RISMEDIA, March 10, 2009-(MCT)-One way to rein in your plant purchases this spring without putting a damper on your dream garden is to use annuals-especially those you can start from seeds sown directly into the garden. For 15 to 25 bucks-the price of one or two flats of flowers or hanging baskets-you can buy a fistful of seed packets that will produce hundreds of plants in a rainbow of colors and shapes.
Some annuals, such as morning glories, hyacinth bean, cardinal climber and moonflower, climb by leaps and bounds. Sunflowers, in shades of red, cherry, gold or white, turn their “faces” throughout the day to follow the sun. Some annuals are fragrant, like the night-scented tobacco flower, and others can add zing to a flower arrangement.
Unlike perennials, which typically return every spring, but usually flower for just a few weeks, annuals tend to bloom their little heads off from late spring right up until frost. When they finish flowering, they produce seeds and then head for that garden in the sky. You can collect the seed for freebie flowers next year and rearrange where you use them for a new look.
By sowing annuals from seeds, “your world opens to plants you never knew existed,” says garden designer Patti Kirkpatrick of Joliet, Ill. “My advice to newbies and other gardeners is to just try it.” Each spring, she sows seeds of Chinese forget-me-not (Cynoglossum), which offers shades of blue and pink and will bloom in full sun to light shade. “It’s a must for those tiny little flower arrangements.”
Some annuals, such as four o’clocks (Mirabilis jalapa) will self-sow in spring if you let the seeds drop in the ground come fall. “Four o’clocks are excellent for nighttime pollinators, like the hummingbird moth,” says Nancy Kuhajda, Master Gardener coordinator for the University of Illinois Extension in Joliet. Among her favorite annuals for sowing each spring are zinnias, larkspur, love-in-a-mist (Nigella), cosmos and cleome, also called spider flower for its wispy petals.
“Cleome is great for sunny places where nothing else will grow,” she says.
And there are annuals to suit every garden style. The uniform shapes of marigolds, begonias and salvia make them excellent edging plants in a formal or geometrical planting bed. But the more willowy and wild-looking annuals, such as cosmos, sunflowers and amaranthus, are best for a loose or more natural-looking flower bed.
“A lot of annuals look garish in a natural border,” says Jill Selinger of the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Ill. “You see geraniums or petunias in a natural planting and they just don’t jibe.” In her own garden in the conservation-minded Prairie Crossing subdivision in Grayslake, Ill., Selinger sows seeds of the tall, fragrant tobacco flower (Nicotiana sylvestris) and Italian White sunflowers. The heirloom morning glory, called Grandpa Ott reseeds on its own each year, with a slight vengeance. “It comes back great and they were coming up everywhere, but you can get your little trowel and flick out the ones you don’t want.” Or give them away to those other gardeners who are watching their wallets.
Many gardeners who try seed-sowing outdoors for the first time get frustrated when few or no plants germinate, says Nancy Kuhadja, Master Gardener coordinator for the University of Illinois Extension in Joliet. Here are her tips for getting seeds off to a good start.
“Wait for soil temps to warm,” Kuhajda says. “Seeds planted in cold soil often rot or succumb to disease before they can germinate.” The last frost date for the Chicago area, for example, typically takes place about May 15, so in that region plant mid-May or later.
Prepare the planting area. Loosen the top few inches of soil with a trowel and rake it smooth before planting.
Read the seed packet. “Most people plant seeds too deep. The depth should be only double the size of the seed,” Kuhajda says. Some seeds need light to germinate, so simply sow the seeds on the soil surface and press them down lightly with the palm of your hand.
Show ’em the light. Most annuals require six or more hours of summer sun. However, many will tolerate light shade-the result being fewer flowers.
Water gently, deeply and slowly. “Just like a baby, the tiny seedling is vulnerable,” Kuhajda says. Use a water-soluble balanced fertilizer once the plants are 4 inches or taller.
Thin out seedlings. “Either mix seeds with sand for better spacing or prepare to pull some seedlings out. Crowded plants are not healthy plants,” Kuhajda says. Mark the area with a labeled stick or seed packet so you don’t accidentally pull out the new seedlings.
© 2009, Chicago Tribune.
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