Winter Annuals Provide Flower Power for the Garden

by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden


Flowering annuals are the Britney Spears and N’Sync of the gardening world. Disdained by the hipoisie, who prefer plants with obscure third world credentials or even first world suicidal tendencies- annuals are easy to grow, sure to bloom, and are sold by the truckload. They are usually the first plants gardeners experiment with, but they are also the first we discard in our search for novelty and style. Even their names sound like sugary pop confections: pansies, pinks, snapdragons, petunias- do you plant these things or eat them?


One year, I made the mistake of going to one of the ritzier local garden shops and asking for a particular kind of pansy that I was hunting for. You’d have thought that I had asked for a sack of uncomposted poodle manure. The woman behind the counter leveled her eyes at me and hissed, “I think they sell those at Walmart.


After years of harboring the shame, I am going to come out of the closet on this one- I am here to proclaim my pansy pride! Actually, I have always been a fan of the winter annuals. Sure, most will crash with the first prolonged heat wave in the spring, but, in the meantime, they’ll brighten the winter months and require very little care.


The reason that winter annuals are so popular can be summed up in one word: color. These are plants that splash bold colors against a decidedly subdued landscape. In fact, I think the reason that trendsetters object to them is that they often seem a bit too bold. Some of the most popular varieties are so over-used that even I find their colors a bit offensive. For example, I really do love pansies, the superstars of the winter annuals, however, the ubiquitous “majestic giant” variety makes a garden look like one of those insta-beds planted around gas stations. Its bland but BRIGHT colors can be seen from a mile away. This is a cultivar that seems to have been developed to have “eye appeal” for eyes traveling at sixty miles per hour. However, there is no reason to settle for the beginner’s box of Crayola colors. New forms and colors are arriving every season and some are, dare I say it, quite sophisticated.


Of all the additions to the pansy tribe over the past ten years, the “antique shades” are my favorites. These are very subtle pastel colored flowers that range from pink to pale yellow and apricot. These plants grow to be about six inches tall and are perfect in hanging baskets, containers, or planting beds. Unlike the “majestic giants” referenced above, these plants invite close inspection with their subtle blending of colors. Also available are the “antique rose” pansies that, as the name implies are a soft dusty pink.


For those who prefer more traditional colors, the “blue frost” hybrids are a great choice. This is a new selection that has large flowers with crisp blues, whites, and yellows mixed together in a way that really shows off the classic pansy “face.” “Beaconsfield” is a variety that has been around for awhile, but, they remain a personal favorite. I like the cool blue and white flowers and enjoy mixing them with other winter annuals in containers and hanging baskets.


The violas or “Johnny-jump-ups” are the little cousins of the pansies. Violas remind me of woodland violets (which they are also related too) with their diminutive flowers and leaves. They look quite fragile, although they are as tough as the pansies when it comes to dealing with a Central Texas winter. Violas are a great plant for a hanging basket since you’ll get to appreciate their complex color combinations and cheerful faces in an up-close and personal way. There are dozens of selections to choose from, and in my book, they are all pleasing.


The pinks, or dianthus, are the rising stars of the winter growing season. There are over 300 varieties of these carnation relatives; some are annuals, while others are biennials (lasting two years,) and there are perennial forms too. The most popular varieties in our region are the biennials which most folks use as seasonal color. The “floral lace” series of dianthus offers a nice assortment of soft pink colors, while the “telstar” hybrids come in a range of hues from purple to red and white. The telstar dianthus are my favorites, they make great holiday accents, especially those with deep red petals that are frosted with white. (Even though this article is about annuals, I can’t help making a pitch for the perennial forms of dianthus, the so-called “grass pinks.” These are very drought tolerant plants with silvery gray foliage that make superb container specimens.)


All of the plants that I have mentioned thus far are sun lovers, though most will do well planted under deciduous trees. For those with shade there are two winter annuals that are proven performers: English primrose and cyclamen. Like the pansies and violas these plants will collapse with the first hint of heat, but they thrive in cool weather. All of the winter annuals prefer well drained soils, but for the primroses and cyclamen it is an absolute necessity, so be sure to add plenty of sand or screened granite to your planting bed.


There are plenty of other annuals that do well during the typical Austin winter- don’t forget sweet alyssum, snapdragons, and calendulas when you go to the nurseries. And remember, hold you head up high when you ask for them.


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