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French garden diary - March 2019

Zinnias put zing into your garden - Cathy Thompson revels her flower bulb likes and dislikes for April planting

Memories of snowdrops and the reticulate iris are beginning to fade, but now is a good time to review your successes and failures with these tiniest bulbs, and perhaps plant a groundcover that may solve your issues in 2020.

One of the most common complaints about the tiny reticulate irises (which take their name from the pattern of the netting that covers the bulbs) is that they tend to come up one year and fail to show the next. Perhaps you have a form, like ‘Lady Beatrix Stanley’, that comes from a species liable to split into a mass of tiny bulbs? In which case, patience is all you need – you will have more flowers in four or five years’ time.

However we also need to remember that these are species irises: they have not become so used to gardens that they do not still long for their homeland in the Turkish mountains and a good old summer baking.

Since a bulb produces its flower for the current year during the previous growing season, the specialist grower from whom you purchased provided the optimum conditions for your 2019 flowers.

But now it is up to you. Give them a hot slope in the future, and they should thrive. If you garden in a damper part of France, consider a bit of protection with an overhead pane of glass/Perspex during the summer. It also helps if you plant them quite deep – since normal advice is twice the height of the bulb, for the reticulate irises the ideal could be 8cm.

Or did your irises actually flower, but were muddied by winter rain? Mulch the soil around them with gravel to protect the flowers from rain splash. Another option is to create a ground-covering carpet – try carpeting thymes, such as low T. serpyllum or Thymus lanuginosus.

If you are providing groundcover against rain splash for snowdrops, experiment with the gentler, slower growing ivies such as silver-variegated ‘Glacier’, or the bugles (Ajuga reptans), which come in an increasingly pleasing palette of greens, silvers and pinks to complement the blue spring flowers.

Dazzling annuals for 2019

March is the propagator’s dream come true, and no doubt you have rows of seedlings growing on in the garden, sun room, or greenhouse. Generally I find vegetable seedlings easy to raise in containers, although flowers can be more of a challenge. Some annuals, however, are a doddle, even on a kitchen windowsill.

Take the much-loved ‘French’ or ‘African’ marigolds. The French worship them, although they make my blood run cold. Their one great advantage is that they are so easy-going and cope well with drought.

A friend of mine sows, year after year, large shallow bowls of marigolds on her kitchen windowsill (north-facing, so not at all ideal). She spaces the seed out very carefully, by hand, so that each seedling has plenty of space to grow on – and then she lets them get on with it. The young plants go directly in the ground.

As for zinnias: I used to hate them as much as marigolds, but now they leave me trembling at the knees, providing they are in a trendy colour, of course! One of my new ideas of heaven is a well-grown double zinnia – but in very special colours. My new loves are the ‘Purple Prince’ and ‘Benary’s Giant Lime’ (you can get seed of ‘Giant Lime’ from Sarah Raven, Chiltern Seeds, and Special Plants; ‘Purple Prince’ is available from Sarah Raven and Thompson & Morgan).

Both are semi-double to double but even when it makes only a little half-hearted cockade of petals on the central boss of the flower it can be more fascinating than a true double!

Other good choices are ‘Cranberry & Lime Collection’, or the ‘Deep Zinnia Collection’. Ms Raven does not send plants abroad but all of her seeds are available to us in France.

The great thing about the zinnia is that it is as easy to raise from seed as a marigold. But always sow them late – they like hot, dry conditions and will quickly damp off in a cold spring. March is an excellent time to purchase seed – but maybe not so hot for sowing.


What are your personal likes and dislikes among annual flowers? Email me at:

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