It seems that the more experienced and sophisticated gardeners get today, the less interested they are in annuals. Perennial plants and shrubs are fashionable, especially those with interesting color, variegation or texture to the leaves.
A mixed border with a nice selection of shrubs and perennials looks pretty good all year. If done well, it looks quite natural and fits with the look of most Northwest homes.
I have to confess that I sometimes wince when I see a home surrounded by massed plantings of annual flowers. Although very popular in the Victorian era, this “carpet bedding” usually appears garish and uncreative today.
Still, I don’t think we should dismiss annuals. Bedding plants grow fast and bloom over a long season, virtues that make them very useful. Add to that their ease of culture and incredible diversity and you start to appreciate annuals. Their impermanence encourages change and variety.
What are those uses I referred to? Color is the most obvious. Many Northwest gardens look great in May, but by June they are a little dull. Some spires of snapdragons or clumps of marigolds will add summer pizzazz. With regular removal of spent flowers, most annuals will bloom until frost.
If you garden lacks a focal point in some area, a pot of annuals can solve that problem quickly. It can also draw the eye of visitors away from an area under renovation.
Flower arrangers love annuals. Zinnias, cosmos, feverfew and larkspur are among my favorites. I usually sow bachelor buttons and annual candytuft, as well. Godetia, with its silky petals, lasts a long time when cut and isn’t grown nearly as often as it deserves to be.
Sweet peas make nice bouquets, but I grow them for their fragrance. Likewise, I often grow blue or purple petunias for their perfume. I don’t know why other colors have no fragrance, but I like blue anyway, so I’m not complaining.
Annuals cover bare soil beautifully. Sweet alyssum or wave petunias make a great temporary ground cover. Most of us have spots where the spring bulb foliage is dying back leaving a hole. A few trailing verbenas or nasturtiums will cover the area quickly.
Annuals can even help with the problem spots. Plant a big clump of tall sunflowers to screen the view of your garbage or compost bins. Heavenly Blue morning glories make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear chain-link fence.
A dull, shady spot will come alive with some chartreuse coleus and bright impatiens or wax begonias. Use lots of white and pastel colors around your entry, patio and deck. They show up in the twilight lots better than darker colors and will help you enjoy the long, summer evenings outside.
Many annuals can get by with little irrigation. In the early spring you can sow cosmos, sunflowers, evening primrose, bachelor buttons, rose mallow (Lavatera), flax, nasturtium and annual poppies where you want them. The soil is usually moist and the rain abundant enough that they will need very little watering to germinate and grow.
In June you will want to look for small transplants. Pinks, verbena, calendula and geraniums are usually available as bedding plants and are quite drought-tolerant once they get going.
Mulch can save water
We have had great spring gardening weather. The soil warmed quickly this year, but it also dried up faster than usual. Get mulch onto your beds as soon as you can to conserve moisture. Wood chips or bark can be used around trees and shrubs, but not on vegetables or annual flowers.
Where the mulch is going to get mixed into the soil, compost is your best bet. Straw works, although it sometimes gives you an unwanted crop of grain. Grass clippings are another possibility, as long as you haven’t used any herbicide or weed-and-feed recently. You can ask your favorite coffee shop for used coffee grounds; they make excellent mulch as well.
Holly Kennell is the Snohomish County extension agent for Washington State University Cooperative Extension. Master gardeners answer questions on weekdays at WSU Cooperative Extension – Snohomish County, 600 128th St. SE, Everett, WA 98208. Call 425-338-2400.