The tragic events of the 11th of September 2001 changed the world, the way we view it, and how we relate to it. In the aftermath, more and more people are seeking solace and tranquility-their own quiet personal space. Many have turned to gardening for solace. Any time spent in the garden is beneficial-to the gardener, humanity in general, and to the Earth.
With all of the various aspects to gardening, it affords universal appeal-to young and old, males and females, beginners and experienced gardeners. Gardening affects people in a variety of positive ways. It can be calming, soothing to the soul, clearing the mind at the end of a day (explore the Zen of weeding and pruning).
As far as I’m concerned, anyone who gets his hands in the soil is a gardener. The very contact of skin with the soil helps to ground us (literally and figuratively) to the Earth. Getting down and dirty working in a garden-from planting seeds to watering them, from feeding plants to managing pests and diseases, and even cutting flowers to enjoy indoors-is one of the healthiest pastimes to engage in. Gardening incorporates good exercise with relaxation. Time in the sun supplies natural vitamin D.
Growing flowers has some distinct advantages. The colors show off an area, inviting us outdoors to admire them. Blossoms encourage us to slow down, admire, and smell the flowers. Flowers can set the mood. Bright hot colors-red, orange, yellow-add pizzazz, while cool colors-white, blue, purple-tone it down, which can be refreshing in the heat of summer.
It is “a good thing,” whether purchasing seedlings, small plants, or starting them yourself from seed. Yet it somehow feels more rewarding when growing the flowers from seed. The process brings out many of our good personality traits that are often concealed under the outward visage of today’s harried, stressed life.
Planting a seed brings out nurturing instincts. As the seed germinates and grows, it’s impossible not to become attached to the plant-if you want it to survive and thrive. With each passing day, your emotional investment in the plant grows, as does the plant. And then, the first flower bud appears and opens its petals. It’s so exciting! That first blossom is the ultimate reward for your diligence-a wonderful sense of accomplishment boosting your self-esteem. The enjoyment and feeling of fulfillment continues as the days and weeks pass and flowering keeps going.
If this is fun for adults, imagine how exciting it can be for a child to witness the wonders of nature firsthand. However, too many adults don’t have fond childhood memories of themselves in the garden; their parents gave them chores such as weeding or watering. To a child, chores are not fun; they are to be avoided if at all possible.
Give a child a sunflower seed and tell him or her that before long, the seed will turn into a plant that will grow so tall as to tower over him or her. Unbelievable but true! Sunflowers are the best flowers for children to grow. Their fast growth habit is impressive and will keep the child’s interest. Adults, who fondly remember time in the garden as children, often recall starting out with a sunflower seed. The gardening experience was so significant that it is permanently etched in their minds.
Adults can get as much pleasure from growing sunflowers as a child does. The dinner-plate flowers are extraordinary in varied hues of yellow-some marked with green, brown, or red. Yet all sunflowers are not mammoth giants. Their height can range from two to twelve feet or more, depending on the variety. Excellent and long lasting as cut flowers-striking in a vase-whether solo or as a bouquet. Sunflowers are unique for their delicious seeds.
A planting that includes the five following flowers-all members of the daisy family-is guaranteed to enliven any garden from late spring to frost. Old-fashioned flowers (and newer cultivars), they all grow relatively tall-three to four feet (with some lower-growing varieties), and are good as cut flowers. In fact, cutting flowering stems actually encourages more blooms. Best of all, each is easy to grow from seed planted directly in the garden. Although the seeds can be sown indoors and then transplanted into the garden after spring thaw, it is easier and more reliable to start them outside. In addition, they all have the tendency to self-sow; it is often only necessary to plant seeds the first year as they may come back. Take photos of the seedlings as they emerge from the soil to provide a reference for the following spring, preventing accidentally weeding out “good” plants.
Zinnias, Zinnia elegans, (pronounced zeen-yuz in the Midwest and South, and zin-ee-uhs in the East and West) are also exceptional cut flowers. Old-fashioned varieties can reach two and one-half to three feet-right at a child’s eye level. Even a small planting of zinnias creates a riot of color in deep reds, oranges, magentas, pinks, and even some bicolors-all summer long. Although often included in a cutting garden, if space is limited, a small planting provides enough flowers to enjoy indoors while painting a pretty picture in the garden.
Traditional bachelor’s-buttons, Centaurea cyanus, are sky blue, resembling chicory that grows wild along roadways in late spring and summer. The one-inch-wide flowers have a somewhat shaggy look with their roughly overlapping petals. Newer cultivar colors are white, pink, and maroon.
Mexican sunflowers, Tithonia rotundifolia, (also called Mexican hats) are not sunflowers, yet their vivid orange, two- to four-inch, daisylike blooms rival the impact of sunflowers. There are short or tall varieties available. In rich soil with ample space, a single tall plant can be mistaken for a shrub at 6 feet. Cultivars come in varying shades of orange, and, more recently, yellow.
Cosmos bipinnatus (Mexican asters) have a lovely light, airy look with their dainty, fernlike foliage and daisylike flowers. Traditionally, the flower colors are pink, white, or magenta, all with yellow centers. Cosmos add a cool touch to the garden. Orange blooms are now part of the color palette.
Lastly, remember to include Gloriosa daisies, Rudbeckia hirta. Resembling Black-Eyed Susans, they harmonize well with Mexican sunflowers, orange cosmos, and sunflowers-each with a similar form, distinguished by flower size and hue.
All of these easy-to-grow flowers can be found in mail order catalogs or seed packet racks in retail stores. Go to the Member Directory in www.ngb.org to locate retail seed sources.