A Manual to Annuals

Over the years I’ve learned a lot about what makes a great flower pot or flower bed. Like all gardening, setting the stage for a beautiful display of nature is about art and design just as much as it is about practicality and knowledge of your plants. A good place to start when understanding the plants in your garden is mastering the importance of annuals and the role they play in flower beds and containers. So here is – wait for it – a manual to annuals! Later I will also offer my best tips and tricks to designing a beautiful and manageable container or flower display. 


The Basics

What is an annual? Many of you might already know the answer to this because the name makes it pretty obvious, but just to clarify, when we say “annual” in the gardening world, we are referring to, “Any plant that completes its life cycle in a single growing season.” Whether you plant it from a seed or seedlings, an annual will sprout, flower, seed, and then die – all within the same year. The ultimate goal of an annual is to spread its seeds as much as possible before it expires. This is so the seeds can lay dormant until next year’s season where they rise again. Though most gardeners have to replant seeds every year, sometimes a few of the previous year’s annuals will sprout, albeit in unexpected places of your garden.

Annuals are different from perennials, which come back every year without replanting. This means perennials tend to be less work, however, it also means they have a shorter blooming period. The benefit to using annuals in your flower beds is due to the fact that they tend to bloom longer, they give you the chance to plant something new every year, they are less of a commitment, and they typically cost less. However, a great flower bed consists of both annuals and perennials. According to, “Planting a variety of perennials that bloom at different times can create the backbone of your garden and will save you work down the road, while annuals can be a great way to experiment, maintain constant color and refresh your garden year after year.”

Finding the perfect balance between the two that works best for your garden is entirely up to you! 

Annuals are often identified as the showy flowers, the ones with the bright colors and big blooms. Common types of annuals are zinnias, begonias, and snapdragons. Many vegetables, grains, weeds, and wildflowers are also considered annuals since they have to be planted every year as well. Annuals can bloom in any season. There are winter, spring, summer, and fall annuals and some that span more than one. 

Here are some winter annuals I love including violas, tulips, 2 kinds of kale, creeping jenny, snapdragon, and poppies waiting to bloom.

Tips and Tricks for Annual Flowers Beds and Container Gardens

  • Do not be afraid to mix colors, textures, and shapes. 

In my early days as a gardener, I started off very conservatively. I wasn’t as free with my designs back then and used very few contrasting colors. Now I enjoy the experimental part of gardening. I view a flower bed or container like a canvas that I get to paint on and try new things with. Complimentary colors are a great place to start when getting curious with your flower displays. Red and green, blue and orange, yellow and purple – these are all complimentary, meaning they are colors opposite each other on the color wheel. Planting annuals of those colors beside each other in your garden is a sure way to create an impactful visual. 

Color isn’t the only thing you can use to design an interesting aesthetic. Consider the shape and texture of the flower as well. Annuals with large, wide petals next to ones that are smaller and more dotted make for a wonderful contrast. Perennials that are short and pointy next to annuals that are tall and flowy give the viewer that visual dimension that brings a garden to the next level.

Here are some contrasting colors and textures. Bright orange next to dark purple and wide open leaves next to small petals
  • Plant more flowers than you think you need

“The more the merrier!” “You can never have too many.” “Better to have too much than too little.” These are all phrases you might hear when preparing a Thanksgiving meal or Christmas party. But the same concept applies when putting together a flower bed. As a general rule of thumb, planting more is almost always better because you can bet on some of the flowers dying or not sprouting at all. You also want to avoid accidentally having huge gaps of growth in between. Planting more flowers ensures a full display. And besides, if they grow too closely together, you can always remove a few. 

Crowded? Nah. The more the merrier!
  • Plant annuals that bloom in different seasons in the same bed

Mixing and matching your annuals based on their blooming seasons is another great way to create visual contrast. For example, zinnias with petunias make a great team because zinnias look better in the late summer when petunias struggle. Play to their strengths and weaknesses and keep in mind the times of year they really shine. 

  • Foliage, foliage, foliage

To reach its full attractive potential, every flower bed or container needs texture, which is usually created by foliage. This is where the perennials make their debut. Cannas, elephant ears, lambs ear – these are all great examples of leafy, textured foliage that look great next to colorful annuals. Another great example are grasses. Their wispy, linear look adds to all containers and beds and can even echo the colors of some of the brighter flowers but in a slightly more muted tone. This adds depth of color to the bed or container.

This middle bed has plenty of foliage and groundcover.
  • Never forget the 3 most important elements to any container or flower bed: Thriller, Spiller, and Filler

  1. Thriller – These are the loud and proud flowers. They are the bigger blooms, usually annuals. 
  2. Spiller – These are the low, groundcover perennials that provide all the texture and foliage. They frame the space whether its a wide, long flower bed or a small flower pot. 
  3. Filler – These are the nuts and bolts of the show. They are usually characterized as some of the smaller flowering annuals or perennials

If you want to learn more about containers, in this blog I go into detail about the planters I have worked on for clients and some common myths about soil and drainage that affect them. 

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