In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
May, 2012
Regional Report

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My petunias are planted in a bed only 4 feet wide so I can easily reach in from all sides to deadhead these fabulous plants without having to step into the bed.

Colorful, Trouble-Free Petunias

Our local nurseries are loaded with petunias this year. I think that's great and I'm not at all surprised. Petunias are equally at home in beds, borders, window boxes, and hanging baskets. They're available in a myriad of colors and most have a light, sweet fragrance. I like to plant mine in beds near the deck and in hanging baskets near the front door so I can enjoy the fragrance the moment I step outside.

It's Easy to Make Them Happy
I don't think petunias have any bad habits, which puts them at the top of my list of colorful annuals. They thrive with about six hours of sunshine per day, prefer well-drained soil, and are drought-tolerant. This means I don't have to immediately haul the hose out if we have a few days of 80-degree weather.

In my garden, petunias provide a non-stop display from early summer through early fall, as long as I deadhead regularly. My only complaint about the plants is that the fluid within the stems is sticky. When I deadhead, I pinch the stems an inch or two below the spent blossoms and I always end up with sticky fingers. The residue is hard to rinse off with plain water, so I have to trek into the house and use soap and warm water to wash it off. If I were smart, I'd hang a bar of soap outdoors somewhere.

Since petunias like to sprawl -- especially the 'Wave' series -- I give them lots of room by spacing transplants about 12 inches apart on all sides when placing them in the garden each spring. They usually fill in nicely by mid-June, and even produce a few blooms. But the main show begins in early July after the weather warms.

Types of Petunias
There are literally hundreds of named petunia varieties. They fall into four distinct categories, based on flower size and growth habit.

Grandiflora petunias produce flowers that are three to four inches across. They are the most popular type and each plant will and develop into a large mound, or will cascade over a wall if planted near the edge. When young they're suitable for containers, but unless the container is quite large, they will look crowded and unhappy by mid-summer. Give these plants lots and lots of room to sprawl in your garden.

Multiflora petunias are more compact and their flowers are smaller than the grandifloras, but they make up for it with the sheer number of blossoms that are open at any given time. Like grandiflora varieties, they're available in single or double flowering forms and are typically massed together to create big splashes of color in the garden.

Milliflora petunias are small, compact plants that produce abundant quantities of perfect, small flowers only an inch to an inch and a half in diameter. They make good edging plants and are also attractive when mixed with other flowering annuals in containers.

Groundcover or "spreading" petunias are only about six inches tall, but spread so rapidly that they cover a huge area over the course of one growing season, provided they're watered and fertilized frequently. Christened the 'Wave' series, these relatively carefree plants do not need deadheading or pinching back. (Series refers to a group of closely related varieties with uniform characteristics; the only variable within a series is flower color.) 'Purple Wave' made the first big splash, with 3-inch, rose-purple flowers constantly covering the plant. This plant spreads to about 4 feet across and reaches only 6 inches in height. 'Pink Wave' was the second introduction, followed by 'Misty Lilac', 'Lavender Rose', and 'Blue'.

The 'Easy Wave' series consists of plants that flower even during the short days of spring. This is a boon to short-season gardening regions such as ours. 'Tidal Wave' petunias are more upright in growth habit and form a hedge effect when planted closer together. 'Supertunia' is a series of vining petunias that can grow more than 3 feet in length even in our short growing season. Supertunias look best when grown in hanging baskets or window boxes where they will have lots of room to cascade. 'Surfina' petunias have a distinctive veining pattern in the blooms and a cascading habit. The abundant flowers are about 2 inches across and come in a handful of colors.

With the varieties of petunias available, I can find the perfect plant for any sunny site in my garden. I still deadhead the standard types -- those with the largest flowers -- but the newer types are about as carefree as can be. Aside from watering regularly, I feed every two weeks with a hose-end sprayer, using a diluted, liquid fertilizer. Mostly, though, I just stand back and admire the waves of color flowing from my flower beds.

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