An Annual Affair

An Annual affair –  sow the seeds of a colourful summer  (Wealden Times Feb 2014)

Growing annuals is one of the most satisfying, productive and

inexpensive things to do.  It is instant gardening from the palm

of your hand: like magic and (for me at least) it’s totally addictive.

So if you’ve never grown annuals before, then this is the time to

start thinking about it, and if you already do, you’re probably

scanning the catalogues (what could be better than a nice fat seed

catalogue to browse through on a winter’s night?) and rustling

packets of seed in anticipation.

Most annuals flower in the summer and have a long season of interest, providing you can stop them from setting seed. They only live for a few months and because life is short, they must reproduce as quickly as possible. This is why annuals make such good candidates for a cutting garden; they positively thrive on being picked - in fact, if they’re not regularly dead-headed, they will consider that their life’s work is done – the seed is set and the next generation secure, there’s nothing left for them to live for. So picking them is really doing them a favour.  But before we start picking, there are some basics to consider:

Hardies and half hardies

                                                                                Like cheerfulness on stalks, Hardy annuals are quintessential,          

                                                                                care free cottage garden stalwarts and plants like Sweet Peas,   

                                                                                Poppies, Sunflowers, Love-in-a-mist, and Marigolds are hard to

                                                                                beat. They’re simple to grow, colourful and attractive to

                                                                                beneficial insects too. If you are new to gardening, or want to     

                                                                                get the children involved, they are the most rewarding seeds –

                                                                                ready to burst into growth from the moment you plant them.

                                                                                They can be sown directly into the soil too, so no fiddly

                                                                                 transplanting or hardening off is needed.  For the earliest

                                                                                 flowers, sow in the autumn (sorry, yes that was last autumn), but spring sowings will do their best to catch up so don’t worry.  Half-hardy annuals are tender and won’t tolerate frost, coming from hotter climates than ours. In fact some of them aren’t annuals at all, but short-lived perennials that can’t manage our winters.  They need warmth for germination and should be kept under cover until conditions warm up in late spring.  They are well worth growing though, and will bloom ‘til they bust from June until the first frosts.  Cosmos, Cleome, Zinnia, Nicotiana are among the best of the bunch.

Cutting Garden

Annuals are an absolute must for the cutting garden because they flower endlessly – stop picking and they pack up – so more is more.  You will need two types of plant for a cutting garden – show stopping focal points and background fillers and foils. Fabulous focals include Cosmos, Sunflowers, Tithonia, Zinnia, even annual Dahlias.  Airy umbelifers are great mixers with their frothy flat heads and in this category Amni majus and  Orlaya grandiflora are hard to beat.  For richer planting schemes Dill works well and makes a great mass of Chartreuse umbels that look good next to Sunflowers, dark Dahlias and Cosmos ‘Dazzler’  Ricinus communis ‘Impala’ is a useful foliage plant for structure (be careful it has VERY poisonous seeds) and Buplerum rotundifolium is another useful foliage filler.

Meadow mix

If you have a large patch of ground that you want to cover

quickly, annuals sown together to make a pictorial meadow can

look wonderful (remember the Olympic park?) If you’re

making a meadow with hardy annuals, the seed can be sown

directly – just scatter onto weed-free prepared ground (ie rake

the soil until it’s the consistency of crumble topping – known

as a fine tilth), then scatter your mix of meadow seeds. Poppies

and Cornflowers aren’t the only candidates for a meadow.  Many

of the more exotic, tender annuals like Cosmos and Cleome

originated in meadows, growing wild in places like South Africa

or America, so they also lend themselves to being planted in a

loose, ‘meadowy’ style. 

Climbers and creepers

                                                                                            These are very useful for creating instant impact when

                                                                                            trained over structures, fences, walls and even left to

                                                                                            sprawl through shrubs.  I use a lot of annual climbers in

                                                                                            the vegetable garden to give structure height and colour. 

                                                                                            They also supply nectar for beneficial insects and

                                                                                            pollinators. Morning Glory (Ipomea purpurea) Sweet

                                                                                            Peas (Lathyrus odoratus), Black Eyed Susan (Thunbergia

                                                                                            alatus), Spanish flag (Ipomea lobata)  even climbing

                                                                                             beans (originally grown just for their flowers) with the

                                                                                             added bonus of edible pods.


The good news is that annuals germinate very easily and will pop up readily – some almost overnight, which is very gratifying.  The problem tends to be that we all sow far too many (you really don’t have to use the whole packet of seed at once – seeds keep for a long time), Watch that you don’t overcrowd them, and that you are able (and have the space) to thin/prick them out and look after them.  Hardy annuals can be sown directly, but you may want to sow them under cover, to protect them from pests and the vagaries of our weather (they will rot if it’s too cold and damp out there).  Half hardies need heat for germination and must stay under cover until the frosts have passed; sow them in seed trays somewhere warm and light (a north=facing windowsill is fine). If you’re really keen, a heated propagator is a good investment.  Once the seedlings are big enough to handle, separate them into individual pots or (if they’re hardy) plant outside.  Remember that they’ll grow fast, so give them enough elbow room in their final positions.

Collecting seed

As autumn approaches stop all the frantic dead heading, allow your plants to finally do the job they’ve been itching to do all year and prepare to reap the benefits.  Some will generously self-seed around the place on their own – Poppies, Love-in-a-mist and Marigolds are very proficient, but it’s deeply satisfying (at that instinctive, hunter-gatherer level) to go out on a golden autumn day with some paper bags or envelopes (I use little brown wage envelopes) and collect your own seed.  Just make sure that you collect perfectly ripe, dry seeds and store them in cool, dry conditions until the following spring – oh and don’t forget to label your envelopes…

Growing a few annuals is a great way to start the gardening year - whether in pots, in border gaps, up obelisks, over arches, or whole meadows full. Every garden can benefit from an injection of annual cheerfulness. 

My top 5 annuals:

Cosmos bipinnatus (either ‘Dazzler’ in deep carmine pink, or the lovely white ‘Purity’) – Cosmos is a brilliant easy going, large-flowered annual that works well in nearly every situation and makes a great cut flower too. Half hardy, so germinate indoors and protect from frost.

Nicotiana ‘Lime Green’ – if you sow this from seed you’ll be amazed that a plant giving you non-stop flowers all summer long grows from what looks like a speck of dust. Another half hardy annual.

Lathyrus odoratus (Sweet Pea) – fragrant, blousy, superb as a cut flower and an essential part of a cottage garden.  Sow in spring or autumn

Amni majus – like well behaved Cow Parsley with large frothy, pure white umbels

Helianthus annuus (Sunflower) – just looking at them makes you smile.  Protect from mice and slugs if sowing directly into the soil.

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