Best Way to Plant Annuals in the Late-Summer Garden

The concentration has been on perennials for late summer color, but few gardeners would deny the contribution annuals have to make to the overall scene. Leaving aside the standard fare in annuals, which is available everywhere in early summer, there are later-blooming annuals that will provide novelty, energy, and glorious color when they come into bloom in August—just in time, I might add, since with even the most devoted attention, an all-perennial planting can look as if it needs a rest at about this time.

Occasionally a visitor will walk around my garden and, pointing, say almost disapprovingly, “Isn’t that an annual?” I suppose that’s because mine is thought of as a perennial garden. It’s true that I grow more perennials than annuals but I find that they complement each other beautifully and I need and grow both. I’m no purist; I embrace everything that can add to the repertoire (exception: I have never embraced a flowering cabbage).

Plant Annuals Garden Best Way to Plant Annuals in the Late Summer Garden

Consider the ways in which annuals can not only come to the gardener’s rescue but improve and enliven the garden. Annuals can be seeded around a young, small perennial to cover the space that must be left for its eventual size, or around an established perennial whose disappearance into summer dormancy will leave a large hole. These are two situations that you can expect and plan for. Think of a third, and unexpected, situation: a choice plant, one that you were counting on, dies or otherwise disappears. With annuals growing in reserve for just such an emergency, you could transplant enough to fill the void.

By midsummer, the oriental poppy that was such a glowing feature of the June border is either a sorry mound of yellowed leaves or has disappeared altogether into dormancy, as has an earlier beauty, bleeding heart. Either will have left a sizable hole. Knowing that this would happen, you might have seeded something like annual baby’s breath around the poppy, or annual candytuft around the bleeding heart. You didn’t? Then you could now go to your rows of annuals growing in reserve and transplant what you need. You didn’t seed there, either? In that case, it’s off to your local nursery and hope they haven’t sold out, and make a note to grow a few reserve annuals next year.

Ideally, there will be space somewhere in the garden to grow these “understud­ies.” I seed them between rows in the vegetable garden. Many annuals will transplant easily, but a few can be tricky. Forget poppies, for instance, and insubstantial plants such as baby’s breath and love-in-a-mist, for these are success­ful only when sown where they are to grow. Choose annuals that can be moved easily without loss. The following “understudy” annuals are among my major standbys; I use them because they tolerate transplanting in midsummer:

Plant Annuals Garden 1 Best Way to Plant Annuals in the Late Summer Garden

  • For the back of the border or where height is needed: white sunflower (Helianthus annuus) ‘Italian White’; cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus) ‘Purity’ (white), ‘Dazzler’ (deep red).
  • Midborder: heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens) ‘Marine’; tobacco flower (Nicotiana data) (white or various colors).
  • Front of border: blanketflower (Gaillardia pulchella) ‘Red Plume’ (deep brick red); candytuft (Iberis amara) ‘White Rocket’; globe candytuft (Iberis umbellata) (mixed colors).
  • Border’s edge: white zinnia (Zinnia angustifolia).

Annuals are more than a last resort; they offer an unbelievable variety of flower form and color. In many annuals the overall plant does not have a lot to recom­mend it. The foliage may be sparse and the form itself lax; the flower is everything. But, remember, there will be plenty of perennials with excellent form sitting about in the border doing nothing, either out of, or not yet in, bloom. What could be better than to use them as partners for colorful annuals?

I have enjoyed seeing painted tongues (Salpiglossis sinuata) against a Kansas gayfeather (Liatris spicata) that will not bloom again but still holds the dusty spikes of July’s flowers; also love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) in rich bloom against the leggy stems of a white balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorum). On a larger scale, Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia) looks wonderful next to plume poppy (Macleaya cordata).

Other possibilities for good combinations of annuals and perennials might include:

  • California poppy (Eschschokia californica) in brightest orange, facing down a sea holly (Eryngium alpinum) in metallic blue.
  • Spider flower (Cleome hasslerana) ‘Violet Queen’ behind pale mauve Phlox paniculata ‘Franz Schubert’.
  • Pot marigold (Calendula officinalis), in lemon or apricot shades, against a blue-violet balloon flower (Platycodon mariesii).

But I don’t want to spoil your fun by listing any more here—gardeners are entitled to an opportunity to dream and try out their own original combinations.

Plant Annuals Garden 2 Best Way to Plant Annuals in the Late Summer Garden

There is one annual (well, it’s grown as an annual in colder parts of the country) that has strong form, handsome foliage, and comes in various rich col­ors—snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus). It can hold its own with any perennial, and I reserve space for it every year. The first blooms on snapdragons are magnifi­cent and, cut back, they will bloom again by late August or September. They do even better in cool weather, responding with thick, strong stems and solid flower spikes, and they can survive frost in October.

The best thing about growing annuals is that every year brings another chance. You can try something new, repeat something successful, or, after a particularly unfortunate summer, decide you never want to see a certain plant in your garden again.

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