Is it too early to start looking back on this growing season, when we haven’t even had frost yet? Well, maybe, but I think we’re far enough along to have fully enjoyed the performance of some dependable favorites, as well as to fairly judge some new additions. I have a second purpose for this post, too: providing a preview for some of the seeds I hope to share in my November giveaway. (I won’t have all of these available, but many of them.)
I’ve never had much luck with the usual large-flowered petunias: they look great when I buy them, but then they fizzle out by the end of June. One year, I decided to try growing the species Petunia integrifolia from seed, and I was charmed. The flowers are small (about 1 inch across), but they’re bright and relatively plentiful. Granted, it’s not a “wow” plant: for more of a cute weaver, popping through other front-of-the-border companions and scrambling several feet up through taller bedmates.
One online source I found for P. integrifolia is Diane’s Flower Seeds. Though the tiny seeds make sowing petunias a bit of a challenge, I had to start this one indoors only once, because it self-sows gently: generally not where I expect to find it but welcome wherever it appears. I took on tiny-seed sowing again this spring, though, with a gift of Petunia exserta from reader Rick R.
Again, maybe not a “wow” plant, but a sweet little wanderer, with bright red, 2-inch blooms. I found a photo of it as a dense clump on the Annie’s Annuals site. They suggest growing it in a large container, which may be how they got it to be so bushy. Here, though, it wanted to grow every which way, mingling with other plant partners and eventually trailing out into the paths.
It started flowering in June and is still blooming in late September, with no signs of stopping. Besides being cute, Petunia exserta has a really interesting story behind it (Petunias Rare and Red). This one definitely needs to be shared!
First petunias, and now marigolds? There was a time when I’d have been embarrassed to admit liking either one, but no longer. These days, I’m just grateful for almost anything that’s easy and colorful, and if it’s good at filling lots of space, so much the better.
A number of years ago, I got seed of a French marigold (Tagetes patula) that was labeled “from ‘Villandry’.” As far as I can tell, ‘Villandry’ is supposed to have orangey red flowers, but my plants vary from solid yellow to orange to red-and-yellow striped, like ‘Harlequin’.
At this point, I don’t know what to call it other than ‘Hayefield Strain’. Whatever it is, it’s become a must-grow for me for the front garden, producing billowy, 3- to 4-foot-tall, lacy-leaved plants dotted with bright, single blooms from June to frost.
Some years, I plant it toward the middle or back of a border and let it grow as it wants to: mostly upright, usually, but some of the stems tend to keel over and bloom close to ground level too. This year, I pinched it several times to get it lower and bushier, for use as an edging for the ‘Glass Gem’ corn in the narrow bed along the front porch. If I’d known that the corn was going to reach over 8 feet tall (hooray for alpaca manure!), I’d have left the marigold alone to reach its full height and had a lot more flowers from it through the summer. Once I stopped pinching it in early August (about a week before the photo below), it made up for the lost time and is now filled with fresh blooms.
So, ok, ‘Hayefield Strain’ is nice, but my heart has been captured by a new favorite marigold. This one doesn’t have a proper name either, but it has a fun story. Reader Paula M. shared it with me last winter, with a note that a friend of hers had brought it back from the country of Moldova in a sock. For lack of a better name, I’ve been thinking of this one as ‘Moldova’, or “the Moldovan marigold.”
I assume that it too is some sort of Tagetes patula, but it’s much bushier and more compact than ‘Hayefield Strain’, forming tidy mounds that are just 12 to 18 inches tall without any pinching. They still have a touch of looseness to the clumps, though, and that, along with the small, single flowers, gives it a sort of old-fashioned look.
What I like best about it, though, is that each plant has three different colors at any given time. As far as I can tell, it’s not that the flowers change colors: they open red or orange or yellow and stay that way. From an indoor sowing in April, the plants started blooming in June and are still looking great, even without deadheading. Sure, the multicolored clumps are a little (ok, maybe a lot) gaudy, but I’ve really enjoyed them with the other bright blooms and dark foliage in the front garden.
While we’re on the subject of common annuals, I can’t skip some favorite zinnias. Zinnia tenuifolia ‘Red Spider’ has been a must-grow for a while now, for its dainty blooms and bright color. The new flowers are a clear to slightly scarlety red, aging to a somewhat darker brick red.
It generally reaches 18 to 24 inches tall, but the stems are thin and tend to sprawl a bit. I like to plant it behind or between bushier companions, so it can lean on them for support if needed. If the stems do keel over, they’ll reorient themselves in a few days and start sending up vertical shoots along their length, mixing with their companions as they grow.
Like the other annuals I’ve covered so far, ‘Red Spider’ blooms all through the summer and up to frost, even without deadheading. It also tends to self-sow gently. A couple of commercial seed sources include Summer Hill Seeds and Seed Savers Exchange.
I’ve had so much enjoyment from these and other small-flowered zinnias that I couldn’t resist ordering Zinnia haageana ‘Soleado’ from Select Seeds last winter.
It’s a bit sturdier and bushier than ‘Red Spider’ but the overall habit is very similar, and it’s been absolutely loaded with blooms for months, in a cheery shade of golden yellow with a tiny touch of red at the base of each petal.
The online descriptions say that the flowers are single, and many are, but some of mine were semidouble. (Below is one, mingling with ‘Moldova’ marigold, Petunia exserta, and ‘Isla Gold’ tansy [Tanacetum vulgare].) Whatever the form, they were all sweet.
‘Soleado’ looks much like a marigold but lacks the sharp scent, so it’s a great choice if you dislike the smell of marigolds in the garden or as a cut flower.
One plant I dearly wish I could grow but have never had luck with are the big, crinkly-headed celosias. I do have good luck with the spiky and plumy ones, though, and I’ve tried a number of them over the years. ‘Wine Sparkler’ (or ‘Sparkler Wine’), with dark leaves and red plumes to about 2 feet tall, was a favorite for several years.
I also liked ‘Punky Red’, which is about the same size but with green leaves and slender spikes in a deep purplish red color.
After a few years of letting them self-sow, I ended up with these:
The plants tend to be somewhat taller than either of the assumed parents—typically 30 to 36 inches—with deep purple leaves and brilliant magenta spikes. A mass of these would be rather much, I imagine, but they have a nice way of popping up as singles in various places, making great accent plants. I’ve been calling this one ‘Mega Punk’. I normally just let it self-sow, but I think I need to collect some to share this year, just to see who’s brave enough to give it a try!
If you like bright color, but maybe not that bright, maybe you’d enjoy tassel flower (Emilia javanica).
The brushy red flowers are intense, but they’re tiny and spread out, so they’re more like small dots of color. In the range of 18 to 24 inches tall, tassel flower blooms for months whether or not you deadhead it. If you do let it alone, the first flowers tend to drop seed in July. And if there are empty spaces where those seeds can sprout, the seedlings can be in bloom by early September, providing even more flowers for fall. A couple of online seed sources for the species include The Monticello Shop and Trade Winds Fruit.
This year, I tried a new one from Select Seeds called ‘Irish Poet’. If you like orange flowers, you’ll love this one as much as I (and the bees) do!
Like the species, it’s a neat little annual for adding a sprinkling of eye-catching color all summer and fall.
So far, all of these annuals thrive in full sun. I do have something that can take some shade, too, though. You may already be familiar with Asiatic dayflower (Commelina communis), which has sort-of-pretty, little blue flowers but is quite a spreader, making it a real weed in many parts of the U.S., especially where the soil is moist. Heaven knows, I’ve pulled out loads of it over the years. But as part of an ongoing project of trying out ornamental versions of common weeds and their relatives, I decided to take a chance on a variegated strain of C. tuberosa (Coelestis Group) called ‘Hopleys Variegated’ from Plant World.
It is much less vigorous than the weedy species, which is a plus, and the blue flowers are still pretty, but the plant as a whole is hardly a show-stopper. As you can see (or maybe not see) in these photos, the variegation is a very subtle pale green and darker green striping. To be fair, each plant is different, and some have more creamy streaking, but even those aren’t very striking from more than a foot or two away.
I find one or two self-sown seedlings each year and let them grow, but it’s not something I’d plant again on purpose. This year, reader Kim M. sent me a different dayflower to try, and wow: this one is a beauty in both leaf and flower.
It’s a form of Commelina communis, the really weedy species, and it too has a low, sprawling habit, rooting wherever the stems touch the ground.
I wouldn’t say it’s an obnoxious spreader, though—not nearly as rampant as the straight species—and the striped leaves look great popping up through green or silvery companions.
For some reason, this one seems to travel under the name C. communis f. aureostriata, even though it’s clearly white, not yellow: albostriata or simply variegata would be more appropriate, but whatever. The amount of variegation on each plant varies, and apparently some of the seedlings can be plain green. I think it’ll be worth watching for and pulling those out, though, to keep this one around.
Another seed-grown variegate I’ve really enjoyed growing is ‘Old Gold’, a great yellow-striped corn (Zea mays). Each plant is different, but they’re all beautiful.
‘Old Gold’ is a strain of field or dent corn, so the ears are the ordinary yellow.
Like ‘Old Gold’, ‘Quadricolor’ (also sold as ‘Japonica Striped’) usually reaches about 6 feet tall here.
It’s a flint corn with deep red kernels.
Where I want the stripy corn look but need a shorter plant, I use ‘Tiger Cub’, with bright white markings (like ‘Quadricolor’ but with no pink) on 3- to 4-foot-tall plants.
Its kernels are yellow.
Last year, reader Rick R. had something interesting pop up in his patch of ‘Tiger Cub’: a plant with excellent white striping but on a taller plant (to about 5 feet) with red kernels. When I grew it out this year, the resulting plants were still in the 4- to 5-foot range, with good white striping. For record-keeping, I’ve been calling it ‘Tall Tiger’.
Some of its cobs were yellow, like those of ‘Tiger Cub’, and some of them were a rich rust color. It will be very interesting to see how these turn out next year. Maybe some of you will want to give it a try too?
Also new for me this year is ‘Glass Gem’, which looks like an ordinary, green-leaved corn when it’s growing, waiting until husking time to reveal its colorful kernels.
The results from the Native Seeds/SEARCH seed were the best, with the glossy, translucent kernels I’d hoped for based on the few pictures that were available last year.
Besides the thrill of peeling back each husk to reveal the beautiful cobs, I’ve had loads of fun playing with the shelled kernels. First I tried spreading them out on my scanner, which was kind of interesting but didn’t quite do justice to the rich colors.
Then I tried shooting them outside, which was better.
But my favorite shots came from spreading the kernels on a light table, so the light could shine through them. Gems, indeed!
This summer, I was thinking it would be really cool to have a corn that was showy both before and after harvest, so I hand-pollinated a few cobs of ‘Glass Gem’ with the yellow-striped ‘Old Gold’ and vice versa. The ‘Glass Gem’ cobs didn’t look any different this year, but I’ve kept them separate to see how they turn out next year. The cobs of ‘Old Gold’ pollinated with ‘Glass Gem’ were more interesting. You can see two cross-pollinated ears below, with one normal ‘Old Gold’ ear on the right.
Granted, the few darker kernels aren’t anywhere as pretty as ‘Glass Gem’, but who knows; maybe a couple more years of backcrossing with ‘Glass Gem’ will produce something of interest. Something to look forward to!