Easy hardy annuals or seed satisfaction?

Nigella (love-in-a-mist) is useful in three ways - border display, cut flowers and everlasting.
Nigella (love-in-a-mist) is useful in three ways - border display, cut flowers and everlasting.
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Do you raise your own bedding plants from seed? Sow hardy annuals directly into the border? Or buy plant plugs? All three options work for me.

Raising your own half-hardy annuals for summer bedding and containers has always been a labour of love, time consuming and costly in terms of heating, equipment and greenhouse space.

The seeds are easy to germinate on a warm windowsill indoors, but that’s only the beginning. There’s a long journey to sturdy plant status.

This said, a great feeling of satisfaction goes with having shared the trip from seed packet to a tray of strong young plants.

Filling a bare patch of land with colour throughout summer can be simply achieved if you buy a few packets of hardy annuals and sow them directly into the ground. It sounds like a cheap and easy option, but a little preparation is necessary.

At least fork the land over, removing weeds and stones, then add a sprinkling of fertiliser. Walk over the area, treading lightly and raking to achieve a level surface and you’re almost ready.

If the patch is circa 10m2, it could accommodate the same number of varieties, offering a generous square metre each. The holding bays can be irregular in shape to create interest, and are easily marked out with sand.

Use the back of a rake to create shallow drills and sow into these – when seedlings emerge in rows they are easily distinguished from the random weeds. This regimentation vanishes as the young plants merge into one mass, at which point the taller types benefit from support twigs.

Truly hardy annuals can be sown outdoors now, the earliest flowering in June. If you want later displays, delay sowing until April.

I no longer set aside a large patch for hardy annuals, but create individual patches in the mixed borders and have ‘bankers’ for lasting colour. Clarkia, cornflower, calendula and chrysanthemum cannot be ignored.

Two-foot spikes of clarkia Pretty Polly Mix are £1.99, the cost of a packet of 2,600 seeds. Cornflower Blue Diadem has lovely deep flowers, and calendula Princess Mix has double blooms with quilled central petals. Chrysanthemum carinatum is just an annual, but what colour it provides from June to October.

Each costs under £2 per packet and can serve a dual purpose – display or cutting. They grow up to 60cm and can really lift a mixed border.

• Sean Murray, winner of BBC 2’s Great Chelsea Garden Challenge, will re-live the occasion at Alnwick Garden Club on Tuesday, March 28, at 7.30pm, at Alnwick Garden Pavilion.