Annual Report

I am a recent convert to annuals. My (laughably naive) idea was to plant a bunch of perennials and sit back and watch the garden put on a grand show. Things did not turn out quite that way, of course. For one, perennials take a while to come into their own; to regurgitate the oft-quoted piece of gardening wisdom, “First year they sleep, second year they creep and the third year they leap”. Since none of my perennials are over a year old, they are all really “sleeping” right now.

I planted three purple Coneflowers, Echinacea hybrid ‘Hot Papaya’ this spring (wow-worthy flowers; story for another day). They filled out nicely and bloomed profusely. There is a niggling worry that these will be fighting for space next year. On the other hand, the slower growers have patches of barren earth around them, while they grow to reach their full potential. While I am waiting around, why not give annuals a try?

Advantages of annuals:

1. They are quick to grow, since they need to wrap up their life cycles in a single growing season.

2. They (usually) produce enormous amounts of flowers, bursting with color, to attract pollinators before it’s too late.

3. Most of them will happily self-sow if left to go to seed, ensuring future generations. You could also collect the seeds to have more control over where and when you want new plants.

4. They are forgiving of mistakes. If you are a newbie, like I am, and trying to get your color palette just right, annuals give you the option of trying out various color combinations year after year – they are only a one season commitment.

5. They are exciting! With so many varieties to choose from, even within a species, you can try out different varieties for a completely new look every year.

6. They are inexpensive. If you grow annuals from seed, like I do, they are about 6c a plant! Not all seeds in a packet will germinate, and most would need to be thinned out, so it works out to be a bit more than 6c per plant, but still very cheap.

7. They are invaluable for hiding yellowing bulb foliage or bare spots among slower growing perennials.

My shipment of flower seeds from here came yesterday. I ordered from them last year as well for this year’s planting, with mixed results. These are the ones I tried:

1. California poppy ‘Bridal Bouquet’ – mixed packet of double-flowered poppies in pastel shades of pink, cream and peach. They created a lovely show, grown en masse, and spread a lot of their seeds around; I see several vigorous seedlings already.

California poppy 'Bridal Bouquet' Source: Select Seeds
California poppy ‘Bridal Bouquet’
Source: Select Seeds

2. California poppy ‘Thai Silk Fire’ – this one was a flop. Germination was poor, and the flowers when they bloomed were small. Over time some of them reverted to the usual orange coloration of the species.

3. Sweet pea ‘Mollie Rilstone’ – these were sowed late winter, so they would bloom in spring. I hadn’t set up trellises for these so they ended up flopping all over the place. User error in this case.

4. Hollyhock ‘Happy Lights’ – these did great. Grew to 8 feet tall with huge flower spikes and months of blooms. I collected a lot seeds for next year.

5. Night phlox ‘Midnight candy’ – these were a disappointment. The seeds took a while to sprout and when they did, the flowers, which I grew for scent rather than for looks, were sadly lacking in any detectable fragrance.

6. Cosmos ‘Cosimo Dancing Dolls’ – never got around to sowing these.

7. Cornflower ‘Classic Fantastic’ – never got around to sowing these either, but saw some in a neighbor’s yard in a standalone bed, and they looked fantastic!

This year’s hopefuls include Agrostemma githago ‘Milas’, California poppy ‘Alba’, Cornflower ‘Classic Fantastic’ (again), Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Cosimo Sparkling Wine’, Nemophila maculata ‘Baby Five Spot’, Hollyhock ‘Peaches ‘n Dreams’, Papaver somniferum ‘Heirloom’, and Nicotiana alata ‘Crimson Bedder’. As you can see, I haven’t strayed very far from last year’s choices. And, oh yeah, Select Seeds threw in a free packet of Nierembergia scoparia ‘Purple Robe’ as well, which would go nicely with my white-blue-purple-pink color scheme.

Agrostemma githago 'Milas' Source: Annie's Annuals
Agrostemma githago ‘Milas’
Source: Annie’s Annuals
Nemophila maculata 'Baby Five Spot' Source: Annie's Annuals
Nemophila maculata ‘Baby Five Spot’
Source: Annie’s Annuals
California poppy 'Alba' Source: Annie's Annuals
California poppy ‘Alba’
Source: Annie’s Annuals

Have I swayed you into trying annuals yet? What annuals will you be planting next year?

Volatile Stalks

It’s funny how people think of gardening as something to do in their golden years. Take the back-breaking labor of double-digging, combine that with the nerve-wracking unpredictability of bloom times, and you’ll realize, gardening is not for the faint of heart or body.

While the rest of my garden is going into decline, looking for the most part like it’s been in a street fight, exhausted and tattered, the tall bearded iris ‘Palindrome’ is set to make a grand show with not one but two bloom stalks! ‘Palindrome’ is an elegant iris: the falls and standards are a deep, striking blue with a smudge of white (the signal) around a yellow beard. It is a rebloomer, with a distinctive fragrance. I ordered two ‘Palindrome’ rhizomes (along with two each of three other varieties) during the summer of 2012 from here, planted them in and waited. April came and went, with a not a hint of a bloom on the ‘Palindromes’. Very late summer, one unexpectedly bloomed with several flowers opening in succession on 40 inch long stalks. The other rhizome never bloomed, though it sent out strong sword-like leaves and several baby plants. And now in cold (by Bay Area standards) mid-fall, I am going to have what promises to be a resplendent display of iris!

Buds of iris 'Palindrome' ready to bloom off season in November
Buds of iris ‘Palindrome’ ready to bloom off season in November

Review of Pleasants Valley Iris Farm: They are based in California, about 60 miles from San Francisco; are family-owned and run. My communications have been with Kendall, who is always prompt and pleasant in her responses. They sent me two ‘Private Treasure’ irises instead of the ‘Planned Treasure’ I’d ordered. When I notified them of the mistake, they shipped me ‘Planned Treasure’ for free. They offer a very large selection of irises, some of them in brilliant colors. In my short and limited experience buying plants online, I think the prices are reasonable.

How I planted the irises: I have clay soil. Very sticky. I dug plenty of compost thoroughly into the top 8 inches of soil along with a few handfuls of bone meal and earthworm castings. (This along with some Chickity Doo Doo chicken manure is my standard formula for planting anything.) My research online indicates that irises don’t need especially fertile soil, but insist on being planted very shallow with the top of the rhizome exposed to the sun. They, like most of us, like sun and space. I disregarded the second requirement; I planted them about 12-14 inches apart and now with growing families, they are getting to be quite crowded.

Some people are put off by irises since they bloom for a mere two weeks of the year, while the sword-like leaves take up quite a bit of space throughout the year. Here’s my argument for having a few irises: first, the foliage is attractive in itself and is a good foil for other plants with more fluffy or broad leaves. Second, you don’t need a bed of irises to make a statement; like a well-chosen and worn piece of jewelry, just one is sufficient.

I sowed seeds of the California poppy ‘Bridal Bouquet’ around my irises. They looked beautiful together and the poppies continued to bloom for several weeks and self-sowed nicely.

In other news, the Dutch hyacinths seem to have been spurred into early growth too. It’s almost as if the bulbs sprouted greenery the instant I’d placed them in the soil and turned my back! Last year, the hyacinths had just started blooming in mid-February. At this rate, my ‘spring’ garden would have bloomed itself out in fall!

Emerging foliage and flowers of Dutch hyacinth 'Splendid Cornelia' in mid-November
Emerging foliage and flowers of Dutch hyacinth ‘Splendid Cornelia’ in mid-November

If you have any insights into why plants bloom at uncharacteristic times, do let me know. I’ve often wondered.