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Cornucopia - Gone to seed?

Gone to seed
Anita Chapman

I confess, I am addicted to collecting and growing from seed. I have grown things from seed since I was a child but joining the HPS moved my addiction to a new level.

Prior to 2002, when we joined the HPS and first received seed from the seed exchange, I did not keep records but the new and exciting range of seeds prompted me to start jotting down the seeds I acquired. I record them in a little hard backed notebook; you know the kind, A5, green backed with a linen spine. It has pages removed from when it had another existence. The seeds come from a wide variety of sources: seed companies, club meetings, seed exchanges, friend’s gardens, our own garden and so on.

I usually look up the best time to sow them and note this down as well. Then I write labels ready for planting. Gosh, don’t I sound organised? Unfortunately, that is where my efficiency ends. The entire organisation bit is done in late December or early January, when gardening out of doors is at a minimum. As the gardening season gets into full swing I rarely note down if or when the seeds germinate; the book is in the house and I am in the garden. Worse still, when the plants are perennials or shrubs I rarely remember to add them to my garden plant list when, maybe a year or two later, they are finally planted in the garden.

So all this adds up to the fact that, other than a long list of seeds, with the year they were purchased, I have little idea of my success rate growing things from seed over the last ten years. As the book is almost full (and the weather is somewhat inclement) I thought I would browse through it and see whether all the time, effort and compost, to say nothing of money, have been worth it. What successes I have had, what I have been singularly unsuccessful at growing and what, if any, lessons I have learnt.

The review started badly as I could find nothing on the first page which I could recall having success with; thankfully 2002 ran to several pages and there were some triumphs.

Lathyrus vernus, new to me at the time - I only knew of lathyrus as sweetpeas (L. odoratus) and perennial sweetpeas (L. latifolius). Apart from taking longer to germinate than sweetpeas I have had quite a lot of success with their spring flowering herbaceous cousins and would not be without them in shady areas. The newer pink shades are particularly attractive and I have seed this spring from a double to try. Paeonia mlokosewitschii or ‘Molly the Witch’: I have noted that it germinated a year later. I now know that in its first year it was busy producing a root, and the shoot came in its second year. Prior to learning that, I had made many attempts to grow P. delavayi seed from a shrub in our garden with no success. I probably discarded the pots too soon. Then one spring I spotted a forest of seedlings under the parent. Nature does it best!

When we moved in 2009 ‘Molly’ was a large healthy shrub. I have since had success with P. ludlowii, P. tenuifolia and several others and I have a new ‘Molly’ from my own seed.

Lesson learnt; patience is needed for many trees and shrubs. Daphne tangutica seed from my friend’s D. tangutica 'Alba' germinated eighteen months later; the week before my friend arrived here in Brittany from North Wales for a visit!

Year 2 and I grew Genista aetnensis and Calycanthus occidentalis. The genista, lovely though it was, needed constant staking and dropped lots of ‘branches’. I have since read that Roy Lancaster also found it needs staking. The calycanthus flowers were a bit muddy coloured but nice because it flowers late in the year.

I also had success with several primulas that year. I now realise I was lucky as the seed was not fresh. In recent years I have used Christopher Lloyd’s method of mixing the fresh seed with a little damp sand and popping them in the fridge until the end of February. Sown on the surface in shallow pans they germinate a treat and there is less risk of damping off, which can happen if you have to over-winter seedlings. You need to check that they haven't germinated in the fridge, which has happened to me once.

In the early years of record keeping there were many failures but Hydrangea quercifolia grew and made a large shrub and Lilium martagon was also a success, flowering several years later. Abies koreana, grown from seed, moved twice with us, eventually producing its lovely cones, though sadly it was by then too large to move to France where we currently live. Yes, I did keep a cone but as yet nothing has grown.

Jasminum humile, not often seen for sale, came from HPS seed and Piptanthus nepaulensis, seed from an HPS meeting. Sorbus reducta, Daphne acutiloba and D. tangutica all grew while Embothrium coccinium, which germinated like cress, never made it to planting out size. The Sorbus reducta, which moved with us, flowers reliably but has yet to set viable seed. Piptanthus, the jasmines and daphnes I have propagated from our own seed and they are now growing in France.

Another year I tried some unusual climbers, Aconitum hemsleyanum / volubile (I can’t tell the difference between them) and Dactylicapnos scandens / macrocapnos are all interesting to grow. D. scandens is very lightweight and grew happily up a Ribes speciosum in a sheltered corner of the house when we lived in Wales but only set seed in very hot summers.

Various bulbs besides the Lilium martagon have done well. Tulipa sprengeri seed came from a meeting of NCCPG (now Plant Heritage) in early autumn so it was very fresh seed and germinated quickly. I now have quite a good clump that has moved to France with me but I have never managed to get my own seed to germinate. From a May flowering, the seed, at least in N. Wales, took until late August to ripen. I have also grown Iris 'Broadleigh Rose' from seed but have yet to see it flower so do not know if it will come true or not.

So many seeds are best sown fresh. A friend brought some unknown agapanthus seed back from Portugal one year. It germinated rapidly and in its second year I had a large flowering sized clump. That was in a very sheltered garden in Wirral and on moving it to Shropshire, it did not survive outside.

Narcissus 'Far North' surprised me by germinating last year after three years and a house move! When will I see flowers? Who knows? Eucomis vandermerwei (seed 2010) has made quite a good bulb but is also yet to flower. Incidentally I once grew E. bicolor from unripe seed a friend gave me. Some seeds seem to germinate very quickly when still moist in the seedpod. Cyclamen hederifolium has worked like that for me, as have snowdrops. Various alliums and muscari have done well over the years as have Bulbinella hookeri and Bellevalia romana.

Amongst hardy plants Ranunculus gramineus and Potentilla atrosanguinea 'Sundermannii' have been successes as has Potentilla recta 'Warrenii'. Wow! what a brilliant yellow, not yet sure what it goes with but it is bright. Anemone baldensis, A. drummondii and A. leveillei grew well following advice to rub the hairs off the seed gently with sandpaper.

You may have noticed that many of my successes have been with trees and shrubs, although my tastes in plants are broad ranging. I have had success with many perennials, including lots of hardy geraniums from HPS seed. Trees and shrubs however can be expensive to buy and are a challenge, hence I try so many.

Recently I have grown quite a few malus of the crab apple type from seed. Malus baccata and Malus transitoria are both about five feet tall but have yet to flower. Sorbus are also quick to grow; Sorbus vilmorinii looks promising so far. Sophora 'Sun King' ex HPS 2011 is still in a pot and about a foot tall. Will they come true? Time will tell.

One triumph is a Cotinus coggygria ex 'Grace'. I collected a tiny amount of seed from our own shrub one year and planted it straight away. One seedling emerged, I later read they are hard to grow from seed but ignorance is bliss. Now it is a sturdy shrub growing here in France and its leaves are slightly darker than those of its parent from whom I have a layered cutting.

What a lot of seed sowing! All that compost, time and effort. Is it worth it? Yes most definitely, if only for the magic of seeing the first tiny shoots that eventually will become a flowering plant or even a tree. I am addicted to seed collection and growing from seed but it is a life enhancing addiction which gives me a lot of pleasure.

First published in the Correspondents Group Newsletter, June 2012
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 31.
© Copyright for this article: Anita Chapman

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2013. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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