by Ed Bollam, Head Gardener, Gordon Castle
Of all the plants we grow at Gordon Castle, annuals have to be the most varied and versatile, especially when it comes to our cut flower gardens. Not only are they mostly quick and easy to grow, they make fantastic fillers to plug gaps in herbaceous planting and with a little deadheading they often flower all summer long.
Cosmos are one of our favourites and most widely used genus of annuals. Easy to germinate and long lasting, their feathery foliage and cheerful flowers add as much to a bouquet as they do to a border. We love the bright cerise pink ‘Double Click Cranberry’ to add instant impact to a display, or the clean white ‘Purity’ for its elegant simplicity. Sow them under glass from March onwards and plant out from May after the last frosts, keep them well fed and watered for robust plants that will flower from June to September.
No cut flower garden would be complete without the greenish white domed flowers of Ammi, otherwise known as ‘Queen Anne’s Lace’ or ‘Bishops Flower’. We grow both Ammi visnaga and Ammi majus, with long stems and substantial umbel shaped flowers they are great for making up large bouquets and giving some contrast of form to an arrangement. Ammi majus ‘Graceland’ is particularly good for cutting. If you like the umbrella shape of Ammi but are looking for something more delicate, why not try Orlaya grandifolia with its intricate lace like flowers. Orlaya will grow happily on poorer soil than Ammi and is more tolerant of drought.
We never seem to be able to find enough foliage of our bouquets in the Walled Garden, so rather than continually denuding our shrubs we grow a range of annuals specifically for their leaves and green flowers to bulk up our displays. Bupleurum is particularly useful in this regard, with its long wiry stems, neat little leaves and vibrant green flowers it is invaluable as a filler. Both Bupleurum rotundifolium ‘Garibaldi’ and ‘Griffithii’ are good choices and whilst they can be a little tricky to germinate under glass, once planted out they self-seed freely.
If you’re looking for more substantial greenery why not try the green variety of ‘Love lies bleeding’ (Amaranthus caudatus var viridis) with its gorgeously soft and exotic tassels, or even ‘Bells of Ireland’ (Molucella laevis) – these both give height and punch to large arrangements, looking particularly good with purple gladioli or dahlia.
A great way to keep your cut flowers going beyond the summer is to grow varieties for drying. We love to hang great bunches upside down in the eaves of our potting shed for use in autumnal garlands or to brighten up Christmas wreathes. There are many different types of statice (Limonium) that are perfect for drying. Limonium sinuatum ‘Purple attraction’ has wonderful coral like flowers held above long stout stems, whilst Limonium surworowii, otherwise known as ‘Pink Pokers’ grows lilac coloured spikes that work beautifully weather fresh or dried.
One of the best ‘everlasting’ flowers that we grow is Acroclinium, formerly known as Helipterum, its masses of pink daisy shaped flowers will last for months if not years if dried properly. The key to drying flowers is to pick them just as they have opened up, keep the stems long and hang them up in a shaded, airy location out of direct sunlight, don’t be tempted to use a greenhouse, they’re too humid and your flowers will go moldy.
I could not write about annuals without mentioning sweet peas. We grow 60 metres of them on long wigwams through the cut flower beds. Over the years we have weeded out the poorer varieties and only grow types with big blooms, long stems and fantastic fragrance. Our recommendations for the best cultivars are as follows; ‘Cathy’ - a strong growing and reliable white, ‘Lord Nelson’ - our favorite blue, ‘Windsor’ - the darkest maroon with lovely frilly flowers and ‘Royal Crimson’ is blood red with fabulous scent. We don’t have time to remove the side shoots on so many sweet peas plants (almost 150 in total) but we do try to pick the flowers every day and tie them in regularly to keep them flowering well into the autumn.
As well as the larger showier flowers, we like to grow a range smaller plants for use in posies or buttonholes. Nigella and cornflowers are invaluable. Nigella hispanica is a little different with larger more robust flowers than the usual Love-in-a-Mist, and we like to grow mixes of cornflower such as ‘Classic Magic’ or ‘Classic Magic’ to give a range of colours from pastel blues and pinks to dark purples and mauves. Several different varieties of Scabious add pin cushion like jewels to the borders. ‘Black Knight’ is probably the closest to a true black that we’ve found, it contrasts wonderfully with burnt oranges and yellows and Scabiosa atropurpurea ‘Fata Morgana’ has lovely apricot flowers on long slender stems, easily poked into a bouquet to add that final touch.
There is a vast choice of annuals in every conceivable shape and colour, far beyond what is available in most garden centres. It’s so easy to fill your cut flower beds just for the price of a few seed packets and of course the joy is that you can change them every year!