Could there be anything easier to grow than petunias? Apparently so — at least in my garden. Their summertime display of joyfully colored blooms eludes me year after year.
The only time I manage a decent show of “Wave” petunia is during winter and early spring — definitely not during a Midlands’ summer.
But last May I received a trial plant of Superbells “Lemon Slice.” Lured by medium-sized blooms with bands of clear yellow alternating with white, I plopped it into a container, assuming it would be toast by the 4th of July — just like all the other petunias. But 6 months later it was still blooming. And this was after receiving day-long doses of full sun during our “famously hot,” record-setting summer of 2012.
“Lemon Slice” trailed amongst the legs of several other plants in the container – an ornamental grass (see below) and a few succulents — its steady crop of blooms supplying bling to an otherwise subtle arrangement. The key to growing this plant is good drainage: too much water around its roots can lead to root rot. If it starts to look scraggly, give it a haircut and a little fertilizer boost: it will rebound quickly.
In that same box of trial plants was a new hybrid spider flower or cleome. Years ago I planted the old-time version: a 4-foot tall plant laden with tennis ball-sized, airy blossoms of pink or white, foliage that was aromatic (not in a good way) and prickly little thorns along the stems. As the flowers faded, they formed elongated seed pods that contained billions of seed: Once you planted cleome, you have a lifetime supply.
Then the plant gurus decided to wrestle this reliable, yet overly prolific, plant into submission. The latest version, “Senorita Blanca,” comes from Proven Winners. I planted three “Senorita Blanca” on the slope of a sunny berm in May. Each plant grew to a 2-by-2 mound of dark green foliage, topped for months with white blooms the size of a small lemon.
This is the closest thing to a plastic plant I’ve ever seen: the foliage never blemished (or smelled weird), the flowers never seemed to fade and required no deadheading and nary a thorn emerged to scratch the admiring gardener’s hand. I noticed a few seed pods in late summer, but they were empty: no threat of rampant seeding .
I planted my cleome adjacent to a new burgundy coleus, “Marooned.” I’ve grown a lot of sun coleus over the years and tend to select large-foliaged ones. By the end of summer they were often shrub-sized and required frequent pruning to keep them from splitting open.
“Marooned” maintained a surprisingly tight habit — still in the 2-by-2 range at the end of November. Its arrow-shaped, notched foliage remained dark burgundy despite our heat. The proportions of this plant — medium sized leaves on a medium-sized plant — make “Marooned” a perfect fit in any sunny location.
“Gold Bar” is an ornamental grass that is slowly getting the recognition it deserves. Slow is the operative word here: unlike most ornamental plants, this one takes several years to reach its mature height of 4 feet. I’ve grown mine in a mixed container for the last 3 years where its distinctive variegation of thick gold bands provides high visibility. Its habit is upright and very tight — no flopping open by the end of the season. Like most ornamental grasses, deer don’t seem to want to graze its foliage.
Promise yourself that this year you will grow at least one new plant in your garden. Sure, you might encounter a bummer but you also might finally find a petunia that works!