Versatile Annuals

Now that electronic devices have become part of our everyday lives, we've gotten used to hearing the phrase, ″There's an app for that.″ as we look for quick and easy ways to get things done. If you're looking for similar ease and versatility in the garden, all you need to do is change the phrase just a little -- to ″There's an annual for that.″ If you want some quick color for an upcoming party, plant some annuals. If you lost a perennial or shrub last winter and you want some plants to fill in quickly while you decide on a permanent replacement, try annuals. When you want plants in containers to spruce up a deck or porch, annuals are perfect. When you want to use special flower colors for a holiday or a big event, annuals are perfect for the part. Because you plant them anew each spring, annuals are a great choice for gardeners who love to experiment with different color schemes or try out the latest varieties. Short or tall, for sun or shade, for dry soil or wet, there are annuals for just about any spot or use in your garden.

If you've got time (and, for indoor seed starting, proper light and temperature conditions), it is very easy and relatively inexpensive to start annuals from seed. If you need something almost at its prime for instant impact, most garden centers carry a large variety of annuals ready to fill an area with color.

Annual or Tender Perennial?
A word on terminology is in order here. Botanically, annuals are plants that complete their life cycle (sprout from seed, flower, set seed, and die) in one growing season; marigolds are a familiar example. However, many of the plants that we think of and use as annuals in most parts of the country are actually tender perennials, plants that will live longer than one season if winter temperatures are mild enough. Such familiar ″annuals″ as geraniums, petunias, wax begonias, and impatiens fall into this category. Because both true annuals and various tender perennials are sold and planted mainly for one growing season, garden references and garden stores usually lump them together into one ″annual″ category.

Sun or Shade
Most annuals do well in full to part sun. If you've got sunny conditions, you have a wide array to choose from, including ageratum, calendula, cosmos, gazania, geranium (Pelargonium), marigold, salpiglossis, salvia, scabiosa, snapdragon and zinnia. But shade gardeners have lots to choose from as well. Annuals that do well in light to medium shade include browallia, impatiens, lobelia, and wishbone flower (Torenia). Other possibilities include begonia, caladium, coleus, and fuchsia. Another interesting plant to consider in cooler areas is polka-dot plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya). It can become invasive in warm climates, but is treated as an annual in areas where temperatures fall below freezing.

A Size for Every Situation
Annuals offer a variety of sizes and growth habits. Ever popular petunias come in just about every color but true blue. Some creep, some are upright and others vine. Good choices for low groundcovers include nasturtium, lobelia, and sweet alyssum (pictured). There are low-growing varieties of calendula, Swan River daisies (Brachyscome iberidifolia), and cockscomb (Celosia). Mid-sized annuals include gloriosa daisy (Rudbeckia hirta), rose mallow (Lavatera trimestris), and cosmos. For tall plants, consider cleome, nicotiana, amaranth, and sunflowers. Need a vertical accent in the garden? Fast growing annual vines include Spanish flag (Mina lobata), moonflower vine (Ipomoea alba), black-eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia alata), hyacinth bean Lablab purpurea), canary creeper (Tropaeolum peregrinum) and morning glory (Ipomoea tricolor).

Patriotic Colors
For a red, white, and blue Fourth of July color scheme (or, more likely, red, white, and bluish, as there are few annuals with true blue flowers) you might use all petunias in appropriate shades. Or try red geraniums, deep blue violet 'Blue Bedder' mealycup sage (Salvia farinacea), and cascading white bacopa (Sutera codata). With so many annuals in so many hues, you can come up with just about any color scheme imaginable, whether it be school colors, a company logo, or wedding colors.

Planting for Evening Enjoyment
An evening garden is something else to consider. You can make it attractive in daylight as well as magical in the moonlight. Use a combination of plants with white flowers, variegated foliage, and fragrant blossoms. White annuals include nicotiana, moonflower, petunia, and stock (Matthiola incana). Besides being white, all of these annuals are fragrant. The soft white foliage of dusty miller is a great accent, working well as edging along a walkway or patio.

Blooms for Bouquets
Some annuals also make good cut flowers. Consider cleome, cosmos, celosia, scabiosa, sunflower, snapdragon, stock, sweet pea, China aster, four-o'clock, and zinnia.

Have fun, experiment, and enjoy the versatility of annuals.

Steve Trusty has a degree in horticulture from Iowa State University. He has been helping gardeners receive more enjoyment from their lawns and gardens for years through radio, TV, books, magazines and websites.

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