Diarmuid Gavin: Hardy heroes
Even the less green fingered among us can make a garden bloom with hardy annuals
Some readers like the idea of gardening and will have decided this is the year they are going to make a difference outside and grow some plants. But they're not confident of what to start with and unsure if they will make the right choices.
Even if you don't feel you possess green fingers, I have good news. There's a group of plants known as hardy annuals - and cultivating them couldn't be easier. Using them will allow you to achieve wonderful borders full of colour this year, simply by sprinkling some seed and raking lightly into the ground.
Hardy annuals have been out of fashion for some time and this is a great shame, because they include a wide range of flowering plants which provide a palette of delightful colours and scents. You won't require specialist skills, a glasshouse or a heated propagator to succeed with them. There's no dibbing or potting, as you just sow them where you wish them to grow, whether that's in a border, pots or containers. It's not expensive, extremely satisfying and from right now for the next few weeks you can get going with some colourful sowing.
In general, this group of plants prefer sunny open spaces. To prepare your seedbed, fork over lightly removing all stones and weeds. Ideally the soil will be light and well drained but not overly fertile as this will lead to too much green sappy growth, so don't add manure to it. You can feed with a high-potash feed when they get into growth to encourage flowering if the soil is particularly poor.
Rake the soil until it is a nice crumbly texture. Seeds are best planted in drills, narrow depressions in the soil which you can create with your fork or a bamboo cane. This allows you to spot any rogue weed seedlings more easily when everything starts to germinate. Drills don't need to be straight lines - you can curve them to form more natural contours and it's best to plant a good block of one species to create impact.
Water the soil before sowing the seeds. Sow thinly, ideally about a centimetre apart or according to instructions on your seed packet. You'll need to thin the seedlings out when they germinate, sometimes up to a foot apart depending on the species, to give the plant room to achieve its potential. For example, one lavatera seed will give you a bushy plant that can grow up to a metre tall and half-a-metre wide. After sowing, gently cover with some soil and water (use a can with rose so as not to disturb the seeds). Your biggest enemy from now on will be snails and slugs, as they love all this new tender growth, so keep an eye for them and take appropriate action.
Let me introduce you to some of my favourite hardy annuals.
Nigella damascena - love-in-a-mist (pictured above). Feathery foliage and lots of pretty white, blue and pink flowers make this a cottage-garden favourite.
Ammi majus - false bishop's weed. Umbels of white lacy flowers with ferny foliage, this will manage a bit of shade; a favourite at the Chelsea Flower Show.
Amberboa muricata - sweet sultan. Good for attracting bees and butterflies to the garden, purple mauve fluffy flowers atop tall stems, scented with a long flowering season from July to October.
Orlaya grandiflora - white lace flower. Lacy flowers that bees and butterflies love.
Tropaeolum - nasturtiums (main photo). Big seeds make for easy handling and it germinates very well; lovely orange, yellow and red flowers look great trailing from pots.
Anethum graveolens - dill. A herb but, left to flower, it produces big flat heads of acid-green flowers.
Limnanthes douglasii - poached egg plant (above). So called for its bright yellow centre bordered with white. Hoverflies and other aphid-eating insects such as ladybirds and lacewings love this plant, so a good one to plant as a companion to plants with this problem, such as lupins and roses.
Papaver rhoeas - the Flanders poppy. Simple, bright red flowers and will self-seed for next year as well.
Nemophila menziesii - penny black. This is a smaller annual which would be perfect for a windowbox - dainty black flowers with a white lace trim.
Lavatera trimestris 'Pink Beauty' - one of the bigger annuals so a great space filler. This has large pale pink flowers with delicate purple veins.
Lagurus ovatus - hare's tail grass. Don't forget grasses for your annual border. This has lovely fluffy white flowerheads which look great dried as well. Also briza maxima (quaking grass) will create a more delicate effect with nodding slender flowers.
This is just my current favourite selection, there are piles more to choose from: calendula, eschscholzia, linaria, corncockle, iberis, gypsophila, sunflowers …
Delving into your seed catalogue or browsing the rails of seeds in the garden centres is the thing to do, now that the soil is at last warming up.