Gardening: Colour fast

Sowing hardy annuals is the simplest and most rewarding kind of gardening, says Sarah Raven. All you need for years of flowers is 15 minutes, some soil, a fork, a rake and seed

IT'S SUNNY. You're lying on your back on the lawn and you can see all around you the papery flowers of corn poppies, brilliant orange and yellow marigolds, blue cornflowers and the seed pods of nigella, which look like a green version of cheese footballs. Criss-crossing between the plants in the garden are rivers of scarlet, orange and blue. In one or two places, clumps are made with one flower on its own for simple, bold bits of planting. Others have the whole lot mixed up together like flower islands in an old-fashioned cornfield. It's a nice idea, isn't it? And it's very easy to do.

Hardy annuals live for a year, germinating, growing roots and leaves, flowering and setting seed all within 12 months; and the beauty of them is that they are quick and simple to grow. All you need is 15 minutes, some soil, a fork, a rake and some seed. You can even exchange soil for compost and sow them in pots.

If you are three, 10 or 80 and have never gardened before, this is the place to start. You are guaranteed results if you follow a few basic rules and you'll have lots to show for your time. Most hardy annuals seed themselves all round the garden. Once you've sown them this year, they will appear for ever after. The beauty of DNA.

With most of them it is best to sow straight into the soil when the spring sun has begun to warm it up after the winter freeze. You don't need to wait until May when the frosts have finished. These plants are hardy, so try to get sowing as soon as possible. Pick a sunny, open site. Create a fringe around your lawn or thread a river of flowers between shrubs and herbaceous perennials. Don't make anything that is small and fussy. You want swathes of colour at least 1m (3.5ft) across.

It is important to sow into a weed-free soil. Weeds will compete with your seedlings for light, water and food, so you must get rid of these before you start. Carefully hand-weed the soil. You must also have a fine tilth before you sow. This sounds scary and horticultural, but don't panic: all it means is that you need a soil where the top 10-15cm (4-6in) has a fine, crumbly consistency, with no big lumps and clods of earth.

You achieve this in the small areas where you are going to sow your annuals by digging in a few spadefuls of composted coir or mushroom compost, which you can buy by the bag at any garden centre. Lay it on 5-8cm (2-3in) thick over the area you are going to work and dig it in, whacking any lumps with the back of your fork. Rake the soil in one direction, breaking up any remaining clods of earth with the back of the rake and removing any stones. Do the same at right angles. This will leave you with a fine top layer of soil, with a light, airy consistency, and will guarantee success.

Once you have finished, avoid treading on the soil again, so as not to compress out the newly added air. Work from a path or plank. A plank distributes your weight over its whole length so that you won't undo all your hard work by compacting the soil where you stand.

Now you can sow. Go for a single packet of seed of each plant - there will be enough in one packet for two or three clumps of approximately 75cm sq (1sq ft). Fill a bottle with sand and use this as a pourer to mark out a grid on the soil, or make a series of short parallel lines spaced about 30cm (1ft) apart on the soil surface. Then make a shallow trench in the sand with the rake handle, about 1cm (0.5in) wide and 1cm (0.5in) deep; the larger the seed, the deeper the trench. Sow the seed as thinly as possible, individually placing it, if you easily can. Cover the seed with soil and press it down firmly with the palm of your hand all the way down the line.

At this stage, you must remember to water. You want a good deluge to displace any air pockets immediately around the roots as they need nutrients close to hand. The sand will still be obvious and will act as your marker as the seeds germinate, helping you to differentiate seeds from weeds. Do not broadcast seed; when plants germinate all over the place, it is very difficult to tell what's what and you will be weeding out your seedlings and watering your weedlings.

Within a couple of weeks, you should see some tiny seedlings that look like mustard and cress appearing. At this stage all seedlings look much the same. In another week or two they will develop true leaves, those that are typical of the mature plant. Once these have three pairs of true leaves, it is time to thin your seedlings. Find a good, strong-looking plant at the beginning of the line and use this as your starting point. Select chunky seedlings at 15-20cm (6-8in) intervals and remove any others. Firm the soil around the remaining plants, as their roots will have been disturbed by the removal of their neighbours. Watering also helps to displace air pockets and settle them in.

If you fail to thin them, it's not the end of the world: what you will get is lots of smaller etiolated plants that cannot grow to full-size because there is too much competition. They will not be as strong and will stop flowering more quickly than those given their proper space.

Within two or three months you will have clouds of flowers. The plants will keep going longer if you pick from them. Just remember with the corn poppies to sear their stem ends in boiling water for 30 seconds, then they'll last in water like the others for four or five days. It's as rewarding as gardening gets.

For a selection of hardy annuals particularly chosen for cutting, telephone Sarah Raven's Cutting Garden, Perch Hill Farm, Brightling, Robertsbridge, East Sussex TN32 5HP. Tel 01424 838181, Fax 01424 838571, e-mail Ravenflora@aol.com

Suffolk Herbs has a good seed list of wild and cottage flowers, including many hardy annuals. Monks Farm, Coggeshall Rd, Kelvedon, Essex CO5 9PG. Tel 01376 572456, Fax 01376 571189

This week

1 Now is the time to be sowing carrots, beetroot, radishes, lettuce, Swiss chard and other hardy vegetables direct into the soil in the garden. The key to success with these is again to sow as thinly as possible into a fine tilth. With carrots in particular, you want to avoid thinning if you can. Uprooting carrot seedlings releases the smell which attracts carrot fly to the crop still in the ground, and you don't want these insects munching through your harvest before you can

1 NEXT WEEK: PLANTING UP POTS

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