The frenzy of spring sowing has at last come to an end. Pea plants are climbing their supports, carrot, beetroot and parsnip are due for thinning, tomatoes and cucs are well established in the glasshouse and the zucchini are happily sunbathing under a cloche of plastic. So why am I feeling sorry for myself? It’s because, as usual, I haven’t had any time to sow the seed of the annual flowers I love so much. It’s the same every year – the edible beds get all the attention, and although the cottage perennials (geum, aquilegia, cornflower, bearded irises and lupins) look gorgeous right now, I know very well they’ll soon be loosing their petals. And when they do, I’ll be looking at nothing but a swathe of monotonous green!
But all hope of summer colour is not quite lost, which is good news because even if you did manage to grow some early annuals, it won’t be long before they’ll be wearing out. The answer to a pretty flower bed in later summer is to sow the seed of fast-flowering, late summer annuals – and a bright line-up they are. Depending on where you are in the country (and I’m starting from cooler climes and working up), you can now sow marigolds, sunflowers, nasturtiums, cosmos and zinnias. As well as that, those of you who live in regions with mild winters can also sow the seed of hardy annuals, the sort that take a little longer to flower but which happily winter over in a sunny spot in the garden. These in include snapdragon and annual cornflower. Alyssum and candy tuft (perennials) can also be sown.
The trick is to sowing seed later in summer is to grow it directly in the ground so there’s no shock through transplanting to delay flowering. Having said that, we all know that once seed is in the ground, rather than a seed box, we are apt to forget it, and seed sown late in the season must be cosseted if you are to see the results before colder weather sets in.
When you sow, make sure the ground is finely tilled, and consider covering it with a light dusting of commercial seed raising mix rather than garden soil. The lightness and fine-ness of the mix means the seeds won’t have to struggle to push through the ground. Late summer can be a dry time of the year so keep a water watch on your babies (at first, you may need to mist-spray so you don’t wash delicate seeds from the soil). And even though it’s summer, snails and slugs will still be on the hunt, especially after a shower of rain. Lay bait around the perimeter of your seed patch. Once seeds are through, don’t be afraid to thin them. Seedlings with space grow more quickly. If your bed wasn’t enriched with manure, give the seedlings a watering of manure and seaweed tea once they are 3-4 cm high. Once the plants are big enough, mulch around them to prevent them drying out. Most importantly, prevent already established plants from encroaching by tying them back or holding them out of the way with hoops of wire.
As New Zealand summers typically arrive in February (just as school is going back!), your annuals will have a very good chance of flowering well and, when they do, keep nipping off the spent blooms, as late season plants can be too quick to produce seeds heads at the expense of flowers.
Once your late and hardy ornamentals are bringing colour to the garden, there’s another big bonus to look forward to. Bees, which will already be aware of the changing season, will simply devour the nectar they produce, which is a boon for your vegetable beds where the likes of broad beans, peas, and the last of the tomato and cucumber flowers are just waiting to be pollinated. The blooms of sunflowers, left to wither on their stems, will also bring the birds into the garden just as winter is approaching, and this too is a help as they are also likely to clean up grubs that may otherwise over-winter and raise their heads again in the coming spring.
So don’t despair that you didn’t have the time to sow flowering plants earlier. Now, before the edible beds are producing gluts and tying you to your kitchen bench, take the opportunity to sow colour which can be enjoyed in the coming months.