Pied Beauty

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Newest Thing Is Old Hat

Wednesday I had the great good fortune to attend a seminar at Spring Creek Growers, presented in part by Ball Horticultural Company.  The idea is introduce garden center folks and landscape contractors to the newest, most innovative "plant material" out there, in the hopes that we can entice our own customers to buy them.  (That's what they call it sometimes, plant material.  Isn't that a little, well, dreary?) 

'Phantom' Petunia
I love these events.  I love to hear about all the research and development that goes into the creation of a "new" plant.  I get all plant-geeky inside, just hearing words like vegetative or triploid.  And the facility at Spring Creek is very, very nice, and the food was delicious, and it makes for a great start for the spring season.

'Breathless' Euphorbia
What thrills me about springtime, though, does not necessarily thrill the customers.  The panel discussion pointed up a disconnect between what the Ball folks were promoting, and what the landscape contractors, re-wholesalers and garden center owners were looking for.  The Ball representative started the discussion by asking each of the participants how they felt about new plants, new innovations, new products.  You could tell he was very excited about Ball's product line, and he was right to be -- there are some very interesting new plants on the market.  However...

Zinnia 'Zahara Double Duo'
One by one, the panel participants said, in not so many words, that simply being "new" was not good enough.  The landscape contractor said that her clients never come to her, asking for the newest thing.  They rely on her to put together a plan that works for them, in their budget.  She believed it was important for her to find out about new plants, but the customer wasn't driving that.  The garden center owner said that a few of her customers came into the store looking for the latest in new plants, but that only happened if there were a big national marketing push behind the product.  She also said that much of the time, the new products failed to deliver on the promises made by these marketing campaigns.  The Wave petunias are a good example -- they don't perform here nearly as well as promised here, in our climate, as other petunias might.  The rewholesaler, who provides plants primarily to landscapers, said that he had to push the new products -- there wasn't a demand from his clients specifically for the newest varieties.

Coleus 'Redhead'
The discussions went on in this vein for about half an hour.  None of the panelists were using social media or traditional advertising to promote new products.  None of the panelists felt that "newness" provided a higher price point or profit margin.  In fact, while there was excitement about specific plants, I thought I detected a general skepticism about "newness" in general.  Simply being new doesn't mean a plant can solve a customer's problem or meet a customer's need.  It's hard to say what was going through the Ball rep's mind -- he put up a good front.  But it's got to be discouraging to have your customers tell you new's not where it's at.

Verbena 'Aztec'
I'll put my customer hat on for a minute.  Would I rather have a new petunia, in the rare and unusual shade of black?  Or would I rather just have a petunia that can make it longer through the heat and humidity of our summers?  I appreciate what Ball's doing here and I love some of the new plants.  But I hope they don't overestimate the importance of new and different.  I think many of us would be satisfied with a good quality, virus-free same-old, same-old.

All photos courtesy Ball Horticultural Company, and a big thanks to Spring Creek Growers for hosting us.  It was a very interesting, thought-provoking event!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Monk Parakeets

I love these little parrots!  Seeing them around town is such a thrill, even though they're not at all rare or unusual.  Monk parakeets, also known as Quaker parrots, are native to South America but feral populations exist in North America and parts of Europe.  They build large nests of sticks, often in utility towers, and are very vocal.  I usually hear them before I ever see them.  They are sociable birds, and seem to hang around in family groups.  I understand they are routinely kept as pets and can even learn to talk.  Monk parakeets are a temperate-zone sort of parrot and can survive winters in much of the United States.

Good picture of monk parakeet from Wikimedia Commons
Because they are an introduced species, there is a concern that they may become agricultural pests, but I am not aware of any areas where this has occurred.  In fact, parakeets in Brooklyn have been found to reduce the problem of pigeon overpopulation.  They don't appear to compete with native nesting birds because they tend to prefer man-made structures for building their large nests.  Although they have the potential to disturb grain fields, they tend to prefer urban areas.  Monk parakeets are also very well-adapted to backyard bird-feeders -- and how I wish they would come to mine!

A dozen blurry monk parakeets and one starling
The picture above was taken this morning from my driveway.  I apologize for the quality -- the camera lenses were still foggy and so was I.  But there are 12 monk parakeets on the power line there, along with one slightly suspicious starling.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Thawing Out, Temporarily

This week finds us recovering from another spell of wintry weather, this time complete with ice and 4 nights in a row of temperatures in the 20s.  Now, I know those of you who live north of here might find that a bit amusing, but it's not funny to us.  I know I get positively affronted when we have to put up with so much cold. 
No more, please!
We have another cold snap predicted for late this week, so in the interim, some thoughts on the weather.

Yucky.  Okay to cut back.
First, on cutting back.  I swear, the temperatures were still below freezing when people began to write to the newspapers and call the radio lines asking, "Is it too early to cut back the freeze damage?"  I'm not sure what drives this winter sense of industry.  Are they just antsy to get back outside?  Or can they simply not abide the brown foliage for one minute longer?  Anyway, my rule of thumb is as follows.  If the freeze has left your plants mushy, squishy and yucky, cut it back as soon as you can stand it.  I can't stand it.  I'm waiting around hoping they'll dry out before I have to clean up.  I hate that squishy feeling.  On the other hand, I don't intend to prune back woody plants until I'm sure we've had the last freeze.  And who knows when that will be?  The Chief Engineer and I usually bet on the last freeze date.  There have been years he didn't want to pay until May!

Woody.  Wait til freeze danger is past.
One last thing.  I noticed the dwarf oleanders planted around here are damaged (again) by the cold.  Last year, they froze to the ground, and today they look like someone blasted them with a high-test hair dryer.  I'm reminded that when I was a girl, people simply did not grow oleanders this far inland.  You had to drive 50 miles or so, out to the coast, to see them.  And I understand they all froze to death in the late 1970s there, too.  For the past 20 years or so, we've enjoyed relatively warm winters here.  I'm wondering if we're entering a time of cooler winters.  And if so, what's going to happen to all those palm trees, oleanders, ixora, and other semi-hardy shrubs?

No jokes about global warming, now!