Choosing the Best Annuals for Your Garden

You can always count on annuals to bring a seasonal pop of color to your flowerbeds and containers. But with all the annuals on the seed racks and in the garden center, which ones should you choose?

The options are seemingly endless. Some grow tall, while others spread out in a mat. Some wilt in the sun, and some drop dead at first frost. There are annuals that reseed to the point of becoming weedy, and others are so vigorous that they seem to crowd out everything else.

Then you have to choose from a rainbow of colors, and decide whether you’ll grow flowers from seed or buy them as plants.

Whatever you’re looking for in a flower, this guide will help you pick the right ones for your garden.

Cool season vs. warm season

The first thing to consider is the season. If you’re approaching the first frost of fall or winter, choose a cold-tolerant annual that can take a light frost or two, thus giving you at least a few more weeks of color.

Some frost-tolerant annuals include petunias, pansies, Johnny-jump-ups, violas and violets. These are also good choices for early spring. If you live in a warmer climate (zones 8-11), grow these all winter. Some annuals are also better suited to the heat of summer, particularly Angelonia, salvia, pentas, lantana and tropical milkweed.

Sun vs. shade

Almost all annuals prefer full sun (at least eight hours of direct sunlight), but some will still do well in part shade. Coleus, New Guinea impatiens, torenia, alyssum and polka dot plants are all good choices for parts of the garden with four to eight hours of sun per day.

If you have a spot with full shade and the danger of frost has passed, consider growing houseplants in the garden as well, digging them up in fall to overwinter indoors.

Moist soil vs. dry soil

front yard garden

Considering factors such as soil type plays a key role in establishing a successful annual garden.

In general, annuals prefer a soil that is rich in organic matter, moisture retentive and well-drained. In other words, they like the black and crumbly stuff that looks like Oreo crumbs.

However, there are some annuals that handle drought or poor soil quite well, including coreopsis, Madagascar periwinkle, portulaca, Mexican sunflower and zinnias.

If your soil is sometimes a little too soggy, try growing violas, pansies, forget-me-nots, impatiens and cleome.

Seeds vs. plants

Some annuals, like petunias, verbena and snapdragons, take a long time to get started from seed and are best purchased as plants from the nursery.

However, most annuals are so easy to grow from seed that it would be ridiculous to buy a tray of marigolds or zinnias when you can grow many more from a single inexpensive seed packet.

marigold

You’ll get a bounty of blooms from just one packet of marigold seeds.

Exceptions to the rule are ‘Snow Princess’ Alyssum and other hybrids, selections and cultivars that are only available as potted plants. Many of these have special qualities, such as heat tolerance or no need for deadheading (that is, the removal of spent flowerheads), and are well worth the extra money.

Colorful vs. restrained

When picking out annuals, rest assured that you don’t need a color wheel to select a good palette of colors. Find inspiration from favorite outfits, paintings or, better yet, the existing plants in your garden, so you know you’ll absolutely love the colors you choose.

The main consideration is that you don’t end up with too many different hues competing for attention. Stick with plants of only two or three colors, and only add more when you’ve found a good balance.

Height vs. habit

It can be frustrating to spend a lot of time arranging and planting flowers, only to find that some are so tall or rampant that they cover up the shorter ones.

At the garden center, it can be tough to judge how tall the annuals will get or how wide they’ll spread, but those on the seed rack will be clearly labeled with their height, width and even habit.

Generally speaking, plant tall and upright flowers at the back of the border, medium and bushy ones in the middle and low-growing ones in the front. This will allow you to see all of the flowers in one sweeping view.

Re-seeding vs. well-behaved

Many old-fashioned heirloom annuals release their seeds into the garden so you can enjoy them each year without worry. However, some gardeners would consider those generous plants weedy, and might prefer something more restrained and well-behaved.

poppy

Poppies reseed themselves, so you’ll get lots of flowers for your effort.

Some annuals that do reseed themselves are Indian blanket (Gaillardia), cosmos, larkspur, poppies and zinnia.

If you’re looking for annuals that don’t reseed, some plants at the garden center will be patented, and less likely to reseed themselves. These are also good picks because they’re less likely to need deadheading to keep them blooming.

Annuals vs. perennials

Finally, decide if you really want to grow annuals, which last for only a few seasons. Perennials, on the other hand, can come back year after year if their needs are met. This can be a great approach if you’d rather not go through the hassle of replanting annuals every year, or if you would like to get more value in the long run.

annual choices small

Planting annuals allows you to create a new garden look every year.

Annuals, however, are fast-growing, easy, and offer new creative possibilities each year. You can give them an entire flowerbed or plug them into gaps among perennials for an injection of color. The answer to this debate, of course, is to plant both annuals and perennials!

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