My late-summer garden is easing itself over into autumn, with ripe tomatoes (three, finally) and lots of South African natives just coming into full bloom. But for some people I know with more conventional horticultural tastes, desperation is setting in. Gardens full of roses and lilies two months ago are now deserted wastelands, waiting for a jump-start into next spring. For these gardeners, the bulb and seed catalogues are the only consoling refuge.
The ordering of bulbs is a great autumn pick-me-up, getting you focused on the future rather than the dispiriting present. But now is also a good time to start work on what's going to flower alongside your bulbs. Some of the nicest plants for next spring can be positioned outdoors right now: Sweet Williams and wallflowers, proper old-English cottage flower power. These plants, started in the next few weeks, will establish themselves firmly and get straight to flowering early next year, when you really need it.
You can generally buy trays of these plants at garden centres for a fiver or so, making it straightforward to stuff your beds with plants. But growing from seed allows you a lot of choice over the varieties you grow, and hence the colours. This is particularly important with bedding, allowing you to plump for something tasteful rather than the local nursery's best granny window-box combinations.
Wallflowers can be gorgeous if you avoid the vomit-inducing colour combinations seen in local parks planting. The writer and broadcaster Sarah Raven picks out Erysimum cheiri "Fire King", which has the vivid deep-orange colouring of a canna lily, and will also bear beautiful scent next March (£1.95 a packet, www. sarahraven.com). Garden centres often sell bundles of wallflowers this time of year, bare-rooted, and you will need to get these in and planted as quickly as possible. But if you can, buy them by single colour, to make sure your colour scheme stays on track.
My favourite spring bedding plant, though (easily grown from seed) has to be the Sweet William. I love "Indian Carpet Mixed", with its sturdy stems and pretty range of pinks, but almost all of them possess the sweet clove fragrance which is their best asset. Planted now, they will form big clumps by early next year, and will flower alongside your alliums to form late-May bouquets. Home-grown plants tend to have longer, greener whiskery bits, too, which I really love about these flowers. Three plants squeezed into a sunny spot will produce proper-sized bunches of flowers, really making you feel like (next) summer's arrived.
Winning combinations: The country-garden look
Dianthus barbatus "Oeschberg" has burgundy-black foliage and deep reddy-pink flowers (£1.95 for 200 seeds, www.sarahraven.com). Or try the old-fashioned "Messenger" (£9.49 for 36 plug plants, www.thompson-morgan.com)
With a mild autumn, you should have time to grow these from seed (try "Vulcan", £1.95 for 400, www.sarahraven.com). Alternatively, try Wallflower "Bowles Mauve" for deep rosy pink plants (7.49 for five, www.thompson-morgan.com)
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