Annual and tender perennial bedding plants can provide color from early summer to frost if you choose your plants wisely. Many of my favorites are the tried-and-true old-fashioned varieties that my grandmothers and great-grandmothers grew. Not only do these ornamentals maintain a sense of history and nostalgia that suit both me and my 1930s Foursquare, but they also come in every size and color and perform just as well as many of the newer, more highly bred varieties.
Using period plants in the landscape of an old home is as essential to restoration as choosing a period light fixture or color scheme. Nothing is more fitting for a Queen Anne home than a sweep of purple heliotrope, pink geraniums, and asparagus ferns or more enchanting than an Arts & Crafts bungalow bedecked with rambling nasturtiums and sky-blue morning glories.
Selection is not limited, either. There are many specialty heirloom plant and seed sellers with a wide variety of selections available. Every year more old gems, once thought to be lost, are being rediscovered and reintroduced commercially.
When selecting old-fashioned annuals, I seek the most trouble-free, long-flowering plants available. Next, I organize them by cultural requirements (e.g., light and soil needs) and then appearance (flower color, height, shape, and texture). Finally, I consider the most complementary plant combinations and draft my planting plans. These plans always include annual color in all of my gardens-including perennial, herb, and even vegetable beds.
Here are a just a few of my favorites, arranged by color, with heights and sun requirements.
Purples and Blues
1′ to 2′, full to partial sun
The soft blue flowers of this Mexican native, a Victorian favorite, are happily suited to mixed borders. Most varieties are dwarfs, but some old-fashioned selections such as ‘Blue Bouquet’ have taller, more graceful habits. They’re easy to find and look good with pale-pink geraniums and feathery silver Senecio cineraria.
2′ to 3′, full to partial sun
Large fragrant heads of purple flowers adorn medium-sized plants with crisp green foliage. Originally from South America and Mexico, they were first introduced in the mid-1700s and commonly planted in the Victorian era. They complement tall, white Ageratum houstonianum and lime-green Nicotiana langsdorfii.
Ipomoea tricolor Heavenly Blue
Vine to 12′, full sun
This is the perfect old-fashioned sky-blue morning glory. The large flowers of this turn-of-the-20th-century heirloom reach 4″ in diameter. For color contrast, plant them with orange or red trailing nasturtiums.
Vine to 20′, full sun
The purple-hued foliage, amethyst flowers, and shiny purple pods of this vigorous vine are all showy and long lasting. An African native, it was first offered to gardeners in the early 1800s. I let mine weave across fences, trellises, and even shrubs.
Yellows and Oranges
Mexican Tulip Poppy
Hunnemannia fumariifolia ‘Sunlite’
1 1/2′ to 2′, full to partial sun
A 1934 All-America Selections (AAS) winner, ‘Sunlite’ has a delicate beauty that few annuals can match. Its bright yellow flowers hover over soft, ferny silver-blue foliage and look good with white sweet alyssum and blue Scabiosa atropurpurea. Shrub Verbena Lantana camara (to 3« as an annual; full sun): Shrub verbena was commonly grown in conservatories-trained into tree-like standards-when first popularized in the early 19th century, but its heat tolerance and beauty have made it a contemporary garden favorite. Its sunny orange and yellow flower clusters light up beside blue-green Brassiaca oleracea.
Mexican Zinnia Zinnia haageana ( full sun): These bushy low-maintenance zinnias-first introduced in the 1860s-have hot orange and yellow flowers. The popular double-flowered cultivar Old Mexico was an AAS in 1962. Partner these with Cuphea ignea and ornamental Swiss chard.
Reds and Pinks
Mexican Cigar Plant Cuphea ignea (1- full sun): Mexican Cigar Plant is a modern favorite due to its neat bushy habit, fiery red tubular flowers, and heat tolerance, but it s no newcomer. It was also used in Victorian flower gardens. Mix with clumps of garden heliotrope and warm-colored dahlias.
Spanish Flag Ipomoea lobata (vine to full sun): The hanging red and cream flowers of this annual vine remind me of an abstract sculpture by Alexander Calder. Introduced in 1841, it is vigorous, is heat tolerant, and looks nice planted among ornamental gourds.
Zonal Geranium Pelargonium x hortorum ( full to part sun): This highly cultivated South African native gained wide garden use by the mid-19th century, and many old cultivars are still available. Of these, I favor the classic red Paul Crampel, a mainstay from the mid-19th century, and Mrs. Henry Cox, an 1879 selection with salmon flowers and tricolored leaves of red, gold, and near black.
Nasturtium Tropaeolum majus Empress of India (1«; full sun): The blue-grey leaves and spicy red flowers of this semicascading cultivar stand out in any garden. I pocket them throughout my herb garden because their flowers are edible as well as pretty. Empress of India was first introduced in 1889 and is still widely available.
Asparagus Fern Asparagus densiflorus (1 1/2 part sun): The ferny bright green foliage of this easy-to-grow South African tender perennial always looks great. The popular selection Sprengeri was first made available in the early 1890s, but I favor the early 20th-century introduction Myersii, which has tidy foxtail-like branches. Swiss Chard Beta vulgaris Ruby Red ( full sun): This early 20th-century edible beauty has broad textured leaves of dark green and a center stalk and veins of vivacious vermillion. It adds a structural accent to mixed borders and shines beside both hot and cool colored plants.
Banana-Leaved Canna Canna Musifolia ( full to part sun): This bold Peruvian plant is grown for its large banana-like leaves rather than its flowers, which are small and red. First presented in 1858, it was common in Victorian gardens. It creates a great backdrop for tall annuals, such as Nicotiana sylvestris, as well as grasses and composites.
Sweet Alyssum Lobularia maritima ( full sun): The taller white form of this fragrant little garden annual is especially pretty. Its Mediterranean heritage makes it a good choice for rock gardens and border edges, which is how it was commonly planted when popularized in the early 19th century.
South American Tobacco Nicotiana sylvestris ( full to part sun): This tall and elegant Argentinian species has been cultivated since the late 19th century. Its nodding white tubular flowers are sweetly scented and make a pleasing backdrop in mixed borders.
Annual Pincushion Flower Scabiosa atropurpurea ( full to part sun): Planted in American gardens by the late 1700s, these flowers come in many shades, but my favorite is soft white. Pincushion flowers look perforated and edged in lace-hence the name-and make great cut flowers.
Variegates and Bi-colors
Imperial Taro Colocasia esculenta Illustris ( part sun): Taros look bold and tropical in any border and this early 20th-century selection is no exception. The purple leaf stalks and black mottled blades of this tender bulb look great clumped with Asparagus densiflorus Myersii .
Coleus Solenostemon scutellarioides part sun): This foliage plant became popular in the Victorian era, and many old cultivars remain. Two nice selections are the 1908 purple-leaved, green-edged Brilliancy and the green-and-yellow-leaved Buttercup from 1881.