NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — This month, Lisa Ziegler is sowing seeds in her flower farm fields in southeastern Virginia.
Come spring, those fall-planted seeds will germinate into rows and rows of colorful poppies, larkspur, dill, calendula, nigella, sweet peas, bachelor button and a Queen Anne’s Lace lookalike called Green Mist.
“Fall planting is full of more anticipation than any other season,” says Lisa. She grows fresh cut flowers for bouquets and stems she provides to customers, florists and food markets through her business, The Gardener’s Workshop, an online gardening tool and seed shop (www.shoptgw.com or 888-977-7159).
“You spend all winter wondering, hoping and peering out the window thinking are those flowers going to survive and bloom? It is such a blissful moment when you realize you did it.”
These flowering plants are called hardy annuals, and thrive in winter conditions up to zones 6. In colder regions, the seeds are best planted in early spring, or six to eight weeks before your last frost date, when the days are warm and you can work your soil, says Lisa.
For sure success in your home garden, Lisa suggests that you add and thoroughly work in two to three inches of aged compost before you plant. Plant in a pattern, and mark using a plastic knife as a plant marker; straight rows you mark are easiest. Hoe or hand weed weekly to prevent invaders, and mulch once the seedlings are tall enough. When the seedlings are 4-8 inches tall, feed them a liquid fertilizer.
“Then, put it all to bed for the winter and wait for the spring surprise,” she says.
“In spring, cut your flowers weekly and they will bloom into summer.”
This method of sowing directly in the garden means you don’t start these particular seeds indoors. The seeds germinate into babies in five to 30 days, depending on the species. They are hardy and will survive whatever Old Man Winter throws your way, because all the action is happening underground, says Lisa.
“The plants will have a solid, strong root system to stand on, and will be more resistant to pests and diseases,” she says.
Even though they may look weary during winter, spring will revive them with new shoots.
The biggest challenge, says Lisa, is knowing the weeds from the flowering plants, which is why she recommends planting in a pattern that you can easily recognize. She maintains a photo album of many of the seedlings at her website so you can get help there knowing what’s a keeper.
Because fall’s temperatures are cooler and there’s usually more rain, you won’t have to water the seedlings. It’s what Lisa calls her “lazy gardener” season.
If rabbits are a problem in your yard, you may need to use a floating row cover that is placed protectively over the seedlings until spring. The row cover also guards against wind damage.
In spring, thin the seedlings so they have room to grow strong and sturdy without the competition of too many plants. Often, these same plants reseed to give you more plants the following year, especially if you leave some old flower heads to form seeds in the garden.
“Every spring, even after 14 years, I am still surprised how easy it was,” says Lisa.