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Planning for the Seed Exchange

December 11, 2018
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It’s always surprised me how many people take Waitrose up on their free coffee. As a tea drinker, it’s not my tipple. It’s tricky to manhandle the trolley towards the car anyway, without having to do so with coffee cup in hand.

There’s something about fringe benefits that gets us Brits excited though. We’re always on the look out for great value and that elusive ‘free lunch’.

The UK’s horticultural societies are a gem. Not just because of all they do in promoting excellence in horticulture, but because they genuinely offer value for money.

On my Tea Break Gardener Blog I have written about the benefits of membership as I believe so many amateur gardeners are unaware what they are missing out on.

The AGS Seed Exchange

Benefits of membership – The AGS Seed Exchange

In the case of the Alpine Garden Society, access to discounted events and the excellent journal are reward enough for membership but the cherry on the cake has to be the seed exchange.

When I joined, I had yet to understand what an incredible operation the seed exchange is. Members from all over the world donate surplus seed, which are packaged, catalogued and made available to members. It’s possibly the biggest seed exchange of its type in the world.

Some of the items listed are wild-collected seed, some garden grown and some are tiny immature bulbils or cormlets (essentially baby bulbs and corms) which may take a year or two of growing on before flowering.

The cost to members of the scheme is just £10 for 23 packets of seed or bulbils.

When the scheme goes live, each member can select 23 seeds to receive, and must also list a further 50 reserve choices should these already be taken.

Understandably, those who have donated seed get first dibs and additional choices, following which orders are processed on a first come first served basis.

A bamboozlingly long list

Beginners beware – the seed list is lengthy, containing many varieties, and only listed by Latin name.

I recognised at least some of the plants on offer but the sheer number of varieties to choose from could be baffling for beginners. It’s important not to let this put you off. I took a deep breath and jumped in.

Here’s my 7-point plan for tackling your first seed exchange

1.  Read the list in advance – Preferably before the scheme goes live, so you can take time to mull things over and do some research. The list is made available a few days before the exchange goes live but you can also start researching from previous years’ seed lists. These are available here.

2.  Choose an easy 10 – These are selections chosen by the AGS which are easy to grow from seed. I decided to look into these.

3.  Look for plants you do recognise – Even beginner gardeners will recognise some names – primula, viola etc . I read the sections of plants I recognised first to see if there were any varieties that I liked the look of.

4.  Consult books – I have a few books on alpines including Alpine Gardening for Beginners by John Good (an Alpine Garden Society publication). I flicked through this book and, when I saw a photo I liked the look of, I referred to the plant list and jotted down selections of this type of plant. I then flicked through an alpine field guide on my bookshelf.

5.  Use online sources – Brilliantly, the online seed ordering form on the AGS website has a Google link to images of the plant in question so you can quickly decide if you like the look of it and do further research if required.

6.  Look out for herbaceous perennials and other non-alpines – There are many seeds on the list that aren’t alpines per se. I spotted some of these straight away, e.g. Aquilegia ‘Nora Barlow’, which I already grow in my garden. I scanned the list looking out for plants in this category and selected a few that I recognised from garden centres or mainstream seed stands.

7.  Try to avoid rare plants – There is jeopardy in this. As a beginner, I’m not in the market yet for the ‘hen’s teeth’ seeds but scanning the 2018/19 seed list, I suddenly realised that I wouldn’t be able to spot a gold-dust seed variety from a common one. If I was in doubt about anything I avoided it and chose varieties that I could see for sale elsewhere, or which were native forms.

My choices

Beginner ‘Starters for 10’

Sensibly and rather wonderfully, the AGS has put together starter packs for alpine beginners. 3 selection packs of 10 selected varieties are available

* Alpine plants seed selection suitable for rockeries, troughs etc.

* Bulbils/cormlets selection

* Herbaceous perennial seed selection

In each case, the varieties have been chosen with beginner gardeners in mind. They are plants that will give quick results and don’t require an alpine house set-up to succeed.

I decided to go for both the 10 alpines and 10 bulbil/cormlet selections. These counted as 20 of my 23 available choices.

Whilst I think I’ll be keen to make bespoke choices in the future, this option is not only sensible but also exciting.

It’s like lucky dip at the fair and I’m sure to receive some good ‘uns that the experts recommend.

My final three

This was difficult as having researched a few options, choosing just three was a challenge.

I decided my best approach was to try new varieties of things I am already growing successfully and already have my eye on .

Firstly, I chose Iris lutescens – a yellow Iris, otherwise known as the Crimean Iris. I’ve had some success with an unnamed small alpine iris in my alpine trough and wanted to try another one. The sunny yellow colour of this one appealed to me. With minimal research I discovered it had an RHS Award of Garden Merit (often a good sign when choosing any plant). I figured it to be a fairly common variety therefore and not one of the ‘Hen’s teeth’ varieties that the more experienced alpine collectors would be looking for.

Secondly, I chose Hibiscus ‘Summer Storm’. I love Hibiscus as they remind me of holidays abroad. This summer at Kew I found a stunning variety called Hibiscus moscheutos ‘Southern Belle’ with enormous dusky pink flowers the size of tea plates and I read they can be easy to grow from seed. This variety wasn’t listed but a number of others were, including ‘Summer Storm’ a fondant pink variety with burgundy centre. Many of these Hibiscus are described as ‘hardy’ in various websites but if I get it to germinate I’ll need to investigate how it will suit my climate and whether greenhouse cultivation or overwintering is preferable.

Lastly, I chose Pleione grandiflora. I already have a Pleione, bought from the sale rail at my local garden centre without really knowing what it was. Often described as windowsill orchids, they lie dormant in winter, fooling you to think they’ve died off. Then in spring up pops a pretty orchid flower: in my case a tiny shocking pink one. In choosing another I was attracted by the fact that the name ‘grandiflora’ means ‘big flower’ and the fact that it is white. I’m not sure if this is a rare variety and therefore whether I will receive this but I though it worth a try.

Seed Exchange

The AGS Seed Exchange

The 50 reserve list

In my case, a full list of 50 reserves is unlikely to be necessary. My 2 starter packs of 10 will be available, so there are only 3 choices that may not be.

I decided to have a go at creating a full list anyway as I thought it could be useful in the future and I’d already done some research.

Plus, the online links made it quick to do. My list contains many recognisable plants, including violas, cyclamen, colchicums, primulas and hellebores. I chose basic varieties that I had seen for sale elsewhere.

My list of 50 also contains alternative choices for the Pleione and Hibiscus in the hope that these may be available if my first choices aren’t.

Could I be a contributor next year?

Looking at the plants in my garden, I realise I could easily contribute to next year’s scheme. To participate, you need to be able to send 7 or more varieties of seed.

Given that I have collected seeds of various alpines and hardy perennials this year, with a bit of thought I think I could collect enough to have a go next year.

I’d be interested to know how best to collect and store these next year so that I can become a contributor as well as a consumer of the marvellous scheme.

I’ll be sure to share news of my lucky dip starters for ten and 3 additional seed choices in future diaries, as well as how I get on sowing and growing them.

Visit the Seed Exchange

Seed Exchange
Image of Katharine Woods Katharine Woods Our beginner alpine gardener, Katharine is a busy mother of three living in the Chiltern Hills. She'll be detailing her experiences with growing alpines and hardy plants in her own garden. Katharine also writes her own blog, The Tea Break Gardener, documenting the wide variety of plants she grows, from perennials to houseplants.