Root and Branch

Go on, go to seed

Let the plants do the work says Hephzibah Anderson

This article was taken from the September issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

When it comes to the changing seasons, we still take our cues from nature. But though swallows will soon be gathering and ochre leaves are already skittering across pavements, not all of the natural world is on the same page.

In the garden, plenty of plants remain in denial. The rudbeckia bloom apace and chest-high cosmos are abuzz with bees; pendulous squash continue to inflate, and lettuce and tomatoes carry on as if salad days were eternal.

There’s no knowing when the first frost will finally wither their pageantry but so long as it lasts, the urge is to throw our lot in with them and prolong the illusion of everlasting summer. That means uprooting unsightly spent crops, doubling down on deadheading and, most especially, getting rid of plants that have gone to seed.

It all means that a little idleness at this time of year can reap rewards in months to come

The phrase connotes past-it tennis pros and washed-up one-hit wonders, but in its most literal, botanical sense it signifies new beginnings as well as blowsy endings. Long before gardeners have had chance to prepare the soil for another round of growing, the plants themselves are channelling ebbing energies towards the future.

All the ingenuity that yesterday went into wooing pollinators now goes into the ripening and scattering seed, whether by gossamer parachute, in the belly of a bird or, in the case of the Himalayan balsam, by exploding (ignore its common name, touch-me-not, and its pods will send seeds hurtling up to seven metres).

It all means that a little idleness at this time of year can reap rewards in months to come. Self-sown plants tend to be insultingly vigorous. In a challenging growing year — all that rain followed by a bone-dry spring — the best of my broad bean crop came from plants that had seeded themselves and over-wintered among the chard.

Or you can gather the seeds and sow them yourself. The high-scent sweet peas that flourished among my runner beans were sown from seeds saved from last year’s plants; edged in purple, their creamy, aromatic flowers losing nothing for not having arrived in a pretty packet.

When we think of harvest bounty we imagine perfectly-formed dahlias and prizewinning marrows at the village fête. But the true magic of creation is to be found when the garden is deemed long past its best. A single bolted lettuce head can provide up to 120 grams of seed. Each scabious flower will yield over a hundred tufted chances at more plants.

Those scabious seeds can be sown in September, along with poppies (the heads make handy shakers), larkspur (it’s pleasing to crack open those slender pods), and cornflowers (the seeds resemble fairy fishing flies).

Given time enough to establish themselves before the first frost, the cooler months will encourage the development of strong roots, allowing for faster-growing, larger plants when daylight hours lengthen and temperatures rise. The plants should flower earlier and for longer, too.

Seed-saving has become political, bound up with concerns about food sovereignty, intellectual property rights, biodiversity. But in the quiet of your own backyard, there is plenty to be said for sowing your own.

It has about it a homesteading prudence that seems altogether less posey given how suppliers struggled to keep up with lockdown demand. You can also be picky, selecting seeds from plants with especially desirable traits. Over a few generations, they should start to adapt to the particular conditions of your garden, even becoming hardier in the process.

You can make the business of saving seeds as complicated as you like though some are more practical than others. Carrot plants, for instance, can take a year and reach over a metre before their seed is ready to harvest. Others, like runner beans, are straightforward: leave the pods on the plant until they’re dry enough to rattle, then shell the beans and let them dry some more somewhere nice and airy. Yes, cross-pollination can lead to surprises and hybrids will revert, but you could come up with a new variety.

There’s something satisfying about seeing a plant through to the end of its lifecycle. There is beauty to be found, too. The architectural elegance of an allium is only enhanced, while nigella retains its wispy charm even after its petals have fallen.

“Flowers are restful to look at. They have neither emotions nor conflicts,” Freud famously held. He wasn’t a real gardener, of course, more a flower fancier. Had he ever got to grips with the business of sowing and growing, he’d know that a plant is rarely just a plant, especially at this time of year.

The raggedy remains of summer’s splendour can seem ponderously symbolic. Listen out instead for the rattle of seed pods, and it sheds an entirely new light. Would that we all could eventually “go to seed” with the forward-thrusting energy of plants.

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