Imagine opening your front door to find a baby in a basket, wrapped in a shabby shawl, all big eyes and hope. Seed catalogues are being thrust through our letterboxes as I type, to arrive on the hall floor with a plop. These embody orphans, searching for a nurturing home. Who am I to resist their blandishments?
Primula vulgaris “Dawn Ansell” (double primrose)
If the feckless parents are Tacca chantrierei (bat flower), their love children will never amount to much. In the past I squandered heated propagator space and first class compost on them. I have wrung my hands and crossed my fingers to no avail. In the last resort, I have even read the blasted instructions. No matter what I try, these will not germinate, far less grow strong and beautiful, to take their proud place in the world. Purveyors of horticultural supplies often offer specimens to make us salivate, notwithstanding the impossibility of getting them to thrive without the specialist facilities of Kew at our disposal. I cite the aforementioned sodding Tacca as an example of greed in myself and the supplier, the latter knowing the outcome in advance but still taking my money.
Helleborus alba plena (Lenten rose)
Tyros will be better advised to begin with species bearing the cheerful legend “easy”, although this does not always mean “fetching”. This year I shall grow Ammi visnaga (bishop’s weed) which is ridiculously simple to start into action. The frothy umbels of white foam compliment any plant in its vicinity, the blossom works well in a vase and the fat seed heads can be stored for similar future bounty. Another hardy annual, the best Nigella papillosa (love-in-a-mist) is “African Bride”. Statuesque white petals with dark purple stamens, this should form a cloud of texture and contrast in bloom with striking seed pods following, to rattle in the autumn breezes. If I’m lucky, I could get a self perpetuating colony of ravishing splendour and of course, I am an optimist at heart.
I have a hankering for varieties which are unusual but will choose life, so I favour Sarah Raven for strange specimens with the fair possibility of success. I have purchased Leonotis leonurus (staircase plant) which produces balls of amber colour six feet (2 metres) high. It’s a showstopper which has dragged passersby to my door panting with lust, to ask for its name, address and intimate photographs. Dierama pulcherrimum (angel’s fishing rod) is a cormous perennial whose blooms halt the traffic. This can be started from a packet and as with many other interesting activities, benefits from a little bottom heat. Chiltern Seeds have supplied tiny envelopes of Cephalaria gigantea (giant scabious) and Smyrnium perfoliatum (alexander), neither of which appears for sale in your average garden centre. With a little practise you will get good at this. You risk getting hooked on cheap plants and may join me in pimping for partners, with a view to impending offspring. You will regard a few failures as the cost of learning but look on the bright side; the teenage time is relatively painless and unless growing trees, you won’t have to pay for your youngster’s education.