We have been blessed with ideal conditions for one of my favourite jobs, which makes a real mark on the garden from summer onwards. This combination of rain, cool temperatures and sun is perfect for sowing hardy annual seeds directly into the ground. It is years since we have had such a favourable opportunity and you can see how the weed seeds are already enjoying it. Seize the moment and join those of us who reckon that the results are what make us happy gardeners.
Everything I mention is available from the tireless Chiltern Seeds at Bortree Stile, Ulverston, Cumbria (phone orders, paid for by credit card, can be placed on + 44 (0)1229 581137).
I will only mention hardy annuals for which no greenhouse is needed. You are advised to have a proper rake, as you will need to rake over the soil in the beds where you wish to sow. Break it up first with a fork of manageable size. Bash any remaining lumps to dissolve them and then rake the surface over to establish a tilth. A tilth is a fine consistency of surface soil, the sort of consistency that you would get if you put a packet of digestive biscuits into your food-processor and scrunched them into crumbs.
With the back of the rake, press a shallow seed-drill in a straight line into the tilth, aiming at a depth of about a quarter of an inch. Into this drill you scatter the contents of the seed packet and then you rake the tilth back over it and pat it lightly down with the head of the rake held flat, not at an angle.
If the weather turns dry, you might then need to water from a can with a fine rose. You will certainly need to water if we have an obstinate drought for the next three weeks.
By then, seedlings should be showing, probably at quite a density unless you are more deft at sowing pinches of seed than I am. You can thin them out very easily, either by discarding the surplus or by transplanting them into the space you have left between the lines of each row.
The fun comes in the choice which is available to you. There is no way that you will be able to buy pre-grown scented mignonette from shops in late May. To enjoy its scent, you have to sow it for yourself, finding it under Reseda in catalogues. It is extremely easy to grow. So is my favourite of the moment, the good old pot marigold. Its name is calendula and I like all the varieties, including the pale yellow Lemon gem. Fancy ones have been selected, but I recommend the taller double mixture called Prince. It picks very well. These wonderfully easy flowers give a real lift to the garden from July onwards and will often self-seed from year to year. They flourish in all weathers and I really recommend them.
I continue to recommend a prickly little number called silybum. The one you want is the St Mary's thistle whose leaves are beautifully cut and marked with white spots, attributed to that globally abundant substance, the Virgin's Excess Milk, since her time at Bethlehem. The seeds are very easy to handle and I even like to fit a few plants into gravel or the corners of buildings, where their conspicuous leaves become very pretty. The flowers are not much, although there is now a white form. Again, it will not be seen in supermarkets.
Nor will the excellent forms of annual sunflower. Look under helianthus for the best available, growing up to four or five feet and flowering in very rich colours without being so gigantic as the commercial sunflower of Mediterranean farming.
I recommend the dark crimson-chocolate Velvet queen. The flowers enliven a herbaceous border in the back row from late July onwards. These recent varieties are really excellent.
Most of you have probably been living unawares of a wild flower on chalk hills, the pink-flowered little centaurium erythraea. It grows up to about a foot and is an upright plant with little pink well-formed flowers which go on and on into autumn. It is extremely charming and far too seldom grown. So is the annual Blue pimpernel, blue anagallis, which will usually succeed if it is sown directly outdoors. It is a charming plant for the front row of a flower bed where its superbly-blue flowers keep going well into the autumn. Again, it has to be raised from seed.
Cornflowers are something which everybody knows but will soon be quite hard for us to find easily in the colour which we really want. They are drifting away into mixtures of blue, off-pink and so forth, whereas the classic blue is the winner and is much better if it has not been "miniaturised" to a height of six inches. Keep up demand and perhaps we will keep up the separated colour.
It is the easiest of annuals with its small seeds like little shaving brushes, but it looks very pretty if dotted through flower beds of supposedly more distinguished company. Alternatively, it can be segregated into a pot and treated as a treasure when it performs very well and catches visitors by surprise for being so straightforward. Personally, I grow some of the tall plants simply for cut flowers and enjoy them in glasses of water indoors.
If you are not much good at making a tilth, you will probably succeed nonetheless with common forms of poppy. Most of the easy ones are papaver somniferum, selected for particular colours and shaped to their petals. I really liked a vivid red one called Red bombast which I saw last summer in the garden of an immensely successful businessman who somehow justified the plant's name. There is no missing it as it is a very strong colour. I also like the striped and spotted colouring of a selection called Flemish Antique which do have a look of fine poppies in a Dutch painting. If you thin out the germinated seedlings, plants will develop quite strongly, even in dry years. They are very obliging as fillers and I do not think that we yet make nearly enough use of them.
Lastly, something so easy and elegant that it ought to be everywhere but somehow never is. The popular name of agrostemma is corn cockle and my favourite is still the one called Milas, after a corner of south-west Turkey where it must have been a wild flower in cultivated fields. The tall elegant plants take up very little room and reach about two- and-a-half feet, producing lilac-pink flowers for most of the summer. I never tire of them and even in dry summers they seem to succeed.
To enjoy these self-raised plants, you have no need for either a greenhouse or a cold frame, and nor you do really need any particular skill. There are dozens more to choose from, but if you choose them they always give a garden a look as if it has not just been bought in ready-grown. More importantly, they attach you to the process of gardening and you really feel responsible for their generous success.
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