Annuals Archives

Why I Clean my Beds NOW

Something that gardeners sometimes disagree about is whether to clean up their beds in the fall or wait until spring, and I was interested to learn that horticulturist Carol Allen is in the clean-up-in-fall school.  In fact, her garden is free of dead leaves and all mulched over by the end of December so that in early spring her garden is ready for prime time!

Well I’m with Carol on this one, and here’s one reason why:  I’d rather not look at dead, brown leaves all winter!  Especially close-up to the house, I’d rather see a scene like the one below, post-leaf-removal.

Cleaning up also inspired me to add some ornamental kale to this high-visibility spot.  I love how this purple variety looks with the chartreuse Creeping Jenny groundcover.  I used five of the same kale here because in such a small space, any more would look busy to my eyes.  I keep reminding myself that in my new small garden I need to keep it simple.

Besides aesthetics, another reason to remove leaves is to keep wet leaves from killing certain plants – the ones that like to stay dry.  That includes, in the photo below, Lamb’s Ears and all my groundcover Sedums.  So while I’m waiting for all the leaves to drop to do the big clean-up in this spot, I at least unsmothered these dryness-loving perennials.

In the lower part of this photo are plenty of leaves, but they’re on top of perennials that can handle it, like black-eyed Susans.

Want more reasons for doing fall clean-up?  It removes diseased plant parts that may winter over, and spots for garden pests like mice and voles to winter over, too.

Posted by Susan Harris.

Fall Color for Shady Spots

I’ve reported on on my favorite plants for fall color in sunny spots and as promised, here are my faves for shade.


Coleus come in dozens of colors and patterns.  Mine are just now, in late October, losing their leaves.  They’ve looked big and bold and colorful all season, until let’s say m id-fall.


Begonia grandis.

Begonia Grandis blooms from September through fall.  The foliage is gorgeous all season.

Japanese Anemone in mid-October.

Japanese Anemones look great here at the National Gallery’s Sculpture Garden with petunias.

Hakonechloa Grass.

Hakonechloa Grass doesn’t bloom, but its gold foliage looks great all season and the dried foliage looks lovely in the winter, too.  Behind it is a shrub that’s colorful in the fall and winter, too – the  Acuba.

‘Ice Dance’ Carex.

Carex is the name of a large genus of grass-like plants (technically called sedges, not grasses) and many are evergreen, like the ‘Ice Dance’ variety above.  It’s been a primary groundcover in my shade garden for decades now.  It brightens up even the darkest spot.


Oakleaf Hydrangea at Brookside Gardens.

The glorious Oakleaf Hydrangea  is one of my all-time favorite shrubs and it’s famous for its four-season interest.  The photo above demonstrates its fall glory and coming up next, with no leaves in sight, is its lovely exfoliating bark.

Encore Azaleas

Encore Azalea is a repeat-blooming shrub was highly recommended to me just yesterday by a Prince George’s Master Gardener.  She told me that hers are blooming like crazy even now, in late October.

Posted by Susan Harris.  Photo credits:  Encore Azaleas.  All others by Susan Harris.

Fall Color in the Smithsonian Gardens

Another installment in what’s turning out to be a series of articles about fall color in the garden, this one the result of my trip to the Mall over the weekend.  So what better place to start admiring the gardens of the Smithsonian than their Butterfly Habitat Garden?  It’s along 9th Street between Constitution and the Mall, and since it was created in 1995 it’s become awesome.

Horticulturist James Gagliardi has been in charge of this garden since June of 2011.

James here tells me he’s entertaining a whole lot more questions from passersby than he did in his last job at River Farm in Alexandria.  In fact, sometimes Smithsonian gardeners have to hunker down and look as busy as possible when the public passes by, just to get through their through list of chores.

I love the combination of well established perennials and colorful, dramatic annuals, like the red Canna and the Lantana that’s still blooming like crazy (in pink and orange) in mid-October.

James shows me another cool annual – the Gomphocarpus.  Its common name is Hairy Balls.  Seriously.

Above, a favorite perennial of mine – Amsonia hubrichtii, which will turn bright orange any day now.  It sports tiny blue flowers in early summer, and is a tough native in our region.

Of course a butterfly habitat garden is going to have lots of asters, and they’re going to look great in October.

Next door, the cafe at the Sculpture Garden (the one with the skating rink) has these gorgeous Mandevilla vines growing along its facade.

Along Constitution Avenue I spotted this fabulous garden in front of the Museum of American Natural History.   Great mix of sweet potato vines and coleus, with others I didn’t recognize.

UPDATE:  In a comment, the Smithsonian’s supervisory horticulturist Jonathan Kavelier tells us “these plantings also include Amaranthus and Cuphea as well as many other annuals and tropicals. The cycad is Zamia furfuraceae.”  Thanks!

Here’s another view of the American History gardens, with a close-up of the bizarre-looking cycad.  In the front are two sweet potato vines, and the taller purple plant is Persian Shield.

Finally, I always stop in at the Ripley Garden when I’m anywhere near it because it’s usually gorgeous, and always interesting. In the front is probably the annual Penta.

I DO know the purple plant here is an elephant ear. The red flowers in front? I don’t know.

In front, a Variegated Tapioca Plant. Behind it, an annual hibiscus.

You’ve probably noticed the Variegated Tapioca Plants at the front entrance to our Beltsville store.

Posted by  Susan Harris.

How to grow mums that come back every year

Ever heard of Dendranthemas?  Me, neither.  They used to be one of the types of Chrysanthemums but that genus was split in 1961 and now we have this new term for them.  Other terms include “perennial chrysanthemums” and “garden mums,” as opposed to what are sometimes called “florist mums.”

I became interested in this new name and the plants behind them after discovering them in the Behnkes Perennial Department the other day.  From the photos on the signs, they resemble daisies and indeed daisies used to be in the same genus before the “splitters” of  the hort nomenclature world got hold of them and declared them something else.  (They like to keep us on our toes.)  Other dendranthemas have double flowers and that look exactly like the mums we’re used to seeing this time of year.

All of these tough perennials are deer-resistant, great for cutting, and bloom from early fall until frost on 3′ tall bushes.  The plant can be made shorter and bushier by cutting them back half-way or even sheared to the ground (advice varies) in early summer – before July 4.  They can also be kept at their best – and shared with friends – by dividing them every three years or so.

They’re on sale - 1/2 off – and there’s a nice choice:

– Clara Curtis, a favorite of horticulturist Carol Allen, has single blooms in a salmony pink.

– Cambodian Queen has single pink blooms, sh own below left.

– Brandywine Sunset has single peach-colored blooms.

– Mei-kyo has double lavender blooms.

– Venus has single pale pink blooms.

– Yellow Sheffield has single yellow with pink overtone.

About those “Florist Mums”
But how about the common mums we see everywhere in the fall, the ones that are so often tossed, grown only as annuals?  I asked Carol Allen about them and she swears that they come back every year for her, so come to find out, they’re perennial, too.  In subsequent years they won’t be quite as short and full as they are when you buy them because they were carefully raised to look that way, but if you cut them back once or even twice before that July 4 date, they’ll do very well in your perennial garden.

Just a few of the color choices available right now.

Posted by  Susan Harris.

My new garden in Old Greenbelt is far smaller than the one I left behind – that was the idea, after all.  But though smaller, it’s still a brand new garden, and mostly empty.  Calculating how much it would cost to fill it with perennials is discouraging, so I asked the staff at Behnkes to point out annuals that will fill up my garden next year, for no additional cost.

And the good news is that there are lots of them.  So here’s the batch I’m investing in this year – very little money – for an even big pay-off next year.

Salvia ‘Black and Blue’ and ‘Victoria Blue

These deep blue beauties are reliable self-sowers and great at attracting pollinators.   Gardeners chatting on one large online forum agree that while not cold-hardy, they definitely come back each year from seed.


Again, the forums are full of reports of this annual spreading by seed.   Also reported is the tip that now’s the time to “pinch and poke” any impatiens that may be getting leggy about now (late June through mid-July).  Just know that next year’s impatiens may be a different color than this year’s.

Now who can resist the combination of long-haired cat and red impatiens shown in this photo?  Or honestly, this cat with anything – he’s awesome!


This Brazilian succulent is unusually drought-tolerant among annuals, so great for the low-maintenance gardener.   They’re available in a range of bright colors and when young, they’re even edible.

Portulaca (L) and Cleome (R)


Cleomes are unusual among annuals for their height – 36 to 72 feet by mid-summer – and for their wonderful sparkler-type shape.  Commonly named Spider  Flower, they’re quite heat-tolerant, and loved by both birds and butterflies.


Marigolds in the garden, and in garlands across Asia.

Marigolds are practically a staple in vegetable gardens because they naturally repel nematodes and other garden pests, including rabbits, deer and rodents.  They’re often seen planted along rows of tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and potatoes, to good effect.  Yet miraculously, they attract the bugs we like – butterflies.

And all but the most hybridized varieties of marigolds are reliable self-seeders, especially if you deadhead the blooms and drop them onto the ground.

Interestingly, marigolds are by far the most popular flower throughout India, Nepal and Thailand for making the garlands that are ever-present in religious rituals.

Posted by Susan Harris. Photo credits.  Salvia.   Impatiens with cat. PortulacaCleomeMarigolds in gardenMarigolds in Nepal.

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