Begonias and ferns are the most successful indoor plants in our house, because they positively enjoy its chilly, rather dark rooms. Streptocarpus have been good, too, on a dim, north-facing windowsill. Away from windows, plants languish. But there are ways round the problem, which professional plantspeople have been using for some time. Inadequate light levels can be boosted with daylight lamps, such as the Bio-Light, which will run from a low-voltage 12-volt supply. It will provide enough of a boost for plants to grow in places where there is no natural light. It has a clamp that fits on to most kinds of pot, and an adjustable arm. The only problem is that, highlighted in this way, your plants have to look their best: no brown ends on the spider plants, no greenfly on the asparagus fern. The Bio-Light costs pounds 27.50 plus postage and packing, from Bio-Light UK, Unit 3, Springfield Road Industrial Estate, Chesham, Bucks HP5 1PW (01494 771541).
The new seed list from Ray Brown, of Plantworld, Saint Marychurch Road, Newton Abbott, Devon TQ12 4SE, contains some mouthwatering aquilegias, more than 30 of them. A wise gardener once said that the secret of happy gardening was to find out what did well for you, and then to grow a lot of it. Aquilegias like our heavy, damp soil. The only problem lies in keeping the named varieties true to form. They cross-breed with indecent urgency.
Ray Brown recommends the new aquilegia "Sunburst Ruby", with golden foliage and garnet-red flowers, but I'm not drawn to that combination. The ordinary, bluish-grey colour of an aquilegia's leaves provides a much more sympathetic background to its flowers. I'm going for Aquilegia longissima, from the US, with finely divided leaves and long-spurred flowers in two shades of yellow, and "Iceberg", delicately perfumed with big, pale blue flowers. For a copy of the catalogue (which includes good foxgloves and masses of violas) send three first-class stamps to Ray.
Ready for spring
Nemesis is about to strike this column in the shape of Weekend Work, which returns next week. The garden, which seems to have shuffled through winter under its own steam, will soon turn into a much more demanding animal. Are you ready for it? Have you done everything you should have during January and February? Cut the old leaves away from clumps of Lenten hellebores, still in full bloom. Work your way through clumps of carex, Bowles's golden sedge, cutting out the wizened fronds. Cut back battered fern fronds, so that the new ones can unfurl later in spring with maximum drama.
Take the old flower-heads off climbing hydrangeas, and do the same for big, shrubby hydrangeas such as H sargentiana and H villosa. Cut back dead stems of catmint before they become entangled with the new growth. Cut back the Michaelmas daisies that you forgot to attend to last autumn.
If the soil is workable (there was a glorious patch in mid-February when it was), worry it about a bit. It looks at its worst now, beaten down by the winter rain, but a bit of chivvying with a hand fork perks it up no end, and you can get rid of the weeds that flourished in the mild weather.
Although you do not need to think of planting potatoes until April at the earliest, you have to lay hands on seed potatoes well before that and set them sprouting in some light, airy, frost-free place.
First earlies will produce a crop of roughly 50 pounds from six pounds of seed potatoes, main crops roughly 70 pounds from the same amount of seed. I have a weakness for the old varieties such as "Catriona" and "Dunbar Standard", a main-crop potato with long, oval tubers and white flesh.
For a good selection of potatoes, including the "Pink Fir Apple" and the French "Belle de Fontenay", contact SE Marshall, Wisbech, Cambridgeshire PE13 2RF (01945 583407).