This year, the emphasis seems to be on annuals with character (not just “color spots”) and fabulously patterned foliage plants to enliven our gardens.

Share story

AN ASTONISHING VARIETY of new annuals show up in nurseries every spring to whet our appetite for single-season plants. This year, the emphasis seems to be on annuals with character (not just “color spots”) and fabulously patterned foliage plants to enliven our gardens during the warmest months.

Annuals for flowers:

The ‘African Sunset’ petunia is so vividly orange it transcends the label of color blob. It’s more of a heat source, with color so captivating you immediately start thinking about which shades of blue, lime green and buttercream will show it off to best effect. This powerhouse of a petunia grows into a foot-high mound that blooms prolifically all summer.

It wouldn’t be summer without the peppery smell and taste of nasturtiums. Both leaves and flowers are attractive and edible. And now there’s a newly resurrected heirloom variety called ‘Flame Thrower Cream-Red’ (among other colors), with a uniquely split-petal shape. The plants are bushy yet trailing, the leaves dark green and ivy-like, and the bicolored flower is appealing splotched. Nasturtiums have many virtues; they prefer lean, droughty soil, bloom until frost, and rabbits don’t eat them.

Zinnia ‘Zinderella Peach’ won an international award of merit, and only in part because of its terra-cotta, peachy-pink, cream-and-rose color scheme. This puffy-centered scabiosa form of zinnia has been out of cultivation for decades, brought back this spring by a Dutch company. Due to its open shape (a crested center surrounded by a ring of petals), butterflies can source nectar from it much more easily than from other double zinnias. And they’re ideal cut flowers, holding up in bouquets for nearly two weeks.

Annuals for foliage:

Caladium ‘Heartfire’ is an especially bold new version of this tropical-looking annual, ideal for adding an exotic look without going to all the trouble of growing banana trees. Its vivid red and green coloration hits a dramatic dark note in the summer garden. They look their extravagant best planted in pots where they’ll grow nearly 2 feet high and dominate the scene.

Some begonias are all about leaves, like the new Begonia ‘Pegasus’ with dinner-plate sized, sharply pointed leaves splashed in silver. Such fancy leafed begonias were a mainstay of Victorian parlors, with thick, almost furry foliage, fantastically veined, shaped and colored. You can lift these sturdy but tender begonias in autumn and bring them indoors to winter near a window.

Pennisetum ‘Sky Rocket’ is one of those plants that combines so gracefully with other plants you wish it’d return, grown larger, every spring. All too often such spectacular looks mean the plant is tender; ‘Sky Rocket’ is hardy only to zone 10. But this fountain grass, with its vase-like shape, green-and-white variegation, and smoky pink fuzzy plumes, is well worth planting again each year. It looks great in containers or in the ground and blooms from midsummer well into autumn.