Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Thursdays in Steamboat Today.
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If you're starting to think about ways to add color to your garden, patio containers or window-boxes, think about a beautiful flower that really caught everyone's attention last summer. Hanging baskets around town, the annual beds at the Lincoln Avenue Post Office and the flowers at the entrance to the Depot Art Center all were overflowing with the annual Petunia "Dreams" pink grandiflora.
With their colorful, trumpet-shaped flowers and branching foliage, petunias are a popular and easy-to-grow annual for high-country gardens.
This spreading plant loves full sun - but will tolerate partial shade - and requires regular watering and feeding for vigorous growth. The "Dreams" series of petunias comes in a variety of colors including red, blue, pink, purple and white. These are available from denverplants.com or by contacting local greenhouses early in the season so they can order some for you.
Other petunia hybrids include both grandiflora, with large blossoms; multifloras; millifloras with very small blooms and spreading plants.
A hummingbird attractor, petunias last from spring until frost and scent the air with a light fragrance.
When you receive your petunias, harden them off before setting them outdoors for the season. You can do this by leaving them outdoors or in an unheated garage during the daytime and then moving them to a protected area when the temperature drops at night. Extend the amount of time the plants spend outside a little each day for a week or more before planting them in their permanent spot.
After the danger of early frost has passed, plant your petunias in soil that drains well, add organic matter if you can and work in a balanced fertilizer such as 10-10-10, which means 10 percent nitrogen, 10 percent phosphorus and 10 percent potassium. Later as the plant begins spreading, you can use a liquid fertilizer every couple weeks to maintain vigorous growth. Lucky for us, petunias can tolerate lots of heat, but be sure to keep up on watering during the especially hot, dry days of summer here in the mountains.
If you pinch back spent blooms, you'll encourage additional flowering and spreading of this plant. While deadheading may not be possible in a large flower bed, you'll certainly want to remove the spent flowers from a window box or container to keep the plant looking fresh and colorful.
Petunias also will add to a cut flower arrangement, but be sure to set it in water immediately after cutting as this flower will wilt quickly.
Insects and diseases generally are not problem for petunias, and generally only occur when the plant is over watered, when debris such as spent bloom litter the plant bed or when the container limits the free circulation of air. Avoid wetting the foliage when watering to prevent pest problems.