Each gardening year, we are all spoiled for choice when it comes to selecting seeds and plants at various stages of development.
Edibles, ornamentals or both, just about sums up the main decision we have to make. Are we solely vegetable and fruit gardeners in the grand tradition of grow-your-own or do we simply like a colourful display of flowers and rely on the supermarket to provide the food? Personally, I like the best of both worlds, so the annual seed order has been finely balanced over the years.
Any extras have come by way of propagation, plugs or plants from a variety of sources.
This is the way it has also been for several gardening friends.
However, the figures for sales of vegetable and flower seeds each year have recently swung in favour of the former and this has no doubt caused a stir among professional growers of ornamental plants.
I recently spent a relaxing hour in the company of gardening writer and international nurseryman Adrian Bloom and grasped the opportunity to ask for his take on the situation.
He appeared fairly relaxed about any threat to the herbaceous perennial business as pursued by Blooms of Bressingham.
This, he intimated, is because they have a sound client base, not least in America. As for the grow-your-own phenomenon, Adrian felt that when the pitfalls and reality of growing good edible produce kicked in, the novelty would wear off.
For enthusiasts such as myself, there is no conflict. The essential life skill of growing your own food should be encouraged, with the widest possible range of plants and cultivation methods at our disposal.
The same applies to cultivating flowers for the unquestionable therapeutic qualities they bestow on the gardener. There might not be sufficient space in the majority of modern home gardens to establish a traditional herbaceous border, but all the favourite plants of yore remain available and have even been joined by stunning modern cultivars.
As a trainee gardener, I enjoyed the luxury of trial beds, including the linear, with yew or beech hedge backing, and island type that could be viewed from 360 degrees. These were tailor-made for staged planting, with taller delphiniums, thalictrum, eupatorium, cortaderia, verbascum and the like, tapering down to front-of-border types such as alchemilla, polygonum, nepeta, oenothera. The names should ring a bell because all are still popular today, the difference being their inclusion in mixed borders with shrubs, bulbs and annuals.
A good example of this blending of different perennial plant types into a mixed planting can be found at The Alnwick Garden and it is a mere two years since they cut the first turf to create it.
The border is set against an 18th century brick wall backdrop and that makes the difference if you are a life-long photographer, as many gardeners are. Take note of how the wall appearance changes from harsh to mellow depending on light conditions.
These bricks came from the continent as ballast aboard sailing ships that had carried a corn cargo from a local port.
Against this ready-made background, head gardener Trevor Jones has planned a visual feast of colour, texture and form. Walk the full length and look out for the white-barked birch, betula jacquemontii, the classy tall thalictrum, and slender stems of verbena bonariensis that terminate at eye level with flat, purple flower heads.
We are used to seeing the green-splashed white and pink leaves of shrubby actinidia kolomicta, aka strawberries and cream, planted throughout the county, but if you thought the other notable family member was only confined to greenhouses, think again.
The kiwi fruit (actinidia deliciosa) will rampage all over a south-facing wall. It does take the male and female forms planted alongside one another to secure a good crop, but the female form ‘Blake’ is self-fertile and worth trying if there’s only room for one.
Further on, a delicious fragrance is tracked down to a vigorous jasminum polyanthum flowering against the wall.
Then there are group plantings of acanthus, achillea and echinacea springing into bloom. And beyond that two lovely kniphofia, ‘Wrexham Buttercup’ and ‘Vanilla’.
Then just when you think you’ve seen it all, two further plant types appear. First up is a diversity of ornamental grasses catching the eye, with the favourite for this fellow at present, the golden carex elata ‘Aurea’.
The other must-have plant for the garden is heuchera americana ‘Rave On’. It us but one of several at The Alnwick Garden. Indeed, it is involved in a heuchera trial in the Roots and Shoots garden at present for the consumer magazine Gardening Which.
This is an excellent time to be sowing herbaceous perennial seeds into the open border and in doing so enjoying the creative aspect of raising new flowering plants and saving money.
Fork over a spare piece of vegetable garden, then gently firm and rake it level. Make a shallow drill with the back of a rake, spread the seeds along it and cover over. Within two weeks seedlings will appear and all you need do is control weeds around them until autumn. That is when they can be planted into the place of your choice.
A typical summer perennial, say gaillardia ‘Goblin’, costs £2.45 for a packet of 130 seeds, whereas just one plant in a pot will cost more. So get buying and sowing and save money. Who knows, you might just be the one who nudges flower seed sales back into the lead!