As much as I love perennials, I have to admit that for long-term color, annuals have them beat. With annuals, you miss a constantly changing repertoire but the compensation — if it is one — is the more or less endless blare of color the season through.
Quick now, what is the longest blooming annual you can grow? It is pansies, or their brethren, violas. Not many people answer the question correctly, because most pansy flowering is during the cooler, even colder, months of the year, when annuals, or many other flowers, for that matter, aren’t on anyone’s mind. Pansies, planted in bloom in October, will, in a good growing year for them — like the now fleeting one — bloom continuously until June of the next year. Seven or eight months of flower. What perennial will do that? Certainly not any hot-weather annuals, which are just coming into flower, to last maybe five months in a good summer, which, incidentally is not a common occurrence. With comparison of annual versus perennial crops in equal patches of ground, say 10 feet square, the annuals have it hands down, particularly if they are deadheaded promptly toward the end of the first flush of flowering.
Some perennials can eke out more than one spate of flowering if deadheaded but, on the whole, not as flagrantly as annuals. Annuals’ whole purpose in life, raison de ’etre if you will, is to make seeds to propagate their offspring. Some perennials won’t even respond to such a reflowering regimen, much less make a huge success of it.
The annual lineup was for years dominated by marigolds, zinnias and petunias. Then along came impatiens, which quickly zoomed into first place until the curse of downy mildew struck them like COVID-19 and literally millions of them perished a few years ago. They have, at last, rebounded somewhat but they are still not as abundant as before. If the mildew remains dormant, impatiens will, in all likelihood, regain first place, especially for shade.
There are hundreds of annuals, and a few of them are worth growing. Whatever happened to melampodium? It was my go-to annual for sun for years. Little button yellow flowers would go on from May until frost, deadheading or not. I haven’t seen a single one around in a long time.
Then there are zinnias. The old-timey tall ones are better planted in place, for growing them from small plants doesn’t always work. However, there are now a number of dwarf varieties that suffer no setback from replanting and are available as small plants in packs. Several good colors are available.
Wax begonias are available in many colors, some with bronze foliage and others green. Sometimes they jump out of the ground like a house afire, but other times, like this year, they sit around and sulk until their leaves rot away. I blame this year’s begonia problems on unusually cool, even bordering on cold, temperatures in April and well into May. They are, indeed, tropical plants and sulk if it is cold.
Then there is the tall cleome, about my favorite large annual and best planted from seed. I have related before my experience with cleome, when, some 30 years or more ago, I bought a packet of seeds for nine cents. You read it right, nine cents. From that meager purchase, I have enjoyed unknown thousands of plants every year from reseeding, to which the plants are prone. In fact, my only effort is hoeing out the burgeoning excess of plants. Cleome will grow to three feet or more in good soil.
Torenia, the wishbone flower, is a good substitute for impatiens in shade or part sun. The common name comes from a little forked part of the flower that is buried under the outer casing of petals and that can be seen by pulling the outer petals slowly apart, which will reveal the wishbone. These plants will self-seed on their own, but do not sprout until after hot weather has arrived. Newer colors have been bred that escape the older, blue and purple ones combined with white.
There are varied other specialty annuals, including vines (i.e. morning glory), and perhaps on another day we will look at some of them.
From Poor Willie’s Almanack — Make haste while the sun shines and put in some annuals. After all, you only live once. Wait a minute; you live every day, until you only die once.
JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be con- tacted on Monday mornings at 642-1162.