Fruits and vegetables feed the body, but flowers feed the soul – and the many beneficial insects that get their nutrition from flowers. Every spring I like to grow a couple of fast-growing flowers from seed, and then scatter the plants about in beds and containers so they give the landscape a feeling of unity. Fast, carefree growth is a virtue, starting with short germination times. The ten flowers listed here are quick to sprout, grow, and come into bloom, and most will reseed with a little encouragement.
Flower seed packets rarely list estimated days to maturity, but most annual flowers need about 95 days from seed to flower. The ones that made my list start popping blooms in 60 to 70 days when grown under spring conditions, and they also tolerate light frost. To get a head start on the season, I start seeds indoors under lights in late winter, and use cloches to ease the plants’ adjustment to outdoor conditions.
1. Sweet Alyssum
Annual sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima) is a favorite of hoverflies and numerous other small beneficial insects, and the low-growing plants are perfect for softening the edges of beds and containers or growing along a walkway. Fragrance varies with variety, and it is always strongest in the evening.
Calendula or pot marigold has a long history of use as a skin-healing herb, or you can use dried calendula petals as a saffron substitute in cooking. These fast-growing flowers have broader leaves than many other species, so they fill in quickly and can even be used as a flowering cover crop.
3. Johnny Jump-ups
Whether you call them violas, mini-pansies, field pansies or Johnny jump-ups, these quick-blooming flowers laugh at frost. Johnny jump-ups partner beautifully with spring-flowering bulbs, and they are enthusiastic re-seeders.
Also known as bachelor’s buttons, cornflowers are unfazed by changeable spring weather, and bees love the flowers that rise up on straight stems in early summer. The petals of this quick-growing flower are edible, and infused cornflower floral water, used for soothing puffy eyes, is a rising star in natural skin care circles.
Nigella damascene (pictured at top), commonly called love-in-a-mist, features lovely pastel flowers framed by lacy foliage, which mature into exotic seed pods for dried arrangements. The determined plants grow steadily in cool spring weather and start blooming in early summer. Feathery nigella foliage looks great softening the base of a fence, and it’s an excellent neighbor for taller flowers.
The tastiest of all edible flowers, nasturtiums attract bees and other pollinators, and they are popular for interplanting with cucumbers or tomatoes to deter pests. Nasturtium leaves and flowers contain an abundance of vitamin C and other nutrients. When pickled in a salt brine, immature nasturtium seed capsules taste like capers.
7. Annual Phlox
Annual phlox (Phlox drummondii) is a tough little hardy annual, native to Texas, that has been bred into a beautiful cut flower. Butterflies seek out the nectar-rich flowers, and new blossoms keep coming despite early season heat waves or dry spells.
Pest resistant and easy to please, petunias can be had in endless colors, or you can grow them for their fragrance. Heirloom strains like 'Old Fashioned Vining Petunia’ emit a lily-like perfume at dusk, as does award-winning ‘Evening Scentsation’, which blooms in a goes-with-everything shade of blue.
The fastest poppies to grow in spring, California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) can grow from seed to bloom in only 60 days. Breadseed poppies (Papaver somniferum), also known as opium poppies, are also worth a try as long as you get a prompt start by sowing the seed over cold soil. Getting poppies established in your garden is only challenging the first year because the plants re-seed so successfully. Once established, these quick-blooming flowers provide bees and other pollinators with protein-rich pollen in early summer, when little else is in bloom.
Surprisingly cold-hardy, sunflower seedlings often survive spring frosts, and getting a few sunflowers off to an early start is always rewarding. You will see the earliest blossoms from “day neutral” varieties like 'Jua Inca' or bushy ‘Solar Flare’, which march to maturity rather than waiting for days to become shorter in late summer.
All of these fast-growing flowers will return for a second season if you practice the pull-and-shake method of replanting. Simply pull up the old plants, take them to where you want flowers next year, and give the plants a good shake. From there, the seeds know what to do.