DO I WANT A POPULAR PLANT OR A RARITY?

Many of the plants in the A-Z guides are distinctly common – you will find them in gardens everywhere. Before rejecting these over-popular plants, remember that they are inexpensive, easy to obtain and have proved their ability to flourish under all sorts of conditions. Rarities, on the other hand, can be expensive, difficult to find and are often quite temperamental. As a general rule it is unwise to stick slavishly to either group – you don’t want a garden filled with nothing but everyday plants nor do you want a botanical garden. A good plan is to have a framework of modern varieties of old favourites and then a number of unusual plants which you might not have seen before, but which the A-Z guides say are suitable for your site. In that way you will blend reliability with novelty.

WHAT WILL THE GROWING CONDITIONS BE LIKE?

Think about the climate and soil before you make up your shopping list. Some features you will be able to alter to suit the plant – you can make a soil less acid by adding lime and you can add peat to increase acidity. But there are features you cannot change and you therefore have to choose plants which are right for the conditions.

Most hardy annuals are undemanding except for sunlight – when grown in the shade the stems become lanky and the floral display poor or even absent. There is no built-in supply of food reserves in roots, stems or bulbs to keep these plants going- for annuals it is a short life and it must be a sunny one. If the site is shady, look through the A-Z guide for exceptions to the sun-loving rule. Pot Marigold, Cornflower, Virginia Stock and Nasturtium will thrive in partial shade, but biennials tend to be more shade tolerant than hardy annuals – Bellis, Foxglove, Honesty, Forget-me-not and Pansy will all grow in shade.

An outstanding annual for growing under trees is the Bedding Begonia, but it is a half hardy annual, and for all this group there is another problem – the killing effect of frost. Don’t set out any plants from the Half-hardy Annual group before early June if your location is subject to late frosts.

With border perennials the need for well-drained soil is greater than it is for most annuals – the cause of winter death is much more likely to be due to roots rotting in waterlogged soil rather than roots killed by frost. This does not mean that you can ignore the frost problem – avoid the cold-sensitive ones like Eremurus and Agapanthus if you live in an exposed northerly district.

Some, like Globe Flower and Tradescantia, will grow in wet soil – others such as Catananche thrive best on a dry, sandy site.

There is no point in picking choice rockery perennials unless you can provide a well-drained site – with this group of plants the need for free-draining soil is paramount. Once again think of the growing conditions before buying – some rockery plants need full sun and others need a north-facing situation. Some are planted in open ground, others in crevices and a few must be grown vertically in the cracks between rocks or bricks.

Annuals generally need sun and rockery perennials must have good drainage, but there are no general rules for bulbs. Of course they appreciate reasonable soil but on looking through the A-Z guide you will find varieties ranging from Snowdrops, which will grow anywhere, to Ixia and Sparaxis, which are out of the question in cold districts.

HOW MUCH DO I WANT TO SPEND?

Obviously, as little as possible – but you will not save money in the long run if you buy poor quality stock. If you have an established garden then the cheapest way of obtaining new plants is to divide up perennials and use seeds saved from last year. Every good gardener does increase his plants in this way, but every good gardener also regularly buys new plants, for that is one of the pleasures of gardening. Seeds are the cheapest way of producing summer colour – it is more expensive to buy them as bedding plants in trays (’flats’) and even more expensive to buy them as seedlings in individual pots. Sow seeds for annuals and biennials, but remember that you can also raise many border and rockery perennials from seed. Inexpensive, of course, but you will need patience as you wait for them to reach flowering size.

Collections of rooted cuttings are a cheap way of starting a herbaceous or mixed border. If money is short then leave spaces which you can fill with annuals grown from seed until you can afford to buy choice plants to fill the gaps. Many perennials can be bought as container-grown plants in flower – an expensive but satisfactory way of adding instant colour to the garden.ANNUALS & BIENNIALS Annuals grow from seed and they flower and die all in a single season – the hardy ones can be sown in the open in spring and the half hardy ones are raised indoors and then planted out when the danger of frost is past. The hardy biennials are also grown from seed, but with these plants only stems and foliage appear in the first season – you have to wait until the following season for the flowers.

In practice the dividing lines between the groups are a little ragged. Hardy annuals are sometimes treated as biennials, being sown in autumn to provide an unusually early floral display in the following season. Half hardy annuals can be sown outdoors in May to give an unusually late floral display. A few biennials, such as Hollyhocks and Pansies, are often left to grow as perennials in the border.

Despite this slight overlapping, the annuals and biennials are a distinct and invaluable collection of plants for any garden. They are raised from seed, so that large numbers can be produced at a reasonable price, and they have many uses. Filling tubs and window boxes, decorating hanging baskets, covering gaps in borders and beds, providing cut flowers, adding splashes of colour to the rockery and, above all, the provision of planting material for bedding out schemes.

A bedding plant is generally an annual or occasionally a biennial or perennial which is raised under glass or in a nursery bed and then planted out elsewhere as a temporary occupant to provide a colourful display. So the term describes a use and not a type of plant – a Geranium kept indoors is a ‘flowering house plant’; the same variety planted outdoors is a ‘bedding plant’.

We shall never know where the first large-scale bedding schemes were created – both France and Germany claim the honour. What we do know is that by 1840 the formal flower bed was firmly established in Britain and by 1870 it had become a craze. The fashionable competed with each other to produce the most dazzling, ornate and expensive displays. Colours clashed, beds grew more and more bizarre and costs soared. Reaction was inevitable and quite suddenly the formal bed became the symbol of bad taste. The gardening gurus ruled that bedding plants were no longer to be used, but park and home garden bedding refused to die. In recent years the noisy criticism has abated and about half of all gardeners buy bedding plants each year.

The problem is that little imagination or variety is used in the bedding schemes found in the average garden. Dutifully every autumn we plant out the Tulips and cover them with Wallflowers and an edging of Forget-me-nots. When they come out in late spring we are ready to plant out the red Geraniums or Salvias with a frill of Alyssum and Lobelia. Even in Victorian times there were critics – ‘The common disposition of red, white and blue is better adapted to delight savages than represent the artistic status of civilised people.

This criticism is too hard – you are perfectly entitled to have the common-or-garden quilt of red, white and blue or French Marigolds with Ageratum if you feel it is part of your gardening year. But nowadays there are so many new and eye-catching varieties to choose from that you might try a more adventurous scheme. The choice is up to you – a traditional floral tapestry or a bed filled with a single variety, but either way there are general rules to remember. Most annuals adore sunshine and dislike rich soil – do not site an annual bed under trees unless you are prepared to choose from the limited range of shade-lovers. Annuals involve a lot of work -sowing, pricking out, weeding, watering, dead-heading and so on. They are a way to save money but not time. Try to plant them in groups and not as single plants which tend to get lost amongst the greenery in the garden. Place the largest varieties in the centre of the bed or at the back of the border, but do not stick slavishly to this rule.

It is stupid for anyone to pronounce that annuals should not be grown in the garden, but it is equally wrong to try to create a garden with annuals alone. A garden needs a much longer floral season than that, and so we must turn to the bulbs, perennials and shrubs for help.

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