If you visit a garden centre you will often be dazzled by the choice, particularly in spring when the sales benches are packed with fabulous plants all ready to take their place in your garden. Sometimes a plant range is so big and so diverse that it all becomes a bit daunting; working your way through the A-Z benches of a big garden centre can turn into an endurance test while you look for plants suitable for your garden and needs. New gardeners can find it hard to believe that there are more garden plants actually out there, but the garden centre range is the tip of a very large iceberg.
To be successful in a garden centre, a plant must meet certain criteria. Firstly it must perform really well. Most garden centre customers, and indeed more 'casual' gardeners, are looking for performance; the ideal plant will look great for as long as possible, flower for as many weeks or even months as possible, and won't grow too big or too open. The second of the criteria is ease of propagation; large retailers and chain stores will buy extraordinary numbers of plants to stock their shelves, so plants must be easy to propagate and mass produce either from cuttings or from tissue culture (micropropagation). Plants that don't meet these two main criteria won't feature in most garden centres.
|Coming to a garden centre near you... never! Dionysia 'Gerben'|
|Geranium 'Rozanne' has been a very successful introduction!|
An enormous number of garden plants will never be mass produced because they either don't meet the criteria set by the big producers or because they haven't been spotted by a keen-eyed product developer. Many of these plants are propagated and sold by smaller wholesale or retail nurseries, businesses that produce smaller batches of a wider range of plants. Most nurseries propagate their niche plants themselves, dividing perennials and taking cuttings the traditional way. Although this limits the numbers of many plants, it does at least keep a broader range available for the discerning gardener.
So why would a gardener want a plant that doesn't 'perform' as well as more modern varieties? It's a matter of how you garden. For some a garden filled with a succession of traditional cottage garden plants is perfection itself, while for others a diverse range of foliage is better. For more experienced gardeners it's often a case of quality over quantity when it comes to flowering season. Certainly for me there is a great sense of anticipation in waiting for a plant that only flowers for a short period and, to be honest, although I'm often sad to see the last flower on a treasured plant fade, I think that a precious plant which doesn't flower for very long makes you appreciate each flower more. Nonetheless, this is a view that isn't shared by people breeding and growing massive numbers of plants for the garden centre trade!
Some plants are easy to grow and propagate but remain rare simply because they're not known. I've taken many a gamble on the word of an enthusiastic nursery owner or gardener, and rarely has it not paid off. The RHS Plant Finder lists thousands upon thousands of plants and nobody can know them all. Hidden on nurseries all around the UK are hundreds if not thousands of obscure plants that deserve to be better known. For the keen gardener stumbling onto one of these plants is a source of real excitement, a chance to enhance the garden and grow something new. There is always an element of risk trying something new, but providing we can get good advice from our nurseries we should be fine.
|Easy but unknown; Trochodendron arailioides.|
Being entirely honest here, some plants are rare because they're rubbish! Old varieties so susceptible to disease that they can only be kept alive with frequent chemical intervention, fruit varieties with unreliable and insipid fruits, plants that have always been weak and hopeless... not every rare plant is an opportunity to grow something new and exciting! There is a nostalgia around old varieties that, although great for raising interest in conserving garden plants, is keeping some plants going that shouldn't be kept. I made the mistake early on in my love affair with rare and unusual plants of buying plants without evaluating them properly and bought some awful plants that died pretty quickly! If you have a passion for keeping old varieties going at any cost then good on you, but the rest of us need to evaluate plants before they come into our collections, simply to avoid disappointment.
I think to a degree everyone has a slightly different take on why they collect rare and unusual plants. Certainly the universal factor is the desire to do something different in the garden, to grow plants that aren't the same as the ones everyone else grows. I think once you get past the desire to be different people factor in things such as an interest in historical plants, interest in plants from certain parts of the world, interest in botany, a love of plants with certain uses (there are people who collect plants that were used to make dyes, and others that collect traditional English herbs), and an interest in a particular genus or plant family. There is nearly always a sense of the importance of conserving rare and unusual plants, and the sense that we are doing our bit for their survival if only by growing them in our gardens.
Whatever the reasons, people who collect and grow rare plants get extraordinary amounts of pleasure from their gardening. Yes there are bad traits around; some people use their knowledge of plants to belittle others, while others will steal plants or buy stolen plants. Most of the rare plant circles are a mixing pot of friendly eccentricity. Get enthusiasts of rare and unusual plants together and they will happily chat away about their collections, giving each other tip-offs about cultivation techniques or plants to look after. I have met a few rather unpleasant characters in rare plant circles over the years, but they have always been a very small minority.
I've said about the sense of excitement that's felt by most people who grow rare plants. We live lives of perpetual delight and anguish; delight when something special is growing rather well, and anguish when something is struggling or facing damage from the weather (think Magnolias and frost here!). This emotional tie with plants seems very odd to non-gardeners or people who are new into gardening, but we are curators of living collections, and we do care about plants more than most people do.
This question of what to grow should be straightforward; surely just grow what you like? In reality we all face issues of climate, space, money (usually a troublesome issue for plant enthusiasts!) and practicality.
Climate is a bit of a sod with unusual plants as so many of the unusual plants we all love come from areas with different climates to our own. Take, for example, Meconopsis. Most of the Meconopsis species we admire are from a much narrower temperature band than ours in the UK. Typically winters aren't very cold (or snowfall protects them from damage from the cold) and the summers don't get too warm. The winter temperatures can be controlled with careful protection, but summer temperatures can be more tricky. Most Meconopsis start to cook above about 20C, so a cool moist soil in shade with good air flow is needed in most areas. Add this to the fact that they resent disturbance, won't tolerate soils that get too wet or too dry, and some can be monocarpic (flower once and then die, like an annual or biennial but not necessarily in their first or second year from seed) and you've got a plant that sounds like a real swine to grow. They are real swines to grow, and this is why gardeners who persevere with them and grow them successfully deserve credit.
Not all plants have to be difficult, but many are. In my experience the pitfalls can come from not realising that certain species might be tender even though the rest of the genus is hardy, such as Hydrangea or Rhododendron. I've lost plants because I've not realised the subtle nuances of their cultivation, and these have in some cases been expensive mistakes.
|Worth a sheltered spot; Rhododendron johnstoneanum.|
There are ways around certain problems. Obviously cold and wet weather will warrant a greenhouse or polytunnel for your collection, and extra water needed might require an irrigation system. Growing things in the wrong soil type is usually the biggest challenge that faces collectors of unusual plants. Usually the problems come when soils are too heavy, but also pH is a big issue if you want to grow ericaceous (acid loving plants). Through necessity I grow all of my plants in containers, but this has given me the advantage of a nearly infinite range of soil types I can make. For my Hostas and Rodgersias the mix is John Innes #3 with multipurpose compost and perlite, while my choice woodlanders live together in big troughs with a mix of composted bark (NOT bark chips) and perlite. Other plants just get multipurpose compost with some perlite for air and drainage. By choosing pots that are fairly deep I get the best drainage I can (remember that shallow pots don't drain as well as deep pots), and the open mix in my troughs replicates the conditions of a forest floor, or at least as close as I can get it. The results have been great; the big Hostas and Rodgersias do well in their bulky mix, while the woodlanders (such as Trilliums) have a nice easy mix to bulk up into. I do have to keep an eye on watering in dry weather, but that's not a bad thing given that it's easier to add water than take it away!
A serious collector with more space might well be advised to make their own raised bed(s) for their more demanding plants. Providing you provide the best depth possible and make your growing medium from the best mix of ingredients you should be OK. As a serious plant collector you want to avoid certain practices, such as adding things to alkaline soils to dry and make it better for acid loving plants. Know your limits; if your soil is wrong and you can't make a decent raised bed then you will likely be heading for trouble.
Of course you might be lucky and have the perfect conditions for what you want to grow, in which case get planting! Be careful to keep plants in your collection defined when you plant them, particularly if you collect a specific genus such as Crocosmia. It's tempting to go for a nice drift that shows your collection off in a more natural looking setting, but trust me you will regret it! Even if you've become somewhat expert in identifying your plants in flower, could you still recognise them all out of season? I know from my experience growing Camellias commercially that even a fairly diverse group can look very similar out of flower, and it's usually when a plant is out of flower that you need to grab a cutting, division or plant for someone. Take care in labeling your collection, it really is worth the effort, even if you know all your plants really well!
|Distinctive enough in flower; Camellia 'Dewatairin'|
Sadly you will encounter other problems when you grow rare and unusual plants. The first is getting hold of your plants in the first place. There are some fantastic nurseries in the UK but they do tend to be hidden away in rural areas and might not be practical to visit. Don't get me wrong, if the plant you want is definitely in stock and the nursery looks interesting then take a day trip to visit- there's always the chance that you will see something else you like the look of...! Most nurseries offer a mail order service and have websites you can browse, but there is the issue of cost. Sorry, but many rare and unusual plants are expensive. It's hard to tear yourself from a plant you love but can't afford or justify but sometimes it has to be done. Nurserymen don't charge more for rare plants so they can afford to live a life of luxury (usually quite the opposite!), but higher prices often reflect the extra costs of propagating and growing a particular plant. This isn't great news if you, like me, are on a budget, but I'm afraid it's how things are.
The more obscure the plant you want the more you will have to hunt for it. To be honest I think there is a thrill to be had in tracking down a plant that you want, especially if it's not listed in the RHS Plant Finder! Looking at websites, emailing people and generally asking around usually throws up leads or results, but collecting obscure plants teaches patience. The anticipation between finding your plant and it arriving in the post can be unbearable!
There is an important skill that plant enthusiasts have to hone; plantsmanship. Being a plantsman/plantswoman isn't about going out and buying everything that has a different name, it's not 'stamp collecting' with plants. Plantsmanship is the ability to evaluate a plant according to its characteristics and requirements. Attempts are occasionally made to teach it but I think it's fair that it comes with experience. It is worth getting into the habit of evaluating plants; if you're faced with two comparable plants could you decide which one is best to have? Once you get into the habit you will start to evaluate plants with ease- which has the better scent, the nicer (not necessarily biggest) flowers, the best foliage, is this plant too similar to one you have already. This technique will help you develop a broad and interesting plant collection and will hopefully save you money by helping you choose plants more wisely.
|I think Viburnum 'Mohawk' is one of the best scented shrubs around.|
For the die-hard plant enthusiast the rewards are incredible. While other people have gardens with overgrown lawns, kids toys and a few scruffy plants, to be able to enjoy your own collection of plants that you enjoy is its own reward. 'Planty' circles are usually great fun to be in, and being able to use your own knowledge and experience to contribute to plant discussions is a great thing. So much of being a plant enthusiast is about sharing knowledge (and often plants too!), so if you're really passionate about plants you will find your knowledge and interest will grow and grow.