A better red in your bed: Flowers that died out in Britain survived in Eastern Europe. They are now back in our seed catalogues, says Anna Pavord

Click to follow
WHEN the Berlin Wall first came down, shopping trips seemed to be all in one direction. East Berliners staggered home across the divide, laden with more carriers than a bag lady. Food and electronic gadgetry seemed to be top of their shopping lists. Trade with Eastern Europe has been going on in the opposite direction, too, but it has often been more concerned with bringing in the old than the new: paintings, antique furniture, icons.

And flowers. They never featured on anyone's five-year plan: very little seed breeding took place under the various Communist regimes. But gardeners in eastern Germany, Poland and Hungary continue to grow varieties of flowers that long ago disappeared from this country.

Old-fashioned is now hugely fashionable here, so Mr Fothergill's Seeds has reintroduced a pretty twin-tone aster from Eastern Europe. It used to be a great favourite with our Victorian gardeners, but disappeared from English seed lists after the First World War.

The outstanding characteristic of this aster is its thick band of white around the edge of each double flower. The centres are either red or blue. The plants branch more freely than modern asters, and grow about 20in high. Fothergill's calls them 'Liliput Reverse Bicolours Red and Blue' (80p for 100 seeds), and they are top of my list for this coming season. Asters should always feature somewhere in the garden. It is good to have something fresh to look forward to in the second half of summer, and our recent spate of long, frost-free autumns has suited their pattern of growth.

Unlike many annuals that flower better when half-starved, asters like a rich diet. My gardening bible, Beeton's Shilling Gardening, published in the 1890s, recommends copious draughts of manure, water, food and drink in a single potion. Any modern liquid feed will have the same beneficial effect.

They do best in deep, rich, light soil in full sun. Sow the seeds during the first week in April, and germinate them at a temperature of 60F-68F (15C-20C). Prick them out into boxes and grow them on until they are sturdy plants, ready for bedding out at the beginning of June. Beeton recommended them highly for a ribbon border.

Last year I used 'Giant Single Andrella' asters (Thompson & Morgan, 79p for 850 seeds) this way. The plants were tall - almost two feet - but did not need staking, and they had classic aster flowers: pink, mauve and white with big yellow centres. T & M has introduced its own new bicolour asters this season, the flowers either red or purple with a white halo around the outside. The contrast is more pronounced on the red than the purple. They are called 'All Change' ( pounds 1.49 for 100 seeds).

Asters are useful to follow on from snapdragons, which tend to rest (or give up completely) at about the time that asters are getting into their stride. Snapdragons last longer in gardens where there are no small children. The flowers were never designed to open and close as often as they oblige them to, squeezing the sides of the lippy petals so that the bottom one gapes open and shut like a goldfish out of its element.

Sow the seed in February or March, scattering it very thinly on top of the compost and covering it with a layer of vermiculite. Seedlings seem to do better in low-nutrient composts, so use a John Innes No 1 rather than a multi-purpose. Germination takes between 10-14 days at a temperature of 60F-68F (15C-20C). It can be erratic, so do not give up hope. Prick out the young plants and grow them on in the usual way. Pinch out the growing tips when the plants are 3in or 4in high. This will force them to make more flowering spikes.

A propensity to rust is the most irritating fault of snapdragons, and so-called resistant varieties are not always as free from the condition as their champions claim. The spores affect leaves and stems, which erupt in a rash of dark- brown pimples. Regular spraying is the only answer. Propiconazole (as in Murphy's Tumbleblite) is one of the most effective medicines.

Some snapdragons have wine or bronze foliage, which doubles their effectiveness in certain kinds of planting schemes. 'Black Prince' is an old variety, with deep burgundy flowers above bronze foliage. This year I am growing one of its descendants, a new variety called 'Night and Day' (Mr Fothergill's, 95p for 750 seeds). The flowers are a deep rich crimson with white lips. Unfortunately, they have lost the coloured foliage. The leaves are plain dark green.

Stay away from an anchusa called 'Dawn Mixed'. Fothergill's has it. So do T & M and Suttons. I made the mistake of growing it last season. The plants were unpleasantly squat, with far too high a proportion of leaves to flowers, which came in a grim collection of muddy pastels. The only point of an anchusa is its searing blue, a colour that scorches through the retina to lodge indelibly in the brain. Take away that and it has little to recommend it. The foliage is coarse, and the form of the flowers undistinguished. It is a mystery why I ever imagined that 'Dawn Mixed' would contribute to life's delights. Nul points there.

The aquilegias I sowed last June in a row outside never germinated. Nor did the double daisies. It was hot and very dry at the time. The drills should have been soaked more thoroughly before sowing. Both, therefore, are back on the list for this year. Aquilegias do well in our garden, although it is difficult to keep named varieties true to form. They cross-breed with great gusto.

Occasionally something rather good turns up. Last summer's novelty was a cross between fluffy pink and green 'Norah Barlow' and some unknown other. Together they produced a flower that looks like 'Norah Barlow' but coloured a good rich raspberry red. I tied a bit of cotton round it to remind me not to dig it up. Miraculously, it is still there.

Aquilegia caerulea (T & M, pounds 1.49 for 100 seeds) is the one I am going for this year. It is a native of the Rocky Mountains, with flowers of clear sky blue. It is taller than Aquilegia alpina which has flowers of a similar blue. Last year I saved seed from a bought plant of Aquilegia flabellata, a Japanese species. It germinated like mustard and cress, and I raised three rows of plants. This year I will know whether they are true to form.

Despite last year's disaster, I still prefer to sow seeds such as aquilegia and bellis outside in summer rather than raise them in seed trays in spring. Anyway, it spreads the load: plenty else in the seed line needs to be looked after in March and April. And a stern out-of- doors regime begets sturdy, healthy plants - if it does not kill them. The plants grow best in slightly damp soil and are happy in dappled shade. Even if you sow in spring, you cannot have plants flowering in the same year. But once they are established, they will flower for several years.

Salvia farinacea is perennial, too, in its home in Texas and New Mexico. Unfortunately, not with us. The difficulty with raising it from seed each year is that it comes on stream later than you would wish. Like most natural perennials, it wants to bulk up the body before putting on the clothes. But there is nothing quite like it among flowers, for the stems of the spikes are richly coloured as well as the flowers themselves.

The colour is a royal blue, verging on purple, the flower spikes rising from a mound of lance-shaped leaves. Sow them in February in compost lightly covered with vermiculite. Germinate them at a temperature of about 64F (18C). Prick them out in the usual way. If you have sufficient space, transplant them into individual pots so that they can bulk up to maximum advantage before you plant them outside. I will be growing a variety called 'Blue Victory' (Suttons, pounds 1.50)). They look good with anything yellow - coreopsis, rudbeckia - which has a similarly autumnal nature.

Cobaea, a fast-growing climber, is another plant that is hardy in its native habitat (Mexico) but which we have to grow as an annual. A packet of seed should be included with every house conveyance, because nothing else gives such a showy effect so quickly in a new garden. It grows 20ft or more in a season, hanging on to supports with pea- like tendrils that grow from the ends of the leaf stalks. The flowers are cup-and- saucer shaped, the cups a rich purple, the saucer calyx an almost translucent pale green. It is excellent as quick cover on the poles of a new pergola, to cover a trellis screen, or to cover up the evidence of a sudden winter death.

The best germination comes from home-saved seed that can be sown fresh. But T & M has it ( pounds 1.49 for nine seeds), as does Suttons ( pounds 1.30). Sow the seeds on edge in damp compost, one to a 3in pot. Seal the pots in clingfilm. The seeds will have sprouted within three or four weeks. April is soon enough to sow, as the plants cannot be set out until the end of May. They need to be hardened off carefully. Do not plant them next to anything winsome: these plants are Wagner, not Chopin.

Mr Fothergill's Seeds, Gazeley Road, Kentford, Newmarket, Suffolk CB8 7QB (0638 751161). Suttons, Hele Road, Torquay, Devon TQ2 7QJ (0803 612011).

Thompson & Morgan, Polar Lane, Ipswich, Suffolk IP8 3BU (0473 688821).