Annuals and their Role

Annuals are ephemeral plants: they flower for one season only and then they are gone. This may seem to be a disadvantage in a garden context, but in fact it can be a great benefit, especially for those gardeners who like to have something different in their flowerbeds each year.

What is an annual?

Limnanthes douglasii, the poached egg plant,
creates a perfect border to this wildflower
garden, which is dominated by annuals.

The most common are the true annuals, which grow from seed, flower and produce their own seed within a year. There are many examples of these, but poppies and nasturtiums are popular ones. Closely allied to these are the biennials. These grow from seed one year and then flower during the next. Foxgloves and evening primroses are familiar examples.

Then there are those perennials that are tender, and so are treated as annuals and started afresh each year. Pelargoniums and busy Lizzies are good examples. Finally, there is another group of perennials that are used as annuals. These are simply short-lived perennials that are better grown from scratch each year. Frequently planted examples of these are wallflowers and sweet Williams.



Since most annuals grow and flower within the year, hardiness may not seem to be an important factor to take into consideration, but it can be if you plan to grow your own annuals from seed. Hardy annuals can be sown outside and will withstand late frosts, but half-hardy or tender annuals must be raised under glass and not planted out until after the risk of frost has passed. Alternatively, half-hardy or tender annuals can be sown directly where they are to flower, but again only after the threat of frost is over.

Great diversity

One of the great advantages of using annuals is that the design of a garden need not be fixed: you can change the colour, texture and shape of the plantings each year if you wish. At the end of the flowering season you simply rip out the plants, then decide which annuals you want to plant for the next season. They come in all shapes, sizes and colours, so the gardener has a virtually limitless palette from which to create planting schemes. This versatility means that annuals can be used as massed bedding or mixed with other plants, such as perennials, or they can be used in containers such as hanging baskets, large pots or window boxes. They also provide a wide range of flowers that can be cut for the house.


Using annual plants is not all about makingthe most of showcasing the flowers. In this container, for example, silver foliage has been used to great effect.

Long-flowering annuals

  • Ageratum
  • Antirrhinum majus
  • Argyranthemum
  • Begonia x semperflorens
  • Brachycome iberidifolia
  • Calendula officinali
  • Impatiens
  • Lobelia 
  • NicotianaPelargonium
  • Petunia
  • Salvia
  • Tagetes
  • Tropaeolum majus
  • Verbena x hybrida
  • Viola x wittrockiana
  • Zinnia elegans

Mixing it

Annuals can be used to great advantage mixed with perennials and shrubs. One big advantage that annuals have over perennials is that they tend to flower over long periods, often throughout the whole summer. So, in a mixed border, annuals can provide a permanent thread of colour.

Planting a bedding sceme and then watching
it come to life can be a great deal of fun.
Although not as popular currently as they
once were, these schemes provide a stimulating
challenge for the inventive mind.

Their temporary nature can also be put to good use. Often it will take several years before shrubs or perennials reach their final spread, and during this time there will be areas of bare earth around these plants. Annuals can readily be used here as attractive temporary fillers until the other plants eventually use up all of the space.

Annuals can also add a touch of lightness and almost frivolity to an otherwise staid border. For example, a border predominantly full of shrubs, perhaps planted for their interesting leaves, can be enlivened by massed plantings of bold summer annuals in front of and in between the shrubs. Each type of plant will complement the other.

Hanging displays

Annuals make wonderful container plants, whether in tubs, window boxes or hanging baskets. They usually last the whole season, providing constant attractive colour, though regular watering is a must for continuous flowering. Once the season is over, you can completely change your scheme for the following year simply by changing the plants. You might perhaps try hot oranges and reds one year, followed by softer, cooler blues and whites the next.