Non-traditional ways to use annuals in the landscape

Story and Photos By Jennifer Williams

Driving through most neighborhoods across the country, you can see that we have all been told the same thing about annuals – Keep it simple: Plant your annuals near the front of your flowerbeds, pick one or two options and colors, plant en masse, keep your planters overflowing with one kind of flower. At garden centers, you see the same tried-and-true favorites every year: orange and yellow marigolds (Tagetes spp.), Petunia in shades of pink, purple and white, white, red, and pink Begonia – you know what I am talking about! It may be hard to break the “rules” in your neighborhood where each front yard looks the same, neat and tidy with the same handful of plants, but I am here to tell you – it is time to think outside the border! There are so many places to find inspiration and new ideas and ways to break free from the expected.

The English Garden 
This style is very common in some places – but here in Louisiana, tackling these types of plantings can be a challenge. Traditionally, the English garden is packed full of plants (mostly perennials), and to the outsider may look like there is no rhyme or reason why or where anything is planted. To achieve this look with annuals, head to your local garden center and pick one to three of each annual plant that you like – that’s it, no more – until you gather a cart full of color and fun. This planting style breaks from the norm of buying flats and flats of one type of flower and planting straight rows along our sidewalks. When you bring home your new additions, set them out in your existing garden beds among your perennials, bulbs, and shrubs, paying attention to heights and colors. Do not fall into old habits and group like plants and colors together – spread them out and let them mingle to create a beautiful scene.

Think Tall
I love to take my tried-and-trues and use them in new ways. One of my favorite ways of doing this is thinking “up.” I look for taller varieties of my trusted annuals and place them farther back in the border, between perennials and flowering shrubs that have shorter blooming periods, or vining plants that can jump out of the foundation planting on a trellis or climbing the porch railings. 

I like to plant my containers in both traditional style and “outside-the-box” style. I always have a few out on my front steps – smaller ones that I fill with one type of flower – but then I group them in different combinations. With my larger pots and hanging baskets, I love to mix it up with great combinations of plants that bloom all season long. Finally, I go one step further and add containers to my actual garden beds – placing them in areas where interest putters out early in the summer. 

This container grouping combines several traditional plants to create an aesthetically pleasing combination of texture and color.

Mix It Up
This is the predominant theme of my annual plantings – mix up everything. Whether you are trying out new varieties, sticking with your old favorites, or somewhere in between, find a new way to arrange them in the landscape. Consider not only height and colors, but add different textures, foliage plants, or even edibles to create a new and exciting look.

This mixed border has a lot going on – shrubs, perennials and a handful of traditional varieties of annuals – but it all flows seamlessly to create one perfect explosion of color and happiness.

Seed Swaps
Do you really want to get out of your comfort zone? Do you have a stack of seed catalogs on your side table? Seed catalogs – even those that offer mostly edibles – have an abundance of new and different annual varieties that you just don’t usually see at local garden centers. You can still use some of your old favorites, but try different colors, growing habits, or heights. Find something new to try and see if it will flourish in your landscape. 

When you want to order 10-15 different varieties, you often end up with too many seeds. Share the love and get a group of friends together exchange seeds and brighten up more than just your landscape! 


Here are a few varieties that have made my must-have list: 

‘Party Dress’ morning glory (Ipomoea ‘Party Dress’): This sun-loving, brightly colored beauty is a tried-and-true favorite, but the color will jump out of the garden with excitement and hit the dance floor. The 2-3 inch magenta blooms will climb to heights of 6-7 feet all summer. Plant alone or combine with other tall bloomers, you could even train it alongside a row of sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) for a beautiful backdrop. 

‘Mint’ Cocoa Lisianthus: Another sun lover, the unique colored blooms of soft green and brown remind me of little cabbages when viewed up close. At 24-30 inches tall, these ruffled petals will add texture and color to the garden and will stand out amongst the traditional pink bloomers. 

Begonia ‘Nonstop Joy Yellow’: This semi-trailing smile of double yellow blooms is a petite 8-12 inches tall but will brighten the shadiest of spots in the garden. Able to withstand partial to full shade, adding a few of these to your beds or containers will brighten even the gloomiest of days.

‘Orchid Flame’ nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus ‘Orchid Flame’): Another semi-trailing annual, 12 inches tall, this short-statured lady needs some room to spread, reaching up to 48 inches in width. If you are looking to keep a traditional row of flowers at the edge of your beds, try this unique variety that starts out with 2½-inch yellow blooms edged in red that slowly turn almost completely red as it matures. This one is also great in vegetable gardens. 

Whether you are ready to dive all the way into new ways of using annuals in your landscape or just want to test the waters with new varieties in traditional plantings, take your time and explore the multitude of possibilities available!


Plants to get your imagination flowing 

Celosia is one of my favorite annuals for adding texture. They can have long fuzzy blooms or compacted swirls that look like brains to many people, especially children! Either way, they come in a variety of colors and textures and add flair to any garden.

Celosia: Fuzzy plant available in a wide variety of shapes – a sure way to add interest to your garden.

Coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides, syn. Solenostemon scutellarioides): A tried-and-true favorite that seems to explode with new colors and sizes each year; as a bonus, you can take some cuttings inside through the winter to plant the following year!

Edibles: Purple or red-leafed varieties of kale and basil; Swiss chard in cooler weather; let thyme and chives go to flower to add a new type of interest to the garden. 

Grasses: Short and fuzzy bunny ears (Lagurus ovatus) and red or purple varieties, such as ‘Fireworks’ fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Fireworks’) are colorful and low maintenance. 

Vines: Check out these unique beauties: cypress vine (Ipomoea quamoclit) and fragrant corkscrew vine (Vigna caracalla).

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