Annuals Archives

Explore the World of Pansies

PansyFlickr Kazandrew2

Winter Blues got you down? Awaken your garden with bursts of color! Pansies, along with their smaller cousins Violas, make your hibernating garden come alive. Pansies are the perfect cool-season plant for containers, or tuck them in beds along with your spring bulbs. They come in nearly every color, including Blue, in case you just want to embrace your Winter Blues.

PansyFlickrFoonarIn addition to the wide color selection, and size of the flower, you also have the choice of having “faces” (contrasting color patterns) or clear colors on the petals. There’s a tradeoff between flower size and quantity of flowers. The Violas are small, but they make it up in volume, having perhaps five or ten flowers for each flower of the larger-flowered pansies.

Unlike most other flowering annuals, pansies thrive in the cool weather and die back in the summer heat. If you planted your Pansies in the fall they probably hunkered down to wait out the snow and ice of the winter, but will perk back up in the spring bigger and better than before. When they start growing again in late winter or spring, give them a “haircut” to remove the tall spindly winter growth and encourage lush, bushy plants.

When the temperature stabilizes, we recommend that you feed pansies with a fertilizer specifically designed for pansies and use on cold soil. Be sure to pinch off spent flowers to encourage more flowering and lush growth. If you did not plant in the fall, you can plant in late winter/spring, for color in containers or the garden until it’s warm enough for your summer plants.

Pansies prefer light conditions of full sun to partial shade, and will flower best in a nutrient-rich soil (that is, if you fertilize). Pansies hate to have their roots constantly wet, especially during the spring thaws, and they like to have plenty of organic matter in the soil to feed the blooms. If your soil stays soggy-wet, try growing your pansies in containers on your patio or porch. When in containers, they become a movable garden and may be moved from place to place, wherever that splash of color is needed.

pansyflickrlambjWhen the temperatures begin to soar, remove the pansies from the garden and freshen the garden up with Spring/Summer blooming Annuals that will take you from Spring to frost when it is time to plant pansies again. With so many choices, your garden need never be lonely or bare. Summer-blooming perennials tend to bloom for a long time, and you could also use them as the bones of the garden, with the pansies to give you needed color at the end of the season when the perennials go dormant for the winter.

pansy-yellowTo get the most out of Pansies and Violas: plant again in September to maximize the seasons. Pansies planted in the fall will provide you with two seasons of color, you will have plenty of blooms in the fall and then your little guys will slow down as the temperatures fall; but once the snow and cold temperatures are gone, you will be rewarded with yet another flush of color. There have been times when I have seen these cold tolerant little creatures push their heads out through the snow on warm winter day to say “hello.” Bright shining faces ready to welcome the coming of spring!

Posted By: Marian Parsley, Annuals Buyer/Manager


Now this ought be fun – the much-touted HGTV HOME Plant Selections are coming to Behnkes, and only to Behnkes in the Maryland suburbs of Washington.  In just its second season, the HGTV program is taking off, and local gardeners were happy to learn that that only independent garden centers will sell these plants.  Can’t get ’em at the Big Box stores!

I learned all this at the recent Spring Fair at our Beltsville location, where I met the local growers chosen by HGTV to provide garden centers in the region with their plants.  They’re Mike and September Dalton of Walnut Springs Nursery in nearly Howard County, shown center and left in the photo above, with Sarah Hayes, marketing manager for the HGTV Plant Collection.  Turns out the folks at Walnut Springs Nursery are old friends of the Behnke family.

Local growers like Mike and September aren’t just filling orders, though.  It’s their experiences growing prospective plants for the Collections in nearby Howard County that decides which ones will be sold around here.  It’s the growers’ choice because they know best, including which plants are unhappy here in the Humidity Belt.

If you check out the HGTV Plant website you’ll notice on the Know How! page  the wisdom of Maria Zampini, a Penn State-trained expert who grew up in the horticultural biz.  She updates that page weekly with her plant care and design tips.   Inspirations will have have gorgeous  photos to give us ideas and gotta-have-it motivation.


The Annuals Collection here on the website and it looks great!  But which of all those plants have the folks at Walnut Springs Nursery chosen for us?  I’m told (by the Beltsville annuals manager Marian Parsley) that they’ll be delivering “a nice assortment of their best-looking plants at the time of each scheduled delivery to our Beltsville store.”  In the meantime, I’m preparing my pots and waiting for the temperatures to rise and stay risen. (Assuming we actually have a spring and summer this year.   The snow yesterday  – on March 30! – seems to have sapped everyone’s patience.)

Posted by Susan Harris.

Top 10 Plants you Can’t Kill!

I can’t resist a “Top 10″ list, including this one – the Top 10 Plants You Can’t Kill,  from Birds & Blooms Magazine.  I also can’t resist weighing in on their choices.  So here are the plants, with Birds and Blooms explanation of why they love each plant, and my own assessment of each plant.


1.     Coneflower.   “The coneflower is the low-maintenance star of nature-friendly gardens. It comes in many colors, and it’s easy to find one you – and the birds – will love.”

Absolutely!  As shown by the photo above from my garden, I’ve grown it, and it’s attracted the critters I want in my garden.  It’s native to, depending on the source, either our region or the Midwest.  Yes, there’s a big argument about its origins, and I tend to believe the experts who say it was brought east from the Plains by Lewis and Clark.

Now about the variety of colors it comes in, there ARE detractors, with many gardeners preferring the original, but apparently plenty of adventurous gardeners are trying the wild shapes and assortment of colors coming from breeders these days.

2.     Cosmos. “It’s easy to grow from seed. So for a couple of bucks, you’ll have a gorgeous show in a single season.”

B&B doesn’t mention it, but the foliage is also lovely.  And I’ve found it easy to grow from seed.
3.     Daylily.  “Some cultivars attract hummingbirds and butterflies. A plant that is best divided every three to five years, the daylily is perfect to share with friends.”

There’s no disputing the toughness of daylilies or their ability to withstand drought (thanks to thick bulbous roots).  I once left a delivery of daylilies sit on my back porch for a month before planting the poor things, but they survived this mistreatment just fine.

4.     Hens and Chicks.  “This low grower also works wonders in containers. Since it doesn’t have a deep root system, you can plant it somewhere fun. Try growing it in an old birdbath or shoe.”

Hens and Chicks, like all succulents, are the heroes of the hot, dry summer and my new favorite plant for containers, which typically require such frequent watering.  They DO need sun, though, and good drainage.  I grow them and have been surprised by how quickly they reproduce, giving me plenty of chicks to pass along to friends.


5.     Yarrow.  “This plant is heat- and drought-tolerant and can survive on benign neglect.”

They come in very pretty colors, but plant them where they’re supported by other plants because they can be floppers.

6.     Hosta.  The ultimate low-care shade plant, hosta comes in endless varieties and colors. It also can be easily divided-perfect for the budget-minded.”

This is another one that’s super-tough thanks to its thick and massive root structure that holds lots of moisture.  They’re easily divided with a cheap steak knife, my favorite tool for the job.  Remember that they’re loved by deer, though, and I had to abandon them in my former, deer-infested garden.  Now in my deer-free space I’m happily regrowing my old favorites and a few more.  I love the blues, the big bold yellow-and-greens, and some of the thin-leaved miniatures.

7.     Sedum.  “Hello, butterflies! If you want flying flowers in your yard, this plant is a slam dunk.”

Another succulent that’s super-drought-tolerant, Sedums may just be my favorite perennials, especially the low-growers that make great groundcovers.  Bees loooooove them.

8.     Zinnia. “You’ll save tons of money growing these from seed. Start seeds indoors, or sow outdoors about 1/4 inch deep after the threat of frost has passed.”

The magazine goes on to say there are new heat-, drought- and disease-resistant plants on the market, so that’s good news.   And I’ve noticed some terrific new colors that aren’t gold or orange, both colors that don’t go well with my other plants.  Now there are pinks, purples and whites, so I might just give Zinnias a try.

9.     Petunia. “Even if you forget to water for a few days – it happens to everyone – these plants keep going.”

Petunias have been super-popular since the introduction or the fabulous Wave types a few years back, and the introductions keep coming.  I just returned from a trade show where petunias were everywhere, with salesmen promising self-deadheading (dead blooms that fall off all by themselves), no legginess, and greater drought-tolerance.  As a fan of the Wave and other brands for years now (especially paired with sweet potato vine in pots), I’m eager to try the latest creations.  

10.  Yucca. “Both flowers and foliage come with this beauty. For a unique variety, look for the variegata cultivar. Its blue-green leaves with white edges are stunning.”

Yuccas are about as drought-tolerant as a plant can get – almost as desert-friendly as cacti.  I’ve never grown them but agree that the variegated ones are gorgeous, and make an excellent accent in the border.  If I had the space and enough sun, I’d give one a try.

Photo credits:  Cosmos,  hens and chicks,   Zinnia.  Text and remaining photos by Susan Harris.

Alternatives to Impatiens

by Marian Parsley, Behnkes Manager of Annuals

Impatiens are getting a lot of attention these days and it’s not the kind of attention gardeners want to hear. You may not be aware of the problem, but our most beloved shade annual is at risk from a new fungal disease.

The symptoms of the disease, which is called Downy Mildew, begin as slightly off-color foliage (slight yellowing) and slight wilting/curling down of foliage. If weather conditions are favorable, the disease continues to progress, causing all of the leaves and flowers to drop off, and ultimately, the plant dies.  The disease affects the standard, seed-grown impatiens; there are some other types of impatiens that are resistant to the disease (see below).

Although commercial growers can control the disease in their greenhouses through application of chemicals, this is not practical in the garden center or for the homeowner.  We have decided not to carry the traditional impatiens plants at our garden centers until the plant breeders develop disease-resistant strains. Rest assured that this is a high priority in our industry.

All is not lost; there are many alternatives to old-fashioned, seed-grown impatiens. Listed below are some suggestions for some wonderful plants for you to try in your shade garden.

Disease Resistant Impatiens:

New Guinea Impatiens

New Guinea Impatiens

Sunpatiens and New Guinea Impatiens–Neither is susceptible to Impatiens Downy Mildew so they’re an excellent alternative.  Sunpatiens are more vigorous than the traditional New Guinea series and will bloom in both sun and shade. The key to growing any New Guinea Impatiens is providing ample water.

Divine Series New Guinea Impatiens–Delivers outstanding color options and garden performance, heat and drought tolerant. Provides masses of flowers all season long.



Wax Begonia (L) and Tuberous Begonia (R)

– Classic, Old-fashioned Wax Begonias–Wonderful in mass plantings, color until frost and perform well in sun or shade. Low maintenance.

– ‘Big’ Begonia–They look like a wax begonia but are the size of the dragon wing-type begonia. The flowers of the Big Begonia stand atop the foliage in addition to the sides of the plant making it ideal for the landscape.

Dragon Wing Begonia—simply one of the most beautiful begonias ever! Large red blooms on wing-like light green foliage. Spectacular in the sun or shade garden.

– ‘Sparks Will Fly’ Begonia–A real stunner in the garden or patio shade containers; gentle orange blossoms, beautiful dark green almost bronze foliage, mounding growth habit.

– ‘Whopper’ Begonia… Extra large blooms, huge plants with shiny bronze foliage. Minimal maintenance requirements. Makes a bold statement in the shade garden.

Tuberous Begonia: An old favorite, large camellia-like blossoms, green or bronze foliage. Wonderful in the shade garden.



Caladiums: Showy, tropical looking foliage with unique patterns, excellent choice for containers or the shade garden.

beh coleus


Coleus: A classic shade-lover in a variety of colors and shapes.

beh torenia


Torenia: Also known as the wishbone flower because if you look closely in the center of the flower there appears to be a wishbone. Great color choices, including beautiful blues—a color not found in impatiens.

Wintering Over my Favorite Coleus


This was my coleus collection just a few weeks ago.  Three plants had become a massive, eye-catching display on my patio, a display I didn’t want to say goodbye to just because of, you know, freezing temperatures that would kill the coleus in an instant.


So I brought at least this relatively small potted-up coleus indoors, where it sits in a position of glory on my kitchen island and still looks good in late December.  (So far, so good.)

Rooting from Cuttings

Gardening wisdom dictates that what I should have done, and still might do, is to take cuttings from this, my favorite coleus, to plant outdoors again next season.  And indeed, it’s apparently easy as pie to do it. (Here’s how.)  But it’s also apparent that I should have started that process in the fall, but hey, better late than ever.  Besides starting weeks ago, there are several tricks to succeeding at coleus cuttings:

  •  To avoid root rot, let it dry out, watering only when the soil surface is really dry.
  • Give it enough light – the sunniest windowsill or artificial lite.
  • In spring, gradually acclimate the plant outdoors in bright light and then to sun outdoors.

As Whole Potted Plant

Alternatively, I could try to keep this whole plant going until I can put it outdoors again next May.  Here’s what it’ll take to survive indoors as a whole plant:

  • Enough moisture.  It’s important to water as soon as the top of the soil is no longer moist, so I’ll check a couple of times a week and water immediately when the topsoil is dry.  It’s good not to let it sit in standing water, though.
  • Enough heat.  Coleus likes room temperatures of 50 and above.
  • Enough humidity.  The more the better.  It’s a tropical plant.
  • Enough light.  My brightest window, or artificial light.

If the plant starts to lose its leaves, it’s probably too dark or cold.  If it goes into flower, I’ll snip off the flowers to encourage vitality, and pinch off growing tips to encourage bushiness.

In the spring, I’ll cut it back, refresh the potting soil a bit, and voila – it’ll become huge again quite quickly.


Next season I’ll be planting coleus not just in pots but IN the garden, too.  Look how great they look growing that way!


Posted by Susan Harris.

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