Annual is Not a Bad Word

Change for the changing seasons always brings an antsy-ness to this gardener, and autumn is one of the big ones.  An avalanche of pumpkin spice covers nearly everything and so many people are just done with the summer garden and all its weather-worn tiredness and spent seediness.  I’m with you.  I keep eyeing the mess and think I might just be better off wacking it all down and calling it a year.  It’s been months since the garden had that clean and controlled look when plants were bristling with anticipation, and I miss that, but still won’t give in just yet.  Obviously laziness plays a part, but others with more enthusiasm might want to hold off as well.  The waning garden has a purpose, and between the full seedheads providing food for birds, and the dried stalks protecting next year’s buds, there’s still something of interest out there.  Frost and snow sit more attractively on waving stalks than on dull mulch, and honestly as far as cleanup goes it’s easier to crunch dried stalks in March than it is to wrestle with sloppy, soggy, heavy messes in October.

But it looks dull.  and messy.  and like you gave up… Unless you planned for it of course, and planted something that carries on until the pumpkin spice gets shoved over by cranberries, and a more relaxed season begins.   For me annuals do the trick.

abelmoschus manihot

Abelmoschus manihot, an okra relative, soaked up the rain and humidity this summer and has never done better.  These first flowers in late August were just the start of the show.

Ok I said it.  I plant annuals.  Yes, they’re more work, but the right annuals can pretty much take care of themselves, and they don’t have to be the same dull mat of color all year that even the bees get bored with.  By their nature these plants just want to grow up and seize the day, filling as much space as possible with growth and flowers until whenever.  They don’t care about next year, just flowering and seeding.

abelmoschus manihot seedpod

The fuzzy okra-like seedpods on the abelmoschatus (aka sunset hibiscus) are cool as well.  Sure beats looking at spotty, diseased iris foliage (which is actually hidden behind the planting).

Late season annuals are my favorites.  Something like the sunset hibiscus (Abelmoschatus manihot) comes up strong in the heat and humidity and quickly becomes a 4-6 foot presence if it gets enough water and warmth.  Just as the perennial garden hits a late summer slump, the sunset hibiscus becomes a star, distracting you from the tired foliage of the June bloomers.  This plant was also one of the stars of the book Annuals for Connoisseurs, by Wayne Winterrrowd… which by the way is a fantastic bargain at under $5 used…

coleus in a border

Coleus, zinnias, salvia and Abelmoschatus in the front border

Ok, enough of me trying to sound intelligent and write coherently in what could be a useful post.  Here are some other annual plantings from around the garden which are distracting me from all the gloomy skies and ever shortening days of really late summer.  Coleus feature strongly.  Nearly all come from a handful of cuttings I stuck in a glass of water and kept on the windowsill all winter.  They look terribly pale and leggy by March but that’s when I pot them up and start growing them on under lights in the basement.  By May I have dozens to fill in around the garden.

annual flower bed

There were even enough leftovers this spring to branch out next door and fill in my neighbor’s mulch bed.  Coleus, cannas, and a nice little single marigold I call “stole a seed head while visiting Kimberley last summer”.

I guess technically a lot of what I’m calling annuals can actually be grown as perennials in warmer climates, so I don’t want to upset anyone who lives and dies by those definitions, but in my garden these plants identify as annuals so I’m going to respect that.

potted caladiums

The dogwood may be giving up and putting on some autumn color, but the potted caladiums are holding on a little longer until nighttime temperatures consistently drop below 60F.  That’s when their sadly limp selves get thrown pot and all into a warm, dry corner of the furnace room and sit there dry and dormant until next year.

A real annual which has come up well this year is Browallia americana.  In well watered spots of bare earth, close to where it grew last year, I keep an eye out for seedlings.  All that’s required is take care and not pull them out as weeds, and by late summer the reward is a 1-2 foot bush speckled with flowers a little bit towards the amethyst side of blue.

browillia americana

Browallia americana with just a few tasteful selected marigolds.

A sort-of annual for me which sometimes returns from the roots is the borderline weedy Datura metel (aka moonflower).  In good fertile soil it makes a large shrub which in the evening sports pure white, upward facing trumpet flowers.  Some people call them angel trumpets, but that’s incorrect.  Angels trumpet come from on high with downward facing blooms and are a different group of flowers (Brugmansia).  These flowers always come from below and Devil’s trumpet is more accurate.  You would think the more heavenly version would be more innocent, but both are extremely poisonous and there are deaths from this plant each year.  I remember my mother evicting them from the garden one summer when she found out.  I know she told us all how poisonous they were but still I was disappointed to lose them from the garden.  I’m surprised she hasn’t questioned my parenting skills since seeing it in bloom here, but I guess there are always plenty of other questionable goings on which take precedence.

datura metel

Devil’s trumpet (Datura metel) announcing an unwelcome arrival in the vegetable garden.

But there I go babbling again.  As long as we’re in the vegetable garden, let me celebrate the pumpkins which have come on strong now that the sunflower thicket has died off from some likely disease.  All this took were a handful of seeds ripped from the heart of last year’s halloween decorations.

pumpkin patch

Now that the sunflowers have died off it looks like the backup plan of pumpkins and glass gem corn might just work out.  I love pumpkins and gourds, maybe that’s all I’ll grow next year.

The deck plantings are almost all just annual plantings which aim for all season interest.  A drip irrigation system on a timer, a handful of slow release fertilizer, and this becomes one of my least-labor intensive parts of the garden… once it’s planted and set up of course…

prince tut papyrus

The ‘Prince Tut’ water garden is ok.  Goldfish have hopefully made a meal of any mosquitos, but a lack of fertilizer has left the papyrus healthy but a little yellowish in my opinion.

I tried for more foliage color this year but still ended up with a few curious flowers here and there.  The firecracker plant (cuphea) was a Proven Winners thing that I’ve heard good things about, and here it is three months later still looking good.

cuphea firecracker plant

Cuphea (firecracker plant) and some purple leaved oxalis.  Both have been nonstop color and trouble-free from the day they were planted.  

My popcorn plant (Senna… Cassia…  corymbosa)?  Still awesome 🙂  I was even able to get a few seeds to set, although it did seem to interfere with the flowering for a few weeks.

cassia popcorn plant

The yellow popcorn plant, coleus, purple fountain grass (pennesutum), oleander, and a bunch of other non-hardy stuff.

I’ve had that pink oleander for a few years now and was sure I killed it in the garage last winter.  It eventually managed to come back, but the sparse branches were just calling out for a vine to cover them up.  Black-eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia alata) to the rescue!

black eyed susan vine thunbergia

Black eyed Susan vine on the oleander.  I would agree with the label “cringe-worthy color combo”, so don’t go thinking I have some undiagnosed color blindness that you need to tiptoe around…

The containers at the back end of the deck have officially taken over.  The yellow coleus is my one new one for this year, the rest of the mess were just little overwintered sprigs and roots which I put out in May.

deck plantings coleus

The coleus really should have been pinched back a few more times.  They’re bushy enough, but even I can see they’re just a little too big.

Oh yeah.  The tropical garden.  Almost all just annual plantings, and almost all only just a little past peak now 🙂

elephant ears and canna

I didn’t think elephant ears could reach six feet tall but between nonstop rain and a good mulch of grass clippings they and the cannas do seem happy.  

So thankfully the garden is still filled with a few exciting things other than the new snowdrops I’ve been planting… oops, there I go mentioning snowdrops again…

Hope your weekend is filled with plenty of more interesting things to do rather than hauling off the tired remains of last summer.  If it is, next summer suck it up, plant some decent annuals, and enjoy the slow crumbling of summer into winter which others fondly refer to as autumn.  “Friends don’t let friends plant annuals” is only a guideline, I’m sure it refers to flats of wax begonias in one or two insipid colors and not to the range of much more exciting late season things that you have to remember next year.  I’ll try to remind you  😉

20 comments on “Annual is Not a Bad Word

  1. Christina says:

    Well, well – your secret is out; you are a fantastic gardener! If you’ve created all this annual planting to take you over the autumn dull time, I admire it all! Well done. I especially loved the caladiums and all the planting on the terrace.

    • bittster says:

      Thanks Christine. I hope you’re able to give the caladiums a try next summer. They’ll love the shadier parts of your terrace and as long as you can keep them well watered they should thrive in your heat.
      It’s been gloomy here for several days and not even the annuals are helping. Please send some sunshine if you can!

  2. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Annuals are our allies in the garden. They fill in and and then fill out all those empty spaces with non stop color. Your array of annuals are spectacular. Especially that tropical area. I just don’t like having to bring in anything. I am paring down to about 7 plants. I doubt anything will get accomplished in the garden this fall. It is too darned hot. I will have to wait until next spring to do much clean up. Of course if it ever gets cool here I might do some clean up. I love the deadly Datura. The flowers and the moths that it attracts. I just found the popcorn plant this year. I have one and it is doing great. At six foot tall with those handsome yellow blooms it calls for the hummingbirds and a few butterflies to stop in. I will look for some seeds of this one. Those sprigs of coleus would encourage anyone to try to winter over some cuttings. Well done.

    • bittster says:

      I’ll be agreeing with you in a few more weeks when all the extra stuff picked up over the summer needs to find a winter home… and I find out everything else has doubled in size!
      I’ve already got a mental chopping block going on. A few things will not be joining us this winter, and several plants might have worn out their welcome.
      Still it will be a mess. I know on that cold day when I’m dealing with slimy frozen canna stalks I’ll be considering letting all of it go and sticking with just a few houseplants. That day will get here someday.
      Hope things cool down for you. Here’s it’s a decent temperature but eternal fog and clouds. I can barely tell if it’s noon or 7pm.

  3. My favorite fall blooming annual is flowering tobacco. Cosmos is pretty good, too, but only until the first frost. And that cringe-worthy color combo is called “tropical” by a lot of people, and then it’s okay.

    • bittster says:

      hah. “Tropical” is an excellent response to any color complaints I get.
      I managed to lose (aka killed) nearly all my flowering tobacco seedlings. A few came back on their own but I did want a couple of the tall white ones. I bet if I just threw the seeds around in May I would have been much more successful.

  4. March Picker says:

    Holy Toledo! Those deck pots are fabulous. That’s what your warm summers provide. The cuphea is one to repeat for sure. I only plant annuals in pots (other than tulips which I consider annuals and I plant a few into beds). You have such a range of textures in your annuals there, and you’ve inspired me to up my game next year. Stunning!

    • bittster says:

      Seriously? I’ve always admired your deck containers and wondered why I couldn’t get mine to look more like that!!
      Funny, isn’t it? I suppose we just get used to looking at our own stuff all the time that sometimes you get a little tired with it. Every spring I have to remind myself to not always get the same exact thing.
      Someday soon I’ll be cutting back on the annuals I’m sure. Two years of decent rains have spoiled me, and usually I get so sick of watering that the container ones are the only ones which make it to October.

  5. Eliza Waters says:

    Gasp-evoking deck garden, Frank – wow! I’m in awe. (Drip irrigation – I need to learn more!)
    I’m with you on the merits of annuals, esp. at the end of the perennial season in late August. I love self-sowers that only require thinning or moving around a bit in spring. I didn’t plant as many this year and I missed the bright splash they make. Next spring, I’m thinking of doing it up big. Your post affirms my resolve. 🙂

    • bittster says:

      Oh you really have to look into a drip irrigation system. It sounds a lot more complicated than it is, it’s just a matter of running a few hoses and putting in some drip emitters, and getting a timer to go with it. I’m going to try an do a post on it this winter when we have more time to think of those things. The only problem would be sore fingers from all the fiddly small part work.

  6. Your garden looks superb. I have had annuals in glasses on the kitchen windowsill but usually ditch them in February because I can’t take the clutter and I don’t have grow lights anyway. But I can clearly see your point since everywhere in your garden it looks lush and summery. We are still in rain mode. Most weeks we are getting rain on at least 4 our of 7 days. Currently at almost 4 inches for Oct. And cool temps. So it looks like autumn may be over here, esp. as frost is predicted in a couple of days. A very frustrating gardening year weather wise.

    • bittster says:

      Don’t be too impressed by the lush and summery look. It fades fast once the nighttime temperatures begin to drop, as they are now. Just a week later and the coleus are dropping leaves while the asters are winding down. All of a sudden I’m grateful for chrysanthemums and winter greenery! The hellebores are starting to look nice and lush!
      It was a very weird year. We didn’t have the drought part but instead had endless rains. Maybe once in August I considered watering new transplants, but then a day or two later it again rained, and I think that was the longest dry spell we had. Humidity was all over the place as well. I’m not a fan… and the bugs… ugh.
      What do you know, it’s gloomy and rainy again this morning 😉

  7. Cathy says:

    The coleus make for some fabulous autumn colour. Love those enormous elephant’s ears – amazing how yoir tropical garden is still so lush and, well, tropical! The Browallia is new to me – I do öike blue flowers in summer but they are not easy to find. Your garden and deck are looking great Frank, despite the onset of autumn!

    • bittster says:

      Thanks Cathy! I’m going to miss it in a few weeks, but to be honest I’m ready to move on. Something about the cooler weather makes me want to start tidying up and thinking about next spring!

  8. I love Cuphea. Tried Browalia but the birds just tore it to pieces. Your Abelmoschus at first glance looks like a Hollyhock, which is a good thing. Might give that a try. Your garden is looking great.

    • bittster says:

      I think you’re the first one I saw growing the cuphea, I’d seen it in garden centers but never took the leap until you spoke well of them in your container reviews.
      Thanks for the heads up!

  9. Chloris says:

    Well you have some very upmarket annuals. Your late summer/autumn garden is fabulous. I love those calidiums. We all grow poisonous plants, datura, ricinus, oleanders- all deadly. So are many other plants. But then who snacks on their flowers?

  10. pbmgarden says:

    Great color combination in that Coleus, zinnias, salvia and Abelmoschatus. Actually all the plantings are wonderful.

  11. As usual, it all looks gorgeous and I am terribly envious. I am definitely going to be going the coleus route next year along the front walkway. Love the combo of the cuphea and the oxalis, and I bet that sweet potato ‘Blackie’ would look good as well. I stuck three plants into a big rotting tree stump this spring and it covered the ugly thing completely. Blackie will get a cuphea companion next year! 🙂

  12. You have a wonderful array of annuals, Frank. I wish you lived next door to me — I would create a couple of empty mulch beds. P. x

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