Spring Annuals

With spring annuals, you can design and plant a backyard flower garden that will lift your spirits in a single glance.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
February/March 1994
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Regardless of the size and shape of your yard, you probably have room for at least a few bright splashes of color. While they may not be as utterly practical as a vegetable or herb garden, there's no denying their surefire power to provide happiness. Too many people avoid growing flowers because of their fragility and short life span. With some smart planning and judicious use of spring annuals, however, you can have flowers practically all year round.

Start With A Plan

When it comes to planning a flower garden, start by allowing your imagination to run wild on paper. Sketch out the existing landscape, and use colored pencils or crayons to fill in green foliage with splashes of color. Remember during this planning stage that not all plants bloom at the same time, and not all plants bloom from early spring throughout the fall. It may help you to try out selected colors on different tracing-paper overlays according to their different blooming seasons.

As you are designing, decide where in your yard you need some shape and color, then choose plants that conform to the surroundings as well as your desires. Small beds or edgings along low hedges or beneath foundation plantings demand a low-growing choice; try ageratum, alyssum, or begonias. In larger areas, you can vary the height to make the effect more interesting, especially if the ground is flat. In a freestanding bed, place taller plants in the center, stepping down to an intermediate-size plant and then to a ground-hugging plant in front. For a border against a fence or wall, place the tallest plant in back and work your way up to the front with smaller sizes.

For a mixed bed or border, choose three sizes of plants. Combine three varieties of the same plant, such as zinnias or marigolds, in different heights or by combining three different plants, such as tall spider flowers and medium-size dahlias, trimmed with a carpet of low-growing petunias. Also take advantage of diverse flower shapes when designing your mixed bed. Imagine a combination of spiked snapdragons intermingled with mounded begonias and edged with low-growing lobelia. Flowering plants also grow upright and bushy (African marigolds) or in an open, informal manner (cosmos). Again, try to work in groups of three.

Combining plants with different flower shapes will also make a mixed bed or border more interesting. Mix plumes of snapdragons with globes of marigolds, trumpet-shaped petunias, and a wide assortment of single, double, round, daisy-shaped, frilled, or irregularly shaped flowers. However, remember that there are no hard and set rules when it comes to designing; mass planting of one variety in one shape or color is just as appealing as a rainbow of colors. The decision depends on the effect you want to achieve.

If the ground is flat, building berms (mounds of soil) for mass plantings will give them height and more perspective. If space is tight, plant in areas that are most visible. For example, plant beds or borders along the walkway or driveway to greet you when you come home, or place them in your backyard if you'll be relaxing there on weekends.

The shape of the planting area should also be influenced by surroundings. To many, a stately Georgian or very modern house would demand a formal, straight-lined bed. A Colonial home would call for a closely packed, cottage-garden style. Most of today's architecture is complemented by semiformal, contoured flower beds or borders. Wherever space permits, flower beds and/or borders should be included in the overall design. Flower beds are those plantings that are accessible from all sides. For example, you may have an island planting in the middle of the lawn. Borders, on the other hand, are at the edge of an area—be it the lawn, walkway, driveway, foundation, shrub planting, or fence.

Because borders can usually be worked from only one side, do not plant them any wider than five feet at the most, or maintenance will be difficult. Under five feet, they can be as wide as space and looks permit. Beds should be planned in relation to the surrounding area; don't try to situate too large a bed in a small grassy area or it will be out of proportion. You can locate beds and borders anywhere on your grounds, uniting plantings of evergreens and flowering trees and shrubs with ribbons of living color.

Besides adding plenty of charm, beds and borders can be used to either highlight or camouflage areas or even to direct foot traffic. If you want to draw attention to your front door, frame it with color. If you want to conceal your trash cans, let an annual vine climb on a trellis in front of them. If you don't want the children cutting across the front lawn, plant a border to make them walk around the lawn to the path.

Coloring Your World

Color, the most striking aspect of flower bed design, reflects the personality and mood of your home. You may decide on warm tones of yellow, gold, orange, and red, which attract attention to specific sections of the garden. They also make mass plantings appear smaller than they actually are. Blue and violet, on the other hand, create a more tranquil mood and make gardens appear larger.

Keep color schemes simple. Use more than one or two colors only in a bed of the same plant, such as zinnias impatiens, dahlias, or celosia. There are a number of possible harmonies you can select. Choose complementary (opposite) colors such as orange and blue (calendula with lobelia) or violet with yellow (red geraniums with yellow dahlias). Treat pink, a tint of red, the same way as red when designing. Treat violet the same way you would purple. Analogous color harmony refers to using three different shades of one color, such as yellow, yellow-orange, and gold-orange. Some gardeners prefer monochromatic design, different tones of the same color (such as pink and red). Select one harmony and stay with it throughout the bed or border for best effect.

White blends well with any color, but is also effective alone. Like pastels (especially light pinks), white is most effective when viewed at night, and it reflects moonlight, streetlights, and garden lights. It is best used in mass alone or as a unifying border to other annuals. When white is used as a buffer between two conflicting colors, it often makes the design look spotty and disjointed. The same rules apply to white, silver, and gray foliage plants, such as dusty miller.

Annuals for Instant Beauty

Annual flowers offer instant beauty, spectacular and diverse of color. By definition, an annual is a plant that grows, flowers, sets seed, and dies in the same season. The term "annual" is also applied to tender perennials that survive the winter only in the mildest of climates but are grown during the summer in other areas.

Basically, the same design principles apply to gardening with all flowers. But when you shop for bedding plants or seeds, you will notice that many annuals come in a "series."

For example, there are "Super Elfin Pink," "Super Elfin Red," and "Super Elfin Blush" impatiens; "Pink Pearl," "Azure Pearl," and "White Pearl" petunias; and "Inca Yellow," "Inca Gold," and "Inca Orange" marigolds. If you're planning a bed of the same plant in mixed colors, you will achieve greater success if you use plants from the same series. They'll be more uniform in height, plant shape, and bloom size.

If you purchase bedding plants instead of growing your own annuals from seeds, look for deep green, healthy plants that are neither too compact nor too spindly. It is better if they are not yet in bloom. Most annuals will come into full bloom faster in the garden if they are not yet in bloom when planted. Most bedding plants are grown in individual "cell packs," although they may be in flats or individual pots. If you can't plant them right away, keep them in a lightly shaded spot and water them carefully.

Gardening Basics

Do not try to jump the gun at planting time. Tender annuals cannot be planted until after all danger of frost has passed and the soil is warm. Half-hardy annuals can be safely planted if nights are still cool, as long as there will be no more frost. Hardy and very hardy plants can be planted in early spring as soon as the soil can be worked.

Just before planting your annuals, water generously the bedding plants and the soil in the bed or border. Carefully lift plants from cell packs or pots, keeping the root ball intact in order to avoid any damage. The best way to do this is to either gently squeeze or push up the bottom of the container if it's pliable enough, or turn it upside down until the plant falls right onto your hand. If the plant does not slide out easily, tap the bottom of the container with a trowel. Assuming the root ball is moist, as it should be, it will slip out easily without being disturbed.

Occasionally, you will find plants in a flat without individual cells. If so, separate the plants gently by hand or with a knife just before planting so that the roots do not dry out. If plants are growing in individual peat pots, either peel most of the pot away or be sure the top of the pot is below soil level after planting. If roots are extremely compacted, loosen them gently before planting. Dig a hole slightly larger than the root ball, set the plant in place at the same level at which it was growing, and firm the soil around the roots. Water well soon after planting, and then water frequently until plants are established and new growth has started. An application of soluble fertilizer high in phosphorus will encourage root growth.

To reduce transplanting shock, plant on a cloudy or overcast late afternoon. Petunias, which are the most notable exception to this rule, tolerate planting even on hot and sunny days.

Reseeding. Some annuals—notably impatiens, portulaca, salvia, and nicotiana—will reseed from one year to the next. Because many annuals are hybrids, the seedlings may not be identical to the parent and will often be less vigorous. It is best to remove these seedlings and replant all flower beds and borders each year for maximum effect. In most areas, the seedlings will never grow large enough to be showy.

Fertilizing. Most annuals don't require high levels of fertilizer but will do much better if adequate nutrients are available. Notable exceptions are nasturium, spider flower, portulaca, amaranthus, cosmos, gazania, or salpiglossis, all of which do best in poor, infertile soils. With these, the fertilizer added before planting is adequate. With other annuals, you can fertilize once or twice more during the growing season with 5-10-5 or a similar ratio at the rate of one to two pounds per 100 square feet. As an alternative, you can use a soluble fertilizer such as 20-20-20, following label directions and applying every four to six weeks. Overfertilizing will cause a buildup of soluble salts in the soil, especially if it is heavy soil, and result in damage to the annuals. Overfertilizing can also result in heavy foliage growth and few flowers.

Watering. Heavy but infrequent watering encourages deep root growth. Annuals should be watered only as often as the lawn, and keep foliage dry. (A soaker hose works well.) However, if overhead sprinklers must be used, water disease-prone annuals (zinnias, calendula, grandiflora petunias, and stock, in particular) as early in the day as possible. Foliage will dry out before nightfall, reducing the chance of disease. When using annuals for cut flowers, do not water them from overhead, which can damage blooms. Where dry soil and dry skies prevail, choose drought-resistant annuals such as portulaca, celosia, cosmos, sunflower, amaranthus, candytuft, dusty miller, gazania, spider flower, sweet alyssum, and vinca.

Mulching. After your annuals are planted, adding a two-inch to three-inch layer of mulch will not only add a note of attractiveness, it will also reduce weeds and conserve soil moisture resulting in better growth. The best mulches are organic and include bark chips, pine needles, shredded leaves, peat moss, or hull of some kind. The following year, the mulch can be incorporated into the soil before planting, which will enrich it. Additional mulch can be added each spring, resulting in better soil structure and therefore better growth as the years pass.

Weeding. In addition to supplying the basic requirements for good growth, weed your plants so beds and borders will be as appealing as possible. Remove weeds carefully, especially when annuals are young, so you won't disturb the roots.

Manicuring. Some annuals-chiefly begonias, impatiens, coleus, alyssum, ageratum, lobelia, vinca, and salvia-require little care. Their flowers fall cleanly from the plant after fading and do not need to be removed by hand. Others—such as marigolds, geraniums, zinnias, calendula, or dahlia—will need to have faded flowers removed. Known as deadheading, this process keeps the plants attractive and in full bloom, while preventing them from going to seed or becoming diseased. You can either use pruning shears or your fingers.

To keep some annuals freely flowering, primarily petunias, snapdragons, and pansies, pinch them back after planting or after the first flush of bloom. This is becoming less necessary as new hybrids are created. Sweet alyssum, candytuft, phlox, and lobelia may tend to sprawl and encroach on walls, the lawn, or other flowers. Head them back with hedge clippers. Shearing encourages heavier blooming.

In the fall, after frost has blackened the tops of annual plants, remove the plants from the beds so they won't be unsightly through winter. Better yet, try turning your plants under in the fall so their foliage will decompose into green manure and enrich the soil in the process.

Editor's Note: Excerpted with permission from The Big Book of Gardening Skills. Published by Storey Publishing.  


Annual Selection Guide

Light: S=full sun, LSh=light shade, PSh=part shade, Sh=full shade
Temperature: cool=below 70°F, moderate=70°-85°F, hot=above 85°F)

African Daisy
  Planting Distance:  8-10"
  Maintenance:        medium
  Plant Height:      10-12"
  Light:              S
  Moisture:           dry
  Temperature:        cool
  Hardiness:         hardy
Amaranthus
  Planting Distance: 15-18"
  Maintenance:        medium
  Plant Height:      18-36"
  Light:              S
  Moisture:           dry
  Temperature:        moderate-hot
  Hardiness:         half hardy
Balsam
  Planting Distance: 10-15"
  Maintenance:        low
  Plant Height:      12-36"
  Light:              S, PSh
  Moisture:           moist
  Temperature:        hot
  Hardiness:         tender
Browallia
  Planting Distance:  8-10"
  Maintenance:        low
  Plant Height:      10-15"
  Light:              PSh, Sh
  Moisture:           moist
  Temperature:        cool
  Hardiness:         half hardy
Candytuft
  Planting Distance:  7-9"
  Maintenance:        low
  Plant Height:       8-10"
  Light:              S
  Moisture:           dry
  Temperature:        any
  Hardiness:         half hardy
Cornflower
  Planting Distance:  6-12"
  Maintenance:        medium
  Plant Height:      12-36"
  Light:              S
  Moisture:           dry-average
  Temperature:        moderate-hot
  Hardiness:         tender
Dahlia
  Planting Distance:  8-10"
  Maintenance:        high
  Plant Height:       8-15"
  Light:              S, LSh
  Moisture:           average
  Temperature:        moderate
  Hardiness:         tender
Dusty Miller
  Planting Distance:  6-8"
  Maintenance:        low
  Plant Height:       8-10"
  Light:              S, PSh
  Moisture:           moist
  Temperature:        moderate-hot
  Hardiness:         half hardy
Forget-me-not
  Planting Distance:  8-12"
  Maintenance:        low
  Plant Height:       6-12"
  Light:              PSh
  Moisture:           dry-average
  Temperature:        cool
  Hardiness:         hardy
Fuchsia
  Planting Distance:  8-10"
  Maintenance:        high
  Plant Height:       12-24"
  Light:              PSh, Sh
  Moisture:           dry-average
  Temperature:        moderate
  Hardiness:         tender
Ivy Geranium
  Planting Distance: 10-12"
  Maintenance:        medium
  Plant Height:       24-36"
  Light:              S
  Moisture:           dry
  Temperature:        moderate
  Hardiness:         tender
Marigold, French
  Planting Distance:  3-6"
  Maintenance:        high
  Plant Height:       5-10"
  Light:              S
  Moisture:           dry
  Temperature:        moderate
  Hardiness:         half hardy
Pansy
  Planting Distance:  6-8"
  Maintenance:        medium
  Plant Height:       4-8"
  Light:              S, PSh
  Moisture:           dry
  Temperature:        cool
  Hardiness:         very hardy
Snapdragon
  Planting Distance:  6-8"
  Maintenance:        medium
  Plant Height:       6-15"
  Light:              S
  Moisture:           dry
  Temperature:        cool-moderate
  Hardiness:         very hardy
Zinnia
  Planting Distance:  4-24"
  Maintenance:        high
  Plant Height:       4-36"
  Light:              S
  Moisture:
  Temperature:        moderate-hot
  Hardiness:         tender

 

 

 


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