5 Flowers Everyone Can Grow

And Finding Wisdom in your Garden

It’s one of my favorite times of the year. When the Burpee seed catalog arrives in the mailbox, it’s a harbinger of spring (even though winter just started two weeks previously!) In the following weeks come a plethora of catalogs until you just can’t absorb any more. This year’s stack is already nearly 4 inches high.

The first real job I ever had was during high school at a vast retail nursery in Ventura, California. I was assigned to bedding plants, and my textbook was Sunset’s “Western Garden Book,” which I clung to dearly until I felt I could go it on my own. Most of what I learned I didn’t apply until years later, when I first owned a home in Skokie, Illinois. However, the growing conditions were quite a bit harsher than they were in Ventura!

Today, the flowers that I will recommend are some of my favorites that flourish in two very extreme climate zones, those being northern Illinois and the desert of central New Mexico. It only stands to reason that all can be grown in every climate zone between (many more, actually). But first, here’s the story of how I got to my five picks.

Briefly, there are annuals in the plant world that last one season, biennials that last for two, and perennials that last indefinitely. I’ve always enjoyed annuals the most because of their season-long prolific color, as well as the fact that I never really knew if I would be living in the same home the following year! I’ve been quite the vagabond at times.

For eight years, I lived in a condominium in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood that just happened to come with a private rooftop deck immediately upstairs. It encompassed the same fingerprint as the condo, about 1,800 square feet. There, I planted and cared for 42 containers, large and small. About a third of the deck was dedicated to vegetables and the rest to flowers. I also had three trees, one of which was a perfectly-shaped Colorado Blue Spruce. The deck was a veritable urban oasis.

There have been successes and failures, but it’s the latter from which you learn the most. Through observing their patterns day-to-day, you can detect issues that you can potentially fix. You can see their habit — upright, spreading, or cascading. Over the years, I’ve experimented with hundreds of varieties of flowers and vegetables.

There have been successes and failures, but it’s the latter from which you learn the most.

It was amazing how mammoth some of the plants would grow up there, to which I attribute the very controlled conditions and fewer pests. I always collected seeds and planted them the next year, as their DNA adjusts to their growing conditions, which makes them even hardier. Unfortunately, there came a time when I had to leave all of this behind. My next locale became Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The following flower types have performed as well in somewhat wet Chicago as they have in the sunny and dry southwest. I’d recommend these five to you, but in no particular order. Except for the ice plant (which I usually purchase through a catalog), all are easily grown by seed sown directly into the soil. Each ideally requires full-sun.

SNAPDRAGONS — Antirrhinum majus

“Snaps” can grow in relatively lousy soil. This is considered an annual in colder climates, but I’ve seen them persist all year in mild Chicago winters. In Albuquerque, they’re more of a biennial or perennial. It’s February 1, and they’re still blooming! The tall varieties can grow to 2.5 feet tall, so use those in the back of your garden. The dwarf varieties top out at about 8 inches and are great for borders or in rock gardens. They reseed very well, but you’ll want to deadhead them for more blooms all season. (Save the dry pods and keep the seeds!) Low water need.

HOLLYHOCKS — Alcea rosea

Hollyhocks can thrive in the worst of soil. They grow on stalks that can reach 9 feet high, so again, best in the back of the garden or small areas along fences or building walls. As biennials, they do not bloom the first season, so plan accordingly. They will send up their long stalks and provide plenty of beauty the second season. They will reseed themselves, but best to let some of the seed pods dry for planting the next season—low water need.

SUNFLOWERS — Helianthus Asteraceae

No special soil is needed here. I couldn’t begin to count the wide variety of sunflowers, and new varieties are introduced every year. Their commonality is their vitality. Some varieties can grow to 10 feet tall, while newer petite hybrids may only grow to 12 inches. Some produce just one flower; others flower in multiples. I have NOT found any benefit to deadheading those I have grown, so I usually let them go to seed, which birds love especially finches. Sunflowers are annuals, but they will reseed if the birds don’t eat them all! These are great flowers to grow with children because of their rapid growth and massive flowers. Low to medium water need.

ICE PLANT — Delosperma Aizoaceae

Not picky about soil, but do best in good draining sandy soil. The trailing nature of ice plant lends itself well to rock gardens, hanging baskets, or anywhere else where you might want a cascading plant (over walls, for instance). This plant is a prolific bloomer of whites, yellows, reds, and purples. I recommend this plant be purchased at a garden center or by catalog. Once established, you can just cut off pieces of the stalks, stick those cuttings somewhere else, and voila! You’ve got more plants! Low water usage.

ALYSSUM — Lobularia maritima

Almost every flower garden or container can use a little alyssum! It will grow in poor soil, and its habit is much like that of an ice plant. Alyssum is available in white (also called “Carpet of Snow”), lavender, violet, and purples. A prolific bloomer, it flowers all season long. It is among the last flowers to be susceptible to a hard freeze. Indeed, mine are still green here in Albuquerque. It’s great for borders and cascades nicely out of containers. Alternatively, if your planting location doesn’t have full sun, consider Lobelia (the dark blue dainty flowers at right in the first picture).

Gardening provides the kinds of lessons that can be passed down to the next generation, but you may need to generate the interest.

In most cases, I’m not an organic gardener. You can use organic products in place of these, but I use Miracle-Gro potting soil and fertilizer for 95% of my work. I need something I know I can depend on! You want good potting soil for success in containers, and because they’re not getting nutrients found in ground soil, you’ll want to fertilize about every two weeks for a garden that flourishes. Twenty-two years can’t be wrong!

If you have questions or suggestions about some of your successes (and don’t forget those failures!), please highlight the text, include a comment, and we’ll talk.

To have wisdom takes effort. Wisdom requires the ability to look at one thing over time and observe patterns. If you can do this, you can probably be a pretty good gardener.

My life in the context of 20th-century history and pop culture — infused with a dose of fun (where appropriate!) More to come when I get my sea legs on here.

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