Early to bed
From snapdragons to honeywort, some seeds thrive when sown early in the year – here’s where to get them
At this time of year I always get a rush of blood to the head and decide it’s time to start buying seeds. With the days getting longer, snowdrops popping up everywhere and the odd sunny day, it’s all too easy to convince yourself that spring is on the way.
It’s not completely mad, because most seeds will do much better if sown in March or April when there’s more daylight and warmer temperatures – and some plants really do need to be started off early in the year if they are to be in flower by summer. Sow a few seeds to a pot and give them as much light as you can – whether on a sunny windowsill or in a heated propagator – and they will thrive.
Now is the time to buy those seeds which need a long growing period before flowering, and you can sow them any time in the next few weeks. Several of my favourite exotic-looking flowers fall into this category. The cup and saucer vine, Cobaea scandens (from £1.95, chilternseeds. co.uk), is a delightful climber that looks a bit like a Canterbury bell. The flowers come in purple or white, and it will race up to 4.5m (15ft) in a season. It starts flowering in later summer and in sheltered areas will keep going well into winter.
Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’, also known as honeywort (£ 2.89, mr- fothergills. co. uk), has smoky grey leaves and nodding purple flow- ers. If sown indoors with some gentle heat, it will be in flower by midsummer and will go on for many weeks. Another unusual annual is the spider flower, cleome, with its clusters of airy blooms and unexpectedly thorny stems. Choose from white Cleome spinosa ‘Helen Campbell’ or purple ‘Violet Queen’ ( both £1.95, higgledygarden.com).
Two dramatic orange beauties both need an early start to coax them into flower by summer. Tithonia rotundifolia ‘Torch’ (£1.95, higgledygarden. com) has striking velvety flowers that look like a cross between a marigold and a dahlia. Start tithonias off now in gentle heat and they’ll be in f lower by July. Leonotis leonorus (£ 2.65, chilternseeds. co.uk), also known as lion’s ear or the staircase plant, is a striking plant which will grow up to 1.8m (6ft) in a season. Once there’s no more risk of frost, this South African native needs to be planted out in a very sunny spot.
A few cottage garden favourites also need an early start if grown from seeds. Snapdragons, or antirrhinums, are widely available as young plants in summer, but if you want a specific colour or variety it’s worth growing your own. Two choice varieties are white ‘Royal Bride’ (£2.99, thompson-morgan.com) and ‘Night & Day’, which is velvety crimson tipped with white (£1.55, chilternseeds.co.uk).
Larkspur (from £1.95, higgledy garden. com) is an annual version of delph inium that’s smaller but less prone to slug attacks. The seeds wi l l germi nate best if they’re kept in the fridge for a couple of weeks before you sow them. Start them off in February or March in seed trays. Plant them outside once they’re a few inches high, and they’ll be in flower around 15 weeks later.
Main image: Tithonia rotundifolia ‘Torch’. Above: Cobaea scandens. Right: cleome ‘Helen Campbell’