Hardscape is the bones of the garden — the terraces, the boxes, and the paths. Perennials are the workhorses — showing up year in and year out to fill in the garden and give it shape. But the glamour spot goes to the annuals. They turn up for just a season and steal the show with their striking blooms and spectacular colors. Annuals can change the look or feel of a garden from year to year or just provide a pop of color to brighten a quiet spot.
Annuals can play other roles in the garden as well. They can give you a gorgeous cutting garden so you can bring the outside glory into your home. They can fill pots to brighten an entryway or patio. Others emit fragrance to transport you to a garden from “The Arabian Nights.” Or you can experiment with an unusual annual plant for just one year.
• Color dash: Annuals spark up the dull corners of your garden. At the garden shop, you will see the annuals: row after row of bright six-packs of marigolds, zinnias, nemesia, phlox or sunflowers. Planting these favorites in groups of three or more will fill in the empty spots with glorious colors. If next year you want to try a different color scheme, switch to different annuals for a new look.
Cutting garden: Some gardeners like to use annuals for a spectacular outdoor summer show. While annuals look beautiful outside, they can also provide source material for indoor floral displays. There are snapdragons especially bred to grow into tall spikes. Sunflowers come in all sorts of cheerful varieties. Larkspur can grow to four feet and looks especially good against a garden wall. Bachelor’s buttons and calendula are smaller flowers that are adorable in a vase. Dianthus, or Sweet William, are fragrant and last well in water.
• Containers: Annuals are the go-to choice for colorful pots of flowers to decorate a doorway or deck. Some particularly good choices for containers include phlox, lobelia, cockscomb and snapdragons. You can choose any combination of shapes and colors that pleases your eye. Choosing flowers from opposite sides of the color wheel is a sure-fire way to create a dynamite display. For instance, planting deep purple lobelia in a container with bright yellow and orange marigolds produces a vivid shock of color.
• Scent: Ah, a fragrant garden! How lovely to step out in the evening and inhale the redolent air of summer. Your annuals can contribute to this experience. Nicotiana, also known as flowering tobacco, is a fragrant annual that can grow very tall. Phlox is not only fragrant, but also drought tolerant. Petunias are particularly fragrant in the evening. Dianthus, sweet alyssum and sweet peas can also have a lovely scent. Be sure to check for varieties of each type of plant that are fragrant.
• Rare plants: Another fun use of annuals is to try out a rare or exotic plant — just give it a go. Some garden stores specialize in rare annuals and it can be a fun field trip to check out the oddball colors or shapes. Sometimes these grow beautifully and even come back for another year — ask me about my amaranth! Sometimes they don’t amount to much, but they don’t take much space and you can afford to risk it for the promise of a turquoise flower like the 3- or 4-foot spike of the Puya alpestris.
• Shade annuals: There are annuals for shade gardens, too. While single and double impatiens used to be the go-to plant for shade gardens, they have recently been vulnerable to downy mildew and are not recommended. There are good shade alternatives, however, such as violas and tuberous begonias. The begonias, in particular, have luscious shapes and delicious, warm colors. Jumping jack violas are a favorite from my childhood: tiny, bright and funny-faced.
If you would like to see any excellent display of annuals growing among perennials, visit the Sun Garden at the Marin Art and Garden Center.