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15 Plants Worth Knowing & Growing

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It’s finally time to make our gardens look beautiful and colorful. NWQ’s nursery experts suggest some of this year’s delightful new plants and some time-tested favorites that will keep your gardens looking lush all season.

Petunia, Pretty Much Picasso (Proven Winners photo)

Tsking a greenhouse professional to choose 15 or so favorite plants is like asking a mother to choose her favorite children – even if she could, she shouldn’t. So instead, we asked “What’s new and what’s tried and true?” The following is a short list of dependable and delightful favorites, most of them new introductions. For each one named, however, there are scores more we could add to the list.

Annuals

The calibrachoa, also called million bells, is playing a major role in garden centers this year, thanks to a wide array of bright colors, including three new hybrids by Proven Winners (PW): Superbells Cherry Star, a mass of bright cherry pink flowers with a yellow star pattern (pictured at top of page); Sweet Tart, soft pink with a lemon yellow eye; and White Russian, with antique white petals and dark chocolate centers and veins. Although it’s technically not in the petunia family, PW describes Superbells as looking “like a tiny petunia on steroids,” says Chris Williams, head grower at K & W Greenery, 1328 Hwy. 14, in Janesville, Wis. Superbells have a mounding habit that makes them a wonderful choice for baskets and pots. There’s probably a form of million bells in any color you can think of, and when well-fertilized, this sun-loving plant blooms until frost.

Even the steadfast petunia has received a makeover from growers recently, with introductions like green-edged pink beauty Pretty Much Picasso and Rhythm & Blues, a rich blue beauty with white edges.

It just doesn’t seem right to discuss dependable annuals without including the beloved geranium, says Scott Gensler, Gensler Gardens, 102 Orth Road, Loves Park and 8631 11th St., Rockford. “Geraniums have long been a staple in the Midwest garden and probably always will be,” he says. But all are not created equal. “Zonal geraniums were developed about 30 years ago, and that’s what you want. The seed geraniums will never grow as large or yield as much bloom, no matter what you do to them. The genetics are night and day and consumers should watch for trickery on the part of some people who sell geraniums.” Gensler is fond of a new hybrid geranium series called Calliope, by Syngenta, a cross between ivy and zonal geraniums. The result is a mounding habit, semi-trailing plant that thrives in full sun or part shade. “People should be jumping to get these,” Gensler says. “They need no deadheading, they can handle more shade, and the velvet red is a true red, not the orange red we’re used to.”

Gardeners are universally thrilled with today’s wide selection of coleus, prized for its colorful foliage that needs not bloom to be beautiful. “They’ve always been able to bring some bright color to shady areas, and now there are forms that can take sun, too” says Merlin Hagemann, owner, Merlin’s Greenhouse & Flowers, 300 Mix St., Oregon, Ill. From the slender, lacy leaves of PW’s ColorBlaze Velvet Mocha, to cousins like bronze Sedona and lime/magenta Kingswood Torch, coleus is a fast grower that can play either a starring or supporting role in a landscape or planter, and in forms either upright or spilling out of pots. “I like the trailing varieties a lot,” says Hagemann. “The color combinations they allow you to work with are just stunning.”

It’s hard not to love the many forms of impatiens, especially when planting in shady spots. They come in many colors and bloom all season long. New in 2012 is Rockapulco Coral Reef, a double impatien.

When it comes to plants with a trailing habit, for planters, baskets and containers, Gensler is partial to torenia. “There are probably 150 different kinds of great trailing plants, both blooming and non blooming. Torenia is one I like a lot because it blooms, even in shade, with flowers shaped like little horns. It comes in a lot of colors, from reds, blues and whites to purple. There’s a new one this year that’s white with a purple center, called Grape-o-licious.”

There’s nothing new about planting verbenas in our gardens. This annual is a longtime Midwest favorite. What is new, however, is the Lanai line, bred specifically to resist the powdery mildew that can plague this plant. New in 2012 is verbena Lanai Twister Pink, a full-sun annual that trails up to 24 inches in a clear soft pink with an inner circle of fuchsia pink. “It’s very striking and different-looking,” says Williams of K & W. Also new in the verbena world are three PW Superbena Royale introductions, Chambray, Ice Cherry and Peachy Keen. “They have smaller flower clusters that flower longer than other varieties,” says Williams. “They quickly fill up a pot, basket or flower bed.”

Another favorite of greenhouse professionals is lobelia, with its tiny flowers in true blues, whites or lavenders. In forms upright or trailing, this sun-lover can hold its own in a bed or border but is often seen in red-white-and-blue or other color-themed containers at the garden center. A perennial in some parts of the world, we classify it as annual in these parts.

Along the same line is bacopa, a snowy white, tiny-flowered plant with a layered trailing growth habit that makes everything around it look prettier, much as baby’s breath does in a corsage. “We use tons of bacopa in our containers, because it just keeps blooming and looks beautiful,” says Hagemann at Merlin’s.

Finally, in our list of annuals, a word about the beloved, no-longer-humble sweet potato vine; this plant has risen to star status because of its easy-grow beauty, vigor and ability to make any container or bed look lush.

These days it comes in many colors, from its signature lime green to shades of bronze, purple and rust. But sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. “I love this vine, but I recommend getting the non-vigorous varieties if you’re using it in containers or hanging baskets,” says Gensler. “The Sweet Caroline and Sweet Georgia series are non-vigorous and won’t take over a container.” New in 2012 is PW’s Illusion Garnet Lace, with an elegant cut leaf form, very dense branching and garnet red shading.

Perennials

While annuals provide instant color gratification, perennials return to us every year like old friends.

One that growers have had a lot of fun with recently is the coneflower. In its simple lavender form, this plant symbolizes the Midwestern prairie. But today’s hybrids come in outrageously bright colors, like the magenta, pink, yellow and orange-red colors in the PW Big Sky series. This year comes Firebird, Flame Thrower and Secret Joy. A reddish-orange beauty, Firebird has large blooms with unique petals that tilt downward. Flame Thrower has two-toned orange and gold flowers.

Daylily, Primal Scream (Proven Winners photo)

“It can reach 40 inches tall, and has a well-branched, free flowering clump,” says Williams. Secret Joy blooms all summer long with pale yellow, fragrant flowers.

In some ways, coral bells (heuchera) and foamy bells (heucherella), are to perennials what sweet potato vine is to annuals. Known more for their lush foliage than flowers, growers now offer a wide range of colors from coppery peach to many shades of bronze, purple and green. Sunrise Falls is bright lime with dabs of magenta.

There are several 2012 daylily introductions, including Exotic Candy, which has light pink flowers with dark rose eye zones. It blooms mid-summer and re-blooms. Jazz King is a big, sturdy golden-orange flower with thick petals and a raspberry eye. “It’s fast-growing and has ruffled edges, but it’s not a re-bloomer,” says Williams. Primal Scream is a flower that demands attention in the garden. It has large tangerine flowers with narrow, twisted petals.

Also new in 2012 are some pretty new forms of coreopsis, including Cherry Lemonade, with deep cherry-colored blossoms nestled into thready, bright yellow foliage. There’s also a new dark-foliage sedum with striking raspberry-colored heads, and a lovely pink columbine called Pagoda Rose, featuring a cream colored center. Columbines are always a big hit with hummingbirds.

A very special helleborus was recently introduced, another in the Winter Jewels line, called Rose Quartz. Touted as the first double helleborus to have every white petal edged in rose, this beauty becomes available this fall.

No matter what kind of garden you’re growing this year, there are endless options for plants to fill it. If you’re not quite sure about something, don’t hesitate to visit a locally owned greenhouse and ask questions. Turns out the folks in the greenhouses love plants as much as the rest of us. ❚

Sweet Potato Vine Illusion Garnet Lace (Proven Winners photo)

All About Container Gardening

Container gardening is manageable and rewarding. While there are few rules, local gardening professionals offer tips for success.

“Be creative and have fun,” says Dee Speaker, greenhouse manager at K & W Greenery, 1328 Hwy. 14 East, Janesville, Wis. “I like a palette of hot, bright colors, maybe hot pink or orange with lime green, with about three or four plant varieties. But we make beautiful containers with all-pastel colors, too, or many shades of the same color, like variations of purples and lavenders.” One of her favorite sun container “recipes” involves bright, lime-green sweet potato vine for a trailing element, a few vibrant calibrachoa or Supertunias, and a taller plant like angelonia, Persian shield or a whimsical grass like King Tut or Fireworks.

“I’ve noticed people seem to be interested in the orange, peach and brown palette lately,” says Scott Gensler, Gensler Gardens, 102 Orth Road, Loves Park, Ill., and 8631 11th St., Rockford. “The bright oranges and peaches are summery, but the browns and bronzes transition seamlessly into autumn. Good plants for darker shades of foliage are coral bells, grasses and sweet potato vines.”

“When thinking about containers, don’t just think flowers,” advises Merlin Hagemann, owner of Merlin’s Greenhouse & Flowers, 300 Mix St., Oregon, Ill. “There are so many amazing plants where the foliage is the star of the show, and you don’t have to wait for them to bloom.”

If you want a real conversation piece, consider carnivorous plants, or a mix of ornamental and edible plants. “Think of a cucumber plant, and how terrific its vine looks,” says Hagemann. “It’s beautiful cascading over the side of a container.”
Don’t forget about your fluttering visitors.

Wildlife lovers can easily plant or buy container gardens that will attract hummingbirds and butterflies, says Speaker. “I use a lot of salvia, they love that. Salvia comes in a lot of colors besides red – the new black and blue shades are awesome.”

Some other flutter-friendly annuals: ageratum, begonia, geranium, globe amaranth, flowering tobacco, fuchsia, petunia, nasturtium, snapdragon and verbena.

The container itself can be a striking addition to your color or style theme, but always make sure it’s large enough and offers adequate drainage.

“It’s important not to crowd too many plants in a container,” says Gensler “In a 10-inch pot, three premium plants is plenty. A 14-inch pot could take maybe five to six plants.”

If you’re planting or buying a hanging basket, think hard about where it will be placed. Sun-hungry plants won’t bloom well in shade and shade plants may scorch in full sun. Also consider how well you’ll be able to enjoy the plant in that location.

“For example, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to buy a hanging basket of New Guinea impatiens and place it way above your head where you can’t see it,” says Gensler. “If your location is very high, you’d be better off buying a basket with plants that trail.”

It’s not unusual to buy a beautiful hanging basket one day, only to wake up the next and find it drooping like cooked spinach.

“Probably the No. 1 mistake people make is inadequately watering hanging baskets and containers, which dry out fast compared to plants in the ground,” says Gensler. “I tell people to water until you see it coming out the bottom of the container.”

Paper-based hanging baskets are better for plants than plastic. “When the dirt dries out in a plastic pot, it shrinks away from the edges,” explains Gensler. “When you water, it goes into those edges and runs out of the pot. Pulp expands and contracts with the moisture level. Plant roots cling to the sides of the basket and the water soaks into the dirt more evenly.”

Whether you buy a ready-made container or plant your own, enjoy it! ❚

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