Annual Gardens: How to Combine Plant Shapes and Sizes

By Richard Wagner, Kurt Warner

Annual plants come in myriad sizes, shapes, and forms that enable you to experiment with new garden designs every year. Your garden annuals can be short, tall, spiky, mounding, full of flowers, beautifully leafy, and everything in between.

Fun and creative combinations, of form as well as color, are so easy with annuals!

Create an eye-catching combination of annuals by varying height, shape, and texture.
Create an eye-catching combination of annuals by varying height, shape, and texture.

Contrary to popular belief, not all annuals are little bloom-studded muffins. Hardly! Check out the following table for some of your options. (If you live in a warm climate, you might be able to enjoy some of these all year-round!)

Appearance and Habits of Annuals
Type Description Examples
Low growers These annuals can create a carpet in your flowerbeds, not only
covering open ground or making a “skirt” at the base of taller
plants but also generally spilling over and softening the edges
while adding welcome interest and color.
Fan flower, sweet alyssum, million bells, and portulaca
Spiky growers Spires of pretty flowers, whether loose and airy or dense and
commanding, are wonderful punctuation marks in a display. They
break up monotony, standing out from the crowd even as they keep
the eye moving.
Snapdragon, larkspur, and salvia, angelonia
Petite, compact annuals These little cuties pack a lot of appeal into a small space,
making them perfect for containers (small pots as well as window
boxes or big, deck-side planter boxes), edgings out in the garden
proper, or in any spot that needs reliable coverage that’ll be
viewed at close range.
Trailing lobelia, diascia, small pansies, and nierembergia
Mound-formers The mainstay of many garden displays, plants with a
lower-growing, rounded habit are valuable because they fill in
their allotted space so well and are handsome when viewed from any
angle. Closely planted, they’re excellent for edging or masses of
dependable color.
California poppy, geranium, impatiens, nasturtium, and French
Big annuals Count on an impressive show and lots of color — quickly!
This sort of annual is wonderful for fence-side, along a wall of
the house or garage, or in your entryway garden.
Sunflower, cleome, zinnia, and flowering tobacco
Great annuals that range from small to tall These annuals have such a range in height that no matter what
your needs, you can probably find one that fits.
Zinnia and marigold
Leafy plants Don’t forget foliage! So-called foliage annuals may flower, but
their main attraction is their handsome, colorful leaves. Rimmed,
variegated, striped, splashed, or dappled; red, maroon, white,
yellow, cream, or chartreuse — you can find all sorts of
variety and opportunities to make exciting, stand-out displays with
these plants.
Coleus, ornamental cabbage, annual grasses, dusty miller,

Here are some good ideas for making annual diversity work in your garden displays:

  • Small in front, medium in the middle, and tall in back: This reliable guideline works because plants don’t block one another from view, and the stepping-up effect simply looks great and adds dimension to your flowerbed. It makes a display look full and is especially effective in small or tight spaces. Thus, for island beds (in the middle of your lawn, say) or containers, you want small plants on the edges, then medium plants, and finally tall ones in the center.

  • Repetition and balance: Plant so that one plant habit (or form) recurs at regular intervals in the display. This touch supplies continuity and naturally looks pleasing. Vary what happens between if you wish.

  • Simplicity: The smaller the area is, the more important it is to avoid clutter. Use several or many of one kind of plant, together. Or stick to one sort of plant habit but vary the types of plants or the colors.

    Add dimension to a flower bed by planting short annuals in the front and tall ones in the rear.
    Add dimension to a flower bed by planting short annuals in the front and tall ones in the rear.