Hardy annuals good for autumn direct-sowing
This is a group of what you might describe as the basic essentials in the hardy annuals world. If your September-sown seed survives flood, storms, frost, snow and any other unexpectedness that winter can fling at it, it will be flowering for you in May the next year.
If sown in succession, the lace-capped flowers of Ammi majus and A.visnaga will take the place of cow parsley for the cut-flower grower when the cow parsley is over, giving you lace edging for your flowers all summer long.
Sow your ammi in late autumn, around the end of October, and you may see no results until early spring, but then your crop will take you by surprise and get away amazingly quickly, providing an abundance of lacy froth as soon as the cow parsley is finished. To maintain an ammi crop through the summer you might sow fortnightly, or perhaps monthly from February (when you could start it in seed trays under cover) through to mid-June.
The heavier variety Ammi visnaga can be found at market, but the more delicate A. majus is more difficult to find, so this might be the one to grow if you’re looking to supply local florists. There’s an unusual pinky-purplish variety too.
The amazingly hardy Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’ can be bitten and bitten and bitten again by the frost, and it’ll just come up bushier and more giving in the spring as a result. Its common name, honeywort, tells you how the bees feel about it.
The silvery-blue foliage – almost as squelchy-looking as a succulent – on beautiful arching stems, is as useful as the flowers. An autumn-sown
Save the seed and make sure you plant it, as it can be expensive to buy. I lift my self-seeded plants and pop them into a patch, and there I have next year’s crop. You’ll quickly learn to recognize the seedlings because of the distinctive foliage. Cerinthe doesn’t travel brilliantly out of water and I’ve never seen it in a traditional florist shop – it can sometimes flop after cutting, but revives nicely for me with a little searing.
Alongside poppies, ox-eye daisies and field marigolds, wild blue cornflowers are one of the definitive wild flowers of a cornfield mix. Cultivated varieties now come in blues, reds, whites, pinks and almost-black purples (‘Black Ball’). They stand well out of water and dry well, so are hot favourites with the real-flower-confetti growers. They’re often called ‘bachelor’s buttons’, because tucked as a single flower through the buttonhole on a jacket, they’ll keep smiling all day.
Sow cornflowers direct in September and you may well have a marvelously healthy crop as early as May the following year. You’ll lose some plants to the weather over the winter, but others will bush up to fill the space.
When you’ve had enough of tulips and other bulbs, the first cornflower is like a taste of a July cornfield – a promise of summer already flowering in late spring.
We don’t grow acres of them. But I do sow cornflowers successionally, and have a little patch in flower all summer long. They’re not the most valuable cut flower to grow, because their heads are small and their stems can be weedy, But they are one of the easiest and, certainly if you’re thinking of gate sales or farmers’ markets, bunches of cornflowers will always do well for you.
These annual delphiniums, with their tall, papery flowered spikes in whites, blues, pinks and reds, are hot favourites with florists, and will crop reliably over a good two-month period from a single sowing. They are much grown by specialists in making real-flower confetti, for fresh and dried use. If well conditioned, the flowers don’t wilt quickly out of water, so are useful in hair garlands and buttonholes.
Larkspur do particularly well planted out in September to survive a sharp winter, as a few weeks of freezing temperatures will help with vernalization of the seed, so ensuring a good germination rate. (Vernalization is the encouragement of germination, in the case of seed, or flowering, in the case of perennial plants, as a result of exposure to sufficient cold.) Larkspur seed should always be kept in the fridge once you have it, and if you’re sowing larkspur in spring, so it won’t get any cold treatment outdoors, then do put it in the freezer for a couple of weeks before sowing to it help it germinate.
Often planted as a green manure, the flowers of phacelia are beautiful in May and June and are usually humming with bees as soon as they come out. An especially intense purplish-blue, they are extremely useful as a cut flower. The stems are strong and the flowers hold well in water and are large and fascinating to look at. It will self-seed all about, but seedlings can easily be managed into a block if you keep an eye out for them.
Synonymous with spring, with scented cut flowers, with what we grow best in the UK, sweet peas (in case you haven’t noticed yet!)
Although they are amazingly hardy, you might think twice about direct-sowing sweet peas in the autumn if you want to grow long stems to cut for sale. Sharp frosts might pinch out your plants so often that you’ll end up with five or six flowering shoots per plant. While this will give you bushy, healthy plants with great root systems, you probably won’t get the stem length you’ll need if you’re planning to sell top-quality sweet peas to florists or direct to customers.
Sow sweet peas in deep seed trays, or even in toilet rolls, which you can keep in a cold greenhouse or protect from the worst of the frosts until you plant them out in late March or April. Remember that sweet-pea seed is also the mouse’s favorite supper: sweet peas sown directly in September may be mouse-munched before they’ve got much past germination. The seed is (relatively) expensive, so I don’t waste money direct-sowing sweet peas at any time of year.