Bright New Annuals Offer Splash for Summer

Bright new annuals offer splash for summer

By Valerie Easton for the Seattle Times

Saturday, May 1, 2010

ANNUALS ARE the top-dressing of the garden, valuable far beyond their duration because their lively diversity spices up the garden during the months we’re outside most. Annuals are just for fun; no need to be as realistic or discriminating as with more permanent plantings. Just think of annuals as the cage shoes of the plant world — in one year and out the next.

petunia pretty much picassoWhat would summer be without a new petunia or two? My vote for the hottest newcomer is the bicolor ‘Pretty Much Picasso.’ This is a useful petunia; its tidy shape and short stature work well as ground cover, edging or container elements. Its brilliant color contrast is the real story, though. ‘Pretty Much Picasso” has black-centered flowers with neon-violet petals edged in vivid chartreuse. You’ll either adore this color combo or it’ll make your teeth hurt. A “self-cleaning” petunia, the flowers fall off as they die rather than hang on the plant like crumpled Kleenexes. Which means the plant looks good most of the time, and you don’t need to be out there all summer pinching it back.

Lantana is one of those unexciting filler annuals, a background plant used to fluff out pots and baskets. Or it was before the new variegated version L. camara ‘Samantha’ came on the scene. The hot-yellow leaf trim and flower makes you wonder if this temptress was named after the blonde Samantha on “Sex and the City.” Both are unlikely to be overlooked. No wonder butterflies are attracted to the vivid flowers, which bloom nonstop until frost.

It seems a cruel fate to grow a gorgeous creature like the annual purple fountain grass Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’ and have it die over the winter. This spring, plant breeders have come up with an even more desirable, variegated version that is still a tender annual. How about doing us a favor and increasing hardiness rather than beauty here? P. setaceum ‘Fireworks’ is an explosion of silky, arched blades striped in red, hot pink, deep burgundy, green and white. In late summer, the grass is topped off with fuzzy, mauve-colored flowers. The flashy ‘Fireworks’ is more compact and slower-growing than ‘Rubrum,’ so can be used to edge beds or center a container. But like its parent, you have to overwinter this tender beauty indoors, or plant again next year.

zinnia starlight roseZinnia ‘Zahara Starlight Rose’ is one of those disease-resistant, long-blooming annuals whose sweet looks belie its toughness. Which is probably why it won an AAS medal for 2010, the garden equivalent of bringing home the gold. This sturdy little flower grows just a foot or two tall with a double layer of white petals centered in gold and splashed in rosy pink.

And if we start the list with a petunia, surely we must conclude with coleus, the other category of iconic warm-weather annuals. How about ‘Redhead’ the truest red coleus ever? It’s a vigorous variety that grows 2 feet high and thrives in sun or shade. If it’s variegation you go for in coleus, check out the new ‘Chocolate Splash,’ a smaller, shade-loving variety with fat, chartreuse leaves marked in darkest brown.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “The New Low-Maintenance Garden.” Check out her blog at