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Annuals brighten hanging baskets

Annual flowers can be used in many ways throughout the landscape. One of the most popular and effective uses for this category of plants is to plant them in hanging baskets. For those of you who have just dropped down to this planet from some unknown region of space, those hanging baskets of flowers in nearly every shopping center on earth and hung from light posts in nearly every city in this country, are petunias in either single or multiple color schemes, according to the whim of the designers responsible for such places.

What are the qualities of the plants that thrive under the conditions they will encounter in a hanging basket? Plants grown in a hanging environment are subject to rapid drying due to the influence of the wind. Unless you will be putting your baskets on some type of timed drip irrigation system (highly recommended, by the way), expect to use plants that don't mind drying out a little bit. Whether the plants are grown in the shade or the sun will also determine your selection. Fuchsias are not well adapted to hot sun in our area, even though you see them hanging away merrily in just such places as Brookings.

To ensure any type of success, you should select the potting soil you will use for basket plantings more carefully than you choose a car or your physician. After all, you can always change doctors, but once the plants are rooted into the pot, they are there for the duration. Be sure the soil mix is rich, porous and retains water well. I find it necessary to fortify commercial potting soils with coarse, washed sand that really helps hold moisture in the mix on those hot dry days.

Adding 20 percent sand by volume to a high-quality potting soil should be just about right. I also like to incorporate slow-release fertilizer in the soil to be sure the plants will be fed every time they are watered. These are the secrets to those big baskets in the parking lots: big pots, good soil, plenty of fertilizer and water and selecting the right plants for the location.

I love to use annual flowers as temporary fillers in new landscape plantings. They are especially effective to use in ground cover areas where the plants have not yet grown together. Low-growing, spreading annuals like sweet alyssum and portulaca bring a splash of color to the bed while you're waiting for your permanent plantings to knit together. Don't be afraid to try some larger annuals between shrubs. When planting gallon-sized shrubs such as viburnum tinus or photinia fraseri at proper spacing for their mature size, your landscape can look quite empty for a year or two. Sticking some summer cypress (kochia) or tall marigolds in groupings can help achieve a more mature looking yard in a very short period of time.

Annuals can make wonderful cut flowers. Whether you choose to segregate them in an area of their own, or let them mingle with your other plants, they are generally easy to grow, re-bloom quickly and provide a long season of cutting. If you find yourself with a seldom-used side yard, think about converting that space to a cutting garden. If the soil is unsuitable for growing, consider building a raised bed or two that will provide armloads of flowers through the season.

The easiest way to get started with selecting plants for your cutting garden is to buy a packet or two of seeds of mixed types especially chosen and labeled as suitable for cutting. This will give you a range of forms, from spiky to round and filler flowers, bright colors and pastels, and even a fragrant variety or two. All will stay fresh up to a week or 10 days if properly cut and cared for. Cut in the morning hours while they are at their prime, before the heat of the day. Always use the sharpest knife or shears to make a clean cut. Have a bucket of water ready in which to submerge the stems immediately after cutting. Remove any foliage from the stems when arranging, and change the water in your vases daily. Place the flowers in a cool room out of direct sunlight, and enjoy.

Stan Mapolski, aka The Rogue Gardener, can be heard from 9-11 a.m. Sunday mornings on KMED 1440 AM and seen in periodic gardening segments for KTVL Channel 10 News. Reach him at stanmapolski@yahoo.com.