The old saying goes as follows: April showers bring May flowers. OK, the month of April has brought us plenty of showers. Now we are all anxious for some May flowers; however, it seems every year when we get our first 75 degree day in early May, many of us are tempted to run to the local garden center to fill our pots and garden beds with summer annuals.
Yet, this is New England, and the chance of another frost before the end of May is pretty darn good, giving us cause to rethink the early planting of summer annuals. My mother, who was an avid gardener, would always tell me to hold off until after Memorial Day weekend to plant my vegetable garden and flower beds.
Not to say that mother doesn’t know best (because, of course she does) but there are actually many annual plants that are available now that prefer the cooler temperatures of early spring, and can tolerate a mild frost.
Start with the strongest and earliest of the spring plantings, the Pansy. Pansies prefer, and in fact thrive in cooler temperatures, and can withstand a mild to moderate frost. Available in a variety of bright colors, the Pansy can bring the first color of spring to your sleeping winter garden. Great for pots, window boxes and flower beds, as they fill out and spread as they mature.
Plant in full sun or partial shade, and remove flowers as they fade for a longer blossom show. However, Pansies that are planted in full sun, will burn out, wilt, or stop blooming when the real heat of summer begins.
Another spring weather lover is Calendula. This bright yellow or golden orange flower loves cool temperatures and are easy to care for in the spring, but will stop blossoming when the hot summer temperatures arrive.
Dianthus, a close relative to the Tewksbury favorite Carnation, will keep their bright blooms all spring, even through a light frost. Once summer temperatures arrive, shear them back about one-third and keep them watered and weeded. Dianthus will reward you for the good care over the summer by reblooming in the fall when cooler temperatures return.
Petunias are often thought of as a summer favorite, but they actually do much better in the cooler temperatures of the spring. Petunias come in a large variety of colors and bloom sizes, but require some attention when the heat of summer arrives. The Petunia is happiest in full sun, but you must keep them well watered and fertilized (water alone is not enough), and cut back dead blossoms to encourage new growth.
The soft silver-tone foliage of Dusty Miller makes a nice contrast in pots and beds with the bright blooms of other cool weather spring favorites. Dusty Miller tends to stay on the short side, growing about 6 to 9 inches, but are almost indestructible. They are disease resistant, can take a hot summer drought as well as a light spring frost. Even deer don’t seem to like to eat them! This little dynamo of a plant likes full sun, but will tolerate part shade, and is forgiving to the forgetful gardener that doesn’t water regularly. With a little love, and very little attention, Dusty Miller will reward you with its silver-blue foliage from May ’til the first hard frost of fall.
Snapdragons always bring to mind a summer’s day, but will often stop blooming during the heat of July and August. Snapdragon comes in many size varieties from dwarf (6 to 9 inches) up to standard that can grow up to two feet tall. They also come in many bright and jewel tone colors that bloom brightly in the early to late spring, and will rebloom in the cooler temperatures of fall.
Sweet Alyssum is small in stature (only 4-6 inches tall) but offer a sea of color by producing thousands of tiny, fragrant blossoms in white, rose or blue. Sweet Alyssum is a quick spreader, great for pots, hangers and beds, and will attract both bees and butterflies to your garden. They like to be planted in full sun and will thrive until the hot temperatures of summer arrive. When the heat turns up, you will need to give them a quick “haircut” to promote new blossom growth.
Osteospermum, also known as African Daisy, produces a single daisy shaped blossom that comes in striking, bold colors. They grow from 1 to 3 feet tall, and will thrive in both full sun and part shade. Osteospermum will bloom constantly in temperatures that are in the 50’s and 60’s, but generally stop blooming when temperatures begin to soar. Not to worry, your African Daisy will rebloom when cooler temps return in autumn.
Geraniums are known as “America’s favorite summer flower” and bring to mind Memorial Day weekend and Forth of July celebrations. You probably didn’t know that the summertime Geranium can tolerate temperatures in the low 40’s. Geraniums are perfect plants for pots, windowboxes, hangers and bordering flower beds.
Available in many colors and bi-colors, and upright and trailing varieties. Give them a full sun spot, remove dead flower heads as needed, and you will have spectacular color from early spring to fall.
If a hard frost is predicted after you have planted your spring favorites, don’t panic. I always keep a few inexpensive vinyl/plastic, reusable tablecloths on hand. They make a perfect cover for young, tender plants when winter temperatures strike back. Simply spread the tablecloths out over your newly planted annuals (soft side down, vinyl side up) the evening or afternoon before the predicted frost arrives. In the morning, remove all coverings from the plants when the spring sunshine allows the temperature to rebound to a more tolerable degree.
With Mother Nature's cooperation, hopefully we can put away our umbrellas long enough to get out our gardening tools. No need to wait until Memorial Day weekend to brighten up your winter-worn yard. There are plenty of “summer” annual varieties ready, willing and able to be planted now!