Five easy annuals for every garden
If you only had time and space to grow five summer flowers, which ones would you choose? We asked ourselves that question last year. Flowers in dazzling colors topped our list-ones whose vivid hues would stop passersby in their tracks and invite lingering looks. We’d toss in a few varieties with eye-catching frills, spots, or stripes.
Our next criterion: They would be annual (or behave that way), going from seed, tuber, or seedling to flower to seed again in one glorious spring-to-fall season. They would be easy to plant and easy to grow. We wanted nothing that needed fussing over, nothing temperamental or wimpy. The flowers had to be good for bouquets or good companions for cutting flowers. We wanted ones that would bloom over a long season (as long as we were faithful about deadheading, of course).
We made a list and pared it down. We browsed through nurseries and catalogs, choosing plants that piqued our interest. Finally we planted many varieties of five flower groups in Sunset’s test garden in Menlo Park, California.
As they grew, we studied their backgrounds, noting that all of them hail from hot climates. Cosmos originated in tropical America. Dahlias come from Mexico and Central America, where they were first used as food (their tubers contain a nourishing starchy substance not unlike a potato), while improved varieties bloomed lustily at Montezuma’s gardens in Huaxtepec. The marigold family, despite French and African names, is entirely American, found from New Mexico and Arizona south to Argentina. Summer mums are native to Morocco and have naturalized in sand dunes along Southern California’s coast. Sunflowers grow wild from Minnesota to the Pacific Coast and south to Argentina. (Red sunflowers descend from Helianthus annuus lenticularis, a variety found in 1910 near Boulder, Colorado.) Together, these groups make up a colorful and sunny brotherhood.
By early summer, there was an abundance of blooms that we enjoyed as much in bouquets as in the garden. Our vases were always full. And those elec tric colors did more than caffeine to jump-start our days. We made note of the duds and the stars; our favorites are listed below. April is a splendid time to plant them all.
Unlike the muted, mostly warm-toned perennials that sustain the autumn border, annual chrysanthemums are generally earlier and brighter, and flower longer. You’re likely to encounter two kinds, both native to the Mediterranean region and both recently renamed by taxonomists (the new designation follows the old in these descriptions).
Tricolor daisy (Chrysanthemum carinatum, now Glebionis carinatum) is a 1- to 3-foot-tall annual whose flowers have bright bands of color around dark centers.
Court Jesters mix comes in orange, rose, salmon, scarlet, white, and yellow White Carinatum Dunnettii Choice mix has white, yellow, bronze, and crimson flowers. In ‘German Flag’, scarlet rays and a golden yellow band surround the central disk. Merry mix has multicolored bull’s-eye flowers on 2- to 3-foot-tall plants. Single Annual mixed comes in yellow, pink, purple, and rust.
It’s a shame crown daisy (Chrysanthemum coronarium, now Glebionis coronaria) had its botanical name changed, since the word chrysanthemum combines the Greek for gold (chrysos) and for flower (anthos)-a perfect description for this lovely annual, which usually has yellow petal-like rays and a yellow central disk. Flowers can be single or double.
‘Primrose Gem’ is a double yellow on a 3 1/2- to 4-foot stem.
Cosmos (C. bipinnatus) must be one of the easiest annuals ever. Sow its seeds once, and pink or white flowers come back year after year from their own seeds. Flowers (mostly singles) start blooming in early summer and continue for months until the first hard frost. The wonderful Sensation strain is the best known of the clan, but cosmos come in many other flower forms-some have rolled or filled petals-and in a range of solid colors and stripes.
‘Candy Stripe’ produces white flowers with crimson borders or stripes and grows to 3 to 31/2 feet tall. Three-foot-tall ‘Daydream’ has petals of rosy pink that fade to pale pink edges. Psyche mix bears semidouble blooms and grows to 3 feet tall. Seashell mix (to 31/2 ft. tall) has rolled petals in creamy white and shades of red, rose, and pale seashell pink. Sonata mix, a 2-foot dwarf, bears many 3-inch single blooms in white, pink, and mixes. ‘Versailles Tetra’ (to 3 ft. tall) has 4inch pink flowers and darker shading around a bright yellow eye.
Yellow cosmos (C. sulfureus) brings yellow and red flowers into the cosmos clan, but at a cost: Its seeds don’t germinate as easily as common cosmos, and its flowers tend to be smaller (2 in. in diameter) than other cosmos. Many gardeners find it easiest to grow from nursery seedlings.
Bright Lights mix has large (2 1/2-in.) flowers of yellow, gold, orange, or scarlet on 3- to 4-foot plants. ‘Lemon Twist’ bears clear lemon yellow flowers on stems to 2 1/2 feet tall. Ladybird mix grows to only 1 foot in height. Sunny Orange-Red and Sunny Gold top out at 15 inches.
During the 19th century in England, winning dahlias fetched hefty cash prizes in competitions, motivating breeders to produce a steady stream of larger, increasingly exotic varieties. In The English Flower Garden (1883), English landscape designer William Robinson called the large-flowered varieties “monstrosities,” prompting breeders to work on smaller single-flowering types to be used as bedding plants. Today, Westerners grow both. Named varieties, many of them magnificent in bouquets, number in the tens of thousands.
‘Anatole’ has white flowers streaked with crimson and grows to 3 1/2 feet tall. ‘Bashful’ (2 1/2 ft. tall) bears deep purple blooms with lavender tips and golden yellow centers. The flowers of 5-foot-tall ‘Chilson’s Pride’ are pure pink with white centers. ‘Pink Gingham’ (to 4 1/2 ft. tall) has petals of bright lavender-pink with white tips. ‘Siemen Doornbosch’ bears lilac blossoms with creamy pincushion centers on stems to 1 1/2 feet tall. On ‘Wheels’ (to 3 1/2 ft. tall), red petals and a yellow fringe surround the center disk.
The vast array of garden marigolds traces back to three ancestors: African marigolds, French marigolds, and signet marigolds, all of which originated in the Americas.
In the 16th century, the Spanish took seeds of Tagetes erecta to Africa, where it naturalized so quickly that botanists thought it must have been native there. When T. erecta finally reached England, the Brits named it African marigold. The name still sticks–especially in the craws of growers who would like to see it renamed American marigold. These 1- to 3-foot-tall plants do well in heat and produce huge flowers.
‘French Vanilla’ and ‘Snowball’ are creamy white 2-footers. Inca mix and ‘Perfection’, both with gold, orange, and yellow flowers, are excellent midsize varieties. ‘First Lady’ (to 20 in.) has yellow flowers. ‘Deep Orange Lady’ (to 20 in.) blooms in orange. Plants of Sugar and Spice mix bear 3 1/2-inch flowers of orange, yellow, and white on 20-inch-tall stems.
French marigold (T. patula) came to England via France, so it, too, wound up with a logical but inaccurate moniker. These marigolds are shorter and more refined, usually staying below 1 foot tall.
Disco mix has single 2 1/4-inch flowers of clear yellow, orange, or red on compact 10-inch plants. ‘Gypsy Sunshine’ (frilly butter yellow blooms) and ‘Honeycomb’ (frilly reddish petals edged with gold) are floriferous 6- to 10-inch-tall plants. ‘Jaguar’ bears single golden yellow flowers dabbed with maroon spots over neat, mounding 10-inch plants. ‘Mr. Majestic’ produces single bright yellow blooms with mahogany stripes on a 1- to 2-foot plant. The single flowers of ‘Striped Marvel’ (2 ft.) are striped red and gold like a pinwheel.
Signet marigolds (T tenuifolia) produce many yellow flowers on 8to 16-inch plants with fine foliage.
‘Lemon Gem’ and ‘Golden Gem’ both have dainty single flowers on 8-inch plants. Starfire mix has miniature single flowers in shades of red to gold and reaches 12 to 14 inches in height.
In 1888, while living in southern France, Vincent van Gogh made a remarkable series of sunflower paintings. Done to decorate his house for a visit from fellow artist Paul Gauguin, the works show sunflowers with dark and light centers, long and short petals, and blooms of many sizes. These oils hint at the wonderful variety of these large, sunny
Sunflowers grow quickly and are easy to tend–that’s why they’re favorites with children. If you want to use them for cut flowers, as van Gogh did, choose varieties with long stems and smaller flowers. It helps if they’re pollenless, so they don’t shed on your furniture and carpet.
Pollenless ‘Dorado’ bears golden yellow flowers with dark centers on 5-foot stems. ‘Sunrich Lemon’ is pollenless and has 3-to 8-inch flowers with lemon yellow petals and black disks on 4- to 6-foot-tall plants. ‘Strawberry Blonde’ is pollenless and bears 5-inch straw-colored flowers overlaid with light red on 6-foot-tall stems. Multiflowering branching types such as creamy yellow ‘Valentine’ (5 to 6 ft. tall with 5- to 6-in, blooms) look better in the garden longer than single-stemmed sunflowers like ‘Sunrich Lemon’.
Plant Our Fiesta Flower Bed
This dazzling combination glows in the summer sun. Many of these flowers–especially the cosmos–attract butterflies and hummingbirds. In late summer and early fall, flocks of tiny finches and other seed-eating birds swoop in to graze among the spent blooms. Mass the taller-growing cosmos in the rear, with a clump of sunflowers behind (optional) and dahlias, marigolds, and midsize cosmos in the middle row. Plant lower-growing marigolds and yellow cosmos in front.
A. Ladybird mix dwarf cosmos; B. ‘Mr. Majestic’ marigold; C. ‘Tangerine Gem’ or Starfire mix marigold; D. ‘Bashful’ dahlia; E. Ladies mix marigold; F. Sonata mix cosmos; G. Sonata White cosmos; H. Seashell mix cosmos; I. Bright Lights mix cosmos; J. ‘Candy Stripe’ cosmos; K. Cosmos Sensation strain.
Planting and care Except where noted, these annuals prefer mostly sunny locations. Keep old flowers picked off to prolong bloom.
Annual mums. In hot climates, choose a spot that gets some afternoon shade. Sow seeds outdoors after weather warms for blooms in summer and fall. (If you live in a mild-winter climate, you can also sow in fall for spring and summer bloom.) You may also plant from nursery containers. Summer mums aren’t fussy about soil. Space plants about 8 inches apart. Water deeply and frequently where soils are porous, less in heavy soils. Feed mums two to three times during the growing season.
Cosmos. Sow seeds in open ground from spring to summer, or set out transplants from cell-packs, 4-inch pots, or 1-gallon cans. (Yellow cosmos are easiest to start from nursery-grown plants.) Cosmos will flower best in poor, sandy soil; heavily amended soils and lots of fertilizer result in fewer flowers. Space plants about 12 to 18 inches apart. They can tolerate some aridity, but for best bloom, water them regularly (once a week or so), especially in hot inland valleys.
Dahlias. Provide light afternoon shade in hottest areas. Plant tubers in spring after soil has warmed and danger of frost is past. Dig holes 1 foot deep in loose loam high in organic matter. Space largest kinds 4 to 5 feet apart and smallest ones only 1 to 2 feet apart. Drive a stake into the hole; place the tuber horizontally, 2 inches from the stake, with the eye pointing toward it. Cover tuber with 3 inches of soil and water thoroughly. As shoots grow, gradually fill the hole with soil. Start watering regularly after shoots are above the ground. Dahlias planted in soil enriched with compost rarely, if ever, need supplemental fertilizer.
Marigolds. Plant in full sun. Marigolds are easy to grow from seed and sprout in a few days in warm soil. Or set out plants from nursery flats, cell-packs, or 4-inch pots. Slugs and snails are especially fond of young marigold foliage; use traps or ring the planting with horticultural diatomaceous earth (available at nurseries).
Sunflowers. Sow seeds in spring. If you use young nursery plants, space them 8 to 12 inches apart in soil well amended with compost. After true leaves appear, water plants deeply once a week. Fertilize once when plants are actively growing, using a controlled-release fertilizer. Large-flowered kinds need rich soil and lots of water.
Flowers. Today the color range is even greater, with red, mahogany, and white forms in many sizes.