Five easy annuals for every garden
If you only had time and space to grow five summer flowers, which ones would you choose? We asked ourselves that question last year. Flowers in dazzling colors topped our list-ones whose vivid hues would stop passersby in their tracks and invite lingering looks. We’d toss in a few varieties with eye-catching frills, spots, or stripes.
Our next criterion: They would be annual (or behave that way), going from seed, tuber, or seedling to flower to seed again in one glorious spring-to-fall season. They would be easy to plant and easy to grow. We wanted nothing that needed fussing over, nothing temperamental or wimpy. The flowers had to be good for bouquets or good companions for cutting flowers. We wanted ones that would bloom over a long season (as long as we were faithful about deadheading, of course).
We made a list and pared it down. We browsed through nurseries and catalogs, choosing plants that piqued our interest. Finally we planted many varieties of five flower groups in Sunset’s test garden in Menlo Park, California.
As they grew, we studied their backgrounds, noting that all of them hail from hot climates. Cosmos originated in tropical America. Dahlias come from Mexico and Central America, where they were first used as food (their tubers contain a nourishing starchy substance not unlike a potato), while improved varieties bloomed lustily at Montezuma’s gardens in Huaxtepec. The marigold family, despite French and African names, is entirely American, found from New Mexico and Arizona south to Argentina. Summer mums are native to Morocco and have naturalized in sand dunes along Southern California’s coast. Sunflowers grow wild from Minnesota to the Pacific Coast and south to Argentina. (Red sunflowers descend from Helianthus annuus lenticularis, a variety found in 1910 near Boulder, Colorado.) Together, these groups make up a colorful and sunny brotherhood.
By early summer, there was an abundance of blooms that we enjoyed as much in bouquets as in the garden. Our vases were always full. And those elec tric colors did more than caffeine to jump-start our days. We made note of the duds and the stars; our favorites are listed below. April is a splendid time to plant them all.
Unlike the muted, mostly warm-toned perennials that sustain the autumn border, annual chrysanthemums are generally earlier and brighter, and flower longer. You’re likely to encounter two kinds, both native to the Mediterranean region and both recently renamed by taxonomists (the new designation follows the old in these descriptions).
Tricolor daisy (Chrysanthemum carinatum, now Glebionis carinatum) is a 1- to 3-foot-tall annual whose flowers have bright bands of color around dark centers.
Court Jesters mix comes in orange, rose, salmon, scarlet, white, and yellow White Carinatum Dunnettii Choice mix has white, yellow, bronze, and crimson flowers. In ‘German Flag’, scarlet rays and a golden yellow band surround the central disk. Merry mix has multicolored bull’s-eye flowers on 2- to 3-foot-tall plants. Single Annual mixed comes in yellow, pink, purple, and rust.
It’s a shame crown daisy (Chrysanthemum coronarium, now Glebionis coronaria) had its botanical name changed, since the word chrysanthemum combines the Greek for gold (chrysos) and for flower (anthos)-a perfect description for this lovely annual, which usually has yellow petal-like rays and a yellow central disk. Flowers can be single or double.
‘Primrose Gem’ is a double yellow on a 3 1/2- to 4-foot stem.
Cosmos (C. bipinnatus) must be one of the easiest annuals ever. Sow its seeds once, and pink or white flowers come back year after year from their own seeds. Flowers (mostly singles) start blooming in early summer and continue for months until the first hard frost. The wonderful Sensation strain is the best known of the clan, but cosmos come in many other flower forms-some have rolled or filled petals-and in a range of solid colors and stripes.
‘Candy Stripe’ produces white flowers with crimson borders or stripes and grows to 3 to 31/2 feet tall. Three-foot-tall ‘Daydream’ has petals of rosy pink that fade to pale pink edges. Psyche mix bears semidouble blooms and grows to 3 feet tall. Seashell mix (to 31/2 ft. tall) has rolled petals in creamy white and shades of red, rose, and pale seashell pink. Sonata mix, a 2-foot dwarf, bears many 3-inch single blooms in white, pink, and mixes. ‘Versailles Tetra’ (to 3 ft. tall) has 4inch pink flowers and darker shading around a bright yellow eye.
Yellow cosmos (C. sulfureus) brings yellow and red flowers into the cosmos clan, but at a cost: Its seeds don’t germinate as easily as common cosmos, and its flowers tend to be smaller (2 in. in diameter) than other cosmos. Many gardeners find it easiest to grow from nursery seedlings.
Bright Lights mix has large (2 1/2-in.) flowers of yellow, gold, orange, or scarlet on 3- to 4-foot plants. ‘Lemon Twist’ bears clear lemon yellow flowers on stems to 2 1/2 feet tall. Ladybird mix grows to only 1 foot in height. Sunny Orange-Red and Sunny Gold top out at 15 inches.
During the 19th century in England, winning dahlias fetched hefty cash prizes in competitions, motivating breeders to produce a steady stream of larger, increasingly exotic varieties. In The English Flower Garden (1883), English landscape designer William Robinson called the large-flowered varieties “monstrosities,” prompting breeders to work on smaller single-flowering types to be used as bedding plants. Today, Westerners grow both. Named varieties, many of them magnificent in bouquets, number in the tens of thousands.
‘Anatole’ has white flowers streaked with crimson and grows to 3 1/2 feet tall. ‘Bashful’ (2 1/2 ft. tall) bears deep purple blooms with lavender tips and golden yellow centers. The flowers of 5-foot-tall ‘Chilson’s Pride’ are pure pink with white centers. ‘Pink Gingham’ (to 4 1/2 ft. tall) has petals of bright lavender-pink with white tips. ‘Siemen Doornbosch’ bears lilac blossoms with creamy pincushion centers on stems to 1 1/2 feet tall. On ‘Wheels’ (to 3 1/2 ft. tall), red petals and a yellow fringe surround the center disk.
The vast array of garden marigolds traces back to three ancestors: African marigolds, French marigolds, and signet marigolds, all of which originated in the Americas.
In the 16th century, the Spanish took seeds of Tagetes erecta to Africa, where it naturalized so quickly that botanists thought it must have been native there. When T. erecta finally reached England, the Brits named it African marigold. The name still sticks–especially in the craws of growers who would like to see it renamed American marigold. These 1- to 3-foot-tall plants do well in heat and produce huge flowers.
‘French Vanilla’ and ‘Snowball’ are creamy white 2-footers. Inca mix and ‘Perfection’, both with gold, orange, and yellow flowers, are excellent midsize varieties. ‘First Lady’ (to 20 in.) has yellow flowers. ‘Deep Orange Lady’ (to 20 in.) blooms in orange. Plants of Sugar and Spice mix bear 3 1/2-inch flowers of orange, yellow, and white on 20-inch-tall stems.
French marigold (T. patula) came to England via France, so it, too, wound up with a logical but inaccurate moniker. These marigolds are shorter and more refined, usually staying below 1 foot tall.
Disco mix has single 2 1/4-inch flowers of clear yellow, orange, or red on compact 10-inch plants. ‘Gypsy Sunshine’ (frilly butter yellow blooms) and ‘Honeycomb’ (frilly reddish petals edged with gold) are floriferous 6- to 10-inch-tall plants. ‘Jaguar’ bears single golden yellow flowers dabbed with maroon spots over neat, mounding 10-inch plants. ‘Mr. Majestic’ produces single bright yellow blooms with mahogany stripes on a 1- to 2-foot plant. The single flowers of ‘Striped Marvel’ (2 ft.) are striped red and gold like a pinwheel.
Signet marigolds (T tenuifolia) produce many yellow flowers on 8to 16-inch plants with fine foliage.
‘Lemon Gem’ and ‘Golden Gem’ both have dainty single flowers on 8-inch plants. Starfire mix has miniature single flowers in shades of red to gold and reaches 12 to 14 inches in height.
In 1888, while living in southern France, Vincent van Gogh made a remarkable series of sunflower paintings. Done to decorate his house for a visit from fellow artist Paul Gauguin, the works show sunflowers with dark and light centers, long and short petals, and blooms of many sizes. These oils hint at the wonderful variety of these large, sunny
Sunflowers grow quickly and are easy to tend–that’s why they’re favorites with children. If you want to use them for cut flowers, as van Gogh did, choose varieties with long stems and smaller flowers. It helps if they’re pollenless, so they don’t shed on your furniture and carpet.
Pollenless ‘Dorado’ bears golden yellow flowers with dark centers on 5-foot stems. ‘Sunrich Lemon’ is pollenless and has 3-to 8-inch flowers with lemon yellow petals and black disks on 4- to 6-foot-tall plants. ‘Strawberry Blonde’ is pollenless and bears 5-inch straw-colored flowers overlaid with light red on 6-foot-tall stems. Multiflowering branching types such as creamy yellow ‘Valentine’ (5 to 6 ft. tall with 5- to 6-in, blooms) look better in the garden longer than single-stemmed sunflowers like ‘Sunrich Lemon’.
Plant Our Fiesta Flower Bed
This dazzling combination glows in the summer sun. Many of these flowers–especially the cosmos–attract butterflies and hummingbirds. In late summer and early fall, flocks of tiny finches and other seed-eating birds swoop in to graze among the spent blooms. Mass the taller-growing cosmos in the rear, with a clump of sunflowers behind (optional) and dahlias, marigolds, and midsize cosmos in the middle row. Plant lower-growing marigolds and yellow cosmos in front.
A. Ladybird mix dwarf cosmos; B. ‘Mr. Majestic’ marigold; C. ‘Tangerine Gem’ or Starfire mix marigold; D. ‘Bashful’ dahlia; E. Ladies mix marigold; F. Sonata mix cosmos; G. Sonata White cosmos; H. Seashell mix cosmos; I. Bright Lights mix cosmos; J. ‘Candy Stripe’ cosmos; K. Cosmos Sensation strain.
Planting and care Except where noted, these annuals prefer mostly sunny locations. Keep old flowers picked off to prolong bloom.
Annual mums. In hot climates, choose a spot that gets some afternoon shade. Sow seeds outdoors after weather warms for blooms in summer and fall. (If you live in a mild-winter climate, you can also sow in fall for spring and summer bloom.) You may also plant from nursery containers. Summer mums aren’t fussy about soil. Space plants about 8 inches apart. Water deeply and frequently where soils are porous, less in heavy soils. Feed mums two to three times during the growing season.
Cosmos. Sow seeds in open ground from spring to summer, or set out transplants from cell-packs, 4-inch pots, or 1-gallon cans. (Yellow cosmos are easiest to start from nursery-grown plants.) Cosmos will flower best in poor, sandy soil; heavily amended soils and lots of fertilizer result in fewer flowers. Space plants about 12 to 18 inches apart. They can tolerate some aridity, but for best bloom, water them regularly (once a week or so), especially in hot inland valleys.
Dahlias. Provide light afternoon shade in hottest areas. Plant tubers in spring after soil has warmed and danger of frost is past. Dig holes 1 foot deep in loose loam high in organic matter. Space largest kinds 4 to 5 feet apart and smallest ones only 1 to 2 feet apart. Drive a stake into the hole; place the tuber horizontally, 2 inches from the stake, with the eye pointing toward it. Cover tuber with 3 inches of soil and water thoroughly. As shoots grow, gradually fill the hole with soil. Start watering regularly after shoots are above the ground. Dahlias planted in soil enriched with compost rarely, if ever, need supplemental fertilizer.
Marigolds. Plant in full sun. Marigolds are easy to grow from seed and sprout in a few days in warm soil. Or set out plants from nursery flats, cell-packs, or 4-inch pots. Slugs and snails are especially fond of young marigold foliage; use traps or ring the planting with horticultural diatomaceous earth (available at nurseries).
Sunflowers. Sow seeds in spring. If you use young nursery plants, space them 8 to 12 inches apart in soil well amended with compost. After true leaves appear, water plants deeply once a week. Fertilize once when plants are actively growing, using a controlled-release fertilizer. Large-flowered kinds need rich soil and lots of water.
Flowers. Today the color range is even greater, with red, mahogany, and white forms in many sizes.
For every bed and every border, there must be a reason. Wendy Burroughs–self-taught gardener turned sought-after design pro–says you have to figure out that raison d’etre before you even shape the garden. “Is it an entry garden?” she asks. “Does it have to have a high-season splash of color? Are fall and winter interest important? Does it need to be low-maintenance?” More questions: “Do you want a specific kind of bed or border: English cottage garden? Mediterranean? Are deer a problem? Is water?” Only once you have asked yourself all these questions, and more (and, yes, answered them), can you begin to plan the shape of your gardens, Wendy says. And only after that can you start to figure out what plants you want and where you want them.
Wendy’s drive-side bed and border started out as shade gardens. Then a violent winter windstorm felled many of the 80-foot firs towering above her plantings. So the shade gardens had to become sun gardens. And the plants had to be removed and replaced. Is your planting area in shade or sun?–another question to ask yourself.
Wendy has another tip for you. You’ll like this one especially.
“It’s never a bad thing to make mistakes,” she says. “You learn by trial and error. I am completely self-taught by my mistakes. I don’t mind–I’m not a perfectionist. When something doesn’t work, I change it.”
If you need to move a plant, move it. “But after I move a plant three times, it goes into the compost pile.” Because sometimes a perfectly good plant turns out to have no earthly reason for being in your yard. “If it doesn’t look good, excuse it from the garden,” she says. “I used to have a big moral problem with that. Then I took out six crab apples.”
One more thing, Wendy says. Perennials aren’t the only answer. Make sure to integrate trees and shrubs into your herbaceous beds and borders.
Wendy started her drive-by border with a triangular anchor of trees–cherry, magnolia, and liquidambar. Then she introduced a slow-growing conifer–a golden Hinoki cypress–which gave a yearlong glow to her wonderful garden.
The addition of trees and shrubs does two things. One, it gives layers to your garden. The beds rise from ground-huggers to the coif-toppers, a must if your backdrop is–as it is for Wendy–filled with tall objects. But, two, the structural aspect of the woody plants gives you something pleasing to look at in the off-season–that oft-bandied term “winter interest.”
“In winter, when everything else is gone, those architectural plants are still holding it all together,” says Wendy. “I just love four-season borders.” If you plan well, she says, you will include some colorful berries; trees with striped, peeling, or glossy bark; yellow and blue evergreens; broadleaf evergreen shrubs; and deciduous woodies with interesting branching habits.
“I haven’t completely eliminated all-perennial gardens,” Wendy says. “I have some clients who still want them.”
Why Wendy Likes To Think Big
Seasoned gardeners know to do things in a big way. Paths shouldn’t be a stingy 2 or 3 feet wide; that’s a dog path. Paths should be 5 or even 6 feet wide. Two people should be able to walk side by side without tripping over each other. Benches, if they are to accommodate anyone but love-struck teens, should be 5 or 6 feet wide. For two more level-headed people to sit agreeably, 4 feet is too close for comfort. Elbows collide; drinks get spilled.
And then there are flower borders. “I used to think of borders as 4 feet deep,” Wendy says. “Now I make mine 10 to 12 feet deep.” That’s how you get all those ornamental trees and flowering shrubs in there. And, says Wendy, “It really knocks your socks off.”
A Few Parting Words From Wendy
Put some edibles in your landscape. “The kids graze all summer long, and we have apples all winter.”
Plant lots and lots of euphorbias. “I just love every one of them. They’re especially good in flower arrangements.”
And don’t spend too much on your garden too soon. “I first bought inexpensive trees like you can get from any drugstore. They were like pencils. When a local nursery moved, I pulled trees out of their Dumpster. I learned on cheap plants and moved up from there.”
And Now a Few Words About Edging
Wendy first edged her oval island bed with rocks she collected on the property. Funny thing though–weeds don’t know they aren’t supposed to grow in and among stones. In fact, weed seeds like to lodge there. Worse, it is hard to weed out rogues around and under rocks. So what started out as a weed-suppressant idea became a weed-germination nightmare. Solution: Wendy pulled back the stones, had a concrete barrier laid, and set the stones back in the concrete:
If you have flowerbeds next to your lawn, edging (such as flat stone or bricks) can provide double duty. This soil-level barrier not only keeps your lawn and your perennials from encroaching on each other’s turf, but also acts as a mowing path. Run the wheels of one side of your mower right on top of the stone or brick. The grass will be cut at a uniform height, and there will be no telltale line of towering stragglers along the edging. Nope, no hand shears or weed trimmers needed.
From the Beginning: Think About Your Soil Before You Plant
Back in 1988, Wendy’s five-acre property was “choked with woods,” she says. “I grew up in the woods, but this was 8 feet of debris, tree trunks piled high. There was no light–not even blackberries could grow there.” When she had the trees thinned, “it was the biggest land-clear the guy had done on the island.” The marketable logs were taken out, and the rest of the stumps, logs, and forest debris was burned. “My husband could see the fire from his office in Seattle. It burned for a week.” Then came the storm of ’93, and shade turned to sun. “I was so naive: I bought packets of seed and scattered them in the turnaround without amending the soil or anything.” Pffft: zilch. So she amended the soil with peat from an island bog. “They brought it in by the truckload. It was goopy, oily, thick pudding,” she recalls. “And hard to work with. But it worked like steroids on my plants. Now I always spend as much in soil amendments as I do in plant material.”
Most yards start out as a standard rectangle. It is up to you to break out of the box. But unlike Wendy’s garden, yours probably needs to have some lawn. Kids, croquet, whatever. Here are four starting points (page 171) to get you thinking about what kind of shape or shapes you might want to impose on your landscape. Rather than just line the edge of the property with a hedge, think of the boundary as opportunity for border gardens. And maybe that’s all the gardening you want to do. For now. But gardening has a way of becoming an itch you just can’t help but scratch, and somewhere along the line you may decide more is better. The shape you stamp on your backyard is one of the greatest injections of personality you can make on your garden. Just remember: These shapes should have a reason too. Think: How do I use my yard?
The Garden Retreat This plan features a wide flower border on the left and an entertaining area (or a spot for seclusion) way out back.
The Cottage Garden An ambling, free-form lawn seeps like a slow river through undulating flowerbeds. Ah, to be in England.
The Formal Garden Circular turf areas give strong geometry in a dramatic space. Ample areas are provided for ornamental plantings.
Room for Kids Here children can get up a full head of steam and still avoid trampling on the flowerbeds. So they can play while you plant.
Go organic. Agricultural extensions often analyze soil for a small fee. Organic care nourishes the soil for a lawn that’s naturally luxuriant, disease-resistant and pest-free. CONTACT: Beyond Pesticides, (202)543-5450, www.beyondpesticides .org; Environment and Human Health, (203)248-6582, www.ehhi.org/pesticides. BurnOut and SharpShooter are available through St. Gabriel Laboratories, (800) 801-0061.