Amazing annuals

It has been a long time since I last posted. Lockdown is tough and the weather has been pretty awful. When the wind and rain stopped it has been cold! The ground is so wet it is difficult to do much gardening. I do not want to ruin the grass or destroy the soil so I am keeping off it. I have been ordering lots of plants so there will be lots of new posts about those but pots of dormant herbaceous plants do not have much visual appeal – though they do provide me with lots of excitement, of the kind that holding and shaking a pack of seeds provides.

I have been working my way through old photos and, unsuccessfully, attempting to organise them. So, with that in mind, and the hopes for spring and a summer of colour, along with greater freedom, I am starting a series on annuals. We can all look forward to sowing annuals and enjoying their bright and cheerful flowers. I have been ordering seeds too and now have them all organised in alphabetical order, ready for spring. In this first, and the rest of, the posts I will refer, for reference, to ‘The English Flower Garden’ (1883) by William Robinson, to give an Irish flavour.

And we will start, like my seeds in alphabetical order, with Ageratum.

Robinson wrote ‘The dwarf ageratums are among the best, but all are greatly over-valued, though they are among the most lasting of summer bedding plants,’ ‘The very dwarf kinds are disappointing; they flower freely, and the growth of the plants is so sparse that they always appear stunted.’

This suggests either that he had a grudging respect for them or that he could not decide if he liked them or not! And in this regard I have to admit that I feel the same. In their wild state they are short-lived pernnials or small shrubs and although Robinson recommends propagating from cuttings we tend to treat them as half-hardy annuals, sowing in spring and planting out in late May. But commercial young plant companies increasingly sell cuttings-raised plants which tend to bloom longer than seed-raised kinds.

The beauty of the plants lies in their fluffy flowers – they are commonly called floss flowers – and although in the daisy family (Asteraceae) the flowers do not have ray florets. Most dwarf kinds make dense mounds of flower, rather like blue caulifowers, and I dislike them intensely, but they do have their place. As they grow the new flowers open above the old, so the withered, brown blooms are generally disguised. In wet weather it is worth deadheading the plants to keep them neat.

We always think of ageratum as blue but they are also available in a dusky pink and white. The whites are troublesome because the old flowers are brown and ruin the display. But a mix of all three is pleasant. I prefer the tall mixes which can reach 60cm high. They are much more elegant than their dwarf cousins and also make good cut flowers.

Ageratum are pretty easy to grow from seed, are not as worried by cool temperatures as some other half hardy annuals and bloom for ages. At their best in full sun, they will also tolerate a little shade. The informal look of the tall kinds makes them good mixers with herbaceous plants and among small shrubs. They look especially good with silver-leaved plants such as lavender, santolina and Senecio (Brachyglottis) greyii.

Oh, and bees and butterflies love ageratum.

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14 Comments on “Amazing annuals”

  1. Mark Timothy
    December 11, 2020 at 7:38 am #

    I am ooking forward to reading more of the series and welcoming spring 🙂

    • thebikinggardener
      December 11, 2020 at 7:45 am #

      Hello! Great to hear from you and hope you are well 🙂

  2. Paddy Tobin
    December 11, 2020 at 8:03 am #

    Good to have you back. As you say, gardening conditions have been dismal. We have just about finished off the cutting down and clearing phase of autumn ; snowdrops are up but the ground is really heavy and wet.

    Annuals don’t contribute greatly to our garden though there is a tray of Ammi majus in the glasshouse and cosmos are regulars. What might be a suitable annual to plant where good spreads of snowdrops grow – something which might do well in semi-shade, as many snowdrops are at the base of trees and shrubs.

    • thebikinggardener
      December 11, 2020 at 2:15 pm #

      Thank you. That is a tricky one since most annuals like sun. And most that self seed will do so in autumn so the ground will be covered by their foliage in winter. If they are too tall they would swamp the snowdrops! Because they are both low my first thought was lobularia and leptosiphon but I think Aperula orientalis would be the best bet. It is dainty, has blue flowers, tolerates shade and will self seed with a bit of luck. But over winter it will be demure enough to not harm the snowdrops and then in early summer cover their dying foliage.

      • Paddy Tobin
        December 12, 2020 at 9:05 am #

        Many thanks for the suggestions. Overplanting snowdrops is a challenge and I have taken to putting the larger clumps further and further back into borders under trees and shrubs, areas not so visible in summer.

        • thebikinggardener
          December 12, 2020 at 9:07 am #

          I suppose that annuals are not the best answer and (well behaved) hardy geraniums are the key – so they spread over the clumps in spring and summer and can be cut back in autumn.

          • Paddy Tobin
            December 12, 2020 at 9:26 am #

            Yes, Geranium cantabrigense has been my favourite to use in this situation. It spreads with great ease, very easy to propagate and spread about and yet is open enough that the snowdrops can come through easily. I have a few cultivars of this here. Some say that it is not a good idea to use it with snowdrops as it attracts narcissus root fly but I see no reason why this should be so.

            • thebikinggardener
              December 12, 2020 at 3:40 pm #

              I can’t see how geraniums would attract narcissus fly – I would have thought the smell would dissuade them – but you have lots of valuable snowdrops so I dare not comment!

  3. derrickjknight
    December 11, 2020 at 9:21 am #

    Good to see you back with a fine plant

  4. tonytomeo
    December 11, 2020 at 4:06 pm #

    Yes, that describes it well. Blue cauliflower. The color is great, but they do not look like much. If I just wanted such color, I could put stones out there, and paint them blue. Ageratum is uncommon here, and I have never seen it in the wild form. i do like it in pictures though. It actually looks ‘flowery’.

  5. Meriel
    December 11, 2020 at 5:00 pm #

    Good to see your back posting. Like Paddy I do very few annuals other then Cosmos which I buy and self seeders. It’s always to read about them though.

    • thebikinggardener
      December 11, 2020 at 5:27 pm #

      Thank you. I know that not everyone grows annuals but I like their cheerful enthusiasm.

    • Annabel
      December 28, 2020 at 9:43 am #

      Somehow I have always overlooked this first plant to come in all seed display stalls and catalogues.
      But I have some senecio so maybe I could try your suggested partnership? Might need further convincing because the cauliflower reference doesn’t do it for me 🙂

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