Old-fashioned Annuals
by Niki Jabbour
January 1, 2000

In a world where bigger, bolder and better reins supreme, I find it remarkably soothing to encounter the charm and simplicity of old-fashioned annuals. These hardy, yet surprisingly easily grown plants bring back gardening memories and moments of years past. Some favourites include sweet peas, zinnias, cosmos, nasturtiums and nicotiana.

Those gardeners familiar with the annual nicotiana found in most garden centers and greenhouses may not recognize this spectacular version. Tall and stately, Nicotiana sylvestris, also known as flowering tobacco, produces a 4 foot tall flower stalk that is clustered with 5" long white tubular blossoms. This unique plant is also ideal for an evening garden as its delicate flowers release a sweet fragrance once the sun sets.

It took me several years to hunt down the seeds for this spectacular annual flowering plant, but luckily, they are now readily available at most local garden centers. Seeds for this intriguing plant should be started indoors 8 to 10 weeks before the last frost in order to ensure an adequate growing season.

How can one resist the haunting fragrance of sweet peas? Each summer I wait impatiently for the first blossoms to finally open so that I can inhale that sweet aroma. These graceful climbers happily scale fences, trellis', arbours and netting, and can reach heights of up to12 feet.

Sweet peas thrive in the cool conditions of early spring, so be sure to plant them as soon as the soil can be worked in a sunny spot with rich, organic soil. The flowers themselves are a delight with 3 to 7 exquisite blooms per stem, many in rich shades of purple, red, pink and pure white.

I always plant cosmos in my vegetable garden. They look splendid swaying in the wind next to my tomatoes with their carefree blossoms and delicate ferny foliage. Cosmos offer continual colour all summer long and their use as a cut flower is endless, as they are always the last flower to fade in a bouquet.

With the increase in their popularity, many seed catalogues and nurseries are now offering a large selection of different cosmos varieties from which to choose. My personal favourite is 'Picotee', as its large, showy white flowers are delicately streaked and outlined with a vibrant shade of crimson. Cosmos bipinnatus 'Seashell' has become popular due to its queer tube-like fluted petals and bright yellow centers. Makes a very unique addition to any bouquet.

I have to confess that Zinnias never appealed to me until just this past summer. I started a few seeds in hopes of producing some attractive flowers for my sister Lisa's wedding, and lo and behold, the massive flowers created by these modest looking plants were astonishing! And the colours! I was dazzled!

Zinnias have long been a garden and a cutting favourite, for the variety selection is enormous, as is the range of flower size and colour. Some varieties grow tall and produce showy large blossoms, while others remain small yielding delicate button-like flowers.

Nasturtiums are perhaps one of the easiest plants to grow! Not only do they thrive in less-than-ideal soil, they consistently produce abundant mounds of brilliantly coloured flowers all summer long. There are many different varieties of nasturtiums, some of which produce vigorous, trailing plants that spill enchantingly over fences and trellis', while other varieties yield compact mounds of rounded leaves and bright flowers.

Nasturtium majus 'Alaska' is a striking plant as its large leaves are marbled and streaked in unique combinations of green and white. The flower colours include lemon yellow, vivid orange and bright red, and perfectly compliment the distinct leaves. A personal favourite, and one that adorned my wedding cake is Nasturtium majus 'Empress of India'. The deep crimson, velvety flowers contrast nicely against the dark green foliage and are a great planting partner for a lighter flowered nasturtium, such as Nasturtium majus 'Whirlybird Cream'. This variety boasts soft buttery, yellow blossoms that are held above the bright green leaves.

Old-fashioned annuals will never go out of style! Their charm and simplicity evoke thoughts of gardens past and gardens to come. They are ideal for adding colour to empty spaces in a perennial border or can easily stand out on their own, whether planted in containers or in the garden. Plant something a little familiar this summer!

Niki Jabbour is a Horticulturist and a Writer from Halifax, Nova Scotia. She writes a weekly gardening column for the Sunday Daily News in Halifax, and has done so for the past three years. Her main gardens are located next to the ocean in Chester, Nova Scotia and are comprised of hundreds of varieties of unusual perennials, biennials, herbs and vegetables, just to name a few .. Niki is also a member of the GWAA.

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