Annual & Cut Flower Planting Guide
I’ve always grown some flowers, namely zinnias and marigolds, in my garden. Come to think of it, I’ve even grown sweet alyssum and nasturtiums for longer than I’ve given myself credit (thank you old photographs for correcting my lapsed memory). But that was mostly it for flowers for many years, aside from our perennial beds. I grew them, frankly, because that’s what my Mom grew, and she grew them because that’s what her mother and grandmother grew. I think a lot of gardeners can relate to the tradition of growing what your ancestors grew because “that’s what you do”. And the beauty is that many of these flowers are more than just cheery color; they do double or triple duty in the garden attracting beneficial insects and repelling pests, and some even work well as cut flowers, too.
Over the last several years, my desire for a cut flower garden that would also add more nectar for native bees and beneficial insects really tugged at my heart. I felt a duty to the insects to use our space to provide a more robust habitat. Last year, I drastically increased the types of flowers we grow, adding more than a dozen new flowers to our landscape. This year will be a repeat of the same, another expansion deeper into flower territory. And thankfully, almost any flower you choose will have multiple benefits in your garden.
Our planted prairies which are still establishing are the ultimate insectary, and will eventually include many of the perennial host plants that numerous pollinators and beneficials require at some point during their life cycle. Even with this large habitat, I still believe in infusing even more beauty and nectar into our gardens by adding annual flowers, those quick-maturing, flowering plants that add spectacular splashes of color and fragrant scents that delight us in summer. Ideally, you would have both in your yard or garden, perennials and annuals, but at a minimum there are some heavy-hitting, multi-purpose annual flowers I recommend you plant.
To that end, I’ve developed a downloadable PDF to help myself and others get organized when it comes to growing flowers from seed. Why grow flowers from seed? Cost savings and near infinite variety compared to your local garden center. I’ve packed as much knowledge I possibly could into a visual-friendly format like my Sowing Guide for Continuous Harvest. Unlike my veggie guide, this guide is generally not a season extender; I am not going to hoop my tender annual flowers in my garden. Sorry, flower lovers, but I have to maintain sanity where I can find it. The Annual Flower Planting Guide includes a robust key with special germination requirements as well as the benefit each flower possesses in your garden.
In my Annual Flower Planting Guide, I have indicated whether the flower is deer resistant, pollinator friendly, attracts beneficial insects, and if it flowers at night. The flowers that exhibit the most attributes are the ones I outline below as must-grows in every garden. The rest you can pick and choose to your liking. To be honest, this is a compilation of things I grow, new additions I plan to grow this year, and common flowers I’ve been told gardeners grow. For example, I don’t grow stock or china aster. At least, not yet.
I encourage you to grow what you love. There are innumerable flowers and this guide isn’t even close to covering all the beautiful annuals we can grow in our gardens. This guide is not suggesting one flower is superior to another. Pretty much every flower is beneficial to pollinators, and many seem deer resistant. Beneficial insects, when noted, are generally using the flowers in their adult life cycle as nectar sources, which is important because you want them to stay and lay eggs in your garden. I prioritize attracting growing these flowers in my garden, and that list is the shortest and most important one in my opinion.
A note about the deer resistance: I have not grown all of these out, and used Botanical Interests growing guides to determine whether the ones I’m not familiar with are considered deer resistant, and I tried to be conservatively optimistic with that category. As I try and grow many of these outside the deer fence, I will update this guide with any new knowledge I gain. Expect an updated Planting Guide to be published next Winter.
Download my guide here: Planting Guide for Annual Flowers
Top Picks for Annual Flowers
My top picks are flowers that attract pollinators, beneficial insects, and are deer resistant, though not a top pick as a cut flower. These are ones you maybe deadhead (or not!) in your summer gardens, but mostly let them work their magic all summer long; incidentally, most of these are also edible. I don’t have scientific evidence to share, but I’ve anecdotally observed that there’s a relationship between flowers with strong oils/aromatics that we find delicious while those same compounds are unpalatable to deer. I’d call that a win-win for all!
Nasturtiums, Marigolds, & Sweet Alyssum
Grow these, if nothing else. That’s all I have to say about these four powerhouses. They are non-negotiables in our garden because they benefit everyone.
None of these are cut flowers, true, but they are stellar at attracting beneficial insects. For that reason alone, no veggie garden should be without them. If you grow vegetables, add these to your grow list. Pick up sweet alyssum, marigolds, and nasturtiums at the farmers market or local garden center if growing flowers from seed feels too onerous; I am not sure if you can find chamomile at garden centers (cue my preference to grow from seed). Please find some spots and grow them. You will be thrilled with all the insects you see buzzing and flitting about around these flowers come summer.
I grow nasturtiums under the fruit trees and at the edges of rows in the veggie patch. I mix them with marigolds also for a massing of orange flowers and mixed textures during the height of summer. I love to munch the flowers, adding them to an occasional salad, and they are purported to be a trap crop for aphids, luring them here instead of there, which for seasoned gardeners can be a helping hand in our gardens.
I’ll be starting the sweet alyssum even earlier this year as it bloomed quite early last year and was some of the first really great nectar for beneficials; it had syrphid flies on it before the end of May, pretty much the day I saw blossoms I also saw microscopic insects. It’s a great flower that keeps on flowering, too, even after first frost. It’s more of a ground cover than a cut flower, but it is a must grow in a vegetable garden. If you only want one flower amid your veggies because you’re tight for space, this is the one for you.
Marigolds, especially Mexican marigolds, I find a perfect addition to the veggie patch. These compact plants have just the right inflorescence for our beneficial friends. There are so many great varieties of marigolds to grow, but I prefer these smaller flowering varieties like Lemon Gem Marigold from Johnny’s Seeds whose inflorescence is just right for beneficials such as hoverflies.
Calendula, Chamomile, Borage, & Viola
I grew calendula, chamomile, and borage for the first time last year. I am yet to grow violas, and plan to this year, but I am lumping all three into the same “must grow with caveat” category. Here’s why. They are powerhouses for pollinators and beneficials, providing nectar, collectively from early season, but they are also heavy self-seeders. They also happen to be three delicious edible plants that are deer resistant.
I tucked chamomile into my herb bed and under the fruit trees. I am hoping it self seeds this year, but I’m also planning to start more from seed. I found a lot of beneficial insects feeding on this nectar last year, and I also enjoyed harvesting the blossoms to dry for herbal tea. It is, however, a prolific self-seeder so I will be very curious to see where it dropped seeds last summer and where and how many germinate come Spring. However, because we have space in our orchard for self-seeders, I will continue to let them do their thing under the fruit trees, bringing the smiles and the beneficials and warming our winter tea cups.
Borage is a pollinator magnet — and a prolific seed producer. For some, this means instant garden next year, but for me, I take a more cautionary approach with annuals, as my landscape goals are for native seeds to be my self-seeders rather than introduced species. I prefer to place my annual flowers where I want them to grow rather than having to weed or transplant seedlings. This was also true with calendula, which, by the end of the growing season, was sprouting babies in the cracks of our driveway. I am putting these in the must grow because of their benefits, but also with caution that they may become very heavy self-seeders in your garden, especially if you live in a slightly warmer climate than us. I tried to deadhead them as often as possible, which is something that takes away from other more pressing garden chores. I’m hoping this terrible cold snap has degraded some of the seed bed that built up last year.
Cornflower, Lavender, + Lobelia
Having only grown cornflower once in my first boulevard garden, I can’t speak deeply to this one, except that everywhere I look its benefits continue to amaze me. Again, it’s an edible - no surprise there - and I plan to dry some for an herbal tea blend, but it’s also an earlier bloomer which the bees and pollinators need to be drawn into your gardens. I have a feeling it’s another self-seeder, so I am putting this along with other heavy self-seeders in some beds along the driveway adjacent to the garden plot.
And, you are thinking lavender is a perennial. Well, it is in most climates; zone 6 and warmer consider it a perennial, but I’m growing it for the first time this year and it’s definite an annual here, though I may try to overwinter some in pots in our garage. It benefits from cold stratification, and I’ve tucked my seeds in the fridge on a damp paper towel and will sow them February 14. They may take a while to germinate so they are a flower you have to think ahead in order to sow from seed. I purchased this seed in April last year thinking I’d grow it and once I read the requirements I just tucked it away until now. I can’t wait to have some growing on our property.
Top Picks for Butterflies
I couldn’t post an article about flowers without mentioning the monarchs and other wonderful butterflies. I love gardening for the monarchs and I love being a part of their beautifully complex life cycle. It’s an honor to provide them with shelter, food, and nectar here during summer. In addition to four types of milkweed on our property, which is the plant they require during their larval stage, I recommend growing zinnia (Benary’s Giant and Sunbow are two varieties I really love) and Mexican torch sunflower (Tithonia) as monarch magnets. A close runner up is marigolds — at least that’s what I’ve observed in my own garden, but maybe it’s because they are already here so they are just sipping it because it’s here and they’re here.
Top Picks for Cut Flowers
My favorite flower to grow are zinnia. I love both the Profusion, Benary’s Giant, and Sunbow series. In addition to being excellent nectar sources as mentioned above, they make an reliable and long-lasting cut flower. I would be okay with just zinnia bouquets all summer long, in part because that’s all my Mom ever had for cut flowers and I loved it. I tend to cut them and leave them in the garden because of allergies in the family. Then the pollinators and butterflies visit our patio, too.
I also really love globe amaranth, also known as gomphrena. It makes a wonderful massing, the blooms last really long in the garden, and they also make great dried flowers. I was happy to see they were deer resistant in our yard, so now I can go for a larger massing outside the deer fence. It really makes a lovely statement in your garden in a large massing and stays pretty compact so can also be a border plant.
Cosmos, snapdragon, strawflower, and dahlias also make their way into my vases every time I create a bouquet. All lovely additions to the cut flower garden and all easy to grow from seed. Yes, you can grow dahlias from seed; they will grow tubers the first year that you then can dig up and save, or simply start the process over again the next year. I did lift some and stored them in the root cellar, but I’m not sure if they survived. I’ll try potting them up later this winter. The new flowers I am excited to add to my bouquets this year include statice, dara ammi, poppy, and cornflower.
Whatever your garden goals, I hope you find multiple spots to tuck more annual flowers into your landscape, no matter the size. The beauty of my top picks is that they generally don’t grow taller than 18” and can act as green mulch for things like your tomatoes. If someone asks me what to plant, I always recommend zinnia, marigold, sweet alyssum, and nasturtium in and around the garden — then add any other flowers you enjoy growing.