In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
March, 2012
Regional Report

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Plectranthus holds a cloud of pastel lavender flowers above stiffly erect, dark green leaves.

Boost Garden Color with Annuals

Gardeners know that even the best perennial beds and borders have their slack times. When the view is less than spectacular, be glad for reliable annual flowers.

Design for Annuals
A great garden reflects the personal style of its gardener. Nowhere is that more clearly seen than in the choice of annual flowers we grow, or do not grow. Some gardeners pass up annual flowers altogether in the mistaken belief that one season is not enough to get out of a plant. A few even say that such short-lived plants go against their ideas of sustainable gardening.

Fortunately, there is room in the garden for everyone. My experience says that I like change in the garden, so planting annuals a couple of times a year suits my garden style. Furthermore, I grow some annuals from seed, support local growers vigorously, and compost all the plant debris to feed my garden in future months.

Like you, I garden where weed control is an ongoing challenge for organic gardeners. I grow annual flowers as ground covers to suppress weeds. I have found that this strategy works to reduce the need to spray or cultivate excessively in the attempt to stay ahead. The aesthetic reasons to grow annuals are still more compelling, as they are both exuberant and quick to flower. When you make room for annual flowers, you reap big rewards including garden color, diversity in form and texture and sometimes, cut flowers.

Build Lasting Beds
The soils in our regions, like the mountains to our North, are old. What they lack in relative stature, they give back in minerals and the strength of heavy, often clay, soils. Even our sandy soils have good structure, thanks to their ancient origins. These two extremes make up the bulk of these humid, rich soils.

When you build a bed for annuals, remember that the nature of these soils is compact, often saturated, and not always easy to dig. Since annuals must grow lots of roots rapidly, their soil must have spaces between the particles, whether the soil is sandy or dense gumbo. Roots have to have space to push through, to send out the tiny hairs along each root that pull water and nutrients into the plant.

To create an environment where the roots can function best, most all our soils need organic matter. Choose a sunny site with access to water, scrape off all the weeds and grass, and turn over a few inches of native soil. Top the turned soil with 3-4 inches of compost, old leaves, ground bark, and manure in any combination. Ideally, I use an inch of each. Sprinkle garden lime all across the bed, then sprinkle a similar amount of granular garden fertilizer. Till or shovel the whole mix together, then shape it with a rake until it looks like a loaf of brown bread. I like a bed that can be worked from both sides, about 3 feet wide, but limit the span to 2 feet across if children will be gardening.

Easy Growing
Maybe another reason people walk past the racks of annuals is that they do not realize how very easy most of them are to grow. The mistake most of us make in growing every annual flower from cleomes to petunias is not realizing that they are deceptively heavy feeders.

Annual flowers need fertile soil and regular additions of fertilizer. In spring and summer, you can feed up to twice a month if you use a soluble formula. As an alternative, use a granular flowering formula two weeks after planting, then every 4-6 weeks after that through the season. Keep the bed mulched with an inch of ground or shredded bark, and dead head the old flowers as they fade to keep the flower show going. Look over the plants daily to see their progress and keep a watchful eye out for insects. Many annual flowers bring on the bees and butterflies, but can also attract aphids and other pests. Spray or dust for the troublemakers with care to avoid harming the good guys; in particular, apply organic controls late in the day on affected plants only.

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