Garden Care: Annuals

Caring for your garden annuals begins with the daily task of keeping plants well-watered and picking off withered flowers. However, there are number of activities necessary to keep annuals blooming bright. In this article, you will learn the many different uses for annuals, the particular ailments that may afflict them and how to treat them, and how to ensure continual growth.

Garden Ideas Image Gallery

Picture of a cluster of white flowers, nemesias.
Annuals, like this cluster of nemesias, will enhance
your garden for years to come with proper care.
See more pictures of garden ideas.

A large part of keeping your annuals healthy is protecting them from insects, animals, and diseases. To help them flourish and grow, you need to learn how to pinch back your plants and to "deadhead" them. Once you have them thriving, they should last through the season and help lay the foundation for next year's summer garden. And if you really want to make the most of your annuals, take your cut flowers and dry and press them, so you keep keep those beautiful summer flowers for years.

Continue on to the following pages to get great tips, inspiration, and perhaps learn a few tricks to improve your gardening skills.

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Insects and animals will try to infest your garden. The following chart will help you identify and cure common garden pests for annuals.

Picture of yellow poppy, horned poppy.
Like all garden annuals, horned poppy is at risk
of being attacked by insects and animals.

Symptom Cause Cure Annuals
Cluster of small, soft-bodied insects on buds and growth tips; sticky secretions may be evident
Aphids Spray with rotenone or malathion* in evening.
Pot Marigold, Nasturtium, Primrose, Sweet Pea
Leaves chewed away; hard-shelled beetles on plant and burrowed into flowers
Beetles of various kinds
Spray with rotenone or Sevin* **; pick by hand and destroy.
Gourds, Hollyhock, American/French Marigold, Zinnia
Growth tips wilted; small hole in plant stem at point where wilting begins
Borers Snap off at level of hole; spray with endosulfan*, pyrethrum, or rotenone.
Gourds, American/French Marigold, Ornamental Corn, Zinnia
Leaves and flowers chewed away; caterpillars on plant
Caterpillars of various kinds and sizes
Pick off by hand and destroy; spray with pyrethrum, malathion*, or Bacillus thuringiensis.
Nicotiana, Ornamental or Flowering Cabbage, Petunia
Entire young plants wilted; partially or entirely chewed through at ground level
Cutworms Dig in soil around plant base; find rolled up caterpillars and destroy; circle plant with cardboard collar on edge (1 inch below ground and 1 inch above ground).
China Pink, Nicotiana, Ornamental or Flowering Cabbage, Petunia
Leaves peppered with small round holes; small triangular-shaped bugs seen when disturbed
Leaf Hoppers
Spray with malathion* or methoxychlor*; dust with diatomaceous earth.
Aster, Dahlia, Pot Marigold
Leaves "painted" with whitish, curling trails
Leaf Miners
Spray with malathion*; remove badly infested leaves.
China Pink, Hollyhock
White or pinkish fuzzy clumps on stems and at base of leaves; sticky to the touch
Mealybugs Spray with malathion* or pyrethrum; hand kill by painting each bug with alcohol.
Asparagus Fern, Moses-in-a-Boat, Transvaal Daisy
Slime trails on plants; soft sticky slugs on plants after dark; holes eaten in leaves
Slugs and Snails
Set out shallow containers of beer; set out metaldehyde slug bait*; pick by hand.
Hollyhock, Nicotiana, Petunia, Primrose
Leaves yellowing with speckled look; fine spider webs on plant; tiny bugs on backs of leaves
Spider Mites
Spray with a miticide* on backs of leaves; wash or spray with soapy water.
Flowering Maple, Impatiens, Primrose
Small glob of white bubbles on plant stem or leaves; small insect hidden inside
Spittlebugs Ignore unless very pervasive; spray with malathion*; wash off repeatedly with hose.
Bachelor's Button, Four O'Clock
Brown or white flecks on plant leaves
Thrips Spray with malathion* or dust with sulphur.
Cloud of tiny white flies fluttering around plant
White Flies
Spray with malathion* or diazinon*; use yellow sticky traps.
Heliotrope, Lantana, Morning Glory Vine
* Inorganic treatment
** Copyrighted brand name

Protecting your plants from diseases is of course just as important as keeping them free of insects and animals. Go to the next page to read more about plant diseases.

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The following chart will help you identify garden diseases and cure common garden diseases for annuals.

Picture of purple flower, mallow or cheese.
Beautiful flowers, like this mallow, may wither
and die because of garden diseases.

Symptom Cause Cure Annuals
Leaves become mottled, curl, and shrivel; plants become deformed
Blights and Viruses
Remove and destroy plants; buy blight-resistant strains; do not smoke; wash hands before handling plants.
Aster, Snapdragon
Newly sprouted seedlings fall over and die
Damping Off
Start seeds in sterile soil mix. Dust seeds with Captan* ** before planting.
All plants
Round, dusty brown or black spots on leaves; leaves drop from plant
Leaf Spot
Remove badly diseased leaves; spray with benomyl* or zineb*.
Aster, Chrysanthemum, Foxglove, Phlox
Lower leaves and stems turn grayish and look slightly wilted
Powdery Mildew
Increase air circulation; spray with benomyl* or sulfur.
Bachelor's Button, Floss Flower, Phlox, Sweet Pea, Zinnia
Orange or reddish-brown raised dots form on backs of leaves; leaves look wilted
Rust Increase air circulation; keep foliage dry; buy rust-resistant varieties; spray with ferbam* or zineb*; spray flowers with sulfur or benomyl*.
Cleome, Hollyhock, Snapdragon
Leaves wilt and turn yellow; entire plant shuts down and dies
Wilt Remove infected plants and destroy; buy wilt-resistant varieties.
Aster, Dahlia, Snapdragon
* Inorganic treatment
** Copyrighted brand name

Protecting your flowers is all well and good, but perhaps it would be even better to learn how to prevent insects, animals, and diseases from getting to your beautiful annuals in the first place. Go to the next page to find out more.

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Plant diseases and pests can take over a beautiful, well-maintained garden in a heartbeat. Don't let this happen to you -- learn as much as you can about how to prevent harmful pests and diseases from attacking your plants and what to do if you suspect a problem.

Picture of blue flower, larkspur.
By preventing disease and pests,
annuals like this larkspur will
thrive throughout the summer.

If you feel uncertain about what is causing damage to your plants, take a specimen to your local garden shop or your county Cooperative Extension office. You can also use the Insects and Animals and Diseases  charts to help you identify the most common garden pests and diseases for annuals or perennials.

Once you know what your problem is, you'll need to decide how to control it. When an infestation is slight, it's often possible to simply remove the sick plants or individual insects. For a heavy infestation, you'll probably need to turn to chemical insecticides or fungicides.

Follow manufacturer's instructions precisely and read and follow any cautions on the package label. Apply these chemicals as directed and only when they're absolutely necessary.

Annual flowers do require daily upkeep and pest control. However, to ensure that your garden continues to look as vivid and colorful as it did during the first few weeks, we've assembled a couple of good hints on month-by-month maintenance on the next page.

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The following chart lists the various gardening tasks to be done each year. When they should be done depends on the climate in your area.

Monkey flower gives a great splash of color to any garden.
With regular monthly maintenance, monkey flower
will provide a great splash of color to any garden.

This month-by-month chart indicates when each task should be performed based on the different average annual minimum temperatures in North America. Because conditions can differ, and dates of first and last freezes of the season vary each year, these are only approximate guides, but they will provide you with a general outline for your garden year.

Tasks to Be Done by Average Annual Minimum Temperature
-50°F to
-30°F to -10°F
-10°F to
10°F to
1. Plan garden for coming season*
2. Order seeds*
3. Buy seed starting supplies*
4. Take cuttings*
5. Start slower-growing seeds indoors*
6. Prick off seedlings
7. Start faster-growing seeds indoors*
8. Prick off later seedlings*
9. Lay out new beds
10. Take soil samples if not done in the fall
11. Adjust pH if not done during the winter
12. Add conditioners to soil
13. Add fertilizers to soil as recommended by testing lab
14. Till soil
15. Purchase and plant nontender bedding plants
16. Harden off home-grown bedding plants*
17. Lay mulch on beds for bedding plants. (See step 24 for direct seed sowing.)
18. Sow seeds directly in outdoor beds. Feed as needed until seeds sprout. (Do not allow them to become dry.)*
19. Purchase tender bedding plants
20. Pinch and plant tender bedding plants
21. Plant out tender bulbs
22. Sprinkle pre-emergent weed killer on soil between bedding plants. (Caution: Do not use with direct-sown seeds or young plants.)
23. Thin seedlings from direct-sown seeds*
24. Lay mulch when seedlings reach 4 to 6 inches.
25. Put in plant supports
26. Deep water as needed
27. Fertilize with general plant food (sidedress or water on)
28. Weed as needed
29. Remove dead flowers, as needed
30. Control pests and diseases, as needed
31. Plant biennial seeds for next year*
32. Take cuttings
33. Pick flowers for drying
34. Harvest mature seeds
35. Pot plants to bring indoors for the winter
36. Protect beds from early frosts
37. Dig and store tender bulbs
38. Pull out dead plants; destroy or compost
39. Make notes for next year's garden
40. Apply mulch to depleted and bare spots for winter
41. Take soil samples
42. Clean and sharpen tools; store for winter
43. Adjust pH according to soil test recommendations
*Applies only to those plants that are started from seed. Does not apply to purchased bedding plants.

Annual flowers will not survive winter, but there are ways that they may still be prepared for next year's garden. Read more about how to get the most of your annuals in the next section.

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Most gardeners find they begin preparing for another growing season while still in the midst of the present one. Certainly, this is the best time to study your yard and to plan for next spring. It's also the best time to note down your conclusions.

Picture of purple and pink lupines.
Lupines are popular flowers that come
in both annual and perennial varieties.

In addition to making future plans, there are also some basic gardening preparations you'll want to consider. Here are some tips:

Preparing Garden Plants for Winter

Many people bring in geraniums, impatiens, and fibrous begonias as potted plants to use as the source of rooted cuttings for the following summer. Bringing full grown garden plants inside for the winter should be done several weeks before frost.

Dig up the plant with a large ball of soil so as few roots as possible are lost. Set the plant in the ground so it is at the same level in the pot as it was in the garden. Fill in around the plant roots with a good soil mix, and press down on the soil with your fingers to eliminate air pockets. Cut back the plant tops by 40 to 50 percent to reduce wilting. Water with a mild liquid fertilizer solution. Keep in a cool location out of direct sunlight for at least a day before moving indoors.

Raising Cuttings over Winter

An even better approach for carrying such plants over winter is to take cuttings from them and then rooting and potting them up to grow through the winter. By late winter, they'll be mature plants from which to take cuttings for next summer's garden. Cuttings should be made in midsummer while plants are still in an active stage of growth, since plant growth slows down when night temperatures cool.

Starting Annuals from Seed

A third alternative for raising annuals in the winter is to start them from seed. Coleus and annual herbs such as parsley and basil do well treated this way, as do flowering annuals that bloom with short day lengths.

Other Winter Preparations

Dahlias, tuberous begonias, cannas, callas, caladiums, and gladiolas are treated as annuals in colder climates. Many people simply discard them each fall and buy new ones each spring. However, it's possible to dig and store them for replanting the following season after the first frost when the tops die back. Remove the dead tops along with any loose soil and feeder roots from the swollen tubers (or corms) and store them loosely in brown paper sacks or open-weave bags in a dark, cool area. Packing material around them will help keep them from drying out.

Later in the fall, there are other chores to do. Soaker hoses should be rolled up and stored, drip irrigation systems should be drained, and the dead plants should be removed and disposed of. Where an organic mulch has been used, an additional layer should be laid over the existing mulch. The new layer added in the fall will replenish any soil that has been lost, cover bare areas, protect the soil from wind or water erosion over winter, and help discourage weed growth during late fall and early spring.

Inorganic mulch sheeting should be rolled up and stored for the winter. In mild climates, replant with winter ornamentals such as colorful kale or pansies. If you choose to let the beds lie empty, either spread an organic mulch or seed in annual ryegrass or buckwheat to provide a winter cover crop that will need to be turned under in early spring as a source of organic nutrients (referred to as a "green manure").

Autumn is a good time to take soil samples and have them tested. If slow-working nutrients such as lime are needed, they can be spread over the area during the fall or winter. The faster-releasing fertilizers should be applied when the beds are readied for planting the following spring.

Some annual enthusiasts like to sow seeds in containers each autumn for winter display indoors. Select those annuals that require only a short day length for blooming. Otherwise, grow those that have attractive foliage and enjoy them as houseplants all winter. You can even add a few annual herbs to spice up your winter cooking!

A helpful end-of-season task is to jot down thoughts for use in future years: which plants did well and which poorly, where to add plants to brighten dull spots, how many plants it took to fill a particular area, and names of plants you've admired in other people's gardens. Also make a note of where you've planted bulbs this fall so you don't dig into them next spring.

You should also take advantage of the Maintaining Annuals Month by Month chart located on the previous page of this article. It will help you stay on top of the various plant care chores that should be taken care of throughout the year.

Many gardeners get more joy out of their gardens by bringing some of the splendidly colored flowers inside. In the following, we will discuss some annuals that are particularly suited for cutting.

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If you'd like to have containers full of flowers brightening your home, a perfect source is a cutting garden filled with annuals. Most gardeners are unwilling to cut many blooms from their regular flower beds because they want as full and colorful a display as possible. Therefore, a garden specially set aside to supply flowers for cutting is a good solution. This can be a separate flower bed, or you can devote a row or two of your vegetable patch to a flower crop.

Picture of pink and white daisies, Livingstone daisy.
Livingstone daisies will brighten up
any room as cut flowers.

Most seed companies offer packets of "Cutting Flower Mix" that contain a variety of flowering annuals. The mixture varies, but it will always include seeds that are easy to grow and produce nice, bouquet-type flowers.

Mixes usually include some, but not all, of the following plants: marigolds, zinnias, plumed cockscomb, baby's breath, bachelor's buttons, pot marigolds, cosmos, asters, blanket flowers, and seedling dahlias.

The major disadvantage to buying such a mix is that you don't know in advance what colors the flowers will be. If you want to key the flower colors to the colors in your home or if you only want specific kinds of cut flowers, then you'll need to purchase those varieties separately.

When cutting for indoor use, select flowers that are in bud or in early stages of bloom. Those in later stages of bloom should be cut from the plant and discarded. If they're left, plant strength will be wasted on the formation of seeds.

To obtain the longest period of enjoyment possible from cut flowers, pick them in the early morning. Use a sharp knife and make a slanted cut. Cut just above the point where another flower bud or a side shoot is beginning to grow. This way, plant energy will quickly shift to production of additional blooms.

As you cut, place the flowers in a container of water and bring them indoors promptly. Remove the leaves from the lower portion of each stem, immediately putting the flowers back into a tall container of fresh water. You can either arrange bouquets right away or keep cut flowers in a cool location to arrange later.

Each time you recut a stem, always use a sharp knife and cut on a slant. This keeps all available stem cells open to the transfer of water up into the cut flower. Scissors and shears can pinch some of these water channels closed.

Also, remember to remove all leaves that will be under water once the flower is in a container. If left on, they'll rot, which not only causes a terrible odor but also shortens flower life by clogging stem cells needed for water transfer.

Elements of Attractive Bouquets

Image of two cut flowers.
When arranging a bouquet, make sure you
remove the leaves that will be under water

Annuals are lovely in both elaborate formal arrangements and in simple, informal bouquets. It's easy to quickly make attractive bouquets if you keep these hints in mind as you pick and arrange flowers:

  • Select flowers in bud as well as in early bloom.

  • Select colors that blend well.

  • Separate clashing colors with gray foliage or white flowers.

  • Cut flowers at different lengths. Leave longer stems on smaller flowers; shorter stems on larger ones.

  • Mix flowers of varying sizes and forms.

  • Choose flowers in different stages of bloom to provide more variety of form.

  • Use containers that are narrower at the top than at the bottom for an easy, informal bouquet. If a different effect is desired, use cylindrical vases or containers with flared mouths.

  • Match container size to bouquet size to keep a good balance between flowers and container.

Annual flowers can decorate your home all year long -- even in winter. In the next section we will look at some methods for preserving your summer flowers by drying and pressing them.

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There are several different drying techniques for annuals. The easiest is hang drying. After picking, all leaves should be removed, and flowers should be grouped in bunches of six to eight stems. Wind an elastic band tightly around the stems.

Picture of yellow poppies, Iceland poppy.
Iceland poppies are fragile, but it is possible to
preserve their beauty through drying and pressing.

Hang bundles upside-down out of the light in a well-ventilated, dry area. Leave enough space between bundles to allow for good air circulation and protect the bundles by enclosing them in large paper bags. The flowers will dry in two to three weeks. They can then be laid in covered boxes or left hanging.

Some flowers are too thick and others too delicate to successfully hang dry. Instead they can be dried with a desiccant -- a material that will draw moisture into itself. Floral desiccant is sold commercially. Or you can make it yourself by mixing equal parts of fine, dry sand and borax powder.

To use, pour an inch or more of desiccant in the bottom of a box, then lay the flowers on top. Very carefully spoon more desiccant up and around each flower head. Once all of the flowers are mounded over, an additional inch or two of desiccant should be gently poured on top.

Use a large, shallow box for long spikes of bloom such as larkspur. For single, dense blooms, like roses and marigolds, remove the flower stem first and replace it with a stiff wire stem. Lay the flowers flat on the surface of the desiccant, then mound more dessicant around and over them.

Drying will take several weeks, depending on the density of the flowers. When they're dry, carefully unbury them, gently brush away any adhering desiccant with a soft artist's brush, and store them in covered boxes in a dry place until ready to use.

A third drying method is to press flowers and leaves between layers of absorbent blotting paper or paper towels. The drawback to this method is that everything comes out flat. But for use in pictures, notepaper, or as a frame around a motto or wedding announcement, flowers dried this way can be very effective.

This technique works best with small flowers that are not very thick, such as pansies, petunias, and baby's breath. It is also suited for parts of flowers, such as single petals of sweet peas, poppies, and cosmos.

To dry, start with a piece of heavy cardboard at the base; then lay a sheet of drying paper on top. Carefully arrange flowers and leaves, making sure that there is space between them. Lay one or two more layers of drying paper on top. Arrange another layer of leaves and flowers.

Keep alternating until there are a half dozen layers of plant materials. Top these with more drying paper and a final piece of cardboard. Finally, place a heavy weight on top of the stack. Moisture will be squeezed out of the flowers into the paper.

Check after a week to see how drying is progressing. If any mold has formed, remove and replace the drying paper. After several weeks, the plant materials will be ready to use or store.

If preserving or cutting flowers for indoor decorations, you will want to make sure you have an abundance of flowers in your annuals garden. Go to the next page to read up on why pinching back your flowers will help you get a continuous supply of blooms in your garden.

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Annuals will flourish when provided with the best possible growing conditions. However, there are a few simple care techniques that will help increase and control their growth.

Picture of purple flowers, ivy-leaf geraniums.
Ivy-leaf geraniums will grow even more
when pinched back correctly.

To encourage plants to fill out, remove the growth bud at the end of the main stem when the plant is in its rapid growth stage that precedes first flower bud formation. For bedding plants, the best time to do this is when you're planting them out in the garden. They're at a good stage of growth and, in addition, the removal of some of their foliage will help balance any root damage they may suffer in the transplanting process. Plants grown from seeds sown directly in the garden should be pinched back when they're 3 to 4 inches tall.

Simply pinch out or snap off the last inch or so of the main growing tip. This will redirect the plant's energy from this single shoot to numerous latent side buds -- there is a latent growth bud located at the node (the point on the stem where each leaf is attached).

Several days after pinching, you'll see several small shoots pushing from the remaining stem. These will grow into a cluster of stems to replace the original single stem. The plant will be shorter, stockier, and fuller than if no pinching had been done. It will also be neater-looking, more compact, and have many more branches on which to produce flowers. A second pinching can be done two weeks after the first one if an even fuller plant is desired.

Knowing how to pinch back your annual flowers is only half the pinching you'll need to do to really encourage continuous blooming throughout summer. On the next page, we'll give you easy-to-learn tips on deadheading your annuals.

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Once annuals begin to bloom, it's important to remove spent flowers promptly for several reasons. First, once the flower dies, it detracts from the good looks of the garden. Second, even though we say it's dead, it's actually very much alive and continues with its growth toward seed production. This process pulls plant energy that would otherwise be available for new foliage and flower production into the seed head. Third, removal of spent flowers helps to quickly redirect plant energy to side shoots for smooth and speedy transfer to new growth.

Picture of yellow and orange poppy, Mexican horned poppy.
Mexican tulip poppy is gorgeous when in bloom, but
should be deadheaded when the blossoms have faded.

To make this rerouting most efficient, always cut back to just above the first side bud that is already beginning to grow. If there is no active side bud below the bloom, cut back either to a side branch or immediately above a leaf node where a latent bud will be likely to push out new growth. Make a clean cut with a sharp-bladed knife, since ragged cuts take much longer to heal and are likely sites for entry of rot and disease. These rules for cutting apply to the removal of cutting flowers as well.

Occasionally it becomes necessary to cut back growth in order to keep a plant from becoming leggy or from drowning out neighboring plants. Cutting back should be approached in the same way as removing dead flower heads. Always cut back to a side growth shoot or branch that is headed in the direction you want future growth to go. This way you can steer and control growth as you see fit.

Annuals have earned their reputation as beautiful elements of any garden. With close attention from you, and the regular use of these tips, you will be able to cultivate annuals this year and for many years to come.

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