Choosing the right tapes is, of course, crucial. You are allowed three, so there is room for one that you don't know much about. One can be a safe bet, an author you know you will enjoy. My third is usually an 'ought' book - one that you take because you are so tired of people saying, 'I can't believe you don't know Suskind/ Hesse/Ondaatje', as though you might die of the deficiency.
Flipping through the seeds that I will start to sow this week, I see my choices have been guided by the same principles. There are the bankers: petunias, stocks, violas, poppies. There are a few flyers such as a low-growing white evening primrose, Oenothera caespitosa, and one or two 'oughts', such as the pink-flowered form of the short- lived perennial Verbascum blattaria.
Oughts in the plant world are notoriously fickle. No sooner have you congratulated yourself on tracking down the right form of herbaceous elder or sky-blue salvia, than you find it is yesterday's plant. There is a type of gardener for whom scarcity is the only criterion of a plant's worth.
Such a gardener will not be growing the statice 'Azure' (Thompson & Morgan pounds 1.19), the popular, everlasting limonium, or sea lavender, with papery flowers that you can cut and dry. These can be sown any time now, and the seed will take one to two weeks to germinate. Then you need to prick the seedlings out in boxes, grow them on, and finally plant them out in May. They are generally in bloom by late July, and in excellent condition through to late September.
Some sea lavenders are sold as mixtures with lemon, pink, white and blue flowers. 'Azure' is just clear, solid blue, and grows to about 18in, with characteristic flanges or wings running up the sides of the stems. Plant them about a foot apart, for the leaves make quite large basal rosettes. I am using it in a blue and yellow planting to replace Salvia farinacea 'Victoria', which I can never get into flower early enough to justify the fuss of raising it.
Any statice plants left over can go with Rudbeckia 'Goldilocks' (Dobies, 89p), an exuberant double form of this orange-yellow daisy, commonly called black-eyed Susan. Because it is a double, the central cone is not as clear and prominent as it is in other varieties, but the shagginess is appealing.
Some rudbeckias that you grow from seed, such as 'Goldsturm', are more reliably perennial than 'Goldilocks', and if you are tring to persuade rudbeckias to flower in shade, the single 'Goldsturm', with long strappy petals, will perform better than any other variety. The soil needs to be moist, though, not starved. Treat 'Goldilocks' as an annual and sow now for plants that should flower in August. Then they will continue until the frosts.
The last petunia I grew was 'Lacy Sails' (Thompson & Morgan, pounds 2.19), a beautiful, veined flower that was a great success. This year I am trying 'Kaleidoscope Mixed' (Johnsons, pounds 2.05), a mixture of dark reds, pinks and purples, most of the flowers self-coloured. When you are pricking out seedlings of mixed colours, remember that the weediest ones often produce the most interestingly coloured flowers. This strain is taller than many petunias, which will not necessarily be an advantage if the summer is as wet as last year's. Optimism is an essential tool in the gardener's kit, though. Much more important than a strimmer. And quieter.
Penstemons have become very voguish plants. There was a time when you only ever saw 'Garnet' or 'Ruby', stalwarts of the August garden, flowering like shrunken foxgloves in shades of deep red, pink and pale mauveish blue. Now there are at least 100 named varieties, but they all need to be propagated by cuttings, taken in August, for they do not come true from seed.
You can, however, get seed mixtures of penstemons such as 'Skyline Mixed' (Suttons, pounds 1.25) that grow into bushy plants no more than about 18in tall. They are useful for filling gaps where other things have died. If you sow early enough, and grow the plants without a check, you can get them to flower the same year. Or you can treat them as biennials, sow them in early August, overwinter them in a cold greenhouse, and plant them out the following spring. That way they come into bloom earlier.
Stocks come from the same part of the rainbow as penstemons but have the huge extra advantage of smelling like a celestial Body Shop. They are a confusing family because they bob up under too many divisions: Park, Ten Week, East Lothian, Brompton, Regular, Mammoth, Night-scented. The ones I usually grow are the biennial Bromptons, which, like wallflowers, you sow in summer, to flower the following year.
This year I am splashing out with an early flowering annual stock called 'Apple Blossom' (Thompson & Morgan, pounds 1.99). It looks desperately wholesome: pink and white, as you would expect, fully double, heavily scented, about a foot tall. It affects me like Shirley Temple films: half of me goes 'Aaah. . . .', the other half goes 'Arrrrgh]' I must hope the first reaction is stronger than the second. At least the stock won't sing.
Stocks have been cultivated for almost as long as there have been gardeners. They are documented in the 11th-century gardens of Islam, they crop up in the illustrations in some of the earliest printed books in Europe, they appear on the famous Unicorn tapestries (woven in about AD 1500) that now hang in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The Italian agriculturist Agostino del Riccio had them growing in his courtyard garden in 1597. They survived through the anti- flower pogrom of the English landscape garden, and emerged triumphant into the High Victorian gardens of the 19th century, when they were used extensively both for cutting and for bedding out. Contemporary gardening books recommended them for 'flowerbeds and borders, for edgings, ribbons and pot culture'.
Victorian garden writers advise frequent applications of guano water for the best stocks. This was a fertiliser made from dissolving bird droppings in water. First find your guano, but the inference is clear. Stocks do best on good, rich, well-fed ground.
Finally, violas, or rather one viola, 'Baby Franjo' (Johnsons, pounds 1.45). For length of flowering, violas can scarcely be beaten, often singing away for seven months of the year. This variety is a rich golden yellow, with the small, elongated face of proper violas. Pansies are much moonier.
As with penstemons, you have a choice about when to sow. It can be now, the seed scattered thinly over the compost, or it can be in June, for flowering the following year. The hotter it gets, the more poorly the seeds germinate, but the summer sowing will give you plants that flower early in the year. I am going to do both, in the certain knowledge that Joshua, the most hopeless cat that ever cadged free board and lodging, will certainly make his bed on one lot.
Thompson & Morgan, Poplar Lane, Ipswich, Suffolk IP8 3BU (0473 688821). Samuel Dobie and Son Ltd, Broomhill Way, Torquay, Devon ETQ2 7QW (0803 616281). W W Johnson, London Road, Boston, Lincolnshire PE21 8AD (0205 365051). Suttons Seeds Ltd, Hele Road, Torquay, Devon TQ2 7QJ (0803 614614).Reuse content