Garden notes number eight, honesty, and an introduction to self-seeding biennials and annuals

This is the end, in February. It comes just before the beginning, naturally.

This is what you get for being honest.

But I was going to say something about annuals and biennials. (Biennials are often just annuals with an intermission, for winter.) They’re neglected because you don’t often find them in garden centres.

They bring a rich disorder to the garden by seeding themselves wherever they fancy.

To grow them successfully you only need to be able to recognise them as seedlings, so that you don’t weed them out. To grow almost anything successfully you need to be observant, to keep an eye on things, so that you get to know something about the life of plants, their habits, their changes, their needs.  I couldn’t find a picture of a little seedling, so here’s an honesty plant in January, when it’s getting on for a year old already, but it still gives you an idea of what the seedling stage looks like. It’s been sitting like this since the previous autumn, it’s nice and glossy because the winter was so mild, it’s ready to go.

And here – you’ve seen this one already – is one just a few weeks later, at the end of March, beginning its rapid ascent.

But back to the introduction.

Annuals and biennials are monocarpic, which means they die after they’ve flowered. Not all monocarpic plants are biennials or annuals, but all annuals and biennials are monocarpic. Some of the best and easiest biennials are  the tall, common evening primrose, our native teasle and  foxglove, onopordum (or scotch thistle) and Verbascum olympicum, a kind of mullein, which in spite of its name is a garden variety, not a wild species. They all form a rosette of basal leaves in their first year while they concentrate on developing their root system to support the fast growth of a big flowering spike the following year.

I don’t know why they’re neglected in garden centres. You’ll find other foxgloves and verbascums, sometimes more tricky to grow and sometimes called perennials when they aren’t. To get going with them you need to get seeds or seedlings from friends, or just help yourself to seeds – you’ll see them in overgrown front gardens, or on waste land. So they belong to an older style of gardening, when people exchanged plants instead of just buying everything at the garden centre, and they allowed things to happen in their gardens; they weren’t in total control. This style of garden came to be known, rather patronisingly, as the  cottage garden. And maybe it was a mythical kind of garden anyway, maybe it was actually the liberal bourgeois who liked what they thought of as the picturesque gardens of the poor, while the poor were busy with the hoe, trying to order and control their little plots after the manner of the upper classes, putting nature firmly in its place.

But I wanted to give you an idea of honesty’s amazing life cycle. You’ve seen the end and the beginning, here are some photos from the middle.

The next two pictures were taken today – ok, it’s still very near the beginning, but it’s warm and the rate of growth still amazes me, after all these years. And you see they come in two colours.


The next two were taken years ago in early May, in Mint Street park, SE1, where I worked in St Mungo’s gardening project for homeless people, Putting Down Roots. I wonder if the boxes are still alive? The caterpillars of the box moth have wiped out thousands  in London. Sometimes in gardening it turns out that the plants you thought would outlive you die suddenly, but because they produce so many seeds, a settlement of annuals and biennials lives on.


By early June the seed pods which must give it its name are developing. This is the transparency of which politicians speak.

In July last year some of the pods in my garden took on this amazing colour

Next is autumn in Mint Street

The seed pod has a central membrane enclosed within two outer skins. Sometimes the outer skin falls off early , but it generally lasts a long time, turning rather brown and mouldy but protecting the seeds within which don’t usually fall out until late winter, ready to germinate in the spring.  In this picture you can see a few untouched pods, the brown ones. The white ones have been stripped down to the shiny membrane. You can just crinkle them a little and rub them between finger and thumb to make the outer skins fall away, and the seeds with them, then you have a christmas decoration. Or just a decoration.

Slugs and snails enjoy honesty seedlings.

This is not contrived: in my last Notes I forgot the forget-me-not.  Here it was two days ago.   It keeps pace with honesty, contrasts and complements.  It germinates in the summer and like honesty and the others it waits the winter out before racing away in spring.

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