Published in the Toronto Star, May 21, 2016
Twenty years ago, 60% of all annual flowers sold in Canada were impatiens. Now they are near 0% (the ‘walleriana’ type). My, how things have changed in the gardening landscape. We have witnessed a huge shift in the flowering plant market, due in part to the downy mildew disease that has wreaked havoc with impatiens, but also due to massive shifts in consumer tastes and demands.
I think that this is a good thing: no more monochromatic mass plantings of hybrid, nectar-less colour. Now we enjoy a wider selection of new and not-so-new annual flowering plants that, with proper planning, provide reliable colour from one end of the season to the other AND many of them attract pollinators including hummingbirds and butterflies.
As you venture forth into the world of retail-gardening I recommend that you arm yourself with some information that will help you make informed buying decisions. Here are my favourite 6 annual flowers and why:
- Cosmos. Look in any packet of mixed seed varieties that is designed to attract hummingbirds and butterflies and you will find cosmos listed there. They top my list for a number of reasons: you can cut them and enjoy them indoors for extended periods of time, they blooms for 10 or 12 weeks (though late to get blooming, usually in late July), they are insect and disease resistant, are available in a wide range of colours and they make a magnificent backdrop to any garden. And did I mention that you can save a lot of money by sowing the seed directly into your garden soil? Bingo. A winner.
- Geraniums. I recommend that the money you save buying cosmos seeds instead of transplants be invested in the best quality geraniums. Not all are created equal. Look for ‘zonal’ varieties: they are propagated from cuttings for the most part and they cost more to grow than many seed-started varieties. Performance in your garden and containers is much superior to the el-cheapo seeded varieties. The regular price for a quality geranium in a 4 inch pot is $2.50 to $3. Zonal geraniums perform extremely well in morning sun or blazing sunshine. They can dry out between watering and be very forgiving (indeed they prefer to dry some before watering). They do not demand a lot of attention other than the removal of dead flowers. I also recommend this new generation of hanging geraniums as they are so much better in every regard than the old ones. Ask your retailer for the best performing varieties in their offering: there are many to choose from.
- Zinnias. The old fashioned varieties flower their heads off in a sunny garden. Start these from seed directly in garden soil, nurture them in the early stages until they are well rooted and then watch out! They will explode into bloom in July and will not disappoint. Virtually no disease or insect problems. Another butterfly magnet. Cut and enjoy zinnias indoors. The tiny little ‘button’ zinnias the large flowering, meter-high giants are all worth the investment.
- Old fashioned Nicotiana. Old fashioned nicotiana may be the most pleasantly fragranced annual flower that you can grow. It is especially attractive in the evening when pollinators are most active (aren’t plants smart?). Nicotiana grows almost 2 meters high and requires sunshine to perform well, so plant it at the back of the garden. Not really suitable for containers.
- Swiss Chard, Rainbow. You read right. This popular vegetable is very ornamental. Double whammy! A great looking ‘annual’ that you can eat. As this plant matures it produces leaf-stems that are very attractive yellow, red, orange and creamy white. Strip the largest, lower hanging leaves from the plant as it matures beginning in late June or early August. This plant will not quit until the hard frost of late October or early November. Now this is productivity and value for money! Of course it helps if you like to eat the stuff too.
- Fibrous begonias. I had to put a plant on my list that thrives in the shade. Truth is, fibrous begonias will flower until the cows come home and give milk (the cows). They generally mature at about 30 cm so plant lots of them, spacing them only 20 cm apart for a good show. They knock your eyes out in pink, red and white and many have bronze foliage. If you remember the giant peacock at Cullen Gardens way back in the day you will recall that we used fibrous begonias to create most of its’ plumage. Colourful, versatile, easy to grow and never short on performance. The parks department love these plants for a reason.
My quick reference list for ‘annual plant’ shopping:
Fragrance: heliotrope, old fashioned nicotiana, night scented stocks, alyssum, petunia, sweet pea, dianthus
Cutting: zinnias, cosmos, blue salvia and coreopsis (technically a perennial) and if you cut cleome to bring indoors it will keep in a vase but it smells like urine. Really.
Attracting pollinators: zinnia, nicotiana, cosmos, sweet alyssum, borage, sunflowers, calendula, aster, cornflower