Sow seeds for early summer colour

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Most people associate seed-sowing with spring, but the reality is that there are very few times of the year at Gravetye when we’re not germinating something or other. At the moment, our main concern is preparing for our autumn sowings of hardy annuals-the first of a succession of sowings
-ensuring colour in the borders from May onwards next year. By sowing summer-flowering annuals in September and October and overwintering the young plants in a cold frame, they already have a head start in the spring.

This means we get bigger, more robust plants that flower earlier and often for much longer than their spring-germinated counter-parts. An advanced flowering programme such as this can be especially useful in the mixed border, filling that funny gap at the end of May and the start of June, when the first spring colour has faded, but we’re still waiting for the midsummer perennials to flower.

The 18in-tall ladybird poppy, Papaver commutatum, is a perfect candidate for autumn germination. I tend to wait until late September for sowing, if it’s warm, and try to prick out the tiny seedlings as soon as possible, as crowded seedlings are prone to damping-off fungal diseases. This should result in sturdy plants, flowering through-out May and June, and for even longer if you have time to dead-head them. Slightly more unusual and equally beautiful is the red tulip poppy, Papaver glaucum. It’s slightly larger than P. commutatum and can become a little scruffy, but makes up for this with the intense colour of its flowers, followed by beautiful seed heads.

Orlaya grandiflora bears dainty white flowers (something like those of a carrot) and makes a dramatic partner for the red-and-black-petalled ladybird poppy. Orlaya is grown in virtually the same way as the poppies, but it can be tricky to germinate, so it’s worth sowing some extra seeds to increase the chance of getting good numbers through the winter. Another worthwhile plant for autumn sowing is Ammi majus, which is best described as a charismatic cow parsley on steroids.

It sows itself quite freely through the garden and when germinated in the spring, it makes a pretty, white haze in July and August, about 4ft tall. But, if sown in September and cared for under glass through the winter, Ammi majus can be thrillingly monstrous, growing up to 7ft tall and flowering through June. It combines beautifully with many plants, but it’s a nice trick to germinate larkspurs (I like to use Sublime Azure Blue) and plant them out together in the spring, running through the mixed border.

So, onto the practicalities:

we sow all the above in seed trays in the glasshouse, where the climate can be accurately
controlled, and then prick out seedlings into cell packs that are laid out in the shelter of the cold frame. In an ideal world, we would pot-on single plants into 31⁄2in pots by the onset of winter so that they’re the optimum size for planting out in about March. In times of hard frost, hessian cloth or old carpet can be placed over the frame for insulation, but the most important function of the cold frame is to keep excess rain off, as cold and wet conditions set back young plants. Accurate watering is very important throughout the winter; often, over-watering can be more destructive than under-watering when it’s cold.

Of course, a lot of these hardy species could be sown now directly into the ground, which involves much less labour and fuss, but then they’re at the mercy of pests and unpredictable weather. Direct-sown young plants would also need space in the border, and I’d prefer not to remove existing plants that will continue looking attractive throughout the autumn and winter in order to make space for them.

Seeds available from Chiltern Seeds (01491 824675;, Larkspur Nursery (01406 330830; and Thompson & Morgan (0844 2485383;

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