Supercharge your borders
Now is the time to order garden annuals, says John Hoyland
Ahuge part of the pleasure of gardening lies in anticipation. Sometimes, it’s picturing lounging, decades hence, in the shade of the sapling you’re in the process of planting or imagining the taste of future fruits as you’re pricking out tomato seedlings. however, the greatest source of garden daydreaming comes in the compact, neatly packaged form of the seed catalogue. There are few greater delights for the dedicated gardener, however large or small their plot, than settling in by the fire on a cold winter’s evening with a glass of something sustaining and reading through a glossy tome.
Suppliers send their catalogues out early, some arriving at the beginning of September, but mine remain unopened until the end of the year and the post-christmas lull. There is little to do in the garden then and lessening desire to be out in the cold air and grey light, so it’s the perfect time to conjure with the colours, perfumes and exuberance of high summer.
Wiser gardeners will have got their orders in and already sown sweet peas, umbellifers and other hardy annuals. Mine will be planted in February and will soon catch up.
Paper catalogues are expensive to produce and most seed suppliers now concentrate on the internet to sell their seeds, so, in recent times, making seed orders has meant sitting with the ipad as well as with printed catalogues. The internet allows suppliers to provide more information and images than they could ever afford to in a hard copy.
Sarah Raven’s website tempts with beautifully dreamy photographs of annuals and advice from her experience of growing them. Although not as sumptuously illustrated, Seedaholic has lots of cultivation tips and background information about the seeds it sells, which makes for an engrossing read.
Of the paper catalogues, Chiltern Seeds is invariably a good read and its pages are
packed with exciting plants. Special Plants Seeds has a much shorter list, but there are always unusual annuals in there and, although Plant World Seeds offers fewer annuals, it, too, often includes several outof-the-ordinary varieties.
I suspect that, like most gardeners, I will make lists of everything I want to sow and then remake them a second time, then a third time, in order to buy what, realistically, I can expect to grow. The rest can wait for another year.
The bulk of my list—in fact, in some years, it’s the entire list—will be annuals. No other group of plants is more colourful, more floriferous, longer-flowering or easier to grow than annuals. Annuals allow you effortlessly to ring the changes, bringing a freshness and liveliness to your garden that perennials and shrubs don’t.
My list always contains a mixture of the rare and the common or garden, as well as some old reliables and a sprinkling of new introductions. Always at the top of the page are Ammi majus and the denser flowers of A. visnaga, elegant white umbellifers that will complement any colour scheme. The lightness and airiness of these are essential both to weave through borders and to have as cut flowers.
Cleomes are another permanent feature of my order. Apart from sunflowers, there are few other annuals that have their stature. In recent years, Persicaria orientalis has joined them in my club of favourite tall annuals. If you haven’t grown it already, do give it a go: it features imposing, 8ft-tall, bamboo-like stems from which dangle deep-red velour tassels.
If you don’t like it, don’t grow it again. Not having to make permanent decisions about your planting scheme is one of the advantages of annuals.
Whichever ones you choose to grow, you’re guaranteed to get vibrant flowers throughout the summer, particularly if you pick standards such as poppies, cosmos, antirrhinums, marigolds, sweet peas and zinnias. The list could go on, exactly as my seed order will. With so much choice, it’s easy to grow something novel or that you haven’t tried before.
Every year, seed suppliers and plant breeders introduce new varieties, often
dwarf forms of popular plants. There’s a new dwarf sunflower available, which I won’t be trying (I want my sunflowers to reach for the sky), but I will sow one of the new nasturtiums that are said to have luminous red-and-gold flowers.
In no time at all, summer will be here and the seeds we order now will have grown into dazzlingly colourful, perfumed flowers filling every part of the garden. Take time to enjoy them, because, by then, of course, the bulb catalogues will have arrived and we will be dreaming of pots of tulips and the first daffodils.
Preceding pages: Bold pink Zinnia elegans create a striking mix with orange Tithonias and Argyranthemum, yellow marguerites. Above: The glorious annual border at Aston Pottery in Oxfordshire includes a fiery mix of Tagetes Orange Gem, Tithonia Fiesta del Sol, sunflowers, Calendula Orange Sunrise, cosmos and nicotiana, sown from seeds and cuttings. These will flower until the first frosts
Cosmos bipinnatus Double Click with C. bipinnatus Candy Stripe. Cosmos are easy to grow and produce more flowers per square yard than any other plant, says plantswoman Sarah Raven. New this year is rich carmine Double Click Cranberries (see box, page 86)