Despite the frigid weather, smart gardeners relish the chance to curl up with piles of seed catalogs or search their favorite online vendors, looking for new plants to grow this summer. Now is the time to order flower, herb or vegetable seeds.
In late May, Penn State master gardeners plant annuals in demonstration gardens in North Park and South Park as a way for local gardeners to observe their performance in our region. The plants are donated by local garden centers and are often new and award-winning cultivars of tried and true plants.
After planting, master gardeners mulch and fertilize the gardens, and volunteers maintain them while also monitoring performance. In recent years, drip irrigation has been installed to conserve water, lighten the workload for volunteers and allow the plants to flourish through the dog days of summer. However, the summer of 2013 saw heavy rains and thunderstorms that delayed maintenance, made deer repellent ineffective, and washed away mulch and compost. Fortunately, the use of raised beds kept the plants from drowning.
Many annuals stood up to these adverse conditions and produced a long-running show. If your garden receives six or more hours of direct sunlight per day, any of these 2013 top performers can provide a summer full of colorful flowers, foliage and fruit:
Salvias are always used in the demonstration garden because of their deer resistance and outstanding performance. These drought-tolerant, tall border plants are filled with flower spikes attractive to pollinators and require minimal maintenance.
'Summer Jewel Red' and 'Coral Nymph' salvia coccinea grow 18-20 inches tall and bloom from June to frost. They are easily grown from seed sown indoors 6-8 weeks before the last frost in spring.
'Cherry Chief' salvia greggii has aromatic leaves and bright cherry blooms, while the soft, fuzzy stalks of mealy-cup sages 'Evolution White' and 'Evolution Blue' (Salvia farinacea) add texture and contrast to brighter colors.
'Black and Blue' salvia guaranitica is a robust plant with bright green leaves. Its cobalt blue flowers are particularly attractive to hummingbirds, butterflies and pollinators. Finally, Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha) grew into a 3-foot-tall shrub with narrow green leaves and violet flowers, providing late summer food for pollinators.
Both perennial and annual milkweeds are deer-resistant and serve as hosts for monarch butterflies. Orange-flowered butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and pink-flowered swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) are perennials in the pollinator gardens.
The tropical milkweed 'Silky Mix' (Asclepias currasavica) has yellow, orange and red flowers. Monarch larvae often feed on the leaves. The unusual balloon plant milkweed (Asclepias physocarpa) was a new addition last year. It grew over 5 feet tall and started to bloom in mid-August with pendulous clusters of white flowers touched with purple followed by curious, spiky, puff-ball seedpods.
Deer pressure has increased, and there are fewer choices of deer-resistant annuals every year. Catharanthus, also known as Madagascar periwinkle or vinca, has been reliable and nearly maintenance-free. Last year's hybrids offered glossy foliage and larger self-cleaning blooms, including Catharanthus roseus 'Pacifica XP Dark Red,' 'Polka Dot,' 'Burgundy Halo,' 'Magenta Halo' and 'Punch.'
At the corner of the North Park garden, a half-moon bed demonstrates attractive plant combinations. 'Spirit Frost' Cleome hassleriana, a 3- to 4-foot, deer-resistant plant, was part of the black and white scheme and sparkled like a bright white fountain for many weeks.
Coleus, zinnia, lantana
Modern coleus hybrids offer vivid foliage to match any color scheme. All three varieties of coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides) were stand-outs: 'Roaring Fire,' 'Wizard Sunset' and 'Under the Sea Bonefish.' Coleus are not deer-resistant.
Zinnias, a regular feature, range from blends of the tall Zinnia elegans to the short Zinnia marylandica. Start these butterfly magnets from seed at the same time as tomatoes, and they will be ready to plant outdoors in 4-6 weeks. Some of the best performing tall zinnia mixes were 'State Fair,' 'Berry Basket,' 'Pixie Sunshine' and 'Cut and Come Again.' The bright orange flowers of 'Zahara Double Fire' (Z.marylandica) earned the most votes at Garden in the Parks field day in South Park in August. Both 'Double Fire' and 'Starlight Rose' zinnias were full of blooms and bumblebees and mildew-free all season. Deer will browse zinnias.
Lantana is a tender perennial always present in the annual beds. Once established, it will bloom non-stop until hard frost with little maintenance and little deer damage. New hybrids appear every year and 'Sunrise Rose' Lantana camara was voted most popular by field day visitors in North Park.
Master gardener favorites
Rudbeckia hirta is a favorite of master gardeners, visitors and wildlife. Only a few of these 2- to 3-foot tall sturdy plants are needed for big impact. This year's best were 'Denver Daisy' and 'Indian Summer.' 'Denver Daisy' has golden yellow petals spotted with reddish brown near a dark brown central cone, while the ray petals of 'Indian Summer' are bright yellow. The tiny seeds are easy to germinate and grow quickly. The seed heads provide food for songbirds into winter, and the plants will often reseed.
The master gardeners have been growing 'Bergamo Bouquet' butterfly Monarda from seed for three years. The unique rose-purple flowers arranged in rows along 2-foot tall spikes attract butterflies and pollinators, and they look exceptional in bouquets. Mildew later in the season is almost guaranteed, but the attractiveness of this uncommon annual will keep it on the planting list.
The thimble-shaped flower heads of gomphrena add interest to the garden and can be dried for winter arrangements. All varieties performed well, including the dwarf 'Gnome Purple,' bright 'QIS Red,' multi-colored 'Fireworks' and the orange and red blends in 'Mardi Gras Parade.'
For those who grow peppers from seed for the vegetable garden, why not start some ornamental peppers at the same time? While you would not want to confuse edible and ornamental at the dinner table, the ornamental peppers add excitement and substance to the garden with flowers and then fruit changing from green, purple or black to yellow, orange or red. Plantings in 2013 included Capsicum annuum 'Chilly Chili,' 'Cappa Conic F1,' 'Sangria' and 'Medusa.'
'Twisted Arrows' Juncus effuses is a rush with a combination of green and blue-green, straight and twisted blades. It makes a great linear accent in containers, along walkways and ponds.
These gardens could not exist without the support of our partners from Allegheny County's Parks and Public Works departments. The local garden centers that generously donated seeds, plants, fertilizer and mulch are:
Bakerstown Feed & Garden Center, Bedner's Farm and Greenhouse, Best Feeds Garden Centers, Eichner's Farm Market & Greenhouse, Jesteadt's Greenhouse, Lenix Greenhouse, LMS Greenhouse & Nursery, Michael Bros. Nursery, Pisarcik Greenhouse, Quality Gardens, Renee's Garden, Reilly's Summer Seat Farm, Soergel's Garden Center and Trax Farms.
Today is the final day to register at the discounted price of $105 for the Garden & Landscape Symposium of Western Pennsylvania on April 12. The daylong event will be held at the The Hillman Center for Performing Arts, Shady Side Academy, 423 Fox Chapel Road, Fox Chapel (15238). Regular priced tickets will be $120 after today. Information: http://extension.psu.edu/allegheny.
Lyn Lang is a Penn State master gardener. Columns by master gardeners sometimes appear in place of the Garden Q&A by Sandy Feather, a Penn State Extension educator.