Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
I was shopping for plants with some friends recently, 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 tended to always want to buy the same annuals in the same colors she had always bought.
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 this 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.
Planting annuals can get expensive, especially if you choose plants, and the larger the pot, the higher the cost. Four or six-packs in flats are probably the most cost effective way to purchase annual plants. Most places will let you mix and match the individual cell packs for a set price for a flat's worth. That's a great way to try several new annuals without committing to huge numbers of plants.
Many annuals are surprisingly easy to grow from seed. Many can even be direct seeded in the garden with good success, such as marigold, cosmos, and zinnia. If you start seeds indoors, consider trying to start some annuals to get a jump on the season. I took a chance and started some wave petunias alongside the tomatoes I start indoors each winter, and I'm impressed with the results.
Another advantage to trying annuals from seed is the selection. In general, there is a better selection of plant varieties and colors when you grow from seed.
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.
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. To add to the confusion, I bought a six-pack of violas this year that had a tag stuck in the soil that said perennial, but the printing on the side of the six-pack said it was annual. Time will tell how perennial they really are.
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 pulled a bunch of them up this spring, which made perfect sense to him, but drives me nuts. He explained to me that he pulled them because they were growing in a bed where we didn't plant them and they didn't belong there. He tends to want things to grow in neat little rows at right angles to each other, so this didn't' surprise me. It frustrated me, but didn't surprise me.
Planting annuals in straight rows is fine, but remember it's not your only option. Mass plantings of an annual in one or similar colors is always eye-catching, especially along roadways or from a distance. Some of the most stunning annual beds I've seen are done in sweeping curves, looking like someone brushed the landscape with a colorful paintbrush. Another memorable bed had a mass planting of one annual, with a single row of a contrasting color spiraling towards the center.
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–www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/annuals.html