A cut above: the top an­nu­als for sum­mer

Which an­nu­als are best for sum­mer vases and pots? Sarah Raven puts them on trial

The Daily Telegraph - Gardening - - Front Page -

Ilove a trial – col­lect­ing to­gether re­lated plants, work­ing out how to as­sess them, and then see­ing how they do. Gar­den­ing by spread­sheet may seem odd, but it gives you an easy way to com­pare sim­i­lar plants and find out which va­ri­eties are the stand­out per­form­ers. Last year, we had 20 new-to-the-mar­ket an­nu­als in a cut­ting gar­den trial and this year we’ve looked at a sim­i­lar num­ber, with some front-run­ners al­ready.

We have seven dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories in which ev­ery po­ten­tial cut-flower plant is as­sessed. The first is: how long do they take from seed to flower? It’s use­ful to have quick pro­duc­ers, which don’t fill their ground for ages be­fore you can start to har­vest.

Next, how long does their har­vest last in one grow­ing sea­son? We al­ways have peonies in mind as the low­est bench­mark – won­der­ful gar­den plants, but hope­less in terms of cut-flower pro­duc­tion. They take three years to come into full-on har­vest and in­di­vid­ual va­ri­eties crop for only three weeks in one year. For plants to earn their keep in the cut­ting gar­den here we ex­pect them to be hugely bet­ter than this. Cos­mos ‘Pu­rity’ is our bench­mark at the other end of the scale, giv­ing 50 buck­ets of flow­ers per me­tre from mid-July un­til the end of Oc­to­ber.

Along with these key judg­ments we look at more gen­eral things. Num­ber three on our “must-have” list is good ger­mi­na­tion; then ease of growth (and with that an ab­sence of pests and dis­eases); plus the cost of the crop to har­vest; then vase life; and fi­nally num­ber seven on our ta­ble – ex­cep­tional char­ac­ter­is­tics, such as un­usual colour, good scent or no­tice­ably tall, straight stems.

On the climb

Most of the plants on trial are straight­for­ward cut-flower an­nu­als, but we also have some climbers, al­ways use­ful to add ver­ti­cal minarets

to the un­du­lat­ing domes of our an­nual and peren­nial borders. And we have a few tu­bers/bulbs we’re check­ing out, too.

A few years ago I sowed some cac­tus-flow­ered dahlias from seed, won­der­ing if you could re­ally get a whole dahlia patch from just one pack. Most dahlias from seed are hideous – dwarf, over-flow­ery pygmies, with the pro­por­tions all wrong – but the cac­tus-flow­ered mix has per­formed bril­liantly, nice in the gar­den and good as a cut flower.

We’ve tri­alled it again this year and got ex­cep­tional ger­mi­na­tion; they’ve been in flower since early July, with a good mix of colours, quick and pro­lific flower pro­duc­tion and a bet­ter-thanusual dahlia vase life.

Dahlia ‘Bishop’s Chil­dren’ is also a good mix from seed, so we’ve had that on trial as well this year. We planted a 50ft slope mixed with the oh-so-good Ver­bena rigida, which – in my book – way out­does its taller re­la­tion, Ver­bena bonar­ien­sis. The dahlia ger­mi­na­tion rate was ex­cel­lent and they’re al­ready in flower from a mid-March sow­ing. Any bright green-leaved seedlings amongst the dark fo­liage ones have turned out to have rather acid-yel­low flow­ers so I’d cast these out in fu­ture, but the rest give you a good mix of rich, stained-glass-coloured flow­ers and hand­some fo­liage. Their vase life is short (three days in the heat) but they work well as sin­gle stems for a din­ner ta­ble. They’ve shot to the top of our list for edge-of-path aisle plants.

Re­li­able and easy

For spring-planted, sum­mer-flow­er­ing bulbs, we’ve been ex­per­i­ment­ing with the bro­di­aeas (also called Triteleia). I’ve al­ways loved the bright blue va­ri­ety ‘Queen Fabi­ola’, and have now taken to the slightly OTT, but pretty striped ‘Foxy’. This looks good in flower ar­range­ments, and then there’s the one-tone-richer blue ‘Twi­light’ – that’s my lat­est favourite.

All the bro­di­aeas have out­stand­ing vase lives, go­ing on for up to three weeks if you keep them cool. They’re peren­nial too, com­ing up re­li­ably year af­ter year. I have some planted around our fruit cage which went in 10 years ago and they’re still hale and hearty, flow­er­ing away. They’re inexpensive bulbs (par­tic­u­larly the widely avail­able ‘Queen Fabi­ola’) and they all seem to be 100 per cent re­li­able and easy to grow.

I’m al­ways on the look-out for flow­er­ing climbers to fol­low on from sweet­peas, or to clad teepees from the start of sum­mer, and we’ve gone for the thun­ber­gias this sea­son. I’ve long loved the soft apri­cot ‘African Sun­set’, grow­ing it with rhodochi­ton, one of

my favourite climbers, and have adored the al­most neon orange ‘Su­per­star Orange’ as a new ad­di­tion this year. It’s a cheer­ing sight lin­ing a path and looks sur­pris­ingly good in all lights, de­spite its bright­ness.

As an­other aisle plant, the toad­flaxes ( Li­naria) have shone supreme here in the last two sea­sons. I love the scented ‘Sweet­ies Mix’, the won­der­ful rich car­di­nal pur­ple L. maroc­cana ‘Vi­o­let’ and the gen­tle coloured ‘Peach’, but it’s Li­naria ‘Li­cilia Azure’ which steals the show for me. Mixed with good old hon­ey­wort ( Cerinthe ma­jor ‘Pur­puras­cens’) there’s no cheaper or quicker com­bi­na­tion for con­tain­ers at any point through the grow­ing sea­son. They both take eight weeks from sow­ing to flower and con­tinue to bloom well for at least 12 weeks.

And that’s not the only sit­u­a­tion in which they per­form. I have ‘Li­cilia Azure’ lin­ing the main cut­ting gar­den path this sum­mer. It’s been in flower since May and shows no sign of tir­ing; it’s not just good for sum­mer as a gar­den and cut flower, it’s also in­valu­able for spring. From an early Fe­bru­ary un­der-cover sow­ing, you can have it in flower by the end of March to pick with hy­acinths and nar­cissi. That’s a sprint – and in­valu­able for it.

Crowning glory

An­other group we’ve had on trial are some new an­tir­rhinums. ‘Lib­erty Crim­son’ has long been a great per­former, but there are re­puted to be even bet­ter, longer flow­er­ing va­ri­eties com­ing on to the mar­ket, so we thought we’d com­pare them. The F1 Son­net series seems to be ex­celling so far this sea­son. The four jewel-coloured va­ri­eties ( An­tir­rhinum ‘F1 Son­net Bur­gundy’, ‘F1 Son­net Carmine’, ‘F1 Son­net Crim­son’ and ‘F1 Son­net Orange Scar­let’) are be­ing put through their paces. We have them in­ter-planted with the grass Pan­icum ‘Frosted Ex­plo­sion’ which we tri­alled here in 2014; the com­bi­na­tion is the crowning glory of the gar­den to­day and has been so for over a month.

We had good ger­mi­na­tion rates from the F1 Son­nets; they were quicker from sow­ing to flower than my usual stan­dards – ‘Gi­ant White’, ‘Lib­erty Crim­son’ and ‘Night and Day’ – and their vase life seems ex­cep­tional. They are last­ing for 10 days in wa­ter even in the re­cent heat and – so far – show no sign of rust, com­mon in cut flower va­ri­eties when they’re grown or­gan­i­cally, as we do. The seedlings were pinched out when a cou­ple of inches tall and seem to be branch­ing well and pro­duc­ing end­less new side shoots with good stem lengths. They could be head­ing for the top of the class.

The fi­nal new an­nual in the cut­ting gar­den trial beds – and mixed with the com­pact Cos­mos ‘Sonata White’ in con­tain­ers – is the new yel­low Cos­mos ‘Xan­thos’. That gave ex­cel­lent ger­mi­na­tion and was quick from seed to flower – it has al­ready been in flower for six weeks. It lasts 10 days in the vase and is ap­par­ently as florif­er­ous as ‘Pu­rity’. This also looks like it’s head­ing for 10 out of 10.

It’s been in flower since May and shows no sign of tir­ing

Seeds from Thomp­son & Mor­gan, Chiltern Seeds, Sarah Raven

Im­pres­sive per­for­mance: cac­tus-flow­ered dahlias, above, are good in the gar­den and as a cut flower; left, Rhodochi­ton atrosan­guineus (pur­ple bell vine) grow­ing up a birch tri­pod with salvias around the base

Three of a kind: left, Cos­mos con­tainer in­clud­ing ‘Xan­thos’, ‘Sonata White’ and ‘Seashells White’; right, Thun­ber­gia alata ‘African Sun­set’ – Black­eyed Su­san

Aisle plant: toad­flaxes, left and far left, have shone supreme in the last two sea­sons; right, a bunch of snap­drag­ons, An­tir­rhinum ‘Son­net Bur­gundy’, ‘Son­net Crim­son’, ‘Son­net ‘Carmine’ and ‘Son­net Son­net Orange Scar­let’

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