Saying Goodbye to the Annuals

Impatiens volunteers. Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

As I write this, the weather is turning chilly (finally!) – it’s close to that time when we have to part with the annuals in our garden. However, we misuse the term “annual” when it comes to defining plants that won’t be returning in our gardens in the spring.

So, what exactly is a true annual? This is a more complex question than meets the eye because many of the plants we treat as annuals are actually tender perennials. For example, before the introduction of Lantana ‘Miss Huff,’ we had to treat lantanas as annuals because they couldn’t survive our winters. However, just because you treat a plant that won’t return as an annual doesn’t mean it’s actually an annual. In truth, lantanas are perennial plants, most of which are not hardy in our zone 7a.

And then we have the example of snapdragons that are actually half-hardy perennials. Snapdragons are a lot of fun to grow because if you get the right cultivar, such as Antirrhinum hispanicum, it possibly will hang around for several years – and yet, we persist on thinking of them as annuals, rather than short-lived perennial plants.

We tend to think that annuals are basically cold sensitive plants that do not have an extended life span but pansies are far more susceptible to heat than they are to the cold. Plant pansies in the fall and they will look downright perky in late January although their lifespan is only eight months at the most before they will succumb to the late spring heat. Pansies fall under the category of hardy annuals because they can withstand the cold.

To confuse you even further, there are a group of annuals that fall under the heading of half-hardy annuals, a group that includes impatiens, zinnias, and marigolds. They are tolerant of chilly conditions to a certain extent.

The last category consists of tender annuals, such as coleus and basil, that originated in areas where there is no frost. As they are sensitive to cold, we tend to plant them on the late side of spring. The upside is that they come through our hot, humid summers beautifully, far better than half-hardy or hardy annuals.

The aim of many true annuals is to produce seeds, something many of us who grow basil and coleus know all too well. My advice is to use this seed dispersal to your advantage. I grow opium poppies that are gorgeous and herald the advent of spring. To successfully grow them, spread the seeds in the fall initially in a sunny area that receives sun and is not laden with mulch – poppy seeds generally disapprove of heavily mulched areas. When the blooms are spent, leave them be until the seed heads have burst forth before removing the dead plants.

Opium poppies. Photo by Kit Flynn.

A friend of mine has grown impatiens and begonias for a number of years. Both have produced a multitude of seeds spread throughout the garden. Much to her amazement, these seeds survive the winter only to generate in different spots every spring.

Annuals typically do not make a garden because they aren’t around long enough to add structure to the garden – and a garden by definition needs some type of structure. Transitory by nature, annuals simply do not last. Treat annuals for what they are, plants of short duration and impermanence, and you will learn to appreciate them.

Annuals are good at buying you some time in the garden. If you’re not sure which perennials you want, plant annuals to provide cover and color until you do decide. Because perennials take their time to reach their full growth, plant annuals around them as a way to fill in those garden holes. Where you need instant color, plant annuals.

However, for that temporary effect you are after, it’s important to plant a true annual, not a half-hardy or a tender perennial that is sold as an annual in our area. Perennials take their time, a theme I keep repeating. Many tender perennials will do little that first year other than to concentrate on the formation of a good, solid root system – only to succumb at the first frost. Perennials, even tender ones, think they’re in it for the long haul whereas true annuals are only in it to make seeds.

Lantana ‘Chapel Hill’ is just such a plant. The popular L. ‘Miss Huff’ takes approximately three years to become the size of a shrub. Because ‘Chapel Hill’ behaves in precisely the same way, it remains a disappointing plant during the one growing season it dwells in the garden – unlike ‘Miss Huff’, it doesn’t survive our 7a winters – or at least after three attempts, it refuses to come back in my garden. To my mind, ‘Chapel Hill’ is not a pleasing annual due to its perennial growing habits – and it is not a satisfactory perennial due to a lack of cold survival. I’m sure in zone 8 this Michael Dirr introduction is a lovely lantana.

Annuals have a definite place in our gardens. Choose them wisely and you won’t be disappointed, although it sometimes is hard to say a final goodbye at the end of the growing season.

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for thirteen years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has also written a column for “Triangle Gardener” since 2011. She gives numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at

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