Going to seed, a tale of excess.

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth.

(Shelley: Ode to the West Wind)

By variety, the number of plants in my garden that were raised from seed is very small, perhaps 5%. Count individual plants and the picture is quite different. Large numbers of annuals and biennials, some self sown, some carefully nurtured in pots; maybe a third of the garden is seedlings. It’s generally simple enough, if it’s quantity I’m after, I grow from seed but if it’s quality, I go for the clonal selection that is the best the plant breeders, selectors and collectors have come up with to date.

TLC needed, they took over a year to germinate.


Which begs the question: why on earth did I grow, or at least attempt to grow, so many new things from seed this year, and many previous years, come to that?

From Hardy Plant Society seed distribution.


They do say you regress to childhood as you get old and it’s true that part of the appeal is simply the fascination of something emerging from a tiny seed then growing and developing into a full grown mature plant. It seems little short of miraculous and no amount of understanding of the complex processes underlying the progression makes it any less so.

Just what you need in a small garden, eight Magnolia trees.


Partly it’s the challenge. For the very best propagators and gardeners there will always some holy grail plant the propagation of which is the Everest of their craft. Getting seed to germinate of such plants confers a sense of achievement like no other. I’m not in that league but I have experienced that sense of attainment from time to time.

I have zero need for this 1L potful of this vigorous climber.


Sometimes it’s like seeing money in the street. What gardener, seeing the seeds of some rare and exotic plant falling to the ground, clearly unwanted by their owner, could resist adding a few to the fluff in their pocket. Why would you hold back when such treasure is there for the taking, and for free.

I may have a taker for these, I’ve already pricked off another potful.


In similar vein are the seeds offered by most of the horticultural societies I pay my subscriptions to every year. The RHS, the Rhododendron, Camellia and Magnolia Group, the Alpine Garden Society, the Hardy Plant Society, The Australasian Plant Society. So many great plants for next to nothing. Or, I’ve already paid for them, I may as well have them.

Now you’re talking, these will go to the National Collection when they grow up.


There are the things I grow that I think it would be good to have more of, or a backup plant of, or some spares to give to friends, or to put in a plant sale.

Geranium ‘Nimbus’ set viable seed, so I collected and sowed them. Just don’t ask why.


The cognitive dissonance of knowing I have no need for more plants, that I have nowhere to put them; not one, let alone hundreds; is brushed aside by myriad excuses.

Codonopsis clematidea, not what it said on the packet, but a freebie, so who’s complaining.


Mercifully, to an extent my incompetence comes to the rescue. A lot of things fail to germinate. Some emerge only to damp off or get eaten by slugs. It helps a bit. Just as well because while a 9cm pot might happily provide space for 50 seeds/seedlings, the moment it comes to moving them on, the space requirement increases exponentially. A lot of things get pricked off into cell trays, 40 to a standard seed tray size. I would rarely prick off more than 20, that’s the one I want plus 19 for insurance.

Chionochloa rubra seedlings, years old and still unplanted.


Depending on speed of growth, they would be likely to be potted up into 9cm pots after just a few weeks. Then maybe into larger pots or perhaps straight into the garden.

In general, the annuals and biennials are easy and quick. I have an idea how many I want and I grow that many plus a few backups. Perennials are more complicated. All too many of my reasons for growing them don’t involve actually wanting to have the plant in the garden. Grown for the challenge? Tick. Couldn’t say no to the offered seeds? Tick.
Added them to the seedlist order to make up an entitlement of 20 packets? Tick.

Schefflera taiwaniana, rather special as the seed came from Edward Needham’s original introduction of it at Tregye.


I could throw them away once they’ve germinated but before they get pricked off. I’ve sometimes managed to prick off just a few of something when hundreds have germinated and I’ve probably put  off pricking off other things until some mishap befalls them and they can be dumped. But to actually get a decent germination of something good and just bin it. Face it, I’m just not man enough.

Erodium manescawii from home collected seed. I figured I had room for more of these.


So, I have a dozen or more pots of Camellia seedlings growing away merrily. It’s possible, but highly unlikely, that among them is a world class new variety. To find out I need to grow them all on to flowering size, which could take many years and require space which I simply don’t have. Or I bin them now, or I pot maybe a total of twenty? They will need space, watering, pest protection, cold protection, feeding and so on, for years to come. And for what? Mediocrity. I’ll bin them now. I will. I won’t. I might.

Pot after pot of Camellia seedlings, 99% useless but which is the 1%er?


Then there’s the pot of around 100 Bomarea edulis. I collected seed from the plant I have, curious to find out if they’d grow, expecting little. They all grew. I have one already, I don’t need another. I’ll bin them now. I will. I won’t. I might.

Only one germinated? Perfect. Only one too many. No, I’ll find room for this one.

Or the two pots of Roscoea seedlings, the seed collected from the best of my numerous plants in dribs and drabs as it ripened and fell to the ground. If I had an acre of woodland I would have large drifts of them but I don’t. I’ll bin them now.

Here is a list of most of the perennials (and shrubs) I have growing in the garden that I raised from seed.

Schefflera taiwanensis
Camellia reticulate
Libertia sessiliflora
Libertia ixioides
Helleborus orientalis
Impatiens arguta
Digitalis parviflora
Erodium manescawii
Geranium nodosum
Primulas in variety
Corydalis ochroleuca and cheilanthifolia
Freesia laxa
Chionochloa rubra
Carex Frosted Curls
Roscoea hybrids
Codonopsis clematidea
Asphodelus albus
Euphorbia mellifera
Spiraea ‘Abigail’
Papaver ruprifagum
Dahlia merckii
Actaea pachypoda
Lamium orvala
Stylophorum lasiocarpum
Pachyphragma macrophylla
Salvia forsskaolei
Semiaquilegia ecalcarata
Paeonia mlokosewitschii

It’s a fair list and there are some good plants on it. Many are species, some are hybrids. There are young plants growing on in pots from this year’s or last’s sowings that are not on the list. But I need to stop doing this. I need to wean myself off it, get back to 10 things a year maximum. It’s never gonna happen though!

23 thoughts on “Going to seed, a tale of excess.

  1. Well, you are a professional and so do clever things with seeds and rare species. I am just a keen amateur but can’t bear to throw away cuttings or divided plants. As a result I have c.4 dozen, i.e. c.50 sedum plants at the side of the house in The Fortnight Garden – bet you can’t top that!


    1. I blame my upbringing in the post war years. My parents were intensely waste averse. And no, I can’t top your sedum bounty, at least not with one variety of anything.


      1. You are right, Jim. I killed only 95% of the house plants. John took over years ago, and his benign neglect was what they craved. I admire real gardeners like you.


    1. I showed a few of our near neighbours round the garden just yesterday, people who in some cases had lived in our close as long as we have. They were amazed, they had no idea what was behind the house. We’re at the end of a short cul-de-sac, you wouldn’t come up here if you weren’t going to someone’s house, so a plant stall wouldn’t work very well. I’ve just signed up to Devon Plant Heritage’s invite for members to open their gardens to small numbers of by appointment visitors, it’ll be interesting to see if we get any takers. Probably doesn’t help that we’re not in Devon but there’s one in St Austell so we’re not the most westerly.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Although I only grow a few plants from seed, I love propagation from cuttings etc. You have surely reflected on a sticky topic, but I cannot work out just how to change. But do I want or need to change? By the way all your seeds seem to have germinated and are ready to place out in the garden.


    1. I have rather a lot that haven’t germinated, just didn’t feature them in the article. Another source of angst, at what point do I give up on them. I once had Primula seeds germinate three years after I sowed them, not even sure why I kept them so long.


  3. !!! I SO GET IT!
    I just wrote about how I plugged the culled tomato seedlings into cells for later! (Actually, the ‘Roma’ can get planted later for a second phase. The others are indeterminate, so do not need a second phase.) The worst was when we wanted a few copies of Boston ivy, so I plugged cuttings . . . 100! Fortunately, most did not take.


    1. Obviously I only have so much room and I don’t want to cram things too closely or they all suffer and underperform, but the more different things I grow the more I am able to offload the also rans, the ordinary, in favour of better plants. It provides the justification for being ruthless with dull old conifers and lawns. C’mon, don’t tell me you haven’t rehearsed every excuse and justification known to man.


  4. Aren’t you so just spot on! Did I really need to prick out 50+ Trachycarpus fortunei when I already have about 7 growing and all in half an acre? Everyone has to go home with one, whether they like it or not. And what about garden centres? Just because my jungle is crammed, it doesn’t mean I don’t NEED to visit and come home with several more plants.. They need our business; “use it or loose it”. Probably a good job a fair number succumb, both babies and mature, or I’d never get out the door, let alone walk up the garden. A death makes a nice space for new planting.
    PS Alan Clark the rhodo nurseryman pointed out years ago that you have to keep every seedling; you never know which one is the FCC clone – probably the one you just grafted on! Well, look at the fab Magnolia ‘Harold Hillier’, a seedling rootstock that grew away, presumably when the graft failed. So keep all those Camellias, every one!


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