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Plan Ahead for Flower Displays that Please
February 2001 (Updated February 2011)
With a hint of spring in the air, it can sometimes be difficult to resist the urge to rush out with somewhat reckless abandon to buy flowering plants. With so many choices—perennials, annuals, colors, heights, and textures—it can be exhilarating. But how do you know your selections will look good once summer gets into full swing?
While successful gardening isn’t a complete science, it doesn’t have to be a total experiment either. Before you set out on this spring’s plant-buying expedition, take some time do a little advance planning. It will help ensure the beautiful, summer-long gardening results you are looking for.
As part of your planning, it’s a good idea to sketch out the area you will be planting. Include the shape and size of the area, any hardscapes such as walkways or structures, and existing plants in and around the garden. Note what areas receive full sun (8 or more hours of direct sunlight), part sun (4 to 6 hours of sunlight), or mostly shade (under 4 hours of sunlight). Be sure to mark down any parts of the garden that may receive substantial shading from a structure such as a fence, even though the rest of the bed may be full sun.
Also take note of what kind of soil you have. Here a soil test, available through your local extension office, may be especially helpful in determining the organic matter, pH, and nutrient levels in your soil. Does the planting area have heavy amounts of clay or sand? Is the area well-drained or does water have a tendency to stand here for periods of time? While soil may be modified to some degree over time, knowing what plants will favor your growing conditions (light, soil, moisture) can be a big step in determining their, and your, happiness in the long run.
Information on plants can be obtained from a number of sources including greenhouse professionals, plant catalogs, books, the internet, and workshops. Understand whether or not the plants you are considering will meet your needs. Get to know:
- Annuals vs. Perennials. An annual is defined as a plant that completes its lifecycle in one growing season. A perennial is defined as a plant that lives for more than two growing seasons (from the AHS A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants). Although short-lived, annuals often provide a long bloom period whereas a perennial will return to provide enjoyment year after year, but may only bloom for a couple of weeks. A combination of both types of plants will result in a garden that is constantly in bloom.
- Plant Specifics. Each plant has specific cultural requirements for light, soil, moisture, etc. Plants like perennial Phlox, for example, come in a variety of whites, pinks, oranges, and purples. They enjoy a full sun location with good air circulation, and are typically a medium to tall plant. One of the more important considerations with Phlox, however, is their mildew resistance. Keep in mind you will be much more satisfied with your plants if you select a named cultivar that is mildew resistant. Understanding a plant’s specific cultural requirements will help it succeed in the garden and provide enjoyment year after year.
- Size and Numbers. With your sketch and sizes of the plants you have selected, you should be able to determine how many plants you will need. Plantings typically look their best in odd number groupings of 3, 5, 7, etc. Also take into account how large the plant will be at maturity. For perennials, keep in mind it may take a few years for plants to reach their full size potential. If budget is not a concern, find perennials in one-gallon size pots that will fill in the space quicker than their 4” counterparts.
- Plant Combinations. It’s important to select companion plants not only for individual qualities but also how well they will work together. Consider how they will look in a grouping based on size, color, leaf texture, and bloom period. Also be sure they have similar growing requirements—sunlight, soil conditions, moisture needs, and fertilization requirements should all be similar for plants in the same planting area.
- Maintenance Needs. This consideration can sometimes be overlooked, but is a very important part of successful gardening. Do the spent flowers need to be removed (deadheaded), for example, to promote continual bloom throughout the season? Will less hardy perennials require winter protection to assure their return the following season? How much water will the plants need during dry periods? If the answers to these types of questions require more maintenance time than you are able to commit, starting out with lower maintenance plants may be a better solution.
Pre-planning your garden can be a lot of fun, especially when you begin to explore all the choices available to today’s gardeners. New cultivars are being introduced every year, and greenhouses and nurseries are making them easier to obtain and include in your landscape. And don’t forget to take note this summer of those plants and plant combinations that really catch your eye. Find out what they are and mark them down for consideration in next year’s gardening projects. Make sure to visit the Green Bay Botanical Garden where the latest plant cultivars and plant combinations are always on display. If you’ve done your homework and had some luck, your garden will provide you with a whole summer of beauty and enjoyment.