{the guide to  AUTUMN SOWN hardy annuals} 

There's still time to get sowing hardy annuals now for next spring. Sowing in autumn means they'll be bigger, more robust plants that will flower earlier next spring than if sown in late winter or early spring next year. 

by Clare Nolan

01 

WHY SOW NOW? 

Plants sown in autumn will be bigger than those sown in spring - Ammi can grow over 6ft and they'll flower sooner too. I was picking cerinthe to arrange with my late tulips last year. When there's little else to pick, your autumn sown annuals become very valuable indeed. 

It's also an easy way to stagger your harvest; sowing one batch in autumn and then another in late winter/early spring to follow on extends the harvest period. 

02 

WHAT CAN I SOW? 

This depends. You need to know two things:

1: How cold your winters get.

2: The hardiness of the plant (ie..how much cold it will tolerate). 

I'm in the equivalent to USDA zone 8, so I tend to focus on hardy annuals with a hardiness rating of H4, H5, H6 and H7 - they in general can take whatever an average winter can throw at them. If I loose some to a harsh winter I can always re-sow in the spring.

 

It really pays to get to know your climate. Search online - there are now maps for Australia and New Zealand with this very useful USDA zoning (or local equivalent).

an ANNUAL

is a plant that completes its life cycle within one year; germinating, growing, flowering and setting seed within twelve months.

 

A 'HARDY ANNUAL' is an annual plant that will tolerate frost.

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{CLARE'S HIT LIST}

Nigella ('African Bride' & 'Delft Blue')

Ammi majus & visnaga

Cornflowers (Centurea cyanus 'Classic Magic Mix')

Larkspur (Consolida' Misty Lavender' & 'Smokey Eyes'

Wild Carrot (Daucus Carota 'Dara')

Cerinthe major 'Purpurascens'

White borage

Atriplex

Poppies (papaver rhoeas 'Amazing Grace' and papaver somniferum 'Candy Floss'

Orlaya grandiflora

 

03 

SOWING DIRECT OUTDOORS 

With an autumn sowing, you're making the most of the last of the growing season before the first frosts. Sowing direct is an easy, hassle-free way of sowing in autumn.

All you need to do is repair the ground well before sowing, sow your seeds, water them in and then wait. It can be dry at this time of year- so make sure your seedlings don't dry out. Then once the seedlings are up, thin them a little (but leave the final space thinning until spring as there will no doubt be a few casualties).

 

Watch the weather - you may have to protect some of the less hardy plants (like cerinthe) with horticultural fleece or cloches. 

04 

SOWING UNDERCOVER 

When sowing undercover - you've got the choice of sowing into traditional seed trays or small pots (or any other pot-like container with drainage holes). I use half-seed trays or standard square 7cm pots to sow seed as I don't need masses of each variety.

 

The seedlings will then get pricked out once they've grown their first set of true leaves and are planted individually into 7cm pots or 40-cell module trays. They'll get bumped up again once they are ready  - to 9cm pots or 15-cell module trays and they'll stay there until they are planted out in the spring. 

 

Alternatively, you could use module trays from the beginning - sowing one or two seeds per each individual cell. A 40-cell size tray is ideal to start most annuals off. There's no pricking out required, but if you've sown more than one seed per cell, you'll need to snip out any extra seedlings so that you are only left with one per cell. Use a pair of scissors - don't disturb the roots by trying to pull them out. Switch the seedlings up to a 15-cell tray when you need to - they'll remain there until they are planted out in the spring.

Do I need a greenhouse?

No - you could just sow direct outdoors, but having some form of winter protection is invaluable. The next best thing is a cold-frame or mini-greenhouse. I used to start off hundreds of plants each season using these before I got my greenhouse. 

How do I keep them alive in winter?

There's actually very little you need to do. Make sure they don't dry out, but don't overwater. Keep potting them on into larger pots when you see roots coming out of the bottom of the pots. If a really cold snap is forecast cover your seedlings with horticultural fleece....that's it.

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