Nina Marshall urges designers to consider using more annuals and biennials in their schemes
Annuals can offer such versatility in the garden, showing off the most intricate of flowers to giving bold height at the backs of borders. They can make a big difference quickly - some species can be in flower just eight weeks from sowing. Each year we grow a vast selection of annuals on our own trial field, always sowing directly the first week of May, with flowers forming from June. They also have an impact over a long period - many stay with us and flower until October. The majority can be also grown as cut flowers providing wonderful fresh vases all summer long – something in demand from many homeowners these days.
If you want to shake up your planting schemes with an injection of something new and exciting, here are a few of our must-haves that are worth the effort of growing from seed.
Nice and new
Amaranthus paniculatus ‘Oeschberg’, fox tail amaranthus, is a rather splendid ornamental addition to the garden. An erect annual with dark purplish foliage, it bears showy blood-red spikes of flowers that not only decorate the border but, fresh or dry, make exciting vase material. Also, the leaves are edible and a good substitute for spinach.
Upon visiting flower farmers last year, we heard rumours that the annual aster, Callistephus chinensis, was making a comeback in the cut flower market, and now packets of our new ‘King Size’ series have been winging their way across the country. New for 2019, two colours, ‘Appleblossom’ and ‘Apricot’, coincide with the sought-after buff colour palette. This series is also bred to be a little taller at 90cm. We’re sure we will be seeing these beautiful blooms included in show gardens later this year. Helpfully, they are very quick to germinate (1-2 weeks) and will make happy neighbours next to established perennials or in containers.
Over the past two years we have also seen a big growth in biennials being grown from seed. Often biennials can be some of the most beautiful plants you can grow, and rewarding, with blooms appearing in early spring and continuing into the summer.
Digitalis purpurea ‘Pam’s Choice’ is the most stunning heritage foxglove. Breeders across the world have been working hard with different colour combinations on this species and the Polkadot Series has expanded this year. Sowing outdoors from April to September for flowers the following spring. However, for the impatient, we recommend the Dalmation Series, the fastest Digitalis on the market, flowering from seed in its first year. This collection also grows slightly shorter (50cm) giving the garden designer more choice as to where to feature within a garden.
We cannot mention biennials without including the beloved wallflower, Erysimum cheiri, available in a range of single colours or as a complementary mix. It is very easy to grow and rewarding; indeed we have found they respond beautifully to the sow-and-forget technique - bare patches sown with the absolute minimum of fuss in mid-August started flowering the following April. Their delightful, sweet scent will be the welcoming start of the season ahead.
Nicotiana sylvestris, tobacco plant, is popular for good reason. Growing to an impressive 1.5m tall, this annual gives instant height to the garden and is also suitable for a partial shade location. It bears clusters of drooping, tubular, white, fragrant flowers. It holds the RHS AGM and is loved by pollinators too.
Cerinthe major var. purpurascens, honeywort, is a smaller plant but is sophisticated and subtle. It has rather fleshy, blue-green leaves that as they work their way up the stems change gradually to purple. The flowers are quite different from anything else in the garden - tubular and dark purple-blue with quite a border-filling spread. Growing to 60cm tall, this is suitable for any garden.
Nina Marshall is customer advisor at Chiltern Seeds.