In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
As the weather moderates, overwintering annuals like snapdragons burst into bloom and Rosie spends more time in her favorite chair.
Confusing to newcomers, annual flowers march to their own drummer in our regions. Depending on whether you look along the southern coasts or south to the tropics, flowers are plentiful. Snapdragons, petunias, calendula, and candytuft compete now with the traditional pansies, ornamental cabbage/kale, and Johnny jump-ups. The big group of flowering annuals that northern gardeners plant in spring for summer borders and vases includes more than those mentioned above. Canterbury bells, foxglove, larkspur, delphinium, and some phlox and dianthus varieties simply flame out when night time temperatures stay above 70 degrees. On the other hand, while midwestern gardens are frozen, our growing conditions for these plants are prime from fall through spring. Some of the group can be found now as transplants and if planted promptly can be counted on to bloom for weeks, but not months.
Whether you planted them last fall from seed or small plants, or purchase the 4" and larger pots available now, these plants need weekly attention to really thrive. Water and groom once a week: Remove old flowers and ratty leaves, neaten the mulch, look for evidence of insects. Rainfall can be deceptive, especially for container plants and deeply mulched beds. Poke your finger into the soil around the plants to be sure the soil is moist. Simple drip irrigation systems have become more user-friendly in recent years, as have soaker hoses. Both are easily controlled and reliable, and much simpler to set up than they were a few years ago.
For annual flowers, it's more important THAT you fertilize, than WHAT you use. My own preference is for organic products because they add to the soil environment as well as provide nutrients to the plants. Whatever product you use, from your own compost to a water soluble such as 20-20-20, use it regularly. Some serious gardeners incorporate a granular fertilizer into the soil, then supplement with a soluble every ten days. A schedule such as this one maximizes the potential of the plants and rewards you with multiple bloom flushes.
There are a few pests just waiting for you to put tender little greens within their reach. First up are the slugs and snails. If they are a constant presence in your garden, take proactive measures to keep them away. Work diatomaceous earth into the soil around the plants (wear gloves -- the tiny sharp bits can cut you, too) or use a barrier product such as Sluggo or copper rings made for this purpose. Avoid traditional slug baits, as they can be dangerously attractive to birds and small mammals like your pets. You can trap these critters with beer in a shallow plate, but be prepared to host more than would likely be there otherwise. Another popular alternative method for capturing slugs is a fruity diversion. Use a brick to support a short piece of plywood or something similar. In the shade just created, lay a banana peel on the ground and come back the next morning with a shovel to scoop them up.
Aphids are the second most common insect pest of annuals. You'll see them as tiny bumps about the size of a pinhead on the growing points of stems or the undersides of leaves. A blast of water can knock them off, and they are notoriously slow at climbing back up. However, aphids reproduce every 8 days and any eggs remaining will surely hatch. A good approach is to spray 3 times at weekly intervals with insecticidal soap or pyrethrin to get aphids under control.
Annuals, after all, are Nature's one-shot-wonders. So long as they cannot fulfill their destiny of setting seed for the next generation, they keep trying by blooming their heads off. That's a huge reward for your efforts.
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