Gardening: Plug in for spring

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The Independent Online
Convenience gardening sacrifices adventure for instant results, but in midwinter that can be reassuring. Here is a range of young, ready- grown plants to order now for the growing season.

The latest edition of The Seed Search tells you where you can buy seed of 40,000 different plants. Just stop and think about that number. Put it in context by remembering that the whole of the native flora of Britain only amounts to about 2,000 plants. Amidst all the doom and gloom about flowers disappearing, forests burning, wild bulbs shrivelling in the hands of rapacious dealers, it is remarkable that any of us, if we wanted, could pick up the phone and order the means of growing such a vast variety of living things.

But we don't. Lists of the 10 best-selling varieties of flower seeds change remarkably little from year to year. Lobelia, dwarf impatiens, godetia, sweet peas, nasturtium, petunia, night-scented stocks, begonia, geranium and pansy were the favourites five years ago. Godetia, stocks, dwarf impatiens, aubrieta, geranium, lobelia, nasturtium `Jewel Mixed', sweet pea, nasturtium `Alaska Mixed' and sunflowers are the seed merchant Suttons' current best-sellers. Only the newly fashionable sunflower speaks of any real shift in taste.

It's because we are so predictable as gardeners that seed companies were able to switch smoothly a few years ago into offering us baby plants as a - more expensive - alternative to seed. You could buy a packet of seed of the new creamy-coloured petunia `Banana Milkshake' from Mr Fothergill for pounds 2.15. Two dozen "plugs" of the same variety cost three times as much, but this is still cheaper than buying 24 full-grown petunias at planting-out time in May.

Plugs represent a slightly more certain vision of the future than a seed packet does. Petunias are not easy to raise from seed if you work, as I do, with a combination of windowsills, airing cupboards and spare bedrooms, rather than with a professional greenhouse and a state-of-the-art propagator. The seed is very fine and germinates best at a temperature of 65-70F. Because it's so fine, it is best left uncovered on the surface of the compost, but the seedlings then need a little fine compost sifted over them as they begin to grow. All this is fiddly. Then just when you thought you'd got them over the worst hurdles, the seedlings have a disastrous tendency to damp off - a kind of horticultural hara-kiri.

The petunia is one of the few flowers that has dropped from the best- selling list of seeds in the last five years because people now choose to grow them from plugs or buy them as fully grown plants. There are masses on offer - more than 30 different varieties in Mr Fothergill's Young Plant catalogue alone.

The whole point of such catalogues is to make us lose reason, but after a summer when many petunias melted to a slimy mush in the rain, phrases such as "weather resistant" have a point. `Fantasy Mixed', an F1 hybrid, has smallish flowers, but there are lots of them and they weather well. Mr Fothergill's sells 24 plugs for pounds 6.45.

I could live without petunias, but I'd hate to be without lobelias, which are also fiddly to raise from seed, but excellent and easy from plugs. "Hackneyed," said a friend dismissively, when I put them near the top of my own list of favourite annuals. "Nonsense," I replied. It's not their fault they are so often lined out like morse code, blue dots between dashes of white alyssum. The plants themselves are enchanting. A little while ago, some self-seeded from a tub in our garden into the cracks of the paving stones below. I liked the effect so much that now I plant them in cracks deliberately.

I also plant them between low patches of dianthus, to fill up the ground where the spring-flowering tulips are slowly settling in. The tulips are the most important plants there, and I don't ever want the summer display to crowd the bulbs out. Lobelia understands that. Mr Fothergill's has the bronze-leaved dark blue `Crystal Palace' (24 plugs for pounds 5.95) and `Regatta Blue Splash', which I grew last year from seed. It's a trailing type, the white flowers splashed and stained with pale blue.

`White Lady' is a pretty little bushy white-flowered lobelia (pounds 8.95 for 110 miniplants or pounds 7.95 for 40 easiplants, from Suttons). Don't follow their serving suggestion - this white lobelia planted alternately with blue ageratum. Lobelia deserves better. So does ageratum, if we are talking plant rights.

Ageratum by nature is a tallish (18-20in), loose-headed beauty. `Blue Bouquet' (Chiltern Seeds, 95p) gives an idea of what it could do, if only breeders wouldn't turn it into a squash-faced, congested, dumpy little plant, with flowers that ball up in the rain. Ageratum blue is a particularly good colour, slightly slaty, hazy, lovely with a sharp, acid-drop yellow, or with purple. But if you want plugs, dumplings is all you can get: `Blue Haze', 8in high, from Suttons (pounds 9.25 for 100 seedlings or pounds 7.95 for 40 easiplants) or `Blue Mist', 6in high, from Dobies (pounds 9.25 for 100 seedlings, or pounds 7.95 for 40 easiplants).

Most firms offer plants in five different sizes, from seedlings to jumbo plugs. The bigger they are of course, the more per plant you pay, but a jumbo plug leaves little room for error on the part of the gardener, as they can be planted out so quickly.

When they arrive (they are usually sent by first-class mail), I plant out all plugs and seedlings, whatever size, in individual 3-in plant pots. This is expensive in compost, but the plants grow vigorously and their roots are disturbed very little when they are planted out. If you set seedlings or miniplugs together in seed trays, the roots tangle with each other and so the plants get a shock when you prise them apart before planting them out. In these dark, gale-howling days, that's what I'm dreaming of: planting, planting, planting. Roll on spring.

`The Seed Search', compiled and edited by Karen Platt, is available (pounds 10.99 + pounds 1.75 p&p) direct from Karen Platt at 35 Longfield Rd, Crookes, Sheffield S10 1QW. The `Young Plant Catalogue' is available from Mr Fothergill's, Kentford, Suffolk CB8 7QB (01638 552512). Order all Mr Fothergill's young plants by 20 March. Speed plugs from Thompson & Morgan, Poplar Lane, Ipswich, Suffolk IP8 3BU (01473 688821) need to be ordered by 15 March. Young plants can be ordered up to 15 April. Last orders for most of Dobies's petunias must be in by 11 March; for ageratum `Blue Mist' by 4 Feb. Order a catalogue from Broomhill Way, Torquay, Devon TQ2 7QW (01803 616888). Suttons' young plants are listed in their seed catalogue, from Hele Rd, Torquay, Devon TQ2 7QJ (01803 614455). Order ageratum `Blue Haze' by 5 Feb, lobelia `White Lady' by 19 Feb. Plugs are available in a range of other annuals, including asters, antirrhinum, begonia, brachyzcome, gazania, helichrysum, geranium, impatiens, marigold and nicotiana.