite a bit of time this summer moving plants that were no longer performing as they should.
When moving plants in the summer, the key to success is good irrigation after the plants are transplanted. Obviously, soil moisture is important, but equally so is keeping some moisture on the foliage until the plants are re-established. For this purpose, I like to use sprinkler hoses. Compared to a drip hose, which leaks water under low pressure, sprinkler hoses spray tiny, short, fine streams of water at a slightly higher pressure, creating a modified misting effect. Sprinkler hoses can be used right side up or upside down, depending on the desired effect. Unfortunately, most of the sprinkler hoses available are cheap, very poor quality hoses such as what you will often find at the big box stores, where the price point is far more important than quality. My experience echoed the online reviews I found, describing cheap hoses which rarely lasted more than 1-2 waterings before becoming worthless when the holes blew out, resulting in no watering at the far end of the hose and a flood at the front end. My search led me to Flexon™ brand sprinkler hoses, which have performed wonderfully.
After transplanting a bed of plants, which we did in 100 degree F temperatures, we hooked a battery-powered timer to the faucet along with a string of sprinkler hoses. Most waterings are only 1-2 minutes long, but are repeated several times per day to keep the foliage moist while the plants re-root. Longer waterings to keep the soil from drying might be needed only once or twice per week.
We recently got a note from Wall Street Journal garden writer Anne Marie Chaker, who is working on a story about zone-denial gardening. She’s looking for hard-core gardeners who love to push the limits on what is possible in their zones. If you fit the bill and would like to be part of the story, please contact Anne Marie at email@example.com
In yet another massive collapse in the horticultural industry, Skinner Nursery has now joined the all-to-long list of nurseries taken down by the recent faltering economy. Skinner Nurseries began its life in 1973 as a wholesale nursery in Jacksonville, Florida started by real estate developer Byrant B. Skinner Sr. In the late 1990s the company began expanding as a plant distribution center, quickly becoming one of the largest in the country, with 22 locations (2007) in seven southeast states. The original wholesale division, now encompassing 1300 acres in Florida, was renamed Flagler Wholesale Nursery and was run by brothers Russell and Bryant Skinner.
In 2005, Skinner Nurseries ranked No. 4 on The Jacksonville Business Journal’s Fastest-Growing Private Companies list. Company revenues increased from $12.4 million in 2000 to $110 million by 2007. Prestigious landscape projects included the J.C. Penney headquarters in Texas, the Merrill Lynch Southeast headquarters in Florida, the Jacksonville, Florida Municipal Stadium; the PGA World Golf Village and Hall of Fame in Florida, and the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. The company had done so well financially that they even got into stock car racing sponsorship (FASCAR) in 2007. Despite the slowing economy, Skinner was determined (obviously too much so) to expand and open new distribution centers until 2008, when the “nursery-friendly” folks at Wachovia slashed their line of credit. While a few of the Skinner Nursery sites were sold to other nurseries, most were just shuttered. As is usual in these cases, there is a ripple down effect to suppliers who never got paid. Since Skinner Nurseries never filed for bankruptcy protection, it is unclear if enough funds remain to pay all of the vendors…we certainly hope so. As of press time, it appears that the stock at Flagler Wholesale Nursery could also be headed for auction. Surely the bankers learned something after the Carolina Nurseries auction debacle…you can’t auction plants into an already saturated market at anything but giveaway prices.
In other sad gardening news, Diana Nicholls, 65, longtime owner of Nicholls Gardens in Gainesville, Virginia, (not to be confused with Nichols Garden Nursery), passed away suddenly on June 1, due to anaphylactic shock caused by an insect sting. Nicholls Gardens was a mail-order nursery specializing in iris, peony, and hosta. Our condolences go out to Diana’s extended family.