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The Joy of Seed Catalogs

One of life’s great joys is snuggling up on a cold winter’s evening with a handful of tempting seed, bulb or plant catalogues. A promise of the gardening year to come, new species, colours, fragrances, old friends and new. Imagining new borders, planting combinations and future bouquets, pure joy!

I’ve always loved catalogues. As a child I used to obsess over the Britains Toy catalog, with their wonderful farm animals and equipment but my favourite part was their model gardens. Those flocked velvet striped lawns and plastic flower beds full of rigidly spaced delphiniums and tulips, top heavy trees, wobbly rose arbours, wrought iron gates and cardboard crazy paving, all very much of their time. Amazingly, I still have all of mine, I like to think that they inspired my later horticultural adventures. In reality though, being taken to all the wonderful Edwardian gardens of Surrey as a child by my gardening obsessed Mother was probably the greatest inspiration.

When I first started gardening, in a secret valley surrounded by pine forest in the midst of the Surrey heathlands, my Mum started sending me back copies of the RHS journal, The Garden. Here was gardening mixed with botany, experts discussing their subjects with scientific understanding and precision. Perfect.

It was in the back of one of these journals that I saw an advertisement for Scotts Nurseries in Merriott and they had a catalogue. I had to have that! Written with great passion and erudition by Michael Wallis, it became my first gardening bible and it was from there that I bought my first mail order plants.

I remember the thrill of them arriving. Dryas octopetala, a delightful and seldom seen alpine, which I was later to see in the wild limestone dykes and ditches of the Burren in Western Ireland. A lovely mat forming alpine, shiny oak leaved foliage with the most beautiful eight petalled creamy white flowers, followed by wispy white seedheads. Then there was Geranium sanguinium var. Lancastriense, the pale pink relation of our rare native Bloody Cranesbill, found growing romantically on Holy Island. Lastly the golden form of Origanum vulgare, much beloved of Margery Fish in her East Lambrook garden and I beleive shared with Michael. I still have the offspring of this very plant, forty years on, a tangible link with the grande dame herself. Years later I was to meet Michael and was able to tell him how much his catalogue had meant to me.

Scotts is sadly no more, it was a plantsman’s delight, before the term was even in common parlance. However there are now more specialist nurseries than ever and running Black Shed Flowers, we now have access the amazing range of wholesale nurseries and seed merchants. And their catalogues...

We’ve been buying in some very choice perennials from fantastic nurseries such as Arvensis Perennials in Bradford upon Avon, who offer the finest selections as used by the new wave designers such as Piet Oudolf and Tom Stuart Smith. However to provide enough flowers for our customers and clients we need to scour the seed catalogues to build up our stock.

Companies such as Chiltern Seeds, a wittily written array of gems and the very aptly titled Seedaholic, whose website and descriptions are so interesting and informative. Derry Watkin’s Special Plants offers a splendid eclectic collection of rare seeds. Then there’s Jelitto, Sarah Raven, Plants of Distinction, Moles Seeds, all destined to lure and nurture new generations of plantsmen and women with a well turned phrase and a delicious photo.

So what will Black Shed be growing this year from these catalogues? Spires of azure, sky blue and lilac larkspur and delphiniums, row upon row of delicate and subtle foxgloves, apricots, whites, creams, through rusty browns and yellows. Scabious from blue through mauve and white to deepest burgundy and palest peach, Cornflowers in all shades of blues and purples, rusty Rudbeckias’ and zany Zinnias, Amaranthus in all shades and forms, soaring structural Cardoons and Italian violet artichokes, willowy grasses and papery everlasting flowers to extend our season. The frothy fillers, Ammi and Daucus, Gypsophila, multi-stemmed sunflowers and an even larger selection of the amazing Cosmos varieties that proved so popular last year. Then there will be deliciously fragrant Sweet Peas in all the most fashionable colours. All gleaned from the well thumbed leaves of those tempting catalogues on a cold and frosty midwinter Sherborne night.

©Paul Stickland

This article first appeared in The Sherborne Times, January 2018.

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