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April 1, 2004

In the Garden

Annuals that keep coming back



I'M AN OUTSPOKEN OPPONENT OF ANNUAL BEDDING plants like petunias, impatiens and pansies that have to be ripped out and replaced each year. If I want a 5-inch-tall flowering plant in my garden, I'll plant a low-growing perennial that will bloom, smother weeds and demand little care. Annuals can be a great deal of work to grow from seed and expensive to buy each year at the nursery, so the annuals I choose for my garden have to offer something I can't get from my perennials: a stellar cut flower, for instance, or a lacy filler to cover up an empty spot. I prefer tall annuals that draw the eye up and call attention to themselves. And if it self-sows, so I can enjoy it year after year without ever replanting it, all the better.

Now is the time to get some annuals into the ground. Be sure to add plenty of aged compost and an organic fertilizer designed to encourage blooms. If you expect your annuals to deliver a show-stopping performance, be prepared to feed them a few times throughout the year by scratching more dry fertilizer in around their roots or spraying a liquid foliar fertilizer. (I like Gardens Alive's "Sea Rich," available at or by calling 513-354-1482.) Here are some of my favorite self-sowing annuals, and for more suggestions, check out Taunton Press's Annuals With Style by Michael A. Rugiero and Tom Christopher.

Calendula: (Also called pot marigold.) I avoided planting these dwarf orange flowers in my garden for years, but one year I decided to try them and I'm so glad I did. The bright orange flowers bloom nonstop in Eureka, even through the gloomy winter months. During the holidays, I put the flowers in tiny vases with a sprig of red berries, and they are as warm and bright as a crackling fire. Calendula attract beneficial insects, the flower petals are edible and they self-sow freely. In the vegetable garden, they make a cheery companion to squash and tomatoes.

Borage: I hesitate to mention borage, because it's practically a weed around here, but it also reseeds easily and its bright blue flowers are also edible. The first bumblebees of the year head straight for my borage plants; that alone is enough of a reason to keep them around. I like the way borage looks with the yellow flowers of fennel, another weedy herb that shows up uninvited but is allowed to stay as long as it behaves itself.

Cerinthe: (Also called honeywort or purple wax flower.) [photo below left. Photo by Amy Stewart] This flower is so delicate and other-worldly that I thought it would be toophoto of Cerinthe fussy for my lax approach to gardening. But it thrives in our cool, damp summers, and drops generous helpings of its pea-sized black seeds on the ground for next year. Most flowers can be broadly categorized by shape -- think of all the flowers that are daisy-shaped, trumpet-shaped, or frilly like a rose -- but cerinthe exists in a category all its own. The leaves are silver and round, and the flowers, which are purple and blue, droop gracefully downward. It can take full sun or part shade, and it makes a good companion to rose campion: Both have silvery foliage and both self-sow, but the rose campion has brilliant magenta flowers that contrast well with the blue and purple cerinthe.

White Lace Flower: Also called Bishop's Lace, this is a better-behaved version of the weedy Queen Anne's Lace. It grows quickly to 3 or 4 feet and produces white, lacy umbels that seem to float above the garden. It makes a great cut flower and it self-sows. This year, I'm also trying "Moon Carrot" (Seseli gummiferum), a lacy white flower with silver foliage grown by Annie's Annuals and sold at nurseries around town in a 4-inch pot. Its foliage is so similar to artemesia that I'm going to plant them together and see what happens.

Cosmos and Sunflowers: I mention these together because I like to plant them together. The brilliant pinks and reds of the cosmos contrast with the taller and larger yellow sunflowers, and because the flowers have similar shapes, they look like they belong together. The orange Mexican sunflower, Tithonia rotundifolia, is particularly lovely with cosmos. Both plants need warm, sunny spots that are sheltered from the wind. In fact, if you're going to start some from seed, I recommend cutting the bottom off a water or soda bottle, taking the lid off, and setting it over the planted seed. This small plastic shelter will keep out wind and snails, while holding in moisture and keeping the young seedling warm. Just remove the bottle before the plant gets crowded inside it.

Love-in-a-mist: Another generous self-sower; in fact, think carefully before you plant it. If anything, it will re-seed so thickly that you'll need to spend some time each spring pulling up some young seedlings to give the rest breathing space. That said, this is a lovely airy annual that grows to about 18 inches, produces lovely blue, pink and purple flowers, and ends the season with large, striped seed pods that work well in dried arrangements.

Pincushion flower: This is another "buyer beware" annual. Pincushion flower, or scabiosa, produces tall (up to 4 feet) ruffled flowers that offer butterflies the flat landing spot they need. Flowers range in color from white and pink to blue and purple. They can self-sow quite densely, but like love-in-a-mist they are easy to thin in spring as long as you get on top of them early.

If you're worried about any of these flowers getting out of hand, one way to keep self-sowing annuals in their place is to pinch off spent flowers before they set seed; this will also encourage them to keep blooming all summer long.


 April Garden Checklist

  • After spring bulbs bloom, let the leaves wither on the plant and feed with organic bulb food to help next year's flowers to form.
  • Wisteria may be blooming or growing vigorously right now; take care to keep vines out of rain gutters and away from roof shingles.
  • Watch for signs of a dry lawn, such as bright green blades turning dull, or footprints where the grass did not spring back up. Once you see those signs, water for about fifteen minutes twice a week.
  • In warm, inland areas, plant summer vegetable crops like tomatoes, peppers and squash.

garden-related announcements and news to Amy Stewart.


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