In praise of annuals

By Tom Seymour | Jun 07, 2019
Photo by: Tom Seymour Garden centers offer a wide selection of annuals.

Some gardeners consider annuals nothing more than token plants, best used to fill in empty spaces in the perennial garden. Others enjoy annuals for what they really are, easy-to-grow flowers that often come in a dazzling array of colors.

For many, annuals represent their first attempt at gardening. A few potted marigolds, some petunias and perhaps some Johnny-jump-ups, and we have an instant flower garden. And if that were the only use for annuals, it would be enough. But there’s more.

Annuals can figure in our gardens in ways that use their form and beauty to the maximum. Dedicating certain sections of the flowerbed to annuals makes it easy to plan what to buy from year to year. But all annuals are not flowers, either. Annual herbs figure prominently in the garden scheme. I plant various forms of basil in among my perennials, usually at the front of the bed, in keeping with the idea of lower plants to the front, medium-sized plants in the middle and tall plants to the back.

Also, plant breeders work overtime to bring us a wide variety of new annuals each year. Let’s look at some common annuals and see how they can figure in our garden plans.

Petunias

Old-time garden favorites, petunias are hardy as all get-out and have a spicy aroma. Besides that, they come in a wide variety of colors. And in addition to all our old favorites, breeders now offer not just new colors, but also new forms. Consider wave petunias.

Wave petunias are trailing petunias whose blooms sit above the foliage. These are a cross between multiflora petunias and a wild type of petunia. Wave petunias are the most common trailing petunia. A plant can grow up to 48 inches wide while only 4 to 6 inches tall. These definitely should be placed at the front of the bed or border.

There are more refined, later versions of wave petunia, with some much taller types. All are useful in most any garden setting. Plants such as these take petunias from the old, tried-and-true to the new and fiercely interesting.

Another new petunia, “Night Sky,” has a striking pattern of white spots and splashes on a dark blue background, evocative of the view through telescope or binoculars when looking at the heavens. This, too, has a trailing habit. Night Sky was available in the Belfast area last year, but I only became aware of it this year. It was love at first sight.

However, there is nothing wrong with the old favorite petunias, either. That’s the beauty of annuals. We can mix the old with the new and all have their place.

Snapdragons

An old-time standby that continues to brighten garden beds, snapdragons have fragrant blossoms that attract hummingbirds and butterflies. Easy to grow, snapdragons enjoy full sun and after several deep waterings in the beginning, can stand partly dry soil, although like anything else, they benefit from regular watering.

It pays to apply mulch around snapdragons. This protects the plants and keeps the roots healthy. Deadheading -- removing spent blooms -- helps the plant to keep on putting out new blossoms. Typically, snapdragons will bloom from spring through fall, a real benefit in any setting.

While the snapdragons of our childhood were common snapdragons, breeders have introduced lots of exciting new cultivars. Your local garden center probably has a good variety of these.

For the best effect, plant snapdragons in groups rather than singly, one here and one there.

Marigolds

All marigolds, including “African marigolds,” originated in subtropical America. As with so many other annual flowers, breeders are hard at work hybridizing marigolds. But sometimes, less is better and in this case, non-hybrid marigolds tend to attract more pollinators. Also, hybrid marigolds often have a weaker aroma than their non-hybrid relatives.

Marigolds come in several types, but here I’ll concentrate upon French marigolds and African marigolds. Marigolds are not just another pretty flower. They have pest-repelling properties and also medicinal features.

So-called French marigolds have a strong aroma and can be used in making perfumes. Pests, including deer, leave them alone. This, coupled with a long blooming time, make French marigolds the perfect choice for any garden.

African marigolds have larger blooms than French marigolds and also, have a stronger scent. They do well in deterring deer, rabbits and other garden pests.

So if you need a hardy, pest-resistant annual with a very long bloom time, choose marigolds.

I hope you will give annuals a try this year.

The wave petunia is a new, sprawling type. (Photo by: Tom Seymour)
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