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Article

Must-have Annuals

These classic gems work harder than their newer cousins

Fine Gardening - Issue 138

When visitors to our nursery admire our display gardens full of rare and unusual shrubs, trees, and perennials, they most often ask about the old-fashioned annuals. These annuals are the magic ingredient that turns a planting into something truly enchanting.

Old-fashioned annuals are still around for a reason. While dozens of trendy new hybrids come and go each year, classic favorites, like baby blue-eyes, Spanish flag, and kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate, soldier on in gardens around the globe, appreciated for their resiliency and treasured for the ethereal charm they bring to the garden. Most of these old-fashioned annuals are taller than the average annuals that you’ll find in garden centers today. To me, this only adds to their desirability and charm. What you get when you plant modern, already-in-bloom dwarf hybrids is a squat little display with none of the visual delight of varying heights; intermingling foliage textures; and lovely long, slender stems swaying in the breeze. You only get instant color—and instant color does not a charming garden make.

Many of my favorites are almost impossible to find in most nurseries nowadays. You’ll most likely have to start them from seed, unless you can find small plants offered at local farmers’ markets or plant sales. The good news is that these heirlooms would not have made it to modern times were they not supremely easy to grow. And because many of them self-sow reliably, you’ll have lots of extra plants to fill your garden in the coming seasons. If you get too many popping up, they’re a cinch to pull out. Or better yet, you can join the time-honored tradition of sharing pass-along plants with your friends, especially those who say they kill everything. They’ll love you for it.

1. Rosy pink flowers sway in the breeze

Name: ‘Milas’ corn cockle (Agrostemma githago ‘Milas’)

Size: Up to 3 feet tall and 18 inches wide

Conditions: Full sun; rich, well-drained soil

Best way to grow: Sow seeds outdoors as soon as the weather begins to warm up, or buy small plants to set out after the last frost date. Transplant carefully without disturbing the roots.

‘Milas’ corn cockle is my favorite cottage-garden classic. It’s easy to grow and delivers the ultimate in charm. Upright, slender stems sway gracefully with the slightest breeze, topped by elegant, satiny, bright rose blooms, each with a delicate pattern of radiating black dotted lines. It produces up to 100 blooms at a time, making it a perfect cut flower. It self-sows, too—plant one this year and you’ll get 10 or more fresh new plants next spring. This is a spring bloomer that will last about a month and a half, although it will keep going into summer and fall in places where summers are cool. Slugs and snails are attracted to this plant, so plan accordingly.

 

2. A color that goes with everything

Name: ‘Lime Green’ flowering tobacco (Nicotiana alata ‘Lime Green’, tall form)

Size: Up to 3 feet tall and 1 to 2 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; rich, moist, well-drained soil

Best way to grow: Surface-sow seeds indoors in early spring and set out seedlings after the last frost date, or buy small plants. Do not allow seedlings to dry out.

Once upon a time, not too long ago, flowering tobaccos were 3 feet tall or more. Then breeders decided that the plants should be only 1 foot tall so that growers could sell them already blooming in a pot. It is amazing how quickly the original and more gardenworthy forms have been forgotten. I often use the properly-3-foot-tall ‘Lime Green’ flowering tobacco in my gardens. I can’t help it—it goes with everything and every color, and it seems to make any plant I combine with it pop. Tough and adaptable, it blooms for many months. Here in coastal California, we can grow it in sun or shade, although it is usually grown everywhere else in bright shade, where its greeny green color is most radiant. After it has finished blooming, all you need to do is cut it back to about 5 inches tall and it will quickly rebloom. This plant acts as a long-blooming perennial in temperate climates and self-sows reliably every season elsewhere.

 

 

3. A rainbow of colors from an easy-to-grow vine

Name: Spanish flag (Mina lobata)

Size: Climbing up to 10 feet

Conditions: Full sun; rich, moist, well-drained soil

Best way to grow: Sow seeds outdoors in late spring, or buy small plants to set out after the last frost date.

The startling, triple-toned flower spikelets of this old-fashioned vine, also known as exotic love vine, never fail to amaze those who see it for the first time. This vigorous member of the morning glory family bears attractive, good-size, lush, fleur de lis–shaped foliage thick enough to blanket a chain-link fence. It bursts into a mass of blooms for several months, starting in mid­summer. Beginning at the base, the blooms start out primrose yellow and shift to peach, orange, and scarlet, with all the colors appearing simultaneously. Spanish flag is incredibly easy to grow. It helps to place it where the base of the plant will get shade. This is a terrific choice for an arbor or trellis. Plant three under a tall obelisk in a large container for a magnificent display. It usually self-sows, so you’ll have it again the following year.

 

 

4. A lush version of a California classic

 Name: ‘Apricot Chiffon’ California poppy (Eschscholzia californica ‘Apricot Chiffon’)

Size: Up to 14 inches tall and wide

Conditions: Full sun; rich, moist, well-drained soil; drought tolerant

Best way to grow: Sow seeds outdoors as soon as the weather warms up, or buy small plants to set out after the last frost date. Transplant carefully without disturbing the roots.

No matter where you plant this gorgeous poppy in your garden, you’ll love it. Its fluted, 2- to 3-inch-wide peachy flowers are true eye candy. The blue-green foliage creates a feathery mound that is best used at the front of the garden, where it won’t be crowded out by taller plants and where it can soften the edge of a bed. It blooms for a month or more, and you can easily extend the bloom by deadheading it. Not too fussy about soil or water, ‘Apricot Chiffon’ is certainly most glorious in rich, well-drained soil and average moisture. It self-sows to return each spring but will revert to the more dominant orange if there are any of those in the neighborhood that the bees might visit.

 

 

5. A fresh look to mask the bare knees of other plants

 Name: ‘Blue Pearl’ German catchfly (Lychnis viscaria ‘Blue Pearl’, syn. Viscaria oculata ‘Blue Pearl’)

Size: 2 feet tall and 20 inches wide

Conditions: Full sun; rich, moist, well-drained soil

Best way to grow: Because seeds for this tall variety are not commercially available, you’ll have to buy small plants to set out after the last frost date.

‘Blue Pearl’ German catchfly is the midsize annual I most often use to add sparkle to my summer gardens. It’s another many-stemmed, gracefully balletic heirloom dishing up a multitude of more-than-lovely lavender-blue flowers. The color is sublime, and its ever-bobbing blossoms look wonderful, both midbed and right up front. Because it’s a fast grower with low, grasslike foliage, you can plant it in front of dahlias and taller perennials whose lower stems and foliage you’d like to disguise. Whenever I pot up samples of this plant at the nursery, they are gone within a matter of days.

 

6. Draping ribbons of pink for the front or back of a border

Name: Kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate (Polygonum orientale*, syn. Persicaria orientalis*)

Size: Up to 8 feet tall and 2 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun; rich, moist, well-drained soil

Best way to grow: Sow seeds outdoors as soon as the weather warms up, or buy small plants to set out after the last frost date.

If you haven’t yet grown old-timey kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate, you must—at the very least for its wonderfully nostalgic name. This fast-growing member of the knotweed family will reach 6 feet tall in a month. Loads of showy, 4-inch-long flower heads, which look like dense, beaded clusters, arch out in all directions on strong, upright, branching stems. The large, heart-shaped, tropical-looking leaves are showy, too, and extend to the base, so you don’t get a bare-bottom look. This showstopper is gratifying wherever you plant it. It’s great behind roses and toward the back of a bed, but it’s also a delightful surprise right up front, where everyone will want to know what it is. This plant tolerates lots of heat and humidity, and it self-sows reliably.

 

 

7. A dramatic combo of red and black

Name: ‘Ladybird’ poppy (Papaver commutatum ‘Ladybird’)

Size: 12 to 16 inches tall and wide

Conditions: Full sun; rich, moist, well-drained soil

Best way to grow: Sow seeds outdoors as soon as the weather warms up, or buy small plants to set out after the last frost date. Transplant carefully without disturbing the roots.

Nothing adds dazzle to a spring garden like this brilliant, true red poppy. Everyone loves its vivid blooms, but it’s also popular because of its neat and tidy habit. Each compact mound of bright green foliage displays fifteen to twenty 3-inch-wide blooms at a time. This plant is especially stunning when planted throughout a garden; when it blooms, you’ll want to have a party. It also makes a marvelous container plant. ‘Ladybird’ blooms for at least a month, and if you deadhead, you can extend the bloom season a month or more. This poppy, unfortunately, does not self-sow—at least not around here. Poppies are best planted out early, right after the last frost date.

 

8. Confetti for the garden

Name: Multicolored flowering tobacco (Nicotiana mutabilis)

Size: 5 to 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide

Conditions: Light to partial shade; rich, moist, well-drained soil

Best way to grow: Surface-sow seeds indoors in early spring and set out seedlings after the last frost date, or buy small plants. Do not allow seedlings to dry out.

The lesser-known multicolored flowering tobacco blooms for months, thrilling us with three different colors of flowers—all at the same time. One-inch-wide bright rose, soft pink, and white blooms are held in a multistemmed, 4-foot-wide, bouncing cloud. Fun, fascinating, and colorful, it’s a welcome choice for a bright- or partial-shade garden, and it looks great with blue hydrangeas. Cut it back to 5 inches tall after it finally peters out and it will happily rebloom, especially if you ply it with a little compost. It readily self-sows and is a favorite treat for hummingbirds but not snails or deer.

 

 

9. This vine will have everyone talking

 Name: Monjita (Scyphanthus elegans)

Size: Climbing up to 8 feet

Conditions: Full sun; rich, moist, well-drained soil

Best way to grow: This plant is rare in the trade and challenging to grow from seed. Mail-order small plants to set out after the last frost date.

Monjita is one of our most fascinating annual discoveries of the past few years. This nimble climber from Chile begins blooming within a month after being planted from a 4-inch-diameter container and continues for up to four months. Its refined, lacy foliage clings to any support you provide and soon bears a slew of intriguing, sunny yellow flowers. Jutting out from the center of the pleated blooms are prominent, shiny red structures, which I can only assume are meant to attract pollinators. This plant is easy, fast-growing, and rewarding, and it’s great for when you need something new and different to elevate your gardener’s curiosity.

 

10. A bright-eyed spiller that’s also a native

 Name: Baby blue-eyes (Nemophila menziesii and cvs.)

Size: 10 to 12 inches tall and 20 inches wide

Conditions: Full sun; rich, moist, well-drained soil

Best way to grow: Sow seeds indoors in early spring, or buy small plants to set out after the last frost date. Put out bait for snails, and protect plants from birds.

I can’t imagine my spring garden without this romantic, melt-your-heart, true blue trailer. It bubbles and spills beautifully over the edges of my beds for several months. To grow it is to love it. One of our favorite California native annuals, baby blue-eyes forms a spreading mound covered with color-of-the-sky flowers all spring and into summer. Plant baby blue-eyes early: as soon as the threat of frost is over in cold winter areas and no later than mid-February in areas with mild winters. It’s excellent in containers, and it self-sows, too. Just watch out for those slugs.


Getting the most out of your annuals:

 

  • Seeds: If you’re starting your annuals from seed, make sure you follow the directions on the packet regarding soil depth. It is absolutely essential to start them in bright shade (instead of in full baking sun) and never to allow them to dry out.
  • Soil: If you’ve been gardening for a while, you already know that good soil is king. If your soil is not up to snuff—rocky, too sandy, or mostly clay—you really shouldn’t bother planting annuals until you amend it. Add a good-quality compost (stay away from the inexpensive box-store stuff), and dig it in to a depth of at least one foot. You want to end up with a friable mix that roots can easily grow into to receive oxygen and nutrients.
  • Light: Most annuals love sun, so don’t push the limits of what they can tolerate. Be aware that nearby perennials may grow rapidly and begin to shade your sun lovers. If this happens, con­sider trimming back the portion of the taller plant that’s throwing shade or carefully dig up and move your annual.
  • Deadheading: You can easily double the bloom season of most annuals by removing spent flowers. Pop them off with your fingers, or for a better appearance, use snips to cut the affected flower stems back to the main stem. When spent flowers are not removed, annual plants begin to put their energy into making seed for the next generation and less effort into making more flowers.

If your self-sowers aren’t self-sowing

 

There are several reasons why next year’s crop of volunteers may not be showing up:

  • You’ve turned over your soilIf, during your cleanup chores in fall or early spring, you turn over all of your soil, you may bury some of the seeds from the annuals. Leave a few places unturned, or collect dried seeds in fall to scatter in early spring.
  • You thought they were weedsKeep an eye out for seedlings popping up at the edges of beds and alongside pathways, and become familiar with their appearance. You may be mistaking them for weeds and pulling them.
  • Birds are eating the seedsBirds love seeds and may eat most of them while they’re drying on the plant and after they’ve fallen on the ground. If this is a problem for you, you will want to collect some seeds after they have dried but are still on the plant. This means you should refrain from deadheading at the end of the bloom period.
  • It’s not yet warm enoughSunflowers, morning glories, and other South American heat-loving annuals won’t sprout until the tem­peratures get above 70°F. Keep an eye out for them later in the season, and don’t mistake them for weeds.

Annie Hayes is the owner of Annie’s Annuals & Perennials in Richmond, California.

Sources

The following mail-order plant and seed sellers offer the widest selection of the annuals featured:

Annie’s Annuals & Perennials, Richmond, Calif.; 888-266-4370; www.anniesannuals.com

Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Winslow, Maine; 877-564-6697; www.johnnyseeds.com

Select Seeds, Union, Conn.; 800-684-0395; www.selectseeds.com

Photos, except where noted: courtesy of Annie’s Annuals & Perennials, WitoldKrasowski/www.dreamstime.com, MarilynBarbone/www.dreamstime.com

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