Creative ways to incorporate annuals in your Kentucky garden

Story and Photos by Rebecca Stoner Kirts

So here we are in spring, excited and ready to dig into another year of gardening. I have my list of projects ready and am feeling smug about all I accomplished during the fall of last season. But with all the rearranging and proposed changes, I have found that I need a “New Year Annual Spring Fling,” or in other words, an infusion of annual plants.

LEFT: I love using nasturtiums along the border of my herb beds, as they grow from a seed to a lovely combination of leaf and bloom. MIDDLE: Mexican bush sage is another late-blooming annual that adds a purple pop just when the garden needs some annual love. RIGHT: Celosia readily reseeds and provides vibrant color as well as unusual shapes and textures.

I will admit that I have been somewhat of an annual snob in the past, focusing on building my gardens around perennials, trees, and shrubs and ignoring the colorful annuals at the nurseries. As I have aged and expanded my gardening skills, I realize that there are many different and unique roles annuals can play in the landscape. 

A mass planting of cleome is a delight to view and loved by so many pollinators (bonus this annual reseeds every year).

Let me begin by clarifying what I mean when I say “annuals.” The easiest way to define annuals is that they are plants that complete their life cycle in one season. A bonus is that the seeds can be collected and used for the following season … and many annuals readily reseed. So here are some of the creative ways I plan to incorporate annuals into my next garden. 

Marigolds are easy to grow, but add intense color to any border.

I love to use annuals as an impressive border. It helps define a space and pulls one’s eye toward the bed. Sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima) is one of my favorites. It adds color and great fragrance. If it gets leggy, a haircut brings it back to its glory. 

Poppies add pops of colors to any garden and will reseed from year to year.

By far my favorite annual for a border is ‘Spicy Globe’ basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Spicy Globe’). By the middle of the growing season, these seeds have grown into amazing large balls. Keeping them snipped helps the plant hold its shape, and then you can use the tiny flavorful leaves for seasoning. There are several new varieties of small-leaf basil, so check them all out. 

TOP LEFT: Cypressvine is an aggressive climber that attracts many hummingbirds and will return year after year. TOP RIGHT: Planting snapdragons in blocks provides masses of beautiful color. BOTTOM: This recycled window box is an excellent vehicle for a luscious combination of colorful annuals.

Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) can be planted (by seed) in early spring provide clumps of colorful blooms all summer long. By seeding them along the front of my culinary herb yard, I have a delicious treat (since every part of them is edible) as well as a beautiful border. 

Filling in bare spots throughout the garden by repeating patterns and color is a great way to add seasonal pizzazz. Don’t underestimate the impact blocks of colorful annuals can provide. This technique not only fills a spot where a new plant might have failed, but can also highlight dark areas. And some will reseed year to year. Choose a color that goes with the theme of the perennial bed and plant or seed to your heart’s content. Celosia, with its unique shapes and different hues, is one of my favorites. 

The colorful combination of zinnias, cosmos, and sunflowers makes a perfect cut flower area.

But there are many other uses for annuals. I love mass plantings of annuals mixed in with my vegetables. I call this style of a garden a potager, which is a French term used for gardens that intermingle vegetable, fruits, flowers, and herbs. This concept has grown in popularity the past several years. If I had only one green space, a potager would be my choice – planted with annuals; herbs, such as dill, basil, chervil, parsley, and cilantro; and of course yummy veggies. If you have a potager, or are considering adding one, include mesclun – a mix of assorted salad greens.  

I also plan on adding some beautiful annual flowers to draw in the pollinators. One of my greatest thrills as a gardener is standing in my green space and enjoying all the busy buzzing. Cosmos, Cleome, Nicotiana, Pentas, and Zinnia are all great performers that bring in the pollinators!

Calling all pollinators, the annuals are in bloom.

Some of the annuals that anchor my potager are for cut flowers. I love having Zinnia, Cosmos, Celosia, sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), and marigolds (Tagetes spp.) readily available to make a bouquet. You could also plant heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens), stock (Mathiola spp.), and sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus) to add a fragrant punch. 

Grow annual vines throughout the gardens. A few of my favorite climbers are cypressvine (Ipomoea quamoclit), an heirloom vine from Monticello that readily reseeds and attracts hummingbirds and pollinators; hyacinth bean vine (Lablab purpureus), which spreads quickly and has beautiful blooms and then purple pods; and moon flower (Ipomoea alba), which has blossoms that open in the evening. Two more vining favorites are black-eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia alata) and passionfruit vine (Passiflora spp.) – both of these are colorful and fun.

Don’t forget the impact of annual herbs, such as basil.

And I haven’t even mentioned annuals in containers. I love to use fabulous flea market finds as vessels. I receive tons of compliments on my old wheelbarrow full of pansies (V. x wittrockiana) in the spring and marigolds in the summer. The combinations are endless. 

Just remember, if we all plant annual seeds, using as many heirloom species as possible, everyone wins. This promotes biodiversity, preserves heirloom species, and creates gardens where wildlife such as birds, insects, and reptiles feel right at home. So let the “Annual Spring Fling” begin.




More of my favorite annuals:

Love lies bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus)
Kiss me over the garden gate (Polygonum orientale)
Balsam aka touch-me-not (Impatiens balsamina)
Larkspur (Consolida spp., cvs.)
Snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus)
Poppies (Papaver spp., cvs.)
Cockscomb (Celosia argentea)
Four o’clocks (Mirabilis jalapa)
Pineapple sage (Salvia elegans)
Mexican bush sage (S. leucantha)

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