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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Primulas in variety
Corydalis ochroleuca and cheilanthifolia
Carex Frosted Curls
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!