Ah, progress at last

Sweet peas, gazanias, nasturtiums: new growth proceeds apace, says Anna Pavord
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The Independent Online
April is a crazy time to be away from home. I have been bumping over the Rupununi savannahs in Guyana for the past three weeks and returned to find the garden had accelerated in the most extraordinary way: 0-90mph. Will I ever catch up?

The kitchen windowsill is thick with pots of seedlings that sprouted during my absence and now need to be pricked out. That is a soothing job and needs to be done before the stems of the seedlings are too drawn out. Jab holes with your finger in a tray of fresh compost and settle in each seedling so that its first pair of leaves is sitting on the surface. When you have filled a tray, water it and keep it out of direct sunlight until the seedlings have settled. I do this by shifting the seedlings from a west window in the kitchen, where they germinate, to a north windowsill in the sitting-room, where they grow on until they are ready to be hardened off. It is called low-tech gardening.

Freshly germinated white perennial sweet peas have now gone outside into the cold frame, for sweet peas do best grown as hard as possible. Kept inside they get leggy and soft. The first batch of annual sweet peas was planted out before I left. The second batch is now raring to go. If you have not already done so, pinch out the tops of the plants to force them to produce side shoots.

I have abandoned peasticks as supports and now grow the sweet peas up tall hazel wigwams, made by a local basket-maker. There are 16 poles in each wigwam, bound together by a spiralling band of willow. They are about six feet high. Eight feet would be better.

When the kitchen windowsill is cleared of its present crop, there will be room for more seeds. Gazanias are waiting. In a cool, overcast summer, they sulk, refusing to open their flowers. In sun, the daisy flowers splay out to show centres like archery targets, ringed with concentric circles of brilliant metallic green, tan and orange.

The last gazania I grew was `Mini-Star White' which was excellent, though dedicated gazania buffs moan that the foliage of modern seed-raised strains is as nothing compared to the thick, white, felted leaves of old varieties, perpetuated by cuttings. These matchless gazanias join the cloudless summers, the trains that ran on time and the well-behaved children that seem to haunt the memories of anyone over 40.

Too bad. This year I am growing `Chansonette Pink Shades' (Mr Fothergill, £1.95). Whereas the white gazanias had dark chocolate centres, the pink ones have bizare metallic green rings round the yellow centres, some of them showing a bull's eye of red in the middle.

Gazanias do best in well drained soil in full sun where they spread to about a foot across and carry a long succession of daisy flowers which grow no more than nine inches high. I grew them among creeping small-leaved helichrysum on a sunny bank and also in containers. They do well as pot plants in a summer conservatory. That is the closest they ever get in this country to their native South Africa.

Sprinkle the seed on the surface of compost in a 5in pot. Cover with vermiculite and water well. Wrap the pot in clingfilm and keep it in a warm place (60-70F) until the seeds have germinated. Pot the seedlings into 3in pots and grow on until they are large enough to set outside. If you want to grow gazanias as conservatory pot plants, pot them on again into 5in pots. They are extremely tolerant of drought, and do especially well by the sea.

Small tasks, such as pricking out and seed sowing, get you back into gardening gear. There is a proper beginning and end to jobs like these which gives you the illusion of progress. But in terms of the general appearance of the garden, edging, brushing and raking are what is needed. They are not my favourite jobs (too much like housework) but they have a disproportionate effect on the overall scene.

Where you can, keep a clean, straight deep drop of several inches between grass and border; edging with a one-handed pair of shears (the ones made like sheep shears) is quick.

If you mulch copiously, as I do, birds redistribute the mulch to parts you never intended it to reach. If you garden on a slope, the little cliff between bed and lower edge gradually silts up with earth. Instead of shearing rapidly along the whiskers of an edge, you have to remake them laboriously with a sharp spade.

In the vegetable garden, we partly got over this problem by edging the grass paths, four feet wide, with railway sleepers which keep the earth mostly where it is supposed to be. But the edges of the paths still need attention, for the mower cannot quite lick off the grass on either side where it presses against the wood of the sleepers. If I could learn to love a strimmer, I would have better edges here, but they are cruel, indiscriminating, noisy machines.

Climbers and wall shrubs quickly get into bad habits if you do not keep an eye on them in the early stages of their growth. During our absence, several early clematis in the garden tangled themselves in bundles rather than spreading out to cover the space left for them. Tweaking clematis stems in the desired direction is a pleasant evening job: small effort, big result. You need a pocketful of plastic covered ties, so that when you have tweaked, you can pin the stems down. Do not use ties too close to the tips, they are easily damaged.

For scramblers such as eccremocarpus, which has clusters of tubular flowers in orange, yellow or red showily displayed against ferny foliage, large meshed chicken wire is the easiest support to provide. The wire comes in rolls about two feet wide and you can tack it to walls in long lengths, or wrap it around the poles of a pergola. It is long-lasting, cheap and practically invisible.

There are relatively few self-clinging climbers and providing the necessary ties and supports for those that do not is vital. I use vine eyes for roses, ceanothus and other wall shrubs with woody stems. The flat galvanised spikes are about four inches long, and have a hole at one end. You bash the vine eye into the wall to secure it and then thread your tie through the hole to hold the stem firm.

Ceanothus `Trewithen Blue' is flowering with its usual ludicrous abandon on the front of the house. When the flowers have faded, there will be a few forward-facing branches to be pruned back. This is quite a wilful shrub to keep trained against a wall, but it needs the protection. It is not half as tough as C thyrsiflorus repens.

Five pleasing little plants of the double red nasturtium `Hermine Grashoff' arrived in the post while I was away and survived their long-drawn-out incarceration with flying colours. Most nasturtiums are absurdly easy from seed, but this particular double never sets seed and has to be kept going by cuttings. The plants are now potted up on the windowsill, where they sit blinking at the light.

They need some protection until mid-May when it may be warm enough for them to go outside. The nasturtiums are destined to go round the base of the bay trees growing in two big half-barrels where they can dribble quietly over the sides of the containers and keep out of the bay trees' way.

The plants came from Thompson & Morgan (£9.99) which is offering a range of 20 different flowers sent out as "plugs" or young plants. You can buy the nasturtium `Strawberries and Cream' this way, though here plugs are a pricey option, when a packet of 20 seeds of the same variety is offered in the catalogue for £1.59.

Later on, probably in May, I shall be planting seed of nasturtiums directly outside, a variety called `Empress of India' (Thompson & Morgan, 99p). It has dark, lustrous foliage setting off equally dark ruby flowers. It looks more exotic than other nasturtiums and, like all this family, gives an excellent, cheap and fast display wherever you have bare ground.

To reserve young plants of busy lizzie, phlox, nasturtium, dianthus, rudbeckia, lobelia, poppy, pansy, petunia, marigold, brachycome, stocks and balcon geraniums contact Thompson & Morgan at PO Box 99, Sudbury, Suffolk CO10 6SN (01787 884422).