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Sowing hardy annuals for earlier flowers

There are a lot of flower growers who recommend sowing hardy annuals towards the end of the growing season to produce sturdier plants and earlier flowers the following spring. In the past I’ve tried this, overwintering pots of calendula, cornflowers and cerinthe in an unheated greenhouse. And yes, it does work. Planted out as the soil begins to warm in early spring, the flowers came earlier and brightened up the garden while the spring sown annuals were still just seedlings. But, to be honest, I’m not sure a few early blooms are worth the extra work. Having to water the pots through the winter might not sound like a huge chore, but when it’s cold and wet and the plants are at the other end of the garden I soon lose the motivation to get out and look after them.

This year I’m trying something different – sowing direct into the ground. I had thought this was something gardeners in the south could do, but not here in Yorkshire where the winters can be very cold or very wet (sometimes both). But for the past few years I’ve had self-seeded cornflowers, marigolds, sunflowers and even cosmos popping up around the garden each spring. So they obviously can survive a Yorkshire winter, it’s just a case of whether they will do it where I want them to.

The advantages of sowing direct… apart from not needing to look after the pots, is that the plants should develop a good root system, which won’t be disturbed during transplanting. In addition, the roots will help keep the soil ecosystem healthy through the winter, and the soil surface will get some protection from the growth above ground.

If, like me, you want to embrace a low-input approach to flower growing, here’s how I’m planning my nectar-rich cutting patch for next year –

I’ve chosen a sunny area that has had vegetables in this year. Most annuals grow well with plenty of sunlight, and the soil is in good condition with lots of organic matter to help retain moisture. The area will be cleared of weeds, but not dug over – I want to minimise disturbance because I’m relying on a whole host of soil microbes to help ensure strong, healthy growth in my plants.

While the soil is still warm, probably no later than early September, I’ll sow bright blue cornflowers, dark purple poppies, zingy orange calendula, white and blue nigella, and those deep purple cerinthe that the bees love so much. If the ground is already nice and moist, I’ll sow straight into it, otherwise it will need watering first. The seeds shouldn’t need protection from the weather, but I tend to lay some sticks over the area to discourage the cat from using the soil as a litter tray.

The seeds will germinate to form strong roots and small plants through the autumn and, while there won’t be many signs of growth during the coldest months, the warmer, longer days in early spring should encourage the already established plants to thrive. I’ll keep the patch weeded and watered, and look forward to a flower-filled 2021!

If you’ve had success with a late sowing of hardy annuals, I’d love to hear about them… leave a comment and let’s see if we can come up with a list of flowers for late summer and autumn sowing that other gardeners will find useful.

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