Q. I plant flowers at cemetery sites, and it seems some annuals do well and some do not. Can you recommend some tough annuals? Most of my sites are in sunny areas, and I am concerned about animals eating the plants in addition to long periods of hot sun and lack of water.
A. Few annuals -- or plants of any kind, really -- truly thrive if the only attention they ever receive is planting. At the very least, weekly watering during very hot, dry weather keeps them from dying and may keep them flowering.
In addition to choosing annuals that are heat- and drought-tolerant, incorporating organic matter into the soil prior to planting increases the soil's ability to hold water and nutrients. You can use homemade compost, municipal leaf compost or mushroom compost -- whatever organic matter source you have easy access to. Be sure to water them in well after planting, and then mulch with a 2-inch layer of shredded leaves to help maintain soil moisture and moderate soil temperatures.
While the following plants are generally resistant to damage from wildlife, there are no guarantees -- deer, rabbits and groundhogs are unpredictable. A number of the plants listed below are tender perennials rather than true annuals; we grow them as annuals because they will not overwinter in our climate. They are typically sold in 4-inch or larger pots, making them more expensive than cell packs of annuals you may be used to purchasing. However, their performance in hot, dry weather makes them well worth the extra expense. This is not an exhaustive list, but it represents plants that seem most likely to succeed and would be most appropriate for cemeteries.
Angelonia (Angelonia angustifolia) -- Native to Mexico and Central America, angelonia is a tough, durable performer with an upright growth habit. Depending on the cultivar, it grows 18-36 inches tall with a similar spread. The foliage is a lush, glossy green, and the orchid-like flowers bloom until frost. Available in pink, purple, white and a purple-and-white bicolor.
Bidens (Bidens ferulifolia) -- These star-shaped gold flowers, native to Arizona and Mexico, bloom from planting until frost. The fine-textured, delicate foliage remains fresh and attractive in heat and drought when other plants look worse for wear. It has a mounding growth habit and is 10-15 inches tall with a greater spread.
Strawflower (Xerochrysum bracteatum) -- Native to eastern Australia, strawflowers are often grown for use in dried arrangements. Depending on the cultivar, they have an upright to mounding growth habit and generally grow 18-24 inches tall with a similar spread. Available in shades of red, yellow, orange, white, purple, pink and bronze.
Ornamental pepper (Capsicum annuum) -- Grown for their colorful fruits and foliage, ornamental peppers are very heat- and drought-tolerant. They range in size from 8 to 36 inches. The fact that the peppers are often very hot can discourage wildlife from eating them.
Annual vinca (Catharanthus roseus) -- This Madagascar native has handsome glossy green foliage that looks as fresh and lush in heat and drought as it does in better growing conditions. It grows 6-15 inches tall with a comparable spread and has a neat mounding habit. It blooms until frost and is available in white, pink, red, purple and salmon.
Blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella) -- Native to much of the United States, this long bloomer comes in cheerful shades of red, yellow, orange and copper. It has a mounding growth habit, reaching 14-24 inches tall and 12-14 inches wide.
Lantana (Lantana camara) -- Lantana grows as a shrub in its native Caribbean and has become an invasive weed in the southern United States. Fortunately for us, it is very frost-sensitive and does not produce viable seed. Depending on the cultivar, it has an upright or mounding growth habit, reaching 6-36 inches tall. The foliage has a spicy fragrance, which often deters wildlife browsing. Colors include white, yellow, orange, red and pink, and most varieties are bicolored, ranging from the softest pastels to the shockingly vibrant.
Gold medallion flower (Melampodium paludosum) -- Blooming until frost with gold or yellow flowers, Melampodium is native to the Southwestern United States, Mexico and Central America. It has a neat, mounding habit, growing 24-36 inches tall with a similar spread.
Purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum') -- This fountain grass has burgundy-red leaves and purplish-pink flower heads that add another foot to the 36-inch-tall foliage. 'Rubrum' is native to Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East, and it has an upright, arching growth habit. Ornamental grasses are very rarely damaged by wildlife.
Mealy-cup sage (Salvia farinacea) -- Native to the Southwestern United States, mealycup sage grows 12-40 inches tall with a slightly smaller spread, depending on the cultivar. Flower color ranges from white to soft blue to bright blue, and the foliage is gray-green. Wildlife usually pass up salvia because the foliage is scented and sometimes hairy.
Verbena -- There are many species and garden hybrids that range from ground-huggers to very upright 4-foot-tall plants. Flower colors include red, blue, pink, white, purple, peach and many bicolor combinations.
Zinnia -- Zinnia angustifolia, also known as creeping zinnia, comes in white, yellow and orange and grows 9-15 inches tall with a similar spread. Z. elegans is the familiar, showy garden zinnia. Cultivars range in size from 8 to 48 inches tall and come in a wide range of colors -- lime green, white, yellow, red, pink, orange, lavender and rose. Garden zinnias are susceptible to powdery mildew and leaf spot diseases that can detract from the their appearance. A cross between the two species resulted in the Profusion Series, hybrids that are very disease-resistant and have large flowers in white, orange, cherry and apricot.
Send questions to Sandy Feather by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by regular mail c/o Penn State Extension, 400 N. Lexington Ave., Pittsburgh 15208.