Top 5 Underrated Annuals

Our gardening tastes always get more sophisticated the more we know, and gardeners, self included, always get excited about all the new annuals (and perennials) available in the garden centres. Sometimes we turn up our noses at all the old standby annuals that have been in people’s gardens forever.

Perhaps we scorn them because we feel that choosing them is too lazy, easy and predictable, when there are so many newer and more enticing plants available: fabulous, sophisticated, “designery” plants. Especially dark purple and lime green ones!

Sure, it would be lazy to simply grab the old standbys, without ever trying anything new. But in our search for the new and the fancy, I think there is a danger of throwing out the baby with the rosewater. If we always leave out these worthy and strong performers from our gardens, our gardens can lose out. Traditional annuals, like the waitress Donna Summer sung about, really do work hard for the money, and they give us a great payback in colour, scent, toughness and pure staying power. This is a plea to urge my gardening friends to consider some of the overlooked or forgotten charms of the list below in your garden this summer. ‘Cause they just don’t get no respect.

1. Marigolds (Tagetes)

The big round puffy ones, (Tall African) and the shorter flatter-flowered French varieties. One of the best plants to have in the garden to cut for indoor bouquets, and it’s one of the main reasons I grow them. They come in so many beautiful shades of orange and yellow, and now the selection is almost ridiculously huge.

The ones at the garden centre are fine, but you can also get more choice in seed catalogues, and they are dead easy, and quick to start from seed. They bloom right till frost, and the leaves have an unmistakeable scent – one you either hate or love – ( I love it) that to me says “summer”. Some of the scented foliage on varieties such as ‘Vanilla‘ attracts bees. They bloom continuously in the garden, are heat tolerant and are happy in containers. Think of a summer bouquet with marigolds, nasturtiums, cosmos and blue cornflowers.

2. Impatiens (Impatiens)

Many garden sophisticates these days roll their eyes at these. Yes, they are ubiquitous at the garden centres. But don’t hold that against them. Just choose wisely, and plan to have at least one large container of these, mixed with other annuals like coleus, ivy, or scented pelargonium happily gleaming at you in a shady spot on one of the hottest days of the summer.

They perform like crazy, and hummingbirds like them too. Towards the end of the growing season they almost bloom their hearts out, as cool fall weather seems to spur them on.

3. Petunias (Petunia)

What could be more cliche than a pot of petunias? Yes, these are old fashioned, and common as dirt, but they really do have stellar qualities and I never go a summer without some petunias in my garden. For one thing, the white ones (and some blues and purples, esp the new cultivars) are usually heavenly scented, especially at night, with a heady fragrance that any lily would have a hard time matching. Keep them cut back, fertilized and dead-headed, and they will bloom all summer, till frost.

In the first garden I ever had – I knew nothing, and of course planted a whole passel of things in all the wrong places. What kept going all summer giving me blooms, in a ridiculous spot under a shrub? The petunias. And for this, I’ve always had a soft spot for them. They work best mixed with other flowers in a container, with lots of spillage.

4. Snapdragons (Antirrhinum)

Just the fact that they will still be blooming even as the snow flies is a point in their favour. Going outside in November and being able to bring in a live flower for the house is an amazing thing. In Canada, having frost-resistant annuals is a huge plus, and their long, sturdy stems and intense, saturated colours make them delicious for indoor bouquets. Smaller varieties are floriferous and really very drought resistant in containers.

Plus, if you have any kids, or a little bit of kid still left in you, you get the fun of sticking your finger in the little snapdragon mouth. Which is right up there with pulling apart the bleeding heart flowers (upside-down) to see the “lady in a bathtub”. (If you’ve never pulled the flowers of bleeding heart to see this, put it on your list of things to do this summer.) You also might get lucky and have them self-seed, as they did in Helen’s planters last year.

5. Geraniums (Pelargonium)

Geraniums likely got their bad reputation because of all the gas station/public building exterior plantings of red geraniums in an unimaginative grid, with a dracaena spike in the centre. Agreed, this is an lacklustre use of geraniums, or any plant really. We can’t blame the versatile geranium for this!

There are so many colours and varieties of geranium: Doubles, singles, semi-doubles. Scented ones with cut leaves make great additions to planters and delight you with fragrance as you brush by. Colours in white to pale pink, to orange to red to the most electric of purples. They work in a single pot, with one variety, or mingled with other plants: ivies, Australian fan flower (Scaevola), verbenas, begonias. The variegated types have exquisite foliage that makes a planter look great even when the flowers aren’t in bloom.

And for anyone who is a slightly forgetful container gardener, they are one of the most drought resistant annuals you can find, especially the cascading variety. Note the leathery leaves, they are almost succulent, and can withstand amazing neglect. Don’t neglect them too much though! You’ll get better performance if you actually do water and fertilize.

The other benefit to geraniums is being able to propagate them so easily from cuttings, especially now that we are all trying to save money whereever we can. (Like we weren’t before!) I always bring my geraniums inside for the winter and put them out again for the summer, plus take cuttings, so I am usually giving them away. I’ll refrain from going on about them too much more here, as they probably deserve their own post. The category of Pelargonium is huge.

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