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.

Cereal grains, like amaranth and millet, are worthy additions to a cutting garden. With so many flower and grain selections being used by florists in bouquets, home gardeners can now also grow bouquets. Cutting gardens, while utilitarian, can also be beautiful.

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.  

In the tiny pocket gardens of Buffalo, NY, gardeners incorporate annuals with perennials for the best show. Often homeowners match their small, overstuffed – in the best way – gardens with plants that mimic or match the colors of their homes. Although Buffalo is a long way from Oklahoma, summer plantings are similar. They just have a shorter season.

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, ( 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. 

Helen Weis designed these three gorgeous plantings in glazed pots sitting atop a raised dais next to her client’s pool. In the center of each pot is tropical Red Star dracaena palm (Cordyline australis ‘Red Star’), which is surrounded by summer-loving tropicals ‘Million Bells Antique Rose’ (Calibrochoa ‘Caltrarosan’), white fan flower (Scaevola aemula), and white summer snapdragon (Angelonia angustifolia).

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. 

Steve Owens of Bustani Plant Farm is known for his stunning tropical and annual plant combinations displayed in gardens surrounding his and his wife’s Stillwater nursery. ‘Black Coral’ elephant ear (Colocasia esculenta) is underplanted with white variegated alternanthera. Moving counterclockwise, bronze sea berry (Haloragis erecta ‘Bronze’), Artist Blue flossflower (Ageratum ‘Agsantis’), Wasabi coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides ‘UF0843’), variegated tapioca (Manihot esculenta ‘Variegata’), and Caribbean copper plant (Euphorbia cotinifolia ‘Atropurpurea’) surround the elephant ear.
Helen Weis combined perennials, tropical plants, and annuals in this border punctuated by Taylor columnar junipers (Juniperus virginiana ‘Taylor’) at each end. Next to the juniper on the left is ‘Mammy’ croton (Codiaeum variegatum ‘Mammy’). In between are Limelight artemisia (A. vulgaris ‘Janlim’), ‘Hot Rod’ switchgrass (Panicum virgatum ‘Hot Rod’), ‘Victoria Blue’ salvia (S. farinicea ‘Victoria Blue’), dwarf Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium dubium ‘Baby Joe’), Coreopsis ‘Limerock Ruby’, Gaura, Agastache ‘Orange Flare’, ‘Paprika’ yarrow (Achillea millefolium ‘Paprika’), golden creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’), Scaevola, Viola, and ornamental cabbage and kale.

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.

LEFT: Don’t forget to plant plenty of annuals sown from seed like this old and new-fashioned duo, highly perfumed flowering tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris) with a dark maroon sunflower. Try ‘Moulin Rouge’ or ‘Chocolate Cherry’ sunflower. MIDDLE: For a nonstop Oklahoma summer show, pair perennial black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’) with dark blue summer snapdragon (Angelonia angustifolia ‘Alonia Big Indigo’), and red periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus.) If deadheaded regularly, summer snapdragon will bloom for months. RIGHT: ‘Brazilian Red Hots’ alternanthera, Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’, and lavender starflower (Pentas lanceolata) make a great combination for the front of the mixed border.

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.



Easy Annuals

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,, and ‘Tornado Red’ from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds,

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, 

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,

Sunflowers: Try newer varieties in dwarf and tall selections. Some are pollen-free, but choose those with pollen for pollinators. Burpee Seeds,, has a large array of sunflowers from which to choose, as does Renee’s Garden, 

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,, has all of these varieties.

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