For sheer flower power, annuals are hard to beat. Because they have to complete their entire life cycle in one growing season, which is the technical definition of the term annual, these plants work fast. They go from seed or seedling to full-grown plant, bursting with flowers, in short order, delivering color when and where you need it. This post can help you choose and place annuals in your garden. It also fills you in on their basic care requirements so you can get the most out of them. Gardening with annuals, more than ever, is easy and rewarding.
Finding flowers that fit your garden
Modern-day annuals are impressive indeed. They’ve been bred to produce abundant flowers and lush foliage throughout the heart of the growing season. They rush to flowering because their means of reproduction is by seed. And to get there, the flowers must come first. This great output guarantees bountiful garden color and also makes most annuals great for bouquets. By the time fall comes and seeds form (if they do, before frost), the plants are spent and die. By then, though, you should certainly have gotten your money’s worth! Annuals are very gracious guests.
Not surprisingly, a huge range of annuals is on the market, and more annuals arrive every year so you can choose from many different annuals no matter where you live, no matter what growing conditions your garden offers. The variety of annuals allows you to find countless plants that are specific to warm or cool weather.
Some like it hot: Warm weather annuals
Lots of annuals thrive in hot summer weather, tolerating even periods of prolonged drought in style. Many annuals have this preference because they are originated from warm zones, tropical climates with long growing seasons. All plant breeders did was capitalize on or preserve these qualities while improving the plants’ appearance or expanding the color range. Some warm-weather annuals are actually perennials in some regions but are used as annuals in other areas because they’re not hardy there (they don’t survive the winter). For instance, snapdragon can be a perennial in the South but is used as an annual farther north. Some tropical plants are also commonly used for temporary display. Examples of favorite warm-weather annuals include impatiens, Madagascar periwinkle and marigolds.
Some annuals like it cool
Some annuals have their origins in areas with colder winters and mild but not blazingly hot summers. Plant breeders have stepped in to improve these plants’ flower production (the more blooms, the merrier!), add new colors, and select for compact plant habit (shapes or forms). The result is a huge range of good, tough plants that even gardeners with shorter growing seasons can count on. Examples of favorite cool-weather annuals include cleome (spider flower), pansy, Johnny-jump-ups (a type of viola), trailing lobelia, and calendula (pot marigolds).
North or South, cool-loving annuals are often a fine choice for the parts of your garden where shade prevails. The shelter of a fence, pergola, porch, or overhanging tree keeps the plants cooler, preserving their flower color, prolonging bloom time, and protecting the plants from drying out in the hot sunshine.
Southern summers are generally too hot for cool-season annuals. Enjoy them until late spring and then tear them out as they begin to flag and replace them with something more durable.
Planting annual flowers
Well, of course, in Northern gardens, annuals bloom in the summer months — and often, they start in spring and don’t quit till fall. Lucky gardeners in milder areas with longer growing seasons can enjoy some annuals, especially those that are frost tolerant, year-round. Your growing conditions and climate dictate how soon the show gets started, how long it lasts, and where and how you should plant your annuals.
When to plant annuals?
If you live in an area with a long growing season, you can go ahead and sow annual seeds straight into the ground, secure in the knowledge that they’ll sprout, grow up, and start pumping out flowers, all in plenty of time. This approach is generally easy and cheap. Gardeners with shorter summers can either start seeds inside or buy seedlings.
Freezing weather kills or at least severely damages most annuals. Therefore, the trick is to know your last spring frost date and your first fall frost date; these dates bookend the annual-gardening year. (If you don’t know, ask an employee at a local garden center, a more experienced gardener, or someone at the nearest office of the Cooperative Extension service. Note that the dates are averages; they can vary somewhat from one year to the next.)
Planting annuals in late spring
The majority of annuals are frost-sensitive. In other words, a freeze can damage or kill them. Frigid temperatures also make annuals much more susceptible to disease damage. If these small plants are damaged by cold, they may never quite recover. Don’t risk it: Plant your new annuals in the ground only after all danger of frost is past. The same goes for plants you’re putting in containers (though you can bring the pots indoors on chilly nights if you have to).
Gardening fever hits us all on the first warm spring day. But warm air isn’t necessarily what you’re waiting for, warm soil is. If the ground is still semi-frozen or soggy from thawing cycles or drenching spring rains, it’s better to wait another week or two. No, you don’t have to take the soil’s temperature before proceeding.
Don’t put plants in a bed you yourself wouldn’t be willing to lie on!
Planting annuals later in the season
Of course you can plant later in the season! Plant and replant all summer long if you want and into fall if you garden in a mild climate. As long as the plants are willing and able to grow and produce flowers, why not?
Because blazing hot weather is stressful, avoid planting during such spells or at least coddle the newcomers with plentiful water and some sheltering shade until they get established. A dose of all-purpose fertilizer (applied according to the instructions and rates on the container) may also hasten latecomers along.
Where to plant annuals?
By and large, annuals are resilient plants that tolerate a wide range of growing conditions. But some have preferences for more or less sun, and these specialists allow you to dress up such areas for maximum impact.
Planting annual plants in the sun
Full-on, warm sunshine inspires many annuals to grow robustly and generate loads of flowers. You can always tell if a sun-loving annual isn’t getting enough light, because its stems become leggy and lean toward the light source, and flower production is disappointing. So let them have it! How much is enough? Six to eight hours a day suits most. My favorite annuals for sun include cosmos, nasturtiums, zinnias, marigolds, and cornflower.
Planting annual plants in the shade
Banish gloom in your yard’s dim and tree-shaded areas with shade-loving annuals. Plenty annuals do just fine in shade. Indeed, their flowers last longer without the stress of the sun beating down on them. White and yellow flowers really add sparkle, individually or massed. My favorite annuals for shade include tuberous and fibrous begonias, impatiens, and torenia.
If your shade areas have poor soil or are laced with tree and shrub roots, don’t despair. Instead, just display the plants in pots, setting them here and there or in clusters. Or dig holes in the ground and stick the plants — pots and all — in the hole. Doing so makes changing them out easy, too.
Hook hanging baskets over tree branches and fill them with shade-tolerant annuals.
Getting annuals in the ground
Annuals are simple to plant. Just follow the label directions for spacing, and dig a hole deeper and wider than the root ball. Add some compost to the hole or mix the native soil with organic matter. If desired, you can add some dry fertilizer in the planting hole and water it in, or you can fertilize the annual after planting.
Annuals are most frequently sold in market packs, in which six or so plants are each in separate cells. Merely turn the pack upside down and gently push each plant out of its cell from the bottom. Don’t pull them out from the top because the stem may break off from the roots. After removing the plants from the packet, plant them in the ground so that their rooting mass is slightly below the soil surface. Firm the soil around the plants and then water them in well.