We’re well into a new year, and as gardeners we find ourselves in the same dilemma as always, it seems — which seeds to sow this season, and when?
Without proper planning, even a brief peek into your seedbox can seem overwhelming, as every day becomes a bit longer than the one before — Mother Earth’s clue that now is the time to start thinking about how you want your garden to look in the year to come. If this situation sounds familiar, read on for a few tips on how to get ahead of spring!
Evaluate your seed stock
Many flower farmers spend a good part of January putting away seeds from their previous year’s stock. Seed sales start in January and February in the northern hemisphere, and toward the end of February, dahlia tubers begin to inundate the flower market as gardeners big and small race to acquire the most extravagant flowers.
To get ahead in your garden planning game, make a list of what you have, what you want, and whether you’ll need to acquire more stock of your favourite species. You may have collected your own seeds, or perhaps you’ve exchanged some with green-thumbed friends or relatives — add all these to your list to get a full seed stock picture.
As you make your list, include the plant name for each seed, as well as any information that may help later on, such as whether the seeds are annual, hardy annual, perennial or biennial, the plant’s dimensions when fully mature, whether seeds should be surface-sown or planted in the soil, etc. The crucial thing is to bring all this information together in one central file, to help manage your seed stock effectively — whether that’s seed you have in hand, or seed you acquire for the year to come.
Think about successional planting
Anyone can plant a spring garden made of bulbs. The real challenge is to plant a garden for an entire year without gaps at any point throughout the year. As your gardening game improves, you’ll start to notice those hero plants which flower where nothing else does — for instance, hardy annuals such as Nigellas, Calendulas, Sweet Peas, Centaurea or Poppies, all of which begin to flower after the last Tulips and Alliums have stopped blooming.
Other annuals may also flower in a colour to match or complement your favourite perennials, bringing consistency to your planting scheme. Some flowers may be particularly attractive to pollinators, or are able to grow in your garden’s shadiest spots, giving a lush look year-round. These are the plants you want to add to your list, and importantly — plant in sequences. This means that rather than sow your seeds in bulk, you’ll sow some every few months, to generate a running stock of seedlings ready to plant at any time. This can start as early as October for autumn-sown hardy annuals (to plant out the next spring), followed by spring sowings for most other annuals, and summer sowing for biennials (to plant out the next year).
Is there a gap in your garden where a perennial stopped flowering? Or an unforeseen spread of mildew that caused your cherished Sweet Peas to die before they flowered? Not a problem — the sequential gardener always has more than one seedling in their trusty wheelbarrow to swap in as needed. To master this technique, identify on the growing calendar when seeds need to be sown, and whether to sow under cover, directly in the ground or either. Work back from a plant’s flowering time to know when to sow — up to twelve months for biennials such as Foxgloves (sown in summer for the following year), and two to three months for most annuals. Then use this information to apply a new seeding solution to the garden problem at hand. Solved!
Keep space and colour in mind
Some plants can grow to overcome others in the garden, straining the soil for water, or shading smaller plants in a merciless turf war. You know the ones I mean – the Japanese Anemones, the gigantic decorative dahlias, the chocolate mint plant offered by your mother, or the creeping climbers of the world which leave no chance for other plants to thrive. These are the plants you may wish to grow in containers (if they spread by the root), or otherwise grow away from more fragile plants.
For the rest of your plants, refer to your list for dimensions and make a drawing of what you wish your garden to look like. Use circles of differing sizes to get a feel for spacing, and try to use the colour of the plant and/or its blooms in your sketch to create a visual representation of your ideal combinations. For example, the drawing below helped me create a perennial bed with cold colours (purple and pink with blue and white accents). Whether you use software or create your sketch or draw it up on paper, it doesn’t matter — use whatever method makes you comfortable.
Finally, it’s helpful to use a colour wheel when designing your garden. Complementary colours on opposite ends of the spectrum will create high contrast/high impact (for instance, yellow Rudbeckias with purple Lavender), and analogous colours adjacent to each other in the wheel will create a harmonious look (perhaps blue Echinops with violet Salvias).
I hope this guide was helpful! Gardening is an ongoing learning experience, so don’t be afraid to try new plant combinations to create your own ‘brand’ and colour palette, and continuously edit your planting scheme to mix perennials, annuals and biennials. Most importantly — have fun and enjoy your gardening!