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The miracle of fall planting.


For sheer quantity of spring-flowering annuals, fall is the best planting season of the year," says Temecula, California, landscape architect and nurseryman Craig Thralls. Though he speaks for Southern California's inland valleys and the Southwest's deserts, where fall really does herald a "spring" of longer duration than elsewhere, most nurserymen throughout the low-elevation West agree: cool-season annuals planted in early fall have time to develop better roots before flowering in winter and spring, and--because they start blooming earlier than comparable plants set out in spring--they bloom over a longer time.

So get out the shovel, prepare your planting beds, and make a shopping list. Now is the time to set the stage in your garden for a grand show of sweet-scented stock, bright yellow pansies, or other dazzling flowers from winter through spring.


Among the many cool-season bedding plants that provide winter and spring flower color are some new ones to look for now: pansies in antique shades such as muted rose and soft gold, sweet alyssum in apricot and mixed pastel shades, and two new petunias (cool season in desert areas) with colorful centers and white edges. The listings below and on page 48 describe 22 colorful plant groups to choose from. Most are annuals--they complete their life cycles in one season; a few are biennials or perennials treated as annuals. Some old favorites as well as some of the newer varieties are available only through catalogs.

In garden beds, you can orchestrate by flower color--mix and match two or three complementary colors, or two contrasting colors, like red and white, for example. Or plant swaths of the same flowering plant around permanent leafy plants.


On page 44, we list approximate planting dates for various regions of the low-elevation West. Close to the coast, you can plant earlier or later with good results. Inland, planting before temperatures drop in mid-October is risky.

If you are sowing seed (of plants such as forget-me-nots) directly in garden beds, do it right away. Seed will use the heat of late summer to germinate, and seedlings will come along just as the temperatures begin to cool.


Cool-season bloomers are available in a variety of containers. The three commonest containers are sixpack or pony pack (48 plants per flat; about 25 cents per plant); jumbo or color pack (36 plants per flat; 50 cents per plant); and 4-inch or quarts (16 plants per flat; $1.40 per plant). Many horticulturists prefer the old-fashioned straight flats (64 plants; about $15 per flat), believing that the roots of these small plants are quickest to establish. But these are difficult to find; sixpacks are the modern equivalent.

In mild climates, the smallest plants are probably your smartest choice, especially if you start with well-prepared soil and a good irrigation system. They bloom longer, and they cost less, too. In hot inland areas, start with the jumbo size; they're more resistant to heat and drought, and require water less frequently than small plants. While 4-inch pots bloom more quickly than sixpack plants, their overall bloom cycle is shorter.

Whatever size you choose, look for plants with strong, actively growing roots, and tops not yet in flower. Plants in the bud-and-bloom stage (few flowers, but many buds) provide the longest cycle of bloom; they have roots that are actively growing, so transplant shock is minimal. Keep in mind that all plants are not available in all sizes.


A day or two before planting, prepare soil thoroughly. Over 100 square feet, spread six to twelve 2-cubic-foot sacks of planting mix, commercial compost, or nitrogen-fortified and composted ground bark. Add to that 2 pounds of a 5-percent nitrogen fertilizer, such as a 5-10-10 (or 1 pound of a 10-percent nitrogen fertilizer). Incorporate the amendment and fertilizer to a depth of 8 to 10 inches, then rake the surface smooth. Water the prepared soil.

Remove plants from containers; if roots have grown into a tight mass, gently ease apart the bottom of the rootball. Space most smaller annuals 8 to 16 inches apart (at this spacing, you'll need about 50 to 100 plants per 100 square feet). Larger plants, such as Canterbury bells and flowering cabbage, need 18 to 24 inches between them (you'll need 25 to 49 plants per 100 square feet).

Plant so the rootball is slightly higher than soil level. Cover it with soil and tamp lightly to firm. Water well.

Keep the newly planted bed moist (not soggy) until roots have taken hold--usually in 10 days to two weeks. Avoid overwatering, which can encourage fungus diseases. A month after planting, begin feeding with liquid fertilizer.


San Francisco Bay Area: mid-September through mid-October

Central Valley: late September through mid-October

Coastal Southern California: October and November

Inland Southern California: mid-October through mid-November

Palm Springs and Phoenix: October through mid-November


For a grand show beginning in winter or early spring

Bachelor's button (Centaurea cyanus)

Upright, from 12 to 30 inches with narrow gray-green leaves and 1- to 1 1/2-inch flowers in blue, pink, red, and white.

How to grow: Prefers light soil. Space transplants adequately to promote branching and minimize powdery mildew. Full sun.

Tips: Good cut flowers. Named varieties give a range of size and form, in single or mixed colors. Tall varieties need staking. Greatest availability is from late fall on.

Calendula (C. officinalis)

Bushy, upright plants 12 to 30 inches. Abundant blooms like double daisies to 4 inches across in white, cream, orange, yellow, and apricot.

How to grow: Easy by direct seeding or from transplants. Full sun.

Tips: Good cut flower. Petals edible. Powdery mildew is a problem in coastal regions.

Canterbury bells (Campanula medium)

Upright 2 1/2 to 4 feet tall with long, loose clusters of 2-inch bell-shaped flowers in blue, pink, purple, and white.

How to grow: Set out nursery transplants (from seed, plant takes six months to flower). Full sun, partial shade inland.

Tips: Excellent plant for mixed borders. Long-lasting cut flowers. Usually needs staking.

Chrysanthemum (C. multicaule, C. paludosum)

Buttery yellow daisies of C. multicaule grow 1 to 1 1/4 inches across on 6-inch stems above mat of green foliage. C. paludosum has 1- to 1 1/2-inch flower heads with white rays and yellow centers on 8- to 10-inch stems; dark green leaves are deeply toothed.

How to grow: Give average water, full sun.

Tips: Plants may live a second year. Excellent for edging, containers, hanging baskets.


Annuals, and biennials and perennials often grown as annuals. Fringed flowers are 1/2 to 1 inch or wider in intense solid colors or in combinations of pink, purple, red, and white on plants 6 to 24 inches tall. Plants bloom from spring or early summer into fall.

How to grow: To ensure spring bloom, start with nursery transplants. Give full sun and light, fast-draining soil. Don't overwater.

Tips: Compact types are excellent for edging. Taller varieties make good cut flowers. Wee Willie sweet William (D. barbatus) grows to 6 inches, and Summer Beauty to 12 inches. Common D. chinensis hybrids are the Princess series (10 to 12 inches) and the Telstar strain (6 to 8 inches).

English daisy (Bellis perennis)

Perennials often treated as annuals. Pink, rose, red, or white double flowers 1 to 3 inches across bloom on 4- to 8-inch stems above rosettes of bright green leaves. Blooms from fall into spring, with fewer flowers in coldest months.

How to grow: Give good soil, much moisture, light shade inland, full sun near coast.

Tips: Good edging or bedding plant. Combines well with bulbs.

Flowering cabbage and kale (Brassica)

Grown for their colorful leaf rosettes. Some turn bright purple or rose with onset of cold weather (best color develops below 40 |degrees~); others are marked with white or cream. Cabbages are 8 to 12 inches tall with wavy leaves; kales may be compact and fringed or grow to 18 inches and be deeply serrated.

How to grow: Full sun. Control cabbage worm with Bacillus thuringiensis.

Tips: Many types available from specialty seed catalogs. More showing up in nurseries. Remove when plants bolt in mid- to late winter.

Forget-me-not (Myosotis sylvatica, often sold as M. alpestris)

Tiny blue, carmine, or white flowers cover upper portion of 6- to 12-inch stems; leaves are soft, hairy. Bloom begins in late winter, early spring.

How to grow: Easily sown in place. Needs moist soil, partial shade.

Tips: Blues combine nicely with a warmer color such as coral, orange, or yellow. Attractive interplanted with bulbs. Plants self-sow and may become weedy when conditions are right.

Globe candytuft (Iberis umbellata)

Bushy, free-blooming plants 6 to 15 inches high (depending on variety), with flattened globes of tiny flowers. Lance-shaped leaves to 3 1/2 inches long. Available in pastels (pink, rose, lilac, salmon, white), or intense shades of red and purple.

How to grow: Sow seed now or set out plants in late winter (plants are scarce in fall). Plants are heat sensitive and will stop blooming in hot weather, or if soil dries. Sun, partial shade inland.

Tips: Sow seed where quick color is needed. Good for edging, in rock gardens.

Larkspur (Consolida ambigua)

Upright branching plants 1 to 5 feet tall (depending on variety), with ferny foliage and dramatic bloom spikes. Delphinium-like 1- to 1 1/2-inch flowers in white, blue, lilac, pink, salmon, and carmine. Peak bloom in spring.

How to grow: Sow seed where plants are to grow or set out transplants. Chill seed for one week before planting. Best in fertile, well-drained soil. Partial shade.

Tips: Large (4- to 5-foot) strains such as Giant Imperial and Regal are good for middle and back of border.

Nemesia (N. strumosa)

Small (3/4-inch) flowers in clusters 3 to 4 inches long and snap-dragon shapes. Colors vary from bright jewel tones to soft pastels, including some bicolors. Plants from 7 to 18 inches.

How to grow: Frost tender away from coastal areas. Cut back after first flush of bloom. Full sun.

Tips: Carnival and Funfair have intense colors. Tapestry combines pastels and deeper colors. 'National Ensign' is a red-and-white bicolor.

Pansy, viola (Viola)

Pansies and violas (V. cornuta) come in many different color variations from plain to blotched. Pansies have large flowers 2 to 4 inches across; violas are about 1 1/2 inches. Johnny-jump-ups (V. tricolor) are small (3/4-inch), normally purple and yellow bicolors. Plants grow to 8 inches.

How to grow: Pinch leggy plants to encourage new growth. Plants last longer in spring if protected from hottest sun. Full sun or part shade.

Tips: New colors and types introduced annually. Imperial strain Antique shades look like watercolors (plant closer together than normal); 'Pink Shades' opens plum and fades to light pink and white. Princess violas come in single colors and are very floriferous.


Plant in fall only in mild desert climates. Funnel-shaped flowers come in many solid and bicolors, singles and doubles. Plants are compact or trailing.

How to grow: Pinch back when young to encourage bushiness. Full sun.

Tips: Many new colors introduced every year. Two new picotee types--Frost and Hulahoop--have colorful centers and white edges.

Annual phlox (P. drummondii)

Cool-season annual in Southern California and the desert, summer annual elsewhere. Dense clusters of 1-inch-wide flowers form on top of erect, leafy stems 4 to 20 inches tall. Many bright and pastel flower colors, some with contrasting eyes.

How to grow: Plant in rich soil, full sun.

Tips: Newer types (Fantasy Mixed, Promise Pink) are compact, bushy, and covered with blooms.

Poppy (Papaver)

Iceland poppy (P. nudicaule) is a perennial commonly grown as an annual. Three-inch crepe-papery flowers bloom on slender, hairy 1- to 2-foot stems. Slightly fragrant flowers in cream, yellow, orange, and pink. Long bloom season when flowers are picked frequently. Shirley poppy (P. rhoeas) is an annual with 2- to 5-foot slender, hairy stems. Flowers are 2 inches or more across with translucent petals in shades of red, pink, white, orange, and bicolors.

How to grow: Set out plants of Iceland poppy. Shirley poppy is best sown in place; you can start with transplants (available starting in late fall). Need good drainage, full sun.

Tips: 'Legion of Honor' Shirley poppy has scarlet flowers with black bases; Mother of Pearl yields smoky pastel shades. All are good cut flowers; sear cut stem ends in flame before placing in water.

Poor man's orchid (Schizanthus pinnatus)

Also known as butterfly flower. Lilac, pink, purple, rose, salmon, and white orchidlike flowers are produced in profusion on 6- to 15-inch-tall stems. Ferny foliage is bright green.

How to grow: Plants are sensitive to frost and heat (best on coast). If starting from seed, sow about four weeks before planting time (germination is slow). Filtered shade.

Tips: Star Parade grows 6 to 9 inches tall; Angel Wings and Disco grow 12 to 15 inches.


Primrose (Primula)

English primrose (P. polyantha) has strappy leaves and clusters of brightly colored flowers atop 3- to 12-inch stems. P. obconica has roundish, hairy leaves and large clusters of 1 1/2- to 2-inch flowers on 10- to 12-inch stalks. Fairy primrose (P. malacoides) has lobed leaves and lacy flower whorls on stems 12 to 15 inches tall. Colors include lavender, pink, red, rose, and white.

How to grow: Full sun or part shade in coastal fog belt, part shade inland. In cooler areas, English primrose and P. obconica can be kept as perennials.

Tips: New Cantata series of P. obconica comes in apricot, blue, carmine, lavender, pink, red, rose, and white. Acaulis types of English primrose (Pageant, Prominent) bloom close to the leaves; Polyanthus types (Pacific Giants) have longer flower stems. Julian types are miniature English primroses.

Snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus)

Many colors and several forms. Standard one has upper and lower jaws. Newer types include bell-shaped and azalea-shaped (double bell-shaped) flowers. Heights range from 6- to 8-inch dwarfs to 3-foot-tall varieties that are good for cutting.

How to grow: Plants bloom in winter if buds form before night temperatures drop below 50 |degrees~. To reduce chance of rust, do not water overhead. Full sun.

Tips: Bright Butterflies and Little Darling strains have bell-shaped flowers. Madame Butterfly is an azalea type. Tahiti is a dwarf that blooms in winter when planted in fall (Floral Carpet won't bloom until spring).

Stock (Matthiola)

Old-fashioned plants with clusters of single or double 1-inch flowers in cream, pink, lavender, purple, red, and white. Flowers form on 1- to 3-foot spikes; tall ones are good for cutting. They have a spicy-sweet fragrance.

How to grow: Plant early so buds form before nights turn chilly; otherwise bloom is late. Full sun.

Tips: Plant column (tall) types for cut flowers; use dwarf types in the front border. Yellow and white Cheerful types produce fully double blooms on 2-foot plants.

Sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima)

Trailing, low-growing plants (to 6 inches) have tiny but profuse fragrant flowers in dense clusters. Commonly available in white, pink, or purple.

How to grow: Plant in fall in Sunset zones 10 through 24. Easy, blooms from seed in six weeks. Grows in almost any soil. For fresh flowers, shear after four weeks of bloom. Sun or light shade.

Tips: Useful for bulb cover, edging for beds and borders, and in containers. Plant self-sows. New colors include Apricot Shades and Easter Bonnet (mixed pastels). Flowers attract bees.

Sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus)

Intensely fragrant flowers on vines 4 inches to 8 feet tall. Dozens of varieties available in shades of blue, pink, purple, salmon, red, white, cream, and bicolors. Magnificent flowers for bouquets.

How to grow: Best when planted from seed. For winter bloom in mildest areas, sow in August or early September (mid- to late September inland). Soak seed for a few hours before planting. Provide trellis or strings for vining types. Full sun.

Tips: Early Multiflora and Early Mammoth have strong flower stems and are early blooming. Old Spice has smaller flowers, but they are very fragrant and somewhat heat resistant. Knee-Hi, a bush type that doesn't require staking, has flowers with long, strong stems.

Toadflax (Linaria)

Delicate-looking flowers in pastel and bright colors and snapdragon shapes form along upright stems. Narrow leaves are medium green.

How to grow: Easy from seed. Plant in masses; individual plants are wispy. Full sun or light shade.

Tips: L. maroccana Fairy Bouquet is 9 to 12 inches tall with 1/2-inch pastel flowers. Northern Lights has bright, dainty flowers and grows to 24 inches. L. reticulata flowers are maroon and gold with yellow throats.


We asked professional garden makers around the West how they choose and use cool-season flowering plants. Here's what they said.

Dynamite flower combinations

"For a soft watercolor look, I combine pink-leafed flowering kale ('Red Peacock') with gray-green-leafed Giant Imperial stock and pale pink 'Imperial Frosty Rose' pansies. The gray-greens and pinks are complementary; they're gorgeous."

Cristin Fusano, horticulturist, Roger's Gardens, Corona Del Mar

"One of our favorite combinations is 'Easter Bonnet Mix' alyssum with fairy primroses. The white, pink, violet, and lavender alyssum blends in a most remarkable way with the similarly colored primroses."

Karen Hedges, superintendent of landscaping, Disneyland

"When designing a bed, I always think in terms of skeleton, tendon, and flesh. The skeleton is dominant in color, texture, or form and makes up 10 to 20 percent of the bed. The tendon (also 10 to 20 percent) connects the skeleton. And the flesh fills in with complementary or contrasting colors.

"I like to mix bulbs or biennials with annuals, so the skeleton might consist of foxglove placed on the points of an unequal-sided triangle. The tendon, connecting these points in weaving lines, could be sweet William. And the flesh or filler might be a wine purple viola such as 'Jersey Gem'. Another handsome combination is hot pink ranunculus as the skeleton, soft salmon Iceland poppies as the tendon, and wine purple violas and pansies as the flesh. For added spirit, you can add what I call sparkle (5 percent) of yellow and pink primroses."

Peter Lassig, manager, Grounds Services, LDS Church, Salt Lake City

"One of our most popular combinations is forget-me-nots planted with tulips such as 'Angelique'. We set out transplants at the same time we plant bulbs in October."

Lucy Tolmach, garden superintendent, Filoli Estate, Woodside, California

The most workable flower colors

"Pink is one of the most workable colors in the garden. It forgives and does not assault itself; it's polite and demure with a bit of raciness. On the other hand, orange and yellow are not forgiving and are easy to overdo, but they add a nice surprise. Red is also difficult to work with. Always surround it by green, which is its complementary color."

P. L.

"It's best to avoid monochromatic colors; they lack spirit and are more difficult to achieve. It's much safer to do a rainbow effect or use a dominant color that sparkles with complementary or contrasting colors."

Planting garden beds

"When planting small gardens or beds, 10 square feet or less, it's best to stick to just two or three colors. I combine all light colors, or all deep colors, so the planting doesn't look too busy."

P. L.

"At Disneyland, we plant mostly color packs that are in bud and starting to show color. In our experience, these plants have the most vigor and longest blooming cycle. We also use lots of 4-inch and larger plants for instant color and to replace dead or damaged plants."

K. H.

"We have the best luck with larkspur if we just toss the seeds over prepared soil, irrigate when necessary, and then don't disturb them. Larkspur doesn't seem to like root disturbance and lacks vigor if we try to sow it in containers and then transplant."

L. T.

The most useful fall annuals

"Some of the old-fashioned garden varieties are still the best performers. They may not give you instant color, but their flowers seem to hang on forever, and they're excellent for cutting. I recommend the tall Rocket snapdragons, Giant Imperial stock, and Giant Imperial larkspur."

C. F.

"The best cut flowers are Iceland poppies, larkspur, snapdragons, and stock."

C. F.

"Iceland poppies and pansies bloom the longest in the garden--if they're planted in fall."

C. F.

"To fill space nicely, I choose Johnny-jump-ups because they form fat little mounds of foliage with flowers popping up on top."

C. F.

"Primroses are wonderful for winter color. The old-fashioned polyantha types with bigger leaves and long flower stalks are more graceful and interesting. They're also great in containers."

L. T.
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Title Annotation:includes related articles
Author:MacCaskey, Michael; Ocone, Lynn; Swezey, Lauren Bonar
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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