An annual affair


Jo Arnell sows the seeds of a colourful summer with her top tips on sowing annuals...

Growing annuals is one of the most satisfying, productive and inexpensive things to do. It is instant gardening from the palm of your hand: like magic and (for me at least) it's totally addictive. So if you've never grown annuals before, then this is the time to start thinking about it, and if you already do, you're probably scanning the catalogues (what could be better than a nice fat seed catalogue to browse through on a winter's night?) and rustling packets of seed in anticipation. Most annuals flower in the summer and have a long season of interest, providing you can stop them from setting seed. They only live for a few months and because life is short, they must reproduce as quickly as possible. This is why annuals make such good candidates for a cutting garden; they positively thrive on being picked - in fact, if they're not regularly dead-headed, they will consider that their life's work is done - the seed is set and the next generation secure, there's nothing left for them to live for. So picking them is really doing them a favour. But before we start picking, there are some basics to consider:

Hardies and half hardies...
Like cheerfulness on stalks, Hardy annuals are quintessential, carefree cottage garden stalwarts and plants like Sweet Peas, Poppies, Sunflowers, Love-in-a-mist, and Marigolds are hard to beat. They're simple to grow, colourful and attractive to beneficial insects too. If you are new to gardening, or want to get the children involved, they are the most rewarding seeds - ready to burst into growth from the moment you plant them. They can be sown directly into the soil too, so no fiddly transplanting or hardening off is needed. For the earliest flowers, sow in the autumn (sorry, yes that was last autumn), but spring sowings will do their best to catch up so don't worry. Half-hardy annuals are tender and won't tolerate frost, coming from hotter climates than ours. In fact some of them aren't annuals at all, but short-lived perennials that can't manage our winters. They need warmth for germination and should be kept under cover until conditions warm up in late spring. They are well worth growing though, and will bloom 'til they bust from June until the first frosts. Cosmos, Cleome, Zinnia, Nicotiana are among the best of the bunch.

Cutting Garden... Annuals are an absolute must for the cutting garden because they flower endlessly - stop picking and they pack up, so more is more. You will need two types of plant for a cutting garden - show-stopping focal points and background fillers and foils. Fabulous focals include Cosmos, Sunflowers, Tithonia, Zinnia, even annual Dahlias. Airy umbelifers are great mixers with their frothy flat heads and in this category Ammi majus and Orlaya grandiflora are hard to beat. For richer planting schemes Dill works well and makes a great mass of Chartreuse umbels that look good next to Sunflowers, dark Dahlias and Cosmos 'Dazzler'. Ricinus communis 'Impala' is a useful foliage plant for structure (be careful, it has VERY poisonous seeds) and Bupleurum rotundifolium is another useful foliage filler.

Meadow mix...
If you have a large patch of ground that you want to cover quickly, annuals sown together to make a pictorial meadow can look wonderful (remember the Olympic park?). If you're making a meadow with hardy annuals, the seed can be sown directly - just scatter onto weed-free prepared ground (i.e. rake the soil until it's the consistency of crumble topping known as a fine tilth). Poppies and Cornflowers aren't the only candidates for a meadow. Many of the more exotic, tender annuals like Cosmos and Cleome originated in meadows, growing wild in places like South Africa or America, so they also lend themselves to being planted in a loose, 'meadowy' style.

Climbers and creepers...
These are very useful for creating instant impact when trained over structures, fences, walls and even left to sprawl through shrubs. I use a lot of annual climbers in the vegetable garden to give structure, height and colour. They also supply nectar for beneficial insects and pollinators. Morning Glory (Ipomoea purpurea) Sweet Peas (Lathyrus odoratus), Black Eyed Susan (Thunbergia alata), Spanish flag (Ipomoea lobata) even climbing beans (originally grown just for their flowers) with the added bonus of edible pods.

Sowing...
The good news is that annuals germinate very easily and will pop up readily - some almost overnight, which is very gratifying. The problem tends to be that we all sow far too many (you really don't have to use the whole packet of seed at once - seeds keep for a long time). Watch that you don't overcrowd them, and that you are able (and have the space) to thin/prick them out and look after them. Hardy annuals can be sown directly, but you may want to sow them under cover, to protect them from pests and the vagaries of our weather (they will rot if it's too cold and damp out there). Half hardies need heat for germination and must stay under cover until the frosts have passed; sow them in seed trays somewhere warm and light (a north-facing windowsill is fine). If you're really keen, a heated propagator is a good investment. Once the seedlings are big enough to handle, separate them into individual pots or (if they're hardy) plant outside. Remember that they'll grow fast, so give them enough elbow room in their final positions.

Collecting seed...
As autumn approaches stop all the frantic dead heading, allow your plants to finally do the job they've been itching to do all year and prepare to reap the benefits. Some will generously self-seed around the place on their own - Poppies, Love-in-a-mist and Marigolds are very proficient, but it's deeply satisfying (at that instinctive, hunter-gatherer level) to go out on a golden autumn day with some paper bags or envelopes (I use little brown wage envelopes) and collect your own seed. Just make sure that you collect perfectly ripe, dry seeds and store them in cool, dry conditions until the following spring - oh and don't forget to label your envelopes...

Growing a few annuals is a great way to start the gardening year - whether in pots, in border gaps, up obelisks, over arches, or whole meadows full. Every garden can benefit from an injection of annual cheerfulness.

My top 5 annuals:

Cosmos bipinnatus (either 'Dazzler' in deep carmine pink, or the lovely white 'Purity') - Cosmos is a brilliant easy-going, large-flowered annual that works well in nearly every situation and makes a great cut flower too. Half-hardy, so germinate indoors and protect from frost.

Nicotiana 'Lime Green' - if you sow this from seed you'll be amazed that a plant giving you non-stop flowers all summer long grows from what looks like a speck of dust.

Another half-hardy annual, Lathyrus odoratus (Sweet Pea) - fragrant, blousy, superb as a cut flower and an essential part of a cottage garden. Sow in spring or autumn.

Ammi majus - like well behaved Cow Parsley with large frothy, pure white umbels.

Helianthus annuus (Sunflower) - just looking at them makes you smile. Protect from mice and slugs if sowing directly into the soil.

Contact Jo for gardening advice and consultations on 01233 861186 email jo@hornbrookmanor.co.uk or visit www.hornbrookmanor.co.uk