Monday, January 31, 2011

Be Skeptical of AAS Vegetable "Winners"

The AAS winners for 2011 are generating a lot of buzz as they do every year. There are three new vegetables including two tomatoes ideal for hanging baskets. It should be interesting if they hold up to expectations. I'm skeptical they will be around to stand the test of time based on the performance of prior winners and AAS hype.

Take for instance the AAS winning vegetable for 2010 'Shiney Boy' watermelon. The award is based partly on its "sweet tropical flavor and crisp texture." With 20 lb fruit on 13' vines, AAS claims the vines can be grown vertically on trellis frames. GIVE ME A BREAK. 20 lb fruit grown on a trellis. AAS has a history of overselling its winners. Part of this may explain why so many winners are dumped from seed catalogs within a couple of years.

I believe the AAS program breeds mediocrity by the design of its program. AAS winners are determined based on points scored by AAS judges at trial gardens across the country when compared to the best performing plant already on the market. So a winner could receive high scores in the south but may suck in the Midwest yet become an AAS winner. Making one promise of performance across this great country of ours is flawed and naive.

I did a review of vegetable winners over the last five years and found the only source for nearly all was Park Seed. So while heirloom seed companies' missions are to save valuable genes from extinction, Park Seed's mission must be to keep genes of average performers that the marketplace has already discarded. The irony is the tagline for Park Seed is "Always Dependable."

So unless you see the performance of a variety at a trial ground near you, be very skeptical of AAS' promotion of its winners.". Our closest garden is in Olathe and the public is invited each July to see the trial gardens for yourself. I will promote the date on this site closer to the event.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Patrick's Picks - Underused Shade trees

This column first appeared in the June issue of the Kansas City Gardener.

Drive into most new home developments in the Kansas City area and within a stone’s throw you’ll find the overused favorite shade trees of home builders. On the modus operandi hit list are the ‘Autumn Blaze’ Maple, ‘Autumn Purple’ Ash and the ‘Heritage’ River Birch. This month I contacted three area professionals on a mission to find underused shade trees for our area. So if all your trees fit the pedestrian label, hopefully you can find some space to grow one of these less familiar but outstanding trees.

The Sugar Maple, Acer saccahrum, is most commonly recognized as the maple leaf on the flag of Canada but uncommonly known as a superior residential tree. Sugar Maples are one of the tallest of shade trees coming in at 70 to 90‘ tall and 60 to 80 wide. Chris Thompson is a project manager with Audrie Seeley Landscaping in Kansas City, MO and is responsible for the management of the commercial landscaping installed by the company like the Kansas City Zoo Polar Bear exhibit for example. Thompson says "because Sugar Maples are a slower growing tree, they have a denser wood structure and are able to handle a heavier stress load from ice and the rigors of thunderstorms. They have phenomenal fall color and are simply a great tree." .

There are several specific varieties including ‘Fall Fiesta’, ‘Commemoration’, and Green Mountain’ although the standard Acer saccharum grown from local seed sources is also an excellent performer. Thompson says "Sugar Maples typically only find a home in commercial landscapes as the architects are knowledgeable of their characteristics and have made great use of them. Please let your readers know about this big kept secret and I am sure they will thank you once they have one planted and get to enjoy all the benefits."

The Little Leaf Linden, Tilia cordata, is a smaller growing shade tree that is perfect for residential landscapes. Roughly 30’ tall and wide at full growth, the tree will grow at a moderate pace. Varieties you will find in the Kansas City area are ‘Greenspire’, and ‘Bicentennial’. Not only does it fit well in the residential landscape, but it also is fragrant in the spring while it flowers. There are several varieties that are grown at local nurseries and this tree is also used by architects for commercial landscaping.

Thompson says "the Little Leaf Linden is desired because of its extremely dense growth habit. This tree differs from a maple as the leaves of a maple are far less dense than a Little Leaf Linden. If someone is looking for another great tree for the residential landscape, then the Hedge Maple, Acer campestre, would be it. Hedge Maples are typically used by architects in parking lot islands and roadway medians. They are very hardy tree and provide a great texture for the landscape. As a maple, it has great color and will be a favorite of the landscape." Due to its dense foliage, the tree was often used as a hedge in Europe, thus the name. The mature tree is about the same size as the Little Leaf Linden coming in around 30’ tall and wide.

The Gingko is the king of durability with fossilized records dating back 200 million years. The tree is nicely sized for suburban lots at 40-50’ tall and 25-35’ wide. Ken Wood, the Nursery Manager at Family Tree Nursery in Shawnee, KS says “they are great for fall clean up as after the wonderful golden fall color show, leaves will all fall from the tree in a 24-48 hour period. With several male varieties on the market, Gingko are considered insect and disease free. ” One of the most impressive displays of ginkgos in the world can be found on the South lawn of the Nelson Art Gallery near the Country Club Plaza in the Henry Moore Sculpture Garden. Twenty nine bronzes of this icon’s work are nestled in rows of nearly matched gingko.

With branches that seem to dance on air, the Bald Cypress, Taxodium, disitchum is the most graceful of all the shade trees. Most people have seen the species on television in the Florida Everglades with their huge gnarled roots in the water. This genetic background makes the tree very valuable for sopping up major wet spots in your yard. Wood says “the Bald Cypress soars to 50-60’ tall but considering the fast growth, the tree has good wood durability preparing it well for hazardous weather. The tree also creates a beautiful silhouette in the winter season.” When you see such an unusual bronze fall color paired with the feathery texture of the branches, the overall effect can be simply stunning. This tree is well-suited for full cleanup since the small leaflets are easily blown into your neighbor's yards.

Alan Branhagen, the Director of Horticulture at Powell Gardens in Kingsville, MO considers the White Oak, Quercus alba, to be the queen of all trees.. The White Oak matures to 65’ to 85’ high and wide with beautiful light ash-gray, somewhat peeling bark. Branhagen says “the roots are coarse and deep so you can readily grow other plants beneath. And when planted in good soils, it grows surprisingly fast into a magnificent rounded crown. The leaves are deeply lobed and the fall color is the best of all our oaks from red to almost burgundy.”

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Best Kept Secret: MOBOT Plants of Merit

The Missouri Botanical Garden is one of the most beautiful places on earth. In this master gardener's mind it ranks not too far above the Grand Canyon. I lived in St. Louis for three years and savored every time I visited. It should be a destination based vacation. (this is a marketing term which means, in this case, a vacation centered around just attending MOBOT) dog

It is often named one of the best botanical gardens in the world. Not only tor the grounds but also for its esteemed scientific research results. One of the most practical research projects is their Plants of Merit Program.

(Upper Right: 2011 Winner 'Purple Flash' Ornamental Pepper)

A MOBOT POM is determined by a joint effort of MOBOT, Kansas City's Powell Gardens and the Mizzou Botanic Garden (Who knew there was one??? Can they grow grass there? Is their mascot a black and gold thumb with the gold taken out? Who stole the gold? Must have been an in-state job). The criteria are easy to grow and maintain, non-invasive, pest and disease tolerant, outstanding ornamental value and readily available for purchase.

There is a listing of 56 plants raised up to Emeritus level but it's hard to find. In fact I haven't but have contacted the lead person to discover the link. A MIZZOU grad must have designed the site navigation. I have also shared an idea to have their panel break out the 10 most under-utlized selections from the emiritus list and build a pr campaign to build awareness of the whole list. I'll share when and if they create it.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Best of the Seed Catalogs - 2011

A Cartoon by Joseph Tychonievich

The seed catalog people are all about pushing new varieties and getting them to the market as soon as possible. Many times there is less field testing of the varieties then there should be for a new product introduction. My philosophy is they are only annuals and I enjoy the anticipation of finding the next holy Grail or finding the quickest new addition to my compost pile. So with this perspective in mind, here are some of the best seed catalogs and the annuals and vegetables I'd like to try in the 2011 growing season.


Coconut Ice Sunflower is the world's first white sunflower according to the company. They hedged their bet on the color because it starts out a rich, vanilla color and bleaches out to white. If you ask me, although the blooms are smaller, I'd rather grow the ever dependable 'Italian White', It's a classic in my book but Coconut Ice could become a classic if it lives up to the hype.

The Cook's Garden

This is a new company for me whose niche is seeds for gourmet gardener. Green Envy tomato is like no other cherry choice out there. The Emerald Green doesn't look appetizing so I'd have to taste before I'd be sold but if you're early adopter kind of person, go for it. They're offering a trio of plants including Green Envy, the wildly popular Sungold and the classic red Ladybird for $15.95. Should make for a feast for the eyes on an appetizer tray.

One of my first crops of lettuce I ever grew was the simple oakleaf variety. For a leaf lettuce, the intriguing texture of nothing else out there. Their Oakleaf Mix contains two green varieties and two red. Another feast for the eyes and mouth.

John Scheepers Kitchen Seeds

Another new company for me but it's been in business since 1908. Nothing new to report but I love their catalog. The cultural instructions for each vegetable are clear and concise. The catalog's most important features are the illustrations and their quantity. They've been commissioned by an artist who has been drawing plants for the New York Botanical Garden for over 30 years and The Smithsonian Institution. Check it out for the breadth of varieties and enjoy the catalog.

Territorial Seed Company

I've been receiving their catalog in the slew I get each winter but never took the time to look at it. After taking a closer look at the 168 page catal, it's been my loss. It takes a lot to shock me any more but they're offering grafted tomato plants. Grafted vegetables are created when the top part of one plant
(the scion) is attached to the root system of a separate plant (the rootstock) The rootstock contributes vigor and disease resistance while the scion is chosen for fruit flavor and quality. This type of process has been used in fruit trees and grape vines for centuries. You've seen the most common use of grafting in most roses with the exception of the Knockouts.

The grafting is done by hand and I can't imagine pulling this off in a commercial operation. The comparison photos show a dramatic change in fruit set and plant size of the grafted versus the traditional plant. So now you're thinking about cost. A typical plant in their catalog is $3.50, the single graft is $6.,95 and the double graft is $11.50. Let me know your results if you decide to invest (and I do stress invest) in your tomato plants.

Select Seeds

This is a catalog designed for lovers of flowers. The flowers are grouped in categories such as Fragrant, Cottage Gardens

Four O'Clocks are one of the easiest flowers to grow making them an excellent choice for children to plant the seeds by themselves. As the name implies, the flowers come out only in the afternoon and evening with a beautiful fragrance. .This company has an impressive line up of six including a new color named Salmon Sunset that looks very exciting.

Speaking of easy flowers, cosmos were traditionally pink, purple and white in the Sensation mix. But since the breeding work got intense in the last 10 years, there are more intense colors and flower forms. Select Seeds has an impressive lineup of a dozen including Cranberries which is featured on the cover of this years catalog. Cranberries is a garnet-hued selection. As opposed to four o'clocks, cosmos make excellent cutflowers and the more you pick, the more you get.

Park Seed

Park has offered seeds to customers from South Carolina since 1868. While I was growing up this was always my favorite. Speaking of favorites, I think I might have found a new favorite zinnia. Queen Red Lime's colorization is a mix of salmon and lime that my words alone can't describe. Go to to see for yourself.

My other selection is a new mix of the well proven Profusion zinnia series. Some of the colors have won the AAS Gold Medals but the new Sunrise Mix caught my eye. It's a combination of white, yellow and Fire. I'm working on a project where I'm lining a concrete ramp built for my wheelchair. To soften the harsh concrete, I'm creating 18" border designed for the Profusions. It will be fun to mix up the colors each year.

Seed Savers Exchange

SSE is a non-for-profit company with a mission to preserve and distribute heirloom vegetables, herbs and flowers. The members save and exchange seeds to preserve our garden heritage for future generation. The revenue from each packet helps support the mission. Their 890 acre Heritage Farm, near Decorah, IA, helps maintain one of the largest collections of open-pollinated heirloom varieties in the United States. For most varieties, the catalog shares a brief story on where the seed source was found.

There are two re-discovered tomatoes new to the catalog. The most exciting is Lemon Drop which an SSE Florida found as a sport of Snow White Cherry. It has a refreshing tart sweet flavor which won the SSE 2010 Tasting Award. They also sell plants for $3.00 but if I were you I'd get my order in early with that testing award before they sell out.

The other tomato is an Italian heirloom named Rosso Sicilian. This variety was brought to the US by a Sicilian man in 1987 and given to a SSE member in Indiana who said its slices look like red-petaled flowers. It's as perfect choice for making tomato sauce or paste.

Seeds of Change

Seeds of Change is another company preserving biodiversity and supporting sustainable organic agriculture. SOC donates 1% of net sales support seed oriented causes. Their most exciting new offerings include a trio of summer squash when grouped together make an awesome display. The three globe type varieties are Geode, Satelite and Floridor. Check out the back cover with a picture of the three displayed together at a farmer's market for inspiration to grow all three.

White Satin is a ivory colored Nantes type carrot with 8" long roots. Nantes are more sausage looking as opposed to the long tapering traditional carrot. They look fantastic as a bunch or grouped with other carrots for a more rainbow effect.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

The power house of the heirloom seed industry is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

Thompson & Morgan

T& M is a classic British seed company dating back to 1855. You have to be careful with your selections since the varieties are proven in European trial not American. But if you're looking for something different and willing to take some risks, you might enjoy the experience.

Basil Aristotle is a miniature basil topping at only 8" tall which is perfect for growing ntsin pots. At that size I recommend planting it by itself in containers since it would easily overwhelmed by larger plants in a mixed container.

One of my favorite garden experiences as a teenager was growing a packet of open pollinated cone flowers from Park Seed. I planted a row and was blown away by the variance of plant size, leaf shapes and flower forms from one packet of seed. Although there is selective breeding involved in this case, I think it would be a blast to see what comes out from their Magic Box Mixed packet. If you have the space in the veggie garden, plant a row and after they flower select the ones you'd like to add to your perennial or mixed border.
I've saved the last spot for one of the best: Maine's own Johnny's Select Seeds. This is a company with heart. Not only for being employee owned but also the passion of its testing program. My only knock on JSS is you have to wade through the book to find the new stuff. Come on Johnny, give it to me straight. Put the best of the new on the first few pages or flag them with a big red NEW!. I love you man but you could make me love you more if you give it to me straight upfront.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Clematis 'Niobe' for Inspiration

I'm working on a major landscape project for a dear friend this year. It's a 1910 two story home with a wrap around porch. All white with limited black trim. She made a significant investment of lime green adirondeck chairs for the porch. So when it comes to the color palette, the green is my jumping off point. After about 30 minutes, I knew burgundy would be partner in crime with the green for a smashing combo. And I immediately thought of Clematis 'Niobe' as an plant to provide inspiration for the finished project. I've always wanted to use 'Niobe' because I love the richness of burgundy in a mass of large 4' bloom. I've read on numerous occasions it is THE best clematis on the market.
Niobe was hybridized in Poland. However, like all burgundy-red clematis, it has the American native Clematis texensis in its parentage. This hybrid entered the American market in 1975 and was quickly adopted and remains one of the higest rated clematis in the world. If there was a Clematis Hall of Fame, Niobe would be a founding member according to one blogger I found. It also is an excellent cut flower.
And the other great thing is the burgundy plants will go well with a glass of burgundy on the porch with my clients among the period piece boston ferns.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A Memory Garden - What a Beautiful Thought.

Can't sleep again tonight so I'm blogging. Came across this serene imagine earlier in the day while checking the spelling of helleborus on google. It's a memory garden for a woman who lost a still born baby and needed a place to keep the memory of the child alive. Based on the moss and the incredible helleborus, my bet on the location would be the Pacific Northwest. But we can build a garden of great texture with our mid-western plant palette.

I agree with the garden designer's direction of a white/creme palette. Of course, helleborus are an excellent choice for early spring flowers and beautiful foliage all season long. When it comes to a memorial garden, my first thought goes to peonies not only because of their beauty but also the timing of the flowers coming around Memorial Day. I visited a friend on the weekend and went with the family to give their respects to several generations of their kin. I'll never forget the image of a huge pink peony right on top of her cousin's site. I witnessed the same effect when I saw a very old red hybrid tea rose on top of a child's resting place back in the outback back home. Bury me under anything but a flat piece of sod, please. But back to peonies.

You would need at least three peonies for the best effect in a memory garden. But this would overwhelm most sites. Klehm's Song Sparrow Farm Nursery in Wisconsin got my attention with what they call rock garden peonies based on their size. Roy Klehm is a preeminent peony breeder and one of his achievements is a 16" gem appropriately named 'Squirt'. They are sending me trial plants this fall so I'll be sure to keep you updated on results in my garden.

Don't forget variagated plants as an option in a white garden. I find them more impactful over the whole season when compared with fleeting flowers. I picked up some variagated ajuga at the Powell Garden Plant Sale last spring. The pink flowers would only enhance a memory garden. i've never planted it but I hear rave reviews everywhere for variagated solomon's seal. And of course there are many highly variagated hostas to fit any sized garden space.

Another appropriate selection is lily of the valley. Now those four words send some experienced gardeners into night sweats since it is a notorious thug but it can easily be controlled. Recycle old gallon sized black plastic pots to constrain them. Just plant several pips (small plants) into each pot and bury the pot in the ground with only 2-3" of the pot showing above the surface. The effect will ultimately be perfectly rounded lily of valley bushes. Use this technique for other ruthless thugs such as mint. Any size pot will work but as always create at least three.

Of course any good gardener knows this kind of garden needs a focal point. From the image above, it's hard to discern. I created a family grotto in the front yard of my old house with the Virgin Mary as the focal and created a place of quite reflection. Mary sat beneath an arch of blue 'Rogoochi' bell-shaped clematis. The effect was very calming.

So if it's appropriate for you, create your own memory garden or create one for a dear friend harboring the angst of a major loss. For more information about creating a special place like the helleborus garden above and other ways to celebrate the lives of children that have been lost too soon, go to

Monday, January 3, 2011

Black Velvet Petunia Introduction Video

The most exciting introduction of 2011 is hands down 'Black Velvet' petunia. Most flowers that use black or night are just very dark people such as 'Queen of the Night' tulip. But Black Velvet is truly black see for yourself:

So if you're not excited by what you saw, then check your pulse. Based on impressive garden test results, Black Velvet is the most impressive introduction in years.