The trouble with biennials

Biennials include some of the loveliest and most old-fashioned garden flowers. They include sweet Williams, Canterbury bells (Campanula media) – above, forget-me-nots, bellis, foxgloves and wallflowers. They are sown in summer and bloom the next spring. The trouble is that then they die. So what was a glorious picture in May is then a mass of browning stems in June or July. The biennials that bloom early, for example the forget-me-nots, are not a huge issue in the standard scheme of things. They can be pulled up and replaced with summer annuals.

And here is the thing. I am still thinking like a Victorian gardener, replacing the spring flowers with tender summer plants, to be replaced again in October. Of course I am not even being a true Victorian gardener because if I was I would not be content with replacing the flowers twice a year – I would have pots of plants ready to change three or four times. But we can’t do that.

For nostalgic reasons I wanted to grow some Canterbury bells. In particular I wanted to grow the ‘cup and saucer’ type (‘Calycanthema’) which have inflated, colourful calyces. Of course, now they are blooming it seems that the seed strain is not pure and only one plant is as it should be, even though it has not yet opened. They are looking a bit bashed after the wind this weekend but the worst thing is that most are not yet in bloom. And I need to get the summer plants in the ground. I planned to just fill this bed with cosmos this summer and I decided to plant them in between the campanulas and, in two weeks, when the campanula are over, I will pull them out and the cosmos should be established and may even have benefited from some protection.

My sweet Williams were not so lucky. They were in a bed that was replanted with tagetes and I just could not wait any longer for them to bloom. So they were pulled up before they were in their prime, the stems with blooms saved for the house.

I think the lesson is that they are best used to infill around perennials rather than in formal bedding where you are going to make the change in May and June. The joy of many of these biennials is that they fill that gap in the season between spring and summer. What is awful is that many of these are sold, in full bloom, in garden centres. Their lifespan, once home, is short. Most are easy to grow from seed and can be sown next month without special requirements and at ambient temperatures.

Of course, not all biennials are grown for their flowers. Carrrots, parsnips and onions are biennials and we don’t want them to bloom because then they will not make roots that we can eat.

My Japanese onions have been a failure. They are sown/planted in August/September and overwinter and mature early in summer, a month or so before spring-planted onions. The trouble is that a check to growth, be it chill or drought, will stimulate flowering. And almost all my onions have bolted. They have taken up space for 9 months and caused no end of worry through the winter, looking windswept and miserable. I am not sure I will bother again.

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