"Annual delights"

Spring annuals bring colour and interest.
Sunday, 09 August 2020     

Pansies in a pot with alyssum

Spring annuals were of the first types of plants I was ever aware of as a child in the 1960s. In those days, most gardeners seemed to grow them and I recall ours being raised from seed in flat wooden boxes kept on the corrugated iron platform covering our firewood pile. The boxes were covered with pieces of masonite and I remember my father carefully lifting these lids up every evening when he came home from work to inspect whether the seedlings had come up. Our spring garden seemed to be full of pretty flowers every year: pansies, cinerarias, wallflowers, stock, snapdragons, pot marigolds, cornflowers, candytuft, sweet peas and Iceland poppies, which I am sure must have all left some permanent imprint on my mind, as I have always have a soft spot for them - and their very names conjure up fond memories of times long past.

These days far fewer of us have time to cultivate vast swathes of annual flowers and our garden styles are different now, with less space left for temporary plantings like these. However, there are many early spring flowering annuals that will self-seed in between other plants, and I enjoy this very informal effect with plants such as forget-me-nots, chartreuse Nicotiana langsdorfii, cute heartsease (Viola tricolor) and nasturtiums. I don't grow a lot of spring-flowering shrubs or perennials , as I have concentrated on making a summer/autumn display, so it is comforting to have these small, cheerful notes of the season in my otherwise rather flowerless, pruned-back garden in August and September.

Another option is to grow a few annuals in pots, and some seem especially suited for this, bringing the opportunity for spring flowers to the smallest of gardens or balconies. Some years I grow pansies (Viola x wittrockiana, ht 20-30 cm) in pots with alyssum (Lobularia maritima, ht 20 cm), and if planted early enough, these will flower all through winter and spring. I love their cheerful faces and rich, vibrant colours. They need a fairly sunny position, plenty of water and regular liquid fertilising. Pinching off the spent flower-heads will keep them in bloom for an extended period. Other years I have grown polyanthus (Primula x polyantha, ht 15 cm) in pots - their formal flower shape seems to suit containers. I have also enjoyed growing the trailing forms of the brilliant blue annual Lobelia erinus (ht to 30 cm) in pots and hanging baskets.

This year is the first time I have ever grown pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis). I sowed the seeds in March and they have just started to bloom this past week. They have developed into sturdy plants, with large, double-flowered heads. The cultivar I grew is 'Pacific Beauty' (ht 80 cm), promising a mix of warm colours, such as orange, bright yellow and apricot, as well as cream. This annual is said to bloom for a very long time over winter and spring, and possibly into summer, especially if they are deadheaded regularly. They may also self-seed from year to year. The petals are edible and make a bright addition to salads and apparently can even be used as a substitute for saffron; the plant is also known for its medicinal properties. They grow in sun or part-shade. They attract beneficial insects and make good cut flowers. Why has it taken me so long to get round to growing them?!

Not all spring annuals need full sun, and some years I plant out some punnets of white Primula malacoides (ht to 30 cm) in pots or in a shaded garden bed that includes white hellebores, snowflake bulbs, pristine white Camellia japonica 'Lovelight' and white Iris japonica, to add an airy contrasting form. It is such an easy-to-grow plant in our climate and has dainty whorls of pink, white or mauve flowers above its rosettes of downy, scallop-edged leaves. It comes from China and will self-seed from year to year if it finds conditions to its liking. A related plant is Primula obconica (ht 30 cm), also from China, which has larger flowers in many different colours - but its foliage can cause allergic reactions in some people.

Another good spring annual for shady or part shady pots or garden beds is the florists' cineraria (Pericallis x hybrida, syn. Senecio x hybrida, ht 30-50 cm), originally from the Canary Islands, with its tapestry of large, richly-hued daisies of blue, purple, crimson, pink, mauve, white or violet, often with central white bands. This annual enjoys fertile, well-drained soil and may self-seed in some gardens. It is a pretty accompaniment to late winter or spring-flowering shrubs that can tolerate some shade, such as Eupatorium megalophyllum, which is just coming into bloom, and Camellia japonica cultivars. The blue or purple types are also stunning partnered with orange or creamy-yellow Clivia in shade.

Perhaps one day the gardening tide will turn and more of us will start growing some of the other old-fashioned spring annuals again like previous generations did. Few of them are available in punnets and many need to be grown from seed. Growing plants from seed can be great fun, and there something incredibly uplifting about nurturing a plant from seed to flower, especially in these challenging times. It's too late to grow spring annuals, but maybe think about some summer ones!

This blog was originally posted on 28 August 2011; updated 9 August 2020.

 Reader Comments

1/14  Rae - 2119 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 29 August 2011

Even in the 80s in a country town many of these plants were frequently on display. I remember my primaryschool garden had snap dragons and the the playground teacher was forever telling us not to snap them! Although I love some of the annuals (esp Pansies) they are hard to justify v perennials!

Yes they do take a bit of extra work and there have definitely been times in my life where I just didn't have time for them. But I love to have a few around if I can! Deirdre

2/14  Anne - 2518 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 29 August 2011

I love having patches of annuals - some of the pansies can last well up to Christmas and their cheerful 'faces' bring a smile to my face. I remember from visiting 'show' gardens when young that Virginia stock (Malcolmia maritima) used to provide a wonderful show and you rarely see it in gardens now.

Yes it is amazing how long the pansies will go for, especially if they are deadheaded and fertilised every so often. I forgot about Virginia stock, but it was one of the ones we used to have in our garden when I was young. Deirdre

3/14  Sue - 2073 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 29 August 2011

This year I put some pansies in old shopping baskets. One is doing very well but the other is on the possum path and is mostly stalks. They must taste as good as they look and the little Johnny Jump ups make a fun statement throughout the garden. Thank you for your blog - it makes my Monday morning.

Thanks, Sue. Sorry to hear about the possums eating some of the pansies. The little violas are very good at self-seeding and I am enjoying them in odd corners of the garden at the moment. Deirdre

4/14  Densey - 2446 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 29 August 2011

Self sown annuals fill the empty spaces between my perennials; Johnny jumpups, alyssum, phlox, nasturtium, etc Foxgloves are my great love; they seem to be annuals here; not self-seeding but I simply have to buy them. Ive had a beautiful tall purple spire cheering me all winter. Densey

Yes, foxgloves are gorgeous and I haven't grown them for a number of years - may have to have them for next spring! Deirdre

5/14  Margery - 2087 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 29 August 2011

I also have started planting annuals between my summer perennials. Most of these are cut back hard in winter and I enjoy having some colour in the garden at this time. I love using nemesia as it will go on flowering for months if it is cut back after each burst of flowers. Margery

Thanks, Margery. I have heard from a few people how good Nemesia is so I must try it next year. I like your idea of planting the annuals between the cut-back summer perennials. Deirdre

6/14  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Love annuals,and always plant some in my garden. Like you, have great memories of them in my parents garden. Was impressed by beds of ranunculi when visiting my grandfather in Concord hospital and cinerarias at Vaucluse House, so plan to have these every year. Range of seedlings fewer each year.

Thanks, Margaret. I do think they give such a fresh look to the garden in spring. Deirdre

7/14  Bob - 2076 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Thursday, 01 September 2011

Thank you for bringing back very pleasant memories of my Mother who had a lovely garden without once,I am sure,buying a plant.A seed maybe and definitely a cutting or two but never anything from a nursery.

Thanks, Bob. I don't remember many nurseries from when I was a kid. Almost all annuals and vegies were planted from seed and people gave each other cuttings or dug-up pieces of plants. Deirdre

8/14  Patricia - 2100 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 10 August 2020

For the first time, I have added some nemesias, white and yellow, and pansies. white plentifall, to add to the joy which is so welcome in these times of covid and isolation. Lovely photo of your pansies and alyssum to greet us on this wild, wet winter's day. Thank you. Nemesias are so dainty - they will look lovely with the pansies. Deirdre

9/14  Pamela - 2158 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 10 August 2020

Who can resist terracotta pots filled with deep blue and purple pansies.In large gardens it becomes very expensive and time consuming to fill huge areas but I love to fill a few gaps around the Salvias with violas which often go through til early Dec and I adore them. My primulas all got eaten by rabbits this year. Nicotiana is a favourite and nasturtiums are going crazy atm! Spreading petunias are great fillers in summer. No watering needed here Deirdre!!! Violas are good value. I must try those spreading petunias. Yes my nasturtiums are going mad too! I put in one with a very deep red flower, almost black, this year, which I can't wait to see bloom! Deirdre

10/14  Valerie - 2121 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 10 August 2020

Lovely photo of a very pretty combination of pansies and alyssum. I have put in some dianthus around the salvias so must do a bit more with the other suggestions above e.g. violas for spring and petunias for summer. I discovered that the possums don't seem to like petunias. Good to know that re petunias not being a delicacy for possums, Valerie! Deirdre

11/14  Betty - 3104 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 10 August 2020

The photo of the pansies remind me of a dear old friend who used to grow his in hanging baskets. He used to cut them back after flowering and would get at least two years out of them. He was never without them! It is quite interesting how annuals can go for so long; I think some of them are perennials in their own climate. It's worth cutting them back as your friend did to see if you can prolong their lives. Deirdre

12/14  Marion - 4103 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Monday, 10 August 2020

Love your pansy alyssum mix Deidre. I have pansies in pots for the first time this year but next year will certainly be taking up your idea! Thanks, Marion. I was pleased with the combination. Deirdre

13/14  Georgina - 2076 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 10 August 2020

I remember island beds of Iceland Poppies, Snapdragons, Phlox and many other annuals in my Grandparents garden. The special treat at being allowed to sow Virginian Stock and drop Sweet pea seeds into their holes. I did sow Virginian Stock and Nemophila this year over the top of bulbs in pots and they are just flowering now. It is a combination I will be repeating. Thank you Deirdre for bring back those memories. I love all those old-fashioned annuals. Virginia stock and nemophila are such pretty flowers. Deirdre

14/14  Marion - 4103 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Similar to Georgina... I planted Babianas oversowed with nemophila, and snowflakes oversowed with Virginian stock. Snow flakes are beginning to flower, no babianas or nemophila yet, but looking promising. Lovely idea to oversow bulbs with dainty annuals. Deirdre

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