The race is on: Early spring, early planting
I’VE been so caught up in the locavore craze, I didn’t plant enough flowers last summer. (If you can’t eat it, why bother?) “You’re not cutting my sunflowers are you?” asked my partner, Rock, last August, when I took a few that had grown by themselves for a vase.
“They’re not yours, they’re volunteers,” I said.
“See if they can start the mower!” he said.
“Ha ha,” I said. (Volunteer means self-seeded plant.) “I must have been dreaming,” he said. “I could swear some woman was rhapsodising about all the amazing sunflowers we were going to have.” (I plant. Rock weeds. And shoots the groundhogs. And fixes the ancient lawnmower.) Before we got vegetable fever, we always planted a field of sunflowers: Lemon Queen, a bright yellow with a dark chocolate centre; Velvet Queen, a mahogany red with a near-black centre; Autumn Beauty, a mix of colours, from gold and orange to dark burgundy.
But last year, all we cared about was lacinato kale, whose blue-green bumpy leaves are so tough some call it dinosaur kale; puntarelle, the Italian chicory that begs to be mashed with anchovies and garlic; and Hakurei turnips, whose smooth white bulbs are at once creamy and hot and sweet.
Then one day the fever broke, and we noticed we had about 10 zinnias. The butterflies were spending the summer with the neighbours, who have a better flower garden than ours.
So this year, I’ve planted sweet peas along the fence I devoted to sugar snaps last year, and I’ve started Autumn Beauty sunflowers and Hot Crayon zinnias in seed flats and set them on my radiant-heated floor to germinate. As soon as they sprout, I’ll move them to the greenhouse to develop into sturdy seedlings.
I usually plant the seeds of tender annuals – sunflowers, zinnias, cosmos, China asters, to name a few – directly in the ground, when things warm up in early May, about the same time the lilacs begin to bloom. But this year, everything is way ahead of time.
The saucer magnolia is in full flower. The crabapples are about to bloom.
That’s why I’m playing it both ways: I’m starting some seeds indoors and, in a few weeks, I’ll start some of the same species in the ground. It’s been so warm, I’ve already moved some of my seed flats outside to harden off, or adjust to outdoor conditions.
And if this heat wave continues, I’ll plant the seedlings as soon as they are a few inches tall. They’ll bloom ahead of the ones I plant as seeds, directly in the ground, so I’ll have successive blooms late into the season.
Sweet peas, like edible peas and broccoli, can survive a late frost. Heatlovers, like zinnias and sunflowers, cannot. But it’s worth the gamble. If a frost wipes them out, I’ll just plant more seeds. If it stays warm, I’ll have summer flowers by late spring.
This is one way climate change invites creativity.
Still, I revel in these warm days with a simultaneous feeling of doom. I saw a bluebird last week and rejoiced. But it was 77 degrees, and I started worrying that the fuzzy nestlings would get too hot in their nesting box.
I worry about my sweet peas, too, which need cool temperatures to grow sturdy vines and climb the trellis. And I long for those chilly March days of yore, when I gardened in a sweater.
These days, the race is on to get the peas planted soon enough so they can do most of their growing before the mercury climbs into the 80s.
In hot climates, like New York City in summer, it’s a good idea to plant sweet peas where they will get morning sun and afternoon shade.
Giving peas and other flowering vines something to climb on is also crucial.
Otherwise, their little tendrils wave around and the young plants fail to flourish. Rock’s trellis is simply three sturdy posts – two uprights connected by a cross-bar – strung with four-inch netting, and sunk about a foot into the ground.
I work in plenty of compost and plant two rows of peas on either side of the fence. The peas are two inches apart, an inch deep. When they come up, I thin them, training the strongest plants up the netting. I’ve also grown sweet peas and Heavenly Blue morning glories in big pots on my kitchen porch, training them up strings.
This year, I chose two fragrant varieties of sweet peas with long stems for cutting: Regal Robe, a deep burgundy and cream, and Cheri Amour, a mix of pink, rose and lavender frilled flowers, from Renee’s Garden Seeds in Felton, Califonia. I can’t wait to see them billowing over the trellis; I imagine carrying armfuls into the house. (The more you cut a flowering annual, the more it will bloom, so make plenty of bouquets, and cut off spent blossoms from those that remain.) Something amazing happens when you bring flowers inside. Who has not put a sunflower in a tall vase, for instance, and felt its happy presence, as if someone else had come into the room? When I lived in Brooklyn and visited this old family farm in Maryland, I would bring back old-fashioned flowers in a bucket, tucked behind the seat of my car. As soon as I put them in a vase in my apartment, the country came back in a rush.
So if you have room to plant some seeds of simple flowers – even in big pots or whiskey barrels on a terrace – they will give you pleasure far beyond the acts of planting, weeding and watering.
A word about cutting: It is best done in the morning, if possible, when flowers are turgid, or full of the sugars and water activated by the sun.
I carry a bucket of lukewarm water with me and place each cut stem in the bucket. If I have time, I let the cut stems sit for a while, before cutting them again, on the diagonal.
(Straight-cut stems will rest flat on the bottom of the vase, preventing water from moving up to the flowers; a diagonal cut keeps the passage open.) My cousin Janice swears that a half-and-half mix of lemon-lime soda and water keeps her flowers fresh; my mother would dissolve an aspirin in the water; others use floral powders. I’ve never run any controlled experiment. But I do know that using lukewarm water, changing it daily and snipping a half inch or so off the flower stems every day will extend their blooms.
As for which varieties to choose, the list is endless. But I prefer simple flowers that haven’t been over-hybridised.
One of my favourites is White Dill (Ammi majus), so-called for the airy blossoms that the herb makes. Green Mist (Ammi visnaga) is the green version; both are available from Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow, Maine.
Johnny’s also has a beautiful China aster (Callistephus chinensis) called Serenade Mix, a collection of semidouble flowers in shades of red, carmine, rose, scarlet, blue, light blue, and white with blue or rose tips, all with a gold-button centre.
Coneflowers (Echinacea) now come in as many colours as wall paint, but some of my favourites are Green Envy, a chartreuse; Magnus Superior, a deep pink; and Happy Star, a startling white. Coneflowers are perennials, so unless you start the seed early in the spring, they may not bloom until next summer. If you’re in a hurry, look for the plants at garden centres or local plant sales.
Other favourites include astrantia; yarrow (especially Paprika, a redorange); cleome, or spider flower; amaranth, or love-lies-bleeding, whose chenille-like tassels come in wine-red, lime-green and bronze; and nigella, or love-in-a-mist (especially the midnight blue variety), whose spidery seed pods are as magical as its starry flowers.
As for my zinnias, I continue to order seeds from Renee Shepherd, the owner of Renee’s Garden Seeds, because her colour mixes are unfailingly good. This year, I’m planting Hot Crayon colours, a mix of scarlet, deep yellow and bright orange; Decor, a combination of peachy-orange and chartreuse; and Berry Basket, a mix of raspberry, grape, dark rose and violet.
Most of my sunflowers are old-time varieties, rich with pollen for the bees and butterflies and other beneficial insects. Seed Savers Exchange and Fedco Seeds offer good selections.
“Pollenless” sunflowers have been bred for people who find nature messy and could care less about the bees, and I’ve shunned them until now. But this year, I couldn’t resist trying a few of Johnny’s Pro Cut series – especially Gold, a big, deep yellow with a chartreuse centre – because they bloom weeks ahead of my old-fashioned beauties.
“But what about the bees?” Rock protested.
OK, so shoot me. I figure any insects who show up from the neighbours’ garden will find plenty of flowers here this summer, most of them bursting with pollen.