Flowers of Every Hue
By Mike Lang
Have you ever had the urge to liven up your summer landscape only to drop the idea because you fear the undertaking will be too challenging for both your psyche and your pocketbook? A planting of new shrubs along the back lot line would add a great deal of interest to the backyard living area, but it could get expensive. A new perennial border abutting the deck might add needed color where it is lacking, but the planning process might not yield the desired long-term results. If these issues plague your perennial planning, perhaps it is time to think instead about using a variety of affordable summer annuals to get the job done.
Annual flowers often get a bad rap because homeowners think they are expensive to purchase and labor intensive to plant and maintain. While both thoughts can hold some truth, a little research can make either of them short-lived.
Despite my Midwestern frugality, I have learned that annuals make an excellent and aesthetically pleasing investment for the landscape. Spending $25 to $30 may seem like a significant expense for plants that will last only six or seven months. However, when you consider the cost of one lonely flowering shrub that’s easily lost in the vastness of a home landscape, it will seem like a bargain when your deck becomes an eye-catching oasis with all the annual-flower-filled containers those same dollars can purchase.
A little research can go a long way in aiding the selection of annual flowers that will prosper in your landscape. The plantings seen on nationally televised gardening shows may not fare well in Nacogdoches, Texas, or Lostwood, North Dakota. Locally owned garden centers and state extension offices are great places to find out which plants will thrive at your particular point on the map.
Each environment presents specific challenges with little continuity from place to place, so you should try to avoid buying a plant simply because it looks appealing at the garden center. Doing so can mean setting yourself up for disappointment.
My wife did some flower shopping for me a few years ago and brought home some of the finest looking violas I have ever laid eyes on. Unfortunately, it was the first part of May, and the plants were going to be finished in a few weeks as the weather continued to warm. Violas, pansies and many of the annual Dianthus will look terrific when it is time to shop for flowers, but in my climate, most of them will disappear from the color palette during the heat of the summer.
Sometimes it is good to procrastinate. Many of the annual plants that do great throughout the summer do not like to have cold feet. Planting too early in spring’s cool temperatures will cause some of these plants to be stunted or, worse, to die from root rot diseases. Periwinkle is a plant that despises cold feet, but it will tolerate the hottest of summer locations.
Annual plants with colorful foliage should also be part of your plans. Coleus, sweet potato vine, Perilla, fibrous begonia and celosia all provide excellent landscape color without blooms. Foliage plants are often more tolerant of mild neglect and don’t require the regular fertilization regime typical of many flowering annuals for optimal display.
Coleus is one of the annuals I choose each year when it comes time to plant. It has been a stalwart for shade plantings in the past, but several new light-loving selections are available as cultivars in the Sunlover and Solar series. These cultivar families offer the same great range of colors as the shade types, with red, gold and burgundy on a plant that will tolerate full sun conditions.
From its performance in my last season’s plantings, Perilla ‘Magilla’ is my newest favorite annual. ‘Magilla’ is a recent hybrid that’s reminiscent of coleus. The foliage is burgundy with pink centers on a plant that grows to 30 inches tall and wide. I pinched back ‘Magilla’ in several of my beds last season to encourage a smaller stature, and it responded well. This foliage plant did well in both full sun and shade, though the color was a little muted in full sun. Imagine a planting of this colorful variety with a contrasting companion of ‘Marguerite’ sweet potato vine for a real statement.
Speaking of sweet potato vine, this is one of the easiest foliage annuals to grow. The plant has no special needs other than water and a container or space sufficiently large to let it roam. ‘Marguerite’ is a chartreuse-colored selection; others, including ‘Blackie’ and ‘Black Heart,’ have dark burgundy leaves, and ‘Tricolor’ has green foliage with pink and cream variegation.
Fibrous begonias also do a super job in annual plantings because of their glossy foliage; the blooms are a bonus. ‘Vodka’ has red foliage and small pink flowers on a 10-inch-tall plant. It looks great when combined with a green foliage begonia such as ‘Olympia White,’ which also has white flowers. These two begonias will grow in sun or shade; in a sunny situation, make sure they are watered regularly.
Commonly known by its genus name Celosia, both plume- and cockscomb-flowered varieties are generally valued for their blossoms, but I also like the foliage. ‘New Look’ Celosia is a recently introduced plume type celosia, but the reason it’s in my garden is the foliage. ‘New Look’ has red-burgundy foliage that looks magnificent all season long. It is a small plant that grows to 12 inches tall with a similar width, and presents little threat of pest problems or disease exposure to other plants in your landscape. And here is one other nice tidbit about this plant. There is no need to deadhead the spent plumes as you do with other plume-type celosia; they tend to disappear amongst the growing foliage.
Even if you don’t have a green thumb, simply purchase a few containers, some quality potting soil and a few of these annual plants, and enjoy some easy landscaping in your favorite part of the yard.
A lifelong Kansan, Mike Lang is landscape manager for a 1,000-acre university campus by day and caretaker of his own quarter-acre piece of the world the rest of the time.
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