Old favourites such as sweet peas, marigolds, pansies and lobelias still dominate the list of top-selling flowers to grow from seed. But newcomers zoom in from time to time, like impatiens (busy lizzy), which now seems so bossily entrenched in catalogues, you dare not remind it that back in the Seventies, it scarcely existed as a garden pet.
Impatiens were a success because they didn't rebel when pulled about by seed breeders. In the wild, as I have seen them in Costa Rica, they make tall, rangy plants, the leaves and flowers well spaced out on lengths of fleshy stem. Busy lizzies offer two important benefits to gardeners: they flower as well in shade as in sun and they keep going all summer with the minimum of teabreaks. Snapdragons tend to run out of steam by midsummer, even if you do as you're told and cut off the main spike when it has finished flowering.
Impatiens also has the type of broad, largeish flower that breeders can deal with easily; though fiddly, hand pollinating is the first necessary step in producing new varieties. The initial aim was to reduce height. By shortening the internodes (the sections of bare stem between the leaves) breeders turned a two-foot plant into a six-inch one. There were plenty of gardeners who thought this a Good Thing. But because compactness is not a natural characteristic, impatiens sometimes rebels and grows twice as high as its catalogue description suggests. This is a cause for celebration not complaint, no matter what the Trades Description Act says.
Colour was the next target, pushing the original dirty pink towards blue in one direction and peach in the other. Gardeners like peach and this year Thompson & Morgan are launching a new impatiens called 'Envoy Peach Butterfly' (£2.49 for 30 seeds). At 30-35cm it is relatively tall (good) and they say it is particularly vigorous, a good choice for containers.
Unfortunately, seed of impatiens is not easy to germinate. You need to think tropical and keep growing conditions warm and humid. Use compost with added vermiculite to improve drainage. Fill a five-inch pot with the mixture before sowing seed as thinly as possible. This is best done in March. Cover the seed with a fine layer of compost and water the pot. Cover with clingfilm and then a sheet of card to keep out the light.
A highish temperature (21-24C) will encourage seeds to germinate and, if you've got the conditions right, you should see the first green wisps within two weeks. Take off the covers as soon as the seedlings appear and keep them warm (18C) as they grow on. When they are sturdy plantlets, shift them on into single three-inch pots and set them out at the end of May, when frost is no longer a danger.
You can avoid all this anguish by ordering ready grown small plants such as the best-selling Impatiens 'Accent' or the two new varieties offered by Mr Fothergill, Impatiens 'Dezire Mystique Mixed' or 'Dezire Sunrise Mixed'. All these are available at three stages of growth: fotherminis (150 plants for £10.95), fothermidis (66 plants for £9.95) or fothermaxis (28 plants for £9.45). Orders for minis and midis must be in by the beginning of March for despatch late March-early April. Get orders for the ready-to-plant maxis in by the begining of May for despatch mid to late May.
The easiest plants to grow from seed, especially if you are a beginner, are hardy annuals such as English marigolds (Calendula officinalis), love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) and poppies. You can be very casual with these. I use them to cover the ground where my species tulips grow. This is a south-facing slope covered, for the sake of the tulips, in gravel. Sometime during April, before the tulips have quite finished, I scatter seed of Californian poppy and love-in-a-mist straight on to the gravel. Plenty enough germinate to give a show all the way through summer.
One of the most successful hardy annuals in our garden last year was Nigella hispanica (Chiltern Seeds £1.90) which has much deeper flowers than ordinary love-in-a mist. They are purplish blue with a boss of reddish stamens at the centre. The seedpods are extravagantly wonderful, curving from an urn shape into eight horned tips. For the longest display of annuals such as these, sow again in September. Seedlings from this sowing will be well established by now and will come into flower earlier than your April sown seed.
Style queens may already have noticed that the must-have annuals of the moment are bishop's flower (Ammi majus) and the white lace flower (Orlaya grandiflora). Both were spectacularly well-used in show gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show last year and both have that boho, slightly wild look that works as well in a garden as it does in a vase. Ammi (Thompson & Morgan £1.59) has quite chunky foliage and heads of white flower like cow parsley. Like the best kind of aunt, it is at home in any company. I sowed it on 26 August last year and by autumn had fine, fat plants to set out together with lilies and tulips. This way, I'll get three flowerings from the same patch of ground, with the ammi filling in the months between the spring tulips and the lilies of high summer.
I sowed orlaya (Thompson and Morgan £1.79) at the same time and in the same way, setting the seeds in a five-inch pot and letting them grow on together before pricking them out singly into three-inch pots. This extra attention means that, by late October, you get really well-rooted plants to put into the ground. Autumn-sown plants tend to grow taller than spring ones. At 60cm, orlaya is shorter than ammi (100cm) so you need to use it further forward in a border. The heads of white flower are differently made, flattish still but with several big pouting petals arranged among the froth of smaller ones.
From a spring sowing, you can expect flowers after three months and, outside, they'll look good for the next two months or so. You can use them as cut flowers too, though they won't last more than a week or so in a vase. But seed is cheap and the flowers are easy to grow. Sow a row of ammi or orlaya among the vegetables, and use those for cutting. That way, you don't have to rob the garden..........
Thompson & Morgan, Poplar Lane, Ipswich, Suffolk IP8 3BU, tel: 01473 695225, fax: 01473 680199, www.thompson-morgan.com; Mr Fothergill's Seeds, Kentford, Suffolk CB8 7QB, tel: 08451 662511, fax: 08451 662522, www.mr-fothergills.co.uk; Chiltern Seeds, Bortree Stile, Ulverston, Cumbria LA12 7PB, tel: 01229 581137, fax: 01229 584549, www.chilternseeds.co.ukReuse content