So my aunty was on Facebook last night going on about how Sarah Raven had sucked her in and taken all her money again. OK, you think this might be an exaggeration. But what she actually said was, "Oh Sarah Raven, how you tempt me with your plant porn. In goes a big seed'n'bulb order. Yes." (As a fully paid-up and practising member of the Romantic Novelists' Association, she – Ms Judy Astley – can get away with this kind of saucy stuff.)
It is the time of year to ponder the gardening catalogues, and all of them are basically after our money, though most of them are distinctly less lush than Sarah Raven's. But each tempting tome has its own special qualities: Thompson & Morgan is the first I open and heavens above, here's news to be toasted! T&M has finally bred something that looks remarkably like the celebrated "Patty's Plum", a soft-skirted, dreamily perfect pink poppy you could formerly buy only as an eyebrow-raisingly pricey plant, because it didn't come true from seed.
"Plum Pudding", the T&M novelty, comes with a "How We Did It" story that details the eight or so years of interim plant-breeding – and, science aside, the result is pretty enough to make the cover of the catalogue with those very desirable frilled tutu edges and a detailed purple centre. Forty seeds come in at £1.99 – or order 12 spring plugs for a tenner (thompson-morgan.com).
Suttons, on the other hand, has gone for a rather elegant Victoriana feel to its 2014 catalogue, in a deep encaustic blue with black and gold trim that looks as smart as it sounds. Though it's not all old-fashioned: if you hate to fill the house with paper, Suttons has a completely online version that can be browsed on screen, working particularly well with computer tablets. The highlight for me is a double-page spread of historic varieties, with images of the seed packets of yore; 1925's pin-up "Miss Jekyll" is good value even today, at 750 seeds for £1.99 (suttons.co.uk), and this Nigella damascena will give good rewards even to incompetent gardeners, managing to flower in blue, spiky elegance even when simply scattered on bare earth.
Elsewhere, Dobies of Devon's 2014 list suggests it's more than happy to continue to aim for the "Morrisons supermarket" niche among seed-growers, promising good quality at significantly lower prices than everyone else. It sells a thoroughly cottage-y set of flowers such as Larkspur and Canterbury Bells – there's a Larkspur "Paignton Rock" in a splashy Barbie pink which is properly tempting. Sown early in March, these should flower come summer (400 seeds for £2.55). Also among its selection is a swift Sweet William, "Scalliwag", which can also bloom the first year it's grown if you start early (£2.05 for 500 seeds, dobies.co.uk).
And finally it's back to Sarah Raven, whose narrow and highly considered selection often seems easier to pick from than the proliferating pages of the more conventional seed catalogues. (Less is more, I guess, on occasion.) From Raven's spring picks, I'm going for Fritillaria hermonis "Amana". Most gardeners will have met the snakeshead fritillary, but the other equally beautiful, muted members of this family have similar appeal, spinning seductive variations on the same burgundy and leaf green coloration. She's selling five bulbs of "Amana" for £6.95, (sarahraven.com). It's tasteful, it's muted, it's utterly irresistible. Sarah Raven, I'm sold. Take my money now!
Four more spring delights to look out for
Suttons Forget- Me-Not Royal Blue
This 1920s forget-me-not has all the cheeky appeal of a Great Gatsby flapper. 400 seeds, £1.99, suttons.co.uk
Wallflower Sunset Red F1
A fantastic deep-velvet red to trumpet the spring return of the sun, with great perfume to match on still-cold days. 30 seeds, £1.79, dobies.co.uk
Ipomoea 'Grandpa Ott'
A Morning Glory as bluey-purple as a medieval prayer-book sky. Heirloom Bavarian seed sent by a small family business in Ireland. 75 seeds, £1.25, seedaholic.com
Gladiolus nanus 'Robinetta'
An absolutely tiny Gladioli, with gigantic crimson firepower, flowering May to July. 20 bulbs £5.95, sarahraven.com
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