Happens to me every year. I plant my perennials in the fall, I plant even more perennials in the early spring, I stand back and look at my lovely garden…and then a bumblebee queen saunters through the yard or a butterfly wafts down from the tulip poplars, and I realize that I have hardly anything for them to eat.
The spring ephemerals have ephem-ed. The really impressive show that starts in mid-April hasn’t ramped up. The garden is a hundred staggering shades of green…but that doesn’t help the bugs, who are here and hungry now.
I am weak. I vow yet again to plant better flowers next year, to extend the bloom season, to do things right…and then I climb in the car and go buy annual plants to plug into the holes and provide a snack to tide my small guests over until the main course is served.
Annual plants are one of the few places where I don’t demand native plants, if only because it’s so damn hard to find a good selection of native annuals. (Seeds are about the only option, I suspect.) My yard is host to annual fleabane, but that’s about it. But so long as the annual does not become a vengeful re-seeder, I have no problem playing host to an exchange student for a summer.
This is not to say that all annual plants are fair game—I don’t plant stock, which is found at all our local home improvement stores, because it’s a minor invasive in my area, and I’m very picky about only choosing genuinely sterile cultivars of lantana*, which is highly invasive in the Southwest, although it doesn’t overwinter reliably here.
So, I plant pentas for the butterflies (they do okay, but honestly by the time they flower, everything else is in full swing anyway) and throw a packet of zinnia seeds in the ground (the butterflies love these) and carefully plant nasturtium seeds, which the butterflies couldn’t care less about, but which make a great frothy mass of leaves and glowing flowers over the edges of the vegetable bed and make me feel briefly like a real gardener instead of a deranged plant collector.
Basil is actually a fabulous annual. I’d grow it for the pesto anyway, but if allowed to flower, bees and other pollinators go nuts for it. The growing season in the south for basil is so long that they’re small shrubs by the time frost hits, and I haven’t noticed a significant change in flavor in the sweet basil when allowed to flower.
One of the few good native annual plants I’ve found is mealy-cup sage, which is more often found under the cultivar name “Victoria Blue” salvia. (What, mealy-cup wasn’t an attractive name?) These purple spikes attract the usual range of insects, and may be a tender perennial in some areas (though not in mine.)
Ageratum, or mistflower, is another excellent annual—I grow hardy mistflower, its perennial cousin, in my main garden, and it’s one you can find at most big-box stores. Lots of small pollinators find this one interesting. (Really, though, given the bloom times, you might as well just grow hardy ageratum, or Greggi’s mistflower if you can get it.)
I have heard any number of times that red salvia is fantastic for hummingbirds. It seems likely, with the red tubes and all. I have never actually seen it happen, largely because red salvias planted in my garden immediately become suicidally depressed and begin phototroping in the direction of the nearest cliff with the intent of throwing themselves off.
The best annual I’ve found for nectar is actually annual verbena, which flowers in that exact range where nothing much is growing and which is of great interest to butterflies. There is nothing quite like sitting on the front steps with a cold ice tea while the skippers mob the verbena, and then looking down to discover a little blue butterfly has flitted over from the flowers and landed on your toes to lick salt off. Spring phlox is also very attractive to the swallowtail butterflies, although this one goes to powdery mildew so fast in my area that I set it out in a pot now and don’t even bother trying to stick it in the ground.
Several tender perennials do well in my area when grown as annuals. I admit, I always thought that pineapple sage (a native of cloud forests in South America) was a little annual you grew in a pot. Put it in the ground in the Southeast, however, and it becomes a frighteningly vigorous chest-high shrub, covered in red flowers, which may or may not overwinter, depending on mulch and mood. (Fortunately the seeds are rarely viable—I’ve think I’ve seen one volunteer…ever. I’d be a little leery of planting this one too much farther south, though, no matter how much the late-migrating hummingbirds love it.)
Nectar is the primary point of annuals for me, as you can see. However, there’s a few host plants that grow well as annuals. Dill is a great host plant for black swallowtail caterpillars—I just have to plant enough so that my boyfriend can still make pickles. (Dill may re-seed itself. It hasn’t been a problem for me, but apparently it IS possible. I suspect local pickle production will keep this from being a significant environmental issue in my garden, but your mileage may vary.)
A new annual for me this year is tropical milkweed, which may or may not overwinter in my zone (or, rather like the pineapple sage, may overwinter some years and not others.) This one has a reputation for aggressive re-seeding, so I’m keeping an eye on it. I have two, which produce attractive red and yellow flowers, but few of my pollinators are terribly keen on it (possibly all the hyssop around it is too much of a distraction.) The real point is to provide another source of milkweed for any monarchs in the area. We’ll see if it works!
And hopefully next year will finally be the year that flowers start early enough to keep the insects happy, and I won’t be grimly laying in flats of verbena sometime in late March.
*A couple of varieties of “sterile” lantana are only self-sterile, and will produce poisonous berries if exposed to another cultivar…like, say, the one the neighbors are growing. This is one it pays to research.
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