Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A Late-Summer Ode to Annuals

Still going strong!

As I walk around my garden areas, I notice that one of the very few things that still look good in August and September are annual flowers. Yes, I have a few mums and asters that are now flowering, but on the whole, most of my perennials are not just done blooming, but also looking tattered, bug-eaten and withered, and actually subtract from the beauty of my gardens.

These ligularia have definitely seen better days, but the impatiens are a bright spot of color here. 

But the annuals have been at their peak for more than a month now. Zinnias, petunias, snapdragons, annual salvias, cosmos, four o'clocks, impatiens, marigolds and other annuals: they're all still looking good at this difficult time of year.

Annual salvia 'Victoria Blue' are the only thing blooming
in this border.

In my opinion, annual flowers are just not given the respect that they deserve. It seems like many gardeners feel that perennial plants are somehow more horticulturally "serious" than annuals, particularly the popular annuals that big-box retailers carry that have been bred for large, colorful, long-lasting flowers, like petunias and marigolds.

Some people might think they're gaudy and too bright, but I think these marigolds fit right into the Yellow Garden, and they've been flowering non-stop since I planted them in May.

Looking around at this time of year gives further weight to my hypothesis: that (at least here in my growing area) in order to maximize flowerage, gardeners should rely on annuals for color in the second half of the gardening season. The sequence of planting and bloom times should include the following:

  1. as many spring bulbs as possible, together with the earliest-flowering perennials that will grow here, such as basket-of-gold (Aurinia saxatilis), together with a few cool-weather annuals such as pansies and snapdragons  
  2. late spring- and early summer-flowering perennials for bloom in May and June
  3. a select number of July-flowering perennials and bulbs such as lilies and perhaps phlox (if mildew isn't an issue)
  4. significant numbers of annuals, planted in May, that will start flowering in July and continue through to frost
  5. a limited number of fall-blooming perennials such as mums and asters to complement the late annuals
This area would be pretty boring without the salvias and marigolds in two colors to complement the mum that is starting to bloom now.

I've been going through my borders to clear some space for planting more annuals next May. There were a number of under-performing perennials in my front border that I will hardly miss: big clumps of iris that flower for only a week and take up more square footage every year, the so-called "obedient plant" (Physostegia virginiana) that is anything but, and other plants that take up too much room for the short-lived and less-than-glorious flowers they produce. I have started moving and removing those to free up space for planting more annuals next spring.

My front border a couple of weeks ago: overcrowded and messy, with little color.

After the clear-out, with spots left for annuals next year. Perhaps some zinnias and cosmos in the big spots and maybe some salvias, snapdragons or petunias near the edge in front. And some more tulips as well, since I have room now.

Some of my favorite annual flowers, ones that flower well for long periods here:
  • Short annuals: petunias (don't sneer, millions of gardeners love them because they flower their heads off), marigolds, dianthus
  • med-height annuals: zinnias, snapdragons, annual salvias, four o'clocks (these look like a flowering shrub by August)
  • tall annuals: cosmos (they can get to be eight feet tall!), sunflowers (I like the smaller-flowered ones)
  • shady annuals: impatiens (it's too bad about the blight that sometimes is affecting them), lobelia

The four o'clock plant makes a larger shrub than some actual shrubs and trees -- this one nearly dwarfs the magnolia behind it! I think I'll plant more of these next year here in the West Island, which is reserved for trees, shrubs and bulbs.

Additionally, I think I might be ready to try some different annuals to see how they perform, perhaps some more exotic and less common ones, like amaranth and some tropical annuals. I'll have to get out a few books about annual flowers that I haven't looked at for a while.

Does anyone have any suggestions for less well-known annuals that thrive and flower well?

Thanks for reading!  -Beth


  1. So very true! I remember seeing a shirt at a perennial nursery that said 'friends don't let friends buy annuals'. But where would my garden be without its billowing masses of cosmos this time of year? It would look sad, sad, sad without those annuals to take over the show from the perennials - and the bees and butterflies love my annuals, too! I must say, I don't know my annuals nearly as well as I know my perennials, and I would be interested to find out more about less known annuals as well!

    1. Indie, What a sadly snobbish shirt! Gardening shouldn't be about limiting what we plant, but trying as many plants as we have room for and deciding what works well in our own particular gardens, regardless of type or classification. I'm looking forward to trying a few new kinds of annuals next year, and I'll definitely report on the results as they come in. Thanks for reading! -Beth

  2. That first photo is glorious, Beth. Love your zinnias! The annual salvia is pretty too. I have some of both as well. I like lobularia 'Snow Princess,' Jewels of Opar, larkspur, Kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate, cleome, Verbena bonariensis, morning glories, zinnias, petunias, sunpatiens, vinca, nigella...those are the annuals I usually grow. I can save you some seeds of Verbena b. or "kiss" if you like...also pink cleome. Email me if interested. My morning glories were duds this year. Lots of foliage, but no flowers. :(

    1. Hi Beth, Thanks so much for your suggestions -- I'll have to try some of those next year. I've seen photos of most of those, but there's nothing like trying to grow them yourself. I tried morning glories once, and they didn't bloom until right before frost -- you might still get some flowers yet! Thanks for your very kind offer to share seeds, neighbor (I guess I can call you that since you live in Iowa, even if you're over a hundred miles away!). -Beth