Now is the time to plant cool season, hardy annuals. Annual plants grow and die in one season. Usually we think of the warm season annuals (i.e., summer) such as marigolds and petunias. However, cool season, hardy annuals are started in the fall, don’t mind the winter, and bloom during the cool spring months before summer. Typically these are started from seed now and planted in the fall before our first frost in late October.
Examples of cool season annuals are snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus), calendula (Calendula officinalis), bells of Ireland (Moluccella laevis), delphinium (Delphinium), lisianthus (Eustoma), love in a mist (Nigella), sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus), sweet William (Dianthus barbatus), and bachelor buttons (Centaurea cyanus). Many of these make great cut flowers.
I credit everything I have learned about cool season hardy annuals to Lisa Mason Ziegler and her book, Cool Flowers: How to Grow and Enjoy Long-Blooming Hardy Annual Flowers Using Cool Weather Techniques. Lisa manages a commercial cut flower business in Newport News, which is in Zone 7, similar to my Northern Virginia garden. In addition to growing and selling cut flowers, she writes books, gives lectures, provides free videos as well as Facebook Live presentations, and manages a website called The Gardener’s Workshop.
Several years ago I was inspired by her book to plant calendula, snapdragons, sweet peas, and sweet William in the fall. I was starting them in the beginning of the growing season and was not having great success. The weather became too hot before I could get a lot of flowers. When I tried her method of starting them in the fall, they bloomed early enough the following spring that I was able to enjoy the calendula flowers before powdery mildew set in and I had a lot of snapdragon, sweet pea, and sweet William flowers for indoor arrangements.
Lisa provides specific information for 30 flowers in her book. In general, we should start 6 to 8 weeks before the average first frost. In Northern Virginia, 8 weeks is August 31 and 6 weeks is September 15. She recommends to err on starting later rather than earlier. Some seeds can be sowed directly in the garden while others work well as transplants. Of course, it is still hot so if they are being sown outside or transplanted, they need to be watered regularly so they do not dry out.
If hardy annuals are something you would like to try, you can visiting Lisa’s website, listen to her videos, and read her book. Although she sells seeds and gardening products, you can also purchase seed packets at your local independent garden center or check out this list of seed companies. Good luck!