Sowing the seeds of warmth

It may be icy outside, but all is sweetness and light in the seed catalogues. By Anna Pavord
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Primroses are blooming everywhere in the garden, with patches of blue Cowichan primulas raised from a strain of Barnhaven seed. There are still flowers on a dotty red `Ernest Markham' clematis that has forgotten to check the date on its calendar, and the April-flowering ceanothus `Trewithen Blue' on the west wall is in full bloom. Doubtless it will end in tears, but if plants are prepared to be optimistic, so am I.

When optimism is in the air, seed catalogues are at their most seductive. Seed merchants do not make their fortunes by telling you how difficult certain things are to grow well. In the pages of their catalogues, all is sweetness and light. Glorious, choice, exquisite, outstanding, lovely, showy and distinctive are the adjectives they reach for. So, increasingly, is "dwarf". As we are not getting any closer to the ground ourselves, this is a perverse trend, and I hope it will not go too far. It cannot be more satisfactory to have three squash-faced, miniaturised plants where one decent-sized one will do the job rather more elegantly.

Sweetpeas are always on my shopping list and there are some stunning old varieties still available. `Wiltshire Ripple' (Thompson & Morgan, pounds 1.59) is one of my favourites, with white flowers veined and very finely edged with plum. Last season I grew one of the most strongly scented of the old varieties, `Matucana' (T&M, pounds 1.69). It's two shades of purple, the wings slightly darker than the centre. It was introduced into this country around 1700 by a Sicilian monk.

The old varieties don't flower with the same vigour as the modern sweetpeas, nor are their flowers so big. But the scent is often stronger and the colouring more intriguing. If you want to pick masses each week, you should include a modern variety such as the unbeatable pale blue `Charlie's Angel' (Unwins, pounds 1.79) - ruffled, scented, abundant and easy.

The people who name sweetpeas have a curious obsession with TV stars. `Terry Wogan' (pink on a cream ground) has been around a long time; `Esther Rantzen' seems to have disappeared. New this year is `Anthea Turner', described as "a very gorgeous combination of candy pink on a creamy-white background, coupled with a wonderful perfume. A good all-round performer." Or maybe you'd prefer the royal family? `Black Prince', `Diana', `Royal Wedding', `Royal Baby' and `Camilla' are all available from Unwins.

Sweetpeas are difficult to work into general planting schemes, and I generally grow them among the vegetables. I had enough this year to cover a couple of hazel wigwams, too, to decorate the raspberry patch. Sweet peas easily scramble up such supports, though you get the best flowers, with the longest stems, if you train them as cordons on bamboo canes and pinch out all their tendrils.

The star annual of last summer's garden was Polygonum orientale or prince's feather (Chiltern, pounds 1.32). It grew at an astonishing rate once it had been planted out, and made a tall (6-8ft) branched, hairy plant with pointed leaves and great tassels of drooping, bright rose-pink flowers. Think of the clustered, poker arrangement of the flowering stem of an ordinary herbaceous polygonum, loosen it and turn it upside down. It still wouldn't be as elegant as this annual bistort. Actually, it grew around a variegated aralia, among equally imposing spikes of the tall white tobacco flower, Nicotiana sylvestris. If you are lucky, it may self-seed. I'm not chancing that, and will raise more plants inside to set out in May.

I didn't grow asters last year, and I missed them. This is one family where short stems are an advantage. Tall asters are often so top-heavy, they collapse unless you stake them. But staked asters look as uncomfortable as guardsmen in too-tight collars, so I'm going for `Comet Improved Mixed' (Mr Fothergill's, pounds 1.45). It's less than 1ft tall, early into flower, resistant to wilt (good, if it really is) and seems to come from a good mix of colours.

Sow the seed inside in late March. It will take from one to three weeks to germinate. Transplant the seedlings into trays and grow them on under cover until you can harden them off, ready for planting out in May. Use them with clary, blue sea lavender and steely-leaved argyranthemums.

Eschscholzia, or Californian poppy, needs to be scattered direct where you want the flowers to grow. This sounds simple, labour-saving even - less daunting than the mumbo-jumbo about pricking out, hardening off and the rest that dogs gardeners new to the business of seed-sowing.

But it works better in light soil than heavy and it doesn't work at all where there are cats or chickens, unless you net over the patch you have sown. The soil needs to be well raked and bashed down to a fine tilth. The best Californian poppies, I find, are the ones that seed themselves. But you have to start somewhere. Try Eschscholzia lobbii `Moonlight' (95p) new in Mr Fothergill's catalogue this year. It is pale lemon yellow, rather than the bright orange of the standard variety. Full sun and dryish soil will give the best results.

Squashes and gourds are much in fashion at the moment and are blessedly easy to grow. Last year I grew the ornamental `Turk's Turban' gourd (Thompson & Morgan, pounds 1.99). The fruits are sitting in a row on the window ledge in the sitting room, striped and mottled in yellow, orange, cream and green. I sowed seeds inside on 14 April, one to a 3in pot, and covered them with cling film until the seeds germinated. I set them outside at the same time as I planted out the courgettes. The gourds went in the cold frame, though, with the aubergines. Thompson & Morgan has five different kinds on offer, including the large bottle gourd (pounds 1.59).

Venidiums, variegated nasturtiums, tobacco flowers and the blue-trumpeted morning glory were among the annual flowers I recommended this time last year. Anne Dodd of Abingdon thought she would try them, and had mixed success. "The venidiums `Zulu Prince' were a great disappointment," she writes. "They flopped and sulked in a spindly way." Her nasturtiums `Jewel of Africa' were "consumed by blackfly, except for one plant which has been a delight of variegated leaves and yellow flowers all summer". The tobacco flowers were "a triumph", except that they didn't have any smell.

But the real reason she got in touch was to heap the kind of praises on morning glory that even catalogue writers scarcely dare attempt. Mrs Dodd trained them up a wigwam of thin canes stuck into a large terracotta pot. The seedlings did their usual teenagery sulk, then "we opened the curtains one morning in late August to see dozens of heavenly blue trumpets clustered quite thickly up the canes". By September they were at full throttle. "The riot of morning glory more than redeemed the failures," she says. That's the brilliant thing about gardening. There are few seasons when there isn't some triumph to wipe out the little local difficulties.

Thompson & Morgan, Poplar Lane, Ipswich, Suffolk IP8 3BU (01473 688821); Unwins, Histon, Cambridge CB4 4ZZ (01945 588522); Chiltern Seeds, Bortree Stile, Ulverston, Cumbria LA12 7PB (01229 581137); Mr Fothergill's, Kentford, Newmarket, Suffolk CB8 7QB (01638 751887)