Planting Flowering Annuals


Annuals, to paraphrase from Rabelais, "trusting too much in their hopeful time, live but a while, and perish in their prime."



The category of annuals encompasses a great many different plants, but one trait is common to them all: a life of just one growing season. Annuals germinate, flower, set seed, and die in a single year, sometimes in just two or three months. Annual flowers seem conscious of this short lifespan, spilling their energies into great displays of color that make them favored as bedding plants or eye-catching accents in ornamental gardens.


What's in a name?


Annual plants aren't so easy to categorize as you might think. Some annuals drop a lot of seed and reappear as new plants the following year. In colder climates, some plants considered annuals are really tender perennials that would live longer if not exposed to frost. Such plants are also known as half-hardy annuals.


These semantic distinctions have a purpose. Annual plants tend to require less soil preparation than the oft-pickier perennials. You may also wish to preserve tender perennials in indoor containers during the cold winter months.


True annuals can be classified a few different ways. Annual flowers are the best-known annuals, but most garden vegetables fall under the category of annual plants. Annuals also receive seasonal distinctions. Summer annuals live through spring, summer, and fall, while winter annuals germinate in autumn and die in spring.


Where do annuals come from?


Certainly not the garden stork. Annual flowers can be started from seed indoors or out, purchased in individual containers, or in plastic trays known as cell packs that typically feature four or six "cells" that contain seedlings. Annual flowers are often planted in mass for maximum coloring, and most gardeners prefer the ease of cell packs.


If you choose to start annuals indoors, sow seeds about eight weeks before the usual date of last frost. Purchase cell packs from your local garden center to help keep seedlings' roots separate, or start from peat pots. Provide well-drained, moist, warm soil and about 12 to 16 hours of sunlight or artificial light. Transplant seedlings to larger containers as necessary. Harden off seedlings about 10 to 14 days before outdoor planting by placing them in a sheltered spot outside for increasing periods of time.


Soil Preparation


Soil preparation is especially important if you are planting annual flowers for the first time. Begin by removing unwanted plants with a hoe and rake or a herbicide. Till soil to a depth of six to eight inches, mixing in several inches of organic matter such as high-quality peat.


Annuals need soil that is moist but well drained. If soil crumbles easily in your hand but still retains its shape, the moisture level should be sufficient for transplanting. Soil pH should be between 6.0 and 7.4.


Time to transplant


If you've purchased your annuals in cell packs, transplant right away if weather is permitting. If not, keep transplants in a lightly shaded area and water regularly.


When it comes time to transplant, lift annuals from their cell packs by gently squeezing or prodding the container bottom. Annuals will root better if you loosen the soil ball. With peat pots, remove the bottom and any part above the soil surface.


Set annual flowers in the soil at the same level as in their containers. Watering immediately will help roots to establish. Check spacing requirements for annual flowers before planting.


Annuals typically have a longer blooming season than perennials, and you can encourage growth by "deadheading" or removing withered flowers before they set seed.


Otherwise, annual plants are generally low maintenance. To encourage roots, water heavily rather than frequently, avoiding foliage. Adding liquid fertilizer at the time of transplanting and again six weeks later will help ensure that the short lives of your annual plants are happy and productive ones.


--Joshua Avram

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