"Cool Flowers"--planting for early spring blooms

Updated: Feb 2

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”

Tiny baby “cool flowers” planted in the fall.

I've dedicated one bed entirely to these "cool flowers" and have planted Shirley poppies, dianthus, bells of Ireland, larkspur, orlaya, bupleurum, bells of Ireland and others. We cleared this bed quite early due to our unusually early frost, amended, added organic fertilizer and tilled and I'm doing an experiment of planting in the ground without weed cloth. Lisa Ziegler says she normally just has to weed through December, and I hope this is true because I don't like to spend precious time weeding. (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!) We will likely harvest this field in the spring and then convert it to a regular summer bed with weed cloth for the rest of next year.

It is a fun experiment and the plants looked so pretty in the clean 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 get out and 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

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.

Feb. 1, 2021 update: we are having our second snow of the season and have only had to uncover the plants twice--each time it has snowed. When the snow disappears we re-cover the plants with the frost cloth. I check the temperature if the day is sunny, but we’ve had a very grey January so only once did it get warm enough to vent one end of each tunnel to allow the warm air out, and even then only for a couple hours. It's not been an overly cold winter, but has also not been warm. This has been good for the plants. They are growing very well in their mini-greenhouses. I'm looking forward to cornflower, larkspur, and more in the early spring.

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

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