Understanding biennials has led to a nostalgic flower patch full of scent and colour, says flower farmer Charlotte Tombs
Biennials were always a bit of a mystery to me before I started to sell my flowers. But they really aren’t that mysterious and once I got my head around the fact that you sow the seed in one year and they flower the next, it’s easy. If you were to plant an annual now, it would flower in late summer – and would be a very disappointing plant rushing to complete their life cycle before the days get shorter and the threat of frost looms. The definition of a biennial is a flowering plant that takes two years to complete its life cycle. Since growing flowers for sale, I have learned that if you sow your biennial seeds now, they are big enough to plant out in the autumn, when they will have the chance to develop and grow a healthy root system to survive the winter, all being well. Then when it warms up again in the spring and the daylight hours increase, they are ahead of the game, ready to start the growing season. They tend to flower when the spring bulbs have finished and before your autumn-sown annuals, filling that lull after the bulbs are over.
Ones to look out for
The biennial family of flowers seems to be quite a nostalgic group of plants – think wallflowers, for example. And no, don’t think of those horrid orange, yellow and brown tones like a 1970s swirly carpet. There are some beautifully coloured varieties that really are worth growing. Look for the sunset series, in particular the apricot, although it does seem rather hard to find the seed (which I see as a good indication that it is tip-top!). The sugar rush series is another good variety; they have the added bonus of smelling glorious as you brush past them on a warm spring day. Another biennial to look out for and sow is hesperis (sweet rocket – pictured above); white or mauve and also scented, but a member of the cabbage family so watch out for hungry pigeons (I’m writing from experience – I had to put a net over the bed one year, it took me forever to work out what was eating them).
Honesty is another pretty white flower, but resist the urge to pick it and instead wait for its prized seed heads. Peel the papery case off to reveal a lovely silvery disk like a coin – no wonder this plant is often called the money plant. It is very popular for Christmas wreaths and dried flower arrangements as well.
Foxgloves are also a nostalgic and popular biennial.
The last biennials that I grow myself are in the dianthus family. Sweet Williams – they are a cottage garden favourite for good reason. Easy to grow, they smell amazing and they make great cut flowers too. Look out for a variety called Sooty which makes a nice contrast with the ones that have an eye.As a bonus, they are all great for pollinating insects, too.
Another seed to sow and try is wild carrot – you can get a beautiful purple variety. The more common white variety has, in the centre of each flower, a dot of blood red which legend says is a stain from when Queen Anne pricked her finger while making lace.
So why not try planting some biennial seeds this month and being a patient gardener? I promise you won’t regret it.
Charlotte offers workshops throughout the year – please see northcombe.co.uk for further details.