January 9, 2013

Better Annual Flower Designing

During my first year of designing with thousands of annuals for the gardens at the Spokane LDS Temple, I learned a few things about planning annual flower beds.  Here are some ideas that I kept in mind when planning for the coming year.

1.  Where plants have room to grow up, out and down in pots and raised beds, you really need to use high performing plants that will grow exuberantly.  Proven Winners and other high performers are worth the extra money here.  Conversely, inexpensive old favorites can be a good choice in beds where there's only room to grow up and a little ways out.  For example, we can get Supertunias from our grower for around $3.00.   Other compact petunias are about $0.30.  In pots with limited space to plant but plenty of room to grow, a Supertunia is a good choice.  In a bed where we don't want the plants to grow over the sidewalk, I can plant 10 compact petunias for the same price.  This will immediately make the bed look full, and later in the season those inexpensive petunias won't have grown 3 feet wide over the sidewalks.

2.  Plan for color in cool weather and hot weather.  Because we're in a valley bottom frost pocket, we don't plant most annuals in the ground until the end of May.  Sometimes we get warm, sunny weather in June and the plants start growing quickly.  But some years it stays cool and rainy (last year it was 45 degrees F at noon one day in mid-June), and the heat-loving plants sulk all month.  So it's important to mix plants that love cool weather with plants that love the heat.  It's not very expensive to buy some lobelia or sweet alyssum to include in a flower bed, and those plants bloom well during the cool weather.   Last year I also appreciated the immediate impact of the lime green leaves of 'Marguerite' sweet potato vines.  Then when temperatures finally climbed in July, the petunias, zinnias, and other heat-lovers started growing and blooming happily. 

3.  Yes, a random mix of colors will often turn out pretty, but a planned color scheme will make a stronger impact.  Us gardeners appreciate texture as icing on the cake, but color is what everyone will notice and appreciate.  Taking time to plan before you start buying plants is well worth the effort.  In the coming year I'm looking forward to a bed that includes every bold hue from the rainbow, an area with dreamy pastels punctuated with lime green, a raised bed with a rainbow sherbet color scheme, and a bed with a classic mix of pinks and blues (really blue-violet to non-gardeners). 

4.  Mix old favorites with something unexpected.  At the temple gardens our focus is providing a beautiful, uplifting, serene setting for all the people who visit.  This includes older people who will appreciate the plants they've grown for decades as well as brides who will appreciate something fresh and trendy.  So I've included the geraniums, snapdragons, sweet alyssum and petunias that my grandmother loved in her garden, but I've also added something interesting to each bed.  These fun twists include 'Cinderella Double Lime' lisianthus, 'King Tut' papyrus and 'Rustic Orange' coleus.  By using a mix of plants in each area, we ensure that something will succeed no matter what mother nature throws out that year.

5.  Speaking of mixes, I think petunias are a great addition to any mix.  I used to put petunias in the same unfavorite category as marigolds, but I have since learned to appreciate their strong supporting role in mixes (though I still think they're boring on their own).  I can't think of another annual with as many color and growth habit choices as petunias.  Our grower has had great success with Supertunias, which put all their energy into flowering since they don't make seed (unlike Wave petunias).  That means no deadheading, hallelujah!

6.  Oh, deer.  We have problems with deer in areas outside the temple fence.  Here is a short list of annuals that are fairly deer-resistant:  lobelia, sweet alyssum, salvia, snapdragons, ageratum, annual vinca, zinnia, lantana, dusty miller, verbena and heliotrope.

7.  Perennial gardening is a waiting game, but annual gardening is a race.  Start off fast with an immediate liquid fertilizing after planting, plus a slow-release fertilizer to carry through the season.  Use your fingers or a trowel to make a little trench along the edge of the flowerbed and throw the soil into the center.  This gives water a place to collect instead of running out, and keeps your sidewalk cleaner.  Spread a 2 inch layer of fine mulch right after planting to keep the roots cool and moist while they're getting established. 

If you have other tips about designing and growing great annual beds, please leave a comment and share.  Good luck on your annual beds this coming season!


  1. I know I should be thinking about this now, but not quite ready. More snow coming today... lovely but I did enjoy this post with all it's summer color. We're living in a billion shades of white and gray right now and it's beautiful.

  2. great colour combinations! And you are right - mixing all time fanourites with more extravagant plants! It's refreshing without getting too tiering or too pretentious.
    all the best!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.