It's not all about flowers, leaves have beauty too

Peter Dowdall says its time to think of colourful summer foliage and time to re-invent an old annual. 

Coleus 'chocolate mint' in perfect conditions, see www.primrosehall.co.uk for specialist seeds

The travel brochures are out. Where will we go on holidays this year? 

It’s a nice form of escapism during the gloomy weather — and even if the sunny climes of the Mediterranean, Aegean and Caribbean are not breached this year — there’s still a sense of sunshine and summer from just leafing through the pages.

At home, I’d be slow to admit it but I get just as much of a buzz — a different buzz perhaps but still that sense of excitement — from looking at seed catalogues to see what I can have flowering in the garden this summer.

It’s a similar yearning for the good weather and the season to progress. 

I enjoy the autumn and even the onset of winter as the year grinds to a halt, but come the first of February, that internal switch has clicked and I need to get out.

Each year there is much discussion about when spring actually starts, I’m a traditionalist and so for me it starts on the Feast of St Brigid; the meteorologists say it’s the first of March, but if you want to be more technical again about it all, then wait for the vernal equinox which falls this year on the March 20.

I’m not fussed when it technically kicks off, but I can’t wait for the spring to start properly and then that delightful lead into summer. 

After the long nights and often dreary days, we all need to start experiencing some more sunshine and daylight.

Massed planting of more traditionally coloured Coleus.

Those among us who are more prepared and have the luxury of a glasshouse or polytunnel, will have started hardy annuals from seed under cover in the autumn. 

Sweet peas, cosmos, bedding dahlias, antirinhums, salvias and scented stocks could all have been started in this way for stronger plants which will flower earlier this summer. 

Earlier that is, than seeds sown this spring.

However, all is not lost, if you haven’t got yours done yet — even if you don’t have covered space such as a greenhouse, so long as you can spare some space on a kitchen windowsill, you can start some seeds now. 

This will provide masses of colour in the summer and save a fortune on buying the fully grown plants later in the season.

It’s not all about the flowers of course. Foliage can play just as important a role in providing colour during the summer months and to that end, this year I urge you to try some Coleus.

Very popular in times gone by and very often grown as a house plant, I have memories of it in porches next to the always essential geranium or two, growing in houses throughout Ireland.

However, as trends change and single-glazed porches and lean-tos have been consigned to Ireland’s past, so too Coleus have been a victim of the transition to modern Ireland. 

It’s only when I saw them growing last year in a bedding scheme in Portugal that I looked at them with new eyes.

The effect of a mass planting was stunning. Vibrant and alive it was hard to believe all the colour was coming simply from foliage. 

Yes, they do flower but that’s not their main, aesthetic feature. 

Coleus ‘dark chocolate’ is a lovely rich colour, a luxuriant deep purple, nearly black shade, or if you prefer lighter, there are many different seed mixes available.

Coleus Monrovia.

In these days where everything seems to be disposable, perhaps we should look at some of our plants as such. 

Instead of trying to keep these half-hardy beauties from year to year and get them through the winter in glasshouses or kitchen windowsills, should we just enjoy them for their beauty in that one season? 

Collect the seeds when flowering is finished and just consign them to the compost bin with the other summer bedding and start again next year.

A seed tray, a bag of good compost, protection from frost and the seed is all you need to get you started. 

Considering the average contents in a packet of Coleus is about 50 then you can see how cost effective this whole seed sowing lark can be?

Allied to that is the excitement that comes with watching the germinating seeds breaking the soil surface and tending to the little new lives as they develop first their seed leaves, then their true leaves, before you harden them off outside and eventually leave them to their own devices in the great outdoors.



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