Brave the biennials

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Once she was afraid of them – but now, flower farmer Charlotte Tombs couldn’t be without her Midsummer Day sowing of biennials

One of Charlotte’s biennial posies, with sweet Williams and sweet rocket.
Images: Charlotte Tombs

Biennials. I’ll admit I rather shied away from them, mostly because I didn’t really know what they were, if I’m totally honest. The definition of a biennial is ‘any herbaceous flowering plant that completes its life cycle in two growing seasons. During the first growing season, biennials produce roots, stems, and leaves. During the second growing season, they produce flowers, fruits, and seeds, and then they die’.
Once I’d actually got my head round them, I took the plunge, and now I wouldn’t be without them. Biennials are brilliant! They flower before any of the annuals, so they fill the gap of flowers once the tulips are over.
I sow the seeds on Midsummer Day – if you are kind enough to read my column regularly you will know I am weirdly attached to working around significant dates. Sweet peas are always sown on New Year’s Day and Valentine’s, for instance.
First on my list is the wallflower – please don’t overlook them, they will flower their heads off for you! A simple jam-jar bunch on the kitchen table will lighten your mood on a gloomy March day and the scent of them is amazing, too. Wallflowers have come a long way and some of the newer varieties are well worth growing. Look for the sugar rush series, fire king and also the sunset series; there are some gorgeous colours.
My second choice is honesty (Lunaria annua) –prized for its seed heads, I resist the temptation of picking to wait instead for the glorious papery silver discs that then adorn my Christmas wreaths (or yours if you come to one of my workshops).
Then there is sweet rocket (Hesperis matronalis) – these come in white and purple and will self-seed freely if you are lucky. They do well in dappled shade and smell delicious to boot!
Fourth on my must-grow biennials list are sweet Williams (Dianthus barbatus). So many to choose from, but some of my favourites are Sooty, superbus, albus, and auricula eyed mixed. Again these smell delicious.
Lastly let’s not forget the magnificent foxglove, those high-rise towers of nectar for the bees, with spots to guide the bee in like runways. Who doesn’t love a furry bumblee bottom sticking out of a gently-buzzing foxglove?

Charlotte’s sweet rocket is a favourite, smelling delicious and often self-seeding across the garden

Keep it simple
What’s so brilliant about biennials is their simplicity. Sow the seeds in the summer, pot them on, then just leave them to grow into strong plants. Plant them out in late September or early October where they can establish themselves while the soil is still warm – come the following spring you are rewarded by the most beautiful flowers. They just get on and do their own thing over the winter. Mother Nature is amazing.
I urge you to give a few biennials a try this year. As always if you have any flower questions I’m more than happy to help.
You can find me as @northcombeflowers on Instagram or facebook – and do look out for workshops that I run throughout the year.
PS – did you see that the coronation flowers were supplied by members of Flowers From the Farm? Some were grown here in Dorset, by my lovely friend Katie at Dorset Flower Co.

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