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A little preparation can make annuals last longer


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 16, 2000

The drought certainly hasn't ended yet, but the few rain showers we have gotten lately do offer hope. If you've put off summer planting, now may be the time to look ahead to periods of more rain and decide what you're going to do in your landscape.

If you're adding annual color you can make those flowers last longer by doing some preparation work. Before you purchase annuals, decide upon a site. Ask yourself these questions:

How much light will the plants receive? Most annuals prefer at least some sun during the day, but many such as impatiens and wax begonias do best with partial or full shade.

What other plants, if any, are in the area?

What is the soil like? Is it sandy and well-drained or clay-like and wet?

Will I be able to supply water to the plants in this area? Once you know the conditions of the site you can begin selecting plants.

Decide upon a color scheme for the garden. Colors that clash can be separated with a transitional zone in neutral shades of white, yellow or gray. Also think about the plant's size. Many plants are now available in dwarf varieties.

Shape and growth habits are also important. Some plants are stiff and upright, others loose and arching and still others are creeping or trailing. Foliage color and texture are just as important as the flower color. Some plants may be used strictly because of their foliage.

If you want healthy, long-lived annuals, take the time to do soil preparation. Add organic matter including compost, manure, peat moss or even topsoil. The addition of organic matter improves soil structure, drainage, and water-holding capacity. Get in the habit of adding organic matter yearly to your garden and you'll be surprised on the improvement you will see in your soil. During this dry period, those plants planted in more fertile soil in my garden withstood the stress better.

Till the top six or eight inches of soil incorporating the organic matter. Add some granular fertilizer at the same time to get the annuals off to a good start. A good basic 10-10-10 or 8-8-8 will work. Work the soil just enough to mix the amendments into the soil.

When you go to the nursery, select the healthiest seedlings. Plants with more unopened buds than flowers will last longer. Knock the seedling from the pot and look at the roots. The roots should be white and spread throughout the soil in the pot. You don't want an excessive number of roots growing through the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot.

Once you get your seedlings home, dig a hole just slightly larger than the root ball. Remove the moistened plant from its container and gently tease the roots to loosen them. Place the plant in the hole and fill in around the root ball with soil, firming it gently. Water the plants immediately after planting.

Once the annuals are in the ground, water thoroughly so that the soil is deeply soaked. This encourages the development of deep, drought-resistant roots. Whenever possible avoid wetting the foliage and water during the morning hours. This will help discourage diseases.

Liquid or water-soluble fertilizers may be applied as often as every two to three weeks. Many granulars should be applied every four weeks and fertilizers containing slow-release nitrogen can be applied less frequently, every six to eight weeks. Use a high phosphorus fertilizer like a 5-10-5 or 15-30-15 for flowering annuals.

Weeds can become a problem by competing for available light, water, space and nutrients. Pre-emergent chemical controls are available. These must be applied before the weeds emerge. Mulch will help keep the weed population down also.

Grooming your annuals is important and results in higher quality plants with more prolific blooming. Pinch back annuals when they are young to encourage lateral branching, which leads to a bushier, denser plant. Removing faded flowers prevents seed development and sends more of the plant's energy into flower production. It also leads to a neater flower bed.

Your best protection from pests is purchasing healthy plants, planting them in a fertile soil and meeting their other requirements. A healthy, vigorous plant is the best protection against pest invasions. If you must use a fungicide or insecticide, read and carefully follow all label directions. Spray all surfaces of the plant. Avoid spraying in hot weather or when the plants are wilted from lack of water.

You might think about planting ageratum, celosia, coleus, cosmos, foxglove, impatiens, marigold, ornamental pepper, portulaca, salvia, wax begonia, or vinca. Annuals are among the easiest, most trouble-free plants you can grow and will add color and sparkle to an otherwise dull landscape.

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