Get out of the house and start planting

March 21, 2012
California poppy shows off fern-like foliage and orange flowers.

“The early bird catcheth the worm” dates back to John Ray's 1670 work, “A Collection of English Proverbs.”  Early is best.  And success in life and the garden comes to those who prepare.

With spring itself coming early, it is time to plant cold-hardy annuals.  We have all seen those teasing words admonishing us to plant as soon as the soil can be worked.
Many hardy annuals tolerate cool spring weather and can be easily grown from seed.

Plant now and you can have quick harvests of snow peas, beets, mixed greens, radishes and peas for the table and long-lasting flowers for much of the summer.

As for flowers, the quick-growing, cold-hardy annuals will add a naturalistic or cottage garden look to your borders and beds.  They can also be transplanted later to fill in bare gaps in the garden. As a bonus, many of these cold-hardy, easy-to-grow annual flowers are the most useful.

Calendula (Calendula officinalis) is often called pot marigold because it does well in the stew pot. Calendula leaves are faintly aromatic leaves with single or double daisy-like flowers in shades of orange or yellow. It flowers from summer right up until hard frost.

Try new varieties such as Touch of Red, whose red-backed petals give an antique look.  Porcupine calendula has glowing orange pointed flowers with quills that give a rowdy, spiky look to the blooms.

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) can be sown as soon as the snow clears.

The lacy, fern-like foliage is followed by delicate, cup-shaped flowers.  Traditionally found in earthy orange, California poppies also bloom in yellow, red or white in late spring or summer.

Opium poppies (Papaver somniferum) bloom with single or double flowers ranging from white through shades of pink, lilac and dark purple.  Many of the opium poppy blooms have dark blotches at the base.  These are not only hardy, but also self-sow easily.  The seeds are useful in cooking.  Poppy seeds only contain very small amounts of opiates, though even eating poppy seed bagels could cause one to test positive for opiates.

Opium aside, another easy-to-grow poppy that can be planted in early spring is the Shirley poppy (Papaver rhoeas Shirley).   Shirley poppies were created in the 1880s by the Rev. William Wilks, the vicar of Shirley Parish in England.   Shirley poppies bloom with single flowers with a white base in scarlet, pink and white.

Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) has interesting saucer-shaped flowers in shades of blue, rose, pink or white hidden in a mist of lacy foliage. Love-in-a-mist is not only interesting in the garden, but the cut flowers and seed pods make useful dried flowers.

You can sow any of the cold-hardy annuals from late March through May.  Take your cue from the garden: if weeds are popping up, then you can plant hardy annuals.

All annuals grow best in light soils that are not overly fertile.  Light or sandy soils warm up earlier than heavier clay soils.  Seeds sprout or germinate faster in the warmer, lighter soils, and the emerging seedlings have an easier time pushing through sandy soil than clay or muck. Ironically, lots of lush growth and few flowers might mean your soil is too rich.

Dig the soil and rake the surface level.  Remove any weeds.  For flowers or non-row crops such as chard, lettuce and greens, direct sowing can be done by scattering seeds over the surface, a process called broadcasting.  A downside to broadcasting seeds is that you often end up with lots of seed in clumps and no seed in other areas.

Try walking across the garden as you broadcast and then turn and walk at a right angle so you cover the ground in two directions.  You can also plant in individual holes or trenches, often called drills.  These drills or rows will give you neat individual rows.
After your seedlings emerge, they need weeding and constant water.  Don’t let the ground get too dry, but try not to waterlog the seedlings.

Once the seedlings have grown a few weeks, you can water every 10 days during dry spells.  To prolong flowering, remove spent blooms.  If you want the annuals to self-seed, let the seed pods form and release their seeds.

If the early bird gets the worm, the early slugs and snails get the seedlings.  Try handpicking the pests or scatter diatomaceous earth around the garden to discourage pests.

So get out and garden early, because the early bird catcheth the worm.  Although the early worm gets eaten, so it is kind of a mixed message.

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.