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Early-Bird Bloomers

Early-bird bloomers can add color to your garden earlier in the spring and later in the fall.

Don't let dreary seasons drain your garden of color. Master gardener Paul James and plant expert Bonnie Marquardt reveal how early-bird bloomers can brighten your garden earlier in the spring and later in the fall.

Season extenders like cloches, row covers and cold frames help you extend the growing season's early in spring or later in the fall. The latest season extenders to add to that list are flowering plants that like cool, even cold temperatures.

For ages, gardeners have been asking nurseries for varieties that can be planted in chillier weather. Breeders reacted to the demand by crossing cold-hardy plants with seasonal flowers. The result is several extra weeks--even months--of color in the garden when you least expect it. "You're able to put things in earlier and enjoy them when usually there's no color out there," says Marquardt.

Linaria is an annual that bursts with tiny snapdragon-type flowers. While it won't stand up to an extended freeze, a light frost is no problem. "Linaria is best as an early-season extender," says Marquardt. "So when your temperatures are 25 and 26 degrees, it can handle that light frost that you would have in your area. We would also recommend it for container plantings." Containers make it easy to remove the plants to a more protected spot in case the temperature drops.

To figure out when to plant these early birds in the landscape, determine the first or last expected frost date in your area. Then shift your planting schedule two to four weeks from then. Fall back in the spring, and jump forward in the fall. Gardeners in milder climates can obviously extend that planting season further.

Because early-bird bloomers like the cooler weather, they are more compact and happier in those conditions. Early bloomers provide anywhere from four to 12 weeks of flowering time, depending on where you live. You may also find varieties of season extenders that bloom early and late. Case in point, this osteospermum mix. "Osteospermum is a cool-season extender because it's very early to flower in the spring but different than Cheiranthus (wallflower)," says Marquardt. "It's better able to handle heat."

Cheiranthus doesn't do well in hotter temperatures, but the cool growing period gives it plenty of time to develop into a nice full plant.

According to Marquardt, most nurseries offer plants in a four-inch pot or larger. "In the garden it has natural branching ability, and you'll get a nice bushy plant with long-living color," she says. Remember though, since most early-bird plants are cool-season annuals, they will begin to lose their luster with a spike in the mercury. But by then, the nurseries should be bursting at the seams with in-season bloomers. When the early bloomers lose their pizzazz, simply pull them out and replace them with summer color with traditional in-season favorites.

Marquardt suggests combining lunaria with pansies. As the lunaria fades, replace it with osteospermum.

By mid-summer she swaps the osteospermum with rudbeckia. Swap out the fading summer flowers with zinnias, then Cheiranthus in the fall.

The research continues for breeders hoping to introduce even hardier flowers to gardens in very cold climates. "I think you're going to see, as gardening progresses, new varieties," says Marquardt. "We're attempting to reach some of those areas where there is very limited color." And that's why cool-season extenders are one of the hottest new trends in the gardening world. "When there's no other color out there--it's a gloomy gray, yellow sky--this is what will shine."

So when should you start shopping at nurseries for these early birds? James recommends late winter, late summer and early fall for the best selections.

And, by the way, in addition to more cold-hardy plants on the horizon, watch for new, never-before-seen flowers for blooming season-extenders.

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