Friday, 29 December 2017

special seeds

The post between Christmas and the New Year has brought more gardening catalogues, including one of my current favourites, Derry Watkins' seed list from her nursery near Bath, Special Plants.  It is an excellent list, not the longest but including all sorts of things that I should like to grow, many of them rare, and many sounding as if they actually would grow in southern England.  Most are herbaceous, and her descriptions of perennials are admirably nuanced, identifying those species that are naturally short-lived as well as those that are only marginally hardy.

I always feel sorry for people spending several pounds on something they may have seen in a magazine without realizing that after a couple of seasons it will almost certainly die.  Lysimachia atropurpurea 'Beaujolais' springs to mind, and every Agastache I have ever attempted to grow.  They may well seed themselves, given the chance, but anyone thinking they had invested in a permanent feature for their border will be disappointed.  Some will then vent their disappointment on the front-line retail staff at their local garden centre, who were not responsible for the less than complete descriptions on the plant labels.

The Special Plants seed list also makes life easy for its customers by pricing all packets at two pounds.  If a species produces seed freely and plentifully then you get more in a packet, and the converse if seed is only sparsely produced or tricky to harvest.  Ten packets, twenty quid plus postage.  Most seed catalogues are addicted to odd price points, £1.89, £1.55. £4.50, £2.72.

This year's catalogue includes a couple of things that I knew I wanted.  After seven years of trouble- free existence, my specimen of the herbaceous yellow flowered climber Dicentra scandens failed to come up last spring.  I have no idea why, if something about the weather proved its undoing, or if it too has a shortish life span, albeit more than two seasons, or whether something ate its resting core last winter.  It is a pretty thing, with dangling locket shaped flowers, attractively divided foliage, and deceptively vigorous, fragile, fleshy stems, which in the course of the season make a good three metres of growth.  I have never seen plants offered for sale, and given its growth habit I can imagine they would be very difficult to manage on a nursery.  They would soon grow into each other and everything around them, and by the time you'd disentangled them they'd be a mess of broken stems.  I grew mine from seed.  Until it disappeared it used to sprawl over a Magnolia stellata for the summer.  The Magnolia had finished flowering before the Dicentra got going, and didn't seem to mind its passenger.  The seed is not the rarest and most difficult thing to find, but neither is it common.

She has Teucrium hircanum as well.  I raised some previously from seed, which made splendid plants in their pots in their first year, but then began to go downhill rapidly.  Some things will sit patiently in pots for ages waiting to go out into the ground, and some won't.  One problem with growing your own garden plants from seed is that after you have sown them, site clearance may not progress as rapidly as you had hoped, and so it proved with the Teucrium and the brambles in the meadow.  The tray of plants I managed to get into the ground last spring staged a remarkable recovery, having looked so weak and half dead when I planted them that I wondered if I was wasting my time, but the rest that I didn't manage to plant out faded away quietly in their pots.  Teucrium hircanum produces vertical spikes of purple flowers that are very, very attractive to bees.  They are nice-looking plants in a slightly wild way, just the thing for a naturalistic part of the garden, and I should like some more.  They are said to be drought tolerant and to self-sow, both of which would be useful along the side of the wood.

At the last Chelsea Flower Show I was greatly taken by something called Anthyllis vulneraria in a display of drought tolerant planting.  I am always looking for good plants for dry sand, and this one had clover-like flowers in a fetching shade of dark red.  When I got home I looked at the exhibitor's website, which is surely largely the point of exhibiting at Chelsea, but they did not sell it.  Derry Watkins offers seed though, of the dark red form as seen at Chelsea and not the ordinary pink.

That's only three packets so I can choose a few more.  There's no point in buying too many, since they all have to be sown, and pricked out, and potted on, and a space found for them in the garden.  But the postage will be £1.50 whether I buy three packets or ten.  Maybe this year I should try the small flowered red Zinnia that I admired in Rod Leeds' garden without knowing it was a Zinnia.  Or I have never tried growing flax.  Or there's a tall, rusty red kind of Tagetes from Great Dixter that might make better plants in pots than the unhappy Tithonia did.  So much choice, it is like standing before the sweetie counter, aged six, with pennies to spend and the competing charms of gobstoppers and sherbet dib-dabs to weigh up.

The other reason why I like Derry Watkins so much is that she highlights species that really need to be sown fresh to germinate, and then offers seed through the year when it is fresh.  Most seed catalogues don't, and after sowing my fair share of umbellifers and anemone that never came up, I am rather exasperated with them.

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