Do three bits of homework before you shop and you’ll be rewarded by money saved and flowers that thrive.
1. First, save money by figuring out how many plants you need. Many gardens fail and dollars go down the drain when we buy too many flowers and plant too close. Crowded plants look better at first, but become lank, unhealthy failures. (Imagine how surly, unproductive, and unhealthy you would become if you occupied a space barely big enough to turn around in.)
To calculate the proper number, imagine your planting space covered with dinner plates, which approximately equal the average spread of a healthy annual. You need only as many plants as plates that would cover that ground.
2. Observe how many hours of direct, cast-a-shadow sunlight falls on your planting area. More than six? Less? If the answer is six-plus hours of direct sun, plant any annual you like. If less, choose only those whose pot tags say “shade” (two to four hours of direct sun) or “part shade” (four to six hours of direct sun).
3. Take a pinch of soil from the designated bed. Rub it between moist fingers. Gritty? That’s sandy, which some plants love. Sticky? Many plants like the nutrient-richness that comes with a bit of sticky clay.
Choices at the flower market can be overwhelming, so begin with these steady performers. Then try others in ones or twos to see if they make the grade in your garden and belong on your list for next spring.
S……….Prefers sandy soil
R………Likes rich soil, such as loose clay loam
P………Pillar form, taller than wide
M……..Mounded or wide spreading
B……..Bold, big leaves
F……..Fine, dense texture
Sun (Six-Plus Hours a Day)
Petunia // SMB // So much color, and no need to clip off sticky dead blooms on the new small-flowered types.
Marigold // RMB // Buy these for a dash of intense orange and yellow. They also help when planted near vegetables, since their roots create natural chemicals that protect potatoes, cabbage, and carrots.
Geranium // SMB // These huge globes of color love sun but hate hot nights, so grow them where cool night breezes flow.
Ageratum (Floss Flower) // SMF // A delightful edging that satisfies our need for blue.
Snapdragon // RP or MF // Choose dwarf types (less than one-foot high) for mounded forms that won’t need the propping demanded by taller, cut-flower types.
Salvia // RPF // Blue, red, violet, or white — there’s no better upright form. Salvias’ best flowers come after July 4 and last until frost.
Canna // RPB // Dramatic foliage with striking red, orange, or pink blooms beginning in July.
Pinks // SMF // Perky tuffets of grassy foliage with flowers that resemble tiny carnations.
Sunflower // RPB // A sure-fire recipe for smiles. Grow dwarf varieties.
Lantana // RMB // Butterflies flock to these yellow, pink, white, or bicolor blooms.
Black-eyed Susan // RMB // A garden mainstay. Try the spectacular new versions of our native dark-eyed daisies.
Shade (Four or fewer hours of direct sun daily)
Impatiens // RMB // Unbeatable for easy growing and constant bloom, so long as they’re planted in soil that’s like a sponge: compost-enriched, loose, and with some clay.
Begonia // RMB // This favorite offers myriad combinations of leaf colors, shapes, and flower color.
Browallia // RMF // Their blue-violet color makes us relax.
Coleus // RP // Leaf colors, sizes, and patterns range from elegant to raucous.
Caladium // RMB // Huge leaves are splashed and streaked in white, pink, and rose. Keep them cool, away from heat-radiating pavement and walls.
Monkey Flower // SMF // Bold speckled and splashed yellows and oranges.
Pansy, viola // RMB // Happy “faces” of yellow, apricot, violet, white, blue, rose and bicolor. Once nights become hot, clip their spent blooms, keep them well watered, and watch them rebound come autumn.
Verbena // SMF // Trailing mounds of bright purples, pinks, reds, and white.
Wishbone Flower, Torenia // SMF // Blue or violet flowers with touches of yellow. Find the wishbone in the flower’s throat and rediscover your inner child.
Picking Healthy Plants
When you’ve narrowed your choices to a handful, pick one to three types with flower colors that work well together while also providing exciting form and foliage effects.
Do this by pairing pillars (P) with pillows (M), and playing bigger leaf (B) against smaller (F). Contrasts in leaf size are apparent even between young plants, but mature shape develops later, so know which is which by using this list or reading plant tags.
Compactness: No stretched-out stems.
Saturated leaf color: Reject pale plants and uneven leaf color.
Healthy white roots that have just reached bottom. Lift a six-pack to look for roots barely poking out the drain holes. Avoid long, brown, or tangled roots.
Farm fresh: Even one day of being inside a truck, under a roof, too wet, or too dry can permanently stunt a young annual. Eastern Market, local farm markets, and garden-center flowers spend almost no time in the dark and are tended by people experienced in applying just the right amount of water. They’re almost always better bets than those purchased at non-specialty stores.