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the peak of the cool season

As I sit here writing on my front porch, the sweet candy fragrance of sweet peas is dancing in the breeze. This part of the afternoon, fragrance often dissipates in the heat, and already the heights of the afternoon sun are starting to produce the kind of heat that makes me thankful for air conditioning (or at least the very protecting cedar trees in our yard, which just started to leaf out last weekend).

pinks in the herb garden

Last fall, I concentrated heavily on adding more fragrant plants to my garden, and I have to say I am not disappointed. The combined gathering of sweet olive, sweet peas, roses (many of which are in full bloom right now), lemon tree blooms, Texas phlox and perennial pinks have made being in my garden so much more lavish. I even saw my first ever hummingbird (at least in Texas) this week, who appeared so overwhelmed by which flower to dip into first.

Next fall I am going to concentrate more heavily on perennials but in addition to building many new beds this year, I focused on mostly cool season plants, and annuals at that. This was my first year planting, alyssum, violas, pansies, sweet peas, annual dianthus, cornflowers, love-in-a-mist and larkspur, and almost all of these I planted from seed. Many of these plants only bloom in spring and some bloom all the way through winter. And at the moment all of these plants are at their peak. I am well aware that most of them will be quite crispy by next month. But for the moment it is worth enjoying them.

Snapdragons were the only plants I started from nursery transplants, in early October, and as with many of these cool-season annuals, I’ve learned from watching these grow all winter that they are best planted in fall so that you can enjoy them not only all winter but the lushness they achieve by spring is breathtaking. All of the snapdragons are re-blooming at the moment (they had a large bloom in November, followed by short spurts all winter), and each small plant has grown about 5 times its original size with many new blooming stalks. The particular variety I bought is also lightly fragrant, a cherry sweetness. You can be sure next year I am going to search out varieties with more fragrance in snapdragons, even if I have to grow from seed.

Alyssum fills out fast, and blooms quickly from seed as well. They too bloom all winter here. I liked them so much I planted a small pot of them on my patio steps, where guests could pass by and brush the fragrance.

Pansies and violas are pretty much a cool-season staple in Texas, and don’t seem to need any deadheading or shearing to stay blooming. They’ve hardly stopped since October.

Dianthus is also a cool-weather staple and even the annuals are sometimes known to return for a few years. But his year I really wanted to explore further the world of dianthus (which includes pinks, carnations, etc.) There are two kinds that frequent most nurseries around here, a short variety that often comes in reds and magentas, and a taller kind with fringed flowers ranging in from whites to darker pinks that is a bit more fragrant.

Amongst both perennial and annual Dianthus species I planted this fall, I tried a variety called Dianthus chinensis ‘Victoriana’, an annual Dianthus which has tall blooms of very fringed and sometimes double flowers–not too fragrant, but their wildflowery brilliant beauty makes up for that as well as the fact that they began blooming in December from a September seed planting and steadily reached their peak last month, each small plant filling out more than a foot of space. I’d recommend these to any Texas gardener looking for a bit more dramatic show than the usual kinds in nurseries.

But my most proud garden achievement has been the sweet peas. I tried over 20 different kinds from seed, some of which were early bloomers and began as early as January, and some of which have just begun now. For the most part, once these start growing they can be quite unwieldy vines but the fragrance and delicate butterfly beauty of their blooms makes up for the space they take.

In a month or so, a majority of my garden will probably begin to slow down, especially since this year I concentrated so heavily on cooler season plants, and annuals at that. But it was worth it for this one beautiful moment when the roses, the lemon tree, the alyssum, the pansies, the bluebonnets, the poppies, the dianthus and the snapdragons all synchronize all in this wild spring together.

I’m quite happy to have learned more about using annuals in my garden… I’ll always know now how many of them fill out, and how to use them with the regulars, the hard-working perennials–which ones transition into summer, which summer annuals need to take over. And perhaps next year will just be one big chorus after another.

sweet peas fall over each other