This section is from the book "How To Make A Flower Garden", by Wilhelm Miller. Also available from Amazon: The Well-Tended Perennial Garden: Planting and Pruning Techniques.
ANNUAL plants are those that you must sow every year. From seed to seed is only a year or less. Annual plants probably comprise half the flowering plants of the world. They quickly take advantage of the moving seasons - grow, blossom, and die before they are caught by the blight of winter or of the parching dry season. They are shifty plants, now growing here, then absconding to other places. This very uncertainty and capri-ciousness makes them worth the while. The staid perennials I want for the main and permanent effects in my garden, but I could no more do without annuals than I could do without the spices and the condiments at the table. They are flowers of a season: I like flowers of a season. Of the kinds of annuals there is almost no end This does not mean that all are equally good.
For myself, I like to make the bold effects with a few of the old profuse and reliable kinds. I like whole masses and clouds of them.
Then the other kinds I like to grow in smaller areas at one side, in a half-experimental way. There is no need of trying to grow equal quantities of all the kinds that you select. There is no emphasis and no modulation in such a scheme. There should be major and minor keys.
The minor keys may be of almost any kind of plant. Since these plants are semi-experimental, it does not matter if some of them fail outright. Why not begin the list at A and buy as many as you can afford and can accommodate this year, then continue the list next year? In five or ten years you will have grown the alphabet, and will have learned as much horticulture and botany as most persons learn in a college course. And some of these plants will become your permanent friends.
For the main and bold effects I want something that I can depend on. There I do not want to experiment. Never fill a conspicuous place with a kind of plant that you have never grown.
The kinds I like best are the ones easiest to grow. My personal equation, I suppose, determines this. Zinnia, petunia, marigold, four-o'clock, sunflower, phlox, scabiosa, sweet sultan, bachelor's-button, verbena, calendula, calliopsis, morning-glory, nasturtium, sweet pea - these are some of the kinds that are surest, and least attacked by bugs and fungi. I do not know where the investment of five cents will bring as great reward as in a packet of seeds of any of these plants.
Before one sets out to grow these or any other plants he must make for himself an ideal. Will he grow for a garden effect, or for specimen plants or specimen blooms?" If for specimens, then each plant must have plenty of room and receive particular individual care. If for garden effect, then see to it that the entire space is solidly covered, and that you have a continuous blaze of colour. Usually the specimen plants would best be grown in a side garden, as vegetables are, where they can be tilled, trained, and severally cared for.
There is really a third ideal, and I hope that some of you may try it - to grow all the varieties of one species. You really do not know what the China aster or the balsam is until you have seen all the kinds of it. Suppose that you ask your seedsman to send you one packet of every variety of cockscomb that he has. Next year you may want to try stocks or annual poppies, or something else. All this will be a study in evolution.
There is still a fourth ideal - the growing for gathering or "picking." If you want many flowers for house decoration and to give away, then grow them at one side in regular rows as you would potatoes or sweet corn. Cultivate them by horse- or wheel-hoe. Harvest them in the same spirit that you would harvest string beans or tomatoes; that is what they are for. You do not have to consider the "looks" of your garden. You will not be afraid to pick them. The old stalks will remain, as the stumps of cabbages do. When you have harvested an armful your garden is not despoiled.
Zinnias - always easy to grow and generous of color.
I like each plant in its season. China aster is a fall flower. In early summer I want pansies or candytufts and other early or quick bloomers For the small amateur garden, greenhouses and hotbeds are unnecessary, and they are usually in the way. There are enough kinds of annuals that may be sown directly in the open ground, even in New York, to fill any garden. All those I have mentioned are such. In general, I should not try to secure unusually early effects in any kind of plant by starting it extra early. I should get early effects with kinds of plants that naturally are early. Let everything have its season. Do not try to telescope the months.
You can sow the seeds of most annuals even in May I have sown China asters in the open ground in early June in New York State and have had excellent fall bloom.
The modern sweet pea.
China asters - the comet type.
Things come up quickly and grow rapidly in May and June. They hurry. Don't expect to get spring bloom from annuals, hut rather from perennials - the spring bulbs, soft bleeding-hearts, spicy pinks, bright-eyed polyanthuses, and twenty more.
Make the soil rich fine and soft and and deep. There are some plants for which the soil can be made too richr of course, but most persons do not err in this direction. For sweet peas there is this danger, for these are nitrogen gatherers, and the addition of nitrogenous manures makes them rim too much to vine. The finer and more broken down the manure the better. Spade it in. Mix it thoroughly with the soil. If the soil is clay-like, see that fine manure is thoroughly mixed with the surface layer to prevent "baking."