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The Annuals Report: : A Spring Planting Guide

The talk today is of perennials and English gardens, but what of annuals, the zinnias and marigolds that grow from seed and flower in a season? Are they to be forgotten, to become a symbol of simpler times when a bed of brightly colored flowers was enough? We hope not, because annuals have always held a special place in the California garden. Most of the seed is commercially grown in this state, and we have an opportunity others don’t: to plant two annual gardens each year, one in the fall to bloom in the spring and one now to bloom in the summer.

Pictured is the Malibu garden of Mary Ellen Guffey, perhaps the largest and most spectacular private garden of annual flowers in California. We asked Guffey why she plants annuals--why start from scratch every year?--and what she does that makes the garden so splendid.

And be sure not to overlook her list of likely candidates for a summer flower garden, on Page 38, or the way she makes compost, on Page 39, which has just a little to do with this splendidness.

Annuals are not chic. They are not exotic, rare, subtle or expensive. Some are a little too bold in hue, too buxom in size, too vulgar in form and too commercial to be of interest to a discerning plantsman. Moreover, most popular annuals require little special treatment; no mystique surrounds their culture. They are, in fact, common.

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But I love annuals. I love their riotous colors, their impatience to show off, their simple culture. Petunias, zinnias, larkspur, alyssum, marigolds--to my mind, these, and many other annuals, are the real superstars in the garden.

Such an admission, of course, is tantamount to confessing that one is a gardening tyro, and a rather insensitive one at that. To proclaim a passion for annuals not only discloses your amateur standing as a gardener but reveals you to be out of step with the current plant world. The real rage in horticultural circles is, of course, the perennial. Avant-gardeners today aspire to herbaceous borders styled in the English manner. If annuals are used to fill in bare spots, they are a secondary consideration.

My more sophisticated flower-growing friends visit my garden and shake their heads. When my horticultural tastes mature, they say, I will give up this dalliance and begin to appreciate more-permanent and more-subtle plantings. But I am, apparently, a case of arrested development. After 25 years of gardening, I’ve never shed the beginner’s enthusiasm for watching the transformation of a packet of seeds into a bold display of zinnias or a stunning bed of annual phlox.

It’s not that I have anything against perennials--or bulbs or shrubs or fruit trees or roses or anything else that blooms, for that matter. I grow my share of them too. But annuals rate highest in my garden. They produce the most color for the longest time and the least investment. With them I can create a new garden display every year. This year I wanted to have lots of cut flowers, so I planted long-stemmed annuals and some perennials that act like annuals in our climate. Next year I may change the color scheme entirely. And there are always new annuals to choose from and discover.

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The garden pictured here was photographed last May and June, and most of it was planted in January and February. Some of my favorites in this one are annual phlox ( P. drummondii Beauty), alyssum, bells-of-Ireland and petunias. The prettiest petunia that I’ve grown recently is ‘Summer Madness,’ a new variety that was the horticultural hit of the season last year. It was effective in pots and in flower beds--especially when combined with white salvia ( S. farinacea ‘Victoria’) and gloriosa daisy ( Rudbeckia hirta ).

Although annuals are my favorites, they are not for everyone. They definitely are labor-intensive. Whether they’re more work than perennials is debatable. My principal complaint regarding perennials is their limited blooming period. Most are colorful for only three or four weeks and then occupy valuable garden space for the remainder of the year. In our mild climate where gardening may be pursued year-round, annuals make a lot of sense.

When I begin my flower gardens, whether it’s fall or early spring, I start by removing all spent flower clumps from the previous season, so that I can prepare the soil thoroughly. This requires a certain degree of ruthlessness because some flowers still look fairly presentable, even at the end.

Although my hillside garden contains good loamy soil, it needs enrichment to produce crops year after year. Homemade compost is the best way to improve soil texture while adding organic nutrients (see Page 39 for details). However, my compost pit doesn’t provide nearly enough humus for this large garden, so I purchase two organic soil amendments, Nitrohumus and composted redwood. Pulverized peat moss is a popular soil enhancer, but I consider it too dry and too expensive. Over the soil surface I spread a three-to-one mixture of redwood amendment and Nitrohumus. A two-inch layer of this mixture is sufficient for my soil; for poor garden soil, a six-inch layer is better. Organic amendments improve the soil texture, allowing aeration of roots and drainage of water, but they don’t add significant nutrients to the soil. For that reason, I sprinkle handfuls of all-purpose fertilizer granules according to package instructions. Then I turn the soil over to a depth of eight or more inches.

I have a gardening friend in the San Fernando Valley who, I’m the first to admit, grows prettier flowers than I do. The secret of her gardening success, I suspect, is soil enrichment. She has added so many bags of redwood compost that her garden soil, originally a solid tan clay that she called “Chatsworth caliche,” now looks like forest humus and crumbles like moist chocolate cake.

After preparing the soil, I transplant seedlings to the flower beds. Seedlings in small packs of six are more effective, and cheaper, than plants in four-inch pots because seedlings can develop wide and deep root systems, the better to draw nutrients and water. Annuals from four-inch pots, or worse yet, gallon containers, often bear flowers on inadequate roots making for quick but puny flower displays.

Growing flowers from seeds is often the only way to acquire unusual cultivars. When I use seeds, I rarely plant them directly in the garden. Too many problems result: erratic germination, confusion of seedlings with weeds, snail and slug damage, uneven distribution of plants. I prefer to start seeds in a pot and transplant them to a flat when they have two sets of leaves. Then I grow the seedlings in the flat until they reach two inches, when they’re ready to be sent off to the garden to fend for themselves. I add a little Vitamin B-1 to the water applied when transplanting.

The best part of gardening is nurturing the seedlings and watching them grow husky and strong. After the seedlings begin to grow, I start a regular feeding program. Diluted liquid plant food provided every two or three weeks, using a siphon-hose attachment, works miracles with most annuals. The siphon is inserted between the hose bib and the hose. Its tube draws up concentrated liquid plant fertilizer from a bucket and is diluted with water from the hose. To break up the heavy stream of water delivered by the hose and to enable me to reach plants more easily, I use a water wand.

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Before fertilizing plants, I loosen the soil around them; otherwise, it repels the water and none penetrates the root area. Because nutrients can be absorbed through the foliage, the leaves should also be drenched when feeding. However, the root area is the place of primary emphasis and must be saturated with the solution.

Most seedlings benefit from being pinched back. Don’t do it, though, until the seedling has established itself--usually about two weeks after planting. Be prepared to stake taller flowers as plants grow and bloom.

The worst part of gardening is controlling the pests and diseases. Ants love to deposit aphids on tender young stocks, whiteflies encamp on the undersides of nasturtiums, and rust insidiously attacks innocent snapdragons. What to do? I’ve tried shooting streams of water at aphids. They’re supposed to drop off and disappear; mine reappear like dandruff. Whiteflies usually scoff at insecticidal soap, and no amount of handpicking can prevent the spread of rust once it envelops snapdragon leaves. Instead of throwing up my hands and surrendering, I fight back with Sevin, Malathion or Funginex.

As my early annuals stop blooming, I replace them with warm-weather selections such as vinca rosea, gloriosa daisy, marigold, petunia, verbena and golden fleece.

On Page 38 is a list of annuals to consider planting now. Although it’s late in the year to be starting seeds in the hotter areas of the Southland, gardeners along the coast have time to order and grow them successfully. If it’s too late for seed orders, plan ahead to next season. For fall planting, order in August. Seeds arrive in September, and seedlings started then are ready to be set out in late October or November.


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