Pelargoniums and Schizanthus
Gardeners should combine schizanthus with pelargoniums for a stunning summer display.
If you have a greenhouse, conservatory or sunny porch, it should be full of pelargoniums that will flower continually for you from early summer until the winter. But what will make a splash after that?
There are certainly some varieties of pelargonium that keep going. The really good winter-flowerers at Perch Hill are Pelargonium 'April Hamilton', 'Pink Capitatum' ('Pink Capricorn'), quercifolium and 'Attar of Roses'.
All four were still flowering lightly in my greenhouse in late March. This dove-tailed brilliantly with the start of the flowering season of schizanthus, otherwise known as poor man's orchid or the butterfly flower, which is a new discovery for me.
Last year, at Easter, I visited the walled garden at Audley End, near Saffron Waldon in Essex. This incredible 10-acre, 18th-century creation - the walls were built in the 1750s for Lady Portsmouth and her nephew John Griffin Griffin - is now owned by English Heritage.
Garden Organic runs the walled garden, across the middle of which is a vast span of restored greenhouses. The central ornamental section has one of those tiered pelargonium stages with a dozen angled steps racked up against the white wall.
This is in position throughout the year, stocked with schizanthus in winter and spring and their pelargonium collection in summer and autumn, an excellent and traditional pairing that we should all copy at home.
Schizanthus, which originate in the Chilean Andes, have delicate, feathery, bright green leaves and make neat and pretty pot foliage plants for the winter, coming into flower as soon as the light levels increase a little in the spring. Mike Thurlow, the head gardener at Audley End, is a big fan of this good-value, easy-to-grow family of annuals.
His favourite is Schizanthus 'Dr Badger', with its delicate clouds of flowers in pink, mauve, cream and white, and I am a new devotee. The lovely thing about this variety is its lightness and real prettiness, like a fresh paisley print. There are richer colour mixes, 'Star Parade' and 'Hit Parade', which display magentas and darker pinks. I'm sowing these as well this summer.
Schizanthus is half-hardy, so needs to be kept inside during the winter. If you sow a pack in the next few weeks they will come into flower in March; commercial pot-plant growers sow them first thing in the New Year to be ready for Mother's Day, which falls on March 18 next year.
Like any half-hardy, you can sow them in the spring for bedding to fill pots and borders in the summer months, but it is the early spring colour that really interests me.
From an August sowing, they keep going until at least June. This summer, our plants had got a bit straggly by then and we jettisoned them to make room for our peppers, chillies and tomatoes, but I'll try cutting them back next year and I bet they'll give us another long second flush of flower.
We knew we didn't want them in the greenhouse through the summer so gave them a good dose of neglect, but the more we ignored them, the more they flowered. They were watered very little throughout May but thrived, proving they'd be very good on dry soil and in any hot, sunny position.
They are a bit brittle and floppy to make ideal cut flowers but, grown in pots en masse, not much can compete with their length and quantity of flowering in spring.
From a summer sowing, they will germinate easily in a week to 10 days. I spread mine very finely in big seed trays. They need light for germination so don't cover the seeds and keep the soil slightly moist but not wet. If it's really hot and bright, try to give them a bit of shading. I then pricked them out into individual pots, where they stayed until January, when I potted them on into an array of terracotta pots and banked them up in the greenhouse.
Combine schizanthus with the cup and saucer plant, Cobaea scandens, in purple or white (C. s. f. alba ), placing the wonderful climber behind, and mix them up with those pelargoniums that are still looking good (their big, bold leaves give a bit of structure and architecture to the schizanthus froth) and add a pot or two of cascading rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis Prostratus Group ).
The cobaea in my greenhouse hasn't stopped flowering for 14 months from a spring planting last winter, and this form of rosemary seems to grow happily in a pot. All four plants in combination were a jolly, singing sight at a time when the greenhouse is normally bare and boring. I aim to have the sowing done in the next few weeks and create a bank even bigger and better next year.