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Breeding success

As you browse through the seed catalogues this year, or look at the stands of packets in the garden centre, spare a thought for the people behind this amazing range of goodies. Companies with decades of experience spend every year looking for, or breeding, new varieties, testing the old ones and generally trying to make things as easy and reliable as possible for the person who buys and sows the seed.

Each of the major seed companies has a trial ground where all the different varieties are tested, old and new. Every row of plants is assessed to make sure the end result is consistent, is what it should be and is worth continuing to sell. As the weather is different every year, this means the seed varieties are tried and tested in a wide range of conditions and any that show poor results on a regular basis are likely to be dropped from the range.

The great thing about seed is that it's likely to bring up a completely unique plant now and then and anything like this is quickly identified for further study. Such a plant occurred at Mr Fothergill's, where one Verbena in a batch was highly fragrant, much more so than usual. When seed from this plant was sown, it proved to have a consistently good scent, but the added (and unexpected) bonus was a marked resistance to powdery mildew, something many annual Verbenas fall prey to by late summer. Repeated testing of this seed brought colour variations and it is now being introduced onto the market as Verbena ‘Scentsation', a low-growing, compact plant that will be ideal for the patio where you can appreciate the fragrance.

Some of the seed company trial grounds are open to the public and this is a great chance to see varieties you've never grown before or brand new ones that will be coming onto the market. Ball Colegrave, wholesalers and breeders of thousands of familiar plants, have an open evening every July at their trial grounds in Oxfordshire when visitors can vote for their favourite plant by marking it with a blue flag. The results are totalled up and give an interesting spread according to who was voting; grower, retailer or gardener.
Next year (2018) Thompson & Morgan are moving their public trials to the RHS garden at Hyde Hall in Essex, where visitors will be able to make their own judgements on the plants throughout the summer.

Each year, there is an initiative to bring plants to the public's attention. 2016 was the Year of the Cosmos (below), this year is Year of the Zinnia and next year will be Year of the Marigold, so expect to see lots of publicity about them.

The key to success when you are growing from seed is to follow the instructions on the packet. Use brand new, bought compost because it is sterile and good hygiene is crucial at this delicate stage. Garden compost is not suitable for growing seeds for several reasons: it is of unreliable quality (depending on what went into it), it is not sterile and it may contain bacteria or spores that may kill off the seedlings.

Top tip 1: don't sow all the seed in one go, then if anything goes wrong you can start again and it also saves you having far too many plants.

Top tip 2: to save the seed you don't sow, fold over the foil packet firmly and hold it closed with a paper clip. Put this back in the paper packet and place inside a screw-top jar with the lid firmly closed. If you store this in a dark, frost-free place at a consistent temperature (cool garage or shed) the seed will usually last until the following year.

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This story was published on: 12/08/2017

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