There remains a certain snobbishness about annuals, partly because some perceive them as “common,” and partly because they’re, well, annual. (Many of have seen the famous Plant Delights/Tony Avent T-shirt that says, “Friends Don’t Let Friends Buy Annuals.”) I always have a lot of annuals in pots and routinely I am asked during garden walks whether or not I can save them from year to year. Quel nightmare! I can just imagine trying to keep a lot of petunias, coleus, annual salvia, and scaveola alive over the winter, all of it growing scrawnier and buggier by the week in my less-than-optimal interior conditions. Anyway, I like to change it up, so no saving for me.
But I defy anyone to scorn annuals after seeing the magnificent work at Buffalo’s Erie Basin Marina Trial Gardens. For decades, these expansive gardens have been tended by one guy, Stan Swisher (above), who grows dozens of different annuals and some perennials from seeds he receives from several big seed companies (Ball, Danziger, and a few others). He moves the seedlings from the greenhouse for planting out and then keeps an eye on them. This year we had a hailstorm that flattened many of the plants; Swisher pinched them back and they recovered.
I have been allowed to test some of these in my own containers and the care that Swisher gives really makes a difference. They are huge, floriferous, and healthy. And interesting: black and gold double petunias, a Crystal Sky variety that’s subtler than many of the speckled petunias, and a new petunia/calibrachoa hybrid. There is a big difference between these and nursery-bought. Of course, in Western New York, it’s been a summer made for annuals: hot with plenty of rain.
It’s strange that most people who live here have no idea that the Trial Gardens are part of a large North American program to see what might be good for the market. Last year, I helped distribute (to Garden Walk gardeners) a couple hundred tuberous begonias that never would have made it in the sunny, windy marina beds. Mine did great, but the Ball rep informed me that they were (yikes) germplasm, and were being used solely for breeding new plants. Maybe I can try some of those when they’re done.
Of course, I wouldn’t want my garden to be covered with large beds of different annuals, but I love the ones I have. And if I could get Stan Swisher to tend my garden, that would make it perfect.