Create Your Own Fall Color with Annual Foliage Plants

Create Your Own Fall Color with Annual Foliage Plants

Florida is known for many things, however sweeping vistas of hillsides covered in the orange, red, and yellow foliage of fall is not one of them.  Our long, hot summers and short, cool (not cold) winters, and lack of anything of substance resembling a season in between, precludes the fall color show our neighbors to the north enjoy.  Don’t settle for synthetic Halloween decorations or faux painted leaves to add festivity to the autumn landscape design.  When football season kicks off and summer blooming annuals begin to fade, it’s time to reach into the horticultural toolbox and pull out a couple fall-y Florida Friendly annual foliage species, perfect for the balmy Panhandle “autumn”: ‘Alabama Sunset’ coleus and ‘Petra’ croton.

‘Alabama Sunset’ Coleus in mixed container – Photo Courtesy Andrea Schnapp

The first plant to consider when looking for outstanding heat tolerant foliage is the common coleus (Solenostemon scuttellarioides), particularly the cultivar ‘Alabama Sunset’.   As the name indicates, ‘Alabama Sunset’ offers leaves in shades of red and yellow, perfect for designing fall containers or mixing into planting beds.  This popular summer annual is known for its ability to add interesting color and texture to shady areas.

Recently with the arrival of the ‘sun coleus’ series (to which ‘Alabama Sunset’ belongs), coleus is permissible in situations with greater sunlight.  Coleus is incredibly easy to grow and easy to find since nearly every nursery stocks at least a few cultivars.  What’s more, these plants are generally free of pests and disease problems!  Even sun coleus does appreciate a little protection from the hot afternoon sun and occasional deadheading of flowers.

‘Petra’ Croton. Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard.

 

The second plant in the fall foliage arsenal is ‘Petra croton’ (Codiaeum variegatum ‘Petra’).  Primarily known as a tropical foliage or indoor houseplant, Petra croton is criminally underused in fall landscape and container design.  Petra croton sports bold magnolia-sized leaves striped with colors of yellow, red, orange, and black. A great Halloween plant to complement those front-porch Jack-O-Lanterns!

Like coleus, Petra croton is extremely easy to grow either in a container or in the ground.  It should be located in either in full sun or partial shade and watered through establishment. Otherwise, this species is quite drought tolerant and can be killed with kindness if watered too frequently!

Although croton is a perennial shrub in the tropics, in Northwest Florida it may be killed by frost and best treated as an annual.  Croton can be expected to reach 30-36” in height in a single season, its size and the boldly colored foliage make it a true focal point in the autumn landscape!

Appalachian-grade fall color may be unattainable in the Panhandle in the literal sense, but with these novel plant selections the autumn mood may be present even as the emerald waves hit the sugar white sand.  By using annual foliage plants that possess traditional fall colors throughout their life cycle, anyone can add a splash of Autumn to their mixed containers or landscape beds.  ‘Alabama Sunset’ coleus and ‘Petra’ croton are the perfect match for this time of year, pairing ease of culture with bold, seasonal color.  Plant a couple today!

Bring the Color of Hawaii to the Panhandle with Ti Plant!

Too often, would be gardeners travel to exotic locales, become intoxicated with the beautiful floral display of Plumeria, Jatropha, Bird of Paradise and Bougainvillea, and come home with visions of homemade leis picked from the garden dancing in their heads.  As anyone who has attempted to grow any of the aforementioned plants in the Panhandle will tell you though, fulfilling those visions in the landscape are easier said than done!  However, not all is lost for the gardener wanting to bring the tropics home.  A tropical feel in the landscape can be achieved, you just have to look beyond the aforementioned flowering plants that will have long since succumbed to winter frost by the time they mature and begin flowering and instead to tropical foliage plants that can be enjoyed for a season and easily (cheaply too!) replaced the following spring.  Of all the tropical foliage options available for Panhandle landscapes, my favorite is the Ti Plant, sometimes called Hawaiian Ti.

Ti Plant foliage

Even if you have never heard of Ti, you have probably seen it.  The strap like, 12-18” long, purple and pink striped leaves are hard to miss and add an unmistakable tropical flair in the landscape!  Ti Plants grow generally in single, unbranched stalks, though most commercial growers combine several plants into a single pot to give a bushy, multi trunked appearance that looks more appealing on a retail nursery bench.  These plants will easily reach 4-6’ in height in a single warm season, providing a powerful punch of pink/purple all summer long.  In addition to its considerable attractiveness, Ti boasts a cosmopolitan constitution, as it will grow in sun or shade, outside or inside.  Of course, some cultural do’s apply to Ti broadly, regardless of where it is grown, as well as a few don’ts.

In general, Ti will be more colorful in brighter light.  Though it grows well in shade, its leaves tend to lose their luster and fade to a dull purple in full shade.  Similarly, though it will survive in full, all day sun, Ti’s foliage tends to bleach a bit in these conditions and can turn a whitish gray.  It is best to shoot for somewhere in the middle for the most vivid foliage color.  If growing indoors, give Ti as much light as you can.  If growing outdoors, full sun through midafternoon is appropriate, as is bright shade throughout the day.  Be sure to give Ti plants consistent moisture, as they will readily wilt down under prolonged drought conditions.   As with watering, Ti prefers a consistently fertile soil and will appreciate a topdressing of a complete, slow release fertilizer (made by Osmocote, Harrell’s and others) at planting, with a follow up application 60-90 days later (possibly more frequently depending on temperature and frequency of watering).

Ti plant in a mixed container – Photo Courtesy Daniel Leonard

Though Ti performs well planted in the ground in Northwest Florida as an annual specimen to brighten a border (think of it like a supersized Coleus), it really gets to shine in large, mixed containers.  Ti’s upright growth habit and traffic stopping color make it the perfect thriller in the widely used “thriller, filler, spiller” container design.  Because Ti can grow quite large relative to other common container plants, a large 20-45 gallon container is necessary to facilitate optimum root growth and plant development.  If a smaller container is chosen, water management will become an issue as the Ti plant’s root mass will quickly crowd the container.  I prefer glazed ceramic or concrete containers as these are often painted in bright colors that complement Ti’s foliage, do not allow as much air exchange as terra cotta planters (soil in terra cotta containers dry very quickly in hot, dry weather), and are heavy enough that tall Ti plants won’t cause them to blow over in windy conditions.  Mix smaller, mounding filler plants and trailing spiller plants under and around Ti in containers.  For a striking contrast in color, choose companion plants in white, yellow, orange or chartreuse (remember, plants don’t have to flower to be colorful, vivid foliage plants like coleus or caladium work too!).

Regardless of how you use Ti Plant, you’ll find it to be one of the most high value color plants in the landscape.  Plant one today and happy gardening!

Heating up with Hardy Hibiscus

Each time I travel to central and south Florida and observe the wonderfully flamboyant tropical flora, I am reminded of the unique and frustrating climatic characteristics of Northwest Florida.  Our weather is tropical enough through the summer to sustain virtually everything our friends to the south grow, but winters north of the Big Bend are just cold enough to prevent long-term success with most tropical species.  However, the genus that is maybe most synonymous with tropical color, the Hibiscus (it even has its own texting emoji!), contains several species that are hardy through our winters.  The best landscape plant of these hardy Hibiscus species is creatively (sarcasm) called Hardy Hibiscus or Giant Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) and is an absolute star in the Panhandle, bringing the beauty of the tropics to your yard!

Hibiscus ‘Starry Starry Night’ – Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard

Rose Mallow is a native perennial species that occurs in sunny wetlands across the eastern U.S.  This species can grow 7-8’ in height in its natural, unimproved state and possesses the largest flowers of any hardy perennial, some varieties easily eclipse 12” in diameter.  Rose Mallows bloom through the heat of our long summers and return reliably each winter unfazed by frost.  The flowers also happen to be a favorite of butterflies and hummingbirds and bring beneficial wildlife to the landscape.  These characteristics and the trend towards the use of pollinator friendly, low-maintenance native perennials in landscapes quickly made Rose Mallow a jewel for plant breeders and now virtually all major horticultural brands have a line of Hardy Hibiscus available at garden centers, in varying sizes, flower color and leaf color/form.  Recent breeding efforts have focused on introducing plants with enormous, richly colored flowers held on compact plants with attractive foliage.  The results have yielded two series and three individual cultivars that I consider superior selections and are more than worthy of inclusion in your garden:

  • Summerific® Series by Proven Winners. This series is comprised of four robust (up to 5’ in height) cultivars, ‘Cherry Cheesecake’ (bicolor magenta and white flowers), ‘Berry Awesome’ (purplish lavender flowers), ‘Cranberry Crush’ (a red you really have to see to believe), and ‘Perfect Storm’ (notable for its deep purple foliage).
  • Luna Series by Monrovia. This series is notable for its ultra-compact (3’ in height or less) size and characteristically large flowers.  It is also composed of four cultivars, ‘Luna Red’ (deep red), ‘Luna Blush’ (white, fading to pink near flower margins), ‘Luna Pink Swirl’ (pictured and my favorite, bicolor swirly flowers), and ‘Luna White’ (white with a red center).

    Hibiscus ‘Luna Pink Swirl’ – Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard

  • ‘Starry Starry Night’ by Walter’s Gardens. (Pictured) This cultivar combines dark purple to black leaves with swirled pale and dark pink flowers.  It has performed very well in my landscape and if I could only grow one, this might be it.
  • ‘Lord Baltimore.’ The classic, large growing cultivar with bright red flowers that is widely available and easily found.  An oldie (introduced in 1955) but a goodie.
  • ‘Midnight Marvel’ by Walter’s Gardens. A “hot off the press” new cultivar that is currently difficult to find due to popularity, though some online outlets have them available in small sizes.  This one is worth your patience.  Sporting deep red blooms on near black foliage, there’s nothing else like it in the landscape.

In addition to being gorgeous plants, Rose Mallows are extremely versatile in the landscape and could not be easier to grow.  Because the size varies so greatly (from the diminutive 30” tall ‘Luna’ series to the 8’ tall unimproved species), there really is a place for one in every garden.  I like to use the smaller cultivars in large containers to facilitate moving them around where their floral display has the greatest impact or to create a tropical effect where in ground plantings are not an option (pool decks, patios, etc).  The larger cultivars make spectacular specimen plantings in perennial and shrub beds and even make a really dense, striking hedge (just know they disappear in the winter).  Be sure to give them as much sun as possible, as this will enhance the number of flowers on each plant and darken the foliage on the cultivars with purplish/black leaves.  Too little sun will result in fewer flowers and lighter green foliage.  As wetland plants, Rose Mallows enjoy regular water, either from rainfall or irrigation; they will let you know when they need it – their large leaves readily wilt under drought stress, somewhat like Hydrangea.

For low-maintenance, native, pollinator friendly, cold-hardy tropical color, you need look no further than Rose Mallow.  These perennial shrubs come in all sizes and colors and fit any landscape!  Look for the above listed series and cultivars at better garden centers and online retailers and enjoy the oohs and ahhs elicited when people first get a glimpse of Hardy Hibiscus in your landscape!  Happy Gardening!

 

Annuals to Beat the Summer Heat

It’s that time of year.  School is out, hurricane season is in, and the mercury is up!  Gardens wilt by midday and gardeners retreat into the air conditioning long before then.  Unless you have your toes in the water on one of Northwest Florida’s beautiful beaches, it can be a miserable time to be a Floridian, for plants and people!    However, despite the relentless heat and blistering sunshine, low-maintenance, eye-catching color can still be had in the landscape.  When the calendar flips to June, I turn to my two favorite Florida-Friendly annuals to do the heavy lifting in my landscape:  ‘Diamond Frost’ Euphorbia, and the ‘Cora’ Vinca series.

‘Diamond Frost’ Euphorbia – Photo Courtesy Daniel Leonard

A relative newcomer to landscapes, the award winning ‘Diamond Frost’ Euphorbia is an amazing introduction from Proven Winners.  The ultimate in tough, ‘Diamond Frost’ does great both as a mounding accent in a container or as a standalone bedding plant in the landscape. Though its individual, teardrop-shaped, white flowers are tiny, the hundreds of them that open each day really pack a floral punch in the landscape!  One caveat: if planting in the landscape, I find ‘Diamond Frost’ to be most effective massed in groups of three or more.   Due to the daintiness of the flowers, a single plant can get lost among other garden inhabitants.  However, when done right, ‘Diamond Frost’ is a proven winner in any landscape!

Mixed container featuring ‘Diamond Frost’ Euphorbia – Photo Courtesy Daniel Leonard

 

Next, the ‘Cora’ series of Vinca (Catharanthus roseus), also introduced by Proven Winners, is an improvement on an old favorite.  Note: This species is also, on occasion, called Periwinkle.  However, do not confuse it with the spreading, purple-flowered, perennial groundcover of the same common name!  Gardeners in the South have been growing Vincas for years. This species is unbelievably tolerant of harsh conditions, sometimes even seen growing in sidewalk cracks!  However, the unimproved species had an Achilles heel:  susceptibility to Phytophthora, a devastating fungal rot disease.  ‘Cora’ overcomes this issue and is as close to a perfect bedding annual as you’re likely to find.  The ‘Cora’ series is composed of cultivars with pinwheel-shaped white, pink and lavender flowers, a color for everyone!  The kind (and clever) marketing folks at Proven Winners have even made ‘Cora’ easy to spot on retail nursery benches; just look for the plants in the hot pink containers!

‘Cora’ Vinca
Photo: Andrea Schnapp

Both of the above-described plants are extremely undemanding of gardeners.  Once established, little is required in the way of irrigation and fertilization.  To ensure success, water daily for the first week after planting, back off to a couple of times per week for the next two weeks or so and then watch ‘Diamond Frost’ and ‘Cora’ thrive with only rainfall for the rest of the summer!  Keep in mind, during periods of excessive drought, supplemental watering may be required to keep any plant, even drought tolerant ones, looking their best!  To meet the minimal nutrition demands of these plants, I incorporate a quality, slow-release fertilizer (for example, Osmocote, Harrell’s Polyon, or any other similar product) at planting.  These products last two or three months in our rainy, hot, humid climate and generally need a second application accordingly for full-season performance.  ‘Diamond Frost’ Euphorbia and ‘Cora’ Vinca also require full, blazing sun for maximum floral performance.  Don’t be shy about siting them in harsh, sunny places, even a few hours of shade tend to make leggier plants that flower less!

Mixed container with ‘Cora’ Vinca accent
Photo: Andrea Schnapp

When you need low-maintenance, season long color that can beat the heat, look for ‘Diamond Frost’ Euphorbia and the ‘Cora’ series of Vinca at your local nursery!  Stay cool out there folks and happy gardening!

Ready for Summer Heat with Portulaca

There is one tough annual plant that thrives in the summer garden and provides bright color in our sun and heat. Portulaca or moss rose (Portulaca grandiflora) is strong performer, even growing well when reseeding in sidewalk cracks and stone walkways.  Of course it will be most attractive when used in containers or well drained landscape beds in bright sunshine.

Containers of portulaca brighten an entrance to the herb garden at Escambia County Extension Demonstration Gardens. Photo by Beth Bolles, UF IFAS Extension Escambia County

The thicker, flattened leaves of portulaca make is adaptable to drier conditions. The plants are only about 6 inches tall but branches will spread out a foot or so from the center.  The attractive flowers extend just above attractive green foliage in colors of yellow, pinks, and oranges.  Portulaca is extremely versatile, making it a good filler in a container or at the edges of flower beds along hardscape areas.

Bright flowers of portulaca reach for the sun. Photo by Beth Bolles, UF IFAS Extension Escambia County

Portulaca will not perform the best when soils remain too moist or days stay overcast for extended periods. Flowering will also be reduced if water is totally lacking.  Maintain a balance by providing a quality soil that drains well.

Although many gardeners prefer perennials to annuals, portulaca can provide a big impact in the summer garden for a small investment.

Hydroponic Bucket Garden

Leaf lettuce growing in a floating hydroponic system.

Leaf lettuce growing in a floating hydroponic system. Photo Credit: University of Florida/IFAS Extension.

Christmas is just around the corner and what better gift could you give other than the gift that keeps on giving…a hydroponic bucket garden!  Floating hydroponic gardens are easy to build with supplies found at just about any home and garden center.  A simple garden can be constructed with a 5-Gallon bucket, polystyrene foam board insulation, and “net pots” or other suitable containers to support the plants.  Leaf lettuce and herbs are suitable plants for growing in a floating garden and will grow well indoors as long as there is plenty of natural light available.

SUPPLIES

  • 5-Gallon Bucket
  • Polystyrene Foam (1½ inch or thicker)
  • Water
  • Water-Soluble Fertilizer (10-10-10, 20-20-20, 24-8-16, or similar grade)
  • Epson Salts (magnesium sulfate)
  • Suitable Plants (leafy lettuce, greens, or most herbs – NOT rosemary)
  • “Net Pots”, Polystyrene Cups with punctures, or other suitable containers
  • Jigsaw, Drywall Saw, or Sharp Knife
  • Hole Saw

CONSTRUCTION

  • Cut, with a jigsaw, a 1½ inch board of polystyrene foam board insulation into 1-by-1-foot squares.
  • Place the bottom of the bucket on a 1-by-1 foot square of foam and trace the shape of the bucket on the foam. Cut out the circle.
  • Use a hole saw to cut evenly spaced holes out of the foam. (Typically 3 to 4 depending on “net pot”/plant container size.)  The hole size should allow the bottom of the plant container to be level with the underside of the foam.

FERTILIZATION & PLANT CARE

Fill the bucket with approximately 2.5 gallons of water.  Add 1 to 2 teaspoons of water-soluble fertilizer for each gallon of water to be used in the bucket (approximately 5 to 9 teaspoons for 4.5 gallons of water).  Add ½ to 1 teaspoon of Epson Salts for each gallon of water to be used in the bucket (approximately 2.5 to 4.5 teaspoons for 4.5 gallons of water).  Mix the fertilizer and Epsom Salts with the water in the bucket.  Continue to fill the bucket with water to within 1½ inches of the rim of the bucket.  Set “net pots” or plant containers in the hole cutouts in the foam circle.  Lay the foam circle, with inserted containers, on the surface of the water/fertilizer mixture in the bucket.  Place the young starter plants in the containers.  Do not remove the potting mix from the plant roots.  The most critical aspect is the depth of the transplant’s root ball in the solution.  The bottom of the root ball should be flush with the surface of the water.  As the water/fertilizer mixture is taken up by the plants and evaporated, the water level in the bucket will decline.

FURTHER INFORMATION

A bucket garden may just be the beginning of your hydroponic ventures.  For additional publications on growing hydroponic vegetables please visit the University of Florida/IFAS EDIS website hydroponic production page.  If you want to start your own hydroponic farm then you may also be interested in attending the “Starting a Successful Hydroponic Business” training at the Suwannee Valley Agricultural Extension Center in Live Oak in March.