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Using patches of annuals in the landscape

Perfect for those hard-to-plant areas they will add colour and be inexpensive if using self-seeders

There are always spots in the landscape that are a bit troublesome when it comes time to plant them — especially large rural landscapes where the space is almost unlimited, but the budget isn’t! Even in smaller urban gardens there are usually spots where the growing conditions are less than ideal. One remedy for such locations is to use a patch garden of annuals.

When my wife and I had our spacious garden on my brother-in-law’s farm we always had “patches” of annuals here and there. They were mostly self-seeded and they served several purposes such as: providing colour in an otherwise very green vegetable garden; contributing cut flowers to summer bouquets; and, attracting pollinators which no doubt improved the productivity of the vegetable garden. I also saved mature pods of poppies for drying to use in floral designs.

When using such a technique to fill in spots at minimal cost, it is helpful if the plants are either self-sown annuals or can be grown from seed saved from annuals grown in last year’s garden. Two of the best annual flowers to grow in patches — and both self-seed prolifically — are Shirley poppies and bachelor buttons. Both will bloom all summer and both grow about 40 cm tall and are self-supporting.

Another good variety that also self-seeds abundantly is California poppies with their bright-golden flowers. Not quite as tall as their Shirley cousins they tend to bloom in early summer and may need to be sheared in midsummer to rejuvenate the patch.

Calendula (pot marigolds) can also be used to create a patch garden. These colourful annuals self-seed and seed is easily saved from the plants. They bloom all summer, grow about 30 cm tall and will produce a gold/yellow blaze of colour. There are newer varieties of calendula that are hybrids so it might be best to use the older species if seed is to be saved. Seed from hybrids is unpredictable and does not often come true from seed, and sometimes newer varieties are sterile.

Cosmos will also self-seed and seed can be saved from the older non-hybrid varieties. The plants will create a nice patch garden providing innumerable flowers in shades of pink and white. Nicotiana will do the same and produce a similar patch of pink/white blooms. The seedlings from self-seeding from these annuals is a bit later to emerge in the spring so they will not get off to as early a start as bachelor buttons and poppies, but they will not be too far behind.

Although it is not commonly thought of as a flowering plant, dill can be used in patch gardens to create a lovely display of ferny foliage and yellow bloom. The bloom is fleeting but the seed heads have an interesting form and seed saving is simple as the amount produced is phenomenal.

Some other annuals self-seed quite readily but not as prolifically. Flowers such as mignonette, phacelia, and nigella will appear in the places they were grown the previous year. None of them are big plants and they work best in a mixed patch, which some refer to as wildflower gardens even though they are not wild but domestic. To establish a mixed flower patch, simply put in a variety of flowers, including the ones mentioned above and let them grow. Some thinning might be required to allow the less aggressive plants to thrive.

Annual flower patches and “wild” flower patches are not for everyone. They tend to be very informal, can look a bit messy, and lose their appeal as the end of the growing season nears. But to fill in out-of-the-way spots, or to add inexpensive colour in a large rural landscape, they do have their uses.

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