Annuals: old faves and new twists
My seed starting shelves and windowsills were figuratively bulging with flowers and foliage in all stages of growth. But when a gardening pal offered to chauffeur me around to several little known great greenhouses in her neck of the woods, I couldn't say no. I sure liked the idea of mulling over marigolds with a fellow plantaholic. However, I seriously questioned the commercial growers' ability to have anything I would still "need" this year. The only thing my eclectic group of plants didn't provide was the summer long color of annual bedding plants. I need not have worried. Nurserymen are still providing a wide range of easygoing old favorites, and keeping them interesting with new varieties.
We opened the door on the first greenhouse and were greeted by about an acre of tiny plants spread across the concrete floor. Of course neither of us had remembered to bring a list! Let me show you a few of the annuals we found, with culture and selection tips.
Wax begonia (Begonia x semperflorens-cultorum, fibrous-rooted begonia)
Sun to partial shade, dry to moist Neat erect mounds of waxy leaves covered with bloom spring to frost.
Wax begonias are an old favorite. I remember seeing them at my girlfriend's house many years ago. I'm sure no year goes by without was begonias for sale. Flowers in white, pink or red adorn fleshy leaves of green through burgundy shades. I chose these white ones with dark leaves. Both colors would look good in front of my tan color house. The hybridizers have been having fun with this plant; Plantfiles lists 72 different cultivars! Stem cuttings will root easily.
Geranium (Pelargonium x hortorum, Zonal geranium, Fish geranium)
Full sun to part shade, well drained location, suffers in high humidity. Large rounded leaves on a bushy plant, with flower clusters held high.
Who doesn't know a Geranium? (Technically these are Pelargoniums; there are a number of beautiful true Geraniums used as garden perennials.) Garden geraniums are a true staple. Sturdy midsize plants with round slightly fuzzy leaves bear tall clusters of bloom in red, white, pinks and salmon.
left, 'Avenida Mosaic Red', right, 'Happy Thoughts'
Plant breeders have expanded the choice from "your mom's red geranium with green leaves" to a wide array of flower looks, with new tones and accented or splashed petals. The zonal part of the name refers to the leaves tendency toward differently colored areas in the leaves. That trait has alowed for the development of some geraniums whose foliage is perhaps prettier than its bloom. And I also had to try my hand with a zonal geranium with variegated leaves. Pelargoniums can be allowed to dry out indoors for the winter and should grow again when warmth and water is provided in the spring.
Impatiens (Impatiens walleriana, Busy Lizzie)
Shade to sun, needs a moist or very well watered situation. Loose rounded flowering plant with juicy stems and small leaves.
Impatiens are a standby too. For many gardeners, this is the go-to plant for blooms in the shade. Impatiens blossom in all the red, coral, pink and purple tones in the color wheel, and also in white. Newer varieties have variegated leaves, highlighted petals, or double blooms passing for tiny roses. I envisioned a large pot full of lush white impatiens brightening up my shade garden, placed atop the impossible to grow in maple roots. Impatiens wilt readily when they need water, but recover quickly too.
Gazania (Gazania rigens, Treasure flower)
Full sun, hot well drained sites. Unusually patterned daisylike blooms above a basal rosette.
Gazania sales volumes may not be in the same league with that of impatiens or petunias, but with dozens of cultivars, there should be a Gazania for every garden.The intensely colored petals of gazania flowers often bear an interesting basal spot, and and contrast with the central disc. Three inch blooms are held on stems above a mostly flat rosette of thin green leaves with silvery backs. Of South African origin, gazanias love heat. The flowers will close at night and on cloudy days.
Coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides, Painted Nettle)
Shade to sun depending on variety, moist rich soil. Bushy or trailing plants in a wide array of colorful leaf patterns and shapes. Grown for foliage, not flowers.
Coleus is another annual that's "been around forever. " Coleus' vivid leaves give garden color without flowers. That's a handy feature for plantings by mailboxes or doorways, where you may not want to attract flying insects. Easy to grow from seed, coleus is a garden center basic.
left, 'Indian Summer'; right, 'Rustic Orange'
These days, you can buy a large-leafed tall coleus for sun, a trailing, tiny leaved shade loving cultivar, or just about anything in between. Look to six packs for basic types, and check individual pots for more special varieties. Coleus root easily; cut some stems in midsummer, root them in water and pot them to overwinter your favorite ones. Coleus does flower but the blooms won't impress. Pinching off bloom tips will force a fuller plant.
Dusty miller (Senecio bicolor subsp. cineraria)
Full sun, well drained site. Silvery foliage on small, loose plants.
Another boring old standard? I thought so too until this past winter. The weather was very cold but dry, and a border of dusty miller gave a lovely frosted effect to an otherwise boring mulched bed. I made a mental note to recreate the effect in the coming year. This dusty miller (there are 426 entries in Plantfiles that use dusty miller as a possible name) may overwinter and begin to produce small yellow flowers in their second year. Many growers forego the flowers, and trim to encourage a more compact plant.
That's a sampling of favorite annuals, some assortment of which you'll find widely sold in six packs or small pots. Choices will vary from greenhouse to greenhouse and regionally. To grow specific cultivars that you may read about in PlantFiles, you might have to seek out specialty growers. Follow the links in each section of the table to a Dave's Garden's PlantFiles page for those species. Look for the highlighted phrase "vendors have this plant for sale." at the top of the page. That link will connect you to a source.
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Thanks, Gitagal, for a fun day and an article concept! Photo credits ~ Gazania photo in PlantFiles used with permission from KaelKitty ~~ Thanks! Other photos were taken by and are property of the author.
Encyclopedia of Annuals and Perennials, San Francisco, Fog City Press, 2002.
Ambler, Wayne, et al. Treasury of Gardening, Lincolnwood, Publications International, Ltd., 1998