Plant Annual Herbs

Dependable plants for long-lasting color and a legacy of seedlings

| April/May 1996

  • Love-lies-bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus)
  • Nicotiana (Nicotiana alata)
  • Nigella hispanica
  • White borage (Borago officinalis ‘Alba’)
    Photography by Andy Van Hevelingen
  • Signet marigold (Tagetes tenuifolia ‘Paprika’)
  • A bed of variegated nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus ‘Alaska’) and purple basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Purple Ruffles’)
  • Canary creeper (Tropaeolum peregrinum)

Annuals—those plants that give their all in one season—are every bit as valuable in the herb garden as in other kinds of gardens. Although annuals such as dill and coriander are among the most useful of culinary herbs, others often make their most important contribution in the landscape, where they swagger through a long season of bloom, pouring forth their flowers with no thought for the future. Annuals can provide a continuity of color that ties the garden together, filling in the gaps after other, often less showy perennial herbs have finished flowering, or they can be massed by themselves for vivid splashes of color. Once they begin to bloom, annuals usually continue to do so throughout the summer, and abundant flowers seduce every passing pollinizer. Bees, moths, butterflies, and hummingbirds as well as humans are drawn to them.

Most annual herbs have fine root systems and perform best in a fertile, well-drained soil in full sun, although they will tolerate other conditions. They’re simple to grow, whether you sow seeds indoors in late winter or early spring for later transplanting into the garden, buy starts at a garden center, or sow seeds directly in the garden after all danger of frost is past. Aside from ordinary weeding and watering, the only trick to growing annual herbs is deciding whether to remove faded blossoms to encourage further flowers and prevent self-seeding or to save the seeds and the sometimes decorative seedpods.

In my own herb garden, I let the annuals come and go. I preserve the seeds of those that I cherish and and ignore those that I’ve wearied of. I enjoy watching the plant combinations that result as my annuals freely seed themselves around. Join me on a tour of some of the annual herbs that have sauntered through my gardens over the years.

Love and Kisses

I was still in high school when I first saw Amaranthus caudatus, a 4-foot-tall, coarse-leaved bush covered with great, long, blood red rattails arching out to a length of 3 to 4 feet and spilling onto the ground. I was intrigued not only by the plant but also by its common name: love-lies-bleeding. A green form, A. c. ‘Viridis’, has the same growth habit but long, yellowish green rattails; it’s called kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate. What romantic and memorable names these seemed to an impressionable young man!

I promptly planted an amaranthus in my beginner’s garden. It thrived in the poor, sandy soil and tolerated heat and drought. It became so bushy and large that it threatened to smother its perennial companions, so I learned to give it lots of space. The long ropes of flowers dry well with a texture like that of heavy chenille.

Another annual that inspires my ­affection is love-in-a-mist. One of my ­favorite parts of last year’s herb garden was where love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena ‘Persian Jewels’) filled in the bare spaces between the perennials Jupiter’s distaff (Salvia glutinosa) and silver horehound (Marrubium incanum) to form a tapestry of pinks, mauves, and blues above its bright green fine-textured, almost wispy foliage. The mix of flower colors makes the scene look alive and moving. The spent flowers float away to reveal curious papery, egg-shaped pods with slender “horns” and broad maroon stripes. I dry them before the stripes have faded for use in dried flower arrangements and wreaths, and I like the distinctive flavor of the small, jet black seeds in breads.

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