Spring garden jobs: annuals & perennials

Posted on: 19 March 2012 by Maxine Farmer

Maxine Farmer plans her spring garden jobs with tips for annuals and perennials.

PhloxWith the clocks about to change, many of us are beginning to think about getting our gardens up to scratch and like me, some readers are probably thinking about how they can revamp on old border or a patch of ground.  Last spring I rejuvenated a border that I designed 15 years ago.  It had become overgrown with shrubs and perennial helenium (which I love, but you can definitely have too much of a good thing).  This I’m doing a total makeover on another patch of the garden that is currently home to an army of nettles.

So if you’re in the same boat, you may be wondering where to start, especially as time will suddenly whizz by and before we know it, summer will be upon us.  

The very first thing you absolutely must do is to get rid of the weeds.  Dig as far down as possible and don’t cut corners (I find it helps to break the task up into hourly chunks – otherwise, I am tempted to do it too quickly and might miss a bit).  If it was earlier in the year, glysophate weedkiller on the leaves of emerging weeds would have been an option, but the soil needs some while to recover before it is safe to plant again, so it’s elbow grease time I’m afraid.

The exception is bindweed.  Here’s a top tip: put a few canes in the soil and train the weed up them.  Then, on a very still and dry day, carefully spray or paint the top part of the plant with diluted glysophate (buy ready to use or read the instructions for the correct ratio of water) and cover with a secured plastic bag (for instance, using string or strong twist-ties). Give it a few weeks (re-apply if necessary) and you should win that battle. It looks ugly for a while, but it is a great way to get rid of bindweed for once and for all.

March and early April

March and early April is the time to think about improving the soil.  Dig in some well-rotted mature or some good quality multi-purpose compost.  If the soil is heavy clay, some grit will help to open up the structure.  But first, take opportunity to find out more about your soil and do a pH test (you can buy a kit from most garden centres) because this will dictate which plants you can use.  Some plants will cope with acid, neutral or alkaline soils, whereas some are much fussier.   It really does make a huge difference: the right plant in the right place will perform so much more impressively than one that is just about surviving.

While all this is happening, you can be planning the plants.  For real impact, I advocate a combination of three types of plant: shrubs (permanent structure plants either evergreen or deciduous); perennials (plants that die down in winter but come back in the spring); and annuals (which last only for one season).

The shrubs will give you the backbone that the border or patch of ground may lack.  They are also where I recommend you put most of your investment if you are on a budget (and let’s face it, who isn’t these days?).  Larger, more mature shrubs will instantly make the plot look more established, but make sure that you water them regularly and they will benefit from a handful of fish-blood-and-bone in the planting hole (mix it well with some soil first to avoid ‘burning’ the roots). Fast growing shrubs include dogwoods, buddleia, lavatera, leycestria, forsythia, viburnums and sambucus.


Now for the perennials.  If you are starting with a blank page, this is a great chance to think about colourways.  How about a hot citrus blend of lime green, orange and yellow?  Or a cool combination of mauve, pink and blue?  More daring is purple, black and rusty red, or how about pure white on its own?  Of course, you could be very patriotic and choose red, white and blue, though personally, I never think that this palette works.  

Perennials that will pack a punch in their first year include: physotegia (the Obedient Plant, though it can be a bit invasive); phlox (they don’t take up much room but provide strong colour for weeks on end); the perennial wallflower Bowles Mauve; most Sedums (the ‘Ice Plant’) and perennial geraniums; perennials asters (good towards the end of the growing season); and most veronicas (‘Speedwell’).

For some instant height, clematis is hard to beat because it will provide flowers for years to come.  Personal favourites include: Josephine (double-flowers ranging from pink to lavender); Princess Diana (dark pink tulip shaped blooms); Polish Spirit (healthy purple repeating flowers); and just about any clematis viticella is hard to beat.

The shrubs and perennials will take a year or more to settle in and spread, so I recommend using some annuals to fill in the gaps.  Hardy annuals are comparatively inexpensive and better still, can in many cases be sown straight into the ground. That said, I often bring them on first in plant plug modules, so that they at least stand a fighting chance against the slugs and other bugs (it also means I can be growing them while I’m still sorting out the soil.)

Calendula, godetia and clarkia make good bedfellows, while annual asters and annual dahlias extend the season almost until the first frosts.  Nasturtiums are now available in a wide variety of increasingly sophisticated hues, so if you don’t like pillar-box red, take a second look at this flower family.  It’s not too late to plant sweet peas, though you will need to act quickly.


Once all risks of spring frost have gone, half-hardy annuals such as snapdragons and cosmos and chleome are a good planting choice, because they will provide flower-power well into late summer and even early autumn.

Another form of annual to think about is vegetables.  In the border I revamped last year, I had a combination of pretty pale yellow annuals, through which spaghetti squash plants wove themselves.  Together with rampant creamy clematis and some velvety red nasturtiums, it was an eye-catching if rather unruly mix, with the added benefit of something to eat at the end of the season.  

If the snaking tendrils of a squash plant aren’t for you, there are some better-behaved vegetables that sit well in the border.  Another favourite of mine is ruby chard, because the deep red leaves are wonderfully ornamental.  Last year, I planted dwarf French bean ‘Amethyst’ around the garden, because its mauve flowers were both pretty and edible.   As they were planted close to perennials annuals, I made sure I kept them well-nourished during the growing season.  I use the liquid from steeped nettles, but it is a pretty stinky mix, so you may prefer to buy a proprietary feed from the garden centre.  Tomato food isn’t designed specifically for beans, but I’ve found it does the job well enough for me.

While no doubt we’ve still got a few bad weather days ahead, when it’s not raining, I’ll definitely be found outside spring-cleaning my garden. Good luck with your gardening plans too!

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