The heat is on, and annual flowers have arrived at garden shops, ready to make this summer the most dazzling ever. No other blooms can beat the performance of annual flowers, which bloom from May on, all the way through to the first frost. Plant them now, and enjoy them for months.
Annuals are all the bright marigolds, zinnias, salvias, lantanas, petunias, begonias, verbenas and other blooms sold at garden shops by the truckload in spring and summer for flowerpots and flower beds. They're often already in bloom when you buy them, and they just get bigger and better as the season progresses. They're easy to grow, versatile and lots of fun.
If you've never had a garden before, these showy, reliable plants will make a big impression in a pot by the front door or on the patio for a party. They'll make you feel like a garden artist right away. If you've been gardening for years, you already know that annuals are hard-working plants; they pump up the garden with color, fill in the inevitable gaps in flower beds and instantly turn flowerpots into movable showpieces.
"Annuals remain wildly popular," says Jeanine Standard, a spokeswoman for Proven Winners, the company that introduced high-performance Supertunias (and many other plants) to the gardening world. "There's no other way to get that amazing impact of color in a landscape," she says.
Pink and purple flowers are a hot trend this year, Standard says, and she thinks it reflects optimism among gardeners: "When people are optimistic, they love brighter colors." Proven Winners' flashy Bubble Gum Supertunia is the company's annual flower of the year, chosen by retailers who vote based on customer preferences. Besides pink, you can find Supertunias in lots of other colors: cherry, rose, raspberry, lemon, white and a rich, velvety purple. They will fill a flowerpot all by themselves, spilling exuberantly over the edges.
Gardeners are looking for more than color, Standard says. They want plants with other purposes, too, and annuals fill an important niche. They attract butterflies and other pollinators, and they can bring hummingbirds to a garden. Standard's favorite hummingbird plants are cupheas and salvias, which she pairs in pots with a Black Cherry Supertunia.
Consumers also want to conserve water and other resources, she says, so plants that don't need pampering are in demand. Hybridizers have responded by introducing ever-tougher annuals, such as lantanas, vincas, euphorbias and verbenas.
When you're buying annuals, a shopping cart gives you a place to try colors out next to one another and experiment with combinations that you can then plant in your pots and flower beds at home. Check the labels on the plants you like: These days, many labels suggest companion plants in complementary harmonious or contrasting colors, or foliage plants to add interesting texture to a combination in a flowerpot.
Don't be afraid to go big. "The one big trend I have been talking about with people is toward large, statuesque annuals, versatile enough for sun or shade," says Bill Calkins, product marketing manager for Ball Horticultural, which introduced ever-blooming, heat-tolerant Wave petunias, among many other annuals, including zinnias, begonias, lantanas, verbenas, impatiens and coleus. Calkins says customers like large annuals "because they look big and tough -- and they are; they're rock-solid."
These days, gardeners are making adventurous combinations in pots, Calkins says, starting with tropical plants for drama and filling in with colorful annual flowers and foliage plants of every description. The palette and performance of coleus plants, which are grown for their splashy, flashy foliage rather than for their flowers, are better than ever, he says, and many coleus work well in sun or shade.
New, compact, long-blooming zinnias, marigolds and torenias are showy plants that mix well with others in containers or look great on their own. Profusion and Zahara zinnias are fresh, bright and tough as nails. "We have zinnias for a reason," Calkins says. "They are awesome. They hold their color and just get more vibrant through the season."
Calkins, an avid gardener, also loves growing vegetables in pots. Both ornamental and edible peppers, for example, look terrific in containers. Arugula and greens of all kinds add plenty of color and texture to pots. "Gardeners are having fun with edibles," Calkins says, and they're doing it in flowerpots. Last year, he combined eggplant, petunias and marigolds in a flowerpot. "It's fun to play around with that stuff," he says.
That's what annuals are all about. Let yourself go with combinations of colors and textures. Plant pots with one flower you really love, or make combinations to suit your taste, to match your house trim or to complement the pillows on your patio furniture. "Nobody wants one-size-fits-all flowerpots," Calkins says. Put annuals to work, and you'll be richly rewarded.
Taking care of annuals
-- When shopping for annuals, be sure to read the labels. "Full sun" means at least six hours a day, although eight hours is even better.
-- If you're planting in flowerpots, buy fresh potting soil. Potting soil retains moisture well, and it is lightweight and easy to work with.
-- Pay attention to watering. Plants in pots will absolutely need regular watering. Plants in the ground have access to moisture deep in the soil, but they may need watering in the heat of the season, too. If you're not sure whether your plants need water, poke your finger into the soil. If it feels moist, you can wait a day to water.
-- Annuals need nutrients to bloom all summer long. Add a slow-release fertilizer when you plant, and supplement it by watering occasionally with a water-soluble fertilizer -- you can mix it in a watering can.
-- To keep annuals looking fresh and tidy, you may want to clip off flowers as they fade. This also encourages the plants to keep producing more blooms.