Mountain gardeners know that everything is a little bit different up high: light level, flower colors, rate of growth, and additional challenges with overwintering all make mountain gardening an adventure. Selecting annuals that will tolerate cooler evening temperatures can help to extend that short gardening season and keep the color rolling all summer long. In order to choose wisely, it’s important to know which annuals are very-hardy, hardy, half-hardy, and tender.
You will also need to know your hardiness zone. Here at Echter’s, our lowest evening temps are between -20 and -10, which puts us in Zone 5. Evening temperatures from -30 to -20 are Zone 4, and if you are way, way up, you might be Zone 3 (-40 to -30).
Very-Hardy annuals are unfazed by early frosts and night temperatures of 25 degrees. These plants will continue to grow at the same rate in cool weather and they will flower on their normal schedule. These are the first annuals you will see out on the benches here at Echter’s. Very-hardy annual plants include:
Hardy annuals can take night temperatures of 28, but may experience slower growth and flowering. In the big picture, that’s not a problem— just a delay. Waiting a week or two to plant this group will prevent freezing and let them get started.
Picking the “best” cherry tomato is an impossible task, but we can make some recommendations based on plant size, fruit color, and flavor. The first consideration is size of the plant—how much space do you have available for each tomato plant? An indeterminate variety can become an enormous, sprawling vine of 6’ or more. A determinate Tumbling Tom or semi-determinate Lizzano can spill gracefully from a hanging basket or off the side of a raised bed. If you need a very compact plant, try a red or yellow Sweet ‘N’ Neat, which will stay under 16” high. They do best when they can trail a bit, though. They are so short that the fruit can hit the ground in a traditional planting.
Fruit color is a fun factor for many tomato lovers. Combining yellow tomatoes with purple basil is a colorful twist on traditional Caprese salad. Cherry tomatoes come in red, orange, yellow, purple, brown, and black. Fruit can be anywhere from traditional grape shapes to 1” orbs or pears. Not –red varieties include Sunsugar, SunGold, Yellow Pear, Black Cherry, Brown Cherry, Indigo Rose, and Sweet N Neat Yellow.
Cherry tomato flavor is generally quite sweet in comparison to other types of tomatoes, which makes them great for snacking and popular with kids. If you are overwhelmed by your cherry tomatoes (which can happen in August) consider a tomato exchange with an equally overloaded friend or neighbor. You may not have fewer tomatoes at the end, but you’re likely to have a mix of varieties and flavors.
Hanging baskets can be a quick and easy way to add color and style to a patio or porch, but it’s important to select the right plants for the spot you have chosen. A basket of petunias is never going to be happy in a shady nook, and tuberous begonias will crisp up in the afternoon sun. When choosing plants, you also want to consider how easy it will be to water. If watering the basket is going to be a challenge, you can help compensate by choosing plants that can take dry conditions, or choose larger pots or self-watering pots and soil amendments that will help you maintain moisture around the root zone.
Available sunlight is the starting point for all plant selection, so it’s important to determine the number of hours your plants will receive in the location you plan to plant. Do you have a northern exposure or heavy shade from a tree? It doesn’t matter if “it’s really very bright!”—you will have poor performance from sun lovers like petunias. Our visual perception of light isn’t necessarily an accurate measurement of available light to the plant.
Full sun is 6+ hours of direct sun that will shine on the foliage of your plants, each day. These are going to generally be southern, western, or south-western sides of the house, and not tucked back under an awning. If it’s a spot you want to avoid in the middle of the afternoon, odds are good that it’s the perfect spot for a basket of upright geraniums or calibrachoa.
Easy plants for sunny baskets include petunias, scaevola, calibrachoa, trailing portulaca, lantana, trailing verbena, and bidens. A blend of petunias, verbena, and bidens will provide a mix of both colors and textures with long-blooming flower power. An easy care combo for full sun could include a salmon geranium, 3 ‘Bombay Blue’ scaevolas, and 3 light-yellow calibrachoas.
Part-Sun is less than 6 hours of sun per day, which typically amounts to morning sun only. These are usually eastern exposures or an area that would have all day sun, if it weren’t for that gorgeous maple planted two owners ago. An area with dappled shade for the full day can be counted as part-sun for planting purposes.
Easy plants for morning sun include New Guinea impatiens, torenia, many begonias, ivy geraniums, and bacopa. Bacopa can sometimes stop blooming at the peak heat of the summer, but the foliage remains as a lovely cascade and will bloom again once the temperatures cool a bit in late summer and fall. Pansies can also be included in this group, but like bacopa (and most of us!), high temperatures induce a resting phase. A quick and lovely part-sun combo might include a few yellow or salmon ‘Mocca Mix’ begonias, a few ‘Gold n Pearls’ bacopa, and a 4-pack of deep blue torenia.
Full Shade is quite literally no direct sun in a day. Common shade zones are under a porch or patio awning, under dense tree shade, or in the shade of buildings.
An easy basket of shade-loving plants could include pansies, compact or trailing coleus, bacopa, begonias, fuchsia, and traditional impatiens. For a quick combo, try 3 Illumination begonias and 3 white bacopas.
With all basket plantings, it is important to monitor the growth of your plants so that you don’t end up with one vigorous plant taking over the entire pot (I’m looking at you, trailing petunias!). Mild, selective pinching and pruning throughout the summer will encourage new growth from the top of the basket and help keep your baskets looking full and fresh.
A word about feeding your plants – Yes! We’re asking our annuals to entertain us with beautiful blooms all summer long, through any sort of weather or challenge that comes their way. They can’t do that without regular fertilization. Try Jack’s Classic Blossom Booster for the majority of your flowering plants, outdoors and indoors. Petunias prefer a special diet, so try Jack’s Classic Petunia Feed. Follow the instructions on any fertilizer you select. Enjoy!
Your patio bakes like the surface of the sun, you say? We can work with that! There are a number of annuals that are simply built and bred with extra heat tolerance, and it pays to know who’s who BEFORE July hits and your plants shrivel in protest. Try these heat-loving favorites from the start and by the time the heat settles in, you will have gorgeous plants that are ready to fight back.
The ultimate annual for high-impact color! Petunias come in almost every color and there is a petunia for every need- mounding, trailing, or spreading. Old-school grandiflora plants have blossoms that can reach a diameter of 4” and newer choices include amazing color combinations, often on the same plant. Other innovations include varieties that do not require deadheading and shades that fade into a blend of colors (such as Indian Summer, which shows off yellow, peach, and orange flowers as the blossoms age).
Every garden should include some zinnias, whether tall or small, single or double. Zinnias are available in red, orange, yellow, pink, salmon, white, and magenta with heights ranging from 8” to 3’. Taller plants will provide cut flowers all summer! Both showy and durable, zinnias are an outstanding choice from seeds or starts.
Like petunias, geraniums can be traditional or modern. A classic red geranium in a terracotta pot will always be in style, but why not try a salmon variety with lime-green leaves? Another new introduction pairs crisp white and Kelly green leaves with scarlet petals, and still others have a blend of shades in each flower. The new interspecific varieties are bred for even more heat tolerance and the intense colors are eye-catching. A little bit old and a little bit new, geraniums have something for everyone… and they are easy to propagate to bring in for the winter. Marigold
Just about everyone has grown a marigold from seed at some point, and it’s that ease that makes them so appealing. Diminutive dwarf varieties are great in the front of a bed and the taller French varieties are a solid choice for containers and vegetable gardens. For serious impact, try the large-flowering African types- plants can reach 2.5” and blossoms up to 5” across. Bees love marigolds, so expect to share your flowers. If not deadheaded regularly, marigolds are likely to re-seed themselves and become a permanent part of the landscape (for better or worse!)
Also known as vinca and available in white, pink, coral, red, magenta, and now deep purple. Great combination or filler plant and would do well in a border or container.
Annual salvias come in red, coral, white, lavender, deep purple, deep blue, and red/white. Some are tall (up to 3’!) and wispy, while others are more compact with a solid block of flower color. Depending on height and the desired look , salvias can function as either thrillers or fillers in a combination planting.
Portulaca can be upright or trailing and thrive in hot, dry spots. Flowers are 1-2” across and available in brilliant orange, yellow, magenta, cherry red, salmon, or white. Upright varieties are prolific self-seeders and may come back on their own each year. The trailing portulaca are less likely to re-seed and are outstanding in baskets or containers.
Available in white, pink, cerise, and chocolate, cosmos are a cheery addition to any sunny garden. They will self-seed aggressively and form maintenance-free meadows if left alone.
These are workhorse plants with massive flower power. Calibrachoas come in every color and unlike their petunia cousins, need NO deadheading at all. They are outstanding in containers and baskets and can be pruned back to create a bushy effect (rather than a cascade of color). They are an easy filler/spiller and can be tucked in almost anywhere when small. A rapid growth habit makes them knot together if planted in packs, so calis are typically sold as individual plants. This is balanced out by the size that one plant can achieve (fewer plants are needed).
A traditional favorite of children and the young-at-heart—who doesn’t love making the blossoms “snap”? This family includes both tall and small varieties, which makes snapdragons useful as either a thriller or filler. A row of ‘Rockets’ at the back of a bed will provide colorful height for the whole summer, and short-stuff ‘Montego’ plants are excellent for a more subtle effect. Snaps readily reseed themselves, so be prepared for volunteers in the spring (or be aggressive about cutting off spent flower spikes). Available in red, orange, yellow, white, pink, magenta, and burgundy.
Coleus is the amazing chameleon of the shady garden. It comes in a riot of colors, shapes, and textures and is equally at home in formal or unstructured areas. Large-leaf coleus such as the Kong series provide a sizable focal point, and the lacy Under The Sea series makes an exotic statement by itself. Coleus can even be a shady trailer (Meandering Linda) or tall backdrop. Try the brighter colors for the darkest areas to get a pop of color and the darker colors where you can see them close-up.
Show offs abound in this group! There is simply nothing subtle about these sizable plants with hot red, orange, yellow, salmon, white, or pink flowers. Leaves can be either green or deep purple, and several of the varieties are either trailing or pendulous, (the Illuminations series has 2” blossoms hanging like fruit). These plants are at their best in containers or hanging baskets.
Wax begonias are a steady mainstay of shaded beds, but they can also handle sun. Flower colors are red, pink, or white and leaves can be either green or chocolate. Plants are uniformly compact and bushy with blooms all summer long. Truly a set-it-and–forget-it plant.
Nobody has ever accused a fuchsia of being drab! This family includes both upright and trailing varieties that can be used in beds, baskets, and containers. Flowers are typically bicolor (some pastels can give a white-on-white impression from afar). Fuchsia are outstanding for attracting hummingbirds and the blossoms are characteristically a teardrop shape with contrasting sepals. Petals are silken in appearance and may be red, pink, white, orange, or lavender. Classic and lovely, fuchsias are a worthy addition to any shady nook.
New Guinea Impatiens
These burly impatiens have larger leaves and flowers than their more delicate cousins. New Guineas are also resistant to Impatiens Downy Mildew, which makes them a perfect candidate to use in place of traditional impatiens. Unlike traditional impatiens, New Guineas are content with morning sun and will get to be a blocky 1’ x 1’ per plant—a great size for containers and beds. Try them anywhere you would have planted an old-school impatiens for an updated, floriferous burst of bright color.
Torenias are perfect for shady baskets, beds, or containers. Plants will trail if given an opportunity and mound in a flat area. Blossoms have a characteristic “wishbone” crossing of stamens and can be found in lavender, blue, magenta, white, and yellow. They are an excellent “filler” plant and do well in combination plantings.
Lobelia is often at its best in the “shoulder seasons” of spring and early fall, though more heat-tolerant varieties appear every year. Colors range from sky blue to cobalt, with white, pink, and magenta options as well. Lobelias are available as an upright “bedder” plant and as a fluffy , trailing cloud of blues. Some newer varieties will take full sun, but most are happiest in part to full shade to prolong the bloom season. Flowers are delicate and attract butterflies.
Pansies are a wonderful cool-season choice for a shady area. Available in just about every color, pansies are a cheery sight in early spring and provide a burst of color in the fall. Flowers are larger than those of their perennial cousins, the violas, and can be found in both mixes of colors or single-color packs. Though usually dormant in the heat of summer, pansies can survive light snow cover and Icebreakers in particular are likely to come back in the spring.
No, not that kind of oxalis—not the invasive, weedy variety that lives forever in sidewalk cracks. A well-chosen oxalis can be a gorgeous addition to a shade or part-sun container. Leaves range from green & purple to brilliant yellows and pinks with white, pink, or yellow flowers. Oxalis stays compact and would do well in a border or patio pot. Some varieties have very distinct color patterns and are best used in an area where they can be seen up-close.
Selecting varieties of vegetables can seem daunting when all you want is a slicing tomato and there are nine slicer options on the shelf. How to choose? Why should you pick one variety over another, and what’s the difference between hybrids and heirlooms, anyway?
Hybrids: Plants are a cross between varieties as a result of pollination & selective breeding. Each parent plant brings different characteristics to the table (just like people!) and the resulting plants have a combination of desirable traits. Generally, hybrid plants have increased disease resistance, increased yield over other varieties, and their fruit ripens more quickly than heirloom fruits. They may also be bred for unique colors, shapes, or sizes. Keeping in mind that it took two different plants (with specific traits) to create the hybrid, it makes sense that seed saved from these plants will not produce the same “children”– just as a child is not a clone of either parent. Humans have been hybridizing plants for nearly as long as we have been planting them and it is a very natural way to produce plants that match our current needs.
Heirlooms or Heritage: Plants meet specific criteria to qualify:
1) Variety has been in production for over 50 years or was grown prior to 1940
2) Plant can be open-pollinated to create viable seed (many hybrids produce sterile seed, since the resulting seed creates undesirable traits)
3) Seeds produced will create a plant that is similar to the parent plant
Heirlooms are maintained for many reasons, and the foremost of these is flavor. Fruits often have a shorter “shelf life”, generally take longer to ripen, and the plants have less disease resistance than hybrids (which have been bred to combat these challenges). But, oh! The sweetness and flavors are amazing, and it is well worth including them in your garden. It is also nice to know that you are experiencing flavors and colors that your ancestors would recognize.
Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMO: Plants (as well as animals & bacteria) have had genes added or subtracted to their DNA by means of genetic engineering. This is done to increase yield, pest/disease resistance, herbicide resistance, or to create otherwise desirable traits. It is extremely rare for the home gardener to encounter GMO plants or seeds. The breeding is expensive, and consequently most of the research is centered on commercial cash crops such as corn, canola, soy, or cottonseed. Studies have shown both positive and negative impacts of this engineering and public opinion remains mixed. GMO crops are grown as large scale, commercial farming crops. It is extremely unlikely for the home gardener, or even your local garden center, to have the option to purchase a GMO plant or seed, a concerned gardener can opt to purchase only seed that specifies that it is non-GMO.
Back to the original question— why should you choose one type over another? Most of us here at Echter’s grow a mix of heirloom and hybrid varieties. Those growing in containers will probably select hybrids, as there are varieties that have been bred to stay petite and won’t take over a patio. Gardeners with a lot of space and the willingness to wait until late summer for fruit will likely choose heirlooms. Mountain gardeners need plants can handle a chill and fruit quickly. Most of us fall somewhere in between and want some early hybrid fruits and a smaller, later crop of heirlooms. Mixing and matching your varieties will give you a steady stream of fruit throughout the summer and encourage you to try something new each year.
We all know that kids and dirt go together like peas and carrots, which makes gardening an easy activity to encourage. It can be an amazing journey of discovery to realize that sun and water will create sunflowers and watermelons, and there are a lot of wonderful activities to investigate year-round. Young children can help with seeding and planting, and older children can take it a step further by learning how plants grow and trying experiments in the garden. After all, much of gardening is experimentation, and that’s what makes it fun!
1) Try starting some seeds indoors! Choose larger seeds like beans, peas, or marigolds that are easy to handle and count. Even if these aren’t plants that make it into the garden, it’s fun to count the number of days until they come up and watch them grow. Older children can measure how tall they grow in a week, or how long it takes for each set of leaves to form and expand.
2) Direct seeding of easy annuals—we’ve all encountered plants that seem to grow of their own accord every year. Cheery pink or white cosmos are quick to start, as are marigolds, sunflowers, and pumpkins. Zinnias come in a riot of colors. Bachelor buttons and nasturtiums can be tucked in to fill out bare spots.
3) A plot of one’s own—foster a sense of responsibility by creating a small plot for each child. A 3’ stretch along the fence can be a trial garden for different kinds of flowers or vegetables, and can be decorated with painted rocks or other handmade garden-themed crafts. Let each child choose their plants or seeds for a garden that is their own creation. Take pictures of the progress and help behind the scenes as needed.
4) Living playhouse—it’s easy to grow a sheltered play space with either giant sunflowers or pole beans. Simply plant seeds in a circle big enough for two (or more!) people and be sure to leave a section that will eventually be a door. Once the plants are up, add tall stakes and tie them together at the top to form a cone shape. The seedlings will grow through the summer and create a shady nook by summer’s end.
5) Plant a fairy, gnome, dinosaur or toy garden! Miniature gardens are all the rage right now and they can easily be planted in the ground or in a container (to bring in for the winter months). Select small groundcover annuals and perennials for outdoor gardens. Wee houseplants in 2” pots are perfect for indoor landscapes. Miniature gardens can also be planted in a terrarium or former fish tank. The possibilities are endless! If toys end up in the garden, be sure that they are plastic, wood, or resin to stand up to the weather.
6) Create a habitatforbutterflies by choosing flowers and plants that either have a lot of nectar or tasty leaves. Butterfly larvae feed on specific plants (such as milkweed for monarchs) and adult butterflies feed on flower nectar. Try tracking the different types of butterflies you see in your yard.
7) Make a garden collage (or several over the season) to document what was spotted in the yard. Collect leaves, press flowers, and draw pictures to tell the story of this year’s garden. Older children can keep a garden journal and little ones can be prompted to chime in with an adult scribe.
Most gardeners have heard of blossom end rot, or experienced it firsthand. The telltale sign is a big brow/black soft spot developing on the bottom of tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. It can also be seen on other vegetables, although it tends to offend us most when it happens to our tomatoes. After all, we’ve spent a lot of time growing and anticipating those luscious, juicy fruits. The disappointment to our taste buds is nearly inconsolable. Fear not, there is no need to throw in the trowel. A little bit of TLC can prevent it from affecting later fruits.
So, what is it? Blossom end rot is technically the result of calcium deficiency. Now, I know you probably think I’m off my rocker. After all, our soils have plenty of calcium. But there are a number of factors that can inhibit the plant’s ability to translocate the calcium. In other words, it’s not really the lack of calcium, but that the plant is unable to make use of it.
The most common causes for blossom end rot is entirely related to environmental and cultural conditions. When there is excessive moisture, as in our recent rains, followed with an increase in temperatures and a quick dry out, it’s the perfect storm, so to speak. Voila! Soft, water soaked brown patches appear on the bottom of the fruits.
Ferti-lome Yield Booster is a handy spray that staves off damage to future fruit set. While those that already show the damage cannot be saved, Yield Booster can protect those fruits yet to come. So there’s no need to worry. We just have to exercise a little more patience. It’s easy to use. A word of caution…spray in the cool of the evening or in the very cool morning hours, allowing enough time for the spray to dry before the sun hits it. Plants sprayed in the heat of the day, in the peak of the sunshine, often suffer foliar damage. This is true, whether you are applying foliar fertilizers or other chemical treatments. Be sure to amend the soil further this fall and next spring before planting to improve drainage, as well. Soil that compacts easily tends to hold excessive moisture levels longer than the plant can endure.
Rest assured, there’s no need to give up on your dreams of delicious, tasty tomatoes!
Temperatures have warmed up. We’ve had an abundance of rain. Insects have recently hatched and are multiplying like mad. So, how do you keep your plants looking fabulous through it all? Plants have some built in defenses, but you can greatly help them along through stressful conditions. It comes down to managing the moisture as best you can, and feeding them regularly, along with removing the spent blooms.
Managing moisture levels starts when the plants are potted. The selection of the potting mix is the key to success. This is definitely a year when drainage is the most important consideration. Moisture control mixes tend to hold water for an extended period, which is helpful during dry periods but not so much when it rains.
It’s also important to feel the soil before watering. Just like in most every other aspect of life, making assumptions are not a good idea. Sometimes plants look as though they are wilting but they are really flagging due to high temperatures, reflective heat from nearby walls or concrete, or even because their root systems are so water logged leaving the plants unable to draw up moisture. All the more reason to use a moisture meter or to get your fingers dirty and feel the soil.
Watering in the morning is better than watering in the heat of the day or in the evening. Why? When plants approach the day well hydrated, then they will be less stressed during the height of the heat of the day. When plants are watered at night, it’s really a sort of recovery tactic. Additionally, as moisture evaporates off the soils surface when the night temperatures cool, it’s the perfect set of condition for fungi like powdery mildew to take hold.
One of the most important things you can do is fertilize your plants regularly. If you are growing flowering annuals, choose a high phosphorus fertilizer, like Jack’s Classic Blossom Booster. If you’ve ever wondered what those 3 numbers are on a package of fertilizer (ex. 10-30-15), they represent the percentage of the nitrogen, phosphorus and potash in the fertilizer. The middle number represents the phosphorus which promotes flowering . For flowering, this number should be 3 to 5 times higher than the first number, which represents the percentage of nitrogen to promote green growth. Follow the directions on any fertilizer you choose. Each is formulated differently and will have varied instructions for use. We’re asking our plants to perform at their best during the most stressful part of the summer. If we don’t supply them with the appropriate nutrition, they can’t live up to our expectations. If you purchased a potting mix that said it included a fertilizer, it’s a good idea to supplement it around mid July. More often than not, the fertilizer in the potting mix is just a little something to get things started and doesn’t support the plants for the long haul. Lastly, a little selective pinching and dead-heading (removal of the spent blooms) will keep plants looking fresh. Pinching and pruning stimulates new growth which brings new flowers, too.
Rain, rain and more rain…….and hail. Yes, we know we should be happy for the rain, since we know it will be well appreciated later this summer. We should be enjoying the rain, right? After all, most summers, rain is almost a novelty in Colorado. Well, the novelty has worn off. The ground is saturated in many areas, making it difficult to get things going in the garden. Your plants may even be exhibiting signs of stress from the excessive moisture. Brown mushy leaves and stems or gray-green. crispy leaves are both common signs of too much moisture. So, what can you do?
I apologize now if this sounds a bit preachy, but we want to help you build your garden path, not lead you down the proverbial one. The single most important thing to do for your garden is to amend the soil. Clay soils don’t allow roots to permeate through the particles and when water-logged roots don’t stand a chance. Amending the soil isn’t the glamorous, fun part of gardening, but it is the foundation for all we hope to grow. Build a good foundation and you’ll experience great results. Prepare minimally and you can expect success relative to your efforts. There are times in life where there simply is no substitute for going all out. Preparing your soil is one of those times. Often you won’t have a chance to do more than spotty amending between plants after the initial preparation. In other words, there’s no going back. Well, there is, but it requires a complete do-over and a tremendous amount of additional effort. (stepping off the soap box now)
What can you do for existing garden plants showing signs of distress? Boomerang. Just like the name suggests, it’s a “comeback” microbial-based formula for plants that helps relieve stressed root systems. It is filled with nutrition that is easily absorbed by plants and encourages new root growth. Most importantly, it really works.
With the abnormal amount of moisture there are a few undesirables visiting our gardens. Slugs. They slither and slime all over our precious plants and then consume leaves and petals, without any consideration to the gardener. They can’t even stick to the same leaf. Nope. They have to taste all of them. Diatomaceous Earth is the answer. It causes abrasions to insects when they come in contact with it. The insects lose fluids and dehydrate. It’s an organic control that works effectively. Bonus – it also helps control earwigs, my arch nemesis in the garden.
All of these things will reduce your gardening stress, as well as the stress on your plants.
Posts from time to time from our experts with timely information for you to be more sucessful in gardening and creating beauty in your yard.