When I worked at a local nursery years ago a customer once asked me what were my favourite plants? Well, it's a pretty long answer, start reading this blog from the beginning for starters! But honestly there are a few stalwarts in my garden that I rarely do without. Aside from trees, shrubs and perennials I believe a well rounded garden includes annuals and summer bulbs, our perennials and shrubs often bloom for specific periods and are there year after year, annuals provide an extra punch of colour and interest. Here are some that I never seem to do without.
Cannas, these tuberous sub tropical annuals give us the feel of luxurious tropical foliage and come in an array of colours, sizes and blooms. I have grown some cannas for years by bringing them inside in the fall and overwintering in a cool place in the house. Cannas are relatively easy to grow as long as they are provided plenty of water, in fact they can be grown as a marsh plant or pond plant. I water cannas practically every day in the summer and feed every 2 weeks with a 20-20-20 fertilizer. Cannas are readily available as root stock that you plant in the spring or as already grown plants ready to bloom. Cannas bloom easily with a little hot weather and full sun in colours ranging from Orange, Yellow, Reds, Spotted and edged with contrasting colour. The plants also range in size from 6' to 12" with leaves ranging in colour and stripe. In our zone it's best to grow in a pot in case of wind or hail or cold weather as the leaves are susceptible to damage from all these factors. For a tropical look and gorgeous flowers cannas can't be beat.
Coleus, is renowned for it's vast array of colourful foliage and shapes. Coleus is great for brightening up a shady corner, I find they do best with morning sun and afternoon shade. These plants also benefit from plentiful water and regular fertilizing. The best thing about coleus is their ability to grow from cuttings, simply snip off a branch poke it into some soil, keep moist and soon you will have a new coleus. I usually bring these guys inside in the fall and grow new ones from cuttings in the spring. Sometimes these plants send out flower spikes which should be cut off as it is a big energy drain. With thousands of leaf variations there is probably a coleus for everyone!
Corn Japonica, is an easily grown ornamental corn. A little smaller than edible corn these plants make great container specimens. I usually start these indoors a few weeks before the end of May and plant in pots with some Ricinus and other annuals. The pink and white stripes are stunning and are reminiscent of other tropical plants. Water well as these annuals get fairly large even in a pot. Often by the end of the season these plants produce small corn cobs that are dark red and can be used for decoration. Rarely I have grown this corn from it's own seed it's best to purchase new seed when you run out.
Sweet Peas, I'm sure I don't need to explain these old fashioned favourites to anyone? I plant the seeds as early as a possible in the spring usually April and get flowers by mid summer. What would summer be without the beautiful and haunting scent of sweet peas? It takes me back to some kind of childhood memory I can't quite recall, warm summer days of long ago and far away. It's advised to pick the flowers on a regular basis, you enjoy indoors and the plant blooms more, perfect!
Pineapple Lily, Eucomis, these sub tropical bulbs are among my most favourite, hardy to zone 8 they are not as delicate as real tropicals. I bought a few bulbs over 15 years ago and over the years they have multiplied into 4 large pots! They come in pure white, green and reddish tones often with spotted foliage. These must be overwintered indoors in a cool dark place until the end of April or so, they can go outside when the nights are still cool (not frosty) in early May. By July the curious pineapple like flowers will rise from the base of the plants and bloom in a mildy fragrant flower for over a month followed by seedpods that still make it look like a pineapple until frost. Fairly undemanding, water and fertilize regularly. In the fall the foliage will collapse from cold nights then bring inside and begin the cycle again.
Colourful Annuals, I usually buy or grow from seed some interesting and colourful annuals. Top photo, Cockscomb, I seem to buy some every year, I just have a thing for the deep reds and chenille like texture. When I lived on the West Coast Cockscomb would grow to about 36" high with multiple heads here they are just a little pot filler.
Who knew that one day I would be in love with the brilliant pinks and reds of Portulaca? These plants are prolific bloomers and love a hot location and also seem to excel in pots. The tissue like petals are reminiscent of pinatas which is probably why varieties are named after Mexican themes like Fiesta and Tequila Mix.
I often experiment with a new annual every year, this year is Polka Dot Plant, a tropical from the forests of Asia, likes moisture and shade. Seems to stay quite small but is intricate up close, I'll probably keep this as a house plant at the end of the season.
Ricinus, is actually castor bean where we get castor oil from, the beans are extremely toxic and there is no treatment, they have even been used infamously to poison a spy with a ricin (from ricinus) tipped umbrella; so consider this if you have children or anyone who would eat the beans, the good news is that the beans rarely grow to maturity in our climate and are also encased in an extremely spiney shell. I first grew these on the West Coast where they would grow to around 8' to 10' (3m) tall in only a few months with leaves around 2' (60cm) across! Unfortunately they do not seem to grow that large in our climate but still make an impact in any pot or border. I usually start these early indoors as a head start is best and I have seen them available in some greenhouses. These plants like lots of water and benefit greatly from tomato fertilizer spikes and a very rich soil. There are a few varieties available the red-purple Carmencita and the large green leaved Zanzibarensis are pictured above.
Sweet Potato Vine, Ipomea, are a readily available annual that come in a variety of shapes and sizes. I often prefer foliage to a basket of gaudy flowers and these plants are so easy to take care of too! Potato Vine loves heat but not too much sun and likes to be moderately moist. There is a huge selection of leaf shapes and colours ranging from spade shaped like the variety Ace of Spades, second from top, to tri-lobed, deeply cut and irregular and colours ranging from chartreuse, purple, bronze, black and even pink and green variegation. These plants do produce tiny tubers like their edible cousins and sometimes regrow if taken inside over the winter. I love these as pot fillers and spillers (trailing) or just on their own.
Dahlia, there are literally thousands of Dahlias in the world divided by flower shape from pom pom to cactus and semi-cactus and almost every colour available in nature. I'm not a connoisseur of Dahlias yet, I just buy what's available and strikes me. I have success growing them in pots but just remember that these plants must never dry out and are heavy feeders, fertilize every 2 weeks. If you follow those rules you'll be rewarded with gorgeous blooms until frost. I bring the entire pots inside for the winter and place outside after frost danger is over in the spring. The blooms are worth the fuss!
Nicotiana, I have saved the best for last! I accidentally became acquainted with the variety Alata 20 some years ago when I bought a packet of red nicotiana (nikkies) and this variety grew instead ever since I could never do without them! This variety can grow to around 3' (1m) in the ground and a little shorter in a pot. This close cousin of tobacco grows easily in sun or part sun with no special care required. From July until frost these plants bloom in white tubular star shaped flowers, the flowers stay wilted in the heat of the day and spring to life in the evenings and night with the best part the heavenly scent! I think this is one of the nicest floral scents of all flowers, the scent coming alive at dusk perfuming the air on summer nights, one of my favourite things in the world! I usually grow these from seed about 6 weeks before the last frost as I have never seen them as a 6 pack annual. Just scatter the dust sized seeds over your potting soil, cover with plastic dome and keep moist, the tiny seedlings will fill an entire 6 pack cell in a few weeks, plant out when warm enough and soon these tiny seedlings will grow immensely. It's a good practice to keep some seeds for next year from the little pods that form in the fall.