What is an Annual?
Annuals are plants that grow, flower, set seed and die in a single growing
season. In a cold climate like ours, the term is also often applied to
"tender" perennials which aren't sufficiently hardy to winter over in the
The great value of annuals is their versatility in the garden.
They are useful for creating large scale beddings of a single variety,
mixing and matching in summer containers, and inter-planting into mixed beds
alongside perennials and shrubs. As a general rule, annuals come on later
than bulbs, perennials, and shrubs, and many varieties flower all summer
long with little care.
We particularly enjoy combining annuals in containers, which is the
easiest possible way to add color to a patio or doorstep, and an opportunity
to experiment with different forms and textures. We're pleased to offer a
number of collections that we've had success with, and encourage you to mix
and match on your own. You'll quickly find lots of ways in which annuals can
give your garden a welcome boost.
How to Grow Annual FlowersUntil a few years ago, if you wanted to grow annual
flowers, your choices were limited to geraniums, impatiens, marigolds and red
salvia. But today, most greenhouses offer an eye catching array of choices.
Whether you're planting a window box, lining your sidewalk, or spicing up your
perennial garden, here's how to make the most of what's available.
Strictly speaking, an annual plant is one that completes its growing cycle
(grows from seed, flowers and produces seed) in the course of a single growing
season. In other words, annuals pack a lot of living into a short span of time.
But beyond this simple definition, there is an even wider range of plants
that we treat as annuals. Some, such as impatiens, heliotrope and tuberous
begonias, are actually tender or "half-hardy" perennials that can't survive even
a light frost. On the other hand, some annuals, such as pansies and ornamental
cabbage, are extremely cold-hardy and can withstand freezing temperatures quite
One of the best things about annuals is their incredible diversity and
versatility. Using them allows you to compose really exciting combinations of
color, form and texture that will last all season long. Colors range from bright
midsummer favorites such as zinnias and Mexican sunflowers, to the subtler
pastel shades of stock or lavatera.
You can also select annuals for your garden based on characteristics other
than flower color. There are annuals that are tall, medium, short or climbing;
ones that prefer either full sun or partial shade; and those with special
virtues, such as delightful fragrance (stock, mignonette, nicotiana) or
attractive foliage (caladium, coleus, dusty miller).
Perennials Grown as Annuals
A tender perennial is one that won't survive the winter in your climate. Many
gardeners simply treat these plants as annuals, enjoying them for one season and
letting them die in the fall. Other people move plants inside at the onset of
cold weather: treating them as houseplants over the winter; taking cuttings and
starting new plants; or simply digging up and storing part of the plant (usually
the roots or bulblike structures) indoors for replanting the following year.
Examples of perennials that are commonly grown as annuals include the more
tender flowering sages (Salvia coccinea, S. patens, S. splendens,
etc.), verbenas, and hyssop (Agastache spp.). Geraniums and scented
geraniums (Pelargonium spp.) can be grown outdoors either in beds or pots
during the summer, then brought indoors at the end of the season: to bloom in
pots, to store in darkness for replanting, or to use as cuttings for new plants.
Petunias, coleus, and sweet-alyssum (Lobularia maritima) are other plants
that can be over wintered in pots and replanted the following year.
If you have a sunspace or attached greenhouse that receives plenty of winter
sunlight and doesn't get too cold at night, you might try growing some of the
interesting "annuals" that in their native habitats are actually perennial
shrubs and trees. For example, if given year-round protection, fuschias grow
rapidly, reach anywhere from 18 inches to 12 feet or more, and produce their
beautiful pendulous blossoms in shades of red, purple, and white nearly all
winter long. Brugmansia, or angel's-trumpet, can grow to 15 feet tall in
greenhouse cultivation. Its trumpet-shaped flowers are fragrant and beautiful,
but don't grow it in the house if you have small children; the plants are
Flowering plants that grow from tender bulbs, such as dahlias, gladioluses
and cannas, are often planted as annual flowers in cutting gardens or mixed
ornamental borders. They, too, are tender perennials, and most varieties won't
survive the winter outdoors in most of North America. However, it's easy to dig
up these bulbs at the end of the growing season and store them indoors for
replanting the following year.
Starting Annuals from Seed
Seeing all the annuals offered for sale at nurseries and garden centers in
the spring, you might wonder who would go to all the trouble of starting their
own annuals from seed. There is an economic advantage, of course. A $2 packet of
seeds might grow four large flats of alyssum plants, which would be a savings of
roughly $70 over buying the plants from a nursery.
An equally compelling reason for starting your own plants from seed is that
even the best garden centers don't carry the full selection of worthy garden
annuals. Most sell the popular bedding plants, but it can be hard to find
old-fashioned annuals, such as love-lies-bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus),
four o’clocks (Mirabilis jalapa), or lavatera (Lavatera trimestris)?
Part of the reason for this absence stems from economics (supply and demand)
and part is due to the nature of the plants themselves. Garden centers like to
sell six-packs of plants that are already in bloom; that way customers know what
they're getting, and know that the plants will probably continue blooming after
they get them home and in the ground. Instant gratification.
Yet many fine annuals won't start blooming in nursery six-packs. They're
either too tall, don't like to be transplanted, or just won't flower until they
have been in the ground for a couple of weeks. If you want to experiment with
the whole palette of annuals, eventually you will want to grow some of your own
plants from seed.
Many annuals are easy to seed directly into garden soil. Others are best
started indoors under lights in late winter or early spring. Consult seed
catalogs, seed packets or the book From Seed to Bloom by Eileen Powell
for information on specific plants. Generally speaking, annuals fall into three
main categories, which determine when and where you should sow their seeds. For
all categories, a good rule of thumb is to plant seeds at a depth of two or
three times their diameter.
Some annuals are so good at fulfilling their mission in life—flowering and
setting seeds—that they will self-sow readily under the right conditions and
produce brand-new plants the following year. Common annuals that can self-sow
vigorously include ageratum, petunia, foxglove, annual larkspur, forget-me-not,
calendula and wild or striped mallow (Malva sylvestris).
Hardy annuals: Can be direct-sown in the garden as early in the spring
as the soil can be worked. For an earlier start, sow them indoors in flats eight
to ten weeks before the last spring frost date, and transplant them to the
garden about a month later, after hardening them off.
Some hardy annuals can also be direct-seeded in the fall, and these plants
will flower much earlier than plants seeded in the spring. When fall seeding,
plant the seeds a bit deeper than you would in the spring, and spread some mulch
over the seedbed after the ground has frozen.
Examples of hardy annuals include bachelor's-buttons, calendula, spider
flower (Cleome hasslerana), pinks (Dianthus spp.), larkspur,
linaria, Shirley poppies (Papaver rhoeas), nigella (love-in-a-mist),
scabiosa (pincushion flower), snapdragons, lavatera, annual baby's-breath (Gypsophila
elegans), heliotrope, stocks and sweet peas.
Half-hardy annuals: These can be direct-sown outdoors after the threat
of hard frost (temperatures below 25°F) is past. Indoors, start seeds in flats
six to eight weeks before the last spring frost date, and harden off the plants
before transplanting them to the garden. Once they have hardened off, half-hardy
annuals can withstand a light frost.
Examples include statice, nicotiana, painted-tongue (Salpiglossis sinuata),
China aster (Callistephus chinensis), and various types of salvias and
Tender annuals: Seed can be sown directly in the garden only after all
danger of frost is past. For an earlier start, sow seed indoors four to six
weeks before the last spring frost date for your area. Examples include
marigolds, morning glories, zinnias, sunflowers and tithonia (Mexican
sunflower), cosmos, amaranth, ageratum, celosia and gomphrena (globe amaranth).
Propagating from Cuttings
Late summer or early fall is an ideal time to take cuttings from annuals such
as geraniums, coleus and impatiens, potting them up for winter bloom indoors or
to hold them over for the following spring. The following steps will help ensure
1. Clip off any flowers or flower buds on the plant. This is done to focus
the plant’s energy into developing new roots on the stem cutting.
2. Select healthy stem cuttings (preferably healthy growing tips or side
shoots) that are 2 to 6 inches long. Strip off any bottom leaves where the stem
will be inserted in the rooting medium (either potting soil or water). Dip the
cut end of the stem into a rooting hormone powder to encourage rapid root
3. Insert the cutting in potting soil (not a soilless seedstarting mix) and
water the container. Cover the flat or pot with a clear plastic bag to create a
moist, humid atmosphere. Don’t let the plant leaves touch the side of the bag
because this will cause rot.
4. New roots should develop in one to three weeks. To test, gently tug on the
cutting. Pot up the new plants in 4- to 6-inch containers and keep out of direct
sunlight for three days. After this time, place the plants in a sunny location.
5. An alternative method of rooting plants, such as begonias, coleus or
geraniums, is to place the stem cuttings in a glass of water to develop roots.
Change water every few days until plants develop roots, and add a little soil to
the jar after new roots appear. Plant rooted cuttings in 4- to 6-inch containers
filled with potting soil.
6. Once the new plant is well established, pinch off the stem tip to
encourage fuller growth and more abundant flowers.
Growing and Care of Annuals
Soil preparation and planting: In general, annuals prefer well-drained
soil with a pH between 6.3 and 6.7. Digging in a good quantity of peat moss or
compost will help to build up the soil's organic matter and allow the plants'
roots to spread quickly and get off to a good start.
Set out young plants at the recommended spacing, to prevent them from
crowding each other once they have grown and matured. If you've purchased plants
in flats from a garden center, the plants will likely be somewhat pot bound when
you remove them from their cells or containers. Before placing them in the
planting hole, gently break apart the root mass; this encourages roots to spread
quickly into the surrounding soil. Fertilize at planting time with an organic or
You need to pay attention to whether a particular plant is hardy, half-hardy
or tender before deciding when to transplant it. Some nurseries sell plants with
labels that identify hardiness; when in doubt, put your annuals out after all
danger of frost has passed. Another crucial factor, of course, is whether a
particular plant prefers sun or partial shade.
If you need to hold plants in flats for more than a couple of days at home,
be sure to water them and keep them in a partly shady, protected spot, such as a
porch or under a tree. Don’t leave them in a garage or other structure where you
store cars or gasoline-powered machines; ethylene gas can cause flower damage
and leaf drop. The best advice is to transplant annuals to the garden as soon as
possible after bringing them home.
Care of annuals: Once they start blooming, most annuals will flower
all season long, until cold temperatures or frost put an end to their display.
However, to keep them flowering and looking good, you will need to perform some
simple but easy maintenance.
Deadheading is the most important task, and it involves pinching off old
flowers just as they begin to fade. The reason for doing this is simple. Annuals
live to flower quickly, produce seed and die. So long as you keep deadheading
blossoms, the plants will continue to produce flowers; once you stop, the plants
will reduce or stop flowering, and put their energy into maturing seeds.
Pinching off spent blooms is quick and easy, and it ensures season-long bloom.
If you've fertilized at planting time as recommended with an granular,
organic, slow-release fertilizer, you shouldn’t have to fertilize annuals again
during the season. With annuals, the flowers are the thing, and over fertilizing
can lead to lush foliage growth, which is really beside the point. The primary
exception is container-grown plants, which usually need to be fertilized with
water-soluble fertilizer every couple of weeks to maintain a colorful show.
Annuals have shallow root systems and so require a regular supply of water.
Avoid overhead watering if possible, which can stain some types of flowers (such
as petunias), and make them look unattractive. It also can contribute to a
buildup of botrytis fungus, which can affect plants such as zinnias, geraniums,
and marigolds. For best results, use a soaker hose or a drip irrigation system,
or direct your watering can right at soil level.
Designing With Annuals
When shopping for annuals, it helps to think in terms of color and
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.
The most popular and widely grown annuals are used as bedding
plants—combinations of brightly colored flowers and foliage plants in a bed that
is accessible from all sides for visibility and ease of maintenance. Such formal
plantings can be especially effective if you plant a solid block of plants of
the same variety and color. Separated by neat strips of lawn, such single-color
plantings lend a nice formal effect to the garden.
An even more impressive sight is a massed single-color planting divided down
the center by a band composed of a flower that has a different, but
complementary, color or growing habit. For instance, a dark, vivid color, such
as the bluish purple flowers of border lobelia (Lobelia erinus), might
combine well with the white flower mounds of sweet alyssum (Lobularia
maritima). Both plants are tender perennials grown as annuals, and both are
similar in growing habit: low, mounding and normally used for edging beds.
Annuals work equally well in less formal designs, and they fill an important
role by giving you a brilliant palette of color with which to work. They can be
inserted into open spots between and around perennials and flowering shrubs.
Adding annuals to a perennial border can bolster the effect of the whole,
ensuring a continuity of color and interest even when the perennials are not in
bloom. They are great for creating rhythmic splashes of color, for linking
different parts of the garden together, and for helping to carry a particular
color theme through the garden during the entire growing season.
Some of the best annuals for mixed border plantings include tall species such
as nicotiana (flowering tobacco), cleome (spider flower), lavatera, Shirley
poppies, foxglove, matricaria or the vibrant orange Mexican sunflower (Tithonia
rotundifolia). For mid- and late-season color at the front of the border,
use annuals such as impatiens, matricaria, Salvia horminium and sweet
With all their different heights, colors and forms, it's entirely possible to
plant a spectacular border composed of annuals alone. Since most annuals flower
at the same time, and over an extended season, you may want to choose varieties
that will complement one another. You can strive to create a particular color
scheme (pink, blue, and white; yellow, blue and orange), or simply go for a
full-blown riot of color.
One way to create a more interesting and designer effect is to include
annuals that are grown for their attractive foliage, which can act as a foil for
the bright blooms of other plants. The silver foliage of dusty miller (Senecio
cineraria) is an old standby in the annual garden, but there are lots of
other, lesser-known foliage plants as well, including cannas, which have
tropical-looking, sometimes bronzed leaves; plectranthus, with its soft, silvery
leaves; and perilla (Perilla frutescens), a beautiful herb whose dark
purple, fringed leaves are particularly effective with white and pink-purple
Climbing annuals are another good choice, especially for cottage garden
settings and containers (window boxes, hanging baskets, etc.). They have an
old-fashioned, informal quality and will create a colorful living tapestry on
fences, screens, trellises, or other supports. Plenty of people grow morning
glories (Ipomoea purpurea and I. tricolor) and their close
relatives, moonflower (I. alba) and cardinal climber (I. x multifida).
But that scarcely scratches the surface of great climbers..
Containers and Overwintering
The perfect choice for growing in containers, annuals work well either alone
or in combined plantings. Be imaginative when selecting containers, and if you
have the room and the resources, don't just stick to the tried-and-true
terra-cotta pots. Window boxes are designed for annuals, especially ones that
cascade over the sides. The same holds true for hanging containers, where
trailing varieties, such as the old-fashioned nasturtium Empress of India', hang
down and make a pretty display. For more information, read Planting a Winning
Impatiens are particularly beautiful when planted in a container set in
filtered shade. Most commonly you'll see them planted in the round, usually in a
large container like a half whiskey barrel. To set your display apart, try
experimenting with something a little different. An old soapstone sink would
make an excellent bed for impatiens or other colorful annuals, as would a
planter you've either bought or made from hypertufa (a kind of artificial
stone). Brown fiber pots and planters are widely available, and will last for
several seasons. They're also light (at least when empty) and easy to move.
When planting in containers, make sure that you allow for adequate drainage.
If the pot or container doesn't have drainage holes, either insert a smaller
container that does inside of it, or cover the bottom of the container with a
layer of small stones or foam peanuts (a terrific way to recycle them).
Like other plants grown in containers, annuals require regular watering and
fertilization throughout the growing season. In addition, you'll also have to
deadhead spent blossoms. During hot, dry weather, your plants may need watering
once or even twice a day. Certain plants, such as moss rose (Portulaca
grandiflora) and calliopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria), prefer somewhat
dry soil and hot, sunny weather.
Tender annuals should be protected from early frosts. A stretch of warm fall
days often follows the first frosts, so it pays to cover your plants and prolong
the season. Once cool weather becomes the norm and frost kills off your plants,
remove them from their pots and clean the containers with soap and water or a
dilute bleach solution, to get them ready for next year.
The end of the growing season doesn't necessarily mean the end of your
annuals. Tender perennial plants already growing in containers can be cut back
and brought indoors, while bedding plants such as petunias, impatiens, lantana
and geraniums can be potted up and treated to a prolonged season of bloom
Before bringing these plants indoors, check them for insect or disease
problems and either treat them or discard them if you find any. Cut back the
plants by 4 to 6 inches, and place the pots in a room that gets a lot of light.
A greenhouse or sunspace is ideal, but so are sunny windows with a west or south
exposure. After cutting back the plants, give them a dose of liquid plant food
and they should soon start to develop new leaves and flowers.
Keep a close eye on any plants you bring indoors, at least for the first
couple of weeks. The shock of being moved inside makes plants very vulnerable
until they become acclimated to their new growing conditions. Pamper your plants
as much as you can at this time to ease their transition to indoor life.
Some plants can be dug up in the fall, pruned way back, and stored in a cool,
dark place until early spring. This includes most of the tender perennials, such
as brugmansia, datura and geraniums. Water plants sparingly during this time.
Another strategy for overwintering plants is to take cuttings in the summer
or early fall and start new plants from your old annuals. This technique works
particularly well with coleus, plectranthus, and licorice plant (Helichrysum
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Most recent revision
Tuesday, 31. October 2017 01:47:19 AM