Ready, steady, sow

Image of Robin Lane Fox

Excitingly, we can all plan ahead now for a first-class summer garden. It is time to order seeds that make a difference. Well chosen, they will give us plants which shoppers cannot possibly buy at a later stage, pregrown in May. They are the very heart of gardening. Much of the happiness of my gardening year depends on whether the self-raised seedlings go well or not. I want good sweet peas, particular antirrhinums, big zinnias, unusual lupins, proper tall blue cornflowers and climbing screens of something called Mina lobata. I also want to try the vigorous trailing new nasturtium Crimson Emperor, which will give a new twist to visions of Monet’s famous nasturtium-covered avenue. Crimson Emperor covers up to 6ft of ground and has flowers of an intense crimson-red. It appeared at last year’s Chelsea Show and is available by order from Thompson and Morgan, Poplar Lane, Ipswich. I intend to use it to tumble over my most prominent low garden wall. I will also try it in gravel paths to echo Monet’s Giverny effect but I will hedge my bets with traditional orange and red trailing forms too in case the deep red does not show up too well.

Nasturtium Crimson Emperor

The seed racks in major garden centres seem to be even more restricted this year, so it is essential to send away for the varieties you really want. The two sources who have just about everything are Thompson and Morgan and Chiltern Seeds. I supplement their catalogues with whatever I find from other sources on garden-centre stalls. This year Kew Gardens are offering selected varieties in arty packets with the word Royal on them. I liked their picture of Sweet Pea King Size Navy Blue but then realised that it is offered by T&M anyway. In fact all the Kew seeds are supplied by T&M and then repackaged under the Kew name.

Sweet Pea Ballerina Blue

First-class sweet peas have to be planned and sown right now. You are not going to be offered the latest winners as pre-grown plants in early summer. Down in New Zealand breeding has continued apace and there are some excellent new varieties as a result. It is nonsense to claim that “modern” sweet peas have little or no scent. Breeders know that scent is crucial and the new Erewhon variety from T&M is as sweetly scented as any supposed old favourite. It is a New Zealand breakthrough. I recommend its new combination of pink upper petals and deep blue lower ones which are so impressive on a cut flower. Scent Infusion is a good mixture of seven modern scented climbing varieties and Ballerina Blue and Blue Ripple are vigorous and highly scented pale blues. Everyone also offers “old” mixtures with smaller flowers but I do not think they are as good as the top novelties. Unwins Seeds might have tempted me with an old-fashioned mixture called Sweet Chariot but it was actually named in honour of England’s rugby team and their victory in the 2003 World Cup.

Cornflowers can be a problem. I do not want midgets, six inches high. I do not want mixtures with stale pinks and washy whites. I want tall cornflower-blue beauties and to find them you need to look nowadays under wildflowers because the meadow fraternity have decided that cornflowers are excellent if scattered in a heritage meadow. Here the 2ft-high Cornflower Blue Diadem is still going strong. It is a great one to sow early, and to put into individual pots and bring on unusually fast for use outdoors. It is a fine sight when in full flower in early June.

Zinnias need the opposite treatment. They need not be sown until late March as they suffer if they are kept waiting around in May before they can go out into a frost-free bed. Much the best are the 2ft-high double-flowered varieties and here the biggest and best were bred in the US by the director of Burpee Seeds. Meanwhile British lists have gone haring down-market after 6in-high zinnias with single flowers and the word “Aztec” in their names. The old American winners are back on sale through Chiltern Seeds as Zinnia Giant Burpeeana mixed. Otherwise, order the next best alternative, the simple old Giant Double Mixed. I am not immediately won over by T&M’s new Zinnia Pop Art Golden and Red, which is basically a strong yellow with little spots of red on big double flowers. It may prove itself in Burpee company but I cannot quite imagine it.

Geranium Moulin Rouge F1 Hybrid

If only lobelias liked hot summers and flowered far on into autumn. The Cascade varieties are good but the longest-lasting is actually Regatta Rose from Unwins, a lobelia which goes on into October. The flowers are carmine – red, not blue, but the long season makes them worthwhile. For big pots the best lobelias nowadays have to be bought as pre-rooted plugs as they are propagated only by cuttings. They will turn up in May in good garden centres and are worth the price.

Geranium Skyrocket Mixed

What about self-sown geraniums? They have to be started off now in glasshouses which can keep a temperature up to 70F. Most of us only remember to buy well rooted plants in early summer but early-sown ones flower evenly and very freely in the first year. In trials I admired T&M’s strong deep red Moulin Rouge and I have had good, easy results from Unwins Simply Red, as vivid as its name. This year T&M are offering pre-germinated plugs of a new excitement, Geranium Skyrocket. In its first year it will climb quite high up a wall and will flower very freely in mixed colours. I love seeing old scarlet geraniums as tall climbers on whitewashed greenhouse walls and if Skyrocket really will climb high in one season it will change the game. Pre-germinated plugs are almost foolproof but unfortunately Skyrockets come only in mixed colours, £13.99 for five.

On a Kew packet I have just noticed an annual lupin called Dwarf Fairy Pink. It is not too tall or coarse and if it flowers as the artwork implies it should be charming, a soft mixture of pink and white spikes. T&M supply it but unlike their Kew buyers they have banished it to the part of the list which is made up of names with no pictures. I will try it in a wilder bit of the garden.

As before, my top antirrhinums and top tobacco plants are the ones which no supermarket sells pre-grown. For seven years in a row, Antirrhinum Royal Bride has delighted me with tall white flower-spikes, a fine scent and a readiness to reflower when the first stems are picked and used indoors. After a star turn as the table arrangement at my son’s wedding party, it is an obligatory item in my garden each year. It never catches rust and it is magnificent in a big pot outdoors.

The tobacco plants are not white ones, let alone mini reds with silly names like Nikki Knee High. They are the newish introduction from Brazil which T&M list as Marshmallow. I cannot praise this annual plant too highly. It grows up to 4ft and persists throughout the autumn. The small flowers vary between shades of pink, red and white, each with a dark eye. Unlike the well-known whites it is not ruined by mildew. Anyone can grow it well and it is still pretty in October.

Royal Brides and Marshmallows are winners which can only be enjoyed from seed. There are scores of others out there. Seed raising is the making of a keen gardener. Start piling in the orders.

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