This Bud’s For You

MORE THAN A few eyebrows were raised in the world of gardening earlier this year when White Flower Farm, the tony Connecticut nursery, included a selection of annuals in its catalogue for the first time. Anywhere else, an offering of annuals—flowers that germinate, bloom, set seed and die in a single season—would be unremarkable: in the average garden catalogue, you can hardly miss them, page upon page of stoplight-red salvias and sulfurous yellow marigolds. But White Flower Farm’s stately catalogue has always devoted itself exclusively to the most refined perennials, bulbs and shrubs—horticulture’s aristocrats. Coming upon annuals in the pages of White Flower Farm is a little like finding Elmore Leonard in The New Yorker. Considering the influence the firm exerts on garden taste in this country, you have to wonder if perhaps a revolution is in the making.

For more than a hundred years, annuals have lived on the wrong side of the tracks in American gardening. Too gaudy in hue, too promiscuous in bloom and perhaps also too easy to grow, annuals have long been regarded as frivolous, low-rent flowers, the sort of thing planted by the sort of people who keep lawn ornaments in the front yard. Certainly many crimes against taste have been committed with these particular weapons: think of the horticultural felonies perpetrated by ambitious gas station owners—those discarded radials potted up with impatiens; the Shell logos outlined in marigolds—or all those patriotic plantings (in red salvias, white petunias and blue lobelias) carved into the lawns in front of thousand-seat steak palaces.

Painfully aware of this dubious pedigree, White Flower Farm is treading into the annual bed on tiptoes. “Like you,” the catalogue copy gingerly begins, “we have long harbored the notion that most annuals are garish enough to cauterize your retina at a glance.” Only after “careful trials” has the firm identified a small handful of “distinctive varieties that will be welcome in the most refined mixed border.” I suppose the company should be applauded for desegregating the flower border without the prod of a court order.

Not that you’ll encounter a salvia splendens—the stoplight-red one—in this particular club. Please. But in its place White Flower is promoting a subtle, salmon-toned salvia with refined foliage and another in a gorgeous gentian blue. There are a dozen other varieties as well, many I’d never heard of before, and all in the sort of muted shades that don’t risk upsetting a perennial border’s decorum. Clearly White Flower Farm is out to civilize the raucous annual, toning down its blatant hues and teaching it some manners so that it might at long last blend into the polite society of the “mixed border”—and command an upscale price: ten bucks for a six-pack.

THE STORY OF HOW THE annual fell into such disrepute is an object lesson in the operations of horticultural fashion. It has been a precipitous fall: in the mid 19th century, annuals were prized above all other plants, such that they became the very soul of Victorian garden design. But not just any annuals. What was new and glamorous in 1840 were the so-called tender annuals, the snapdragons, verbenas, zinnias, petunias, geraniums and lobelias that had recently been discovered and brought back to England from South America, Mexico, Africa and the various tropical outposts of Empire. (Some of these plants are actually perennial in their native lands, but they’re treated as annuals in places with hard winters.) Few in the north had ever laid eyes on such intensely colored and free-blooming flowers (traits that are probably an adaptation to the crowded flora of the tropics, where competition for the attention of pollinators is fierce), and the Victorians, predisposed to bold colors, snapped up the new plants as fast as they could be grown.

Which was quite fast. For along with the reach of Empire, it was the innovations of the Industrial Revolution that made the annual’s brief moment in the sun of fashion possible: new technologies for the production of sheet glass, as well as for heating, allowed nurseries to raise large quantities of tropical annuals in greenhouses—”under glass,” in the Victorian phrase. New methods of mass marketing and a growing middle class helped, too. Blessed with the prestige of novelty and expense, tropical annuals by the middle of the century enjoyed the kind of exalted status that herbaceous perennials and shrub roses do today.

The problem, at least from a modern perspective, is not so much with the flowers themselves as with the elaborate “carpet bedding” schemes in which they were enlisted. Carpet bedding is the highly questionable practice of organizing flowering plants into intricate designs that are cut into lawns like tattoos: Persian carpets (the source of the term), clocks, stars, crowns, heraldic crests, butterflies, snakes and, perhaps oddest of all, tadpoles. Tropical annuals, which tend to flower extravagantly right up until frost, were massed into discrete areas of color that were then arranged into patterns, almost like a paint-by-numbers set; the emphasis was less on the plants themselves than on the “blazes of color” to which they could lend their blossoms.

As gardening crazes go, only the great tulip mania that seized 17th-century Holland comes close. “Everyone everywhere lost their heads,” writes David Stuart, the English garden historian. ” ‘Bedding’ was now absolutely the rage, from the humblest plot of ground to the very grandest.”

It didn’t take long before a reaction to carpet bedding set in, however, and around 1870 a group of garden writers and designers in Britain began militating for a more natural and informal style, arguing, in the words of one, that the Victorian garden had degenerated into “a mere assembly room for brilliant parties,” rather than a proper “home for plants.” William Robinson, the influential Irish garden designer, railed tirelessly against the carpet-bedding menace, as did, somewhat more decorously, his disciple Gertrude Jekyll.

Jekyll is largely responsible for the advent of the herbaceous perennial border, the style that finally interred the carpet bed and that, remarkably, continues to dominate garden design in England and America nearly a century later. In Jekyll’s borders, a great variety of perennials—”the sweet old garden flowers” she found preserved in rural cottage gardens that had been passed over by the carpet-bedding storm—were loosely and harmoniously arranged in subtle “drifts,” rather than powerful “blazes,” of color. Tender annuals had no place in the subdued palate of such a border, which by and large remains the palette favored by most sophisticated gardeners today. For almost a century now, the annual has lived in exile from polite plant society, left to shout out its declasse blossoms in the handful of carpet beds that survive, hard by gas pumps and the pulpits of television evangelists, as well as in the public parks of Eastern European capitals (Communists were apparently among the last devotees of carpet bedding) and, in one of those lapses of taste to which the French seem especially prone, the gardens of Paris.

NONE OF THIS STRIKES ME AS QUITE FAIR, especially to the annuals themselves. (The gas station landscapers and the French will have to defend themselves.) Even the incontrovertible Gertrude Jekyll conceded: “It was not their fault they were used in uninteresting ways. . . . The tender summer flowers that were almost exclusively employed in those unenlightened days still have their uses.” It seems to me this is especially true in America, where the traditional perennial border has never fared nearly as well as it does in England, whose climate and light it was designed to suit. To perform their best, many perennials require warmer winters, cooler summers and perhaps also a softer light than most of this continent has to offer, a fact that many American gardeners, in thrall to English taste, have been slow to face up to. Which is why it is significant that White Flower Farm, a bastion of perennials, has officially declared that annuals are almost all right.

I don’t know about yours, but by this time of year my perennial border is a sorry sight to behold. The fierce sun of a New England August has bleached out what little color remains. The artemisia silver mound lies there like a prostrate dog; the lady’s mantle has fainted dead away on the paths, and various fungal malignancies have wilted or charred much of my foliage, contributing to the general impression that the border has been cooked. Alice Morse Earle, who gardened in the Northeast earlier in this century, was only being more honest than most when she wrote of the “scanty unkemptness and dire disrepute” of her garden in late summer.

Could it be that our Anglophilia has blinded us to the virtues of the tender annual, which can handle an American summer with perfect aplomb? Now is the season when even the most gaudy blooms are a godsend, and when the cutting garden, packed out with row upon row of annuals, looks as exuberant and fresh as the perennial border looks spent. I’m not talking about White Flower Farm’s finishing-school annuals, either, but the ordinary zinnia, blooming loudly, madly, with no thought to the future; the cleome towers, with their eccentric, high-tech assemblies of blossom and seedpod; the white and magenta cosmos, which carry themselves with a girlish lightness and gaiety no perennial can match, and the 10-foot-tall, promethean sunflowers, for whom subtlety is a word in another language. True, I still cannot abide yellow marigolds or red salvias, and no impatiens will ever darken my garden gate. (Once you’ve lived in Manhattan it’s impossible to look at impatiens without thinking of unconscientious dog owners.) But expel the entire cast of annuals? Unthinkable.

I don’t know how I would get through summer without the celestial blooms of the morning glory, whose speedy vines can stain a whole building blue in a single season; or the cool, tidy nasturtiums that purl my paths; or, for their pure distillates of color, the exquisite tissues of the various annual poppies, or, for their fragrance, the late-arriving but then weirdly punctual four o’clocks and the sweetly scented dreadlocks atop the nicotiana sylvestris.

This time of year, I can imagine whole gardens of annuals, gardens that could be organized equally well around color or scent, foliage or form, shortness, tallness, subtlety or flagrance—there are that many possibilities. What’s much harder to imagine, even after a drive by the gas station or steak palace, is how a class of plants as various and brilliant and willing as these could have been shunned by American gardeners for so long.