Catching up with Dr. A by Elizabeth Licata

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Posted on: April 14, 2017

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Here we are at the Plant WNY CNLP Education Day (totally insider/geek event)

Here we are at the Plant WNY CNLP Education Day (totally insider/geek event)

It’s been a while! Horticulturalist, professor, breeder, and—as we know him best—author of Herbaceous Perennial Plants and many other standard texts on garden plants, Allan Armitage, has been absent from our blog pages for a couple years. I was happy to hear that he was the featured speaker at a Buffalo industry event—the annual Plant WNY CNLP conference—Friday and stole him  from his local fans long enough for an interview. Here’s what we talked about:

Gardening trends
Armitage firmly believes the standard gardening space has changed:
“The garden of today is the deck/patio/porch/veranda. People like you and me (hardcore gardeners) will do what we always do, but big gardens are becoming small, solution-based gardens. People are decorating with plants, and, though independent garden centers are holding their own, most are shopping at the big boxes. People get containers and they choose plants by colors. They’re looking for solutions to problems: what groundcovers can they get, what will deer leave alone, what plants will look good on their deck. Single plants are often expected to serve multiple uses. Foodscaping is part of that—fennel and herbs are both attractive and functional. Nativars—a term I coined—are the most frequently used solutions for attracting pollinators. Most of the ‘native plants’ you see in garden centers are actually nativars.”

Heucherella 'Buttered Rum' (from Bluestone catalog)

Heucherella ‘Buttered Rum’ (from Bluestone catalog)

Plants he’s excited about right now:
“I’ve been excited about baptisia for 100 years. There’s no reason not to have it—it does the native thing, it does the flowering thing, it does everything. Another perennial I’m excited about heucherella—it’s the new heuchera. There’s better material out there, and people are getting tired of heuchera. Heucherella has the tiarella gene in it and it tolerates heat better. The one to try is ‘Buttered Rum.’”

Other plants he mentioned are digiplexus and hellebore ‘Penny’s Pink,’ and he cautions that plants take years to establish reputations, so cultivars that have been around three years can still be called “new plants.” He continues:
“As for annuals, I think begonias are just amazing. They put up with anything—shade, sun, drought—they’re almost indestructible. They also benefit now from the problems with impatiens. (But now that there is less impatiens material, there is less disease, so breeders might be able to bring them back. And there’s one New Guinea called ‘Bounce’ that I recommend.) We introduced a begonia called ‘Bonita Shea;’ it does have flowers but the foliage is beautiful. ‘Edinburgh’ is another great one. I also think Gerbera daisies are making a comeback.”

Opening screen of the app

Opening screen of the app

The Armitage app
“The reason I did this app is that we (as an industry) have to go to them. Everyone is on their phones, but there are very few good plant apps. Mine is the only third-person app not selling you a Proven Winner or a magazine. There are no ads. It’s just me and I’ve been around long enough that I think I can say a few things. I started with a few annuals and a few perennials, but I’ve added much more, including grasses, bulbs, tropical, houseplants, deer-resistant, rabbit-resistant, drought-tolerant, whatever solution you need. “

What I got out of it:
It’s always great to talk to Armitage, because, like all the great planstmen and plantswomen, he still gets truly excited about plants and loves what he does. And I like his books and his app. The same opinionated digressions and sidenotes that make the perennial book great are in the app as well. Like the joke about the guy who got milk from milkweed. Like the contest he had with his students about whether oenothera or chasmanthium would win the battle of the thugs and take over a certain bed.

Though woodies are not yet on the app (they will be), Armitage told a charming story about how Annabelle was discovered and when it got its name. You probably all know it, but it was fresh for me. (Here’s the best link I could find, though it is really a book review.)

Speaking of books, Armitage has a new one out: It’s Not Just About the Hat. I just got it, so can’t review it, but I flipped though and it seems to be an autobiography of sorts and chockfull of interesting/funny/bizarre/heartfelt anecdotes. Looks good. He is also updating his big perennial book, so look out for that.

And here’s an interesting thing—he said that growers had pretty much killed QR codes “with stupidity.” Instead of presenting a short informative video, the codes were linked to relatively unhelpful websites. I never use them so I can’t speak to it. But interesting.

Cool beans!

Cool beans!

Finally, Armitage was almost mobbed at the end of his second talk, when he brought out his collection of canavalia (Jack Bean) pods and started giving out the huge red seeds from this. It’s a tropical, but supposedly will cover an arbor in no time. I’m going to try it in a container and I’ll let you know how I do.

Catching up with Dr. A originally appeared on Garden Rant on February 8, 2016.

Garden Rant

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