Time for beds ... and borders

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IT does not take a genius to work out that certain colours will be in demand for summer bedding schemes next year.

Red, white and blue should figure strongly in celebration of Her Majesty The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

I’d also expect to see the county colours of red and gold welcoming the Olympic Torch as it passes through Northumberland and the whole country might witness displays of gold, silver and bronze as the opening of the games approaches. It all adds up to a great demand for, and possible shortage of, relevant bedding plants.

Half-hardy annuals, raised from seed under cover early in the year or propagated from stem-cuttings the previous autumn, tend to form the bulk of bedding plants.

But there are other options to consider should there be a shortage. Shrubs, herbaceous perennials, tender indoor perennials and hardy annuals are all possibilities.

I anticipate long lists of summer bedding subjects in red, white and blue, gold, silver and bronze appearing in the gardening media over the coming weeks, but hope that some background notes on their capabilities is offered for the sake of beginners.

Ideally they should be capable of standing up to wind, dull days and precipitation should all three decide to rain on our parade. A long flowering period is also desirable.

An extreme example of poor choice would be a full bed of mesembryanthemum (Livingstone daisy) which is native to South Africa. These ground-hugging, multicoloured annuals are a delight in the sun but an absolute disaster in wet summers.

So which plants are best to cover the suggested colour ranges?

Beginning with traditional bedding subjects, the small viola and large pansy just happen to offer choices in red, white, blue and gold.

They also start blooming early, continuing for weeks on end with regular feeding and dead-heading. Petunias, in trailing and upright form, offer the same range of colours.

Begonias in tuberous and fibrous-rooted state are also sound bankers in my experience.

They come in red, white and gold, but if you intend to raise them yourself from tiny seed do not delay, they need time to develop.

Phlox, verbena and nemesia are ingrained in our summer bedding psyche as typical Union Jack plants – they are available in red, white and blue.

The same can be said of lobelia, because we are so familiar with the upright and trailing types in blue and white.

The red is different in that it is a perennial that is easily raised via division of roots.

Lobelia cardinalis ‘Queen Victoria’ is almost revered by floral artists and gardeners alike, but it is rather special in the border.

Growing these plants for floral impact is fine but don’t forget to add a few that have a significant foliage effect – Senecio cineraria for example. ‘Silver Dust’ has almost white, lace-like leaves and the other favourite is ‘Cirrus’.

Plant calibrachoa in a container and masses of small flowers will be there all summer long. It’s an annual that has gained lots of followers in recent years and the garden trade is rightly awash with it around May and June. Better still, it is available in red, white, blue and gold.

Bacopa is also a relative newcomer whose value lies in a trailing habit. Small flowers in white, blue or gold make it a useful option if you’re looking for something different. Expect an avalanche of flowers all summer long from hundreds of blooms.

Red and white is easily covered if you pick antirrhinum, dianthus, diascia, fuchsia or geranium.

All are tried and tested over the years so it’s all down to a personal choice of favourite cultivars. Impatiens (busy Lizzie) can do the same job but I’ve met too many disappointed parks superintendents in recent times to rely on this plant totally.

Best bet for me are the New Guinea hybrids which have proven to be colourful and more disease tolerant.

There are some super dahlias in red, white and gold, and lupins in red, white and blue.

But perhaps this is enough to be going on with. In truth the choice is almost endless.

I expect the small pots of seedlings and packs of plug plants to appear on the market even earlier this year, because the growers will have anticipated that we are keen to put on a special colour display. Be an early bird by all means but do bear in mind that some protective warmth will be necessary to nurture them towards life in the great outdoors.

Hardy annuals represent good value for money when you have no facilities to raise the tender types, because they are sown directly into the open border at the beginning of April.

All you need is a spare patch of land that can be forked over, trodden and levelled out with a rake. Mark out a few irregular-shaped patches with sand, then fashion short drills with the back of a rake. Sow a packet per patch and stand by for colour.

In several trials over the years, I’ve seen the first seedlings appear in 10 days and the earliest blooms within three weeks of sowing.

It all depends upon the weather, warmth and moisture. Reliable early birds are calendula ‘Touch of Red’, convolvulus ‘Blue Ensign’ and cladanthus ‘Golden Crown’.

Hot on their heels are aster ‘Blue Ribbon’, cornflower ‘Double Mixed’ and lettuce ‘Lollo Rossa’ which is red of course. And if the slightly off-beat or spectacular appeals to you, why not go for a patch of sunflowers ranging in height from a front of border dwarf, to the Russian Giant?

One way of keeping the annual spend on bedding plants under control is to introduce a few more sustainable types, perennials that offer the colour of your choice.

When you have them in the garden forming the basis of a display, it only takes a few annual types to bring it all alive.

We have several euonymus cultivars offering striking, year-round silver and golden foliage.

But two-star performers in this garden have quite humble green-leaved counterparts. The lonicera nitida, commonly used as garden hedging hereabouts, has a golden cultivar ‘Baggesen’s Gold’.

This shrub lends itself to topiary like no other, so the shape of your choice can be fashioned very quickly, and when the sun falls on the plant it would not look out of place in El Dorado.

The silver variegated shrub of choice is a pittosporum.

The green form is widely used in sprays turned out by florists but ‘Garnettii’ is as attractive as it is hardy in this garden.

The shrubby red of my choice would be the bark of dogwood and willow that light up the mixed borders.

The white stems of a prickly rubus cockburnianus, in conjunction with achillea ‘Perry`s White’ or ‘The Pearl’ would cover that colour.

Then what better for a blue than a dense patch of the herbaceous geranium ‘Johnson’s Blue’.