Seed capital

 

This year’s catalogues, with their shiny images of flawless plants, will keep you sowing and growing for another season

WITH TWO CONSECUTIVE non-summers piled up in a sodden mess behind us, part of me feels like giving up gardening. But the other part – the cracked optimist and gambler – says that the odds are very good for a proper summer this year. So, as planning for the months ahead is getting more urgent, I’m banking on perfect meteorological conditions, with just the right amount of rain (falling only after dusk) and a wealth of golden sunshine (what gardener ever planned for a lousy season anyway?).

This year’s seed catalogues are – as ever – wonderfully tempting, with their shiny images of flawless plants. And while nothing ever looks quite as glorious, as plump or as glistening in my own garden, the hopeful fantasy keeps me sowing and growing for another season.

Thompson and Morgan’s 2009 catalogue is awash with cheerful, sunny blooms, making one wonder was it designed that way to combat the blues from last summer’s washout? They can’t have known about this year’s economic meltdown, but their jewel and hot-coloured blooms for borders and containers certainly are hope-inducing.

One of the warmest is nasturtium ‘Cobra’, with deep red velvety flowers and dark green foliage. Its habit is both bushy and trailing, so it is a good candidate for beds and planters alike. The flowers are the old-fashioned, spurred kind which narrow to backward-pointing tails. Nasturtiums are edible, and make jolly spots

of colour in leafy salads. With the spurred varieties you need to check inside the tails for lurking critters, or just exclude these parts

from the salad bowl. The peppery flowers are among the easiest of all to grow, and are a guaranteed successful first gardening project for little people.

The happiest plants this year must be Eschscholzia californica‘Jelly Beans’, also from TM. This mixture of California poppies is a medley of orange, pink and scarlet double flowers, with each bloom a many-petalled festive flutter. Remember that their origins are on the sunny side of America, so grow them only in full sun.

Rudbeckias, another American special, usually collapse at the first sign of drought, but a new TM cultivar ‘Cherry Brandy’ promises to “triumph over heat, drought and poor soils”. I realise that – from where we’re presently paddling along our weather timeline – heat and drought may seem distant and impossible syndromes, but they will occur again eventually. In any case, many city soils are comparatively dry and impoverished, so this particular annual should be urban-proof. What’s more, it’s red, a most satisfying colour, although I suspect that there may be a bit of chromatic license in the very cerise petals in the photos.

I’m a sucker for rich red flowers (a character trait that is more usually found in male gardeners, according to a nurseryman friend), so I am also drawn to TM’s crazily-shredded and tufted, deep-red opium poppy ‘Blackcurrant Fizz’, and to Mr Fothergill’s ruby red cosmos ‘Rubenza’.

There is more luscious red in Astrantia‘Hadspen Blood’, available from Plant World in Devon. This perennial, the darkest of the red masterworts, was selected by Canadian gardeners Nori and Sandra Pope at Hadspen House. It is usually sold as plants, rather than in seed form. As with all seed-raised named cultivars, there may be some variation, so if you’re saving seed for future generations, or growing plants for charity sales, do choose only plants with the purest and deepest flowers. (One of my pet peeves, especially as I enter the latter and more experienced half of my gardening life, is the passing-off of inferior strains as named plants.) Astrantia‘Hadspen Blood’ was quite a fashion plant a decade ago, and it remains timelessly gorgeous. A recent plant of great chicness is the South African Berkheya purpurea. I’m not gone on this thistle-leaved individual with big, dingy-mauve flowers, but other gardeners whom I admire are, and so also are the bees. If you want to be with them at the cutting edge of plant fashion, then you can order seed from Chiltern Seeds, TM, and Plant World. This last seed house is a favourite with plantspeople, and always has exciting things to grow.

An unlikely sounding example is Sonchus arboreusfrom Madeira, which is – bear with me here – just like a dandelion bush. The shrubby plant has a fountain of exaggerated dandelion foliage, with bright yellow flowers. It is, in fact, a sow thistle, a close relative of the dandelion, and is strangely impressive, in an alien-plant-from-Mars kind of way. Another Madeiran shrub grown by many gardeners is the beautifully structured honey spurge, Euphorbia mellifera. This has hybridised with E. stygiana, nearly extinct in its native Azores (and available from Chiltern Seeds), to form the much sought after E. x pasteurii. The seed of this lovely mongrel (which has the good leaf structure of the former euphorbia, and the broad, spreading habit of the latter) is available from Plant World.

Plant World is a family-run company, something that is increasingly rare, even in the down-to-earth world of seed houses. One of the oldest family seed businesses that I’d also like to recommend is Robinson’s, the self-styled “Home of the Mammoth Onion”. Now in its fifth generation, the concern was established in 1860, and besides seed of humongous onions (they are – I’ve grown them), all manner of other vegetable seed is raised and sold.

Small enterprises add much-needed diversity to the horticultural domain, so allow me to remind you of a couple on these shores that sell Irish-grown vegetable seed. Brown Envelope Seeds is based in west Cork and has a small, but always interesting range (chili Firecracker is stupendous and vigorous), while Irish Seed Savers in Clare is committed to maintaining and increasing stocks of heirloom vegetables. Both of the above are completely organic, another reason for supporting them.

Further organic seed is available from The Organic Centre in Leitrim, and from Deelish Garden Centre in west Cork, the agent for the Organic Gardening Catalogue. jpowers@irishtimes.com

TOP SEEDS

Brown Envelope Seeds, Ardagh, Church Cross, Skibbereen, Co Cork, 028-38184, www.brownenvelopeseeds.com;

Chiltern Seeds, Bortree Stile, Ulverston, Cumbria, LA12 7PB, England, 00-44-1229-581137, www.chilternseeds.co.uk;

Irish Seed Savers Association, Scarriff, Co Clare, 061-921866, www.irishseedsavers.ie

Mr Fothergill’s seeds are widely available, www.fothergills.co.uk;

The Organic Centre, Rossinver, Co Leitrim; 071-9854338; www.theorganiccentre.ie;

The Organic Gardening Catalogue, Deelish Garden Centre, Skibbereen, Co Cork, 028-21374, www.deelish.ie;

Plant World, St Marychurch Road, Newton Abbot, Devon TQ12 4SE, England, 00-44-1803-872939, www.plant-world-seeds.com;

W Robinson Son, Sunny Bank, Forton, Nr Preston, PR3 0BN, England, 00-44-1524-791210, www.mammothonion.co.uk;

Thompson Morgan catalogue available from Mr Middleton, 58 Mary Street, Dublin 1, 01-8731118, www.mrmiddleton.com