Overcome its faults and you’re sure to say Olé to zestful basil

BASIL! BASIL! No, it’s not about the barmy, bigoted boss of Fawlty Towers fame but of Ocimum basilicum, the aroma-rich, ubiquitous herb that’s as tangy to the tongue as one of Sybil Fawlty’s temper tantrums is to the ear.

Gourmets will insist a tomato or pasta-based dish without the bouquet and flavour of basil is not worth savouring.

It’s strictly a tender annual and there are several sorts, including the Mexican Cinnamon basil, the compact Greek basil that reaches just 9in with white flowers, a Dark Opal basil with pinky-mauve tubes, a Thai basil known as Horapha Nanum which bears purple blooms, a Siam Queen basil with mulberry coloured bracts, Ocimum tenuiflorum, the Holy Basil with mauve, tubular flowers, lime and lemon basil, bush basil, lettuce leaved basil, and our own sweet basil producing white tubes and oval, pointed leaves which smell gorgeous when crushed.

Now a newcomer joins the basil brigade – Spicy Sabre (pictured) – presented by the Burpee Europe team for 2023 and hailed by them as “superb in its serration and sublime in its spiciness”.

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Burpee Europe: 'Spicy Sabre'

Burpee’s UK press officer Francijn Suermondt says poetically of this debutante herb: “Bright green and pungently keen, the unique serrated basil leaves truly are a sight to behold.

“Flavour-wise, tongues will be tantalisingly satisfied with the distinct spicy note of the leaves, which are perfect for Asian dishes.”

Spicy Sabre, adds Fran, remains bushy and productive late into the season and is an annual that the pollinators love – as well as being a great container variety.

It will perform at its best in full sunlight, reaches 22in in height, 60in in spread and will mature in around 75 days from sowing.

I’m told by Burpee that seeds are available now from Pennard Plants, of Somerset (pennardplants.com), with additional suppliers arriving soon.

I have heard reports that basil seed germination can be “picky,” especially if sown too early. So it’s best to be patient and delay sowing until mid-April which will reduce the risk of the plantlets damping off and collapsing,

Cover the seeds very lightly, choose a specific compost rather than multi-purpose and mix in a little horticultural sharp sand. And, most important, do not overwater and do not under-water as both can lead to disastrous outcomes. The secret: Keep a watchful eye and don’t allow the seedlings to catch a chill as they are half-hardy annuals, not fully hardy.

If grown in greenhouse or on window sill, move the plants to the warmth and sunshine of outside, either in a container or a herb bed, once they are strong enough to fend for themselves.

Up to a point, basil – like Mr Fawlty – can be a challenge for the inexperienced  . . . so don’t forget to employ “Manuel” dexterity to ensure you don’t get beaten by this tastebud-tingling herb.

In other words, don’t give basil the brush-off !

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Prim and perky, these beauties will create a multi-coloured breath of spring . . . and even into summer

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FILLING a blog with umpteen words on the primula family would not be so difficult, given the size of the genus, the diversity of flowers and the sheer joy they bring.

However keen you are on these multi-coloured beauties, I would wager a few bags of multi-purpose that you don’t wish to wade through a “bloglopedia” of information, so here’s a version that’s good and concise and sticking to those more “front page” details.

Actually, it was while taking a wander around St John’s Garden in Barnstaple, Devon, at the weekend that I gazed on a fabulous display of primroses and polyanthus for sale and decided to snap a few up-close . . .  and duly caught some very pretty faces.

Few popular plants boast such a huge colour range as the primula clan – more than 400 species, no less, and a vast array of named hybrids.

If there is a downside it’s the challenge they bring to seeing them through a second and subsequent seasons.

I know this from bitter experience and have realised over the years that, despite all the care and safeguarding I’ve attempted when the flowers fade, there’s no guarantee the plants will eventually start shooting again. That’s the rub – they vanish underground, clearly not wishing to mix with summer annuals and perennials!

Among my favourites are the candelabras – Primulas bulleyana, beesiana, pulverulenta, helodoxa et al – which bring tiers to the eyes (sorry about that!) in the shape of whorls down the stem in early summer, relishing life in moist, acid soil, dappled shade and, if possible, freedom from slugs. Their height ranges from 12in to 36in which gives bags of scope as to where in the garden they should be positioned.

Their earlier-to-bloom relatives include primroses in a rainbow range of shades including the irresistible butter-yellow, occasional pink and much-adored common primrose, Primula vulgaris, the cowslip and similar but rarer oxlip, the polyanthus which differ from traditional primroses in having flower clusters at the top of each stem, the gorgeous Primula vialii with lilac flowers in early summer and a shape resembling mini-red hot pokers, and auriculas, the “posh” primroses, better suited to greenhouse culture and emerging in a dynamic swathe of colours which even include a striking mid-green and thick white “paste” around the petals.

Be warned, though, once you become an “auriculaphile” you’ll have a job to let go. I was one once and now, many years on, I’ve ordered a few young plants in random colours for old times’ sake. Watch this space!

As for those oh-so-friendly primroses, you’ve got a bewildering choice of colour and form. Search out the dainty gold and silver laced sorts, Primula sibthorpii with single lavender blooms, the veteran variety Lady Greer resembling a mini-polyanthus, Port Wine in deep, velvety crimson and, in contrast, the double white Alba Plena which will team up supremely with “hot” colours.

So go out, search out the massed displays, compare prices and hues and later enjoy a dose of planting, always remembering to mark the spot with an identifying label, provide a handful of fine grit around each plant, and never ignore the potential problems of coaxing them back to show off their good looks 12 months hence.

Primrose perfection: Top six pictures – some of the contrasting primroses at St John’s Garden Centre; above left – a stunning selection of candelabra primulas; right – Primula prolifera in a sunshine yellow.

If you feel adventurous enough, try raising plants from seed. Not always easy, though seed responds well to three or four weeks stored in the fridge – not freezer – to help them break dormancy. Then sow in a seed tray in the greenhouse or on window sill and do be patient as seedlings can be notoriously erratic before they start behaving themselves and grow steadily.

You’ll find plenty of specialist suppliers online and, if you can overcome a fear of failure, the rewards can be immense and the savings considerable.

Just beware of those auriculas!

Bright, bold and dinky: A rich red newbie joins the ‘funflower’ flock

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ELIANTHUS ANNUUS – commonly known as the sunflower – is a fun flower whichever way you look at it and whatever height they aspire to.

Whether you sow skyscraper contenders that can top 12ft-14ft or “tiddlers” of 15in such as Teddy Bear or Pacino, these universal favourites will be admired by adult gardeners and adored by the kids.

Sticking with the compacts, I have news of the Burpee Europe team’s Fleuroselect gold medal-winning sunflower Desire Red which sticks around no taller than 20in to 22in.

Such awards are not dished out lightly, as scores take into account outstanding innovation, beauty and garden performance.

Burpee hail their newbie as a “truly stunning breakthrough” in sunflower breeding – the first compact red variety that’s perfect for planting or sowing in both beds and borders, as well as in larger patio containers or even smaller pots.

Flowering time on its multiple branches can be between six to eight weeks and has had proven performances from Sweden to Southern Italy in Fleuroselect trials.

Team up Desire Red with Sunray or Tiger – both Burpee-bred – for extra impact and the addition of a deep red to the helianthus palette.

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Seeds are available from Suffolk-based Plants of Distinction (plantsofdistinction.co.uk/01449 721720), with other seed stockists coming on board soon to buy from garden centre or store.

Sunflowers are so-named because they are heliotropic – from the Greek helios, the sun – turning flowers and leaves to track the movement of the sun across the sky to ripen the host of seeds studded into the giant heads.

When tens of thousands of these shaggy heads are seen in serried ranks in commercial fields, they create a striking sight.

Their colours stretch from deep red, rust, yellow, gold, ochre, cream to almost white, so scour the seed displays and take your choice.

When young children are in the frame, take a chance and buy tall and taller as youngsters love to watch the stem overtake their own height as it heads for the heavens.

Interestingly, if you regularly use sunflower seeds to feed the wild birds, pick out a few and sow in pots. You’ll discover, surprisingly perhaps, these random seeds will soar to a decent height, often 8ft-10ft.

As for the world record, this title is held by Hans-Peter Schiffer, from Karst in Germany, whose monster hit a staggering 30ft 1in in 2016, despite being bashed by thunderstorms and hailstones which damaged the leaves but which couldn’t halt the defiant super-plant which simply kept growing.

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Top – Bee happy as a busy bumble lands on a Desire Red sunflower in search of nectar; centre – a cluster of the new variety showing off its striking shade; above – intrepid sunflower grower Hans-Peter Schiffer ascends the ladder to check out his 30ft 1in world beater in Germany.

Which is preferable, sowing direct or, firstly, in pots on window sill or greenhouse? Most advisers seem to suggest the former, but the risks are always there from slugs, snails, woodlice and bad weather. So I always sow ’em safe and plant out later, always remembering to scatter handfuls of anti-slug grit around the stems and to hammer in the stakes when they start growing away.

Many of our feathered friends depend on sunflower seeds to sustain them through the lean winter months. Don’t always rely on home-grown plants to provide winter warmers as seed setting may be disappointing and often the flower heads become soft and mushy in the rain. I use the Hampshire-based Really Wild Birdfood Co  (01489 896785) and have just ordered a sackful of sunflower hearts as a change from mixed seed.

Stay in focus for the crocus – and take a two-charity whirl at Worlington

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UNDAYS in late February and early March wouldn’t be the same without a bracing tour of the crocuses of East Worlington.

Over the past ten years, the North Devon village has gained a reputation for laying on a dazzling carpet of crocuses and, at the same time, raising funds on two fronts.

The spectacle unfolds at historic East Worlington House, where visitors can wander over the two-acre gardens, as well as taking a ramble across nearly 40 acres of walkways, down to the Little Dart river, across the bridge, into a winter-dormant wildflower meadow and join public footpaths in the woods.

Thousands of purple crocuses have spread over many years through the garden and into the neighbouring churchyard, so you can admire the flowers – early daffodils, hellebores and various shrubs – as well as stopping to breathe in the gorgeous views down the valley to the river.

The two beneficiaries from the two open Sundays – February 26th and March 5th, 1.30-5pm – are the National Garden Scheme’s caring charities and East Worlington parish hall – a Grade 2 thatched barn – which, conveniently, is right next door to the garden and perfectly placed for post-crocus refuelling purposes.

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The NGS gains from entry fees and the hall from the sale of all things edible and drinkable, from warming cuppas to slices of lemon drizzle cake and other cream-tea goodies.

The house dates from as far back as 1470 – originally just a one-up, one-downer – before it expanded into a farmhouse, a rectory and finally sold by the Church to private buyers.

Owner Campie Hurst-Bannister was inspired to follow the example of her parents who undertook a similar charity pursuit in Kent for 40 years.

Between them, Campie and husband Barnabas, who moved to the village 17 years ago, have raised more than £16,000 for the two groups – just under £8,500 for NGS and around £8,000 for the hall. “It has been a brilliant money-spinner for our parish hall,” says Campie. “It has now been modernised, is much admired and is very much the hub of the community.”

She says: “We are one of the first places to open in the spring for the NGS. A lot of people feel they have been cooped up in the winter so even if they don’t walk far here it’s still a day out for them. If it brings people out after a long and dreary winter that can only be a good thing.”

That, she adds, was especially the case after the enforced cancellations because of covid.

“It doesn’t matter about seeing a muddy garden, but having a delicious tea in a pretty and warm hall with friends is far more important! Unfortunately, Barnabas and I have to be outside for the whole time so we practically die from the cold!”

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Cracking crocuses: Top, centre and above – three shots of the vibrant crocuses at East Worlington which will welcome visitors at the end of February and in early March – all for charity.

Make a date: Crocus spectacles – Sunday, February 26th, and Sunday, March 5th, 1.30-5pm. Admission £5, children free, dogs on leads. Phone 01884 860332 for any queries.

Crocus chronicle: Crocuses are extremely hardy and will survive in temperatures as low as -15degC. They grow from bulbs, botanically corms, and are among the toughest cookies of the springtime favourites.

Planting time is just about over for now, though if you spot a price-slashed bargain do grab it as you never know your luck for flowering this year, even at this late-late date. There are plenty of species and hybrids out there, including those that bloom in the autumn such as Crocus sativus and speciosus.

Don’t plant them too shallowly as mice or squirrels are sure to sniff ’em out, dig them up and – with squirrels – re-bury those bulbs they don’t eat, often in lawns. Those they forget about will probably flower normally between January and March and turn the lawn into a pretty picture.

Do take advantage of a great range of colours, from yellow, pink and purple and many with stripes and splashes, and a good span of heights and bloom sizes, notably those in the showy vernus clan such as the purple and white-flowered Pickwick, the white Jeanne d’Arc and deep rose Queen of the Blues.

And remember – for versatility, plant crocuses wherever you wish, from under trees and shrubs to edge of beds, in small pots or window boxes. When the show is over, just allow them to fade away naturally without cutting out flowers or foliage.

They’ll be back next spring, barring those excitable squirrels!

Lawn order! Those critter capers on the grass sure make an arresting sight

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OUR LAWN is a perfect entertainment arena – an equally perfect antidote against so many days of winter weather woes.

It’s a stadium for our very own clan of grey squirrels who descend from our sycamores and oaks, make a beeline for the bird feeders, only to realise that they’ve at last been thwarted by a couple of toughened plastic domes which I attached to the main feeding station stem.

They don’t take defeat too easily. Which is why they scuttle to and fro in frenetic dashes, clearly irritated that their cleverly contrived plans to raid the bird seed and peanuts have been scuppered by . . . human beings, of all things!

That said, one of the greys showed off his derring-do the other day, climbed onto the roof of the summer house and launched himself into a sensational leap of faith which could have proved rather painful had his aim not been spot-on.

But he made it and, after I gave him a round of applause, I defiantly moved the wrought iron stem a couple of feet further away from his “clifftop” vantage point.

I refused to be outwitted. And he’s not tried his luck since. But let me add that to keep the squirrels content I regularly top up the peanuts and suet by scattering the goodies across the lawn. I never object to them feeding on the ground, but to have them gobbling up what is ríghtly there for our feathered friends and sometimes gnawing through the seed holders or even unhooking them is simply a ploy too far.

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When the squirrels return home or seek solace in neighbouring gardens, it’s the turn of the starlings to squabble around the fatballs, the carrion crows to fill their bills with what seems an entire loaf of stale bread, the herring gulls who dive, scoop up the remainder in a matter of seconds and the blackbirds and song thrushes who behave so demurely in the nearby shrubbery.

Which begs the question: How do the gulls know when the treats are there for the pecking? There’s never a sign of these marine lodgers when I toss the bread across the grass, yet in the time it takes me to walk from the patio, around the corner and back into the kitchen – around ten seconds, twelve at max – word has got around that a load of goodies has been deposited on the lawn.

And down they wing as though their lives depended on it.

Do they possess some sort of secret radar communication that’s beyond the ken of humankind? It always happens that way, whatever the weather and whatever mood they are in. Is there, I wonder, a single seagull scout who is the vital link between feast and famine and, somehow, lets his mates know it’s mealtime.

Not forgetting the stray tabby who trots over for his breakfast every morning – often receiving a welcoming sniff from our tortie – and sometimes leaves a few biscuits on the patio. That’s when Mr and Mrs Crow, whose livery includes distinctive flecks of white feathers, run from the lawn to snaffle the handful of bits left behind just as pusscat goes to turn away.

There are moments when the daring duo and the cat – our name for him, Herbie – are barely six inches apart – yet he don’t bother them and they’re not fazed by him!

And have you noticed how the crows hold down their tasty titbits with one claw and peck away knowing that their treat will be held firm. Clever critters!

Yes, the lawn is forever becoming a playground full of verve and variety. Indeed, who needs TV movies and comedy when you’ve got crows, cats and cunning greys topping the bill in a veritable feast of entertainment?

Seeing double: Six of the best new-age Busy Lizzies that could pose as roses or camellias

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USY LIZZIES: It’s a name that immediately conjures up delight or dislike among gardeners. There’s seldom any half-measures – it’s a plant containing more than a whiff of Marmite about it!

Rewind a decade or so and Impatiens walleriana – to be botanically correct – were on the brink of extinction after a virulent strain of air-borne downy mildew wreaked devastation to our beds and borders.

Grey powder under the plants’ foliage was first detected in 2003, probably caused by damp weather. By 2011, Bury Lizzies had become embattled bedders and for a year or two they had virtually disappeared from garden centres and superstores.

Enter those skilled and dependable Dutch breeders who worked long hours to develop a strain that proved resistant to the blight.

In more recent years impatiens have begun the climb back to their pinnacle as the UK’s No 1 bedding annual – though strictly they are a perennial which most growers pull up and discard at season’s end.

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This week I have news of a new range of bedders from leading seed and plant specialists Thompson & Morgan which includes the Glimmer collection of Lizzies.

Six stunning shades of Impatiens walleriana are claimed to be the only disease-defiant double-bloomed series.

It means the flowers are so beautifully formed they could easily be mistaken for roses or even camellias and will flaunt their wares from May to September – even later in the South and West – on bushy, mounding clumps up to 15in high and a 12in spread in beds, borders, pots and baskets.

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As for those Glimmers, they come in vibrant red, white, hot pink, burgundy, apple blossom and salmon which should satisfy most tastes. And they will tolerate dappled shade as they shine their bright lights for weeks on end, at least until the first frost strikes – and that’s something they cannot tolerate.

Impatiens, closely related to wild balsam, is a genus of no fewer than 850 species and countless hybrids. The familiar bedders are well-known for their brittle, fleshy stems and lush leaves. You can snap off a stem and root it quite quickly in plain water if you fancy growing one or two Lizzies indoors.

They earn their “impatiens” tag because of their impatience when it comes to distributing seed capsules. They will “explode” them far and wide if touched when the time is right. Hence their alternative handle “Touch-me-not”.

Six Postiplug plants – one of each variety – cost £9.99 and two of each £16.99. Check out what else is new on T & M’s books for the summer bedding show at http://www.thompson-morgan.com

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Bewitching Busy Lizzies: From top – the spectacular Glimmer Red; a montage of four more new Glimmer Lizzies; Glimmer Apple Blossom which was awarded Best New Annual and Best in Show at the HTA National Plant Show last year; more familiar shape of impatiens in Pearl Island with single blooms. Pictures courtesy of Thompson & Morgan

Grey squirrels are anything but nuts so outwitting them at the bird feeders needs rat-like cunning!

GREY SQUIRRELS – Don’t we just love ’em . . . like grit in the eye or a stubbed toe.

Maybe that’s a bit harsh on these ubiquitous American imports. After all, they are surely worth watching in the garden if only to admire their litany of skills. Well, aren’t they?

Remember that 1980s TV advert for a beer when a squirrel embarked on an astonishing assault course, the highlight of which was running, upsidedown, along three washing lines and leaping several feet into the air before landing on a feeder and filling his jaws with tasty hazelnuts? Two owls were watching these eye-popping antics and one hoots laconically to the other: “I bet he drinks Carling Black Label.”

Probably not! But that classic clip showed us just how acrobatic and intelligent these fluffy mammals are and their determination to pick up their prize . . . even though they stand accused of stripping bark from trees and often actually killing some of them.

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Above: Gotcha! One of our squirrel “invaders” climbs so far up before going nowhere. Below: Feasting at ground level, where they should be, both pictures snapped through rain-spattered windows.

There is a common belief that most of Britain’s native red squirrels were attacked and ousted by the slightly larger and less appealing greys – introduced from the US in the 1870s – and why, all these years later, the reds are restricted to pine forests and deciduous woods in Wales, Northumberland, the Lake District, the Isle of Wight, Brownsea Island in Poole harbour and in much of Scotland. One unsubstantiated theory is that a harsh virus sometime in the past wiped out huge colonies, though most nature lovers will blame their marauding, but only distantly related cousins.

By contrast, the greys are found all over the place – including our garden.

We have a family of four or five who nest in our trees and who take a daily sprint along our garden fence and head for the two bird feeding stations. Once there, they clean up the nuts, seeds and other tasties on the metal platforms, then turn their attention to the nut and seed holders, often splitting the plastic and releasing all the seed with their razor-sharp teeth.

So we set to work to try to beat these critters at their own game, first with greasing the poles with lard – which they ate – and cooking oil, followed by bubble wrap and even springy slinkies. These provided brief entertainment when the squirrels jumped onto the spring and promptly slid down to the grass below.

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But squirrels have high IQs and were quickly unfazed by slipping and sliding. In fact, they simply used the coils as a ladder and reached their goal without further barrier, no doubt amid joyful celebration.

Finally, enter The Domes, each one a clear and stout plastic “baffle” attractively shaped like a flower and screwed about halfway up the stem of the feeding station. The width of the “petals” makes it impossible for even these acrobats to shimmy further up the pole. So far so good and it is clear “our” squirrels are confused and are clearly becoming miffed with the no-go zone.

Please don’t get the wrong picture as we are quite fond of our regular visits by Sciurus carolinensis, the swish scientific name for the greys. We throw a varied menu of nuts, seeds and other goodies on the lawn and note how skilful they are running up and down and leaping high off the ground from tree to tree – they are often unkindly referred to as tree rats – how they flick or swirl their bushy tails and how they pose, meerkat-fashion, when they are eyeing up their lunch or supper, contemplating their next move or merely blowing a raspberry to the exasperated householder.

Bird feeders, though, are specifically for our winged friends, not a freebie restaurant for those ubiquitous mammals, and that’s why we are determined to foil these greedy invaders.

Adore ’em or abhor ’em, these clever and cunning creatures are survivors without equal and, where trees are close by, will always be hellbent on getting their own way when hunger pangs surface – with or without a washing line!

Chill out with Chiltern and its huge array of seeds – the cheapest way to grow a garden

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OT EVERYONE has the patience or tolerance to grow plants from seed. But, if you are blessed with both, the rewards can be enormous.

I don’t pretend to be horticulture’s answer to seed-sowing as – confession time – I’ve suffered a few failures over the years.

Yet, as a means of transforming little acorns into mighty oaks – just a handy aphorism! – I still relish opening the seed packets and carefully scattering the contents into my chosen multi-purpose compost.

OK, I do have a greenhouse – unheated – but provided you wait until the risk of frosty weather is well and truly over you can raise seeds in a cold frame in the open air or even on a window sill – if it is bright and away from lengthy spells of hot, direct sunshine.

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Which brings me to the absorbing Chiltern Seeds catalogue for 2023 which is just out – 130 12in by 4in unconventionally-sized pages – and, as always, it makes wonderfully informative and instructional reading.

In addition, Chiltern produce a separate Veg Book decorated with caricature sketches that are so hilarious you could easily forget you are thumbing through a horticultural handbook, such is the quality and diversity of the entertainment.

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Next year marks the 47th edition, ten years since the family firm moved back from Cumbria to the Chilterns and includes an impressive 175 or so new and reintroduced items.

As part of that decade of “southern comfort,” Chiltern catalogue’s latest cover star is Nigella papillosa African Bride which found itself in pole spot back in 2013 and once again features the stunning photography throughout of Sabina Rüber.

So why from seed? Chiltern are at pains to point out that seed-sowing has several plus-points. The two principal ones are that seeds seldom transmit diseases, therefore your resulting plants can be relied on to be healthy; secondly, plants have a greater chance of survival if they spend their entire lives in the same environment – in other words chez vous.

I’ll add a third reason – cost. Yes, even seeds have risen in price over the past few years, along with just about every other commodity, and the days of 5p and 10p a pack are long gone. Yet, pound for pound, seeds win every time – and remember that some seed packs such as those of poppies or primulas can contain many dozens of seeds, each one a potential plant which, in the case of perennials, can last for year on year.

As for those newbies, the choice is vast indeed. You’ll find a dozen sweet peas, five clivias, five phlox, plus zinnias, cosmos, acers, helichrysums, delphiniums, tomatoes, beetroot, courgettes, melons and a musk strawberry with an intense aroma and a taste that resembles strawberries, raspberries and pineapple . . . just to quote a few new arrivals at total random.

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Happy horticulture: Top – Vegetables in all guises from the Chiltern Veg Book; centre – a fresh slant on horsemint; above – returning to prominence is Nigella African Bride. Pictures courtesy of Chiltern Seeds

Strawbs from seed? Well, yes, if you treat them as half-hardy annuals and sow them early under glass, the strawberries can be coaxed into flower and fruit in the first year. Some traditionalists will urge you not to allow any berries to form in Year 1 to conserve each plant’s strength.

But I know how hard it is to resist picking a handful and enjoying your true home-grown flavour at the earliest opportunity. Best position? Moist and mostly shaded, with minimum quantities of hot, direct summer sunshine.

And how about Stevia? No, I hadn’t heard of this one either. It is a perennial which is grown for its sweet leaves and is becoming better-known as people search for a healthy substitute to sugar.

Stevia rebaudiana is 200 times sweeter than sugar and it is calorie-free, along with hairy, bright green leaves and bears small white flowers in summer. Finally, it is a native of Paraguay. Now, at last, I know of one product that this mysterious, landlocked South American nation is famous for. Give it a shot for £2.75!

http://www.chilternseeds.co.uk / 01491 824675.

TO ALL READERS AND FOLLOWERS, BOTH HERE AND ON INSTAGRAM AND TWITTER, HERE’S HOPING YOU ALL HAVE A BLOSSOMING CHRISTMAS AND A FRUITFUL 2023 IN GREENHOUSE AND GARDEN

Let’s raise a cheer for the bishop’s hat – a toughie that thrives in dry shade

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OME PLANTS are different and buck the trend. Epimedium, aka barrenwort or bishop’s hat, is one of them.

Wholly underprized or even totally unfamiliar to many, epimediums flourish where most plants would wail in protest – in dry shade.

“Indestructible” springs to mind. I’ve had one growing under an ageing weigela for years – possibly decades – and every spring to early summer it never fails to disappoint with a succession of delicate-looking, nodding, spidery, spurred flowers on ultra-wiry stems above heart-shaped foliage that often bursts into vivid hues – chiefly burgundy and copper shades – on surface of margin.

With around 35 species and hundreds of named hybrids, these evergreen or deciduous plants – I’m tempted to call them mini-shrubs as few exceed 2ft high – are natives of China or the Mediterranean.

Flowers are beautiful but complex in layers and, particularly with the evergreens, are held well clear of the leaves on those oh-so-wafer-thin stems. The range of colours is generous – yellow, white, orange, chocolate-purple, pale pink, lilac or copper-crimson – and the time in bloom for most is mid-spring to early summer, followed by sporadic bursts of colour from time to time.

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My own species, I believe, is Epimedium davidii which bears pale to deep yellow flowers which seem to hang around for weeks and sway when it’s breezy.

Now, though, I’ve added to my modest collection of one plant by ordering a three-variety package – Rubrum in red and white, Orange Queen and the all-white Niveum – from J. Parker’s. I plan to site them together for colour contrast near the top of a sloping rockery so their elegant stars can shine to advantage.

A world away from my patch, epimediums double as a herb which – I read – spices up the love lives of thousands of Chinese.

Herbalists from that nation have used it as an aphrodisiac for decades. So now you know . . . but, please, do not attempt to chew the leaves in the hope of achieving the desired effect!

The excellent 2007 book Gardening with Woodland Plants by Karan Junker showcases epimediums across eight pages, so clearly she is a fervent fan.

Epimedium davidii

Just space to mention a handful – Epimedium grandiflorum Lilafee, Saturn and Sirius are all deciduous with, respectively, rich purple-flushed foliage and purple flowers, white flowers and pale pink blooms.

Epimedium warleyense is a hybrid of two species and named after the garden of renowned gardener and plant hunter Ellen Ann Willmott and bearing wonderful copper-orange flowers over large leaves.

Search out Epimedium youngianum Roseum in pinkish-mauve or Epimedium alpinum, a tough, reliable evergreen with blooms in red and yellow or even the deep pink Enchantress which looks fabulous against the dark leaves.

Epimediums grow from rhizomes so, if you wish to increase your collection, divide them carefully and replant in late winter or right after flowering.

It won’t be long before the new shoots start drilling and spreading underground and hit the surface in time for the next fanfare of colourful treasures.

Foliage

Excellence in epimedium: Top – Epimedium warleyense with its striking two-tone flowers; centre – Epimedium davidii in golden yellow; above – the plant’s beautifully patterned foliage stands out with or without the blooms.

Check out epimediums online, though you’ll probably need to seek out a specialist for those less-common species and varieties as opposed to the more familiar names which will be waiting for you at the garden centre.

Whatever your choice, these underrated gems are sure to liven up a drab or shady niche at the end of the border or under the trees.