Plant petunias in the Midwest to add color easily

Plant petunias in the Midwest to add color easily

A lot of people may turn up their noses at petunias, but for the money, they're great low-maintenance workhorses that thrive in the Midwest garden having adapted to the region's hot and dry summers.

Denny McKeown, owner of highly rated Denny McKeown's Landscape & Bloomin Garden Centre in Cincinnati, says the petunias (Petunia x hybrida) of today are nothing like the ones from generations past.

"The newer varieties are doing extremely well," he says. "They're so easy and are essentially self-cleaning." Which means less work for the gardener as they don't have to remove the spent petunia blooms - called deadheading - because the plant naturally sheds them itself.

Probably the greatest change in the modern petunia is that it's grown from tissue culture rather than seed, which makes its size, performance and other characteristics much more consistent and reliable. "The top brand in the tissue culture trade is Proven Winners, which has 'Royal Velvet,' the best selling petunia in the country," says William Heidenreich, owner of highly rated Heidenreich Greenhouses in Indianapolis.

The natural growing habit of petunias is to trail. This trait makes them ideal for hanging baskets, pots and window boxes as well as in the ground.

The Wave series of petunias, which rapidly covers large areas of ground, were bred specifically for landscapes by suburban Chicago's Ball Horticulture Co. However, the aggressive growing habit does not typically make Wave-series petunias a good candidate for hanging baskets or other pots. "It can crowd out other plants in the container," Heidenreich says.

For the best looking plants, Heidenreich says they should be given a light "haircut" in mid- to late June. This will help the plants produce more flowers and keep it from getting too spindly.

In addition, use an acidic fertilizer to help combat the alkaline water and soil commonly found in the Midwest. Petunias prefer a slightly acidic soil, and using a fertilizer labeled for acid-loving plants helps them absorb nutrients better and grow more vigorously. Apply every month to six weeks throughout the growing season.

Water new petunia plantings well until they get established, usually a couple of weeks. After that, petunias will be able to withstand dry conditions.

Heidenreich says he's excited about some of the newer varieties, such as "Phantom" and "Black Velvet" from plant supplier, Simply Beautiful. These new petunias should bring some freshness and excitement to the garden, but will need to be framed carefully so they don't get lost. Dark plants sometimes look like a black hole in plantings. He sees these and some other new introductions as a bit faddish, which gives gardeners trendy options for their gardens.

Petunias definitely are an easy way to get a lot of color in the Midwestern landscape. "Where they're the best is in the ground," says McKeown, noting the impressive display exhibited by the city of Blue Ash, a suburb of Cincinnati, each spring. "They do the whole downtown in petunias. It's quite a show, something that sells more plants for us."

Sometimes known as the Hoosier Gardener, Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp lives in Indianapolis, where she manages perennials and woody plants for Sullivan Hardware & Garden. A freelance writer, her work appears in many publications, including The American Gardener and Garden Gate. Sharp also speaks about gardening throughout the Midwest and is a director of the Garden Writers Association.


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The Blue Chip butterfly bush. (Photo courtesy of Proven Winners/ColorChoice Plants)
The Blue Chip butterfly bush. (Photo courtesy of Proven Winners/ColorChoice Plants)

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