Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Easy Annuals

For gardeners, some of most rewarding flowers are the easiest. Annual flowers that sprout quickly, grow fast and bloom abundantly provide almost instant gratification for gardeners - and especially the lazy gardener.

There are a number of plants that are so easy to grow all you need to do is toss handfuls of seeds out in the yard to plant them.

"Tidy tips" or Layia platyglossa

Many of these are native wildflowers, but others are old beloved cottage garden flowers that have been grown and passed down from gardener to gardener for centuries.

Nigella damascena photo from Wikipedia Commons

When we moved to my second Seattle garden, we had to fence the yard right away to keep our dog from roaming. In the front yard, the fence left an 18" strip of bare dirt along the sidewalk. I sprinkled packets of nasturtiums, annual poppies, nigella ("love-in-a-mist") and annual cornflowers onto the soil, mulched it with a mixture of bagged manure and bark, and forgot about it.

By spring, it was full of flowers.

Phacelia distans in Topanga

On our street in Topanga, there's a steep slope that was graded and bulldozed as part of a drainage project. At the finish, the contractor seeded the slope with a mixture of annual seeds. This spring, the hillside is beautiful, sporting bright California poppies, larkspur and lupine, sweet-smelling alyssum, phacelia, and baby-blue-eyes.

Texas bluebonnets on Texas Route 59

In Texas, the verges of state highways are famously rich with native wildflowers, inspired by the preservation efforts of Former First Lady Ladybird Johnson.

This rural garden, open last April for the Theodore Payne Foundation's Native Plant Garden Tour, depends on easy annuals for color. Here red flax (linum grandiflorum), California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), baby-blue-eyes (Nemisia menziesii) and the California wildflower "tidy tips" (Layia platyglossa) bloom on a Topanga hillside.

In mild climates, like California, the American South, and the Pacific Northwest, annual seeds can be broadcast after your fall garden clean-up. In colder climates, you have to wait until the snow has melted. Just broadcast the seed where you may - you can always weed out seedlings that end up in the wrong place. The flowers will come up through and around more established perennials and shrubs. If you let them go to seed in place, you will have many seasons of repeat blooms - although if you plant selected varieties, they tend to revert to the common form in a few years.

Some of the easiest seeds to try this with are:

Sweet peas. A hand full of sweet pea seeds flung into the garden one year led to five years of repeating flowers.

The assortment of delicate blue, pink and white blooms reverted to a dark maroon-purple over time, but this one was the most fragrant and vigorous of all.

Nasturtiums. In Southern California landscapes, nasturtiums have escaped the garden and now grow wild, foaming down the bluffs rising up from the Pacific Coast Highway north of Santa Monica. With their big chick-pea-like seeds, nasturtiums are easy for children to plant, and their round leaves are fascinating to see. As an extra bonus, nasturtiums are edible flowers that look beautiful in a salad. Nasturtium blossoms stuffed with a bit of cream cheese make a delicious treat.

Another edible annual that's easily grown is Calendula. The petals of Calendula officianalis, the pot marigold of the old world, have been used since ancient times for dye and for coloring butter and cheese. You can sprinkle the petals in salads for beautiful garnish. The single form here is pretty, but you can also find them in fancier double forms.

Papavar rhoeas photo from Wikipedia Commons

Field poppies
, Papavar rhoeas, are the annual red poppies that grow in the field of Europe, famously on the World War I battle fields of Flanders. Their bright red delicate flowers have become associated with wartime remembrance. In addition to the traditional red poppy, you can find selected varieties in assorted colors, some as delicately ethereal as mother of pearl. Another annual poppy, Papavar somniferum, is the opium poppy and - all fears aside - they are legal to grow in the U.S. for ornamental purposes. Opium poppies are prized for the variation of color and form of their blossoms.

California poppies are members of the poppy family, but are called Eschscholzia. In spring, their abundant bloom cover the hills and deserts with gold. Here a variety selected for its deep brick-red color blooms in a West Los Angeles native-plant garden.

Larkspur are annuals that used to be included in the same genus as their showier perennial cousins, Delphiniums. Now botanists have separated them out into their own genus, Consolida. If you've despaired of growing tall, gorgeous delphiniums, give larkspur a try. Their delicate spikes of flowers, each with its own "spur," come in shades of blue, lavender and white.

Recently I've become acquainted with this annual - Cerinthe major 'Purpurescens.' A Mediterranean native, it has nodding, purple tube-like flowers surrounded by bracts of the same color. Its foliage is grey-green and waxy. Its thunderous coloration and graceful drooping shape make it appear exotic and difficult - though I understand it's a reliable re-seeder and can even be somewhat of a thug in rich soil.

Phacelia tanacetefolia

You can find seeds of common garden annuals in most hardware stores and garden centers, and even in Dollar Stores. Seeds of native wildflowers can be purchased from organizations dedicated to the preservations of wildflowers or from large mail-order seed houses like Thompson & Morgan. Join local gardening clubs to participate in member seed exchanges.

As you master other aspects of gardening - design, propagation, or specialized collecting - you'll continue to rely on easy annuals for color and pleasure in the garden.


Blondie's Journal said...

What a plethora of beautiful flowers, Aunt Snow!! How lucky you are that most are annuals for you. I love the nasturtiums {sp?}...I didn't know they were pretty, too. I love the sweet pea, too. I am going to plant it for the first time this year.

Fantastic post! :-)


Mrs. G. said...

Please come to my house and help me grow things.

Cloudia said...

How wonderful!

Aloha from Waikiki

Comfort Spiral

Anonymous said...

I didn't know that nasturtiums were edible flowers.
When you are done at Mrs. G.'s house, I have a guest room waiting for you and plenty of garden spaces that NEED you!

Jason, as himself said...

You have so inspired me to start flinging seeds! But I'm sure you're a much better flinger.

Can't wait to see you tonight!