Fall is such a glorious season, with the first hints of frost in the air, chrysanthemums out-doing themselves in an effort to put out their last blooms, long V’s of sandhill cranes warbling overhead, and broccoli and cauliflower freshening up the garden. But what is it about fall that should turn our thoughts forward to spring? Spring reseeding annuals, of course! How many times have you remembered in March that you wanted to have love-in-a-mist or bachelor buttons this year, but realized that it was already too late for them to bloom and produce seed before the heat. Spring blooming annuals, as opposed to summer and fall bloomers, usually sprout in the fall or winter from seed that has lain dormant since the preceding spring.
Just about everyone has a Grandma’s garden somewhere in their memories, filled with billows of lavender, purple and blue larkspur, pompons of ruffled poppies, and happy-faced Johnny jump-ups. These spring annuals reseeded by themselves from year to year, filling Grandma’s flower beds with color until sometime in May when hot weather zinnias and cosmos started to peek up through the spent stalks. Often Grandpa (as it was in my case) saved the seeds of his favorite flower colors to scatter late in the fall, sparing them from being harvested by ants or buried under compost and mulch.
Annuals traditionally make wonderful cut flowers because they bloom so abundantly in their effort to produce seed for next year’s crop. The perennial gardener especially appreciates "annual" color to complement early spring perennials like Louisiana blue phlox and iris, at the same time adding fullness to the garden as the summer perennials slowly wake up from their winter dormancy. Reseeding annuals are as easy to grow as throwing a handful of seeds on your flower to start a flower garden.
If you have not tried larkspur before, you are in for a treat. Larkspur, which is a member of the delphinium family, blooms on slender sprightly stems, 18 to 36 inch tall. Mixed seed packets will give you flowers predominantly in the blue range, from deep rich purple to delicate lavender, but you are also likely to get some interesting pinks and white once in a while. If you are growing your first stand of larkspur, let it fully reseed to ensure a good repeat crop. After your larkspur seems established in your beds, you can start encouraging the reseeding of your favorite colors by cutting lots of bouquets out of the colors you are not as fond of or just uprooting those colors before they go to seed. Do not plan on being 100 percent successful, larkspur is very prolific. One word of caution — all parts of the larkspur plant, leaf, flower, stem and root are poisonous. Though it takes ingesting pounds of it to poison a full-grown cow, a tiny 2-year-old child who eats flowers could be in grave danger in the larkspur garden. Non-grazing animals like dogs and cats, which seem to know what to eat and what not to eat when they decide to add greens to their diet, are probably not at risk.
Similar to larkspur but slightly shorter, in the same nice color range of blues, but not poisonous, is Nigella or love-in-a-mist. The tiny black seeds of Nigella have a spicy oregano flavor and are traditionally used in East Indian foods. The name, love-in-a-mist, describes the fern-like bracts surrounding the maroon-hued seed pod, which forms after the flowers have bloomed, making it popular for use in dried arrangements. The freshly cut flowers of Nigella and larkspur can also be dried as well (choose your strongest colors as they will fade with drying) for dried flower bouquets or wreaths. Love-in-a-mist also produces some clear pinks and white as well as the predominant blues and individual colors can be encouraged by saving seeds as mentioned above.
Some people call them bachelor buttons, some cornflowers, but they are both the same thing, spring-blooming Centaurea cyanus. The name bachelor buttons comes from the old-time custom of "sprucing up" by putting a flower in the button hole of your lapel. Remember the word boutonniere? Bachelor buttons were nature’s ready-made bouton-nieres. The sky blue color of this humble annual is so remarkable that its name has entered the color palette as cornflower blue. Secondary colors of lavender, pink and white also crop up in bachelor buttons.
One of the showiest of the reseeding annuals is the double ruffled poppy, Papaver somniferum, which fills the flower bed each spring with bright coral-red blooms standing on 24- to 36-inch stems. Once in a while this plant will come back as a single bloom with a deep purple center like an oriental poppy, some years the color will be more red and in others it might shift to a pink. The spent stalks topped by their unusual round seed pods make interesting additions to dried bouquets. It is fun to shake the ripe black poppy seeds from their salt shaker-like pods when scattering or collecting seeds. Another Papaver relative, the small, tangerine-colored California poppy with its soft, mounding foliage, is also an excellent reseeder. This poppy will germinate any time of year — after a summer "norther" or during a warm winter as well as in the spring. All true poppies have some narcotic properties and while it is not against the law to grow them in the flower bed, they are not considered to be edible.
Another diminutive old-time plant for borders and containers is white alyssum. Sweet smelling alyssum grows easily from seed and takes more heat than Johnny jump-ups so will last into the summer — sometimes all summer. Because it is also frost tolerant (though not as much so as Johnny jump-ups), alyssum will often make it through the winter and looks nice in combination with pansies and dianthus.
The herb, calendula, is easy to grow from seeds sown in the late fall. The bright daisy-like flowers are some of the only yellows and oranges of the early spring. Like the California poppy, calendula tends to reseed any chance it gets and sometimes forgoes its ability to reseed when it sprouts during a chance summer cool spell or a brief winter warm spell, so gather the dried seeds after spring bloom and save for replanting.
Johnny jump-ups, the tiny violas that pop up from the flower bed, to your lawn, to the cracks in the driveway each year are a sign that winter has passed. The common Viola tricolor is purple and yellow; others, like their perennial cousins, the violets, come in purple, yellow and white. Johnny jump-ups are not just cute, they are edible and make a pretty garnish or decoration on cakes. Besides making a nice spring border for your beds, these flowers are excellent for container planting where they will trail slightly, filling out the edges of your pot.
Spring flowering natives are always a good choice for lots of bloom. Scented Drummond phlox, which comes in lovely shades of reds and pinks and white, is one of the best ones for reseeding. Others, like scarlet flax and blue flax (both Linum spp.) and many-colored toad flax (Linaria spp.), give you wonderful spring color the first season but only come back reliably in areas where they reseed naturally in the wild. Native seeds do not have to be sown in beds. Most seed packets recommend scattering the seed, then raking the planting area so that the seed is just scratched into the dirt. Hand watering to imitate a good soaking rain (being careful not to wash your seed away) can help your seedlings start to get their roots down so they will not end up in the neighbors’ lawn after the first big three-day rain.
One closing consideration is taking care that these prolific plants do not overseed, thus crowding each other and your emerging perennials out. Sometimes it is good to keep the lark-spur in one bed and the poppies in another, for example. There are late-spring bloomers like marigolds and Queen Anne’s lace, both very good reseeders, that usually pop up at just the right time when the last of the spring flowers are looking a little ragged. If, however, they get a strong head start and crowd out their predecessors, thin them back so that you still get plenty of seed from your early bloomers.