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WHAT WOULD summer be without an unusual new petunia or two? Old favorites are debuting this year in new guises — a marigold-like zinnia, a star-shaped petunia and sweet alyssum on steroids. And annuals have so many garden-worthy virtues: they’re inexpensive, grow quickly, bloom during the months we’re outside the most, and just when you’re getting tired of them, they’re ready for the compost heap. Annuals aren’t just for container growing, either, although that’s a great use for them. These zinnias and cosmos are equally pretty growing in flower beds or cut for bouquets.

The National Garden Bureau has called this the “Year of the Petunia” for all the new variations on the old patio staple. A new series is called crazytunias for their unusual shapes and colors. Crazytunia ‘Mandeville’ is one of the prettiest of the bunch, with bicolored flowers in shades of hot pink and soft yellow. These showboats would probably look best planted en masse, filling a container with their starry blooms.

A new double yellow calibrochoa, debuting this May, will carry pots and window boxes through the summer. Also known as mini-petunias, calibrochoa don’t need deadheading, trail gracefully, bloom a long time and luckily lack the stickiness of old-fashioned petunias. This new Superbells Double Yellow Calibrochoa looks nearly begonia-like in the fluffiness of its flowers.

I’ve always loved cosmos because they’re both simple and elegant. Butterflies flock to them, and the foliage is soft and ferny-looking. Cosmos look at home in both cottage and modern gardens, and their clear, graphic shape makes them ideal cut flowers. The new Cosmos ‘Fuzzy Rose Picotee’ has large semidouble flowers centered in yellow. The petals are pale pink shading into a brighter rosy pink creating a striking ombre effect.

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Every garden has a sunny, arid spot where not much will grow — just the right place for strawflowers to flourish. Being from Australia, they love drought and heat. New this summer is Bracteantha ‘Sundaze Blaze’ a hot-orange strawflower with a yellow center. These tough little plants bloom continuously all summer and make long-lasting bouquets that hold their color as they dry.

Who would have thought that the modest, familiar flowers of sweet alyssum are more attractive to pollinators than any other kind of flower? A newLobularia ‘Lavender Stream’ has larger-than-usual flowers in nonfading deep purple. It’s honey-scented, easy to grow and perfect for edging. Just by planting a few of these pretty, fragrant little flowers you’ll boost the health of your garden and the world around it by nourishing bees, butterflies and all kinds of beneficial insects.

The new Zinnia ‘Pop Art Golden & Red’ lives up to its name with fully double, flashy flowers that look more like marigolds than typical zinnias. The flowers are globe-shaped, golden yellow and dashed with red streaks so artistically irregular that they look as if hand-painted. They put on quite a show, growing 2 to 3 feet tall, each plant spreading more than a foot wide. If you like this giant marigold look, keep your eyes open for the new giant marigold, Tagetes erecta ‘Giant Jedi Deep Gold,’ with 5-inch flowers on plants that grow nearly as tall as Harrison Ford, and taller than the guy who played Luke Skywalker.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at