Garden Variety: Annual flowers can give your garden a pop of color

Annuals and perennials are nicknames given to broad classifications of plants with many different attributes. Annuals are the ones known best for providing vibrant color. They are versatile, establish quickly, typically have long bloom times (or provide season-long color with foliage) and are significantly less expensive than perennials. Now is a great time to transplant annuals into the garden or plant seeds.

The primary distinction between annuals and perennials is life cycle. Annuals survive only one season, while perennials come back every year. Petunias, zinnias, marigolds, cosmos and other classic garden favorites may be the first things that come to mind when you think of annuals. Almost all garden vegetables are annuals also. When it comes to providing color and interest to the garden or landscape, annuals are the easy choice. Since they live only one season, they put all their energy into making flowers that make seeds. There are a few annual plants such as coleus that are planted for their foliage rather than their flowers, but they still produce blooms in abundance. In contrast, perennials divide their energy between making flowers and storing resources in their roots for survival. Annuals can be planted in a range of soil types. Many perform very well in containers. Selection should be based on preferences for light conditions (sun versus shade), mature height/size of the plant relative to the planting space, and desired aesthetics.

If planting annuals for the first time, try classic species. Use improved varieties of the classics for more color options, more abundant blooms and improved pest resistance.

An example of a classic species with a range of options is zinnias. The big old-fashioned ones are great for the back of a landscape bed or tucked into a vegetable garden. If you need cut flowers for bouquets and vases, use “Benary’s Giant” zinnia or similar tall varieties. For containers and the front of a landscape bed, shorter varieties such as the Magellan, Crystal or Profusion series zinnias may be more appropriate.

All of these zinnias are extremely tough plants that tolerate a wide range of soil conditions and thrive in a typical hot dry Kansas summer. The only real pest issue they sometimes have is powdery mildew. Newer varieties such as those mentioned above are more resistant to the disease than the older varieties.

Other classic annuals for sunny spots and containers that will be placed in full sun are petunias (use Wave series, Supertunias or other improved varieties), calibrachoas, celosias, geraniums, marigolds, cosmos, sunflowers (use dwarf varieties where appropriate) and ornamental sweet potato vines.

Experienced and adventurous gardeners may wish for a broader plant palette. Additional options for sun that are only slightly harder to grow than the classics include angelonia, pentas, annual vinca, annual salvia, sun coleus (a specific type of coleus that tolerates sun), gomphrena, lantana, ornamental peppers, ornamental grasses and dwarf cannas.

For shady spots, the best bets are impatiens, begonias and coleus. There are a wide range of colors with each of these species.

Experienced and adventurous gardeners might opt to try tropical plants (houseplants) mixed in with annuals to create additional options for shade.

Caladiums and elephant ears are sometimes classified as annuals. These plants grow from bulbs and will come back from that bulb from year to year like tulips, daffodils and other perennial bulbs. However, the bulbs of caladiums and elephant ears cannot survive Kansas winters outdoors, which causes confusion about their classification here.

— Jennifer Smith works in regulatory horticulture and has worked as a horticulturist for various government entities. She has experience in landscape design and maintenance and as an educator.


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