Creating ways to incorporate annuals in your garden

Story and Photos by Loretta Gillespie

After years of gardening in the same spot it sometimes gets hard to come up with new and interesting ideas for displaying and using plants. However, if you read magazines, watch gardening shows, or drive through different neighborhoods, you can find many ways to refresh your own garden. Commercial plantings can also inspire the home gardener.

Bromeliads can be used in a myriad of interesting ways, including nestling them into the crotch of a tree, or as a centerpiece on a patio table. This one has a tiny guest.

Using tender perennials, houseplants, and the wide selection of annuals on today’s market provide you with all the colors, shapes, and textures you can imagine. Using potted plants in interesting containers adds not only another element, but sometimes adds just the right height. 

Interesting houseplants, like this Rex begonia, or other unusual annuals can be used as focal points in the garden.
Driftwood, with its many unique shapes, provides an interesting way of displaying plants of all kinds. Here, moss was attached to outcroppings and succulents were then attached using florists’ wire when necessary.

Columns, urns, and even stumps can give your plants climbing places, turn them into focal points, and give them height. Height is very important. In a garden filled with greenery, sometimes annual plants are overshadowed by shrubbery or don’t stand out in a landscape. Giving them a heightened vantage point offers the extra advantage. This can be achieved in several different ways – you can hang baskets full of blooms from tree limbs or erect a stand, shepherd’s hook, or use a column to lift your planting. 

By raising her annuals up in an urn, Judy Greer of Courtland eliminates the necessity of digging so many holes in her annual beds. Her perennial hydrangeas are also elevated in urns.
Red geraniums (Pelargonium) have been given a place of prominence on a garden gate. Raising them above ground level adds interest and leads visitors to the correct entrance to this historic home.

Gardeners can also plant annuals under trees and topiaries. These underplantings frequently provide the “spiller, thriller, and filler” elements that make container gardens look their best. By using containers for your annuals, you aren’t confined to just one spot in the garden. If you are hosting a party, just move the containers wherever you need bright, lush plantings to make an area “pop.”

A black-eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia alata), annual in Zone 7, climbs up a pine tree to form an arbor above a path. A tendril of it escaped to climb this antique garden gate, its yellow blooms welcoming visitors to the garden.

Look to the commercial plantings in your area for ideas to incorporate into your home landscape. Many times it’s the sheer volume of the plants that make commercial plantings work so effectively, but you can scale them down, just use the same plant material, like sweetpotato vine (Ipomoea batatas), which grows prolifically everywhere, as an annual. This hardy vine can be used in borders, beds, hanging baskets, and window boxes. People who live in apartments, townhouses with limited space, or those who have balconies are especially benefited by this chartreuse vine, since in a single season it can grow several feet long and stays lush if pinched back occasionally. It does have to be watered frequently, but it’s worth the effort! 

An antique bathtub provides a different way of showcasing annuals. This container is easily watered and retains moisture in the hottest of weather.

Most people who have houseplants take advantage of warm weather by summering them outdoors. Using exotic plants and others that have unusual colors or textures, like the pink foliage on Rex Begonias, can introduce plants that are normally not found in a garden but give instant gratification. These work well as centerpieces for an outdoor table, add color to your front steps and make for focal points when used in the garden itself. Many bromeliads feature unique foliage and gorgeous, long-lasting blooms. The crotch of a tree is also a wonderful place to display your tender bromeliads or other blooming annuals. Bromeliads have the added advantage of looking right at home since this is often how they grow in their natural habitat.

Annuals are planted under this Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) growing in an old washtub.

When arranging annual blooms, either cut or in pots, think outside the box. A regular green cabbage can be transformed into an eye-catching container for annuals and cut flowers by cutting a small indention into the top. Insert a baby food jar filled with water, then add your stems. Tulips and other spring annuals and perennials make wonderful displays when used with cabbages, collard green leaves and other vegetables.  There are no rules here! Let your imagination, combined with what is available at your local farmers market, allows you to create stunning displays with your annuals.  

Displayed atop an unused chimenea, these succulents spend the summer gracefully trailing down the sides, hiding unsightly cracks in the neck of the outdoor fireplace.

Driftwood offers another dimension to your plantings and make for great displays on tabletops, in raised beds and on garden walls and fences. By attaching the pots, or the bare roots (as with succulents) you can create a work of art. Attach plants/pots to the driftwood with floral wire, then wrap the roots, pots and wire in green moss. In this manner you can hide the mechanics of this arrangement while displaying only the foliage. Succulents, cacti and vining annuals and perennials all lend themselves to this treatment, so long as they do not grow very fast. However, if they do outgrow their spot, just trim them back and use the pruned end to propagate your plant. 

Lantana and Eucalyptus twine around an column, softening its hard edges.

Finding ways of adding excitement to your garden with annuals is an adventure. Go out and discover just how many ways there are to use annuals to make your garden uniquely your own!

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