For years, I wondered about the right time to start planting winter annuals. Then, a local gardening legend from Dehradun told me that in a large part of India, 15 October is safe enough to get going.
So give or take a day or two, you need to start planning now. The soil, whether for a container garden or beds, needs to be prepared and replenished. Are you going to grow from seeds or get seedlings (this saves a few weeks)? Do you need to buy seeds or do you have some saved from last year’s flowers?
Of seed and shade
Flowers such as nasturtium and sweet pea are easier to grow from seeds, but unless you’re a deeply committed gardener, it may be practical to pick seedlings for most other flowers. Some prefer to pick up their plants a little late, when they begin flowering. That way, you can spot the new hybrids that are introduced virtually every year.
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Educationist Shobha Sharma’s garden is to the north of her Patna home. This means the house casts a shadow across it all winter, leaving her little option except cineraria. This robust flowering annual comes in many shades and almost makes up for the lack of sun-loving winter annuals. It’s not as popular as, say, the chrysanthemum or nasturtium, so start the seed/seedling search early.
In Mumbai, Green Grower, a nursery and plant solutions company, suggests these five favourites to city residents: aster, impatiens, petunia, phlox and salvia.
Aster is easy to grow. The yellow-centred flowers come up with a skirt of bright pinks, whites and mauves. Prolific impatiens comes in shades such as white, pink, red and mauve. The hybrids are a robust must-haves, and they grow well in dappled shade.
The petunia isn’t fussy and can be grown even on busy traffic islands. The hybrids are brilliant, but even the original pale shades of white, pink and purple are charming. They make pretty border and bedding plants and can hold their own, planted in profusion. “They make perfect centrepieces in pots and hanging baskets too,” says Amit Walawalkar of Green Grower. If you can move the tub into the shade in summer, you can keep petunias blooming all year, though at a slower clip.
Phlox is a favourite for its brilliant colours. The clusters of flowers may be short, but are great for borders, rock gardens and slopes.
In most Delhi nurseries, the season begins with the chrysanthemums. Prize-winning plant rental entrepreneur Pragnya Nair’s garden must also include the pansy, calendula and marigold. She recommends chrysanthemums even for greenhorn gardeners: Just stake them properly and ensure a reasonable amount of sunlight. As the rains recede, it’s time to feed them an extra dose of manure.
No winter garden is complete without the pansy. Children love the edible nasturtium and the “faces” on pansy.
Shell Jhanb of Faridabad has a penchant for the unusual, though. “I have collected some very rare foliage,” he says of his garden, which is open to visitors.
For others, autumn festivals mean marigold. Across the country, except in the cold hills, the bright marigold thrives through the season. It is also believed to be a good pest-repellent, besides having festive uses. In Hyderabad, avid gardener and Ikebana teacher Uma Prasad, about to start her own vineyards, also roots for marigold, and says that it is “resistant to fungal and pest attacks”. Get hybrids for more colours.
White and green Christmas
In Kalimpong, orchid scholar U.C. Pradhan and wife Tej know the marigolds will be done by December, so it is time for sweet pea, hollyhock, petunia and phlox. Dwarf red salvia will provide prolific blooms till early spring in the hills. Tej, in charge of the couple’s winter planting, put some sturdier stuff down years ago, such as the red poinsettia, often treated as an annual, but in fact a sturdy perennial. They are “also dearly called the going home flower by children of Dr Graham’s Homes (a nearby school), because they paint the hillsides red as the school closes for the long winter holidays,” says Pradhan.
If you’ve ever visited those hills in winter, you know how essential the bright red cheer is to warm the cold winter days. After all, what’s Christmas without the Christmas flower?
The author is a journalist and writer of children’s books, with a passion for gardening.
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