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Thinking About Annual Plants in the Winter

February 10, 2022


Right now, as I write this at nearly the end of January, there is over a foot of snow on the ground. To keep my spirits lifted, the early months of the new year are an easy time to reflect on what I’ve grown in seasons past and what I’d like to grow in the upcoming season. What I’m thinking about the most, lately, are what annual plants I’d like to grow in the garden or containers. Although their lifecycle limits them to one growing season, their impact is bold and bountiful during that time. If they produce bountiful, fertile seeds, there will be generations to come season after season. Think about the dill you sowed in the vegetable garden – are there baby dill plants everywhere in the garden the following season? That is the life cycle of an annual – starting as a seed season after season.

I’m one to gravitate towards starting seeds indoors versus buying mature plants at a local nursery – it’s a humbling process and it keeps me connected to the land that sustains me. Choosing seed allows more freedom in what I want to grow. Some garden centers will have seeds out as early as January and I believe there is no better time to plan than the first few months of the year. There are some limits to choosing and staying with seed – some plants are difficult to germinate from seed, aren’t available in seed form, or it’s not feasible to be started indoors. If you are determined, those limits can be easy to overcome. Luckily there are plenty of annual varieties that can be directly sown into the garden – no need to start indoors.

A bee seeking refuge for the night in a zinnia

With the variety of annuals available, how do you choose what you want? Space and budget can be limiting factors but the ones you choose should make the most impact during the season. In the past, I’ve grown mixed color zinnias, Zinnia sp., in the garden which had many benefits – bright attractive colors (pinks, oranges, white, yellows) attracted pollinators, served as great cut flowers, variety in flower shape, and the flowers served as a bee hostel for the night. What a magical moment of nature to witness. At the end of the season, I left the flowers in the garden with seed heads intact and had a crop of Zinnias return without needing to put down seed. The initial crop of Zinnias was grown from seed, directly sown in the ground after risk of frost had passed.

Many cultivars of zinnias have bold colors, some stand 2-3′ tall, and some have flower heads the size of a bagel! In the past we have grown zinnias and cosmos in the Tree Allee at the Arboretum.

A bagel-sized zinnia in the Tree Allee at the Holden Arboretum

The same year I grew zinnias I also grew nasturtiums, Tropaeolum majus, an easy, direct sow annual that is edible. The leaves are round and resemble a scaled-down version of a lotus leaf. These annuals tend to stay low to the ground and creep across the garden, a perfect way to cover soil and shade out weeds. If you’re looking to add a peppery bite to your favorite dish, look no further than the leaves and flowers of this annual.

We can all be swooned by the flashy flowers or foliage of annuals but let’s not forget that some herbs are annuals and should be added to the mix. One that comes to mind – for plant shape/structure, food/medicinal use and an ecological benefit is dill, Anethum graveolens. The variety, ‘Elephant’, bears a large umbel of tiny, yellow flowers with fern-like foliage smelling of caraway with hints of lemon or anise and is around 2-3′ tall. Seeds and foliage are edible for a savory addition to a dish. We aren’t the only species that dine on the fine foliage – the black swallowtail butterfly swoops in and will use dill as a host plant to complete its life cycle. Plants in the parsley family are candidates to rear caterpillars. One season, I decided I needed dill for pickling but to my surprise, I had provided food for the larval stage of black swallowtails. If you build it, or grow it, they will come.

Zinnias with a tiger swallowtail butterfly
Black swallowtail larvae on dill

Perhaps the hallmark of summer is the annual sunflower, Helianthus annus. Traditionally, we think of sunflowers with yellow petals but there is an array of warm colors to compliment the late summer and autumn seasons – yellow, oranges, reds and all tones in between. When you’re enjoying your flowers during the season, make sure to notice the bees enjoying the many disk flowers sunflowers offer (the numerous small flowers nestled together that make up the flower head). In the fall when the seeds have developed, chickadees will be stuck to the heads like velcro, extracting seeds. If you’re hoping to collect or harvest seeds, hopefully the birds have left you some.

Now that I’ve mentioned all these flowers, I may have to bring them all together for the upcoming season in the garden. A few others I have on deck for the season – money plant, Lunaria sp., snapdragons, Anthirrhinum sp., sweet pea, Lathyrus sp., marigolds, Tagetes sp. and anything else I can unearth from a few years’ worth of seed collecting.

Sunflowers in the potager garden at the Cleveland Botanical Garden
Sunflowers at Stan Hywet
Nasturtium after watering

Hilary Wright

Hilary Wright


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