Saturday, 23 January 2021

Annuals are perfect for all-year colour

THERE is nothing quite like getting to this time of year and being surprised by bulbs that were planted last

THERE is nothing quite like getting to this time of year and being surprised by bulbs that were planted last autumn.

Despite careful labelling at the time of planting, I rarely revisit these and am therefore always pleasantly surprised to see the different varieties coming up; particularly as I often try out the newest introductions to see if they hit the mark, so there is always something new and exciting to behold. This year my favourite is Tulip ‘Princess Irene’ which brings an exuberant splash of colour to the spring green of the rest of the garden, its petals displaying a flash of rich red exploding from the base of the flower, bordered by orange, blush pink and finally yellow tips as the flower matures. Really stunning.

It’s hard to follow the act of the bulbs as they are so beautiful in their simplicity. I also feel that we love them so much because they are the first signs that winter is retreating and really there is not a huge number of serious contenders for them to compete against at this time of year. However, as the year moves on, maintaining an interesting garden, full of colour, form and texture well into the autumn does sometimes present a challenge. So this is where I feel we should be turning to annuals — though not at the expense of a well-structured, well-planned garden.

We all know that even the most long-flowering of plants will only put on a display for a few months at most and quite typically I tend to favour the ones that flower for an incredibly short time (such as irises, magnolias and so on) so where would I be without the addition of some annuals to carry the flowering garden well into the final quarter of the year?

So where to start? In my early gardening years I didn’t really see the appeal of annuals, I couldn’t get away from the idea of municipal plantings of pansies and geraniums planted en masse and multicoloured on urban verges and in parks.

To counter this I would buy up a few annuals each year, maybe one of each of a few varieties, without any prior thought to combinations and where I was going to site them. Often I didn’t even have containers to put them in and so they just withered and died on the patio. Unsurprisingly, my attempts were always a disaster and just fuelled my dislike of annuals further.

But now I have a very different approach. I don’t just look on annuals as a separate entity to my garden. I use them as part of my overall plan for a successful look and feel to my schemes — and a vital one at that.

I am also honest about just how much time and effort I will be able to give the plants as — let’s be honest — watering twice a day in the searing heat of summer and continually deadheading as well as feeding once a week to keep them flowering continuously is a lot of work when you really just want to be sitting back and enjoying the summer.

When planning my annuals, first of all I think about what I like in terms of varieties, form and colour. I think about whether I will just have a single variety per container, or whether a combination would work better. White trailing geraniums work well on their own in a tall urn, but look equally lovely in a rustic bucket with some pink and white penstemons for extra dimension.

More drought-tolerant varieties such as geraniums, heliotrope, cosmos, marguerites and helichrysum tend to work better in containers, while the less tough species go in my beds.

I tend not to use too many annuals in the borders but I do love the tobacco plant (Nicotiana) and this works really well towards the back of a border as it has good height and if you choose the right variety its heady fragrance wafts across the garden after a hot day.

Heliotrope makes for a good addition too as it flowers just when there is a pause in the perennial garden (July time) and its colour is bold and luminescent in the twilight.

When buying my plants I tend to get them early. Garden centres are just starting to stock annuals now, but the most popular varieties soon get snapped up.

Annuals are plants that last for one season only as most of them are susceptible to frost. We can get frosts as late as the end of May, which happened last year and caught out a lot of people, even seasoned gardeners, so if you do buy them now, make sure you put them in a heated greenhouse or bring them inside overnight and don’t leave them out permanently until the end of May. Buying plants now allows you to pot them on into your chosen containers or larger pots and to start maturing the plants so that they get to a decent size by the time you want to enjoy their display.

If you are planting in containers remember to use a suitable compost — ideally a soil-free potting compost with one third of John Innes No 2 mixed in would work well. Put crocks in the bottom of the pot to aid drainage. You could also mix granules that absorb water to reduce watering.

Make sure you site your plants in the right place, too. On the whole, annuals prefer a sunny aspect, but begonias, California poppies, fuchsias, cleome and impatiens can tolerate a bit of light shade.

As mentioned already, watering, feeding and deadheading will govern the success or failure of your annuals.

As a general guide, never let the compost in your pots dry out — if you do this you will make extra work for yourself as water cannot penetrate as easily through a dry crust and you will need to water and then return 20 minutes later to do the whole job again.

Unless the weather is very hot, aim to water every other day, feed once a week and deadhead as necessary. All of these things will prolong your flower displays and will mean you get better value for money for your plants.

Crazy as it might seem I like to do all of this first thing in the morning when I am making the tea. By the time the kettle’s boiled I’ve finished and there’s nothing quite like doing the garden in your pyjamas.

lJennie Herrington runs The Green Room Garden and Interior Design in Wargrave. Call 0118 940 4204, email: info@jennie or go to

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