Bright & Beautiful – designer Julie Toll plants a border mainly of annuals grown from seed to give you a sensational display of flowers all summer long – and save money, too.
Despite designing gardens for my clients, I still enjoy spending my spare time in my own garden. I love looking through the seed catalogues in the winter, choosing my vegetable varieties for the next season. At the same time I’m always tempted by the vast array of annual flower seeds that are available. Public bedding displays used to put me off annuals, as I found the groups of petunias, geraniums and Victorian-style bedding displays rather dull. But some years ago I visited the botanical gardens in Gothenburg and the parks of Enköping in Sweden and was totally inspired by the more natural groupings of annual plants.
I also love seeing the occasional cornfield with the bright colours of corn poppies, corn camomile, corn marigold and cornflowers growing among the wafting, grass-like corn.
These images have been the starting point for my annual border and to give it an even sunnier, happy look I have selected colours in the yellow, apricot and orange range. These are hot colours that many gardeners are nervous about using, but they have a dramatic effect. The planting combinations selected will mingle together in drifts, with some ‘accent’ plants popping out among plants with more ‘carpeting’ forms. For example, the spherical yellow heads of Craspedia ‘Drumstick’ complement the softer pincushion heads of the deep red Scabiosa atropurpurea ‘Chat Noir’. The real drama is created by the tall sunflowers that tower above the rest of the plants and act like sentries. A more subtle ‘special’ is the Dahlia ‘Honka’, with its very delicate yellow petals in a star-like form: not what you expect from a dahlia.
A natural look
The height of the plants varies throughout the border, with some of the taller plants nearer to the front and smaller ones weaving through the matrix of varieties. This random plant arrangement is inspired by the natural combinations you might see in a wildflower meadow or on a railway embankment where annual weeds have colonised. The verbascums or leonitis randomly pop up among the other flowers, with no deliberate plan to put taller plants at the back of the border.
I always like to put my ideas on paper first. Brainstorming with the seed catalogues is the first process. I make lists and write down the height, colour and flowering season of each plant and slowly minimise the list to not more than 15 or 20 plants for a border of this size (3m by 5m). Then I create a grid on paper (graph paper is fine) to arrange the planting. For this scheme I have worked on an average spacing of 30cm between plants. I then mark where I would like my key plants, the sunflowers and taller Pennisetum grasses. Next small crosses establish the location of the drifts of Bidens that will weave through the border. Then random groupings or individual specimens of the other plants are added to the scheme.
The grid is easily set out on the ground when you are ready to start planting, and this makes the planting process more straightforward.
This border will need to be planted in full sun and in any soil that is free-draining. Ideally, I would dig organic matter in during the autumn before planting, or add a slow-release fertiliser to the soil.
The display will provide colour from early June until the end of the summer. In fact the more robust plants, such as the Craspedia, sunflowers and some of the grasses, will stand well into the autumn and may even become frosty silhouettes. The birds will love this winter cover and food supply.
I suggest you sow seeds in trays or cells and then prick them out and grow them on until they are large enough to plant out. They will be ready in about May, except the dahlias. Buy them as tubers and plants in two or three litre pots, then add them to the bed when the danger of frost has passed and they are about 20-30cm tall. The crocosmias are available as corms and are best potted up, five or six per pot.
Once the plants have established you won’t have much weeding to do as by now they will cover the ground, leaving no room for weeds. In this scheme the maintenance should be fairly minimal. Established plants needn’t be watered unless the ground is completely parched, when they may need an infrequent drink. I prefer not to pamper these annuals so they grow slowly and strongly; they will be more resistant to pest or disease attacks.
Annual borders can be a regular feature in your garden or a one-off if you are developing new areas, or have not yet decided on a permanent scheme. They are certainly well worth a try and will provide a mass of colour for a long season at a very low cost.
• Chiltern Seeds
• Thompson & Morgan
Wisley Plant Centre
• For alternative suppliers see RHS Plant Finder
• Julie Toll is an experienced garden designer working on projects in the UK as well as the Caribbean. She has won six Gold Medals and two Silver Medals at the Chelsea Flower Show since 1990.
• Illustration by Hannah McVicar
First appeared February 2010
Click the link below to download a PDF of the border plan
Download the pdf file.