Coleus

Coleus works both inside and out.

Without bloom, the richly vibrant foliar colors of coleus, Coleus scutellarioides, rival floral color of other warm season annuals. Striking foliar patterns are as exquisite as any floral display. Growth is efficient through the warmth of spring. Foliage might last until autumn. Late in its season, spikes of tiny blue flowers can be trimmed off to promote more foliage. 

With bright ambient sunlight, coleus is more perennial as a houseplant. However, it may get persistent with pesky bloom as it matures. Some who grow it prefer to let bloom, and then prune it back afterward. Recovery from such pruning can be slow. Vegetative stems, without bloom, root easily as cuttings even in water. New cuttings can replace old plants. 

Coleus foliage is intricately variegated with countless combinations of green, chartreuse, yellow, orange, red, burgundy, pink, white and brown. Variegation can be symmetrical or random. Leaf margins may be deeply lobed or just serrate. Modern cultivars might be no better than old fashioned sorts. Mature plants can get as tall and broad as about two feet. Some stay lower.

Cockscomb

Plumose cockscomb blooms with pinata colors.

The flowers of the two different specie known as cockscomb do not seem to be as closely related as they are. Celosia cristata exhibits two or three inch wide, weirdly stunted and crested blooms that resemble the combs of roosters, although the most popular varieties are so densely furrowed that they look more like fuzzy little brains. Celosia plumosa, as the name implies, has plumose flowers that look more like three or four inch long pampas grass flowers than like anything associated with chickens. What they have in common is their very bright red, orange, yellow, pink or white blooms. Foliage can be bright green to rich bronze.

As short lived annuals, cockscombs blooms only for about two months from the middle of summer to autumn. As cut flowers, they can last a week or two. However, because those popularly grown as summer annuals are mostly less than a foot tall, the flower stems are rather short.

Petunia

Petunias are quintessential warm season annuals.

There are too many varieties of petunia to be familiar with nowadays. The species name is Petunia X hybrida because almost all are hybrids of two primary species, as well as a few others to complicate the situation. The color range of the bloom of these hybrids now lacks only a few colors. (GMO orange petunias are only beginning to become available.) 

Besides an impressively extensive color range, bloom can be spotted, speckled, striped, blotched, haloed or variegated by too many means to list. Flowers can be rather small or as wide as four inches. Some are surprisingly fragrant. Some have frilled double flowers. Stems of cascading types may sprawl wider than three feet while only a few inches high. 

Petunias are warm season annuals that perform from spring until frost. They can survive as perennials for a few years if cut low for winter. Cool season annuals can obscure and shelter them until they resume grown in spring. They prefer rich soil, systematic watering and sunny exposure. Although mostly sterile, some appreciate occasional deadheading. Trimming during summer may promote fluffier growth for lanky stems.

Nasturtium

Nasturtium bloom is sensitive to aridity.

Whether feral or planted intentionally, nasturtium, Trapaeolum majus (which is actually a hybrid with two other species) is a delightful flower that just about everyone appreciates. Its eagerness to self sow and possibly naturalize in riparian situations attest to how easy it is to grow. Seed for many varieties is readily available. Feral plants provide feral seed.

Bloom of domestic nasturtium can be various shades, tints and hues of yellow, orange or red. Flowers can be striped or blotched with colors of the same range. Some are double. The palest yellow is almost creamy white. The darkest red is almost brown. Feral plants, after a few generations, generally revert to blooming with simple bright orange or yellow.

Plants are more or less annual, but can replace themselves almost as readily as they die out. Those that perform through spring and summer succumb to cooling autumn weather, as their (feral) seedlings begin to replace them for autumn and winter. Those that perform through winter may succumb to frost where winters get cool, but also self sow feral seed for next spring.

Color Is Not Black And White

Annuls must change with the seasons.

Several months ago, warm season vegetable plants replaced cool season vegetable plants. More recently, new cool season vegetable plants began to grow from seed, to replace warm season vegetable plants. Annual vegetables grow only within specific seasons. As they finish, they relinquish their space to those that grow in the next season. Annual color operates in the same manner.

‘Color’ is another word for ‘annuals’ or bedding plants that provide colorful bloom. Those that grew earlier were warm season annuals or summer annuals. Those that replace them through autumn are cool season annuals or winter annuals. Of course, there is nothing black and white about color. Some color from last summer can linger late. Some for next winter prefers an early or late start.

Furthermore, much of the color that cycles through gardens as annuals actually has potential to perform as perennials. If cut back and obscured by more seasonable color through their dormancy, some types can regenerate when it is again their season to perform. For example, cut back busy Lizzie that bloomed last summer can overwinter underneath primrose, and start over next spring.

Marigold and chrysanthemum can start bloom early, before summer ends, but may not perform for long. Some chrysanthemum bloom only once, before vacating their space for other cool season color that does not mind starting later. Cyclamen and ornamental cabbage happen to prefer late planting, to avoid Indian summer. Warmth causes cabbage to bolt, and promotes rot of cyclamen.

Pansy, viola and various primrose have always been popular. Sweet William, Iceland poppy and stock are not as common. Stock should be, since it is so delightfully fragrant. Both nasturtium and alyssum bloom nicely through either summer or winter, depending on when they started to grow from directly sown seed. Some fibrous begonia can perform through winter if sheltered from frost.

Most color does well from cell packs. Nasturtium should only grow from seed. Chrysanthemum and cabbage might be better from four inch pots. Cyclamen may only be available in four inch pots.

Moss Rose

Moss rose can bloom until frost.

The recent unseasonably warm weather was no problem for any remaining moss rose, Portulaca grandiflora. They usually start to look rather tired as the weather gets cooler this time of year, and eventually succumb to the first frost. Where allowed to do so, they can regenerate next year from seed. I like to collect their seed during the summer or autumn so that I can sow them after the last frost of the following winter. Through spring and summer, I find that additional plants are easy to grow from cuttings.

The inch wide flowers are white, pink, red, orange or yellow, with only a few ruffled petals. Modern varieties that have rufflier ‘double’ flowers and richer colors still seem to be less popular than the more delicate traditional types. The cylindrical and succulent leaves are only about an inch long. The small plants can get more than six inches deep where they are happy or crowded. Moss rose likes good exposure and decent soil, but does not need the rich soil that most other annuals demand. Nor does it necessarily need such regular watering.

Angelonia

This annual can actually be perennial.

Angelonia is one of those warm season annuals that can actually survive through winter as a pernnial to bloom again next spring. It may even want to continue to bloom untill frost. The flowers can be blue, purple, red, pink or white, and look something like small snapdragon flowers. Most have spots or stripes of an alternate color or two in their throats. Some modern varieties have fragrant flowers. Plants can get a foot or two tall, and almost as wide. In sheltered spots, angelonia can be cut back as soon as it starts to look tired in autumn. Exposed plants might be happier if cut back significantly later, as winter ends. Old growth may be unsightly for a while, but can protect interior stems and roots from frost. Besides, pruning stimulates new growth that will be more susceptible to subsequent frost.

Pots Make More Out Of Less

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Half barrels are a bit elevated, and seem to show off their flowers better.

With conservation of water being so important right now, annuals are not a priority. Many of us are trying to use as little water as possible, and only to keep the more significant trees, shrubbery and perennials alive until winter. Lawn and annuals are usually the first to succumb, mainly because they use more water than anything else.

They are also somewhat expendable. Lawn is certainly expensive, but realistically, can be replaced as soon as water becomes available. Hopefully, new lawns will be more conservative with water, like they should have been since the last “drought” (and the one before that). Annuals are planted annually (duh), so they get replaced anyway.

Annuals as bedding plants over large areas were already somewhat passé before the last few dry winters. Even the more indulgent landscapes used annuals merely as relatively modest borders around or in front of more substantial, but less consumptive, perennials and shrubbery. Pots and planters are already more appropriate.

Some of the trendiest big pots are so ornate that they do not need flowers to provide more color. Besides, with a few striking perennials for colorful foliage or form, there is not much space left for annuals. What matters with annuals is that fewer in a pot can be flashier than more in the ground. Fewer annuals mean less water is required.

Elevated planters may not be as ornate, but display flashy annuals just as effectively. Petunia, million bells, lobelia and alyssum can cascade over the edges, to be colorful both on top and on the sides. Marigold, zinnia, celosia and any interesting foliar or sculptural perennials get a bit more height. It all helps to get a bit more out of less.

Pots and planters are not necessarily less work. They just need less water than larger beds, because they are smaller. Relative to their area, they actually need more water, and must be watered very regularly to sustain the confined roots within. Hanging pots need the most water. All confined plants benefit from fertilizer.

Trailing Lobelia

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Lobelia may bloom beyond next summer.

No other bedding plants exhibit such rich blue as trailing lobelia, Lobelia erinus. Cultivars with white, purplish pink, purple or sky blue bloom are still not quite as popular as the favorite cobalt blue bloom. Individual flowers are tiny but very profuse and uniform. Some have white centers. The narrow leaves are tiny as well, and finely textured. Some cultivars have dark purplish bronzed foliage.

Individual plants are only about three to six inches high and wide. Cultivars that are more rounded and densely foliated are excellent for edging. They are very popularly planted in single rows, and alternating with alyssum. Trailing types exhibit wispier growth that stays a bit lower and spreads a bit wider. They do not trail far, but cascades nicely from urns and hanging pots of mixed annuals.

Although grown as a warm season annual, trailing lobelia can survive as a short term perennial where winters are mild. Fresh new growth develops out of the centers of overwintered plants about now. If pressed gently into the soil just before they are replaced by new growth, scraggly outer stems can develop roots. They just might grow into new plants before the originals eventually die off.

Bedding Plants That Defy Seasons

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Some seasonal annuals are really perennials.

Bedding plants that go into the garden in spring are generally warm season or summer annuals. They should perform through summer until the weather gets too cool for them the following autumn. Bedding plants that go into the garden in autumn are generally cool season or winter annuals. They should perform through winter until the weather gets too warm for them late the following spring.

That sounds simple enough. Each type of bedding plant performs best within a specified season. Since they are annuals, they complete their life cycles within a single season within a single year. Of course, it is not so simple here where seasons are as unique as they are. Winter is mild. Summer is arid. Some bedding plants that are annuals in harsher climates may survive as perennials.

For example, busy Lizzie and wax begonia are warm season annuals in most climates. They succumb to frost as weather cools in autumn. Locally, they can survive through winter if sheltered from mild frost. Any that survived through last winter can regenerate now. As bedding plants, they will not be as uniform as they were last year. However, their variability would be fine for mixed bedding.

If sheltered and warm enough, wax begonias may actually continue to perform right through winter. If they dislike the aridity of summer, they can even perform slightly better through winter than they do through summer. Their best performance is often about now and again in autumn, between the two extremes of summer and winter. They challenge their designation as a warm season annual.

Even some of the bedding plants that really are annuals may not behave as such. Alyssum and nasturtium can disperse seed to replace themselves before they finish. They are not true to type, so their progeny eventually revert. Nonetheless, simple yellow and orange nasturtium and white alyssum are splendid for many relaxed gardens. Nasturtium might perform better in summer or winter.

Bedding plants usually know more about what they should be doing than those who are managing and manipulating them.