On our cut-flower farm, fall is the season for new beginnings. After a long hot growing season, we are ready to move on to the promise of a spring full of beautiful flowers. Most people think of spring as the season of fresh starts and this is true for us also. But we have learned that, in order to have that wonderful spring surprise, we start the flowers in the fall, early winter and very early spring. These are the best times to plant a group of flowers known as hardy annuals so that they will be ready to burst into bloom at the first signs of spring, when night temperatures are still dipping low and the days have just begun to warm.
Sweet Peas, Bells of Ireland, Snapdragons, Sweet Williams, Bachelor Buttons, Larkspur, and so many other spring-blooming flowers are hardy annuals. They are so well known, so beloved, and yet so misunderstood. When planted after spring arrives, there is little time for them to get established before the pressure of producing blooms begins. Then as the season of spring rolls into summer, the heat starts and the plants suffer prematurely from puniness, disease and pests. Planting in the fall, winter, or very early spring gives hardy annuals ample time to become established. Because they survive cold temperatures, they have time to develop the strong root system they need to perform well into summer.
The spring bloomers that belong to this group are early magnets for pollinators and other beneficial insects. Having blooms in your garden as early as possible jump starts your garden on the way to establishing an army of warriors to work for you. The population of beneficial insects on our farm is crazy high because we use no chemicals and have permanent plantings for them to overwinter in.
While flowers in the garden furnish food and habitat for thousands of beneficial creatures, their ultimate end is hopefully in a vase with their toes in fresh clean water, making somebody happy. When I began growing cut flowers commercially in 1998, I was surprised at the way people responded to a beautiful bunch of cut flowers. But now, 15 years later, I know that’s what flowers do to people. Men and women, young and old–there isn’t anyone immune to the delight of home-grown garden flowers.
What are the sweetest gifts of this hardy annual garden for those who plant and tend them? For me it is the anticipation: waiting, watching, and wondering — and, I confess, a bit of worrying — even after having planted like this for all these years. But then come the warm days of early spring; flower stalks filled with buds start reaching up from well-established plants. And then they bloom.
The sweetest of all is that you will have flowers to share. Cutting flowers from this garden once a week is essential to keeping the garden producing more fresh flowers. The abundant bounty provides a gift like no other. While picking up a bouquet at a store and giving it as a gift is thoughtful, how much more so is a bouquet that you grew and tended yourself.
The dreamiest part of cool season hardy annual gardening?
- You plant when little else is going on in the garden.
- Temperatures are cooler—nice for the gardener.
- Many of these plants prefer to have their seeds planted directly in the garden.
- Rain is normally abundant during planting times.
- Disease and pest pressures are minimal.
- Many come into bloom during the season flowers are most anticipated—spring.
And, oh yeah, this garden is practically maintenance free as it produces some of the most beautiful and most beloved flowers. After you have tried it, you will wonder, why didn’t I start growing hardy annuals sooner? Don’t miss the opportunity to garden in the forgotten seasons.
Lisa Mason Ziegler is a commercial cut-flower farmer in Newport News, Virginia; she lectures and writes about organic and sustainable cut-flower gardening. You can email Lisa, call her at 757-877-7159 or visit her website.
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