Gardening is a healthy, rewarding and immensely popular hobby. Nearly every garden contains a wide range of plants – each one cared for to ensure that it will at least survive if not flourish. All add to the overall beauty of the garden, but it is quite natural for us to have a few special favourites – those flowers which we would not wish to be without and which receive that extra bit of attention.

For some people this mild favouritism is not enough – the selection, nurture and exhibition of a single plant genus becomes so absorbing that its cultivation is transformed into a hobby in its own right. Of course, not all flowers lend themselves to such devotion – they are simply not challenging enough. Take Nasturtiums as an example. These colourful annuals light up window boxes and flower beds with their bright yellows and reds in summer. Useful and attractive, yes, but their cultivation is so simple and the number of varieties so limited that the gardener is not being tested and there is no feeling that there is more to learn and more skills to acquire. Challenge is needed to transform an activity into a hobby – climbing and sailing are popular hobbies – travelling on escalators and crossing rivers on ferries are not.

At the other extreme from Nasturtiums is the Chrysanthemum – an example of the ideal hobby plant. First of all there is a bewildering multitude of varieties from which to make your choice. Even if you are brilliant enough to know all of the many hundreds of varieties available at present, you would still have a problem keeping up with the stream of new types which flows in every year. Varieties in abundance, and in addition a number of techniques to be learnt if you want to grow these plants to perfection. All of this means that the Chrysanthemum has the essential ingredients of a hobby plant – there are textbooks devoted solely to it plus a specialist national society to keep the enthusiast informed, to update classification when necessary and to hold exhibitions and shows. Competing at the various shows – at national or local level – is an important feature of the Chrysanthemum calendar for the hobbyist. The year is a long one -there are cuttings to strike indoors at the beginning of the season and a variety of jobs, such as soil preparation, planting, staking, stopping, regular feeding, spraying, watering, disbudding, bagging and staging before the stools are lifted and brought indoors in late autumn.

The Chrysanthemum is a half hardy perennial – each year it must be stalled afresh and then cared for over winter. Activity with the plant is therefore more prolonged than with most garden flowers, and so it is not surprising that nearly all of the hobby plants are half hardy perennials. The Dahlia, like the Chrysanthemum, is overwintered in the dormant state whereas the other two, the Fuchsia and Pelargonium, are kept alive as green plants in a low-activity condition.

There is an exception – the Lily is a bulb. All you have to do here is plant the bulbs in the proper way and at the proper time and up they come, year after year, topped with a crown of beautiful blooms. In fact the Lily isn’t quite that simple. Although it does not require lifting in winter it still offers a challenge – many species and varieties are quite temperamental and no one site will suit them all. The spur for the enthusiast is to achieve a representative collection of this extensive group of plants – as with Orchid growing, it is the combination of the intricacies of cultivation and propagation plus the beauty of the flowers which fascinates the Lily devotee.

The grouping of a few well-known plants into a class known as hobby plants is wholly artificial. It is not linked with any natural feature – it merely recognises that the plants concerned have a sizeable and devoted following, and it allows the author to describe the classification, representative varieties and culture in extra detail. There are several other popular flowers which cotild claim to be hobby plants – Sweet Pea, Gladiolus, Iris and Dianthus are obvious examples. For a comprehensive list of up-to-date varieties consult a few specialist catalogues.

One final point – is it a good thing to have a hobby flower rather than a general love of all things in the garden? The answer is that it is not a particularly good thing, but if the charm and challenge of a specific plant gets through to you then nothing will stop you from becoming a keen devotee – a hobbyist in every sense of the word.

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