January is the month most gardeners, I’m told, could do without. We’ve had some rather trying spells of weather, when the skies opened, the wind blew with force and the thick layers of dark cloud kept us in semi-darkness for whole days.
But altogether it wasn’t such a bad month. There have been some fine sunny spells and even a touch of magic. We’re more than halfway through the winter pruning and are running out of dry storage for firewood. Fish are said to retreat to the bottom of a pond during winter, and this is borne out by the behaviour of Lea Gardens’ carp and goldfish. Orfe keep orfing regardless of the cold it seems, and watching them shoal underneath an opaque layer of ice was simply spellbinding. They stretched across the entire expanse of water like a bright milky way, meandering in a stellar procession, grouping and regrouping in ever-changing aquatic constellations.
Some of our cats took advantage of sub-zero temperatures and used the frozen pond for a bit of ice skating, sliding, gliding and whirling, and catching imaginary fish. An ideal opportunity for them to try out their Christmas presents, sets of knitted mufflers and mittens, especially selected to match their individual coats.
The propagator is propagating, the greenhouse looks almost tidy with some of its winter guests (the larger cacti and succulents) moved to the pond house in order to make space for new sowings. This year we’ve really gone to town on the ornamental front, and I’m indebted to my friends Peter and Patricia Kohn of Kerrachar Gardens for sending me so many well-filled packets of seed free of charge.
Having spent hours leafing through the commercial seed catalogues I decided, with one exception, to give them a wide berth this year and to concentrate on exchange and gifted seed instead. These lists only give the plant names and the names of their families, but it is easy to make an informed choice with the help of The Harkness Seedlist Handbook which provides the reader with the country of origin, height and flower colour. That’s all a gardener needs to know. This guide is almost always out of print in my experience, but you might be able to get hold of a second-hand copy on Amazon.
Commercial seed catalogues are lavishly illustrated and the plants, more often than not, lavishly described as well.
The great Irish gardener Helen Dillon said: “There must be special training colleges for people who write seed catalogues; the first year is spent learning not to tell the truth, the second in learning adjectives (with extra marks for attaching more than seven to the same flower) and at the end of the course the students are presented with rose-tinted spectacles.”
I don’t mind such descriptions as long as they don’t come at the expense of any pertinent information, which they all too often do. The other day I looked at maple seed, offered as “Acer Autumn Coloured Hybrids Mixed”, in the catalogue of a well-known mail order seed house.
Maples, as every sycamore owner knows, set copious seed, so the price – £4.49 for 20 seeds – was a little off-putting at first, but would become acceptable if they’d offered something truly desirable.
“Deciduous 300cm. Mixture of beautiful forms embracing all year brilliance,” it said. “Ideal for a cool, shady spot, patio tubs etc.”
Apart from the plants’ height this tells me absolutely nothing. Are they cultivars or species? Are they oriental or occidental, or a mixture of both? If they’d given the names of the seed parents in this mix I could have ascertained if these were plants I wanted and if they would stand a chance in our climate. They lost out on a sale here.
So what is a gardener to do? The answer is simple: join a plant society or two. The Scottish Rock Garden Club and The Hardy Plant Society do good seed exchanges, and you don’t have to contribute yourself in order to secure 15 or 20 packets a year for a nominal fee.
My initial collection of herbaceous plants, including a wide range of alpines, was almost entirely based on plants raised from exchange seed, and some going strong to this very day. You could also consider becoming a friend of a botanic garden in a cool climate and secure seed that is both compatible and rarely offered elsewhere.
It goes without saying that saving your own seed will save you a fortune, especially when it comes to short-lived perennials that need to be renewed from seed every two or three years. Hellebores, though long-lived, fit into this category. They resent being lifted and chopped up into small sections, as I have found out to my cost. Much better to collect ripe seed in early summer and sow it straight away.
Two readers contacted me last year on the subject of total germination failures in hellebores, which is vexing as their seed, especially if collected from doubles or other selected strains, can be prohibitively expensive.
The trouble is that, on the one hand hellebore seed, even when stored correctly, loses its viability rapidly, while on the other hand it isn’t easy to germinate anyway.
Here’s what to do: keep your sowings warm – at about 20°C for six or even eight weeks and, if you remember to do so, take them out of your propagator for a night now and again to give them more fluctuating temperatures. What you’re aiming at is to mimic nature.
After the warm spell, place them into a cool, shady place outdoors. Again, the aim is to provide fluctuating temperatures just above and below freezing to make the seed believe it’s winter. If the season is too advanced for this make-believe, then a fridge/freezer should oblige.
If this already sounds too complicated, it gets worse now. A decade ago I had a brief flirtation with South African flora and managed – probably by sheer luck – to raise a number of proteas and cyrtanthus from seed. All but one of the latter succumbed due to lack of care and sufficient knowledge on my part.
Since I’ve been given a fail-safe recipe for “South African” compost, made up of equal parts of peat, sand, decaying pine needles and vermiculite, I’ve caught the bug again, and have invested in two collections of seed: proteas and restios.
The former sometimes crop up in floral arrangements and are easily recognised by their large, scaly buds and artichoke like flower heads. The latter are graceful foliage plants with linear leaves, related to grasses while differing from them in producing male and female flowers on different plants.
The best place to germinate them is in a cold greenhouse during spring or early summer with warm but not hot day time temperatures and low night time temperatures.
My seeds arrived with a so-called smoke primer, a disk of impregnated paper to help break the seeds’ dormancy. In nature this happens through a complex chemical process triggered by bush fires, and is much easier explained in anthropomorphic terms: in a dense, close-growing “fine bush” community, seedlings don’t stand much of a chance, whereas with many adults wiped out in a fire, there will be enough space, air and light for youngsters to develop. Now isn’t that clever?
The instructions that came with the seed were impossibly difficult to follow and asked the gardener to soak the seeds in 25ml of water with the disk for 24 hours. How on earth was one to know which seed was which if they all soaked in the same dish – the supplier suggested fabricating small muslin bags for each lot.
Or was the soaking to be done in sequence? With 12 different species this meant 12 days of kerfuffle. In the end we cut the disks into 12 equal parts, popped a segment into each zip-up seed bag and topped it up with a little water. Sowing the wet seeds, especially some of the tiny restio ones, was a nightmare.
If you’re keen to try some South Africans but can’t get hold of the smoke primers, don’t despair. Some fresh, cooled wood ash sprinkled over your sowings and gradually watered in should do the trick, and I wish we’d done just that.
Now there’s just enough time to reveal the answer to our murder mystery. The correct answer was pollen, a remarkable substance that can link a criminal to the scene of a crime, as the pollen patterns from a given plant community are as unique as a human fingerprint Pollen led to an arrest, followed by a conviction, in a well-publicised double murder a few years ago, where forensic botanists matched the pollen grains of the area where two bodies had been found to the pollen on the underside of the suspect’s car. He’d put his car through a wash, but that wasn’t good enough. Once pollen gets stuck to something it won’t let go easily.
The first correct entry came from Ingrid Mackenzie, Timmer Dykes, School Road, St Margarets Hope, Orkney. A £25 plant token shall wing its way to you shortly. Unless you’re planning a visit to Shetland in the near future, please call us with a list of desirables and we’ll send them to you via NorthLink as soon as the time for planting is right.