Tips for getting more creative with these one-season wonders

Story and Photos by Helen Newling Lawson

Annuals – they’re easy to find, inexpensive, and simple to plant. And for season-long color, they just can’t be beat. But just because they’re easy, that doesn’t mean you should take the easy way out when using them. Challenge yourself to use annuals to make your garden exciting and exceptional.

We checked in on some of the latest gardening trends and spoke to some local experts for their ideas on how homeowners can be more creative with annuals.

At Gibbs Gardens, spring annuals cascading down a terraced slope is utterly enchanting.

Blur the lines
You’ve probably heard about the trend of using edibles as ornamentals. Reverse that trend and bring annuals into your veggie garden to attract pollinators and increase yield. You’ll make the veggie garden more attractive to humans as well by brightening up these utilitarian plots. 

Mix it up
You’ve done all the right things designing your mixed borders: Adding structure with evergreens, planned for a succession of blooming perennials, and ensured quality soil. So how come it seems a little ho-hum?

Rather than limiting annuals to a patch of color by your front door or mailbox, treat yourself to a little “icing on the cake” by interspersing annuals throughout your yard. Work with your existing color scheme by echoing your existing color palette, or add punches of contrasting colors. 

Using annuals to link areas of your garden can also help guide visitors’ attention, whether by directing their line of sight toward (or away) from something, or by inviting them to experience things firsthand. 

Succulents and vertical gardens are two hot trends that work well together.

Raise it up
Want your annuals to be more eye-catching? Bring them down to eye level. Vertical gardening and container gardening can both accomplish this. With vertical, gardens, you can jazz up a boring wall or create a “room divider” by using pallets or other repurposed materials.

Containers can also bring annuals above ground level. Jenny Hardgrave, owner of an award-winning landscape design firm that focuses exclusively on annuals says, “Containers are an amazing opportunity because you can do so many different things.” She sees container designs as true works of art, incorporating color, texture, and form. 

Brandon Coker, manager of the University of Georgia Trial Garden, works with annuals almost exclusively, but thinks with container designs, “You really have to mix it up.” He recommends adding in shrubs, such as dwarf evergreens, to create variety and add structure. 

Go big
Not all annuals are 6-12-inch bedding plants. Some can grow head-high in a single season. Elephant ear (Colocasia, Alocasia), Canna, sunflowers (Helianthus spp.), and annual vines all command attention without the time or commitment of similarly sized small trees and shrubs.

At the Atlanta Botanical Garden Gainesville, there’s nothing boring about the big, bold leaves of Colocasia ‘Diamond Head’ offset by lime green ‘Wasabi’ coleus and sparkling red blooms of Pentas ‘Graffiti Red Lace’.

Break out of the ordinary
Size is just one way to add something unexpected. Take advantage of the one-season commitment of annuals to experiment with unusual colors and forms using plants such as love-lies-bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus), shrimp plant (Justicia brandegeana), ornamental peppers (Capsicum), cockscomb (Celosia cristata), flowering maple (Abutilon), and succulents such as Kalanchoe, Aeonium, and Echeveria.

Fall in love with the effect? Make note to grow them again next year, or seek out a perennial with similar characteristics to make a more permanent fixture in your garden. 

Don’t forget about foliage
Although Hardgrave named her business “Simply Flowers,” she admits, “I love foliage. It gives an architectural element and structure to an annual bed.” She’s particularly fond of the “cool new caladiums” on the market. 

Coker agrees, but has his own favorite foliage plant. “All people can see sometimes are flowers, but coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides, syn. Solenostemon scutellarioides) are phenomenal plants. Some of the coleus we had this year were absolutely stunning.”

Annual beds still have a place by the front door, but this homeowner keeps them exciting by mixing in perennials and shrubs for structure, adding coordinating pops of bold color on the fence, and replacing the lawn with a ground cover.

Go for improved performers
While following gardening trends like using succulents can help keep your garden looking fresh, Coker thinks it’s most exciting to see what’s new with plants themselves. “A good example is canna lilies. The old-fashioned varieties had small flowers on huge plants over a short bloom period. ‘Toucan Rose’, one of our Classic City winners (see sidebar), is a 4-5-foot plant with huge rosy red flowers on it, and it literally blooms all summer long.”

Don’t limit containers of annuals to patios and porches. Here, bright red Calibrachoa stands out in this tranquil sea of green.

Grow plants to their full potential
Another trend Coker sees is gardeners seeking “instant gratification.” But Coker wants consumers to know, “You can take any plant, and if you never water or fertilize it, it’s just going to sit there.”

Hardgrave agrees, and strongly recommends deadheading and feeding with liquid fertilizer to keep plants blooming all season. She also recommends building up annual beds with ample organic matter. Not only will raising them improve drainage and reduce root rot, but making the soil easier to work will reduce planting time when it’s time to swap out plantings.

Improved varieties of many new introductions create excitement at the UGA Trial Garden.

Coker believes plants deserve “to be grown to their full potential” in order to fairly evaluate them in the trial garden. It’s an approach he thinks every gardener should take. “I’ve been really trying to push people to challenge themselves to make their plants and gardens the best they can be, because in the end it pays off. You can watch [your garden] do pretty awesome things as long as you’re really tending to it.”



Try the Classics

Plants that perform especially well at the University of Georgia Trial Garden receive the Classic City award. The plants are rigorously and scientifically evaluated over a steamy Athens summer, so that these finalists can promise top performance in heat, humidity, and varying water conditions. Recent standouts are listed below. To view more visit the Trial Gardens website here.

Angelonia Angleface® ‘Wedgewood Blue’ – Proven Winners 
Begonia 18OS06 Trial Entry – All America Selections
Begonia TophatTM ‘Pink’ – Syngenta
Caladium ‘Bottle Rocket’ – Classic Caladiums 
Capsicum ‘Onyx Red’ – American Takii (2018 AAS National Winner)
Capsicum‘PurpleFlash’ – PanAmerican Seed 
Coreopsis‘SuperStar’ – Darwin Perennials 
Gomphrena TruffulaTM ‘Pink’ – ProvenWinners 
Hibiscus HollywoodTM ‘JollyPolly’ – J. Berry Nursery 
Hibiscus moscheutos 2015-38 ‘Varigated’ – Dr. John Ruter (UGA) 
Impatiens New Guinea Sun HarmonyTM ‘Blushing Orchid’ – Danziger
Leucanthemum‘Birdy’ – Dümmen Orange
Ocimum ‘Amazel’ – Proven Winners
Pelargonium Calliope® ‘Large Lavender’ – Syngenta Flowers
Pelargonium ‘Super Moon Red’ – Selecta 
Pentas Bee BrightTM ‘Pink’ – Syngenta Flowers 
Salvia ‘Big Blue’ – PanAmerican Seed
Salvia RockinTM ‘Deep Purple’ – Proven Winners 
Solenostemon ColorBlaze® ‘Golden Dreams’ – ProvenWinners 
Verbena FirehouseTM ‘Pink’ – Ball FloraPlant 

Agastache PoquitoTM ‘Butter Yellow’ – Terra Nova 
Caladium ‘Clowning Around’ – Classic Caladiums 
Calibrachoa LiaTM ‘Bubblegum’ – Danziger
Calibrachoa Superbells® ‘Honeyberry’ – Proven Winners 
Celosia Kelos® Atomic ‘CESP 1889’ – Beekenkamp 
Cuphea ‘Honeybells’ – Ball FloraPlant 
EchibeckiaTM Summerina® Sizzling SunsetTM – Pacific Plug & Liner 
Gaillardia Heat It UpTM ‘Yellow’ – Proven Winners
Gaura ‘Graceful White’ – Dümmen Orange
HollywoodTM Hibiscus Rico SuaveTM – J. Berry Genetics 
Petunia ColorRushTM ‘White’ – Ball FloraPlant
Portulaca Hot ShotsTM ‘Grapefruit’ – Green Fuse Botanicals 
Salvia SkyscraperTM ‘Orange’ – Selecta

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