Mind the May gap

GARDENS: Plant annuals now to give them a head start

GARDENS:Plant annuals now to give them a head start. Here's a selection that will give your borders bursts of colour next year

AFTER THIS YEAR’S chilly apology for a summer, I’m pinning my hopes resolutely on the future. Next year, of course, will be better. But, just to ensure that it will be, I’m going to be growing some of the sunniest plants possible. If that orb in the sky doesn’t perform, at least there will be brightness in my borders.

Annuals are the most cheerful of plants. They are also the cheapest to grow: a packet of seed, which will give you dozens (or even hundreds) of plants, costs only a few euro. Most packets have more than enough seed for one garden, so you can save the rest for next year, or divide the contents with a friend. Annuals are plants that (usually) complete their lifecyle in a single year: sprouting, growing up, flowering, and then finally, making their own seed before dying off.

But some annuals, the really hardy ones, can be sown now, which gives them a head start on next year. They’ll sprout within a week or two, and then sit around all winter as tiny little plantlets. They won’t seem to be doing much, but out of sight, on warmer days, their roots will be creeping through the compost or soil, building up a strong foundation for next season’s top-growth.


As soon as increasing light and heat levels signal that it is time to start sprouting again, the roots will pump energy into the leaves and stems above. The resulting plant soon grows strong and full, and is an entirely different beast from the spring-sown annual – which is spindly and slow in comparison. Annuals that are sown now (and into October) are early to flower, so they are a jaunty way of bridging the “May gap”: that limbo between the early euphorbias, bluebells and tulips and the later rush of herbaceous stuff.

I have two favourites: cornflowers and calendulas (also known as English or pot marigolds). When grown together, they make a zingy combination, with the ethereal blue of the first set off by the orange glow of the second. If you are mixing two different species such as this, try to choose varieties that are roughly the same height. I prefer taller annuals, as they weave themselves through a planting scheme, and create a congenial meadowy effect, rather than a stumpy, each-man-for-himself bedding plant look. Breeders, however, are set on developing shorter varieties, so it can be a struggle to find ones with a bit of height. ‘Blue Boy’, ‘Blue Ball’ ‘Blue Diadem’ and ‘Black Ball’ are lofty cornflowers (about 75-90cm): the last is not black, incidentally, but a deep maroon. Tall calendulas include ‘Neon’ and ‘Indian Prince’ (about 75cm): the petals of both are tinged with wine, which gives them a sumptuous appearance.

Calendulas are good nectar and pollen plants, and attract bees and hoverflies. An annual that I grew for the first time this year, and which was a great hit with the furry-backed, common carder bumblebee was Linaria reticulata'Flamenco' (Suttons Seeds), a tiny red and yellow snapdragon.

In fact, almost all annuals are appealing to bees and their ilk, with different species – because of their different size and tongue-length – preferring different flowers. Just avoid the very double varieties with tons of petals, as this extra bulk has often been bred at the expense of the stamens and other reproductive bits (which produce the pollen and nectar). Most also make excellent cut flowers, and will last for a week in a vase, if you pick them first thing in the morning while they are still plump after the cool of the night. The more you cut them, the more they flower.

I start off almost all my annual seeds in modules in the glasshouse, although there are many that can be sown directly into the ground, or in containers outside (see list below). Follow the instructions on the packet regarding depth and spacing. When growing in containers, remember that the plants are barely moving during the winter, so they don’t need a lot of water. Too much and the roots will go soggy and rot. Just a little, and your plants will keep ticking over enough to allow them to zoom into action next spring.

Garden seminar

Saturday, September 24th
: Springmount Garden Centre, Gorey, Co Wexford with Geoff Stebbings (editor, Garden Answersmagazine), Iain MacDonald and Frances MacDonald. I'll be there too, for a Q&A session, and to sign copies of my book, The Living Garden: A Place that Works with Nature. €45 (includes lunch). For details and to book a place, tel: 053-9421368; see also springmount.ie

Annuals to sow now

These need no protection, and can be sown in the open ground, or in containers outdoors (but they will do better in a greenhouse, polytunnel, cloche or cold frame):

Calendula ( Calendula officinalis)

Cornflower ( Centaurea cyanus)

Larkspur ( Consolidaspecies and cultivars)

Viper's bugloss ( Echium vulgare)

Flax ( Linum grandiflorum)

Poached egg plant ( Limnanthes douglasii)

Annual toadflax ( Linaria reticulata)

Love-in-a-mist ( Nigella damascena)

Corn poppy and opium poppy ( Papaver rhoesand P. somniferum)

Scabious ( Scabiosa atropurpurea)

These require the protection of a greenhouse, polytunnel, cloche, cold frame or sheltered corner:

Ammi majusand A. visnaga

Cerinthe major'Purpurescens'

California poppy ( Eschscholzia californica)

Baby's breath ( Gypsophila elegans)

Sweet pea ( Lathyrus odoratus)

Annual mallow ( Lavatera trimestris)