Mixing Things Up

Annuals are nice, but so are a few more substantial or perennial plants.

Large pots, urns and planter boxes filled with ridiculously colorful blooming annuals are certainly nothing new. However, more small perennials and even a few small shrubs and trees are being planted along with the annuals, and allowed to stay indefinitely as fewer annuals get replaced around them as the seasons change.

These plants only need to be tolerant of confinement, regular watering and the comings and goings of the annuals around them. Upright plants should go in back, behind the lower annuals. Cascading and ground cover type plants should go in front.

Small forms of New Zealand flax and trunkless dracaena palms (Cordyline spp.) add texture, form and motion to large planters, but may eventually get too big if not properly pruned. Larger shoots can be pruned out to allow smaller shoots to take over. Alternatively, overgrown plants can be removed and put out in the landscape when they get too big.

Hollywood and Rocky Mountain junipers have striking form if pruned to show it off, and are easier to contain with selective pruning than reputed. Even without the interesting branch structure of junipers, arborvitaes are appreciated for their similar finely textured foliage and their rich green or yellow color. ‘Blue Rug’ juniper, a grayish ground cover juniper, cascades nicely from large planters.

Large succulents that tolerate water, such as good old fashioned jade plant and various aeoniums, offer bold texture and form in the background. They are easy to prune as they grow, and do not have aggressive roots. Low clumping aloes do the same in front.

Euonymus fortunei, English ivy, various iceplants and other ground cover plants do well cascading over the edges of large planters.

There really is not much limit to the variety of perennials and small shrubs and even trees that play well with others in planters of blooming annuals, and do not mind the confinement and regular watering. Annuals are still the best for flashy floral colors. Yet, the other plants excel in form, texture, foliar color and motion in the breeze.



Nigella is more typically blue, but can alternatively bloom white, pink or lavender.

Those who crave blue for the garden probably know nigella, or ‘love-in-a-mist’, Nigella damascena. It blooms in May and June, typically with various shades of pastel blue, or can alternatively bloom pink, lavender or white. The lacy flowers are surrounded by lacier bracts, and suspended on thin stems among delicate pinnately lobed foliage, with very narrow (‘thread-like’) lobes. The plump brown seed capsules that appear over summer after bloom are commonly used as dried flowers. The plants can be half a foot to a foot and a half tall. Although annual, nigella self sows easily, so can grow in the same location for many years if allowed to.

Warm Up To Warm Season Annuals

Sweet alyssum can seem to be perennial, but bloom best during warm weather.

The common and almost stigmatized nasturtium has always been my favorite of the flowering annuals. It is technically a warm season annual that gets its seed sown at the end of winter so that it can grow and bloom with bright yellow, orange and sometimes even red flowers all spring and summer and into autumn. However, because winters are so mild here, the foliage is appealing even while bloom is inhibited by cool winter weather. By the time older plants die out, seedlings are already maturing to replace them; so they function like perennials. Nasturtiums are so easy to grow that many garden enthusiasts consider them to be weeds, or too cheap and common to bother with. Yet, their carefree nature is precisely why so many of us enjoy them so much.

Sweet alyssum shares the same reputation that causes it to be shunned by some but appreciated by others. It can be white, pink or purple when initially planted, but eventually reverts to white as it naturalizes. (Pink and purple types produce white blooming seedlings.) Like nasturtium, it blooms less over winter, but never really goes away, since seedlings are always there to replace older plants. It is easy to grow from seed sown late in winter, or can be planted from cell packs after winter for more immediate results.

All sorts of warm season annuals that are now available in nurseries are ready to replace the cool season annuals that bloomed through winter. Busy Lizzy (impatiens) and petunias are the most popular as well as the most colorful. French marigold has the best yellows and oranges, as well as bronze. Lobelia is a classic companion for sweet alyssum or marigold, providing all kinds of blues, as well as purple, purplish rose and white (although white is rather redundant to alyssum). Cosmos blooms in many shades of pink, from very pale to almost red, as well as white. Most varieties stay quite low while others get a few feet tall.

The less popular warm season annuals are sought by those who like their unique colors or other appealing characteristics. Floss flower blooms pale blue or lavender with funny fuzzy flowers. Cockscomb are mostly the colors of marigold as well as red, but with unusual plume-like blooms. Verbena and moss rose may not fill in soon enough to work as bedding plants, but have rich colors that look great with other assorted annuals or perennials. Although statice, pincushion flower (scabiosa) and zinnia can function as bedding plants, they are more often grown singly, in small groups or as borders around more homogenous bedding plants.


These sorts of primrose almost seem to be synthetic because of their bright but simple color.

The cartoon shades of red, yellow, blue, purple and nearly orange of primrose, Primula acaulis (or Primula vulgaris) are still partying strong. They do not seem to be aware that, although perennials that could regenerate next autumn, they are likely to be replaced with warm season annuals soon. The cute flat-topped trusses of half inch to inch and a half wide flowers are short, but stand up above the even shorter two to five inch long leaves.

Oxeye Daisy

Oxeye daisy is actually a perennial.

Like several annual warm season bedding plants, oxeye daisy, Leucanthemum vulgare, is actually perennial. Also, some of the less extensively bred sorts disperse enough seed to naturalize and potentially become invasive. Increasingly popular modern varieties that are prudent with seed might not be true to type. Some might revert to more prolific forms.

Modern varieties should not get much higher than a foot and a half. They should also be more dense than the simple species, which gets a few feet tall. Foliage and form is quite variable among varieties. Stems are solitary or branched. They may be leafy or sparsely foliated above basal rosettes. Leaves might be lobed or serrate, with or without petioles.

The solitary, paired or tripled composite blooms of oxeye daisy are not so variable. They are classic daisies, with a dozen to three dozen clear white ray florets surrounding bright yellow disc florets. Without deadheading, fresh new bloom overwhelms deteriorating old bloom. Oxeye daisy is splendid as a cut flower. Spring bloom continues through summer, and can actually continue sporadically for as long as the weather is warm.

Warm Season Bedding Plants Begin

Alyssum grows very readily from seed.

Annual bedding plants are surprisingly more popular among those who enjoy gardening less. Those who procure the services of gardeners appreciate the rich colors and simple efficiency of annuals. Many who are more directly involved with their gardening consider them to be decadent. Nonetheless, warm season bedding plants will soon be in season.

Cool season bedding plants should perform well until the weather becomes too warm for them. There is therefore no rush to replace them yet. Besides, it is likely still a bit too cool for mature warm season bedding plants to be out in the garden. However, seed for warm season bedding plants takes time to grow. Some should start now to be ready for spring.

For example, petunia, impatien and zinnia are some of the most popular of warm season bedding plants. Almost all of them arrive at their respective gardens as somewhat mature plants within cell packs from nurseries. Presently, such plants may be vulnerable to frost. However, seed of these plants that begin now should start to grow after the threat of frost.

Not many of even the most avid of garden enthusiasts grow these popular warm season bedding plants from seed. Yet, a few do so. Some unusual or rare plant varieties are only available as seed. Many common wildflowers and ‘true to type’ annuals provide seed for subsequent generations. Such seed generally start in flats with shelter from frost indoors.

From flats, seedlings may graduate to cell packs or small pots prior to transitioning into a garden. Some should actually begin within cells rather than flats. Seedlings relocate into a garden when adequately mature, whether from flats, cells or pots. Seed for many warm season bedding plants perform best directly in the garden though, without transplanting.

Nasturtium seedlings do not grow well within the confinement of cells. Then, they remain somewhat pekid for a few days while they recover from transplanting into a garden. They grow so much more efficiently from seed sown directly into a garden. Marigold can grow about as well from seed directly in the garden as they can as seedlings that grew in flats.

Six on Saturday: Zinnia

Zinnia are enviable. They seem to perform exemplarily for everyone else and everywhere else. They have never done well for me though. I can not explain why. I stopped trying to grow them many years ago, but I encounter them at work, where the other horticulturist grows some as warm season annuals. This year here, some performed reasonably well as bedding plants, and a few more bloomed impressively within a pair of half wine barrels. They are done now that the weather is cool, but I got a few pictures of them as they were removed and replaced with pansies for winter.

1. Yellow is a primary color, but the scarcest among the few prolific zinnia that grew in a pair of half wine barrels through summer. Only one of the ten zinnia here bloom yellow.

2. Orange is a secondary color between yellow and red, but is a bit more abundant in our barrels than either yellow or red. Maybe three or so of the ten zinnia here bloom orange.

3. Red is another primary color, which is beyond orange from yellow. Perhaps two or so zinnia bloom red, but they are less profuse than those that bloom pink, orange or white.

4. Pink is not really a color, but is merely a tint of red, or red mixed with white. Only two of the ten zinnia here bloom pink, but they are bigger and more profuse than the others.

5. White should be my favorite, but to me, seems to be mundane relative to other colors. Two of the ten zinnia bloom white, but they are neither prominent nor prolific in bloom.

6. Rhody is as unimpressed with our unusually florific zinnia as he is uncooperative with my attempts for a good picture of him. Fortunately, even a bad picture of Rhody is good.

This is the link for Six on Saturday, for anyone else who would like to participate: https://thepropagatorblog.wordpress.com/2017/09/18/six-on-saturday-a-participant-guide/


Pansy is one of the most familiar of cool season annuals.

All sorts of shades and combinations of yellow, orange, red, purple and blue, as well as white and monochromatic black can be found among the many varieties of pansy, Viola X wittrockiana. Pansy flowers are mostly about two inches wide, with a pair of overlapping upper petals, a pair of side petals and a single lower petal. Even though they stand only about half a foot high, flowers hover slightly above the foliage.

Here where winters are so mild, pansies get planted in autumn to bloom through winter, and then get replaced with warm season annuals in spring. They can survive through summer, but do not perform so well while weather is warm. Deadheading (removal of deteriorating flowers) promotes continual bloom. Related violas typically produce more profuse but smaller flowers, which are actually physiologically different.

Cool Season Annuals Eventually Replace Warm Season Annuals

Petunia must eventually be replaced, even if the tips of deteriorating stems continue to bloom.

Here in the mild climates on the west coast of California, the difficulty of getting new cool season annuals into the garden to bloom through autumn and winter is not selecting, procuring and installing the new annuals. It is the removal of the warm season annuals while they are still blooming and looking so good! Knowing that planting new annuals sooner than later will get them an earlier start is not always much consolation.

Pansy, viola, primrose, snapdragon and alyssum are probably the most familiar and favorite of cool season annuals, and are often allowed to bloom late into spring when they probably should be replaced by warm season annuals. Alyssum easily naturalizes, and can actually bloom all year in coastal or cool areas. Snapdragon are probably the most difficult of these favorites to grow, since they so often get infested with rust, a common fungal disease that proliferates where winters are mild.

Cornflower (bachelor’s button), stock, Iceland poppy, sweet William and calendula are probably a bit less popular only because they are not so conducive to mass planting as bedding plants. Cornflower and stock get taller than they should for beds, although they look great behind beds; and stock is excellently fragrant. Iceland poppy, sweet William and calendula do not often grow uniformly enough for large beds; and calendula does not offer much variety of color beyond shades of yellow and orange. Yet, all are great in mixed plantings.

Ornamental cabbage and kale are grown for their colorful foliage instead of flowers. Cabbage may be a bit more colorful; but kale can provide more variety of foliar texture. Because they form such bold rosettes of foliage that do not blend into each other like other bedding plants do, they are more often grown as narrow borders or in small mixed plantings instead of in broad uniform beds.

The ornamental potential of both Swiss chard and parsley should not be denied. Swiss chard has distinctively ruffled and glossy foliage that can be dark green or deep burgundy. Their prominent midribs and veins can be even more colorful with shades of greenish white, yellow, orange, red or pale purple. Parsley is rich green, with full, intricately textured foliage that happens to look quite sharp with white alyssum. The main problem with these two cool season vegetables is that their appearance can be compromised if they get eaten.

French Marigold

Marigolds bloom with cozy autumnal color.

The Maya cultivated marigolds long before the French. After all, the ancestors of modern French hybrid marigolds, Tagetes patula, are endemic to Mexico and Guatemala. French horticulturists merely developed the hybrids that are now most popular. The largest might grow a foot high and wide. Otherwise, almost all grow lower as compact bedding plants.

Although many varieties of French hybrid marigold are available, their floral color ranges only through yellow, orange and red. Ruddy brown is merely dark orange. Creamy white is merely very pale yellow. Combinations of color within this minimal range are amazing nonetheless. White is rare only because richer traditional colors remain so very popular.

French marigolds are technically warm season annuals. With frequent deadheading and grooming, they can bloom from spring until frost. However, since they perform best while young, they are more popular as a shorter term annual. They often replace warm season annuals that finish a bit early, while the weather is still too warm for cool season annuals.