Growing Annuals from Seed
by Don Janssen, Extension Educator
In these times of quick oil changes and fast food, many people turn to flowering bedding plants for instant color in the garden. But there's a certain satisfaction to be had from growing annuals from seed. It takes a little patience, but the results can be impressive and highly satisfying.
A packet of seed also costs considerably less than a flat of annuals and may cover more area if you thin plants and transplant them when they're big enough to handle.
The key to the whole process is picking annuals that are quick to grow and flower from seed. Here are some suggestions:
Sweet peas. Like garden peas, they can be planted outdoors as soon as the soil is dry enough to work. Climbing and bush-type plants are available, and flowers range from white to shades of pink, rose, lavender and red. Many are highly fragrant. Look for varieties said to have good heat resistance - they'll last longer into the summer.
Sunflowers. A degree of frost tolerance when plants are young means you can sow seeds before the frost-free date. The number of varieties and flower colors increases each year, and plants range from dwarf (less than 15 inches tall) to giant (10 feet or more). Children love to plant sunflowers because their large seeds are easy to handle and quick to germinate. As their name implies, sunflowers do best in full sun, and they tolerate heat and drought.
Nasturtiums. A dry spot with poor soil ceases to be a problem area when you plant it to nasturtiums. Bush, climbing and trailing varieties are available, and all thrive in full sun and grow like weeds on poor soil. Too-rich soil or over-fertilization will produce lush plants but few of the vibrant yellow, orange or scarlet flowers. Both flowers and leaves are edible.
Portulaca. This is another plant for hot, dry areas. This succulent, low-growing plant bears roselike flowers in a wide range of mostly pastel colors. It spreads rapidly and makes an excellent ground cover in beds, window boxes, rock gardens or sunny borders.
Marigolds. No list of easy annuals from seed could fail to include marigolds. They're among the quickest annuals to grow from seed to bloom - some take only five to six weeks. And they generally keep growing and flowering all summer. Plant seeds in a sunny spot after the danger of frost is past. Choose from giant-flowered American marigolds - 6-inch blossoms on 3 ½ -foot plants; 8-inch plants with less than 2-inch flowers, and a wide range of sizes in between for every garden use from borders to background plants. Colors are yellow, gold, orange and red, with some bicolors, as well as ivory white. Marigolds need full sun.
Zinnias. Like marigolds, zinnias come in a wide range of heights and flower sizes, but the range of colors is much greater - about any color you might want except blue, including bicolors. They bloom starting about midsummer from seed sown after the danger of frost is past, and they continue to bloom until killed by frost. In beds or containers, for borders or cutting, all they ask is a spot with full sun. If planted in shade or crowded too close together, they may develop powdery mildew.
Four o'clocks. Trumpet-shaped blossoms that open about 4 p.m. give these old-fashioned flowers their popular name. The mound-shaped plants grow to about 2 ½ feet tall and bear flowers in white and shades of pink, salmon, yellow, red and rose. Flowers are often striped and mottled. Sow seeds in a sunny or partially shaded area after the danger of frost is past.
Nicotiana. The tubular flowers of nicotiana have star-shaped trumpets and nectar that attracts many night-flying hawk moths. Flower colors range from white and lime green to pink, dark red and yellow, and plants range in height from 16 inches for dwarf cultivars to 30 inches for standard varieties. Sow in full sun or partial shade. Plants are disease resistant and tend to reseed themselves and so come up year after year without replanting.
Cosmos. These delicate-looking plants may reach 3 to 4 feet in height, so they make great background plants for shorter flowers. Dwarf varieties - 12 to 14 inches - are also available. Sow seed into a sunny spot in the garden after the danger of frost is past and thin seedlings to 12 inches. The daisy-like flowers may be white, shades of yellow, orange and gold, or pink, lavender, scarlet and dark red.
Hollyhocks. Though hollyhocks are a biennial, they're easy to grow from seed. Most varieties are tall - 2 to 4 ½ feet - so they're often used as background plants in beds or borders or grown in front of evergreens, walls or fences. Many varieties bloom the first year from seed. If not, count on them to produce in the second year spikes or flowers in a wide range of color, from white to black, pink, maroon and yellow. Sow seed after the soil warms in the spring and thin to 12 inches.
For success with these and other seed-grown annuals, prepare the soil ahead of time by spading or tilling. Plant in sites with appropriate light and moisture conditions, and follow seed packet directions for proper planting time, seeding depth and spacing. Control weeds and water as needed to get seedlings well established.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension in Lancaster County is your on-line yard and garden educational resource. The information on this Web site is valid for residents of southeastern Nebraska. It may or may not apply in your area. If you live outside southeastern Nebraska, visit your local Extension office