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Heirloom and Heritage in the Garden

Add A Splash Of Color To Your Garden With Old-Fashioned Annuals

Perennials may form the backbone of the garden, but annuals provide the splash, the color – and because you get to move them around every year – the creativity. Donna Dawson, master gardener, garden tour host and owner of the comprehensive garden site, ICanGarden.com, loves old-fashioned annuals for their versatility and beauty. "My garden would not be the same without having the scent of annuals running through it," says Dawson. "I think that is part of the gardening experience. Every gardening season we get a chance to change our annual selection to find the best for us."

Because of their transitory nature, annuals generally only last for a season or two, unless they are the type to re-seed themselves. The definition of an annual is a plant that grows, produces seeds and dies within one year. Therefore, buying and planting a flat or two of annuals, or sowing a fresh batch of seeds, becomes one of the rites of spring. "My perennial garden is always there," says Dawson. "But with annuals you get a chance to try different ones, situate them in different places or try them in pots and hanging baskets."

Growing the Past

Whether you call them old-fashioned, heirloom or antique, certain annuals play a part in our garden history. Many old-fashioned annuals were brought over from another land and established here by way of families who brought a packet of cherished seeds with them to start their favorite annuals in the new country. "These are plants that our ancestors grew for food, health or healing," says Dawson. "They continue to remind us of seasons past and by growing them, we preserve this history and sometimes even create our own sense of history."

One of the most wonderful things about annuals is their versatility: annuals mix well with perennials and ornamental shrubs, they look great in hanging baskets, and annual vines can add a vertical dimension to your garden. The annual, sweet pea, is one such vine, evoking memories of Grandmother's garden in many of us. Some varieties can create a ground cover effect if allowed to meander through the garden. Their dainty and colorful blossoms often have a heady scent that can permeate through the entire garden.

Unfortunately, over the years many annuals have been bred for larger blossoms, longer stems, more compact growth or disease resistance, and, sadly, a lot of them have lost their true original fragrance. This is especially true for sweet peas.

"There are still those out there, like me, that make the room for one of the most exquisite late summer treats in the garden: the overwhelming fragrance of the old-fashioned sweet peas," says Dawson. "Cupani is one of the originals and is named for Father Francis Cupani, the Italian monk who discovered wild sweet peas in Sicily. This eye-catching variety, introduced in 1699, has flowers with a deep maroon upper petal and violet lower petal. Its intoxicating scent can perfume an entire garden."

Since annuals complete their life cycle in one growing season and in some climates the growing season is limited, sowing seeds directly into the garden makes it too late to start many of these plants outside. That's why buying bedding plants at your local nursery or starting your own plants inside six to eight weeks ahead of planting time makes sense.

When choosing your bedding plants, don't get ones that are too mature or leggy. They tend to be root bound and don't transplant as well. When you get ready to transplant your annuals outside, remember to "harden" them or get them used to conditions outside. Set your plants outdoors for an hour or so the first day and then increase the time every day for about a week before planting.

Annuals have a lot to do in one short growing season and need adequate amounts of water and feeding. Annuals, like other plants, enjoy a good mulching as well. Mulching keeps the weeds down and helps keep the soil warm and moist. Some mulching materials to choose from include straw, peat moss, sawdust, dry manure and bark chips.

Plants go to seed once their blooms are finished. By deadheading – pinching off the blooms when they begin to wither – you will encourage your plant to continue to bloom instead of spending its energy creating seed.

Flower Power

Nan Fischer, of El Prado, N.M., is an avid gardener with a passion for annuals. "Most plants bloom profusely during the spring, and trying to get a flower bed to be colorful all summer is a challenge with just perennials," says Fisher. "Annuals are the stable color in a flower border. They bloom all summer long, sometimes through three seasons, and certain types withstand frost, blooming until Thanksgiving."

Fischer especially loves their versatility. "Annuals can be planted in containers and moved around," she says. "I like to bring them inside in winter, too. I brought in a pot of Gazania last fall, and they bloomed bright orange all winter in a sunny window!"

Some of Fischer's favorite annuals include reseeding annuals such as cosmos, bachelor buttons, calendula and California poppies. She also likes sweet peas and four o'clocks for fragrance.

Once established, old-fashioned annuals are easy and rewarding to care for. They not only allow us to add splashes of color to our gardens at will, but they let us unleash our creativity and sense of fun.

Some annuals to try include:

  • Snapdragon
  • Nigella or love in a Mist
  • Sweet William
  • Sweet alyssum
  • Evening scented stock
  • Bachelor button
  • Heliotrope
  • Pansies
  • Nasturtiums
  • California poppy
  • Clarkia
  • Amaranthus
  • China aster

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