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All About Annuals

By Paul James

I readily admit that when it comes to plants, I know very little about annuals. I know the difference between a begonia and a petunia, but not much more. So to learn more, I went to two people whose knowledge of annuals never ceases to amaze me. Meet Susan Brammeier, who’s been at Southwood since 1997 and has been buying annuals for 15 years, and her daughter, Emily Grigg, Southwood’s section leader in annuals.

PJ: I only grow annuals if they’re edible, like lettuce and potatoes. But flowering annuals, perhaps better known as bedding plants, are hugely popular. Why is that?

EG: People love color in their landscape, and annual color is something you can change every season. There is also a “keeping up with the Jones’” factor. You can’t let your neighbor’s yard look better than yours!

SB: I agree with Emily. You can’t beat flowering annuals for season long, bright color in your garden. The various shades of green in our lawns and shrubs is the perfect backdrop for the pops of yellow or red or blue or purple that bedding plants provide.

PJ: What’s the most popular annual?

EG: Sunpatiens are probably the most popular in the last few years. But Petunias, Geraniums, Begonias, and Impatiens are still flying off the tables as well.

SB: And don’t forget our good friends Lantana and Periwinkle. They have both been a staple in Tulsa gardens for many years.  

PJ: Do both of you have a favorite? And tell me it’s not the same one.

SB: My favorite seems to change all the time. In the years I have been buying bedding plants, I have seen many changes in the bedding plant part of the horticulture industry.  Every year plant breeding companies are coming up with new and improved varieties, making it easier to have that season long color (in any shade you can imagine) in our gardens. Right now I think my favorite annual is the Sunpatiens. They come in lots of rich colors, don’t have any disease or insect issues, and bloom non-stop from mid spring until a hard freeze takes them out in late November or early December. AND they grow well in full sun or part shade, which makes them great for those areas where varying sun conditions make it difficult to plant all the same flowers.

EG: My husband is a chef and I can’t manage to pick a favorite food, so choosing a favorite annual is nearly impossible. I tend to gravitate more to the unique textural annuals like Rex Begonias and Plumosa Ferns. 

PJ: My favorite is Coleus, actually. I think they’re stunning. Does that say something about my taste in annuals?

SB: I think it says that you are more interested in colorful foliage, and unique textures.

EG: It definitely tells me you’re not much of a flower guy.  

PJ: Annuals do seem to be relatively carefree, but like all plants, I’m sure they have issues now and then. Susan, why don’t you talk about pests, and Emily, how ‘bout you discuss diseases?

SB: Most insect pests that affect annuals are somewhat temporary, and Mother Nature manages their comings and goings in such a way that many of us would not even notice their presence. If you notice that suddenly your Petunia flowers are disappearing or your Salvia has failed to open its blooms, it is usually due to a small caterpillar feasting on your plants.

EG: Annuals seem to be less prone to diseases than other landscape plants. Most are fungal. Some annuals are prone to getting powdery mildew, like Zinnias. It is easily treated with a fungicide.

PJ: I’m guessing most annuals have fairly shallow roots, which means they need to be watered regularly. Is that true?

SB: The question of how much, and when, to water is one that is frequently asked by new gardeners. The answer, unfortunately, is going to vary based on the season, natural rainfall, other plantings in the same part of the garden, whether the plants are in sun or shade, etc. It is best to check on newly planted annuals frequently for water needs. They will often let you know they are thirsty by wilting, which is a downward turning of their leaves.   

EG: Yes, especially when in containers. I tell customers frequently that the smaller the pot they choose the more often they will need to water, especially in late summer when temperatures are in the 100s.

PJ: And do you recommend mulch as well?

EG.: Yes. But not for your pots!

PJ: Annuals flower so prolifically, and often over such a long period of time that I assume they need to be fertilized regularly, yes or no?

SB: Especially Petunias and their little cousins called Million Bells.

EG: YES!! Customers often come by mid way through the season complaining that their annuals look “tired” or are not blooming as well as when they were first purchased. It’s because they are hungry for some fertilizer!

PJ: And do they need to be deadheaded routinely?

SB: Luckily, with all the new varieties that have come into the market lately, most do not need to be deadheaded. Their flowers never produce seeds and are considered self-cleaning.

EG: Some yes, some no. More and more people are looking for low maintenance annuals that do not require deadheading. Things like Supertunias, Million Bells, Sunpatiens, and Begonias don’t need regular deadheading. Geraniums and Gerbera and Cobbitty daisies are about the only annuals that will require regular deadheading. 

PJ: As with all plants, there are those that prefer sun or shade. Susan, you take sun. And Emily, you take shade.

SB: Bronze-Leaf Begonias, Sunpatiens, Vinca (Periwinkle), Lantana, and Angelonia are all carefree and easy to grow in our hot Oklahoma summers.

EG: Impatiens and Begonias are the most popular shade annuals. Lobelia, Torenia and shade Coleus are some of the lesser known shade annuals that are great for containers or beds. 

PJ: I’m a big fan of container gardening, but I tend to prefer one plant per pot. You two mix and match plants in ways I could never imagine. Can you share any tips and tricks for a dummy like me?

SB: Pay careful attention to the size, shape, and color of your container. Also consider where the container will be located and what colors will be adjacent in other plantings, house or door color, etc. Choosing plants with similar sun vs shade requirements is also important in a mixed container.

EG: The classic thriller, filler, spiller recipe is tried and true. Something tall to grab attention, something to fill the bulk of the space in the pot and something to spill over the edge of the pot to add another layer of interest.  

PJ: My wife tends to prefer what I call “Fourth of July” container plantings. In other words, lots of color. My mind is more monochromatic, and for me texture plays a more important role than color. I realize that’s a statement and not a question, but I guess what I’m getting at is you can do just about anything when planting in containers, right? 

SB: I could go on for days about container gardening, with 25 years of experimenting with all kinds of containers and plants that we have done for Southwood’s customers, but the short answer is YES.  Everything from annuals to perennial plants, trees and shrubs and even vegetables and fruits can be grown in a container.

EG: I always tell customers to do whatever they like the look of. Personal preferences vary a lot from customer to customer and there is not any “right” way to do it. I also tell customers to feel free to steal the ideas from our pre-made containers. They are there to purchase but also to inspire!

Thanks so much. I knew you two would have all the answers. We should do this again next year, which is to say, we should make it an annual thing.

Happy gardening, ya’ll.

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