Ah, the dichotomy of annuals

July 4, 2012 

You win some, you lose some with annuals. They’re garden favorites because of their brilliant colors, but their lifespan is short. They’re also more fickle in our Northwest climate.

Just as the name suggests, annuals last a mere season and must be replaced annually. For that reason, some gardeners stick with cost-effective perennial plants, such as peonies, iris and lilies that return year after year without replanting.

Greedy, blooming things are time and resource suckers – they want lots of food, drink and warmth. They also suck your time – July is a good time to pinch back any leggy annuals and fertilize all annuals.

The rain and cool weather the last part of June has put an end to the party atmosphere for heat-loving, annual flowers such as petunias, marigolds, zinnias, geraniums and coleus.

The best cure for the sad look of rain-beaten bedding plants is to move them under the eaves of the house or under a covered porch or patio to keep the foliage and flowers protected.

Don’t give up. There is plenty of summer ahead so you can buy and replant annual plants now for months of fiesta-inspired color ahead. The good news is that local nurseries and garden centers are still well-stocked with geraniums, petunias, coleus and lots of other annuals and bedding plants – and many of these flowers are offered at end of season sale prices.

So what about the moldy petunias, hung-over hanging baskets and yellowing geranium plants? Life is too short to put up with ugly plants. If a shot of liquid fertilizer doesn’t snap these plant out of their moody blues, then add them to your compost pile. Blame the weather and move on.

If you’re not ready to throw in the trowel on your petunias, coleus and geraniums with brown spots and fungal infections you can take some drastic measures this week and give them a chance of turning over a fresh new leaf.

Pinch back the stems or use shears to cut these plants back by up to one half. Remove the lowest leaves on any plant if they start to turn yellow or develop dark spots. This is a sign of a fungus among us and as the weather warms and the foliage begins to dry many infected plants will spout fresh new growth that will be free of these unsightly blemishes. Always remove the faded or spent blooms from geraniums, marigolds and roses to keep them producing new buds. Once you allow a plant to flower and put energy into seed production, the fun-loving, flower- making days are over.

EMBRACE THE NORTHWEST GLOOM

Speaking of the rainy June, if you really want to embrace our damp climate while focusing on color, look for plants that add color with small flowers or fantastic foliage. Pansies with tiny blooms such as the violas, alyssum, lobelia, and bacopa all do well in rainy climates. For masses of color, invest in hydrangeas, heucheras, brunnera, hosta, spiky cordyline and ferns with interesting leaves such as the purple and silver Japanese painted fern.

One of my favorite container gardens that handles both droughts and rainstorms and looks great for several years without the need for replanting is to place a colorful yellow or variegated leaf hosta in the middle of a container and surround it with the hot-looking heuchera plants – new heucheras now come with orange, red, yellow, spotted, dappled and variegation on the leaves.

FUCHSIAS NEED SPECIAL CARE

When you deadhead or remove the faded blooms from your fuchsia plants be sure you also snip off the stem and the “berry” or nodule just behind the flower. This is the seed-making part of the flower and it will turn purple or red as it ages, sucking energy away from more flower production. Hanging fuchsia baskets need shade from the afternoon sun but hardy fuchsia shrubs can handle full sun if they get plenty of water.

FLOWERS NEED FOOD NOW

Use a liquid plant food, use a slow release fertilizer, add fish meal, fish fertilizer or manure tea. Just be sure to fertilize all your blooming plants this week to keep them in flower.

All plant foods are not equal. Although organic-based fertilizers such as fish fertilizers and manures will improve your soil they release nutrients slowly with less actual nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.

For annuals planted in potting soil in containers you will get faster and more effective results with a liquid plant food that can also be absorbed by the foliage of the plants. The most important rule when it comes to using fertilizers on your flowers is to read and follow the label directions. If a little is good, too much can easily burn the foliage of your plants.

Nothing says summer like a flower-filled garden – so keep growing.

Marianne Binetti is the author of “Easy Answers for Great Gardens” and eight other gardening books. She has a degree in horticulture from Washington State University and will answer questions at her website binettigarden.com.

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