Are you the kind of gardener who likes to see how many plants you can pack in your garden? Do your quick trips to the grocery store include eggs, milk and — oh, why not — another 4-pack of petunias (Petunia spp. and hybrids)? I bet you’re a fan of annuals and tender perennials (plants that are perennials in warm climates but usually just grown for one season and replaced the next year). They’re dependable, long-blooming, easy-to-grow and can make a home in any size or shape of garden.
And even though there’s always a place in the garden for old standbys, such as petunias and impatiens (Impatiens spp. and hybrids), let me make a case for some annual plants that just don’t get the glory they deserve. It might require a little more effort to find and grow these plants, but the end result is a unique garden that reflects your hard work and care. What makes these underused? Some aren’t readily available to purchase from the store, so you’ll need to start them from seed — I’ll share how to do this with each plant. Others have just been forgotten. And some of these, well, they’re just simple to grow and long lasting like the annual plants you know and love, waiting for their big break.
Want to learn about some other great annuals? Check out our list of 2018’s best new annuals.
Rose mallow (Lavatera trimestris)
This plant likes to make its presence known. It has a bushy, shrublike shape, but you can have an entire “hedge” for just the price of a seed packet. In midsummer, 4-inch cup-shaped flowers cover the plant like a blanket. ‘Loveliness’ in the photo above is a bright bold shade of pink, but other cultivars come in soft blush or white.
Rose mallow is not a fan of strong, consistent heat and prefers cooler nights or at least some afternoon shade, and moist, well-draining soil. It might need some staking. Start seeds by planting them directly in the ground two weeks before your average last frost date. Sow more seeds every two weeks for longer bloom in the summer.
Type Annual Blooms White or pink flowers in summer Light Full sun to part shade Soil Moist, well-drained Size 2 to 4 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Hardiness Heat zones 12 to 1
Honeywort (Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’)
Do you need some elegance in your garden? Arching branches of silvery blue-green foliage end with gentle clusters of tubular pink-purple flowers surrounded by rich violet-blue bracts. The milky, smooth texture of the leaves receives a royal welcome to an informal annual border.
Deadhead honeywort after the first flush of blooms to keep the flowers going. Overly rich soil will keep the foliage lush but flowers less significant. It’s pretty draping over a container’s edge and is also prized as a cut flower. Sear the end of the stem after clipping to ensure a long-lasting vase life.
Type Annual Blooms Violet-blue flowers and bracts with silver blue foliage in spring to summer Light Full sun Soil Average, well-drained Size 18 to 24 in. tall, 12 to 18 in. wide Hardiness Heat zones 12 to 1
Yellow buttons (Chrysocephalum apiculatum)
This plant is cute as a button, it’s true. But it’s also tough as nails. It welcomes strong heat and can tolerate drought; even more, it blooms late into fall, withstanding some of the first frosts. ‘Flambe Yellow’, in the photo above, has extra small, extra-cute flowers.
These tough flowers value their independence and don’t require much from you. They can grow even in poor soil. Pinch back blooms if the plant starts to look tired and in 1 to 2 weeks there should be a fresh set of flowers smiling back. Only one thing keeps them from being happy: wet feet. Make sure the soil is well-drained, and don’t overwater.
Type Tender perennial (Usually grown as an annual) Blooms Yellow flowers and silver foliage spring to frost Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 8 to 14 in. tall, 15 to 24 in. wide Hardiness Cold zones 9 to 10, heat zones 12 to 1
Baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii)
This flower is delicate, like a newborn baby, and needs special care like one, too. But that true-blue, spring-sky-colored flower is worth it. Baby blue eyes is a cool-weather annual, which means it doesn’t like heat or humidity. If you have cooler summers, this plant will last longer with afternoon shade. But if your summers are hot and humid, plan on these beauties to grace your garden only in spring. They work great as a bulb cover, continuing to bloom as your bulbs fade and foliage dies. In mild climates, they are a perfect choice for some late-winter flowers if planted in late summer. Plant seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks before last average frost date for spring blooms, or purchase at the garden center.
Type Annual Blooms Blue in late spring to early summer Light Full sun to part shade Soil Well-drained Size 4 to 6 in. tall, 6 to 12 in. wide Hardiness Heat-tolerant zones 9 to 1