by Jennifer Kinion
Spring is fast approaching, and all of the gardeners I’ve talked to lately can’t wait to get outside to start landscaping projects. One easy and quick way to transform a bare, winter-weary area of your garden is to sow seeds for spring annuals. Nothing announces the arrival of spring like a meadow of blooming flowers. Choosing the right annuals to plant during the touchy early spring weather (which can cool down and heat up again at the drop of a hat) will increase your chances of success. Also, put some time and care into preparing, planting, and maintaining your seedbed to give your annuals what they need to put on a good spring show.
- Pull existing weeds or cut them off at surface level with a hoe. If it hasn’t rained recently, water the area thoroughly.
- A day or two after watering use a spading fork or shovel to break up the soil and turn it enough to create a loose, friable seedbed. Raid your compost bin for that supply of fine compost you’ve been saving up, or spread purchased compost over the soil and work it in with a rake.
- If you want to create distinct areas to group your annuals, use light-colored string or an amendment such as gypsum to outline the borders within which you will plant each group.
- Broadcast your seeds over the prepared bed. To aid even distribution of tiny seeds, mix them with fine sand in a container, then sprinkle over the soil surface.
- Gently rake seeds into the soil, taking care not to bury them too deeply. Sift a thin layer of fine compost over the bed just to cover seeds, then water with a fine mist.
- Keep soil evenly moist and watch for those rewarding little green specks to emerge from the soil. When a few leaves have developed on your seedlings, thin them according to the spacing directions on the seed packet.
- As your plants continue to develop, water and fertilize as appropriate for the type of flower you are growing. Pull weeds early and often.
The following flowers are good choices for direct seeding in the garden, and are ideal for early spring planting because they don’t require very warm soil temperatures to germinate (all will sprout in soil temperatures as low as 55-60° F). With these easy seeders, you needn’t wait until spring is half gone to plant your flower patch and get started on your way to a pretty patch of annuals.
Dwarf toadflax (Linaria maroccana)
The small, dainty flowers of Linaria look like miniature snapdragons with contrasting colors on their “lips.” I’ve planted Linaria in an area that was plagued by oxalis, and it was one of the few plants that successfully competed with the weeds that season. This little charmer is best sown in full sun to light shade in quantity so that the kaleidoscope of yellow, purple, and pink blooms create visual impact. Linaria does double duty: As well as attracting the eye, it attracts beneficial insects and serves as a host larval plant for butterflies. The ‘Northern Lights’ strain of Linaria includes red/orange hues and grows 1 1/2 to 2 feet tall, but a smaller, pastel version, ‘Fairy Bouquet,’ tops out at about 9 inches.
Corn cockle (Agrostemma githago)
Agrostemma is a really easy plant for new gardeners, and the 2 to 3 foot tall stems bearing white, pink, mauve, and purple flowers add a lovely vertical element to a garden of annuals. Plant them in full sun and provide moderate water. One word of caution: This plant is poisonous if ingested.
Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena)
Love-in-a-mist seems to get it’s name from the fine, lace-like leaves that surround the blue, pink, and white flowers it bears, seeming to suspend the blossoms in a misty cloud of green. Left uncut, the blossoms transform into striped seed pods which readily self-sow. This favorite, old-fashioned flower is a Mediterranean native, and prefers full sun. It reaches heights of about 1-1 1/2 feet tall.
‘Lady Bird’ poppy (Papaver commutatum)
Each ‘Lady Bird’ plant bears more than a dozen red, saucer-shaped blooms with distinctive black dots in the center of each petal. They look great paired with catmint (Nepeta), and other shrubby plants with blue or cream colored flowers. Sow ‘Lady Bird’ seeds in full sun and give them regular water.