Gardening: More haste, less seed

Sowing plants takes practice, but it is an essential rite of passage for every gardener, and you can grow flowers not found in garden centres.
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I have recently driven to Penrith with George Orwell, been on a trip to East Anglia with Julian Barnes and whiled away some time in London with EF Benson. Talking books, since I discovered a public library with a vast stock of unabridged editions, have revolutionised my life. Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London was so riveting I missed my exit on the M6 and had to make a 40-mile detour to get back on route.

Choosing the right tapes is crucial. You are allowed three so there is room for a flier that you don't know much about. One can be a safe bet, and my third is usually an ought-book, one that you take because you are tired of people saying "I can't believe you don't know Susskind/ Hesse/Ondaatje," as though you might die of the deficiency.

Flipping through the seeds that I will start to sow this week, I see that the same principles have guided my choices there. There are the bankers: stocks, violas, poppies. There are a few fliers such as a low- growing white evening primrose, Oenothera caespitosa and one or two oughts such as the pink-flowered form of the short-lived perennial Verbascum blattaria.

Oughts in the plant world are notoriously fickle. No sooner have you congratulated yourself on tracking down the right form of herbaceous elder than you find the goal posts have been moved, and you are left holding yesterday's plant. There is a type of gardener for whom scarceness is the only criterion of a plant's worth. They will not be growing limonium "Azure" (Thompson & Morgan, pounds 1.49), the popular everlasting sea- lavender with papery flowers that you can cut and dry. These can be sown any time now and the seed will take one to two weeks to germinate. Then you need to prick the seedlings out in boxes, grow them on and finally plant them out in May. They are generally in bloom by late July and then stand in excellent condition through to late September.

Some sea-lavenders are sold as mixtures with lemon, pink, white and blue flowers. "Azure" is just clear, solid blue and grows to about 24ins with characteristic flanges, or wings, running up the sides of the stems. Plant them about a foot apart, for the leaves make quite large basal rosettes. I am using it in a blue-and-yellow planting to replace Salvia farinacea "Queen Victoria", which I never get into flower early enough to justify the fuss of raising it.

Any statice plants left over can go with Rudbeckia "Goldilocks" (Dobies, pounds 1.08) an exuberant double form of this orange-yellow daisy, commonly called black-eyed susan. Because of the doubleness, the central cone is not so clear and prominent as it is in other varieties, but the shagginess is appealing.

Some rudbeckias that you can grow from seed, such as "Goldsturm" (Dobies pounds 1.35), are perennial unlike "Goldilocks" and, if you are trying to persuade rudbeckias to flower in shade, the single "Goldsturm" with long, strappy petals will perform better than any other variety. The soil needs to be moist though, not starved. If you sow "Goldilocks" now, you should have flowers by August. Then they will continue until the frosts. One advantage of growing from seed is that you can fill your garden with flowers that no garden centre or street market will supply. But conversely, I no longer grow flowers such as petunias or lobelias from seed. These can be bought in so easily and cheaply as bedding plants in May.

But seed-sowing is an essential rite of passage for a gardener. For years, as a novice, I felt it was all too complicated to get into. When my father-in-law died, my supply of custom-grown plants dried up and I was forced to raise my own seedlings. They grew successfully and my pride was even greater than when I produced my first decent souffle. Optimism is an essential tool in the gardener's kit. Much more important than a strimmer. And quieter.

Penstemons have become very vogueish plants. There was a time when you only ever saw "Garnet" or "Ruby", stalwarts of the August garden. Now there are at least a hundred named varieties but they all need to be propagated by cuttings, taken in August, as they do not come true from seed.

But you can get seed mixtures of penstemons such as "Cambridge Mix" (Unwins, pounds 2.29), which grow into bushy plants, about 10ins tall. If you sow early enough and grow the plants without a check, you can get them to flower that year. Or you can treat them as biennials, sow them in early August, overwinter them in a cold greenhouse and plant them out in spring. That way they come into bloom earlier.

Stocks come from the same bit of the rainbow as penstemons, but have the extra advantage of smelling like a celestial Body Shop. They are a confusing family because they bob up under too many divisions: Park, Ten Week, Brompton, Night-scented, Regular, East Lothian, Mammoth. The ones I usually grow are the biennial Bromptons.

This year I am splashing out on a night-scented annual stock called "Starlight Scentsation" (Unwins, pounds 1.29). It looks desperately wholesome: pink and white and mauve, single but heavily scented and about 18 ins tall. It affects me like the young Shirley Temple. Half of me goes "Aaaah!", the other half goes "Arrrgh!" At least the stock won't sing.

Stocks have been cultivated for almost as long as there have been gardeners. They were written about in the 11th-century gardens of Islam, and crop up in the illustrations that decorate some of the earliest printed books in Europe. They survived the anti-flower pogrom of the English landscape garden and emerged triumphant into the High Victorian gardens of the 19th century, when they were used extensively both for cutting and for bedding out.

Stocks do best on good, rich, well-fed ground. I am planning two patches in the certain knowledge that Joshua, the most hopeless cat that ever cadged free board and lodging, will make his bed on one lot.

Thompson & Morgan, Poplar Lane, Ipswich, Suffolk IP8 3BU (01473 688821), Samuel Dobie & Son Ltd, Broomhill Way, Torquay, Devon TQ2 7QW (01803 616281), Unwins Seeds Ltd, Histon, Cambridge CB4 4ZZ (01945 588522)

Sowing For Beginners ...

... without a propagator:

1.Use fresh compost. I find soilless multipurpose compost the easiest to use.

2. Make your initial sowing in a five-inch plastic pot filled with compost, pressed down gently. The base of a similar-sized pot makes a convenient tamping-down tool.

3. Scatter the seeds as thinly as possible over the surface of the compost. Very small seeds (such as begonia) need not be covered at all. Cover others with a layer of vermiculite.

4. Water the pots, either from a watering can with a rose, or by letting them soak up water from the bottom.

5. Wrap them in clingfilm and keep the pots on a warmish windowsill until seedlings show through. Zinnias are fast (about four days), others much slower. Some seeds, such as primrose, need to be kept cool, so are best left outside to germinate.

6. Make sure the seedlings are well watered before you prick them out into seed trays - 24 seedlings to a tray. Handle them only by the seed leaves which, if you are clumsy, are expendable.

7. Water the seed tray and set it somewhere in full light. Turn the tray regularly so that the seedlings do not grow in one direction. Brush over their tops with the edge of a piece of cardboard. This encourages strong stems.

8. If you have sown a mixture of one particular flower, do not always choose just the strongest seedlings to prick out. The weaker plants are often those with the most unusual colours.

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