Sunday, April 15, 2012

The annuals you thought you knew

Welcome back to another edition of ‘Lost In The Farmer’s Market’ your weekly guide to the world of organic gardening and urban farming.  Before we start with today's topic I’d like to take a moment to mention the name of the Neighborhood Grange has changed to Sustainable Neighbors, and a link to their meetup page is below.

Now today, Lost in the Farmers market will be covering the issue of plants that are often mislabeled or identified. The first thing to know is that plants are illiterate, they cannot read their labeling and may not perform in the way you are expecting.  Some plants are commonly mislabeled by their life cycle and here are a few.

Dusty Miller (Centauria cineraria)

This member of the aster family is often called an annual when in fact it is a rugged semi-herbaceous perennial. The problem arises from the fact it is often used as a bedding plant along side obvious annuals. A well kept stand of dusty miller can keep weeds down and form the foliage contrast for any perennial border along side hardy chrysanthemums (dendranthema morifolium).

Lantana (Lantana camara)

Lantana is a verbena relative that is noted for its upright habit as opposed to verbena’s trailing creeping habit. Lantana is often considered an annual due to how most people tend to use it but in truth with some protection is actually a semi-herbaceous or tender perennial. The issue is that a few zones south it’ becomes a reasonably reliable perennial where as we in north Carolina are right on the edge of it’s perennial range. Most garden centers don’t want to split hairs and thus it gets labeled annual.

Petunia (Petunia x hybrida)

The petunia in all its forms including wave, million bells and traditional forms all despite their labeling can in fact persist for years. The key factor is location, petunias can take on a perennial-like habit if provided good soil ample moisture and a spot near stonework were the stone or masonry can provide radiant heat in the colder seasons. A good layer of mulch never hurt however, I must admit petunias are durable but they’re more or less a tender perennial in North Carolina, and care must be taken if you want to keep them going for more then a year. Case in point, at the skye project’s test gardens is a calibrachoa or million bells that volunteered from seed in a potted cactus in 2007 at the New Jersey test garden and has persisted from the same root stock ever since, it survived the trip to North Carolina and gets larger every year. In short as of June 2012 this petunia will be five years old. I might add this plant receives less care due to it being in with a cactus, and does NOT come in for winter.

Snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus)

The common snap dragon is often sold as an annual but in truth individual plants in the right conditions can persist for years. The key is soil quality, healthy layers of mulch and regular amounts of water. In the north typically a snapdragon will die back to the root or some part on the stem and return in spring making it an herbaceous perennial.  The thing about snapdragons is that they prefer cooler weather and cool soil, so in the south to successfully grow snapdragons as a semi-perennial one has to provide regular water ample mulch and plant them in partial shade.

Verbena  (Verbena x hybrida)

Verbena is a massive plant family including a wide number of garden plants such as lantana, lemon verbena aand vervain. This plant is often labeled as a annual however with the right conditions and care in the south it can overwinter in an evergreen form for use the next year. The key to overwintering verbena is to keep it maintained, cut away dead foliage and by all means if in a pot keep it watered when it needs it. It is noteworthy that the ‘Homestead’ varieties of verbena are said to be more durable and reliable as a perennial.

In short, yes there are some annuals that are plainly annual such as impatiens, portulaca and pansies/ violas and we must remember that the seasons in which they are at their best are somewhat short. However when you are out buying bedding plants this year remember to look for those that get you more bang for your buck. Even an annual that reseeds can effectively save you more time and effort then rebuilding a bed every year. But those few that persist may save a fortune over time in garden costs for plant material as long as to heed their care and install supporting permanent plantings your garden should be top-notch every season.

Stay tuned to LITFM for next week’s post “Feed your head? No, feed the soil first!” how-to photo journal of what it takes to re-enrich a production bed when no green manure is available.  Thank you for reading.

‘Keep ‘em growin!’

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