When you think of the colours and tones of a rainbow, it is amazing how they all seem to work together and combine easily with one another. Yet, sometimes, we struggle to move away from colour combinations we know as traditional. For example, we are quite happy to mix tones of navy and white, pinks and mauves, lemons and limes, or shades of orange and red, which are all common themes in the garden. But to suggest one should mix them altogether would throw some traditionalists into a tailspin.
If any one genus has rainbow qualities and attributes it is definitely Primula.
Polyanthus is the common name of Primula x polyantha, or cottage primrose, as they are also known. Now, where this gets confusing is that the plants we often call polyanthus are actually of the Primula genus.
Both have the same heritage and come from the same family, but differ in the way they flower. The difference is polyanthus have taller, larger, longer flower stems, and on each stem they have multiple blooms. Primulas, on the other hand, have shorter stems and only have one flower per stem.
Did you know?
Hybrid polyanthus (Primula x polyantha) are perennials. This means they don’t live and die within one season. Often we treat them as though they are disposable as once they finish flowering in late spring we are looking for the next lot of flowers to fill the gaps and we rip them out of the garden. If you are happy to give them a little room over the warmer months, away from intense heat, they will bounce back into bloom again next season as soon as the soil cools and the temperatures drop.
This is a good reason to grow them in pots and tubs, as it makes them easy to hide under shrubs over summer, ready to dust them again once autumn arrives.
Did you know Primula elatior ‘Gold Lace’ is one of the oldest named polyanthus varieties? Its history dates back to the 1780s. It’s an easy one to recognise with black petals edged in gold. In late winter and spring, it is a popular one for bees and butterflies to visit.
Tips & tricks with prims & polys
Sun or shade
You choose! These little gems are happy in full sun or a shady spot. If you have a shady position, make sure it isn’t too dark, as they do need daylight to stimulate flower bud initiation and leaf growth.
To trigger loads of flowers, avoid feeding polys and prims with anything that has a high nitrogen component. Dried blood is the ‘go-to’ plant food, and it’s organic and, therefore, chemical free. You will find it in our Garden Centres. Sprinkle it around the base of each plant at planting time, then again six weeks after. It stimulates masses of flower buds and promotes healthy dark-green foliage growth.
Aim to keep the soil moist, but not wet; freedraining soil is ideal. Sandy soils are fine, just blend in some compost at planting time to help the soil hold onto more moisture.
Avoid planting in soils that will get waterlogged for long periods; they loathe constant wetness, it causes big problems and the centres of the plants will rot away fairly quickly. With plants growing in pots, don’t leave the pots sitting in saucers of water either.
Polyanthus and primulas can both be propagated by seed, while existing clumps can be dug up and split into new segments. The latter is super easy to do as the new offshoots easily separate, which can be done now from existing clumps or plants that have been in pots.
Tease out the roots then split off the small off shoots, trim the roots back a little, remove any outer floppy or damaged leaves, and the new plantlets are ready to plant in a pot or in the garden.
Care & maintenance
Polys and prims don’t need a lot of care, to keep them at their best. Remove any tatty and yellow leaves, pinch these off at the base of the plant. Snip out the dead flower stems as they appear, which stimulates the next lot of flowers to develop. A side-dressing of dried blood or general fertiliser helps, too.
Keep your eyes peeled for signs of aphids and greenfly. Both enjoy living in the middle of the plants, and will soon arrive if you are tardy with watering or if your plants are hungry. Healthy plants rarely get attacked by anything.
Mildew can be an issue, too. If your plants start to suddenly flop, cut back any yellow and tattylooking leaves, drench the plants in Seasol and place in a well-ventilated area to allow the plants to recover. An application of fungal spray may be required.
Aim to get polyanthus and primulas planted this month so they can begin to add that welcome sparkle of colour over the coldest months. The earlier they are in the ground the better.
Go mad here, and plant as many as you can. Space them hand-width apart and pot them into fresh potting mix. Containers only need to be 15cm deep as the plants are shallowrooted. They will brighten up any kitchen or living-room window area.
Towers & wall-hanging planters
Using towers that are traditionally used for growing strawberries or herbs, try planting polys and primulas instead. They thrive in these tubs and look magical as they fill out and flower over the coldest months. The hangers can get quite heavy, so make sure you attach them securely to something solid and strong from which to swing. And don’t place them in walkways where people can hit their heads on them.
Brighten up the vege patch, where they will also provide flowers to feed the bees. Plant them in between low-growing crops, such as lettuce or spinach, or use them planted along the front to add some welcome colour.
Pimp out the front of your home with some bold plantings. The most economical way to buy bulk lots is to look for 12 packs or box lots of plants. These are easy to transplant and will brighten up narrow garden borders and fence lines for months. Again, allow about a hand space between each plant.
Garden plantings – formal borders
Botanical gardens and city councils all over the country plant thousands of polys and prims now to add welcome colour until the latespring flowers arrive. Most of these are grown by commercial growers in garden quantities. If you have a large space to fill, contact our local garden centre or plant outlet and they will be able to order you bulk amounts.
Team polys and prims up with flowering kale, pansies, violas, snapdragons and maybe a selection of bulbs, if you still have some lying around. Winter herbs, such as parsley, coriander and chervil, are happy companions, too.