Garden Clippings: Autumn Planning

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Autumn is the perfect time to plan for next season’s annuals

It might seem odd, but this is the time of year I begin preparing for next season’s annual planting. Not for my plantings at home, which I like to experiment with and either have a terrific splash or a horrific flop from the choices, but the plantings that will go into the annual beds at the university where I work.

Even if I don’t make the final decision on the layout of next year’s beds at this time, I do make notes and review how the current season’s plants have performed. It amazes me how I can forget that a certain variety of an annual can be an outright flop, and if I don’t check my notes, I’ll plant it again – because it looks nice at the garden center.

It’s not that there are never planting flops at the university where I work, but they are minimized by the use of what I like to call ‘landscape annuals.’

I use the phrase ‘landscape annuals’ because the plants I use need to have the characteristics of the other plants used in the landscape, other than that, these plants last only a season. Because of budget and manpower constraints, these annuals need to be able to have a number of characteristics I’m looking for.

A major selection criterion is that the plant must be relatively free of pests and diseases. Maintaining plants that need spraying for insects or disease can take a lot of time that could be better spent in other areas of your landscape.

Since annuals are planted for the color they add to the landscape, I look for plants that have a long season of bloom or that will perform well from spring into the first frosts of fall, if they’re not to be replaced with fall annuals, such as mums or pansies.

How much labor is involved with the annual that is going to be planted? Deadheading spent flowers or pinching plants back to maintain a good form may take time. Although it may be easy enough to deadhead a few petunias in a container planting, if you are strapped for time to get your garden work finished, another plant may be a better choice.

How does the plant respond to different weather conditions that we experience through the growing season? In Kansas, we’re likely to have a wet spring, if we are lucky, and an August that is hot and dry. Plants that can maintain good characteristics through both of these extremes will move to the top of the list.

Some of the landscape annuals that I used this season would grade out like this:

• Vinca is a must-have as a landscape annual in this area. The nonstop blooms on glossy, green foliage will continue deep into fall. The only drawback is that they shouldn’t be planted until the temperatures are good and warm. Also, I would like to see someone develop a true red-blossomed plant.

• Impatiens are the vinca of the shade. They bloom in great quantities on a relatively pest-free plant. However, the first frost of the season sends these plants to the bench for the year.

• ‘Sizzler Red’ salvia is a nice formed plant with terrific red blooms. This salvia will look good into late fall if you keep it deadheaded. Deadheading is the drawback to this plant, but I’ll continue to use it until someone develops a plant that takes care of this on its own.

• ‘Easy Wave’ Petunia is a terrific plant that is available in several colors. It does not need deadheading like other petunias, and it fills an area quickly with its spreading habit. This plant has performed extremely well, other than the fact that it seems to grow itself to death and is nearly finished by the first of September. I’ll keep using it, too, with the knowledge that it will need to be replaced with some type of fall flower to maintain the color bed.

• Begonias have always done a great job for me in the shade. This year, I went out on a limb and used these plants in full-sun locations. A mass planting of ‘Vodka’ – a red-foliaged, red-bloomed plant – bordered by ‘Olympia White’ – a green-foliaged, white-blossomed plant – have performed better than I could have hoped for. A spring through fall showing of plants that never seemed to stress or look ratty has been impressive. I will continue using these plants in sunny locations, as long as water is available for artificial rain.

• ‘Indian Summer’ Rudbeckia was a wonderful annual for those less formal areas. Once the weather warmed, these plants bloomed constantly until the dog days of summer slowed everything. A quick deadheading had the plants back up and going for the fall season. A little deadheading is a nice trade-off for a plant that needs less attention than others.

• ‘Solar Sunrise’ coleus is one of the new sun coleus varieties that has been developed recently. This plant is reddish-bronze with a creamy-green center in the leaves. It performed well in the full-sun location, other than that the green variations tended to go to the bronze color during the hottest part of the summer. The only problem that showed up with this plant was a few mealy bugs that were easily taken care of. The sun coleus will be a nice group of plants for foliage color in sunny sites.

• ‘Margaruite’ sweet potato vine is the other foliage plant I used this year. The lime-colored foliage of this extremely durable plant is a must for every garden that needs a little pizzazz. The only problem with this plant is that you have to dig the sweet potatoes before the tulip bulbs can be planted. ‘Margaruite’ planted around a mass of ‘Solar Sunrise’ made quite a statement this year without the use of blooms.

These are all plants that I will continue to call my landscape annuals and will use for future planting. There are also duds that will be on the blacklist, until they can prove themselves otherwise.

Take a few minutes out of your busy schedule this fall to make your own list of observations. It may help you do a better job next year planning the annual plantings, while victories and defeats are still fresh in your mind.