What is an annual, and why should I care?

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Did you ever have a conversation with a plant head? You know those people that know everything about gardening, have a bright green thumb, and spout words like annual, perennial, bi-annual, and on an on?

The people that make gardening sound sexy, fun, and magical? You want to understand what the hell they are talking about and get in on the fun so you nod your head in agreement. But … in reality, you haven’t a clue as to what they are saying? I feel ya. I’ve been there too.

Well, today my dear friend we are going to arm you with the knowledge you need to nod your head and mean it. At least when it comes to annuals.

What is an annual anyway? And more importantly, why should you even care?

In a nutshell, an annual is a plant that lives one season then dies. Knowing what an annual is and how to use them in your garden can take your garden from good to showstopping in no time.

Sounds great, but it doesn’t sound very sustainable you say, and you are right. Annuals are rare in nature because they are not very sustainable with a one season shelf life.

Nature likes plants that continue their lives or continue to replicate themselves over and over.

We don’t usually allow an annual in our garden to live out its true life cycle because a brown plant that is going to seed is unsightly to most people.

So they are usually pulled up before going to seed. That means they never get to start the life process over with a new plant from those seeds the next season.

If an annual plant is left to fulfill its full life cycle it will drop seeds, and allow those seeds to go dormant until the next growing season. That gives those seeds an opportunity to grow into a new plant. This process keeps that particular species alive from generation to generation.

This is how Mama Nature intended annuals to go. It’s a far more sustainable cycle and makes a whole lot more sense.

But, we humans being the way we are tend to pull the annual plants out before they drop their seed because they get brown and die. So they don’t have the chance to go through the natural cycle and create new plants. Brown plants aren’t so pretty in the garden. So now what?

They aren’t very sustainable and it seems like pulling up the plant each season can get expensive you say? You are right on both points. True and true.

So, if they aren’t very sustainable and they cost you extra money why do people love annuals so much? Why do landscapers install them then rip them out at the end of the season and put a new annual in?

Well, annuals are usually pretty showy and hardy. They grow quickly. Remember, they have to grow, flower, and produce seeds all in one year before they die so they have to work fast.

They usually start producing flowers in six to eight weeks, impressive. They also provide color quickly and it usually lasts for the season. Most people love color in their garden. I know I do!

Annuals come in a wide variety of colors, sizes, shapes, and textures too. So they are a pretty diverse option for a showstopping garden.

Back to sustainability …

Now, don’t get me wrong I love color and annuals, and I like to see people plant more of any kind of plant, but there are some sustainability issues to keep in mind with annuals.

Because annuals are not very sustainable the way most people use them, you will find yourself going back to the nursery or big box store to buy more mature plants when the current plants start to decline and end their life cycle.

This seems like a huge waste of time and money. We are literally throwing out the seeds and then buying plants to replace them. Hum?

Another issue is that nine out of ten times those new plants come in plastic pots which unfortunately are not recyclable.

You can’t recycle most plastic garden pots in your regular recycling bin, and throwing them in the garbage would just send them to the landfill to off-gas, breakdown, and get into our water systems.

The plastic pots new plants come in are usually not recyclable so they end up in landfills and eventually in our water systems.

I don’t know about you, but the thought crushes my heart so I try hard not to do that. I use the plastic pots I do have over and over and when they rip I use duck tape to bring them back to life. But, I know at some point they will end up in a landfill creating microplastic that finds its way into our water systems and oceans. Not good.

We won’t be here in 1000 years (the time they estimate for plastic to breakdown) but while I am here I’m going to do my damnedest to use as little plastic as possible and change my habits for current and future generations. How about you?

So as much as I love color and fast-growing plants I’ve realized annuals are not great for our environment the way we are currently using them. I cringe when I see landscapers ripping out plants at shopping malls and industrial parks that look fine, just to install the new “fresh” ones. Ouch!

Just because that’s how it has been done before you doesn’t mean you need to do the same thing and repeat a broken cycle.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Most people think Einstein said this but it is not confirmed. Still a great quote.

P.S. You can try and save those plants the landscapers rip up and plant them in your yard. I’ve done it and had lots of success. Free plants. Wahoooo!

So what do you do if you want lots of color and annuals in your garden?

Start with seed and eliminate the plastic pot.

The first step is to eliminate the plastic pot. Buy seed instead. The second step is to use composted soil. Try not to buy composted soil in plastic bags if you can. If you have no other choice then please wash them out and recycle them where they recycle plastic bags, like Publix Supermarkets.

Great soil is the key to a great garden. Start with compost.

You can purchase great compost from nearby farms that have horses, cows, chickens, or goat waste. They are fantastic for new seeds. You can let the manure sit for a few weeks or months so it breakdowns and offers the perfect organic matter for seeds to grow in.

Always stick to herbivore compost. You CAN NOT, SHOULD NOT, ever use human, dog, cat, or any other meat-eating animal’s waste unless you have processed it correctly for years.

The Native Americans had a great system of rotating their potty stations in a square so by the time they came around to potty station one in the fourth year it was ready for planting. I don’t suggest that at this point in time.

Maybe when I’ve found some better studies on it in the future I’ll share a post about it. Until then please do not use meat-eater (carnivore, omnivore) waste. If you do it is at your own risk, and that is a big risk. Yuck.

For now, skip the meat-eater poo and go to a local landscape supplier. Call and ask them what is in their soil mix first. You’d like to get the most natural option possible like a composted horse or cow manure mixed with a soil that drains well. Then, bring a bucket or bag with you to fill with bulk compost.

Better yet, have them drop a big old load of composted soil in your yard or driveway. A nice example would be Big Earth they have tons of options and can mix to order. Google similar options for your area.

In the Spring, put down the new soil, spread the seeds on top, cover with a thin layer of additional composted soil, and water deeply every day until you see sprouts. Then, keep watering the soil daily or every other day depending on how dry your climate is.

Always water the soil, not the leaves, so it stays moist but is not soaking wet. Annuals do love water which is another reason they aren’t very sustainable.

You can minimize the issues of sustainability by buying seeds (no plastic pot) and buying bulk soil (no plastic bags). Every little bit counts!

The last concept is to plant the annuals between other long-living plants like evergreens, trees, shrubs, and ground covers.

In the photo below you can see how we created a hidden row for the annuals. They are nestled behind plants that are full and beautiful year-round. We used an evergreen hedge as an example.

Example of planting an evergreen row in front of annuals.

The annuals will come up for the season and give you that pop of color and drama you want in your yard. Then, when they die back you won’t have a blank yard with brown dying plants. The older annuals and seeds will be hidden behind the plants that are there year-round.

Example after the annuals have died back. They are hidden behind the evergreen row where the seeds will stay dormant until next Spring.

Most areas of the country are snow-covered in the winter so the annuals can stay buried and wait until Spring to sprout and do it all again with a new generation of plants.

How cool is that? It reduces your plant buying costs, time, labor, wasted plastic, and gives you a yard that dances with color.

Yes, you may see some brown plants peaking over the hedges once in a while. But, there is a solution for that as well.

If the annuals aren’t falling down fast enough for your aesthetic taste you can cut them back once they seed and let them compost right in place.

Then, put a thin layer of mulch over top (stay away from rubber mulch, red mulch, and acidic mulches like pine-they can stop seed growth). Or just use the brown plants you cut back as your mulch for the next season covered with a light layer of composted soil.

The beauty of this gardening style is that as the season changes and the annuals die back you will still have a beautiful yard.

If you are patient and allow the annual seeds to drop and overwinter you might be pleasantly surprised to see some plants come back the next year.

Seeds rarely have a 100% germination rate but you could get lucky and have a nice bloom.

Another benefit of gardening with annuals this way is that you will have more biodiversity growing from seed. See our post about the importance of seeds and biodiversity here.

Here at The Plant More Project we absolutely love wildflowers. Many wildflowers are annuals although there are also perennial wildflowers. The color, the texture, the animal life show it brings with butterflies, bees, and other pollinators is fantastic.

We plant the annual wildflowers knowing they will seed, die back, and a new generation will come back the next season. We also know that when they die it looks sad so we interplant with plants that will look good all year and that helps a lot.

The year-long plants may not be showy but they are still beautiful and offer a pleasant visual. The contrast between the annuals and the year-long plants is stunning too.

Here are some options for seeds in paper packets. Those paper packets will degrade quickly. I like to bury them under the seeds and let them degrade right there.

Check with your local master gardeners for native annual suppliers in your area.

So that is an annual. Pretty much one and done unless of course, you let them go to seed and have the next generation of healthy beautiful plants grow. Isn’t that what we all desire for our children to grow up strong and healthy, with a great future?

Let me know if you have questions or if you have a garden filled with annuals you’d like to share. We showcase gardens on our social media pages with the rights holder’s permission.

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In our next post we’ll talk about perennials.

Plant Power On!


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