Casual Gardener: Super annuals spark epiphany

A long-standing prejudice against annuals has been overcome...

Biennials and annuals offer a range of fantastic colours

PEOPLE tend to assume that because you pen a weekly gardening column then your advice is sound. Regrettably, this isn't the case. I, like everybody, have my prejudices and flaws, and am influenced by fashions and whims. A case in point is – or was – my take on annuals, and the accompanying advice that they're not worth the hassle.

Often grouped for convenience alongside biennials, annuals are plants whose life cycle is completed within one year. Their seed tends to germinate in spring or early summer and then they die with the onset of winter. Biennials have a similar life cycle though it's spread over two years.

For the two decades I've been gardening, I've tended to spurn annuals and instead favoured perennials, regarding them as much better value for money – both when buying and growing. Why waste time and funds on a plant that lasts barely a few months, when you can have similar coming back year after year?

Then there was annuals' association with bedding plants and Victorian-style municipal displays where anything that looks remotely natural is removed. While I've always been happy to encourage the likes of poppies, forget-me-nots, fox gloves and teasel, the smaller, more garish annuals sold in garden centres were, and still are, avoided.

Last year, however, I had something of an epiphany after coming across a packet of Rudbeckia 'Irish Eyes' seeds. I've no idea where the seeds originated and can only guess they came as a free gift with a mail order consignment. Determined that they didn't go to waste, I duly sowed them last March and followed the usual procedure – thinning, pricking out when big enough to handle, before potting on once a reasonable size. It was the start of August before they were finally planted out in containers and borders, when I was beginning to think it was a little late in the season.

But they delivered over the subsequent months in a manner that only annuals can – an astonishing amount of bright yellow flowers that persevered right through until early December, long after their perennial counterparts had turned brown. It has helped convince me that the additional expense and greater labour intensity may well be worth it. While perennials use much of their energy establishing root systems, often at the expense of flowers, annuals concentrate their resources on producing flowers, which is great news for both gardeners and pollinators.

Divided into hardy and half-hardy annuals, because the latter are susceptible to cold and must therefore remain under cover until the threat of frost has passed. Hardy annuals, on the other hand, can be sown direct right where you want them to grow.

The aforementioned poppies, alongside marigolds, sunflowers and nasturtiums, are ideally suited to this very basic form of propagation. However, to be on the safe side, it's better to give your seeds a good start in some fine, weed-free compost. Most seed packets will carry instructions on how to get the best results. Use clean pots or trays, with a bag of fresh, preferably peat-free, compost. Many hardy annuals can resent root disturbance so it helps to raise them in cells that are easily transplanted.

Annuals do best in fertile soil enriched with a little well-rotted compost and general fertiliser, such as blood, fish and bone. They'll also respond well to a weekly liquid feed from from June onwards. Dead-head spent blooms to prevent plants setting seed while also encouraging more flowers.

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