Tuesday, May 28, 2024

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Plants that last just for the season often sound like a poor investment, but they allow a gardener to play with color, form and seasonality with minimal outlay.

Gardeners are a tricky lot with more than our share of opinions. Some gardeners eschew the color yellow or variegated foliage while others favor perennials to the exclusion of annuals. I think this latter rule stems from our basic parsimony—perennials return year after year and increase in size and just like our investments or 401k’s are supposed to. And many perennials pay dividends as we can divide them as they mature to increase their space in our gardens—almost the equivalent of a stock splitting.

I must admit, I am a part of that tricky lot. I tend to favor perennials, and I use yellow flowers and variegated foliage minimally in my garden.  However, as we plot out a cutting garden where there was once a collection of peonies, roses, globe thistle, false indigo and irises in five parallel borders, some yellow has worked its way into the mix (only butter yellow, of course, as bolder yellows are too strident). And this season the garden beds will be primarily filled with annuals.

In one packet of ‘Benary’s Mixed’ zinnias, there are more colors than in entire borders at our house.

The new cutting beds are not so much mine as they are Brian’s, who is working with our friend Eric to select the plants that will grace our tables and bureaus in the season to come. For the past six months, they have been collecting seeds, tubers, and texting each other endless images of what they want to include in the beds. I have forgone much of a role in this (other than occasionally vetoing something I could not look at out my bedroom window because the full moon reflecting on it might keep me awake at night). However, as they compiled their lists, which included chocolate cosmos, watermelon-colored dahlias, brilliant pink sweet peas and even a blood red dahlia that may pull in a few vampires on the night of that full moon I was so worried about, I began to let go of my disdain for annuals because I realized they brought something else to the garden that perennials and shrubs could not: a place to play.

While I may regret a bright blue lisianthus as it comes into bloom this season, I can also rest assured that I will not see it for years to come unless it makes the cut and is included in the next year’s plantings. Annuals allow us to experiment and push our boundaries with minimal investment. A packet of seeds is certainly less expensive than a one-gallon perennial and can produce an entire bed of color if it is a packet of mixed zinnias. A dahlia tuber (which can be saved from season to season by digging it up in the fall and holding it over in a cellar) may not technically be an annual, but its price tag is less than that of a Siberian iris—and the range of colors and flower forms from which one can choose is the horticultural equivalent of a box of 254 Crayola crayons for any one old enough to remember those.

Lisianthus come in a range of colors, including this rather unnatural blue.

I would be dishonest if I did not share that I have some apprehension about the range of colors that are coming my way, but I would also be lying if there were not a perennial or two that I have regretted buying, a few of which “mysteriously” disappeared from the garden over the years, to be accounted for as a loss, but in reality they were simply bad investments.

And given that the dahlias can be saved from season to season and a few of these annuals produce true-to-type seed that can be collected and planted next year, this season’s cutting bed may not be a total write-off.

‘Penhill Watermelon’ is a dahlia that is bolder than what I would often select for the garden, but its beauty is not lost on me.

A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.


The Edge Is Free To Read.

But Not To Produce.

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While we busily plant our annuals as a rite of the start of summer, just like Memorial Day, don’t neglect your perennial gardens.


I mentioned spongy moth caterpillars briefly last week. I hear Columbia County in New York has a tremendous outbreak now.

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The Edge Is Free To Read.

But Not To Produce.