Annuals: A Major Waste of Time, Effort, and Resources???

One result of our meteorologically quiet and somewhat dry autumn is that many annuals look better than one might expect. Usually by mid-November they are brown and frosted – as has already occurred in some colder gardens – or melted into a mushy mess by our not-so-gentle autumn rains. In either case their departure is a sorry sight, as they usually leave quite a mess to clean up – and once you’ve done that you have a big hole to fill in, or just leave it empty so it can look empty all winter. This leads me to ask, could there be a better way to garden without using annuals?

Now I’m not lambasting all annuals indiscriminately, believe it or not. Annie’s Annuals certainly grows some good annuals, among other things. I’m aware that many wild plants are, in fact, annuals: their life cycle involves germinating, flowering, and setting seed within a single year (usually less) to perpetuate their species. This is sometimes a survival strategy to endure winter cold, but more often summer drought. Many annuals also produce food, but I’ll get to that later.

So here are a few reasons why we are not overly fond of annuals. I’m really not trying to spoil anyone’s fun, but perhaps you’ll consider some of these points the next time you’re shopping for plants, or even making plans for your garden.

First, growers of annuals are major consumers of peat moss. This is a finite resource that will expire at some point. It is also quite environmentally destructive to harvest it. Once you’ve dug up a peat bog it takes thousands of years to recover. This has become a major substrate in potting soils for annuals because it works so well. While some substitutes have been developed (coco coir being the best known), none of these has really caught on sufficiently to show promise that it could truly replace peat moss. So for the present, it takes some really specialized knowledge to figure out what else might produce acceptable results without compromising quality. Growers of annuals aren’t guilty exclusively; but, broadly speaking, most perennials and shrubs seem able to perform better than annuals in a bark or compost based soil mix.

Second, you plant annuals, and then in a few short months they’re dead. Sure, they are great while they last. But if I’m going to spend $100 on plants wouldn’t I rather enjoy them year after year? I dunno, that just seems like kind of a no-brainer to me.

Third, it’s more work to plant a bunch of stuff year after year (and then to clean it up year after year when it dies) than to just plant it once and let it keep on growing. Gardening of any kind requires a certain amount of maintenance, but having to do the exact same work over and over again seems like a waste of effort (unless you’re really easily amused, in which case I guess there’s nothing wrong with that).

Fourth, many annuals require a lot of water to look good in our dry-summer climate. This is not true of all annuals; there are certainly many exceptions – but I rarely see drought tolerance considered as a factor when someone selects annuals for planting. Watering takes time and money; and, while a lot of perennial and woody plants require regular water through our dry summers as well, we try not to grow or encourage too many of those and only use them in moderation.

Fifth, the majority of annuals that are now available are over-bred genetic dwarf hybrids of the species and earlier hybrids from which they were bred. This means they just plain don’t have what it takes to perform that well in the garden. A lot of people buy these plants and plant them, then after watching them languish they think they did something wrong and blame themselves. This creates a negative experience that I consider to be quite destructive since it has the potential to turn people off from gardening in general. Sometimes it really is the plants’ fault – or, more precisely, the growers and breeders fault for producing this junk to merchandise to unsuspecting plant shoppers. So because growers are now flooded with over-bred dwarf annuals, gardeners lack the right plants to choose from. Of course we could do something about that by growing and selling only the best kinds, and perhaps someday we will.

My sixth and final reason has to do with how they’re used. This is less of a serious complaint since we can do something about it; that is, use them tastefully if we use them at all, and show gardeners how to do likewise. The problem is that the sort of “boink-ism” that Annie’s Annuals blogged about has infiltrated every area of society, it seems. People, and especially new gardeners, don’t even know how to use annuals well since they have so little to go on.

At the Desert Northwest, we do not grow or sell annuals. But that doesn’t mean we never could: but they will probably not ever become a really major part of what we do. We would probably stick with certain easily grown and water-wise annuals that perform well here and fit our theme.

Another great excuse for annuals is that some of them produce food. Like tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, peas, and more. We think that’s just grand. If you’re going to be an annual and use up all that time and effort it takes to grow you, you might as well give something back.

We would say, though, that we do not believe annuals will feature prominently in the future of the horticulture industry – at least, not the segment of it that survives the challenges it now faces – relative to the past. As people are increasingly interested in sustainability; and in saving time, money and water; they will gradually figure out that annuals just don’t make as much sense in a sustainable and water-wise garden. Not that they’re all going to disappear, or that we want them to. But for gardening to remain popular it has to make sense to our current generation of people who don’t like wasting money and would usually rather be spending time on other things than planting and replanting the same area over and over again.

I may be right, or perhaps not – I guess time will tell!

Here’s part of an appealing mixed planting of water-wise annuals, perennials and shrubs in downtown Port Townsend. Now I think this (possibly excepting that one stray grass front and center) looks great – hooray for whoever did this.

New botanical expedition report!

I have now posted photos of the highlights from our botanical expedition to Chelan County that we took in October! This is the first such report I have produced in about five years, so that is exciting. Have a look, and let me know if the new format gives you any trouble.

I have also made a few minor corrections to the web site – thank you for your feedback. You can now see what our mail-order plants look like at the Terms page; these images had not been loading earlier. I think things are all fixed for the time being.

16 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. george
    Nov 10, 2011 @ 23:19:26

    you can grow them from seed. they can self seed. they can hybridize and produce unique varieties in your garden.

    you can pull them out when you get bored.

    you can remove a failed perennial or shrub and throw some temporary green in its place for a season. you can fill empty spaces.

    you can eat them, you can feed them to your pets. you can dig them into your soil and improve it.

    you can add something to your garden from another climate and only have to worry about it for a year. need a lot of water? not too bad in one small area. need great drainage? mound up and add gravel for a year.

    annuals can die in an attractive way.

    some annuals i like: sorghum, nigella, lots of solanum, california poppy, job’s tears, runner beans, plains coreopsis, etc…


  2. Ian
    Nov 10, 2011 @ 23:38:16

    George, all valid points. Part of my problem is I’m not “bored” enough! Growing from seed, I think, is decreasing in popularity, unfortunately. I think if everyone who planted annuals were growing them from seed it would be an entirely different ball game.


  3. Mark and Gaz
    Nov 11, 2011 @ 06:00:44

    Gardening, or making a garden or borders that are largely based on annuals is in reality far more expensive than a border that is filled with mainly perennials. And the lack of ‘renewal’ (being as annuals) means you’ll have to spend the same amount next year, plus inflation so could be more. Not cost effective and makes them less appealing at this period of recession.

    It’s tradition and summer cheer that sustains the ‘annuals’ sales but I suspect there will be a downward trend towards it in the next few years, but like most things will also get a future surge.

    We’re not a huge fan of annuals ourselves, preferring perennials and other permanent plants, but the odd one dotted here and there does enhance the borders 🙂


  4. Annie Hayes
    Nov 11, 2011 @ 11:29:29

    Hi Ian . I do love my annuals as well as perennials, shrubs and trees . One thing I think folks often overlook is that non terminator-hybrid annuals self sow so very reliably – you plant 1 or 2 this year and you have 50 free plants next Spring that you can use to fill out a garden , share with other gardeners or easily toss into the compost . Whats more I think we often mislead others with the term “perennial” . How many perennials really keep their looks for more than a few years ? Gardens are not static and neither are perennials or shrubs- they very often go into decline after a few years , get attacked by insects , need soil amending , pruning etc. I was just thinking this morning about when I was going to go out a prune my roses and how much time & energy I was going to need -hehe. So lets not forget that all gardening requires energy expenditure of some sort both in time and money. Here in California we see native enthusiasts praising the superiority of “”maintenance free” native gardens .Anyone who has ever really lived with and cared for a native , perennial , drought tolerant garden knows that they are certainly not maintenance free and will look quite horrible after a year of not being tended to.

    Anyway, self sowing annual species make lots of folks folks very happy . They love the free volunteers , the profuse bloom they don’t have to wait long for, the sense of romance many of us love and of course , all those free cut flowers to bring indoors .

    So there you go , my 2 cents . And thank you so much for the mention !


  5. Ian
    Nov 11, 2011 @ 12:04:57

    Uh oh, I’m in trouble now, LOL. (Maybe I just wanted to see if anyone was still reading my blog.) Mark and Gaz, that’s pretty much how I look at it too. It’s this practice where people make huge blobs of them that is visually not that appealing and can be expensive if you’re not growing them from seed, which most people aren’t.

    Annie, I certainly agree with your points about maintenance and the inevitably dynamic nature of gardening. I think that’s why I find myself not doing a lot with perennials either (or roses!) Besides that there are a lot of bad genes going around out there, esp. with recent cultivars; too many perennials constantly have to be mulched, cut back, slug-baited, etc. I find shrubs and groundcovers to be the lowest maintenance, but even then one has to be careful about which species are selected as some require a lot more care than others, and they usually outgrow their space at some point. I also think a lot of people promoting ‘maintenance-free’ don’t even quite get it, and could be doing much better with both plant selection and gardening methods. This might be a topic for another blog post…

    Unfortunately, my experience with self-sowing hasn’t been so great here. It seems to me that relatively few annuals self-sow here in the Pacific Northwest relative to points farther south. That, at least, was my experience when I used to grow a lot more annuals back in the early-mid 1990s in rainy Olympia. After 4 months of 40 degree soil temperatures and 50 inches of rain, not many seeds are left!

    Having said all that, I think it will be fun to try more annuals in the future, to see what is able to succeed with little care here in Sequim. Thanks for your thoughts.


  6. Desert Dweller / David C.
    Nov 12, 2011 @ 10:48:13

    As usual, I agree with all of you, being a designer who has a need to use many life forms. We have a variety of heat-cold-drought escaping ephemeral annuals in the SW desert, so that helps…and with prevelant overwatering, most perennials are extremely short-lived in practice.

    Of course, so are annuals, if the maintenance people hit volunteers with roundup. (and so are woodies, if *owners* demand shearing / shaping them into submission…and so are succulent accents, if *mistaken* for grasses)

    I guess we have a long way to go to allow annuals to reseed, as well as perennials to not be removed in winter and summer dormancy! Maintenance – the last frontier.


  7. Loree / danger garden
    Nov 13, 2011 @ 10:57:07

    I’ve started to write on this same topic several times. It amazes me how many flowering annuals I see people buying in the stores every spring! It does seem though that many businesses that used to plant huge beds and containers of annuals are starting to use them more sparingly, perhaps they are realizing with the time and cost involved it just doesn’t make sense.

    Every year I plant a couple of things that are doomed to be annuals in my zone (Castor Bean, Echium, Papyrus) they are fast growers and because I love them I figure the joy I get for the 4-5 months that they are alive is worth the cost and time to plant. This year I scored a couple of super cheap succulents at the grocery store (they’ve got a garden section) and planted them where their vibrant color would be enjoyed, thinking that the cost was so low I would just let them die at the end of the season. Naturally I’ve taken cuttings of most of them unwilling to just watch them turn to mush.


  8. Loree / danger garden
    Nov 13, 2011 @ 11:06:27

    (p.s. loved the botanical expedition report to Chelan County)


  9. Ian
    Nov 14, 2011 @ 10:52:25

    David, a lot of drought-adapted plants, of all types, require different care than the usual heavy watering gardeners are accustomed to. That difference must be even more pronounced where you are. I love your “maintenance – the last frontier” – it’s so true.

    Loree, I have to admit I tend to plant a few Gazanias every summer. They are one of my favorite annuals and don’t seem to require too much pampering. I still haven’t had the heart to put succulents and other exotics, etc., out unless I think there is some hope they will be winter-hardy at least most of the time!


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  11. David Feix
    Dec 14, 2011 @ 22:12:38

    My thoughts on annuals is a bit broader than yours, Ian, as the climate here in the San Francisco Bay Area and other Mediterranean climate zones allows for using annuals for seasonal bloom throughout the entire year. Nurseries such as Annies Annuals supplies a huge variety of plants from around the world that are just as likely to perform well for color or interest in winter as spring and summer. I find that I mostly use annuals as place holder interest while the more perennial plantings fill in, and they work especially well in this sense, and may often continue to reseed themselves in the garden if there is bare dirt/space for them the following year.

    I’d also make the point that many of what you consider to be annuals in more cold or seasonally cold zones are in fact perennials in a zone 9/10 climate. So things like California poppies, Cistanthe grandiflora, Castor Beans, Nasturtiums, etc can and do live on and perform well for years.

    Now if we are talking about bedded out traditional arrangements of massed annuals in climates where they don’t live more than a few months, I’d agree that while it may not suit everyone’s taste, it is hard to beat such displays for solid vivid flower color. Personally I don’t design much this way, but when I do, I prefer my color punch to come from things that don’t need deadheading, and will give good long lasting color for at least 6 to 9 months of the year before yanking them. It isn’t hard to come up with annuals that fill this bill for our local climate, and I especially appreciate growers such as Annies Annuals for filling this niche with lots of everchanging new things as well as old standbys to try.

    Extending this topic to biennials, I feel they often have similar uses and utility as annuals, and I love both categories of plants for garden design applications; especially so when I can use them for brilliant blooms in late fall and winter gardens. Some of the most useful annuals for this might include all the various color strains of California poppies, many of the South African ephemeral annuals such as Linaria reticulata or Nemesias, Ursinias, Coreopsis tinctitoria, etc etc. I particularly enjoy combining these sorts of things with colorful succulent or tropical foliage color, using zone 9/10 plants that would also be annuals for you folks up north.

    I’ll admit to a sense of amusement at the amount of newer introductions from growers such as PW which market perfectly respectable zone 9/10 perennials and succulents as annuals! Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but I wonder if it is misleading the average gardener to thinking that some of these plants can’t easily be overwintered inside or in a cold greenhouse and appreciated for more than a year. It seems especially cruel to me that so many of the fabulous Kelly Griffen hybrid Aloes and other tender succulents are marketed as seasonal throw away plants.

    Anyway, I’d like to stick up for the beauty and usefulness for annuals in a garden, even though I could never be accused of being the “cottage garden flower lover type” of customer that probably most appreciates a grower such as Annie’s Annuals. There’s lots of higher end landscape designers that appreciate the plants and also annuals that she makes available, and she has also done a phenomenal job of getting the info out there on how useful they can be. (As well as keeping it fresh and exciting for jaded professionals). I’m sure that is really part of what keeps all of us going in this business; there has to be new things to explore and try out each year to keep it interesting…


  12. David Feix
    Dec 15, 2011 @ 12:42:10

    Just a visual add-on to how annuals can work well within a landscape. This is my take on “bedding out annuals” for a garden here in the Berkeley hills. The Lobularia maritima in this shot easily keeps this colorful bloom for up to 10 months in our climate. I’ve tried various combinations here, such as Nemesia fruticans, Violas, Scaevola aemula, Ornamental Kale over the years. I only switch out the annuals twice a year if necessary, sometimes the annuals will last for more than a year with a light shearing. Here’s the photo link:

    Raised border at Burgmann garden backyard


  13. Ian
    Dec 16, 2011 @ 22:23:18

    David, good thoughts and pic, and as I’m sure you gathered, this post was not intended as a serious lambasting of all annuals across the board, but meant as more of a thought provoker.

    I think the key point you make is in your first sentence. The Bay Area, which can grow so many plants from various parts of the world, may also be the perfect climate for the majority of annuals. Which would make sense, since the main reason a plant would be annual would be to adapt to the summer dry period found in a Mediterranean climate like the Bay Area has.

    All that to say, Annie’s could hardly have picked a better spot to grow and promote annuals, even if they have to compete for attention with so many other fabulous plants – if what you say is true, and I don’t doubt it, annuals are somewhat more versatile where you are than here in the frozen north. Still, I intend to do some further experimenting in the future as time allows, and it will be interesting to discover what, if anything, besides California poppy (and certain annual weeds :-P) is able to reseed itself here.

    I am not really a huge fan of succulents being marketed as annuals either – actually, I get a little, well, not quite irritated, but less than excited about some of the uses I see succulents getting lately. There are so many interesting and varied things you can do when designing with them, but when I see many of these designs it’s hard to imagine how they could more than a growing season or two without outgrowing their space and aesthetic value. That’s getting into another whole topic, though. Maybe that’s why I haven’t quite caught the succulent container bug yet…


  14. David Feix
    Dec 16, 2011 @ 23:22:52

    Ian, I don’t know how anyone wouldn’t like succulents and containers, they are just a natural fit in my view. Here’s a grouping of containers with succulents that I only have to fuss with about once in every 4 years, when they may need dividing and cutting back. I enjoy them because they are so tolerant of lackadaisical watering without complaint, and are so useful for form and texture as well as year round color. Here’s one of my favorite combinations in pots…

    Color Echoes with pots and plants


  15. Ian
    Dec 17, 2011 @ 21:17:58

    David, that planting looks great. If only we could keep all those things outside here…!


  16. Sean
    Sep 06, 2019 @ 22:15:14

    Agree 100%. Annuals are like fast fashion, only good for one season and take up considerable resources.


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