Annuals and perennials
Petunias have their place, but there are a host of other annuals that will give a quick “hit” in this and future growing seasons. Sow sunflowers weekly in May and June for a successive bloom from late July to frost. Giant sunflower varieties such as Mammoth and Sunzilla provide their own near-instant screen, but the more delicate ones grow to five feet, are covered in smaller blooms and add a degree of elegance missing in the linebacker versions.
May sowings of cosmos and cleome bring summer blooms; just sprinkle the seed in rich, cultivated beds and thin the seedlings when they are small. Surely one of the easiest and most rewarding annuals is the zinnia, especially the improved varieties that resist the late-season powdery mildew.
In the fall, after clearing beds of fallen leaves, I sow extravagant amounts of seed of Shirley poppies, California poppies and larkspur. I could add bread poppies to the mix, but I find them rigid in comparison to the softer Shirley poppies. All these seeds germinate in late winter, grow rapidly in the warmth of spring and produce unexpectedly showy flowers in May and June.
As a rule, well-grown perennials make a show in their second year and look well-established by their third. Perennials — including ornamental grasses — can look fussy and formless if planted without sufficient thought. This is avoided by massing them as bold clumps that speak to each other.
A bulb (or tuber) contains a whole plant ready to go, so putting in bulbs guarantees a floral show just a few weeks after planting. The most common mistake is in not using enough. Six daffodils will barely register; 60 will create an effect; 600 will make a spring.
If placed out of deep shade, daffodils will come back year after year. There are so many varieties that you can have a show from early March to late April, with sizes that fit their surroundings.
Some tulips will come back year after year, particularly the delicate wild tulips, but the showier ones should be viewed as a spring extravagance and pulled after blooming.
These and other spring bulbs bridge the gap between the start of spring and early May, when annuals and tropicals can be grown that will give an immediate season of dynamic growth and bloom.
Summer bulbs offer their own immediate display, and dahlias are particularly useful in providing months of flowering if they are given rich soil and adequate moisture. The single and semidouble types with dark stems are easy to place with other plants.
Dahlias must be lifted at the end of the year and stored indoors, but lilies can stay put, and they make great architectural summer plants. I like the big and fragrant Oriental-trumpet hybrids.