Autumn is the season when nature is sowing seeds, right when they're newly ripe and at their most viable.
There are lots of benefits to autumn sowing. Many seeds need more than light and warmth to germinate, requiring a period of cold to break their dormancy – tricky to provide in spring. Autumn sowing tends to lead to bigger, sturdier and earlier veg and flowers, with crops and blooms as much as six weeks earlier.
When sowing seeds in autumn, make sure it's fresh and avoid sowing seeds that were harvested over a year ago. Once the seeds have been dampened, don't let them dry out, otherwise the germination process will stop and the seeds will die.
Don't be surprised if your seeds don't all germinate at once. It can be a slow process, so reserve a cold frame or seedbed for your seeds, then transplant germinating seeds as they appear.
If direct sowing into the ground, make sure the soil isn't too sandy that it'll dry out, or so heavy and wet that the seeds will rot. Improve your soil if it fits either of these profiles.
Discover eight plants to sow in autumn, below.
These beautiful flowers can be part of a wildflower meadow or sown in beds. Field poppies (Papaver rhoeas) appear on newly cultivated ground on road verges and fields. Sow on cultivated soil and re-work the ground after the seeds are shed to keep them coming. Also try cornflowers, larkspur, phacelia, forget-me-not, nigella, California poppies and bishop's weed.
Primroses are an essential part of the garden in spots below hedges or in dappled shade. Sow outdoors or in a cold frame on the surface of seed compost in pots – cover with a hint of fine grit as they need light to germinate. Prick out when they have four leaves, then grow them on. Other perennials to sow in autumn include verbascums, hollyhocks, foxgloves, echinaceas, mallow and rudbeckia.
'Aquadulce Claudia' was once the favoured variety for autumn sowing but more modern strains such as 'Masterpiece' and 'Stereo' are now popular. Good drainage and a sheltered spot will produce the most reliable crops, 3-4 weeks in advance of spring-sown seeds. Check out our broad bean grow guide for full advice.
To get sweet peas climbers to flower weeks earlier, seeds can be sown in October and November, 3cm deep and 3cm apart, in pots or 'root trainers' and overwintered in a cold frame to get them through the worst weather. Soak the seeds overnight or score the surface to help break dormancy, though this isn't always essential. Discover the best sweet peas for cutting.
Cacti are fun and easy plants to grow on a windowsill. These spiky succulents can be sown in pots on the surface of a damp loam-based or cacti compost, with a light sprinkle of vermiculite. Cover the pots with polythene bags. Water via saucers under the pots when the compost looks dry. Full steps on growing cacti from seed.
Sow cotoneaster berries in terracotta pots, in alternating layers of berries and sandy compost. Stand the pots outdoors to allow repeated freezing and thawing, then tip out the contents onto a patch of ground and sieve over a fine covering of soil. The resulting plants can be potted up and grown on. Also try this with crab apples, rowan trees (Sorbus aucuparia), hawthorns and other berried plants.
Pot marigolds (Calendula) are among the easiest of hardy annual flowers to grow and respond well to autumn sowing on a patch of well-drained earth in a sunny spot where they are to grow. Sow in shallow drills or rake the seeds into the surface of the soil, then thin to 10cm apart in spring once the worst winter weather has passed.
Corydalis can be tricky to germinate. Either sow in pots on the surface of seed compost with a fine covering of grit before standing them outside to allow freezing and thawing, or sandwich between layers of damp kitchen roll on a tray in the fridge. Transfer to small pots of compost as the individual seeds germinate.
Tips for improving germination
- Cutting the seed: known as scarification, this involves cutting the tough seedcoat. Using sweet peas as an example, use a sharp knife to gently score or nick the seedcoat on the other side from the eye
- Soaking the seed: soak the seeds in tepid water overnight so that the seedcoat is softened before germination. Not always vital but can speed things up
- Freezing and thawing: known as stratification, it's this that triggers seeds into germination, replicating the natural process that would happen in winter. Place seeds or berries in alternate layers of sharp sand or sandy compost, and stand where they can be repeatedly frozen and thawed