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Planting perennials and annuals

Create fun, seasonal designs full of colour by using annuals and perennials

The proverb “never look a gift horse in the mouth” had little effect on me the morning a courier delivered a large box of sample annuals and perennials. The charming little flowers filled me with trepidation, although the Partner fell upon them with delight.

It would be fair to say that our property does not lend itself to annual/perennial gardening. Its mainstays are rocks, grasses, and palms, and if you were to describe its style, it would be sub-tropical – not cottage. “Don’t worry,” said the Partner, gleefully. “I’ll find somewhere to put them.”

The comment struck fear in my heart. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about gardens, it’s that “finding somewhere to put something” doesn’t result in a stunning design. There is absolutely nowhere on our property that is crying out for an influx of flowering annuals and perennials. We’ll have to create a new area in which to plant them, with enough design elements to work with the rest of the garden.

However, I must admit that over a morning coffee and a homemade biscuit, I had begun to warm to them. I suppose I’ve been a bit colour-deprived too – the soft pinks, creams and whites of our winter flowering shrubs are elegant and serene, but they’re not exactly joyful.

I’m not so unhappy with the perennials, but annuals? Isn’t it a waste of time and space to plant something that won’t be there in a few months? I would have thought so, until I started reading up a bit on designing with annuals.

I came across the following comment on an American garden website: “You’ll get great pleasure from designing with annuals because the results are fast.” As someone who likes instant gratification and has the attention span of a gnat, it was music to my ears. I began searching the internet for a design that would work.

I’d suggest finding an illustration of a design that pleases you and that looks as though it would fit in with your existing garden style. You can then make adjustments to the

shape and colour, and create an annual planting with an appealing mix of colours, forms and textures that will last for many months.

Hard landscaping elements will give form to any plant display, so consider making use of rocks, railway sleepers, garden edging or walls, depending on what’s already  in your garden. Form a small gravel path or make a few steps and use your plants to edge it, or place terracotta planters in a variety of shapes and heights in the garden. Use them to add impact and direction.

For me, that’s the easy part. Working out the colours is the nightmare. Choose plants that are similar hues. Hues that are close together on the colour wheel will generally produce a nice harmony. Contrasting colours can also work well together, especially if they are opposites on the colour wheel, such as yellow and purple, blue and orange, or red and green. Lighter and darker versions of each colour will help to tie the scheme together.

If you’re not confident of what’s going to work, select a trolley full of plants at the garden centre and arrange them on the ground. Move them around, add and subtract, and keep at it until you’ve found a combination that makes you happy. Strive for variety in the heights, forms and textures of your plants. Balance something tall and dramatic with billowing and trailing plants, and try to include some plants with a “wow” factor.

My annuals will become part of the wider garden, so when they’re not there, there’s other plants to attract attention. But if you have the time and talent, you can use annuals to create a one-off garden design for a special occasion, or just for fun. It might be your take on a family crest, a pattern from a favourite frock, or an abstract surround for a sundial. I’m quite keen to plant a clock. Mine will be decorative, so I can make sure it’s always set at 5.15pm, reminding me it’s time for a slow walk around the garden with a glass of wine.

Planting advice

Don’t go racing out with your egg-beater, but the sort of soil you need for an amazing bed of annuals is fluffy. That means well-drained and with a good balance between pore spaces and solid particles. To achieve that, throw in mushroom compost, old manure or regular compost before you plant. Most annuals are sunbathers, although a few will tolerate a bit of shade.

If your proposed spot is a bit on the gloomy side, choose ones such as bedding begonias, coleus, foxgloves, impatiens, honesty, primulas, polyanthus, cinerarias, violas and pansies. Wind’s not welcome either, so make sure any taller annuals are protected from strong gales.

Planting either too early or late means that annuals reach maturity when weather conditions are unsuitable. Another factor to consider is that many annuals flower respond to day length or changes in levels of light. You can go for seedlings (where what you see is what you get and you have some control over colours) or seeds. Seeds take longer and need more initial care, but they’re cheaper.

Throw mixed packs around with reckless abandon for a happy cottage look. Sap-sucking insects love annuals because of their rapid growth, so watch out for aphids and thrips. Control by hand, with frequent sprays of water, or by spraying with an appropriate insecticide.

Chewing insects like caterpillars and earwigs might also be a problem – you can control by hand too, or with pyrethrum or synthetic pyrethroids.

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