Want to get a jump on spring blooms? Plant these hardy annual seeds in fall and let mother nature do the rest

annual fall seed
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Close up of peach and yellow icelandic poppies.

Most people probably think that sowing seeds is a springtime endeavor, best saved for when the soils are warming up and the birds are all atwitter. That assumption wouldn’t be wrong, but I’m going to let you in on a little secret: you can also plant a lot of seeds in the fall and they’ll come up even earlier in the spring. Tons of annuals drop their seed in the fall anyway, and the seeds are naturally cold-stratified over the winter. Why not follow Mother Nature’s lead and spread seed after your fall cleanup, and let it settle in for awhile? Fun fact: You can even pull the seeds right off the plants already in your garden (especially if you’ve been a little lax on deadheading toward the end of the season). 

Wildflower seed will definitely benefit from this approach, but plenty of gorgeous ornamental annuals will sit out the winter just as happily on the ground as in a paper envelope. Want to give it a shot in your own garden? All you need is a sunny spot and basic, well-drained soil. Here are a few of our favorite hardy annuals that can grow pretty much anywhere in the West.

Larkspur (Delphinium)

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Larkspurs aren’t just blousy spires of Delft-blue and indigo for edging English country gardens; these wildflowers also come in lush, creamy greens and leaner, wild forms, many of which are native to the West. Close relative doubtful knight’s-spur (Consolida ajacis) comes in every shade of pink, purple, and blue; ‘Misty Lavender’ is the most exquisite shade of pale periwinkle. Scatter seed on sunny patches of gravelly soil.

Poppies (Papaver)

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Iceland poppies (Papaver nudicaule) like the one pictured add a touch of delicate softness to any flower bed. Breadseed poppy (a.k.a. opium poppy; P. somniferum) will provide flouncier blossoms on taller stems, though these will typically do better in areas with mild winters. Of these, we especially love the ultra-goth ‘Single Black.’ 

Love-in-the-Mist (Nigella)

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We love a good and scrappy Nigella sativa any day of the week—those spiny bubble seed pods!—but N. damascena ‘Miss Jekyll Alba’ (pictured) is a green-veined, white-tipped gossamer dream in the faintest whisper of pink. Tons of fall seed hangs around in the aforementioned bubble seed pods, which will stay put nicely as a fall feature; it can also be crushed and sprinkled about the garden for spring blooms. 

Calendula (Calendula officinalis)

Photo by Dwight Sipler / Flickr Creative Commons

This common herb will self-sow readily, if the prickly seeds don’t get snagged in the fur of passing cats and dogs first. The yellow-orange variety is the classic, but we’re especially thirsty for dusky-peach ‘Zeolites’ and aptly named ‘Bronze Beauty’ (pictured, and which dips a toe into ivory and heathery rose shades, too)—they make a stupendous addition to a cut-flower garden. As its name implies (officinalis means “good for what ails you”), the plant heals a variety of skin ailments.  

Bachelor’s Buttons (Centaurea cyanus)

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Although the name cyanus suggests their signature cornflower blue is their only look, these cheery little roadside weeds are just as lovely in pink, burgundy, and pale periwinkle. They spindle their dead blossoms apart throughout the growing season, leaving tufts of seeds throughout summer and fall. 

Sweet Pea (Lathyrus odoratus)

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Sweet peas are all beautiful, fluffy, fragrant blossoms, eagerly blooming their little hearts out early in the spring while other plants are barely stirring. To peer at a stormy ‘Nimbus’ is to gaze at a Pacific Northwest sky in March, ‘Mollie Rillstone’ is the drop-dead gorgeous belle of the ball, and ‘Kiera Madeline’ (pictured) is a sip of a fuzzy-peach Bellini. 

Columbine (Aquilegia)

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This wildflower—which happens to be the state flower of Colorado—does well in just about any situation you can imagine; it can handle high elevations, harsh climates, and rocky soil. Every fall, seed tumbles out of its capsules to sow spring’s blooms. Native varieties are always a sure bet, but we’re also very into ‘Winky Double Red White’ and ‘Black Barlow,’ the latter of which resembles Helena Bonham Carter in flower form.

Pincushion Plant (Scabiosa)

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They’re low-water, bees love them—what more can you ask? Not only do they behave as a perennial in much of the West, but they grow easily from seed in fall. We’re gaga for ‘Merlot Red,’ ‘Fata Morgana,’  and babysoft ‘Salmon Pink’ (pictured). The seed heads that form on starflower pincushion (S. stellata) are interesting enough to add to bouquets.

California Poppy (Eschscholzia california)

Image courtesy of Annie’s Annuals and Perennials

It’s no surprise that the state flower of California does well across the West, and with so many gorgeous varieties available now, there’s no reason not to scatter some seed wherever you need a pop of drought-tolerant warmth. We love free-blooming ‘Apricot Chiffon’ (pictured above) and ‘Red Chief.’ The ‘Thai Silk’ varieties also come in incredible double blooms, and in scrumptious colors like the sheer camisole ‘Pink Champagne’ and ‘Appleblossom Chiffon.’