Sowing kit: Seeds of annuals will give a patchy area in your garden some shape and colour

 

Like the sofas and side table in the sitting room, the flower garden at our place is furnished with some big things that mostly stay where they have been put: huge spurges, the fleshy arrow-shaped leaves of arum, fat clumps of monkshood and sea thistle. But among the set pieces, I use different annuals each year, to change the way the whole area looks.

If you've got a bitty patch of planting that does not quite hang together, a swathe of cow-parsleyish ammi or orlaya weaving in and out of the disparate elements in the group may be just the way to make it sing. If you lose perennial plants or shrubs during winter, then a sowing of annuals such as Californian poppies or marigolds will fill the bare space most beautifully, while you decide whether to replace the corpses.

You will perhaps be so enchanted by the gaiety of annual flowers that you'll never go back to the Michaelmas daisies or the viburnum. Annuals are not programmed to do anything but flower; their only imperative is to set seed before the summer ends. Then they die. Hardy annuals, such as the Californian poppy, self seed easily in soil that is light, open and well-drained. The seed usually germinates in autumn, and the plants survive through winter to flower in early summer.

Unlike most annuals, Californian poppies have beautiful foliage, grey, finely cut, mounding up in a way that's far more elegant than your average artemisia. With us, they grow best in an area covered with 6mm gravel, thickly planted with small species tulips and fritillaries. When the tulips are going over, the Californian poppies are accelerating into growth again, so they make good partners.

The wild kind are brilliant orange, but breeders have developed flowers in cream, pink and mauve, frilly doubles as well as the simpler singles. 'Peach Sorbet' (Thompson & Morgan £1.99) has double flowers of pale peach-pink. 'Carmine King' (Chiltern £1.80) is a deeper pink. If you cut stems in the morning before the buds unfurl, the flowers will last several days in a vase.

I raise most annuals in pots (you get much better plants this way), but Californian poppies have carrot-like roots, not easy to transplant successfully, so are best sown direct into the ground. There are three things to remember. First, don't sow too soon. If the soil is still cold and wet, the seed will rot. Second, rake and smooth the soil to make a welcoming bed. A small seed cannot break its way through hefty clods of clay. Third, sow thinly.

Hardy annuals are best sown from mid-April onwards, but some half-hardy annuals can be started in early March in pots under cover. The difference between the two is that seedlings of hardy annuals can usually stagger through winter. Seedlings of half-hardies (snapdragons, spidery cleomes, cosmos, tobacco plants, castor oil plants, French marigold, zinnia) cannot. None of these can be planted outside until the danger of frosty nights has passed.

All of the half-hardies I've just mentioned are superb additions to a flower garden and great for cutting, too. So if you've got a few spaces in your border, start sowing now. Sow, initially, into a 13cm/5in pot of compost that you have first watered and allowed to drain. Cover the seed with a thin layer of vermiculite. I don't use a heated propagator, but if you do, a seed catalogue will generally suggest the temperature to set.

My earliest spring sowing is usually of cleome, the spider flower, which, in the mild autumn of last season, was still looking good in November. I favour the white kind ('Helen Campbell', £1.95 for 80 seeds from Sarah Raven) which, last year, I started off on 3 March. Germination is erratic, but the seed seems to respond best to temperatures that fluctuate as widely as possible between day and night. That's why early sowings usually work better than later ones. But the plants take a long time (minimum 18 weeks) to work up to flowering size, which is another reason to give them an early start.

When the seedlings have grown to a reasonable size and are showing true leaves, you need to separate them and grow them on. It is a pleasing, peaceful job to do, provided you have time to sink into the restful, repetitive nature of the work.

Fill a series of 9cm/4in pots with compost and make a hole with your index finger in the centre of each one. Gently ease a seedling out of its original home, holding it by a leaf, not the stem. Drop the seedling into the hole, not so deep that its first leaves are buried. Firm the soil in the pot with your thumbs and, at the end of the session, water them all. Stand them out under cover and keep them watered until it is time to plant them out. This is unlikely to be before May.

Cleomes bear big, rounded heads of flower with weird spiders' legs sticking out all round. They make robust plants, 120cm/48in tall, more like perennials than annuals, and look terrific mixed with the ever-useful Verbena bonariensis or set against mounds of evergreen Euphorbia characias.

Thompson-morgan.com, 0844 573 1818; chilternseeds.co.uk, 01491 824675; sarahraven.com, 0845 092 0283

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind-the-scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
News
Winchester College Football (universally known as Winkies) is designed to make athletic skill all but irrelevant
Life...arcane public school games explained
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Algo-Developer (BDD/TDD, ASP.NET, JavaScript, RX)

£45000 - £69999 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Algo-Develo...

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, Apache Mahout, Python,R,AI)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Data Scientist (SQL,Data mining, data modelling, PHD, AI)

£50000 - £80000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Data Sci...

Java Developer - 1 year contract

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone