If perennials are the main course of the garden, annuals are the dessert, the icing on the cake of your floral display. Just like icing, they draw you, creating excitement and interest wherever they are planted.

Annual flowers are just that — flowers that live for one growing season. They give it their all, and then often, after the first fall frost, they are finished. Unlike perennials, the same plant does not return the following year. Oh, you may have annuals that come back the next year, but they are new plants that self-seeded from last year’s plant, dropping seeds as it grew. This may happen with poppies, bachelor buttons and sweet alyssum.

Annuals bring continuous color to your garden. This comes in handy if your perennials are in between bloom cycles, or you need to distract the eye from shrub stems or perennial foliage that is dying back. I have different colors of coleus, a shade-loving annual, planted under a bush that blooms in the spring. Other shade-loving annuals include begonias, impatiens and calendulas.

Impatiens blooms can be many colors, including white, several shades of pink, lavenderish and coral. Regardless of the color, as your plant begins to grow and bloom, take a moment mid-summer and pinch it back a few inches. This will stop the plant from getting tall and leggy in the summer heat and keep the blooms coming through fall.

I mix containers of annuals throughout my perennials. I like the pop of color from the plant and use the containers to extend color consistency throughout the garden. What do I mean? I like blue pots and really like how they blend with the green foliage of the plants.
I’m a big believer in following the instructions that come with the plant, especially when it comes to spacing, but for annuals, I bend the rules and plant them close together. Remember, their job is to bloom like crazy before the frost, and I want a big bang showy display of their color.

Because they are one and done, they do not develop a deep root system. The plant spends its energy producing flowers. Shallow roots mean it will need to be watered often. A little fertilizer won’t hurt either.

I helped my sister plant her porch boxes and outdoor containers this week. We planted sun-loving geraniums, million bells and lantana. They will be happy there with great morning sun and a gardener dedicated to watering and fertilizing them.

I couldn’t resist adding a few marigolds to her vegetable garden; not only do they add a dainty touch, but the smell of marigolds will also help keep pests away.

I often add lantana to my containers. I love the flower. Although lantana can be grown year-round in warmer zones, here in Zone 6, I treat it as an annual. It will produce long stems with sweet, lacy flowers. The leaves are a bit prickly, which helps keep the deer and rabbits away.

Some of my other favorite annuals for sun are zinnias, sunflowers, nasturtiums and sweet peas. Many of these can be started early spring indoors, but direct sowing into the soil works too.

I do quite a bit of container gardening. Although I have a few favorites that I plant every year, such as geraniums, begonias and mandevilla, annuals let me switch it up from year to year. If you’re feeling purple, go for it with petunias or snapdragons. Feeling red hot? Try celosia, verbena or dahlias.

Remember the basic design formula of filler, spiller, thriller when placing your plants. You want a thriller or centerpiece, other plants to fill in the container space, then a spiller to tumble over the container edges and grow downward. It works every time.

The heat of summer days can be intense; with the proper care (water, deadheading and pinching back), annuals can take the heat. Use your color choices, cool or warm tones, to enhance your setting. Don’t forget to add a few to your shady spots for extra interest.
Perennials can live for generations; annuals are less of a commitment. Perennials are marriage; annuals are dating. They are your chance to play and find what works for your garden.