Toronto Star column – published May 17, 2014
The long weekend of May is finally here and as I write this I cannot predict with accuracy what the weather will be but I know this: it was a reluctant spring and a long winter. For this reason I am not planting out my frost tender annual flowering plants or my tomatoes until after the REAL May 24th, which is next Saturday. Even then I urge you to approach the issue with caution as many popular plants do not enjoy cold soil.
The life of a gardener is a little complicated by the fact that each species we deal with has its own specific list of preferences and needs. I am grateful for this as it helps to keep me in a job. Alas, I am here to guide you through the maze of do’s and don’ts in an effort to help you produce the best looking lawn and garden ever. EVER. Pay attention and you will avoid costly mistakes and discover shortcuts to astounding beauty.
What To Plant Now.
Your local garden retailer is anxiously awaiting your attendance. Waddle into any self respecting plant seller this weekend and you will be overwhelmingly tempted to load up on flowering plant material for your own garden. They have this habit of forcing many plants into bloom ahead of their natural cycle in an effort to get you to buy them. They are the candy store and you are the kid.
What to buy:
It is not a bad idea to buy now the annual flowering plants that you plan to plant in your garden later. Truth is, the best selection of annuals and herbaceous perennials is in stores now. Like so many other crops [plants and flowers are a substantial agricultural crop in Canada, with an annual farm gate value of close to a billion dollars], the best quality plants are the ones that show up at the store first. The first locally grown strawberries are the largest and sweetest, same for raspberries and asparagus. You will find an enormous selection of beautiful plants on display now and I encourage you to buy what you need and hold them on the east side of your home where they are out of the wind until you are ready to plant them later this month or early in June.
If frost is called for in your area, be sure to move the new purchases into the garage or the house for the night to protect them.
What to Buy
For unstoppable colour and ‘low maintenance’ [which is code for ‘able to withstand dryness between watering’], I recommend the following:
Geraniums. The new varieties are remarkably aggressive and floriferous. For bedding out in the ground buy the expensive Ontario-grown named varieties that are labeled ‘zonal’. These are grown from cuttings, take longer to produce at the growers, and are much better performers than the alternative seed grown types. When you see a ‘special’ on geraniums for .99 cents or a buck and half, run the other way. It is a ruse. As good as they can look in the pot at the time, they will not perform in your garden at all well.
For hanging baskets and window boxes there are many new trailing types of geraniums that are worth the investment. I still like the ‘Balcon’ series, which has been around for almost 20 years now, but hybridizers keep improving them.
Calibrachoa. This is a fancy name for a miniature petunia look-alike. Often these are featured in pre-planted containers. They perform well all summer long without deadheading [cutting back] providing that you feed them.
Petunias. My late father’s favourite has been improved and refined to the point where most of the varieties for sale no longer need a mid-summer nip and tuck. Fact is, since the Wave petunias were introduced about 15 years ago with much fanfare and big marketing budget, many other plant breeders have jumped on board and introduced new varieties that perform equally well. Look for Cool Wave, Easy Wave Great Lakes, O Canada Mix, Plum Pudding, or any of the ‘Supertunia’ family.
Dusty Miller. Remember I am talking about ‘low maintenance’ flowers here. While this foliage plant is not exactly ‘flowering’, it is indestructible and it fills in a 20 X 20 cm space nicely. I like it as an accent plant where other flowering plants are the lead actors. I leave dusty miller in the ground in the autumn as it takes a lot of frost.
Fibrous Begonias. Here is a tip: when looking for plants that flower like crazy and don’t need daily care, observe what the local parks and rec department are planting in public gardens. You may not like them all, so strike those off your list [for me: canna lilies]. But when you see a great performer, consider it for your own garden if you enjoy taking some time away from it each summer. Fibrous begonias are just such a plant. Great in borders, en mass, in containers, and even grown in a clay pot and placed in the centre of a table. Easy.
I mentioned earlier that there are some plants that look great but are not worthy of your attention. This is my opinion only, but it is based on experience:
Sunshine Impatience. They look great the day you buy them and demand constant attention once they are planted in the ground or containers. They are 99.9% water [I think] and need rehydrating frequently. To keep them looking good you might have to quit your day job.
Lobelia. The trailing type is fine if you cut it in half after the first flush of flowers has finished. But there is that lag-time of several weeks before they flower again. You can do better with hanging geraniums and ivies.
Nasturtiums. Great in the ‘hummingbird garden’ where they are inter planted with a lot of other flowers, but I can’t recommend them as a ‘stand alone’ annual as they inevitably finish blooming and the leaves turn yellow after about 70 days in the garden. They are an aphid magnet too.
Impatiens. The ever-popular impatiens plant is dead. Thank downy mildew, which was imported from Europe and landed in Florida about 8 years ago. This airborne disease has taken all of the wind out of impatiens sales/sails. If you find an unscrupulous retailer selling them, walk away. As of last summer we are finished with them here in Southern Ontario until a plant breeder comes up with a disease resistant strain. I will be sure to tell you when this happens.
Just for fun I ran a contest on my website [www.markcullen.com ] a couple of weeks ago. I asked readers to tell us what they are planning to use to substitute impatiens with this season. I was overwhelmed by more than a thousand responses. Here are a few:
I am planting fuchsia [ed. tolerant of part shade but not wind] instead of impatiens. Bonnie, Lions Head
Gaillardia [sun], wax begonias, dusty miller, coleus. Carol, Smith Falls
Coleus [sun or shade], ‘Henna’ geraniums, lantana, Bronze potato vine [sun]. Ann
View the summary of contest responses on http://markcullen.com/library/alternatives-to-replace-impatiens/.
This weekend buy the plants that you need and want. Next weekend, plant your heart out.