Bedding plants bring joyful colour to a plot and with care you can grow your own
For a glorious garden this summer, bedding plants are the answer. A keen flower gardener can easily use dozens – for tubs and hanging baskets, for filling gaps in beds and to provide flowers for cutting.
And although a lot of people buy trays of ready-grown bedding at the start of summer, there’s a lot to be said for growing at least a few of your own from seed. It’s immensely satisfying and it means you can try unusual varieties that aren’t available as plants.
So get sowing now. Bedding plants are what the seed packets call “half-hardy annuals”, which basically means frost-tender flowers, such as petunias and busy Lizzies (good for containers), and taller kinds such as flowering tobacco (nicotiana), antirrhinums or cosmos (ideal for flower beds and gaps in borders).
And don’t forget flowers such as helichrysum, grown for cutting or drying.
They all need an early start with plenty of warmth if you’re going to have them flowering on cue from June and July onwards.
A heated greenhouse and electric propagator are great if you want large-scale production but you can raise useful quantities of plants on a warm windowsill indoors. All you need are a few clean plastic pots and a bag of multipurpose compost.
Begin by loosely filling your pots with compost. Level the tops off just with the flat of your hand then tap them down gently against a hard surface. This settles the compost gently, without squashing it down hard.
Cut the top off your packet of seeds very carefully – most flower seeds are tiny and the slightest movement can send them flying.
Tip them out into the palm of your hand, pick up a tiny pinch at a time and sprinkle them ever so thinly over the surface of one pot. It’s not a good idea just to tip the packet out over the top of the pot as many people do.
You don’t want the whole lot ending up in one corner so that the seedlings are cramped closely together – it only takes one to go mouldy and the rest will follow suit straight away.
Sprinkle the tiniest covering of compost over the seeds, just enough to hold them down. Don’t dollop great handfuls over the top or they’ll never come up.
Experienced gardeners will often use a small sieve to produce a light sprinkling, like a chef dusting icing sugar over a plate of pudding. And if you really want to play safe, invest in a small bag of horticultural vermiculite (not the sort sold for insulating) and use that for covering your seeds instead.
The loose, open, corky texture creates ideal conditions that seedlings can’t wait to come up in. And if you are sowing really tiny, dust-like seeds of plants such as begonia, simply spread a thin layer of vermiculite over the surface of your prepared pot and scatter your seeds out thinly on top of the pot instead. That will trap humidity inside while letting the light through.
Label each pot as you sow it then stand it in a shallow bowl of water. It’s a much safer way of watering than using a watering can.
Finally, put your newly sown pots on a plastic tray to protect your windowsill from drips.
The big trick now is not to forget about them. Have a look every day and if the compost seems to be drying out, repeat the short soak to water them again. You can tell which pots need watering as the colour of the compost turns a few shades paler than usual and dry pots weigh less when you pick them up. The aim is to keep the pots uniformly moist. They can dry out surprisingly quickly on a warm windowsill over a radiator. If seeds experience a sudden drought midgermination, that’s it, they are dead. It’s a great thrill to see seedlings appear when you get it right.
One day they are little more than green specks, then the first pair of leaves (the plain ovalshaped cotyledons or seed leaves) open out, followed quickly by the first true leaf, which has the proper adult shape – and suddenly you have recognisable baby plants all ready to grow on to planting size.
START SMAll Begonias have a dust-like