One of the best aspects of gardening is its focus on the future, meaning we’re always looking forward to beautiful blooms, even in winter. In fact Autumn is the best time to plan for the following summer by planting annuals or biennials. If you’d like fill your garden with flowers for very little money and effort read on …..
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What are Annuals and Biennials?
Annuals are plants that only live for one season, meaning that they germinate, flower and die all in one year.
Biennials germinate and grow in year one and flower and die in year two.
Plants that die after a year or two may sound like very bad value for money but fear not, unless they’re sterile, annuals and biennials disperse seeds around the garden before they die, resulting in lots of free plants.
The Benefits of Annuals and Biennials
Annuals & biennials save you money
Perennials are generally more expensive than annuals so planting annuals is 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!
Annuals & biennials give instant impact
Often the flowers from annuals are more flamboyant than those on perennial plants so you can create a very impressive flower bed relatively easily.
Annuals & biennials offer flexibility
Just by changing the annuals & biennials you sow you can complete change the look of your garden every year. This year you can go for a blue theme, next green and white, the choice is endless!
Annuals & biennials are easy to grow
If you go with hardy annuals and biennials (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
Annuals & biennials are social
By their very nature annuals and biennials love to set seed, which will give you an endless supply of lovely presents for neighbours, friends and family.
Annuals & biennials can be bee-friendly
Not all annuals are high in nectar and pollen but a lot are. On page 7 of this useful guide to bee-friendly plants you’ll find a list of bee-friendly annuals.
How to Sow Annual and Biennial Seeds
- Firstly do not plant the whole packet of seeds! Otherwise you’ll end up with way too many plants. In general plant 1/3 more seeds than you actually want to allow for failed germination.
- If using a seed tray or pot, either sprinkle the seeds (ideal for tiny seeds) or place them onto moist compost* /sieved leaf mould, cover with a fine layer of compost or leaf mould and do not water again until you start to see growth.
- Some gardeners put vermiculite or perlite or grit on top of the soil to prevent moss or algae growing. 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.
- Cover your seed tray or pot with a transparent cover to keep the moisture in. Make sure that your transparent cover doesn’t touch the seedlings; it can lead to them rotting off. Also check it every few days to make sure mould or algae isn’t growing on the surface. If it does, it means the atmosphere is too damp so just take the transparent cover for a day or two.
- 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.
- 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. Be careful of overwatering though, seedlings don’t need a lot of water in the early days so err on the side of caution.
- If there is only one source of light where you’re growing your seeds remember to rotate your seed tray / pot every couple of days to ensure even growth.
- When the seedlings have more than 4 leaves pinch out the top set of leaves and stem to encourage the seedling to grow outwards and not just upwards.
- When your seedlings look like they’re too big for their home it’s time to prick out the seedlings and put 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. If you end up with too many seedlings you can always gift the extras.
- Assuming all risk of frost is gone and the seedlings has started developing into healthy plants, you can start hardening your seedlings 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 put 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!
If you’re not plague by slugs and snails you can plant the seeds directly into the soil either in a nursery bed or directly into the flower bed. This is particularly good for poppies, who don’t like being moved.
Where to get Annual and Biennial Seeds
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 seed sellers to check out.
- 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.
Where to buy Annual and Biennial Plants
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 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 also find the ISNA plant fairs a good place to buy from independent nurseries, which tend to use less herbicides and pesticides, if any.
More Gardening Articles
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