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Midwest: Annual Events

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BY MARTY ROSS/Kansas City, Missouri, Zone 5

I have retired from competition at the local flower show, but there was a time when my annuals were unbeatable. My friend Henry Marder might dispute this, but, as I recall, I trounced him one year with a particularly deadly combination of entries: cosmos, nasturtiums, zinnias, marigolds, torenias, tithonias, lantanas, nicotianas, and cleomes. He carried the vegetable division with tomatoes, beans, peppers, bok choi, and whatnot, and shared the harvest, too. Gardeners are generous.

Annuals were the first flowers I planted as a child. I've had to defend my interest in them since perennials became the rage, but I've never outgrown them. In the heat of a midwestern summer, when temperatures soar into the 90s every day and sensible gardeners retreat to the comfort of a well-placed hammock, annuals keep a garden going.

Unpretentious, old-fashioned annuals are my favorites. The pink and white flowers of fern-leafed Cosmos bipinnatus are very pretty, of course, but my preference is for the C. sulphureus types, with their luminous, silky-petaled orange and yellow flowers on heavily branched plants. I have grown them all: the Diablo series, which received an All-America Selections award in 1974, is very nice, but I also like ‘Lemon Twist’, a splashy yellow, and the 2000 AAS award-winning Cosmic varieties (pictured), with double flowers on 12-inch plants.

Sophisticated gardeners have been known to scoff at marigolds, but perhaps they haven't yet discovered the charming Gem series of signet marigolds (Tagetes tenuifolia). The bushy little plants have fragrant foliage and are covered with small yellow (‘Lemon Gem’) or orange (‘Tangerine Gem’) flowers. They make a fine edging by themselves, or mix gracefully with other annuals and perennials in the sun. Gem marigolds are difficult to find as bedding plants, but they are easy to grow from seed. It's not too late to plant them.

Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) will take a break from blooming in the heat of summer, but they come back into bloom late in the season, and their serene, round leaves are highly decorative from spring until frost. My favorites are the Gleam varieties (AAS winners in the 1930s), which have double flowers with long spurs and tumble gracefully down a low wall by the back stairs.

My husband and I like to be in the garden when the fireflies begin to blink, and the dangling, snow-white blooms of Nicotiana sylvestris release their fragrance. We usually grow one stately plant in a pot on the patio, and park our chairs on either side of it. Last summer we also grew a sensational variegated datura (D. inoxia ‘Missouri Marble’) in a pot. The Kansas City botanist Jim Waddick discovered this plant growing among unvariegated daturas at his neighbor's house a few years ago, and it went into production at Terra Nova Nurseries last year. The creamy marbled foliage and pale, wine-stained stems of this datura are handsome by themselves, but when the fragrant flowers open, moonlight meets its match.

Worth growing

Carex albula ‘Frosty Curls’

Tufts of little sedges offer subtler and more intimate pleasures than the dramatic splash of large ornamental grasses. In my garden, the finetextured, tousled tresses of Carex albula ‘Frosty Curls’ (often sold as C. comans ‘Frosty Curls’) sparkle at the edge of a bed between Hosta ‘Love Pat’ and Tricyrtis ‘Tojen’. It's hardier than advertised, and worth a try in USDA Zone 5. Sources, page 92.

To do in the garden

  • Deadhead annual flowers as the blooms fade to encourage plants to produce more flowers.
  • Even if you're home all summer (and not away on vacation), the garden usually looks a little wild by August. Sit back and enjoy it!
  • Midwestern gardeners should be eating tomatoes with both hands in July and August. Consistent moisture is the secret to a high yield of great tomatoes. Mulch plants to help retain soil moisture, and water during dry spells.
  • Fertilize rosebushes one last time by mid-August.
  • Shoot a roll of film in the garden now. The pictures will inspire you in January.