While it might seem untimely, as we are about 6-7 months away from seeing the flowers in this post, it’s an important time of year to begin sourcing seeds for your first round of sowing, for flowers that will be the first to bloom outside of your bulbs, perennials, and tunnel crops. Here, in our little zone 5B pocket, I eagerly start my first trays the second week of February. Occasionally, if I’m unreasonably bored I’ll sow February 1st. Rule of thumb would be 10-12 weeks prior to your last frost date.
I don’t have a heated greenhouse. All of my young plants are propagated in my basement on shelves with fluorescent lights. Our set-up has grown over the years, and I can currently have around 6,000 small plants growing in my basement at one time. Being surrounded by so much life is really nice in the dead of winter, even despite my poor working conditions – the basement is really quite unpleasant, old, moldy, and damp with a ceiling height that barely accommodates my average height, and I still whack my head on the HVAC ducts quite frequently.
You work with what you have.
Seed catalogs are beginning to arrive in the mail, and flipping through them and making lists of old favorites, exciting new arrivals (always must try them all) is my favorite fireside activity. I especially love the gorgeous and informative Johnny’s Seeds catalog, Uprising Seeds, Baker Creek Heirlooms – which is really beautiful enough to be a coffee table book. It’s imperative that you order many more seeds and varieties than you can reasonably fit in your garden – follow your heart, seed is cheap and there are always eager friends in the spring who are happy to take extra plants off your hands.
So here, a list of my favorite February sown, late-spring to early-summer blooming cut flowers.
Foxglove (Digitalis): Recent introductions have given us annual-flowering types that do not disappoint. While I still prefer the height and grace of the biennial foxgloves, these annuals are quite convenient and do the trick quite nicely to fulfill a foxglove fix into late July. My favorite of the annual types is the Dalmatian series, with lovely peach and cream and white that works for basically every early season bridal palette. I also tuck in many biennial types in the fall, Apricot Beauty, Pam’s Choice, Merton, and Polkadot Petra are a few I just can’t live without.
Snapdragon (Antirrhinum): The easiest of all the early season annuals, snapdragons have exploded with a great number of forms and colors that are useful to the farmer-florist realm. There’s not much to complain about here – large, full, sweet-scented blooms grow readily in cool weather, and really start to bloom in the second part of June and early July. They’re perfect for wedding work, make an excellent addition to a market-type bouquet with their long vase life and tendency to continue to bloom after being cut. As with most things, we stick to the more unusual forms and colors, partial to the Madame Butterfly series, but also loving the unique colors offered in the Costa and Potomac series. We love Costa Apricot and Potomac Lavender, especially. These little seeds need nothing more than some moist media and light to germinate and grow into strong plugs for planting out in early April.
Shirley Poppy: It’s really irresponsible for a cut flower farmer to devote so much time and space to growing Shirley poppies, yet I do it anyway. Boasting a vase life of 1-3 days, there is nothing terribly profitable about this selection. However, when the plants get blooming I’m greeted by a new flush of blooms every single morning, and the insanely beautiful color variations and tissue paper petals finish up an arrangement in the most perfect way. For a Saturday wedding, I’ll bring along a small vase of freshly harvested blooms to pop into centerpieces on-site for that finishing touch. My favorite selection of Shirley poppies is the Mother-of-Pearl mix, bred by profound English artist and plantsman, Sir Cedric Morris. I also toss out seeds of Angel’s Choir and Pandora mix, and exciting new isolated colors are becoming available every year, like 2019’s Earl Grey. I don’t bother starting Shirley poppies in plug trays – the seed is like dust and young sprouts can be temperamental in trays, subject to damping off disease even in the best conditions. I plant seed directly in the garden, where they’ll happily grow and bloom into healthy plants.
Pansies: Pansies as cut flowers are having their moment, spurred on by creative designers who are bored (rightfully so) by the monotony of imported product that floods the wholesale flower markets. While their stature can be a bit short, they make up for it in cheerful character. I’ve never had an issue weaving them into compote centerpieces or displaying them in bud vases. They are also edible, and make for perfect pressed flowers for adorning cakes and confections. We grow our pansies in crates, as they are a bit demure and this keeps them from getting smothered by larger, neighboring plants. With a little fertilizer and patience, pansies will amaze you with their beautiful color range and 10+ inch stems.
Delphinium: I’m no delphinium growing expert, but after trialing these beautiful monsters in 2019 I can’t see myself ever living without them. Initially, I was apprehensive to attempt them in the field, as most growers I had seen kept them under the cover of a hoophouse. I was amazed at their ease from seed, and their vigor in the garden. I have no need for Delphinium to be any taller than 3-4 feet, so the slightly shorter stature was of no issue for us. Plus, there was something especially dreamy about those tall, beautifully toned spires out in the garden.
There are many, many more notable selections in this category, so much that it may warrant a part two of this series. But I do hope you are inspired to order a catalog or two, and dive into the amazing world of starting your garden from seed. We will soon be announcing our seed starting and cutting garden classes, for those of you interested in more in-depth instruction on growing a gorgeous garden from seed. Keep an eye on this space.