Amazing Annuals

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Pow Plants For Right Now Beauty

We gardeners are among the luckiest people in the world. Not only is our habit—I mean hobby—healthful, there’s no end to its pleasures. Ok, yes, it IS an addictive love, but an addiction that results in beauty, happiness, patience, and a sense of kinship with the natural world is nothing to worry about. And instead of making us fatter, it makes us fitter, and keeps us fitter longer into maturity. What’s not to love?

Most if not all gardeners go through phases of falling for certain kinds of plants, often in an embarrassingly big way. I’ve had an iris phase, a daylily phase, a rose phase, a clematis phase, a minor bulbs phase, and a few years where all a plant had to be was perennial and I’d give it a try. Oh, and the plants-with-black-leaves phase, as well as the golden foliage phase (that one slowed way down when I realized the garden was starting to look chlorotic). Thanks in part to all these fascinations, my gardens have changed along with my tastes, my skills, and my design sense. Over the years, I’ve come to consider making gardens as every bit as much fun as having one, especially since I’ve learned how to help a new garden look more mature fairly quickly.

The Power Of Now

Though there was a period when artful gardeners looked down pretty severely on annuals, I’ve always had a soft spot for these bright and bouncy beauties. Back in the day, there wasn’t a huge choice; annuals often meant pansies and petunias, geraniums and gerberas, with a little ageratum and sweet alyssum thrown in. These days, choices of foliage and flower color, texture, shape and size abound. As always, annuals are quick to fill in and show their colors, making them top plants of choice for helping new beds look satisfyingly full and abundant right away.

Some of my favorites are annuals in cool climates but perennial elsewhere, which tends to give them a strength of line and form that fluffier annuals lack. Zonal and wax leaf geraniums are perfect examples; the racing stripes on the zonal foliage underscore the sturdy density and slightly fuzzy texture, while the waxy, glossy leaves of the ivy types offer as much structure and solidity as many a perennial. Interspecific hybrids cross the two, resulting in striking beauties such as the Caliente series, with big and generous blooms on trailing plants that pack a basket with pizazz and make traffic stopping edgers on a sloped bed.

A Flurry Of Foliage

Foliage annuals have turned into true border beauties, thanks both to ardent plant hunters and skillful breeders who cleverly capitalize on natural attributes. Years ago, colorful coleus had marvelous foliage but would scorch brutally unless it was kept to shady spots. As it turned out, the plant hunters had been keeping an eye out for specifically shade tolerant plants back then, but plenty of coleus was actually quite sun tolerant. When gardeners asked for coleus that could take a sunny spot, all sorts of new beauties were brought into the breeders’ mix. Now we can paint with marvelous shades of coleus from the Stained Glassworks series, including my favorites, Copper and Eruption. Both are serious wow plants that look fantastic with pheasant tail grass (Anemanthele lessoniana), Orange Rocket barberries, and Autumnale fuchsias, which I like to set free from their basket to pour down my sloping beds.

Sweet potato vine (Ipomoea) has morphed a lot lately as well, so we now can choose amongst forms with both beautiful morning glory blossoms and lobed or frilly foliage in shades of chartreuse and gold or grape, plum, and midnight. These have really enjoyed my deep berms of sandy loam, spilling in inky or sunny streams between the slowly maturing shrubs. So far, my ravenous hordes of deer have not touched them, though as we all know, that can change overnight. Black oxalis or Purple Shamrock has a daintier leaf of smoky midnight with little puffs of tiny white flowers for accents. This classic indoor plant enjoys a summer out of doors and spreads nicely in light shade but can go dormant in full sun or when temperatures rise. The little bulblets don’t usually die, so the plant surges back into beauty when conditions are kinder. It’s not fussy about soil type but hates wet feet.

Powerhouse Petunias

Petunias have come a long, long way since the days when they came in red, pink, or muted purple. I still remember being very excited about a dim, faded yellow petunia that represented a huge color breakthrough about, oh, let’s just say a few decades back. Now I’m crazy about velvety Black Magic petunias, especially partnered with Surfinia Heartbeat, whose gentle white petals are each marked with a baby-ribbon-pink heart (seriously adorable). The Crazytunias have boldly striped or parti-colored petals in vividly contrasting colors, like a floral mardi gras costume, while the Glow series do indeed have a gentle glow about their more muted shades. If you like things on the hotter side, the Hells Bells gals are brazen blazers in a sizzling range of fiery tints.

Petchoa SuperCal are a series of petunia/calibrachoa crosses that combine stunning colors with abundant and persistent bloom. These dazzlers partner the larger blossoms of petunias with the tough endurance of calibrachoas, and the smoky salmon-peach-coral-rose palette blends with almost anything. Calibrachoas are dauntless beauties that produce showers of small but exceptionally generous bloom all summer long. In the garden, they cover a 2-3 foot circle, fitting comfortably between young shrubs and youthful perennials. The Isabell series offers bright yellow, clean purple, soft rose, and vivid tangerine as well as my favorite terra cotta (if you think you detect a theme to my favorites you’re right). I’m also a sucker for the Calibrachoa Superbells series, especially the citrusy Lemon Slice, with white and lemon stripes that remind me of umbrellas at a French beachside cafe.

On And On And On

I could go on and on, in fact I see that I have, but my main point is that annuals have an important part to play in the garden. No longer just pot plugs or basket stuffers, today’s annuals are captivating creations that earn a showboat spot in bed or border. Perhaps best of all, in a weird way, is their very evanescence; like the old song says, how can I miss you if you won’t go away?

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