Ordering seeds the right way

Ursula Cholmeley explains the ABC's of ordering seeds.

Although all the seed companies have websites these days, I love working with hard copies of seed catalogues, as I think all gardeners do. We like using the sense of touch (especially when weeding), so even the feel of the paper adds to the pleasure. Brightly coloured catalogues are strewn across Steve’s desk in the shed and my sofa in the office. Occasionally, they come together.

His catalogues bear the muddy pawprints of an active gardener and mine are filled with strange hieroglyphics that I will need to decipher and put into a spread-sheet listing sowing times and intended destinations. The selection on offer can be overwhelming, but it does get easier each season and much can be achieved while sitting by a warm fire.

Our February order includes quick-growing vegetables and fillers for the borders, but also a number of the tall, elegant annuals we grow for cutting. As well as providing masses of flowers in the coming summer, many could be included in a mixed border; most of them, despite their height, need very little staking if planted closely together in a sheltered spot.

Inevitably, the plants beginning with A at the start of the catalogue get the most attention. By the time we reach S, we have to steel ourselves to care because all the new combinations we wanted to try (blue, early flowering, daisy shapes and so on) have been spoken for earlier in the alphabet.

I’m a big fan of the tall Ageratums. Their fluffy clusters of flowers are excellent in arrangements and we devote a whole area of the Pickery to them. Reaching 18in, they are robust, don’t need staking and, so far, have proved completely disease-free. The old favourite A. houstonianum Timeless Mixed spans a range of purples, whites and pinks. Suttons Seeds (www.suttons.co.uk) has it and Chiltern Seeds (www.chilternseeds.co.uk) offers a number of F1 hybrids in single colours, which can be more useful for planning borders.

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Love-lies-bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus), with long, slightly mad, tassels of amaranth red, is particularly good arranged with lime-green and white flowers. Sow undercover now and put outside after the frosts. We line ours along the front of the bed where visitors can’t resist running their hands down the long inflorescences.

Further into the catalogue, Cosmos cultivars are essential. For preference, I look for the varieties that say ‘early flowering’ this is a useful attribute if you live in an area where the season can end with an early frost.

For adding weight and a good shot of bright green to a cut-flower display, Moluccella laevis or Bells of Ireland is invaluable and it can be sown undercover now. By high summer, the rows of green calyces that surround its tiny flowers are covering the 2ft–3ft-tall stems, rather in the manner of a foxglove. Moluccella seeds need light to germinate, so just allow them to sit on the surface of the soil.

For more green, white and pale-pink floral infusions, many members of the Nicotiana genus are excellent, with the additional attributes of scent, poise and a surprisingly long vase life.

Rudbeckias and zinnias are essential late-summer flowers in the Pickery and both can be ordered now, although the zinnias are best left in the packet until May. Sow undercover and make sure they go into warm soil and they will give great results. Both these plants last for ages in water. Try Rudbeckia Rustic Dwarfs Mixed (not very dwarf) and the Benary series of zinnias for the biggest flowers.

Arriving at Z should be the end of it, but the stars in a bouquet are often bulbous plants, so we still have the spring bulb catalogues to search through. Most of our dahlias are still in their winter storage, but we may order one or two more now to add to the collection. And then there are lilies, nerines, gladioli and their relations to consider on another day.

Meanwhile, it’s time to leave the fireside to sow and pot up; by summer, our gardens will be full of vigorous plants for beautiful flower arrangements.

Ursula Cholmeley owns Easton Walled Gardens, Grantham, Lincolnshire (01476 530063; www.eastonwalledgardens.co.uk). The Pickery or cut-flower garden supplies the shop and visitor areas with flower arrangements all season.