"Annual delights"

Spring-flowering annual plants can bring colour and interest to the smallest garden.
Sunday, 28 August 2011        

Pansies in a pot with alyssum

Spring annuals were of the first types of plants I was ever aware of as a child in the 1960s. In those days, most gardeners seemed to grow them and I recall ours being raised from seed in flat wooden boxes kept on the corrugated iron platform covering our firewood pile. The boxes were covered with pieces of masonite and I remember my father carefully lifting these lids up every evening when he came home from work to inspect whether the seedlings had come up. Our spring garden seemed to be full of pretty flowers every year: pansies, cinerarias, wallflowers, stock, snapdragons, pot marigolds, cornflowers, candytuft, sweet peas and Iceland poppies, which I am sure must have all left some permanent imprint on my mind, as I have always have a soft spot for them - and their very names conjure up fond memories of times long past.

These days far fewer of us have time to cultivate vast swathes of annual flowers and our garden styles are different now, with less space left for temporary plantings like these. However, there are many early spring flowering annuals that will self-seed in between other plants, and I enjoy this very informal effect with plants such as forget-me-nots, chartreuse Nicotiana langsdorfii, cute heartsease (Viola tricolor) and nasturtiums. I don't grow a lot of spring-flowering shrubs or perennials , as I have concentrated on making a summer/autumn display, so it is comforting to have these small, cheerful notes of the season in my otherwise rather flowerless, pruned-back garden in August and September.

Another option is to grow a few annuals in pots, and some seem especially suited for this, bringing the opportunity for spring flowers to the smallest of gardens or balconies. This year I have been enjoying pansies (Viola x wittrockiana, ht 20-30 cm) in pots with alyssum (Lobularia maritima, ht 20 cm), and if planted early enough, these will flower all through winter and spring. I love their cheerful faces and rich, vibrant colours. They need a sunny position, plenty of water and regular liquid fertilising. Pinching off the spent flower-heads will keep them in bloom for an extended period. Other years I have grown polyanthus (Primula x polyantha, ht 15 cm) in pots - their formal flower shape seems to suit containers. I have also enjoyed growing the trailing forms of the brilliant blue annual Lobelia erinus (ht to 30 cm) in pots and hanging baskets.

Not all spring annuals need full sun, and some years I plant out some punnets of white Primula malacoides (ht to 30 cm) in pots or in a shaded garden bed that includes white hellebores, snowflake bulbs, pristine white Camellia japonica 'Lovelight' and white Iris japonica, to add an airy contrasting form. It is such an easy-to-grow plant in our climate and has dainty whorls of pink, white or mauve flowers above its rosettes of downy, scallop-edged leaves. It comes from China and will self-seed from year to year if it finds conditions to its liking. A related plant is Primula obconica (ht 30 cm), also from China, which has larger flowers in many different colours - but its foliage can cause allergic reactions in some people.

Another good spring annual for shady or part shady pots or garden beds is the florists' cineraria (Pericallis x hybrida, syn. Senecio x hybrida, ht 30-50 cm), originally from the Canary Islands, with its tapestry of large, richly-hued daisies of blue, purple, crimson, pink, mauve, white or violet, often with central white bands. This annual enjoys fertile, well-drained soil and may self-seed in some gardens. It is a pretty accompaniment to late winter or spring-flowering shrubs that can tolerate some shade, such as Eupatorium megalophyllum, which is just coming into bloom, and Camellia japonica cultivars. The blue or purple types are also stunning partnered with orange or creamy-yellow Clivia in shade.

Perhaps one day the gardening tide will turn and more of us will start growing some of the other old-fashioned spring annuals again like previous generations did. Few of them are available in punnets and many need to be grown from seed. Growing plants from seed can be great fun, and there something incredibly uplifting about nurturing a plant from seed to flower!

 Reader Comments

1/7  Rae - 2119 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 29 August 2011

Even in the 80s in a country town many of these plants were frequently on display. I remember my primaryschool garden had snap dragons and the the playground teacher was forever telling us not to snap them! Although I love some of the annuals (esp Pansies) they are hard to justify v perennials!

Yes they do take a bit of extra work and there have definitely been times in my life where I just didn't have time for them. But I love to have a few around if I can! Deirdre

2/7  Anne - 2518 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 29 August 2011

I love having patches of annuals - some of the pansies can last well up to Christmas and their cheerful 'faces' bring a smile to my face. I remember from visiting 'show' gardens when young that Virginia stock (Malcolmia maritima) used to provide a wonderful show and you rarely see it in gardens now.

Yes it is amazing how long the pansies will go for, especially if they are deadheaded and fertilised every so often. I forgot about Virginia stock, but it was one of the ones we used to have in our garden when I was young. Deirdre

3/7  Sue - 2073 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 29 August 2011

This year I put some pansies in old shopping baskets. One is doing very well but the other is on the possum path and is mostly stalks. They must taste as good as they look and the little Johnny Jump ups make a fun statement throughout the garden. Thank you for your blog - it makes my Monday morning.

Thanks, Sue. Sorry to hear about the possums eating some of the pansies. The little violas are very good at self-seeding and I am enjoying them in odd corners of the garden at the moment. Deirdre

4/7  Densey - 2446 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 29 August 2011

Self sown annuals fill the empty spaces between my perennials; Johnny jumpups, alyssum, phlox, nasturtium, etc Foxgloves are my great love; they seem to be annuals here; not self-seeding but I simply have to buy them. Ive had a beautiful tall purple spire cheering me all winter. Densey

Yes, foxgloves are gorgeous and I haven't grown them for a number of years - may have to have them for next spring! Deirdre

5/7  Margery - 2087 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 29 August 2011

I also have started planting annuals between my summer perennials. Most of these are cut back hard in winter and I enjoy having some colour in the garden at this time. I love using nemesia as it will go on flowering for months if it is cut back after each burst of flowers. Margery

Thanks, Margery. I have heard from a few people how good Nemesia is so I must try it next year. I like your idea of planting the annuals between the cut-back summer perennials. Deirdre

6/7  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Love annuals,and always plant some in my garden. Like you, have great memories of them in my parents garden. Was impressed by beds of ranunculi when visiting my grandfather in Concord hospital and cinerarias at Vaucluse House, so plan to have these every year. Range of seedlings fewer each year.

Thanks, Margaret. I do think they give such a fresh look to the garden in spring. Deirdre

7/7  Bob - 2076 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Thursday, 01 September 2011

Thank you for bringing back very pleasant memories of my Mother who had a lovely garden without once,I am sure,buying a plant.A seed maybe and definitely a cutting or two but never anything from a nursery.

Thanks, Bob. I don't remember many nurseries from when I was a kid. Almost all annuals and vegies were planted from seed and people gave each other cuttings or dug-up pieces of plants. Deirdre

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