In the Garden:
New England
March, 2011
Regional Report

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Towering Mexican sunflower adds a bold note to my flower garden and attracts butterflies as well.

Big, Bold Annuals

Mowing the lawn has never been one of my favorite tasks. That, along with my plantaholic ways, resulted in my designing a front yard that is mostly garden with just a small amount of grass to set off plantings of trees, shrubs, and flowers. Herbaceous perennials offering a succession of bloom are the backbone of my flower beds. But like many gardeners, I couldn't afford to fill my expansive beds with perennials all at once. So I turned to annuals started from seed to provide structure and color in the interim.

Many annuals are great for adding season-long color, and I always use them to add accents of color in my flower beds and in containers and hanging baskets. But what I needed those first years in my garden were lots of plants with real stature and presence, plants that grew tall. So I began with one packet of seeds of the flowering tobacco Nicotiana sylvestris. I started seeds indoors about six weeks before my last frost date and by Memorial Day I had seedlings with large rosettes of bright green leaves ready to set in the garden -- lots of seedlings! A day of planting filled a 60 foot long by 10 foot wide bed running along the sidewalk. The plants went into well-prepared soil in full sun, and soon huge, tropical-looking leaves clustered around thick central flower stalks that began, just like Jack's beanstalk, to grow up -- and up, and up. By the middle of July, each five foot or higher stalk was crowned with a large candelabrum of blossoms composed of 4 to 5 inch long, sweetly scented, drooping, pure white flowers. And the flowers kept coming, with each cluster producing up to 50 of the individual flowers with their long, slender tubes flaring out into a five-petaled star. Now this dramatic nicotiana is probably best used as an accent or focal point; an entire bedful of them in full bloom stopped traffic and was the talk of the neighborhood. This was many years ago, before the advent of digital photography, so I don't have a picture to include, but suffice it say, no one paid much attention to any of my other plants that summer!

I've continued to use tall annuals to spice up my gardens, albeit on a less grand scale. One of my favorites is Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia). I use this as the centerpiece to my "hot" garden, with its medley of oranges, reds and yellows set off by deep purples. This plant, which can reach as tall as five to seven feet, has dark green leaves against which the bright orange, daisy-like flowers with yellow centers seem to glow. As a bonus, I often find butterflies stopping by to visit the vivid blossoms. The cultivar 'Torch', with 3-inch, red-orange flowers, is probably the most commonly planted tall selection and is the one I grow.

Like nicotiana and many other towering annuals, tithionia relishes the heat of midsummer, and in our cool region needs to be started early indoors about 6 weeks before the last frost date. Be sure to move seedlings to larger pots as they grow so their growth is never restricted before you set them out in the garden when the soil is warm and all danger of frost is past. I usually wait a week after my last frost date to set seedlings in the garden.

The plants are big, so be sure to give them plenty of room to develop, setting individual plants 24 to 36 inches apart. Mexican sunflower is not fussy about soil as long as it's well-drained; in fact, it does best in soil that is not overly rich, which tends to stimulate the growth of many leaves but fewer flowers. It is drought-tolerant once it's established, thrives in heat and high humidity, and needs full sun for best growth.

Another tall bloomer that is a regular in my beds is cleome or spider flower (Cleome hassleriana). With open, lacy flower heads in shades of pink and white that keep coming until frost without deadheading, the four to five foot tall plants are perfect for scattering among my perennials to provide continuous spots of color as the blooms of the perennials wax and wane through the season. Cleome seedlings are commonly available in garden stores in spring, and I usually start with several purchased six-packs, allotting my home growing space to plants like nicotiana and tithonia that are harder to find offered for sale. But they are easy to start from seed eight weeks before the last frost date. Don't start them too early, however; they transplant best when seedlings are no taller than about 8 inches. And cleome grows so quickly, you can even direct seed them in our area a week or two before the last frost date for bloom by the middle of summer.

Other statuesque annuals I've had success with include tall selections of cosmos; lavertera; nicandra (also called shoo-fly plant or apple-of-Peru); and of course, annual sunflowers. In addition to adding a feeling of maturity to a new garden and serving as eye-catching accent plants, all of these annuals are great for quickly and inexpensively adding privacy or screening an unwanted view of your compost bin or the neighbor's trash cans.

New for me this year in the tall annuals department will be ornamental amaranth. I'll be starting seeds of Joseph's coat, (Amaranthus tricolor) 'Illumination', in peat pots in mid-April, four to six weeks before my last frost date. This four to five foot tall plant, also called a summer poinsettia, will provide color not with its flowers but with the crimson, gold, and bronze variegated leaves produced on the upper third of the plant (the lower leaves are deep green). I can't wait to see the visual heat this will generate alongside the orange of the Mexican sunflowers in my "hot" garden!





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