Felicia Amelloides are native to South Africa and a favorite amongst gardeners.
Felicia Amelloides are native to South Africa and a favorite amongst gardeners.
Every gardener loves to dream of summer landscapes when the winter winds are gusting cold rain or snow past the window.
Thankfully, new seed catalogues are abundant at this time of year, allowing us to sit in comfort and plan our sunny summer gardens.
Having been involved with gardening all my life I admit that I get a little upset with gardening publications that devote so much of their coverage during the first part of each new year to the latest plant introductions.
Tried and Tested
While new plant cultivars are being developed all the time, there are hundreds of tried-and-true varieties that have been around for years. A number of them may have fallen out of vogue, but they remain worthy of a place in our gardens. When it comes to summer annuals in particular, there are so many showy members deserving of garden space. Here are a few of my long-standing favourites. And I am happy to say that all of them are suitable for growing in gardens throughout our entire province.
When I was a child growing up in England, our neighbour Mrs. Stimpson always grew large, brightly coloured daisies that she called asters. She frequently cut bunches of them to give to friends as these blooms last well in vases. In the old days these plants were often referred to as China asters, which makes sense as they belong to a species of strong-growing annuals that originally came from the stony slopes and wastelands of China. The botanical name for them is Callistephus chinensis; their overall height at maturity ranges from 20 to 90 centimetres, depending on the cultivar and soil conditions.
In recent years the smaller Powder Puff series seems to have become the most popular one grown. But if you can find them, I would choose the single mixed colours, which are the happy daisies I remember from childhood.
Their flowers range from seven to 13 centimetres across with bright-yellow centres and petal colours ranging from deep-red to pinks, mauves and blues. The more often you cut them for indoor decorations, the more they will bloom right through until frost. One word of advice: The larger double-flowered cultivars are not as suitable for coastal gardens or other areas with high rainfall, as they tend to collect water and end up flopping their heads down into the mud.
Cleome hassleriana or spider flower is perhaps not as old or forgotten as the aster, and you may often see it widely planted in our beautiful public parks and gardens. It comes to us from South America and is a tall annual that makes a bold statement, reaching up to one metre in good soil. The stems and undersides of the palmate leaves are thorny, making it a great plant to place where delivery people and other visitors constantly cut across the flower border! The blooms are superb in dense terminal racemes. Each one measures three centimetres across and has long, protruding anthers (which explains its common name). Two good cultivars to look for would be ‘Rose Queen,’ with rich rose-coloured flowers, or ‘Helen Campbell,’ which has white blooms. [pagebreak]
The mention of my next favourite, Convolvulus tricolor, may horrify some of you, as the name Convolvulus conjures up images of that noxious white-flowered weed called morning glory. But this is a lovely species, one that I grew in my garden when I was six years old. I have always liked it for its clear royal-blue colour. It is a small clump-forming annual reaching about 30 centimetres in height and width, making it ideal for a container or hanging basket. As with my other selections here, it will bloom until frost. This plant is native to the warm regions of the Mediterranean, ranging from Portugal to Greece and into North Africa.
When I grew them as a youngster, they came as mixed seeds of mauves, pinks and blues. But the one to grow now is the aptly named ‘Royal Ensign,’ which features four-centimetre royal-blue flowers with feathered white and bright-yellow eyes. For lovers of blue flowers this is a true gem.
Another blue favourite is Felicia amelloides, which is native to South Africa. It is treated as an annual in our cooler climate, but if you have a cool greenhouse, cuttings can be taken in August and plants overwintered for the following year. In Vancouver the odd one has survived the last two mild winters in sheltered locations. It is often sold under the common name of blue marguerite or blue daisy.
The plant itself is bushy, up to 30 to 60 centimetres in height with interesting, almost-succulent foliage covered with masses of single-stemmed sky-blue to deep-blue daisies, each one two to five centimetres across with bright-yellow centres. It flowers from late June right through until frost and is ideal for hotter, drier areas of your garden. It’s also most suitable for container gardening.
Lavatera trimestris, sometimes known as rose mallow, is an old-fashioned annual widely grown on the Prairies and in the Okanagan, which is no surprise as it hails from the Mediterranean. It’s an extremely showy annual that can reach up to 1.2 metres in hot, dry areas but it’s usually a little shorter on the coast. Its usually pink flowers are big and showy (seven to 10 centimetres across) and often feature deeper-pink veining. It is a prolific producer of flowers and makes a good filler in a perennial bed or border. You can choose from several named cultivars, including ‘Mont Blanc,’ a suberb clear white, and ‘Pink Beauty,’ which has ethereal, pale-pink blossoms veined with rose-pink.
Salpiglossis sinuata (commonly known as painted tongue or Persian carpet) is another old favourite I used to see in parks on visits to seaside resorts in southern England. It comes to us from Peru and Argentina.
This plant has some of the most intricately marked flowers in nature. It forms an erect, slender, branching plant with small leaves and reaches an overall mature height of 60 centimetres. Its flowers are large, funnel-shaped and five-lobed, growing up to five centimetres across.
They come in every imaginable shade of yellow, red, purple and blue, all of which are heavily veined with deeper contrasting colours. Good strains to look for in the seed rack are the Bolero hybrids or Casino series.
Some final words about sowing annuals inside: Always use a good sterilized potting mix, and plant the seeds indoors about the second week of March. We all have ideal warm conditions in our home to do this. Once the seeds have germinated, however, they require good light and a much cooler temperature than most homes can provide (daytime temperatures around 15°C and nighttime temperatures down to 8° or 10°C). If you have a spare room or basement area where the temperature can be controlled to be no warmer than 15°C by day and 8°C by night, you are partway there. Next, you need to ensure there is proper light. While a window will provide some outside light, the addition of supplementary lighting in the form of fluorescent tubes is highly recommended. An effective solution is to use a combination of one warm white and one cool fluorescent tube, mounted close to the plants (ideally 30 centimetres above them) and set on a timer switch to be on for 13 hours a day.
As the seedlings grow, they will need to be transplanted into individual pots or six-packs, then allowed to continue growing in the same temperature and light conditions. In warmer areas of B.C., they can be put outside during the day and in a garage or shed overnight by the second week of May, to allow them to acclimatize to outside conditions.
In gardener’s language, this is known as “hardening off.” By the time May 24 rolls around, they will be ready for planting directly into the garden. Gardeners in our province’s cooler areas should delay the hardening-off period by a week to 10 days.
No matter where you live, though, adding these plants to your garden will give a stunning summer show.
David Tarrant is a well-known gardening expert, author, and host of Spring, currently on HGTV.
PHOTOS David Tarrant: Felicia amelloides, Convolvulus tricolor, Cleome hassleriana ‘Rose Queen’; courtesy Thompson & Morgan: Convolvulus tricolor ‘Ensign Mixed.’