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Old-fashioned Flowers for Today’s Gardens

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old-fashioned flowers sweet peas

Sweet peas are favorite old-fashioned flowers that are easy to grow from seed.

Today’s new varieties may entertain our imaginations, but it’s the flowers found in our grandmothers’ gardens that evoke fond memories. Those old-fashioned cultivars remind us of simpler times, when the summer was measured in bloom and fragrance. Adding a few of these old favorites creates a touchstone to the past. Many are easily started from seed indoors in winter.

The diverse members of the genus Aquilegia start blooming right after the tulips in many parts of the country and can continue until midsummer. With their unique cup-shape flower adorned with a flare of spurs they add interesting texture and color to the early season’s garden. Columbine is a derivative of the Latin word columba, which means dove; when you turn the flower over you’ll see a shape like five doves grouped together.

Wild species can be found throughout the country, although the western states boast the more interesting varieties, including the baby blue and bright white Rocky Mountain columbine (Aquilegia caerulea). Columbines readily cross-pollinate, producing the riot of hues we all love; just look to the McKana Group, often sold as a seed mix that gives rise to two-foot-tall plants popping in quiet pastels as well as vibrant reds and yellows.
Columbines prefer full sun, although they will tolerate dappled light. They’ll often self-sow, and you can easily transplant seedlings to wherever you want them. (Their flowers may not resemble those of the parent plant.) Most are perennials hardy in USDA Zones 3 through 9.

Sweet Peas
The sweet smell of these cheerful annuals probably evokes more pleasant memories than any other flower. Sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus) grow when the weather is cool, covering any fence or trellis with dozens of fragrant, delicate flowers. Pick them frequently to encourage additional blossoms.

The first record of sweet peas dates to the 1690s in Sicily, when a Fr. Francis Cupani took note of this beautiful native, but they became exceedingly popular in the 1900s, with the introduction of exquisite new varieties. Many modern hybrids boast an increased suitability for warm climates, but they often lack the signature fragrance. For a sweet smelling bouquet, look for ‘Old Spice,’ a variety from 1901, the renowned ‘Painted Lady’ or the more recent ‘Bramdean’.

It’s often recommended to soak sweet pea seeds to improve germination, but I’ve had better luck nicking them with a knife or fingernail clippers instead. In the North, seedlings can be planted outside about a week or two before the typical last frost, from seeds sown in flats or small pots about a month before that. Alternatively, sow the seeds outdoors three to four weeks before the average last frost date. Southern gardeners typically plant sweet pea seeds outside in November or December, once the weather cools.

Bachelor Buttons
Centuarea cyanus is an annual native to the Mediterranean region. In Greek mythology it’s told that Chiron, the most famous centaur (half-man, half-horse), healed himself by using bachelor buttons after a battle—thus the name Centaurea. Their common name, meanwhile, hails from the Victorian era, when these little flowers adorned the buttonholes of men’s suits.

The bright blue, purple, mauve or white flowers continue to bloom throughout the first part of the summer, well beyond when the heat makes other flowers wither. Keep cutting the flowers to encourage more bloom. They thrive in full sun, take most soil conditions and will easily grow three feet tall. Give them plenty of room, and it’s best if you can plant them where they can reseed year after year.

From the diminutive two-foot-tall varieties, such as the Magic Fountains series, to the seven-foot Pacific Giants, delphiniums (Delphinium elatum; Zones 3–7) make a statement. A single plant can be a focal spot in a small garden, while a group makes striking appeal in a larger space. The name delphinium comes from the ancient Greek word for dolphin, delphis, and you may see a resemblance in the flower.

Some gardeners avoid delphiniums because their size can cause them to topple over, but it’s worth it to provide support or try a shorter variety. Whenever possible, choose a place that is sheltered from the wind. Delphiniums prefer full sun, fertile soil and consistent watering. You can start them easily enough from seed by sowing them in the middle of winter, although they won’t bloom until the following year. Space them a couple of feet apart in a large display.

With over 20 species in this genus, there is plenty to love about Rudbeckia (Zones 3–7). Some of the most popular are those that bloom from late summer into fall: black-eyed Susans (R. hirta) and yellow coneflowers (R. fulgida) that brighten the waning garden with their yellow or gold flowers.

Many varieties, such as the three-foot-tall Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldstrum’, are beloved for their big burst of yellow in the garden. In small spaces, try R. f. var. s. ‘Little Goldstar’, which reaches just 14 inches high. You can start rudbeckias from seed, although it’s much easier to buy plants, or beg divisions from a friend.

With double varieties, short ones, tall ones and all sorts of colors, there’s nothing boring about zinnias. But this wasn’t always the case. As a native of the Americas, zinnias weren’t highly sought. In fact, people thought they were ugly. But by the nineteenth century, breeders developed more interesting varieties, giving zinnias a place in gardens and a favorite, durable cut flower. There’s a zinnia for every situation: The ‘Lilliput Mix’ grows 18 to 24 inches tall, ideal for the front of the bed, while the ‘California Giants’ tower at 4 feet in height.

Start zinnia seeds inside four to six weeks prior to the last frost date. You can just as easily direct seed them in the garden a couple of weeks before the last frost, but you’ll wait longer for blooms. Choose a site in the full sun, and keep them well watered to enjoy brilliant flowers from the late summer through the fall.

Image credit: Andyd / E+ / Getty Images