Country and Gardens: Bring me sunshine

Want to give the garden a quick lift? Keen for a change from last year's look? Easy: plant cheap, cheerful annuals
Annual flowers provide the icing on the cake of the garden. You can't survive on them alone. But there isn't any reason to deny yourself the pleasure of having them, alongside other more sustaining ingredients. And though your cake recipe may stay roughly the same each year, you can experiment with different trimmings. There is no quicker way to change the look of a garden than by plant-ing annuals: different plants in different colours, set in different places.

Any garden centre can supply a standard palette of annuals: French marigolds, lobelia, geraniums, petunias, busy lizzies. But after you have run through all those permutations, (remembering that these are standards because they are reliable, tough survivors) any gardener with an ounce of curiosity wants to experiment with plants that the garden centre does not provide.

You need to be aware, though, that it is not a seed merchant's business to tell you how difficult certain things are to grow well. In the pages of their catalogues, all is sweetness and light. Glorious, choice, exquisite, outstanding, lovely, showy, distinctive are the words you'll find again and again. Beware, particularly, of "distinctive". It is a sign of desperation on the seed merchant's part.

Increasingly, too, you find "dwarf" put forward as a virtue. Why? Why is it a good thing to stick 11 dwarf plants into a space that five decent- sized ones could occupy more elegantly? As we are not getting any closer to the ground ourselves, dwarfing plants is a perverse trend and I hope it will soon end.

Once again, zinnias came top of the list of annuals in our garden. I have already given them a rave review so won't go over the same ground again. For the last two seasons, zinnia `Allsorts' (Mr Fothergill, pounds 1.10) has grown in the veg garden alongside chard and other leafy veg. Next year, I'm going to fill both front south-facing borders with it.

I sowed seed on 27 March, then pricked out the plants into individual three-inch pots. That takes up a lot of windowsill space, but zinnias hate disturbance. From a pot you can plant out in May with little disruption to the roots.

Don't be tempted to sow any earlier. They shouldn't be hanging around inside waiting for warm weather. And don't go anywhere near a variety called `Starbright Mixed' (Suttons, pounds 1.65). I would have thought it impossible to invent an ugly zinnia. I'm wrong. Here is a skinny, mean dwarf, with flowers smaller than a single French marigold in a limited and hideous range of colours (mostly a harsh orange). What a waste, when I could have been growing the ice-green zinnia `Envy' (Mr Fothergill, pounds 1.45).

What about Coreopsis grandiflora `Early Sunrise' (Thompson & Morgan, pounds 1.89)? About as good as a dandelion, I'd say, but that's not a criticism. The coreopsis's foliage does not equal the dandelion's and it does not have its wonderful seedhead. But the general effect is much the same: bright yellow semi-double flowers, but appearing from July onwards. They grow about 18in tall, but, although there are plenty of buds on each plant, only one flower is out at a time. So they are not showy. Seed was sown on 20 March.

Sunflowers are at their best now. Over the last few years, they've become as sexy as the rarest salvia ever was. I'm glad. They are easy. They don't take themselves seriously. And nothing is as effective at lightening the urban jungle. They grow FAST. I sowed a selection including the tall, golden-yellow `Full Sun' (Suttons, pounds 1.15) on 23 April, setting each seed in a three-inch pot and planting them outside in late May. They, too, are in the vegetable garden, a long row of sunflowers set alternately with tomato plants. `Ruby Sunset' (Suttons, pounds 1.45) is lovely, too, with mahogany petals set around a dark centre.

A welcome newcomer this year was an annual grass, Lagurus ovatus `Bunny Tails' (Johnsons, 95p). In early leaf the plants look suspiciously like weeds, but then they produce their soft, furry seedheads, creamy-coloured and enchanting. They are no more than 8in high and wide, so you need plenty of them, but unlike the coreopsis they are generous with their flowers. I sowed seed on 20 March, pricked the seedlings out into seed trays and planted them out in May among low-growing grey-leaved pinks and aquilegias. The grass's flowering starts when the other two have finished.

Placing is important, of course. It's no good raising plants if you don't then show them off to advantage in the garden. First, you have to put the plants where they are most likely to thrive. Generally, annuals do better in sun than shade (not true of non-stop begonias or busy lizzies). Then they need friendly neighbours, which will complement them in colour and form and not overwhelm them in terms of size.

Sometimes you might make groups entirely of annuals. Generally, they look best combined with more permanent features. Take a cordyline for instance - a handsome plant in a container. But if you pack deep purple heliotrope and deep pink ivy-leaved geraniums round its feet, it begins to look more generous (and interesting). I cheated with heliotrope and bought a tray of plants at a sale in May. The vanilla scent is reason enough to grow it, but the foliage is dramatic too: deep green with a purplish flush, and leaves furrowed by their network of veins. Like geraniums, the best kinds are perennials used as annuals, and you can keep them going by making cuttings.

If you don't like pink, the cordyline might be underplanted with blue Salvia farinacea and acid-yellow French marigolds. This year I grew Salvia farinacea `Strata' (Unwins, pounds 1.99) which recently waltzed out of Fleuroselect's trial grounds with a gold medal. It has spikes of blue flowers emerging from floury white calyces, and grows to about 16in. "The first bicolour!" boasts Unwins' catalogue.

But it's not as telling a plant as the older variety `Queen Victoria', in which rich blue suffuses the stems as well as the flowers. That makes it much more dramatic. Try it mixed with tall, willowy purple Verbena bonariensis and dark purple ragged Jack kale, which is much too handsome to bury in the veg patch.

Blue and yellow always work well together and in France this summer I saw a mix that I want to try in the round border next year. In the foreground was yellow, daisy-flowered bidens with fine, ferny foliage. Behind was one of the tender blue potato-flowered solanums (it might have been S rantonnetii, though jagged-leaved S laciniatum would be just as good). Mixed with it was yellow rudbeckia.

Bidens are no trouble to raise from seed. As for rudbeckia, I'd probably go for R hirta x pulcherrima (Thompson & Morgan, pounds 1.99) which makes well- branched plants, loaded with flowers. And they are tall. Hurrah!