For beginner gardeners, a simple reliable petunia is the best choice to grow for long summer color. Experienced gardeners might argue these zone 9-11 annuals are trite. They’re available at every nursery and hardware store, bursting in bright colors, begging loudly to be taken home. Still, they cheer up a garden like no other flower. I’ve been a professional gardener for over a decade and a half and every year I use them in arrangements, both for myself and clients.
What Kind Is Best?
Because both commercial businesses and home gardeners use petunias, growers work hard to perfect the longest blooming, easiest care cultivars. They’re divided into multifloras and grandifloras (fancy words for many blooms or large blooms) and trailing petunias. But you needn’t worry much about that. Get whatever kind you like most.
Growers also offer different series of petunias. I’d recommend the ‘Ultra’ or ‘Madness’ series. They’ve been bred well for disease-resistance and long-lasting blooms. I often grow petunias from the ‘Wave’ series. They fill in quickly, bloom profusely, and the colors are bold. If you don’t want to waste time filling in a container, a ‘Wave’ petunia of any color is a good choice.
Easy Care for Easy Blooms
Petunias like well-draining soil. An all-purpose potting soil should suffice, something fresh that still contains nutrients. They also like full sun. No shade, please. They bloom less in shade. Water every few days in summer to keep them perky. Try not to water the flowers themselves as they’re delicate. They flatten and resemble wet tissue. If given a 10-10-10 fertilizer, flowers will multiply quickly.
The Beautiful Benefits
Obviously, the best reason to grow a petunia is its bold alluring color. If you want a garden to pop with it, plant petunias. I like deep purples and magentas, but of course, I also like that yellows, whites, blues, pale shades, and striped varieties exist. You can have great fun arranging the candy-striped ‘Ultra Star’ with black mondo grass or the veiny ‘Purple Vein Ray’ with lavenders or powdery asters.
Also, petunias can attract hummingbirds. The birds like the large tubular shape of the flowers and are particularly attracted to bright red colors. The rare and slightly odd looking Petunia exserta is apparently the most enticing.
A Couple of Drawbacks
You might notice petunia leaves and flowers are sticky. They produce a protective sap on their leaves to trap and kill insects. But the residue can come off on your fingers. I’d recommend caring for them while wearing gloves. And clean pruning shears with an alcohol wipe if needed.
Later in the summer, petunias can turn leggy. They also turn leggy if in too much shade. When this happens, they look gangly and awkward. But new blooms can be pinched back to keep the plant bushy, which I recommend. If you don’t mind the leggy look, they will keep blooming until frost.
Overall, if you want to beautify a patio or balcony or even border, you can’t go wrong with a petunia. These South American natives are a proliferous joy to grow. And if you already have some, please share the photos in the comments below. I’d love to see your favorites. Happy planting!
If you’re looking for an exotic tree that offers unusual foliage but is easy to grow, try an azara in your garden. This native of South America has tiny glossy leaves, a tidy upright habit, and super cute pompom flowers. It requires little to no pruning and stays evergreen for those down to zone 7. At its tallest, it’s 15-20 feet and maybe 6 feet wide. I grow three azaras in my yard and I adore them. They all offer unique gifts.
The straight species of azara microphylla or Box-Leaf Azara is a dark green wonder. Its vertical branches grow straight up, not very sideways, and its rich color poses a brilliant contrast to my purple smokebush. It could also contrast well with a blue juniper or variegated euonymous or eleagnus. In late winter, the flowers pop out in round yellow fuzzies that smell sweet. In the rain, the miniscule leaves are glossy and deeply colored. I grow mine in full sun but in a bed that gets cold winter shade, which lowers the zone from 8 to 7. Still, it does just fine.
I love love love this azara (azara microphylla ‘Variegata.’) It’s got the same tiny leaves but they’re green and creamy yellow, making for a pretty, delicate pattern. This form is more splayed with a vertical structure and large fans branching out at angles. I’ve paired it with a contorted filbert whose curly branches and purple leaves create a stunning contrast. I grow this azara near my living room window so I can enjoy it from indoors in winter. It offers graceful privacy there, so much that I’ve never hung a curtain. It is slightly more tender, hardy down to zone 8, but with it near the house and exposed to the west, mine has always survived the occasional snow and frigid temps nicely.
Andean Gold, Saw-toothed Azara
The Andean Gold azara (azara serrata) is a relatively new introduction (see top photo for blooms) and it’s already thriving in my garden. Plant explorer Dan Hinkley brought this fast-growing tree back from Chile and arguably it feels the most exotic of all the azaras. While it still sports smallish leaves, they are serrated, which adds extra interest. Also, the pompom flowers are larger, deeper yellow, and wildly fragrant. I grow this one along my fence to screen out my neighbor’s window. Though it’s the widest of the three azaras, perhaps even rangy, it still grows in almost a flat oval, behaving in the tighter driveway bed while offering a lovely evergreen backdrop.
The drawback to azaras is they aren’t inexpensive and are sometimes hard to find, though recently I’ve seen the straight species offered more and more in nurseries. If you find one, even a small one, get it. They grow discreetly but quickly. And I haven’t met anyone whose ever regretting planting one, including me.