Photo and Article by Dawn Pettinelli for UConn Extension
While there are many spectacular perennials that come back year after year, I really love annuals for that splash of long-lasting color they impart to the landscape. Fiery salvias, soft celosias, autumnal hued sunflowers and brilliant white cosmos are just a sampling of the huge selections of annuals to choose from. When planning your gardens, do take into account an annual’s floriferous nature and its ability to provide you with color over a large part of our growing season. Use annuals alone in flower beds, in containers, in combination with perennials and herbs, to set off shrub borders or to brighten up planting areas under trees.
One of my favorite jobs was that as a horticulturist at Old Sturbridge Village. We would spend the winter months pouring over seed catalogs designing annual displays for the dozens of exhibition beds. Seeds would be ordered and we would start 10 to 12 thousand in the greenhouses before hardening them off and setting the transplants in their designated beds as the weather warms. I still have not gotten out of that ritual although I only start 2 to 3 hundred seeds under my plant lights these days.
A few suggestions for those pondering what to plant. First, do plan your color scheme before purchasing your plants. Take into consideration what will be blooming nearby, the color of adjacent buildings and the annual’s mature size and texture. Sometimes primary colors are just what is needed to liven up drab spots. Other times, soft pastels are called for. Large plantings of a single color look more formal while a mixed color border can be designed to give the feel of an English cottage garden. Keep in mind, however, that too many different shapes, sizes and colors can lose their charm as the eye doesn’t know where to focus and the planting becomes more distractive than attractive.
Also, consider the distance from which the garden will be primarily viewed. Strong, vibrant reds, yellows, pinks and oranges can be seen from a long way off. Quieter purples, blues and pastel pinks tend to recede and need to be viewed up close for greatest appreciation.
Remember that an annual’s sole purpose in life is to produce seeds to perpetuate itself. Once it feels that it has made enough, your annual plants will begin to slack off on the flowering. That is why it is important to remove spent blossoms on a regular basis. If seeds are not set, the plants will keep on producing flowers. The removal of spent blossoms is commonly referred to as dead heading. Some vegetatively propagated annuals as well as tender perennials do not readily set seed. Others, like fibrous begonias, are relatively self-cleaning. These types do not need dead-heading.
When selecting annuals, match the plant’s growth requirements to the site. For hot, dry areas try dusty miller, statice, amaranthus, tithonia, Madagascar periwinkle, gazania, portulaca, salvia, creeping zinnia, globe amaranth and Dahlberg daisy. For an old-fashioned touch, use poppies, love-lies-bleeding, salpiglossus, celosia, four o’clocks, gomphrena, love-in-a-mist or bachelor buttons.
Annuals that do well in shady sites include coleus, begonias, impatiens, torenia, nicotiana, pansies, mimulus, browallia and polka dot plants. There have been problems with impatiens downy mildew so a lot of garden centers were cutting back on the amount of impatiens they are selling. I lost all my impatiens in 2012 to downy mildew so did not plant any last year but several 2013 plantings not too far from me seemed fine to me so I was going to try some again this summer.
Some possible color combinations that I find particularly alluring are pink zinnias, bells of Ireland and white sweet alyssum, blue ageratums combined with cream-colored (white) marigolds and peach celosia, and orange tithonia accompanied by blue salvia and pert yellow marigolds. Silvery dusty miller goes nicely with the cooler pastels as well as warmer reds and yellows. I’ve used it as a lovely border for orange zinnias as well as in combination with pink snapdragons and pink ageratums.
There are many reasons that I find annuals alluring but I think the most compelling one is that I can give my garden beds a new look each year.