Seeds: The Benefits of Annuals


Whether you’re a frugal gardener, a lover of bees and butterflies, a conservationist, or an experimental gardener–annual seeds will make the backbone of your garden. For the frugal, sowing seeds is less expensive than nearly any other approach to gardening. A few dollars will seed a meadow, grow edibles and feed the bees.

For those who care about our pollinators, you’ll avoid the systemic pesticides so often found in bedding plants. Few seeds sold to home gardeners carry systemic pesticides. Those that do must be coated with bright colors. These are not the dyed seeds that sometimes come in a pepper seed envelope to distinguish cultivars. USDA rules require treated seeds to be a stunningly vivid color if they’ve been treated with pesticides.

For the experimental, you’ll discover novelty vegetables and flowers that no local garden center may carry. For conservationists: Set down drip to skimp on water. Annuals require less water than most lawns. Many seeds are carefree to sow, need only a raked soil bed, scant water, some organic fertilizer and a sunny spot.

Lots of veggie seeds love to be direct seeded in the garden. Only a few seeds like tomatoes, eggplants and peppers, need to be started ahead of the warm weather and put out as plants. In cool weather, sprinkle the seeds of lettuces and beets, arugula and spinach, scallions and chard. Warm weather seeds include beans and corn, cucumbers and squash. Into this mix of edibles, consider all the easy annual flowers: sunflowers, cosmos, nasturtiums, zinnias. Some herbs are annuals, too, like dill and cilantro. Parsley, a biennial, is usually planted as an annual. All are friends to beneficial bees. Plant them from seed and avoid pesticides; the pollinators will thank you.

I love to plant fast growing annual flowers with vegetables. Some partner perfectly. I plant tall ‘Russian Mammoth’ sunflowers behind tomato plants. In the heat of summer they will shade tomato plants just enough to protect them midday but not enough to cut off sunlight. I plant a forest of varied sunflowers, too, around the small greenhouse. Wild bees love sunflowers because they offer pollen. So avoid flower seed packages labeled ‘pollenless’.

Nasturtiums trail beneath squash plants, taking advantage of the shade and drip irrigation. Their flowers are edible, too, and often found in summer salads.

Zinnias command a space of their own. So many bright colors and bold, tough plants from the stocky to the elegant. I find a large space in the garden where no other plant competes with them.

Cosmos often will sprout from rocks or gravel. They may self-seed where you never intended. Usually pink cosmos are the most vigorous when it comes to self-seeding. But all cosmos cheerfully make themselves at home in difficult soil. They will be more drought-tolerant than many annual flowers and companion well with sunflowers. I like to line up white cosmos against a backdrop of greenery.

By the time seeds have sprouted, up and flowering, you’ll notice the wild bees and honeybees move in. Honeybees need pollen throughout the spring through fall seasons. But wild bees may have a more limited lifespan that coincides during the most floriferous time of the year—July and August. I’ve often spied several species of wild bees on the same broad sunflower. There’s no antagonism. Each is too busy collecting pollen to care about others.

When you sow annual seeds, it gives you a chance to make a mistake, correct for next year, and try again. Rotate your garden plants and change the flower scheme. If the sunflowers were too big and bountiful for one area of the garden, they’ll be planted elsewhere next time. Annuals are forgiving; gardeners begin with a clean slate each year. There’s little or no pruning, few diseases and you’re rewarded with an armload of flowers each time you venture into the summer garden. Come autumn, cut down or pull up the stems, add them to your compost pile and your annuals will contribute to next year’s garden.

But before you pull up your annuals, consider saving some of their seeds for next year. I save sunflower, nasturtium and zinnia seeds. Wait until the flower dies and a seed head forms. The seeds should be ripe—brown rather than green. They will look exactly like the seeds you purchased. Store them in a paper envelope. Next year you’ll have another crop of seeds ready to grow.