One of the joys of the return to warm weather is seeing the plethora of flowering plants that suddenly spring up. From early flowering shrubs such as forsythia and azalea to the daffodils, tulips, hyacinth, and crocus it seems that we are suddenly inundated with color. I love to fill my window boxes and planters with the happy pansies and petunias that are able to withstand some of the cool temperatures that we can expect at this time of year.

 

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Pansies

 

These first selections of annuals are just the beginning of the possibilities that lay before us when it comes to choosing varieties for window boxes, planters and hanging baskets. Container plantings allow us select plants that may not be native to our location due to the severity of our winters, to try out new varieties and combinations, and to easily relocate colorful blooms from one spot to another in our yard.

It is not unusual for the window box planting to be delayed as we are compelled to allow nature to take its course. Female doves often set up their nests in our window boxes or empty hanging planters and what can you do other than wait it out?

 

Mourning dove

If you have containers that are family-free you can certainly get them ready for the season. Any planters that did not over-winter well, such as cracked or split pots, should be disposed of and replaced. Empty out any plant debris or soil that is left from last year and sanitize the containers with a 10% bleach solution. Rinse them thoroughly and allow to dry in the sun. I find that coco fiber coir liners do not last more than a season or two so this is a good time to assess and replace those also. Although this spring I have spotted sparrows and mourning doves pulling out the fibers for use in their nests so I may leave one or two liners where they can get to them.

 

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Vinca, evolvulus, lobularia

When selecting new containers keep their location in mind. Larger containers that contain a fig tree, a wisteria and a bi-color buddleia are placed on our ground level patio where it is easier to bring them into the garage for the winter. These plants don’t require much attention through the winter although I will water them every few weeks. Ok, I say that I water them but what I mean is I will dump the ice cubes from a depleted iced coffee into them as I walk by! They have started to show emerging greenery so I have pulled them into a shady area outside and will slowly bring them back into the full sun where they will spend the rest of the season.

 

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Bee visiting a bicolor buddleia

 

Hanging planters and railing planters can bring color and interest while not taking up valuable floor space on decks. Dining outside in the early evening is great when the hummingbirds and pollinators are so close by that we hold our breath lest we disturb them as they visit the flowers!

 

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Hummingbird moth on a petunia

Selecting the plants that will go into your containers is limited only by your personal preferences and by the sun requirements for the given plant. Containers give us an opportunity to bring some non-native plants into our yard, especially those that are not suited to our winters. I find mandevilla to be a lovely container plant. As a tropical species it loves the full sun location of our front porch, produces striking blossoms all summer long, and will overwinter in the house.

 

These plants are about as large as I will choose but there are so many options for really large planters. I love seeing what the landscapers on the UConn campus come up with each season. Coleus, Vinca, sweet potato vine, geranium and petunias will profusely fill out many containers.

Of course, most of us don’t have a team of landscapers at our beck and call so once you have made your container and plant selections the next step is maintenance. The sun and wind will dry out most container plantings more quickly than if the same plants were in the ground, especially when in porous containers such as clay pots. Plastic vessels will retain water a bit better but its best to check all pots on a daily basis.

It’s no longer recommended that rocks or stones be placed in the bottom of containers for drainage. This procedure actually prevents excess water from draining from the soil layer and may keep the roots too wet. A piece of screen or a coffee filter placed in the bottom of the planter is sufficient to prevent soil from washing out.

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Removing spent blooms and pinching back leggy plants will encourage plants to produce more flowers. Also, their fertilizer needs are different from the same plant in the landscape. Using a teaspoon of fertilizer to a gallon of water will help prevent the buildup of excess salt that can afflict container plantings (you know when you see that white crust forming on the surface of the soil or on the rims of clay pots). If it does appear just flush water through the soil until it drains out the bottom.

Container grown plants don’t have to be limited to flowering annuals. Using them for vegetables and herbs is a great option. A planter of herbs near the kitchen door provides really fresh additions to our meals and beverages in the form of rosemary, thyme and mint. It’s also a great way to contain mint which can easily take over a garden bed.

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Another edible planting from last year included mint in a container which had eggplant and the non-edible tourenia. The purple flowers and the deep aubergine of the mature eggplant complimented the stems and leaves of the mint and the purple of the tourenia.

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I have also grown the typical patio tomato plants and the not-so-typical potato plants in containers. It’s a great way to easily harvest the potatoes as you just dump the whole container out onto a tarp and ‘pick’ the potatoes. Controlling the insects and diseases that plague these plants is aided by the fact that you start out with a sanitized container and fresh soil each year. So, as you can see, there is no reason to contain yourself when it comes to container gardening.

Susan Pelton

While there are many spectacular perennials that come back year after year, I really love annuals for that splash of long-lasting color they impart to the landscape. Fiery salvias, soft celosias, autumnal hued sunflowers and brilliant white cosmos are just a sampling of the huge selections of annuals to choose from. When planning your gardens, do take into account an annual’s floriferous nature and its ability to provide you with color over a large part of our growing season. Use annuals alone in flower beds, in containers, in combination with perennials and herbs, to set off shrub borders or to brighten up planting areas under trees.

Gomphrena 'Fireworks' with zinnias & chrysogonum

Gomphrena ‘Fireworks’ with zinnias & chrysogonum

One of my favorite jobs was that as a horticulturist at Old Sturbridge Village. We would spend the winter months pouring over seed catalogs designing annual displays for the dozens of exhibition beds. Seeds would be ordered and we would start 10 to 12 thousand in the greenhouses before hardening them off and setting the transplants in their designated beds as the weather warms. I still have not gotten out of that ritual although I only start 2 to 3 hundred seeds under my plant lights these days.

Love Lies Bleeding - a favorite flower at OSV

Love Lies Bleeding – a favorite flower at OSV

A few suggestions for those pondering what to plant. First, do plan your color scheme before purchasing your plants. Take into consideration what will be blooming nearby, the color of adjacent buildings and the annual’s mature size and texture. Sometimes primary colors are just what is needed to liven up drab spots. Other times, soft pastels are called for. Large plantings of a single color look more formal while a mixed color border can be designed to give the feel of an English cottage garden. Keep in mind, however, that too many different shapes, sizes and colors can lose their charm as the eye doesn’t know where to focus and the planting becomes more distractive than attractive.

Also, consider the distance from which the garden will be primarily viewed. Strong, vibrant reds, yellows, pinks and oranges can be seen from a long way off. Quieter purples, blues and pastel pinks tend to recede and need to be viewed up close for greatest appreciation.

Remember that an annual’s sole purpose in life is to produce seeds to perpetuate itself. Once it feels that it has made enough, your annual plants will begin to slack off on the flowering. That is why it is important to remove spent blossoms on a regular basis. If seeds are not set, the plants will keep on producing flowers. The removal of spent blossoms is commonly referred to as dead heading. Some vegetatively propagated annuals as well as tender perennials do not readily set seed. Others, like fibrous begonias, are relatively self-cleaning. These types do not need dead-heading.

When selecting annuals, match the plant’s growth requirements to the site. For hot, dry areas try dusty miller, statice, amaranthus, tithonia, Madagascar periwinkle, gazania, portulaca, salvia, creeping zinnia, globe amaranth and Dahlberg daisy. For an old-fashioned touch, use poppies, love-lies-bleeding, salpiglossus, celosia, four o’clocks, gomphrena, love-in-a-mist or bachelor buttons.

Annuals that do well in shady sites include coleus, begonias, impatiens, torenia, nicotiana, pansies, mimulus, browallia and polka dot plants. There have been problems with impatiens downy mildew so a lot of garden centers were cutting back on the amount of impatiens they are selling. I lost all my impatiens in 2012 to downy mildew so did not plant any last year but several 2013 plantings not too far from me seemed fine to me so I was going to try some again this summer.

Impatiens wall at Prescott Park

Impatiens wall at Prescott Park

Some possible color combinations that I find particularly alluring are pink zinnias, bells of Ireland and white sweet alyssum, blue ageratums combined with cream-colored (white) marigolds and peach celosia, and orange tithonia accompanied by blue salvia and pert yellow marigolds. Silvery dusty miller goes nicely with the cooler pastels as well as warmer reds and yellows. I’ve used it as a lovely border for orange zinnias as well as in combination with pink snapdragons and pink ageratums.

Front walkway with celosia one year & marigolds the next

Marigolds - Durango Orange Front walkway with celosia one year & marigolds the next

There are many reasons that I find annuals alluring but I think the most compelling one is that I can give my garden beds a new look each year.

Good Gardening To You!

Dawn

 

The past couple of weekends I have managed to find a few hours to begin weeding (and planting) the vegetable garden. Usually I do a final weeding in late October and cover as many of the raised beds as possible with the leaves and grass clippings from the last couple of mowings. Last October’s surprise Halloween snowstorm left the yard in such a disarray (not to mention us without power for almost a week) that the beds really did not get cleaned up. That, coupled with the mild winter and warm temperatures of a few weeks ago, has left me with lots of weeding to do.

The gardener in me does not mind weeding nearly as much as my knees do. It gives me a chance for a closer look at the soil, to inspect overwintering plants (strawberries, asparagus, thyme, etc.) for any problems, and to find and relocate self-seeding annuals. Even when I get around to putting a winter blanket of grass clippings and leaves on the raised beds, I put a lighter coat in areas around self-seeders.

Most of these perpetual annuals are flowering plants but I have three herbs that come back to enthrall me with their distinctive fragrances – dill, bronze fennel and chamomile. I planted them years ago and am still enjoying their company. Dill leaves and seed heads get dried each year for use in breads and soups. Bronze fennel is wonderful to chew on but mostly I leave it for swallowtail butterfly larvae food and as a smoky background for my ‘Franklin’ rose. Chamomile flowers make a wonderful, soothing tea. They can be plucked, dried and steeped in hot water for a wonderfully calming tea.

Bronze fennel with ‘Franklin’ rose

Some self-seeders I have to hunt for. These include sunflowers, balsam, snow-on-the-mountain (Euphorbia), white lace flower (Orlaya) and golden chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria). There usually are enough plants to repopulate the area but numbers vary by year. Typically, I hedge my bet by sowing more snow-on-the mountain, although germination is better in my garden than under my plant lights! I love this plant for arrangements!

Snow-on-the-mountain is a fantastic cut flower.

Others I will never be rid of! This longer list includes nicotiana, nigella, calendula, tall verbena, ageratum, bupleurum, anise hyssop, perilla, corydalis, johnny-jump-up, feather celosia, bluehead gilea, and browalia. There are probably a few others but they do not come to mind at the moment.

So the question when weeding is how many plants should I reposition? For single colored plants like tall verbena or bupleurum, corydalis or nicotiana, this is matter of fact – 6 to 12 depending on how much seed they produce and their aesthetic or cut flower value. The nigellas, calendulas, balsams, celosias and violas bloom in several different colors so keeping more of them for a varied palette makes sense.

Since most of my plants were at one time started from seed, it is pretty easy for me to tell the difference between the plants I want to keep and the weeds. Beginning gardeners might need a bit of practice. One clue is that self-seeders tend to germinate in the same area they were planted in the previous year.

Another consideration when searching for seedlings is what temperature the soil needs to be at for the seeds to germinate. Cool temperature plants like nigella, bupleurum and calendula are already an inch or more tall. Balsam and feather celosia like warmer soil temperatures so I have not found them yet.

I got this self seeding, tall pink balsam from a friend.

While I grow a considerable number of other flowers throughout the gardens, I do appreciate these self-seeding garden staples. I can count on them to blend well with my vegetables and herbs, supply plenty of cut flowers, and also to attract a number of beneficial insects, pollinators and butterflies. And best of all – they’re free!

Good Gardening to You!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Dawn