Having provided hundreds of landscape consultations and created a great many all-organic landscapes for clients since 1984, I've noticed most home-owners long for one thing in their gardens: easy, reliable, affordable, cheery color.
You can spend lots of cash and time planting perennials and annuals that promise the sky, but don't deliver. What can you do, short of resorting to fake flowers?
First, realize that half of each year is humid and hot, and half is drier and cooler. Then, learn which flowers grow best during each half.
Now we're in the cool season, for which there are three reliable, fragrant, heavily blooming, frost-tolerant winter annuals: snapdragons, petunias and nasturtiums.
Few flowers capture better the nostalgia of a northern summer flower garden than the old-fashioned snapdragon. The trick in Florida is to plant them all fall and winter as baby plants or seedlings you can start yourself. The flats of 18 plants are the most economical way to buy snapdragons already growing. But I love the ease and frugality of growing from seeds. (I like the medium to tall varieties; most folks are disappointed by the dwarf types.)
My favorite has been Rocket Mix for 26 years. Just sprinkle the seeds in a big pot of good potting soil and keep it damp until seeds germinate. When seedlings reach 4 inches, snip off the top inch to ensure nice bushy growth, then transplant them into good soil in a sunny garden or large pots on a sunny patio or deck. Black Prince is a stunning burgundy-purple that makes a great accent with mixed-color varieties.
Since snapdragons are a classic "cut and come again" flower, the more spikes you cut for bouquets, the more blooms you get.
Petunias are another annual flower that has delivered poor performance in so many Florida gardens, especially when purchased as mature plants in full bloom. Like other familiar members of the Solanaceae family such as tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco and eggplant, they tend to do best when conditions are cooler and drier.
The key is to buy young small petunias in flats or 4-inch pots. (They can be tricky from seeds though I have had good luck with the Multiflora types.) Big plants are already fully mature, so they often begin to decline not long after we bring them home. Baby petunias will root deeply as they grow during the cooler winter months and come into full glory right there in your garden or hanging baskets.
Poor soil and humid heat are petunias' biggest enemies. Yet all too often they are offered for sale late in spring and then planted in the acidic sand we that passes for soil in most of Central Florida.
They are tough, reliable winter annuals if we meet their simple needs of rich, damp, humusy soil, full sun, and cooler, drier conditions. Hybridizers crossed existing varieties of Multiflora petunias (lots of small blooms on mounding plants) and Grandiflora petunias (giant 3- to 5-inch blooms on sprawly plants) with various wild species of petunias. So now we can enjoy upright growers up to 2 feet tall, groundcover types that can cover a 6-foot circle, and trailing ones that can cascade several feet from hanging baskets. New patterns and colors, even yellow, have been bred into them, so there is no better time to try out petunias.
Petunias are not fazed by frosts, but if a freeze is predicted, cover your plants with an old bed sheet or light blanket.
Water deeply weekly, and treat yourself to frequent bouquets to keep the plants tidy and prevent them from setting seeds, which slows the budding and blooming process. The old purple-veined variety Sugar Daddy makes regal-looking arrangements, and is sweetly scented.
If aging plants seem straggly and "tired" looking, try this old trick: Gather each one up in two hands as you would hair into a pony tail, then use shears to cut off the outer half of each one. Re-feed the soil with either menhaden fish meal, dilute fish emulsion or Sunniland Palm 8-6-6, water deeply, and chances are they will regrow until the return of heat in late spring.
To grow them in pots or hanging baskets, mix compost and potting soil in equal amounts, sprinkle in a little dolomitic limestone, and plant just one per pot. A healthy, well-grown petunia can get surprisingly large.
I'm saving the easiest and cheapest for last: nasturtiums. They are so easy to grow from seeds there is no reason to buy plants. Each fall my longtime client and friend Donna Bevis plants nasturtium seeds in the beds in front of her and Larry's Davis Islands home and by late winter neighbors stroll by just to gawk at the eye-popping color that cost just a few dollars.
I've seen packets of my favorite variety, Dwarf Jewel Mix, 10 for $1 at Big Lots and Dollar Tree. Just nourish and mulch your soil as you would for petunias and snaps. Pull back the mulch and push each pea-sized seed about 1 inch deep, spacing them 18 inches apart if you want a solid mass of edible flowers (yes, the blooms are tasty in salads and as plate garnishes).
One or two nasturtium seeds in a hanging flower pot filled with good soil will give you cascades of color in six weeks. Feed them as you would petunias.
Forget about past failures, and don't think winter flowers can't fit into a tight budget. The combination of healthy soil and planting this trusted trio in cool weather will make your efforts a colorful success.
John A. Starnes Jr., born in Key West, is an avid organic gardener and rosarian who studies, collects, cultivates and hybridizes roses for the diverse regions of Florida. He can be reached at: JohnAStarnes@aol.com