Most of us have a bash at a few annuals each year, and in some gardens they are the colourful mainstay of summer beds and pots. The hardy ones can be sprinkled outdoors in early spring whilst others benefit from a head start indoors until they can brave the English climate.
I went for the latter type this year and carefully nurtured sweet peas, tobacco plants and sunflowers in my glasshouse until late May. I had furnished Caroline with young plants of each too, and as I was actually on an impromptu visit to her cottage in the Highlands this week it was a good opportunity to see how successful she had been in bringing them on – and I was in for a surprise!
Let’s start with sweet peas – I was trialling two different types from this year, ‘Top to Bottom’ (Thompson and Morgan) and ‘Supersonic’ (Suttons).
‘Top to Bottom’ had definitely done what it said on the packet, and had provided Caroline with a wonderful array of different coloured and shaped flowers to pick fresh each day, and keep her spirits up.
But I preferred ‘Supersonic’ which had much thicker foliage of glaucous green and a sturdier lower, growth form which set off the muted colour palette of the flowers in a very satisfactory manner (although I don’t think Caroline had actually realised she was growing two different varieties until I pointed it out)
The tobacco plants were also a comparison of two types, Nicotiana alata and Nicotiana sylvestris, and here N.alata definitely had its nose in front; it’s common name of jasmine tobacco definitely did it justice.
So far so good, but unfortunately Caroline had chosen to eschew my choice of sunflower, the elegant ‘Claret’ and chosen instead a variety she informed me went under the name of ‘The Magic Roundabout’ – need I say more?
Having miraculously navigated our way through both Brexit and Covid regulations to reach our beloved bolthole in Normandy I wasn’t able to join my two little sisters in Scotland this week but I was with them in spirit.
Annuals can definitely bring a welcome air of abundance into a new garden but are trickier to integrate into a more established one and it seems to me that annuals divide into two distinct groups –
- The ‘bedding and ground-cover’ “riot of colour” types, such as petunias, busy lizzies, begonias, osteospermums, candytuft etc.
- The ones that you grow for other reasons beyond mere carpets of colour, such as scent (tobacco plants, sweetpeas, night-scented stocks, heliotrope..), cut flowers (eg. gerberas, zinnias, Rudbeckia hirta, Calendula), pollinating insects (scabious, cornflowers, Cerinthe, borage), or height (black-eyed Susan, morning glory, Cobaea scandens etc.)
My boisterous patch in Normandy is not the sort of place where anything in the first group would survive for long, I don’t think, let alone look happy. They would be too busy fighting off the vigorous perennials and shrubs to do what they’re born to do. But there are a couple of annuals I would never be without, because despite their fluffy appearance, they are tough enough to cope with life in the main flower borders, and cover at least three of categories mentioned in group B.
Both Ammi majus and Cosmos bipinnatus are tall, have very pretty feathery foliage, make wonderful cut flowers and are super- popular with pollinating insects. What’s more, they will flower all summer long if you keep deadheading them, and Ammi will happily self-seed gently, making a gorgeous semi-permanent patch of delightful cow-parsley-like white umbels.
My contribution to Caroline’s comforting profusion of annuals had been to nip the tops out of her home-grown cosmos on our last visit back in May to make them bush out and judging from the photo that is our feature picture this week, this had paid dividends.
Laura’s ‘impromptu visit’ last week was actually a hastily planned mission to support me during a small operation to tackle my breast cancer diagnosis. As some of you may know, it’s not the best experience of one’s life. On the plus side July is the perfect month to be in ‘dressing gown’ mode and I’ve been drifting around my own sweet peas, cosmos and sunflowers like a founding member of the Bloomsbury set.
These half hardy annuals aren’t quite as easy as my favourite annuals (nasturtiums of course) but once you’ve got the hang of sowing, potting on and pinching them out they’re quite achievable even for someone of my horticultural reputation.
A reputation that, despite her resolution to be nice to me all week, prompted Laura’s undisguised surprise when she discovered I’d also germinated some Rhodochiton (annual climber) this year. Indeed the seeds arrived in one of those intimidatingly small phials that generally guarantee failure for me. But I sought advice from the two know-it-alls, and duly added some sand to my phial of seeds, tipped the lot into a seed tray and hey presto! Up they came!
Personally my absolute top tip for annuals has to be phacelia. Please everyone, get a packet for next year. While I generally find Laura’s cheerful ‘sprinkle them outdoors’ to be suicidal advice in my garden (I never see them again), it works with these – they simply refuse to be swamped by the big boys/girls/gender neutrals. They require absolutely NO maintenance, they’re totally abuzz with bees and seed themselves all over the place so you’re sorted for next year!
PS Phacelia symbolises strength, endurance and determination – they totally get my vote right now!
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