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Annuals add dash of color to wilted yards

Fall is an exciting time to garden in Tampa Bay. We don't have the leaves changing colors, but we can add a rainbow of colors to our yards with annuals. There is no excuse for bare spots. There are plants to fill every niche.

Also, the weather seems to draw us outside after the passing of another long, hot summer. We're ready to get our fingernails dirty and clean up the garden.

Local nurseries have a full inventory of appropriate annuals, according to Michelle Radford of Hollies Farm and Garden in Lutz (20545 County Line Road). She recommends pansies, petunias, mums, begonias, geranium, alysum, dusty Miller and flowering kale and cabbage. "These annuals will give you color now and continue to bloom throughout the winter unless we have a heavy frost," she said.

She has some tips on choosing good plants. Look for healthy foliage "that isn't yellowing," she said. "The yellowing indicates a lack of nutrients while young."

Stay away from plants that are extremely pot bound or with dry soil, Radford continued. "The size of the annual should be in proportion to the size of the container."

Don't necessarily choose those annuals in full bloom. "Look for buds," she said, "The more buds the better."

Radford cuts down on labor by adding soil to the top of her beds. "There's no need to do a lot of digging," she said. "Just dump some good, loose potting soil down and plant the flowers in that."

Annuals are short-lived, performing from now until around March 1. To get as much color as possible from them, mix about 60 percent slow-release fertilizer with 40 percent bloom booster when planting. "This will feed them for the season and give wonderful growth," Radford said.

Using this feeding program and planting the annuals eight to 10 inches apart will allow flowers to fill in nicely. "Deadheading (removing wilted flowers) also encourages more blossoms," she said.

Annuals are thirsty plants and require water every other day until established. "After about two weeks you can probably cut back to two or three times a week," Radford said.

Four to five hours of bright sunlight each day is Michelle's recommendation. "They'll take direct, all day sun also," she said.

Annuals are available in four-packs (four young plants to a container), or 4-inch. Survey your yard, noting your needs and then wander over to your local nursery for ideas. Stock is plentiful now and our self-control and planning may give way to the "I want to try one of everything" mentality.

Try to stick to your plan. Or do as I have done. In my daughter's backyard garden, we plant anything that catches our eye, with little thought to garden design. And I must admit this is often the most interesting spot in the yard. In the more public areas, I stay more closely to my design.

A few perennials are also appropriate candidates now. Radford says, "Plant penta, lantana or porter weed. They will have the chance to get established and if a cold winter knocks them down, they come back quickly in the spring."

If your yard has a few holes needing more permanent evergreen plantings, Michelle recommends hawthorn, holly, spirea, or semidwarf or dwarf azalea.

After the heat and humidity of summer have given that lackluster look to many of our yards, a few annuals here and there add that touch that both you and neighbors enjoy.