Let’s Look at Annuals

For those of us that have huge gardens of perennial flowers, adding colorful annuals is a must! However, there’s a lot of money put into those containers so some direction may be helpful.

Annuals for Small Spaces

  • Sunny Spaces: Window boxes, curbside planters, and the small areas of open soil next to mailboxes and light poles are often in direct sunshine for six or more hours a day, but they don’t have room for exuberant growers like cosmos and four-o’clocks. Small annuals that should thrive in these situations include ornamental peppers, alyssum, dwarf dahlias, heliotrope, lantana, love-in-a-mist, ageratum, verbena, creeping zinnia, signet and other small marigolds, petunias, cockscomb, and geranium.
  • Shady Places: Small planting areas that get only three hours or so of direct sunlight are often ideal for houseplants enjoying a summer outdoors, as well as nursery staples such as begonias, impatiens, lobelias, and torenia. Browallia, caladium, coleus, cigar plant, shrimp plant, purple passion vine, rabbit’s-foot fern, and maidenhair fern are also choices to consider.

Annuals for Fragrance

Annuals offer some of the sweetest perfumes in the flower kingdom, so if you are a fan of good scents, be sure your strolling and cutting gardens include as many of these as possible: sweet alyssum, hesperis, the annual lupine called ‘Sunrise’ (Lupinus hartwegii ssp. cruickshankii), nicotiana (Nicotiana alata and N. sylvestris, but not N. Langsdorffii), stock (Matthiola incana), night-scented stock (M. longipetala), mignonette, and sweet peas.

Petunias should be on the list, too, but be sure to read seed catalogs carefully or smell plants before buying. Some, like old-fashioned trailing singles, are powerfully fragrant, while others, including many large-flowered hybrids, are very faint in the perfume department.

Annuals That Beat the Heat

Most flowering annuals are happiest when night temperatures stay below 80ºF, but not everything gets cooked when the weather is baking hot. The following plants are extreme-summer stalwarts, providing colors when lesser plants fade (as long as you keep them well-watered):

Gaillardia, globe amaranth, four-o’clocks, lantana, Madagascar periwinkle, ornamental peppers, portulaca, salvia, sunflower, torenia, narrow-leaf zinnia (Z. haageana).

Note: Most plants, like most people, can take heat more easily if humidity is low. Even when temperatures are moderate, long runs of muggy weather are usually synonymous with fungus invasions.

Feeding Annuals

The ads on television would have us believing that you should be out fertilizing your plants once a week for good growth during the summer. However, you can get fairly good results by feeding everything once a month with a bloom-boosting fertilizer. Bloom boosters are high in phosphorus, which supports the formation of flowers and seeds.

Usually. Like all rules, this one has exceptions: nasturtiums, nigella, morning glories, and poppies, among others, will flower most abundantly if they are given no extra fertilizer at all. Just plant them in good, well-drained garden soil.

At the other extreme, hybrid petunias, million bells, and the sunflowers that are bred for cutting are heavy feeders. They need rich soil and biweekly doses of bloom booster if they are to live up to their full potential as flowering machines.

But you will have stronger plants and more flowers if you do just a bit of fine-tuning. Plants that are cut back repeatedly are being asked to put out more growth than those that simply sit and bloom, and they need more food to do it. This is especially true of cutting flowers, which lose substantial amounts of stem and leaf as well as blossoms. The more you take, the more important it will be to give the plant something to eat.

Attract Hummingbirds

Those wonderful little hummingbirds are headed our way again and it’s time to get our habitats ready. Go beyond just hanging a sugar-water feeder this year. Install a water mister, plant a variety of flowers and shrubs, and avoid using pesticides.

Hummingbirds fly forward, backward, up, down, sideways — anywhere the food is and to the colors they love most: red, orange, and even rich pink. To entice our feathered friends, make your offerings stand out with vivid flowers. For a sunny area, geraniums are a solid choice. I have a deck-rail planter and love watching the hummingbirds hover over my geraniums. The bloom clusters of geraniums are huge and draw the eye of humans and hummingbirds alike. Unfortunately, geraniums are not rich in nectar so you should add something that will keep those hummingbirds at your planter: nasturtiums, New Guinea impatiens, regular impatiens if your planter is in the shade, petunias, verbena, or lantana.

Also, make sure your hummingbird haven has perches. Hummingbirds spend as much as 80 percent of their waking hours at rest. They prefer a high perch with a clear view. You can take a wire coat hanger (perfect diameter for those tiny feet) and bend it out at an angle to allow a place to rest between sips at the feeder.

Want to create a garden that will attract these nectar-loving birds? Hummingbird friendly flowers have 3 things in common: the flowers are tube-shaped and brightly colored, they’re scentless, and they grow where it’s easy for the hummingbird to hover and sip.

Try some of these in your garden to attract hummingbirds:

  1. Cardinal Flower
  2. Bee Balm
  3. Penstemon
  4. Hosta
  5. Catmint
  6. Agastache
  7. Eastern red columbine
  8. Honeysuckle
  9. Salvia
  10. Zinnia

Fun fact: Hummingbirds really are attracted to the color red. Their retinas have a dense concentration of cones, which mute cooler shades like blue and heighten warmer shades like red and yellow.

Make your own sugar/water mixture for your hummingbird feeder by mixing 1 part REAL sugar with 4 parts water. Bring to a boil, cool completely, then fill your feeder. Leftovers may be refrigerated for up to a week. Rather than filling the feeder completely full (unless you have a flock of voracious feeders), fill it only halfway and change out the mixture every three to five days. Try to keep it out of the hot sun. It’s important to make sure mold doesn’t develop inside the feeder. If it does get mold, clean it with hot water and vinegar or a mild detergent. Use a bottle brush to clean it really well or, if no brush is available, fill the feeder with sand and water and shake vigorously. Make sure to rinse it thoroughly.

Hummingbirds also crave protein from insects. Put a few chunks of banana, melon, or other overripe fruit into a mesh bag, such as an old onion bag. As the fruit flies gather, watch the hummingbirds dart around catching the flies in mid-air. You can just throw away the bag when you’re done.

Vertical Gardens

by OCMGA blog editor Vicki Schilleman

If you’re limited in space, or space that’s sunny enough for a garden, cheer up! And I do mean UP. Vertical gardens are gaining in popularity all over the world. I’ve seen gardens covering the entire side of apartment buildings in Europe. Not only does it provide food, beauty, and temperate climate in the building, it also helps to replace the oxygen that might be lost to automobile exhaust. For our purposes, though, let’s focus on the fact that growing your vegetables vertically allows you to have a bigger yield with less space.

Example of vertical gardening at the Rotary Gardens in Janesville, WI

There are a few things to keep in mind when planning your vertical garden:

  1. For the best yield, find a location that enjoys full sun and is sheltered from high winds
  2. If planting on a balcony, consider anchoring or weighing your vertical structures down so they don’t topple over during inclement weather
  3. Plant along the north side your garden bed so you don’t shade other plants
  4. Anything not directly planted into the ground dries out quicker. Check the soil moisture of your raised beds and containers regularly, especially in warmer months. Make frequent watering easier by planting near a water source, whether it’s a spot your hose reaches or a place where you can carry a watering can.

The choice in vertical garden containers is limitless. You can use buckets, planters, planting bags — anything that will hold soil and has drainage. DON’T FORGET THE DRAINAGE! Supports are also in unlimited quantity from ladders to wire cages to trellises to netting. Always remember the weight of the intended plant when choosing your support structure.

My sister moved from the country, where she had huge garden beds, into town where she has only a modest back yard. An avid vegetable gardener, though, she built raised beds with an arched arbor connecting the beds so her beans and peas have vertical space to grow. This required a little research into plants that are vining rather than those that grow best in clumps in the garden, but her space is beautiful and allows her to grow enough vegetables to preserve some of them in the fall.

One of the best aspects of a vertical garden is the ease of harvesting. Some heavier edibles, like melons, may need slings to keep them from slipping off the vine. One innovative idea is to use old pantyhose to make hammocks that you attach to the support and keep your produce safe.

Another good use of space is to plant salad greens, such as spinach, arugula, and lettuce at the foot of your vertical vegetable garden. Leafy greens generally tolerate more shade from the plants above, and the cooler surroundings may allow you to grow them well into the hot summer months.

Top 10 vegetables to grow vertically:

  1. Pole Beans
  2. Sugar snap and snow peas (vining varieties)
  3. Squash (summer and dwarf winter varieties)
  4. Tomatoes (vining varieties)
  5. Melons like cantaloupes or mini watermelons
  6. Cucumbers (vining varieties)
  7. Climbing spinach
  8. Grapes
  9. Climbing nasturtiums (both leaves and flowers are edible)
  10. Kiwi

Plan for Fall Planting Now

by OCMGA blog editor Vicki Schilleman

There’s a good reason that bulb catalogs are appearing in your mailboxes now. As your flower gardens begin to wake up and emerge from the soil, you’re going to notice more bare spots now than when those plants fully grow out. Now is the time to pull out your garden map (yes, you should have a map of your flower gardens just like you do with your vegetable gardens), and start planning for what and where you’ll be planting in the fall.

Not all spring bloomers have great staying power. Hyacinths, for instance, are notorious for their tendency to dwindle over the years. The flamboyant large fritillarias (also known as Crown Imperials) behave similarly; and outside of the species types, there are very few tulips that will stick around for long. But if you have a sunny, well-drained ground, and at least some winter (they need the rest period), there are many spring-flowering bulbs that will become permanent fixtures in the landscape.

Tops on the list are narcissus, often listed as daffodils (although my grandmother called them jonquils), especially the multi-flowered Triandrus group, the Jonquilla group, the flat-faced, fragrant Poeticus group, and the old-fashioned Trumpets. Happily, rabbits won’t bother your daffodils the way they will tulips.

Species crocuses, including Crocus chrysanthus, C. sieberi, and C. tommasinianus, are reliable colonizers. Large-flowered crocuses do almost as well.

Other good choices include glory-of-the-snow (Chiondoxa spp), scilla, and rock garden irises including Iris bucharica, I. histriodes, and I. reticulata.

Big, gaudy alliums often fade over time, but small ones such as Allium cernuum, A. moly, and A. triquetrum can naturalize so enthusiastically that they cross into the weed class, and the same is true of common grape hyacinths, Muscari armeniacum. Neither deer nor rabbits will both allium so it’s a good choice if you’re pestered with either or both.

If you live in deer country, you might consider giving up on tulips and lilies. Deer will go to almost any lengths to eat those flowers. Only the flowers. So you can have lots of great expectations as leaves grow and buds develop. Then, just when the buds start to color, boom! — a garden full of naked sticks.

Fortunately, the list of bulbs that deer leave alone is longer: Alliums, colchicums, narcissus, hyacinths, grape hyacinths, and fritillarias are almost never bothered; and our antlered friends would be very hungry indeed before they show any interest in anemones, chlondoxas, scillas, or crocuses.

If you do have big healthy alliums, you’ll want to divide them every 3 years or so. What a great way to spread those lovely plants into further areas of your garden, or share them with friends. For more information on caring for and dividing alliums, you can refer to the following article:


Fun idea: instead of popping the dead heads off your giant alliums, spray paint them in red, white, and blue colors so they look like fireworks until the foliage has died back. Or spray paint in a variety of colors to add more beauty to your garden.

Improve Garden Soil

by OCMGA Blog Editor Vicki Schilleman

You’re starting a new garden, or you’re unhappy with last year’s performance of a garden bed. How annoying when you put in a lot of hours and expense into the creation of a garden, only to have it fail or perform at a level less than you expect. The problem may be your soil.

Whether you choose to have an organic garden or not, the key to a good garden soil is humus, organic matter at various stages of decomposition. Where humus is plentiful, water is easily absorbed, beneficial bacteria and earthworms thrive, and pH is more likely to be balanced, assuring that the nutrients present are available to plants.

The best way to build humus is to add large quantities of organic matter — compost, composted animal manures, chopped leaves, seaweed, and green manures (plants, especially leguminous plants, grown specifically for tilling back into the soil). In the long run, if you are faithful about these additions you probably won’t need anything else.

When you are just getting started, however, it’s impossible to know just what nutrients your garden might be lacking until you test the soil. There are numerous home-testing kits on the market, but more accurate results usually come from the test performed (for a small fee) by your county agricultural extension service.

A soil test will determine the pH and, if requested, look for major nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potash, magnesium, and calcium. If there is an imbalance or deficiency, the test report will tell you and, in most cases, it will also tell you what’s needed for correction. If possible, make sure you ask for organic recommendations when you submit the sample; otherwise you may be advised to use products that have no place in an organic garden. The best time to test is early fall; most organic amendments should be applied before winter and allowed to weather in.