(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on February 5, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Come spring, the first thing most people I know do is grab the handy spade and flip over the soil. The next thing they do is go to a garden centre and buy a hundred annuals to fill in the empty spaces. I will tell anybody who will listen that this is a waste of both time and money. Granted, there may be the odd new and wonderful annual that you have never had, that's fine and dandy, go ahead. But if you had annuals in the garden the previous year, they're still there, waiting. Yup, it's true. Just waiting, for the warmth of the spring sun to bring them to life.
I'm always excited come spring, waiting for the first perennials to pop through the soil. I busy myself with them, but I am waiting for another breakthrough. Hundreds of self-sown seeds from the previous year's annuals. I know they'll be there, I stopped deadheading just a couple of weeks before first frost in anticipation of this very moment. Even took a few special dead heads and plopped them in different places here and there, knowing just what would happen come spring.
Now spring is here and I'm reaping my reward for being patient and ignoring the spade in the shed. Hundreds of annual seeds are popping up, just waiting to be moved, or left where they are in nice little clumps. The Cleome, Nicotiana, Cosmos, Candytuft, Larkspur, Calendula, Poppies, Sweet Alyssum, Love-in-a-Mist (Nigella), Petunias, yes, even Petunias!! These all come back readily, every spring, in my gardens. No fuss, no muss, my kind of gardening. I wait until they are a couple of inches tall, then start moving them freely. A kitchen teaspoon works really well for this task, dig up a little clump, or a single plant if you have to, and set it right back down, they have no idea they have even been moved. An overcast, drizzly day is a good time for this.
I have experimented too. One year I bought a six pack of annuals. Planted them along side my volunteer seedlings. The volunteers out grew the store bought ones. They didn't have to go through the set-back of being taken from greenhouse conditions and plopped in a garden.
Granted, you will not get an instant show of flowers such as can be had from buying nursery-grown annuals, but, if you have a well-established perennial bed, you shouldn't need it. Annuals, in my opinion, are meant to take over later in the season when early blooming perennials are almost finished.
The Nicotiana picture on the left is an example. Yes, that patch self sowed itself, right where it was needed. I left that patch there to hide the Lupines that were cut back after flowering. Their scent at dusk is intoxicating and they are right at the edge of the garden, near the sidewalk. People walking by at night can be heard breathing deeply.
During the summer, as I am wandering around, enjoying the gardens, I pay attention to any spot that might need a little "lift" the following year. This is where it gets fun. I take a few seedheads off of an annual and scatter them in that spot, knowing full well that next summer, there they will be. Like those Nicotiana, or the Larkspur I scattered last fall, all around a clump of Queen of the Prairie (Filipendula rubra), because I noticed that area lacking once the Queen was cut back. I scattered some Cosmos seeds all through a big patch of Rose Campion too. Rose Campion will bloom sporadically most of the summer if deadheaded, but I got to thinking that a nice little patch of Cosmos would fit in there nicely and the Campions would help hold them up. Getting the idea? I have a few clumps of early blooming daylilies, once they are done, there isn't much left to look at. I solved that problem by relocating some Cleome seeds I had in the deadhead pail I carry around. Next year, when those daylilies are finished, the Cleome will step right up and do their job nicely.
I scatter Poppy seeds everywhere, and Calendula seeds go wherever there is a patch of Tulips or Daffodils. Candytuft get scattered at the base of Clematis vines to help shade their roots from the sun. I'll scatter annual seeds in an empty place where I have dug out a perennial to move, for one reason or another, and haven't found that perfect replacement yet. Try it next summer, while you are roaming your gardens enjoying the beauty, scatter some annual seeds!!!
So, please, this spring, think twice about grabbing that spade. Wait a couple or three weeks and see what pops up. You may be surprised!!
Many thanks to wallaby1 for making a spade "glamorous", and to fleurone for making my Nicotiana photo presentable, and to Sarahskeeper for the beautiful Cleome shot. The Cosmos photo is one of mine........