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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.


I was shopping for plants with some friends, and as I nabbed some annuals I had been looking high and low for, one friend turned to me and said jokingly, "friends don't let friends buy annuals!" I challenged her to try and stop me!

My friend was joking, but now and then I run into people who tell me they "only plant perennials" as if it is some mark of advanced gardening and good taste. My personal opinion is that they are missing out on some really fun plants for the garden.

I'm not saying you should plant all annuals though. Not only would that be expensive to replant each year, there would be nothing to look at during the cold months! No winter interest, just bare soil.

The way I use annuals in my garden is to accent the perennials and shrubs that are there. In my quest to have flowers always blooming somewhere in my garden throughout the growing season, the constant color of annuals helps bridge the gap between perennial bloom times.

Growing up it was always a sign that warm weather had arrived for good when mom said it was time to buy flowers. I always wanted to go along to help pick out that year's annuals. My mom is a creature of habit and tends to always want to buy the same annuals in the same colors from year to year.

There options available for annuals are expanding every year. If you are stuck in a rut like my mom, I encourage you to take a risk this year and buy an annual you've never grown. You just might be surprised.

Depending on where you live in the world, different plants are considered "annuals". Technically speaking, annuals grow, flower, set seed, and die all in one growing season. They cannot survive the temperatures of the winter months. So if you live in a warmer place, chances are that more plants will survive through the winter, changing your definition of an "annual".

Often the plants we grow outdoors as annuals are tropical in origin. So are many of our houseplants–why not grow a few outdoors beside "traditional" annuals? You may have a garden's worth of annuals among your houseplants!

Try a spider plant in the center of a container instead of a spike. Vigorous growers like Wandering Jew will cover an area in no time. It's funny, but placing common houseplants in the landscape confuses many people. Taken out of the indoor landscape, they look like exotic new plants never seen before.

I've noticed that with some people there is a point in the growing season that they conclude it is "too late" to plant annuals. I say it's never too late!

Sometimes as the summer wears on you notice a "hole" in the garden that needs color. The annuals planted months earlier may be petering out despite your watering and fertilizing efforts. You may have grown to hate the color combination you fell in love with earlier in the spring.

You don't even need a reason. Just finding an interesting new plant is reason enough for me.

There is a grey area with some plants that are sold as annuals, but in reality may survive mild winters or reseed readily. Choosing these plants is one way you can stretch your budget for annual flowers. Annuals that commonly reseed are bachelor's buttons, cleome, petunia, snapdragon, portulaca, and sweet alyssum.

But keep in mind that some of the newer varieties do not set seed. For example, the alyssum cultivar 'Snow Princess' is one such variety. It was bred to not set seed, and instead uses its energy toward flowering much more profusely than older varieties of alyssum. It also has impressive heat tolerance, even in last year's ridiculous heat. I planted some of the 'Snow Princess' for my mom last year, who is not very easily swayed from her tried and true favorite annuals. Amazingly, she recently called asking if I could get her some more this year, as she was so impressed with the flowering last summer. This is a mark of a great plant if my mom calls asking for it!

Two of my favorite annual flowers that sometimes think they're perennial are dianthus and viola. I've seen cultivars of each of these plants sold as perennials, while other cultivars are sold as annuals. In both cases I've had the cultivars sold as annuals either survive outright or reseed in my garden.

Plants that reseed may or may not work with your gardening style. I personally like to see where violas will pop up in my garden. Maybe that's how they got the common name "Johnny jump up"!

This random habit of violas drives my husband nuts. He used to pull them if he finds them growing in a bed where we didn't plant them – in his opinion they don't belong there. He tends to want things to grow in neat little rows at right angles to each other, so this doesn't surprise me. It frustrates me, but doesn't surprise me. Over time I've noticed he's softening his stance a bit, and a lot of the time he lets plants grow even if he didn't plant it there originally. I'm breathing a sigh of relief!

As with other plants, success with annuals depends on you knowing how to put the "right plant in the right place". Just because an annual only lives for one growing season does not mean it can grow anywhere. There is no shortage of publications available that will help you in designing and growing beautiful annuals. U of I Extension has a great website that will get you started–

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