How an Annual Snob became an Annual Obsessive
I’ll admit it: I was an annual snob. I really wanted a T-shirt that said, “Friends don’t let friends plant annuals.” For me, annuals meant overused bedding plants: red begonias plopped in front of the Wendy’s sign; straggly petunias past their prime in a hanging basket; or squatty little orange marigolds that never blended with anything else. Plus, annuals are simply impractical. Why spend money on an annual you’d have to throw away in the fall when you could plant a perennial?
Plus, there was something just downright tacky to me about annuals. They are loud, over-the-top, and always stick out in a crowd—kind of like that redneck cousin who drinks too much at family reunions. Perennials, on the other hand, were more refined. I spent the better part of a decade mentoring under the late perennial genius Wolfgang Oehme. I understood the medium. Perennials are a thinking man’s plant. I loved the cerebral challenge of arranging perennials. They constantly change. Arranging a border requires the mental acumen of a chess master. Leave the annuals to the fast-food chains and gas stations; perennials were my game.
But something’s happening to me now. No, I have not stopped adoring perennials, but I am increasingly captivated by annuals, tropicals, and bulbs. It first started when I was tasked with designing a raised median in downtown D.C. The client wanted a seven-foot wide median to be a beacon of color. It had to be beautiful in every season; stand out among the busy downtown environment; and never have a down moment. Gulp. I quickly sped through my shortlist of long-lived perennials. Nope. Long blooming shrubs? Nope. It would have to be annuals.
|Median with boughs and stems in winter|
We ultimately decided to combine annuals and bulbs with sculptural shrubs such as columnar hollies and cloud-like hedges of boxwoods. Designing four seasons of spectacle—including the dead of winter—proved to be a one of my toughest horticultural challenges. At first, I was reluctant to use bedding annuals at all. We specified an elaborate mix of rare tropicals, designer annuals, and shrubs with colored foliage. I was rather pleased with the cutting-edge selections I made until I found out that the contractor could not find most of the plants. Not to cover a median that stretched three blocks. Last second substitutions meant dealing with what local annual nurseries had available: lots of pansies, lots of mums, lots of vinca. I remember being horrified with the first season rotation was almost nothing but yellow pansies and blue mums.
But the bedding annuals looked good, particularly at 45 miles per hour. From then on, we figured out how to use a base of bedding annuals and interplant more interesting combinations of tropicals, bulbs, and even shrubs used as annuals. The bedding plants provided the impact, and the accents provided the designer look.
|Janet Draper's fabulous Ripley Garden|
Of course, through my horticultural journeys, several great plantsmen have tempted me with the dark and seductive world of annuals. Janet Draper’s Ripley garden at the Smithsonian Institute always featured fabulous exotic selections like the purple-spiked silvery leaves of Solanum quitoense or the inspired combination of Golden Shrimp Plant (Pachystachys lutea), the deadly Firestick Plant (Euphorbia tirucalli), and Yucca ‘Hinvargas’. And there is Dan Benarcik’s mind-blowing combinations of tropicals and annuals at Chanticleer. And of course, Nancy Ondra’s blog was another inspiration. Every time I see one of her combinations of annuals and perennials, I immediately go out and drop $20 on some mail order seed catalogue. Finally, there’s the Long Border at Great Dixter. I’m obsessed by what Fergus Garrett is able to do in that strip. So much horticultural expertise goes into such a concentrated space. Is it over the top and gaudy? Perhaps, yes. A hot blooming mess? Definitely. But it is one of the most brilliant stretches of planting anywhere on the planet, and I am forever haunted by what they are able to do.
My final turning point to the dark path of annual obsession was my own experiment doing a perennial border. After smothering a large area of lawn for six months, I was so tired of looking at mulch and cardboard that my wife and I filled the area with a bunch of aggressive “filler” perennials. That did the trick. It was an instant garden, but the border immediately became one big hazy blob of green. And that’s what I call it now. It’s not the border, but the big-hazy-blob-of-green (BHBOG). Last year, I tried to cut the garden with some “structural” perennials—perennials with more distinctive silhouettes—but they had a hard time establishing in the BHBOG. The BHBOG is hungry and it eats everything you plant in it.
So I’ve had it. Next spring, I’m ruthlessly hacking into the BHBOG. No more mild-mannered perennials. I want over-the-top, shocking color. Ridiculous color. Burn your retinas color. I don’t care what it takes, but I’m throwing every cheap trick for color and foliage I know. Bulbs? Yes! Bazillions of them. Tropicals? Yes! If the leaf is less than six feet long, I won’t consider it. Self-seeding annuals? Yes! I’m buying seeds by the pound, not the packet. Spiky plants? Yes! Agaves,yuccas, acorus . . . it’s all going in. More is more. Yes is more. Everything will be considered as long as it’s effective. If it doesn’t scream color or texture, it’s gone.
And that’s how it happened. An annual snob turned into a foaming-at-the-mouth annual obsessive. “Horticultural exuberance is the new civil disobedience,” I heard Dan Benarcik say recently. Yes. Yes, it is. Now I want a T-shirt with THAT on it.
Loved this post! I think many of us have been there where we feel guilty using annuals but, they have become an important part of the garden to keep things going through the seasons.ReplyDelete
Definitely. Particularly in the mid-Atlantic, which has such a long and hot growing season. For a small space, there just aren't perennials that look good through the entire season.Delete
Welcome to the dark side! I've rationalized my own fascination with bold tropical foliage and hot colored annuals as only a realistic response to our summers which, for a few months at least, are subtropical. Actually I'm finding that it's possible to layer the flashy garden over a tasteful spring border. Most hardy tropicals: musa, ensete, canna, colocasia, hedychium,etc don't appear till late May or June by which time the spring perennials are winding down. Little harm seems to be don to the spring perennials by this "extra" shade. Add flashy annuals in late may and you get two gardens for the price of one. Having said this though I have to admit that many of my favorite perennials are hot summer plants and grasses so I had to reserve beds for them. I imagine an overview of the garden looks chaotic if not schizophrenic, but it works for me!ReplyDelete
Whew! I feel somehow less crazy that a horticultural guru like yourself is an annual user. Your comment about the summers is actually spot on--that's one of reasons I've felt that a perennial-only approach is limited. Even the heat tolerant ones poop out in our humidity. I've done some gardens in Maine which has a much shorter gardening season and felt like a gardening god. Things that I struggled with here looked great in their more temperate summers.Delete
Welcome to the club, Thomas. It won't be as dark as you thought! My latest permutation for a mixed border involves shrubs for color, texture and fruit, perennials that look good all season, bulbs, and biennials and annuals for a late season pop. If you have a mix of natives for biodiversity (I have been trying to include a generous dose of Tallamy's favorites: goldenrods and asters) with some fun annuals, you can be good to the environment and have some fun at the same time. My garden looks its best this time of year thanks to the contribution of the annuals. Think a mashup of Doug Tallamy's Bringing Nature Home with LLoyd/Garrett's Succession Planting. I am looking forward to seeing what you do next!ReplyDelete
Yes, yes, yes. We need all the tools available to us to create dynamic planintgs. Your description of the toolkit you use for a mixed border really resonated with me. Love your mashup of Tallamy/Garrett. That would be a powerful border!
Two words Landcraft Environments. We all, hopefully, evolve in life and in gardening.ReplyDelete
Yes, they are definitely one of my horticultural idols. THeir combination of annuals with New American style perennials is perennial.Delete
What annuals are you going to incorporate? Or is that another post?ReplyDelete
I like annuals in theory, but I'm generally to busy & too cheap to deal with anything other than pansies/violas (cliche? probably, but those smiling faces pull me through many a dark winter day) and dahlias (my favorite flower). Yes, I could grow from seed, but my grow lights are occupied with veggies almost year-round. And I'm too OCD to deal with seed scattering & hoping for the best.
I hope you'll post pictures of the before & after of the annual invasion!
I'm not exactly sure yet. I need a heavy dose of bulbs--Spanish Bluebells, Alliums, species tulipis and the spring blooming GLadiolus communis byzantius are defintiely going in. Thinking about red poppies followed by Tages Cinnabar along one edge. There's a Zahara Double Cherry Zinnia that I'm pretty wild about. Then lots of Cannas, Dahlias, and Verbena bonariensis. And I may experiment with some "house-plants" taken outside. Sansieveria, Crotons, Alocasias.Delete
My approach is to throw the kitchen sink at it--see what's effective and then replicate the winners.
Wow, your post has the passion of a Walt Whitman poem! Love that. If only a greater variety of annuals were available at the nursery! Methinks I really need to get better at seed-starting. That, and I need my own little Fergus Garrett to execute my every garden whim. I will simply amble around in a blazer and scarf, and point a stick at the places where I want something dazzling planted, and Fergus will make it happen.ReplyDelete
Seed starting is definitely the way to go. And I'm not a great seed-grower. It requires quite a bit of patience, and I rarely have it. You're absolutely right about local nurseries and selections--plus, it's expensive and by the time they have anything other than pansies, it's JUne.Delete
I went looking for pansies for a fall planting this week (yeah I know I'm late to the party). But everyone looked at me like I was crazy. What they are a cool season crop, it's cool. Pansies are not just for spring.Delete
What a wonderful post! I sort of.... felt the same way about annuals but when I lived in the Hudson Valley my snapdragons were spectacular. So I gradually started buying more annuals. Now we live in Chapel Hill and oh yes... the summers are brutal. On the other hand, I can now have those great pansies all winter.ReplyDelete
P.S. I have passed your blog on to our entire Garden Club membership: I am editor of the monthly newsletter and love finding new sources. Thanks for your wonderful blog!!
Yes, we defiitely have to work with brutal summers. We need all the tools available to us.
Thank you very much for the forward! Your website is exquisite.
Bravo! I think the only "dark side" is staying in the camp of uppity landscape folks, who put down good ideas that differ from their particular brand of provincialism! I have annuals for the season just like I have perennials for their season(s), and all thrive and many reseed for the next year. Many are low water-use. In fact, some are native here!ReplyDelete
Not to mention containers - many annuals do better than many perennials, given small rooting area, and in desert soils, it allows one to put up the impact of bedding plants closer to eye level. (amending and soaking beds here is rarely worth it)
And the seasonal twigs in color on the median are stunning...I gotta look into that concept!
Isn't design much about organizing and balance? I think balance extends to a healthy use of different plant forms, for site and client needs, not replicating a high-maintenance Victorian border and calling it low-maintenance because it's chic. Any garden involves some maintenance. Large public or public landscapes to small residential spaces, maintenance for that range can easily accommodate differences in caring for annuals vs. perennials vs. long-lived woody plants.
Yes, great comment, David. Some of the southwest annuals are my favorites.Delete
I reserve annuuals for particularly high drama moments which are, exactly as you say, high maintenance. What excites me about something like a border (which I almost never do professionally) is learning the skills necessary to produce a dramatic horticultural flourish. It's a totally fabricated, artificial, and theatric, but I find every trick that's successful is a strategy that helps improve my other work.
SO FUNNY, So true. I too, am a recovering annual snob. I attribute it to the influence of landscape architects who, as Woody Guthrie said of trains "done run all through my life."ReplyDelete
I saw annuals as a lifestyle choice, akin to vegetarianism, smoking, or being a football fan—heavily laden decisions with moral overtones and social implications and complications. The very idea of buying a plant and then tossing it after season, when you could buy a plant that you might actually divide after a few seasons seemed, well, WRONG. Perennials were clearly a superior choice and I was clearly a superior person.
But seeds are cheap and zinnias are wonderful gaudy flowers that make great flower arrangements! (esp combined with an 3-5 ornamental grass stems) So I made an exception for seeds. Seeds seemed right, seemed thrifty. Plus, nothing really beats growing something from seed; it gives you something to check on once or twice a day. It reminds you of your granddaddy, who recorded the weather and the growth of his corn, tomatoes, every day but probably never bothered to note the death of a sibling or birth of a grandchild.
Now, I just feel guilty because I don’t grow vegetables, only flowers.
It was a slippery slope. This year I bought both colors of sweet potato vine, coleus, impatiens, and a few petunias just to fill in during the early spring. Since you can dig up the elephant ears and store, I consider them to be perennials. Next year, I’m going to experiment using sweet potato vines as a summer green mulch.
Ha, yes. I was guilty too of associating annuals as a lifestyle choice. ANd seeds were also my "gateway" to annuals generally. Somehow seeding was an acceptable use of annuals.Delete
I'm beginning to think that New American style perennial gardening is just not that effective in small spaces. Small spaces requires much more traditional horticultural skills and tricks--which means considering all plants available to get the effects one needs.
Always look forward to your comments! Insightful and amusing.
I'm coming around to your way of thinking on annuals. What turned me around was the Monet garden at Giverney, how he weaved many annuals in with his perennials for both color and structure. I'm inspired more by the cottage garden annuals: cleome, cosmos, and sunflowers in summer and stock, snapdragons, and sweet alyssum in spring.ReplyDelete
By the way, funny you mentioned snobbery, because I read somewhere that there has been a class reversal on the perennials v. annuals front. In Victorian times, bedding annuals were the favorite of the upper class, who had the greenhouses and staff to grow and maintain them. The poor were associated with perennial flowers of the cottage garden. Now perennials are trendy, and bedding annuals are considered rather declasse in some circles.
THe class reversal idea is brilliant! I never really thought about them in that way, but that totally resonates with my experience as well. Fascinating. It's true, I almost feel embarassed I love annuals--which is entirely ridiculous. Your thesis explains so much.
Here, here, Thomas...welcome to the Dark Side, mon frere!ReplyDelete
I challenge any hort-head to completely deny their woozy first love with a riotous annual combination. As a child I used to smear red Geranium petals on my lips as dress-up lipstick. And at my first nursery job, aged 15, I was given license to assemble some compositions of annuals and felt so clever to have added the Strobilanthes among the Surfinia petunias and Dusty Miller. Much akin to my present love of boxwoods, I have come full circle with annuals (and biennials!) and appreciate the unadulterated cheerfulness they add in a garden, just as a boxwood adds unrivaled substance. There is something delicious about a plant in a continual season of flower (it's sexy--literally). There is also something satisfying about clearing the summer annuals to prep the garden for cooler weather and violas.
I used to have a client for whom we planted obscene numbers of annuals and bulbs (there was a fender-bender due to neck-craning in Tulip season) and although I had my qualms about the Victorianism of of it, I miss the fun we had playing with color on that scale and in a residential garden--much different from a municipal annual planting. There is something to be said for the lost art of floraculture. Now I enjoy weaving poppies and violas, Nigella, foxglove and Justicia in with perennial plantings. Especially in Atlanta, where we have such a protracted growing season, using gardeny-looking annuals and biennials in among the perennial plantings allows for the look of a more traditional border, given the season is drawn out such that rarely are the perennials blooming at once.
I think the question to ask with an annual is, "What funtion does it serve?" Is it an end-all-be-all of horticultural pursuit? Certainly not. But a well-fed cane Begonia is hard to beat. I'm not trying to get my subtle flavors from annuals--leave that to Stachyurus praecox and Selaginella uncinata. No, I want some Tabasco to add some kick from across the street. Or maybe I want Euphorbia 'Diamond Frost' to add some airy texture in among leafier perennials. Random little flower beds on either side of the walk or near the mailbox--without reference to anything else in the landscape--make me crazy and remind me of miniature casket sprays. Still, I'm with you--bring on the gaudy Amaranth!
Yes, yes, yes. I've also done an about face with boxwoods--which I now adore. It does have a lot to do with recovering the "lost art of floraculture". It's easy to bash Victorian frilliness, but we've lost so much of the cultural knowledge of flowers and arrangement.Delete
Love your descriptions of the annuals you weave. Totally inspiring . . .
Dark side indeed ...ReplyDelete
The logical side agrees, but I remain fearful mainly because I associate annuals with sodden masses of seed starters struggling on a windowsill, elongating in the too feeble sun. I was recently admiring Michael Gordon's annual colors on his blog and furtively wishing I could do some late annual color. But I need annuals that can grow from seed thrown about on wet, heavy soil and that is limiting. But you inspire me to experiment.
Ha, yes, I've had those sodden masses on my windowsill. I've had better luck limiting myself to annuals I can directly self-sow. THe only issue I've had with seedlings is they by the time they emerge in my perennial beds, the more established perennials swallow them. So I'll have to adjust.Delete
I don't think I'll use annuals too liberally beyond this border experiment, but I love the idea of one small garden space dedicated to total exuberance.
It always comes down to my economy for me. I've been using what's available at the local vacant lot. he he.ReplyDelete
Ha, a guerilla gardener, huh?Delete
As a small-space gardener, I'm taking your advice very seriously.ReplyDelete
And guess what - I snapped lots of photos of that mid-Conn. Avenue planting and have been meaning to publish them sometime, somewhere. That median is so classy! Naturally, you're the designer.
Great post Thomas! While naturalistic planting design, specifically Oudolf's New Wave Planting Movement is my passion, seasonal displays are the bread & butter of my business. Corporate clients understand the value of vibrant, head turning displays. They act as advertising banners and draw the attention of passersby. Annuals, tropicals, perennial and ornamental grasses CAN be woven together in a tasteful and naturalistic fashion- not boring blocks of petunias and begonias. I've done some writing on the topic for APLD's Designers on Design- http://adamwoodruffassociates.tumblr.com/post/20352610964/commercial-seasonal-displays-part-i, http://adamwoodruffassociates.tumblr.com/post/22183282263/commercial-seasonal-displays-part-ii; St. Louis Post-Dispatch- http://www.stltoday.com/lifestyles/home-and-garden/garden/article_0e082f3a-dd12-5642-a09a-8ae3d37b7fd3.html, http://www.stltoday.com/business/local/article_27e04494-409d-558c-b605-7cc230d3f0da.htmlReplyDelete
A few examples- http://www.flickr.com/photos/adamwoodruff/sets/72157627767589256/, http://www.flickr.com/photos/adamwoodruff/sets/72157622987848806/, http://www.flickr.com/photos/adamwoodruff/sets/72157624481280623/, ,http://www.flickr.com/photos/adamwoodruff/sets/72157627119735521/, http://www.flickr.com/photos/adamwoodruff/sets/72157627302832155/
Thanks for the visual resume! It’s awesome.
I’m actually quite a big fan of yours already. I’ve followed your work for a few years, and it’s really brilliant. Not only are you doing wonderful American variations on the New Wave perennial style (which is quite a feat in the heat and humidity of St. Louis—I had a project there once), but your combinations of annuals with “new style” perennials is quite groundbreaking.
It’s been particularly inspiring to me lately. I spent eight years at Oehme, van Sweden—the founders of the New American garden (started almost 10 years before Oudolf did his first garden). That firm did a lot of high end residential work (with good garden maintenance). But now I’m working for a firm that does mostly public work (parks, streetscapes, cultural properties). When those clients ever do invest in plantings, they demand spectacle but never have the budget to maintain it. That’s really opened me to the world of annuals and thinking about how they can be combined with perennial plantings. You are one of the few I know (Landcraft Environments is another great one) that melds the two mediums with great craft.
So I am a fan. I hope you continue to do your brilliant work—the world is watching! And if you’re ever in the D.C. , I hope you please send me an email. I’d love to connect with you.
Thanks for stopping by the blog and commenting. It’s great to e-meet you.
Thank you, Thomas. Your compliments are very generous!Delete
I thoroughly enjoy your blog. We share similar views on planting and design. You have such a gift with words. I must confess, I am a bit envious. Is a book in your future?
Eight years with Oehme, van Sweden must have been a transformative experience. I'd love to visit with you sometime. We are on the East coast now, near Boston. If I have an occasion to be in DC I'll let you know. Please do the same if you're up my way.
I never got the shaming or guilt over gardeners that use annuals. I love them -- self-sowing kinds especially from cleome to brazilian verbena to hollyhocks to cosmos -- could not imagine a Mid-Atlantic summer without them!ReplyDelete
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The annuals planted in the medians and in front of stores in Chicago on my recent visit there were absolutely stunning. My gardening friend and I even stopped mid-street in the crosswalk so we could try and identify some of the plants. Yes, we also loved the Lurie Gardens using masses of perennials.ReplyDelete