An annual enabler


There remains a certain snobbishness about annuals, partly because some perceive them as “common,” and partly because they’re, well, annual. (Many of us have seen the famous Plant Delights/Tony Avent T-shirt that says, “Friends Don’t Let Friends Buy Annuals.”) I always have a lot of annuals in pots and routinely I am asked during garden walks whether or not I can save them from year to year. Quel nightmare! I can just imagine trying to keep a lot of petunias, coleus, annual salvia, and scaveola alive over the winter, all of it growing scrawnier and buggier by the week in my less-than-optimal interior conditions. Anyway, I like to change it up, so no saving for me.

But I defy anyone to scorn annuals after seeing the magnificent work at Buffalo’s Erie Basin Marina Trial Gardens. For decades, these expansive gardens have been tended by one guy, Stan Swisher (above), who grows dozens of different annuals and some perennials from seeds he receives from several big seed companies (Ball, Danziger, and a few others). He moves the seedlings from the greenhouse for planting out and then keeps an eye on them. This year we had a hailstorm that flattened many of the plants; Swisher pinched them back and they recovered.

I have been allowed to test some of these in my own containers and the care that Swisher gives really makes a difference. They are huge, floriferous, and healthy. And interesting: black and gold double petunias, a Crystal Sky variety that’s subtler than many of the speckled petunias, and a new petunia/calibrachoa hybrid. There is a big difference between these and nursery-bought. Of course, in Western New York, it’s been a summer made for annuals: hot with plenty of rain.

It’s strange that most people who live here have no idea that the Trial Gardens are part of a large North American program to see what might be good for the market. Last year, I helped distribute (to Garden Walk gardeners) a couple hundred tuberous begonias that never would have made it in the sunny, windy marina beds. Mine did great, but the Ball rep informed me that they were (yikes) germplasm, and were being used solely for breeding new plants. Maybe I can try some of those when they’re done.

Of course, I wouldn’t want my garden to be covered with large beds of different annuals, but I love the ones I have. And if I could get Stan Swisher to tend my garden, that would make it perfect.

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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 do not understand the snobbishness either. When establishing new perennial planting beds, I believe they are essential partners to perennials, just as they are out in nature. They cover the soil, conserve moisture, feed pollinators, provide habitat, with the added benefit of making your garden look great while the perennials are bulking up. If you choose the correct annuals for your conditions, and you have decently prepared soil, they take no more care than any other perennial would, unless you decide to primp them with deadheading once a week. I feel no shame in growing a Texas sunflower amidst the drought tolerant perennials at the park I care for. Those sunflowers lure folks in closer to look at my snobby perennials.

  2. There is an equal snobbishness re: native plants, to which one has to ask native to where? In AZ the idea of having plants that require water is considered foul play! Grow what you love.

  3. I consider annuals a nice addition to the garden. The coleus plants on the front porch are grown from cuttings from a “mother” plant I save over the winter. Zinnias are a favorite (and a favorite of hummingbirds). Oh, and sunflowers for the birds.

  4. When did plant shaming become such a big thing? Grow whatever you love; we are only allotted a limited of summers to do this before infirmity or circumstances put the kibosh on gardening.
    So I am thrilled my cannas just started blooming, 3 kinds of milkweed are being devoured, my zinnias reseed themselves happily and I just saw a hummingbird moth. Just enjoy it all.

  5. I cannot imagine summer without the hundreds of variations of Shirley poppies that fill the gaps in the beds. Or the calendula and nigella that self seed along the paths. California poppies turn up in different spots each year. Forget me nots mist the spring garden in palest blue. People who hate annuals are very strange.

  6. Annuals from seed, FABULOUS.

    Annuals from seed, and targeted to local pollinator needs a necessity.

    Annuals bought in pots are horrible to the environment, air, soil, water. Trucking of bagged soils, itself toxic, many bagged soils now include fertilizer, chemicals and water grabber. Toxic trinity.

    In addition, annuals grown in greenhouses, aside from heating/cooling, use fertilizer, chemicals, and water. That water soaking into soil, full of toxic fertilizer/chemicals, killing beneficial fungi….

    Anyway, there’s more, you get the idea.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  7. What a great guy! I would love to have the time to do what he is doing. I have never understood snobbery in any form. You miss out on so much in life by having such a closed mindset!


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