What to plant this fall (for spring flowers)

Here’s what to plant this fall for beautiful and abundant cut flowers next spring.

One of the hardest things for me to figure out when I began growing cut flowers for my “real job” was how and what to plant in the fall for the earliest possible spring blooms, the group of flowers called “hardy annuals.” Most of us are familiar with the flowers like zinnias and sunflowers that grow during the hot months, but we know less about the flowers that actually prefer to grow while the temperatures outside are cool. This group of flowers, when planted in the fall, will sprout and put on some foliage, then just “hang out” all winter. I know, it seems crazy. As soon as spring temperatures are ideal, they will rapidly put on more growth and foliage and bloom early in the spring. Hence the name “hardy” annual.

I still have much to learn, but I thought I’d share what I’ve had success with, what I’m currently experimenting with and a few tips I’ve learned along the way.

Start with bed preparation

You don’t need much room. Even a 4 foot by 10 foot area–or a raised garden box–is enough. Since many of these flowers will produce more heavily the more you cut them, a small space can continually produce plenty of flowers to bring inside. A ten foot bed will give you at least a large bouquet of flowers every week. (Remember that a flower’s job is to attract pollinators and then go to seed. Cutting flowers signals the plant to produce more flowers, trying to produce seed). Here is how to prepare:

  1. Remove any grass and weeds.
  2. Amend with compost and work into the soil.
  3. Figure out how you will water it.

Find a good mix of flowers

This means 2 things:

  1. Make sure you have a mix of spike (upright) flowers, round or focal flowers and several types of foliage. This not only makes your cutting garden look nice, but it also gives you well-rounded options for bringing those flowers inside your home for spring.
  2. Find a good place to purchase seeds. Johnny Seeds is my top recommendation for not only variety, but also for the best information and tips to successfully grow. I also love purchasing a few goodies from Floret.

Flowers to direct-seed:

Simply drag a garden tool or your hand across freshly turned soil to create a small indentation. Drop seeds in at the recommended spacing (in a small space, I tend to over seed), then cover with soil and keep damp until they sprout. A good rule of thumb is to plant the seed the same depth as the seed size. Here are my go-to direct-seed flowers:

  1. larkspur – spikes of lavender, white, pink or blue. Harvest when the bottom flowers have opened, but the top of the flower is still budded. Place the seeds in the freezer for 1-2 weeks before seeding. These also dry well.
  2. nigella – aka love-in-a-mist. My favorites are green pod and black pod. Both have a white flower, surrounded in a misty green foliage that are surprisingly tough and even last out of water, but it is the seed pod that I love. (Anything that has both a great flower and seed pod is a win and a must-grow!). The delft blue and mixes are also nice.
  3. bachelor buttons – aka centaurea or cornflower. The bright blue (‘Tall boy’) is usually a crowd favorite. These also dry nicely.
  4. bells of Ireland – this one can be tricky to germinate; however, I didn’t know that when I first tried it and have had great success. The trick is to pop these in the freezer for about a week before seeding and over seed fairly heavily... This is one of my personal favorite spring flowers. Another candidate for drying.
  5. other great options (or ones to add down the road): corn cockle; ammi and dara (false Queen Anne’s lace); bupleurum; orlaya (white lace flower); Iceland poppies (I’ve bought transplants for these in the past but plan to try direct seeding this season); feverfew (matricaria). I’m going to try to direct seed some cerinthe this year as well.

Additional flowers for fall planting:

I’m not going to go into detail about seed starting here. Honestly, this is an area I’m still figuring out. My current system includes heat mats in my dining room and grow lights over metal shelves in our barn. Here is a good resource for starting seeds from Floret Flowers. I also buy transplants, or plugs of some of these:

  • snapdragons
  • canterbury bells
  • delphinium
  • foxglove
  • lisianthus
  • godetia
  • monarda / bee balm
  • black-eyed susans
  • scabiosa / pincushion flower
  • statice
  • yarrow
  • sweet peas

bulbs to fall plant:

There are so many great bulbs to choose from, but two of the very easiest to grow are daffodils (narcissus) and iris. While these may seem old-fashioned (I remember my grandmother growing both), they are very hardy in the garden and will continue to pump out blooms year after year. My favorite daffodils are:

  • erlicheer (white fluffy blooms, one of the first to bloom)
  • geranium (super hardy, typical orange center, smell amazing)
  • Sir Winston Churchill (double white with gold-orange center)
  • cheerfulness (as the name implies, cheerful)
  • apricot whirl (full centers of apricot petals)

Ranunculus have also become a spring staple and a flower that I thoroughly love growing. I plant them in the fall under a low tunnel. My top picks are gigi white and any salmon or champagne mix. If you love red, then la Belle chocolate are an excellent performer. This year I’m adding butterfly ranunculus to my line-up and I’m so excited!

I can’t leave out another favorite corm. Anemones. The classic black and white and “green” are both some of my most-loved flowers.

I’d love to hear what you are planting this fall! Happy planting!




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