New Year’s Resolution: Start Annuals Indoors!

In recent years I’ve come to appreciate the value of mixing annuals in with the perennials in flower borders. Not just for maximizing color, but also for achieving that sense of fullness earlier and more consistently through the season.

I’m slightly ashamed to say that I have not started any of my own annuals from seed since I grew ‘Italian White’ sunflowers in my garden about ten years ago. I feel that this undermines my bona fides as a real gardener. Buying my annuals at the garden center (and occasionally at the Home Depot) also makes me feel like something of a spendthrift, squandering my children’s milk money on flats of pansies and sweet alyssum. Admittedly, they drink more beer than milk now, but you get the idea.

Zinnia 'Profusion Orange' fills in nicely between perennials and I like the simple orange flowers.
Zinnia ‘Profusion Orange’ fills in nicely between perennials and I like the simple orange flowers.

The price of annuals frequently does seem unreasonable, especially the one you can’t buy in flats. What’s more, I’ve often found the selection and quality to be lacking. This is especially true when it comes to zinnias, cosmos, and cleome – three of my favorites.

So I have resolved to get myself a grow light or two and start my own annuals indoors. Without a greenhouse, I’ll have to make do with the basement and our enclosed back porch. Here’s my preliminary list:

Zinnias: ‘Orange Profusion’ and ‘Cut and Come Again’ (or maybe ‘Park’s Picks Deep Red’?).

Cleome: ‘Sparkler White’.

Pansies: varieties to be determined.

Sunflowers: ‘Italian White’.

Wallflowers: ‘Scented Gold’. Saw these at Giverney last April and have been determined to grow them ever since.

Cleome 'Sparkler'.
Cleome ‘Sparkler’.

This may be a bit too ambitious, depending on the amount of capacity I get set up. But I can grow the pansies and wallflowers for April planting, followed by the others. It also seems that seed is not available for some annuals I must have, like Pentas, which I grow in containers.

So I’m soliciting advice here. What have been your best and worst annuals for starting indoors? And what about favorite seed sources? So far the on-line retailers I like best are Renee’s Garden and Park Seed. Finally, is there anybody out there who considers himself a serious gardener who doesn’t grow their own annuals from seed?

25 Comments on “New Year’s Resolution: Start Annuals Indoors!

  1. So far I have only grown hardy annuals that don’t need cosseting, does that mean I’m not a serious gardener?! I start some of my hardy ones indoor to get a head start on the weather, then sow others outdoors later to stagger the flowering time. Happy Christmas to you and your family and best wishes for a super gardening year in 2013!

    • From your comment and others I conclude I shouldn’t feel guilty about not planting annuals indoors after all. I’ll give it a try anyway. Happy Christamas to you and yours as well!

  2. I always start milkweed indoors so that it is ready to put out for the monarchs that migrate north in the spring. I am going to try starting my spring vegetables indoors this winter too so I can have a longer growing season. I think starting annuals indoors is an excellent idea!

  3. I used to start all my transplants, back when I lived in the country and the mail order business was still a new fangled thing. Then I stopped, but a few years ago I started again, to grow that which is not available locally. Zinnias and sunflowers I would direct seed, if you need to prune your list. Mistakes I have made are 1) starting the seeds too early; 2) not fertilizing enough; 3) watering erratically. Good luck! (and merry xmas)

    • Merry xmas to you too! We’re not supposed to sow zinnias outside until May 15 here, same with sunflowers, and I am too impatient! I was wondering how I should handle the fertilizer. Probably will just get some of that seed starter mix, maybe mix with some compost.

  4. I seldom grow annuals from seeds, so I guess I’m not a serious gardener either! I did grow some impatiens successfully from seed – they were started indoors on a sunny window. Last year I discovered winter sowing. I flopped with about 50% of what I tried, but the angelonia and Arkansas Traveler tomatoes did beautifully. The angelonia took its own sweet time getting to a blooming size, but they are very expensive to buy as plants and I will definitely try winter-sowing them again this year. Last winter was unseasonably warm, so I have no idea how successful I’ll be with it. I bought the seed from Swallowtail and they were fine – I’m fairly sure the 50% failure rate was my fault. I’m interested to hear how you do.

  5. I did Cut & Come Again zinnias along with sunflowers, annual lobelia and black pansies under grow lights last year. You’ll need a lot of space and lights for what you plan to start!

    Surprisingly, I did not gain much by starting zinnias indoors vs. waiting for May 10, our last frost date in CT, to direct sow. Seedlings sprouted and came up fine under the lights, but after transplant in May they just sat around waiting for summer, doing nothing. They only got going once summer started in earnest, and were exactly the same size in mid summer as the ones direct sown outside in mid May. It didn’t seem to matter when they were sown, indoors or out, both approaches yielded the same growth schedule in summer.

  6. I love to grow Angelonia and coleus from seed and my source is Harris seed. In about a week or two, I am going to be giving some seed away so check with me or the blog to see what I will have. Right now it looks like I have spiky, red celosia, basil, petunias and no telling what else! As soon as Christmas decorations are put away, the seeds will come out!

  7. Um, I’ve done both. But with the short growing season we have, I’ve had much better luck buying flats of annuals. We have several extremely reasonable garden nurseries around here. If you’re ever driving through in May, you might be able to get your supplies cheaper here than in the Chicago area. I am planning to try more from seed this year–partly because I have more time, and partly because I have a new (very small) greenhouse! Good luck! It will be fun to see your progress with your seed starts!

    • Is one of those Johansen’s, by any chance? We lived on the west side of Madison for a couple of years and we loved going there during that time.

  8. I buy tons of annuals! I sometimes even buy pre grown veg and I’ve been growing my own veg for around 10 years! What kind of gardener does that make me?!? I can’t resist buying certain things if they look good, then other things I sow and have always sowed so wouldn’t even consider it. I think there’s no should/shouldn’t do in gardening. Each year you try something new and when it works out you just stick to it. I never sow my own panzies, violas because they’re cheap to buy but I do experiment with other things and sow rudbeckia, sweet peas (early this year as an experiment), gazenia, sunflowers, marigold and other things… I think you should try what you like and/or buy what you like! Interested to hear how you get on next year. Wishing you a great Christmas 🙂

  9. The thing you have to watch with starting annuals or any seedlings indoors is that they dont get too leggy stetching for the light. Dont start them too early or this will happen while they are waiting to go outside.
    Cosmos are my favourite annuals

  10. I see you have some good answers already. I try to start tomatoes and peppers inside, and a few annuals, like Mexican sunflowers. Most of the annuals I get are from a local garden center. The years I’ve grown regular sunflowers, which the squirrels think are for them, I just plant the seeds in the ground. The cleomes here go ahead and seed themselves every year. Now that I’ve planted the native kind by seed this fall, I hope they come up and reseed themselves.

  11. I tend not to grow annuals since I can do without the repetitive extra work of raising them from seed each year. Having said that, sunflowers and snapdragons are the ones I can’t resist. Beyond those, annuals that easily self-seed would be my next choice.

  12. I’ve tried to grow annuals from seed indoors. Not good at it. I realized quickly that the farther the plants are from the watering source, the “badder” I am at keeping them watered. I admire your faith, courage and conviction. We do spend WAY too much on annuals each year.

  13. First of all, thank you again for your very kind comments about my blog. Now to growing from seed indoors. Cats. If you don’t have cats, you’ll probably be fine. Hiding seed trays from cats means putting them in places where you’re bound to forget them. And they dry out. And they die. And, like you, I feel weird about buying annuals. So, like Sunil above, I’m rooting (no pun intended) for self-seeding.

    • Luckily, I have no cats. I hope that the cleome I plant next year do self-seed, Last year I planted ‘Senorita Rosalita’, which is sterile.

  14. I direct sow my zinnias, usually shortly after Memorial Day, but they don’t bloom until late August. It would be nice to have them bloom earlier. I’ve never had trouble finding the Cut and Come Agains in flats at our local nurseries. My favorite is Burpee’s Fruit Smoothie mix. Rose at Prairie Rose’s Garden had a gorgeous one last summer called Zowie.

    I have good luck with my Cleomes self-seeding. I admit that I don’t necessarily remember what varieties I started with though. My Cosmos self seeded for several years in a row, but then last winter was very mild and we didn’t get our usual snow cover, so I didn’t get any. : (

    The problem with starting the annuals indoors is the space they take. I simply don’t have room to start as many varieties in the numbers I would need! I start the flats on top of our furnace until the seeds have sprouted, then move them to a table under a long fluorescent light, all in the basement. I need to convince my husband of my need for a second light, and I’m considering buying a couple heat mats to put under the flats once they’ve been moved from the furnace!

    Good luck!

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