There is nothing better for the soul than to grow flowers from seed.
Do you remember sprouting cress seeds from an egg shell when you were a child? That sense of wonder never leaves us.
Five or six packets of seed, a couple of bags of compost and a few containers allow you to have flowers to cut for the house through summer and autumn, plus spare to give to family and friends.
Making a cutting patch is easier than you think. You can make a raised bed, or you could just find a patch of lawn you don’t need any more. Just choose somewhere sunny. Check you can sink a spade into it: a depth of 30cm is enough. Cover the area with cardboard. Leave it for 4-6 weeks: long enough for the grass to die off. Then heap some compost over the top. 10-20cm is perfect. This is your new cutting patch!
You don’t even need a garden. Just a few large pots by the door. Or a window-box. Any recycled container will do, so long as it has a depth of about 50cm, and you have poked or drilled a few drainage holes in the bottom. I have successfully grown cut flowers in old wellies, a leaky old watering can, a car tyre and a packing crate.
My Top Five Easy-to-Grow Annuals1. Cosmos
EASIEST PLANT EVER!!! Germinates within hours, all seeds germinate, it grows away strongly, and then doesn’t stop flowering. Just keep cutting the flowers! I love Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Xanthos’ and ‘Velouette’ (pictured below)
Also easy peasy. Really strong seedlings: INDESTRUCTIBLE! At the end of the growing season they will then self-seed, so they are great if you want the same plant in the same place next year. Sky-blue, sparkly flowers, irresistible to bees. Edible too! Look for Borago officinalis (pictured below)
3. Sweet Peas
One little mug of sweet peas will perfume a whole room. There is a lot of fuss made around sowing sweet peas, whether to sow in Autumn or in spring. It doesn’t really matter! I have sown indoors into toilet rolls (these are perfect because sweet peas like a deep root-run), but now I sow outdoors in March, where I want them to grow, and all is well! I love Lathyrus odoratus ‘Edward of York’ and ‘Matucana’ (pictured below).
These are the tiniest little seeds and seedlings, but their growth rate is AMAZING! They will produce masses of beautiful tubular flowers which release their scent in the evening, just when you want to enjoy them after work. Moths love them too. I love Nicotiana alata ‘Lime Green’ and ‘Sensation’ (pictured below).
Don’t be put off my the unflattering name. They have the most intricate pin-cushion flowers, beautiful from tight little bud to overblown. Even the seedheads are delightful. The perfect flower for gazing. Bees and butterflies love them. I love Scabiosa atropurpurea ‘Beaujolais Bonnets’ and ‘Fata Morgana’ (pictured below).
Other favourite annuals include: cerinthe, nigella, larkspur, phlox, salvia, snapdragons, cleome, sunflowers, zinnia… there are so many to try and the possibilities are endless!
Annuals grow quickly. They reach maturity within 12 weeks. So if you sow in March, they start producing flowers in June.
Annuals are incredibly productive. They live fast and die young. They will give you three to five months of flowers. Masses of flowers. The more you harvest, the more they produce. Each plant will produce flowers for you to cut every few days.
Annuals are best sown from mid-March through to May, but don’t worry if you’ve missed this window. If you’re reading this in January or February, just hold your horses until March. Read gardening books and blogs, salivate over seed catalogues (my favourites are Chiltern Seeds and Higgeldy Garden), and lovingly stroke your seed packets until it is time to sow.
You don’t have to limit yourself to my selection of flowers. These are merely a hint to get you started. One of my favourite daydreamy activities is to think of lovely combinations of flowers to grow together. I might have a colour scheme: raspberry ripple, say, or mint julep. The more pretentious the better. For more ideas, you might like to browse my previous posts about my Cutting Patch.
The instructions below are for beginners. If you read gardening books, you will find instructions to buy seed compost, sieve it, mix it with vermiculite, dampen it by putting the seedtray in a larger tray of water. All this can bring on a headache. You can do all of these things, but I have had complete success with the simpler method below.
You will need:A seed tray
A packet of your chosen seed
- Fill your seed tray with compost and press it down a little bit to make an even surface. Water it to just dampen the surface of the compost.
- Sprinkle your seeds on top of the compost. If they are large enough to handle, then space them out.
- Add a sprinkle of compost on top of your seeds. Rub it between your fingers if you don’t have a compost sieve!
- Water lightly. Again, just to dampen the seeds slightly. A quick shower, not a long soak in the tub.
Your seeds will need to be at around room temperature to germinate. On a windowsill in the house is perfect. I never cover my seeds with clingfilm. I want to be able to see them the moment they emerge. It’s a bit like watching for chicks to hatch.
Keep them hydrated, but don’t drown them!
I check on my seed trays once a day, and give them a light sprinkling of water. They will germinate in 7-14 days. You will worry in the meantime that you have done something wrong; that they are not going to germinate.
Sit tight. Twiddle your thumbs. Sing to them a little bit. One morning you will see a little curled stem, possibly with a seed-hat stuck to it (don’t worry, it will probably come off, and you can help it in a few days if you really feel the urge).
Once you see little seedlings sprouting (gasp!), you can keep watering from a jug, or you can spritz them with a pump spray. You can recycle a pump spray if you like, but wash it out thoroughly first. Spritz your seedlings a couple of times a day. You’re aiming to refresh them, but you don’t want to drown them. A couple of spritzes per seedling should be perfect.
Turn your seed-tray or pots once per day. The seedlings will turn towards the window to seek out the sunlight. To ensure even growth you need to turn them.
Thinning, pricking out and pinching out the tips
This sounds mean, but it really isn’t. If you have seedlings growing too closely together, they will not reach their potential. You have to grit your teeth and pull one out. If you can transplant it elsewhere, then do, but if you have plenty of seedlings, don’t worry. Honestly, don’t worry. That is the hardest thing for a novice gardener to do.
The first pair of leaves are seed-leaves. Then your seedling will do something magical and grow its first pair of true leaves. These will be completely different. It is like watching a caterpillar become a butterfly.
Once your seedling has one to two pairs of true leaves, you can prick them out. This just means transplanting them into a little pot of their own. They are moving from the crib to their own bedroom.
To prick out, first have some small pots to hand. Half-fill your pots with multi-purpose compost. Here’s the slightly ticklish bit. Use a pencil to lever out each seedling from under their roots. Hold on to a leaf. Transplant the little seedling, roots and all, into the new pot. Don’t hold the stem: better to lose a leaf than a stem. It’s the same for a human. You can lose a limb, but not your trunk. Gently ease the seedling into position in its pot, as central as possibly, and sprinkle compost in around it to fill the pot. Press down with your finger tips to make sure it is snuggly. Give it a nice comforting drink.
Let your seedlings recover from this shock for a week or so. Once they have started growing again, you need to think about pinching out the tips.
Seedlings will grow tall and gangly unless we pinch out the growing tip. That means literally pinching out the top two leaves once there are a couple of pairs of leaves. This is hard to do, because by now your seedlings will be looking really pretty. They will look utterly perfect, and you will coo over them and stroke them, and show all your friends.
Speak firmly to yourself. You must pinch out the top pair of leaves. The seedling will not scream. It will say “thank you. Thank you. By pinching out this top pair of leaves, you are allowing me to grow side-shoots and branch out. I will grow plump and bountiful, and produce flowers galore. Thank you. You are a true gardener now and I salute you.”
Keep watering daily, turning your seedlings, and stroking, and singing, and showing all your friends. They will be growing away nicely, and have a nice bushy crop of leaves. You can start to think about hardening them off now.
Young plants grown indoors are a little bit mollycoddled. They only have to whimper a bit and you come running. They can’t get through secondary school like that. They have to be hardened off.
This means choosing a nice mild day, not too much rain and not too much wind, to place your little babies outside. Just for the daytime: they’re not ready tostay out late yet. It is a bit of a rigmarole, carting them all outside every morning and bringing them insideevery evening. But this way you will have tip-top super-plants, ready for anything nature can throw at them.
Do this for a week. Then they are ready for a sleepover. Outside. Make sure that there are no frosts forecast. This means checking your weather app. As long as the minimumtemperature stays above 5 degrees, your plants will be fine. If it’s going to go below this, it’s best tobring the plants inside for the night. If temperatures stay above 5 degrees, leave them outside all the time for another whole week.
So you’ve sown your seeds. You’ve thinned them out, pricked them out, pinched them out, chucked them out overnight for a week. Now you can plant them into their final positions. They are flying the nest. Thisshould be after all risk of a late frost is over. The first week of June is generally safe forthe South of England, a couple of weeks later for the North.
Prepare your pots, container, wellies, tyre or old bathtub filling it with multi-purpose compost. I say fill it, but leave enough space for your plants. They will be filling their little pots nicely now, and ideally you will see roots poking out of the bottom of the pots. If you have used fibre pots, you can plonk the whole thing into your container. If you’ve used plastic pots, tease them out.
Space your plants so that they have room to at least double in size. You probably have too many plants now. Give a few away to friends, and preen a bit as they praise your efforts.
Water your plants in really well. A general rule for watering plants in pots isto give them a really good soak once a week, rather than a daily sprinkle. A light sprinkle will encourage the roots upto the surface, whereas a good soak encourages the roots down and out. In warm, dry weather you will want to up your watering, and the smaller the pot, the more frequently you will need to water.
I feed my plants in pots once a week with dilute liquid seaweed, available from all good garden centres. I say dilute. Don’t be tempted to up the dose. If plants get too many nutrients, they will produce lots of leaves butno more flowers. Or the nutrients will just get washed away into the ground and water courses, and this is no good for wildlife. Better to mix liquid seaweed too weak than too strong.
An even easier option is to sow direct into the ground where your plants will flower!
Just like human beings, some seedlings resent root disturbance. That’s okay, because you can just direct sow these into the ground or the container. You will just have to sow a little later, once the night time temperatures have warmed up a bit. I direct sow in May.
Just prepare your bed or container with about 10cm of compost on top. Break down any obvious lumps with a rake, garden fork, or hands.
Draw a star. Trust me here. Draw a star with your index finger. You can sow your seeds into this little seed drill (gully), then sprinkle compost on top.
The reason you draw a star is that when you sow outdoors, weeds will also like the lovely seed bed you have created. They will try to creep into your seedbed, and will nudge your little seedlings and annoy them. If you have a star shape, you can see which seedlings are not yours! Hoik the little devils out!
Just as you would with your seedlings grown indoors, water your babies regularly, thin them, pinch them out, and wait for the first flowers!
These annuals are perfect for direct-sowing:
Nigella, calendula, sweet peas, nasturtiums, clarkia, amaranthus , Californian poppies, opium poppies, heck, any type of poppies!
Finally! The fun bit! Well actually, it’s all been pretty good fun, hasn’t it? I find nothing more satisfying and morally edifying than all of this poking around and marvelling at the wonder of nature. Remember those dry old seeds you sprinkled a few weeks ago? Look at them now! They’ve made roots, and leaves, and flower-buds! You might even have your first flowers now!
Don’t be afraid of harvesting your flowers. Annual plants produce masses of flowers. The more you pick, the more they produce. Cut the stem nice and long so that you can arrange it in a jam jar or a jug. Strip off the lower leaves. Flowers are best cut early in the morning, and just as the petals are opening. Arrange in any way that pleases you.
Have fun. Play with your flowers. Gaze at them. Pull them apart to see how they’re made. Make a collage or a picture with their petals.
No two bouquets are ever the same. Single stems in a series of glass bottles look fabulous. Tie a ribbon around a bunch and give them to a friend or neighbour. Take them to work. Fill your boots.
Make sure you keep on cutting. If you leave the flowers on the plant, make sure that you dead-head the spent blooms. If you leave them, the plant will put all of its energy into setting seed (producing seed pods) and will stop producing flowers. If you keep on cutting, these plants will produce non-stop flowers from June through to the first frosts in November.
When the first frost arrives in autumn, you can hoik out all of these annuals (collecting seed for next year if you like) and replace the lot with bulbs for flowering next spring. Once the bulbs have finished flowering in late May, hoik them out, and replace them with your new batch of annuals. It’s like a more wholesome obsession with fashion, only cheaper.
I really hope you give this a go. These seeds are perfect for children to grow. Or grandparents. If you can’t get out and about or don’t have a garden, they can be grown in a tight space. Just make sure they get direct sunlight for half of the day.
If you or anyone you know has been feeling blue, then gardening is a brilliant way to see the point of life again. Plants require so little from us: a bit of compost, a bit of water, some sun. They reward our efforts richly, with a cornucopia of sensory delights. Gardening is a really easy way of practising mindfulness.
Have I tempted you? I would love to hear about your plans for growing annuals. Or how you are getting on. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask.
If you would like more mindfulness in your life, or more gardening, or the combination of the two, then you can follow The Mindful Gardener. Click on the big ‘Follow’ button at the bottom of the page.
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