Innovative ways to use annuals in your landscape

Story by Kelly Bledsoe

Whether your garden is a set of containers on a city balcony or an extensive country plot, annuals add color wherever you need it. And let’s face it … a garden just isn’t a garden without flowers! Even if vegetables are your passion, adding flowers alongside your zucchini will not only add beauty, but also attract those important pollinators necessary for a garden to thrive. Used with flair and imagination, annuals add the Sparkle your garden needs, with the power to transform a drab border or seasonal container into something spectacular.

Annuals such as petunia and snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus) brighten up and soften concrete sidewalks and walkways. Photo by Kelly Bledsoe.

So what exactly is an annual? Botanically speaking, an annual plant is one that completes its growing cycle (grows from seed, flowers, and produces seed) over the course of a single growing season. In other words, annuals pack a lot of living into a short span of time.

“Because they only stay in the garden for one season, annuals offer maximum flexibility.”

Annual plants are incredibly diverse and versatile. Using annuals allows you to compose exciting combinations of color, form, and texture that will last all season. Colors range from bright midsummer favorites such as Zinnia and Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia spp.), to the subtler pastel shades of garden balsam (Impatiens balsamina) and sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus).

Annuals provide an added layer of texture when used with hardscapes such as brick or stone retaining walls. Photo courtesy of Toms Creek Nursery & Landscaping.

Jim Carraher, horticulturist from Toms Creek Nursery & Landscaping, Inc. in Denton, North Carolina, explains, “The biggest plus of annuals is that you get great color for long periods of time. Perennials come and go but annuals often last six months or more, giving your garden that spark of color.”

Verbena is another favorite that works well as a border or in a container. ‘Fuego Pink’ is a fast-growing variety with clusters of brilliant red flowers. Photo by Kelly Bledsoe.

Annuals for your garden should be selected on characteristics other than flower color. There are tall, medium, short, and climbing annuals; those that prefer full sun, those that prefer partial shade; and those with special virtues, such as delightful fragrance – heliotrope (Heliotropium spp.), sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima), Petunia – or attractive foliage – Caladium, coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides, syn. Solenostemon scutellarioides), dusty miller (Senecio cineraria).

Filling a wagon and with annual favorites, such as geraniums (Pelargonium x hortorum), vinca (Catharanthus roseus), and petunias, allows you to add color exactly where it is needed. These tough plants are capable of putting on loads of blooms all season long and come in a wide variety of colors and patterns. Photo by Kelly Bledsoe.

Jim further explains, “In addition to color and height, annuals offer more exotic textures, lending a tropical feel to your garden. Any dull spot can be immediately enhanced with the form and texture of a few annuals.”

Signet marigold (Tagetes tenuifolia) adds spots of bright yellow to a monochromatic area. Photo by Kelly Bledsoe.

When shopping for annuals think in terms of color, form, and texture, as Jim says, “Because they only stay in the garden for one season, annuals offer maximum flexibility. If you don’t like the effect you’ve created one year, you can simply chalk it up to experience and try again next year without having to move plants around as you would with perennial plants.”

Nothing says, “Welcome” more than a well-tended, colorful entrance. Photo courtesy of Toms Creek Nursery & Landscaping.

Many gardeners prefer to create an exclusive annual bed. But before you plant an annual bed, you’ll want to sketch out your garden plan. A quick outline noting its approximate dimensions and the amount of sun the area receives each day will ensure maximum success. List your favorite annuals so you’ll be sure to include most, if not all, of them in your plan. 

Abundant blooms and easy to grow, vinca is an excellent choice if you have little time to tend your garden. Useful in borders, flowerbeds, rock gardens, and containers, vinca provides instant color wherever it grows. Photo courtesy of Toms Creek Nursery & Landscaping.

Take a good long look at your garden. Is something is lacking? Can you identify one or more areas where a mass of color would improve it? For example, although shrub borders can be flower-filled in spring and early summer, they often provide only a few blooms the rest of the year. It’s amazing how much more attractive an area like that becomes when a few groups of annuals are added. It’s not necessary to plant a large bed along the entire length of the shrub border; several strategically located clumps will do the trick.

If you want to fill a flowerbed or large planter with an eye-catching pop of color, Wave petunias are a great choice. Photo by Kelly Bledsoe.

Annuals can also provide the midsummer boost a perennial border may need. Fill in the spaces where spring bulbs and some perennials are dying back, or where early flowering biennials, such as foxgloves (Digitalis spp.) and English daisies (Bellis perennis) have been removed. 

Get creative! Recycle old birdhouses, broken pottery, shoes, or anything else you can find. Fill with a little dirt, your favorite annual, and voilà … you’ve got Sparkle! Photo by Kelly Bledsoe.

You can plant annuals in containers that can be moved around the garden to instantly “fix” ho-hum areas. Place containers of annuals on tables or stools and tuck them here and there throughout the landscape. Arrange them in a wagon that you can pull anywhere that could use a pop of color. Be creative: fill birdhouses or broken pottery with annuals and strategically place them in monochromatic borders and beds, transforming the ordinary to extraordinary. If there is a fence or wall behind a border, use it as a support for climbing annuals or hang half-baskets or window boxes full of flowering annuals.

This is the year to add some Sparkle … annuals can liven up any area, while providing an excellent source of cut flowers to bring indoors for that added bonus!

Special thanks to Tom’s Creek Nursery & Landscaping. Visit them online here.

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