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Garden Life; Beauty of going to seed.

I AM always being asked what my favourite flower is and the nearest I can get to an answer is: "Whatever's looking particularly wonderful at the moment."

But there's a whole group of plants that I take a special interest in. They range from tiny alpines to spreading shrubs, plus a huge range of border plants in all shapes and sizes.

What have they got in common? I propagated them myself, either from seed or cuttings. It doesn't matter how many expensive plants I order from specialist nurseries: I'll always have a specially soft spot for them.

Growing your own plants is probably the biggest buzz you can have as a gardener. To sow seeds and grow them on into beautiful flowering plants, or to grow a magnificent shrub from a cutting, makes you feel like a proper gardener.

And then there are the practical and economic reasons. For the price of a single candelabra primula plant at the nursery, you can raise a whole colony from seed and still have some to give away or swap. Your plantings can be generous swathes of plants, not just single dots. But many folk are scared to have a go. They'll happily raise their own bedding plants, a much more dicey process needing heat, and sometimes a special closed propagator. Then they'll shy away from easy perennials that need no special treatment.

But here's how easy it is. It's often said that primula can be quite tricky from seed. Last September, a gardening friend gave me a large paper bag of seed from primula 'postford white' collected from her own plants. It's a pretty thing with whorls of white flowers, each with a pink centre. I thought they might be just the thing to fill in gaps in my border.

I was busy, so I sowed them hastily in a fish box full of ordinary compost and promptly forgot about them. This spring I rediscovered it under an apple tree where it had spent the winter.

The seedlings were as thick as mustard and cress. Pricked out 40 to a fish box, they made great cabbage-sized plants that were ready to set out in the garden in June to flower next year.

The key to success is good quality seed and the best seed is home-grown. It's fresh and it germinates easily. Collect seed from your own garden, or beg a few capsules from a friend. Just cut off the seed heads and hang them upside-down in a dry place with a paper bag tied round the heads.

When I've got time, I give them a final shake and then sort out the seed, removing any rubbish that could cause rotting. I put the seed into labelled envelopes and store them in ice-cream containers in the fridge. I like to sow primula fresh, but most things are sown in early spring.

Good plants to try are aquilegias, especially the double green and pink 'Norah Barlow' which comes true from seed, snakes head fritillaries, candelabra primulas, and meconopsis (Himalayan blue poppies).

All these germinate easily from home-saved seed and need no heat, just the protection of a cold-frame, or even just a pane of glass placed over the seed pan.

Meconopsis need light to germinate, so don't cover them.

Bigger seeds, like single or tree peonies, can just be picked by hand. You want the shiny black ones; the bright red ones are not fertile. Sow them and leave them outside.

Don't throw out the seed pan if there's no sign of activity the first spring. Peonies sometimes put out a root the first year, a shoot the second, so it's worth being patient.

Lilies, too, are good from seed, but if you grow tiger lilies, lilium lancifolium, there's an even easier way. This plant, and several other lilies, produce tiny bulbs in the leaf axils all the way up the stem. Collect them and plant them just below the surface in a potful of gritty compost. Each will make a new bulb and they'll be flowering in a couple of years.

It's also the right time of year to start taking 'half-ripe' cuttings of shrubs and these are some of the easiest to root. Check the new growth on shrubs like hydrangeas and hardy fuchsias. It should be stiff, but still flexible, not green and sappy and not too woody.

Cut it cleanly below a leaf joint and take off the lower leaves. Insert the cuttings round the edge of a pot containing cutting compost and a bit of extra grit or sand. Dip the ends in hormone rooting powder if you like, but it's not necessary.

I stand the pots on a layer of sand in a cold-frame, but they'll even root happily in a sheltered, shady spot outside if they're kept moist and sprayed in dry weather. Buddlejas are easy to root.

Take cuttings, too, of herbaceous plants that might not come through the winter. Penstemons will often disappear in a wet winter and young plants flower better than older ones. They root easily from cuttings.

Keep a pot of cuttings in a cool light but frost-free place and cut them back when in late spring when you come to pot them up separately.

The same treatment goes for salvias and anthemis, also often victims of a cold wet winter.

There are a lot of old wives' tales associated with taking cuttings. Irish gardeners, for example swear that for successful rooting, the pot must contain an odd number of cuttings.

Here's a piece of magic that I believe in. Believe that your cuttings WILL root. A positive attitude brings success. Don't ask me how it works - it just does.

PLANT OF THE WEEK: HYDRANGEA VILLOSA

HYDRANGEAS are some of the best shrubs for late summer but, sadly, some are not reliable flowerers in many parts of Scotland.

Some flower on ripened wood. Cut back to base in winter and slow to get started in spring, they never mature enough to produce flowers. That's why they tend to do better in town gardens, or in coastal areas where they're never damaged by hard frost.

But hydrangea villosa is a superb shrub that is hardy, even in an exposed garden and will flower generously where other hydrangeas fail.

It comes from western China and, like many plants from that region, enjoys Scottish conditions. It's one of the lovely lacecap varieties, often preferred by folk who find mophead hydrangeas (hortensias) too artificial-looking.

The flat flower-heads have a central area of small fertile flowers, surrounded by a ring of large sterile flowers.

Both the leaves and stems of hydrangea villosa are covered with a velvety down or darkest green with burgundy overtones. It's a most beautiful setting for the large pale violet blue flowers and a bush in full bloom is a real class act.

Hydrangea villosa always needs a shady position and deep moist soil. It hates to dry out in summer. It enjoys the same conditions as rhododendrons, so plant it in your woodland area to give late-summer interest.

DOWN TO EARTH: A gardener's notebook

THE offers glued to the front cover of gardening magazines don't cut much ice with me, as I tend to toss seed freebies to the back of the kitchen drawer .

That's why I've got about six packets of Love-in-a-Mist cluttering up my kitchen. It's nice, but how much of it does a garden need?

This year it's been different. Competition's so hot in the world of magazines that the publishers are pulling out all the stops to get one over on the opposition. That's meant some more imaginative seed packets.

So when I wanted to grow pot marigolds, I fished out a packet put aside from a mag. Then while I was at it, I thought I might as well use all my free seeds.

The results have been fantastic. I've had marigolds, kingfisher daisies, verbena, rudbeckia, salvia farinosa, morning glory, cup-and-saucer vine, nasturtiums, stocks and velvet queen sunflowers.

The germination was fantastic, and I've planted out nearly 200 plants. Some of the seeds, like the marigolds and sunflowers, I wanted to buy anyway.

But I've reacquainted myself with old friends and made a few new ones. It's been years since I've grown old-fashioned stocks and nasturtiums, but I've enjoyed the nostalgic trip.

If you're starting a new garden and buy gardening magazines anyway, it's a great way to fill up the garden.

Furthermore, my non-gardening spouse is thrilled with my thriftiness. I just hope he never finds out what I'm spending on magazines.

GARDENERS' Q&A

Q HOW can I get my wisteria to flower better? It produces lots of vigorous greenery and only the odd flower.

A GET it licked into shape. Wisterias often put all their energies into foliage and you need to encourage it to put its strength into flowering.

Start now by cutting back this year's long trailing stems and any long lateral shoots, by half.

Try to train them into a horizontal habit of growth, as this helps flower production.

Next, cut back the laterals to three or four inches in mid-winter. This should leave only two or three bud, and this should encourage the formation of flower, rather than leaf buds.

A good application of organic matter should also help.

Q IS there anything I can do about my heavy clay soil? We've managed to dig out a border on the sunny side of our new garden, but it's soggy in wet weather and cracks when it's dry.

A DON'T despair. If you've dug it, you're over the worst. There's a miracle ingredient - horticultural grit. Try to get hold of a load of it and work it into the border. It acts on Plasticine-like soils like flour rubbed into fat to make pastry, leaving it lighter and crumbly. Organic matter's the other key ingredient.

From now on don't throw even a tea-bag away. You need compost, manure, leaf-mould, anything to lighten it up and get the earthworms working.

Every time you plant something, put in a shovelful of grit and compost. It shouldn't take long to improve your soil and make it much easier to work. And remember that it may be back-breaking, but clay's very fertile. Roses love it.

If you have a gardening problem, write to Gardenlife, Daily Record, One Central Quay, Glasgow G3 8DA.
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Wheatcroft, Janet
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Aug 12, 2000
Words:1727
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