A Rainbow Garden of Annuals



In the garden, a color palette is determined by more than just the plants. Hardscape materials and natural surroundings set the stage for the flowers and foliage. For inspiration, we’ve rounded up seven classic case studies—from a simple white garden to drought-tolerant beds of grays and greens to a backyard kaleidoscope of color—with tips you can use to replicate the look.

Every spring, the couple sows wildflower seeds in their sloped backyard garden in Northern California. Augmented by nursery seedlings (native flowers, herbs, and cutting flowers) and aided by a temperate Mediterranean climate and full sun, zinnias, sunflowers, cosmos, nicotiana, and salvias mingle freely through summer and into autumn.


Construct symmetrical beds to calm the impending chaos.
Elk Mountain stone
The neutral brown tones complement natural surroundings.
Boxwood balls and cypress trees
These lend architectural interest and year-round greenery.
Brightly colored annuals
Mix-and-match flowering plants include varieties of sunflowers, zinnias, cosmos, nicotiana, and Mimulus cardinalis.
Interplanted with ornamentals, pumpkin and squash vines add surprise.

Controlled Chaos
Within a grid structure created by retaining walls, four rectangular beds bisected by a central staircase play different roles: In the foreground, perennials and roses encircle a path of grass. On the same level, in the background, cutting flowers behind a low hedge of boxwood suggest a mini wildflower meadow. Two upper-level beds are reserved, respectively, for edibles (including the beans on the arbor) and for herbs such as lavender.

01   Height of Summer

The couple fearlessly mixes color. The element that unifies the riot of cosmos, marigolds, lavender, and nicotiana is a certain delicacy: ruffled blossoms, swan-neck stems, and lacy foliage. Adding structure to the wild garden are clipped boxwood balls in patio planters and pencil-thin Italian cypress trees (they line the path that bisects the garden beds).

02   Monkey Flower

Orange flowers on long stems of Mimulus cardinals way gracefully in a breeze. In temperate growing zones, these flowers will reach a height of 2 feet (cut back the stems if a plant gets too leggy) and are an excellent lure for hummingbirds. Also known as monkey flower, Mimulus cardinalis will thrive in sun or partial shade but prefers not to have its roots dry out (which is why you’ll often see it growing along the banks of a stream).

03   Seat of Power

Along the back fence line of the property, a garden bedis reserved for the pleasure of beans, which grow on an iron arbor purchased from Cottage Gardens in Petaluma. In winter, the bare arch (which sits at the lot’s highest elevation) is visible from the house and lends structure and architectural interest.

04   Hello, Sunshine

Many varieties of Helianthus (sunflower) mingle in the garden. Native to the United States, most widely cultivated sunflowers are annuals that will self-sow if left to their own devices at the end of the season. The couple’s favorite varieties include Helianthus annuus ‘Delta Sunflower’ (deer-resistant, it attracts pollinators) and Helianthus gracilentus ‘Slender Sunflower’ (a drought-resistant California native).

05   A Royal Rose

The Prince’ is one of nearly two hundred varieties cultivated by the British rose breeder David Austin, known for breeding roses with old-fashioned scents and a modern proclivity to bloom repeatedly throughout a growing season. ‘The Prince’ is a hardy, strongly fragrant shrub rose that will produce flowers all summer if spent blooms are deadheaded properly (cut back stems to a five-leaf juncture). The color is a rich red that over time deepens to a majestic purple.

06   Tucked Away

In this garden nook, fruit trees, perennial herbs such as lavender, and a puddle of nasturtiums (in the foreground) are encouraged to grow wild, to create a screen around the seating area. A teak garden bench hidden in a corner is one of many little surprises that make the backyard appear bigger than it is.

07   White Light

Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) grows to a height of 3 feet and, thanks to its tendency to spread fast, fills in gaps other plants leave behind after they finish blooming. A good plant for pollinator gardens, it lures both butterflies and bees (and reseeds itself enthusiastically, useful to prevent a naturalistic planting scheme from looking too studied).

08   The Odd Couple

The formality of a thin, vertical Italian cypress tree is undercut with an unruly pumpkin vine that is encouraged to grow over an arbor and twine itself around the tree. Irregularly sized pavers and edging stones reinforce the idea that controlled chaos is encouraged.


Add Comment