If you're not growing cool-weather flowers, you're missing a whole season. Cool-season blooms let you have the first glorious bouquets on the block. Now is the time to rediscover -- and to plant -- these sturdy flowers, many of which are already among most gardeners' all-time favorites.
Lisa Mason Ziegler is a new champion of larkspurs, snapdragons, sweet peas, calendulas and other flowers that bloom in early spring, long before zinnias, marigolds and other summer annuals can even be planted. Lisa, a flower farmer from Newport News, Virginia, who grows and sells flowers and bouquets from spring through the first frosts of fall, says the easy-to-grow cool-season flowers wake her garden up in spring, but they also keep her spirits up in the winter.
"When you plant in the fall, you have the anticipation through the winter," she says. "I'm tiptoeing out there at the first crack of spring to check on them. I enjoy that garden more than any other."
Ziegler is the author of "Cool Flowers" (St. Lynn's Press), in which she shares her tips and tricks to help every gardener grow these treasures. Timing is everything. "You don't plant them in the retail gardening time," Ziegler says. "If you buy seeds when they are typically available, it's not the correct planting time, and they can hardly thrive."
In her mild Zone 7 climate, Ziegler sows many cool-season flower seeds directly in the garden in the fall. Where winters are severe, the correct planting time is six weeks before winter's last frost -- so if your average last frost of the winter is May 1, for example, the best time to plant these cool-season blooms is in mid- to late March. "It's still not warm enough to plant zinnias or tomatoes," she says, but little seedlings of cool-season flowers are hardy. "They appreciate the cold nights at this time of year."
Sweet peas are perhaps the most beloved cool-season flower, and one of the most misunderstood: People think they are hard to grow. These are easy flowers, Ziegler says, if you get the timing down and if you cut them regularly. She suggests planting a 4-foot-long row, with one seed every 6 inches. You'll have only eight plants, but they "will give you two big bunches of fragrant sweet peas every week for six to eight weeks," Ziegler says. The flowers last about five to seven days in a vase, and "it's the best five days of your life," she says.
Spun fabric row cover (available at garden shops) is one of Ziegler's favorite tricks for cool-season success. After planting, she spreads a strip of row cover over the seedbed to protect it from squirrels and drying winds. Ziegler uses it over every early spring flower crop for at least two weeks. When the plants are large enough to be mulched around, she removes the row cover.
Foxgloves, bells of Ireland (which have green flowers on a flower stalk that grows up to three feet tall), bachelor's buttons, dill and fragrant sweet William are all on Ziegler's list of easy-to-grow, long-blooming cool-season favorites. They're all terrific as cut flowers, and they are great performers in flower beds, too.
Where winters are snowy, the seeds of some of these flowers can be sown directly on freshly fallen snow. The seeds of larkspur, poppies and bupleurum (sometimes called hare's ear -- you'll recognize it from florists' bouquets) are all good candidates for this practice, Ziegler says. When the snow melts, the seeds come into perfect gentle contact with the thoroughly moist soil.
Many cool-season flowers are easy to grow in a flowerpot. Use big pots, Ziegler says, and stick with flowers that are less than 3 feet tall. "Nigella is good," she says. "Snapdragons would be great. Corn cockle is too tall." In a big pot with fresh potting soil, "larkspur will shoot straight up," she says.
Cool-season flowers give you more than just bright, early bouquets, Ziegler says. They also attract pollinators to the garden. "The early blooms get the bugs in early, setting up housekeeping and coming back for more," she says. Vegetable gardeners, especially, should make room for a row of early blooms to encourage beneficial insects and pollinators. "If you are a vegetable gardener and you're not growing 25 percent flowers, you don't know what you're missing," she says. Many gardeners are shy about pollinators, which -- besides butterflies and hummingbirds -- include beneficial wasps and bees. Ziegler is allergic to bee stings, but she willingly makes room for bees. "When I learned about all the incredible things wasps and bees do in our gardens, I changed my attitude about them," she says.
There's really no need to wait until the roses bloom to get out into the garden, Ziegler says. Plant flowers that thrive in the cool conditions of early spring, and you'll discover a whole new season of bloom. "You'll have bells of Ireland and snapdragons coming on in March and April. You'll have foxgloves from seed, and you get rocking blooms," she says. Take it from a flower farmer: "We do the same or less than home gardeners," Ziegler says. "We just do it with the right plants at the right time."
LISA ZIEGLER'S TOP TIPS
-- Timing is everything. "People miss the opportune time because we are all afraid to plant when it is too cool," Ziegler says. In Newport News, she plants seeds for many cool-season flowers directly in the garden in late fall, and they survive winter freezes without a problem.
-- Some cool-season flower seeds have a hard seed coating. Soak them first. To grow bells of Ireland, place the seed packet in the freezer for two weeks. Take the packet out of the freezer and place the seeds in water for up to five days. Then plant them outside in the garden.
-- Choose the right flowers. "Foxy" foxglove blooms the first year from seed, but other foxgloves are biennial, producing leaves the first year and flowers the second.
-- Grow more. Ziegler grows five different kinds of snapdragons with different shapes, colors and different bloom times. "We used to be lucky to get them to bloom by Mother's Day," she says. "Now we have them in bloom in March."
-- Harvest your flowers. If you cut sweet pea flowers every week, you extend the growing season to as much as two months.
-- Mulch to control weeds and help retain moisture in the soil. But wait until the plants are large enough to spread mulch around. "We use anything organic and free," Ziegler says. Crushed autumn leaves and pine straw are both excellent organic mulches. If you buy mulch in a bag, avoid mulch that contains a pre-emergent herbicide, which could kill your plants.
-- Make pollinators welcome: Do not use pesticides. You'll have more birds and butterflies in your garden. Good bugs, and birds, help control pests.
-- Plant a separate garden for cut flowers in addition to your regular garden beds. "Everyone would enjoy a cutting garden, but not everyone knows it," Ziegler says. A good size to start with is 3 feet wide and 10 feet long.
-- Lisa Mason Ziegler is the author of "Cool Flowers" (St. Lynn's Press, $18), and the owner of The Gardener's Workshop cut-flower farm (thegardenersworkshop.com) in Newport News, Virginia. She sells flower seeds and supplies, and is a frequent presenter at garden symposiums and workshops.
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