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How to Plant an Annuals Garden

Increasing Annuals

The beauty of your annuals garden doesn't necessarily have to end when the growing season is over. You can look forward to new growth by collecting seeds and taking stem cuttings. Here's how:

Collecting Seeds

How legitimate is the impulse to collect your own seeds? Will these seeds germinate? If they do, will the resulting plants look exactly like or differ greatly from the parent plant? How much and what kind of care do collected seeds require?

Picking and planting seeds you collect from sunflowers can result in this beautiful flower.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
Picking and planting seeds you collect
from sunflowers can result in
this beautiful flower.

The results from collecting your own seeds will vary widely. Seeds from pure species, or nonhybrid plants, produce
plants very similar to the parent plant. Flower color may vary more if there was cross-pollination between the parent plant and other nearby plants of the same kind but of different colors.

For example, if you pick a seedpod from a deep purple foxglove but there are white foxgloves nearby, some of the resulting seedlings will have white flowers and some will have purple ones.

Least successful are seeds collected from hybrid plants. These are varieties developed by people who deliberately cross-pollinate specific parents. Seedlings from these plants will revert back; they'll look like their respective "grandparents" rather than the hybrid parent plant.

Annuals generally produce seeds abundantly -- one or two seed heads are likely to provide enough plants for the average home garden. And the germination rate is usually very high if the seeds are planted within a year. So there is a good chance of success with collecting your own seeds.

Here's what you need to know before you start: Seedpods vary in design. Some are challenging to collect because they fling or spill the seeds out when they're ripe. Other pod types hold the seeds or sprinkle or spill them out a few at a time. Some retain their seeds tenaciously. These seed heads can be allowed to mature undisturbed, then harvested when ready.

Watch the pods as they develop. They will often turn from green to tan as the seeds become ripe. Seeds are not viable unless they are fully formed. If the seedpods tend to open or even explode when ripe, slip a net of cheesecloth or a bit of old panty hose over them to trap the seeds. Never use plastic bags for this purpose, as destructive molds will develop. Store them in labeled envelopes for planting the next year.

After harvesting, separate the seeds from the pods and spread them out in a dry place away from the sun. Allow them to dry out for a couple of weeks. Then store in airtight containers in a cool, dry place until planting time. Seeds stored in the refrigerator may retain a high germination rate even when planted several years later.

Collecting and growing your own seeds can be fun, especially if you like an informal mixed garden. But when you want a particular plant of a certain color in a specific location, the only sure way to get it is by buying seeds or bedding plants of the proper variety from a reputable dealer.

Self-Sown Annuals

In informal gardens, plant nonhybrid annuals that may return from self-sown seeds allowed to mature and fall to the ground. Suitable annuals include the heirlooms love-lies-bleeding, love-in-a-mist, kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate, and cornflowers; wildflowers such as California poppies and verbenas; and open-pollinated annuals such as snapdragons, portulaca, cockscomb, and spider flowers.

Some seedpods spray seeds when they're ripe. To catch these seeds, attach a small paper bag over the seed head.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
Some seedpods spray seeds when they're ripe. To catch these seeds,
attach a small paper bag over the seed head.

Stem Cuttings

Take stem cuttings of tender flowers in late summer before temperatures drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. You can root them indoors and enjoy their greenery and perhaps a few flowers during winter. Then you can take more cuttings of these plants to set out next spring. Cuttings are more compact and versatile than old garden plants dug up and squeezed into a pot. They can thrive with less effort and space.

Fresh-cut annual stems may root if you put them in a vase of clean water. But stems can root more reliably in a sterile, peat-based mix.

Have flowers blooming in sunny windows during fall and winter by starting new seedlings outdoors in pots in mid- to late summer. Bring them indoors several weeks before the first autumn frost. They will begin to bloom as frost arrives, perfect for brightening the autumn transition period. This works well with French marigolds, pansies, petunias, nasturtiums, violas, impatiens, compact cockscomb, and annual asters. Simply discard the plants later when they get ratty looking.

Check out the next section for helpful suggestions on preparing your annuals for next year.