Over the years, gardeners have trekked to plant centers and bought annuals for their gardens, and year after year, the annuals have been much the same: petunias, zinnias and marigolds. They're all fairly reliable plants, and, assuming that your garden is in a sunny location and your soil is average, it's been a satisfactory experience.
During the '80s, perennials became the rage (some do well in shade, too), and gardeners began buying plants like echinacea, Astilbe, hosta, Heliopsis and Asclepias tuberosa, just to name a few. These cost a bit more than annuals, but they returned every year (well, usually), so it seemed thriftier to buy perennials once instead of annuals every year.
Then gardeners began to notice many perennials' flaws. They usually take several years to get established and bloom in any quantity, so a perennial-filled garden might be just a sea of green for a season. Also, most perennials bloom only for part of the summer, although deadheading spent flowers can prolong their season. Finally, many perennials wander, disappearing from where you put them and popping up just where you don't want them, like in the middle of a stand of iris; or perhaps a tall perennial such as monarda will migrate forward to the front of the garden, drooping over the petunias and looking silly. Annuals, of course, don't do such willful things, since they germinate, bloom, set seed and die all in one season.
So gardeners began to look around for new, interesting annuals to both accompany their perennials and bloom right away while the perennial is putting down roots and getting settled. True to these ask-for-anything times, they began requesting different annuals -- ones that you don't see in every flower bed. They're finding new and improved ones all over the place, largely because breeders have learned to breed out undesirable qualities and retain or even increase desirable ones, such as heat tolerance, reliability and amount of blooming. You may see a number of annuals marked "proven winners" at garden centers that fit this description.
The gardener has also learned (or relearned) that annuals produce all summer long, making them instant-gratification plants.
A number of the annuals described below grow best from seed; others can be bought as plants. With little extra effort or expense, a variety of annuals can reflect your individual taste.
On the short side, Gazania rigens (treasure flower), Plectranthus madagascariensis (variegated spur flower) are less than a foot tall, as are the "million bell petunias" which aren't really petunias at all, but Calibrachoa. Just a few "million bells" bloom their heads off. Scaevola is also low, but because of its drooping habit is best in a container. Scaevola 'Blue Wonder' and Torenia 'Blue Wave' are both heat-tolerant.
Some taller annuals include the Emilia javanica (tassel flower), which has small red and orange flowers, the Asclepias currassavica and the better-known and fragrant Nicotiana alata.
An elegant, unusual look-alike for Queen Anne's lace is Ammi visagna, which is chartreuse. Angelonia looks a bit like snapdragons. Tithonia (Mexican sunflower) has cultivars that are both 3 feet and 5 feet tall; its petals provide a landing surface for butterflies. Another favorite of butterflies is the Pentas lanceolata (Egyptian star-cluster).
In addition to these new annuals, many of the old favorites have been improved.
W. Atlee Burpee & Co.
300 Park Ave.
Warminster, Pa. 18974
Happy Hollow Nurseries
12212 Happy Hollow Road
Cockeysville, Md. 21030
141 North St.
Danielson, Conn. 06239
1141 Berrymans Lane
Reisterstown, Md. 21136
Valley View Farms
11035 York Road
Cockeysville, Md. 21030
1620 York Road
Lutherville, Md. 21093