We waste an awful lot of perfectly useful plants in the name of bedding. This thought occurred to me as I started taking down my winter/spring baskets and looked for something suitable in the greenhouse to replace them with.
First of all, tuberous begonias. These are now often obtained as plug plants; they grow rapidly to make a magnificent summer display, then are put on the compost heap like most of the other bedding plants in the autumn. But if you dig a little way into the compost, you will find a tiny tuber developing. I discovered a couple of years ago that if you put the whole container into a frost-free greenhouse, stopped watering it, then treated it in the spring as you would dormant tubers bought from a bulb company or garden centre, these baby begonias would sprout. At this stage, if you removed the top few centimetres of compost very carefully, and replaced it with fresh, the begonias would flourish, so that they would have the same amount of good growth on them at the same time as dormant tubers planted up in early spring, and now, in early June, they are ready for going outside for the summer. Of course, if you don’t have a frost-free greenhouse, there isn’t a lot you can do, so you will need to replace them every season, or rely on dormant tubers, but if you have, it’s certainly worth a try.
There was also the big hanging basket of mixed bedding – geraniums, begonias, fuchsias, petunias and the like – by the back door that was still flowering well last October. This too went into the greenhouse, and now the plants are huge and in full bloom. I once judged containers for Stamford in Bloom, and met a chap with the most enormous baskets of Surfinia petunias. These, he told me, were never repotted, just top-dressed with new compost and trimmed back in the spring, and they had been on the go for years. He fed them with a liquid fertiliser throughout the growing season, but apart from that they had remained the same since first planting up. He always won prizes.
My antirrhinums hardly flowered at all last year because of the wet summer, so I was reluctant to pull them up. Today they are all in flower – the spikes may not be as tall as they would have been the first year, but there are a lot more of them, and if they are regularly dead-headed, they should bloom continuously throughout the season. The same applied to the wallflowers in spring 2012, lots of growth but hardly any flowers, so these were dead-headed instead of being discarded, and they have just finished the most wonderful, heavily fragrant display.
If you pick all the dead heads off your winter pansies as they appear, feed well and check regularly for pansy aphid and mildew, which are usually fatal unless caught early on, they should flower well into the second half of summer. If they are then cut back to just above where they come out of the soil or compost, they will shoot again and may be usable a second season.
Most basket and container plants are now, strictly speaking, perennial, just as those in the herbaceous border are, and if money’s tight, it’s always worth either saving the plants from year to year, or taking cuttings for the following season, but you do need a light, frost-free place to overwinter them in, and with the cost of fuel being what it is, you may not save much, but there is always the satisfaction of knowing that you haven’t wasted perfectly good plants. On the other hand, if you never bought in new stock, you wouldn’t be able to try new varieties and plant combinations ; ideally a balance needs to be struck between throwing everything away at the end of the season, and never trying something new.
One final tip – never pull up hardy annuals until they have finished setting seed, and you will get loads more plants the following year. They may not produce quite the same flowers as the parents, but it’s good fun waiting to find out.