REAP WHAT YOU SOW; Plant out hardy annuals now then sit back and enjoy vivid displays of chunky spring cornflowers, poppies and pot marigolds.
The whole life cycle of a hardy annual is completed within a season - growing, flowering, producing seed and then dying in one year.
Its hardiness implies it can cope with frost. Half-hardy annuals cannot so are sown in seed trays or pots and kept under cover, potted on and only planted out when the risk of frost is past.
Hardy annuals are usually sown directly into the ground and though this is often undertaken in early spring, they can be sown in autumn.
The great advantage of autumn sowing is that the soil is warm, germination is usually pretty successful and the little plants can get established before the worst of the weather sets in. The young plants get off to a flying start in spring and steal a march on those sown then, meaning they're liable to flower earlier and be chunkier.
Don't succumb to the temptation of sowing your seeds too thickly or, if you do, be prepared to thin them out. If seedlings have to compete with others of their ilk, there will be no winners.
Sowing too thickly inevitably results in a crowd of spindly plants, none of which will reach their true potential. Spring is the ideal time to thin out seedlings since the vagaries of winter can destroy some of them.
Broadcasting seed, throwing it around, is an enjoyable experience even though for most of us limited space means it has to be curtailed to an extent. At one time, our ancestors would have done this on a massive scale since before mechanisation this would have been the method to sow cereal crops - wheat, barley and oats.
A few patches of ground in your flower borders is a far less daunting proposition and not so much depends on it either - certainly not your daily bread. Traditionally, borders of hardy annuals were used to create a colourful effect when money was short.
And though nowadays we buy most of our seeds in packets from the garden centre or seed merchant, there was always the possibility - and there still is - to save seed of whatever was sown after it had given us a brilliant show. Seed can be sown randomly and different varieties can be mixed together. But if you have a reasonable area free of other plants, you may prefer a method tried and tested over decades where separate areas are marked out and only one variety is sown in each piece. The usual method is to mark out the areas with a plastic bottle full of dry sand. Soft, curved edges work better than straight lines. Some seed will fall outside its delineated space - so you get a nice mingling around the edges.
Dry sand comes in useful too when you're sowing your seed. Mix a quantity with your seed then take big pinches of the mixture and distribute it with your sowing hand a couple of feet from the soil. If you get any closer, you can end up with straight lines.
When all is done, you can rake each area over lightly and water in using a fine rose on your can. Hardy annuals traditionally used in this way include Calendula officinalis - pot marigolds; Nigella damascena - love-in-a-mist; Limnanthes douglasii - the poached egg plant and Centaurea cyaneus - cornflowers. All sorts of poppies can be sown in this way too, including our red corn poppy, Papaver rhoeas. Which brings us to another aspect of hardy annuals - sowing them as an annual cornfield mix.
Over the past few years this has been a fashionable alternative to more traditional uses of hardy annuals. In effect, it is an annual meadow.
Sometimes annual grasses are included in the mix, sometimes corn itself, but at the end of the season everything is pulled up or cut down and dug into the soil. If you've allowed plants to seed, there will be a new show the next year. If you want a perennial meadow composed of grasses and wildflowers, sow a perennial mix and an annual mix together.
The annuals flower in their first year but the perennials take longer. Annuals used in this way are called a nurse crop because their growth stabilises the area and protects the slower perennial plants until they can look after themselves. There are usually seeds of corn poppies, corn marigolds, cornflowers and corn cockle in annual "cornfield" mixes, vividly coloured flowers all excellent for pollinators.
'IT WAS THE PERFECT WAY TO CREATE A COLOURFUL EFFECT WHEN MONEY WAS SHORT'
PLANTING THE SEEDS Sow into areas marked out with sand poured from a bottle
IN THROWS OF AUTUMN Carol Klein broadcasting seeds in the borders
VIVID Pretty cornflowers and Gypsophila are earlier and brighter after autumn sowing