How do you get a jump start on Spring and early Summer annuals for your cutting garden?

When we think of annuals, we think of all those lovely seed packets that drop through the letterbox in late January – the ones we ordered in a post Christmas haze of Quality Street and leftover Baileys by the fire, while dreaming of long summer days in the garden. While some hardy annuals can be started in February, for most summer flowering cut flowers it is best to wait patiently until the Spring Equinox in mid March, when the daylight hours become long enough for the seedlings to flourish and grow strong. Earlier sowings can mean the seedlings stretch and get leggy.

Another advantage to sowing your flower seeds after the Spring Equinox is that the soil is warming up, so when your seedlings are bursting out of their pots, the ground will be in perfect condition to plant them out, after a few days of hardening off.

There are other ways to get ahead with an earlier show of flowers for the cutting garden, the Autumn sown hardy annuals, which we will talk about later this year.

But for now, let us chat biennials! April Mid month is the perfect time to start them. Biennials live for just two years, and flower in their second season. During their first summer, autumn and winter they focus on putting on lush foliage and all important strong roots.

Biennials can be, annoyingly, the ones we may forget about in our haste to plant out our nicely grown hardy annuals! But if you are well organised, then April is the very time to sow your biennial flower seeds – so that by late summer they are strong, hardened off and ready to pop into the ground to put down sturdy roots over Winter, to flower in late Spring/early Summer next year. You’d never believe how the tattered and battered leaves above ground survive the Winter, but yes, they do! Just watch for slugs!

Here are our top five biennials for seed starting in late Spring for your cutting garden:

  1. CANTERBURY BELLS (Campanula medium)
    The quintessential English cottage garden beauty, with long racemes of bell shaped flowers, in colours of white, soft pink, lilac and vivid blue. Mid season flowering, reaching 120 cm, happy in full sun or part shade. Can be mulched over wintered under a thick layer of mulch, but watch for slugs or snails.
  2. FORGET-ME-KNOT (Myosotis)
    Cutest little burst of blue, one of the hallmarks of Spring, and prolific self seeders, much like Cynoglossom, the Chinese Forget Me Knot, which also readily self seeds. Great to sow amidst Spring tulips to disguise their fading foliage after flowering.
  3. FOXGLOVE (Digitalis)
    Most foxgloves are biennial, with thick large leaves and spires of trumpet like flowers, very useful in floral displays early in the season, full sun to partial shade.
  4. HONESTY (Lunaria)
    Loved by the bees, and useful in so many ways you’ll need to sow double the amount! Flowers in purple clusters, followed by delicate “silver dollar” seed heads in late season, perfect for drying for Autumn and Winter floral designing. Grows in partial shade and moist soil, reaching 100 cm.
  5. SWEET WILLIAM (Dianthus barbatus)
    We really do question whether there is any fragrance better in late Spring than the very underrated Sweet William. We have so many comments from customers who smell them and are instantly transported back to grandparents gardens – this little sweet flower is so powerfully evocative! Little velvety flowers in reds, pinks, purples and bi-colours, pick them regularly and they will repeat bloom and fill your vases and posies through late Spring into Summer. Needs full sun.
A biennial flower that is sown the year before flowering
Hesperis Matronis Alba – a perfect biennial to accompany Daucus

There are other biennials such as Hesperis (Sweet Rocket), and Matthiola (Stock), both of which rival Sweet William in the fragrance stakes. So, make sure you add sowing biennials to this year’s April to-do list, and you will be reaping the rewards next year with sweetly scented crops of blooms that will fill your vases, bouquets and arrangements!