Discover some of this year’s most attractive annuals and perennials, the sorts of plants that are sure to liven up your garden all season long.
Whether you’re a novice gardener or a green thumb, adding some colorful annual plants to your doorstep or landscape is easy and rewarding. Each year, growers introduce new and improved varieties to the public. Here, we ask two local experts what they’re watching closely this season.
“This is the Year of the Coleus [per the National Garden Bureau] and there are a lot of neat new ones coming out from growers like Terra Nova and Hort Couture,” says Chris Williams, K&W Greenery, Janesville. “Many of the newer coleuses can tolerate heat and sun and have nice spreading habits that make them good choices for containers and hanging baskets.”
Williams is eyeing Hort Couture introductions Seaweed and Yellowfin Tuna, of the Under the Sea coleus series. Seaweed, new in 2015, is touted as a delicate and “slightly eerie” bi-color coleus.
“You really can’t go wrong with coleus, especially sun coleus,” says Scott Gensler, of Gensler Gardens in Loves Park, Ill., and Davis Junction, Ill. He likes the Proven Winners Colorblaze series for its dependability. “I carry eight out of nine in the series because I know all of them do well for customers. And a lot of the sun coleuses do well in shade, also.”
Coleuses add color and texture all season long, through their many shapes of foliage. They come in multiple shades of purple, green, bronze and burgundy.
Gensler also favors portulaca, a member of the moss rose family that can tolerate low moisture levels for days on end.
“Twenty years ago it wasn’t that impressive, but in the past five years or so, the newer varieties have caught on,” he says. “They bloom all season and don’t need to be watered as often as most plants. They require a sunny location to bloom, and the blooms close in the evening and open again in the light.” He jokes, “They’re very hard to sell on a rainy day.”
For those who want a big, colorful show-stopping plant to anchor a flowerbed or container, the new digitalis (foxglove) Illumination Flame is a favorite for Williams.
“It has a beautiful two-toned yellow and raspberry pink color and is very vigorous,” he says. “We don’t even sell it in less than an 8-inch pot size.” It can grow to 36 inches tall and a foot wide, and offers a succession of blooms spring through fall.
Williams also likes a showy hybrid of cuphea (also called firecracker plant or cigar plant) named Vermillionaire. “It has clusters of bright orange, tube-shaped flowers and the hummingbirds and butterflies love it,” he says. “It’s a no-fuss head-turner that loves heat and full sun.”
For big, dependable color, Gensler likes the Caliope geranium. “It’s a phenomenal plant that’s been out for about five years, now, and can really take the heat,” he says. “Caliope is a cross between zonal and ivy geraniums. If I can convince people to buy them, I do, because I know they’ll out-perform other geraniums.” They come in shades of lavender rose, dark red, burgundy, scarlet fire and hot pink. “And growers are working on more colors all the time.”
Gensler also likes the Dragonwing begonias that have been out for about 15 years. They have attractive, glossy leaves and bloom all season long, even in part-shade. A newer, petite version is the Beaucoup begonia that comes in shades of scarlet, salmon, pink or white.
When it comes to begonias, Williams likes the improvements he’s seeing in South American tuberous varieties like Boliviensis Bonfire Orange, bred from a plant native to Bolivia.
“It has a wing-shaped leaf with larger flowers and a nicer branch habit than older kinds,” says Williams. “It’s OK with dry conditions and full sun and it now comes in shades of red, pink and rose, as well as orange.”
Especially when planting containers or baskets, you want plants that play well with others rather than taking over the playground. Gensler points to a new form of Diamond Frost Euphorbia called Diamond Delight that excels as a team player. “This is a little shorter and a bit less vigorous, but has a very similar look to Diamond Frost and is a good companion plant,” he says. “It’s also heat tolerant and will look good even when it’s not watered as often as it should be.” Both the texture and color of its tiny white flowers complement most any other plant.
While it may be unfamiliar to some, “The cleome is a great plant,” says Williams. “There’s a good newer one called Senora Rosalita that has light lavendar-pink flowers and is thornless, unlike previous varieties. Now there’s an even newer one, a smaller version called Pequena Rosalita that’s very pretty, growing about 24 inches tall, rather than 36.”
Also called “spider plant,” cleomes are tall and elegant, making them good back-of-the-border plants. They come in shades of pink, purple and white.
No discussion of annual plants is complete without mentioning the ever-expanding variety of petunias on the market. They come in large or small bloom sizes and nearly every color, or bi-color combination, you can think up.
“I like the Proven Winners Supertunias for color and performance, even better than I like the Wave,” says Williams. “They come in so many colors and have a nice trailing habit that makes them work well in baskets or containers as fillers or spillers.”
New Supertunias this year include full-sized Black Cherry and Limoncello, and mini-sized Rose Blast Charm (two-tone pink), Morning Glory Charm (blue), and Indigo Charm.
Some petunias just behave better than others, says Williams. “For example, the Crazytunia Kermit Rose, which is bright violet-pink edged by lime green, looks a lot like the Supertunia Pretty Much Picasso, but it just has a nicer growth habit and doesn’t get so spindly.”
Williams also likes the Suncatcher series of regular-size petunias developed by Ball Seed Co. “Blue is a very hard color for growers to develop. I particularly like Blue Burst and Plum Burst.”
The explosion, in recent years, of new Calibrachoas, which look like clusters of miniature petunias, has made it possible to add easy-care color to baskets, containers and the landscape in endless combinations. They have a nice cascading habit and don’t require deadheading. Series like Proven Winners’ Superbells or Million Bells offer sumptuous colors like Blackberry Punch, Picote Punch, Cherry Star and Lemon Slice.
When selecting plants, experience is the best teacher, but don’t be afraid to ask greenhouse staff some questions. Their expertise sets them apart from big-box retailers and they carry better plants. K & W grows most of its own stock.
“I only carry plant varieties I trust,” says Gensler. “We want our customers to be successful. And I ask my customers each year how things have been working for them.”
For that reason, you won’t see as many impatiens plants in greenhouses this year. Their high susceptibility to a downy mildew problem that’s swept the U.S. in recent years makes them risky.
“But New Guinea impatiens and other hybrid impatiens don’t get that mildew – they’re a very safe buy,” notes Gensler.
Gardeners love impatiens because of the nonstop color they bring to part-shade areas of the landscape. Alternative annuals recommended by Proven Winners for these shady spaces include many forms of begonia, coleus, torenia, oxalis, heuchera (coral bells), fuchsia and New Guinea impatiens, such as those in the Proven Winners Infinity series.
No matter what plants you select, be sure to read labels to learn what a particular plant needs to help it perform well until fall frost. Better greenhouses like K & W Greenery and Gensler Gardens use premium soil mixes with slow-release fertilizer, unlike many big-box retailers that sell plants. Even so, most heavily blooming annuals need additional fertilizer throughout the summer and fall to nourish them.
“We set up our plants to offer a more forgiving situation if people are erratic about fertilizing, but high-performing plants just need additional nutrition,” says Williams. Buy a good brand of fertilizer and follow the package directions. “We add fertilizer nearly every time we water,” he adds.
Better plant sellers also pay a lot of attention to the soil they use in hanging baskets and containers.
“At K & W, we mix our own potting soil and use materials that retain water for as long as possible,” says Williams.
Gensler Gardens does the same, even though it drives up overhead costs. Gensler explains that lower-quality plant sellers may use poor soil and overload a plant with fertilizer to force profuse blooming during the high sales season in late May/early June.
“Then, by July 4, the plant is already looking worn out,” he says. “It’s much better for us to sell you a plant that has good potting soil and slow-release fertilizer so it will stay beautiful until frost and you’ll be happy. That doesn’t mean you won’t have to supplement the fertilizer we provide in the dirt, though. For best results, you just have to do that.”
Having said this, some plants, like New Guinea impatiens, don’t like too much fertilizer, says Williams. “Just follow the label directions and you’ll be fine.”
Gensler recommends soaking hanging baskets daily, even twice daily, in extremely hot weather. Plants in the landscape retain water longer.
“Have fun with it and don’t worry too much,” says Williams. “The most important part of gardening is to enjoy it.”