Zinnias with purple chairs.

Annuals are flashy garden accessories

If perennials are the little black dresses of the garden world, then annuals are gardening’s flashy accessories. They bring color to our lives. They brighten up shady spots. They bloom their entire seasons, cool or warm, with very little help from us.

Please don’t leave annuals out of your planting design. They are full of color your eyes can’t get enough of.

Annuals are flashy garden accessories. Weedy-looking, but excellent orange cosmos growing in partial shade.

Weedy-looking, but excellent orange cosmos growing in partial shade.

When I garden coach, clients always say they want an “easy” garden, and the next word out of their mouths is “perennials.” I’m not anti-perennial, but they are a lot of work if you want to keep them blooming and tidy. My garden is full of long-blooming perennials like daylilies, shasta daisies, mums and asters, but I can’t be without annuals either. I also wouldn’t be without plants grown in my part of the country as annuals even if they are perennial somewhere else. These are tropical and subtropical plants, and I’ll profile them later this week.

No perfume like Vigna caracalla, corkscrew vine, a tropical grown as an annual here.

No perfume like Vigna caracalla, corkscrew vine, a tropical grown as an annual here.

Why people think perennials are less trouble than annuals, I don’t know. Sure, some perennials can stay in the same spot year after year, but they must be groomed, deadheaded, divided and often staked to look their best. Perennials left to their own devices are like wearing your little black dress to a party–then simply hanging it in the closet afterward–even though the guy next to you spilled not only his drink on your dress, but also his crudités and onion dip. Get the picture?

Mirabilis jalapa, four o'clocks 'Salmon Sunset'

Mirabilis jalapa, four o’clocks, ‘Salmon Sunset’

I can hear you saying, “but annuals must be replaced every year.” So? It takes part of a day to replant them, or a few moments to scatter their seeds. Grooming and dividing perennials takes just as long.

'Profusion Apricot' zinnias that now reseed in the garden every year.

‘Profusion Apricot’ zinnias that now reseed in the garden every year. These don’t easily get powdery mildew like the Z. elegans type.

Clients also see annuals as a huge expense. If you grow some of them from seed, they are quite reasonable. You can even scatter some seeds directly outdoors. Happy and prolific zinnias were an essential part of my first garden. Powdery mildew finally took them down, but I enjoyed them all summer first. I still plant zinnias every year, and there are now so many different types available.

'Persian Carpet' zinnias

‘Persian Carpet’ zinnias

If you don’t mind starting seeds indoors, you can grow annuals for a pittance. Plus, you’ll have plants, or certain varieties of plants that no one else on your block grows. According to my husband, we gardeners are the most competitive people on the planet, so growing something your neighbor wants is probably more fun that you’d like to admit.

Red globe amaranth with 'Haight Ashbury' hibiscus. Doesn't it look like marijuana?

Gomphrena globosa, probably ‘Strawberry Fields’, red globe amaranth, with ‘Haight Ashbury’ hibiscus

Here are some annuals I start from seeds, both indoors and out.

  • Calendula officinalis, pot marigold, sown directly in the garden. They look so nice in the cool weather vegetable garden with kale, Swiss chard, cabbages, and bok choy.
  • Centaurea cyanus, bachelor’s buttons. True blue flowers are so hard to come by in the garden. Try ‘Blue Boy.’
  • Cosmos in all their varied types. They are very shallow rooted so you may need to stake them against our harsh windsThey are sown outdoors.
  • Gomphrena globosa ‘Strawberry Fields’ or one of the QIS varieties from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. ‘Bicolor Rose’ is also quite striking. Start indoors or out. They reseed.
  • Ipomoea tricolor (the genus seems to be in a state of taxonomic renaming at the moment.) Morning glories, those loose ladies of the gardening world, will keep your landscape awash in seedlings. ‘Heavenly Blue’, ‘Grandpa Otts’ or ‘President Tyler’ are all quite beautiful. Also, try double flowering ‘Sunrise Serenade.’ I. alba, moon vine is delightful for evening moths to dine upon.
  • Mirabilis jalapa, four o’clocks. Grow ‘Teatime Mix’ or ‘Salmon Sunset’ for a unique show. Now, I realize four o’clocks, especially the original pink ones, can be perennial, but often the more unique varieties aren’t. If four o’clocks don’t come back, they will usually reseed with abandon. I have ‘Salmon Sunset’ in the garage garden, and they’ve reseeded for two seasons so far. Swallowtail Seeds has three or four mixes of four o’clocks.
  • Nasturtiums, directly sown outside. Try ‘Alaska Mix’ for variegated foliage. Renee’s Seeds has a lot of choices for nasturtiums.
  • Nicotiana, including N. langsdorffii or N. sanderae ‘Perfume Deep Purple’, have graced my bed that faces the street for years. Nan Ondra has written extensively of various nicotianas she has loved on her blog, Hayefield.
  • Pansies. Start indoors for earlier bloom.
  • Pennisetum glaucum, ornamental millet. ‘Jester’ is my favorite.
  • Peppers for looks only like ‘Jigsaw’, ‘Black Pearl’, ‘Fireworks’, ‘Medusa’ and ‘Purple Flash.’ Peppers are tropicals, but I’m blurring the lines a bit with this post.
  • Poppies like the Flemish Antique ones, direct sown in early February here.
  • Sunflowers. Oh my, such choice. Grow whichever ones suit your fancy.
  • Zinnias like Profusion Double Hot Cherry, sown indoors so I can control where they are placed. You can also scatter zinnia seeds outdoors with great success.
Red nasturtium

Red nasturtium

Where do I find these unusual seed varieties? Chiltern Seeds is one of the best places, and I’ve listed several other companies, above. Chiltern’s is in England so some of the flowers don’t translate well to the U.S., but their amaranth section is simply mind boggling. Maybe you want some different snapdragons for spring or fall bloom? Chiltern Seeds has them. If you live in the South though, remember that England’s summer is our spring. Nasturtiums and calendulas won’t bloom all summer here unless it’s one weird summer.

'Grandpa Otts' morning glories with blue pots in 2011.

‘Grandpa Otts’ morning glories with blue pots in 2011.

Another good place for unusual seeds is Outside Pride, an odd name for a seed company, but whatever. If you want to add clover to your lawn, or grow some unique ornamental grasses, this is the place. They also have lots of other seeds. I’ve been pleased with their service and seed quality. They also give you a lot of seeds which is nice if you’re broadcasting seed, or something doesn’t come up the first time. Yes, it happens.

Viola x wittrockiana Dynamite Pink pansies

Viola x wittrockiana Dynamite Pink pansies are another type I don’t often see here.

If you still need convincing to grow some annuals from seed, here goes. Perhaps, you like a particular pansy mix like Antique Shades, but it went out of fashion in your part of the country, so no local nursery started plants. If you start your own seed, you can always get what you want no matter what is fashionable, or what hybridizers are pushing, for a particular year. Usually, you can find seeds for most plants because the Internet is a vast storehouse of many, many things. Also, if your favorite plant isn’t a hybrid, you can save your own seeds that over time will perform best in your climate. Chiltern Seeds has nineteen varieties of calendula, commonly known as pot marigold. The English have taken calendula to a high art.

Darling calendulas growing in my potager. They are edible, and the petals look great splashed across salads.

Darling calendulas growing in my potager. They are edible, and the petals look great splashed across salads.

Where would the little black dress be without its flashy accessories like a great scarf, earrings or a bracelet? Boring, that’s where, and although some people think gardeners are boring, we aren’t. Our gardens don’t need to be either.

Have I convinced you that annuals deserve a place in your garden plans? I hope so. When you’re sitting before the fire next January with seed catalogs and dreaming of your garden, give a few new packets of seed a whirl.

If you try even a few of these, you’ll thank me next spring and summer. I promise.

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27 comments on “Annuals are flashy garden accessories

  1. Love the bold color in your garden and the engaging detail you have included in your design.

  2. Norma

    I love this article. It brought back memories of my first year gardening, when I lived in Kansas City. I was a stay-at-home mom, so my income was limited, but I had time to devour gardening books and online articles. My focus was gardening on a very tight budget, so SEEDS were the answer. That first spring I had so many flowers and tomatoes that after giving some away, I had to throw some out, which pained me.
    This year I am back to staying home, for different reasons, so once again SEEDS are the answer. 🙂 I am going to look at some of these annuals on your list.

    1. Dee Nash

      Thank you very much Norma. You made my day. I’m so glad you liked the post. I used to grow everything from seed too. It’s a great way to grow and save money.

  3. commonweeder

    When I became a member of the Bridge of Flowers committee I learned how vital annuals are to a floriferous season. Actually the Bridge of Flowers is a perfect example of a mixed border beginning with bulbs in the spring, but continuing through the season with perennials, shrubs, flowering trees, vines AND annuals. Our head gardener is always on t he lookout for new interesting annuals like annual foxglove. Bi-color!

    1. Dee Nash

      Nice! I would love to see this Bridge of Flowers Pat. Have there been any photos taken of it and posted online. I agree that we need a little of everything to make the seasons move and shake. You know I love my bulbs.

  4. Emma

    I love annuals! You have amazing flowers! Thank you a lot for this article! I will definitely plant most of these! Regards!

    1. Dee Nash

      Thank you Emma! I love annuals, tropicals, bulbs, perennials all. 🙂 Since you live in London, I bet these will all work for you. Hurray!

  5. Beth @ PlantPostings

    It’s so interesting to hear your thoughts about annuals, Dee. It seems like gardeners in the north are more likely to have annuals as a matter of regular practice than those in the south or middle states. We have a much shorter growing season (generally)–maybe that’s why. We’re so anxious to move from winter to spring, especially after a difficult winter like last year. I agree with you–annuals are very much a part of my garden. I use them as potted plants, as cut flowers in my potager, and as fabulous companion plants to my vegetables. Great post!

    1. Dee Nash

      Beth, I think you’re right. Plus, northerners are used to stuff dying in the cold. Southerners have so many things they can grow, and many of it overwinters. The further south we go, they can garden all through the winter with camellias and such. I envy them.

  6. Lisa at Greenbow

    You have me craving spring already. I guess I will make a list for next summer.

    1. Dee Nash

      Lisa, what do you think this post is? It’s my list for next summer. That’s how I keep track. 😉

  7. Anonymous

    Always love your blogs! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Dee Nash

      Why thank you Anonymous! I wish I knew who you were. 🙂

  8. Kathy from Cold Climate Gardening

    I love the annuals that you can scatter on the ground and will do so themselves the following year. But I have found that most seeds started indoors here in my cold climate need to be planted out exactly when everything else needs to be done, and they often get neglected. So I am not as inclined to start indoors myself, but I agree you get greater diversity and better economy from starting from seed. To blue annuals I would add larkspur and nigella. Forget-me-not is a biennial but is a great blue for spring.

    1. Dee Nash

      You know, Kathy, for the life of me I can’t seem to grow nigella. I must be doing something wrong. However, I do love larkspur, but I found out from you and Gail that I should be planting it in December instead of February to get a better show.

  9. Rose

    What a great post, Dee! I love the image of the little black dress with the crudites and drinks spilled on it:) I’m glad to meet a like-minded person: a few in my local garden group turn up their noses at annuals, but I wouldn’t be without them. There are times in the garden when annuals are the main blooms, and I still have many blooming right now including zinnias, cosmos, and the less hardy salvias like ‘Wendy’s Wish.’ As you say, they don’t have to be expensive if you direct sow or start the seeds indoors yourself, and several, like the nicotania, re-seed in my garden every year, so they’re almost like having perennials. I have my favorites I plant every year, but I appreciate the suggestions of some new ones I haven’t tried and especially the sources for the seeds. I pinned this to my Pinterest board so I can remember these this winter when I’m ordering seeds.

    1. Dee Nash

      Rose, I’m so glad you pinned some images. It really does help spread the word too. I pinned my own images to an annuals board so I would also remember what I like to grow. I’ll check my seed stock in a few months to see what I need to re-order. Happy sowing.

  10. Lady of LaMancha

    I admit it – I am one of the weak. I do not care for annuals, but do not think ill of me! I actually do have some that grow in my garden that the birds must have brought, including four o’clocks and morning glories, and I let them do their thing. I think the problem that I have with many annuals is that I’m not keen on hot pink or bright orange (especially when they’re together!), so zinnias, mariglds, calendulas and the like just make me cringe. I do like blue, however, so I promise to give bachelor’s buttons a whirl…

    1. Dee Nash

      Lady of LaMancha, I completely understand. In your part of the world, I bet bright colored annuals dominate, but I would add to the Bachelor’s buttons, larkspur and nigella as Kathy suggested above. Also, have you tried perwinkles? They should like your hot weather, and they come in a variety of pinks, purples and whites. Just a thought. By the by, I actually love perennials, and my garden is full of them. I just know they aren’t as easy as people make them out to be.

  11. Patrick

    Nicely down, my fiery headed friend. Corkscrew vine and ‘Salmon Sunset’ are new to me so on my list for next year. An old friend got me going on putting white morning glory and moonflower on the same tower or trellis for a seamless transitionary effect. Try it, blog about it and give credit where credit is due, of course. Congrats on the success of your book which I’m including in my garden gifts column in the KC Gardener. Best, Patrick.

    1. Dee Nash

      Thanks Patrick! I think you’ll love the scent of corkscrew vine. I have planted morning glories with moonvine here before, but I never wrote about it. You should. 🙂

  12. Nell Jean

    Excellent list! I always forget when time comes to plant cool season annuals like Nasturtium and Calendula. To the summer annuals I would add Tithonia, Melampodium and Madagacar periwinkle in hot climates, all well-behaved reseeders who return in place.

    Those who want ‘easy’ gardens do not want perennials; they want shrubs, carefully chosen for their optimum size and a good yard person.

    1. Dee Nash

      Yes, they are really good too. Absolutely, shrubs, while not interesting unless they’re unique ones, are pretty easy if you have a yard person. Good one Nell Jean!

  13. Laurin Lindsey

    Wonderful suggestion! Like the list of what you grew from seeds : )

    1. Dee Nash

      I’m kind of a seed nut Laurin. I love them.

  14. littlesproutslearning

    You have some beautiful annuals in your list! Thanks for sharing! I LOVE zinnias for their never give up attitudes. 🙂

    1. Dee Nash

      Me too. Yes!