Photo: Thomas J. Story

Our favorite cool-season annuals to plant this fall

Sharon Cohoon  – October 25, 2004

Ah, lovely October. It’s the season for leaf raking, pumpkin picking, cider sipping, and tailgate parties. And, if you’re smart, it’s also the season for planting winter- and spring-blooming annuals. I know, I know: Your “think spring” instinct doesn’t kick in until March. But plant now anyway. Your cool-season annuals will grow stronger and bloom longer than if you wait until spring.

The five annuals described are especially good performers. They’ll pump out flowers nonstop as long as the weather stays cool.

Where winters are cold, plant dianthus, pansies, and poppies now. These hardy annuals will establish roots in fall and winter, then explode into action come spring. (In colder climates, wait until spring to plant the other annuals listed.) Where winters are mild, you can have “spring” flowers in fall and winter too. In addition to the three listed above, you can plant tender annuals like nemesia and stock.

So put down that rake and head to the nursery.

Dianthus: Members of the genus Dianthus, carnations, Chinese pinks, and sweet William are usually grown as annuals. All are cold-hardy and have a long bloom period. Greenhouse-grown carnations reach 3 to 4 ft. tall, but the varieties you find in nurseries usually grow 12 to 14 in. tall. Sweet William is slightly taller ― 20 in. ― and Chinese pinks range from 6 to 30 in. Flowers of all three are pink, red, or white, often with intricate markings in a second shade. Many types have a clovelike scent.

LANDSCAPE USES: Since most dianthus form attractive green or blue-green mats of foliage, they look best in the front row, where they can be appreciated.

The Telstar (shown) and Ideal strains are strong performers, and both come in a wide range of colors. Flowers of ‘Cinnamon Red Hots’ and ‘Pinkie’ are intensely fragrant. 


Nemesia: This low, mounding annual blooms so profusely, you barely notice its narrow leaves. The flowers look like small snapdragons and are sometimes lightly scented. In areas with mild winters and summers, nemesia blooms nearly year-round; elsewhere it puts on a strong show until temperatures soar. Blooms come in many colors; pastels predominate, but shades of plum, red, and bright yellow are becoming more common. Plants range from 6 to 16 in. tall; forms vary from compact and upright to loose and cascading.

LANDSCAPE USES: Its masses of chalice-shaped flowers are produced for months at a time and come in an ever-widening choice of colors, making nemesia a top-selling spring annual.

OUR FAVORITES: The Sunsatia and Sundrop strains ― the former pictured in yellow ― are good performers, as are two older varieties, ‘Blue Bird’ and ‘Compact Innocence’.

Pansies and violas: These low-growing plants (6 to 10 in. tall) with five-petaled flowers are top sellers year after year for good reason. They deliver lots of blooms over a long period, come in a huge range of colors ― both solids and bicolors ― and bloom through winter in much of the West. The large-flowered, faced varieties may catch your eye first in nurseries. But when planted en masse, nonfaced, single-colored varieties are often more striking. The original wild pansy ― Johnny-Jump-Up ― still charms us too.

LANDSCAPE USES: Their low, mounding habit makes pansies and violas extremely versatile. Use them in mass plantings, along the edges of mixed borders, in rock gardens, along paths, and alone or in combination with other plants in containers.

The red Dynamite Blotch, shown, is new. We also like the Crystal Bowl, Majestic Giant, and Ultima strains; in violas, try the Babyface or Sorbet strains.


Poppies: With their silky blossoms, poppies are the ultimate show-offs. While some kinds have big, rowdy leaves, making them difficult to use well in small gardens, our favorites ― alpine, Iceland, and Shirley poppies ― are more delicate. Shirley poppies grow 3 ft. tall and produce 2-in.-wide flowers in bright solid colors, bicolors, and pastels. Iceland poppies are shorter (1 to 2 ft. tall); flowers are cream, orange, pink, rose, salmon, yellow, or white. Alpine poppies, which do best in cold climates, are only 5 to 8 in. tall.

LANDSCAPE USES: With their tall, leafless stems that dance with every breeze, poppies are graceful companions to many plants.

Angels’ Choir Shirley poppies are notable for their wide range of colors. We also like Champagne Bubbles Iceland poppies and, for windier areas, the shorter, sturdier Wonderland strain. 


Stock: This mainstay of the cut-flower industry is also an excellent spring bedding plant. Many strains of Matthiola incana are available, ranging from less than 1 ft. tall to as much as 3 ft. tall, and from 10 to 16 in. wide. Flowers are single or double, 1 in. wide, and come in a range of colors, including cream, mauve, pink, purple, red, salmon, violet, and white. All have a wonderful spicy-sweet scent. Evening scented stock (M. longipetala bicornis) has an even more powerful scent.

LANDSCAPE USES: Because one of the nicest things about stock is the intense fragrance of its flowers, plant it where you’re most likely to smell it. Combine taller varieties of stock with plants that are looser in habit, such as nemesias, so they don’t look so primly upright.

OUR FAVORITES: Trysomic Seven Weeks and Ten Weeks strains are good for their early bloom; try the Vintage strain for its unique colors, like Burgundy (shown) and copper.