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The Annuals Report: : A Spring Planting Guide

April 06, 1986|MARY ELLEN GUFFEY

The talk today is of perennials and English gardens, but what of annuals, the zinnias and marigolds that grow from seed and flower in a season? Are they to be forgotten, to become a symbol of simpler times when a bed of brightly colored flowers was enough? We hope not, because annuals have always held a special place in the California garden. Most of the seed is commercially grown in this state, and we have an opportunity others don't: to plant two annual gardens each year, one in the fall to bloom in the spring and one now to bloom in the summer.

Pictured is the Malibu garden of Mary Ellen Guffey, perhaps the largest and most spectacular private garden of annual flowers in California. We asked Guffey why she plants annuals--why start from scratch every year?--and what she does that makes the garden so splendid.

And be sure not to overlook her list of likely candidates for a summer flower garden, on Page 38, or the way she makes compost, on Page 39, which has just a little to do with this splendidness.

Annuals are not chic. They are not exotic, rare, subtle or expensive. Some are a little too bold in hue, too buxom in size, too vulgar in form and too commercial to be of interest to a discerning plantsman. Moreover, most popular annuals require little special treatment; no mystique surrounds their culture. They are, in fact, common.

But I love annuals. I love their riotous colors, their impatience to show off, their simple culture. Petunias, zinnias, larkspur, alyssum, marigolds--to my mind, these, and many other annuals, are the real superstars in the garden.

Such an admission, of course, is tantamount to confessing that one is a gardening tyro, and a rather insensitive one at that. To proclaim a passion for annuals not only discloses your amateur standing as a gardener but reveals you to be out of step with the current plant world. The real rage in horticultural circles is, of course, the perennial. Avant-gardeners today aspire to herbaceous borders styled in the English manner. If annuals are used to fill in bare spots, they are a secondary consideration.

My more sophisticated flower-growing friends visit my garden and shake their heads. When my horticultural tastes mature, they say, I will give up this dalliance and begin to appreciate more-permanent and more-subtle plantings. But I am, apparently, a case of arrested development. After 25 years of gardening, I've never shed the beginner's enthusiasm for watching the transformation of a packet of seeds into a bold display of zinnias or a stunning bed of annual phlox.

It's not that I have anything against perennials--or bulbs or shrubs or fruit trees or roses or anything else that blooms, for that matter. I grow my share of them too. But annuals rate highest in my garden. They produce the most color for the longest time and the least investment. With them I can create a new garden display every year. This year I wanted to have lots of cut flowers, so I planted long-stemmed annuals and some perennials that act like annuals in our climate. Next year I may change the color scheme entirely. And there are always new annuals to choose from and discover.

The garden pictured here was photographed last May and June, and most of it was planted in January and February. Some of my favorites in this one are annual phlox ( P. drummondii Beauty), alyssum, bells-of-Ireland and petunias. The prettiest petunia that I've grown recently is 'Summer Madness,' a new variety that was the horticultural hit of the season last year. It was effective in pots and in flower beds--especially when combined with white salvia ( S. farinacea 'Victoria') and gloriosa daisy ( Rudbeckia hirta ).

Although annuals are my favorites, they are not for everyone. They definitely are labor-intensive. Whether they're more work than perennials is debatable. My principal complaint regarding perennials is their limited blooming period. Most are colorful for only three or four weeks and then occupy valuable garden space for the remainder of the year. In our mild climate where gardening may be pursued year-round, annuals make a lot of sense.

When I begin my flower gardens, whether it's fall or early spring, I start by removing all spent flower clumps from the previous season, so that I can prepare the soil thoroughly. This requires a certain degree of ruthlessness because some flowers still look fairly presentable, even at the end.

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