I get self-conscious when the time comes for winter bedding plants. It’s probably the snob in me that recoils from popping in the same blue and yellow pansies as you see for sale on garage forecourts at this time of year. Surely I should be more original?
But whereas I blithely plant perfectly routine perennials (in what I hope will be original and ravishing combinations), I never get round to sowing anything for the winter. I hope my wallflowers will do it for themselves. Indeed I spent half a morning in the summer slipping seeds from a self-sown wallflower in a wall deep in all the gaps in the brickwork around it. There followed 10 weeks without rain. I hosed down the wall once or twice when I remembered to, but none of the seeds germinated.
So here I am with trays of pansies and wallflowers from Springwell Nurseries, a jolly spot on the road from Saffron Walden to Cambridge, deciding how to deploy them casually, as if they had volunteered. That is not how they will look, but nor should they; at least not the pansies. Their wonderful satin extravagance needs a more or less formal frame. There is a new one (to me) this year; not bright yellow but pale primrose. I will speckle it with the one called ‘True Blue’ in the bed behind the cottage where the rugosa roses stand gaunt in winter.
My favourite wallflower for years has been the old cultivar ‘Scarlet Bedder’; a gauge, I’m sure, of my deep conservatism in choosing flowers. This year there is an F1 hybrid called ‘Treasure Bronze’ which is so much healthier looking, stockier and more compact that I am planting it instead. Sadly there is no chance of a true F1 seedling in a wall.
Heaven knows what the provenance of the pansies may be. ‘True Blue’ is a strong colour I would have called violet until I checked in my old RHS Colour Chart. The name is right and I am wrong; it corresponds, making allowance for its lustrous texture, with colour 95A, Cornflower Blue. The Colour Chart originated in the 1930s with the British Colour Council, now long defunct. Another of their publications was a Dictionary of Colours for Interior Decoration, in two bulky volumes, which goes to the length of having three samples of each colour: one matt, one glossy and one a piece of carpet. My copy belonged to Anthony Denney, who gave it to me when I started to garden. His message: texture is as important as hue. And light of course decides everything.