Country & Garden: To plant for all seasons

Sow hardy annuals in autumn for bushy spring specimens raring to go, says Ursula Buchan
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I HAVE never understood why sowing hardy annuals in spring is recommended to gardening novices by wiseacres because they think it a confidence-boosting activity that can scarcely go wrong. Speaking personally, I still find the business by no means a certain thing.

If I sow the seed in April, as you should, when the soil is losing its chill, the plants end up often too sparse to fill the ground properly. They are easily choked with weeds and even easier to weed out accidentally and, when they do come into flower, they huddle in isolated groups looking pale, spindly and undernourished, reminding me strongly of pre-war photographs of slum children.

I blame my comparative lack of success partly on the weather in the past few years, which on the whole has meant a succession of rather wet, cold springs (ensuring that a proportion of the seed rots in the soil before it has a chance to germinate), and partly, it must be owned, on my lack of careful attention at what is the very busiest time of year. So, in that part of my garden where the soil is comparatively light and free- draining, I have taken to sowing some hardy annuals in early autumn, so that they have time to sprout and grow some leaf before winter, and then flower earlier and with more conviction in the summer.

Sowing hardy annuals in September, when the soil is still warmer than it will be in April, leads to good bushy plants by the following May and, during the winter, soil covered with decorous greenery that would otherwise be bare. The clincher for me, however, is that the seed is comparatively cheap so, if a really cold snap or wet spell does for them, I lose little more than the use of my time, and I still have another chance to sow in the spring.

I cannot recommend this method too highly if you garden in an area of lowish rainfall, and relatively mild winters.

Hardy annuals, as I do not need to say, are those plants which are capable of going through their entire life cycle - from seed to seed, as it were - within one growing season. They tend (although I am conscious that this is a generalisation) to make more delicate, less lumpish, plants than the well-known, half hardy annuals such as petunias, begonias and African marigolds, having a charm which comes from single, open, sometimes scented flowers, and bright but not eye-stingingly garish colours.

They won't solve your planting problems, for they can never be used as the basis of a scheme, but they are invaluable for dibbling into spare, though reasonably sunny, patches of ground. They are the delicate spun- sugar icing on the cake, not the cake itself.

The very hardy plants which are suitable for autumn sowing, include many cottage garden favourites - love-in-a-mist (nigella), marigolds (calendula), annual candytuft (iberis), poached-egg plant (limnanthes), annual poppies, cornflowers (centaurea), eschscholzia, echium, godetia, Virginia stock, and Clarkia pulchella.

If you have no surplus seed saved from spring sowings, find the most reliably hardy ones on the display racks of the garden centres, or send off to one of the seed companies such as Unwins (01945 588 522). Many of the firms provide an autumn catalogue these days.

Within the next month or so, clear the area to be sown of weeds and perhaps any flagging half-hardy summer bedding, and prick over the soil with a border fork. Scatter bonemeal, a slow release fertiliser, at a rate of two ounces a square yard.

Next, rake the soil lightly and evenly and, if you are sowing more than one kind of plant, define different areas with sprinkled lines of silver sand (available from garden centres). Sow the seed by rolling a pinch of it through the thumb and forefinger of your hand, so that it falls fairly evenly, and rake the soil gently once more. Once the seed has germinated, try to keep the area free of weed seedlings like hairy bitter cress and groundsel.

Not surprisingly, many of the hardy annuals I have mentioned are capable of seeding themselves, as they produce seed which germinates well immediately it is ripe. That being the case, don't be in any hurry to tidy the spent plants the following autumn, but allow them to shed their seed.

Then take care not to remove any seedlings which come up, for although some (well, perhaps a lot actually) will be weeds, there will be almost certainly limnanthes, eschscholzia, papaver, and nigella there as well. Their appearance will save you a job and, should you need it, give a boost to your confidence as well.