Appreciating annuals (first installment)



While editing the descriptions for the Garden Walk map, I came across the following: “very few annuals, most from seed.” Gardeners are limited to 25 words for these entries; the idea is to quickly hit the highlights. So, for this gardener, not having annuals (or at least very few) is considered a good thing.

The only problem is that Garden Walk is held at the end of July, a time when roses are often out of bloom (with notable exceptions) and many of the showier perennials (such as irises) are done for the season. Annuals are a guarantee of reliable color at this time. But even if they weren’t, I would still be growing as many interesting annuals as I could. I’m fascinated by them. I love their variety, their reliable performance, and—in many cases—their old-fashioned charm.


These days, one of my favorites is species nicotiana, which I buy as seedlings via mail order (the local selection is pretty dismal). Up already are “Crimson Bedder” (an alata hybrid) and mutabilis, though I imagine the mutabilis will be much taller (I’ve seen it as high as 5 feet). Later, I’ll be seeing the woodland tobacco, with its candelabra of nodding white blooms. These are the kind of plants that make me wonder why anyone would think there’s something shameful about using annuals. I have also noticed that some of the nurseries around here are offering a better selection; even some unusual and quite beautiful impatiens cultivars, if you can imagine such a thing.

I can’t afford to be snobby about annuals, and I see no reason to be. My main problem is there are still some that must be grown from seed and that’s something that, unlike our friend of the GW submission, I don’t do with any kind of ease. But I am hoping to conquer that incompetence soon; some of the plants I’d like to start from seed include nigella, blue woodruff, stock, and sweet peas (though I don’t think these love our summers too well). In the meantime, I’m pleased that seedlings of the more interesting annuals are now more readily available.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. I always use Select Seeds, but I just heard our local co-op nursery has these in. I’ll have to buy some, as I was the one who advised them to stock them.

  2. If only the gardener that you mentioned knew about Annies Annuals then perhaps she would appreciate the florific merit of annuals.

    Some of the new annuals that I am planting this year hail from around the world and are appropriate for my mild Mediterranean climate and may even over winter or reseed.

    I am especially thrilled to have found the traditional common Marigold ” Day of the Dead ” ( Tagetes ) that Mexicans use to decorate their memorial altars with. This 3.5 foot tall marigold has large deep orange double flowers. I hope to have enough blooms by October for my own Day of the Dead celebration.

    Another rare find this year includes the tropical Polynesian annual Emilia javanica. It’s dainty brilliant orange pom pom flowers have been blooming since early May.

    And who can not extoll the virtures of coleus especially when paired with Ipomea batas ‘lime green’ ?

    Annuals, … they’re a good thing.

  3. Perhaps the gardener was apologizing. Annuals require an investment in time and money that some gardeners can’t afford.

  4. Chris – or maybe the gardener is a “wanna-be’ gardener who only wants their garden stocked with plants that don’t require any effort – like most Home Depot shoppers.

    I agree with your view on your annuals Elizabeth and think they should be encouraged. Even for those who can afford to buy bulk seedlings it doesn’t take too much more effort to grow them from seed as many garden bloggers have recently shown.

  5. Or perhaps the gardener knew that “time wasted on [annuals] is what makes them important,” to paraphrase a quote at Chris’ site.

    Annuals require the least investment in time and money and give back the greatest reward because they only last the season and they spend most of their lives flowering. (I’ve been very tempted to just go back to pots full of annuals at times during this garden start-up of mine.) If you start from seed, they are cheaper than cheap, and the time investment is a few minutes a day after the initial planting.

    I think it takes the pressure off the perennials too — instead of fussing over them to get them to bloom again, they can have their season and rest while the annuals are flowering away.

    They’re especially welcome here because our growing season is only 143 days.

  6. Well, elsewhere in his description he has “self-taught” and flowers from every letter in the alphabet–“azaleas to zinnias.” I am totally planning to visit this garden.

    There are odd views toward annuals and I hear them all during Garden Walk. A basic problem for many is that they have to be replaced each year. They see it as waste.

  7. I was writing out of my own frustration. I love annuals and would like to grow more of them. But I often find myself choosing perennials over annuals for time and budget reasons. In spite of the fact that I occasionally take a break on a Sunday afternoon, mix myself a Greyhound and post comments on Garden Rant, my pocketbook and my energy level are stretched to the max. If I were a parent, a commuter, or a senior living on social security, I imagine resources would be even tighter.

  8. I like reseeding annuals to fill that mid- to late-summer bloom gap. Cleomes, nicotianas nigellas, amaranths, castor beans (well I actually have to plant the seeds in that last case) come up in the gaps whether I want them to or not. The hard part for me is to have good enough weed control but not so good that I wipe out all the seedlings. Where they do come up, there are usually plenty to transplant the extra somewhere else in the garden where they’re needed. I seldom fuss with starting annual flowers in pots or buying seedlings. Harvest a few seeds each year to trade or scatter to fill in other gaps.

  9. I love to grow annuals. They are well worth the effort because they go non stop till the end of the season. Though Perennials are picked more because they come back.

  10. Annuals? I spent the day yesterday filling in the gaps with annuals! Have you seen Nicotiana langsdorfii? Lime green and very interesting. How about tall annual ageratum? Lovely for cut flowers! Verbena bonariensis? A curtain of delight! Not to mention many of the interesting salvias which give that cottage garden look! I’m with all of you. A garden without some interesting annuals is just not as intriguing.

  11. While I do prefer to plant perennials in my garden, I don’t think I could live without my re-seeding grandpa ott’s morning glory weaving its way through my asparagus bed, alyssum and nasturtiums edging my vegetable beds, zinnias and sunflowers for cutting, and creeping yellow lantana that withstands the heat and humidity of late summers in memphis when all of the beloved perennials have faded into dim memories.

  12. I agree with a previous commentor – I get nicotiana seed from Select Seeds – my favorite right now is tobacco jasmine. I’ve also got a small field (more or less) of mexican sunflowers that have reseeded (butterfly heaven) and the old-fashioned zinnias re-seeding as well (those get stuck in open places in the perennial borders).

  13. Layanee, my neighbor, the seed king, gives me a flat of the tall blue ageratums every season. They are fabulous; too bad the stubby ones they sell in nurseries give this cultivar a bad name. I also grow the verbena bonariensis. I do not find this self-seeding many talk about, but in my limited courtyard space, I have to be pretty vigilant about how things are placed. I can’t just scatter seeds about, and I have to clean stuff up, usually before it goes to seed.

    I have been thinking about the getting the green nicotiana. I grow every other sort–may as well.

  14. Eliz: That’s a great neighbor! I do have the V. bonariensis re-seed but it is easy to pull out of the places it is not wanted and it is easily indentifiable. Have you seen seed for the N. mutabalis? And, has you grown that one? It is supposed to change color and I find that intriquing.

  15. Layanee, you can get seed for all of the n species and hybrids at Select Seeds. I’ve grown it–I think the flowers mature to lighter colors. They are very tall and pretty, but if they get too much shade, forget it. I wouldn’t do it from seed, myself–it would take too long.

  16. Mmmmm. I’ve just completed several garden talks where I extolled the virtues of annuals–both the fancy schmancy ones that come with pedigrees and copyrights in single pots, and the plethora of freerange seedlings that jubilantly come up every year. I scatter seeds of poppies, nigella, cosmos and calendula throughout the garden, and this year started some things indoors too. Mostly i do porta-gardens (containers) of bright colours for adding punch to the yard. Strong colours are necessary for my happy factor, plus it’s easier to find them in the fog up here on my mountain. 🙂

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