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Rethinking Annuals and Other Garden Traditions

Nothing says spring like the mad dash to the local nursery on Mother’s Day to purchase hanging baskets, and trays of annuals for massive displays of color. For many it’s the first day of gardening which ends with an abrupt halt on Labor Day. It’s tradition. It’s engraved in our collective gardening subconscious, and I want to blow it all up! When we garden with nature, our garden calendar has no beginning or end. Sure, we have common tasks to tackle in certain months, but there’s no gold star marking the first day of gardening. I’ve been thinking about this a lot as of late, most likely a result of requests to speak about starting the new garden season. In my mind I ask, when did the garden season stop?

When we garden with nature, we begin to appreciate that our gardens are working year-round, and that they can be attractive in the winter.  While they may not be adorned with colorful blooms, and bees and butterflies aren’t our companions, seeds are feeding birds, grasses which we left standing sway in the breeze and large swathes and blocks of interesting textures and patterns remain, found in the perennials we left standing through winter.  I believe our over-exuberance for summer annuals is a result of being told, far too often, that a garden is only pretty when it’s in bloom. It hasn’t been that long that the winter garden has been promoted, either as a purely aesthetic approach to garden design and plant selection or as a way to sustain wildlife. How long have we been told to cut back the garden in the fall: to put it to bed? Once we did that fall garden chore, what was left?  A few shrubs, lawn, and expanses of mulch? So, we waited, all gray winter long, to find beauty in our yards. When the first trays of pansies appeared on garden shelves, we couldn’t wait to bring some of that glorious color home.

And where to plant all these annuals? Ah, that’s another garden tradition that needs to fall to the side. The desire to have large beds of mulch punctuated with a few plants is a design concept that has always puzzled me.  Sure, if all I had to look at in my winter garden was mulch, I would be counting down the days to grab as many pansies as possible, too. When I began gardening, I wasn’t planting with nature in mind, I was simply addicted to plants. They beguiled me. Large open spaces didn’t last long in my early gardens: there were always more plants to acquire. Open areas of mulch had no appeal; plants were what motivated me. The same holds true today. If anything, the availability of plants, in particular pollinator-friendly and native plants, is far greater. Now I’m not only acquiring plants because that’s what motivates me, but I’m considering how a more varied and lush collection of plants within the landscape is sustaining nature. A garden planted with nature is maturing, expanding, and eagerly filling in open spaces. The garden is driven by nature, not by the gardener, and nature dictates that plants take hold of open soil, not mulch. As a result, there’s no room for large annual displays.

When we garden with nature, we set aside a few special spaces for annuals: not entire expanses of nothingness. I like to add annual blue salvia with my Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’. The Agastache, a bee magnet, blooms from July to September. The blooms do fade a bit and I find the addition of the annual blue salvia keeps that rich, blue color going in the garden until the first, hard frost. I save some space for Pineapple Sage and Mexican Bush sage as well. I can’t resist the velvety purple flowers of the Mexican bush sage and the brilliant blooms of the Pineapple sage is stunning. Paired in the garden and tucked amongst the Karl Foerster, Rattlesnake master and Fennel, it makes for a grand show of color. And I do enjoy pops of yellow, all summer and into fall, of lantana. In a garden of hundreds of plants, my annuals account for a dozen or two, tops.

This spring, consider which plants you could leave standing through winter for visual interest and to support nature. Consider where you could add more perennials and grasses to the garden. Consider how you can use annuals as accessories in the garden, not the main feature.

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