In my humble opinion, no garden is complete without flowers. As much as I love growing food (so much!), flowers bring a delightful pop of color, beauty, and whimsy to any outdoor space. Not to mention, flowers provide food for pollinators and are often times significantly lower maintenance than food crops. No matter your climate, gardening experience, or living situation, consider growing some annual companion flowers this spring! I can guarantee that you won’t regret it.
Read along to learn about our top 7 favorite easy annual flowers to grow from seed. This article will help you become familiar with each one, including their general characteristics, beneficial uses, and some tips for growing them! I’ll also share our favorite varieties of each flower.
What do these flowers all have in common, you ask? The annual flowers chosen for this list can all be grown in virtually any zone, are easy to start from seed, and also to save seed from – making them both affordable and sustainable! They’re also fairly fuss-free, can be grown in containers, and make excellent companion flowers in a vegetable garden. Last but not least, each of these easy annual flowers serve as food source for wildlife and pollinators including bees, butterflies, birds, moths, and more. We love to grow beneficial flowers that serve many purposes – aside from just looking pretty!
Without further ado, and in no particular order…
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7 EASY ANNUAL FLOWERS TO GROW FROM SEED
1) Calendula ~ Calendula officinalis
Ok I lied. I said “in no particular order”… yet here I am, naming my number one favorite flower at the top of the list. Calendula are some of the best all-around flowers to grow because they’re beautiful, boast a long blooming season, and have SO many wonderful uses.
Sometimes calendula is referred to as “pot marigold” – but don’t confuse it with true marigolds, such as french marigolds! Marigolds are on this list of easy annual flowers too, but are distinctly different and not nearly as medicinal in nature.
Benefits of Calendula in the Garden
Calendula flowers attract bees and butterflies, and are also said to repel pest insects. Furthermore, its roots form beneficial associations with microbes and fungi in the soil, enhancing the invaluable “soil food web”.
Speaking of food, did you know that calendula is technically an herb? It sure is, and a highly medicinal and edible one at that! Therefore, calendula has many wonderful uses beyond the garden – and can be used in the kitchen, as natural medicine, or in homemade skin care products. For example, we make calendula-infused oil that I use as a daily facial moisturizer that can help heal acne, rashes, burns, psoriasis, eczema and more. According to the Chestnut School of Herbs, calendula tea can ease reflux, sore throats, heartburn, and IBS.
Quick Tips on Growing Calendula
Calendula seeds can be directly-sown outdoors after your last spring frost. Or, you can get a head start and sow calendula seeds in containers indoors (like we do!) up to 6-8 weeks before your last frost. Once they’re outside, calendula are fast-growing and will often self-seed. That means they’ll come back as volunteers year after year. Depending on the variety, the plants may stay short and compact or become a decently-sized little shrub.
Calendula are not picky about soil type, but they do prefer full sun. A partly shady location is also great in places with exceptionally hot summer climates. Expect prolific blooms from calendula in spring through fall. In places with mild winters, calendula can be grown year-round! Don’t be shy about harvesting the flowers. The more you take, the more they’ll bloom. Collect and save seeds from spent flower heads that are allowed to fully dry on the plant.
Calendula is so wonderful that I wrote an entire article dedicated to it. Check it out to learn more! “All About Calendula: How to Grow, Harvest, Dry & Use Calendula Flowers”
Our Favorite Calendula Varieties
2) Sunflowers ~ Helianthus
I mean, who doesn’t love sunflowers? The big cheery flowers always bring a smile to my face. In addition to the classic huge single-headed yellow flower, sunflowers come in a wide array of sizes, shapes, and colors. Personally, I am a sucker for multi-headed branching sunflowers. They provide an extended season of beautiful blooms and even more seeds per plant. Though we plant some single-stem types too!
Benefits of Sunflowers in the Garden
With their wide open flower structure, sunflowers provide easily-accessible pollen that bees go ga-ga for. That is, unless you choose, pollen-less varieties of sunflowers – which do exist. They also are a great source of seeds and nourishment for wild birds. Our spoiled chickens (wild, in a different way…) enjoy hours of entertainment pecking at spent sunflower heads near the end of summer.
Therefore, if you’re interested in supporting wildlife in your garden space, sunflowers are on the must-grow list! Read more about becoming a certified wildlife habitat here. Wildlife aside, certain sunflower varieties produce fat seeds that are ideal for human consumption too, like these “Snack Seed” or Mammoth varieties.
Quick Tips on Growing Sunflower
True to their name, sunflowers prefer to be planted in a location that receives full sun. Did you know the face of a sunflower actually moves throughout the day to follow the path of the sun? It is called heliotropism. Rad, right? So keep that in mind when you choose your planting location – they may turn their backs on you!
To start sunflowers seeds, you can either do so directly outside after the last spring frost, or get an early start indoors a few weeks prior. If you choose the latter, be sure to provide ample light so the seedlings don’t get too leggy and topple. They’re tall enough on their own already! Rightly so, some sunflowers may require staking for support as they grow. Most varieties are drought tolerant, so don’t overdo the water!
Seed-save from spent dry flowers at the end of the season. Sunflower seeds are ready for harvest when the plant foliage dies back, flower petals fade away, and the seeds look plump. I’ll share an article about how to soak and roast seeds for human snacks soon!
Our Favorite Sunflower Varieties
Or, check out this awesome variety pack of over 15 different sunflower types, including many of our favorites!
Zinnias are gorgeous daisy-like pouf balls of vibrant color. They’re another all-around favorite on this little homestead! Some zinnias grow on smaller, compact plants while others can reach several feet in height. They come in various shades of pink, red, purple, yellow, and even lime green.
Benefits of Zinnia in the Garden
The tall erect stems make zinnia an excellent cut flower, though we usually leave them in the garden for the bees and other pollinators to enjoy. Zinnia are an absolute favorite food source for our monarch butterflies. And when my monarchs are happy, I am happy! Did you know we are a certified monarch waystation and “raise” monarchs each summer? Learn more about attracting and responsibly raising monarch butterflies here.
Quick Tips on Growing Zinnia
It is usually recommended to direct-sow zinnia seeds outside after the last frost, as they’re said to not tolerate transplanting well. However, we often start them indoors with no issues. Just be sure to transplant them out when they’re still fairly small (after being properly hardened off) and before they become root bound in the slightest.
Zinnias like full sun, but will tolerate a little shade. They’re slightly more particular about their soil than other flowers on this list. Plant zinnias in soil that is rich with compost, but is still well-draining. One bummer about growing zinnias is their susceptibility to powdery mildew, which is rampant here. However, using this organic Green Cure treatment just once early in the season keeps the powdery mildew at bay for months – or prevents it all together!
Our Favorite Zinnia Varieties
4) Marigolds ~ Tagetes
Marigolds are probably one of the easiest annual flowers to grow, ever! And while they may not be outright show-stoppers like some sunflowers or zinnia, what they lack in beauty they more than make up for in utility. Don’t get me wrong! I think marigolds are very pretty, and definitely enjoy the bright pops of orange and red blooms against their dense dark green foliage sprinkled throughout the garden.
Benefits of Marigolds in the Garden
Marigolds are popular companion flowers, planted among vegetables in garden beds or close nearby. They attract beneficial insects like butterflies, ladybugs, hoverflies and parasitic wasps. Furthermore, they’re said to deter some pest insects such as Mexican bean beetles.
Classic French marigolds in particular are known to repel or stop root knot nematodes, a soil-dwelling parasite that feeds on the healthy root system of plants. To take advantage of that benefit, be sure to keep the marigold roots in place – using a “no till” method to cut the plant out (rather than yanking it out) at the end of the season.
Did you know that chickens love to eat marigolds? Our girls love the greens, and often help us “prune” unruly marigold plants that hang over the side of the garden bed. When chickens are fed bright orange marigold flowers, their egg yolks turn an even deeper orange hue. I often see butterflies snacking on marigolds too! The blossoms are edible for humans as well, and bring a beautiful pop of color to salads.
Quick Tips on Growing Marigolds
Like the other easy annual flowers on this list, you can either sow marigold seeds indoors 6-8 weeks before your last frost, or directly outside thereafter. Once they’re established in your garden, marigolds will likely self-seed and return as volunteers. If and when companion marigold plants start to crowd their neighbors, give them a good pruning! They don’t mind, and the greens are a great addition to compost.
Marigolds prefer full sun and warm temperatures to bloom most prolifically. However, we have grown them in partial-shade – no problem! Dead-heading spent blooms will also encourage more. They’re not picky about their soil type, and are suitable for containers. Maintain the soil moist, but not soggy.
Our Favorite Marigold Varieties
These dainty daisy-like flowers sit atop long slender stems. I find cosmos so whimsical, giving off a classic cottage garden vibe. While the most common cosmos varieties come in hues of pink and purple, they can be found in shades of yellow, orange, red, and even chocolate too!
Benefits of Cosmos in the Garden
Cosmos attract pollinators including birds, bees, butterflies, and other beneficial insects. On the other hand, they seem to have little-to-no pest issues! Definitely a bonus. The flower petals are edible and can be used as a playful garnish in drinks, salads, and more. Cosmos boast a long blooming season, and can also be used as cut flowers.
Quick Tips on Growing Cosmos
Cosmos sprout readily and are easy to direct-sow outdoors. Simply scatter seeds on bare soil in springtime after the danger of frost has passed. You can also start them indoors the weeks prior.
Cosmos are known to survive in even the poorest soil conditions, as long as it has good drainage. This makes them a perfect “filler” in any oddball place, with little-to-no preparation or effort required! In fact, it is recommended to avoid fertilizer altogether, as it can result in a lot of greenery but not many blooms. Cosmos are drought-tolerant and grow well in containers.
While they aren’t particular about their soil, Cosmos do prefer warm, dry weather and plenty of sunshine. In extremely hot climates, choose a location with partial shade. Depending on the variety and height your plants reach, cosmos may need staking or other support to prevent the plants from flopping over. Deadhead them regularly to promote more blooms (and to collect seeds or prevent them from re-seeding quite as much, which they’ll do)!
Our Favorite Cosmos Varieties
Truth be told, we have only grown this Scatter Mix of Cosmos!
6) Borage ~ Borago
If you aren’t familiar with borage yet, prepare to be impressed! Or maybe I should say cautiously intrigued… Because while borage has some awesome benefits, they’re almost too easy to grow. Borage is borderline invasive given how intensely it spreads its seeds and volunteers year-after-year. Hey, we don’t mind! Maybe you won’t either.
Benefits of Borage in the Garden
Borage is another multiuse all-star. The petite purple blue flowers are absolute bee magnets. They’re also beautiful, and edible! The taste of borage flowers is reminiscent of cucumber, making them a significantly more tasty addition to salads and beverages than say… earthy calendula or marigold petals. (No offense, you two!)
Beyond the flowers, borage greens are magnificent in their own right. Borage is a member of a group of plants dubbed “dynamic accumulators”, which also includes comfrey, yarrow, stinging nettle, chickweed, miner’s lettuce, horsetail, and others.
Borage and other dynamic accumulators have the ability to easily take up nutrients and minerals from the soil, and then store them in highly bioavailable forms and concentrations in their leaves. Those leaves can then be added as a nutrient-rich addition to compost, used as mulch, or turned into botanical tea to fertilize plants. We routinely mulch fruit trees and special container plants with borage leaves. (Note that borage leaves are also “edible” but contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which are known to be mildly toxic.)
Quick Tips on Growing Borage
Borage grows quickly, so start it indoors only 3-4 weeks before your last frost date. You may also directly sow seeds outdoors after the danger of frost has passed. Borage will be happy in either sun or partial shade, though it may become even more tall in shady locations as it stretches for the sun. It is not picky about soil type, and will even pop up in our gravel or between pavers.
As I already warned, borage will re-seed and spread quite prolifically. Thankfully, it doesn’t run underground, and unwanted volunteer seedlings are easy to pluck and remove. Again, those guys will make great mulch and compost – especially if you pull them before the plant blooms (reducing further re-seeding). One way to reduce the spread is to remove borage flowers before they go to seed and drop. The same goes for all of the flowers on this list.
Our Favorite Borage Variety
That’s easy, because there is only one type of borage: borago officinalis.
7) Nasturtium ~ Tropaeolum
Oh you nasty little things you… Actually, there is nothing nasty about Nasturtiums! I just love calling them “nasties” for some reason. Nasturtiums are another super-easy companion flower that I can’t imagine our garden without. Their lush cascading greenery dotted with colorful flowers creates an incredibly beautiful and dramatic effect.
Benefits of Nasturtium in the Garden
Here is another flower with more uses than you may imagine! Nasturtiums are an awesome companion flower. They serve as a “trap crop”, attracting pest insects such as aphids and cabbage worms to their foliage rather than your veggies. Ours never become so infested to prevent them from being beautiful and thriving. However, if your trap works a little too well, I suggest removing aphid or caterpillar-infested leaves or sections of the plant to prevent pest colonization in your garden.
Bees enjoy nasturtium flowers immensely. I once read that hummingbirds were also attracted to nasturtiums but didn’t really believe it, until we saw some dining on the nasties in our yard!
Finally, did you know that nasturtiums are edible? Both the flowers and tender leaves have a peppery, zesty flavor – reminiscent of arugula. Try adding both to salads! When they’re still young, fresh and green, nasturtium seed pods are also edible. Referred to as “poor man’s capers”, some gardeners and foragers like to pickle or ferment them. We tried that once. Unlike the leaves and flowers, I won’t readily recommend these. Despite soaking and repeatedly rinsing them for days before starting the lacto-fermentation process, the sulfur odor was too overpowering for us to enjoy them. Truth be told, they smelled like egg farts in a jar! I think we’ll stick to fermenting radishes, dilly beans, and hot pepper sauce instead.
Quick Tips on Growing Nasturtiums
These guys prefer to be directly-sown, though starting indoors is possible too. I recommend to direct sow seeds outdoors after the last frost. Plant once, and they’ll be back! Nasturtiums are another notorious self-seeding volunteer, but one we welcome with open arms.
Nasturtiums are perhaps the most shade-tolerant annual flower on this list. They will grow just about anywhere, but flower the most when they receive at least 6 hours of sun. On the other hand, they may look a bit haggard in full sun with extreme heat, so opt for a location with afternoon shade in the hottest climates. Provide low to moderate water in well-draining soil.
Some nasturtium varieties grow into compact bushes, while others sprawl a bit more. Vining nasturtiums can be trained up arches and trellises, or allowed to spill over the side of a raised bed for a beautiful cascade effect. We grow a little of each!
Our Favorite Nasturtium Varieties
That sums up our favorite easy annual companion flowers!
Now of course, there is a whole plethora of other amazing flowers you could (or should) be growing! Some of our favorites include lavender, echinacea, salvia, yarrow, scabiosa, flowering herbs like oregano, bee balm, sage, anise hyssop and more! I love all of them just as much as the easy annual flowers included on this list. However, they may not be quite as quick and simple to start from seed, may be more particular about climate and care, or are commonly grown as perennials.
To see a full list of our favorite flowers, check out: The Top 23 Plants for Pollinators: Attract Bees, Butterflies & Hummingbirds.
In closing, I hope you thoroughly enjoyed learning about what we consider the best easy annual companion flowers to grow. I also hope you learned something new, and perhaps were introduced to a soon-to-be staple variety in your garden. To learn more about companion planting in general, see: “Companion Planting 101” – which also includes a companion planting chart!
Did I miss any of your top easy annual flowers? Let me know in the comments below! As always, feel free to ask questions and please spread the flower power by sharing this article.