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"Cool Flowers"--planting for early spring blooms

Updated: Jan 23


Larkspur, Shirley poppies and calendula



For years I've grown poppies, larkspur, love-in-a-mist (nigella) and other spring flowering annuals in my garden. These plants now self sow freely throughout my perennial garden. Wherever the plants come up in the fall from fallen seed and live through the winter, the best, most productive plants flower in the spring. In a mild winter this is a wonderful bonus to my early spring garden. However, as our winters are unpredictable, I always go out and follow the old advice to throw poppy seed on the last snow of winter (or any Feb/March snow fall) to ensure that I have seedlings to replace those that don't make it through the winter. Unfortunately bunnies love, love, love all poppy seedlings and these are the hardest plants to keep intact, but a few usually do make it to bloom. Over the years my nigella (love-in-a-mist) patch is enormous and larkspur has spread far and wide and it seems to always make it through the winter.


Nigella in spring


A few years ago I learned about Lisa Mason Ziegler of the Gardeners Workshop in Newport News, VA. She is an advocate of growing "cool flowers" which is what she calls this type of flower--annuals that will live over winter as small plants in mild winter areas and burst into early spring bloom. She has much milder winters than I do because she lives so near to the ocean, but her information is still very helpful and through her large network of flower growing friends she's learned that these flowers will thrive in much colder climates than mine. This year I've taken several of her online classes and am making a much more organized effort to grow this type of flower.

Planting bed cleared for fall planted “cool flowers”

Planting small "plugs" of pre-started plants in the fall.


Tiny baby “cool flowers” planted in the fall. On the right are three row of dianthus. The others are feverfew, dara, poppies, bells of Ireland, and bupleurum.



In the fall of 2020 we dedicated one bed entirely to these "cool flowers" and planted Shirley poppies, dianthus, bells of Ireland, larkspur, orlaya, bupleurum, bells of Ireland and others. This bed was cleared of summer flowers quite early due to our unusually early frost in September. We then amended, added organic fertilizer and tilled and I'm doing an experiment of planting in the ground without weed cloth (this worked fine throughout the fall and spring of 2020 when the flowers were young and growing. However, once we had stopped using the bed it quickly became a weed-patch and my husband had to bush-hog the whole thing to clear it out. We did not re-plant for summer as many of the flowers flowered through until July. We will re-plant the bed with fall planted "cool flowers" in late September.) Lisa Ziegler says she normally just has to weed through December, and I found this to be true. (I have a favorite hoe for weeding which Johnny's Selected Seeds carries. Mine was given to me by my husband's aunt, an avid gardener, and I've used it for nearly 30 years. I ordered another this year for my daughter. I'm also trying a new one that Lisa Ziegler recommends--she says that you can hoe standing straight up and that sounds pretty good to me! I loved using it to hoe these beds. It is not a heavy-duty hoe and can be broken if not cared for--it's just for lightweight weeding, but you really can stand upright to use it.)

The plants looked so pretty in the fresh soil planted out in the fall. We covered them with wire hoops and frost cloth when the weather got cold to protect from them winter winds, which dry out the plants. This covering is very important, especially without snow cover. We've watched them each day to make sure that if it is sunny that it doesn't get too warm under the frost cloth. When it snows we have to be sure to pull the frost cloth to the side and allow the snow to cover the plants--this is their best winter protection because the snow provides insulation.


Frost cloth on for the cold weather


Snow’s starting! Off with the cloth


No rest, even in the winter. Pulling aside the frost cloth before the snow.


Larkspur and poppies in full bloom


Lisa Mason Ziegler has written a book, 'Cool Flowers: how to enjoy long-blooming hardy annual flowers using cool weather techniques', which is available from her website. In it she has a page which describes each variety of flower that can be grown using this method and has much more information as well. She regularly updates the information in the book through her website and also does live videos regularly on facebook, which are very helpful. I've learned a lot from her many years of experience as a professional cut flower grower in the Williamsburg, VA area.

Shirley Poppies are an example of "Cool Flowers" which do best when planted in the fall.


Cornflower under the frost cloth on a mild winter day—looking happy!




Spring 2021: Our cool flower bed was a fantastic success. We had so much larkspur we could almost fill our cooler with it. Picking was a daily job to stay ahead of the blooms! The bupleurum was marvelous--but we never have enough. Orlaya had reseeded throughout the bed and we just let it come up wherever it sprouted. The dara, which is a pink Queen Anne's lace flower was gorgeous, along with the feverfew. I love feverfew, but find it has such a short window for picking. I just wish it bloomed longer. The dianthus was a wonderful producer and we plan to grow more colors next year.

Snapdragons, cress, poppies and larkspur

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