Growbag Blog

Annuals: Giving us all a boost through a choppy old summer


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.

Sweet peas ‘Top to Toe’
‘Top to Bottom’ certainly provided a nice selection of different blooms for a posy

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)

Sweet pea ‘Supersonic’
I loved the heft provided by the sturdy foliage and strong colour palette of ‘Supersonic’

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.

Nicotiana alata
Caroline’s pots of Nicotiana alata were a huge success, pretty by day and heavenly by evening with their sweet nocturnal scent

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 – 

  1. The ‘bedding and ground-cover’ “riot of colour” types, such as petunias, busy lizzies, begonias, osteospermums, candytuft etc.  
  2. 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.  

Fragile annuals would struggle to get a foothold in this company

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.

Ammi majus – the feathery cow parsley I wouldn’t want to be without

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.

A sister in need is a sister indeed, but it didn’t stop Laura being rather superior during her visit!

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!

My Rhodochiton roaring up their bamboo pole right now. Not going to lie, privately even I was surprised by my success with these….

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!

Phacelia – it’s child’s play!

PS Phacelia symbolises strength, endurance and determination – they totally get my vote right now!

More NB If you’d like a bit more gardening chitchat from the3growbags, please type your email address here and we’ll send you a new post every Saturday morning.

By the3growbags

We're three sisters who love gardening, plants and even the science of horticulture but we're not all experts. We'd love everyone even remotely interested in their gardens to be part of our blogsite.

16 replies on “Annuals: Giving us all a boost through a choppy old summer”

Thank you Maureen. I know it’s not an uncommon diagnosis and Im so grateful for all the funding and expertise that has been accumulated towards its treatment. I feel in very safe hands! Thank you for your support X

Caroline, so good to know you have sisterly support, and great to hear from you. Look after yourself, and encourage others to look after you too!

Elizabeth thank you so much. Yes despite their slight bossiness, sisters are such a blessing really. Im pretty much back in the traces now – fantastic treatment from Raigmore Hospital in Inverness and hoping soon to find out that it is all behind me. Thank you very much, your kind message is greatly appreciated, Caroline xx

Caroline , Such good news that your sisters (bossy or not ) are there to give you support when you need it . I also have two sisters but I confess that I’m the bossy one ?. I wish you well with your recovery and for any further treatment required.

Thank you very much Jacky – if only I had just one bossy one! Although Laura was very good at cooking dinners etc she also took the opportunity of doing some plant shopping when she was here and made me do three circuits of Abriachan nursery before I pleaded incapacity and returned to the car! Aren’t we lucky to have sisters! XX

Hi Caroline, wishing all that’s good, including sister and the most beautiful sweet peas. Sounds like you are in good, safe company. I’m happy for you. x

Thank you Scott – yes definitely in safe hands with Raigmore Hospital in Inverness and can depend on my sisters to prevent me from ever feeling sorry for myself! Thank you so much for your support, X

Good luck Caroline and be kind to yourself. Even if it is a small op, and an early diagnosis, it is still a shock and not to be underestimated.

Thank you Mandy yes they say your life is never the same after a cancer diagnosis and I can sort of understand that now. Despite the marvellous outcomes now delivered and the incredible standard of care – it definitely changes your focus and perspective – in a positive way in my case. Thank you so much for your support XX

I like Caroline’s positive attitude. Supportive sisters and a lovely garden – just what the doctor ordered. I look forward to reading of her progress.
My first successful year growing sweet peas and it won’t be the last.

Thank you Linda – that’s so nice of you. Yes you have to see the funny side of it. Unexpectedly my chopped up boob is now bigger than the other one. I assume it’s packed with kapok or something similar! Ever onward, I now have radiotherapy to look forward to but I’m told it’s pretty OK. Im so grateful for the terrific treatment I’ve had. ARen’t sweet peas just the best flower ever! Once grown, forever continued! XX

Best wishes to you Caroline with your treatment and recovery. Thank you to you all for your wonderful newsletter and website. You give great advice and I am always adding new seeds and plants to our collection – thank you. Take Care.

Thank you so much Claire – yes gardening is a fabulous hobby.There really isn’t ‘end stop’…. you can go on learning and growing something new forever, can’t you! Very best wishes, Caroline

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.