Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
June, 2004
Regional Report

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I love mixing bold and contrasting petunias in my sunny flower beds.

Petunias Are All The Rave

Judging by the waves of color I see in neighboring yards, petunias are by far the most popular bedding plants in the Pacific Northwest. My garden certainly has its share!

Petunias are equally at home in beds, borders, window boxes, and hanging baskets. They're available in pink, blue, white, purple, yellow, and red, as well as bicolor pink and white, purple and white, and red and white. I've found that the blue cascading varieties have a light, sweet fragrance, so I've planted mine in hanging baskets near the front door.

Keeping Them Happy
As far as I'm concerned, petunias have no bad habits. They thrive with 6 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. While that's unusual around here, it's not unheard of.

Petunias provide a profusion of bloom from June through September in my garden, 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 really 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 new '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
Petunias are such a popular annual that their hybridization has almost taken on a life of its own, and the varieties currently available can be mind-boggling. Most gardeners are familiar with the old, standard type of petunias with their large, deep-throated blooms and loose, rather rangy growth habits. While they offer great color, they aren't very pretty plants. Breeders recognized that the old petunias were the proverbial diamond in the rough, so they kept the great flowers and the plants' ability to bloom almost non-stop from spring to fall, and added a wide range of colors, along with new flower and plant forms.

Standard Petunias
Based on their growth habit and flower size, this group is subdivided into grandiflora, multiflora, and floribunda petunias. Grandiflora varieties, such as 'Daddy', 'Fluffy Ruffle', 'Picotee', 'Cascade', and 'Ultra', have a mounded habit and produce flowers that are 3 to 5 inches across. These plants do not hold up well in bad weather, have fewer blooms, and tend to become rangy with age.

Multiflora and floribunda varieties are more weather resistant than grandifloras, their growth is more compact, and they bloom more prolifically but with smaller flowers. Some choice varieties in this category include 'Celebrity', 'Polo Adventures', 'Primetime', 'Madness', and 'Carpet'.

Sorting Through the Waves
Spreading or trailing petunias are improved floribunda types, with an emphasis on cascading growth habit and a profusion of blooms. 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. Like all the petunias that grow so fast, they need to be constantly fertilized and cannot tolerate drying out. There are several varieties of supertunias offering different colored flowers. 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.

'Milliflora' petunias form a dwarf, 6- to 8-inch, compact, mound covered with single flowers 1-1/2 inches across. "Milliflora" means a million flowers, and this class lives up to its name. 'Milliflora' petunias do not require pinching back, and they remain compact during the growing season.

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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