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Biennial time

Biennials are an essential part of our catalogue of flowers here on the farm. They provide us with flowers early in the year and fill the gap between spring bulbs and summer flowers. We wouldn’t be without them!

They are called biennials as they take two years to grow and produce flowers. They like to grow their leaves in the first year and then after experiencing the cold temperatures of winter (called vernalisation) they are ready to start flowering in late spring with some continuing right into the summer. This year we harvested our first stems (wallflower) on the 22nd April and we harvested our last (sweet william) on the 22nd of July. We sow the seeds in August and transplant them out the following month. This gives them time to put out roots and leaves and be ready for the winter ahead.


Last year we bought all or biennial seeds from Ben at Higgledy Garden. He does a good package of biennial seed which makes it really easy to order. He always includes a lovely hand written note and I find the quality of his seeds really good. The only variety I wasn’t overly keen on was his Icelandic poppies. (Icelandic poppies are biennial as opposed to other poppy varieties which are annual and perennial) They came in a mix pack of reds and oranges. They were pretty but the flowers were small and I didn’t end up using them.  

This year I’m trying out a seed company I have not tried before. I want to try out as many as I can so I can compare price and most especially, quality. Chiltern seeds have an excellent range of seeds so bought my biennials from them.

The biennials that I bought and sowed this year are:

Hesperis matronalis, purple and white. Hesperis comes in two colours purple and white. ( Earlier this year my van broke down while I was attempting to go for a hike in the Blackstairs mountain and on the long walk back to somewhere Andy would find me I spotted pink Hesperis – it almost made up for the breakdown – but as far as I know you can’t purchase the seed). Hesperis are fantastic. As long as I’m a grower I’ll sow these every year. They’re not stunning nor have any exotic features. But, they are a great cottage style flower, give really good stem length, and flower in abundance for months. Their stems are bursting with tonnes of small flowers and they make fantastic fillers for bouquets.

Foxgloves  (Digitalis) are another staple here on the farm. They come in an array of sizes and colours. Last year I grew the purple (Digitalis purpurea) and white (Digitalis purpurea var. Alba) and was happy with them. They have huge stems and flowered for months from the end of May. This year I want more colours and some shorter stems as last years’ were so tall they just didn’t work in smaller bouquets, plus they were a pain to transport, they kept falling over! You have to be careful also about keeping them upright in the right location as they always bend towards the sun and before you know it you end up with bent, twisted and often unusable stems. This year I’m growing four varieties. D. purpurea var. Alba, the common white one that I grew last year. D. purpurea ‘Dwarf Vanilla’, I know the colour and size will work well for me. D. purpurea ‘Pam’s Choice’, this is a tall variety, its bells are white with maroon centres, can’t wait to see it flower! D. purpurea ‘Sutton’s Apricot’, tall with stunning pink/peachy flowers, another I can’t wait to see!

Sweet William. (Dianthus barbatus). There are many varieties of Dianthus, but it is the barbatus ones that are the biennials. Some of them could be described a short lived perennials, I treat them all as biennials, ripping out and replacing the old plants every autumn. These are truly an old – fashioned cottage style plant, but with many uses! Anyone who buys them from me often has fond memories of them and I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t like them. They are so lovely in big bunches on their own or put through bouquets.   They are easy to harvest and have good vase life. Last year I grew D. ‘Auricula Eyed’ D. ‘Blackjack’ and ‘Alba’ which came in the biennial mix from Higgledy Garden. I was very late getting the seed sown (they fell down behind the seed box and I didn’t find them until September, ha!) so I had no choice but to over winter the tiny seedlings in the greenhouse and plant them out in the spring. They did eventually produce flowers towards the end of June but apart from ‘Blackjack’ (love the colour!!) I didn’t get great stem length or quantity. This year I decided to try some different varieties. Dianthus barbatus Amazon Rose Magic’, really looking forward to these, they have white flowers which turn to light then dark pink, giving a lovely mixed flower head. D. b. ‘Noverna Clown’, like ‘Amazon Rose Magic’ it starts out white then turns to pink/salmon/violet. I must be a sucker for flowers that show off! Though ‘Noverna Clown’ do not require vernalisation, I am planting them with the others as I want to keep them all together. D. b. ‘Sooty’ has dark stems and flowers and D. b. x chinensis ‘Kensington Mix’ have double – headed flowers in a mix of colours.

Wallflower (Erysimum cheiri, formerly known as Cheiranthus cheiri). I only grew a small amount of these last year (‘Cloth of Gold’ variety) and even though I didn’t get great stem length (the plugs did get very stressed before they went into the ground) I did use them a lot as they were lovely mixed in with bouquets of tulips. This year I’m growing Erysimum cheiri ‘Ivory white’, white flowers are essential for me, E. cheiri ‘Ruby Gem’, a really deep red that I know will work well with my tulips, E. cheiri ‘Giant Pink’, these can grow to 60cms and have beautiful deep pink flowers, E. cheiri F1 Hybrid ‘Sunset Apricot’ and ‘Sunset Dark Purple’ are more compact plants but I know I’m going to love the colours.

Honesty (Lunaria annua). I grow these for the shiny seed pods they produce after flowers though last year I did use some of the flowers in bouquets. The flowers are similar to Hesperis but with slightly more delicate petals. Germination from seed can be poor so best to sow plenty! Each plant does produce quite a few stems/branches, last year I planted out less than 20 plants and got about 3 armloads of pod laden stems this week.

Icelandic poppies (Papaver nudicaule). I have spent a ridiculous amount of time drooling over pictures of giant Iceland poppies (thanks to the amazing Floret!!) I really couldn’t wait to grow them myself. I think that’s why I was so disappointed with this years’ ones, I was expecting a much grander show than I got. This time I took my time ordering the varieties. I sowed seeds from Papaver nudicaule ‘Wind Song F2’ (big flower heads in pastels) and F1 Hybrid ‘Champagne’ bubbles (really big flower heads in bright colours) that I bought from Chiltern Seeds and P. n. ‘Deluxe Mix’ (huge flower heads in mixed colours) that I bought from Seedaholic. I was especially looking forward to harvesting armloads of ‘Champagne bubbles’ as Floret raves about them so was utterly disappointed when I got zero germination WHY??!!! At least the others behaved and I have a 3 trays of plugs almost ready to head to the tunnel.


I’m currently just getting the last of my biennials into the ground here on the farm. I’m a little late…was hoping to have them well settled in by the first frost which is due any day now. The plugs that are going into the ground are strong and healthy though so hopefully they will put out some roots and get settled into the ground quickly. I started all of our biennial seeds in seeds trays and then transplanted them into 77 and 96 cell plug trays. I use the 77’s for more shallow rooting plants that I want to grow into plugs quickly. They take less compost, making them cheaper and quicker to produce. I just have to keep a close eye on them that they don’t fill the plug and get hungry without me realising.   From experience it’s never good to allow plugs to get stressed as sometimes they never recover. I use the 96’s for anything that has a taproot and/or grows very rapidly and doesn’t particularly like being transplanted. They are perfect for our poppy seeds.

I buy all my seed trays from Fruit Hill Farm in Co. Cork. Their trays are not cheap but are super sturdy and will last for years. I hate buying anything that ends up in the bin after one season. I was able to buy push out plates for the trays with are invaluable. You sit the plug tray on it a push down and it lifts all the plugs up in the tray, fantastic! It’s less stress on the baby plants and makes transplanting much faster. I only use peat free compost in our nursery. It is more expensive but you honestly can’t put a price on peatland conservation. I buy this also from Fruit Hill Farm. It has fantastic texture (the first time I tried it I couldn’t stop running my hands through it and expected everyone else to do same) and the seeds and seedlings love it.  

I’m planning on covering all the rows of biennials with frost cover once I have done a round of weeding (I don’t want to have to life it again until next spring) and the overall weed growth has stopped. Using frost cover isn’t essential as the biennials are hardy, but I prefer to use it as it keeps them a little snugger over the winter as it protects against frost and wind and gives them an extra head start next year.

I’m definitely feeling a lot more organised than last year. Back then we had only just signed the lease on the land and were in a big hurry to get plants into the ground. It had taken longer than planned to get the lease and get the ground organised so we were pretty stressed. The biennials had long outgrown their plug trays (while waiting to get into the ground) and I had potted them all on into liners (9cm square pots). This cost us a lot in compost and time, it takes a lot longer to plant hundreds of liners than plugs!! Also last year we didn’t get to put down any weed suppressant which greatly added to our workload this spring as the beds started filling up with weeds. I remember saying to Andy not to worry, that next year we’dbe more organised, and for once we were! Ahhhh progress :-)

honesty seed

Collected seed from harvested Honesty seed pods.  I have the rest of the pods stored to use in my floristry work.




redone rows


Rows of baby seedlings tucked into prepared ground through a layer of mypex (weed suppressent).




frost cover

Some of last years' seedlings snuggled under frost cover.