Country & garden: In search of the instant garden: start here

Now you can buy tiny plants from seed companies. They travel by post, pot out quickly and they don't cost the earth.
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The Independent Culture
FROM THE outside, it may appear as though gardening were cosily insulated from the modern world, concerned as it is with eternal verities which transcend mere fashion. But that is not the case. All horticultural suppliers are sensitive to changes in lifestyle and circumstance, and gardeners have learnt to welcome their products with open wallets.

For some years, the larger mail-order seed suppliers have offered a range of young "plantlets" (mostly seed-raised, but also some rooted cuttings). Every year this range is given more prominence in their catalogues. Many gardeners, it seems, either are too timid or no longer have time to nurture seedlings, but have the money to pay someone else to do it.

This change has coincided with technological advances in plant breeding and rearing, and also the packaging of perishable goods. The seed firms can offer plants at a number of stages of their development as tiny "plugs", which have been grown in modular trays, as larger "plugs", or as "pot- ready" plants. For many people, this has meant the fun of caring for young plants without the need for a heated greenhouse.

The seed companies have been careful in their choice of plants. According to Paul Hansord of Thompson & Morgan, his firm has concentrated on plants that look good when they arrive through the post, and that perform reliably in the garden. They have plumped particularly for half-hardy annuals, such as busy lizzies (impatiens), which are not always straightforward to germinate, and need to be started off early in the year - and have tended to choose varieties, such as double-flowered petunias, that are proven big sellers as seed.

On the face of it, seed looks far the cheaper option for the gardener. Into the calculation, however, must go the cost of seed and potting-compost, seed trays or modules, individual pots and a heated propagator. By contrast, you can buy 40 plugs of Petunia `Prism Sunshine F1' from Dobies' for pounds 8.65. (Postage is free for orders over pounds 8.) These will be delivered in mid- to late April, so need only be potted up once and put in a frost-free place, before being "hardened off" and planted out in late May. My calculation is that, including the cost of compost and 3-in pots, you could have a garden-worthy petunia for about 50p.

Buying plantlets by mail order has its disadvantages. The range of choice available is still narrow and there are too many nasty colour mixtures of flowers for my taste, although this is improving.

Only Marshall's and DT Brown's offer vegetables other than greenhouse ones, such as tomatoes and cucumbers. Only the Organic Gardening catalogue carries wild flowers and herbs.

While the exact moment when seeds arrive is immaterial, it can be crucial in the case of young plants, which have to be dealt with almost immediately on arrival. So, if you are a kitchen-garden enthusiast who avoids flower colour mixtures like the plague and is away from home in the spring, this is not the solution for you. For everyone else, however, it has distinct possibilities.

Dobies (01801 616888), Suttons (01803 614614), The Organic Gardening Catalogue (01932 253666) and Marshall's (01945 583407), offer plugs in their catalogues. Unwin's (01945 588522), D T Brown's (0800 731 1231), Mr Fothergill's (01638 751887) and Thompson & Morgan (01787 884121) send out separate catalogues