Easy Annuals for Summer Color
If trees, shrubs, and “hardscape” features (like pathways, arbors, and patios) create the structure of a garden, then it is the annuals that often provide the pizzazz. Unlike perennials, which come back each year, the flamboyant yet fleeting annual beauties have only one growing season to strut their stuff. Since most annuals are heavy feeders, be sure the soil in which they are planted is suitably rich. If planting in an existing bed, amend the soil with some nice composted manure or use one of the commercially available slowrelease fertilizers (preferably organic). Most annuals need abundant moisture to perform at their best, so plant them within easy reach of your hose or consider installing a soaker hose to make watering easier and more efficient. Finally, as with any other planting, be sure to add a top-dressing of mulch to the soil’s surface to help retain moisture and keep weeds at bay. To assist in selecting suitable annuals for your garden, I have included suggested uses for some of my favorites below.
Brazilian Verbena (Verbena bonariensis): Most verbenas are colorful, trailing, lowgrowing annuals that bloom in shades from white and pink to red and purple. As such, they make excellent, draughtresistant plantings for use in beds, as edgings, and as container plantings. V. bonariensis, however, is the lesserknown, tall, and elegant member of the family. It enchants gardeners with its pom-poms of violet flower clusters that seem to bob and hover above lower plants on thin, airy stalks that may reach three feet in height. Easy to grow and critter resistant, this annual also reseeds itself vigorously, proving it’s hard to get too much of a good thing.
Coleus (Coleus x hybridus): A staple in formal, mass plantings of the Victorian era, this 12-inch member of the mint family is widely known for its showy foliage but was considered somewhat of a cliché until relatively recently. Coleus features richly colored and dramatically variegated leaves, often in surprising combinations of red, pink, burgundy, purple, rust, copper, yellow, and lime green. Easy to grow and colorful beyond belief, coleus is ideal for mass plantings in partly shaded beds. Newer hybrid varieties, known collectively as Sun Coleus, feature the same great foliage but on much larger plants that can reach two to three feet in height. As implied by the name, these new hybrids need lots of sun to perform at their best. Of these, ‘Alabama Crimson’ and the large-leafed ‘Kong’ are among my favorites. Use coleus in containers, where their outstanding foliage blends easily with other plantings or use them as bold accents in garden beds.
Canna Lily (Canna x generalis): Cannas are excellent showy annuals for bedding, punching up a border, or for use in large pots and containers. They require full sun and plenty of water. Cannas feature huge, glossy, tropical-looking leaves and lily-like flowers on stems that may reach four to five feet tall. The leaves, which may be green, bronze, burgundy, or dramatically striped, arise from rhizomes that can be dug up and overwintered indoors. Cannas bloom in hot, spicy shades of pink, yellow, orange, and red. ‘Tropicana’ is one of my favorite varieties with orange flowers and boldly striped leaves.
Spider Flower (Cleome hasslerana): This large, old-fashioned annual boasts colorful clusters of blooms that resemble living fireworks. It also produces masses of long, graceful, arching seedpods that recall spider legs and give this plant its name. Cleome can easily reach four to five feet tall, attracts hummingbirds, and blooms prolifically in white, pink, and mauveviolet. Tough as nails, it requires little care but demands full sun, reseeds itself with abandon, and is totally resistant to deer and other critters. An excellent annual for use in beds and borders, Cleome also makes a terrific seasonal screen.
Castor Bean (Ricinus communis): Another large, dramatic annual for bedding and seasonal screening, Castor Bean features enormous, maple-shaped leaves and showy scarlet seed pods. Harvested for centuries, it is the source for both the famously foul-tasting laxative oil as well as the deadly poison Ricin. As such, it is untroubled by critters, but it is not a good choice for gardens of homes with small children. In the tropics, it attains tree-like stature, but in the Hudson Valley, it can still reach upwards of six feet if provided full sun and ample water. My favorite variety is ‘Carmencita’, which features outstanding burgundy-bronze foliage.
Sweet Alyssum (Lobularia maritima): A spreading, fragrant, low-grower, Sweet Alyssum is one of the absolute best edging plants for lining beds and pathways as well as for use as companion plantings in containers. Though delicate looking, with its masses of tiny flowers in shades ranging from white to purple, it is surprisingly tough—provided it is not allowed to dry out. Thus, it’s best in spots with bright morning sun but afternoon shade. It also readily reseeds itself, if it is happy in its location.
These are just a few of the many easy-to-grow annuals that deserve a spot in your garden. Now go out and plant something!
Eric Stewart is a garden designer, writer, artist, and educator who lives in Accord, NY. He may be reached at Greenman Garden Design, 845-687-9166 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his website at www.greenmangarden.com