Tips for getting more creative with these one-season wonders
Story and Photos by Dee A. Nash
Instead of planting the same old bedding plants at the edge of the garden in a ribbon of monotonous color, why not try something new this year? Although blocks or strips of annual color are one way to plant, it’s what almost everyone does, including most landscaping companies. Instead, incorporate annuals into your garden design in other ways. In Oklahoma, tropical plants are often grown as annuals, so they are included with true annuals for this article.
Be Adventurous – Grow Something Different
Yes, Begonia are tried and true because they grow in both sun and shade, but don’t just plant begonias. If you simply must have begonias, buy the newer BIG series distributed by Monrovia. They cost a little more, but they are truly bigger and better.
Why not try something different? Ornamental peppers like ‘Jigsaw’ or ‘Masquerade’ really shine in a sunny spot, and all peppers love Oklahoma’s hot climate. With some varieties like ‘Jigsaw’ or fish peppers, their variegated foliage is part of the show.
Consider planting ornamental grasses like tropical fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’). ‘Fireworks’ is an attractive variety that makes a large exclamation point in a garden bed or border. Grains like amaranth (Amaranthus spp.) or black millet (Pennisetum glaucum ‘Purple Majesty’) are substantial in the garden and bouquets.
Growing something different doesn’t always mean buying something new on the market either. Instead, try an old favorite like ‘Tornado Red’ cockscomb (Celosia cristata) or a florist’s variety with tall, strong stems like ‘Red Velvet Cake’.
Incorporate beautiful herb or vegetable varieties into a flowerbed or border instead of growing them in rows. You can often find decorative vegetables like multi-colored or red Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris subsp. vulgaris), or giant red mustard (Brassica juncea) at local nurseries, or you can grow them from seed. They are very pretty with spring-blooming bulbs. For summer bloom, try dark ‘Red Rubin’ basil (Ocimum basilicum) or holy basil (O. tenuiflorum), which has iridescent, long-lasting purple flowers.
Plant Annuals in the Perennial Garden
If you want a garden that is long on color, you should mix annuals with perennials. Annual flowers that are working all summer to produce seed will bloom a long time as long as you remember to deadhead them. Contrast this with perennials, which usually have a timed bloom season with large pockets of green in between. Tropical foliage plants love hot weather and will perform throughout summer. Plant them between perennials for a pop of color even when perennials and true annuals are conserving their energy during the sultriest time of the year. Annuals and tropical plants like coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides) and Alternanthera sport colorful foliage when perennials are between bloom cycles.
Local garden designer Helen Weis, of Unique By Design Landscaping & Containers, (ubdlandscape.com) takes these principles to heart by using both tropical plants and annuals to splendid effect in her designs. She believes tropicals are the answer to Oklahoma’s hot summer weather and uses drip irrigation on timers to keep her clients’ container gardens happy during dry conditions. She also repeats plants within landscape borders, echoing her container designs.
Grow Annuals from Seed
Grow annuals from seed to increase garden diversity in height and texture, and help pollinators too. Because these plants have to produce seed to survive, they also provide what pollinators need, namely pollen and nectar. Many new plants in the marketplace are created vegetatively and don’t need pollinators. Growing sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), Zinnia, Cosmos, Nicotiana, and other nectar-rich plants from seed is a boon for the creatures that visit your garden. Choose single flowers over doubles because they are simple for butterflies, hoverflies, and bees to pollinate.
You can sow seeds in rows for a cutting garden. Or, you can start seeds indoors and transplant outside into the main garden later.
Garden centers and big-box stores stock are usually all in the dwarf range. Have you ever wondered why? It isn’t just because companies believe gardeners want dwarf hybrids. Shorter transplants are less difficult to load onto trucks, and, by saving space for another flat of plants, wholesalers can make more money.
Growing plants from seed produces different levels in the garden, which makes it more interesting to you and your visitors, including the winged ones.
Grow Annual Vines
Annual vines are one of the quickest ways to cover an arbor, trellis, or eyesore, and with annuals, you don’t have to commit to a plant longer than one season. Use annual vines like hyacinth bean (Lablab purpureus) to cover your mailbox or an arbor while you wait for a climbing rose or another perennial plant to grow larger. Just keep the annual vine from smothering any other perennial or shrub grown at its base. Cypress vine (Ipomoea quamoclit) is a beautiful, but prolific, self-sower so expect to have it in your garden forever. Morning glories are also great sowers, with ‘Heavenly Blue’ a favorite. ‘Grandpa Otts’ is more aggressive and will produce seedlings for years.
Although it’s slow to bloom, tropical corkscrew vine (Vigna caracalla) is worth growing just for the scent. Start seeds early to get a jump-start on this vine once grown by Thomas Jefferson.
Hopefully, this gives you the incentive to try annuals in new ways this year. There are plenty of superb ways to blend annuals seamlessly into your garden one seed or plant at a time. Try a new variety or plant them in different ways. Your garden will be the most diverse on the block, and everyone will want to know how you did it.
How to Grow from Seed and Where to Buy Them
Celosia: Start seeds indoors and transplant once the last freeze date is past. Find unique varieties of Celosia or cockscomb from Burpee Seeds, burpee.com, and ‘Tornado Red’ from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, rareseeds.com.
Cosmos: Extremely easy to direct sow outside, new mixtures of cosmos are now being grown primarily for the florist trade. However, you can select these same varieties in your garden. For unique varieties, try Floret Flowers, floretflowers.com.
Globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa): Go beyond old and tired ‘Purple Buddy’ and grow one of the taller varieties of this airy filler. Find seeds for many of the newer varieties with increased bloom like QIS Purple, Orange, or Carmine along with the beautiful ‘Bicolor Rose’ at Johnny’s Selected Seed, johnnyseeds.com.
Sunflowers: Try newer varieties in dwarf and tall selections. Some are pollen-free, but choose those with pollen for pollinators. Burpee Seeds, burpee.com, has a large array of sunflowers from which to choose, as does Renee’s Garden, reneesgarden.com.
Zinnias: The Oklahoma series is now available, with the best colors separated so you don’t have to grow that icky yellow. ‘Oklahoma Salmon’ and ‘Oklahoma Carmine’ are among the best. Also, ‘Queen Red Lime’ zinnias have a new selection, ‘Queen Lime With Blush’ also called ‘Queen Lime with Blotch’. It’s much prettier than the older ‘Envy’. Johnny’s Selected Seed, johnnyseeds.com, has all of these varieties.