Re-thinking Annuals

Do you grow annuals?

Over the years, I have fallen in and out of love with them.

When we are new to gardening, they are our everything. I became a gardener growing marigolds around my tomatoes in an urban community garden and zinnias in front of my shrubbery in a Florida suburban home.

I first became infatuated with growing flowers here at Maplehurst in Pennsylvania by digging up a jelly-bean patch of sod and planting seeds for morning glory vine, moonflower vine, zinnias, cosmos, and, yes, more marigolds.

The annual flower gomphrena was my first attempt at keeping the garden looking fresh into fall. My father told me to plant them, and he was not wrong. The dark purple globes were gorgeous in late summer when everything else had wilted in the heat and humidity.


But I fell out of love with annuals as I gained garden experience.

As I learned more about perennials, and grew familiar with the ones that would do well in my garden and return year after year, annual flowers began to seem like a lot of work for only one season’s worth of color.

Annual flowers often needed more care (like deadheading and feeding). And then they needed to be cleaned up after the first hard freeze, Some, like gomphrena, looked almost better after a freeze, but many, like nasturtium, seemed to dissolve into a puddle of slime. Gross!


Now, more than a decade into my gardening life, I find myself returning to a more balanced appreciation for annual flowers.

As much as I love potting up perennials like roses, there really is nothing like an annual flower (or group of them) to keep a container looking bright and beautiful all season long.

And those purple gomphrena? I still love their late-season color and their ability to withstand the heat and humidity of August.

Here are the annual flowers that are still “must-haves” for me:

  • Zinnias, especially ‘Benarys Giant’ and ‘Queen Lime’
  • Cosmos, especially ‘Purity’
  • Alyssum
  • Nasturtium, especially ‘Salmon Gleam’


My appreciation for annual flowers is now informed by the fact that I know so much more about them.

When I began, I lumped them all into the same category and planted them all at the same time following the words of advice on so many seed packets: plant out after all danger of frost has passed.

Now I better understand the difference between

Hardy Annuals

“… live for one year and survive cold temperatures. Many are planted in fall to winter-over and produce blooms the following spring and summer. These flowers prefer growing in cool conditions.”

and Tender Annuals

“… live for one year and do not survive cold temperatures. These flowers are planted after the threat of frost has passed in spring and the soil has begun to warm. Tender annuals prefer growing in the heat of summer.” – Lisa Mason Ziegler, Cool Flowers

This fall, I’ll be sowing seeds for the hardy annual snapdragons. I love ‘Chantilly’ for cut flowers and ‘Twinny’ for containers. And next spring, I’ll be planting out my cosmos and zinnias as I always do.

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Garden Math

I was always more comfortable in art class than math class.

How about you?

For better or worse, we need both subjects in the garden. We need the color wheel and sometimes we need a calculator.

Here are some of the numbers I calculate most often:



  • Average first and last frost dates. Whether you are starting your own seeds or wondering if it’s too early in spring to prune your boxwood or too late in fall to prune a rose, it’s helpful to consult the average first and last dates for freezing temperatures in your area. The internet or a local university or agricultural institution can help you out here. Even better, if you keep a garden journal, you’ll be able to estimate your own average more precisely.


  • Date to maturity. This information is usually offered on the back of a seed packet or on a plant label. This is important information if you are growing plants to harvest. For instance, if a fall vegetable needs 90 days to grow from germination to harvest, I do not want those 90 days to extend past the date of my first average freeze. That means there’s a good chance my vegetable plant will be killed by winter weather before I can harvest it. Yes, this math problem requires us to count backwards!



Here are some sample math problems for the garden that are particularly relevant as winter turns to spring and as summer turns to fall:


  • When should I start the seeds for my fall garden of cool weather crops like kale or lettuce?

First, check the “days to maturity” information on the seed package.

Then, count backwards that number of days from your average first frost date.

Then add 3 or 4 weeks more to give your seeds time to germinate and grow to a size suitable for transplanting. You’ll have more flexibility with those crops that can tolerate a light freeze (like kale), or if you are covering your plants with fleece or other protective covering.


  • When should I start the seeds for my spring and summer garden?

First, consult the average date of last frost for your area or decide when you feel comfortable planting them outdoors (for instance, some plants can tolerate light frost and may be planted out earlier, some, like tomatoes, need to be planted out only after the soil has warmed).

Then, consult the seed packet for information about how many weeks the seeds should be sown before their planting date. The best advice I can give (which I have consistently learned the hard way) is not to start your seeds too early. Strong, healthy seedlings can catch up, but there is little hope for a seedling that has grown leggy while you wait for warmer weather or a seedling that is planted out too soon and killed by a late freeze.


  • When should I start the seeds for hardy annuals like snapdragon?

Not all annuals must be completely protected from winter weather. Cool season hardy annuals like snapdragons and sweet peas can be planted in the fall and very early spring. These plants love to get established during cool weather.

In many regions, these flowers can be planted in the fall to winter-over and bloom in spring. Even in colder regions, these flowers should be planted in the earlier spring days, long before the last frost date has arrived.

Consult the growing zone information for the hardy annual you want to grow. For instance, some snapdragons are winter hardy to US zone 4, which means most of us should be planting these cut-flower beauties in fall, not spring.


Here is a handy online calculator for seed starting dates.

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A Dreamy Plant Book


We garden in soil, and we garden in our dreams.

I am often unsure which gardening I prefer. Certainly, I am thankful for both.

Here is a book from my collection that is helpful for the real, dirty work of gardening as well as the imaginative play of garden dreaming.

1001 Plants To Dream of Growing edited by Liz Dobbs is exactly what it sounds like: a sourcebook for garden dreams. With beautiful photographs and sections on everything from “Annuals” and “Perennials” to “Bulbs, corms, and tubers” to “Indoor and patio,” this is an incredibly comprehensive catalog.

What I especially love about it though is that it doesn’t dabble in generalities.

For instance, it doesn’t recommend Brunnera (bugloss) or Hemerocallis (daylilies) generally, rather it recommends very specific varieties to dream of growing. Anyone who has ever gone to a garden center looking for a daylily only to be confronted by two dozen varieties with very different descriptions on their labels will appreciate this approach.

So, 1001 Plants to Dream of Growing doesn’t simply recommend camellia but gives descriptions of two very desirable varieties: ‘Donation’ and ‘Bob Hope,’ along with a few other alternatives if you’d like a different color or your climate is slightly different.

1001 Plants to Dream of Growing doesn’t suggest you dream of herbs in general or even thyme in general but specifically recommends thyme of the Coccineus group for a flowering carpet effect or Thymus vulgaris for good looks and good flavor.

This book is specific, and that’s exactly what we need to turn our general, hazy dreams into reality.

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History and the Garden: Formality and Symmetry


History can be a surprising source of inspiration for our garden-making.


In her book The Morville Hours, Katherine Swift describes the process of creating a garden inspired by the history of gardening in her corner of England. Swift’s garden has separate garden “rooms” inspired by medieval gardens, Tudor gardens, and more.

But we don’t need to be quite so ambitious.

Even a quick journey through the history of garden styles can provide new ideas.

The following historical styles are united in their emphasis on formal symmetry and pattern.



Medicinal Herb Gardens

During the Middle Ages gardens were more like pharmacies.

Here is an article about medicinal plants that would have been grown in a monastic garden that we can still grow today.

Here is an article about the design of herb gardens over the years.


Tudor Knot Gardens

In an age when gardeners had access to fewer ornamental plants, garden designs were almost modern in their minimalism and simplicity. The streamlined symmetry creates a very formal effect.

The Tudor Knot garden shown here has an elaborate pattern but very little color. More about Tudor garden designs can be found here.


American Colonial Gardens

The gardens at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia have been recreated to show us the combination of symmetry, formality, and productivity that characterized these early American gardens.

Here’s an example of merging past and present with colonial style.


Victorian Carpet Bedding

The term “carpet bedding” might be new to you, but you are likely familiar with the style. Popularized by wealthy Victorians with glasshouses for growing their own annual flowers, carpet bedding is the gardening practice of laying out colorful annuals to mimic the patterns of a carpet.

We still see something like this style used in many municipal plantings and large-scale landscapes in our public places.

Here is an article about this traditional form. This style is the opposite of naturalistic gardening. Its impact comes with its bold use of monochromatic color and striking shapes. Find a brief history of carpet bedding here.


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The Longest Lasting Color in the Garden


It’s the Holy Grail of gardening, isn’t it?

That plant that blooms and blooms and blooms all summer long.

Over the years, I have mostly given up on it, deciding such a thing doesn’t really exist. I’ve accepted the notion of the gardener as a conductor of a symphony, planting layers of plants so that color and flower come in waves through the year.

I do still believe that we are conductors in our gardens. And I do still believe in orchestrating a garden that pleases us as much as possible all year long.

But this year I have also discovered that some plants really do give and give and give, month after month.

Here are five plants that have surprised me this summer with their continuous bloom:


  • Agastache ‘Peachie Keen’: This agastache variety is new to me this year. I planted quite a few of them as very small plugs in the new border outside my kitchen. I have been absolutely astonished at how quickly they grew and how they have flowered all summer with the prettiest peach-colored flowers. I feel as if I’ve found a miracle plant.


  • Calamintha nepeta: This is another new-to-me plant. I bought a tray of small seedlings labeled as the variety ‘White Cloud,’ but either the plants were mislabeled or ‘White Cloud’ sometimes flowers lavender-blue. Online sources advise shearing back the spreading plants after they flower, but mine haven’t stopped flowering all summer long.


  • Verbena bonariensis: Of course, I must mention this favorite. Summer after summer, I am amazed at how beautiful this plant is all season long. Even after the vivid purple flowers fade a bit, the seedheads look beautiful in fall.


  • Dahlia ‘Happy Single First Love’: Though I have grown various dahlias for years, this variety is new to me this summer. I planted several in the new kitchen border. It looked amazing early in the summer as the dark, perfect foliage grew in. The leaves are almost black and add beautiful shadows to the border. Then these dahlias started blooming before any of my other dahlias were in flower, and they show no signs of stopping. I am keeping them deadheaded as flowers fade, but I think they will keep-on-keeping-on.


  • Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’: None of the pictures I found in books or online prepared me for how lovely this medium-sized ornamental grass is. The foliage is silvery green and white and absolutely shines. It makes everything planted nearby look better.


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