Unexpected Annuals

Stepping out of your gardening rut

Emily Clay

May might be my favorite month in the garden. The weather is warm but not too hot. We have wonderful afternoon showers that make everything glisten and grow. It really is a glorious month to spend outdoors.

Gardening is a lot like cooking. Like grocery shopping, we can easily get into a gardening rut — I know I certainly do. I buy the same plants for my containers year after year and choose the same annuals to plant in the same areas in my garden each season. Recently, I decided to branch out and try different annuals, perennials and shrubs each season. Many times I have been forced to try things I would not ordinarily choose. If a client calls in late December and needs containers planted or a new area in the garden fixed up quickly for a party or an event, I have to use what is available. 

These combinations always end up being so interesting and satisfying. May is the perfect time to try new varieties because our local nurseries and garden centers should be stocked with all sorts of wonderful plants to choose from. So throw away your list from this past May and go out with an open mind to try some new things. Take notes. One of these new plants may become one of your favorites.

Let’s look at some different options that can add drama and interest to the May garden, beginning our search for annuals that we may not normally use in our gardens. Let’s step out of the proverbial gardening box!

Mandevilla: Mandevilla are annual vines that come in bright hues of pink or red. ‘Vivian’ is a prolific bloomer with lipstick pink blossoms. ‘Sophia’ is a deep red variety that is also a long season bloomer. Mandevilla are tough vines that thrive in sun and heat and bloom prolifically. They grow to 18 to 24 inches tall and are drought tolerant once they are established. They are wonderful to add to hanging baskets or to train up a trellis in a large container. 

But, why not try something different? Plant them amongst your perennials and let them use the other taller plants for support. They would be a beautiful complement to a purple buddleia or a tall bush of Lantana ‘Miss Huff.’ The bright colors of the Mandevilla will be a strong contrast for the soft blue of the Buddleia, and the bold blossoms will add even more drama to the bright orange and red blooms of ‘Miss Huff.’

Verbena: Verbenas are another sometimes forgotten plant. Verbena was very popular 20 years ago but has fallen out of fashion. It is another tough plant to use in our hot, Southern gardens. Verbena is usually planted in containers or hanging baskets. Why not use it as a ground cover? It has a trailing growth habit which makes it ideal to use as an under plant for roses or standard hibiscus. It is also very well suited to use in a rock garden. Plant it in a crevice between a stacked stone wall, and it will thrive. 

Verbena prefer to grow in thin soil. They actually thrive on neglect once they are established. Two varieties to look for this season are ‘Princess Blush’ and ‘Princess Dark Lavender.’ These varieties have been bred to grow in a more compact fashion and will not get “bald” spots in the middle of the plant. Verbena benefits from regular deadheading to prolong their prolific bloom until frost.

Pentas: Pentas is another annual that thrives in the May garden and through the summer and fall until frost. Hummingbirds and butterflies are attracted to the nectar filled blossoms of pentas. A particularly prolific variety is ‘Stars and Stripes.’ This pentas with its bright red petals and pink centers is irresistible to our flying friends. ‘Stars and Stripes’ has variegated leaves (hence the name Stripes) and shows up well in the evening. This pentas paired with chartreuse potato vine is a stunning window bow or hanging basket combination. It is also very effective planted en masse in the perennial garden for constant color during the summer.

Ornamental Pepper: Now let’s really add some drama to your garden and containers. Look for ‘Black Pearl’ ornamental pepper. This ornamental pepper has almost solid black leaves and pearl shaped fruit that turn from black to bright red. It is recommended not to eat the fruit and not to let your pets eat it either. This tough little pepper plant thrives in hot sun and can survive drought conditions. A small plant with lots of aesthetic punch, it would look stunning in a container planting of yellow coreopsis and the pentas mentioned above, ‘Stars and Stripes.’ Small containers of this combination would be fun to use as table top decorations for a 4th of July celebration.

Sun Coleus: I am a huge fan of sun coleus, and new varieties show up every year. All are easy to grow, and they thrive either planted in the ground or in containers. A new one on my list to try this season is ‘Henna.’ It has serrated foliage that is a color combination of chartreuse, burgundy and copper. This coleus variety will complement so many other plants. It would be a beautiful container or window box combination with blue plumbago, chartreuse potato vine and ‘Caramel’ heuchera. It is a sturdy and compact variety that grows up to 20 inches tall and is also a wonderful bedding plant, looking terrific with a combination of vinca planted in front of it for color. This will last throughout the summer and fall. If the coleus grows too tall, simply pinch off the tops. Put the tops in a jar of water until roots appear and plant it either in a terra cotta pot or in the ground where you need instant color.

Marigold: Let’s discuss the often maligned marigold! I happen to love marigolds as they remind me of my parents’ garden in Augusta, Georgia. How many of you remember marigolds planted in lines like little soldiers bordering a walkway or the edge of a garden? 

Try to think of them planted in masses to provide bright, carefree color all season long. There is nothing subtle about an African Marigold. They come in the bright colors of the sun: yellow, orange and sometimes red. They are deer resistant, and some gardeners swear that they repel mosquitos … the jury is still out on that account. I like to plant them in large, circular masses at the front of an annual bed. There are varieties that will grow to 2 feet tall, and the dwarf varieties will stay short and compact at 8 to 10 inches tall. They add a punch of bright color to a sunny container or hanging basket. They are easy to grow from seed that you can order from a seed catalog. You may also harvest the seeds at the end of the growing season. Keep them in a manila envelope in a cool, dark place all winter and replant them straight in the ground when the soil warms up. This is a great project for a child gardener or as a school project.

Dahlia: Dahlias can be difficult but it is so worth the effort. If you have a sunny spot with two to three hours of morning sun and six to seven hours of total sun, you should be able to grow dahlias. Dahlias grow from a tuber and prefer to be planted when the soil is warm, so May is the perfect time to get them in the ground. The soil needs to be worked so that there are no weeds, and plenty of organic matter –– such as mushroom compost or ‘Earth Food’ — should be added. The soil must drain well. Make sure that the “eye” of the tuber is facing up. 

Dahlias come in the most exotic and eye catching color combinations. They grow beautifully in perennial beds with other flowering plants or in beds dedicated just to dahlias. They may need support if they are the tallest varieties. The blooms can get so large that they can literally fall over and pull the plant out of the ground. It is better to plant the tubers before they start to grow rather than to buy plants that are already full of bloom.

So start looking now for the varieties that appeal to you and get them planted by the end of the month of May. They should surprise you with big, beautiful flowers from July though frost. Take notes of the varieties you planted this year. If they were easy to grow and produced lots of blooms, then plant the same ones next year. If not, try another variety until you find just the right one. It is definitely worth the effort. You will be the envy of all of your gardening friends when they see your big bouquets of dahlia blossoms.

It’s fun to try different things, and it is easy to do in the gardening department. Make a list of these “out of the box” perfect picks for the garden and try some in your garden this May. Keep records and add to them every year. Variety is the spice of life, and it is definitely the spice of the garden. 


Chores for the May Gardener

Now is the perfect time to air layer your existing hydrangeas. Pull one of the outside branches down so that it touches the ground. Make sure the mulch is pulled back so that the branch is in contact with the soil. Put a brick on the branch to hold it to the ground. You should have a new plant by the late fall. I have done this for clients when their parents are moving from their childhood homes. This way they can take a little of their gardens with them.

Plant a container with vegetables and different varieties of lettuce. Keep it close to the kitchen door for easy access. Plant an herb pot to go right beside it or near the grill to add delicious fresh flavor to roasted meats and vegetables.

Make sure irrigation is working properly and that water is not being wasted by heads spraying the hardscape or by any drip lines having large cuts.

Early May is the optimum time to plant tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables. Soil preparation is vital, so make sure the soil is free of weeds and drains quickly after heavy watering. Make sure the ground is level so that no puddles will form. Add organic matter and work into the existing soil.

Hydrangeas have been very susceptible to fungus the past few years. Treat with the appropriate fungicide. Err on the side of too little treatment rather that too much.

Pinch back pansies and violas for one last big show of blooms before it gets too hot.

Begin planting annuals. Try some that we discussed above.

Edit your containers. Plants thrive better in large containers. Maybe de-assess some of your smaller containers.

Check outdoor lighting for faulty fixtures or burned out bulbs. Adjust timers so that lights come on and go off when desired.

There is still time to divide overgrown perennials in early May. There are many gardening organizations that have plant sales. Donate extras to these organizations if you are running out of room.

Find a spot for a birdbath or bird feeder. If our summer is anything like this past summer, our feathered friends will be looking for water during the hot, dry summer months.

Cut out any dead branches in hydrangea and azalea bushes. Prune azaleas after they bloom to achieve the size and shape you desire.

Start a monthly liquid fertilization program for perennials and annuals and containers.

Cut roses for bouquets. You will be pruning the bush at the same time.

Record early spring bloom times in your garden journal. Record successes and failures and what you might want to remove or replace.

Bring indoor plants outside to a shady spot. Water thoroughly and monitor throughout the summer months.

Find out about garden tours in the area. It’s a great way to get new ideas for your own garden. The Columbia Green Garden Tour is in Elmwood Park this year on Friday and Saturday, May 5th and 6th. Contact Columbia Green for more information.


What’s Blooming in the Midlands?

Abelia, Coreopsis, Dianthus, Daylilies, Iris, Candy tuft, Phlox, Lady Banksia rose, Stokesia, peony, vitex, deciduous Azaleas, Confederate Jasmine, Clematis, Hydrangea, Roses, Begonia, Vinca, Impatiens, Marigolds, Yarrow, Daylilies, plumbago, Petunias, Portulaca and Verbena