Annuals: Out of Grandma's Garden, Into the 21st Century!

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Oh, my aching muscles...

By Marty Wingate

The marigold was introduced to North American gardens after the Revolutionary War, and for many gardeners, it’s been a downhill slide ever since.

Annuals get a bad rap, but marigolds and zinnias, nasturtiums and Nigella bring to our gardens and containers a long season of color, form and interest. Let’s look beyond the overstuffed marigolds and pansies that have flowers so big they can’t raise their heads to fun, old-fashioned and underused annuals.

The maroon-black flowers of the South African native Scabiosa atropurpurea—or one of its cultivars such as ‘Ace of Spades’ or ‘Black’—are flecked with white. It’s a summer bloomer, but can reflower if deadheaded. It gives the same effect as the chocolate cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus), which is an annual for us, and worth the money for a gallon-sized pot each year. (Or, if you plan better than I do, two or three four-inch pots in spring.)

We consider those plants annuals, but they are perennial in warmer climates. Nowadays, that means you might get them to winter over, along with South African pelargoniums and tender daisies including Osteospermum and Arctotis.

True annuals are those that grow, flower and set seed all in one year. The perfect annual for me—besides the fantasy of a nasturtium unbothered by aphids—is one that reseeds. I can always pull out the ones I don’t want, and the seeds always seem to do a better job than I do at picking out the right spot to grow.

So it was with the eerie green flowers of Nicotiana langsdorfii, which I planted once, and then saw it come up the next year in another part of the garden. Annuals that reseed often find their own best combinations, and the color of N. langsdorfii gives this tobacco plant the ability to combine well with shades of purple, such as the Scabiosa or Cosmos.

It goes well, too, with another Nicotiana: N. mutabilis, which has delicate, pendulous flowers that open white, age to pink and then rose.

Northwest gardeners have taken to the tobacco plants. Nicotiana sylvestris grows quickly to five feet high or more. It produces large leaves and extremely narrow, tubular white flowers that release their perfume at night. At a garden in Portland, I saw it used as an annual hedge, thickly lining the property along the sidewalk.

Chanticleer Gardens near Philadelphia last year planted the similar (true) tobacco plant N. tabacum ‘Burly’, which looks much like N. sylvestris, in an area called The Serpentine, and it looked as if a river of plants was flowing through.

A lovely little reseeder is the poached egg flower, also called meadow foam (Limnanthes douglasii). This California native blooms in spring with flowers that have yellow centers surrounded by white; the ferny foliage stays low. By midsummer, you can pull up the plants, but be sure to give them a shake to release the seeds. You’ll see the plants come up in fall and overwinter in preparation for next spring’s bloom.

Baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii), another Western native, will seed around, too. It comes in a deeper blue in ‘Penny Black.’

Some annuals you wish would reseed. Christopher Lloyd always appreciated what he called “that happy gang of thugs” in the garden at Great Dixter. When we visited, we were delighted to see the intense red flowers with black spots of the ladybird poppy (Papaver commutatum ‘Ladybird’) throughout beds.

Annual vines give the garden a vertical boost. The rambunctious cup-and-saucer vine (Cobaea scandens) is aptly named, because its violet flower (white is also available) is cup-shaped and its calyx looks like the saucer. It can make quick work of covering a trellis, growing to 20 feet in a season, when started early and planted in full sun.

The cypress vine (Ipomoea quamoclit) can grow to 20 feet, but definitely needs the warmth to do it. My mother remembers her mother growing this annual vine with its deeply cut leaves and scarlet, tubular flowers for quick cover—in southwestern Arkansas. We share the Zone 8 status, but it’s oh, so much warmer there in summer.

The canary bird vine (Tropaeolum peregrinum) is a quick grower on a smaller scale and easy to grow in our climate. This nasturtium relative may reach 12 feet; its whiskery yellow flowers are a delicate touch to summer.

One problem with the reputation of annuals is how we use them in the garden. There are better ways than dinking them out in thin, stretched out rows. There’s bedding out—the practice of using masses of shockingly colorful plants in huge swathes to make geometric patterns or swirls. It surely reached its peak in Victorian times, and is carried on today in Victoria, B.C. I will never do it in my garden (it would have to be miniature bedding out), but I can’t help admire the zing it gives summer.

Annuals are exceptional mixers, and can be tucked into perennial and mixed beds. For an ever-changing look, fill containers with a single kind of plant, and then mix the containers around when you want a new look.

And those marigolds? I go for the single varieties: little ‘Lemon Gem’ with yellow flowers, or ‘Harlequin’, a cultivar from the early 1800s with pinwheel maroon-and-yellow flowers.

New to my garden this year is a different take on love-in-a-mist: Nigella hispanica ‘African Bride’. It has white petals, a ruffle of dark stamen and then a deep, dark purple top hat.

A slightly different take on zinnias can be found, too: Try Zinnia peruviana, which is said to be mildew-resistant. It has single red flowers on two-foot stems.

Where are you going to find all those fabulous annuals for your garden? Often it’s easier to find seed sources, but occasionally you may find a nursery that specializes in unusual annuals. Check out your favorite nursery to see what specialties might be tucked away on a table full of annuals. Try something new (or old), and it just might become a favorite.

Nemophila menziesii 'Baby Blue Eyes' and Eschschzia 'Tufted Poppy'. Author's photo

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