I have recently driven to Penrith with George Orwell, been on a trip to East Anglia with Julian Barnes and whiled away some time in London with EF Benson. Talking books, since I discovered a public library with a vast stock of unabridged editions, have revolutionised my life. Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London was so riveting, I missed my exit and had to make a 40-mile detour to get back on track.
Choosing the right tapes is of course crucial. You are allowed three so there is room for one flier that you don't know much about. 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 flower seeds that I will start to sow this week, I see that the same principles have guided my choices there too. There are the bankers: nasturtium, nigella, cornflower, marigolds, nicotiana. There are a few fliers such as the annual Bupleurum rotundifolium 'Griffithii' or B. griffithii 'Décor' (Chiltern Seeds £2.10) which grows to about 50cm (20in). It provides the kind of greenery-yallery cowparsleyish flowerheads that are such a gift when you are looking for stuff to bulk up a bunch of snapdragons or larkspur. There are one or two oughts such as the annual grass Agrostis nebulosa (Chiltern Seeds £1.50) which produces sheaves of elegant stems studded with tiny spikelets. It looks a bit like those fibre optic desk ornaments that used to be all the rage.
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, then you find the goal posts have been moved and you are left holding yesterday's plant. There is a type of gardener for whom scarceness is the only criterion of a plant's worth. They will not be growing the cornflower Centaurea cyanus 'Blue Diadem' (Thompson & Morgan £2.19) which gave one of the best shows in the garden last year. For really robust plants, you can sow under cover in March. The seed will take 10-14 days to germinate. When the seedlings are well developed (a cold frame or greenhouse is better than a windowsill at this stage) you need to prick the seedlings out into 8cm (3in) pots, grow them on and finally plant them out where you want them to flower. They are generally in bloom by midsummer and then stand in excellent condition through to September.
This year, I'll have an even earlier crop, as I sowed cornflower seed in early September last year and pricked out the seedlings in autumn. They grew so fast, I had to shift them from 8cm (3in) pots in to 11cm (4in) ones, where they are now, roots sneaking out of the bottom of the pots again. They've spent the whole of this winter in a cold frame, unconcerned by the plummeting temperature.
You could treat pot marigolds in the same way (I'm growing Calendula 'Touch of Red', Thompson & Morgan £2.09) but not the Californian poppy (Eschscholzia). Plants with carrot-like tap roots as the Californian poppy has, don't transplant easily. They are best sown direct where they are to flower. I'm growing Eschscholzia californica 'Jelly Beans' (Thompson & Morgan £1.99), a mix of papery double flowers in creamy, orangey, apricot shades. I grew it last year and it was gorgeous, though double flowers of course are politically incorrect, according to the eco-police.
For sowing direct, it's best to wait until the ground has warmed up. But tobacco flowers can be sown inside now. I was given some seedlings of Nicotiana mutabilis last season and, planted out at the end of May, they grew into stupendous plants, flowering non-stop until the first frosts.
Our plants were 120-150cm (4-5ft) tall, very sturdy, too coarsely-leaved, as all tobacco flowers are, but amazing plants in terms of filling up space. Chiltern Seeds have N. mutabilis (£2.59) and seed needs to be sown as thinly as possible on the surface of a pot of compost. Do not cover it, as light helps seed germinate. Seal the pot in a polythene bag until the seed begins to sprout, which it should do in 1-3 weeks. Grow the seedlings on, giving them as much light as possible, before pricking them out into individual pots. Nicotianas are only half hardy, so can't go out until all danger of frost has passed.
One important advantage of growing from seed is that (as with N. mutabilis) you can fill your garden with flowers that no garden centre or street market will supply. But conversely, I no longer grow flowers such as petunias or lobelias from seed. These can be bought in so easily – and reasonably – as bedding plants in May.
But seed sowing is an essential rite of passage for a gardener. For years, as a novice, I felt it was all too complicated to get into. When my father-in-law died, my supply of custom-grown plants dried up and I was forced to raise my own seedlings. They grew successfully and my pride was even greater than when I produced my first decent soufflé. Optimism is an essential tool in the gardener's kit. Much more important than a strimmer. And quieter.
But if you are a novice it's best perhaps to start with things that are easy to grow from seed. The gorgeous white Ammi majus is one. So are cornflowers, English marigolds, and the beautiful glaucous-leaved Cerinthe major 'Purpurascens'. Californian poppies are as simple as mustard and cress. So are sunflowers, with the seed sown one to a 7cm (3in) pot. I grow all these annuals every year, because as well as being easy, they are terrific flowers to have in a garden.
I'm also mad about spider flowers, specifically the white Cleome spinosa 'Helen Campbell' (Thompson & Morgan £1.99) but that is not easy, more's the pity. The plants get tall, up to 120cm (4ft) or more with big rounded heads of flower, each one with the drooping stamens that give the flower its spidery look. It's an annual that looks more like a perennial and it flowers for months until cold weather descends, the display kept going by flowers that push out from side growths, once the top boss begins to fade.
With cleomes, germination is usually described as "erratic" because the seeds need a hot/cold regime. Hot days and cold nights may be what they are used to in South America, but are more difficult to provide in Britain in February. If we have sun, unheated greenhouses may provide the necessary fluctuation in temperature. Otherwise, a propagator during the day followed by a chilly windowsill at night may do the trick.
Chiltern Seeds, Bortree Stile, Ulverston, Cumbria LA12 7PB, 01229 581137, chilternseeds.co.uk; Thompson & Morgan, Poplar Lane, Ipswich, Suffolk IP8 3BU, 01473 688821, thompson-morgan.comReuse content