Rethinking Annuals

When I sat down to write this article, my intention was to discuss the merits of summer annuals. As I was ticking through the list of design tips and favorite varieties I began to realize just how much I rely on these steadfast characters in my flower borders and containers. And their use goes well beyond a pocket of begonias here and there.

It might be good to begin by defining the term annual. An annual is a plant that carries out its entire life cycle in one season. In contrast, a perennial will come back year after year, given the right environment. When we think of annuals some of the first things that come to mind are petunias, geraniums, begonias, pansies and the like. They are often referred to as bedding plants. Now I use a lot of these, both in my garden and in my container designs. They really can’t be beat when it comes to flower power.

But there are other plants that are also annuals, but don’t fall in the same category as bedding plants. These are the varieties that I would like to concentrate on because they all have some unique quality that makes them standout in the garden. They offer the charm of perennials with the easygoing nature of annuals.

My garden’s first summer had little more than a few hedges and boxwoods, so I filled my flowerbeds with annuals. By mid-season the garden was full of colorful blossoms. I don’t think I’ve ever had as many visiting butterflies and hummingbirds as I did that summer. Even though my garden is now ten years old, I still rely on annuals to give the beds a punch of color.

Here is my list of favorite out of the ordinary annuals. If you grew up with a gardener, you will recognize many of the plants from your youth, which makes them even more endearing.

I encourage you to plant these annuals in abundance throughout your garden for fresh cut flowers, spectacular color, and fragrance all summer long.


  1. Angelonia – Heat tolerant plants like this angelonia help keep my borders and containers looking fresh through long, hot summers. This vigorous, branching plant (24″ – 30″ tall and 14″ – 16″ wide) has beautiful flowers that resemble miniature orchids. I like to see it’s elegant spirals of blooms emerging through the lacy foliage of artemisia ‘Powis Castle’.
  2. Coleus – I am crazy for coleus.The incredible range of colors and forms make this plant adaptable to any plant combination.You can choose from upright to trailing forms, big leafed to fancy, frilly foliage and the rich patterns and colors are amazing.
  3. Larkspur – This annual is the quintessential cottage garden flower. Tall spikes of blooms are produced during the cool days of spring and early summer. Once hot temperatures set in the plants die back, but they reseed themselves freely. This means plenty of blooms next year with little to no effort. Just be sure to use a light hand when you mulch in the fall and don’t mistake the seedlings for weeds next spring.
  4. Cleome – Large, spidery blooms decorate this plant and give it the nickname of spider plant and cat’s whiskers. I like to use the more compact varieties because they take up less space and don’t require staking. Cleome seems to be fairly heat and drought tolerant, and adaptable to various soil types and growing conditions. I planted several along my white picket fence in the vegetable garden. The results were so satisfying that I extended the bloom into the fall by planting more in August for a second, fresh crop of flowers.
  5. Cosmos ‘Sonata’ – This award-winning, compact, knee-high variety blooms non-stop all summer in magenta, white, pink and rose with dark eyes. They are so easy to grow and showy that I plant them every year. I favor the deep pink flowers, especially when mixed with orange Cosmos bipinnatus.
  6. Verbena bonariensis – Also known as Verbena-on-a-stick, this annual is an exuberant reseeder, so I never have to replant. I just move the seedlings around a bit in the spring. Its open structure gives it a “see through” charm and movement. The plant’s bluish-purple marble-sized flower clusters bloom from July – October on 30″ tall stalks above the narrow foliage.
  7. Nicotiana sylvestris – I grow this cousin of leaf tobacco for it’s statuesque presence and sweet aroma. It makes a bold statement in the flower borders and frequently comes back as a volunteer. The plant’s very fragrant, tubular-shaped, white flowers appear on 30″ – 36″ tall branched stems during summer. Another species to try is Nicotiana langsdorfii. It too grows to an impressive height and I love the waxy, lime green blooms. A third species that I just discovered is Nicotiana x hyhrida ‘Tinkerbell’. It is similar in appearance to N. langsdorfii but produces lime green and rose flowers with an unusual azure blue pollen.
  8. Globe Amaranth – This annual produces a clover shaped bloom in shades of white, purple, pink or deep salmon. They are long-lasting cut flowers and perfect for dried wreaths and arrangements. I prefer the varieties that grow tall, but they are also available as a dwarf.
  9. Black Hollyhock – Garden visitors seem drawn to this curiosity, especially when I grow it in concert with bronze fennel, the combination is especially striking. This biennial has been popular since the 19th century, popularized by such luminary gardeners as Thomas Jefferson.
  10. Persian Shield – This is one of my favorite foliage plants both in the flowerbed and containers. Its metallic purple leaves harmonize well with so many colors and its broad ovalite leaf shape brings a textural variety to compositions. Be sure to keep it pinched or cut back so it doesn’t get too tall and leggy as it can grow up to 30″. It may be overwintered as a houseplant. Persian Shield is a fairly new plant to both gardeners and nurseries. It comes from the Acanthaceae family and is related to such plants as Ruellia, Shrimp Plant and Bear’s Breeches. It is originally from that wonderful, sunny land of Burma.
  11. Flowering Annual Vines – These rapid growers offer immediate coverage and an abundance of blooms all summer long.I use them at the edge of borders as a groundcover, in containers to spill over the side, and on trellises to adorn a wall.They are a great option when looking for a temporary screen to block a view or create privacy.Some of my favorites include, hyacinth bean vine, cardinal vine, moonflower, morning glory and sweet potato vine.With the exception of the sweet potato vine, all can be grown from seed.