Category Archives: Flower School 2016

Growing hardy annuals from outdoor autumn sowing. Guest post from Rose McKerrell.

Growing hardy annuals from outdoor autumn sowing.

Last year I decided to have a proper go at growing autumn sown hardy annuals. One previous attempt failed miserably but that had really been little more than a “chuck it and chance it” attempt in a corner using some “leftovers.” So this time I prepared the patch just the same as for the spring sown ones ready to plant three rows of mixed annuals at the end of august.

Well weeded bed with Stirling bunny fencing.

The seeds were sown on the 28th August last year.


The risk with autumn sowing is that if you plant too early and the weather is warm and wet you may get early germination and the flowers may try to bloom before the autumn….


Leave it too late and may be too cold for germination- seeds rot and nothing grows.

The time of sowing therefore varies in different areas of the country and involves a fair amount of guess work re the weather! As Ben says- Autumn sowing can be a lot more Art than Science which is a nice way of saying it’s great when it works but if it doesn’t don’t blame yourself- at least you have a nice seed bed ready and waiting for the spring!!


Seeds to try:

Last year I tried: eschscholzia, nigella, borage, cerinthe, orlaya, cornflowers, corncockle, bupleureum, ammi, phacelia and godetia. I planted three rows in a bed just over a metre wide and mixed up the seeds before sowing to (hopefully) get the random effect.


Nb Other hardy annuals can be found at the Higgledy shop of wonders.


Germination was good from most species but a few didn’t get going at all.


Californian poppies (eschscholzia) were the undoubted stars of the show. Both varieties (orange King and Ivory Castle) did brilliantly- germinated early and formed good strong plants which survived the winter well. Had a couple of rabbit incursions but overall the plants thrived and I now have a good show of strong plants with nice big blooms on long stems. I am guessing that this is a reflection of the well established root systems.


The Cerinthe appeared early- but what with slug attack, weather damage etc were pretty stunted by the time they started flowering. They are picking up a bit now but the spring sown ones are going to overtake them. They survived the winter but never really got going. I’m not sure exactly what hindered them but its been a very miserable spring here so having survived the mild winter I think they were hoping for a lovely warm spell to bring them out in all their glory and it simply didn’t happen.


This was my first attempt at growing Orlaya so I can’t compare with spring sown but they have formed some really nice plants- and they are definitely going to feature in the future. They are more robust than Ammi and turned out to be a good alternative as the ammi were a no show from the autumn sowing- a shame because my previous experience of ammi in spring sow patches had been good.


The autumn sown Nigella has been amazing. Nigella hasn’t done well for me before when sown in the mixed spring plantings. I wonder if it doesn’t like being sown in mixtures. I suspect it has been outcompeted in the past. It certainly did best in the areas of the autumn patch where there was very little in the way of fierce competition. The plants overwintered really well and the flowers have been brilliant for cutting.


Nigella looks great mixed with biennials in vases and is very very pretty in the patch.

Nigella even turned up in a patch of self seeded Briza maxima (quaking grass)- I am still puzzling over where the Nigella came from…. Looks lovely though…..

Speaking of Briza maxima- I loved this when I grew it for the first time last year. I grew some in a separate mixed area with poppies and other cornfield weeds and let it self seed- which is basically the same as autumn sowing! Loads germinated and it has been looking fantastic for several weeks already.

DSC_0196 (2)
(These hardy annuals are from the Higgledy allotment)

Corncockles on the other hand have germinated everywhere I sowed them. In fact I have to fess up here and admit that I thought they were cornflowers for much of the winter….. so much for seedling recognition. I confess I was a bit disappointed when I realised I had been nurturing a viper in my bosom. Poor corncockle is still reeling from the bad press it received last year following a tv programme which emphasised its toxicity! But now I am eating my words ( not the corncockle!) because they have been really good cut flowers- the blooms have had nice long stems- better than the late summer ones and the sheer number of flowers has been a lovely addition to the beds.

The stems and leaves have a lovely silvery sheen and so far they have withstood the really rather ghastly weather- standing up good and strong despite the wind and monsoon rainstorms.

Borage germinated and overwintered but has been a bit slow getting going- and may well be overtaken by the spring sown plants. Lovely deep colour though.

Bupleureum really doesn’t seem to like me- there are a couple of seedlings struggling through but they hardly count as autumn sown—I think they waited ‘til spring which just goes to show you should never give up- some seeds will overwinter ready for an early start….!

A couple of groups of candytuft plants are looking very pretty. Will definitely be planting this again in spring and autumn patches in the future.

Overall conclusions:

The Californian poppies are well worth trying in an autumn sowing- these are Ivory Castle

Briza and corncockle seem fail safe. Nigella is a must have. Orlaya is also worth a try.

A row of autumn sown hardy annuals is a brilliant way to start the season in the cutting garden and provides some flowers to compliment the biennials.

I tend to grow more for the mixed meadow look and to take pictures but if I were growing just for cutting I think I would be tempted to sow the autumn hardies in individual groups….. that way any empty patches could be utilised earlier in the spring.

In my garden it looks as though Nigella is probably best sowed with a limited mix of other annuals- so I will definitely sow Nigella in autumn again.

Reasons to sow annuals in autumn

  • The insects will love you forever for providing early nectar rich flowers
  • you will have annuals in your cutting patch much earlier than from a spring sowing.
  • they form super strong plants with good root systems
  • Fretting over your seedlings/young plants will stop you getting bored and frustrated over the winter.Kind regards


Many thanks to Rose for taking the time to write this for us…and sending her wonderful photos….you are a STAR! Why not pop over to her Twitter feed to see more photos from her cutting patch.


Reasons To Include A Biennials Patch In Your Cut Flower Garden.

Sweet William 'Auricula Eyed"
Sweet William ‘Auricula Eyed’

Sweet William…Foxgloves…Hesperis (Sweet Rocket)….Lunaria (Honesty) and Wallflowers are all old school, quintessential cottage flowers. They seemed to have somewhat gone out of fashion in the last couple of decades but thanks to the new British Flowers movement they are once again in demand and all is well and bouncy in the Biennial-land.

Thx Katherine Wyvern for this pic...Katherine says "This is the second flush of flowers on mine (on the small side shoots) ... these started out as Alba and Excelsior and then crosspolinated so they are all a-jumble now"
Thx Katherine Wyvern for this pic…Katherine says “This is the second flush of flowers on mine (on the small side shoots) … these started out as Alba and Excelsior and then crosspolinated so they are all a-jumble now”

Folk are put off because of the lack of instant gratification as they take nearly a year to flower…but this shouldn’t be an issue with a modicum of planning.

What do biennial flowers have to offer us flower growing types?

*Biennial flowers provide early flowers at a time when few other plants haven’t quite got with the program. Autumn sown annuals will be starting to get into gear about early June but Biennials are strutting their funky chicken from April/May (Depending on how far north or south your flower patch is). For commercial growers this is of course a Godsend but domestic growers who have a biennial flower patch can bathe in the glory of having flowers earlier than their neighbours, and can enjoy skipping around the village with a handband of Hesperis while singing songs about Jesus or squirrels.

Foxys and Hesperis.
Foxys and Hesperis.

*Biennials are among the most productive plants you can grow. These babies just keep on giving. Foxgloves less so…but…if you harvest the main stem fairly early you will be rewarded with several smaller stems growing from whence you cut the stem….these smaller stems are much easier to use in the vase too. A small patch of Sweet Williams will give your armfuls of flowers for weeks on end. (Go for ‘Alba‘ to be chic and sophisticated or ‘Auricula Eyed‘ to be cool and edgy and the type of chap that once had a skateboard)

Wallflower 'Fire king'.
Wallflower ‘Fire king’.

*If you have never grown Biennial flowers before you will find them easy to get along with. I sow mine in June & July in pots and then plant out in a bed that has had spent annual flowers taken out in early September. If you have plenty of space you can of course direct sow them too. The usual practice of sowing in rows a foot apart works just fine. Foxys need to be sown on the surface however. Personally I would go with the pots method.

The dog from Del Monty...he say YES!
The dog from Del Monty…he say YES! #Furface

*Biennial flowers such as Sweet William , Hesperis and Wallflowers all have good scent.

*An early patch of Biennial flowers is a most welcome thing for our friends the bees.

There is a very nice man online who sells a collection of Biennial flower seeds which he has 20% discount on….AND there is free shipping….what a kind and generous offer….

Have a great Sunday.

Kind regards

Benjamin Higgledy.


Sowing Up Zinnia Seeds In Fibre Pots

Zinnia Flower
Zinia seeds sown into fibre pots…rather handsomely if I say so myself.

Higgledy Flower School. #35. Sowing Zinnia Seeds.

First off the bat my dear chums, you should be aware I am sowing super early in an attempt to ensure I have some Zinnia flowering their socks off for the Port Eliot Festival beds at the end of July. Usually I would hold off sowing for another couple of weeks and if I was sowing directly into the ground I would leave it until the end of April.

Zinnia Seeds
Zinnia Seeds

Zinnias are horti-famous for not liking root disturbance. With this in mind I have sown the little madams into fibre pots. I am using New Horizon Peat free compost for all my sowing this year. This compost has had very mixed reviews in the past but thus far, for me at least, it has been capital.

Zinnia 'Mammoth'
Zinnia Patch.

I am a fan of a square pot as they have fewer places for snails and slugs to hide…a chap knows what’s what when he is employing a square pot method. These beige rascals are made by a company called Kingfisher. They cost £2.99 for 36 pots. I’m sure you can find cheaper ones but I was in my local garden centre where one has to spend a few quid every visit or be haunted by the village elf.

zinnia flower
Hot Zinnia Jam Jar Action.

I have found myself in the habit of germinating seeds indoors where I can keep an eye on them and ensure they are behaving according to the strict rules of the Higgledy Garden. As soon as Furface sees the first green growth he alerts me with a predetermined coded whistle and we move the tray into the light and glory that is the coldframe/seedling tunnel. Here they will stay until toward the end of May. Well…that’s the theory.

If you wish to direct sow your Zinnia in the soil, which is often the recommended method, I should wait until towards the end of April. Soil should be rich in organic matter and the bed should get full sun. I sow plants to about a foot apart.

Zinnias are very productive beasties, so keep harvesting the flowers and they will keep coming for yonks.

Kindest regards

Benjamin Higgledy

Link: The Higgledy Garden Seed Shop Of Dreams.


Using Seedling Grow Tunnels.

'Grow It.' Seedling Tunnel.
‘Grow It.’ Seedling Tunnel.

Utilising A Seedling Grow Tunnel. Higgledy Flower School. #34.

These type of tunnels can be a really cost effective way of managing a reasonable size cutting patch if you haven’t got a greenhouse. I think they’re great. I’ve had troubles with the larger walk in versions with ripping and getting blown away in the storms that come of the Atlantic down here in Cornwall. With these small ones….if a big storm is coming I simply take them down and move the seedling trays to a sheltered spot.

I paid just under £30 from my local garden centre for this one…you may find them cheaper online. This is made by ‘Grow It’ and they call it a ‘Seedling Cloche’.

Initially I was disappointed that it didn’t quite fit a ‘Garden Tray’ (I think that’s what they’re called…the trays that carry four seed trays) without having to sit on the metal tubing…however this has turned out to be a plus as it keeps the tray off the cold ground and also weighs down and secures the whole structure.

270 seedlings in three inch square pots. #Simples
270 seedlings in three inch square pots. #Simples

Without too much trouble I can fit 270 three inch square pots into it. Roughly enough plants to fill a thirty by one metre cutting bed.

The front opens up which makes watering easier…and I can leave it open for a week or so whilst I am hardening the plants off ready to plant out. It makes life very simple. After everything has been planted out after mid May I can simply take it down and store it in the shed.

This season I am germinating most of my seedlings in the house which is a pretty consistent 19 degrees…and then putting the trays into the Grow Tunnel. I am starting seeds off early than it is wise to…this is because I need them early for the Port Eliot Festival….I would certainly have more success if I held off for a couple of weeks or more. April is best for this kind of caper.

Kind regards

Benjamin Higgledy

Link: Higgledy Seed Shop Of Dreams.



Hardy Annuals Flower Seed Sowing. ‘Bucket Test’. Nasa.

Scientific buckets.
Scientific buckets.

Higgledy Flower School 2016. #33. Early vs late sowing.

Now I’m no stranger to science…oh no no…I love a read of the periodicable tables and can oft be found engrossed in deep conversation with the great minds of the age using all the well known big science words…I’m usually in a lab coat covered head to foot in permanganate and iron fillings…lots of pens in my top pocket…science is in my blood you could say. So when I was asked by NASA if I would help them out with some problems they were having with Hardy Annuals I was of course happy to help….and no…you can keep your nobel prizes and your fancy science awards…I’m doing this one for the kids.

This is how the conversation went when NASA phoned this morning.

NASA: Hello can I speak to Benjamin Higgledy please?

Lauren Laverne: Yup sure…he’s right here in the hot tub…hang on…

Me: LOOK! I told you! I’m not going to bloody Mars.

Nasa: No, we just thought you might be able to help us out. Could you do an experiment to see if hardy annuals flower earlier if they are sown earlier…could you sow some in buckets today…and then sow some more at the beginning of April and see how it all goes? We would do it ourselves but frankly we haven’t got that teckie know how that you’ve got in such abundance.


…so here goes.

I have sown some Calendula and some Cornflowers. I will germinate them indoors where they will be kept under the watchful eye of Prof Furface…then we will put them out in a coldframe…we will do the same with the batch sown in April.


Prof Furface in his bucket lab of 2015.
Prof Furface in his bucket lab of 2015.

I wager £50 (Payable to Amnesty International) that there will be less than seven days between the first flower in the March sown buckets and the first in the April buckets…if I am wrong then Amnesty get a nifty…if I am right…then I take the day off to drink ale and listen to 70’s disco all day long.

Watch this space.

Kind regards

Prof Higgledy.

Related post: When to sow annual flower seeds.