Peak annual has just passed. The month of July tends to be THE month for full scale annual assault, the aftermath of which then continues slowly and steadily right through to the first frosts. Annual plants, for those who are unfamiliar with gardening terms, are plants who undergo their entire life-cycle in one year, or they may be plants that in this climate, are too tender to last the winter but are sufficiently fast-growing enough to get up and put on a display through the summer. Annuals are an incredibly versatile set of plants that can be deployed easily as part of your soft landscaping arsenal. They don't have to all be (and shouldn't be) Petunias and Bizzie Lizzies, they can be incorporated into borders, stand alone mixes, cut flower areas and pot displays and can be grown for structure, foliage, scent or utility. So, Here are a few of my very favourite annuals from this year.
Delphinium consolida 'Misty Lavender'
Known commonly as 'Larkspur'. This is a particularly beautiful and unusual shade. The flowers appear on a flower spike rising to 1.5 m above lovely feathery foliage. Looks best when planted scattered throughout other taller plants like Ammi and makes a beautiful and long lasting cut flower especially when matched with dark oranges and maroons. Cut off spent flower spikes to encourage lower side-spikes to flower.
Sow the seed from Jan-Apr, under glass, DO NOT add bottom heat, as this is a common cause of germination failure in consolida. Do keep out of frost though. Ideally sow these into a cell tray, but if you don't have enough seed to warrant using one, sow into a tray and transplant very gently ensuring care of the roots into small individual pots to grow on. Although these are classed as hardy annuals, to ensure the best possible growth plant out when all frost has passed.
Cynoglossum amabile 'Mystery Rose'
This delicate and very pretty member of the Borage family makes it a perfect annual for use in semi-shade or woodland edge situations. The pale dusky pink flowers are held on nice dark stems which can reach 90cm or more and apparently make a good cut flower. A much more refined plant than Borage and not full of itchy hairs!
Can be sown in trays early in the year, or can be sown in Autumn and grown under cover through the winter to make a nice robust plant to plant out after the frosts. Prick out seedlings and pot into small individual pots to grow on.
Papaver rhoeas 'Mother Of Pearl'
Poppies are your classic annual plant and this particular variety makes an unusual, beautiful addition. 'Mother Of Pearl' selection come in a myriad of shades from purest white through to purple/greys, blue/purples and dusky rose red/pinks, in speckled, blushed, streaked and fully coloured finishes. Papaver rhoeas flowers prolifically and the fragile, gently crumpled flowers are held on delicate stems. Grown best scattered among other plants which will help support them in the Irish rain.
Seeds can be sown in cell trays by sprinkling a tiny pinch of seed per cell and planted out after all frost and plants are big enough to have filled the cell, or seed can be sown directly in drills or by broadcasting and gently raking in, keep seed bed weed-free though! Sow anytime from Mar-May and stagger sowings for longer lasting display.
Nigella hispanica 'African Bride'
Nigella has to be one of my very best favourites of the annual world. They are robust, make a brilliant cut flower and are ornamental and interesting all the way through their life-cycle, where their highly ornamental seed-heads continue to add interest to the border. 'African Bride' is particularly excellent, producing large creamy white flowers with a large, richly dark crown in the centre, which on close inspection is just mind-boggling in its complexity as a structure and morphs into an elaborate space-ship carrying its offspring.
Seed can be sown into cells with two-three seeds per cell and planted out after frost, or sow directly in drills. Best grown among other plants, or mixed with other Nigella varieties to make a lovely path edge. Sow Mar-May
A half-hardy annual, this is a lovely umbel type (it is actually a member of the Araliaceae family). It flowers later in the annual season, so is good for extending your annual display. This plant holds its satisfyingly structured inflorescences on robust stems which are squatter and stouter than a lot of the umbelliferous annuals. Unusually for this type of flower, it is a beautiful pale blue, closing to a tight pinch of flushed red'ish/purple which continues to add textural interest to the border or cut flower display where these flowers make fantastic long-lasting additions.
Sow seed under cover into trays place with gentle bottom heat, potting on seedlings into individual small pots and growing on, plant out when all frost is gone. Sow Mar-Apr
Lathyrus odoratus 'Almost Black'
The Queen of annuals has to be the sweet pea and Lathyrus odoratus 'Almost Black' , has to be one of the best ones to grow. Up until this year I always preferred growing old-fashioned sweet peas like 'Matucana' or 'Flora Norton'. However, this year we experimented with growing a selection of the three main Lathyrus groups, with old-fashioned varieties in one annual bed, Spencer hybrids in another and the modern grandifloras in the third. 'Almost Black' is by far and away the best of the modern grandifloras, bursting with the classic heady sweet pea scent and displaying a profusion of the deepest of dark purple flowers on long, straight stems. In the right light, these are very true to their name and would make a dramatic and modern statement as a display. As with all sweet-pea, strip the plant of fully flowering stems at least once a week when in full production to help keep the plant flowering for months.. and to fill your house with summer lovliness!
Sweet peas are worth a little bit of molly-coddling to ensure a great display, but are not difficult to grow. Begin by soaking seed for a couple of hours before sowing, seeds should show signs of swelling, any that don't, gently 'chip' the hard seed coat with a sharp knife, or place between two sheets of harsh sand-paper and give a bit of a scrub and replace un-swollen seed back in to soak. We sow ours 2-3 seeds per cell in late Autumn, under cover and in root trainer cells. Do not use bottom heat, but allow the plants to germinate and grow away slowly through the winter protected from frost. Pinch out the top growth if plants become leggy by early Spring and if they are filling the root trainers, re-pot into 1-2ltr pots to grow on. Pinching out top growth will help produce a more robust and multi-stemmed plant. Dig good well rotted manure into the planting trench before planting to ensure a good meaty root environment for the plants. Plants can also be topped up with liquid sea-weed feed through the growing season. Plant out once all frost has passed.
Zaluzianskya capensis 'Midnight Candy'
A bit of a mouthful of a name this, but trust me, it's well deserving of the effort. This is classed as a bedding plant and if bedding rings your bells, then yes, Zaluzianskya will do the job if you ask it to. bedding seems to me a great waste of this plant though. The dainty, waxy flowers open themselves out from tight little maroon/black fists to display wonderful snowflake style flowers which exude the most incredible and unusual scent. These plants are low growing and bushy and we have some planted into beaten-up terracotta pots placed out on benches in the pergola, where their scent and beauty can be scrutinised and fully indulged in at eye level.
Sow seeds in trays under cover and transplant seedlings to individual small pots to grow on. Plant out when all frost has passed. Sow Feb-Apr
Calendula officinalis 'Bronze Beauty'
Almost everyone knows Calendula, or 'pot marigold' as Grandad calls them. They are the classic beginners plant, with nice big chunky seed for little fingers to plant, which never fail to germinate some form of healthy looking semblance of a plant, no matter how harshly the handling of it has been. there are so many forms of Calendula that it could be difficult to choose one to grow. This plant, in my mind, straddles the line between utility plant and ornamental. It is grown as a companion plant in potager type veg plots and can be used as an edible flower, as well as being grown as a border plant and cut flower. Some of the chunkier forms don't really do it for me, with big clunky stems and solid coloured, gaudy orange or yellow, lumpy flowers, but 'Bronze Beauty' is a different beasty altogether. grows more elegantly with finer stems, the flowers are made up of narrower petals in a very pale creamy/primrose yellow, flushing pale gold toward its dark centre. The back of the petals are streaked with a sophisticated bronzy/copper which gives the flower much more sex appeal than its relatives.
Very easy from seed, put it in trays and watch it grow! Prick out seedlings when large enough and plant into individual pots to grow on. Calendula will self seed freely though, so you'll probably end up with loads of plants popping up every Spring.
Helianthus annua 'Earthwalker'
Again, the classic annual that everyone knows, probably the first thing that introduced all of us to gardening as a child. The sunflower. This one in particular is a proper beauty! Large sunflower faces on stems up to a 2mt tall, stunning shades of mahogany/coppery/bronzy lushness.
Plant seed under cover in individual peat-pots and plant entire thing out after all frost. Plant Apr/May.
Mexican Marigold, yes, same Genus as your typical common and garden Marigold, but a lot different! Towering at up to 8ft, this Tagetes grabs your attention not through the size or snazzyness of its blooms, which are really quite insignificant, but by its sheer size and beautiful finely cut foliage and slender habit. For this reason it makes a fine foliage plant inter-mingled with chunkier plants to add a bit of lightness and break things up. Tagetes minuta is also famed for its ability to control pernicious weeds too. Apparently, bind-weed, couch grass and ground elder all cower from minuta's herbicidal root system. We haven't had the chance to put this reputation to the test (because we have no weeds of course)! You don't often see this brilliant plant in a garden, so well worth trying even just to have something your neighbour doesn't know about.
I found the seed of this to be a little tricky, but that may have been down to viability, as Tagetes do tend to be very easy to get away. Having said that, they are a very fine seed, so as a rule of thumb, only barely cover with soil, as they need light to germinate. Sow in Feb-Apr, under cover with some bottom heat and prick out seedlings when big enough and grow on in individual pots. Only plant out when all danger of frost is gone, as this is a half-hardy, so really won't like the cold.
Ricinis communis 'Carmencita'
Technically, Ricinis is a perennial and in its native tropical environments can reach epic dimensions. Here in Ireland though, it is grown as an annual and is a classic addition to bedding schemes as a 'dot' plant. Again, such a wasteful way to use this stunning plant! Ricinis fairly romps away as soon as it tucks its feet into soil and will soon fill an area 2 x 1 metres, with leaves of impressive size, shape and lustre. In late summer strange pricky, spherical 'flowers' are produced on sturdy stems. There are many cultivars of Ricinis available and all of them are garden worthy. The only downside of this plant is its extreme poison content. You probably should avoid growing this if you have animals or children who have a habit of chowing down on vegetation and care should be taken when sowing seed, as these contain the highest concentrations of Ricinoleic acid, yes, the same poison loved by the KGB. Wash hands after handling, just to be on the safe side!
Due to the speed at which these plants grow, only sow seed from April at the earliest. Soaking seed for a few hours first can help kick them off. Plant two to a 9cm pot and add bottom heat. Within a few days these bad boys will push their freakish seed leaves out of the compost, often shoving the top cm or so of soil out of the pot. Once they look suitably up for it (a week or so), separate the plants into their own pots. Unlike most seedlings, Ricinis is vigorous and large enough to cope with going straight into 1ltr pots, in fact, they need the space. Keep potting on plants until all risk of frost is gone, then unleash the beasts into the earth!
Finally, I bring you an annual climber, Well, technically another tender perennial grown here as an annual, though we did have one in the garden survive into the next year, but it was a half hearted thing. Cobaea is a wonderful, fast growing, strongly twining climber, also known as the cup and saucer vine, due to its large cup shaped flowers that would actually be sturdy enough to fill with liquid, though you probably shouldn't bother. The blooms appear in either a lovely dusky purple, or a creamy green/white, both of which make brilliantly fun adornments to a garden. Flowers are followed by equally delightful seed-pods that dangle like massive green insect eggs.
Soak seed in warm water for a few hours before sowing and remove the resulting gloop from the seed with a piece of kitchen towel. Sow seeds in a tray, on their edges with the top edge only just below the surface of soil. Add gentle bottom heat. pot on when large enough to individual small pots to grow on. plant out when all risk of frost has passed. Sow Jan-Mar.
The above seed suggestions can all be sourced from these companies, worth compiling a list for next year! Of course, you can save your own seed too once you have the plants, which is even more rewarding.