Flowers for Summer? Not So Fast…..

red geraniums
Summer annuals

Last week, on a trip to our local big box store, I was greeted by the pallets loaded with beautiful, red geraniums.  This is a sight that made me angry.

You may be wondering why on earth the sight of beautiful flowers made me angry.  Well, I do love flowers, (obviously… I’m a horticulturist) –  so that is not what made me mad.

What if I told you that most of the annual flowers that were on display at the beginning of April, are the same kind of flowers that were for sale in September and October.

Summer annuals


Now, if you take a minute to consider this, you come to the conclusion that the annual flowers that the big box stores are being offered for sale in early April – just in time for summer.  That doesn’t make much sense does it?

Well, winter annuals are called “winter annuals” for a reason….because they grow in the winter, NOT in the summer.  They cannot handle our hot summers here in the desert.

You may think that this problem does not apply to you if you don’t live in the desert and your summers do not get as hot as ours.  Well, I hate to inform you that this problem occurs all over the US.  

Summer annuals


I love Violas, but these beautiful hanging violas that were hanging outside of the nursery department will be toast, literally, in just a couple of months.  My violas that have been growing beautifully since late October, are starting to show signs of stress with the couple of 80+ days we have experienced last week. 

And so, this is what makes me angry this time of year, when I enter the nursery section of my big box store.  The winter annual flowers are beautifully laid out in order to entice shoppers as they enter.  You can see the shoppers envisioning how beautiful their gardens will be once they add some of these colorful flowers.  

Marigolds, Alyssum, and Petunias

Marigolds, Alyssum, and Petunias

What they do not realize is that in two months, the alyssum and petunias, pictured above, will be dead and their money wasted.**Interestingly, the petunias and alyssum are placed alongside the orange colored marigolds, which usually will do quite well through most of the summer.  

Arizona is different from many parts of the country.  Our mild winters allow us to grow annual flowers that are grown elsewhere in the country in the summer. 



People put their trust in their plant nursery and believe that they would not sell anything that would not thrive in their garden.  They rely on their expertise to sell the right plant for the right time of year.  Sadly, this is not true of all nurseries, especially those at the big box stores.  People begin to believe that they cannot grow flowers or that they have a “black thumb” instead of a green one when their newly planted flowers begin to die soon after planting.

But do not DESPAIR….there is hope!

You can avoid being a victim and the solution is really quite simple….do a little research.  It can be as simple as doing a Google Search and enter the term….summer annuals for (your city or area).  You should be given a long list of plants that should thrive in your area.  

**For residents of the Arizona and California desert, I have done the online searching for you.  You can check out the following link for information on what kind of flowers to grow and when.

Out With The Old and In With The New….

Noelle Johnson, aka, 'AZ Plant Lady' is a author, horticulturist, and landscape consultant who helps people learn how to create, grow, and maintain beautiful desert gardens that thrive in a hot, dry climate. She does this through her consulting services, her online class Desert Gardening 101, and her monthly membership club, Through the Garden Gate. As she likes to tell desert-dwellers, "Gardening in the desert isn't hard, but it is different."
37 replies
  1. fairegarden
    fairegarden says:

    Thanks for alerting us to this, Noelle. The big box stores are often a source of good plants, but many on offer are not right for our climate or the timing is off, as you suggest. It is best to go there with a buyer beware attitude. Knowledge is power! 🙂

  2. gippslandgardener
    gippslandgardener says:

    Hi Noelle – sounds like a universal problem! I've been fooled many a time by a pretty flower batting it's eyes at me from a seedling tray only to discover I've planted it at exactly the wrong time! These days I try to research before I go and avert my eyes from the pretty displays!

  3. Joanne@ Desertmountainbear
    Joanne@ Desertmountainbear says:

    I hate this too. we have so many wonderful plants the grow beautifully here all summer. Why does it take a plant sale at a botanical garden to see them all showcased. I do buy a couple every year, vinca, moss rose, but you won't even see them in stores for months yet. I think I will stick to desert plants.

  4. Floridagirl
    Floridagirl says:

    Ah, words that are so true. How many would-be gardeners become convinced they have a black thumb, only because they planted the wrong things. It reminds me of a friend in Atlanta who admired some plants in my garden, and I told her they were hostas and would do wonderfully in her very shady yard. A couple months later, I pulled into her driveway and saw a mass of Peace Lilies planted. Indeed they do look similar to hostas and they were being sold at an outdoor nursery in the area that really did a poor job of tagging anything. Needless to say, Peace Lilies cannot be grown outdoors in Atlanta.

  5. nancybond
    nancybond says:

    Luckily, that doesn't present a problem here in Eastern Canada as annuals won't be on sale for another month, or longer. But I can understand your distress, in your much hotter clime.

  6. Ami
    Ami says:

    Ha, as new gardener, I used to be (and I think sometime I still am) one of these who fell for those pretty flowers without knowing theu are not right plants for the season, or even not right plants for my climate. Anyway, still learning it… You are so right, research beforehand is the key. I now learned to restrain myself to buy an unknown plant onsite before doing any research.

  7. noel
    noel says:

    its sad but true, big box stores are there primarily to move product and sell to those impulse buyers…(think costco mentality) i don't buy there, i usually go to my farmers market to buy directly from the grower and the prices are also a bargain 🙂

  8. Kate
    Kate says:

    Hi, Noelle;
    That Stolk photo is stunning. And, thanks for the tips. Our Homer Depot (the only big box we have in our small town) is probably one of the worst. They stock the nursery with the same plants they sell in the valleys. A different growing zone, and growing season. I have a feeling that's why so many dejected gardeners give up on the idea of perennials in their mountain gardens. 🙁

  9. Deborah
    Deborah says:

    Great post! This is a problem that plagues Florida gardeners too. When I started gardening here, I made many mistakes, so eventually I carried my copy of Southern Gardening's Garden book with me, which categorizes plants according to which part of the south you live in. From then on I was spared many heartbreaks by bringing this handy reference guide with me.

    I can now shop in big box stores, because when I see a beautiful delphinium, I know it won't make it two days into summer here. Lucky for me I have a local nursery right down the street that specializes in native plants and will only sell things they know will work here.

  10. Martha Z
    Martha Z says:

    I always check Sunset Western Garden Book for my area and now my son does too. It may not be perfect but it seems to be a good starting point.

  11. Meredith
    Meredith says:

    My violas, planted last autumn, are looking pitiful today after five days of 80+ degrees. I get so irritated when I see this happening, it is so unconscionable on behalf of the sellers. I was a victim of this long ago, in my teens, when I bought flats of snapdragons that died within weeks of planting — but fortunately I had an expert around to set me straight.

    It still bothers me, though, not just for the money wasted, but for all those who begin to believe it is difficult to grow things and that they just shouldn't try because they lack the mysterious "green thumb." So discouraging whenever money trumps all, in whatever context…

  12. Curbstone Valley Farm
    Curbstone Valley Farm says:

    I'm glad you pointed this out Noelle. I don't think about it anymore…I stopped trusting nurseries a long time ago. So often I see plants sold either at the wrong time of year, or simply for the wrong location. For example, I watched a number of friends investing in Japanese maples, that lived in the hot, dry Central Valley of CA, and when I tried to suggest that might not be the best plant, they believed point blank that if the nursery was selling it, it must be fine to plant it. Not all nurseries are bad…but it seems so many only care about making the sale.

  13. Gail
    Gail says:

    It's probably a good idea for you and I never go plant shopping together at a big box store…I am forever getting angry about the shrubs and plants they offer us. The same old same old or worse, every imaginable invasive! On the other hand~~it would be fun to shop at a great local nursery and learn about your Arizona desert natives with you! gail

  14. Kara
    Kara says:

    When I see situations like that, I do NOT hesitate to talk loudly where everyone nearby can hear. I make sure to have hubby close so I can pretend I'm talking to him.
    I say something like:

    "Look at this, it's way over priced and will be dead soon. I'd rather grow plants from seed or buy online."

    With luck, other customers will hear, and through the power of peer pressure, they too will change how they look at products.

    Actually I do that sort of thing in just about every store if I see something I don't like, especially when an employee is close enough to hear. Yep, I'm naughty. But it causes change for the better.

    If they want customers to spend money and visit again, they better have appropriate products.

  15. Rose
    Rose says:

    This is a great service announcement for any inexperienced gardeners, Noelle. It reminds me of something my friend said last week when we were visiting a local nursery. I resisted the urge to buy anything because we can still have some cold and nasty weather yet before mid-May. My friend used to work for a wholesale nursery, and the owner was always happy when people bought annuals in a warm spell like this because he knew the plants would all die and the gardeners would have to come back for more:)

  16. James Missier
    James Missier says:

    I totally agree with you. The sad part is that the new beginner gardener have no clue and when they see failure over & over again, they loose interest in gardening.
    I often refrain from buying plants until I do some research and usually I try to get perennials instead of annuals.

  17. debsgarden
    debsgarden says:

    Buyer beware! I think the same stock goes out to all the big box stores, no matter the location. They just all sell the same thing. Like they all sell the same brands of television or floor tiles. I try to research a plant before I buy it, but sometimes I give in to temptation and hope for the best!

  18. Christine
    Christine says:

    You are so right, Noelle. My strategy is to stay out of the big box nurseries. For them, flowers sell, foliage does not. Serious gardeners could invest in a good garden book for their area to know what will grow well and when its blooming season is.

  19. camissonia
    camissonia says:

    I can't agree with you more, Noelle. More often than not, I'm disappointed with the plant selections at the big box nurseries. When there, I usually end up buying mulch or potting soil in lieu of actual plants. And you're absolutely right – it really pays off to do a little homework before caving in to those inviting but seasonally unsuitable offerings!

  20. Helen at summerhouse
    Helen at summerhouse says:

    I think the problem is true for all big box stores. If they would hire people who knew what they were doing it would help, but I notice they place ads for garden dept. help just before the season startsand pay very little. The plants are probably already ordered, with out any thought about where the store is. It's such a waste of good plants. That and the fact that they don't water them either.

  21. Bernie
    Bernie says:

    It happens all the time here too … and we are in exactly the same situation. Annuals like petunias, violas and pansies do not survive our summer and yet they're put out for sale in our spring! This means they will last a couple of weeks!

    Right now is the time to plant our annuals … mid-Autumn! Yet it's hard to find too many punnets for sale!

  22. Darla
    Darla says:

    So true…it's makes me upset too. I just want to scream in the middle of the garden center.."Those plants are buy one get one free for a reason!"

  23. Catherine@AGardenerinProgress
    Catherine@AGardenerinProgress says:

    I so agree with your post, only here it's the opposite. Summer annuals and vegetables that can't handle frosts have been on display here for weeks. Our last frost date isn't for at least another week. Selling these plants at the wrong time of year does probably make inexperienced gardeners think they have a black thumb. I've seen the same annuals at the nursery here, but with big signs that say they are frost tender.

  24. Nancy in Sun Lakes AZ
    Nancy in Sun Lakes AZ says:

    I'm so happy you brought up this problem with the big box stores and what they sell when. I find that often in the fall here in the Phoenix Area there are less winter annuals available than there should be and now, in April when the intense heat is upon us, there are lots of them. The stores are foolish in the long run because, like you said, people get discouraged and don't buy the plants again.

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