Floral rocket ships of color

Old-fashioned annuals have distinctive personalities and colorful names. Annie Hayes loves them all.

I want riotous color, not soothing green, in my garden this summer. So I need annuals - those cheery blasts of color that sprout, grow, bloom, go to seed, and die in one rocket ship of a season. I especially want them to fill the flowering gap left when summer temperatures flirt with the century mark, and perennials and shrubs quit flowering.

But I am adamant: no mop-headed marigolds, no snapdragons so curly they don't snap, and no dwarf sunflowers. In fact, no gaudy flowers perched on squat stems are going to set root in my garden.

I want the old-fashioned cottage-garden annuals that toss their stems gracefully over the rose canes or softly carpet the ground beneath the crape myrtles. I also want annuals that thrive on benign neglect, and whose seed I can imagine pioneer women carrying across the prairies and over the mountains to their new homes.

I want annuals with colorful names like "shock-headed Peter," "love in a mist," "lady-bird poppy," and "kiss me over the garden gate."

I found them - and more - when I discovered Annie's Annuals & Perennials and owner Annie Hayes, a self-described "queen of the flower floozies."

Ms. Hayes has taken two asphalt-covered acres in a slightly seedy industrial district of Richmond, Calif., and smothered it with 4,000 varieties of annuals that hail from around the world.

The plants are mainly old-fashioned and heirloom cottage-garden annuals. But included are sun-loving, heat-tolerant annuals from the Mediterranean, South Africa, and South America.

She also grows perennials and California natives at her nursery, which sells retail, wholesale, and through mail order.

More important, Hayes is almost single-handedly preserving the genetic diversity of some of these ephemeral flowers from our past.

For example, she found seed for an heirloom variety of cineraria (Senecio stellata) by scouring old neighborhoods around San Francisco and Berkeley. When a new selection that was shorter with larger flowers came on the market, she says, seed for the old variety abruptly disappeared.

"We collected seed to keep the old strain going," Hayes says. "In fact, we grow most of our plants the old-fashioned way - from seed - in the wind, rain, and sun, no greenhouses."

By contrast, most commercial nurseries carry about 15 varieties of annuals that are, she says, "bred to stay short and bloom in a four-inch pot" (so they look their best at a garden center in spring).

Hayes's location is a study in contradictions. Nearby rows of train tracks, self-storage units, and oil refinery towers provide a stark contrast to the rows and rows and rows of potted plants in the nursery.

Amply planted demonstration gardens (from which gardeners can glean ideas) lush with foliage and flower are tucked snugly in corners and along the fence.

A garden of potted flowers livens up the swath of asphalt outside the tiny trailer that serves as an office. Squabbling hummingbirds fight over salvia blossoms, butterflies flit overhead, and bees feverishly visit every flower they can find.

Cheerful signs painted in bold shades of yellow, blue, and purple proclaim, "It all started in the garden." Benches fashioned from odd-shaped pieces of lumber - painted in loud colors - provide seating for visitors to relax and enjoy the flowers.

There's even a sandy beachlike area with chairs and tables for demonstrations and classes.

Natural grace and charm

Hayes is happy about flowers. And her enthusiasm is catching. She challenges gardeners to be bold, to have fun. "These annuals haven't been bred to stay a foot tall. Their blooms don't look blown up on steroids. These old-fashioned annuals have grace and charm and beauty," she declares.

"I tell people to try them and see how easy they are to grow. When they reseed," she adds, "you have free plants. Remember, 100 years ago people couldn't go to the local nursery for plants, and people still had fabulous gardens."

Annuals not only fill a garden with color during the height of summer when most perennials are on the wane, Hayes explains, but also weave the garden together by growing between, among - and over - shrubs, bulbs, and perennials.

I'm in gardening heaven at Annie's. I walk slowly between the rows of plants, careful not to miss anything, reading labels, admiring amazing flowers I've never seen, and filling my red wagon dangerously full.

The white, black, and orange daisylike flowers of Venidium fastuosum Zulu Warrior are exotic and flashy, a definite must-have. A morning glory with tiny heart-shaped leaves and long, pinky-orange blossoms also goes in the wagon. The selection of plants I love stretches on and on.

Annie's Annuals began 15 years ago with an idea and a little help from a black cat named Jupiter.

At the time, Hayes had started her first flats of seeds. But when she was out, the curious Jupiter walked across the flats, leaving his cat tracks in the soil.

"I kept watering them anyway," Hayes says. "But guess what? I hadn't tamped down the soil after I planted the seeds, and the only places the seeds popped up were in the kitty-cat footprints. I learned my lesson about tamping the soil. If Jupiter hadn't walked on the pots, I may have thought growing annuals from seed was too hard and never started Annie's Annuals."

The seedlings were Linarias, commonly called toadflax, with small, snapdragon-like flowers and narrow, grayish leaves. Hayes took them to Berkeley Horticultural Nursery and, "Whoosh, people bought them as soon as I brought them in.

Pent-up demand

"Then people would bring me seeds or books about cottage- garden annuals and ask if I would grow them. They wanted the ... annuals like corn cockle and old-fashioned poppies. I was running as fast as I could to keep up."

Hayes outgrew her backyard, then she outgrew neighbors' yards, and then she outgrew rented space at a local nursery. Next, she rented an acre in Richmond until the property was suddenly sold; that's when she moved to the current location.

Friends, customers, and strangers who know her by reputation send seeds from all over the world. "We have lupine growing in the front border from seed collected in New Zealand," Hayes says. "Sometimes it takes years to get seed germinated, growing, and identified. It can take three years or more before we have plants to sell. Not very profitable, but great entertainment for us."

Making a career of searching out and growing unusual plants has been "serendipitous, an endless world of fascination. I'm surrounded by beauty every day," she says.

The experience is also educational, Hayes adds: "Every week something is blooming in the nursery that no one has ever seen before. I'm trying to help people understand how to grow a garden you can be personally involved with, that can be part of your life."

Where to find old-fashioned annuals

Annie's Annuals & Perennials PO Box 5053, Richmond, CA 94805; (510) 215-1671; www.anniesannuals.com

J.L. Hudson Star Route 2, Box 337, La Honda, CA 94020; www.jlhudsonseeds.com

Seeds of Change 115 Cheshire Rd., Wallingford, CT 06492; 1-888-762-7333; www.seedsofchange.com

SeedHunt PO Box 96, Freedom, CA 95019-0096; www.seedhunt.com

Thompson & Morgan PO Box 1308, Jackson, NJ 08527; www.thompson-morgan.com

Chiltern Seeds, www.chilternseeds.co.uk

Good annuals for a colorful cottage garden

Annie Hayes of Annie's Annuals and Perennials in Richmond, Calif., counts these among her favorite annual flowers:

Bells of Ireland (Moluccella laevis)

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica Thai Silk Bush' - pink; Mikado - deep reddish-orange; Purple Glam - pinkish lavender)

Cockscomb (Celosia argentea species)

Coreopsis tinctoria Tiger Stripes

Farewell to spring (Clarkia species)

Flowering tobacco (Nicotiana mutabilis Limelight)

Kiss me over the garden gate (Polygonum orientale)

Ladybird poppy (Papaver commutatum)

Lady's paintbrush (Emilia javonica Jewels of Ophar)

Marigold (Tagetes Tall Striped Harlequin)

Millet Purple Majesty

Money plant (Lunaria annua alba var. variegata)

Mullein (Verbascum bombyciferum Arctic Summer), a biennial that blooms its second year

Painted tongue (Salpiglossis sinuata Chocolate Royale and Kew Blue)

Snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus Double Azalea Apricot)

Spider flower (Cleome hasselerana)

Sunflowers (Helianthus annus)

Ursinia anethoides Solar Fire

Venidium fastuosum Monarch of the Veltd and Zulu Prince

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