Best Winter Annuals

By Charlie Nardozzi

For gardeners in the South, fall is the time to switch gears. While northern gardeners are pulling out plants in preparation for freezing temperatures, southern gardeners can plant pansies, violas, and other hardy annuals to provide color from winter to early spring.

Variety selection is the key to best color and performance. Based on trials of more than 250 varieties of annuals at the University of Georgia's Trial Gardens in Athens, some top choices for winter color emerged. Plants were evaluated every two weeks for flower and foliage quality, flowering consistency, and weather damage. The winners overwintered well, didn't stretch (reach for the sun), and flowered most prolifically.

These pansy, viola, and dianthus varieties flowered right through the grayest winter days: 'Clear Sky Primrose', 'Baby Bingo Denim', and 'Wink Red and Yellow', pansies; 'Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow' and Sorbet and Velour series violas; and 'First Love' and 'Ideal Rose' dianthus.

'Red Feather', an ornamental kale with red-and-purple leaves, was judged the best of the 15 ornamental kale and cabbage varieties grown.

All plants performed best set out in full sun in early to mid-October, and planted 10 to 12 inches apart in raised beds. (If starting indoors, sow seed eight weeks earlier.) Flowering started in late fall and continued through winter as long as air temperatures stayed above 40° F. These varieties would grow well for gardeners in USDA Hardiness Zones 7 and warmer, from the East Coast to the Mississippi River.

For more information on the University of Georgia's flower trials, check its Web site: Plants are widely available.

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