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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 winds. They 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.