The hardy boys of the garden
Autumn-sown plants have a significant headstart on spring-sown, producing larger, more vigorous and much earlier-flowering plants
Summer-flowering annuals picked from Fionnuala Fallon’s garden last week, Calendula ‘Neon’, Ammi visnaga, Briza maxima, Centaurea cyanus ‘Blue Boy, Lathyrus ‘Gwendoline’. Larkspur, pennisetum, and Nigella damascena ‘Deep Blue’ Photograph: Richard Johnson
I’m writing this on the sort of mellow, golden autumn day that, like Frederick the field mouse (the eponymous hero of Leo Lionni’s classic children’s story) makes you want to “gather sun rays for the cold, dark winter days” to come. Like Frederick, I’m also “gathering colours”, taking a bittersweet pleasure in the last of the vivid armfuls of annual cut-flowers that I’ve been handpicking all summer long. For now, their brilliant blossoms still festoon the flower and kitchen garden but by late next month, the first of the autumn storms and icy frosts will almost certainly have arrived to cut these short-lived plants to the ground. Which is why, given the great pleasure that they give, I’ll be sowing seed of many of the same annuals over the next couple of weeks.
These autumn-sown plants will have a significant headstart on their spring-sown equivalents, producing larger, more vigorous, more floriferous and – perhaps most importantly – much earlier-flowering plants. This way, while winter may be fast approaching, I won’t have to wait quite as long for the flowers of summer to return.
Below are some of my favourites. But, first, a few tips: Always sow thinly and at the recommended depth. When direct-sowing into the ground, make sure that it’s into well-prepared, weed-free soil that’s been raked to a fine tilth, so no stones, lumps or garden debris. If the soil is dry, water it well before sowing. Protect vulnerable seedlings from slug/snail damage until they’ve grown large enough to withstand attack, keep well watered, and always thin out to the recommended spacing or you’ll end up with weak plants. All of the plants listed below are hardy annuals that will survive a typical winter unscathed, but if a particularly cold spell threatens, cover the plants with a few layers of horticultural fleece.
Five great, hardy annuals that like to be autumn-sown: Bishop’s Flower or Ammi visnaga: A tall (90cm-120cm), upright plant with lacy, green foliage, this species of bishop’s flower produces large spangles of lime-green starry flowers that gradually open to white. Elegant and understated, both its bee-friendly blooms and foliage are the perfect counterfoil to more zingily coloured flowers such as pot marigolds, cosmos and dahlias. It also makes an excellent cut flower. Direct-sow in September into fertile, moist, well-drained soil in full sun before thinning seedlings to a spacing of 25-30cm. The plants should start flowering the following June and, if kept deadheaded, will continue to do so right through September. Different varieties are available, including A. visnaga “White” (sarahraven.com) and A. “Green Mist” (seedaholic.com) “Love-in-a-Mist” or Nigella: Also known as “Devil-in-the-bush”, this medium-height (45-60cm) hardy annual is a pretty addition to the flower garden, while its distinctive blooms, each surrounded by a halo of lacy foliage, make great cut-flowers. Many different varieties are available, in a range of colours from white to pale blue, inky purple and pink; among the best are Nigella damascena “Deep Blue” and the sky-blue Nigella “Miss Jekyll”. All like a well-drained soil in full sun. To allow autumn-sown plants to properly establish, direct-sow seed as soon as possible.
Pot Marigold or Calendula officinalis: Yes, I know, I’m forever singing the praises of this tough, colourful annual but with good reason; few others can compete with it for ease of cultivation, floriferousness and versatility. Its wildlife-friendly, edible, flame-coloured flowers look as good in the kitchen garden as they do in the mixed border and it will bloom its heart out all summer long if kept regularly deadheaded.
Of the countless different varieties available, I grow “Indian Prince” and “Neon”, both of which produce vivid orange double flowers, although those of Neon are bigger and darker. Direct-sow seed until the end of this month, into a fertile, well-drained soil in full sun.
Annual cornflower or Centaurea cyanus: Once common in the wild, this is another wildlife-friendly, long-flowering, medium-sized annual that does well from a September-sowing, with bright blue flowers atop thin, wiry stems. The colourful petals can be used in salads, as a garnish or in a pot-pourri, while it makes a very pretty cut flower too.
The classic variety is C. “Blue Boy”, while many gardeners (not me) like the sooty-purple C. “Black Ball”. There are also red, pink flowering and white flowering varieties (C. “Red Ball”, C. Pinkie, C. ‘Snowman’), all of which are available from Irish supplier seedaholic.com. Annual cornflowers like a well-drained, not overly fertile soil in full sun.
Sweet pea or Lathyrus odoratus: Early last October I sowed several different varieties of annual sweet pea, growing the individual young plants on in small pots before transplanting them into their final positions in spring. These started producing their deliciously perfumed flowers in June and haven’t stopped since, giving me several generous bouquets of blooms each week. Of the countless varieties available, look out for the lavender-blue “Leamington” and “Ethel Grace”, mauve “Jimmy Shand”, bright-pink “Gwendoline”, pink “Anniversary” and the heritage variety known as “Cupani”. Specialist suppliers include British-based Owl’s Acre Sweet Peas at sweetpea-seed.com.
For best results, soak seed overnight before spreading it out on some sheets of damp kitchen paper indoors to pre-sprout. As soon as it does, carefully sow into root trainers/deep containers before moving these out into an unheated glasshouse/ sheltered spot outdoors to overwinter, giving protection against slugs/ mice.
Transplant plants into their final position in late March/early April, into a very fertile, moist but free-draining, weed-free soil in full sun.
Other hardy annuals that do well from a September-sowing . . . Sweet scabious (Scabiosa atropurpurea), White lace flower (Orlaya grandiflora), Californian poppies (Eschscholzia californica), honeywort (Cerinthe purpurascens) and Ammi majus. lllll