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Annuals That Thrive On Neglect



Do your bedding plants suffer from “good intentions”? You start out the season intending to water, fertilize and weed your annual bed, only to find that kids home from school and family vacations prove to be obstacles to those goals. Well, you can dump your petunias and pots of salvia, and still achieve notable results with the following annuals.


Cosmos, sunflowers and cleome have proven to be hardy and resilient under even extreme conditions. My soil is predominantly clay, and during any heat or drought conditions, will bake to a point of resembling adobe bricks. Still, these three flowers have grown and bloomed when many other species have shriveled. Cleome especially seems to enjoy abuse. Last year, the seeds I had carefully sown and tended didn’t germinate until they were submerged under a foot of water for one week after a massive rainstorm. I ended up with a bumper crop of flowers. These flowers also self-sow readily, and I’ve had the happy experience of purchasing seed one time, and having the beds renew themselves every year with open-pollinated surprises. I’m not a purist regarding color, so many of these second-generation flowers have stripes, spots or other characteristics indicating that the bumblebees have done some hard work in the pollination department. Birds help distribute these flowers as well, so you may end up considering them weeds after a few years. But they’re the prettiest weeds anyone could have; I save the wrath of my scuffle hoe and cultivator for last with them.


Cosmos is the shortest of the three, growing only 2 feet tall, and looks as delicate as a waltz with its fernlike foliage. Flowers are 2 to 3 inches in diameter, and come in white, pink shades, fuchsia and red. Cosmos makes an excellent “filler” flower for cut bouquets, and a field of cosmos in bloom is an eye-catching sight.


One of my market customers calls cleome “the flower from Mars,” and it does look extraterrestrial. The flower heads are large globes of pink, white, lavender or two-toned. What makes these flowers distinct is that the seed pods emerge from within the flower globes, giving the appearance of tentacles. Another name for cleome is “spider flower.” Cleome attracts hummingbirds and butterflies in droves, so adding this 5-foot tall plant to your wildlife garden is essential. There are two downsides to cleome, however. The first is that the stems are covered with sharp thorns. The second is that their fragrance is reminiscent of a skunk’s parting shot or a tomcat’s signature. You can use cleome as a cut flower as long as you singe the stems with a flame to seal in the thick sap, but with their odor, you may not want to use them indoors.


Thanks to Martha Stewart’s use of sunflowers in arrangements, the sunflower has been the subject of extensive hybridization during the past few years. Sunflowers now come dwarfed (2-3 foot stems), doubled, multistemmed, and in shades of red, gold, lemon yellow, orange, bronze and white. Many new varieties are also pollen-free, so your table decorations now won’t leave stubborn yellow stains on your tablecloth. A side benefit of maintaining a sunflower patch is that it attracts many seed-eating birds, most notably members of the finch family. I’ve had flocks of two-dozen goldfinches gorging happily on sunflower seeds, totally oblivious to my presence in the garden. These birds feed upside-down; watching their acrobatics and listening to their ebullient singing inspires joy.


There is still time to put in annuals, and these three flowers can be found as bedding plants at most garden centers. Try them this year, and let these tough guys easily win your heart.

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