Fringe benefits: The appeal of Sweet William

No, I don't want pansies or primulas. All I want are some Sweet William seedlings, says Emma Townshend. And if I don't get them? I'll scream and scream...

Sunday 31 October 2010 00:00 BST

This week I have been on a Sweet William hunt. I hadn't imagined this kind of military operation would be necessary. Sweet William is one of those old-fashioned flowers: tall, vivid green stems topped with fringed petals in patchwork colours, dark tapestry rubies, fuchsia and white. Best of all, they are intensely fragrant, with a delicious, rich perfume. For all these reasons, you can often buy a bunch in late spring for a few quid and brighten up an entire week. Laying your hands on seedlings to plant right now, however, is another story.

My first stop was my local DIY store. As is customary, the prices are low, but the staff are difficult to locate. Well, not difficult to find someone, but difficult to find someone who knows anything about gardening. Eventually I discover two blokes doing some watering, hidden behind the winter bedding. Don't ask me why it takes two blokes, but apparently it does. "Sweet Williams?" one says, kindly, but a bit bewildered. "We've not had them for years."

Wallflowers, then, I reply. You must have some wallflowers. After all, wallflowers do the same job as Sweet William, sitting neatly between spring bulbs, but flowering even earlier: colours from a medieval enamel, golds and yellows (except for one vomit-like colour which must be avoided), and heady perfume. But: "Oh no, we haven't done wallflowers for a few years now." Yet they have acres of pansies – with no scent – reduced to 50p a tray, and those slightly yucky parks department primulas whose worth I have yet to comprehend. Tons of winter bedding that doesn't do as good a job as what I'm seeking.

I suppose their stock has flowers on it now, and is thus more saleable – Sweet William won't have their buds until the tulips are almost over – yet there are trays and trays of a very close relative, winter-flowering Dianthus, which has similar fringed, fragrant flowers, only not as good.

I roll my eyeballs, suck up a tenner's worth of slow-release bulb food, entertain the baby trying to work the self-service check-out, and leave to look elsewhere. It turns out none of the DIY stores has Sweet William or wallflowers. I'm aware that wallflowers are mainly sold in disgusting straggly bunches that look like they are already a bit dead, but you only need to plant them once to understand that these are the fighters of the plant world. Stick one of their dried-looking stems into the soil and behold! Months of delight!

In the end, it is Wyevale that comes to the rescue. This middle-market garden-centre chain tries hard to cater to real gardeners, so despite having tropical fish tanks and Christmas decorations, the shop also has a proper selection of Sweet William and wallflowers. You can even – bliss! – pick the wallflowers by colour, which means I can avoid the pitfalls of vomit yellow.

Sweet essentials

Which to buy?

Sweet William "Fragrant Fever" has good scent, with lots of deep dark velvety reds as well as candy pink. They'll eventually be almost a metre tall. 70 large plug plants are £11.99 from – that's about 17p a plant, though you may have to offload some to neighbours...

Where to put them?

They'll flower best in a sunny spot, and the one soil they won't go for is chalk. Just don't overfeed them, or you'll be out there with the bamboo canes trying to prop them up later.

What to put with them?

They look great interplanted with bright sky-blue Nigella, "Love-in-a-Mist", which is easily (and I really mean easily) grown from seed; "Miss Jekyll" are £1.99 from I like them with Nectaroscordum – elegant stems with drooping flowers (£5.95 for 15 bulbs, also from Suttons)

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