There you are wandering the aisles of the big box store or huge nursery. The helpful sales person stumps you with his first question-"Are you looking for annuals or perennials?" Well, what are annuals anyway?
Why do schoolchildren grow marigolds for Mother's Day? Because marigolds exemplify the merits of annuals. They're widely sold as either seed or live plants, inexpensive and easy to grow either way, and bloom nonstop for months with no special care. What more could you want? I imagine some of you want an explanation of what makes an annual an annual, and a few basic tips on gardening with annuals.
Annual black eyed Susan, state flower of Maryland
The term annual is a functional one, rather than a botanical, scientific distinction. Annuals are generally put into the annual category because their life cycle is geared to producing a whole lot of flowers and a whole lot of seeds. Each species of annual has its own idea of how many flowers it has to produce to be done its job. After a generous blooming period, annuals die. Sheer exhaustion, or harsh weather like cold or drought, naturally limits their lifespan. Of course there are exceptions to these "rules" of annuals, but in general you can think of an annual as "a flowering plant that'll give nonstop color for months."
Annual gardens "happen" every year like an annual company picnic. Like that picnic, gardening with annuals involves stocking up for the big event, mostly constant fun during it, and a cleanup afterwards. Then you're done till next time. Starter annual "6-packs" are possibly the most widely sold live plant item. If your town still had actual streetcorners, they'd be on every one at the beginning of your main gardening season. Annual seeds, along with vegetables, fill mail order seed catalogs and most of the slots on those big seed packet displays. Aside from marigolds, popular and easy annuals include zinnias, impatiens, cockscomb, bachelor's buttons, sweet alyssum, geraniums, petunias, pansies, sunflowers, and cosmos. With annuals, you make selections each year from live plants or seeds (stocking up), enjoy them for a few months (fun,) and then remove the remains (clean up.)
The most popular annual of them all? Possibly petunia. Some variety of petunia has won the Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit an impressive 31 times.
In the grand scheme of landscaping, filling a flowerbed with nursery-grown annuals is a walk in the park. Annuals fill gorgeous hanging baskets and containers too. Greenhouses offer a selection of plants that grow well in your area. Each pot or pack should have an informative plastic tag covering basic care for that plant. Some blossoms are usually present on those young plants, giving you a sample of the floral splendor to come. Make your choices based on flower appearance, of course, but also on how large or tall the plants grow and most importantly how much sun or shade the plants will receive in your planned landscape use. You dig little holes for your little plants, maybe fertilize a bit, and water when dry. Enjoy the blooms all summer, picking off the dry ones to keep new ones coming. Some months later, inclement weather (cold in the North, heat in the South) or natural senescence may kill the whole planting. Cut off or pull out the dead plants, fluff up the mulch and leave the bed to rest.
Design tips for annual gardening
Limit your color choices to avoid a cartoonish explosion of color. Stay within a range of complementary colors, like purple with white, or yellow accented by blue.
Use foliage anuals like Coleus to add another dimension.
Keep tall annuals in sites that don't block your view of short flowers or other garden accents.
Plant smaller sixpack annuals only six inches apart so they'll fill in quickly.
If you're feeling slightly more ambitious, you can grow annuals from seed. Do a little more background checking when choosing seed from catalogs or seed racks. They may offer a wide selection designed to satisfy a much wider audience. That means some of those annuals, while perfectly good plants, may not be perfectly good for your garden. Choose what looks good to you, again considering the sun/shade needs of the plants and the size of the plants as they grow. One pack contains enough seed for five or ten average suburban gardens! Plan ahead when growing annuals indoors from seed. Under average beginner growing conditions alllow a minimum of eight weeks, and better yet twelve, to produce little plants of the size and maturity that you're used to buying. Of course you can plant annual seed outside too. Sow seed for annuals outside at about the same time you could plant nursery grown ones. Seed packets include basic planting instructions. Most important for you is to cover the seed only as deep as specified, no deeper, and to keep the soil moist until tiny green sprouts emerge. Seed grown annuals will take some weeks to catch up to their sixpack cousins but for the small cost of a seed packet you get a real bargain.
Once annuals are in your garden and blooming, nothing much will stop them before their time. Keeping old blossoms and seed pods picked off is one way you can keep their time from coming. Average regular rainfall or watering, and an occasional shot of fertilizer, will make most annuals perfectly happy. In areas with winter freeze, most annuals are summer grown and die at frost time. In areas that rarely freeze but get plenty hot in summer, cool season annuals (pansies are a favorite) may be used for a winter bloom and allowed to die out in the heat. A few annuals have a shorter than average lifespan; its just in their nature. Larkspur, love-in-a-mist, California poppy, and baby's breath are in the short season category. When your annuals have bloomed well for a couple of months and then slow down and yellow, or wilt completely after the first frost, remove the withered remains. The bare spot left can be improved with compost or fertilizer, covered with mulch, and left to rest until the next planting season.
Armed with just this basic information, you can confidently now face that nursery employee and answer "I want annuals!" Then look around, pick out a few, and rest assured that most annuals are easy to grow for a full season of color in the landscape.
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Should you run into questions, the Beginner Flowers forum is here to help. Click on this link. Subscribing members may also visit the Annuals forum by clicking this link.
About Sally G. Miller
I grew up playing in the Maryland woods, and would still do it often if life allowed! Graduate of University of Maryland, my degree is in Agriculture. Gardens and natural areas give me endless opportunity for learning and wonder. Naturally (pun intended) my garden style leans towards the casual, and my cultural methods towards organic. I like to try new plants, and have "some of everything" in my indoor and outdoor gardens. Thanks go to my parents for passing along their love of gardening and nature, and my husband and kids for being patient when I get lost in the garden.