Spring annuals were of the first types of plants I was ever aware of as a child in the 1960s. In those days, most gardeners seemed to grow them and I recall ours being raised from seed in flat wooden boxes kept on the corrugated iron platform covering our firewood pile. The boxes were covered with pieces of masonite and I remember my father carefully lifting these lids up every evening when he came home from work to inspect whether the seedlings had come up. Our spring garden seemed to be full of pretty flowers every year: pansies, cinerarias, wallflowers, stock, snapdragons, pot marigolds, cornflowers, candytuft, sweet peas and Iceland poppies, which I am sure must have all left some permanent imprint on my mind, as I have always have a soft spot for them - and their very names conjure up fond memories of times long past.
These days far fewer of us have time to cultivate vast swathes of annual flowers and our garden styles are different now, with less space left for temporary plantings like these. However, there are many early spring flowering annuals that will self-seed in between other plants, and I enjoy this very informal effect with plants such as forget-me-nots, chartreuse Nicotiana langsdorfii, cute heartsease (Viola tricolor) and nasturtiums. I don't grow a lot of spring-flowering shrubs or perennials , as I have concentrated on making a summer/autumn display, so it is comforting to have these small, cheerful notes of the season in my otherwise rather flowerless, pruned-back garden in August and September.
Another option is to grow a few annuals in pots, and some seem especially suited for this, bringing the opportunity for spring flowers to the smallest of gardens or balconies. Some years I grow pansies (Viola x wittrockiana, ht 20-30 cm) in pots with alyssum (Lobularia maritima, ht 20 cm), and if planted early enough, these will flower all through winter and spring. I love their cheerful faces and rich, vibrant colours. They need a fairly sunny position, plenty of water and regular liquid fertilising. Pinching off the spent flower-heads will keep them in bloom for an extended period. Other years I have grown polyanthus (Primula x polyantha, ht 15 cm) in pots - their formal flower shape seems to suit containers. I have also enjoyed growing the trailing forms of the brilliant blue annual Lobelia erinus (ht to 30 cm) in pots and hanging baskets.
This year is the first time I have ever grown pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis). I sowed the seeds in March and they have just started to bloom this past week. They have developed into sturdy plants, with large, double-flowered heads. The cultivar I grew is 'Pacific Beauty' (ht 80 cm), promising a mix of warm colours, such as orange, bright yellow and apricot, as well as cream. This annual is said to bloom for a very long time over winter and spring, and possibly into summer, especially if they are deadheaded regularly. They may also self-seed from year to year. The petals are edible and make a bright addition to salads and apparently can even be used as a substitute for saffron; the plant is also known for its medicinal properties. They grow in sun or part-shade. They attract beneficial insects and make good cut flowers. Why has it taken me so long to get round to growing them?!
Not all spring annuals need full sun, and some years I plant out some punnets of white Primula malacoides (ht to 30 cm) in pots or in a shaded garden bed that includes white hellebores, snowflake bulbs, pristine white Camellia japonica 'Lovelight' and white Iris japonica, to add an airy contrasting form. It is such an easy-to-grow plant in our climate and has dainty whorls of pink, white or mauve flowers above its rosettes of downy, scallop-edged leaves. It comes from China and will self-seed from year to year if it finds conditions to its liking. A related plant is Primula obconica (ht 30 cm), also from China, which has larger flowers in many different colours - but its foliage can cause allergic reactions in some people.
Another good spring annual for shady or part shady pots or garden beds is the florists' cineraria (Pericallis x hybrida, syn. Senecio x hybrida, ht 30-50 cm), originally from the Canary Islands, with its tapestry of large, richly-hued daisies of blue, purple, crimson, pink, mauve, white or violet, often with central white bands. This annual enjoys fertile, well-drained soil and may self-seed in some gardens. It is a pretty accompaniment to late winter or spring-flowering shrubs that can tolerate some shade, such as Eupatorium megalophyllum, which is just coming into bloom, and Camellia japonica cultivars. The blue or purple types are also stunning partnered with orange or creamy-yellow Clivia in shade.
Perhaps one day the gardening tide will turn and more of us will start growing some of the other old-fashioned spring annuals again like previous generations did. Few of them are available in punnets and many need to be grown from seed. Growing plants from seed can be great fun, and there something incredibly uplifting about nurturing a plant from seed to flower, especially in these challenging times. It's too late to grow spring annuals, but maybe think about some summer ones!
This blog was originally posted on 28 August 2011; updated 9 August 2020.
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