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Crazy for Petunias


Georgia O’Keeffe liked the silky purple petunia blossoms in her garden and painted them in 1924, saying, “I decided that if I could paint that flower on a huge scale, you could not ignore its beauty.”

Garden-1The formerly humble petunia, related to nightshade and tomatoes and native to Mexico and South America, is now on
every top 10 list of bedding plants. We appreciate its large, colorful trumpet-shaped flowers in all the colors and patterns. We also love its close relative, the calibrachoa, teeming nonstop with tiny bright flowers including yellow, hot pink, and orange. These are sometimes called super bells, million bells or supertunia. 

Now there’s a newcomer: Petchoa, a hybrid crossing of Calibrachoa and Petunia species. Petchoas combine the best qualities of both, so you have nonstop flowers that are self-cleaning yet showier and not so small. Modern patented cultivars like these have usually been tested and rated for good performance in home gardens, not just appearance.Garden-2

Blooming from late spring through fall, petunias and their kin appear in our landscapes, containers, window boxes, hanging baskets and hell strips. With new choices appearing all the time, this year’s crop should be more glorious than ever. Give them what they need, and they’ll be the talk of the garden. When the Wave series became popular about 30 years ago, petunias began to look amazing when grown in knee-high containers. Each year, new colors and color combinations were added. 

Alone, Wave petunias were material for that effective container recipe: a thriller (something upright), a filler (a large, bright-and-bold, flowery mass) and a spiller (something to gracefully drape down over the pot or basket edges). They also played well with other kinds of plants. Suddenly, petunias were looking great everywhere.

A tall-growing single petunia called a Purple Tower can be trained to climb a trellis instead of spilling downward. The same is true of Wave petunias.

Although they’re strong and attractive, petunias don’t thrive without the right conditions. They start from seeds smaller than those on poppyseed rolls, so they need an early start—preferably in a greenhouse—to become large enough for summer blooming. They need full sun, moist but well-drained soil, a constant supply of nutrients to support all those flowers, and occasional pinching back to make side branches appear. If you’re not using time-release fertilizer, give them light fertilizer treatments monthly. In hot, sunny, windy weather, they need misting and extra water to keep the flowers from collapsing in the afternoon, though constantly wet soil will rot the roots.

Garden-3Roots explore their pots and send the plant info about whether there’s room to grow, so be sure the pot is large enough and has good drainage. Water thoroughly at least once a week. If your plants wilt every day—even when it’s not windy—they may be showing their need for a larger container.

Old heritage varieties are making a comeback. They may have fewer and smaller pink, white or purple flowers, but they have the ability to self-sow like wild plants and come back each year in sunny flower beds.

I had a patch of those, long ago in a different region, and was careful not to weed out the little plants with mouse-ear-size fuzzy leaves when they emerged in spring. Perhaps O’Keeffe’s 1924 flowers were like these. Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co. offers a strain called the Rose of Heaven petunia. There are others that self-seed, too.

In the bedding plant section of garden centers and home supply stores, you may find the new Velour series of petunias. I tried a potful last summer and was happy with the rich velvety color, strong stems, spreading shape, and size and quantity of blooms. I don’t have complete sun at my home, so I was surprised by their success. The Panache series looks great in the catalogs, and I plan to try it. Oh, the amazing colors!

Petunias vary in size and can be single or double. I stay away from double whites because they tend to get bruised in every rain and then turn brown. Under a protective overhang, however, you wouldn’t have that problem, and they would be stunning—so long as you remove fading flowers.

There are fancy doubles, including a Wave type, the Martha Washington series and Petunia Panache Double Trouble. Garden-4Single flowered types come in countless variations in almost every color, including yellow, orange, green and the white-to-purple range. True blue isn’t available, but some of the purple shades are so close we see them as blue.

As a group, petunias tolerate varied weather conditions. They don’t want to freeze, but aren’t killed by a few unexpectedly cold nights. If it gets hot, they need more water, of course. They may stop blooming for a while, but they can take it.

Damage from hard rain, not to mention hail, shows worst on the largest flowered varieties. Grandifloras are the classics—they’ve been around for a long time. The group includes blooms with veins, stripes, and picotee edges, as well as solid colors. Shop around.

Don’t avoid petunias with large, showy flowers. A quick cleanup of any damaged ones makes room for constantly emerging blooms, and the plants soon look great again. The calibrachoas’ tiny flowers are self-cleaning, and this helps if you have lots of annual flowers to look after. 

I’ve had good luck with calibrachoas in pots. But when I put them in the ground, something (probably slugs) ate them the first night.

You’ll love the names of petunias, along with the colors and easy care. Right now, I’m thinking about Black Cat, the Madness series, Rhythm and Blues, Perfectunias, and petunia Crazytunia Star Jubilee. 

Someone really ought to name one after Georgia O’Keeffe.