Brighten up your summer garden with an abundance of annuals. Read through their progress, from seed to floriferous profusion
Lengthening days, rising temperatures and settled conditions signal the latter stages of spring, with summer but weeks away now. It’s a magical time of year when growth reaches breakneck speed and the garden enters its prime. April and May are especially stunning months, with trees unfurling their buds and that intoxicating smell of green that comes with all that fresh life.
For many gardeners spring is about starting off new plants to bring a shock of colour and scent to borders, tubs and hanging baskets. Annuals – those plants that complete their lifecycle within one year – are renowned for flowering their hearts out. They may require a bit more attention than other elements of the garden, but they repay any effort with week upon week of blousy blooms. Whether you’re keen for maximum impact or something a little more subtle, annuals are just the ticket.
Bedding plants are the most popular type of annual and usually consist of the most flower-heavy specimens. These are replaced each season to maintain a fulsome display. Traditional bedding plant displays are a masterpiece of geometry and design; just think of the old-fashioned parks displays with their contrasting colours and textures. Of course, bedding plants can be used on a more modest scale to liven up hanging baskets, patio pots and garden borders.
Most summer bedding plants are half-hardy annuals, which won’t tolerate frost. These plants can be raised from seed in spring or bought ready to grow on or plant out. Half-hardy annuals need to be sown under cover, within a heated propagator in the greenhouse or on a windowsill.
Sow the seeds as per packet instructions into pots of compost. Some seeds need light to germinate and are simply pressed onto the surface of the compost. Always water seedlings from below so as not to disturb the compost surface after sowing. If you’re not using a propagator then cover your pots with clear polythene bags (the sort you buy your loose veg in at the supermarket), secured around the pot with an elastic band. Keep your seedlings in a warm place to germinate.
Many garden centres will sell seedlings of popular annuals. These make an excellent compromise between the hassle of sowing and the expense of buying fully grown plants. There can be quite a lot of seedlings per pot, making them excellent value for money. However, these young plants will be vulnerable to overcrowding, which means they will need to be pricked out immediately into their own pots or cells.
Plug the gap
For the ultimate in convenience buy ready-grown plug plants.The size of plug varies dramatically, from very small cell sizes which will need potting on before they are ready to go outside, to large plugs, often in polystyrene trays, which will be ready to go outside into their final positions. Popular bedding plants to buy this way include lobelia, petunia, French marigold, begonia, pansies… and plenty more!
Remember that your bedding plants will have been grown in a protected environment. This means they will need to be acclimatised before they are planted outside, a process known as ‘hardening off’. Harden your plants off over the course of a week, leaving them outside for gradually longer periods of time, or use a halfway house such as a cold frame or unheated porch to toughen them up.
To plant, water thoroughly a few hours beforehand then carefully push the plugs out from the base of their trays. Set them into prepared soil, ensuring a big enough hole for the root ball of each plant. Firm them in and water well to settle the soil around the root ball. Keep your plants well watered at all times, feed weekly with a liquid fertiliser and remove faded flowers to keep the plants producing more. Don’t be afraid to mix colours and textures – experiment, there’s no right or wrong! Most garden centres will have example displays you can copy or will sell collections of annuals that look fab together.
If bedding plants seem like too much hard work there is an alternative in hardy annuals. Many hardy annuals are also excellent at attracting bees, hoverflies and other beneficial insects to the garden, helping to create a floriferous nature reserve that looks, smells and sounds great!
While hardy annuals can be started off in trays under cover, it makes more sense to sow these frost-tolerant plants directly outside where they are to grow. Prepare the ground a few weeks before sowing by digging it over and incorporating a little organic matter to improve the moisture retention and fertility of the soil. Sow hardy annuals to create a full display or use them to fill in gaps between establishing shrubs and perennials. Within two months hardy annuals can be up and flowering, filling your beds and borders with colour.
For the very best effect create a relaxed, informal feel with your hardy annuals. Don’t sow them in rigid blocks – go for swathes that merge to recreate the feel of a wildflower meadow. Some annuals are sold pre-mixed for this very purpose.
Sowing couldn’t be easier. Mark out irregular shapes for each variety in the ground using a cane, then draw out individual rows within each shape for the seeds to be sown. Sow along the rows using pinches of seeds, cover them over to the correct depth and then water with a rose-fitted watering can. Sowing like this makes it easier to spot weeds growing out of the rows, which can then be lifted out. Don’t worry if it all looks a bit formal to start with – as the seedlings grow the lines will become blurred and that lovely natural look will begin to develop. Take care of your hardy annual display by watering in dry weather (always with a rose-fitted can to prevent sloshing out the seedlings or puddling).
Annuals are excellent at attracting insects but the very best for this are the simple, single-flowered varieties. These plants are particularly rich in nectar and pollen. Some fancy, double forms of flowers look great but hide the nectar from insects; this isn’t natural! These highly bred flowers have been developed to give maximum flower to the detriment of pollinating insects.
Suitable eco-friendly annuals include the pot marigold, sweet alyssum, tobacco plant, cornflower, sweet William, sunflower, poached egg plant and poppy. Grow a few of these beauties and I promise you your garden will be alive with the hum of honey and bumblebees. And what could be better than the industrious buzz of pollinators going about their work as you recline in your favourite garden chair, glass in hand, to soak up the warmth of a summer’s evening?