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Annual flowers and plants are a quick way to get color, fragrance, or even food into your yard and containers—and they’re low-maintenance too! Unlike perennial plants that regrow every year, annual plants grow, flower, go to seed, and die in a single year, so the plants spend all their energy growing big blossoms instead of putting down roots. You can buy seedlings for an instant garden, or plant your own seeds to save cash.
From tiny sweet-scented blossoms to bright yellow blooms bigger than your head to edible flowers and moody deep purple leaves with scent of spice, there’s an annual for every garden. Here are our top 12 picks for the easiest, best-looking plants for American gardens.
How to care for annual plants
Annuals start blooming early and keep blooming as long as they can, so with a little care, you’ll have great-looking plants until frost. Keep your annuals watered. Most garden annuals in the ground need 1 inch of rain or water a week, while plants in containers usually need daily watering in the summer.
Best for a scented garden; attracting butterflies; and planting on the edges of beds and walkways, and in containers. You cannot go wrong with marigolds. These reliable, sturdy, classic garden flowers love sun, and heat, and tolerate drought, and they bloom from early summer until frost. The seeds sprout in a week or less, which makes them great for growing with kids— but you don’t have to settle for the yellow and orange mix you may remember from school or your scout troop. Nowadays, marigolds can be white puffballs or lime green globes, or tiny golden flowers with edible leaves that smell like licorice.
2. Sweet Alyssum
Best for edible gardening. Sweet alyssum is the perfect flower for edges of beds and containers. Alyssum grows masses of tiny white, purple, or pink flowers on low stems. Sweet alyssum’s honey scent attracts bees, butterflies, and other pollinators, and is strongest in the sun—but sweet alyssum will also thrive in partial shade.
Planted in a container, the delicate flowers will spread and drip over the edge. With weekly watering, sweet alyssum will bloom all summer long, although it does best in cool areas. Carpet of Snow alyssum is the classic white variety, Easter Bonnet is rosy pink, while Royal Carpet is a swirl of violet and pink blooms.
Best for hot, sunny sites; growing from seed and in containers; and edible gardening. Basil isn’t just for pesto any more. Deep purple varieties like Opal basil or frilly-leafed Purple Ruffles add spice to your garden and look striking next to yellow or pale pink flowers. Most varieties grow to 1 ft. or more and sprawl over the course of the summer. For containers, opt for more compact plants like Emerald Towers, which grows in a straight column up to 2 ft. tall, or Boxwood, which has small leaves on a compact 8- to 12-inch-tall plant.
Best for cut flowers; color; starting from seed. Nasturtiums are easy to grow—and eat! The edible flowers and moon-shaped leaves have a peppery taste, and brighten up summer salads, sandwiches, or even pizzas. Nasturtiums also bloom reliably and bountifully in warm shades of cream, yellow, orange, red, purple, or multicolor blooms.
As a bonus, they thrive in poor, dry soils, and both hot and cold conditions. Most nasturtiums will spread to cover ground. Choose a “trailing” nasturtium like Double Gleam to flow over the side of containers. If you’d like to start your nasturtiums from seed, plan on soaking the seeds in water overnight to increase their germination rate.
Best for cut flowers; color; starting from seed. Zinnias are the flower to grow for summer bouquets. Zinnias are those colorful pom poms in shades from white to orange to red to purple you’ll see in supermarket bouquets and farmers’ market stalls—but you don’t need to be a professional to grow these flowers. Fast-growing and simple to start from seed, zinnias are a great choice for beginners and garden experts alike.
You can choose zinnias that look like daisies, or chrysanthemums, or have multicolor petals in shades of yellow, orange, red, chartreuse, or purple. Most zinnias typically grow 2 to 3 ft. high with long stems suitable for any vase. For a short container, try 6-inch-tall Thumbelina zinnias.
Best for a scented garden, colorful leaves. Annual geraniums come in shades from white to pink to red to scarlet to crimson. Annual geraniums are upright plants that grow about 1 inch tall with long-blooming flowers. They pack a punch for gardeners because they’re sturdy and perfect for containers, and scented varieties have leaves that give off a fragrance of lemons, peppermint, or roses when the leaves are crushed.
Put a scented geranium in a pot by your door so you can brush against it when you come home and inhale its perfume. At the end of the growing season, you can pot up your geraniums and bring them inside for the winter as houseplants. Be careful at the garden store: Perennial geraniums are a different species.
Best for big flowers; starting from seed; and growing in containers. Sunflowers offer more options than ever before for big, easy blooms. Dwarf sunflowers are fantastic in containers. Try Tiger Eye, which is 30 inches tall with bicolored gold-and-maroon blooms, or Sunny Bunch for golden flowers with brown centers. Teddy Bear dwarf sunflowers are fuzzy drops of sunshine, with blooms that look like golden yellow fur.
For slightly larger garden spaces, Autumn Beauty Mix will give you a range of colors from yellow to golden brown, while Chianti sunflowers are medium-sized blooms in a deep, rich velvety red the color of its namesake wine. Of course, if you crave a giant plant, the Mammoth sunflower grows to 12 ft. with foot-wide flowers.
Best for lots of colors, containers, covering ground fast. Petunias will brighten your garden beds and containers for months in colors ranging from yellow to red to purple to black, with dozens of patterns. For containers, baskets, or covering a lot of ground, choose “Wave” petunias like Wave Purple, which spread horizontally 3 ft. or more over the course of a summer.
Cascading petunias like Supercascade White are best hanging baskets and containers, and grow their flowers on long drooping stems up to 18 inches long. Easy Wave petunias are best for garden beds because they form a mound as they grow instead of spreading. Older varieties like the hyacinth-scented Evening Scentsation typically need deadheading to look their best all season. Pinch back “leggy” petunia stems to make the plant resprout bushy growth.
Best for growing in shade; colorful leaves; and a scented garden. Begonias provide reliable color in shady spots and thrive in containers. Begonias offer flowers in colors from white to yellow to red, and have textured leaves that can be vivid colored leaves.
Different species of begonias offer a variety of features. Roseform begonias look like small roses, and are available deep pink and lemon yellow. Sweet begonia will scent your garden air with a light, sweet fragrance. If you’d like deep green or bronze leaves, choose wax begonias like Maxima Switzerland begonia with vibrant red double blossoms and deep burgundy leaves or Sparks will Fly with cheerful small orange flowers over deep green-bronze foliage.
Best for cut flowers; starting from seed. Cornflowers—also known as bachelor’s buttons, basket flower, or blue bottles—are excellent flowers for fresh bouquets or boutonnieres (which is why they’re called bachelor’s buttons!). Traditional blue cornflowers and selections like Blue Boy have true-blue blooms and thrive in sun or part shade. Mixes like Tall Double Mixed Colors also feature white, pink, and purple flowers.
Bachelor buttons keep their vibrant colors when dried. Simply hang the flowers upside-down in a dark, dry place for 2-3 weeks for a long-lasting dry bouquet.
Best for hot, dry, sunny sites; edges of beds and walkways; starting from seed. Portulaca, also known as moss rose, is a tough plant for tough places. Portulaca thrives in hot, dry, rocky soil and containers, and makes an excellent groundcover for rock gardens and along garden bed edges and driveways.
The plants have spiky succulent leaves and single- or -double blooms from early summer until frost. You can start seeds by sprinkling them just on the soil. Opt for a combo like Double Mix with red, pink, yellow, white, and purple flowers; single colors like white or peach; or bicolors like stripey pink Peppermint.
Best for containers and shady spots. Torenia, or “wishbone plant,” fills containers and hanging baskets with cascades of delicate blue, deep blue, purple, pink, or yellow orchid-shaped flowers with a tiny “wishbone” at their throats. Trailing up to 2 ft., torenia flourishes in part shade. It’s a great choice for adding cool blue hues on a shady patio. For containers and sunny sites, choose a lobelia like Crystal Palace Blue for deep cobalt blue color.
13. Pineapple Sage
Best for edible gardening; a scented garden; and attracting butterflies and hummingbirds. Technically, pineapple sage is a perennial, but only in mild climates; in most of the U.S., you’ll need to treat it like an annual or bring it inside if you want it to survive the winter.
Pineapple Sage is a master multi-tasker. Its bright red, fragrant, tube-shaped attract butterflies and hummingbirds, and its leaves and flowers are edible and smell like fresh pineapple. This plant thrives in planters and garden beds, and it will bloom in full sun and in part shade—particularly in areas with morning sun and afternoon shade on hot afternoons.
Pineapple sage can reach 3 to 4 ft. tall, making it an eye-catching centerpiece for large containers. Use the leaves and flowers in salads or teas.
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