Gardening for Winter Color
There are a number of easy to grow, showy flowers to consider when you are gardening for winter color in South Central Texas. If you grow snapdragons, alyssum, stocks, dianthus, petunias or calendula, you may have already planted them in October. Wait to plant pansies, cyclamen, primula and sweet peas until November because they are more sensitive to the hot spells that are likely to occur early in the autumn.
Pansies are the most cold tolerant of our winter annuals. They are a low growing plant that works well in massed plantings of a single or mixed colors. They can also be grown in containers. There are two main flower types: the monkey-faced and clear-faced. Monkey-faced pansies have a dark center blotch surrounded by colored petals. There is a wide choice of colors including purple, blue, yellow, white, orange and brown. Some selections have a fragrance.
Violas, including Johnny jump-ups, are pansy cousins with smaller flowers that are often used as borders or in containers.
All pansies do best in full sun but will bloom well in six hours of sun. Expect a pansy to produce a constant bloom. They do not cycle or even experience a mid-winter bloomless period like snapdragons or petunias. Protect pansies from pill bugs, slugs and snails with slug and snail bait.
Cyclamen produce their blooms in deep shade. They don’t survive in the sun, but are good options for gardening for winter color. In addition to shade tolerance, cyclamen offer one of the most attractive blooms of cool weather annuals. The blooms rise orchid-like on stalks above the foliage. The colors—red, white, pink, and several shades of lavender—are intense. I’ve never heard anyone describe a cyclamen bloom as “washed out.”
Like pansies, cyclamen are covered with blooms all winter. They aren’t as cold tolerant as pansies, but because they are planted in more sheltered locations, often close to buildings, they survive most winter cold spells. If the temperature falls to 28° F or below, cover the plants with a blanket or agricultural fabric so they don’t lose their blooms.
Cyclamen foliage is worthy of bearing spectacular flowers. The dark green, four inch, waxy leaves are heart shaped and decorated with silver tracings.
Cyclamen sound perfect, but they are very expensive. At nearly $6 for a 3 ½ inch potted plant, not many can afford a massed planting. Use them in containers or small shaded gardens near the front door or patio.
Primula are nearly as showy as cyclamen in providing color for the winter shade garden.
One version grows low and is small like a pansy, but they have a Kelly green, crinkly leaf and bright, waxy flowers with rich colors that resemble crayons. There is nothing subtle about primula blooms, which come in blue, red, yellow, purple, pink, white and brown.
A second variety of primula is more upright, growing to 12 inches tall. Its leaves are a soft green, and the flowers are pastel colors. The plants remind me of stocks except that blue is the best color in this primula, and there is no spicy fragrance like stock.
If there are any pill bugs, slugs, or snails within 100 feet of primulas, the mollusks and arthropods will find the plants. Refresh the application of slug and snail bait every week.
Pansies, cyclamen and primula are relatively easy to grow in our area. Add some compost and fertilizer to a prepared soil, place the transplants and enjoy the blooms.
If you are looking for more of a challenge as you are gardening for winter color, consider sweet peas. It often seems to be either too hot or too cold for them to prosper. Last year the weather was perfect, and the sweet peas were spectacular.
Grow sweet peas from seed. They are available in a bush form, but the prettiest flowers are produced on the vine form. Sweet peas are available in red, pink, purple, yellow and white. The colors resemble those of snapdragons.
Sweet peas are special because they make a great cut flower in addition to being showy in the garden. The fragrance is different from that of stocks but just as pleasant.
A bouquet of sweet peas in the house or a trellis full of blooms in the garden is a pleasure to see and smell.
You will probably have to replant sweet peas several times over the winter to obtain a strand that finally reaches maturity. If the seeds planted in November do not germinate and begin climbing in 30 days, replant. February is the last month to plant.
Sweet peas need full sun and do best if the soil has been enriched with compost. They are not xeriscape plants and must be watered several times per week. Mulch over the root system is important.
A wire or cyclone fence works well as a trellis and so do tomato cages. A tomato cage placed in a five to ten gallon container makes a good display for sweet peas on the patio.
Deer eat all of the winter annuals described in this article, so keep the plants behind a protective fence if your neighborhood is blessed with the hungry browsers.
by Calvin R. Finch, PhD Horticulturist