One of the many joys of foxgloves is that they appear just as spring’s flurry of blooms has disappeared and the garden is waiting for summer to take off. It can be a surprisingly dull moment in the garden, with all the yellowing leaves of tulips among the tired aquilegias. But the spires of foxgloves unfurl to raise your eye away from the dying back below. Combined with ferns, astrantias, dusky cranesbills and cultivated cow parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’, they make the most of dappled shade and please the bees with it.
This moment is long gone. In fact, many will now be setting seed. If you don’t have your own plants, this is the moment to start sowing. Digitalis sown in the next month or so will bulk up before autumn and be ready to plant out next spring.
They are surprisingly easy to grow from seed, for a fraction of the cost of mature plants. If you have the common foxglove, Digitalis purpurea, tap it as you pass by and it will scatter itself where it pleases. If, however, you want to sow some of the many and glorious cultivars, or try your hand at some of the perennial foxgloves, you will need to buy seed.
Digitalis seed is tiny and needs light to germinate. Whether you are scattering in the garden or on to a seed tray, it is very important the seed does not get buried. With seed trays, it is best to pre-water and then sow on top. Gently press the seeds into the damp compost and leave the trays somewhere bright, but slightly shaded. Seed germinates between 15C and 18C, but if the seed tray is left in full sun, the temperatures may soar and scorch the germinating seedlings. Seeds should germinate in 14 days. When they are large enough to handle, prick them out into modules or 9cm pots.
Go for D. purpurea and the lovely, pure-white D. purpurea forma ‘Albiflora’ – or, if you want both colours, D. purpurea ‘Pam’s Choice’, with its white flowers and purple insides. D. purpurea and cultivars are biennial, so they need to be sown or allowed to self-seed every year, so there is a fresh batch next spring. They prefer light shade, so if your garden basks in a little more sun, try the perennial Mediterranean species such as D. grandiflora or D. lutea, which are shades of buttery pale-yellow. Then there is also the cross between D. purpurea and D. grandiflora, D. x mertonensis, which is soft strawberry-pink, or D. ‘Sutton’s Apricot’ which has whipped cream added to its colour scheme.
All digitalis are very toxic if eaten, so wash your hands after handling if you want to use them as cut flowers.