The Daily Telegraph - Saturday
Where to buy seeds and bulbs when they’ve all sold out
With a growing army of newcomer horticulturalists clearing the shelves, social media can help to solve your post-lockdown supply issues, says Alice Vincent
One of the reasons I keep gardening, even on the cold, drizzly days, is because much of it feels like a small, everyday magic trick. Leaves emerging from the dry husk of a clematis vine; seed leaves popping up from a tray at the very moment you’d given up on them; turning soil that was largely rubble six months ago to find it teeming with worms.
These are among the tiny discoveries I am making daily in the garden. I’m particularly wide-eyed because, after seven springs of gardening in the boxlike confines of balconies attached to flats in South London, I have finally been granted ground of my own. Ground as in the thing we stand on, the surface of the Earth. In my case, loam pretending to be clay, with more than the occasional lump of broken glass, on the Brixton-Camberwell borders.
Balcony or windowbox, back garden or estate, I’ve long thought the greatest gardening magic trick is that of timetravel. We stand there in the fading light of November and dream of spring. While everyone else is sunning themselves in the heat of August, we’re fretting about October. Penelope Lively calls it “the gardening eye, the eye that notices what grows”, and claims that “you either have it or you don’t”.
As someone who is both physically quite blind and only came to acknowledge plants – and the value of tending to them – in my mid-20s, I’m not sure it’s as absolute as that. But there’s certainly something to be said for the ability to visualise what your growing space will be doing in six months, or a year, or a decade. It’s why we plant trees.
I think it’s this same foresight that saw me buy bare-root peonies the minute we knew we’d be moving house, in mid-July, even though you don’t really want to plant them until October. The “gardening eye” was responsible for my October dahlia order, knowing they wouldn’t arrive until July (already potted on and growing – I don’t trust the slugs to plant tubers alone). Tulips were ordered in August, three months before I put the bulbs in the ground. I am a maniacal planner with undeniable Virgo energy, it’s true, but I’ve also learned the hard way: those with the gardening eye strike early, and if you don’t join in, you’ll be left with all the
ugly plants. Even the supermarkets will be out of bulbs in October, when you’ll want to plant them, the savvy among us having swooped upon those bargain Narcissus ‘Thalia’ during late summer.
Those who came to gardening for the first time in last year’s lockdown also had this rude awakening while lingering in online queues for seed websites.
Multipurpose compost was as hard to come by as flour or eggs. Although I scoffed when I saw, in early March, a gardening friend ask who was stockpiling what for the spring ahead; within weeks I was cajoling my local nurseryman to drop off whatever he had without peat during the busiest delivery days he’d seen in years. I have learned from my mistake: 120 litres of potting compost landed on the doorstep in mid-March (Dalefoot, which is made in the Lake District from wool, without a whiff of peat, and has remarkable water-retention capabilities).
Perhaps it’s a pandemic hangover, but the race for gardening supplies seems even more frantic this year. I noticed that supermarket seed racks had been stripped bare back in February. Around the same time, Monty Don told me that seed growers were warning of shortages and demand was outstripping supply. I had placed my orders back in the depths of December (hungry for colour and delirious with the notion of a cancelled Christmas – what arrived in January was a bundle of mostly nicotiana and nastur
tiums in a palette ranging from coral to peach), and felt quite smug about this. But I’ll inevitably be caught out when I want to sow courgettes in May and won’t be able to find a packet for love nor money.
And it’s not just seeds. The other weekend the BBC were reporting that a savage combination of people anticipating a spring of garden entertaining and shipping delays has created an almighty iNarcissus ‘Arctic Bells’ is rather special shortage of garden furniture. I tried to buy some pots online (at B&Q, who make large, surprisingly tasteful terracotta tubs for less than £20) around the same time and found them all out of stock.
What to do? Well, not panic, for one. Good gardeners are resourceful, if nothing else.
Start by assessing what you’ve got. Seed packets, I feel, have an uncanny ability to multiply while not being watched; there will be something stashed away that you’ve not sown yet. Failing that, the past year has seen a pleasing rise in popularity of seed swapping: broadcaster Emma RealDavies has initiated one through Instagram which has struck a chord with millennials. Try searching online for a local group, and if that fails, Seed Sovereignty has advice on how to set up your own. If that all feels too official, try launching a WhatsApp group of gardening-inclined friends and keep it low-key. Share and swap what seeds you’ve got spare, with the added novelty of ending up with something you’d never otherwise plant.
It’s how I’ve ended up with a new variety of dwarf peas in one of my containers this spring.
Social media has radically improved getting hold of excess plants grown locally – Facebook Marketplace is a treasure trove of bargain houseplants that owners have got bored of, and as the weather warms up, you can expect to see more outdoor plants popping up.
The algorithm, somewhat depressingly, helps here: a semi-regular check on the gardening and outdoors section will encourage the website to offer up more of the same next time you look. It’s worth checking out the other items they have on sale, too – chances are, if someone is selling off chilli seedlings or astilbe divisions, there will be more of other varieties where that came from.
Finally, lean into that gardening eye and plan for future seasons now.
Having planted – at a guess – 500odd bulbs into this barren wasteland of a garden last year, it’s been intriguing to see what’s popped up with spring.
As ever, there were too few Iris reticulata in pots and 75 Fritillaria uvavulpis proved not enough to compensate for squirrel-mining activities.
Both of these have gone on a “bulbs to buy this year” note in my iPhone, along with a few varieties spied through Instagram that I’d like to try – the ethereal-looking Narcissus ‘Arctic Bells’ and gothic widow iris among them.
Nurseries can expect my orders in August, placed with a cool drink in hand and a vision of the autumn to come.