Warmer days flirt with gardeners anxious to get outside and plant something, anything. But the harsh reality of cold nights, coupled with the persistent chance of frost—or even more snow—intrudes on our dreams of summer. It’s far too soon to be trusting Mother Nature with frost tender petunias, geraniums, or marigolds, but there are some annuals that can handle a bit of cold. Don’t expect them to survive wintry extremes, but they should still be alive and flourishing after lows in the 20s.
Annual members of the violet family, pansies are much hardier than they look. Hot and sunny summer days will fry them to a crisp, so now is the time to enjoy them. Pansies prefer enriched soil, and will do fine in full sun or light shade, as long as the weather stays cool. They are slow to start from seed, so buy transplants. Their small size makes them perfect for edging, or group them in containers where they won’t be overlooked. With colors ranging from deep purple and burgundy to pastel pinks, soft peach, and cheerful yellow and white, you can find just the right cultivar to fit any landscape scheme.
Also known as pot marigolds, calendulas have a full head of petals reminiscent of dahlias or zinnias. They are edible, and I like to toss some of their orange (or bronze or yellow) petals into a salad, but the flavor isn’t pleasant enough to stand alone. Instead, leave the flowers to brighten up your garden. Calendulas are easy to grow from seed, either started indoors or sown directly where they are to grow. If seedheads are left to mature, they’ll propagate themselves for years to come. Situate them in full sun in any decent garden loam, and prevent the soil in the root zone from completely drying out. Plants get about 18 inches tall, so plan accordingly.
As a child, I was delighted by snapdragons’ ability to “snap”—when you squeeze the sides of the flowers together, they open and shut their dragon mouths. They’re still one of my favorite flowers. Snapdragons are hardy enough that a few have actually overwintered here in my Colorado garden. Don’t expect that, however, and treat them as annuals. The dust-like seeds need plenty of time to grow before you set them out, so you’ll need to buy started transplants for this year. Good soil, average watering, and full sun will reward you with spiky blooms in a rainbow of colors. The original flower stalks were a foot or so tall, perfect for cutting. Careful breeding has resulted in dwarfed cultivars suitable for bedding. Be sure to read the label to know which one you are buying.
It’s nice to know that we don’t need to wait for the weather to settle before setting out some flowers. Why grow frost-tender wimps when we can enjoy these cold-weather champions right now?