Late spring volunteers

Sunday, 01 November 2015

Self-seeded Centranthus ruber in the main street of Millthorpe, NSW

No, I'm not talking about those people who turn up late for their rostered time for the cake stall at the school's spring fete, but about some beautiful, often overlooked annuals which self-seed each year to flower in October and November, once an original packet of seeds has been sown. I have just returned home from seeing some gorgeous spring gardens (in Millthorpe and Bathurst, NSW), and have luxuriated in seeing roses of such robust health along with a wealth of cool-climate beauties that in general do not grow well in Sydney. Having talked about cool-climate plants last week, I decided this week to focus on those late spring self-seeding annuals, many of which I saw in some of the gardens I visited here and elsewhere this year, because these can actually grow very well in Sydney.

Self-seeding late spring annuals at Eidolia Park garden, Millthorpe, NSW

Their self-seeding ways means they pop up where we would never think of planting them, providing a softening and informal effect. They give extra colour to the late spring garden. They usually take up little ground space, shoehorning themselves effortlessly between other plants. Popping up in various places through the garden, they provide a cohesion to the place that is sometimes hard to achieve in any other way.

What I have also noticed about them is that on the whole they have rather unusual flower shapes, adding diversity to the look of the garden. A number of them seem to hail from the Mediterranean region, and most prefer sun and well-drained soil. They require no work from the gardener other than to pull up excess seedlings, and to shake the spent plants around as they are pulled up at the end of spring, to scatter the seeds. Most require to be sown initially directly into the garden: they dislike being transplanted. Heavily mulched gardens are not too conducive to self-seedlings; leave some patches only light covered with mulch to encourage next year's crop.

Orlaya grandiflora

One of my favourites is Orlaya grandiflora, which has dainty, lacy white flowers like Queen Anne's lace on a smaller scale (ht 30-40 cm). It has pretty, ferny foliage and blooms over a long period. It is hard to find commercially - mine was obtained from a friend who found seeds many years ago in New Zealand. It has been passed on from gardener to gardener in our area. I can recommend it if you are ever offered seeds.

Self-seeded Nigella damescena in the National Trust Garden of Miss Ida Traill, Bathurst, NSW

Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena ht 25-50 cm) is another ferny-leaved annual that flowers now. It has unusual whiskered blooms comprised of multiple layers of petals, usually blue but sometimes white or pink. It looks effective growing amongst roses or the Salvia that are just coming into flower now.

Self-sown Papaver rhoeas in the farm garden, Southern Tablelands of NSW

Annual poppies are another late spring joy and they can grow quite well in Sydney. In general, the species Papaver rhoeas and its cultivars are the most commonly seen (ht 25-40 cm), with their crepe-like, bowl-shaped flowers, usually marked with a black blotch. Colours can range from soft pastel pinks, purple and whites (especially in the exquisite 'Mother of Pearl' cultivar) to brilliant red. They look effective growing with other lavender, tall bearded Iris or shrubby daisies.

Foxgloves growing in the garden of Pamela and Harry Fowell in Sydney

Annual foxgloves (eg Digitalis purpurea 'Foxy', ht to 1 m or more) are also self-seeders I've seen a lot of this spring, and I want to grow them in my garden once again next year. I love their bold, stately spires and they will tolerate partly shaded sites, so suit woodland areas with hellebores, Arthropodium and Solomon's seal. They do take up more space at ground level than the other self-seeders described here; they are also one of the few that can be transplanted successfully as seedlings. It's best to plant them out as seedlings in late summer to get them going in your garden; thereafter they should self-seed.

Cerinthe major Purpurascens in the garden of Dominic Wong (Chinoiserie), Mittagong, NSW

A very unusual annual is Cerinthe major 'Purpurascens' (ht 45-60 cm). This plant was in vogue some years ago, because if the amazing metallic blue-purple hue of its nodding, bell-like flowers and bracts. I did try it a few times but discarded it because it died at the end of spring - I thought it was meant to be a perennial and thus unsuited to our climate. In cooler climates, it may well be perennial but in Sydney, it generally behaves as a self-seeding annual, according to some of my gardening friends, which is fine by me; I plan to try it again after seeing some stunning specimens in the gardens at the weekend.

Several other plants which are perennial in cooler climates often behave as self-seeding annuals in my garden, dying out in the humid summer weather, but reappearing as seedlings in autumn or early spring, including the ethereal, spired Linaria purpurea in its pale pink, white and purple forms; the silvery-leaved Lychnis coronaria with cerise, white or white and pink flowers; and valerian (Centranthus ruber, shown at the start of the blog) with clustered heads of tiny flowers: I saw at least five different shades of this (white plus various shades of pink and red) in the gardens at the weekend.

Some people may regard all these plants as weeds. To me, they provide another dimension to the garden at this time of year and I would never want to be without some of them. Other possibilities for self-sown annuals in Sydney include Californian poppies, larkspur and cornflowers.

The annual Bathurst and Millthorpe open-garden festivals are wonderful events. Look out for them next year and enjoy a fabulous weekend away in the NSW countryside. Check out the My Open Garden website for details of other gardens to visit in the meantime!