Today stretches before me as a day of great endeavour, for it has been cleared of all other minor duties – painting those cupboard doors, for example, and cleaning off my desk in preparation for getting at my tax papers – in order for me to finalize the last few seed lists.
As most of you who have frequented this space know by now, I am something of a gardener, and I am chief operater of a small old-style plant nursery – meaning that we grow the plants ourselves, most from seed, versus acting as a retailer for plants grown by larger wholesale enterprises.
The seed lists, therefore, are of immense importance, for they are where everything starts, and the yearly process of chosing what to try has as much agony involved as ecstasy, mainly because there are so many things out there that we want to try, and we must remind ourselves to be practical and go with tried and true – and saleable! – with only a modest breaking out into tricksy and obscure little alpines from faraway countries, and quite frankly weedy-ish wildflowery things which have an exceedingly limited appeal to the public at large, who mostly just want a petunia or a geranium, and who are often already the tiniest bit bemused at the concept of the perennial plant, let alone the biennial – these last two being my staple in trade, with a handful of annuals showing up on my tables, but seldom anything as immediately familiar as a marigold.
My goodness. I am running on a bit. Sentence-wise, and otherwise.
So. Today. Seed lists. They will be done. Most are long since sent and received, but this last crucial lot will fill in the gaps, and I intend also to do a bit of gambling, gardener-wise, by ordering some things I know I likely won’t succeed with, but will get much quiet enjoyment out of attempting.
What a great pleasure then to read the words of a gardener from the past, as she describes her own thought processes while listing her wished-for seeds.
The following excerpt is from Ethel Armitage’s wonderful 1936 A Country Garden, illustrated with engravings by John Farleigh. One of my most treasured “working library” posssessions, a pleasure to read, both for the information it contains regarding English country gardens of its era, and the writer’s highly individualistic voice, which resonates so strongly with me, sharing as we do our relative stage of life and our common occupation, though separated by eighty years. Here she is, on March 9, 1935.
9th. The much debated and discussed seed list has at last been got off, though it was not completed without a certain amount of difference of opinion.
Unfortunately, the world has progressed since those happy days when the choice of flowers was limited, and the belief still held that every seed sown was absolutely certain to come up, and all that was needed for the perfect garden was a nice broad riband of virginia stock backed by canary creeper growing up pea sticks.
Now we ponder over all the beautiful South African annuals, wondering if our soil is too cold for them; think we will try our old favourites, Shirley poppies and sweet sultans once again, as there have not been many slugs about recently; feel it is really scarcely worth while having giant sunflowers as there is no room for them, and no stakes strong enough to hold them up; decide not to raise delphiniums from seed, as the last time we did so all the drab ones flourished, while those we felt sure would be of a heavenly tender indescribable blue all got devoured.
But we agreed to have a packet of Collinsia again, a plant which hails from North America, having been called after Collins, a naturalist. We saw it for the first time growing in the school-children’s gardens. It is one of the prettiest, neatest and most reliable of annuals, and has the charming sobriquet of ‘Chinese houses’, and even looks quite appropriate in the rock garden.
Then blue pimpernel is hard to do without, and blue phacelia is almost a necessity, as is also blue nemophila, and of course neither mignonette nor night-scented stock can be omitted.
The rock garden needs ionopsidium, as well as the nice little Sedum coeruleum.
And so the list goes on increasing, until it grows to such large dimensions that when the little packets arrive, one is appalled at their number and can only hope a place will be found for everything, and they will not be left lying on a shelf in the potting shed until it is too late to do anything with them at all.
The greatest joy ever given by an individual seed packet was one which cost a penny and contained a solitary banana seed, which, when planted, actually came up and in time grew into a very fine plant. It had, of course, to be kept in the greenhouse, where for many years it was the pride of the place, though never a banana did it produce. But all hope of this miracle happening was not abandoned until the plant became too large for its surroundings and had to be cast out, which drastic deed was the cause of many tears and of unutterable, though temporary, despair.
We are now too old to plant banana seeds with the idea of getting any fruit from them, or even to entertain any hope of getting our oranges from the pips we have ourselves saved, or plums from stones that have been thoroughly sucked before planting. We have to content ourselves with things that give a quicker and more certain return, like the homely wallflower and the steady-going Sweet William.