Small annuals |

Small annuals

'Red Gem' marigold
Submitted photo by Carolyn Singer |

The spring rush for summer color has long since passed. It’s an amazing sight in spring, after the cold and wet of winter, to saunter through a local nursery where dozens of colorful annuals lure you to plant.

While the local selection in July is not what it was in May, there are still plenty of weeks left to enjoy a bit of color.

This year, zinnias did not even show up in the nursery until well into what most would consider late spring. When that might be from year to year is anyone’s guess. At least I was ready to declare frost danger past in my garden.

When “Profusion” zinnias did finally appear, at first the selection could barely meet the demand for this attractive free-blooming annual. I know because I watched the supplies closely, determined to add “Profusion Orange” to my edible garden. Eventually I made the connection, and small mounded plants are now adding color just inside the garden gate.

The “Profusion” series offers a range of warm colors. Even planted in July, they grow quickly in warm fertile soil in full sun. If you take the time to remove faded flowers (known as “deadheading”), the plant does not try to put energy into seed. I frequently make small bouquets.

Also in my edible garden, in the partial shade of tomatoes and peppers, are Nasturtiums, ranging in color from bright red to the palest orange and cream. This year, most are volunteers from previous years. While I do have some climbers, it is the compact cultivars that need very small space in which to grow.

If you want the non-climbers, look for the words “compact” or “mounding” in the description on the seed packet.

The Nasturtiums bloom freely in the summer months and then, like the gardener who tends them, thrive in the cooler weeks of fall. Edible flowers, buds and leaves are a magical addition to a salad, with a mild peppery flavor.

In past years I have grown an unusual marigold from seed. I’ve never seen it offered In the retail market. “Lemon Gem,” “Orange Gem” and “Red Gem” are available in seed from several suppliers. The foliage is feathery and the growth habit mounding, with about an eighteen-inch spread. This is yet another compact annual for full sun in fertile soil.

These treasures are grown in my fenced edible garden to keep them out of reach of the deer. Someone once started a rumor that the zinnias are deer-resistant. They are not.

Any of the annuals may be grown in containers, including hanging baskets. Soil mixes need to be fertile and should include vermiculite. Irrigation needs will be daily when the plants are container-grown. Fertilization with fish emulsion or Sustane 4-6-4 will induce more flowering.

If containers are small or shallow, choices are more limited. Portulaca is a good choice. Portulaca grandiflora (rose moss) has a beautiful range of soft warm colors. They bloom freely even as small plants in the nursery.

In my vegetable garden, purslane (Portulaca oleracea) threatens to take over thanks to the years I considered it “too pretty” to pull. And while it is edible, a few plants in an obscure corner would more than meet my need.

Annual alyssum (Lobularia maritima) flowers freely whether in the ground or in a shallow container. Colors include a bright white, rich purple and rose. White has three variations in size: “Carpet of Snow” (2 to 4 inches in height), “Little Gem” (4 to 6 inches) and “Tiny Tim” at 3 inches.

The fragrance of annual alyssum adds so much to the garden, you may find yourself adding these charming plants along path edges or between stepping stones. A light fall frost does little to check its growth and bloom. Even extended winter cold may not slow alyssum if it is grown in a protected microclimate.

Carolyn has gardened organically in Nevada County since 1977. She is the author of the award-winning “The Seasoned Gardener, five decades of sustainable and practical garden wisdom”, and two volumes of “Deer in My Garden” (deer-resistant plants), available locally. Send your gardening questions and comments to Check out her website at

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