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Digging for diversity

Joanne Furio | Photos: Tom Hood | October 21, 2011 | Home & Real Estate Style & Beauty Story Style Home Life

Just like precious stones, the most coveted plants are often the rarest. Species like Phylica pubescens, Petunia exserta, and Lotus jacobaeus can’t be found at any of the local big-box stores, but they are sought out by discerning gardeners, including Annie Hayes. She propagates and sells them at Annie’s Annuals & Perennials, her Richmond nursery, which supplies some 65 independent garden shops from Oregon to San Diego. With more than 20 years in the business, the eccentric Hayes—who recently dressed up for the cover of her catalog in a Boy Scout uniform, with daisies covering her eyes—has become a cult figure in gardening circles. She has been featured in Britain’s Gardens Illustrated, the horticultural Vogue, and is frequently approached by the garden club set as well as by prominent landscape architects, like S.F.-based Ron Lutsko, for plants they can’t get anywhere else. Hayes says that autumn is the proper time to plant in our Mediterranean climate, and she’s got the dirt on what to cultivate now to stem the tide of the industry’s growing homogeneity.

Why is October the best month to plant? You save water, because the rainy season is just around the corner. The plants will put down big, healthy roots and will be really well established. By spring, they’ll put out a lot more foliage and blooms.

Then why do gardeners now go crazy in May? It’s human nature—when the sun comes out in the spring, it’s like the sap rises in our bodies and we want to run out to the nursery and indulge ourselves in flowers.

Tell me about your recent heirloom-seed expedition to England, in search of elusive carnations called the Bizarres. There used to be 200 varieties of these heirloom carnations, and now, in the United States, there’s only one left, the Chomley Farran. So I went online and found someone in England—in the middle of nowhere—who is teasing out the genetics of the old heirlooms and bringing back the scent and the flowers’ stripes.

Why should anyone care about flowers from the 1700s or 1800s? Modern plants are getting less charming, less fascinating, less interesting. We’re losing seed diversity. Few growers produce perennials from seed anymore; most use cuttings. These big growers send the same plants all over the country, from Maine to Seattle to Los Angeles, to big-box stores and chain nurseries.

Food fans around here are aware of a loss of diversity in fruits and vegetables—hence the popularity of heirloom tomatoes. How does that manifest itself with flowers? Big growers want to get more in the truck and fit them on shelves, so they develop dwarf varieties. When you plant them, everything in your garden—pansies, snapdragons—is six to eight inches high. I call them gas station gardens.

What are some examples of these big-box dwarfs? Marigolds—they should be 30 inches to three feet tall. Real Nicotianas and Clarkias are tall and very bushy.

Do you think it’s the responsibility of nursery owners to maintain diversity? A lot of the plants in my nursery are here because we collect seeds that don’t exist in the market. We grow about 2,000 varieties a year, probably another 300 in trials. I live in terror that half the plants we grow are going to disappear overnight.

What are some plants that almost disappeared? Apricot cosmos. Luckily I had some in my backyard and collected seeds, but it doesn’t exist as a nursery plant in many places. Two years ago, the white old-fashioned corn cockles—Agrostemma githago—disappeared. One year the seed for Cineraria—purple flowers everybody in Berkeley grows—disappeared. We actually had to run around town collecting seeds.

How did you get into propagation? When I ran the demonstration garden at Berkeley Horticultural Nursery, my coworker Julie Snyder was a walking plant encyclopedia. She invited me to her Oakland studio, and her bed was surrounded by seeds germinating under fluorescent lights. Then we went on the roof, and that was filled with seedlings, too. She had to lug these two-cubic-foot bags of dirt up to the roof.

So it was like the song “I Can Do That” from A Chorus Line. Exactly. And I have a backyard, so I realized I wouldn’t have to carry bags of dirt up and down stairs.

Did you initially sell only annuals—hence your original name, Annie’s Annuals? I sold perennials, too, but I became known for annuals, back when they were out of style. Garden ladies would come with these magazines and ask, “Can you grow this?” They were mostly cottage-garden plants, which have such natural grace and charm.

What’s a cottage garden? It’s based on the English style: zillions of plants mashed together. They are high- maintenance gardens, but the most romantic.

For something low maintenance, what are some easy plants to start with? Every garden needs Verbascum. They don’t need water; they are deer proof, snail proof, and clay tolerant. You cut back the spikes, and they just keep blooming. They make you feel so successful.

Are you a staunch nativist? No! I think you should grow whatever makes you happy and then do everything you can to protect the wildlands that are left.

Five of Annie’s faves to plant now:
1. Hollyhocks (Alcea rosea): During winter, seedlings can reach eight feet in height, and come spring, their silky flowers bloom.
2. Mulleins (Verbascum, top right): These put down healthy roots during the wet winter months. Cut back floral shoots for continuous blooming.
3. Columbines (Aquilegia): Seedlings planted in the fall will be healthy and established by spring.
4. Canterbury bells (Campanula medium): By May, these cottage classics will show lush foliage and deep-purple flowers.
5. Foxgloves (Digitalis): The hardy deer-proof seedlings must be started now to produce flowers this coming spring.

Annie’s Annuals & Perennials
740 Market Ave., Richmond, 510-215-3301,


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