Zinnia elegans 'Queen Red Lime'
Zinnia elegans ‘Queen Red Lime’

Gardening is a magical affair – and the most astonishing thing of all is taking a small paper packet of seeds, some compost, a splash of water and then watching them grow.

The founder of Chiltern Seeds, Douglas Bowden, was a fanatical seed sower and his daughers, Heather Leedham and Sally Redhead, have inherited his horticultural eye, along with the company he created.

Douglas had a taste for exotics that included palms, tropical trees and insectivorous plants. The things he wanted to grow weren’t in commercial seed catalogues, and still aren’t, so he built up a network of foreign friends to supply him. In 1975 Douglas founded Chiltern Seeds as a mail order seed company.

His catalogue didn’t have any pictures, but Douglas’s quirky descriptions brought every plant to life.

The huge seed of Mammea americana, the tropical Santo Domingo apricot, was likened to an “old-fashioned, hard-crusted bread roll” and he even suggested serving it with soup, although I wouldn’t recommend it. This large seed resembles a hand-sized musical instrument, one that rattles, but the rough skin could come in useful as an exfoliator at bath time.

The sea heart (Entada gigas) is a South American legume with large mahogany-coloured seeds contained in a huge pod as tall as a six-year-old. The seed resembles a small flattened coco de mer and Douglas advised using furniture polish, or making it into a Valentine’s Day necklace for your precious one.

Eager gardeners, like me, devoured the catalogue purely for Douglas’s anecdotes. And its arrival, just before Christmas, was a life-saving distraction during the long family “eatathon”.

Chiltern Seeds started life in the family’s dining room in Chesham in Buckinghamshire and his wife, Bridget, typed up the early catalogues while daughters Heather and Sally spent their school holidays and spare time helping out.

Although this sounds amateurish, the business thrived and Douglas established a website in 1999. After the business moved to Cumbria I would often speak to Douglas on the phone.

His enthusiasm was infectious. When he died in February 2010, aged 73, Heather and Sally, agonised about taking over the company because both had very young children.

“After a period of soul searching we decided to relocate the company back to the Chilterns and run it between us,” says Heather.

“We think of ourselves as the Fortnum & Mason of seed companies because we provide great customer service.” Bang on cue, the phone rings with a query that’s proficiently answered by Nina, one of their dedicated team of three who tackle questions.

  • Growing annuals from seed isn’t difficult. They want to grow and are insect and bee-friendly.
  • You can sow many…