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Best Of Spring: Annual Flowers That Like The Cold

Originally Posted: April 20, 2010


African daisy: Newer varieties are advertised as heat tolerant, but they’re really best in spring and fall. (freewebs.com)

Southampton - OK, so we've had some surprisingly warm and wonderful weather lately. Do you remember any April like this one? I don't and don't we all love it? It's spring! When we get some warm days it's oh, so tempting to plant our pots of summer flowers, roll out the lounge chairs and sunscreen, and welcome summer. We're all set to get outdoors and get our fingers in the dirt, start shopping for tomato plants and plant some veggies and annual flowers.

Celosia (Celosia cristata). (finegardening.com)

But not so fast. Although we've been blessed with some unusually mild weather lately, it's not time to plant our summer gardens just yet. The average date of our last spring frost on the East End is in late April, though I've seen more than one heavy frost near the end of May. If you visit our local nurseries and garden centers, you're not going to find impatiens and tomatoes for sale. Not yet. They know better.

Where summer annuals are concerned, on eastern Long Island it's better to err on the side of caution. But that doesn't mean you can't plant flowers now. You just have to choose the right ones.

The daffodils and tulips are winding down, but you can fill that color gap between spring bulbs and summer annuals. You can certainly have color in your pots right now. Just plant flowers that like cool weather. You may be surprised at the choices you'll find at local garden centers and nurseries - there are lots more possibilities than the classic pansies (though their range has expanded considerably). I'm going to suggest some early annuals you can plant right now. These plants thrive in cool spring weather and can even tolerate some light frosts.

Let's face it - we all hope we've seen the end of the hard frosts and freezes until fall. But if we get a late heavy hit of cold, you can protect these early bloomers from damage (see below).

Gerbera (Gerbera jamesonii). (bidorbuy.co.za)


Here are a baker's dozen annual flowers to plant now, in pots or in the garden, to bridge the gap between daffodils and impatiens and provide some welcome early color.

 • African daisy (Osteospermum cvs). Daisy flowers in shades of yellow, orange and white, many with dark centers. Newer varieties are advertised as heat tolerant, but they're really best in spring and fall.

 • Calendula (Calendula officinalis). Golden yellow or orange daisylike flowers keep blooming all summer. Edible, too - use them to dress up salads. Deer resistant.

Larkspur (Consolida ambigua. (davesgarden.com)

 • Celosia (Celosia cristata). Plumelike or cockscomb-shaped flowers in a range of warm colors from pastels to brights - golden yellow, flaming orange, apricot, pink, magenta and red.

 • China pink (Dianthus chinensis). A carnation relative with fringed-edged flowers in reds, pinks, and white. Best in soil that's neither rich nor acidic.

 • Gerbera (Gerbera jamesonii). Big, flashy daisy flowers in a range of bright colors - shades of red, rose, pink, yellow, orange, buff and white. They quit in hot weather.

 • Globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa). Globe-shaped flower heads of magenta, pink, red, orange, lavender, purple or white. Great for dried arrangements or fresh-cut flowers. Thomas Jefferson grew it at Monticello.

 • Larkspur (Consolida ambigua). Old-fashioned cutting flower with spikes of flowers in shades of blue, purple, pink or white. Related to delphinium but a lot easier to grow.

 • Plants self-sow and come back on their own year after year. My grandmother had them on a hillside next to her house, and every year there were more of them, in a most delightful way.

 • Lobelia (Lobelia erinus). Small true-blue flowers (also available in pale blue or white) on neat plants, perfect for edging in garden or pots. If bloom slows in warm weather, cut back the plants to encourage another round.

Nemesia (Nemesia strumosa). (desert-tropicals.com)

 • Nemesia (Nemesia strumosa). Low, spreading plants bloom in bright shades of red, orange, yellow, blue or white; many bicolors. Can't take heat, but great in spring pots or gardens.

 • Pansies (Viola x wittrockiana). The first flower to hit the market in early spring, pansies come in an ever-expanding range of colors, from vibrant yellows, violets, and mahogany red to softer apricots and pinks, plus white, orange, and softer blues and purples. Violas and Johnny jump-ups are smaller versions. You can find them with or without the little facelike markings in the center of the flowers. Johnny jump-ups like to self-sow and pop up in different places from year to year. If you pick off old flowers and give the plants ample water they'll keep blooming into summer (I've kept them blooming into August).

 • Snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus). Vertical spires of two-lipped flowers in white, lavender, pink, red, yellow and orange. Good for cutting. Deer resistant.

 • Stock (Matthiola incana). Spikes of purple, red, rose, pink or white flowers with a captivating spicy-sweet scent. Warm weather shuts them down, but they're worth having for that heavenly fragrance, if only for a few weeks. In a cool spring they'll last longer - it's the luck of the draw where weather is concerned.

 • Sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima). Masses of tiny honey-scented blossoms - white, pink, lavender, or red-violet. Great for edging.

Sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima). (commons.wikimedia.org)


Emergency Frost Protection
Sometimes we get a serious frost near the end of May. If one is forecast this year (none so far) you can save your plants by covering them up. If you've got any floating row covers or lightweight garden blankets on hand, use them (they come in handy for protecting summer annuals and vegetables from early fall frosts, too). If you haven't got any, you can rig up a plastic tent over the plants, or cover them with overturned baskets, boxes or pots, or buckets. Remove the covers when the temperature rises above freezing in the morning.


Anne is a writer, editor and professional gardener, and the author of 17 garden, home and nature books. She lives in Hampton Bays.




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