Each Sunday morning at 7.45am, I have a chat with Tony Murrell on Radio Live’s Home and Garden Show. We cover a wide range of gardening matters and during the week before we have a discussion by phone or email to agree an upcoming topic. As an aside, the recent release of very encouraging listener figures for this time slot has sharpened our focus somewhat. There is a scary number of folk out there who listen at that hour.
Today we talked about gardening in the very dry conditions that much of the country is currently experienced, which was my suggestion. Tony’s suggestion of ‘biennial plants – are they worth the effort?’ was put off until next Sunday. But since he suggested it, I have been thinking of biennials which I had never considered as a plant group before.
Yes! Biennials are worth their place in the garden. I am struggling to imagine our garden without the biennials. Mind you, we don’t put any effort at all into most of them. They are plants that we let seed down, pulling out those which are in the wrong place and letting the other volunteers remain to continue their life cycle.
Annuals are plants that complete their lifecycle in under a year from germination to setting seed and dying. Biennials have a two year life cycle. Most of them will establish themselves in the first year but not bloom until the second. Because of that year spent establishing themselves, many of them can be quite large growers – thugs, even, as Mark calls them. To let these types of biennials seed down, you do need quite a bit of space.
Some of our key plants are biennial. I am thinking of the large flowered, yellow Verbascum creticum, the biggest geranium of them all, G. madarense, Angelica gigas and … foxgloves. Foxgloves really do fit the thug category but we are fond of them, even the common pinky purple one that is regarded as a weed in this country. We have been working to get the white ones naturalised around the place. “Are you going for the Hidcote look,” Mark asked, for that is the first place where I saw extensive and eyecatching use of pure white foxgloves. I also like the pastel shades, especially pastel apricots, so I have been summarily despatching the deeper pink forms anywhere near the pale ones to stop the bees from cross pollinating the colours, lest they all return to the dominant dark pink over time.
Not all biennials are self-sustaining and strong growing. The highly desirable meconopsis, Himalayan blue poppies, which are extremely difficult in our climate, tend to be biennial – even those that are touted as perennials in more favourable climes. And it has never seeded down for us. To keep it going here, we have to gather seed and raise it in trays to plant out once it is growing. Ranunculus cortusifolius is also biennial in our conditions but it seeds down and keeps going as long as it has its own area where it can be left to do this.
Parsley is biennial, fennel usually so, and what would life be like with parsley in the garden? Once you have it, you just have to make sure that you leave at least one plant a year to seed down in order to keep a permanent supply.
Biennials, like annuals, only represent effort if you are having to raise them from seed or buy them to plant out each year. If you allow them to seed down and find their own niches in the garden, they can be very rewarding, requiring minimal effort. Wanting such plants to seed down is yet another argument for not being too quick to get out the glyphosate and control any germinating plants by spraying them out as soon as they appear, on the assumption that they must be weeds.
Speaking of verbascums, can any UK readers enlighten me on what happened to the blue as blue verbascum named ‘Blue Lagoon’ that debuted at Chelsea in 2012? We have never seen any mention of it since, let alone seen it incorporated into any of the gardens we have visited so wonder if it was a fizzer in the end.