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The Productive Garden
Scotland is a challenging place to grow many things - the cold nights and wet weather make anything remotely tender very hit and miss. I have a great list of plants which bloom abundantly in the South of England, which I have carefully cosseted into spindly flower, only for them to be cut off by the first frost.
What the Scottish climate is brilliant for however is hardy annuals - all those flowers that complete their life-cycle between April and September and which like a cooler, damper climate. We have none of the problems with hardy annuals shooting up to seed that afflict gardeners in hotter areas.
Chief amongst these plants are sweet peas which love the Scottish climate - indeed back in the C19th there was a good established trade in Scottish grown sweet peas. Great wooden crates of them would be loaded onto the train at Waverley station in Edinburgh destined for the flower stands of London. In a time when all the sweet peas would have been the incredibly scented, but shorter lived, varieties, when there were no refrigerated trucks, this has always seemed amazing to me. The guard's van must have smelt wonderful.
When I grew flowers for weddings, sweet peas were my speciality too.
What this means is that it is incredibly easy to plant up a garden very quickly if you put in a base of hardy annuals. The raised beds in the second part of the productive garden were made in April and already it is full of flowers and vegetables. Yesterday I picked a couple of hundred sweet peas from the tunnels and we have been eating courgettes, peas, broad beans and lettuce for a few weeks already.
Then the trick is to keep everything going as long as possible.
Keeping hardy annuals happy.
1. Give them good soil
Although we think of many hardy annuals as wild flowers (poppies, cornflowers, marigolds), happy to grow in terrible conditions, most actually do a lot better in good moisture retentive soil. It might be tempting to grow them in the worst bits of your garden but they will not grow as well or flower as long.
The cornflowers in my meadow are about 20cm tall, those in my cutting garden are over a metre, the former last for 10 days, the latter for 3 months.
With a plant like sweet peas - which you want to produce an amazing amount of flowers over several months - start them off with an extra helping of goodness - well rotted manure, compost, chicken manure pellets. I dig my bokashi compost into the trench and then cover with compost so that it rots down more before the roots grow into it.
2. Make sure they don't dry out
Most hardy annuals will go to seed as soon as it gets hot, or as soon as their roots dry out. It is a panic survival mechanism that makes them produce seeds as quickly as possible so that the genetic line can carry on. This is why they do well in Scotland - all our rain is perfect.
If your plants do set seed early, cut the seed pods off, just above a junction on the stem, and the plant will make more flowers.
Sweet peas need a lot of water - if you think about how much stem they need to support and how far the water needs to travel it is hardly surprising. Water them regularly if it hasn't rained and it is also worth using a high potash/potassium fertiliser (comfrey liquid works well) to boost flower production.
3. Pinch out
Hardy annuals will make much sturdier plants, with many more stems, if you pinch out the top of the plant as soon as it has 4 pairs of leaves. The tip contains a hormone that encourages the plant to grow up and up and up as a single stem. Once you remove it the plant will grow new stems from lower down. Instead of a few cornflowers you will have hundreds.
4. Pick, pick, pick
Or deadhead. As soon as hardy annuals set seed their job is done - and all their energy will go into those seeds. They won't produce more flowers. To get a long life out of your hardy annuals either pick them in flower - this is why they hardy annuals are such productive cut flowers - or spend time each week dead heading them.
Growing hardy annuals.
Most hardy annuals are best grown from seed and many will indeed self sow.
I grow mine in 3 batches.
The first I sow in September/October in the hope that they will overwinter and get a good start as soon as the soil warms up. The idea is that the roots grow at a lower temperature than the leaves and that you end up with a plant that has an amazing root system, ready to support a great productive plant. Sometimes this works, sometimes it is too cold and the roots freeze for too long in the soil and the plants die. For me it is worth the price of a packet of seed - especially with nigella and clary sage which do not like being transplanted in my garden.
The next I sow indoors in March - into seed trays and pots which I let grow into good sized plants before planting out at the beginning of May. This is obviously a lot more about intensive. I sow my sweet peas in March, into root trainers and grow them in the greenhouse until they are in 2L rose pots.
The final seeds are sown in the ground in late May/early June - once the weeds are germinating fast, a sure sign that the ground is warming up - and they romp away to the extent that I always wonder whether the earlier sowings were worth the hassle.