Golden rules for summer bedding plants

This weekend is excellently timed for the yearly change in British bedding. Londoners have long since bidden goodbye to frost and got on with it, but country gardeners ought to have waited till now to be sure that Mother Nature is not going to spring a cold night-time surprise. Today, I will be taking away the decaying tulips and replacing them with something for summer. The choice is vast, the prices seem to ignore austerity but I think I have decided what I like and what I do not.

Remember the five golden rules. Whatever looks best right now will probably not last the course into September. Not everything in a pot has to be an expensive half-hardy exotic. No planting is too dense if you can water and feed the ensemble at frequent intervals all summer. If you do not want to be a prisoner to the hosepipe, always mix water-retaining gel into the compost and water it before planting it up. Do not economise on compost or tell yourself that last year’s plants did not take much out of the existing soil. The better the soil, the better the display.

Garden centres have plenty of new varieties on offer but their multilingual labels proclaim their origin outside Britain. I have even been offered pink and white geraniums with names like Gatwig Salmon and Winke White. Good old scarlet Paul Crampel seems to have become a thing of the past. Why do British growers no longer dominate the wholesale mass market for the summer plants in which our gardens are supposed to excel?

Calibrachoa Cabaret ‘Bright Red’

Petunias need to be chosen carefully. Avoid anything which has double flowers or smudges of runny colour on the petals. Varieties with the word “Pirouette” in their name are blotchy and I certainly do not want the widely-offered Lavender Vein. The best varieties are still the plain red or deep blue single F1 Hybrids, the best ones for mixing into an artistically planned container. Never mind if they are not flowering when you buy them. Well watered all summer, they should go on into late autumn.

Polysyllabic alternatives have petunia-like flowers and the great advantage for breeders and sellers is that they can only be propagated by cuttings. Home-saved seeds are no help here to amateurs. The best are labelled Calibrachoa and if you have a local choice, go for the Cabaret series, especially those called Bright Red. They are a deep red and they glow prettily in a tangle of other flowers in big pots. Watch out in the early stages because these long-flowering plants are like their near-relations called “million bells” in being rather fragile. I always break a few stems when transporting them and then potting them up. Last year a visitor’s enthusiastic Labrador finished off the other stems with a welcoming swish of its tail and back half. As a result none of my million bells recovered.

I do not reckon much to the new hybrid nemesias which are in evidence in pots on this year’s forecourts. The one called Berries and Cream sums up their style, a sort of muddle of off-purple and white with a dash of yellow and a price tag of £5.50 per plant. As ever I would much rather buy small, apparently unpromising plants of the fabulous Bidens, the winner among trailing yellow-flowered bedding plants. This year, the variety Yellow Prince seems to predominate, but I tried it last year and found it bright and good. The young plants give no idea of Bidens’s potential in the course of a season. Its stems and small ferny leaves will spread out far and wide and the flowers will go on coming until late October. It is a winner in window boxes from which it can fall forwards or in every sort of hanging basket or big pot. It was just as good last year in our apology for a summer.

Bacopa scopia ‘Great Pink Beauty’

Right now, no impulse shopper would pick a box of Bacopa, either. As ever, they are superb plants, spreading out into big carpets with masses of small flowers all season. I have just got to know Bacopa scopia Great Pink, an excellent shade of pale pink and even better than the widely available white. Together with Bidens I rate it the best value in the shops. I have no idea what the new plants labelled “Jamesbrittenia hybrids” will be like, except that the first flowers look very bacopa-compatible. Thakira Yellow is the main one, a promising pale yellow with small flowers and the look of a willing carpeter. It, too, is a new breeders’ selection and is worth trying at the edge of a big pot.

Among grey and silver leaved plants the vigorous winner is always the felted, grey Helichrysum petiolare. Young plants give no idea of its span and potential or of the fact that it can be trained up a cane into a pretty semi-standard sort of bush. It will live on for years if taken indoors and kept free of frost from November until May. My local centres are offering one called Goring Silver, but I cannot yet see why it is so special. They are also offering ordinary old Lantanas as standards. These summer flowers in orange and red are a staple of gardens from Provence to Pakistan but their little ball-shaped flowers look much more appealing on a miniature standard tree. I may even buy a young plant and grow it into this shape up a cane of its own, cutting off all side shoots until it is about 3ft high.

Verbenas and scented heliotropes are best enjoyed from named individual parent plants, offered in the conservatory sections of greenhouse nurseries. The flower heads of the verbenas in the bedding section are usually smaller and duller. Silver Ann is still a lovely pink, and any of the deep claret forms of perennial verbena are much better than the annual seed-raised forms. The best heliotropes for scent are the perennial ones with names like Chatsworth, Lord Roberts or White Queen. Like the verbenas they may be more expensive but they are extremely easy to root from cuttings and in a frost-free house they can be multiplied for future years.

Meanwhile, salvias have proliferated, way beyond the garish red salvias on European roundabouts. In pots I much like any of the recent forms of Salvia jamensis, but I am particularly fond of the red and white tipped one called Hot Lips. It was much in evidence at the recent Chelsea Flower Show and makes a striking display in a container. The contrast of red and white in the flower is charming. Red Velvet and the pale yellow La Luna are good companions for it, easy plants which will flower right on until the late frosts. If they dry out while you are on holiday they soon recover when watering resumes.

In pots I have just been offered an amazing try-on, individual plants of the tall narrow-flowered tobacco plant, Nicotiana sylvestris, at £3.50 each. A seed packet of it holds about 2,000 easily raised seeds and costs half as much. If you succumb to this overpriced item, remember that as a tall tobacco plant, up to 5ft high, it needs well-watered soil to excel and must be protected with slug bait when it first goes out. The broad green leaves are so tempting to marauders, you will lose them in a night. I will be bedding out mine for a fraction of the cost, pre-sown in February under glass. They belong in flowerbeds as individual features, not in pots where they are much too tall.

Round the bidens and bacopa, the petunias and the best verbenas, use your wits and ring the changes. My biggest pot-bound success last year was not a pricey marguerite, It was a hardy Michaelmas daisy, good old Aster frikartii, which was going spare and ended up in confinement on the terrace. It flowered from July onwards revelling in occasional liquid feeding. The best bedding does not have to be tropical. If in doubt, split off bits from your low-growing border plants and see how well they perform in the spotlight on a terrace.

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