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)