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June 3, 2011 10:02 pm

Raindrops, keep falling on my bed

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What I most want is more rain, the bedding essential that nobody has yet learned how to package

I am bedding out with trepidation. The English gardening season has been quite extraordinarily difficult. There has been a severe shortage of rain, until this latest deluge. The midsummer roses are almost over before their usual season begins. Are we now to expect a cruel summer which will cause whatever is bedded out to struggle?

I can well believe it. Not only has the weather been far too warm and dry. In early May many of us were hit by a sudden spring frost of an intensity which I do not remember in the past 10 years. It hit me particularly hard, perhaps for being cheeky. Last winter I lost the labels on two promising young climbers which had been planted to cover a broad arch. They are wisterias and, in the afterglow of the Royal Wedding, I decided to rename them and change their gender. Henceforward they would be my very own wisteria sisters and I would call them Kate and Pippa. Within a week the severe May frost brought both of them smartly back to their roots. It browned their young shoots and stopped anything climbing and fragrant from opening on either of them. I hope it is not an omen. The same frost scorched the young growth on such border plants as Japanese anemones. It is yet another trial we could well do without.

Much now depends on the summer bedding which has to cover up gaps and prolong the accelerated season. I have been checking out the stock in some of the biggest and best garden centres and find myself both tempted and repelled. There are some horribly streaky colours on offer and as much Busy Lizzie as ever. The prices have stayed high but there are pockets of value to be found and I am pleased with my first harvest.

My top buys are trays of the wide-spreading Bidens, yellow flowered but such a superb trailer and flowerer all summer that pots, window boxes and baskets have to have it. The prettiest variety is Yellow Pearl, a clear colour without too much gold. The one to exclude is Pirates Treasure, too orange for most combinations. In boxes young feathery-leaved Bidens is not an eyecatcher, but each plant will soon start to trail and tumble. The 10 I bought for £3 should be spectacular by late July. Bidens has to be watered frequently to be seen at its best. I am putting it only in pots impregnated with water-retention crystals, the essential precaution for this summer. Mix the likes of Swell Gel into the compost and water well before planting. The pots then need watering so much less often.

The name may be a mouthful but Calibrachoa is another essential. The trade is trying to name it Cabaret but the underlying plant is the same, a trailing green-leaved beauty with single, clear-coloured flowers like a miniature petunia’s. The ones to buy are Trailing Yellow, a splendid extra at the side of a big pot on a terrace, or the fiery orange Can Can. Neither of these varieties can be raised from seed, so I do not feel guilty about buying pre-grown stock. They flower for months but they need careful handling when young. The stems are surprisingly fragile and every year I damage some when planting out into thickly-planted pots. Calibrachoas prefer the feminine touch.

What are we to make of the Dutch growers’ latest lines of daisy-flowered Gerberas? They are certainly not hardy in a rustic British winter, as I found to my relief last year. At a seed-trial I had been given two cabbage-leaved specimens with carmine-red flowers, but neither survived November. This year’s retail stock of flat, fully double yellows, purples and whites are too much for me, but I could live with the single Everlast varieties in a well-planted pot, the whites and pale purples showing up best. Unlike gerberas, gazanias shut their daisy-flowers in dull, cloudy weather but I find their rayed flowers irresistible. As usual I have raised my Gazania Tiger Stripe but I have doubled up with a tray of Gazania Kiss Mixed at a giveaway price of £2.50. I saw this variety in excellent palely-coloured form in last year’s seed trials.

Nemesias are all over the forecourts, individually potted and up to £5 each. I have not seen clean-coloured ones on offer and do not want ones with names like Wisley Vanilla in which a dirty trace of lilac-brown shows through the cream colouring. It is not too late to sow a packet or two of annual Nemesia Paintbox in a greenhouse. The plants grow away quickly and will be welcome new stars by late August. The seed-grown forms have much prettier flowers and subtler colours than the pot-grown ones on offer.

Double-flowered marguerite daisies are everywhere at the price of a perennial phlox in a litre pot. I detest them. These Argyranthemum daisies have to be single and simple if they are to have charm. Among the yellows, Argyranthemum Crested Yellow looks to be the best option in this year’s general trade. Ordinary white and pale pink are far from ordinary and, if dead-headed often, they really will flower on until October. Remember that it is ridiculously easy to make your own standard-shaped little daisy-trees for next year. Limit the plants you buy this year to only one stem and wait till it is about 2ft high. Then, let it spread out into a head of top growth. The price of ready-grown standards goes ever higher, but it takes only a year to have your own if you can overwinter the plants away from frost.

As we are promised a hot season, all lobelias will have to be placed in shade and freely watered. Boxes of the trailing blue Lobelia Sapphire are good, cheap value as this variety flowers on into September. Even better are plants of specially-selected blue forms, sold in individual pots. A winner is Lobelia Waterfall, an amazingly floriferous deep blue, but it is not in every shop. Buy it on sight, even in top price Chelsea, and promptly take 10 cuttings off the plant and grow them on for next year.

If you want small-flowered, long lasting pelargoniums, the ones you need are the Angel series, good value as small plants which can be pushed along by mixing Miracle-Gro into their water. Angel Eyes is the label I look for, while avoiding big, pricey plants already in full flower. Their classic companions are petunias but the usual warnings apply. Many of the pot-grown varieties have flowers with streaks of purple or carmine on a pale background, whereas discerning gardeners want clear, single colours. I have at last found a non-streaky blue, Surfinia Sunblu. I am trying it round the edges of densely planted pots in the hope that it will trail prettily.

What I most want is not on sale, not even in a central London garden store. It is wet, transparent and soon lost in the garden. It is more rain, the bedding essential that nobody has yet learned how to package.

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