Garden writer Matt Collins on the delights of seed swapping - from marigolds to irises...
Three years after the great British plantsman Christopher Lloyd sadly passed away, I visited Great Dixter gardens in East Sussex to meet with head gardener, Fergus Garrett. The Garden Museum in London, where I myself garden, were preparing a retrospective exhibition in celebration of Lloyd's life at Dixter, and looking for a way to reflect something of its vibrant quintessence within the museum's long border. I met Fergus on a midweek morning in March, busy as ever among the frosted rosettes of sleeping perennials in the garden's terraced stock beds. He had something in mind, he told me, though only a small gesture a Christo favourite' that could be mixed in with our existing planting.
Downing tools Fergus led me into the manor house, up the grand stairs and over to a window seat on the landing. While I sat and watched, cupboard and desk drawers were flung open, envelopes dug out and examined, and onto a sheet of reused office paper was poured half a cup-full of thin, elongated black seeds. Sowing instructions were scribbled in pencil and the lot was bundled into a brown envelope and handed to me. Tagetes patula Cinnabar' Mexican marigold a dainty, single-flowered strain of the blowsy bedding staple, with crimson petals edged in mustard and a luminous yellow centre. Christopher Lloyd had grown this cultivar over many years at Dixter, selecting seed each autumn from only the tallest, showiest specimens, and sowing them the following spring. The fastidious continuation of this annual process has since seen the flower become a defining fixture of the garden's ephemeral pocket-planting.
Back at the Garden Museum I distributed the whole envelope into seed tray nodules and planted out each successful seedling. By mid-July the long border was studded with flashes of burning Dixter-red, clashing wonderfully Dixter-ly' with our blocks of perennials. That autumn I began my own collection of Cinnabar, saving it from the heads of our spent flowers, which opened like little paper canisters bearing 50 or more seeds. I took them with me in envelopes to two new gardens, saving that seed and in turn passing it on to friends and colleagues. A recent trip home to Wales reminded me that my mother, one such recipient some years ago, still sows and collects her own direct descendants of mine; of Fergus's, and of one of Britain's most revered gardeners.
The Cinnabar marigolds came to mind recently while once again planning a planting scheme at the Garden Museum, to enhance our recent exhibition, Cedric Morris: Artist Plantsman. On this occasion irises were to take centre stage. As a keen botanist, Morris (1889-1982) cultivated a great many striking forms of bearded iris (Iris x germanica), naming some 90 varieties which he bred from seed at his home Benton End in Suffolk. Though most of these astoundingly elegant plants fell out of cultivation over subsequent years, a number were painstakingly tracked down by former Sissinghurst head gardener Sarah Cook. Sarah's 2015 Chelsea Flower Show exhibit of 25 of Morris's vintage Benton' collection was met with huge admiration; irises in sweet-pea pinks, velvet purples, apricot, mauve and linen-white.
They caught the interest of garden designer Dan Pearson also, who in turn trialled a number of Bentons in his own garden. Dan's close association with the Garden Museum allowed me to propagate a small stock for our Morris exhibition, dividing rhizomes last year from 20 or so of his collection, to be planted out in front of the museum entrance. To our delight (and my relief) in early May the first of the Bentons swelled and opened Benton Lorna' a white and pink marvel with a bushy caterpillar-hair beard, a couple of weeks after the exhibition had opened. And with the successive unfolding of each new flower it felt like a transient yet tangible link was being made with Morris; a channel back in time, almost. The irises in bloom echoed the statements in his vivid paintings and, for a brief moment, brought them to life, and he into a physical, living memory.
I intend to retain our little Benton collection and hope, in subsequent years, to split and hand on their rhizomes to other gardeners, much like Lloyd's marigolds. To purchase an original Morris painting might cost one the earth: his true masterpieces may be acquired for free. It is a wonderful notion that such precious and charming heirlooms can be so inexpensively shared from gardener to gardener, and that in doing so invaluable legacies are continued.
Main image: May Flowering Irises No2, 1935, Sir Cedric Morris, Philip Mould & Company, Cedric Morris Estate
Words and images by Matt Collins
The Garden Museum's next exhibition is on Cicely Mary Barker's Flower Fairies, running from August 8th - 30th September.