Gardening: The seeds of triumph

Cheerful nasturtiums, unruly snapdragons, exotic zinnias ... Anna Pavord plans ahead for summer flowers

Zinnias were the triumph of our garden last year. It was a year when we needed the occasional triumph, so thank you, zinnias. I had not grown them before. They are such outrageous flowers, so self-evidently foreign and exotic, I automatically assumed that they must be difficult. But no. I sowed seed of zinnia `Allsorts' (Mr Fothergill, pounds 1.10) on 15 March and four days later they had germinated.

That took me by surprise. And it also created a small worry. The one thing I had heard about zinnias was that they hate to be checked. Once started into growth, they like to zoom helter-skelter onwards. However, they also hate frost. I took a risk in setting them out at the beginning of May, but I got away with it. This year, I shall sow a little later, so that the plants need not be set outside until mid-May.

When the seedlings had made their first proper set of leaves, I transplanted each one into a separate three-inch pot and kept them on the sitting-room window sill, where they grew fast. After they had been transferred outside, they made big, bushy plants that came into flower in July. They were still flowering in October, despite a drearily damp summer - the very thing they are said most to hate.

Because I was expecting little of them, I set them in the vegetable garden in rows between beetroot and carrots. Outraged by this treatment, they proceeded to upstage every other plant in the garden - even the dahlias. Upstaging a dahlia, when you are only a tenth of its size, is a cheeky thing to do.

Purists look down on concoctions such as `Allsorts', but if you want to understand what tricks a flower can do, growing a mixture is the easiest way to learn. Some of these zinnias were vast footballs of flowers, shocking pink, orange and yellow. Some were an extraordinary chartreuse green. Some had wonderfully complex centres, the stamens ringed in contrasting colours. None was a duffer.

So how does one choose between varieties? I start by discounting any that the seedsman describes as a "dwarf strain". By nature, zinnias make wonderfully muscular, meaty growth, which does not need support. The overall habit is robust and the stems are strong. Other, weakly constructed plants may be strengthened by dwarfing. Zinnias certainly do not need it.

I like the sound of `Envy' (Mr Fothergill, pounds 1.45) which is two feet high with lime green flowers. `Tufted Exemption' (Mr Fothergill, pounds 1.55) has an odd, almost conical head, with a lower row of petals making a frill round the bottom. `Scabious Flowered' (Thompson & Morgan, pounds 1.89) has huge, crested flowers in a mixture of scarlet, carmine, pink, yellow, orange and cream.

The first zinnia to arrive in this country was Z. pauciflora. Its name suggests that it was an unimpressive performer, and Philip Miller, who grew it at the Chelsea Physic Garden in the 1750s, was not enthusiastic. Most of today's garden varieties have been bred from another Mexican species, Z. elegans. This arrived with us in 1796, thanks to the Marchioness of Bute, wife of the Ambassador to the Spanish Court. She was given it by Professor Ortega of Madrid, who also supplied her with the first dahlias.

Perennials are no more difficult to grow from seed than annuals, and I usually try some new aquilegia each year. They like our heavy clay soil; are equally happy in sun or shade, and have handsome greyish foliage which is an asset even when the plant is not flowering.

Last year I grew `Melton Rapids' (Thompson & Morgan, pounds 2.49), deep, inky- blue flowers of the flat-faced, (so-called clematis-flowered) kind. These are much easier to keep in cultivation than the long-spurred types: however, you need both. Aquilegias, though, are such shameless cross-breeders, it is impossible to keep named varieties true to type. This year I am trying out `Long-Spurred Choice Mixed' (Dobies, 88p). That should spawn some bizarre new mixtures.

Given an easy ride through winter, some flowers that we treat as annuals (like snapdragons) will settle down to flower again the following year. They make untidy plants, but come into bloom sooner than the new brood raised freshly from seed. So after dead-heading the snapdragons in the front border, and trimming back the straggliest growths, I've left them in situ, to see whether they'll perform again next summer.

This was an F2 strain called `Corona Mixed' (Suttons, 99p), un-dwarfed at 20in, strong growing (though sprawling by nature) and in a good mix of colours. This year I want some dark-leaved, deep-red snapdragons, to put in a border with Canna iridiflora and the elegant grass, Pennisetum macrourum. `Black Prince' (Thompson & Morgan, pounds 1.69) sounds suitably saturated. This year's novelty is a snapdragon with variegated foliage: `Powys Pride' (Thompson & Morgan, pounds 1.99) is 12-18in tall with velvety-red flowers on top of leaves splashed and mottled with cream.

The asters `Allsorts Mixed' (Mr Fothergill, pounds 1.10) were a disaster, melting in the damp, overcast summer to make little heaps of powdery mildew wherever they had been planted. But they are one of a clutch of familiar flowers that I always grow, and this year I'm trying the tall `Matsumoto Mixed' (Suttons, pounds 1.05).

Other staples are sunflowers, Californian poppies, nasturtiums and pot marigolds. They are all easy, cheerful flowers and you need a few stalwarts you can depend on while traitorous novelties are miffing off all round you. They are good flowers to use in mixes with vegetables, too: sunflowers with sweetcorn; Californian poppies with frizzy endive or lettuce; nasturtiums to make a carpet under standard gooseberries; pot marigolds to jazz up a planting of spinach.

Yellow, daisy-flowered bidens are on the way to becoming another staple. I sowed seed of `Golden Goddess' (Unwins, pounds 1.99) on 8 March, and raised enough plants to plant out in borders, as well as fill the pots for which they were all originally intended. There are still one or two flowers on a plant scrambling through the branches of a shrubby ceratostigma in the blue and yellow border.

Even more cheering are the new shoots at the base of the plant. Like the snapdragon, bidens are by nature perennial, but rarely, in this country, get a chance to settle into that comfortable habit. When I get round to cutting down the plant, those new shoots will perhaps take over. Without something to lean on, the plants flop, which is why they are so useful in containers. They fuzz the edges, and, although they make a lot of growth, are never bulky. That is because their foliage is so finely cut and sparse. The flowers last for a long period as well.

Seeds are available from Mr Fothergill's Mail Order Dept, Kentford, Suffolk CB8 7QB (01638 552512); Thompson & Morgan, Poplar Lane, Ipswich, Suffolk IP8 3BU (01473 688821); Samuel Dobie & Son, Broomhill Way, Torquay, Devon TQ2 7QW (01803 616888); Suttons, Hele Road, Torquay, Devon TQ2 7QJ (01803 614614), and Unwins Mail Order Dept, Histon, Cambridge CB4 4ZZ (01945 588522)

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?