Cool Season Annuals for Spring and Fall

Snapdragons are classic cool-season annuals that make glorious cut flowers.

Annuals aren’t just a summer thing.  True, many popular annuals – such as marigolds, zinnias, castor beans, portulacas, and celosias – are unabashed heat-lovers, languishing in chilly conditions and hitting full stride during the long sultry days of July and August. Among the most valuable annuals, however, are those that thrive in cool weather. They’re especially useful for filling the floral doldrums that tend to haunt gardens in late spring and fall.

Most cool-season annuals germinate reliably in relatively chilly soil (below 45 degrees F) and tolerate a goodly amount of frost. Sow them outdoors in late winter or early spring (depending on your locale), and they’ll be up and flowering well before the summer annuals get going. Or for extra-early bloom, start plants indoors and transplant them to the garden several weeks before the last frost date. Cool-season annuals take center stage again in the fall. Sow them 3 months before the first frost date for a late floral display, or plant out store-bought plants in late summer.

Great Cold-Hardy Annuals

Some especially cold-hardy annuals – including all of those described below – will even overwinter as seed or seedlings into USDA hardiness zone 6/7 (or colder, in some cases), arising in spring to bloom weeks before spring-sown plants. These can be planted in the garden in the fall as seeds or young transplants, or existing plantings can be allowed to self-sow. If you’re starting plants indoors, be sure to give them lots of light and a good potting mix such as Fafard Ultra Container Mix with Extended Feed.

Pansies and smaller-flowered Violas are cool-season musts for the garden.

Pansies (Viola × wittrockiana) are among the most popular cool-season annuals – and for good reason. Not only do they flower continuously in fall and early spring (and beyond), but they also throw some blooms during mild winter spells in USDA zones 6 and warmer. Sold by the thousands in garden centers and other venues in fall and spring, they come in all colors, usually with a signature deep-purple “face” at the flower’s center. Violas – hybrids of Viola cornuta – are close relatives of pansies that also flower prolifically during the cool seasons, as well as in winter warm spells. Short-lived perennials typically bear smaller flowers than those of the pansy tribe, with streaking rather than “faces” at their centers. Both pansies and violas do well with either early-spring or late-summer sowing and planting. The Victorian Posy Pansy mix is an excellent choice for those who start their own flowers from seeds.

Snapdragons can make a grand statement in the spring garden.

Like pansies, snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus) overwinter outdoors throughout much of the U.S., making them ideal candidates for late-season planting into USDA zone 5. Overwintered seedlings bloom early in the season, lifting their colorful spires to the sun in late spring. In USDA zones 5a and colder, start seed indoors in late winter, a few weeks before the last-frost date. Early-blooming snapdragon varieties such as those in the Potomac, Chantilly, and Costa series provide an additional head-start on the flowering season, blooming days to weeks earlier than other varieties. They flower in the full range of snapdragon colors, including white, yellow, pink, red, and purple.

Large-flowered gloriosa daisies are ideal cool-season annuals for the fall.

Also ideal for fall planting are gloriosa daisies (Rudbeckia hirta), which are exceptionally winter-hardy (to USDA zone 3). Overwintered plants open their bright yellow to burgundy “black-eyed Susan” flowers in late spring or early summer, repeating until frost. Varieties include ‘Indian Summer’, with classic bright yellow “black-eyed Susan” flowers on 3-foot stems; ‘Cherokee Sunset’, whose double blooms on 30-inch stems come in various tones and combinations of yellow, bronze, and maroon; and the green-coned, tawny-eyed ‘Prairie Sun’. If seedlings don’t survive winter in your area, try sowing seed in the garden in fall, for early germination next spring. Plants will readily self-sow if you don’t deadhead them. Of course, late winter or early spring sowing works too, either indoors or out.

Classic blue cornflowers can be sown in the fall for spring.

Other classic candidates for fall planting or sowing for spring are Larkspurs (Consolida ajacis) and cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus). They bring an abundance of blue to the late spring garden, in two different forms. Larkspurs produce quantities of dainty butterfly-shaped blooms on 30- to 50-inch spikes. Cornflowers, in contrast, bear frilly pompons atop wiry 3- to 4-foot stalks. In addition to classic blue varieties such as ‘Blue Spire’, larkspurs come in an assortment of other colors including white, pink, lavender, and combinations thereof. Cornflowers, too, are available in a wide color range, from blue (e.g., ‘Blue Diadem’) to pink to red to maroon.

Lesser-Known Cool-Season Annuals

The ranks of cool-season annuals that do well with spring or fall planting or sowing include a number of relatively little-known but highly ornamental species that deserve much wider use:

Blue woodruff is rarely grown and deserves more garden attention. Expect some self-sowing.

 Blue woodruff (Asperula orientalis) throws airy sprays of little sky-blue flowers on low, typically lax stems. It’s especially lovely in containers, making a lacy understudy for bigger, bolder leaved annuals such as flowering tobaccos and amaranths.

Also flowering in blue is Chinese forget-me-not (Cynoglossum amabile). The clusters of rounded, bright blue blooms do indeed recall those of standard forget-me-not (Myosotis spp.), but they occur on much more durable plants that blossom in late spring and repeat in summer and fall. The pink-flowered variety ‘Mystery Rose’ is equally ornamental.

Toadflax just grows in the cool season, but it is so delicate and pretty.

A perky little thing with spikes of bright blooms that resemble snapdragons, Moroccan toadflax (Linaria maroccana) is perfect for massing in garden beds and containers, in forms such as the pastel assortment ‘Fairy Bouquet’ or bright purple ‘Licilia Violet’.

The poppy tribe contains several cool-season treasures, none better than Shirley poppy (Papaver rhoeas), with its numerous pastel (such as ‘Mother of Pearl’ and the Falling in Love mix) and red (e.g., ‘American Legion’) forms; and Spanish poppy (Papaver rupifragum), a cheerful orange-flowered thing that’s especially winning in its double-flowered form, ‘Flore Pleno’ or ‘Tangerine Gem’.

‘Tangerine Gem’ is a very easy Spanish poppy to grow.

Although not quite as cold-hardy as most of the above, Green-gold (Bupleurum griffithii) weathers winters to USDA Zone 7, and is amenable to late winter and early spring planting in colder zones. Its large flat-headed clusters of chartreuse blooms on 3-foot stems make splendid accents for cut flower arrangements.

How to Establish Lawn Grass in The Spring

Spring is a time for new building projects or yard and garden designs. All mean it’s time to establish new lawns, patches of lawn, or rejuvenate old lawns. How you do it and what lawn you choose depends on your yard, where you live, and how you intend to maintain it.

Best Lawn Grasses By Region

First, you need to know what to plant where. For a surefire lush lawn in the first season, you can always plant sod, but it is far less economical than seed. If you choose to seed your lawn, early to mid-spring is a great time to plant. The key is making sure that most of the grass seeds germinate, and the lawn fills in well. Regular irrigation will help the seeds sprout in the absence of rain and will help your new lawn along while it grows.

When lawn grasses have filled in and are actively growing, most recommend they be mowed every 7 to 14 days. I like a low-clipped lawn between 2-3 inches, but most lawn grasses have recommended clipping heights for their best appearance and growth.

Cool-Season Grasses for Northern and Midwestern States

Kentucky bluegrass creates a soft, lush lawn that looks best in cooler regions.

Those living further north should grow lawns of tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea, Zones 3-6, easy-care). The cool-season, sun-loving bunchgrass has broad, coarse, deep green blades that look good all season long. It is easy to grow, adaptable, and disease resistant. Once established it will withstand moderate summer heat and drought as well as high foot traffic. This really grass thrives where summer temperatures stay cooler (60-75 ⁰ F). There are plenty of other lawn fescues that are good but less often planted, such as the low-growing, heat, and drought-tolerant hard fescue (Festuca ovina, Zones 3-7, easy-care), which also requires full sun.

Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis, Zones 3-7, moderate-care) is another cool-season bunchgrass that is most lush in the cooler months. When summer heats up, its growth slows. Plant it in yards with full to partial sun. Its soft feel and bright green color make it a very appealing lawn grass. Many lawngrass mixes combine perennial ryegrass, which can take a little more heat, with Kentucky bluegrass.

Perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne, Zones 5-7, low-care) is a cool-season quick fix for spring and fall planting. It is often used in other sun-loving grass seed mixes. When conditions are cool and moist, it can grow into a fully mowable lawn in around 25 days, sometimes less because it is fast to sprout and grow.

Warm-Season Grasses for Southern States

Zoysia grass turns a distinctive tan color while dormant in the winter. Some love the look while others do not.

Many southern homeowners turn to Bermudagrass (Cynodon spp., Zones 7-1-, moderate to high maintenance) for their sunny lawns because it thrives in the heat and moderate drought and will even tolerant the salt spray of coastal regions. It requires regular fertilization, some irrigation, and it grows quickly, which means more frequent mowing. The low-growing, lower-maintenance Pennington Pensacola Bahiagrass (Paspalum notatum, Zones 7-11, easy-care) is another good choice because it grows well in poorer soils, tolerates drought, and withstands hot summers and cold winters. The deep roots of this Mexican and South American native grass are what help it look lush even when growing conditions are harsh.

Another traditional lawn grass of the south is Zoysia (Zoysia spp.), which is heat and drought tolerant and will tolerate limited shade. I hesitate to recommend this grass because it turns tan in the winter, a trait that many homeowners do not like, it spreads quickly by rhizomes, which means it needs to be regularly rogued out of garden beds, and the rhizomes are sharp-tipped. The Southern Living Garden Book calls it “among the South’s best and most popular lawn grasses, ” but I did not enjoy having it as a lawn at my last home in Delaware.

Grasses for Arid States

Buffalo grass is a very tough native grass for dry, western landscapes.

Those living in the more arid regions of the American Southwest that desire a lawn should consider the drought-tolerant  ‘UC Verde’® Buffalograss (Bouteloua dactyloides, Zones 4-8, easy-care). The University of California’s introduction was bred for southern California growing. It is low-growing, native, Waterwise, and attractive. It is so drought-tolerant that it will survive with only 12 inches of water per year, though it looks lusher with more water.

Establishing a Lawn From Seed in Six Steps

When seeding lawn patches, Fafard Premium Topsoil is a great base mix for lawn improvement.

Here are six steps to ensuring your seed takes hold:

  1. Plant fresh, quality seed.
  2. Make sure your soil is smooth, weed-free, and fill holes of top-dress seed with Fafard Premium Topsoil to help germination.
  3. Plant seed with a push broadcast spreader for good coverage.
  4. Lightly rake in seed after spreading and consider using a lawn roller to press it down.
  5. Add a layer of straw overseeded areas to hold moisture and encourage people to stay off.
  6. Water the area lightly until the grass sprouts and starts to look lush.

Refrain from walking on your new lawn until it really begins to grow. Be sure to keep it moist, and fertilize it once it is full.  Once it reaches a few inches, you can mow it to a 3-inch height. Wait until it is totally full to mow it down to 2 inches.

Alternative Lawns and Lawn Flowers for Naturalizing

Clover is good for lawns!

There are lots of unique lawn options, many of which are sustainable and valuable to pollinators. All kinds of lovely clovers and violets can be knitted into lawns to brighten the spring and add texture to the turf. (Click here to read a full article about lawn alternatives.)