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The Royal Horticultural Society isn't the only one giving away seeds. By Clare Stewart
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The Independent Online
Free seeds! It's the sort of offer you expect to see glued to the front of the first issue of Everything You Need to Know about Gardening - a complete guide in 97 weekly instalments, plus handy binder.

But free seeds from the Royal Horticultural Society are a very different matter. These seeds do not come bundled into packets of old fashioned favourites - two parts thistle to one part candytuft. Instead the RHS's long established seed distribution service offers a comprehensive list to whet the appetite of even the most jaded of propagators.

Strictly speaking, the service is not free, being for RHS members only. But for just the price of the postage (pounds 2.50) the 200,000 members can apply for 20 packets of seed choosing from an extensive list that covers alpines, annuals, shrubs, trees and perennials.

The practice of giving out the surplus seed gathered from the gardens at Wisley dates back to 1943, when the RHS was asked to help the war effort by distributing vegetable seeds. Surprisingly perhaps, the service continues and has not gone the way of free school milk or eye tests. Now the Wisley team sends out more than half a million packets annually to members all round the world.

For 1996 the RHS list runs to 949 choices. The summer's hot weather was good news for Wisley's sun worshippers, the plants from Mediterranean and other hot climates which flowered well and produced more seed than usual. Fremontodendron californicum with its showy yellow flowers is one of the summer's successes says Marion Cox, who runs the distribution service. The daisy flowered osteospermum and arctotis also thrived in the heat. This year's list also features 21 different salvias. Among the perennial favourites, delphiniums regularly top the list with acquilegia, hellebores and meconopis in strong demand.

Seed is collected from open pollinated plants in the gardens as well as the glasshouses at Wisley, which means there are plants suitable for the house or conservatory.

Application forms for seeds have to be in by 29 December and seeds are dispatched between January and April. Although only a small proportion of the RHS's 200,000 members apply, this year it is expected to be oversubscribed, so it is important to list plenty of alternative choices. Some seeds are only available in small quantities. Among these are rarer plants such as the alpine penstemons and spring bulbs such as Fritillaria acmopetala.

The RHS is not the only society to offer free or very low cost seeds. The Hardy Plant Society, for example, where there is a pounds 10 annual fee, offers up to 15 packets of seed, with only the postage costs to pay. The seed is all donated by members, and this year the list runs to over 2,600 species and varieties.

Other groups offering seeds include the Alpine Garden Society (annual membership pounds 15), and the Cyclamen Society (pounds 5 a year). The Cottage Garden Society (pounds 5 a year) offers a choice of 2,500 varieties, and as with the other groups the only charge is for postage.

If you are looking to join one of the groups or to buy membership as a Christmas present for someone else, it is important to do so before the end of December if you want to take advantage of seed distribution.

RHS membership costs pounds 36, from the Membership Dept, The RHS, PO Box 313, London SW1P 2PE. For a Christmas membership gift pack call 0171-821 3000 as soon as possible. For the RHS seed list, send an SAE (9x6in) to Seed Applications, RHS Garden, Wisley, Woking, Surrey GU23 6QB (0171- 834 4333). Hardy Plant Society, 01386 7103317. Alpine Garden Society: 01386 554 790. Cyclamen Society: 01580 4240221. Cottage Garden Society: 01270 250776.