An Alphabet of Annuals

A blog about growing annuals from seed

H is for Hesperis

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I didn’t really take any notice of Hesperis matronalis, or sweet rocket, until I saw it growing in Helen Dillon’s garden a few years ago. She had used the purple form in the same way as Verbena bonariensis – dotted around a border, weaving in and out of other bulbs and perennials as a filler plant. It can be overpowering in dense clouds, but used sparingly it is lovely, with a very natural look. William Robinson described it as ‘among the most desirable of hardy flowers’ in The EnglishFlower Garden in 1883; I would be less effusive and say that it was one of the most useful of hardy plants – for its ability to grow in both sun and shade, and for its willingness to mingle happily with a whole host of other plants that flower around the same time in early summer. It looks especially good among strong shapes – alliums, irises, oriental poppies.

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Also known as dame’s rocket, rogue’s gillyflower or summer lilac, Hesperis is a biennial that comes from southern Europe and Western Africa, but it has been cultivated in Britain since medieval times. Hesperis is Greek for ‘evening’, named because of its evening scent. These tallish plants, growing up to a metre or more, are related to the mustard family and are classified as brassicas (like cabbages or Brussels sprouts) – and in fact the small flowers can be eaten, scattered on salads or floated in summer drinks. The scented late spring flowers in whites, pinks and mauves are magnets to bees and butterflies, and it is a fantastic plant for a natural garden as like honesty it self-seeds everywhere. (By the same token this can be a nuisance if you don’t want it everywhere, so weeding out excess seedlings is advisable). It is also happy in some shade – an easy-to-please plant that you can’t go wrong with.

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There isn’t much choice in terms of cultivars. H. matronalis is usually pale lavender-purple, while ‘Alba’ is white. Less commonly grown are double forms like ‘Alba Plena’ – I have never grown this but pictures I’ve seen make it look more like a top-heavy phlox, and I prefer the simplicity of the single flowers. Growing hesperis is easy – you can either direct sow in late spring to flower the following year, or sow indoors in early spring, to be planted out later. Plant into a fairly rich, well-drained soil, and when sowing, only cover the seeds with the lightest smidgen of soil as they need some light to germinate.

G is for Gypsophila

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The perennial Gypsophila paniculata or ‘baby’s breath’ is the fluffy white confection seen in traditional flower arrangements, often paired unimaginatively with carnations. This is a perennial flower from the Mediterranean, grown in Britain since the 18th century and highly popular in Victorian times. But there is an annual form of gypsophila that is altogether more elegant and airy: G. elegans ‘Covent Garden’. This has sweet, white flowers with greenish eyes in the centre, held on an open, semi-transparent network of wiry stems growing to about 50cm high. In the garden, the plants are a useful foil to other larger blooms, and the flowers are also excellent for cutting, lasting well in the vase. There are rose-pink and red forms of G. elegans (‘Rosea’ and ‘Kermesina’) but for me these would be too sickly sweet, like candyfloss. White is simpler, airier and altogether more tasteful.

 Gypsophila elegans 'Covent Garden'

You can grow this gypsophila with almost anything. I grew it with cerinthe last year which was a lovely dark foil to its light airiness – and the plants age well too, with the little round seedheads lasting well into autumn. The seed is best sown outside where it is to flower, ideally in a sunny, open spot in soil that is very well drained. Sow seed thinly into soil that has been raked to a fine tilth, and thin to a final spacing of about 30cm.

F is for Forget-me-Not

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In early spring the humble biennial forget-me-not is the easiest filler plant, a pretty foil for tulips and other spring bulbs.  The name comes from a German folk tale about a knight who picked the flowers for his sweetheart as they strolled by the river. Tragedy struck and the knight fell into the water, but before he drowned he threw the flowers to his love, crying ‘forget me not’. Coleridge famously referred to the flower in his 1802 poem ‘The Keepsake’:

Nor can I find, amid my lonely walk
By rivulet, or spring, or wet roadside
That blue and bright-eyed flowerlet of the brook,
Hope’s gentle gem, the sweet Forget-me-not!

Myosotis sylvatica, the British wood forget-me-not, is the species that most of us grow, flowering in April and May.  Many forms are available including white and pink varieties, but the best are the blues – Myosotis sylvatica ‘Blue Sylva’ has pretty sky-blue flowers with a yellow eye, while ‘Mon Amie Blue’ is a paler shade of blue. ‘Snowsylva’ is the best white form.

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Growing these flowers couldn’t be easier – the seeds germinate readily and should be scattered on the ground where you want them to flower. Sow seed in late spring or early summer, remembering that they are biennials and won’t flower until the following year. Once the seedlings appear, thin them carefully so that there is about 15cm between each plant, and then watch and wait. If they like where they are they will self seed, weaving in and out of other plants in the most natural way. This year I have managed an accidental combination of blue forget-me-nots with white honesty and tulips ‘Blushing Girl’ and ‘Queen of the Night’ – it works beautifully.

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E is for Eschscholzia

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Eschscholzia californica, less cumbersomely known as the Californian poppy, is one of the easiest and most satisfying annuals you can grow. (Although technically a perennial, it is grown in the UK as an annual because of its ability to flower so quickly from seed in one season). Sow the seed by broadcasting in autumn or early spring and by mid-summer you’ll have drifts of flowers in the most intense orange you’ve ever seen. Perhaps too unsubtle for a ‘tasteful’ flower border, they are great for allotments or a relaxed cottage-style planting scheme: I’ve had them on my allotments for as long as I can remember and they come back year after year, muscling other annuals out if I’m not careful, but always bringing with them a sense of bright cheerfulness. Their flower heads unfurl from long narrow buds like parasols, held above ferny foliage. Even their elongated seedheads are attractive.

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Eschscholzia was named after a Russian doctor named Johann Eschscholz, who was one of the first Europeans to discover the plant in California in 1815. The plant is now the state flower of California, and grows abundantly there on sunny, rocky hillsides. Its native habitat gives a clue to the best growing conditions: well-drained, dry and even quite poor soils are best. If you have a heavy soil, incorporate masses of sharp sand or pea shingle before scattering the seed.

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If the bright orange of the species demands sunglasses, you can opt for something more subtle in colour, with several cultivars now available in pinks, deeper oranges, even white (E. californica ‘Alba’ or ‘Ivory Queen’). ‘Peach Sorbet’ has double pale peach fowers like pleated chiffon, while ‘Rosebud Orange’ is another double with 0ld-fashioned-looking dark orange flowers. ‘Mikado’ is next on my list to try from Chiltern Seeds, with deep orange flowers, scarlet on the reverse of the petals: sumptuous and rich, and maybe a tad more refined than the fiery red-head orange of the species.

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D is for Dill

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Dill, of course, is grown and used as a herb – the perfect accompaniment to smoked salmon – but its umbels of acid-yellow flowers look great in the border too, particularly with the other cow parsley types that are so fashionable at the moment like ammi and anthriscus. Growing to about 70cm tall, it is slender and delicate; the cultivar ‘Mariska’ is known as the florist’s dill because is it more robust, with tighter clusters of flowers. Technically it’s a perennial, but it isn’t hardy so in this country it is grown as an annual. These photographs by Sabina Ruber show its amazingly engineered form – its parasol flower heads explode outwards from a central stem, with each wiry sub stem itself bursting out into another mini-umbel. Nature at its architectural best.

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Sow dill in spring either direct into the ground or in 7cm pots to be planted out later in the season. If you have plenty of plants, use some for harvesting the ferny leaves, with others left to flower and seed. Other edible plants with similar, attractive umbellifer flowers include parsnips, which are biennial – leave a few in the ground after winter and they will throw up yellow-green flowers in late spring. Cleve West used them to great effect in his Chelsea Flower Show garden in 2011.

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C is for Cosmos

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Cosmos is possibly my favourite summer annual, easy and immensely satisfying to grow with fresh-green ferny seedlings that develop over a matter of weeks into substantial plants, some of which eventually reach 4-5ft tall. Originating in Mexico and South America, they are tender plants that baulk at the slightest frost – but by the time the first cold weather arrives they will have more than earned their keep in the garden, flowering continually if you keep cutting them. Cosmos can of course be found as plants in the garden centre – but you’ll soon discover that the range of colours and varieties is much wider when grown from seed, from deep ruby-crimson to eggshell white, with picoteed, quilled and ruffled flowers also thrown in to the mix.

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Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Purity’

The easiest and most elegant cosmos to slot into a border is C. bipinnatus ‘Purity’, which has snow-white flowers on tall willowy stems. If you grow a few clumps of this, with five or seven plants in each, you’ll never be short of cut flowers for the kitchen table. It looks particularly good with Ammi, Nicotiana ‘Lime Green’, and other green-flowered stalwarts like alchemilla or bupleurum. Another good white one is ‘Psyche White’, which has semi-double, slightly ruffled flowers – a bit more interesting than ‘Purity’ without being vulgar or over the top. I bought a packet of ‘Psyche White’ seed from the garden centre last year and it was the best-performing cosmos of the year.

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‘Versailles Tetra’

Of the darker varieties, ‘Rubenza’ has the most striking flowers the colour of red wine in the centre, lightening to carmine-pink on the petal-edges, and contrasting with a gold boss in the centre. ‘Versailles Tetra’ is a lighter pink, but with an even more pronounced dark ring around the central eye. Moving sideways into something more exotic, ‘Seashells Mixed’ has flowers in shades of  pink, with petals that emerge furled up or quilled, gradually flattening out as they age, while ‘Pied Piper’ is a deep red form with similar quilled petals. Another of my favourites is the semi-double ‘Sweet Sixteen’, which has palest pink blooms with picotee edges and a delicate frill in the centre. ‘Daydream’ is also lovely, pale pink with a darker centre.

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‘Sweet Sixteen’

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‘Daydream’

All those mentioned so far are cultivars of Cosmos bipinnatus. There is another, quite different cosmos that has popped up recently that is more akin to the Californian poppy in colour. Cosmos sulphureus ‘Bright Lights’ has a mixture of single and double flowers in zingy shades of orange and yellow. They don’t have the ferny leaves of Cosmos bipinnatus, and are shorter in stature, but grown in a sizeable drift they can look spectacular. I grew these for the first time a couple of years ago but didn’t really put in enough plants to make an impact, and the rather pathetic, vertically challenged plants I managed to produce were overtaken by bigger perennials. I’ll have another go this year.

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Cosmos sulphureus ‘Bright Lights’

All cosmos are easy to raise from seed. They can be sown direct in late spring, but I prefer to sow them in small 7cm pots or modules in March or April (or do one early sowing under cover and a later one direct). Sow two seeds to a pot and remove the weaker seedling as they emerge. As the seedlings grow to about 5cm, you can pinch out the tips to produce bushier, sturdier plants. Keep them in a cold frame until the weather warms up, then harden them off by leaving them outside for a week or two before planting out in mid to late May. Give them a sunny, well-drained spot and they will show you how grateful they are.

B is for Bupleurum

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Bupleurum rotundifolium ‘Grifitthii’ is one of those useful foliage plants that once you have you feel you can’t be without – and in fact, happily, you won’t, as it self seeds everywhere from year to year if it is given a space it likes in full sun in well-drained soil. It’s like a euphorbia but without the white sap, with loose umbels of acid green flowers that grow ‘through’ the rounded leaves. It’s not a classic flowery flower, but it’s incredibly useful for cutting, and lightens up a dense border with an injection of fresh green. Growing 50-90cm tall, it has a tendency to flop like a gawky teenager, and needs a home among other mid-height perennials or grasses to give it some framework and support. It looks particularly good with dark blue salvias and perhaps with a grass or two thrown in too - Stipa tenuissima or Pennisetum ‘Hameln’.

Bupleurum rotundifolium 'Griffithii'

Growing bupleurum couldn’t be easier in well-drained soil. The wild form – now quite rare – was in the past an arable weed on chalk or limestone, which explains why it grows so well in my Oxfordshire garden. It is very hardy so can be sown in early spring – March or April – direct into the soil where you want it to flower. If you want back-up, sow a few seeds in modules, so that the plug plant can be moved and planted out without disturbing the roots when large enough. As a postscript it’s worth mentioning a couple of other bupleurums, although they aren’t annuals: B. longifolium ‘Bronze Beauty’ is a perennial with yellowy-green umbels that turn a beautiful coppery bronze in autumn, while B. fruticosum is an evergreen shrub with hard, bobbly flowerheads that are attractive in a different way.

A is for Ammi

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Ammi majus is one of the most useful annuals of all, and one of those plants that has just leapt straight into fashion recently with the swing to a more natural style of gardening. A more subtle form of the common cow parsley, it is what I call a Botox plant – a filler that can be used to bolster and enhance a summer border, colonising all those unsightly bare patches to give the garden a more fluid look. Its delicate white flowers appear to float in weightless clouds above bulbs and other lower storey plants, or weave effortlessly in and out of taller forms as a linking plant, with small clusters of tiny white flowers that explode outwards on narrow stalks; look at the flower head upside down and marvel at the way nature has constructed it.

Ammi majus - Bishops flower

The lesser-known A. visnaga has more densely clustered and domed flower heads, like angelica, and therefore offers slightly more visual interest from a distance. Although it grows to about the same height as A.  majus, between 75cm and 1m tall, it feels meatier and more substantial – less frothy lace and more architecture. The cultivar ‘Green Mist’ has a greener tinge to its flowers, and looks wonderful with purple or blue larkspur. Both ammis are great for cutting – the type of flowers that don’t need any arranging, that will look stunning just shoved in a vase with a few cosmos or nicotiana. Last year I grew both ammis from seed sown under cover in early spring, but they will produce sturdier and taller plants if you sow in trays or pots in September, overwintering the seedlings in a cold frame and planting out in late spring. They can also be sown direct in late spring for a later summer flowering. Both are easy to germinate and need little attention once in the ground.

Ammy visnaga 'Green Mist'

A is for annuals


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A year ago I embarked on a project with the photographer Sabina Ruber, whose beautiful photographs you will see in this blog. We decided to grow as many annual flowers as we could from seed in a year. I had never really bothered with annuals before, having filled my garden with easy-going perennials and grasses that did their own thing year after year. It always seemed a hassle to grow things from seed that would only last for a season and then give up the ghost. But gradually my eye began to tune in to the different things you can grow as annuals –  the way you can just slot them in to fill up a patchy looking border, or use them to fill a bare patch of earth with instant colour. They are good for cutting too, so you can fill your house with armfuls of flowers for nothing.

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More than anything though, growing things from seed is completely addictive – seeing the seedlings emerging on your windowsill gives you a kick, and nurturing them into seedlings and plants which eventually burst into beautiful flower is incredibly rewarding. Having had my eye on a neglected patch of nettle- and dock-covered land in a forgotten corner of the allotment, I started digging it over in February, with the thought that I could magic it into a paradise of flowery loveliness in a single season. How misguided I was! I had chosen the worst possible year to attempt such an experiment, with unprecedented levels of rain that would challenge even the most experienced gardener. By mid-March I had cleared enough of the plot to plant the first rows of poppies, marigolds and love-in-a-mist – the most pleasurable task with hot sunshine beating down on my back. My only problem in those first couple of weeks was… drought. It seems laughable now, with the deluge that followed, but there was a hosepipe ban in place for several weeks and newspapers were full of articles on how to grow flowers and vegetables in Mediterranean conditions. Were the weather reporters having a laugh, or were they genuinely unaware of what was to come? A month later, the rain began, and for the next nine months it didn’t stop. Mediterranean conditions? More like Monsoon. The hundreds of seeds I planted must have rotted in the ground, because not a single flower appeared. After a month of rain in April, the weeds had completely taken over, and I could hardly bear to walk down that end of the allotment to witness the 100 percent failure of my project.

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It was nerve-wracking, to say the least, as I’d already planned a series in House & Garden on the project (and claimed a large seed order on expenses!) Sabina was also growing the same list of annuals to photograph for the magazine, so we spent many hours on the phone lamenting our bad luck and sharing our depression at the weather. As the rain continued I knew I couldn’t win the battle with the weeds, so I decided to plant the remaining annuals, grown from seed and bursting out of my mini-greenhouse, in my back garden instead. I also gave seed and seedlings to my friend Tamsin to grow in her plot down in Henley. From a list of over 100 different varieties, I’d say less than 25% were successful. Even Tamsin, an expert grower whose cutting garden is normally bursting with colour, was reporting back saying that almost everything she’d sown direct hadn’t germinated. It was just too wet. She also lost trays of my seedlings because she said it looked like I’d packed the compost too tightly around the roots when transplanting. In retrospect she was quite right and I learnt a valuable lesson: firming the compost too enthusiastically around a newly transplanted seedling excludes air from the soil so the seedling won’t thrive. Failure on all sides, then. I took the criticism on the chin.

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By the end of the season, both Sabina and I had grown enough to fill six month’s worth of features. Phew. And in September and October – far later than normal – our gardens were looking pretty good. The advantage of the dodgy weather was that everything flowered later, so we had armfuls of cosmos and zinnias to pick as late as November. It wasn’t all bad. And predictably, the year-long experiment has now been stretched to two, three and beyond, because I’ll be damned if I’m going to give up now, having failed so dismally first time round. So this blog is going to record our on-going project, including our notes on growing all the annuals we love. They’ll be arranged alphabetically, with photos by Sabina. If you want to see the articles in House & Garden they’re running from February to July 2013.

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