“With a few flowers in my garden, half a dozen pictures and some books, I live without envy.”
—Lope de Vega
If you’re driving behind Michael Ruggiero, you had better leave a healthy braking distance. It’s not that he’s a bad driver; it’s just that he’s likely to suddenly pull over to some roadside planting to take a photograph. It may be an elaborate corporate installation, some homeowner’s window boxes, even a gas-station island; to him, all offer gardening inspiration.
You see, Michael is a plantsman, in the most time-honored sense of the word. A long-time Senior Curator at The New York Botanical Garden, his knowledge is both broad and deep. He can discuss the merits of any tree or shrub, rattle off names of numerous deer resistant plants, offer a lengthy list of shade tolerant perennials that makes you wish you had no sun whatsoever in your yard. But the plants that cause him to veer off the road and reach for his camera are annuals.
By definition, an annual plant completes its life cycle in one year. Gardeners broaden the term to include other plants that don’t survive winter in our region. Over the years, the condescension of perennial plant snobs combined with one too many geranium displays to make the annual planta non grata. At a workshop at The Phantom Gardener, however, Michael shared wisdom and photographs that revealed endless, stylish possibilities for annuals in the landscape.
Play the field
Gardening with perennials is like marriage; with annuals, it’s like going steady for a few months. With this in mind, experiment. Pair up bold colors like orange and blue to see what punch it brings to your landscape. Try out a monochromatic garden, or an elegant black and white display. Go formal one year, casual the next. Worst case scenario: you find out he’s…it’s not for you, and say good riddance at the end of the semester. Er, season.
To create a garden that’s in harmony with nature, make native plants the backbone of your landscape. When using annuals, however, indulge your exotic side; go for whimsical, magical. Banana plants (Musa spp.) and Elephant’s ear (Colocasia esculenta) offer bold statements with their enormous leaves. Bougainvillea and Mandevilla climbing their way around porch posts can turn your home into a tropical paradise. Planting flowering tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris) and other night-fragrant flowers beneath bedroom windows allows their heady perfume to waft into your home.
Don’t forget to eat your vegetables
Striking displays can be achieved by combining flowering annuals with vegetables and herbs. Start a spring bed with a tightly-planted mosaic of lettuces in various hues and shapes. Harvest and enjoy the outer leaves until the plants bolt, then pull and replace with other annuals. Plant vibrant hot peppers amid your petunias; edge a bed with parsley; use cardoon plants as other-worldly accents, then parboil, bread and fry their artichoke-flavored stems for a delicious taste of Italian heritage.
Try to contain yourself
Annuals are the darlings of container planting. Eminently versatile, containers can serve as movable screens, or enhance an otherwise untillable area. They can welcome visitors daily to your front door, then be relocated to the patio for a party. A low-growing dish of lobelia and one or two varieties of thyme can spend the daytime outdoors, then come to the dining room table each night as a centerpiece. Experiment boldly with plant combinations and containers (how about planting a wheelbarrow, or a pair of rubber boots?). Update containers each season for an affordable way to refresh your landscape.
Let’s be practical
Annuals lend themselves to all manner of garden fixes. Hide an unsightly air-conditioning unit with a trellis and a fast-growing hyacinth bean vine (Lablab purpureus). Underplant shrubs with portulacas to serve as a living weed barrier. Lose a perennial in mid-season to deer browsing? Fill in with a dramatic annual, and replace with a new perennial come fall. Love cut flowers, but can’t afford to purchase them often? Plant a cutting garden and harvest your own.
Because they provide more instant-gratification, annuals also are the perfect way to engage children in gardening. And, Michael emphasizes, don’t decide what you think is an attractive combination: let kids choose their own plants, and you might find that their open-mindedness leads to some amazing plantings.
Remember that perennials are tortoises and annuals are hares. Where the former mete out their energy into a brief floral display and store the rest for next year’s race, annuals sprint through the season, pouring themselves into ongoing bloom right up to the finish line. Give them the hydration and energy they need — especially those in planters — by watering often and feeding them every two weeks with an organic liquid fertilizer.
What are you waiting for?
Now, hurry to your favorite garden center and feast your eyes on the vast array of hues and textures available in their annuals section. But don’t tailgate; you just might be behind Michael Ruggiero.
To Learn More…
Annuals with Style by Michael A. Ruggiero and Tom Christopher; The Taunton Press
There is no better way to learn than in the company of other gardeners. Botanical gardens, retail garden centers and your Cornell Coöperative Extension all offer informative workshops:
(for The New York Botanical Garden programs, including some held at Bard College)
(for info on the Master Gardener and other programs)
Or, find and join your local garden club: