The simple pink and white of ‘good & plenty’ candy is what fairy primrose, Primula malacoides, is known for. Pastel purple is also popular. Rosy reddish pink and deeper pinkish purple are somewhat rare. The small flowers are arranged in circular trusses that stand as tall as one foot, just above the softly mounding light green foliage. The rounded leaves are slightly fuzzy. All parts of fairy primrose are toxic, and to those who happen to be allergic to it, can be as severely irritating to the skin as poison oak!
Because they take quite a while to mature and bloom if grown from seed, fairy primrose are typically purchased as cool season bedding plants that are already blooming. Bloom continues through winter and into early spring. If not replaced by warm season annuals, some of the healthier plants can survive through summer to bloom again the following winter as short term perennials. When they do not get enough water from rain, they want to be watered regularly. Fairy primrose can tolerate significant shade.
Cyclamen are everywhere! Some nurseries have more cyclamen than all other cool season annuals combined. Not all cyclamen are represented though. Almost all are white or simple red. Pink, salmon and other shades of red are noticeable scarce because they are not traditional colors of Christmas. The plants are mostly of impeccable quality, and outfitted with abundant flowers. While there is not much else blooming, the popularity of cyclamen is impossible to ignore.
The problem with cyclamen is the expense. Relative to other cool season annuals, they are large plants that are only available in four inch and larger pots, so naturally cost more. They can not be purchased in less expensive cell packs. Even though they are perennials that can last for many years, they are almost always used as disposable cool season annuals that get replaced when warm season annuals come into season. It can be difficult to justify such an expense for something that lasts only a few months.
The advantage to cyclamen is that they look good instantly, even if they do not perform as reliably during the next few months. This is something that the other cool season annuals have difficulty with. Only larger and more expensive annuals in four inch pots are so immediately colorful, and even they need some time to fluff out and get established in the garden. They just do not grow as fast now as they did earlier in autumn. The weather is now cooler. The days are now shorter.
This is why it was important to replace warm season annuals with cool season annuals earlier instead of later, even if some of the warm season annuals had still been blooming somewhat well. It gave the cool season annuals some time to mature before winter really slowed everything down. Even though they do not grow as actively now, they are already big enough to bloom impressively.
Pansy, viola, stock, Iceland poppy, nemesia, various primroses and ornamental cabbage and kale can certainly get planted now, but will grow a bit slower than they would have if they had been planted earlier in autumn. If necessary, it might be worth planting them a bit more densely than typical, or planting larger plants from four inch pots.
It is unfortunate that most florists’ cyclamen, Cyclamen persicum, are enjoyed as cool season annuals only through winter, and then discarded as they are replaced by spring annuals. They can actually survive as perennials for several years, with white, red, pink or magenta flowers hovering above their marbled rubbery foliage each winter. Foliage typically stay less than six inches deep.
Florists’ cyclamen are probably typically discarded seasonally because, after blooming through winter, they take some time to redirect their resources to adapt to their landscape situations as the weather warms through spring. During that time, they can look rather tired. Shortly after they recover, they defoliate for dormancy through the warmth of summer. Some do not survive the process.
When they regenerate through the following autumn, they are not as uniform as they were when first installed. This is probably not a problem where a few florists’ cyclamen are planted with mixed annuals or perennials that compensate for their irregularities as well as their dormancy through summer. However, it does not work well for the uniform flower beds that they are often installed into.
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.
All that unpleasant annual business of removing warm season vegetable plants to relinquish space for cool season vegetables applies to annual bedding plants too. Those of us who do not grow vegetables were spared the agony of pulling up tomato plants that might have still been producing a few tomatoes, just to make room for broccoli. Now, it is time to replace petunias with pansies.
There is a reason why annuals get removed this time of year. It is the same reason why those that get planted now to replace them will be removed later. Annuals are annual. They are expected to perform for only part of one year. True annuals naturally complete their entire life cycles in about a year. Those that have potential to be perennial are too unappealing to salvage through dormancy.
Removal of aging warm season annual bedding plants should be less distressing if they are already deteriorating. By now, most of them are. They tend to wear out faster than some of the warm season vegetable plants. Impatiens can be potted for next year, or, for mixed beds, cut down and overplanted. Most cool season annual bedding plants are already blooming when newly planted.
Because the weather gradually gets cooler through autumn, cool season annual bedding plants appreciate an early start. It is easier to disperse roots before the soil gets cool. Only those that are sensitive to warmth, such as cyclamen, get planted later. Ornamental cabbage and kale might bolt and bloom early at the end of their season if they get too warm at the beginning of their season.
Marigold and chrysanthemum are short term autumn annuals that work very nicely until it is time to plant cyclamen or ornamental cabbage and kale.
Pansy, viola (including Johnny-jump-up), stock, sweet William, Iceland poppy and various primroses are now in season. Some could have been started from seed earlier. Otherwise, it is most practical to plant these cool season annual bedding plants from cell packs. Cyclamen and ornamental cabbage and kale that get planted later are best as more expensive four inch potted plants.
Actually, French marigold, Tagetes patula, is no more French than African marigold is African. All are from Mexico and Guatemala. They were merely popularized and bred respectively in France and Africa. There are now hundreds of varieties. Yet, their color range is surprisingly limited to hues and shades of yellow, orange and ruddy brown. White marigolds are really just very pale yellow.
While African marigold is only occasionally grown for bigger cutting flowers on taller stems, French marigold is much more popularly grown for late warm season annual color. Because it blooms late in summer and early in autumn, and continues only until frost or sustained rain, it is often planted if earlier warm season annuals deteriorate while it is still too warm for cool season annuals.
French marigold can get more than a foot tall, and almost a foot wide, but typically stays closer to the ground. The delightfully aromatic and intricately textured foliage is rich dark green. Removal of deteriorating flowers (deadheading) promotes continued bloom, although a few spent flowers might be left to produce seed. Mildew can be a problem if watering is excessive or late in the day.
Like gardenia, dogwood and snapdragon, the potentially finicky Madagascar periwinkle, Catharanthus roseus, is often challenging to grow. It enjoys, but seems to prefer more humidity than it gets here. The happiest plants can get nearly two feet tall and wide in sheltered and humid spots. (They can get even larger in exposed spots in humid climates.) Yet, most of us are satisfied with relatively scrawny plants less than half a foot tall.
Madagascar periwinkle is popularly grown as a warm season annual until the weather gets too cool in late autumn, but it can tolerate a bit of cool weather, and can even survive as a perennial through winter if sheltered. The one or two inch wide flowers have five petals and small red centers, and can be white or various shades of pink, pinkish red, lavender or pastel orange. All parts of Madagascar periwinkle are incidentally toxic.
Annuals are plants that complete their entire life cycle from germination to death within a single year. Biennials complete their entire life cycle in two years, mostly by developing vegetative growth during their first year, and then blooming, producing seed and then dying after their second year. Perennials are the many herbaceous plants that survive longer than just a few years or indefinitely.
As simple as these definitions seem to be, the plants that they describe are a bit more complicated. Some biennials can regenerate from the roots of plants that have already bloomed and died. Stems of some annuals can root where they touch the ground, to form new plants that survive for another year. Some annuals seem perennial if they replace themselves with their own seedlings.
Of course, none of that matters for the many biennials, perennials and self perpetuating annuals that get grown as mere annuals. At a time when ‘sustainability’ is a fad and trendy buzz word, it is ironic that so many bedding plants that could contribute more if given the chance to do so, continue to get discarded as soon as their primary season finishes. Most have more potential than that.
Self perpetuating annuals like sweet alyssum and nasturtium might only need to be groomed of old plants as new ones take over. Young nasturtium are rather efficient at overwhelming their own parent plants to some degree. Of course, subsequent generations will revert to feral plants. Fancier nasturtium will eventually become basic orange and yellow. Sweet alyssum will be plain white.
Many annuals that are actually perennials might survive through their off season if just overplanted with more seasonal annuals, and then regenerate when the weather becomes more favorable. For example, primrose from last season might be left in the ground as petunias take over for summer, but when the petunias finish next autumn, the primrose can regenerate for another season.
Such perennials regenerate more randomly than they grew in their primary season, and will need some degree of grooming and perhaps mulching.
Oh, how breeding complicates things. Many years ago, there were only six basic types of wax begonia, Begonia semperflorens-cultorum, with three choices for floral color, and two choices for foliar color. Bloom was white, pink or red. Foliage was either green or dark bronze. Although these choices have not changed, some modern hybrids are difficult to distinguish from other species.
Wax begonia can be either a cool season annual or a warm season annual, depending on when it gets planted. It can be grown as a short term perennial if pruned back in both early spring and early autumn. By spring, winter growth is tired of the cold. By autumn, summer growth is worn out from warmth. Exposed plants can get lethally frosted in winter or roasted by sunlight in summer.
Therefore, wax begonia prefers to be somewhat sheltered. It is more tolerant of full sun exposure in summer if mixed with other annuals or perennials. Too much shade compromises bloom. Wax begonia expects richly amended soil and regular watering, and is just as happy in pots as other annuals are. Potted plants can be moved to sheltered spots when the weather gets too hot or cold.
Just like African marigold that was featured earlier is actually Mexican, German primrose, Primula obconica, is actually Chinese. As odd as it is, the common name is an improvement from the former name of ‘poison primrose’, which was derived from the potentially irritating sap of the unimproved species before it was bred to be less toxic, as well as more colorful and prolific in bloom.
Here where winters are mild, German primrose is a short term perennial that is mostly grown as a cool season annual. Most of us do not bother to keep them alive as their foliage deteriorates in warm spring and summer weather. It is easier to plant new ones next autumn. They want rich soil and regular watering until rainy weather takes over. Deadheading promotes subsequent bloom.
Foliage should not get much higher than six inches. Flowers stand a few inches higher, and can get almost as high as a foot. Individual flowers can be as wide as an inch, and they bloom with several others in domed trusses that might be a few inches wide. Bloom can be white or pastel hues of pink, lavender, blue, peachy orange, salmon, rose or soft maroon, some with white edges.