Day after day, from summer to autumn, the most beautiful and fascinating parts of my garden are the flower beds. That’s where one wave of colour follows another, bees and butterflies vie for positions on nectar-bearing blossoms, and I get to experiment with annuals that are new to me and the insects, just for fun.
If you are getting started with flowers, be advised from the beginning that every species will need help claiming its space. If you cast handfuls of flower seeds on open soil, you will get lots of weeds and a few flowers. But by following my hard-learned tips below, presented in seasonal order, you really can expect success in your first year.
1. Choose a Promising Site
You don’t need a huge bed to play with flowers, and I have found that two or three small flower gardens are more manageable than one large one. The sites need to be easy to reach for planting, weeding, mulching and watering. My front garden is now host to a pollinator bed, as is the front edge of the vegetable garden. I tried using a rocky slope for flowers, but I could not keep it weeded.
Trial and error, you know?
2. Sow Some Hardy Annuals
You need not dig up your beds right away, but do prepare a spot of open space to sow larkspur and poppies, which defy transplanting and must be direct-sown. Six weeks after sowing, cover the planted area with horticultural fleece or clear plastic to speed emergence of the little seedlings.
3. Winter Sow Seeds in Bottles
Several perennial and biennial flowers can be started from seed now using winter sowing techniques that trick the seeds into thinking they have endured an entire winter. Winter sowing is a good way to grow baptisia, echinacea, forget-me-not (myosotis), hollyhocks, and red campion (lychnis).
4. Create a Design
You can be endlessly creative here, but I get the best results by combining perennials with annuals. By leaving big gaps between deer-resistant perennials (agastache, asters, catmint, coneflower, monarda, and valerian), I have plenty of space to play with heavy-blooming annuals like cornflower and single-flowered calendulas, marigolds or zinnias. Change your design from year to year to experiment with new colours and forms.
5. Prepare for Perennials
As the weather warms and the soil dries, start preparing spaces for perennials. You can cover the ground with a thick mulch of newspapers or cardboard, or use other no-dig methods when preparing to plant native species, which often do best in minimally disturbed soil.
6. Share and Share Alike
Every locale has a few perennials that are so well-adapted that they are widely grown and easy to obtain by networking with local gardeners. Where I live, this is the case with the single Korean chrysanthemum shown above, which keeps blooming after autumn frosts, and a lovely blue agastache that started in one local garden and now grows in ten. With all clump-forming perennials, spring is the best time to share plant divisions among friends and neighbours.
7. Pursue Blues
The colour blue goes with everything, so bits of blue or lavender are always welcome in a flower garden. Cool-season annuals including blue cornflower, blue clary sage, phacelia and Chinese forget-me-not are well worth the trouble of starting indoors in later winter. Among perennials, agastache, baptisia, catmint and many species of salvia bloom blue and attract pollinators in droves.
8. Watch for Pollinator Favourites
Pollinators are constantly on patrol for nectar-bearing plants, and they may surprise you when they find a favourite. Make a habit of watching to see which flowers are visited by bees and butterflies, and which ones are ignored.
9. Assist Reseeders
Some flowers will reappear for several seasons with a little help, and it’s incredibly convenient to be able to dig and transplant seedlings of calendula, cosmos, Johnny jump-ups (violas), marigold, sunflowers or zinnias that appear in your own garden.
10. Keep Trying New Things
This is perhaps the best part of getting started with flowers, because there are so many species to try. Last year I grew three new-to-me species, and was blown away by the beauty, resilience, and insect interest shown in scarlet flax (Linum grandiflorum). With flowers, every season is a new adventure.