In the Garden: Annual Attraction

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Annual Attraction

Say “flowers” and most people think “annuals.” Of course there are all kinds of flowering plants for residential landscapes. Perennials, vines, shrubs, trees—they all have flowers. However, it is annuals that win everyone’s heart. For many homeowners they are landscape mainstays. Why do we love them? Let’s count the ways.

Color. Annuals deliver joyous colors, just about every one including black.

Dependability. Constant blooming assures a consistent look to the yard, a steady supply of cut flowers, plus visits from butterflies and birds all season.

Diversity. Annuals feature flowers in dozens of shapes and sizes, colorful foliage, and various sizes.

Versatility. Annuals edge beds, punctuate borders, climb arbors, carpet the ground, hang from the porch roof, and overflow containers of all kinds.

Self-reliance. With water during dry periods, mulched annuals require little care.

How can you not love plants that knock themselves out to flower as furiously as they can for as long as they can? Under the biological imperative to produce as much seed as possible in one season, they give their all. How fortunate they are also easy to grow from seed outdoors!

Easy to Sow and Grow

Most annuals are ridiculously easy to grow from seed right in the garden. Sown by early spring, they have plenty of time to mature and bloom by early summer. In fact, direct seeding outdoors is the preferred method for certain annuals that do not transplant well. Further, young seedlings grown from seed sown outdoors directly into the soil are immediately acclimated; they do not need hardening off.

Direct seeding into the garden is a snap. Although seeds will grow in all kinds of unconventional situations, a properly prepared seedbed spares them hazards such as rain-compacted or sun-baked soil. When the soil has warmed and dried out from winter melt and spring rains, dig down 8 to 10 inches to loosen it, mixing in some organic matter to help hold moisture. While you are at it, also mix in some granular slow-acting general-purpose fertilizer to provide consistent nutrition over many weeks to help annuals sustain their riotous flowering. Rake the soil level and smooth.

Sowing Style

You may choose to sow your seeds onto the prepared seedbed in a natural, free-spirited way. Called broadcasting, this method creates an informal, natural look in a bed, a border along a wall or fence, or in a mini-meadow. Simply take a handful of seeds and gently sprinkle them randomly over the prepared soil. Mix particularly tiny seeds, such as portulaca or petunia, with a bit of coarse sand or vermiculite so that they are easier to cast evenly over the area. Toss larger seeds such as nasturtium freestyle and then poke them gently into the soil where they fall. If the package label says seeds must be covered with soil, sprinkle some garden soil or light, soilless potting medium over the seeds where they fall and moisten the seedbed.

Alternatively, sow annual seeds in more formal rows – the most efficient way for cutting or to fitting them into a crowded bed. Use a stick or trowel tip to trace straight, shallow furrows in the prepared seedbed. While the rule of thumb says that a furrow should be about twice as deep as the seed is thick, practically speaking most seeds are so small that a quarter to half-inch deep furrow is fine. Dribble a handful of seeds slowly between your thumb and forefinger as evenly as possible, gradually moving down the furrow. Poke larger seeds such as sweet peas into individual holes made with a pencil tip. Most annual seeds need to be covered but some annuals such as flossflower (Ageratum) or snapdragon need light to germinate, so check the seed packet to see if you need to cover seeds with soil.

Annual Aftercare\

Annual seeds can pretty well take care of themselves as long as they have enough moisture. Keep them moist once they are sown to assure good germination, then healthy development of the sprouts into seedlings. Initially, shade the seedbed a bit during heat spells so that the sun does not dry it out or shrivel the new seedlings. Drape shade cloth on top of the soil for temporary shade.

t will soon become obvious that the sprouts are too crowded in some spots, even in the most carefully planted rows. Thin them by gently pulling or pinching off the superfluous young sprouts at soil level so that the remaining ones are roughly spaced as prescribed by the seed packet. When the seedlings get a bit larger, spread a 2-inch layer of some type of organic mulch, such as chopped leaves on the bare soil between them to discourage weeds and retain soil moisture

Supplement the granular slow-acting fertilizer mixed into the soil during preparation with an occasional dilute liquid fertilizer snack sprayed onto plant foliage to give them an energy boost. The only other care that they may need is occasional grooming. Pinch or prune off faded flowers and broken or leggy stems to keep plants neat and compact. Gardeners can select petunias such as the ‘Wave’ series or ‘Fantasy’ series that do not require pinching or pruning mid-summer. Erect stakes for tall annuals such as cleome (spider flower) and larkspur that tend to flop when exposed to high wind or heavy summer rainstorms.

Self-sowing annuals

Many annuals practically grow themselves. While all annuals inevitably die with the onset of cold and frost, some are relatively tougher. Called “hardy annuals” because they can handle some cold, the seeds that they release with careless abandon as they die withstand winter weather and germinate on their own the following spring – virtually assuring a repeat performance next summer. While not all hardy annuals self sow reliably every year, everywhere in the country, there are likely to be some hardy ones in your garden that will donate their seeds for next year’s flowers.

To encourage self-sowing, stop deadheading faded flowers as the summer wanes. Soon they will develop seedheads. Allow the mature seeds to fall freely where the plants are growing as wind and weather dictate. You can also pick some stems with dried seed heads and shake the seeds loose over an area where you would like to have some of the flowers next season. (Wait until after a hard frost assures that winter is truly on the way before doing this.) To assure a good crop of seedlings, do not disturb the mulch in areas where self-sowers cast their seeds.

In their enthusiasm to scatter seeds, some annuals become nuisances. Their seedlings come up everywhere and threaten to monopolize areas designated for other plantings. They may even invade your neighbors’ property. Watch for and identify these plants’ seedlings early in the season. Pull them up while they are tender and the soil is moist. To discourage reseeding by a known offender, cut off its blossoms before they develop seed. Then rake up mulch from the soil under them to capture any seeds that may have escaped.
Article by Liz Ball
Courtesy National Gardening Bureau

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