One of the best aspects of gardening is how it focuses on the future. This means we get to daydream about summer blooms in the depths of winter. In fact Autumn is the best time to plan for the following summer by planting annuals or biennials. Annuals are plants that only live for one season, they germinate, flower and die all in one year. Biennials germinate and grow in year one and flower and die in year two.
Why bother with annuals? Why not just stick with perennials (plants that come back year after year)? Here’s why …….
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Cost – Perennials are generally more expensive than annuals so planting annuals can be a much cheaper way to fill out a garden, particularly a new one. And if you’re savvy and save seeds from year to year it’s even cheaper!
Impact – Often the flowers from annuals are more flamboyant than a lot of perennial plants.
Flexibility– With annuals you can complete change your garden every year. This year you can go for a blue theme, next green and white, the choice is endless!
Ease – If you go with hardy annuals (plants that aren’t killed off by frost) you can plant them directly into the garden and do away with the both of seed trays, compost and hardening off. The only downside is the risk of slugs, which might nobble them before they get going. Here’s a list of hardy annuals to consider
Sharing – Annuals and bi-annuals love to set seed, which make lovely presents for neighbours, friends and family.
Picking insect friendly plants also means that in addition to the joy you’re going to get this summer you’re doing something that is having a very positive impact on the planet. Here is a useful guide to bee-friendly plants to go for.
Tips for growing plants from seeds
- Do not plant the whole packet of seeds! Otherwise you’ll end up with way too many plants.
- Plant 1/3 more seeds than you actually want to allow for failed germination. If these seeds grow you can always give as gifts.
- Plant your seeds in moist compost* or leaf mold and do not water again until you start to see growth.
- Cover your seed tray or pot with a transparent cover to keep the moisture in. Check it every few days to make sure mould or algae doesn’t start growing on the top. If it does, it means the atmosphere is too damp so just take the top off for a day or two. Some gardeners put vermiculite or perlite or grit on top of the soil to prevent moss or algae growing. Of these three grit is the best as there are concerns about the cancer causing effects of the other two, One nifty suggestion I saw online was to use wine corks blitzed to a crumb texture in a high speed blender instead of vermiculite, perlite or grit. I don’t have a high-powdered blender to give this a go. If you do let me know how you get on.
- Keep your seed trays or pots out of direct sunlight. It can burn delicate seedlings or cause the top of the compost to crust over, making it impossible for seedlings to break through. If you’re growing veg seeds here’s a handy guide to the temperatures at veg seeds germinate at.
- Make sure that your transparent cover doesn’t touch the seedlings; it can lead to them rotting off.
- Never water seedlings from above, it leads to die-off. Instead stand the seedtray/pot in a dish with some water in it for 20 minutes.
- If there is only one source of light where you’re growing your seeds remember to rotate your seedtray / pot every couple of days to ensure even growth.
- When the seedlings have more than 4 leaves pinch out the top to encourage the seedling to grow outwards and not just upwards.
- When your seedlings look like they’re too big for the home it’s time to prick them out and put them in a larger pot with new compost. When you’re transferring just ease out the seedling with a pencil or plant label while holding onto the seedling’s leaves. NEVER touch a seedling’s stem! It’s very delicate and if damaged means the end of the plant. I typically put 3 seedlings per pot as it uses less compost but it’s up to you.
- Assuming all risk of frost is gone and the seedling has started developing into a healthy plant, you can start hardening it off. This is a process of acclimatising a plant to outside. A cold-frame can be handy for this but if you don’t have one just pop the plant outside for a few hours a day, out of direct sunlight. Increase the time you leave it outside over a week and then on the 7th day leave it outside overnight.
- Seedlings are yummy, yummy to slugs and snails so I’d advise putting them up off the ground until they’re strong enough to withstand a bit of nibbling!
- Once the plant has been outside for a couple of weeks you can plant it in its final position. Plants look best when planted in groups of 3-5, and bees like to find groups of flowering plants together rather than them dotted here and there – it’s less tiring for their little wings!
The most sustainable way to get seeds is from a parent plant so ask your neighbours, family or friends for donations at the end of summer but if you’re starting from scratch this year here are three Irish websites that i have, or will be ordering seeds from;
- Seedaholic – The seeds come in folder greaseproof paper in clear plastic bags, which i reuse for my own seeds
- Fruit Hill Farm – These seeds are organic and open-pollinated, i.e they are not sterile and require replacing every year. The vast majority of their seeds come from a community owned seed company in Lincolnshire in England. They also sell organic plant bulbs
- Seed Savers – This is a non-profit organisation working to conserve Ireland’s very special and threatened plant genetic resources, particularly heritage varieties from all over the world that are suitable for Ireland’s unique growing conditions.
- The Organic Centre in Leitrim is a non-profit organisation based in Leitrim with the aim of providing training and education, information and demonstration of organic gardening, growing and sustainable living.
If you’d prefer to buy plants then you can buy organic plants if you can. Buying organic allows you to avoid buying plants coated in bee-killing pesticides. It’s hard to get organic plants. Caherhurley Nursery is the only organic nursery I know of in Ireland and they sells very reasonably-priced plants around the country at ISNA plant fairs.
Although Future Forests in Cork don’t sell organic plants they do try and operate as sustainably as they can otherwise. Their premises is made from local wood and harvests rainwater to irrigate their gardens and nursery. They hand weed all their nursery beds, doing away with the need for systemic weed killers and since October 2017 they only sell peat free compost and use a peat free potting mix for their own potting. They also use recycled cardboard and local straw and aim to be as efficient as possible with all the materials we use. Their supplier does use peat in their mix, but they’re trying to reduce the proportion of it.
* I have found it so hard to find peat-free compost in Ireland, and impossible in recyclable packaging. We make our own garden compost from our own garden and kitchen waste but this is too rick for seedlings. This year we’re trying to make leaf mould from leaves in a compostable hessian bag, this is less nutritional and fine enough for seedlings. Hopefully next year I won’t have to buy any compost at all.
Check out the other articles in this series
- Creating an Ornamental Garden: Selecting Plants
- Creating an Ornamental Garden: Spring Colour
- Creating an Ornamental Garden: Early Summer Colour
- Creating an Ornamental Garden: Mid Summer Colour
- Creating an Ornamental Garden: Late Summer Colour
- Wildlife Friendly Gardening
- Sustainable Gardening Hacks
- Guide to Composters and Composting