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)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
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.

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea