When I began my adventures in the cut flower growing arena I had very little space in which to grow my plants. The thought of using up valuable growing space for plants that wouldn’t flower until the second year after sowing seemed like a preposterous idea and one which should be quickly dismissed. For a number of years I completely left biennials out of my cutting patches…that is until I had a surprise visit from Great Uncle Peregrine Higgledy. Peregrine told me the story of how he had wooed Great Auntie Bunty by showering her cottage with Sweet Williams dropped from his inverted low flying Spitfire and grown by his own fair hand. There was no air raid shelter deep enough nor strong enough to protect her heart from a floral bombardment such as this. Peregrine then set me straight on how best to grow biennials and I haven’t created a flower patch without them since.
What Are Biennials And Why Should We Grow Them?
Biennials are plants that have a two year biological cycle. The first season sees the the plant germinate from seed, create a low basal rosette of leaves and a strong root system. The following season completes the cycle with flowers and seeds. The plant will usually die after the second year.
In my cut flower gardens I don’t have flowers that are grown from bulbs, growing everything from seed is my shtick and therefore my biennial flowers are the first on the patch flowering in May. They are the trumpet blowing cavalry that finally see off the last bedraggled armies of winter. Then the flower patch is once more in my control, it will be mine right up until Halloween after which it is left to go to seed for the birds.
If I didn’t have my biennials in May and June the harvest during those months would be somewhat skimpy as April sown annuals won’t really be strutting their stuff until July and even the Autumn sown seeds haven’t quite got a grasp of the work ethic yet. Biennials not only kick the season off with their impeccable early timing but they also do it with gusto, they are flower making factories, the more you harvest, the more they flower.
How To Grow Biennial Flowers. Five Top Tips:
*Sow in early June. This will give you strong and established seedlings ready to be planted out in September.
*During June my flower beds are all being utilised, so instead of direct sowing into the soil I tend to sow up my biennial seeds in trays. Sowing into the ground where they are to flower is a perfectly acceptable option.
*I prefer to sow biennials in modular trays and find that 15 cell modules do the job swimmingly well. In these 9 cm by 9 cm square cells the plants can fill the space without getting pot bound before it is time to plant them out.
*Biennials don’t need much heat to nudge them into germination, I simply place my trays outside somewhere out of the way and let them get on with it, just make sure you keep them watered.
*Plant out biennials before the Autumn equinox, (when daylight hours and dark hours become equal) in 2015 this will be September 23rd. In my own garden at this time I have spare flower beds, Sweet Peas and Autumn sown annuals will now have gone over.
Which Biennial Flowers To Grow?
Dianthus barbatus. Sweet William: If asked to name a biennial flower I think the first one most people would pluck out of the ether would be the mighty Sweet William. The end of the 20th century saw them go out of fashion but now as cut flower gardening is having a renaissance so are Sweet Williams and rightly so. Scented, prolific, drop dead gorgeous. Strong stems make it perfect for the cutting garden.
Recommended varieties: ‘Auricula Eyed’, ‘Nigricans’, ‘Green Tick’.
Echium vulgare. Viper’s Bugloss. This handsome, native wildflower is probably the very best flower to attract bees with. Give it a free draining soil and in return it will offer you stunning blue flowers that will flirt with your retina for months. Echium can freely self seed, which of course can be a mixed blessing. Down here in Cornwall I grow a swathe of it, half of which is in partial shade which it tolerates without complaint.
Hesperis matronalis. Sweet Rocket. In Greek mythology the daughters of Hesperis were nymphs of the sunset, I imagine this relates to the fact that the flower releases its heady sent in the evening. Hesperis has a purple and a white form, both of which can suit an informal planting. The petals are edible, sprinkle them on a salad and your culinary skills will be the talk of Swindon.
Digitalis. Foxglove. Slender yet imposing, Foxgloves bring an giraffe like elegance to the garden. Give them a leaf rich soil in dappled shade and they will thank you for it. For the purposes of cutting they are fairly ‘space greedy’ for the limited cropping they offer but then who can put a cost on that level of charm? After harvesting, side shoots will produce a second flush of more delicate blooms.
Recommended varieties: ‘Excelsior’, ‘Sutton’s Apricot’, ‘Alba’.
Papaver nudicaule. Arctic Poppy. With large, crepe paper like flowers the arrival of the first poppy blooms in early summer is nothing short of a joy. Although they are generally grown as a biennial it is possible to have them flowering in the same year in which you sowed them, but they need to be sown no later than March. The Arctic Poppy loathes root disturbance so they should be sown in pots (rather than trays) or directly in the soil where they are to grow.
Recommended varieties: ‘Party Fun’, ‘Meadow Pastels’, ‘Champagne Bubbles’.
Daucus carota. Wild Carrot. Although a common enough native plant, Daucus carota deserves a place in the garden and certainly in the cut flower garden. Thousands of delicate, lacy flowers form an umbel with a solitary dark purple flower at the centre. The umbel folds inwards as the flower runs to seed and produces a nest like tangle which is a flower arranger’s dream. Rustic chic at it’s best.
Recommended varieties: ‘Dara’, but the wild form is my personal favourite.
Erysimum. Wallflower. Much like Sweet William, Wallflowers fell out of grace with the gardeners in the 80’s and 90’s. The Victorians (whom I’m sure were a much more colourful bunch than we give them credit for) loved Wallflowers and used them extensively in their newly created city parks. Grow them for wonderful scent and bold early colour. Colours in seed mixes can be wishy washy so opt for strong single colours.
Recommended varieties: ‘Bowles’s Mauve’, ‘Cloth of Gold’, ‘Blood Red’.
Lunaria annua. Honesty. White or purple, four petalled flowers, followed by pale, smoky, moonlike (Hence ‘Lunaria’) seed discs, make Honesty a fantastic addition to your flower patch. Happy in sun or partial shade, a no fuss, non-nonsense plant beloved by the bees for it’s early offering of much needed nectar. Prolong flowering by deadheading or leave spent flowers to go full cycle in their journey to become seed pods.
Eryngium. ‘Sea Holly’ is hard to beat for it’s architectural offerings. Technically a short lived perennial but best grown as a biennial. Eryngium will always fair better in the warmer parts of the UK and prefers a well drained, humus rich soil. Sow seeds in pots with gritty compost and a thin covering of vermiculite. Germination can be erratic and take up to a year, patience is needed here. If plants enjoy their planting position they will often self seed.
Recommended varieties: ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’, ‘Blue Lace’.
Alcea rosea. Hollyhock. As a child these plants gave me the heebie-jeebies…towering and watchful like 1960’s ‘B’ movie robots…frankly even now I still think they’re up to something. Grow them in a position that gets lashings of sun and has rich, well drained soil. Seeds need only be lightly covered with soil and thin seedlings to a couple of feet apart. Hollyhocks are voracious self seeders but varieties may not stay true.
Recommended varieties: ‘Halo White’, ‘Creme De Cassis’.