Yesterday was much milder than it has been, and I headed outside to attempt some actual gardening. Sadly the pond is still frozen, so no way to skim off the leaves that I should have removed a couple of weeks ago. The ground was still rock hard too, so no opportunity to rescue the Gladioli that are freezing away because I got some extra work at exactly the right time for everything except the garden. I could have tidied up, but unlike Victoria I am not a particularly tidy gardener, I tend to only remove perennial and annual foliage that has gone all black and mushy and no longer adds any structure. So I spent a blissful couple of hours pottering in the greenhouse potting on some of the perennial seedlings I sowed back in September and writing down what seems to be thriving.

Wooden Plant Labels

The compost was cold but the greenhouse itself was a fairly balmy 8C (46F) and with the Cape Daisies flowering away beside me I quickly became lost in that wonderfully calming world of pots, compost and seedlings. Note to self – re-using wooden icecream sticks as plant labels does not work in a damp environment. They become covered in mould and consequently confer an unwelcome air of mystery to the plants they are supposed to be describing.

Stipa tenuissima and Knautia macedonica

A big part of my motivation was to assess how many of what kind of plant I might have to call on when it comes to re-planting my pond bed next Spring. I’ve comparatively little experience of growing things from seed – I only really started while I was living on Anglesey a few years ago – and last year was the first time I had tried perennials. My success with Stipa tenuissima, Knautia macedonica and Echinacea purpurea, which I used to replant the right hand side of the Pond Bed, encouraged me to get more ambitious. We will almost certainly be moving from here some time in the next two years, so although I refuse to disengage with the garden and just maintain it, I can’t afford to buy lots of mature plants from nurseries or garden centres. So back in September I sowed a plethora of perennials for the pond bed and elsewhere. Aconitum for stately blue spires, aquelegias for Spring colour, rudbekia for bright daisies and Achillea for those wonderful umbels.

I chose a lot of the seed based on what was likely to give me colour in year one (though I will have to wait for my blue spires), and trying to bear in mind that I need different forms, not just different colours.One of my favourite gardening books is “Designing With Plants” by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury. There is a wonderful section on combining different plant forms, mixing daisies with buttons, umbels with spires etc.. For me one of the greatest pleasures is plant combinations in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A kind of horticultural alchemy that can bring magic to the garden. Individual plants might be beautiful in their own right, star performers even, but I love it when they are combined with other, perhaps more modest, plants to create an harmonious whole. I think it is one of the hardest things to get right, because for it to really work you have to know how the individual plants behave throughout the seasons, how quickly they are likely to spread. More than that, the colours have to work together too, and leaf form can make an enormous difference. One of the reasons for wanting to use Achilleas in the garden is for their beautiful fern-like leaves, which will contrast wonderfully with both grasses and the far more simple leaves of the Rudbekias and Echinaceas.

Which colours work with which others is deeply personal and subjective, but its not even a matter of deciding you like purple and orange together – one shade of orange may work while another just misses. One of the reasons I have sown so many different plants is that without previous experience of the exact shade of yellow of Rudbekia ‘Goldsturm’ or really knowing what kind of red the flowers of Sanguisorba tenuifolia are, I’m not entirely sure what will work for me. Then again, one of the great things about growing things from seed is I can feel less guilty about ditching them if they don’t work. By ditching, I mean giving them to friends or offering them up on Freecycle rather than throwing them on the compost heap, which is always a last resort… Of course the other reason to sow so many is that I am betting that not all will be successful, and I don’t want lots of bare patches. To that end I am also sowing various annuals that can act as gap-fillers.

Rudbekia Seedlings
Achillea Seedlings

So, I have taken an audit of what is currently thriving in the greenhouse so that I can do some forward planning, or more accurately dreaming. The following list will not be of much interest to anyone else, but at least it means that if I lose my notebook again I still have a record.

Sown on 8th September 2010:

  • Achillea ageratum ‘Moonwalker’ – 3 in 3″ pots, 6 seedlings in modules. Fragrant yellow flowers, should bloom in its first year.
  • Achillea millefolium ‘Cassis’ – 3 strong plantlets in modules, one struggling seedling. Again, should flower in its first year. I doubt I will use both Achillea in the same border, I don’t think I will have the room, and anyway I already have two lovely sedums that provide umbels.
  • Ammi majus – ‘Bishop’s Flower’. I love the lacey white flowers of this annual, and by sowing in September I should get larger, stronger plants that will flower earlier too. It is a great cut flower and also knits other plants together well.
  • Antirrhinum majus ‘Orange Wonder’ – a tall growing (3′) snapdragon which has germinated extremely well in a coldframe. I now have 9 strong plants in 3″ pots and many more seedlings in a module tray. I’ll be sowing some deep red ones in the Spring too.
  • Aquilegia alpina – 9 in 3″ pots. Vivid deep blue flowers.
  • Aquilegia atrata – 7 robust plants in 3″ pots. Dark purple almost black flowers with yellow stamens. Given that this is native to limestone rocky locations in the Alps, not likely to enjoy my slightly acidic clay, but I was seduced and came up with an idea for a trough which may or may not come off. I get a little undisciplined when I have a seed catalogue in front of me and frequently find myself wondering what on earth I was thinking…
  • Euphorbia paulstris ‘Zauberflote’ – I wanted a euphorbia that i could grow as a perennial, and couldn’t resist one called ‘Magic Flute’. I have 5 in 3″ pots, I just have to decide at what stage to nip out the tops to get them bushing out. I am currently tempted to leave this until Spring, as I fear they are growing so slowly at the moment they may well miss the leaves in these low light conditions.
  • Geum coccineum ‘Cooky’ – compact low growing perennial flowering in its first year, neat foliage with good autumn colour and gorgeous single orange flowers. That’s the theory, anyway, and I currently have 3 largish seedlings and 4 more weenie ones in modules.
  • Rudbekia fulgida ‘Goldsturm’ – golden-yellow flowers, which sadly I doubt I will see in year one. These haven’t germinated very well yet, I only have two tiny seedlings showing themselves so far, but hopefully come Spring this will change.
  • Rudbekia hirta ‘Rustic Dwarf Mix’ – I don’t often go for colour mixes, I prefer to know what I’m getting, but these just sounded too delightful not to try, coming in shades of bronze, mahogany and chestnut. I have 3 very robust plantlets now in 4″ pots, and 4 others in 3″ pots. Again, unlikely to flower in their first year.
  • Sanguisorba tenuifolia – 8 thriving in 3″ pots, but probably won’t flower in its first year.
  • Scabiosa atropurpurea ‘Beaujolais Bonnets’ – I love scabious, as do the hoverflies, and this is a deep purple perennial form that flowers in its first year. I have 8 in 3″ pots.
  • Silene laciniata – currently only 3 seedlings in modules. I really hope I get more of these germinating later. The description in the Chiltern Seeds catalogue says “bears almost unbelievable, vivid orange-scarlet, deeply-cut, exploding star-shaped flowers which gleam at you through thickets and other plants like flickers from a fire”. How could I resist? I am hoping it will fulfill a similar role to the Zinnia ‘Red Spider’ in amongst the Stipa tenuissima and Knautia macedonica. Its a perennial that should flower in its first year.

Looking back at the list I can certainly tell that I wanted more orange in my garden! This could all go horribly wrong…

There are a few current “no shows”, including my lovely blue spires. Neither Aconitum napellus ‘Newry Blue’ or Aconitum ‘Stainless Steel’ has germinated. They do require stratification, which they are certainly getting with this very cold weather, but rather than try bringing them in and putting them in the propagator again I will just leave them and hope Spring will work its magic on them. I’ll definitely be needing some blue to balance all that orange (!), and will sow some more Nepeta in the Spring. It flowers easily in its first year, and will give the Monkshood time to establish. And the beauty of it is, if we do end up moving I will have lots of perennials in pots to take with me! I’m off to dream of perfect plant combinations. Reality will hit soon enough…

26 thoughts on “Dreaming with my hands in cold compost

  1. You must’ve had so much fun just to putter in the greenhouse for a few hours. Your seedlings are fabulous diversion! I really like that book. I’ve been looking for something by Piet Oudulf but haven’t come across anything as of yet. That is one beautiful book. P.S. My bubble wrap is working fabulously. We had about 2″ of snow and bitter cold but the panels were cold outside-warm and toasty inside like yours. It does get warmer during the day but at night it stays about 45.

    1. Hi Tina, glad to hear your bubble wrap is working! Hope you get some greenhouse pottering too. And yes, it is a great book.

  2. What a list! How do you keep up with it all? You must have a large greenhouse. I like the idea of putting a red bloom in front of the Stipas…nice contrast. I usually sow whatever seeds I have directly into the garden (except for the herbs) and cross my fingers.
    I do think I will put more into the perennial garden this summer/spring. Your list is interesting, some plants I am not familiar with. Will have to look into them for my garden.

    1. Hi Janet. Keeping track is both fun and challenging! Next step is to sit down and look at all the different sizes, shapes, colours, both that I have already and am growing, and come up with a plan…

  3. Dear Janet, You do have a lot to keep you busy and happy gardening! On that r. ‘Goldsturm’ once it gets going, in my experience it makes tons of new babies for you, so don’t give up! The scabious is one I’ll be looking for as i order seeds this year – sounds yummy!

    1. Hi Cyndy, that’s good news about ‘Goldsturm’. The scabious is beautiful but needs planting with stiff companions to keep it from flopping too much.

  4. I have such intense greenhouse envy! Your potting session looks like Heaven, even if it does sound a bit cold. I’m right there with you on wooden tags… so inexpensive that I’ve stubbornly tried to use them multiple times, but it always ends up as a game of memory.

    1. Hi Eliza, so sorry to have induced envy! Glad I am not alone with the wooden plant tag issue.

    1. Hi Alistair. I used to have a Stipa gigantea, it is very beautiful, but didn’t work in the space. I’m trying to reduce the number of grasses, and the number of different types too. ‘Ladies Mantle’ is beautiful, isn’t it? I love the way it holds on to raindrops. Aquilegia fragrans looks gorgeous. Perhaps come Spring…

  5. I love seeing all of your little seedlings and it takes me back to my beginning years here. You will have some thawing and time to remove the leaves from the pond, I would guess. Having all those tiny plants to care for must be such a treat when all else is frozen in the garden. It is great to have your lists so organized . . . very impressive! ;>)

    1. Hi Carol. Thanks for the encouragement on the pond front – I always feel so guilty about my lack of organisation when it comes to looking after it – not that the wildlife seems to mind!

    1. Hi Beth. The greenhouse does provide a welcome refuge at this time of year! Mine was new this Spring, so thrilled to have it. Hope you can find room for one somewhere, you’d never regret it…

  6. You are lucky to have a greenhouse, it is on my wish list but I’m having trouble even finding where I can buy one here in Italy. Your seedlings look very happy and healthy, I hope they survive the terrible winter you’re having this year! Christina

    1. I am extremely lucky! Hope you manage to track one down yourself. The cold is due to return at the end of the week, so here’s hoping everything carries on thriving despite it. I am pinning my hopes on the bubble wrap insulation, its is frozen roots that I am most concerned about.

  7. I have compost envy! What a brilliant lot of plants you’ve been sucessful with! I’m lookign forward to seeing some of them later. Great tip about the lolly sticks – I’ve been keeping mine – maybe better for short term seed trays in spring do you think?

    My heart was in my mouth when you mentioned ‘getting rid’ of anything that didn’t work, then of course being a sound gardening sort – you qualified it with rehoming etc first – phew!!

    I’m looking forward to the combinations, I tend to be a bit ‘stick with what I know here (well with what I know will grow here) which can often leave you a bit unadventurous – I do like grasses but not grown them much at home (the nursery we worked in grew alot of them).

    *Ponders* thank you!

    1. Hi Fay. After your tips on packing up plants I even wondered about trying to sell any I don’t find good homes for on ebay! I think the lolly sticks would be fine either in seed trays outside or on a windowsill indoors, its under a propagator or in the humid atmosphere of the greenhouse that they seem to suffer… I have a large tower of the perishers that the rest of the household has been faithfully saving for me all year, and given that there are months where they each have one ice-cream a day, thanks to Aldi selling them so cheaply…

  8. aloha,

    what fun projects you have going on and i’m sure having a greenhouse is really a neccessity in your neck of the woods, how wonderful you can still garden even in the cold of winter….congrats

    1. Aloha Noel. I only got my greenhouse this year, but I do love it. I never expected to be able to garden in December though! An added bonus.

  9. This is an ambitious list! I realise that I will never be a true gardener without a greenhouse. Sadly, I am what one professional disdainfully called “a chequebook gardener.” The only pots I have going are my forced bulbs . . .

    I look forward to seeing these little seedlings tucked into your borders and beds next summer.

    1. Hello Bee. The list is long because I expected most of what I sowed to fail – which it still might! Will be a challenge finding homes for them all if they don’t… And don’t knock “cheque-book gardening”, you can still create beauty and enjoy it. That pro is unspeakably rude!

  10. Your seedlings look great! and they are so many. I hope they continue to grow nicely. Oh, I so wish I had a greenhouse too

    1. Hi fer, thank you for your good wishes for my seedlings! They have to survive the rest of the winter yet… I love your coldframes by the way, such a creative way to recycle and protect your plants.

  11. Hi Janet,

    Wow that’s impressive list of seedlings!

    I thought I recognised the book you photographed as being Piet’s and indeed I was right! Oh dear, you know it’s bad when you recognise and know a book just by two pages in it….

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