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Time for the pretty polys; Roger Clarke finds some perfect primulas for early glamour.

Polyanthus have been stunning this year, as you can see here. They come in a wide range of colours with blue often the most treasured.

Creating your own strain by selection is not that difficult but many people treat polyanthus as winter annuals, discarding them after flowering.

Botanically a primula is thought to be a cross between our native primrose with the cowslip, Primula veris, its other parent.

They are easy to grow from seed, which is what many people do, sowing in summer and planting out in autumn, although for the best plants, they really need to be sown in a cool greenhouse in early spring.

The seedlings tend to be a bit erratic in germination, so prick them out as they appear.

You can prick them out directly into a nursery bed although I prefer planting them up in trays to grow on a bit before they have to face the cold, hard world.

Keep them well watered and plant out the young plants in autumn. They are happy in sun or shade but do like a rich soil with plenty of organic matter added.

If you want an extra early show then sow in a cold frame in late summer, pricking out into trays in the frame and planting outdoors in spring.

The plants can usually be persuaded to flower in autumn with watering and feeding.

Alternatively, you can buy plants in autumn for planting out to give a spring show - or this year, a winter show.

If you want to to keep your plants then select the sort of plants you want, whether colour, size of plant or size of bloom, and lift them when the floral display is over in spring.

Split the plants, ensuring each bit has a growing point, and plant them out in a spare corner of the garden or even as edging around the vegetable patch.

Remember to label the plants so you know which colours are which and water and feed during summer, planting out in autumn.

The following spring select again, taking the best plants, colours and so on, repeating the process each year.

You are not breeding your own plants, just selecting the best each year to provide new, young plants for the following year.

These days there are some plants with huge flowers but these can be a bit less hardy so are not ideal for exposed or cold areas but will make good pot plants to brighten up the greenhouse or living room.

Some colours are also less robust with blues at the more tender end while yellows, perhaps harking back to parentage, among the toughest.

Crocuses are one of the three frontmen in the bulb world, along with daffs and tulips.

As seen here, they will grow into quite large clumps with masses of bloom if they are left undisturbed.

They naturalise quite happily in lawns or beds and are small enough for soil pockets in rockeries, although there are quite a number of smaller species which are ideal for rockeries.

Naturalised in grass, they prefer fine grasses rather than coarse, wild meadow varieties and the grass should not be cut down until the crocus leaves start to die down in early summer otherwise the bulbs will not be allowed to grow for the following year's display.

If the clumps become really overcrowded then lift when the foliage dies down in summer and separate into individual corms.

Replant them immediately about 5in apart.

If snowdrops like you then they can also become overcrowded. Galanthus nivalis, to give it its Sunday name, is not the easiest of plants to establish.

They prefer a fairly sunny position with rich soil which is on the heavy side.

If you have a colony established in the garden and they have become overcrowded and need splitting then do it as soon as the flowers start to fade.

Lift and separate, as they say, then replant about 2in deep and 3-4in apart.

Remember the plants are in full growth so water them well to help them become established again.

They need very little care but you can cheer them up from time to time with a mulch in summer of organic material and a sprinkling of sulphate or potash in autumn.

If you want your woollies to be clean, fresh and smell like a summer's day, then grow your own soap.

Soapwort doesn't have added lanolin, I haven't a clue what its pH level is for your skin, but its use for washing woollens goes back to pre-Biblical times. It is also known as the Fullers' herb and was used for washing sheep before shearing and for cleaning textiles.

It is still used in some parts of the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East for washing woollens.

It still appears in specialist soaps and lotions and is regarded as being excellent for washing delicate skin and hair.

More high tech, it is still used to clean delicate fabrics along with old tapestries.

If you want to make your own cleanser then it is not exactly technical. Cut up a big handful and put it in a saucepan then add just enough water to cover it and bring to the boil.

At this point, you can wander about the kitchen croaking "when shall we three meet again, hubble, bubble" and stuff like that, or you can find something else to do for haln-hour.

In the pan you will find a mess that looks like the spring cabbage from hell along with a lathery liquid.

This liquid is the raw soap which can be used as it is, or you can keep it for a while in the refrigerator.

All parts of the plant contain the active ingredient saponin which is the cleansing agent and you can throw in leaves, stems or washed roots in your soap vat.

It is an attractive plant if not the tidiest in the world, a bit sprawly, but it has large pale pink flowers, which, like many herb blooms, will attract bees, moths and butterflies.

There are two double forms, one a white the other a pink, with quite large blooms on 18in stems in late summer.

It was once a common and popular plant in cottage gardens and is still worth its place in a herb garden or a more neglected or less formal part of the garden where its slightly rough-and-ready appearance will not go amiss. The plant will justify a spot in the herb garden.

Soapwort has also been used as a medicine for liver complaints since the times of the ancients. It was also used as an internal cleanser for arthritis and rheumatism.

It is still used for various skin conditions, boils and so on.

Internally it should only be used with medical advice, which might mean finding a doctor who practises alternative medicine.

But if you just want a skin lotion or a gentle soap, boil away.

Specialist herb sections might have soapwort, or a garden centre might order it for you, or you can buy seeds which are sown in the next couple of months.

John Chambers Wild Flower Seeds of Kettering is often a useful place to start.
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Mar 7, 1998
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