If you’ve visited a public garden lately or browsed through the latest gardening books, you’ve seen the writing on the wall. Horticulture continues hurtling toward naturalistic, post-wild, Piet Oudolf–inspired landscapes. This is good news for the environment and wildlife, and exactly what is needed at this point of time. On the surface, one might surmise that it is bad news for annual plants, which may seem anachronistic holdouts.
But as some gardeners try to strike annuals from their gardens, they often find the void difficult to fill. Conversely, gardeners who’ve continued enjoying annuals are finding themselves in a golden age of incredible new selections with which to pursue their technicolor aspirations. So annuals have displayed some staying power. The reports of their demise appear somewhat exaggerated. And this, too, is good news. Every year, right as rain, they consistently bring the joy of color and fun to gardens and public spaces.
The Concerns About Annual Plants
But they’re not sustainable, right? While it cannot be denied that annuals come with a bigger carbon footprint than perennials, there might be other things to consider. For sustainability, as we know, is a three-legged stool—Environment, Economy and Community. Two legs without the other results in a very unsteady place to exist.
Environmentally, annuals require more transportation to get them to market and they indeed need replanting every year, but many of them come through as rich sources of pollen and nectar for pollinators—an increasingly important environmental issue which gardeners can and should mitigate at home. It would take a genius with a supercomputer to figure out how to keep perennials in bloom through the full length of the growing season on a half-acre plot of suburban ground. Or one could throw in a six-pack of lantana and be done with it. May to October, nonstop, joyous pollinator binge feeding! Guaranteed.
Economically, we all know the value that a canopy of trees and appealing landscapes have in neighborhoods and communities. A home with an oak out front and window boxes billowing with impatiens is always going to fetch a better price than the same home forlornly baking in the summer sun. It’s also a more welcoming place to return to or visit. Likewise, a business district with healthy street trees and a smattering of vibrant containers creates an appealing tone of friendliness, community and prosperity that lures customers in and keeps them hanging around and spending. This is a lesson those bleak, endlessly strip-malled, urban-sprawl wastelands of potholed parking lots and closing retail stores have yet to learn, sadly.
Which leads us to the Community leg of our Sustainability stool. Human well-being is part of the equation, and the science is unequivocal: people with exposure to plants in their daily lives feel better, live longer and even behave better than those who do not. There is hardly an emerging social challenge out there that isn’t improved by more plants and more gardens, and, inarguably, annuals are a class of plants supremely well-suited to put right where most people live—deep behind the lines in our cities and inner suburbs.
Choosing the Right Annual Plants
As with any type of plant, poorly chosen selections will only bring disappointment. Fortunately, there are plenty of trial programs around the country that can lead you to the best choices for your region. Any web search of “Annuals Plant Trials” will deliver you to the websites of trialing gardens, usually run by universities, public gardens and growers. Almost invariably, the trials nearest to your location will provide the most relevant results. The knowledgeable folks at quality garden centers can be of immense help, too. As with all things gardening, proper bed prep and decent maintenance are important for success.
Many garden centers and public gardens also hold classes on the high art of container design, which can painlessly take you from paltry to perfect. For design in garden beds, just go big and dumb. Unless you are P. Allen Smith—and probably even if you are—the key to good annual design is to Keep It Simple, Stupid. Most ugly annual displays result from some poor sap trying too darned hard—15 selections of this and that scattered around like a crayon truck blew up. More often, a single mass of coleus is the answer. Why make people exhaust themselves roving their eyes all around the garden trying to make sense of it when you can just bludgeon them with a battering ram of blunt-force color? Just one type is fine. More than three is invariably an abomination. And treat texture like a color. There are many annuals that provide amazing texture in the garden. Don’t forget about them just because they cause fewer cardiac arrests to garden center customers than, say, ‘Marguerite’ sweet potato.
We also need to stop treating our gardens like they’ll go down in flames if a plant exceeds 12 inches in height. Don’t fear an annual just because it has the temerity to grow three feet tall. You’ll find that you love it! Too many otherwise fine annuals have been reduced to puny shadows of their former selves because they look cute—all mounded and tidy—when they are artfully displayed in garden centers. As such, they fly off the shelves every Mother’s Day. But, remember, looking good in a pot in May and making a statement in the garden from June to October are two very separate things.
So go forth and include some annuals in your garden, and do so without needing to atone. Yes, you should also grow plenty of trees, shrubs and perennials. And, indeed, the race to save planet Earth and mankind through better horticulture needs to keep momentum. But there are very good reasons to keep annuals in the mix. They can be used beautifully and responsibly, and nothing yet supplants them for bringing cheer to containers, window boxes and that odd bed between the porch and the walkway.
This story first appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Horticulture.