Skip to main content

A vote for annuals

This is the time of year that annuals really start to make a difference to our beds, borders and pots. Our gardener Becky has provided a mini masterclass on what to expect from your annuals.

Annuals are plants that complete their whole life cycle, from seed to seed, in one year. They germinate, flower, set seed and then die in one season. Their rush to reproduce before they are overtaken by winter, and death, means they tend to flower prolifically. This characteristic is enormously valuable to gardeners who can choose from a vast range of colour, size, flower shape and habit to suit their particular needs in the garden. They are often used to plug gaps in beds once early flowering plants have gone over, and they can be used to add splashes of colour to brighten up borders, or to experiment with colour schemes for permanent planting. Many will thrive in the poorest soil with minimal attention and can grow in tiny spaces and cracks where little else would survive. Seeds are relatively cheap compared to grown plants, and once you have a variety it is easy to save seed for free. You will almost certainly get many more than you originally purchased.

It is not just in the flower garden where annuals are useful. They are a vital part of the vegetable patch too. Peas, beans, carrots and courgettes are all examples, and there are many more. On a global scale, the cereal crops which form a key part of the human diet are annuals too, but most are grasses and their flowers have minimal garden or wildlife value. Their profuse flowering habit makes annuals invaluable as a food source for pollinators. Though many of the showiest and best varieties on the market are hybrids and highly selected strains, native annual wildflowers are vital components of wildflower meadows where they support diverse insect life, and are particularly valuable for pollinating insects.

If you’re not already convinced to grow them; annuals are easy. They want to grow; most of the weeds popping up in your garden now are annuals The seed packet will describe them as hardy annuals or half-hardy annuals. The hardy annuals will cope with our winter and early spring weather.. They can be sown in autumn or spring, either directly where you want them to flower, or in pots or trays to be planted out later. Half-hardy annuals are not quite so robust and are sown in spring when the weather is warmer. However, you will get better results by taking care how you plant them. Pay particular attention to protection from slugs, and if you are sowing directly into the soil. Be sure to clear all weeds off first or you may have difficulty working out which seedling is a weed and which is not.

To practise what we preach, we have made a display of annuals in the long flower bed between the children’s play area and the edible garden. It was originally planned to make this a Pittosporum bed, but the soil is poor and there is a hardpan about fifteen inches down so the shrubs could not have thrived. The seeds were sown in trays in late March and April then transplanted after we had done some soil preparation and improvement, and a new gate had been constructed to give access to the children’s play area. All the varieties chosen this year are white which should make it easier to see the different types of bloom. If they turn out any other colour - blame the seed company.