My Must-Have Annuals – January 2008

– Posted in: Miscellaneous

Tropaeolum majus ‘Tip Top Mahogany’ Sept 23 05

The recent abundance of posts about seed catalogs, along with the overabundance of catalogs in my own mailbox, has gotten me seriously thinking about my own orders for the upcoming season. I love trying new plants each year, of course, but as I’m sure many of you do, I also have some old favorites that I simply must grow each year, either from purchased seed or from seed I saved from last year’s plants. I figured I’d share my list of favorites in the hopes of convincing some of you to try them too. A few fall neatly into the “flower” category; the others are technically vegetables but are great as ornamentals, as well. I offer this list of favorites with the disclaimer “as of January 2008,” because it’s always subject to change.

Tropaeolum majus ‘Tip Top Mahogany’ and Ipomoea batatas ‘Sweet Caroline Bronze’ Sept 5 06‘Tip Top Mahogany’ nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus). I’ve been growing this beauty for probably 15 years now, and I never get tired of it. The deep red flowers are nice, but they don’t appear as abundantly as on many other seed strains. That’s not a problem for me, though, because I grow ‘Tip Top Mahogany’ for its chartreuse foliage, not its flowers. The color is most distinct in spring and fall. During the summer, the leaves mature to more of a light green, but the newest leaves are usually still a bright greenish yellow. I’ve also seen seeds sold simply as ‘Mahogany’, but the plants I grew from these had ordinary green leaves. The true ‘Tip Top Mahogany’ isn’t widely available, but you can sometimes get it from Territorial Seed Company.

Mirabilis ‘Limelight’ Basil ‘Osmin’ Pennisetum ‘Purple Majesty’ Lettuce ‘Revolution’ mid July 05‘Limelight’ four-o’clock (Mirabilis jalapa). ‘Limelight’ four-o’clock is another super-easy annual I grow mostly for its foliage. The hot pink flowers are certainly showy, but you mainly see them only in bud, unless they’re growing where you wander the garden in the evening (the flowers open in late afternoon). The leaves are usually solid chartreuse, but some seedlings show a mix of green and chartreuse in their leaves. It’s a simple matter to collect the large black seeds to keep ‘Limelight’ going from year to year, or just let them drop as they mature. I usually end up with a few self-sown seedlings each year that way. I like to start a few in pots just in case the volunteers don’t show up, but it’s also a snap to direct-sow them in late spring to midsummer. You can find this one at Select Seeds.

Zinnia ‘Profusion Orange’ Aster ‘Wood’s Purple’ Melissa ‘All Gold’ mid Sept 06

Zinnia ‘Profusion Orange’ Origanum vulgare ‘Aureum’ Oct 31 07‘Profusion Orange’ zinnia. This one is hardly uncommon, but it simply can’t be beat for rich orange color in its height range (to about 1 foot tall). It pairs perfectly with many other colors, and it blooms freely from early summer to frost; after that, the dead flowers tend to hold their form well for another month or two. I tried ‘Profusion Fire’ too this year, but Fire’s plants were much more open and somewhat sprawly, while Orange’s form was much denser and more mounded. For containers or for borders, ‘Profusion Orange’ is by far the better choice, as far as I’m concerned. You can find seeds or transplants of this one just about anywhere.

Zinnia ‘Profusion Orange’ after frost Nov 8 07

Capsicum ‘Black Pearl’ Lettuce ‘Australian Yellow’ Sept 9 05‘Black Pearl’ pepper (Capsicum annuum).Black Pearl’ could count as an edible, I suppose, but from what I’ve heard, the fruits are incredibly hot. I’m not interested in eating them, anyway: I just like looking at them. The glossy, marble-sized fruits are practically black when immature and deep red when ripe; either way, they’re a handsome addition to the near-black foliage. Rather than deal with handling the ultra-hot fruits for seed-saving, I wait until spring cleanup to pull out the plants, and in the meantime, the seeds drop on their own. The self-sown seedlings tend to be mostly green at first but quickly darken when they get lots of light. You can find seeds for ‘Black Pearl’ through several suppliers; I generally get mine through Territorial Seed Company.

Kale ‘Redbor’ Salvia ‘Golden Delicious’ Oct 17 07

Kale ‘Redbor’ Sept 29 07‘Redbor’ kale. I’ve written about this kale before, but here it is again, because it truly is one of my favorite ornamentals. I start the seeds indoors in March and usually set out the seedlings in May; at that time, and during the heat of the summer, the leaves are mostly blue-green with pinkish purple leak stalks and main stems. As the weather cools, the foliage turns a rich deep purple color – a perfect complement to the reds and golds of fall. I’ve never tried eating it, but apparently it’s quite edible, too. I usually have lots of problems with cabbage worms on all cabbage-family plants in my garden, but for some reason, they rarely bother this one. A few places sell the seed; I usually buy mine from Territorial Seed Company. (They say 18 to 24 inches for the height, but mine are always at least twice that.)

Lettuce ‘Merlot’ July 4 07‘Merlot’ lettuce. I’ve also written about this lettuce (and others) in a previous post, but ‘Merlot’ is worthy of frequent mentions. I’ve tried a lot of red lettuces and always go back to this variety for its rich, deep red leaf color, which combines well with so many other colors of flowers and foliage. Even when it loses the typical loose-head form, the plants still look good. I usually set out indoor-grown seedlings in late April or early May. They start shooting upward in late June and flower around late July; then I pull them out at some point in August. Often, self-sown seedlings appear in September and add color well into November, through several frosts. Can’t say that I’ve ever eaten this one, either; it’s simply too pretty to pick. I depend on Territorial Seed Company for my yearly fix of ‘Merlot’, but several other places now carry it too.

Atriplex hortensis rubra (left) and ‘Magenta Magic’ (right) late June 05

Atriplex hortensis ‘Golden’ Berberis ‘Superba’ late June 05Orach (Atriplex hortensis). I’ve been growing and enjoying the “ordinary” red orach (A. hortensis var. rubra or ‘Rubra’), shown at left above, for many years. As with many other plants on my list of favorites, this one offers very dark foliage. It self-sows generously and starts sprouting early in spring; by July, it’s about at its maximum height (usually 4 to 6 feet here). It declines quickly once the seeds form and needs to be pulled out in August, so I try to thin out the seedlings carefully early on to avoid large groups that would then leave large gaps late in the season. A few years ago, I discovered some exciting variations, including yellowish ‘Golden’ (at right) and the more pinkish purple ‘Magenta Magic’ (above, at right), thanks to Wild Garden Seeds. Orach is also known as mountain spinach, and reportedly, the taste is “spinach-like.”

Zea mays ‘Tiger Cub’ July 29 07Ornamental corn (Zea mays). Even visitors who normally don’t care for variegation often admit to liking the crisp, bright white stripes of variegated corn. You can find seed of the old heirloom type sold as ‘Japonica’ or ‘Quadricolor’ (shown below), among other names, and the resulting seedlings usually have some amount of pink along with the green and white on the 6-foot-tall plants, as shown below. (Some sources claim yellow as a fourth stripe color – hence ‘Quadricolor’ – but that’s a bit of wishful thinking, I’d say.) ‘Tiger Cub’, at left, is a newer introduction; it doesn’t have any pink, and the plants are much more compact (just 3 to 4 feet for me). You can start the seeds indoors, but it’s just as easy to sow them directly after the last frost date; they sprout quickly in warm soil. The first leaf or two may be plain green, so don’t be too quick to pull them out! In seed catalogs, you’ll usually find ornamental corns (or ornamental maize) listed with other annuals grasses. Territorial Seed Company is one place that’s selling ‘Japonica’ this year; Park Seed sells ‘Tiger Cub’.

Zea mays ‘Japonica’ mid July 05

Nancy J. Ondra
Nan gardens on 4 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In the firm belief that every garden ought to have a pretentious-sounding (or at least pretentious-looking) name, she refers to her home grounds as "Hayefield." There, she experiments with a wide variety of plants and planting styles, from cottage gardens and color-based borders to managed meadows, naturalistic plantings, and veggies--all under the watchful eyes of her two pet alpacas, Daniel and Duncan.
Nancy J. Ondra

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Lisa at Greenbow January 19, 2008, 4:31 pm

Nan, I like your choice flowers. I have never seen varigated corn foliage.

Thanks, Lisa. I wish I had a better picture of ‘Tiger Cub’; hopefully I can get one this summer.

Kim January 19, 2008, 5:26 pm

What a wonderful list! I also love atriplex hortensis, and I can verify that the plain old unnamed variety does indeed taste like spinach. (The younger leaves have better flavor.) But then, so do the younger leaves on the ‘Hopi Red Dye’ amaranth that I grow.

I’ve now got a few more things on my own wishlist… that ‘Merlot’ lettuce is gorgeous! And the chartreuse spinach interests me, too…

Hey, I’m a big fan of ‘Hopi Red Dye’ too! I could easily have added it to this post, but the list was already getting long. Thanks for the flavor info on the atriplex. I’m determined to actually taste some of the edible ornamentals (or are they ornamental edibles?) this year.

Carol January 19, 2008, 10:16 pm

You’ve hooked me with the first two… nasturiums and four o’clocks. I love that chartreuse color in leaves. And I’m a sucker for variegated foliage, so I ought to try that corn. Sounds like Territorial Seed is getting my next order!

I’m glad you found some plants to pique your interest, Carol. Your postings on seed-ordering were my inspiration for this post! By the way, I have some extra seed of ‘Tiger Cub’, if you or anyone else want to try it. I’ve never grown it from saved seed before, but it was the only corn blooming in my garden at the time, and I don’t think any of the farms near me had field corn last year, so I imagine the seed should come true.

Curtis January 19, 2008, 10:22 pm

Gotta love four o clocks and zinnias. I am wanting to grow nasturtiums and morning glories this year. I bought seeds last year of the glories, but never got to plant.

I used to be a zinnia snob (oh, they’re so common, you know), but now I can’t get enough of them. I too am looking forward to growing more morning glories this year.

Frances January 20, 2008, 5:49 am

You seem to favor those dark colors and I can see why! We purchased a plant of black pearl pepper two years ago and brought it into the greenhouse to winter over, it was too pretty to let go. The peppers dropped and seeded and there were many babies to plant out the next year and give away. I will be looking for that merlot lettuce, how nice for that to reseed itself. I planted redbor kale after reading your post, it is wintering over outside here in TN and it is hoped to be a large lush plant for spring. Thanks for all those delightful picks.

Isn’t it terrific how many annuals have great foliage color? They’re as good as many of the vegetatively propagated perennials and a whole lot less expensive as well. I adore many of the new heucheras, for instance, but most haven’t performed too well here, so lettuces make a great substitute!

Elly Phillips January 20, 2008, 8:17 am

Nan, have you tried ‘Variegata’ (aka ‘Trifetti’) hot pepper? It was my most beautiful vegetable last year. The foliage is purple, white, and green, with purple peppers maturing red. It is gorgeous! Great in containers, too. I bought mine from Meadow View Farm (creators of the famous Bowers Chile Pepper Festival), but I see that Baker Creek carries it, too. Recommended!

Thanks for reminding me, Elly! I remember having it for a few years here but I don’t think it showed up last year. For this year, I’ve ordered ‘Shu’, but it doesn’t have the purple in it.

Benjamin January 20, 2008, 1:04 pm

Well, I went and ordered some corn. I feel all strange inside, especially since corn grows freely on the empty lot next door, and on other empty lots in the neighborhood–here, corn seems to be an invasive weed. Last year I actually considered digging up a “speciman” and transplanting to my pretty empty space just to have a new plant! I’ve also wanted to grow eggplant ornamentally, so am trying that (plus my wife loves to eat it).

Good for you, Benjamin! Just don’t tell your local farmers that you paid $3.15 (plus shipping) for 25 kernels of corn. They’ll think you’re loony. Though later, they’ll probably think that maybe *they* should be growing variegated corn too.

jodi January 20, 2008, 6:39 pm

Some of your favourites don’t do well for me here–we don’t get enough sun or heat units up here on my high foggy windy hill, but I love your choices; a nice mix of old-fashioned and new fun.
I’m so glad to find so many others love ornamental kale. It makes me cross when some of the ‘haughticulturalists’ turn up their noses at it! It’s a happy plant, especially in late fall when so much else has gone to browns.

Ah yes, I can see corn and other heat-lovers probably wouldn’t thrive for you. But you can grow gorgeous diascias, nemesias, and oseteospermums, Jodi!

Here’s a link to Jodi’s Top Ten Annuals post for those who’d like to see what performs well in her area.

Kris at Blithewold January 21, 2008, 8:35 am

It’s fun to see that some of our favorites are yours too! A couple of years ago we grew a whole bunch of ornamental peppers and black pearl was one that we couldn’t coax to grow – do you have any tricks? I think we might “do” peppers again this year…

Hmmm…maybe you just had a bad batch of seed? It has been fine for me so far. As I mentioned, it even self-sows here. I had ‘Explosive Embers’, which has much smaller fruits, growing nearby, so now I call my plants “Explosive Pearls”: Their fruits are the size of ‘Black Pearl’ but pointed like those of ‘Explosive Embers’. I decided to order some new seed this year to have the true ‘Black Pearl’ again.

2greenthumbsup January 21, 2008, 2:30 pm

Hi Nan,

I love chartreuse combined with hot pink! I’m definitely going to try Limelight this summer. Usually I plant Sweet Potato Vine with Coleus and throw in some fuschia colored impatiens, but it’s always fun to mix things up a little!


Hi Cathy! I once worked with a head gardener who would never allow us to plant pink and yellow together. It took me several years to override that conditioning, but now I’m thrilled to find new plants with that very combination. It’s surprising how many there really are.

Robin January 23, 2008, 8:39 pm

I love the four o’clocks too and the purple in the ornamental corn. Zinnia is common, but I love its simple beauty and the fact that it is a butterfly magnet.

Hi Robin! I find that of all the flowers I miss this time of year, it’s the zinnias I keep thinking about. I can’t wait to have them back.

Ileana Costesc May 5, 2008, 1:51 pm

I would like some help as to where I might purchase, trade, or otherwise get a hold of seed for red Orache. Being Romanian and living in the state for a very long time I haven’t been able to find this herb anywhere. It is harder than one might think to find these seeds. If you could help I would be endebted for ever.

Hello Ileana! One source in the UK is Chiltern Seeds. Or, you could try ordering from a US source, such as Bountiful Gardens. Or, to find other sources, try Googling these word together: atriplex hortensis rubra seed. Good luck!

Angelady October 19, 2008, 12:55 am

I don’t usually leave comments, but I found your site and couldn’t stop reading and looking at your pics! Thanks so much for sharing and giving us newbies some really GREAT ideas!


Thanks for stopping by, Angelady; I’m glad you enjoyed your visit!

Neil May 29, 2009, 2:45 pm

Hi Nancy,

Awesome information! I also have 1 inch limelight seedlings. I almost gave up on them because I didn’t see any seedling after 20 days. Looks like it just needed heat. Anyways, what is that dark purple or black plant beside the limelight plant?



Hi there, Neil. Yes, the four-o’clocks seem to need lots of light and lots of warmth to get off to a flying start. The companion plant in the photo is a purple basil: either ‘Osmin’ or ‘Red Rubin’.

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