Monday, 29 August 2011

Thinking ahead

Bank Holiday Monday dawns bright and clear in spite of last week’s heavy rain, but I can’t be the only one who’s noticed that the evenings are drawing in with frankly indecent haste. While the arrival of Bill the puppy last weekend has taken a toll on domestic routine, on those occasions I have managed to escape the furry but demanding cuteness for my morning run there’s been a noticeable freshness in the air. Autumn is on its way, and now is a good time start thinking ahead – beyond late summer, beyond even Christmas and the bleakness of winter – about how we want our borders to fill out in spring.

It might seem a bit premature, but a plant grown from seed sown direct into the final flowering position over the next few weeks will have a distinct head start over seeds of the same plant sown in spring. Now, with the memory of this spring still fresh, we’re ideally placed to devise and execute a plan for plugging any gaps which we noticed in our gardens earlier in the year.

The idea is to select seeds – largely, but not exclusively hardy annuals – which when sown will germinate and grow away now, developing sufficiently to survive the onset of winter. Then, shaking off dormancy in spring, their already well-established root system will allow them to romp ahead of plants started in March or April as soon as the growing light allows, attaining a flowering size and sturdiness of structure far greater than their later-sown cousins.

So much for the theory, the fun part comes in choosing what to plant, so I’ve dug out the seeds catalogues – notably Sarah Raven’s, which has a great selection of flowers, vegetables and herb seeds, together with some excellent advice on the accompanying website – and made a shopping list:

1. Ammi majus (Bishop’s Flower) - a lovely cow-parsley like umbellifer that gives clouds of frothy floral interest without too much weighty foliage.

2. Erisimum chieri. Just because the scent of wall flowers always stops me in my tracks and transports me back to the front garden of the North London terrace in which I grew up. Something deep red probably: I like the look of E. chieri ‘Vulcan’.

3. Eschscholzia californica. The Californian poppy, a bright orange, cheerful little edging plant with fern-like foliage. Self-seeds merrily about the place.

4. Scabiosa atropurpurea ‘Black Cat’. A dark purple version of the Pin Cushion flower – small, tight pom-poms on the end of long, thin stems. You could imagine an orchestral percussionist playing a kettle-drum with them. Maybe.

5. Euphorbia oblongata. This perennial has the typical hooded flowers of the euphorbia, in a zingy chartreuse green. Another great filler, fantastic for cutting.

6. Gaura lindheimeri ‘The Bride’. A beautiful, delicate plant which looks amazing in drifts. Shorter than the species, the opening buds cluster along the stems like small, dusky pink butterflies before emerging white. I’ve not grown this from seed before!

7. Calendula officinalis ‘Indian Prince’. Just a cheerful, sunshiney big orange daisy like flower with a black centre. With all the associated herbal properties of the pot marigold, the petals are tasty in salads or to be used as a saffron substitute in cooking. Great for companion planting in the veg garden too, deterring pests on tomatoes and asparagus.

8. Briza maxima. Greater quaking grass, this carries its gentle, nodding flower heads like so many tiny paper lanterns. Great for cutting and drying.

9. Nigella papillosa ‘African Bride’. We have a lovely, pale blue version of Nigella damascena Love-in-the-Mist, but this cultivar looks quite exotic with white petals and black, horned seed pods. I wonder if they’ll hybridise, and if so, whose genes will win out?

10. Echinacea purpurea ‘White Swan’. Another daisy-like flower. We already have the larger species in a purplish pink, but to grow these lovely perennial cone flowers from seed will be quite something. I find the combination of the tactile stems, the spiky central cone and the apple white petals incredibly beautiful, especially when the flowers are just opening.

Can it really be this simple? Just ten packets of seed at two quid each, and a little work preparing the soil, keeping the weeds off and thinning the seedlings – if nothing else, this will save a fortune compared with buying plants from the nursery next year. My biggest problem is going to be limiting myself to the ten plants I’ve listed!

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