I admit that, as the years go by, I'm becoming a lazy gardener. I want to simply stroll outside in the fall, leisurely toss down some seeds, and be rewarded with bountiful botanical beauty when I wake up from my long winter's nap. Only in our dreams, you say? That's what I thought, too, before I tried larkspur (Delphinium sp), an old-fashioned flower that seems devoted to making my gardening life easier.
My mother was the first to urge me to sow these stately beauties, promising me an English cottage garden look. When I ventured forth that first October to purchase some seeds, however, I had my doubts. How many times have I fallen in love with a seed package photo, only to be disappointed when so few germinate? After all, I'm in Texas and have given up hopes of ever having anything resembling an English garden. But to please mom, and with a hefty dose of wishful thinking, I decided to try this cool-season annual. There were several seed varieties available, some with double flowers or a single color. I couldn't resist the assemblage of blues, whites, and lavenders of the Giant Imperial Mix, but I planned to return the next year for the pure whites if my experiment panned out.
I picked a perfect sunny location --- the base of my wrought iron fence. Larkspurs can grow incredibly tall, with tightly compact blossoms appearing in columns on towering spikes, so they're ideal as a backdrop for other early spring flowers or along fences or other back borders. The fern-like foliage is pleasing and delicate, and doesn't compete with the glory of the aristocratic blooms. I'm ashamed to say that I wasn't very diligent about preparing my soil. I'd thrown some planting mix at the base of my fence that past spring, but aside from that I hadn't augmented with fertilizers or mulch. Larkspur seeds resemble poppy seeds and as such are fairly small; as I sprinkled them along in a line, I remembered mom's advice to plant at a depth of only about 1/8 inch.
Amid the flurry of the winter holidays, I forgot all about them. Thanksgiving came and went, then Christmas. One frigid day I was ambling about outside in my ratty winter coat, wishing I had my summer days back, when I noticed the larkspurs poking up like miniature sprigs of parsley. Excited by the sight of green, I thinned them to about 4 inches apart, worried that my little newborns wouldn't survive a Texas February freeze.
Unbelievable. Not only did they survive, but every single one of my seedlings matured into a sturdy adolescent. They had a growth spurt in March, and when the afternoons started to warm they burst forth in all their splendor. Blues like velvet, luscious lavenders, all the shades in between, and here and there a welcome pink. I had my English garden at last, with the added bonus that they were just as beautiful arranged in a vase on my dining table. Most were almost knee high, but one stray seed had apparently made its way to an adjacent bed and the mature plant, unencumbered by siblings, was heading toward three feet. I made a mental note to leave more space between seedlings next time, although the effect I'd achieved by inadvertent crowding was lovely. So lovely, in fact, that for many weeks I had neighbors galore venturing up my driveway to admire them.
As if all this wasn't enough, it seems as if my larkspurs just couldn't do enough to please me. The next fall I put down more seeds, but when spring came along I noticed that I also had larkspurs coming up as far as ten yards away, in a vacant lot. The previous year's winds had carried the summer seeds far and wide, giving birth to larkspur babies hither and yon. I didn't hold out much hope for this batch, though, as they'd taken up residence in the middle of a deer trail. Incredibly, the voracious varmints passed them up, perhaps because larkspurs, both flowers and seeds, are toxic (something to consider if you have livestock or chewing pets). So now we have two more reasons to love larkspurs: They reseed themselves, and deer tend to shun them.
It's interesting that some advise starting the seeds indoors mid-winter and transplanting seedlings into the spring garden. However, other sources claim that the seedlings don't travel well and it's best to sow them directly. Undoubtedly these differences are due to variety, climate, and location, and like all gardening endeavors you'll have to experiment in accordance with your area. I can vouch for sowing them straight into central Texas soil in the fall, but we don't endure quite the lengthy winters of our northern gardener friends. That said, we've had some short but cruel freezes down here, and my larkspurs have returned each year.
Larkspurs won't last all summer, and they pack it in when the serious southern heat arrives (mildew sometimes becomes a problem). But it's so much fun to have an easy English garden --- even for a little while --- that this lazy Texas gardener highly recommends trying them.